Read Silver-Tongued Devil (Louisiana Plantation Collection) Online
Authors: Jennifer Blake
“A multitude of reasons, most of them carnal, a few stupidly sentimental. Besides, there is always the possibility of a weakening of will.”
The timbre of his voice set off odd vibrations in the region of her abdomen. She held her breath against them as she said, “Not likely.”
“Rampant hope is a man’s prerogative, and sometimes his salvation.”
She looked away from him, and snagged her gaze on the hard planes of his chest. The dark fleecing of hair that concealed his breastbone looked soft to the touch. A fine tail of it plunged downward arrow-straight over his abdomen, which was made firm and resilient by taut muscle, then disappeared under the wide waistband of his trousers.
There was a glisten of wetness at that band, and a crimson stain on the skin around it. She put out her hand as if to touch him, then jerked it back.
Her voice not quite calm, she said, “You’re bleeding.”
It was as if the words required translation in his head before their meaning could be understood. He glanced down, then lifted a careless shoulder. “The natural consequence of a stray blow being struck near a tender scar.”
He was right, she saw, as she bent closer. There was the splotch of a bruise around the broken skin. She said in accusation, “You told me you weren’t hurt.”
“I beg your pardon,” he said dryly. “I hadn’t stopped to take a proper inventory.”
“Come lie down and let me look at it. You may have a broken rib.” She barely brushed his arm, urging him toward the bed.
“Sully those virginal sheets? You can’t be thinking straight. Besides, how will you get me out of them again?”
She frowned at his misplaced, irony-shaded humor, fighting the guilt it brought. It was also necessary to suppress the image of him lying relaxed and lazy as some wild animal on the mattress. Idiot. He was the only person she had ever met who could send her emotions swooping like a backyard swing.
She said, “There is a towel in the dressing room; I’ll get it in a moment.”
“That will save the sheets, but what about you?” His voice was purest suggestion.
“I will take care not to be soiled,” she said, and braved the impact of his gaze as the words reached him.
“How very brave,” he said softly, “when it’s so hard to touch dirt without it.”
There was an inward glaze to the darkness of his eyes, the effect, she thought, of an unexpected blow. She had dealt it. “I didn’t mean—”
“Didn’t you?” he said, cutting across her words. “Then prove it. Touch me. Tend my wound, such as it is. Finish what you started.”
All she had intended to do was check his injury in the lamplight beside the bed — and what maggot of the brain had possessed her to consider if she could not say. If bandaging was needed. Tit Jean, when he arrived with the bath, was the person for that task. Which was well and good, except she couldn’t bring herself to say it. Renold had taken care of her for days and weeks on end. The least she could do was return the favor, since she had no intention of being a wife to him.
“All right,” she said, “if that’s what you want.”
His voice like honey-flavored butter, he said, “It’s only a minuscule portion. Still, it’s a beginning.”
She brought the length of Turkish toweling. When he lay facedown on it with his head resting on his crossed arms, she approached the bed with the care of a doe near a wolf’s den.
The sheet, his body, and his eyes blurred into a haze of white, bronze, and green as, light-headed, she mounted the bed steps and sat down beside him. It was a doubly precarious perch, so near him and so close to the bed’s edge. At least he could no longer see what she was doing once she was settled.
Concentrate, she told herself. Don’t think of the polished sheen of his skin. Ignore the strong sweep of muscle from his lower back to his neck. Suppress the compassion for the mottled pattern of burn scars. Put aside the fear that he might obey some sudden urge of passion and roll over, pulling her down with him.
Touch him, he had said. How? Where? Her fingertips tingled and she curled them into the palms of her hands.
The wound was ugly. A knife hilt perhaps, or possibly a fist with vicious strength behind it, had struck deep into one of the widest and most tender of the scars. The damage lay just behind his lower left ribs, as if he had twisted to take the blow where it would do the least damage. The skin around it was dark purple with bruising, while the center was lacerated and crusted with dried blood. There was still a slight surface ooze. It was possible his ribs underneath had been broken. There was only one way to find out.
Placing her hands flat against his bloodstained side, she put her thumbs over the rib. Being careful to avoid the broken skin, she pressed down with first one thumb, then the other. There was no movement, no obvious break.
His lips parted for a hard, indrawn breath. She was hurting him. Yet he preferred to endure it rather than stop her.
She released the pressure, but allowed her hands to rest on his flesh. His heat seeped into her. It seemed she could feel the surging of his blood, the fiercely controlled force of him. His chest fell as he exhaled, and did not rise again as he lay still and accepting under her hands.
A soft exclamation left her. She snatched her hands away as if they had been resting on a hot stove. Drawing back, she watched him turn and sit up while she waited with dread for what he would say.
He did not speak, but slid out of the bed and walked to the washstand where he moistened a linen cloth. Returning with it, he took her hand and began to wipe away the traces of his blood that stained her fingers. “Soiling,” he said then, in quiet reflection, “is a human condition, sometimes sordid, sometimes sublime. Still, it’s a melancholy thing to discover that you can’t, after all, avoid it.”
At least he had not gloated. Without meeting his eyes, she said, “You will need to cover your wound.”
“After my bath, yes. If it pleases you.”
She let the words stand, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Yet there was a strange allure in the feeling that he was content to depend on her for his needs and well-being.
Finished with one hand, he took the other. His hold was loose, warm, without confinement. There was absolutely no reason to feel as if she were being pulled toward him. The brush of the wet cloth along her fingers was like a caress; the delving deep between them, the careful scouring of the hollow of her palm was incredibly intimate. Then he tossed the stained linen square aside.
She knew, with a woman’s ancient instinct, the moment when his inclination settled and became purpose. She knew, and did nothing. Which was bad enough, but worse yet was that he was well aware of her foreknowledge. Regardless, there was only lambent light in his eyes, no triumph, no amusement bathed in irony.
His movements were studied, unhurried. Lifting her hand that he held, he placed it on his shoulder and left it there. He encircled her waist, then, and drew her to him so she slid from the bed and was caught between the high mattress and his body.
Memory was sly. It recalled what was valued, discarded what disturbed too much. She was assailed by comparisons to that other kiss. This one was the same: the mouth so firm and sure, the sweetness, the tempered questing and intemperate enticement.
Yet, it was also different. His arms cradled her closer, his lips were more tender. He was as courteous but not quite as controlled as on that first night. His hand on her cheek cupped without force, testing the texture and softness of her skin. He explored the slender curve of her neck, and also the molding of her shoulder under her gown. Sliding his fingers along the turnings of her arm, he slipped them between elbow and rib cage to span the indentation of her waist. Then, unerringly, he smoothed his hand upward and closed it on her breast with the care of a gourmet taking hold of a perfectly ripened peach.
Her lips parted to draw breath. He took instant advantage, slipping his tongue into her mouth. It was pure invasion, an intimate engagement of pebbled surfaces and warm, honey-flavored smoothness. He prolonged if inviting participation, inciting mindless acquiescence by the delicate friction of his lips on hers. Holding her in thrall, he closed his fingers on the tender nipple of the breast he held and rolled it gently back and forth until it formed a tight bud.
Her thighs were against his with only thin layers of cloth between, their bodies were welded from breasts to knees. Drowning in her own unbridled and curious desire she was not responsible, nor did she want to be. It was his play, and she had, for the moment, a compelling need to see where it would take them.
There came a knock and the door swung wide. Tit Jean picked up one of the cans of hot water he had set down while he announced his presence, then stepped inside. He glanced in their direction, then paused, blinking, as he caught the look of cold temper on Renold’s face.
His gaze swept to the ceiling and remained there. “Your pardon, maître, maîtress, I beg. I have grown used to there being no need for care as there was no need for privacy. I will not trespass again.”
“Be sure of it,” Renold said softly.
It was not his own modesty Renold had been defending, Angelica thought, but hers. Tit Jean knew it also, for his glance only skimmed over her as he inclined his head. He said, shifting from one foot to the other, “Shall I return later?”
Renold’s lips tightened, then he sighed. “No. You have permission to finish what you have begun, even if no one else can.”
The big manservant made no reply, but moved to drag a lead tub from behind a corner screen and fill it from the water cans.
With the release of tight muscles, Renold moved away from Angelica. Unbuttoning his close-fitting trousers, he shucked them down his legs. His underdrawers followed almost before she could draw breath. Turning his back on her, he stepped into the tub and eased down into the water.
Steam rose in white undulations. Water splashed over the edge of the tub, glistening in the lamplight. The surface of the water gleamed silver and reflective as a mirror, throwing back errant gleams, denying visibility. Renold leaned back and relaxed, closing his eyes.
Tit Jean moved to dump more coal from the scuttle onto the fire, then poked up the flames. He looked around, checking that toweling was laid ready to Renold’s hand along with a thick cake of soap, a dressing gown was draped ready over a chair arm, the draperies were drawn.
Satisfied that his duty had been performed, he bowed himself from the room.
Angelica retreated to sit on the side of the bed once more, contemplating her hands. Estelle had shaped her nails that morning and burnished them to a smooth sheen with a kid leather buffer, so there was nothing of particular interest there. It was, however, a safe place to look.
The fire hissed. A lamp made a soft popping noise as it fluttered on its wick. The bed ropes creaked as she shifted a little for a more secure seat.
“Thinking of running?” Renold said into the quiet.
“What, in my nightclothes?” she said with a shade of bitterness. “Also, where can I go, barefoot and penniless as a nun doing penance, that I would not wind up worse than this?”
“You consider there are positions less agreeable? In a ditch, possibly, with a drunk harboring lewd designs? How gratifying.”
“What did you expect? Surrender without complaint? Trembling submission? I somehow thought you would have higher expectations.”
“If I did,” he said meditatively, “I believe they could be met.”
The smooth ivory of her skin took on a rose glow. “I am not used to — being so familiar with a man, but I don’t doubt that most any woman would respond to a man of your experience.”
“Don’t you?” he murmured, with the brightness of silent laughter springing into his eyes.
“Human beings must perpetuate themselves,” she said, frowning, “so it only makes sense that there be some reward for the effort. It doesn’t mean anything. It — wouldn’t mean anything.”
His gaze lingered on her face. Sitting up, he reached for the soap and smoothed it over his body with brusque competence. He sluiced away the lather, then looked around for the washing cloth. Seeing where it had dropped to the floor beside the bed, he nodded toward it, stretching out his hand. “Would you mind?”
She got down from the bed to pick up the cloth, then stood with it in her hands. To approach the tub close enough to hand it to him was clearly impossible. In the first place, she did not trust the look in his eyes. For the second, she was not sure her legs would carry her in that direction.
He said, tipping his head as he watched her, “Just throw it, if it bothers you so much.”
Her lips tightened at the amusement that remained in his tone. With sudden decision, she marched to the tub and extended the cloth while holding his gaze.
Admiration, unadorned and as gratifying as it was unexpected, joined the mockery in his face. He took the square of cloth, dipped it to wet it, and began to rub the cake of soap across it
“If I should stay—” She stopped, stunned into silence by a decision made unnoticed. She was also fascinated by the moment of slippage, quickly recovered, when she saw blazing triumph behind the mask of his self-control.
Renold studied her for long seconds. With firm encouragement, he said, then, “Yes? You were about to set conditions, I think.”
“I won’t sleep with you.”
“Then how are you to find rest? But no, you mean you will not indulge in carnal relations with me, your rightful husband. There are laws about that, though invoking them would be more embarrassing than either of us wants to endure.”
“Yes,” she said with feeling.
“Just so. Then you will, otherwise, share my lamentably monklike, unsullied bed?”
“I don’t know. Fighting off unwanted advances every night would also be unendurable.”
He was scrubbing his face with rough economy of motion. Pausing, he looked at her over the cloth that covered his grin. “I could always cease to fight.”
“I was talking about myself, as you very well know!”
“So could you.”
Her eyes snapped as she glared at him. “Yes, but why would I?”
A brow lifted above the smoky green of his eyes. “For the sake of — what was it? — my experience?”
It might, in theory, be possible to light a candle at the fire atop the bones in her cheeks. “I believe,” she said, “that I can live without it.”
“Can you? Then do, by all means.”
The words were simple enough to understand, but they gave her no confidence. It came to her, then, that there had been no agreement in them. It was possible they even held a challenge.