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Copyright © Natasha Blackthorne, 2012
All Rights Reserved, Total-E-Ntwined Limited, T/A Total-E-Bound.
If you are under the age of 18, it is necessary to exit this site.
Copyright © Natasha Blackthorne, 2012
All Rights Reserved, Total-E-Ntwined Limited, T/A Total-E-Bound.
Reader Advisory: This book contains anal sex, spanking, light bondage, D/s themes and brief F/F touching. This is a work of historical fiction, it is not meant to be an accurate portrayal of or guide to how people recover from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a work of historical erotic romance, it is also not intended to portray modern BDSM or D/s lifestyles.
“In London it’s going to be different this time, Anne.”
Anne Bourchier, the Countess of Cranfield, continued to watch the rain pelting the widow as the carriage rolled on through the night. The interior was hot and humid and she used her fan to cool her face with long, deliberate motions.
“I mean it. You’re going to be active in society and make me proud for once.”
She flicked him a disdainful glance. “And who will see to the running of our estate now?” It wasn’t her fault William’s long-term mistress had found another interest.
“I do keep a bailiff on staff.” His voice was uncharacteristically terse.
“His incompetence costs us too much. Since you refuse to dismiss him, someone needs to be there to keep an eye on him.”
“He’s my half-brother, Anne. How can I dismiss him?”
“You let your sentiment and your passions rule you.”
“Oh, always so cold, so in control, aren’t you, my darling? I meant what I said about the other, too. You shall welcome me to your bed every night, except when nature inconveniences you. And you’ll at least pretend to be happy about it.”
Her chest went tight and she slapped her fan closed. “I have never locked my door against you.”
“I mean that you shall reside with me until the deed is done. Else I shall be forced to take more extreme measures. Five years of marriage is enough. I’ll have my heir or die trying.”
She opened her fan and resumed cooling her face. She knew her husband well. Once in town, he’d find new distractions and she’d be able to slip away, back to the country.
The carriage jolted; slid for a heart-stopping moment in the mud. Two days of rain had made the roads treacherous at best. She turned to him. “We should have waited for the other carriages.”
Indignant eyes met hers in the lantern light. They were the most beautiful eyes—as green as summer grass and framed with thick, russet lashes. His elegant jaw tightened. “I didn’t want to wait—”
A sudden jolt rocked the seat beneath her and shook through her bones. A loud crash sounded and the carriage rattled as if it would fall apart. It veered over slightly. Her heart knocked against her ribcage as she clutched the seat’s edge. Her mouth went dry.
She glanced at William. He was so pale that his freckles looked like black specks. Her stomach flipped over.
“Christ.” His word was a whisper; a prayer that hung in the air between them as the carriage rolled. She went flying from her seat. Something smashed into her side and forced the air to whoosh from her lungs. Her forehead met a hard object. White shards of pain exploded in her head…and then nothing.
She opened her eyes slowly. Her head throbbed so fiercely that it made it painful to think. It was dark. Hard planks jammed into the softness between her hips and ribcage. She was mostly on her back, twisted halfway between the carriage wall and roof. She tried to ease her position but something heavy pressed her down and held her immobile. Helpless. She reached out to touch it and pain sliced through her shoulder and up into her neck. The sudden intensity made her nauseated and lightheaded. She cried out.
“Anne?” His voice came from directly above her and it sounded weak.
“Are you unharmed?”
“Mostly.” With an effort, she moved her hands over the wool of William’s jacket. “And you?”
“It hurts to breathe.”
Afraid of injuring him, she stopped searching his body. “Some of your ribs must be broken. That’s all. The doctor will patch you up easily.”
Dread went twisting through her stomach. How badly was he injured? Lightning flashed through the carriage window.
“Damnation, it hurts. Anne, I can’t move.” Beneath the sharpness, his voice quavered. He was afraid—very afraid. Her heart contracted. She had once felt such tenderness towards him. A fragile, barely-born tenderness that had been killed in its infancy—yet it had been the dearest feeling she’d known in her life. It all came back to her, washing over her in an intense rush. She cradled his head to her.
The sound was loud—and close. A horse’s iron shoe kicking the thin carriage wall. It sent her heart pounding up into her throat. Her hands tightened on his crisp, red, curling hair.
“I am sorry Anne. Should have waited. You’re always right…” His voice seemed to reverberate with pain.
She winced for him and caressed the side of his face. “Shh, it doesn’t matter now.”
His breathing changed, sounding deep and laboured. He had lost consciousness. Her chest constricted so hard that her breath began to hitch.
Please don’t let him die.
Lightning flashed again, brilliant and close through the window. Thunder rumbled through the carriage’s frame. One of the horses screamed.
Thud, thud, thud.
The horse’s hoof pounded the outside more frantically this time. Her heart beat furiously. That fragile wall was all that separated them from those hard, shod hooves. They were pinned here; trapped. She gripped his arms and tried to move and pull him along with her, away from the sound. But the pain weakened her shoulder and his lean frame proved to be far heavier than she’d have suspected. Sweat poured all over her body and her grip slipped.
The horse kept on pounding the wall. Her terrified heartbeat echoed each thud. God, she had to get them both away from those beating hooves. She clenched her jaw and redoubled her efforts, pulling with all her strength while groaning deep in her throat against the red-hot pain in her shoulder joint. She managed barely an inch, then her arms shook and gave out once more under the burden of his dead weight. They both slipped back to the carriage roof.
Her lungs burnt and she gulped for air. Her head throbbed so hard that it made her dizzy. Tears flowed down her cheeks. How utterly helpless she was. But William was depending on her. She couldn’t fail him.
She tried again to rouse herself but this time her arms were so weak and the pain in her shoulder so severe that she trembled and couldn’t move at all. Her headache increased to almost blinding intensity. She pressed her head to his satin-covered chest, inhaling the citrus scent he favoured. She gave in to her tears, sobbing silently.
Lightning struck again; thunder boomed violently.
The horse screamed.
Thud, thud, thud, thud.
Another solid thud sounded, followed by a crunching, cracking. Her head jolted up. Jagged edges of yellow lantern light broke through the blackness of the carriage wall and water trickled down the interior wall. It transfixed her eye.
Light reflected off iron, the white of a fetlock. Something skimmed past her face; she sensed the radiant heat more than saw it. Icy tingling raced over her scalp, chilling her blood, freezing her heart.
She tightened her hands on William’s shoulders. As if she could possibly protect him. A hollow, dull knocking sort of noise reverberated through her bones.
Warm wetness splattered her face.
She wanted to be brave. She wanted to be herself again. The warmth of the sun on her face was pleasant; strengthening for one who had spent so many months secluded indoors. The green scents of August mingled with the pungent odour of horses blowing on the wind from the stables. As she reached the entrance, the rustle of the horses carried to her ears and her feet seemed to stall. One more step. She’d done this before…and failed. But it would really be so easy to take just one more step.
She swallowed against a throat gone dry. No, she couldn’t. Not just yet. But today, she would look inside. At least once before she left.
Richard Bourchier, the new Earl of Cranfield, William’s cousin and life-long bitter rival, was holding a two week long hunting party and the gentlemen were all out on their mounts. But her beloved Neroli would be in the stable. She closed her eyes and pictured the mare, a glossy chestnut beauty, calmly chewing her oats. The mild eyes that always glinted with affection.
How could she fear such a gentle creature?
All right—the time had come. With her resolution to action came a trembling all over, making her question her resolve. No, she had to do this. Just one glance, then she could leave and return to the house and ring for a cup of chamomile tea.
Such a silly fear for a woman; a widow about to turn twenty-three. Even a simpleton should be able to overcome this fear. And she would overcome it. Her chest grew tight and she fisted her hands at her side, digging her nails into her palms. She looked into the stable.
Her eyes fell on the first horse inside its stall. Dust motes floated on the air as a shaft of light outlined its sleek lines; shards of white light zigzagged in the periphery of her vision. William’s black stallion, Zeus, lifted his head and snorted.
Her chest grew tighter. He bumped his stall door and her legs went weak. She gripped the doorway. Whether here at Whitecross Hall or in Mayfair, William had always ridden Zeus every day. Now the grooms kept him exercised. What a powerful animal he was, his well-muscled legs capable of doing so much damage. She’d never have thought twice about that in the past. She would have walked right up to his stall and fed him an apple and petted his glossy coat before going to see Neroli. Now, such trust was unthinkable. He began to stomp, his iron shoes ringing on the stall floor. Her heart leapt into her throat and a strong urge to run jolted into her legs.
He kicked and bucked against the stall door, intent on getting her attention, and panic slammed into her. She jerked her eyes away and pulled back. All she could see was the hoof coming down.
Cracking William’s skull.
Splattering her with his life’s blood.
Oh God, oh God, oh God…
Cold sweat poured from her brow and she shivered as nausea overtook her. Her vision grew dim and she dropped to her knees. Moments of quaking passed as her stomach rebelled against her.
Once it was over, she crawled along the wall, away from the stable entrance. She flung herself back to the outside stable wall, her back slamming into the wood.
The further away she managed to get, the more her heart slowed. She swallowed convulsively, trying to rid her mouth of the lingering, acrid taste of vomit. Oh, what if someone should happen along and find her in this condition? She had to get control of herself. She pressed a hand to her lurching stomach and forced herself to take slow, measured breaths. As soon as she was able, she stood on her shaking legs.
What a dismal and complete failure.
She hadn’t even managed to see her beloved mare.
This terror—this weakness—was so intolerable. Logic she could handle. She could beat any man she knew at chess. She knew the contents of all the books in the study. But something like this fear, she didn’t know how to fix.
She was about to turn twenty-three, yet found her world ruled by fears as if she were a girl. Found herself forced to live with her late husband’s cousin and his wife as an unwanted relic.
Her father, the Duke of Saxby, a man of wavering interests, had at one time, early in her childhood, become fascinated by racehorses. He’d purchased a sizable horse farm with a luxurious hall in Ireland. Though her father had eventually lost interest in the venture and her parents had spent most of their time in Mayfair or in Norfolk on their ducal estate, Anne had grown up at the Irish hall.
Anne had inherited it when her father had died three years ago. As part of her jointure, upon William’s death it had reverted to her. If not for her incapacitating fear of horses and riding in a closed carriage, she would already be living there. The lady of the manor, her days filled with purpose once more. Foremost, she’d be independent. She hated being obligated to others in any way. People couldn’t be counted on—except maybe for servants, and then only because they were paid to serve and feared to lose their position.
Behind her, the hard drum of hooves sounded on the ground; the jingle of a bit and the heavy snort of a well-worked horse. She jerked her head up.
Flashing hooves and wide, snorting nostrils dominated her vision. The creature was huge; as black as death and headed straight towards her.
Everything went dark.
Her eyes fluttered open and she glanced about, her heart racing with unnamed fear. Then she recognised the cream and blue décor of the morning room. She was safe inside Whitecross Hall. Intense blue eyes met hers. Slowly, the face above her came into focus. The high forehead with its permanent vertical lines between the eyes, the strong jaw, the long, narrow nose. Jonathon Lloyd, the Earl of Ruel. He was rubbing her wrists. His large, long-fingered hands were hard and smooth, just as she’d imagined. Yet his touch was by far gentler than she would have expected for such a fierce-looking gentleman. A thrill chased up her arms and through her whole being. The feeling fascinated her. She’d never known its like. Part of her wanted to stay still and allow him to continue caressing that sensitive area of her wrists.
The more practical side of her won. She moved to sit.
He ceased his massage and placed his hands on her shoulders.
“Slowly, now.” The note of command in his deep voice comforted her.
She allowed him to press her back to the settee.
“I must have become overheated.”
He studied her for a moment, his expression revealing nothing. “Undoubtedly.”
“You mustn’t miss today’s hunt on my account. I shall be fine.”
“I don’t care to hunt for pure sport. If I need something to eat, then I’ll do it, but in the most efficient way possible. I can’t abide gathering in the woods like a gaggle of geese and spending the day aimlessly wandering, while hissing and honking over the latest gossip. I was taking a morning ride but it’s a good thing I returned when I did, my lady.” A smile softened his hard-looking mouth.
Flutters took up residence in her stomach and her palms began to sweat. He always did that to her. People in general made her edgy, but this man in particular made her a ball of pure nerves. He was no classically handsome Lancelot, but a hard-boned Viking warrior. He’d intimidated her from the moment they’d met. But right now he fascinated her. Of course he was the one who had ridden up on the black monster. Logic told her that. Why else would he be the one concerning himself with her now? Where did a man find the courage to ride a beast like that?
Anne turned her head. Her abigail stood in the doorway, her apple-cheeked face contorted with concern.
“I am fine, Nellie.” Anne turned back to Ruel.
He nodded, his eyes strangely intense for a moment. “Good day, Lady Cranfield.”
He stood and walked away with his characteristic erect posture and purposeful stride. Sunlight from the windows glinted on his ash-blond hair.
“I was waiting for you, my lady, and becoming quite worried by your lateness.” Nellie’s voice broke into Anne’s observation of Ruel.
It was a gentle reproach from a favoured servant, for Anne usually napped in the afternoons. The emotionally fragile widow who must be coddled. Just how vulnerable and pathetic she’d become, even in her servant’s eyes, hit her as it never had before, and it wasn’t a very comfortable realisation.
The weak were despised in this world. They had no place—neither ruler nor servant.
She was currently a person without a place. And it was a wholly intolerable position to be in.
“I feel fine.” Oh, what an atrocious fib. She hadn’t felt fine in almost a year.
“You mustn’t push yourself, my lady. You must remember what the doctor said…”
Her servant’s words faded as Anne’s gaze returned to follow Ruel’s departure, tracing every line of his tall, broad-shouldered frame, his long, powerful-looking legs. Such strength, such tenderness, such intensity in his azure eyes. It surprised her. Richard and Francesca were so sharp tongued and witty, and those who surrounded them were a fast, fashionable crowd—almost to the point of being scandalous. They seemed to care about nothing but pleasure. She’d previously dismissed Ruel as yet another of their ilk.
Who the devil is he really?
It was a question she pondered over the next few days as every morning, from the safe vantage of her bedchamber window, she watched him ride off on that monster of a warhorse. Watched him interact so comfortably with Richard and his circle, his wits sharper—and at times more painful—than a rapier. She found herself studying him from the corner of her eye, tracing every inch of his strong jaw and grateful not to be the focus of his attention.
He would turn, suddenly, and fix that beautiful yet formidable blue gaze upon her. The intensity took her breath away and every particle of her being came alive, as if attuned to him. Unable to stop herself, she’d face him, gazing into his eyes…well, it was absolutely the most unnerving thing, yet she found herself transfixed, incapable of breaking the spell.
Then someone would speak, stealing his attention, and he’d turn away…
Today, however, he had not turned away. They were in the music chamber. Richard’s wife, Francesca, was playing piano, accompanied by her constant shadow, the irritatingly girlish Lady Scott—or Cherry, as she was known to her friends. The other ladies were positioned by the large picture windows, busy painting watercolours of the large oak outside. The other men were nowhere to be seen.
Ruel’s stare pierced into her. There was something predatory and hot in that stare. It came to her, slowly, that he was pursuing her; challenging her.
Yes, her. Anne Bourchier, the Countess of Cranfield. The awkward, somewhat chubby girl who had hidden in the shadows during her season. The woman with the ice-cold embrace that had repulsed her husband, a wholly oversexed gentleman who never turned down a chance to roll in the sheets.
It was unthinkable that man like Ruel could possibly be interested in her.
He knew something about living and being brave. Something she wanted desperately to know.
The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.
Spinoza’s words echoed in her head. Yes, if she could gain better understanding of what true, natural bravery was, she could grasp hold of it and free herself.
An only child left alone by her parents and always separated from others by her rank and her social awkwardness, she’d found all her answers about life from reading. One could read and study people just like books, surely. If she could speak to him and analyse his responses, she could distil that knowledge into something she could use.
He continued to stare, as if daring her to make the move that would either end the game…or take it to the next step.
A giddy sense of power washed over her. For once, she had something someone else wanted, besides her wealth. She could use it to get closer to him. To observe and learn from him. Should she just give the signal and be done with it?
She knew nothing of such matters. What if she did it wrong, made herself look a fool? Gripping her open fan in her right hand, she lifted it in front of her face.
She intoned the words in her mind with all the power of her intention.
How long should she leave it there? She closed her eyes and silently counted to thirty, each number echoed by her pulse. Then she let her hand drop, her stomach bottoming out.
She’d done it.
Oh God, she’d actually done it.
Gooseflesh rose all over her body and an itchy, twitching sensation raced down her spine to energise her legs and feet. Without daring to check his reaction, she snapped her fan closed and fled the chamber, leaving behind the others and their merrymaking.
Once safely down the corridor, she leaned against the wall, whipped her fan open and fluttered it rapidly in front of her overheated face.
Boot falls echoed in the empty passage way. Her hand froze. One quick glance took in his customary fierce expression.
Oh Lord. Now what?
Her heart pounded into life. She picked up her skirts, flew down the corridor and dashed into the study.
It was empty but for the odour of cigars lingering in the air.
She stared at the doorway, still filled with edgy energy.
What would he say or do once he found she wasn’t playing quite the game he thought she was? But how else to speak to Jonathon Lloyd, the seventh Earl of Ruel, away from the bevy of hangers-on he attracted?
She turned to stare out of the window, watching the wind toss the mighty oak as if it were but a willow.
The door closed softly.
She turned. He was advancing on her. At the sight of him, she caught her breath. His tall body was long-limbed and large-boned, yet in perfect proportion. Masculine elegance. Now, as always, his hair was styled with the appropriate amount of disarray. His clothes were eminently fashionable. Yet she’d never once seen him glance in a mirror or fidget with his cravat or hair, as other gentlemen were wont to do. He didn’t seem to give a damn.
He scanned the room with a sweeping yet comprehensive stare, as if he were still on a battlefield, searching for hidden dangers. Then he narrowed his gaze on her.
Her heart fluttered with little shocks of apprehension. Heavens…to be the object of that stern, intense gaze.
“You did strike me as the studious type,” he said, advancing towards her with the deliberate motions of a warrior.
She backed all the way into the bookcase.
“Why did you run away?” His deep voice settled in her belly, rich and warm, like crème brûlée on a cold winter’s night.
“Because I wanted you to follow.” She tried to sound sophisticated and seductive, but her voice choked off on the last word.
Ruel placed his hand on the shelf above her head and blocked her path to the door. His tall, solidly muscled body leaned over her, surrounding her with the sumptuous, sinful scents of tobacco, Scotch whisky and something masculine and undeniably dangerous. A slow, sensual smile stretched his hard mouth.
He appeared different. Softer. More approachable.
At the change, her insides seemed to flip over.
“Well, sweeting, getting us off alone was a very inspired idea.” He touched one of her fallen ringlets. “I am bored to distraction with endless hunting and fencing.”
As he slowly wrapped the curl around two fingers, he brushed her collarbone. Fiery sparks tingled down her spine, so intense that she shivered and her nipples beaded, pressing against her stays. By some instinct she hadn’t even known she possessed, she arched her back, presenting herself for his assessment.
His eyes shone so vividly blue against his bronzed face that they resembled cornflowers. She swallowed tightly and wished for a long drink of claret. This more personal side of him suddenly seemed far more hazardous than his usually fierce exterior.
Well, no matter. There was nothing to fear. She would allow only as much contact as need be to get to know him a little. Since being torn from her lonely yet secure life in Ireland and thrust into society at age sixteen, she’d spent her time allowing people only as near as was comfortable. She was an expert at emotional evasion.
It should be easy to regain her control.
But now, as late afternoon sun rays played over his pale hair, turning it to the colour of winter wheat, all her carefully rehearsed words flew away.
Say something—anything—else he will think you’re a bird-wit.
An intimate smile, one that invited her to play, tugged at his mouth.
“In a situation like this, alone with a gentleman, it’s perfectly normal for a lady to feel some apprehension.” His hushed voice, barely audible above the piano and boisterous singing from down the corridor, accentuated their isolation. He brushed his fingertips over her cheek and his gaze became so piercing that she had to lower her eyes. “She will invariably ask herself if he will try to kiss her.”
She jerked her eyes back to his face. God, he couldn’t mean to— Not yet, surely… Peculiar, heated chills swept over her. She tried to take a step back, but found her arse flush against the bookshelf.
He leaned closer; so close that his Scotch-scented breath tickled her face. “And just in case you are wondering, Lady Cranfield—the answer is most assuredly yes.”
She should demand that he put his arm down so she could pass by and leave. She really should. But she couldn’t stop looking at his hard mouth and wondering what it would feel like upon hers. He was so close to her, his breath blew on her lips. If she moved but a fraction, she’d be kissing him.
|Number of pages||233|
|Genre||Historical/ BDSM/ Rubenesque|
|Book Length||Super Novel|
|eReaders Supported||All current eReaders|
|Send direct to Kindle?||Yes|
|Cover art by||Posh Gosh|
Yes! You can read it on your Kindle or Nook. :)