A Deal With the Devil
Pocket Star Books, March 2004
|Excerpt from the novel A Deal With the Devil|
In which Lord Walrafen behaves Badly
She was nervous. Very nervous. Aubrey paced the floor of her spacious sitting room, sliding her damp palms down her skirts. That man—Higgins, the justice of the peace—had been in the castle all morning. At least he’d had the decency to stay away on the day of the Major’s funeral. But today, he had insisted upon questioning everyone again. He had upset her routine, disturbed her staff, and set their tongues to wagging anew. And now, it was almost two o’clock.
At two o’clock, things would go from bad to worse. The Earl of Walrafen was to review her accounts. She was not worried about her bookkeeping; it was exemplary. Nor was she worried he might find fault in her management of the house or estate. Oh, he might rant and rave a bit over some paltry expense or decision, but in the end, he would do what he always did; relent, apologize, and admit she was right. And she was right. Almost always. Aubrey closed her eyes, and tried to remember that.
And then, there was a knock on her door, and she spun about to see him, his broad shoulders filling the expanse of her doorway.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Montford,” he said in his low yet commanding voice.
“Good morning, my lord,” she managed. “The ledgers are ready.”
He stepped fully into her room, seemingly filling it. Today, the earl was dressed for the country, in high, polished hessians, snug buff breeches, and a dark brown coat which fit as if it had been sewn on. With his glittering gray eyes, and hard, clean-shaven jaws, he looked every inch the rich, arrogant aristocrat.
For an instant, those glittering eyes drifted over her, and Aubrey felt warmth spring to her cheeks. Yanking her every fiber under control, she escorted him across the room, and politely showed him the two stacks of ledgers, green for the estate books, brown for the household accounts.
It was very uncomfortable standing shoulder to shoulder over her small desk with him. Perhaps because his clothing was always so simply tailored, she’d not realized quite how large a man he was. She was tall, but he topped her by a good six inches. His hands were long-fingered, and quick. His mind was quick, too. He grasped her method of accounting easily, and rocked back on his heels to study her.
Aubrey tried to smile. “So as you see,” she concluded, “we are using standardized entries for the household accounts, and a modified double entry system for the estate records. Because they are more complex, what with the various forms of income.”
“All is crystal clear, Mrs. Montford.” His voice was soft. “You’ve a fine grasp of numbers.”
She stepped a little away from him then. “Thank you,” she said. “Shall I ring for a footman? It will be no inconvenience to do without the books for a few days. In your study, you may peruse them at your leisure.”
He narrowed his gaze assessingly. “Madam, I have no leisure,” he said quietly. “I mean to do it here, and now. Is that a problem?”
So much for that ploy. She tried not to look rattled. “Of course not, my lord. What will you require? Pencils? Paper?”
He pointed at a folio tucked under his arm. “Tea,” he said, his silvery eyes still watching her. “Just a pot of strong tea, and the occasional splash of milk. Will that be a problem?”
Her blush heightened. “Of course not, my lord.” She went at once to the hob.
“Will anything about my presence in this room be a problem?” he asked, as if trying to pin her down on some small point.
“Certainly not.” Awkwardly, she put the kettle on, and snatched up her small pewter jug. “I shall just send to the dairy for fresh milk.”
Lord Walrafen settled down at Aubrey’s desk, looking impossibly large in her dainty chair. But just as she touched the doorknob, a sharp knock sounded, and Betsy came into the room. She stopped short on the threshold when she saw the earl.
“Pray do not mind me,” he said, motioning her inside. “Mrs. Montford, can you manage at your worktable for the nonce?”
Aubrey put down her jug. “Indeed, yes. Come in, Betsy.” In the narrow room, Aubrey was forced to lean around Lord Walrafen to take up her daily workbook and pencil. Again, the scent of him teased at her nostrils. She shook off the sensation, and Betsy followed her to the oak worktable in the center of the room. “Have you taken the linen count in the guest rooms?”
“Yes, ma’am. We’ve the ten beds stripped, and just one pillow slip for repair.”
“Excellent.” Aubrey wet the tip of her pencil and sat down. “And who is to do the holland covers? I want everything on in the west wing by the time the late sun hits.”
“Lettie and Ida have nearly finished, ma’am,” reported Betsy. “Do you wish the draperies covered as well?”
Aubrey considered it. There was no reason to assume Cardow would see houseguests again in the near future. “Yes, the draperies, too. Tell Lettie to be careful with the pins, please. And brush all the carpets, but do not sand or beat them unless absolutely necessary.”
“I’ll tell ’er, ma’am,” she answered. “And Mrs. Jenks wishes to know what to tell the butcher for the rest of the week. Do you wish the order cut back?”
“Yes, by half, please, since most everyone has gone,” said Aubrey. “But there could yet be callers, and we have Lord and Lady Delacourt.”
“They are leaving tomorrow,” came a deep voice from the desk.
Aubrey jumped at the sound. “I beg your pardon?”
The earl smiled faintly. “You needn’t plan to feed them past tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve told them not to wait on me.”
“You—you are not leaving with them?” Aubrey managed. “I mean to say, you are planning to remain? Here?”
Lord Walrafen lightly lifted his brows. “I’d rather not put up at the Kings Arms,” he said dryly. “I hear they’ve trouble with rats.”
Aubrey stood in such haste she knocked her pencil into the floor. “I did not mean to suggest it, my lord.”
But Lord Walrafen’s expression was suddenly sly. “Now why is it, Mrs. Montford, I wonder if you wish to be rid of me?”
And then she saw the earl’s lip begin to twitch. He was watching her from one corner of his eye, even as he tallied up a long column of numbers. And then the twitch was a full-fledged grin. Suddenly, Betsy let go a spurt of laughter.
The housemaid’s face went red with effort. “Sorry, ma’am.”
Then Lord Walrafen began laughing. Truly laughing, looking from her to Betsy with his pencil hanging limply from one hand. “Really, Mrs. Montford, it’s your own fault,” he said. “The expression on your face is quite priceless. I seem to have come and set your little kingdom on its ear, and now I don’t have the good grace to take myself away again when I ought. Is that it?”
Walrafen was still chuckling. “Ah, whatever are you up to, I wonder?” he said almost to himself. “You and Pevsner aren’t smuggling off the coast again are you? Some of my ancestors did that you know, and made quite a tidy profit.”
“You are welcome, my lord, to stay as long as you wish,” said Aubrey. “I said nothing to suggest otherwise.”
Lord Walrafen was grinning at Betsy now. “I think she’s hiding something, Betsy.” He paused to wink. “What do you think?”
“Oh, I think I’d best go back to work,” said Betsy.
“Good idea,” said the earl, still dangling his pencil. “But fetch me some milk for my tea first, will you? Mrs. Montford seems to have forgotten me.”
But Mrs. Montford had not forgotten him, Giles soon realized. And she did not forget him during the whole of the two hours he spent ensconced in her tiny sitting room, alternately reviewing her bookkeeping, and watching her work. Her interactions with the servants were smooth and professional. Her accounting was the same. He could find no fault in either.
Nor could he find fault in the way her eyes kept drifting to him when she thought he was not looking. She was looking, and often, too. There was an undeniable tension between them, something almost palpable in the room. Yet she went about her duties with her usual energy and self-possession. She was all smooth grace and lithe femininity, moving through the room with light, quick steps, her black skirts swishing about her ankles.
He liked watching her, he realized. Today, her thick auburn hair seemed somehow softer, and in the privacy of her quarters, she wore it uncovered. The hollows and turns of her long neck could have been sculpted from the creamiest of marble. And as always, those shoulders set so rigidly back made her bearing almost regal in its elegance. From time to time, he would glance surreptitiously up from the ledgers, and watch her face shift as first one issue then another was laid before her by her staff. Sometimes her brows would snap together in obvious consternation. But once or twice, he saw her smile, and when she did, it warmed the room.
He was skimming the last of the ledgers when the second housemaid, a girl called Lettie, came in for clean tablecloths. He watched Aubrey go to one of the tall cupboards which lined one wall of her sitting room, and unlock it with a key from her waist. She stretched up, very high up, and Giles watched, intrigued, as her skirts flattened over a very delightful derriere.
He thought of filling his hands with those shapely mounds and his mouth went dry. In fact, he was on his fifth cup of tea, but it wasn’t helping much. Aubrey handed a stack of snow-white linen to the girl, and she turned to go.
Giles stood abruptly. “Lettie,” he said to the girl. “We do not wish to be disturbed for the next hour.”
She jumped when he spoke. “Yes, my lord.”
“Inform the household staff, if you please,” he said. “I need to ask Mrs. Montford a number of questions about these accounts. Tell Betsy she is in charge.”
Mrs. Montford shot him a dark look, but said nothing. Lettie curtsied deeply, clutched her pile of clean tablecloths to her breast, and darted out. Mrs. Montford lingered by the tall linen cupboard. As soon as the door was shut, Giles crossed the room to stand before her. Mrs. Montford seemed to shrink back against the narrow cupboard door.
“I think we should move the books to the worktable, my lord,” she said, her voice suddenly unsteady. “There is more room there.”
“I’ll get them,” said Giles. “They are too heavy for you.”
But despite his good intentions—they had been good, hadn’t they?—he made no move to pick up the books. Instead, he stepped incrementally closer, and slipped one finger beneath her chin.
She looked up at him through a fan of thick, dark lashes, then swiftly dropped her gaze. She was beautiful. Exquisitely so. Suddenly, he burned to take her mouth with his, and drive his fingers into her pile of rich, red hair. As if his hand possessed a will of its own, Giles lifted her chin, and forced her eyes back to his.
“Mrs. Montford?” he said softly. “Perhaps we ought to stop playing games with one another?”
Much of her color was gone now, and both her shoulder blades were set against the linen cupboard. He had her trapped between his body and the door.
“W-What do you want of me?” she whispered.
He moved another inch closer, until he could feel the warmth of her breasts against his coat. “At this particular moment?” His words were oddly thick. “Not your fine housekeeping skills.”
She closed her eyes and swallowed hard.
That made kissing her inevitable. Holding her chin firmly, Giles lowered his lips to hers. She did not fight him, nor did she kiss him back. Instead, she stood, rigid and stoic as his mouth moved over hers, nipping, sucking, and tasting her lips thoroughly.
It occurred to him that his actions were not his, but those of a rash, undisciplined man. He had never been either. It did not seem to matter. Lust shot through him, molten and searing. He molded his body to hers then, and she trembled faintly against him, but not, he feared, from lust. Instead, she was almost like a virgin, untutored by a man’s touch.
He should have put a stop to it then. But for once in his life, his self-discipline failed him. He wanted her, simply and desperately. He slanted his lips over hers again, stilling her to his touch by sliding one hand into the hair at the nape of her neck.
“Open your mouth,” he murmured.
Obediently, she did so but he could still feel her trembling. Giles surged inside her mouth, sinuously stroking his tongue back and forth along hers. She seemed not to know how to kiss, but it little mattered. Her mouth was warm, her breath faintly spicy. He heard himself groan as he deepened the kiss, so lost in the sleek, hot feel of her, he barely noticed when she began to respond. But then he realized that small, delicate fingers were inching round his waist. Their warmth was searing his flesh. Then her tongue touched his, tentative but unmistakable.
Still shivering, she rose cautiously onto her toes. It was a small response. But it was enough. Blood began to thunder in his head. Almost experimentally, she turned her head to one side, and delved deeper into his mouth. He felt wild and urgent, like some animal unleashed. His eyes shot toward the long, sturdy worktable.
For an instant, he considered throwing up her skirts and simply taking her there, in the bright shaft of afternoon sun which slanted through the room. He could imagine how the light would heat her hair to rich, red fire as he pulled the pins from it. Could imagine how her bared shoulders would look, pale alabaster against the wood, her small breasts exposed, her nipples taut and dusky. He reached up to cup one in his hand.
But that would not do. Indeed, this would not do. The door, he realized, was not locked.
His timing was almost perfect. Behind them, the doorknob rattled. Aubrey tore her mouth from his, shoving hard at his shoulders. “Stop,” she panted. “Get away!”
They sprang apart just as Jenks came into the room, the crook of one arm filled with a bundle of long, sword-like foliage topped with large white blooms. Coloring furiously, the gardener dropped his eyes.
Oh, God, thought Giles. The damage is done.
“Begging your pardon, ma’am,” mumbled Jenks. “You said to lay out the gladiola in here until Ida washed the vases.”
“Indeed, yes.” Aubrey leapt from her position by the cupboards. “On the worktable, Jenks, if you please. I was just—just—”
“Trying to get a spider out of her hair,” interjected Giles. “I saw it come down from the ceiling, and thought to brush it away.”
A spider? Lord, what a bounder. Jenks didn’t believe a word of it, either.
“I’m told a spider’s bite can be quite dangerous,” he added lamely.
“Aye, well, that’d be true enough.” The gardener lifted his gaze from the floor, but avoided his master’s eyes. “Will there be ought else, ma’am, before me and Phelps start on the parterre hedges?”
Giles picked up his leather folio and strode toward the door. “I’ll just be off, then, Mrs. Montford,” he said. “My questions can wait.”
She did not look at him. Her face was deathly white. “Yes, my lord.”
“Good day to you both,” said Giles.
“Put the flowers down, Jenks,” he heard Aubrey say as he left. “Anywhere. Then please just go.”
Quietly, Giles closed the door, then hesitated. The passageway through the servants’ wing was mercifully empty. He shut his eyes, leaned back against the cool stone, and pressed his fingers to his forehead. Good Lord, what a hash he’d made of that.
Just then, the hinges squeaked again, and Jenks came out into the stone passageway. Giles cleared his throat sharply. The gardener whipped around, his eyes narrowing.
“You were not mistaken, Jenks,” said the earl quietly. “I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending otherwise.”
“Reckon that’d be none o’ my business, my lord.” But his dark look said otherwise.
“No, it isn’t,” agreed the earl coolly. “But it is Mrs. Montford’s business.”
“I don’t carry tales, sir, if that’s your meaning.” His voice was grim.
Giles stepped nearer. “I know,” he answered. “So I’m bloody lucky it was you, and not one of the household staff. I forgot myself, Jenks, plain and simple. As you say, it is none of your business, but I wanted you to know that.”
Jenks eyed him narrowly. “Well, you can know this, my lord,” he said quietly. “Aubrey Montford is a good girl. And she has trouble enough around here as is.”
With that, the gardener slapped his cap back on his head, and strode off down the corridor, leaving Giles to wallow in his emotional quagmire of lust, humiliation, and worse still, an almost breathtaking lack of remorse. But apparently Giles did not have sense enough to know when to cut his losses. As soon as Jenks disappeared into the lower bailey, he went directly back into the lion’s den, without even pausing to knock.
Aubrey could not believe it when Lord Walrafen stepped back inside her sitting room. Had the man no shame? Hadn’t he caused trouble enough? Apparently not. All long legs and masculine beauty, the earl strode across the floor as if he owned it. Which, of course, he did.
She jerked from her chair at the worktable and watched him warily.
He tossed his folio down with what looked like aristocratic disdain. “I spoke to Jenks,” he said coolly. “You won’t have any trouble from that quarter.”
Something inside her seemed to snap. “Oh, you spoke to him—?” she hissed, circling from behind the table. “Why, how very lordly of you, sir. And just what did you tell him? Never to interrupt you whilst you’re debauching your staff?”
He looked at her in some surprise. Surprise which swiftly shifted to something else. He stalked closer, so close she could see flecks of ebony in his silvery gaze. “Madam, were I intent on debauching you, I’d have had your drawers round your ankles days ago,” he returned. “All I did was kiss you—and not entirely without your consent.”
“Why, how dare you!” Aubrey had quite forgotten her plan to keep her mouth shut. To cooperate. To do anything to keep her job. “How dare you lay the blame for your lapse at my door!”
The earl shrugged. “I’m sorry you were embarrassed,” he answered. “That was never my intent.”
“Oh, but you found me irresistible, so all must be forgiven?” she suggested cynically. “I suppose you were overcome with lust at the sight of my exceptional bookkeeping skills. Or was it my extraordinary way with the linen press?”
“Actually,” interjected the earl, “it was your arse, Aubrey. Your skirts cling to it most invitingly when you reach upward.”
Much of her color drained. “I see,” she whispered. “And like some ripe apple, my lord, I am to be yours for the plucking?”
Walrafen lifted one brow at her analogy. “Forgive me, my dear, but you did give that impression,” he answered. “But perhaps I was confused. Perhaps that was someone else’s tongue in my mouth?”
Instinct seized her. Aubrey drew back her hand to strike him.
The earl’s hand came up, quick as a cat on its prey, snaring her wrist and dragging her close. “Don’t even consider it, my dear,” he said, his voice low and ominous. “I’ve put up with a vast deal of insolence from you already.”
“Well put up with this, Lord Walrafen,” she whispered darkly. “I choose who shares my bed. No one commands it.”
Walrafen no longer looked so civilized. His eyes were dark, his mouth hard. Aubrey drew in a jagged breath, and with it came the scent of hot, angry male. His expensive cologne didn’t smell quite so refined now.
“As to your bed, Aubrey,” he whispered hotly against her ear, “perhaps you’d best remember who owns it? And as to commands, yes, you are free to choose. So choose very, very wisely.”
“And I thought you were a gentleman,” she whispered.
He drew back, his gaze running over her face. “A politician,” he corrected. “A real gentleman wouldn’t know what to do with you.”
“Oh, and you do?”
Challenge fired his eyes. Walrafen jerked her fully against him. “I think I’m catching on,” he said, right before he kissed her.
Aubrey had found his first kiss overwhelming. This one was emotion unleashed. A firestorm of hot, rushing blood and blinding light. Walrafen opened his mouth over hers and took her, invading her mouth, pressing her back against the worktable until she felt the wood at her back.
She fought him, beating her hands against his shoulders and twisting her face away. When that yielded nothing, she tried to bite him. He caught her by both wrists, and forced them against the tabletop, pinning her with his body. Aubrey felt the evidence of his desire, hard and unmistakable. For an instant, their gazes locked.
Walrafen was trying to catch his breath. “Don’t fight me, Aubrey,” he growled.
Her breath, too, was short. “Let me go.”
But something in his eyes shocked her. She saw in him a ferocity, a wild, hot madness she could never have imagined. But there was pain, too. She had hurt him. Still, he looked like a man who got what he wanted. Good Lord, she’d been playing with fire.
“Just let me go,” she whispered again.
But even as his grip was loosening, his lips were moving toward her again, and her eyes—her treacherous eyes—were slowly closing in surrender. “Are you sure that’s what you want?” His voice was like sin and silk. “Are you, Aubrey?”
Her body went limp against the wood. Oh, God! That was the trouble, wasn’t it? She was not sure. Any human contact, any sort of emotion—yes, even lust and anger—felt better than the nothing she’d been living with.
That moment’s hesitation was her undoing. The earl kissed her again, his lips soft and warm, melting over her own. A lover’s caress. Aubrey was drowning. Drowning in confusion and hunger. Lazily, he let his lips move over hers, tasting and sliding, his breath warming her skin. His fingers were threading lightly through the hair at the nape of her neck, and vaguely, Aubrey realized it was tumbling down.
He had released her wrists, she finally realized. His hand slid from her hair to her face, cupping one cheek as if she were some fragile piece of porcelain. His touch was warm, his arm gentle as he pulled her effortlessly up from the table. The arm came around her, tight and secure and inexplicably, she wanted to let her weight—and the weight of the world—sag against his solid body.
“Aubrey, I’m sorry,” he whispered against her mouth. “Oh, Aubrey . . . ”
His lips found her neck, his mouth open and hot. He let one hand roam down the swell of her buttocks, smoothly caressing her. When she did not resist, he gathered her skirts in his fist and inched them up slowly. Cool air breezed across her stockings. With his long, warm fingers, the earl cupped one hand beneath her hip, curving his fingers into the plumpness and lifting her body against his. Again, Aubrey felt the heat of him, the jutting strength of him, straining through his clothing.
Suddenly, horse hooves clattered into the bailey beyond her window and a wagon rumbled past. The racket cut into his consciousness. As if waking from a dream, he lifted his mouth and looked down at her. His hand went slack, and her skirts slithered back down her legs.
Aubrey stared at him for a long, silent moment. “What do you want, my lord?” she whispered. “Just what are you asking of me?”
His eyes searched her face, his expression that of a man both torn and confused. “I hardly know,” he said, as if to himself. “I am sorry, Aubrey. I . . . I had better go.”
The earl turned and strode toward the door, his tread heavy. His shoulders were stooped, his hands fisted tightly at his sides. In an instant, the door opened and shut, and he was gone. Aubrey wrapped her arms about herself, went to the cold hearth, and set her forehead against the mantle. The odor of old ashes was bitter in her throat as she inhaled raggedly.
She had wanted him. Oh, yes. Despite his overbearing arrogance, she’d been willing. He had not been wrong in guessing that, had he? Which made another truth chillingly clear: if ever the Earl of Walrafen did order her to his bed, only her pride would suffer. The rest of her, apparently, would find it no hard task to go.