|The School for Heiresses
Featuring the novella, After Midnight, by Liz Carlyle
Pocket Books, December 2006
|Excerpt from the novella After Midnight (in The School for Heiresses)|
Love’s Labor Takes a Troubling Turn.
Martinique turned at once, her eyes flaring wide. In a few quick steps, she closed the distance between them, catching his hands in hers. “Ma foi, but you have survived it!” she said, and none too speciously, either. “I feared the worst, but—oh, never mind that! Are you off the hook, St. Vrain? Please say yes.”
St. Vrain smiled warmly. “Yes,” he lied. “I think perhaps I might be.”
She sagged with relief. “Thank heavens,” she whispered. “But what does might mean?”
He still held her hands in his, her gloved fingers wrapped tightly within his own. They felt light and warm and almost comfortingly familiar. But how foolish that was. “Miss Neville, I wonder—”
“Yes? Go on.”
He looked at her, narrowing his eyes against the stark, wintry sun. She was damned pretty, with those long black lashes fringing her wide, worried eyes. “Well, I wonder if I am altogether pleased about it.”
She drew a little away from him. “Oh, my lord, but you must be!”
He drew her back. “It was wrong, what we did, my dear,” he said quietly. “What your uncle suggests is not entirely inappro—”
“Suggests?” Martinique cut him off, her tone bitter. “Rothewell never suggested anything in the whole of his life. He orders. Others obey.”
St. Vrain smiled faintly. “Well, in this case, we might,” he went on. “Because I do think, my dear, that you ought to marry me.”
Martinique was watching him assessingly. “But surely, St. Vrain, you’ve no wish to marry,” she said. “And surely not to me.”
Surprisingly, the notion was growing on him. “Why not you?” he murmured. “You are intelligent, you are beautiful, and you are a deeply sensual woman. Have you any notion, I wonder, how rare that is? But all that aside, I need a wife, I suppose. I have my estate to think of, and since I am eight-and-twenty now—”
“Only that?” she interjected.
Again, the faint smile. “Do I look prematurely decrepit, my dear?” he answered. “Please, do not spare my vanity.”
“Well, you look like a man who has seen a vast deal of life in his twenty-eight years,” she said. “As to your vanity, you are quite shockingly handsome, as I am sure you must know. And kindly do not lie, and say you do not know it, for that would be a waste of everyone’s time.”
“And did I mention, my dear, your plain speaking?” he went on. “Such honestly would doubtless be refreshing in a wife.”
“Oh, perhaps it is refreshing now, mon ami,” she warned. “But in a dozen years, you’ll find it vastly annoying.”
She might be right, he inwardly acknowledged. But there was no backing away from it now. He gave her hands another reassuring squeeze. “Why do you not at least tell your uncle you will agree to a betrothal?”
“What difference would that make?”
He smiled faintly. “Walk with me, Miss Neville,” he said. “There is a little orchard just beyond the garden.”
“Très bien.” She took his arm.
“It is like this, Miss Neville,” he began when they were no longer within earshot of the house. “A betrothal is not binding upon you. And this is, after all, Lincolnshire, which might as well be the backside of the moon so far as the London gossips are concerned.”
“And what is the advantage to me?” she asked sharply. “Or to you, come to that?”
“A betrothal will quiet your uncle’s anger, and it will give you time to get to know me,” he answered, a little disconcerted by the light, warm hand on his arm. “As to me, well, I shall have the benefit of a beautiful lady’s companionship for a time. And I shall be welcomed here at Highwood, instead of turned off like a leper.”
At that, some of her color seemed to drain. “Do you mean . . . are you saying that . . . that if I refuse you, you will be turned away from Highwood? And that I shan’t see you ever again?”
He cut a swift, appraising glance at her. “My dear Miss Neville, use your head,” he murmured as they strolled deeper into the orchard. “In Lord Sharpe’s eyes, I have violated you beneath his very roof; violated his trust and his hospitality. Can there be a worse insult to an old acquaintance?”
Miss Neville jerked to a halt, and set her hand to her forehead as if she felt faint, though she certainly did not look it. “Mon Dieu, I did not think what I might be getting you into last night!” she whispered. “I—I was thinking only of—of . . . ” Her words fell weakly away.
He grinned at her. “Of what, my dear?”
Her color returned in a bright pink flush. “Of my own desires.” Her voice dropped to a sultry whisper. “Of the way you made me feel. Your touch. Your mouth. Your—well, never mind that! But I—I just wanted you—so much so, that one awful moment, I was willing to risk my future. But I was never willing to risk yours! Please, St. Vrain, you must know that.”
He took her hands in his, and stared at the ground beneath her feet for a long moment. “Miss Neville, I hardly had a future to risk,” he said. “My reputation is less than pristine here in England. Had I chosen to wed, my bride would have been some—”
“But that is just it,” she interjected. “You would not have wed. Admit it, St. Vrain. Men like you may have their choice amongst many women, at any time. And a wicked reputation but deepens their fascination.”
So she had already heard of his reputation. And she certainly was not naive, he admitted as they silently resumed their stroll. She was right, too. After Georgina, he had thought never to marry. So why was he here now, half-hoping she would say yes?
Because he wanted to make love to her again. Wanted her more desperately than he had ever wanted Georgina. Even now, just looking at the rise and fall of her breasts as her breath came with a nervous rapidity, he could remember how delightfully she had trembled beneath him last night, and the stirring of desire in his heart and in his loins began anew. He wondered vaguely if one last romp on the mattress would put the chit firmly from his mind. And what if it did not? What would that mean?
The path through the orchard was just gravel now. Abruptly, she stopped beside one of the gnarled apple trees, and leaned back against it as if she were inestimably weary. Only now did she begin to look defeated.
“Miss Neville,” he pressed. “What is your answer? If it is no, I cannot in good conscience linger here, further distressing Lord Sharpe.”
She flicked a quick, sarcastic look up at him. “You have no such compunction regarding my uncle?”
“Rothewell does not look as if his sensibilities are easily wounded.”
She licked her lips uncertainly. “They are not,” she said quietly. “He . . . he hates me, you know. He is just fobbing me off on you, St. Vrain. Be careful. He is dangerous.”
He did not try to argue with her; she might well be right on all counts. “Why do you think he hates you, my dear?”
Again she cut a quick glance up at him, this time warily. “He resented my mother’s marriage to his elder brother,” she said. “Rothewell and Aunt Xanthia moved from the family’s plantation house as soon as the vows were spoken. He won’t have her name spoken within his hearing.”
He held her gaze gently. “Why did he resent her?”
Fleetingly, she hesitated. “I do not know,” she admitted. “I assume he felt she was not good enough for his fine old English family.”
“You said she was French,” he mused. “Was that his objection?”
“No, it was more.” She paused for a heartbeat. “I wish to tell you something, St. Vrain. Something I would insist on telling any gentleman who—well, who proposed any sort of relationship with me.”
Her words seemed carefully chosen. “By all means, go on.”