Her Ladyship's Curse
He withdrew, leaving behind a hot, wet emptiness, but that was no good, either. I clutched at his waist, not knowing how to make it right, and then he filled me again with a force that was only slightly less painful than his initial foray.
“I don’t think we’re suited,” I told him once I felt the full length of him throbbing within me. “But I did like the touching, very much. Could we do that—”
He cut me off with another of his open-mouthed, completely indecent kisses, which distracted me from the other things he did for a time. Only gradually did I become aware of his hands on my breasts and his shaft in my body, and how he was using them with steady, deliberate intent.
I wanted it to stop. The way he worked inside my body, dragging the heaviness of himself out before driving it back in again, created a new degree of discomfort, not as injurious but just as unbearable.
He kissed my eyelids. “Look at me, Charmian.” When I did he moved faster, driving deeper. “You can feel it now.”
I shook my head, pushing at him. “Leave off. I gave you what you wanted.”
“So you did. Now this is what you will have in return.” He propped himself up higher, spreading my legs wider so that the top of my sex lay open and exposed to the thrust of his. The knot of nerves there seemed to swell, and my body went liquid as the intolerable ache grew to a silent, wrenching agony.
He wouldn’t stop, he was never going to stop, and then something caught me, a dark and furious engine of pleasure and pain. I couldn’t fight or think or free myself, and suddenly I didn’t want to. Some terrible, glorious beast came to life inside me, one that roared in my ears and laved my skin, and wrapped around me, a demon from hell torching me alive; an angel enfolding me with the softest, silkiest of wings.
Dredmore held me as I convulsed and murmured to me, words I didn’t understand. His body became a merciless mech, hammering at me without stopping. Only when he went very still and said my name did I understand that his own beast was having at him.
I was convinced I couldn’t move after that and felt grateful that he could as he turned on his side, his hand latched against my body to keep our parts meshed.
When he kissed my brow I actually stiffened, thinking there might be more and convinced it would be the end of me. But he only held me and stroked my hair back from my face.
He looked all over my face before he smiled. “Thank you, Charmian.”
“My pleasure, Lucien.”
“Is it always like that?” I asked him a little later as I let some strands of his hair sift through my fingers. “Or are you insanely talented in this area?”
His chest rumbled with a chuckle. “No, not insanely, and it is never like that.”
“I beg to disagree.” I snuggled closer to him. “If you’d done this the first time we’d met, I’d have liked you much more.”
He thought about it for a minute. “There wasn’t enough room in the coach.”
“Lust at first sight?” I lifted my head. “On the Hill? For shame, Lucien.”
“You weren’t on the Hill. You were standing in the fruit market. It was a Tuesday morning.” His expression grew as distant and detached as his tone. “Connell stopped to allow some goatherd to cross the street, I looked out, and there you were, haggling with an old woman over the price of peaches.”
I didn’t recall the day, but it sounded like me. “I haggle with everyone.”
He didn’t seem to hear me. “The sun was very bright that morning, so much so that I could see the motes of dust in the air, and the blemishes on every face. Except yours. Your hair seemed to soak up its radiance and pour it back out through your eyes and skin.”
“You noticed me because I was glowing?” I didn’t know how to feel about that. “Maybe you mistook me for a lamppost.”
“I am a man of this world, Charmian. I know how relentless its indifference is. I solved all the mysteries of navigating through it long ago.” He looked at me. “Or I thought I had, until that moment I first saw you.”
“So you were after my peaches,” I tried to joke.
“I wondered if you’d smell of them, or sunshine.” He put his face in my hair and breathed in. “Tonight you’re all over moonlight and roses.”
“We’re in a rose hedge maze,” I reminded him, “under a full moon. What were you thinking anyway, spying on me like that? Surely you had better things to do.”
He shook his head. “That day I thought of very little, except the manner with which I could persuade you to get into my coach so that I might take you away with me.”
“You could have had Connell snatch me off the street.” Then I remembered the time he had sent his driver after me, and reared up. “That’s why you had him chase me down and gag me that day? So you could make off with me? You bastard.”
“On that day I had every expectation of success,” he said, “until Connell informed me that the rear wheel rim that he’d repaired with a mending spell that morning had for no apparent reason split in two.”
A dim memory of hearing a sharp crack came back to me. “That’s why you let me go.”
“That was when I realized what you might be. What I discovered you are.” He ran his hand along my arm from shoulder to elbow and back again in a smooth, soothing caress. “It was maddening to watch you and know I could do nothing. A hundred years ago I could have claimed you that day in the market.”
He referred to the old practice of freeclaiming, something caused by the shortage of women among the original colonies. In those days, any man could take an unprotected or abandoned woman from wherever he found her and with or without her permission put her into his household, where she would be subject to his will until such time as she married. No decent man wanted to take a freeclaimed woman to wife, however, so the abducted women were helpless to escape their captors. Fortunately, after the Uprising the Crown had discovered men keeping as many as two dozen freeclaimed women in their households. After hurriedly getting them married off, the authorities had promptly outlawed the polygamous practice.
“How romantic.” That killed my mood as effectively as an ice bath, and I pushed his hand away.
He caught my arm again as I tried to rise, his touch less gentle. “You are not leaving.”
“As you know, keeping women against their will is now illegal, Dredmore. So is slavery.” I reached for the remains of my chemise, examined it, and then tossed it aside. “Where the devil is my bodice?”
“It’s no longer safe for you in Rumsen.” He fastened his trousers and stood, scanning the ground around us. “I can only protect you from Walsh here at Morehaven.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong. Well, aside from the obvious.” I shook down my skirts, straightened my waister, and spotted my bodice hanging from a lilac bush. “Walsh can’t have me arrested for being criminally cheeky.”
“He won’t.” Dredmore retrieved my bodice and held it out of reach. “He’ll shut down your business, seize your property, and leave you penniless.”
“You forgot ruining my name,” I said as I grabbed at my bodice. “Come on, now, that’s not fair. You’re at least a foot taller than me.”
“Everything Walsh said and did tonight was only for show. There is something seriously wrong with the man.” Dredmore held out the bodice like a nurse dressing a child, and I let him help me into it. “He knows exactly why his wife is being assaulted, but he hasn’t put a stop to it for reasons I can’t fathom. But if you’re liable to stumble onto the truth, that makes you a liability he cannot afford.”
“I never stumble.” I turned my back on him so I could fasten my own buttons. “I investigate. The lady deserves to know why she’s being tormented like this, especially with Walsh threatening to divorce her.”
“Men in Walsh’s position do not take their wives to court.” He picked up his cloak and wrapped it around me. “They arrange an unfortunate accident and, after an appropriate period of mourning, they remarry.”
“She didn’t choose to marry him.” I saw his expression and lost my temper. “For God’s sake, Lucien. Diana Walsh is barely out of the schoolroom. She’s shallow and brainless, but she’s still an innocent person. Her people are all up near Settle. There’s no one else to look after her.”
He started walking me toward the gap in the stone wall. “You can’t help her, Charmian. She was doomed from the moment she knocked on your door.”
“Why don’t you kidnap her and bring her up here, then?” I strode ahead of him. “Walsh has her well trained. She’s lovely. Maybe you could teach her to enjoy it.”
“You’re going in the wrong direction,” he said, and waited until I came back to him. “Stay here with me, Charmian. It’s the only way I can keep you alive.”
Dredmore could be a deceptive, theatrical jackass, but he didn’t fear anything. Now he looked afraid . . . for me.
I considered what I could do to protect myself. “We’ll go to the police. The chief inspector is the grandson of an old friend of my family’s.”
“You no longer have family.”
“I did once, but . . .” I peered at him. “Why, you nosy sod. You had me investigated.”
“Several times,” he said without a shred of remorse. “All my men discovered was that you are an orphan without money, people, or connections.” His tone changed. “I assumed that it would make things simpler.”
“You mean, you thought you could carry me off and no one would give a bloody damn.” I was starting to hate him again, and as soon as we emerged from the maze, I turned on him. “All this talk of freeclaiming and kidnapping, as if I’m some prized cow instead of a person. How do you sleep at night?”
“I don’t.” He hauled me into his arms. “You’re going to change that.”