An excerpt from my second long Regency historical romance
BERKLEY: ISBN: 0-425-17036-5, September 1999
FLOWERS UNDER ICE
Jean Ross Ewing
The most notorious rake in Regency London challenges a young woman from the Scottish Highlands to explore the seven deadly sins, one for each day of a reckless journey, a very dangerous game!
Here are the first twenty-eight pages (© 1999, Jean Ross Ewing):
Flowers under Iceby Jean Ross Ewing
Early June, 1816
He hung suspended in emptiness, caught neatly between heaven and hell.
Major the Honorable Dominic Wyndham, brother and heir to the Earl of Windrush, was reputed to be a man of very wicked tastes. He had never yet refused a challenge. But this was a little excessive, even for him.
Dominic clung to the iron spike at the top of the church spire, leaned his forehead against cold, hard metal, and laughed.
Night air chilled his naked back. Far beneath him, the chimneys of Mayfair jutted in the glow of the gaslights. The Canal in St. James's Park reflected the moon and the huge wheeling arc of stars above his head. Away to the east, the Tower bulked against the gleaming ribbon of the Thames, a fire of some kind burning near it. The rest of London slept beneath rooftops faintly silvered with moonlight, ignorant of the mayhem far above their heads.
How many of those roofs sheltered women he knew? Mirth bubbled in him in crazy defiance. Too damned many!
"I can't do it," gasped a voice somewhere in the blackness below him. "For God's sake! I shall fall!"
Dominic lifted his head and peered down. The steep roof plunged away far too precipitously for comfort. With a kind of frantic desperation, he controlled the errant laughter.
"You can, sir," he said. "I shall help you. Here, hold on to this!"
He had earlier pulled off his cravat and shirt, and with the help of the small knife attached to his pocket pistol cut them into strips, now braided together into a short rope. He tied one end to the spike and dropped the other away into the void. The linen shone white against the dark slope of the roof.
"Now do it, Stansted." It was the tone he might use for a reluctant horse, combining reassurance with authority. "Tie the rope to your wrist, grasp the fretwork, and don't look down."
The disembodied voice floated up to him. "I'm going to be sick."
Dominic hooked his elbow around the iron spike. His bare feet were wedged firmly into carved loops of stone—secure enough, had the stone not been rotten with age. He allowed nothing of this judgment into his voice. "My dear sir, it's only the drink. Put one foot after the other and come up. The view is wonderful."
A weight pulled the rope taut. Lord Stansted's white face emerged from the gloom, his red hair darkened to umber in the moonlight. He had the linen wrapped around one hand. "It's not the drink, believe me. Claret would never upset my innards."
"No, I suppose not," Dominic replied. "When wine refuses to settle in your belly like a gentle old dame dropping into her armchair is when we shall see wonders. But if you're not too foxed, sir, you have no excuse. Come on. This is the easy part." He reached down a hand. "You're almost there."
Gloved fingers reached up and the men's hands locked together.
As Dominic took his weight Stansted lurched, his feet slipping with a dreadful clatter. A broken piece of stone careened away into the darkness. Losing the rope, Stansted's other hand slid across the slates. "By God! Dominic!"
Strain burned across his shoulders and back as Dominic braced against the iron spike. Pray God it wasn't rotten, too! "You would have been advised, sir," he said, allowing himself the ghost of a smile, "to have left off your damned boots."
The spike held. Dominic pulled steadily. Lord Stansted arrived at the top of the steeple. "By God, I almost went to meet my Maker that time." His voice shook. "How the devil do we get back down?"
Dominic ignored him. He pulled Stansted's handkerchief from its pocket and tied it to the spike. It was a deliciously precarious moment, to take both hands from their grip and balance on his toes, his knees braced against the roof, while he tied the knots. An odd, breathless irony scintillated about the moment—to be this close to death now, for God's sake, after surviving so much—when he could have been safely entertaining some eager lady in her bed. There were unquestionably easier ways for a half-pay officer to support himself, besides risking his worthless life in absurd wagers.
But he was not quite ready to die.
Though Stansted had no idea of it, this gamble was a stone dropped in a pool. While the shock waves filled his empty purse and the splash might bring Stansted his heart's desire—the small ripples embodied the one reason Dominic had to live.
With wry gratitude, he returned one hand to the iron spike. "Do you know, I don't believe I was ever in a more peaceful spot. It soothes my troubled soul to be so close to the heavens—like a medieval anchorite finding a place of repose in the chaos of the times." He looked up and studied the stars. "Do you think I am destined for heaven? A matter for some debate, perhaps?"
Stansted clung to him, shaking his head. "Don't make me laugh. By God, you're the very devil, Wyndham! Get me down to the street in one piece, or they'll swing you at Newgate for murdering a duke's only son."
Dominic grinned at him as he untied the linen cord. "'If he be not born to be hanged, our case is miserable.' Here. Use the rope. Keep one end tied to the fretwork and the other about your wrist. Go down in stages. I'll come behind to release and retie it for you each time."
Stansted's white face wavered as a cloud drifted in front of the moon. "What about you?"
"I shan't fail you. Now, are you ready?"
The duke's son smiled wanly at Dominic for a moment, then the men inched their way down the spire, leaving Lord Stansted's handkerchief flying high above the city like a flag.
The crowd waiting at the church steps burst into applause. Hands thumped heavily on Stansted's back and grasped at Dominic, trying to shake him by the hand or buffet his shoulder. Mirth ran freely as wine passed from hand to hand. Dominic began to laugh with the rest. It was done. Hope—however vain—was renewed. And besides, the pavement felt so charmingly solid beneath his feet. Gold clinked into a hat. Some men scrawled promissory notes.
The fellow passing the hat made an exaggerated grimace. "Devil take it if I thought you could win, Wyndham! We'll all be washed up, sir! How the hell did you get him to do it?"
"We supported each other." Dominic leaned back against the church door and pulled on his stockings and boots, catching his breath between gasps of laughter. "Like two fishwives carrying a basket: first one hauls, then the other, and the entire enterprise stinks."
Amid the renewed burst of merriment he looked up and the laughter died in his throat. A carriage had pulled up at the curb. He recognized the horses, the coachman, and his family's crest on the panel. Shadowed by a black bonnet, a woman's face gazed from the open coach window.
It was as if reality shifted on its moorings and time became transparent. As if the intemperate crowd were not there. As if there were sudden silence instead of bedlam. As if a clear wind blew into these raucous streets from some unknown wild place. Dominic knew in his soul something had happened to shatter his life.
Yet he had never seen the woman before.
The coach rocked as his brother stepped down, the Windrush crest bobbing with the movement.
Dominic shook himself. He must be damnably foxed. "Alas, we have company," he said. "Our little wager is about to be witnessed by my brother, the puissant Earl of Windrush. Sadly, Jack has a severely deficient sense of humor. We little fish are about to be roasted, gentlemen—stripped of our scales, basted with butter, wrapped in pastry, and roasted."
Jack thrust through the crowd. He elbowed aside a dandy in a pink cutaway coat, rapping him sharply in the ribs with his cane, and pushed past an indignant viscount.
The woman remained in the carriage—a vision of disapproval, lips pressed together, brows drawn into a frown. Not a pretty face. Yet there was something remarkable in the very turn of her head, a grace like a roe deer. As their eyes met he felt the force of her gaze like a sudden drench of water, the candor in it piercing to the bone.
Ignoring her, ignoring the persistent warning in the back of his mind, he waited quietly until Jack stopped in front of him. Dominic spoke first. "Good evening, my lord. We were talking of fish. Come for a bite?"
The earl frowned. "What the hell tomfoolery is this? You are half-naked."
"A steeplechase." Dominic shrugged into his coat, the lining cool against his skin. He was damned if he'd tell Jack his real purpose. "My shirt has been sacrificed, alas, to the cause. After all, when life has no meaning, it must offer amusement. Pray stand aside. Lord Stansted is unwell. The piscine scent of the trouble you bring with you, perhaps?"
As Dominic spoke the duke's son made a face, then stumbled away from the dandies to dispose of his supper in a corner.
His brother's frown intensified. "By God, what the devil do you mean: a steeplechase?"
The viscount who had been so ungraciously thrust aside gazed at the earl through his quizzing glass. "We wagered, Lord Windrush, that your brother couldn't get Stansted's handkerchief tied to the top of the steeple, but damme if he didn't do it."
Dominic leaned back against the church door and folded his arms across his chest. "A new-sprung form of a favorite sport, vertical instead of horizontal for a little added spice, and without the horses. The evidence of success now flies above London, and I am the richer by some two thousand guineas."
The earl's brow contracted into yet deeper furrows. He had begun to resemble one of the choicer gargoyles Dominic had passed on his climb up the steeple. "You mean these gentlemen wagered there was any daredevil thing you would not do?"
"Not at all. No one would bet against my idiocy, of course. The wager was that I could not get Stansted up there with me." Dominic's voice had become cool. His brother often had that effect on him. Jack was nine years older and three stone heavier. No question at all where power lay in the Wyndham family.
"What is this? Some desperate attempt to recapture the excitement of the war?"
It struck deep, but he couldn't concentrate on his brother. Everything in him was aware of the woman. No, not pretty exactly, but intense, striking, with a stunning purity of bone—not a face to forget. Her gaze didn't waver. Absurdly, it pressed on him. Damn her! Couldn't she look away? His reply was biting. "The war? If you recall, I missed Waterloo because I was locked in a cellar in Paris. Excitement isn't exactly the word I would choose to describe the experience."
"Then it's boredom? Contempt? What, for God's sake?"
He forced his attention back to Jack and smiled. "There was a certain symmetry to the event which appealed to my sense of the ridiculous. After all, I was married in this church. And, like me, Stansted has a spouse who ran away to Scotland."
"By God, Dominic, you are mad!"
"Am I?" he replied innocently. "Why? I have just won a great deal of money."
His brother glared at him. "But you have just lost your wife. I'm sure you think it fair trade. Harriet died in Edinburgh last week, while you caroused away your days in St. James's."
It was a shock like a misfiring cannon—or like the loss of a limb on the battlefield—almost too absolute to be believed. Dominic looked away, fighting the need to react. He wasn't sure what he might do if he did. Laugh? Weep? Break something?
How could Harriet be dead? He had been going to win her back. There had been all the time in the world. How could it have collapsed into nonexistence? The pain was intense, as if his heart were flayed and held above flames, which was where absurdity reached its peak. In spite of what he had just achieved, Harriet would never have come back to him, would she? And now she was dead.
The crowd stood silent, shuffling with a vague embarrassment—a fear they might witness some indecorous emotion? Dominic willed himself to show nothing of the kind. He made himself smile. "Not my days, Jack. My nights. I carouse away my nights. Sin is better suited to the dark."
The earl's features seemed to melt. "Is that all you can say when you receive such news?"
"Of course not." He was almost blind with distress, but he was still burningly aware of the woman in the black bonnet. "I can remind you of your manners. Who is that doxy scowling at me from your carriage? Won't you introduce us?"
His brother glanced at her with indifference. "Miss Catriona Sinclair. Harriet's companion, who brought us the report from Edinburgh. If you are interested, she can tell you the details."
Catriona. The Scots Catherine. Ca-tree-ona, the emphasis on the second syllable. So his instinct had been right—this unknown woman had shattered his life. And now he knew where he had seen such a gaze before: on the face of Highland soldiers going into battle, roused by the tumult of the bagpipes, fixed on destiny. Even in the uncertain light, he knew her eyes were blue—a bright blue embroidered with gold, like bittersweet or forget-me-not—the eyes of the Far North, where flowers grow under ice.
"Oh, dear." He was dimly conscious of the faces of the crowd and most importantly, that of Lord Stansted, white-faced, hanging on his every word. The duke's son, whose wife had taken Harriet away to Scotland. Another poor soul who foolishly thought a rogue like Dominic Wyndham could teach him something about women. Stansted had no idea of that rogue's noble efforts on his behalf—now shattered and made meaningless.
Summoning the last ounce of his self-control, he gave Catriona Sinclair a short bow, horribly aware it would seem merely callous and insulting, and let his voice show nothing but irony.
"Good evening, Miss Sinclair. You find me sadly bereft of both spouse and shirt. How very unfortunate."
Catriona twisted her gloves in her lap and stared back. Her heart thumped in an odd rhythm, too hard and fast. All these men belonged to a race she despised, a race whose vain, idle ways had corrupted the pure, ancient habits of the north. Not that she had known many English aristocrats in her twenty-five years. But she knew of them, or at least, she knew of this one, Dominic Wyndham, the man she had come to seek. She cursed softly in Gaelic, or if it was not a curse, it was the very name for iniquity: Diabhal. Lucifer. About to be bearded in his den. But with a fine Highland courtesy, of course.
His eyes met hers boldly, yet there was something disconcertingly shuttered about his expression. He was tall, dominating the crowd. Red-blond hair tumbled over his forehead. The rest blurred into an impression of strength, ease, and indifference—something rugged and untamed, something she hadn't expected in an Englishman. He had no cravat or shirt beneath his jacket, just naked flesh, mitered with muscle. His unbuttoned coat framed and emphasized it, this masculine nakedness.
She had heard every word of his exchange with the earl. Sin is better suited to the dark.
And then he smiled at her and bowed, after calling her a doxy. His smile was charming, sending a deep dimple into each cheek. Yet his eyes remained guarded, dark, like moss under a waterfall and hiding as many secrets. What on earth was she going to do now?
He gave her an immediate answer. She scrambled for the far side of the carriage as he strode up and swung himself inside, his brother at his heels. Then Catriona sat silent as Dominic Wyndham, poor Harriet's husband, callously belittled the awful news and made a sarcastic play, brilliant but soulless, out of the entire situation. He ignored her and asked his brother questions, then mocked the answers with a quicksilver wit. His every word betrayed him to be heartless, corrupt, and immoral—and without doubt as drunk as a laird at a wake. She was not surprised.
The carriage rolled up to the earl's imposing town house, where she had arrived from Edinburgh with her news barely an hour before. Catriona was handed down, then led inside by a footman. Dominic Wyndham instantly disappeared. She watched him stride away down a corridor and heard a door slam. The earl winced, but he would not apologize to a female of her presumed station for a nobleman's behavior.
"We shall offer you a bed for the night, of course, Miss Sinclair," he said with a distracted frown. "And any further assistance you may require."
Jack Wyndham was stockier than his brother, with straw hair and something of the bulldog in his face—like a rough draft, a model blocked out of clay, before the artist perfected his idea and cast Dominic Wyndham in gold.
Catriona glanced away from the earl at the grand entryway, at the gilt pillars and rich paintings, the opulent display of English wealth, and remembered her purpose. "I am most grateful for your offer, Lord Windrush," she said quietly. "Your lordship is most kind."
The earl waved to a servant. Catriona was swept away and taken upstairs to a bedroom. She had to carry her small case herself.
Lord Windrush walked into his study. His brother stood at the cold fireplace leaning his yellow head on his hands, his long fingers locked on the mantelpiece, the knuckles white. The earl was vaguely aware that his own hands were clenched into fists.
"Good God, Dominic!" he began. "If you cannot behave like a gentleman—"
"Don't start!" The tall, lithe body turned and Dominic faced him. His skin was white, the green eyes blazing. "If you think for one moment this is the time for an unctuous sermon, I shall knock you down. I am aware you find my every action reprehensible, my friends tawdry, my activities dissolute. Harriet no doubt cursed me on her deathbed and cried to heaven to punish me for my wickedness. Yet her death has been a shock, nonetheless. You could have shown something more of decorum in broaching the news."
"Decorum! When I find you drunk and half-naked, profaning a church! How dare you, sir!"
"Yet you thought it an appropriate enough time and place to tell me of the death of my wife—God help me if I ever develop such a fine sense of etiquette! And to drag that Scottish girl with you! Since you know me so well, you might have predicted just how ugly it would be. There was no need at all for her to witness it."
"What difference does that make?" Lord Windrush glared at him, bewildered. "What impression can you make on any decent female, except the one you made on Harriet?"
"I don't care what impression Miss Sinclair may have formed of me. By God, how could anything be more irrelevant? But didn't you see her face? She had just traveled from Edinburgh, alone and very possibly frightened. Her clothes are threadbare, her shoes cracked. She obviously has no money, and she probably felt real affection for Harriet. Oh, devil take it! What can it matter? You will see she is provided for, of course. And now I am very tired. You will not object if I stay the night in my old room?"
With a control remarkable in a man who a short hour before had taken part in a besotted wager to climb a church steeple, he stalked away and closed the door softly behind him.
The earl stared after his brother. He had never understood him. There were too many years between them and too much time apart. Once there had been a golden-haired little boy, obscurely a nuisance, underfoot too much, who had somehow survived when all the intervening babies had died, one after another. Now there was a man of secrets, a man who had played some vital hidden role in the war, a man who had plunged the family into the scandal of the age. Anyone else would have exiled himself permanently, yet Dominic had come back after Napoleon's final defeat and stayed, accepted nowhere, except by the wild youth of London, men without conscience, and by women, so rumor had it, privately.
Yet as Dominic had passed the candles, his hair gilt and the rugged bones of his face stark with shadows, the wavering flame had reflected on eyelashes suspiciously bright with moisture. Lord Windrush dismissed the thought. A trick of the light, perhaps. There was no possibility at all that his reprobate brother, the hardened rake, would shed tears over the death of his estranged wife.
Dominic stopped at the top of the stairs and ground his fingers over his mouth, choking back his pain, barely aware of the bite of his rings against his lips. Harriet. His pretty, confused blonde wife. Gone to her greater reward. The enormity of his failure lived in him still, a daily ache. The panic. The recriminations. The final humiliation of her sobbing hysteria. In the years since she had run away, had Harriet given one thought or one prayer to the husband she had left behind in England?
And now it was too late. Forever. Forever too late.
He looked up as a footman padded past, carrying a small tray. A door opened farther down the corridor and Miss Catriona Sinclair stepped out. The footman bowed and retreated, but she stood in the doorway of the room, the tray in her hands, and stared at Dominic. The wavering light cast a halo about her hair, like a severe Madonna in a fresco. He knew, for he had seen them in the carriage, that those staring eyes were as blue as the Virgin's robe.
He dropped his hand, disconcerted at what she might have seen.
She set down the tray on a table by the door and folded her hands, still fixing him with that intense harebell gaze. Her figure was outlined by the candles behind her. A slender female body, strong-boned, ripe, yet with that wild, natural grace. Desire stirred in him, crazily. An obstinate, senseless male reaction, to be ignored.
"Major Wyndham," she said softly. "I should like a few words in private, if I may."
He wasn't sure if he could trust himself. Control was stretching like a rope running through his hands, becoming taut enough to snap. He had seen it in soldiers after battle, the untamed barbarity of shock, something better dealt with in private. Whatever she wanted, it would have to wait. He walked up to her, planning to brush by with a denial.
She was a head shorter than he. Her hair was fine and dark, dressed in intricate plaits wound into a bun at the back of her neck. She had the look of a governess, or an impoverished gentlewoman, typical of some kind of paid companion. Yet in spite of her severity she wasn't tame enough, as if those blue eyes remembered warrior kings and Norsemen streaming over the water in ships with a dragon's head at the prow.
The harebell gaze did not waver. "I must catch the stage from the Golden Goose at five this morning. The maid will awaken me. I was afraid you would not be up." As if audacity came in a rush, she looked up at him with chilling directness. "I cannot leave until we have spoken together."
It would help if he didn't feel so remote, like a changeling moving through a charade of his own life. He definitely didn't want to sneer, but he knew it would sound like one. "To bring me some last words of remorse from my late wife? Don't bother."
She had the grace to blush. The color began as a spot in each cheek and spread over her austere bones up to her brow and down her neck. Her skin was remarkably fair for a dark-haired woman—fine, northern skin, unused to much sun. Her features might be too grave to be pretty, but her complexion was perfect. He wanted to touch her.
"No, I'm very sorry," she said stiffly. "She had no affection for you. There is something else, of the utmost urgency. Where may we be private?"
Footsteps sounded on the stair. Jack coming to bed, no doubt. Suddenly Dominic wanted very badly to hear Miss Sinclair and he didn't want his brother taking part. Grasping her elbow, he thrust her back into the bedroom and closed the door behind them.
"We can talk here, if you feel that a lady of such upright probity has anything to say to a rake. What the devil do you wish to tell me?"
Catriona looked about, at the mahogany wardrobe and brocade-covered bed. Though there were chairs and other furniture, it was unquestionably a bedchamber, and he was standing very close, still holding her arm. Her nerves prickled with awareness, of the long fingers on her sleeve, of the intensity flowing from him like the Falls of Conan roaring in spate below Loch Luichart.
At the shock of it, she drew back.
He strode across the room and carried the chair at the writing desk to join its fellow beside the fireplace. "It's not proper, of course. But for heaven's sake, try not to look so much like a schoolmarm confronted with a mad dog. You may spend a quarter of an hour with me without being deflowered—unless you wish it, of course."
She stood stock-still, gripping her hands together until they hurt, watching the lithe movements and the unquestioning certainty of his manner, as if he deployed troops and commanded obedience. "That is not what I have been led to believe."
He turned to her with an ironic twist at the corner of his mouth. It was a firm mouth, the bottom lip curved above his chin with a hint of derision. She had not thought he would be quite so attractive. How incredibly foolish!
"Really? And what do you believe? No, don't tell me. I can imagine. Here, sit down."
She went to the chair and sat. "Thank you."
Dominic took the tray and brought it to her. "And your meal? Don't let me disturb you while you break your fast. Pray, eat first, then give me your message."
Catriona looked down at the tray. She felt very hungry and a little faint. "Very well." She bit into a thin slice of beef on a piece of bread, the meat richly flavored with wine and herbs. Her last meal had been a slab of cheap rye bread and some cheese, the day before. She nibbled at a slice of apple. The simple fruit tasted like ambrosia. Deliberately she made herself chew slowly, but he noticed, of course.
He dropped into the chair opposite hers and watched her in silence.
Catriona broke some more white bread into small pieces, spread them with butter, and chewed them. English food, soft, sweet, and decadent, like all this wealth, the hangings and the carpet. Only one thing in the room was inflexible and vigilant: the man sitting in front of her. He had unbuttoned his jacket. It made her feel impossibly self-conscious to eat like this in front of him—far too intimate.
Candlelight limned his cheeks and burnished the gold of his hair. He was disturbingly athletic, with the look of an Athenian discus thrower, cut cleanly from stone and concentrated forever on a target. Yet there was also a ruggedness to him, as if the stone had been weathered by years of storm. Pray her plan was not as imprudent as it seemed, a net of duplicity designed to weave a trap about this one vital man!
She gathered her courage, buttressing it with censure. "There is something I have to tell you, sir. You must come to Edinburgh."
The firm skin at his waist flexed as he stretched out his legs. The green gaze locked on her face. "Must I? Good God, why? Surely you don't wish for my companionship?"
"Indeed, I do not!"
"Am I so accursed?" He smiled as if she had paid him a compliment. "In the past I have been compared, Miss Sinclair, to the Archangel Michael, but only by a lady of the night, of course, and no doubt the angel is fallen, his wings tarnished by villainy. If I offended your sensibilities in my brother's carriage, I am sorry. I wish very dearly you had not been there. There is nothing else I can say. You are from the Highlands?"
There was no reason for the question to surprise her, but it did. "How did you know?"
"The purity of your accent betrays you: the way you say 'food' as if the vowels were beloved, and remember the 'h' in 'where.'" His voice was quiet, but there was humor there and something else she could not identify. "I have known some Highlanders."
Was this mockery? She bridled. "If you insist on knowing, I am from Glen Reulach, north of Inverness." She had been surprised into the truth. Instantly she tried to cover for it. "I met your late wife when I came to Edinburgh for work." Not knowing quite how to cope any longer, she set the tray aside. She was determined to outwit him, but she wasn't sure how much he knew of Edinburgh. "She hired me, and—"
"And filled your virtuous—but curious—ears with tales of the very, very naughty man who was her husband."
Relieved, Catriona met his eyes without flinching. "Och! She told me what I might find if I met you. I have no desire to further an acquaintance with a Don Juan of your notoriety."
He had the insolence to grin at her, this man who claimed kinship with archangels. "I suppose not. But being so notorious is bloody hard work. You might at least give me credit for that."
It annoyed her, that he could be flippant. "Sir, I believe you are wicked. Nevertheless, you must come back with me."
"Wicked?" He turned his head to look up at the mantel. A faint pulse beat at the edge of his jaw, as if anger underlay his ridicule. Well, let him be angry! She cared nothing for his feelings. "I am certainly an infamous rake, mired in scandal. If we travel together to Scotland, your reputation will be annihilated. And since I am such an unholy rogue, your virtue will doubtless be lost into the bargain, a sweet enough thought, but not, perhaps, what you had in mind?"
The threat of it sang in her blood. Harriet had warned her. "We do not need to travel together. I have a seat on the public stage. I assume you have a carriage?"
The muscle at the corner of his mouth tightened, as if the anger deepened to rage. "Of course. But I shall certainly not come under such conditions. If you require me in Scotland, Miss Sinclair, then you must travel with me." He looked back at her, his grin sending a deep dimple into his cheeks. "And thus my immodest presence will both tarnish and tempt you. Affection is not required to discover temptation. No, if you want me, you will travel with me like a loose woman. I give you my word, madam: there is no other way I shall leave London."
The blush heated her cheeks and fired her resentment. She clasped her hands hard in her lap. "There is something you don't understand. This is not an idle whim. Harriet asked me on her deathbed to let you know. There is a child."
His chair clattered into the wall as he leaped to his feet. Letting the chair fall, he stalked away, back rigid. "By God, what child?"
"Your son, Major Wyndham."
He spun to face her, his expression stark. "My son?"
For a moment his obvious distress unnerved her. But it had to work. No man cared much about babies, but if he believed her—then, surely, surely he would come? Harriet had said Dominic Wyndham was in Edinburgh two years before. So it could be his child. "Harriet had a child. He is fifteen months old. You must come to Scotland and take him into your care, so he may claim his rightful name and place."
To Catriona's dismay, quite helplessly Dominic Wyndham began to laugh. He leaned his head into a corner post of the bed while his shoulders shook with uncontrolled mirth. "Dear God! What a night for news! When for these last years I have had my sins thrown into my face, and the horror of what I demanded from my innocent wife sniggered over in drawing rooms, now I learn she had a child. Fifteen months ago, which would put me in her bed—when?—the summer of 1814?" He turned to her, his face lit with hilarity. "I'm sorry, Miss Sinclair. I shall not come to Edinburgh. In fact I have nothing left to say."
Catriona fixed her eyes on his knees, not daring to look into his face because of what her own might reveal. "But the bairn, sir! Surely you cannot abandon your own lad?"
"There is not much I am sure of in this world, madam, but I am certain of one thing: any child of Harriet's is not mine." His voice was scathing. "For God's sake, don't you know why she left me? Haven't the scurrilous rumors reached Scotland?"
Appalled at her mistake, she dropped her eyes to his boots. They were expensive and very black—a quality of leather the clansmen knew only in book bindings. "I don't know. There were hints—"
The shining boots strode across the room to stand in front of her. "Hints! My wife left me within hours of our wedding night, Miss Sinclair, protesting, weeping to her parents. Society was rallied to the cause."
Catriona raised her head. His eyes were dark as sin and filled with self-mockery. "She said nothing of that to me."
"For God's sake! Her father threatened to horsewhip me for imposing my unnatural appetites on his spotless daughter, and took her back into his own household. When he died, she left with Lady Stansted to do good works in Edinburgh. That was three years ago. It is simply not possible I am the father of this boy. Why the devil should I care what becomes of him?"
Catriona took a deep breath. He must come! So she must tell more falsehoods. "Then he is left without anyone in the world. I must immediately take up another post, in Stirling. I cannot take the child with me. It was your wife's dying wish. I thought you would provide for him, at least. Will you see him given to the parish and raised to dig ditches? I beg you, Major Wyndham. Please come to Edinburgh." She rubbed both hands over her cheeks. "If you disown him, no one knows his father! I will do whatever it takes to save him. I will travel with you, if you wish."
"Will you?" His voice mocked. He caught her by the chin and lifted her face, so she was forced to look into his eyes. They were filled with a sharp intelligence, as if he saw right through her deceptions. "Like a loose woman, Miss Sinclair?"
"My virtue is in no danger from you whatsoever."
A grass-green flame, devouring, hungry, his gaze ran over her. It was as if restraint shredded in him, as if he was flooded with wildness. His lip curled. "Is that a wager? I'm not sure it's one you could win. If you were Harriet's friend, were you also a member of the Souls of Charity, that charming sisterhood devoted—or so I have been led to believe—to probity, piety, and chastity, like a flock of damned nuns? What if a rogue like me required the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of this orphaned babe?"
She felt hot and uncomfortable, but she clung stubbornly to her plan. "I will do whatever is necessary. Harriet warned me you were entirely without conscience. I do not expect you to behave with honor, but I won't see the child abandoned."
"At the price of your virtue?"
Did he think to test her mettle? He would find she was made of harder steel than her own knife blade. "If you are wicked enough to require it."
"But you know I am wicked, Miss Sinclair. You have said so. Show me your legs."
Shock stiffened her spine. "What?"
"The lower limbs, madam. Ankles, calves, knees, thighs. You have just agreed to travel as my mistress. I should like to see what's being offered."
A tremble began deep inside. Her face felt red and flushed. He would make her pull up her skirts and sit exposed before him? "Very well," she said, not moving. "I have two. They carry me quite well from place to place. Which do you want first?"
"Oh, your right ankle, I think." His fingers trailed up the side of her neck, touching below her ear, moving delicately into her hair, a man's fingers, strong and sure. "Your slender calf in its white stocking. Your knee, dimpled no doubt like a dumpling. Your naked thigh, soft with promise . . . your body, Miss Sinclair . . . surrendered for my pleasure . . . and yours."
His caress brought a betrayal, prickly flashes of seductive sensuality warming her skin, firing into her blood. Her breath was ragged, but so was his. His smile concentrated in his eyes, like a hunting wildcat's. Catriona sat mesmerized, staring at him as he began to undo her buttons one at a time, opening the front of her dress.
"You have lovely skin, pure as white silk . . . so fine your veins shine pearl and blue like tiny fish below water. How they dart and flash as your heart beats faster! Do you offer these pearls to a swine like me for the sake of Harriet's bastard? Is the silk even softer below? Are the veins on your breasts as delicate?"
Swallowing hard, she tried to still the pounding in her blood. Her gaze stayed locked onto his. His breath was sweet with wine, dangerous with desire, the seductive curve of his lips only inches away. Insolently she pulled at her unbuttoned dress, tugging it down off her shoulders so the swell of her breasts glimmered above her shift.
"Here," she said. "Look for yourself."
His hand slipped down her throat, his thumb brushing her jaw. "Dear God," he said quietly. "I believe you really mean it."
She could not look away. "I give you my word, right now, that I do."
"Pride and defiance." His fingers lay still, his thumb moving slowly in an entrancing measure over her skin. "Highland virtues or Highland vices? But I don't want a mistress rigid with contempt and dignity, Miss Sinclair. If you want me so badly, you must at least pretend to be willing."
Blood pounded in fury, melting resolution in the flush of impotent rage. "If I am proud," she said, "it is because I know my own honor, and that your own means nothing to you."
"Honor?" He laughed softly. "I have nothing to lose in this world. I am very foxed. Why the devil should I care about honor?" He caught her hands and pulled her upright. Would he force her, here, in his brother's house? Were it not for the child, she would rather thrust her dirk into his hard belly. "How much do you love this boy of Harriet's? Enough to kiss me of your own volition?"
She looked up at the curve of his lip. He still held her fingers pinioned in his. "I cannot," she said. "You are too tall."
He moved his hands out to the sides, an open gesture of submission—but false, like the grin of a lion. "Ah, yes, you can. Reach up, pull down my mouth, and kiss my lips with yours."
The handle of her dirk pressed into her side, asking, begging, to be drawn. She could wipe the arrogant smile from his face before she wiped his blood from her blade, and gladly, gladly be hanged for it. But there was a child and everything that child meant. She touched his jacket. Without a word, he moved her fingers to his naked chest. Beneath the smooth, firm skin, his heart beat steadily. He stood perfectly still, the hard muscles moving with his breathing, and gazed down at her, his eyes black.
She reached her other hand to his neck. It was corded, strong. He bent his head a little, enough to allow her fingers to touch his shining hair, softer than she expected, enough to bring that sarcastic mouth within inches of her own. What was a kiss? Or even a tumble on the bed and the clumsy thrusting of a man into her body? Nothing. Catriona opened her lips. As a cold contempt chilled into her bones she prepared herself to kiss him.
He smiled, expertly seductive, unsettling her. The dimple indented his cheek. He caught her waist in one arm. She stood melded against him, her breasts crushed against his body, her palm slipping over his smooth flesh. Gently, entrancingly, his thumb traced her upper lip. A dulcet heat warmed her skin. For a moment it threatened to flare, like sheet lightning flashing about dark summer clouds, threatening to melt the snow in the corries, threatening a downpour to flood through the heather.
His nostrils flared as his hand slid down her neck and over the fabric of her dress. His fingers brushed her breast. Instantly her nipple rose to meet his touch. Pleasure coursed, throbbing into her belly. Desire flooded in a mad rush, sweeping defiance and confusion before it. She wanted to open her mouth, open her thighs, and let him in. A Dhia, did she want him?
But his thumb stilled.
"By God!" He spun her away and let her go. "Don't offer yourself to a rake unless you mean it, or I shall take you—here and now—on that bed, though I'm damned if I want to couple with Sacrifice dressed as Nobility. Is this child worth a virgin immolation?"
She dropped onto the chair. If he had kissed her? Mary, Mother of God, help her! To hide the shaking, she crossed her arms over her breast. "How can you know what I am, or what I value?"
He turned away, his boots scraping on the floor. While she sat pinned in place, he strode to the bed and stared down at the covers. "I can't, of course. Yet I wish— I wish to God you truly were wanton." He glanced at her, insolent in his male power, the blond hair sparking gold, and grinned. "I don't know what you are, Catriona Sinclair, but I know you are not that."
In surprise she looked down, knowing her cheeks burned while her soul quailed. She couldn't begin to understand her own feelings. For with her body she did want him, and she was too honest to deny it. Her heart hammered and pounded—did she have honor, to do this, to trap him like this? Wouldn't she deserve whatever revenge he would take? Tension hung between them, like the weight of unreleased thunder.
"There is a child," she said doggedly. "Only you can save him. Nothing else matters." That at least was true.
Hand on hip, he pushed aside his jacket. Framed by the fabric, the hard muscles over his ribs flexed as he moved. Strong veins tracked the back of his hand. A man's body, beautiful, glorious, like the warrior Archangel Michael. No wonder women came to him. No wonder his wife had left. She would think it fine enough to be such a man's mistress if she were really a servant, but she was not—and her purpose caught hard at her heart.
He looked up. "Then let us go to Scotland and rescue this poor infant."
"You will come?"
His grin seemed merely dissolute. "Apart from anything else, I'm devilish curious to find out who the father is. There is only one problem."
Catriona could still feel the touch of his fingers and the throb where her thighs met. "Which is?"
He rubbed his mouth with his thumb. "You see what I am. However we travel, the respectable family from Stirling will believe you a lost woman. Link your name with mine, even loosely, and you'll never work again. You cannot afford that, can you?"
She took a deep breath. "I don't mind."
"You still offer yourself, devil take your commitment in Stirling?"
"I have said that I do. I shall not go back on my word."
He laughed. "Neither shall I. I swore I wouldn't come unless we traveled together, so we're stuck with it. You willingly sacrifice your reputation? For how can you save it when I insist on such conditions?" His gaze was speculative, as if he rapidly calculated the answer to a problem. "Shall we make this a secret journey, Miss Sinclair? Creep into Scotland like mice into the wainscoting? You must put yourself entirely at my disposal, to make whatever arrangements I see fit. Then you may keep your reputation intact."
The entire future hung in the balance, poised in this one moment. She didn't try to hide her surprise. "I did not expect you to be generous. What is your price?"
He moved casually, running his hand over the carved wood of the bedpost. "Your virtue, of course. Your virtue is the price—but when you really mean it, tenderly, with a woman's open welcome. I shall not force you. Does that seem too easy?"
She stared at him.
"I don't want dishonesty from you, Catriona, or a confused, desperate pretense at love. I will come to Edinburgh. I will take care of the child. But these are my terms: to risk not only your virtue, but your heart—and to put up with my brackish temper. Do you agree?"
I will take care of the child. Relief came in a torrent, like a summer storm. Catriona nodded, blind, lifting her palm to brush away the gathering moisture. "I agree."
His boots struck hard on the floorboards. Firm fingers took her hand and supplied her with a handkerchief. He gave her a half smile, the trace of disbelief in his voice.
"These are tears of happiness?" he asked softly. "Don't be too sure. I give you notice right now: you will be under attack. You will want to surrender. Every day you will be besieged by a man who has a great deal more experience in the game than you do. I shall seduce you. You will fall in love and I shall break your heart. I guarantee it. What say you to that?"
Catriona met his eyes with all the disdain she could muster. "That you are an arrogant man. I can withstand you, Major Wyndham."
"Oh, no, my dear, you cannot. This is a game women lose. And what if every lurid tale they tell about me is true?" It was impossible to read his voice. Irony was there, and mischief, but the undertones might still prove dangerous. "Where is the child now?"
"With his nurse. Mrs. Mackay promised to keep him for the month."
"Then we had better go immediately. What is this estimable nurse's address?" Catriona told him, though he didn't seem to pay it much attention. The rapid voice went on, as if entranced by its own flexibility. "We shall not tell Lord Windrush. My brother would be hideously likely to try to interfere, but it would not be to rescue the child. Anyway, he leaves for the country in the morning. Thus if he is allowed his cue, he will be out of our play for the next several acts. Get some sleep. We'll leave at dawn." He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. "To our journey, madam—and your seduction."
Catriona watched him walk away. He moved well, like a wolfhound. At the door he paused and turned to grin at her. "By the way," he said, "I am very foxed. In the morning I'll have the devil of a headache and the temper of a cornered badger. You'll have to put up with that, as well. What's the name of this child?"
"Andrew," she replied, closing her eyes for a moment. "Thank you, Major Wyndham."
"You think this some uncharacteristic act of charity? No, Miss Sinclair. Whether I'm his father or not, as Harriet's husband any child of hers is mine. Whatever my reputation, the law will thrust this innocent into my keeping. You knew that, didn't you? You just wanted to intervene, before a little boy was sent willy-nilly into the arms of depravity. Well, you may have your wish, but you may have to pay more than you bargained for it."
He bowed once and left.
Catriona stared at the heavy oak panels for several minutes. The impression of his firm fingers lingered on her palm and the faint trace of his lips burned across her knuckles. Had she hoped, against all the evidence, for a noble champion to help her in her quest? To share the burden she had taken up? For a savior?
She stood up and looked at herself in the mirror over the fireplace. Her face was flushed, her eyes too bright. She pulled the pins from her hair and untied it, shaking it free, as no man had ever seen it. It rioted darkly over her shoulders. Her dress still lay open. She unbuttoned it all the way down the front. Then she untied the ribbons in her shift and dropped the linen away from her breasts. They were round and white. She looked at them critically. The veins did dart blue beneath the skin, moving with her breathing. Tiny fish? It was ridiculous. But as she gazed into the glass, her nipples puckered in the cool air as if remembering the touch of his thumb. This is a game women lose.
Damn him! She was a fool. She needed a hero. Instead she had a rake, insolent with drink, but attractive in spite of it. Indeed. Indeed. Physically, an attractive man. But she wouldn't give two eggs for his soul.
Dominic leaned his head back against the wall. Candlelight wavered in the quiet corridor, throwing mysterious shadows into the corners. What the devil . . . What the devil had possessed him to do that? The aftermath of shock had left him oddly disoriented, dangerously vulnerable, so he had struck out instead and entangled himself like a dog in a thicket. He would go to Scotland with this Highland woman and rescue the child—of course, of course, he would rescue the child—but how would he cope with all that cold ferocity? And how dared she throw her preconceptions so brutally into his face?
Yet a memory of the weight of her breast, lush and soft, ached in his hand. Her lips had fired hot and red, ready for his. He had wanted to kiss her. He had wanted to keep loosing those buttons and free her nipples to his mouth. She would have gone as far as he'd asked. Should he have asked for more and kept asking?
His laugh held a bitterness he could no longer hide, even from himself. For a man with the reputation of a sinner, he had just behaved like a damned saint. Catriona. It was a name like a song. There was ancient music in her blood, waiting to be played. She would have let him assuage his grief and his rage in her body, there in that bed with the four posts. She would have done it hating him.
He did not want, ever, to have another woman hate him.
Instead, since he had come back from the war, there had been all those ladies of the beau monde, whose white thighs opened to him because they wanted to know—to find out with their inquisitive, yielding bodies—what it was like to bed a rogue. He had tried not to disappoint, but for four years he had never really pursued a seduction.
Yet Catriona Sinclair had accepted his mad challenge: I am very foxed. You will have to put up with that, as well. Was his insanity due to drink, or had all those years as a spy corrupted his thinking, making him look for complexity where it didn't exist, convincing him nothing was ever as it seemed? For he was sure she'd lied to him, though he didn't know how. She was prepared to give anything for his cooperation over this child, even falsehoods, even her virginity. Why? For God's sake, why would a servant sacrifice so much for another woman's bastard?
A candle guttered and went out.
Andrew, Harriet's child. An unknown little boy, left among strangers. At fifteen months old, would he be toddling on unsteady, fat little legs? Was he blond and blue-eyed, with smiles like rainbows, like the son he had once thought to have with his wife?
Distant clocks ticked into the silence, then in a random scattering of chimes and gongs began to strike the quarter hour. It would soon be morning.
Time to fulfill the first part of this fantastic bargain, and make sure her reputation survived unsullied, whatever suspicions he might have about her honesty . . . .
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Award-winning, multi-published author of British-set romances, Jean Ross Ewing was born, raised, and educated in England and Scotland.
Copyright © Jean Ross Ewing 1999. This text must remain unaltered, complete with the copyright, and may not be reproduced or distributed for profit or for any other purpose without my express permission.
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