Until You (Westmoreland Saga 3) - Page 40

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Her artless compliment drew fond smiles from the servants and an appalled look from Miss Charity, but when the earl’s expression didn’t change in the least, Sherry felt a prickle of uneasy foreboding—enough so that when she realized he intended her to ride alone with him to the Rutherfords’ ball, she balked. “I prefer to ride with Miss Charity and Monsieur DuVille,” she said firmly, already turning toward their carriage.

To her startled horror, his hand clamped on her elbow like a vise and forced her toward the open door of his coach. “Get in!” he said in an awful voice, “before you make a greater spectacle of yourself than you already have tonight.”

Belatedly realizing that beneath his smooth veneer of bland sophistication, Stephen Westmoreland was burningly furious, Sherry cast an anxious glance toward Miss Charity and Nicholas DuVille, who were already pulling away. Several other groups from Almack’s were waiting for their own carriages to be brought round, and rather than make a useless scene, she got into the coach.

He climbed in behind her and snapped an order at the groom as he put up the steps. “Take us the long way, through the park.”

Seated across from him, Sherry unconsciously pressed back into the luxurious silver velvet squabs and waited in tense silence for what she was certain was going to be an explosion of fury. He was staring out the window, his jaw clenched, and she wished he would get on with it, but when he finally turned his icy gaze on her and spoke to her in a low, savage voice, she instantly wished for the return of the suspenseful silence. “If you ever,” he bit out, “embarrass me again, I will turn you over my knee in front of everyone and give you the thrashing you deserve. Is that clear?” he snapped.

She swallowed audibly, and her voice wavered. “It’s clear.”

She thought that would finish it, but he seemed to have only begun. “What did you hope to accomplish by behaving like an ill-bred flirt to every ass who approached you for a dance?” he demanded in a low, thunderous voice. “By leaving me in the middle of the dance floor? By clinging to DuVille’s arm and hanging on to his every word?”

The reprimand for her behavior on the dance floor was deserved, but the rest of his tirade about her behavior with the opposite sex was so unjust, so hypocritical, and so infuriating, that Sherry’s temper ignited. “What would you expect except foolish behavior from any woman who was stupid enough to betroth herself to the likes of you!” she fired back and had the satisfaction of seeing shock momentarily crack his mask of fury. “Tonight I heard all the disgusting gossip about you, about your conquests and your chérie amie, and your flirtations with married women! How dare you lecture me on decorum when you’re the biggest libertine in all England!”

She was so carried away with her own furious humiliation over the gossip she’d heard tonight, that she didn’t heed the muscle that was beginning to tick in his tightly clenched jaw. “No wonder you had to go to America to find a bride,” she scoffed furiously. “I’m surprised your reputation for profligacy didn’t reach there, you—you unspeakable rake! You had the gall to engage yourself to me when everyone in Almack’s has been expecting you to offer for—Monica Fitzwaring and a half dozen others. No doubt you’ve deceived every unfortunate female you’ve cast your eye at into believing you plan to offer for them. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out you did exactly what you did to me—engage yourself to them ‘in secret’ and then tell them to find someone else! Well,” she finished on a note of breathless, infuriated triumph, “I no longer consider myself betrothed to you. Do you hear me, my lord? I am breaking our engagement as of this moment. Henceforth I shall flirt with whomever I please, whenever I please, and it is no reflection on your name, so you have nothing to say about it. Is that clear?” she finished, mocking his own phrase, then she waited in angry triumph for the satisfaction of his reaction, but he said not a word.

To her utter disbelief, he lifted his brows and gazed at her with enigmatic blue eyes and an impassive expression for several endless, uneasy moments, then he leaned forward and stretched his hand to her.

Unnerved completely, Sherry jerked back thinking he intended to strike her, then she realized he was casually offering his hand to her—a handshake to seal the end of their betrothal, she realized. Humiliatingly aware that he hadn’t protested in the least to the breaking of it, her pride still forced her to look him right in the eye and place her hand in his.

His long fingers curved politely around hers, then abruptly tightened like a painful vise, yanking her off her seat. Sherry gave a muffled scream as she landed in a sprawling, uncomfortable heap on the seat beside him, her shoulders against the door, his glittering eyes only inches from hers as he leaned over her. “I am sorely tempted to toss up your skirts and beat some sense into you,” he said in a terrifyingly soft voice. “So heed me well, and spare us both the painful necessity: My fiancée,” he emphasized, “will conduct herself with proper decorum, and my wife,” he continued with icy arrogance, “will never discredit my name or her own.”

“Whoever she is,” Sherry panted, hiding her terror behind scorn as she squirmed ineffectually beneath his weight, “she has my deepest sympathy! I—”

“You outrageous hellion!” he said savagely, and his mouth swooped down, seizing hers in a ruthless kiss that was meant to punish and subdue while his hand gripped the back of her head, forcing her to hold the contact. Sherry struggled in furious earnest, and finally managed to twist her head aside. “Don’t!” she cried, hating the terror and plea in her voice. “Please don’t . . . please!”

Stephen heard it too, and he lifted his head without relaxing his grip, but as he studied her pale, stricken face and realized that his hand was on her breast, he was amazed by his unprecedented loss of temper and control. Her eyes were huge with fear, and her heart was racing beneath his palm. He had merely intended to tame her, to bend her to his will and force her to yield to reason, but he had never meant to humble or terrify her. He did not want to do anything, ever, to break that amazing spirit of hers. Even now, when she was pinned beneath him and completely at his mercy, there were still traces of stormy rebellion in those long-lashed gray eyes and stubborn chin, a courageous defiance that was gaining strength in the few moments he’d been still.

She was magnificent even in her defiance, he decided as he noticed the flaming curls covering her cheek. Impertinent, proud, sweet, courageous, clever . . . she was all of that.

And she was going to be his. This delectable stormy titian-haired girl in his arms was going to bear his children, preside at his table, and undoubtedly pit her will against his, but she would never bore him—in bed or out of it. He knew it with the experience gained from two decades of intimate dalliance with the opposite sex. The fact that she didn’t know who she was, or who he was, and that she was not going to like him very well when she finally recovered her memory did not concern him overmuch.

From the moment she’d put her hand in his and fallen asleep, some bond had sprung up between them, and nothing she’d said or done tonight had convinced him she wanted to break it, or that she didn’t want him as badly as he wanted her. She was merely overreacting to a storm of gossip she’d heard about him because she didn’t understand that there was rarely more than a grain of truth—if that—in any of it.

All this raced through his mind in the space of seconds, but it was long enough for his fiancée to sense that his anger was under control and to adjust her tone to exactly the right combination of appeal and firmness. “Let me up,” she said quietly. Stephen added “keenly perceptive” to her many other desirable wifely traits, but he shook his head. Holding her gaze pinned to his, he spoke in a tone of quiet implacability. “I’m afraid we need to reach an understanding before you leave this coach.”

“What is there to understand?” she burst out.

“This,” Stephen said as he twined one hand through her hair and caught her chin with the other, turning her face up to his, and slowly lowered his mouth to hers again.

Sherry saw the purpose

ful gleam in those heavy-lidded eyes, and she drew in a swift breath, trying to twist her head away. When she couldn’t escape his grip, she braced herself for another punishing onslaught, but it never came. He touched her mouth with an exquisite gentleness that stunned her into stillness and began to assault her carefully erected defenses. His mouth brushed back and forth over her lips, lazily coaxing, shaping, and fitting them to his own while his hand loosened its grip in her hair and slid downward, curving around her nape, stroking it sensually. He kissed her endlessly, as if he had all the time in the world to explore and savor every contour of her mouth, and Sherry felt her pulse begin to hammer in fright as her resistance to him began to crumble. The man who was kissing her had suddenly become the concerned fiancé who’d slept in a chair beside her bed when she was ill; the fiancé who’d teased her to laughter and kissed her to insensibility; only now there was a subtle difference in him that made him even more lethally effective: his seeking mouth was breathtakingly insistent and there was a possessiveness in the way he was holding and kissing her. Whatever the difference was, her treacherous heart found him utterly irresistible. Wrapped snugly in his strong arms, with his mouth caressing hers, and his thumb slowly stroking her nape, even the gentle swaying of the coach became seductive. His tongue traced the trembling line between her lips, coaxing them to open for him, and with her last ounce of will, Sherry managed to resist his urging. Instead of forcing her, he lifted his mouth from hers and switched tactics, brushing a hot kiss along the curve of her cheek to her temple and the corner of her eye. His hand tightened on her nape—imprisoning or supporting her—as his tongue touched the edge of her ear and then began to slowly explore each curve, sending shivers of desire darting through her. As if he sensed that victory was within his grasp, he dragged his mouth roughly across her cheek, and when his lips lightly touched the corner of hers, seeking and inviting, Sherry went down to defeat. With a shudder of surrender, she turned her head to fully receive his kiss. Her lips parted beneath the pressure of his, and his tongue made a brief, sensuous foray into her mouth, probing lightly at hers.

Stephen felt her hand slide up his chest, felt her press closer to him, and he claimed his victory, plundering her mouth with his, teasing and tormenting her, and she responded instinctively. The fires within her that had fueled her tempestuous rebellion earlier, now burned hot and bright with passion, and Stephen found himself in the midst of a kiss that was wildly erotic—and rapidly getting out of control. His hand was sliding over her breast, cupping it, and she was straining toward him in sweet abandon, offering her mouth to him. He told himself to stop and kissed her deeper instead, making her moan softly, and when she kissed him back, tentatively touching her tongue to his lips, it was the gasp of his own breath that he heard. He shoved his fingers into her thick hair, and the rope of pearls that had bound it broke loose, sending a shower of pearls and a gleaming waterfall of red tresses spilling over his hands and arms. He kissed her until they were both senseless and his hand was caressing her breast. He forced his hand to still, reminded himself that they were in a coach on a public street on their way to a ball . . . but her full breast was filling his palm, and he tugged the bodice of her gown down enough to expose it. She panicked when she realized what he had done, her fingers grasping his wrist, and with a laughing groan, he ignored her and bent his head to her breast . . .

33

Weak from the turbulence of her own emotions, Sherry let her hand slide from his shoulder to his chest and felt his heart beating hard and fast, which meant he, too, must have been affected by their kisses. That knowledge, combined with the gentle stroking of his hand down her back, went a long way toward banishing her feeling of having been vanquished. There was something different about him tonight, something indefinably more tender. And more authoritative. She didn’t understand the reason for that, but she was certain she’d discovered the reason for something else. Leaning her forehead against his chest, she said it aloud:

“What we just did—it’s the real reason I considered marrying you, isn’t it?”

She sounded so abject, so defeated by the amazing passion they shared, that Stephen smiled against her hair. “It’s the reason you are going to marry me,” he corrected with finality.

“We aren’t at all suited.”

“Aren’t we?” he whispered, curving his hand around her narrow waist and moving her closer against him.

“No, we are not. There are a great many things about you that I do not approve of.”

Stephen stifled his laughter. “You can take your time enumerating all my shortcomings on Saturday.”

“Why on Saturday?”

“If you mean to become a shrewish wife, you should wait until after the wedding.”

He felt her body tense even before she slowly raised her head and stared at him. Her eyes were still languorous, but her refusal had a trace of strength in it. “I cannot marry you on Saturday.”

“Sunday, then,” he magnanimously agreed, erroneously believing her objection to the day was based on a feminine concern over a suitable trousseau.

“Not then either,” she warned, but the desperation in her voice told him that she lacked conviction. “I want to have my memory back before I take such an irrevocable step.”

Stephen’s goal was precisely the opposite. “I’m afraid we can’t wait that long.”

“Why on earth not?”

“Allow me to demonstrate,” he said and took her lips in a swift, hard, demanding kiss. Finished, he looked into her face and quirked a brow, suggesting she state an opinion of his demonstration.

“Well, there is that,” she admitted, and Stephen stifled a shout of laughter at her tone and expression, “but it is not reason enough to rush into a ceremony.”

“Sunday,” he repeated flatly.

She shook her head, showing him a glimpse of an amazing strength of will, even though he could see she was beginning to falter.

“I am not yet subject to your wishes, my lord, so I suggest you not use that particular tone on me. It is most arbitrary, and for some reason it seems to raise my hackles. I insist on having a choice—What are you doing?” she burst out as he slid his hand inside her bodice, cupping her breast and fondling her nipple, forcing it into a tight bud.

“Giving you a choice,” Stephen said. “You can admit you want me, and agree to let me make an honorable woman of you on Sunday, or you can deny it . . .”

He let the sentence hang in a way that was intended to alarm her. “And if I do deny it . . .” she argued softly.

“Then we will go home instead of to the Rutherfords’ ball, and I will continue there what we left off a few minutes ago, until I either prove it to you or you admit it. Either way, the result will be a wedding on Sunday.”

Beneath his velvet baritone, there was a steely determination, an arrogant confidence that he could and would succeed in anything he decided to do, that made her feel even more helpless and bewildered. Sherry knew he could and would make her admit it. He could kiss her into insensibility in a matter of minutes. “Yesterday, you were not at all eager to wed, or even honor our betrothal,” she pointed out. “What has brought about your change of heart?”

Your father is dead, and you have no one left in the world but me, Stephen thought, but he knew there was another reason that was far more compelling, though not entirely true: “Yesterday, I didn’t fully recognize how badly we want each other.”

“Yes, but earlier tonight, I was perfectly certain I did not want you at all. Wait, I have a suggestion—” she said, and Stephen grinned at the way her face lit up, even though he knew he was neither going to like, nor to agree to, any alteration in his plans. Five hundred years of undiluted nobility flowed in his veins, and with the true arrogance of his illustrious forebears, Stephen David Elliott Westmoreland had already decided that his will was going to prevail in the matter. All that was important was that she wanted him. and he wanted her. Beyond that, his only reason for haste was that he wanted he

r to be able to enjoy some time as his wife before she had to confront her father’s death.

“We could go on as we are, and if you don’t become disagreeable, and if we continue to like kissing one another, then we could be married.”

“A tempting suggestion,” Stephen lied politely, “but as it happens, I have a great deal more in mind than merely kissing you, and I am . . . uncomfortably eager . . . to satisfy us both on that score.”

Her reply to that remark proved that she’d forgotten more than merely her own name, and her fiancé’s name. Either that, or like many of her gently bred English counterparts, she’d never been told what was actually going to happen on her wedding night. With her delicate russet brows drawn together over quizzical gray eyes, she confirmed it. “I don’t know what you mean or what precisely you have in mind, but if I am making you uncomfortable, it’s little wonder. I am practically sitting on your lap.”

“We’ll discuss all my meanings and motives later,” he promised in a voice roughened by the pleasure she gave him as she wriggled her way off his lap.

“When will we discuss it?” she persisted stubbornly when she was seated across from him again.

“Sunday night.”

Unable to summon the fortitude to argue with him further or even meet the challenge of his gaze, Sherry parted the curtain at the side window of the coach and looked out. Two things hit her at once: First, they were stopped in front of a house with footmen standing at attention on every step, holding torches to welcome the droves of splendidly garbed guests who were moving inside in a steady stream while casting curious looks over their shoulders at the door of the coach. And worse, if her reflection in the coach window was even close to accurate, Sherry’s elaborate coiffure had been hopelessly damaged by her fiancé’s marauding fingers. “My hair!” she whispered, aghast, reaching up and confirming that the intricate curls had come loose and were hanging about her shoulders in what Stephen privately thought was delightful, artless disarray. But then the moment she’d called attention to her hair, his thoughts had immediately gone to his regular fantasy of seeing those locks spilled over his bare chest. “I can’t go in there, looking like this. People will think—” When she trailed off in embarrassed silence, Stephen’s lips twitched.


Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
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