She was accustomed, as are most striking women, to the open admiration of men, and this she had from Lord John as well. But below such admiration was usually a deeper awareness, more subtle than glance or gesture, a vibration like the distant chime of a bell, a visceral acknowledgment of herself as female. She had thought she felt it from Lord John when they met—but it had been gone on subsequent meetings, and she had concluded that she had mistaken it at first.
She should have guessed before, she thought; she’d encountered that inner indifference once before, in the roommate of a casual boyfriend. But then, Lord John hid it very well; she might never have guessed, were it not for that chance encounter in the yard. No, he didn’t chime for her. But when he came out of the servants’ quarters, he had been ringing like a firebell.
She wondered briefly if her father knew, but dismissed the possibility. After his experiences in Wentworth Prison, he couldn’t possibly hold a man with that preference in such warm regard as she knew he felt for Lord John.
She rolled onto her back. The polished cotton of the sheet slid across the bare skin of br**sts and thighs, caressing. She half noticed the feeling, and as her nipple hardened she raised a hand to cup her breast in reflex, felt Roger’s large warm hand in memory, and a sudden surge of wanting. Then in memory she felt the sudden grasp of rougher hands, pinching and mauling, and wanting changed at once to sickened fury. She flipped onto her stomach, arms crossed beneath her br**sts and face buried in her pillow, legs clenched and teeth gritted in futile defense.
The baby was a large, uncomfortable lump; impossible to lie that way now. With a small half-spoken curse, she rolled over and jerked out of bed, out from under the betraying, seductive sheets.
She walked nak*d through the half-lit room, and stood again by the window, looking out at the pounding rain. Her hair hung damp down her back, and cold was coming through the glass, pebbling the white flesh of arms and thighs and belly. She made no move either to cover herself or to go back to bed, but only stood there, one hand on the gently squirming bulge, looking out.
It would be too late soon. She had known when they left that it was already too late—so had her mother. Neither of them had wanted to admit it to the other, though; they had both pretended that Roger would come back in time, that he and she would sail to Hispaniola, and find their way back through the stones—together.
She laid her other hand against the glass; at once, a mist of condensation sprang up, outlining her fingers. It was early March; maybe three months left, maybe less. It would take a week, maybe two, to travel to the coast. No ship would risk the treacherous Outer Banks in March, though. Early April, at the soonest, before a journey could be undertaken. How long to the West Indies? Two weeks, three?
The end of April, then. And a few days to make their way inland, find the cave; it would be slow, fighting through the jungle, more than eight months pregnant. And dangerous, though that didn’t matter much, considering.
That would be if Roger were here now. But he wasn’t. He might never come, though that was a possibility she fought hard against envisioning. If she didn’t think about all the ways he could die, then he wouldn’t die; it was one article of her stubborn faith; the others were that he wasn’t dead yet, and that her mother would come back before the child was born. As to her father—rage boiled up again, as it did whenever she thought of him—him or Bonnet—so she tried to think of either of them as little as possible.
She prayed, of course, as hard as she could, but she wasn’t constituted for praying and waiting; she was made for action. If only she could have gone with them, to find Roger!
She hadn’t had a choice about that, though. Her jaw tightened, and her hand splayed flat against her belly. She hadn’t had a choice about a lot of things. But she had made one choice—to keep her child—and now she’d have to live with the consequences of it.
She was beginning to shiver. Abruptly she turned away from the storm, and went to the fire. A small tongue of flame played along the blackened back of a red-crackled log, the heart of the embers glowing gold and white.
She sank down on the hearth rug, closing her eyes as the heat of the fire sent waves of comfort over her cold skin, caressing as the stroke of a hand. This time she kept all thought of Bonnet at bay, refusing him entrance to her mind, concentrating fiercely instead on the few precious memories she had of Roger.
…put your hand on my heart. Tell me if it stops…She could hear him, half breathless, half choked between laughter and passion.
How the hell do you know that? The rough feel of curly hairs under her palms, the smooth hard curves of his shoulders, the throb of the pulse in the side of his throat when she’d pulled him down to her and put her mouth on him, wanting in her urgency to bite him, to taste him, to breathe the salt and dust of his skin.
The dark and secret places of him, that she knew only by feel, recalled as soft weight, rolling and vulnerable in her palm, a complexity of curve and depth that yielded reluctantly to her probing fingertips (Oh, God, don’t stop, but careful, aye? Oh!), the strange wrinkled silk that grew taut and smooth, filled her hand rising, silent and incredible as the stalk of a night-blooming flower that opens as you watch.
His gentleness as he touched her (Christ, I wish I could see your face, to know how it is for you, am I doing well by ye. Is it good, just here? Tell me, Bree, talk to me…), as she explored him, and then the moment when she had pushed him too far, her mouth on his nipple. She felt again the sudden amazing surge of power in him, as he lost all sense of restraint and seized her, lifting her as though she weighed nothing, rolled her back against the straw and took her, half hesitating as he remembered her freshly riven flesh, then answering the demand of her nails in his back to come to her fiercely, forcing her past the fear of impalement, into acceptance, and welcome, and finally into a frenzy that matched his own, rupturing the last membrane of reticence between them, joining them forever in a flood of sweat and musk and blood and sem*n.
She moaned out loud, shuddered and lay still, too weak even to move her hand away. Her heart was thumping, very slowly. Her belly was tight as a drum, the last of the spasms slowly relaxing its grip on her swollen womb. One half of her body blazed with heat, the other was cool and dark.
After a moment she rolled onto her hands and knees, and crawled away from the fire. She hauled herself onto the bed like a wounded beast, and lay half stunned, ignoring the currents of heat and cold that played over her.
At last she stirred, pulled a single quilt over her, and lay staring at the wall, hands crossed in protection above her baby. Yes, it was too late. Sensation and yearning must be put aside, along with love and anger. She must resist the mindless pull of both body and emotion. There were decisions to be made.
It took three days to convince herself of the virtue of her plan, to overcome her own scruples, and, at last, to find a suitable time and place in which to catch him alone. But she was thorough and she was patient; she had all the time in the world—nearly three months of it.
On Tuesday, her opportunity came at last. Jocasta was closeted in her study with Duncan Innes and the account books, Ulysses—with a brief, inscrutable look at the closed door of the study—had gone to the kitchen to superintend the preparations for yet another lavish dinner in his Lordship’s honor, and she had gotten rid of Phaedre by sending her on horseback to Barra Meadows to fetch a book Jenny Ban Campbell had promised her.
With a fresh blue camlet gown that matched her eyes, and a heart beating in her chest like a trip-hammer, she set out to stalk her victim. She found him in the library, reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by the French windows, the morning sun streaming over his shoulder making his smooth fair hair gleam like buttered toffee.
He looked up from his book when she came in—a hippopotamus could have made a more graceful entrance, she thought crossly, catching her skirt on the corner of a bric-a-brac table in her nervousness—then graciously laid it aside, springing to his feet to bow over her hand.
“No, I don’t want to sit down, thank you.” She shook her head at the seat he was offering her. “I wondered—that is, I thought I’d go for a walk. Would you like to come with me?”
There was frost on the lower panes of the French door, a stiff breeze whining past the house, and soft chairs, brandy, and blazing fire within. But Lord John was a gentleman.
“There is nothing I should like better,” he gallantly assured her, and abandoned Marcus Aurelius without a backward glance.
It was a bright day, but very cold. Muffled in thick cloaks, they turned into the kitchen garden, where the high walls gave them some shelter from the wind. They exchanged small, breathless comments on the brightness of the day, assured each other that they were not cold at all, and came through a small archway into the brick-walled herbary. Brianna glanced around them; they were quite alone, and she would be able to see anyone coming along the walk. Best not waste time, then.
“I have a proposal to make to you,” she said.
“I am sure any notion of yours must necessarily be delightful, my dear,” he said, smiling slightly.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” she said, and took a deep breath. “But here goes. I want you to marry me.”
He kept smiling, evidently waiting for the punch line.
“I mean it,” she said.
The smile didn’t altogether go away, but it altered. She wasn’t sure whether he was dismayed at her gaucherie or just trying not to laugh, but she suspected the latter.
“I don’t want any of your money,” she assured him. “I’ll sign a paper saying so. And you don’t need to live with me, either, though it’s probably a good idea for me to go to Virginia with you, at least for a little while. As for what I could do for you…” She hesitated, knowing that hers was the weaker side of the bargain. “I’m strong, but that doesn’t mean much to you, since you have servants. I’m a good manager, though—I can keep accounts, and I think I know how to run a farm. I do know how to build things. I could manage your property in Virginia while you were in England. And…you have a young son, don’t you? I’ll look after him; I’d be a good mother to him.”
Lord John had stopped dead in the path during this speech. Now he leaned slowly back against the brick wall, casting his eyes up in a silent prayer for understanding.
“Dear God in heaven,” he said. “That I should live to hear an offer like that!” Then he lowered his head and gave her a direct and piercing look.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“No,” she said, with an attempt at keeping her own composure. “It’s a perfectly reasonable suggestion.”
“I have heard,” he said, rather cautiously, with an eye to her belly, “that women in an expectant condition are somewhat…excitable, in consequence of their state. I confess, though, that my experience is distressingly limited with respect to…that is—perhaps I should send for Dr. Fentiman?”
She drew herself up to her full height, put a hand on the wall and leaned toward him, deliberately looking down on him, menacing him with her size.