My Lady's Pleasure
· Harlequin Historicals
Widowed Valeria Arnold has experienced little of the delights of love—until a chance encounter with half-Irish gambler Teagan Fitzwilliams leads to a stolen interlude that bedazzles them both. Wistfully they part, expecting never to meet again. Then an unexpected invitation brings Valeria to London for the Season. Teagan knows he should keep his distance, lest Valeria's reputation be tarnished by his own, but when the lady requests his escort, he cannot refuse. Once again under Teagan's spell, Valeria must decide what she really wants: remarriage to a proper ton gentleman—or a passionate affair with this most improper rogue...
"...MY LADY'S PLEASURE is by far the best historical romance I've read so far this year."
"Another entertaining, uniquely plotted Regency-era novel...topnotch writing and a perfect ending make this one easy to recommend."
"Valeria and Teagan are among the most engaging characters I've encountered in an historical romance. I recommend MY LADY'S PLEASURE very highly."
"...engrossing...the tension between the couple crackles."
If fornication were going to occur, it wouldn't be in her hayloft. That decided, Valeria Arnold frowned as she watched her maid Sukey loosen her bodice lacings to reveal more of her generous bosom, then turn the corner of the path leading to the barn, "assignation" written in every sway of her ample hips.
Now, how to enforce that resolution?
Valeria had been coming in for tea after her usual morning ride when she noticed Sukey, after a furtive backward glance, slip her sleeves off her shoulders and scurry out the kitchen door. Since the maid was now out of sight and well beyond hailing distance, if Valeria truly wished to stop her she'd have to follow the girl.
Well, if one must do something unpleasant, best to proceed quickly and be done with it.
Laying down her riding crop, Valeria lifted her chin and strode to the door. At the last moment she paused to pick up a stout walking stick from its stand beside the cupboard. In case her firmest governess's manner wasn't enough to dissuade the ardent youth awaiting Sukey, it wouldn't come amiss to be prepared.
Her courage nearly failed her when she reached the barn. From within its stout walls emanated Sukey's high-pitched giggles interspersed with soft shufflings and low-toned masculine murmurs. Valeria took a deep breath and wiped nervous palms against the woolen skirt of her habit.
She'd call out a warning. No sense barging in unannounced and surprising them at…whatever they were now doing, she decided, her cheeks warming at the thought. The idea of viewing a man whose unclothed body was not in the last throes of deadly illness fired that warmth to flame.
Nonsense, she told herself, raising chilled hands to cool her hot cheeks. A respectable widow shouldn't be having such thoughts. Especially, honesty compelled her to add, when in this remote corner of Yorkshire there was so little opportunity for her to act upon them.
She pulled the barn door slightly ajar. "Sukey Mae, are you in there? Cook needs you in the kitchen at once!"
At the sound of a gasp, followed frantic rustlings, she entered.
Valeria saw Sukey first, hastily re-lacing her nearly bare bosom while her skirts, which must have snagged the edge of a nearby hay bale when she dropped them, were still hiked up to reveal a froth of white petticoat. Valeria's gaze moved to the man beside Sukey and stopped dead.
Tawny hair gleamed in the shaft of early-morning sunlight, and the tall, well-muscled body that lazily rose to impressive full height was not that of the fumbling farm boy she'd expected. Golden cat-eyes swept her with a glance from head to toe, their expression half-annoyed, half-amused, as finely-chiseled lips curved into a smile.
"A ménage a trois? Who would have thought to find such delights in the wilds of Yorkshire?"
His voice whispered of Eton and Oxford, even as the fineness of the half-unbuttoned linen shirt, the width of the cravat tossed on the hay, and the expensive simplicity of the form-hugging buff breeches shouted "Bond Street."
The stranger's smile broadened, and Valeria realized she must have been staring with mouth agape. Though in truth, such a man was as out-of-place in this remote section of England as if he'd dropped from the moon. Wherever had Sukey stumbled across this London dandy?
Valeria shut her mouth with a snap. Before she remembered her purpose, though, she had to admit a certain sympathy for the susceptible Sukey. With his smiling eyes and rakish grin, the gentleman before her could tempt a saint to dalliance.
"Sukey Mae Gibson," Valeria said, her first attempt at a stern tone coming out more like a croak. "You will return to the kitchen. We'll speak of this later."
Finishing the ties at her bodice with a jerk, Sukey gave her a sullen look. As she stepped past him, the unrepentant rogue had the audacity to wink at the girl. Who halted, a foolish grin springing to her lips before she turned back to Valeria. "But Mistress--" she whined.
"At once, Sukey," Valeria interrupted. "Before I forget that it is a Christian virtue to forgive."
What no other housewife in the county would, Valeria added mentally, with a rueful sigh at the compromises poverty compelled.
Valerie kept her unflinching gaze locked on Sukey until the maid, with slow, reluctant steps, exited the barn. Then she turned back to level the same stern look on her uninvited visitor.
"You, sirrah, will do me the favor of leaving my property by whatever means you came and returning to wherever it is you came from."
Apparently possessing not a particle of embarrassment, the man merely inspected her once more from head to toe, his gaze curious. "Will I now?"
He spoke the words with a slight lilt, whose origin her precise mind was distracted into trying to ascertain until she realized the rogue was approaching. Before she could move, with a smooth panther's gait he had reached her and seized a curling wisp of hair, escaped from its pins during her ride, between two tanned fingers.
"You so unkindly interrupted my morning's plans. Why should I not take you instead?"
Seen up close, the golden eyes mesmerized. For an instant, she couldn't seem to move—or breathe. Then she caught the odor of brandy, the lingering scent of cigar smoke. He was more than half disguised, she realized. Rather than rising early, he'd probably not yet been to bed. Her first thought—to wonder again where in the world he had sprung from—was rapidly swamped in acute awareness of the heat and scent of him hovering over her.
"You shall not," she said sharply, dragging herself back from lassitude to slap his hand away.
"And why is that, pray? ‘Tis ready for kissing you look."
Since her rapt gaze had focused on his lips, she'd best not debate that. "You have the appearance of a gentleman, sir, and therefore would never take an unwilling lady," she pronounced.
To her surprise, the man threw back his head and laughed. "Sure, and you're wrong on both counts! Shall I show you how much?" With the spurned hand, he reached out to tilt up her chin.
Valeria's gaze locked with his. She tightened her grip on her walking stick, though as the gentleman's height and reach far exceeded hers, should he really choose to attack her the wooden pole wouldn't prove much of a weapon. But despite his threat, she felt no fear.
"I'd prefer you didn't show me. I'd also prefer if you'd refrain from enticing my maid."
He released her chin, his glance sympathetic. "You waste your time there. The girl's as light-skirted as they come. If ‘tis not me, ‘twill be another lad she raises her petticoats for, sure as dawn follows the moonlight."
Valeria stifled a sigh. "But not in my barn."
With a lithe movement the man caught up his discarded jacket. "I wouldn't be too sure of that."
Nor was she, but she wasn't about to discuss with this bosky stranger what necessity forced her to tolerate. "I trust you can find your way out. Good day, sir."
She turned on her heel, but the man caught her shoulder. Startled, she looked back at him.
"Is it sure you are that you're unwilling?"
A shudder of heat radiated from his hand throughout her body. Something buried deep within her, a longing long denied, stirred in response.
Don't be a fool. Jerking her shoulder free, she stepped away. "Yes," she said crisply, and strode off.
His soft chuckle followed her. Just before the barn door closed, she heard him murmur, "Liar."
Was she unwilling? Valeria wondered as she made herself walk purposefully back to the house, resisting the temptation to glance back and watch the man leave.
Of course she wouldn't consider lying with a chance-met stranger—certainly not one so undiscriminating he'd been about to tumble her maid! But neither could she deny the stranger's sheer virility had awakened a firmly-suppressed desire for the physical bond marriage promised. A promise, in her case, that had never been fulfilled.
The inevitable wave of pain, muted now, swept through her. She couldn't prevent herself thinking of Hugh—tall, broad-shouldered, black hair curling over a gold-laced uniform collar, dark eyes gleaming with health and high spirits. The man who'd been her brother's best friend, hero of her adolescent fantasies, and briefly, her husband.
He'd want her to remember him like that—not as he'd been last summer, wasted with fever, his flesh hanging on a too-large frame, eyes sunken in a face yellowing with the pallor of approaching death. Shuddering, she once again banished the image. Best to bury it deep, along with any memory of her disastrous wedding night.
Impatiently she shook off a vague sense of guilt. It was only natural, having known so little of the delights of love, that she'd be tempted by a cat-eyed stranger whose lips and hands promised expert skill in the arts of seduction.
Doubtless more skill than her erstwhile suitor possessed. The idea of comparing stodgy Arthur Hardesty to that tawny-haired personification of male carnality was so ludicrous, she had to laugh out loud.
Her attraction to the man was equally laughable. Should she ever meet him in his true setting—a London drawing room—she would hold as little appeal for such a man as her low-born maid.
Still, if she wished to relieve the tedium of her dull existence with visions of a torrid interlude, ‘twas a harmless enough diversion. Wherever the stranger had sprung from, he wasn't local. Probably he was some traveler passing through whom Sukey had somehow encountered at the posting inn when she went to town for supplies.
Aye, no need to chastise herself for wistful fancies. After all, Valeria would never see the rogue again.
Laughing softly, Teagan Michael Shane Fitzwilliams let appreciative eyes linger on the retreating figure of the lady in the black. With curves as delightful, if not quite as ample as those of the maid she'd routed, Lady Mystery was much more intriguing.
Euphoric over winnings that would keep him in clean linen and adequate victuals for the next several months, Teagan had decided to take a dawn ride to blow away the smoke and liquor fumes of a hard night's play. Had he not still been three parts castaway, he'd never have followed—it would be a misnomer to term responding to that walking advertisement for the world's oldest profession "seduced"—the saucy maid whose bold glances and ample curves had attracted his attention at the posting inn.
Though his body still protested the abrupt termination of its favorite recreational activity, his head was more than willing to exchange a quick tumble for the possibility of a more challenging partner.
The maid had called her "mistress," so his proper lady must be in charge of the small manor whose stone walls he glimpsed beyond a curtain of trees as he walked out of the barn. A widow, in her somber black garb? Or mayhap a woman who cared little for her husband, for no wife who enjoyed bed sport would risk employing a wanton like Sukey.
Either way, he'd read attraction in her eyes—and longing. Exactly the combination that offered the potential of a mutually profitable interlude.
Though serviceable, Lady Mystery's habit had never seen the inside of a London emporium, his discriminating eye said. But the hot house flowers of the metropolis, with their endless need for flattery, gossip, and manipulation, had been growing rather tiresome of late.
Let the other men pursue the tarts Rafe Crandall had brought to occupy those of his guests who tired of hunting or card play—Teagan would seek out his host and make some discrete inquiries about Lady Mystery.
A woman for whom he'd felt an immediate attraction. His half-aroused body hardened again. It had been a long time since he'd been able to combine business with pleasure.
His exacting eye for detail pulled up another memory, and his glow of anticipation faded. As he now recalled, her black habit had been not just unfashionable, but worn.
He tried to summon up a niggle of hope. Perhaps Lady Mystery saved her newest garments for impressing the ton during her sojourns in London. If not, however, it appeared his comely widow was none too plump in the pocket.
Not even the sight of Ailainn, the glossy black stallion that was his one indulgence, erased his irritation at that conclusion. Society might deem Teagan totally irresponsible—an image carefully cultivated to provoke maximum irritation in his mother's sanctimonious English relatives—but he'd learned early the pain of an starving belly and an empty purse. A man living solely by his own wits could not afford to neglect his game and pursue a woman merely for the enjoyment of it.
He should put her out of mind, he concluded as he mounted Ailainn and caught up the reins.
As the stallion trotted down the path to Rafe's hunting box, Teagan urged his mount to a gallop. The sheer beauty of the animal's powerful stride, the siren song of the wind rushing by him—scouring away the smoky debris of yesterday, making him new--carried off his vexation and revived his spirits.
Pulling up the stallion at a rise overlooking his host's dwelling, Teagan threw back his head and laughed aloud, caught up in the sheer joy of being alive on such a glorious morning.
Perhaps it was the same quixotic stubbornness that had led his mama to defy her family and follow her heart and the sweet-talking rogue who left her to die alone in a Dublin hovel. A man, her censorious relatives never tired of reminding him, Teagan resembled to the life.
Or that all Irishmen were fools—had his English relations not drummed that fact into him as well?
Whatever prompted him, stubborn fool of an adventurer that he was, he decided on the spot to pursue his Lady Mystery anyway, be she wealthy or not.
Copyright © 2002 Julia Justiss
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