Authors: Ashley March
ROMANCING LADY CECILY
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Copyright Â© Ashley Henderson, 2011
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London, April 1849
Cecily kept her head lowered as she walked, the rain washing down her face and soothing her fevered cheeks. Another sob erupted from her lips, refusing to be contained. Releasing her skirts to wrap her arms around her waist, she huddled into herself as though she might become small enough for the pain to disappear.
“Milady,” the footman called behind her. For a moment his umbrella hovered overhead, creating a gray curtain of rain, a numbing deafness of sound as it drummed above her. Cecily increased her pace until the rain poured over her headâstreaming past her neck and beneath her collar, soaking the lilac muslin day dress. Her petticoats dragged against her legs, slowing her steps.
Today she would not be cosseted or protected; today she couldn't bear to act content to remain wrapped inside her tidy box of pampered indulgences and practiced sophistication.
The storm slung thick locks of hair across her face. It pelted freezing water against her skin, little stinging pins which slapped at her forehead, her cheeks, the hands she raised to peel the wet strands away from her eyes. She slogged forward, grateful for the cold, the wet, the physical misery thatâfor a short while at leastâsubdued the aching devastation of her heart.
When again a shelter formed overhead, Cecily bit her lip to suppress the cry rising in her throat and whirled around to face her servant. She blinked through blurred eyes, focusing first on the black gloved hand holding the umbrella at her shoulder, then the sight of her servant three feet away, tucking a coin into his pocket. The footman met her gaze and lifted a brow. It wasn't the first time he'd been bribed to leave her side, yet he never departed without her acquiescence.
Cecily inclined her head.
As he turned and marched off, heels splashing water with each step, the umbrella above her head lifted higher. Cecily forced her gaze from the blue waistcoat threaded with silver to the black cravat above, then finally to the face of the man she most dreaded to see. Baron Sedgwick.
She jerked away, angling her chin so he wouldn't be able to see the tears slipping hotly from beneath her lashes.
A finger touched her chin, a slight caress made all the more sensual in its brevity. “Why are you crying?”
“Why are you here?” she returned, her voice slashing wildly, disguising her grief with anger. He always seemed to prowl on her weaknesses, always glimpsed the vulnerability she tried to keep hidden from others. But she didn't know if she had the strength to push him away today, nor the will to battle wits with him.
He gave a low chuckle, the sound slipping beneath the drum of the rain and seeping into her bones. It spread beneath her skin and ran through her blood, a comfort she'd rather have refused. “Dear kitten, I'm always here.”
Yes, he was here. And Angela was gone.
It was an uncharitable thought to have, to wish for him to be dead instead, and one she immediately regretted. She didn't want him to die, but neither did she welcome this continual craving to crawl inside his coat and bury herself against him. Even now she desired him when she shouldn't, when she wanted to surrender everything in grief for the loss of her closest friend.
Cecily blinked the wetness from her lashes and met his eyes, black pools which haunted her dreams, though she would have far preferred them in her nightmares. “Leave me be,” she said, but her voice hitched in the middle and the last syllable ended with a whimper. She dropped her chin to her chest, her limbs shuddering from her attempt to not wail before him.
“My carriage is around the corner, away from prying eyes.” His voice was clipped, as if he disapproved of her show of emotion. His fingersâthose which possessed such damning knowledge of the texture of her skin, the best paths to travel to elicit her sighsâthey wrapped around her wrist and lifted her arm. The heat from his gloved touch enlivened every nerve just as the rain and cold had begun to numb her pain with a new sort of wretchedness. She hated him for it, for making her feel again.
He pressed the handle of the umbrella into her hand. “I'll walk ahead first. As soon as you see me round the corner, start following.” He paused, his thumb stroking idly across the ridges of her knuckles. “And Cecily?”
She gripped the umbrella so tightly it shook. Raising her head, she glared at him. “Yes?”
A narrow smile eased the warning in his voice. “Should more than two minutes pass before you come, know that I'll return and carry you, your betrothal and your reputation be damned.”
He strode away. While Cecily's mind might have fantasized about rebelling, her feet obeyed him. They didn't turn in the opposite direction and run after her servant but headed straight toward her downfall. The rain quieted to a patter above and her sobs grew in strength and frequency until, when she reached his carriage, they'd broken through the lump in her throat and issued forth in fractured, keening moans.
He reached through the open door and pulled her inside, leaving the umbrella to clatter from her hand to the street below. The door closed and he gathered her onto his lap.
“I'm sorry,” she whispered, burying her head in his neck and clutching at his shoulders. He pulled her away and framed her face between his palms. The leather now lay cool against her flushed cheeks.
“I won't tell you not to cry,” he murmured. “I'm entirely too selfish for that. Cry, my little kitten, and let me kiss away your tears.”
Cecily shook her head and swallowed, fighting the inclination to give in to him, despising how quickly she allowed him to sweep aside her resistance. No musician could have played an instrument better. His voice was like a song of seduction to her senses, the husky invitation of a violin sliding beneath her well-guarded defenses.
“My darling,” he whispered, and his mouth slid along the crest of her cheek. As if called by his touch, the tears brimming in her eyes overflowed, chasing the path of his kiss.
“Yes, that's it.” He gathered her closer, his arms about her tight, almost crushing. She should have felt suffocated. Or restricted. Perhaps instead comforted by the strength in his arms. But as his lips traced over her face, catching every tear as it fell from her eyes, pulling the moisture to the corner of her mouth and pressing against her lips, her sobs turned to gasps of pleasure. She clutched him frantically, holding him even more tightly than he held her.
She could not escape him, his ability to turn any thought toward him, any emotion into longing. Her closest friend was not yet dead an entire day, and here she was, panting in his arms.
Cecily stiffened, preparing to push herself away. But before she could lift her hands from his shoulders he released her, so suddenly that she almost fell to the floor of the carriageâand would have, if not for the light, innocently polite pressure of his fingertips at her back.
He was black and white before her. His eyes shadowed, discreet pools; his skin pale in contrast; his coal dark hair and the white blade of his smile quickening her breath while the deceptively simple stroke of his fingers branded her as his over and over again. “You must tell me if you feel inclined to cry in the future. I will be more than glad to support you in your time of need.”
A mockery. He mocked her grief. And the fact that her body yearned to lean into his, that her lips throbbed with greed in wanting him to devour her again, was even more humiliating.
Cecily whipped her head aside and cast her eyes to the floor. She stared at the water collecting beneath the hem of her dress, then spreading in a thin trickle toward the soles of his boots. She hoped it ruined them. Everything she touchedâhis trousers and woolen jacket, his waistcoat and the cravat which she'd savaged in her desperation to get near himâshe hoped all of it would be ruined.
She attempted to climb off of his lap, but he held her fast with no more than the points of his fingertips at her back and the flat of his palm over her thigh. Leaning forward, he nuzzled his mouth against the crook of her neck. The fingers at her back were replaced by the iron strength of his arm, the hand at her thigh trailing a sensuous path up her waist, over her stomach, pausing to cup her breast. Never enough to satisfy; only to tantalize.
“Cecily.” She shivered when he spoke her name, the heated stroke of his breath against her throat stirring lust and want and every unspeakable sensation she'd prefer to ignore. How many times had she told herself she would no longer be moved by himâby his voice, his gaze, his touchÂ .Â .Â . his kiss? He had no right to intimacy with her. And she had no right to give it to him.
When she tried to turn her head away again, his hand left her breast and touched gently at her chin, drawing her gaze back toward his. “Why are you crying, kitten?”
She closed her eyes. At the moment she wasn't strong enough to resist the entrancing pull of his gaze, those black eyes which insinuated with one glance every dark and terribly delicious thing they could do together.
“Shall I force you to tell me, then?” he asked, the words murmured low, rough like velvet, causing a flush to rise to her skin.
“No. You shouldn't have asked me to come. It was a mistake to follow you.”
“Perhaps. But it's always a mistake to follow me, isn't it? What would your betrothed think, I wonder? Surely you haven't mentioned in your letters how you allowed me to lie you down in the grass and raise your skirts to your thighs, or how you begged me to kiss yourâ”
She covered his mouth with her hand, ignoring the way her fingers trembled against his lips. “I am well aware of my faults, my lord. I would ask you to release me now. Let me leave.”
His mouth moved beneath her palm, forming the shape of a kiss against her flesh. Cecily's pulse leapt as she remembered the last time she'd tried to keep him from speaking, from employing his voice and words to seduce her. She hadn't succeeded very well then, either.
But this time he lowered his arms to his sides and leaned away, against the soft-as-butter leather squabs at his back. It had been more than a month ago, and yet still she couldn't forget the supple caress of the seat against her bare skin in contrast to the rough abrasion of his jaw along her inner thigh. “You may leave,” he said, gesturing grandly toward the carriage door. “Hurry now, before your servant returns home and your family begins to question your whereabouts.”
Cecily narrowed her eyes at the obvious taunt. They both knew the footman had turned in the opposite direction of her house when he'd left her with the baron.
Still, grateful for the reprieve, she lifted herself from his lap and reached for the handle. It twisted easily beneath her hand and she pushed, the door giving way until a spatter of raindrops fell in the space between.
He said nothing, but she could feel his stare. Watching her, waiting as he always did. As if hoping that one day she might do something to surprise him. And oh, how she longed to surprise him, if only to comfort herself with the knowledge that he didn't know her as well as he assumed he did.
He expected her to run away, but she wouldn't. Not today, at least. Cecily held herself still as she crouched beneath the carriage ceiling, gripping the handle, her head and face sluiced by the rain. She counted for ten seconds. Long, interminable seconds, an eternity's passage of time. Anticipating an unknown answer, hoping he might give in first and demonstrate a similar weakness for her.
At twenty seconds, she wished him to hell.
When she reached thirty-seven seconds his hands gripped her waist. He gave a low curse, and then he was pulling her back, reaching around her to shut the door. He sat down and pulled her onto his lap again, then lifted his fist to knock against the roof and signal the driver.
The carriage began to move. Cecily's eyes were swollen, her nose likely red and her cheeks pale from the cold. But for the first time since she'd heard the news of Angela's death, she smiled when his eyes met hers.
“You think you've won, don't you?” he asked, his gaze trailing down to her lips, then lower still to where her bodice lay plastered against her breasts. “I wish you could see yourself. Your cheeks flushed with triumph, your eyes shining in victory. But what you don't realize, my dear, is that I was prepared to let you walk away. I would have let you go. I wouldn't have followed you, and I wouldn't have called you back. Do you know why, Cecily?”
She forced her lips to remain curved. “Why?” she asked, whispering lest he hear the truth she denied to both of them.
“Because you always return to me.” He tilted his head, his lashes lowering to where his fingers played with hers, his large, black-gloved hand appearing even more wicked and erotic against the backdrop of her delicate white one. “Even now you did not wish to leave, rather waited for me to insist that you stay. It appears, my darling, that despite all of your words to the contrary, you have actually begun to develop a
for me.” His lashes lifted, his onyx eyes stifling the breath in her throat.
Cecily swallowed and shook her head. A stream of water trickled from her temple down her cheek. “No.”
“No? Then perhaps it is something different, something entirely separate from mere romantic sentiments. Perhaps it is this.” He disentangled his hand from hers and followed the path of water with his finger, caressing her jaw before slipping below to her throat, down the slope of her chest and halting at the line of her bodice. He teased her, the pressure of his touch feather-light as he stroked back and forth across the swell of her breasts. She closed her eyes and arched against him.
She heard the swift intake of his breath, the satisfied sigh which followed. “Ah, Cecily,” he murmured low in her ear, his voice filled with dark amusement. No doubt he smiled as well, pleased to make such a fanfare of her weakness. The cool slide of leather moved upward, pausing over the frantic thrum of her heart. “Is it me for whom your heart quickens?”