Read an Excerpt
Salisbury, England, 1813
Lady Olivia Hopkins reached to the library shelf above her head and yanked on the heavy book she was determined to read. It came loose with a whoosh of air, as though it hadn’t been moved from its spot in many a year. The weighty tome fell toward her, and she barely caught it before it crashed to the floor with a loud thud.
Cradling it to her chest, she lugged it to a nearby table and laid it down. The cover was deep red, the title—A Feast for the Senses—printed in ornate golden lettering that hinted at antiquity. Carefully, she opened it, the binding creaking with age, and her nose was assailed with the smells of dust and mold.
She seated herself in a comfortable chair and turned to the first page, but she was shocked by what she saw. She blanched, her brows rose.
“Dear me,” she murmured to the empty room. She peeked about, half expecting one of Lord Salisbury’s servants, or her stepmother, Margaret, to leap from behind the velvet draperies and scold her for her nocturnal curiosity.
For the prior hour, she had been studying the works of the Italian masters, and she’d anticipated more of the same, but this was no educational reference, no boring volume of scholarly merit she could carry to her bedchamber as a cure for insomnia.
Before her, dozens of mermaids were strewn across an oceanic scene and lounging on a rocky shoreline. Disturbingly, they looked like herself—slender, with blue eyes and blond hair. They were serene, beaming with contentment, their flaxen locks flowing into an azure sea, their scaled, flippered legs dangling in the frothy water.
Previously, she’d observed paintings of mermaids, but the illustrations were discreet, the bodily arrangement hiding any sights the viewer ought not see.
In contrast, these were . . . were . . . She couldn’t describe what they were.
The mythical creatures were arrayed to startle. Their postures were provoking, their upper torsos exposed, their anatomical curves precisely delineated. The anonymous artist had a particular fascination with the female breast, for each pair was lovingly and meticulously drafted for maximum effect. He was intrigued, captivated by the risqué, and eager to convey his bewitchment to others. Which he did. Quite successfully.
There were large breasts, small breasts, rounded, high, flat, pointy, and voluptuous breasts. Every size, shape, and contour was exhibited. The centers were portrayed in varying hues of peach and rose, an erect nipple conspicuous in the middle of each.
In her twenty-three years of living, she’d never beheld a woman’s breasts, and though she endeavored to recall, she wasn’t certain she’d ever seen her own, when she definitely should have. She was an accomplished artist herself, but in all actuality, she knew very little about the human form. Aesthetic investigation should have spurred her to master the intimate aspects, but it wasn’t as if she—the prim, proper daughter of a deceased earl—could hire a model to pose in the buff, and she was hardly an individual who would stand in front of the mirror and gaze at herself in the altogether, so she hadn’t realized that the breast could be so magnetic, so alluring.
She couldn’t quit staring.
While she wanted to be disgusted or upset, she wasn’t, and she really and truly intended to stop surveying the naughty portraiture, but she was too mesmerized. Sternly, she ordered herself to close the cover, but she couldn’t obey the command.
She traced a finger across the fantastical lumps of flesh, and the maneuver had a peculiar and dramatic impact on her physique. Her breasts swelled and ached, and her nipples poked against the fabric of her nightgown, causing her to notice and assess them in an entirely new fashion.
Distractedly, she cupped one of the mounds, testing its plump mass and girth. By accident, her thumb flicked across the rigid tip, and the gesture set off a slew of exotic, almost hurtful sensations. Feeling as though she’d been burned, she dropped her hand and glanced away. Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment.
How could an object as innocuous as a book have such rousing force? Why would something as simple as a painting wield such power? Why did she allow a reaction to occur?
Yearning for a respite from the stimulation, she turned the page.
The next picture was worse—or better, depending on one’s perspective—and much more disquieting than the first. A lone mermaid was stretched out on a boulder, the sea churning around her, her finned legs suspended in the water. She too was fully displayed, her pouting, curvaceous breasts visible.
A man was with her. A very handsome, very mortal man, with dark hair and eyes. He appeared to be a sailor, with a loose, flowing shirt and pants. They were ripped at the knee, as though he’d been in a shipwreck and had been tossed up by the waves. He was sprawled behind the mermaid, and she was in his arms, her bottom snuggled between his muscled thighs.
His hands clasped her breasts, his fingers squeezing her nipples. In obvious bliss, her face was tilted toward the stormy sky.
The spectacle stirred an unusual and primal excitement in Olivia. She hadn’t known that a man would do such a thing to a woman, that a woman might enjoy it. Instinctively, she comprehended that this was the sort of exploit a couple would engage in in the marital bed, where an episode transpired that was so obscure and so puzzling that a virgin—such as herself—dare not ask others about it, dare not ruminate or speak of it aloud.
The information was frightening, and had her so disconcerted that she couldn’t reflect upon it, so she browsed, rapidly scrutinizing the paintings.
Hundreds of legendary animals were drawn, and they were mostly female. Nymphs frolicked in a waterfall, elves danced before a fire, fairies scattered their magic powder. They were ravishing, beguiling, making her want to linger and examine, to dream and fantasize. Frequently, the mysterious man rollicked in the midst of the merriment, the fictitious ladies adoring him and the blatant maleness he brought to their feminine enterprises.
They were touching him, with their hands and their mouths, but the specific deeds were shielded, the nature of the conduct too astonishing to divulge.
If she wed the Earl of Salisbury, Edward Paxton, was this the type of activity he would require? Should she ultimately become his bride, what else was there to discern? Upon what other bizarre, private behaviors might he insist?
Did men and women perform such antics? Did the earl? If he decided to marry her, would he demand such debauchery? She could never be sufficiently relaxed with him to where she could strip off her clothes and romp around. What if it was obligatory? What if he solicited such dissipation on a regular basis?
Could she go through with a marriage to him? How could she not?
Without warning, a shadow crept across the page, and she frowned, in her confused state, unable to grasp what it portended.
“What an interesting choice for nightly reading,” a male voice intoned from right next to her. “And one of my personal favorites.”
A man had sneaked in without her noticing! Her hair was down and brushed out, and she was clad in a flimsy nightgown and robe. Her feet were bare, not so much as a slipper covering them.
Everyone was abed. If she’d assumed differently, she’d never have come downstairs.
Who had joined her? If it was the earl, she would perish from mortification! If it wasn’t the earl, it had to be someone with whom he was well acquainted. No one else would be roaming the halls so late.
How could she explain what she was doing, sitting by herself and obsessing over lewd drawings?
Gad! What if she’d wrecked her chance with the earl before the visit had even begun? Margaret would be driven to commit murder.
Terrified over what she’d wrought, she glanced up, and she flinched with shock and surprise.
For a bracing, mad instant, she was sure he was the knave in the book, having vaulted to life from the pages.
But no. Her imagination was merely agitated to a frenzy. He had many comparable features, but he wasn’t the same fellow.
He was beautiful, if a man could be described as beautiful, with black hair and blue eyes that glimmered in the dim light. His hair was neatly trimmed in the front, but the back was long and tied with a queue. He had high cheekbones, and a mouth ringed with dimples, as if he were carefree and prone to smiling, and he exuded masculine aromas like fresh air, tobacco, and horses.
A few years older than herself, he was tall, with broad shoulders, a thin waist, and lanky legs. As she was seated, he loomed over her, but she sensed no menace or intimidation. A disreputable cad could have taken advantage of her situation, but she didn’t perceive a hazard. While he appeared to be the sort who was capable of mischief, it wouldn’t be achieved at her expense; she was convinced of it.
She tried to deduce who he might be, but inference was difficult. He was attired as a laborer, in tan shirt and brown trousers, but the clothes were tailored and made of costly material, which verified he wasn’t a servant. He didn’t have the demeanor of a guest, either, and the earl had no relatives visiting.
If he wasn’t an employee, a guest, or kin, who was he? And how could she garner his promise that he’d never tell a soul what he’d seen her doing?
She was going to have a devil of a time worming her way out of the debacle, and she decided to seize the offensive.
“I beg your pardon?” she said. “Were you speaking to me?”
Casually, she closed the book, pretending that he’d witnessed nothing untoward. Exuding bravado, she glowered at him as if she were in the habit of confronting unknown men in the middle of the night, while scarcely dressed and perusing indecent art.
“I’d forgotten this book was here,” he replied. “I haven’t picked it up since I was a lad just out of short pants. As you might surmise, I found it quite enlightening.”
He chuckled at the memory, a low, beguiling rumble that reverberated through her, rattling her.
“That’s not exactly information I’d share with others,” she retorted, as though she hadn’t just debased herself by greedily analyzing the drawings, too.
“Do you enjoy erotica?”
Erotica . . .
She blinked, then blinked again. She hadn’t heard the term before. It sizzled through the room, like a novel flavor she’d never tasted, and she liked the sound of it. It connoted romance, intrigue, mystery—extreme wickedness!—and it conjured up notions of a bohemian life of gaiety and excitement.
What kind of scoundrel strutted up to a woman to whom he’d never been introduced and uttered such a scandalous, delicious word?
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” she alleged.
“Erotica,” he repeated. He moved until he was behind her chair, blocking her in, and ruining any prospect she might have had to jump up and dash out. “I prefer the French style, but the Italian isn’t bad.”
He leaned forward, placing a palm on the table on either side of her, so that she was trapped. She’d never been so near to an unfamiliar man before. Hers was a sterile world, where contact was forbidden and avoided, so incidental and sporadic that she occasionally felt as if she were living in a bubble.
She didn’t know what to do. Though she knew she should leap up, shove him away, and stomp out, she didn’t want to give him the impression that she was apprehensive or unsophisticated, even though she was. And she couldn’t leave until she’d smoothed over the awkward encounter.
She had to marry the Earl of Salisbury. There was no alternative. They were in dire financial straits, with no options remaining, but she’d never wanted to wed. Her doting father had pampered her, letting her pursue her art by declining every proposal she’d received, a mistake about which Margaret never ceased to harangue.
If Olivia’s father had affianced her—Margaret liked to sharply contend—as any normal, sane parent should have done, Olivia would currently be joined with a wealthy, aristocratic husband who could support her family.
Absurdly, she suffered a ripple of irritation at both her father and brother for having had the gall to die, and thus abandoning a houseful of women who’d been alarmed to determine that they were on the verge of fiscal ruin.
Olivia had to work a swift miracle, by expeditiously snagging a husband, even though she had no dowry remaining. Their contrived solution rested with the widowed Lord Salisbury.
Margaret had events plotted out: Olivia would charm the earl, he would be smitten and offer for her, and she would accept. Then, Margaret would advise him of Olivia’s plundered dowry, certain that he was too much of a gentleman to recant after an overture had been tendered.
The stratagem bothered Olivia, and ordinarily, she would have stood firm against chicanery, but she was as frantic as Margaret. Not for herself, but for her niece, Helen. Helen was three, and the lone—though illicit—offspring sired by her brother before his death. The girl’s mother, a kitchen maid, had died in childbirth, so Helen had no one but Olivia to watch over her, and she definitely needed watching.
Though she was angelically pretty, she didn’t talk or interact as a healthy tot would. She was mute and distant. Margaret denounced her as a lunatic, the insanity a symptom of her illegitimacy, so she was concealed in the nursery, with few people aware of her existence.
Helen was Olivia’s only kin, her only tie to what had once been a powerful and renowned British lineage, her only connection to the brother and father whom she’d loved.
Safe at home in London, Helen was another secret that would have to be revealed after wedding plans were in progress. After all, with Olivia flaunting herself as a bridal aspirant with an irreproachable ancestry, it wouldn’t do to alert her suitor that dementia ran in the family!
At all costs, Olivia would protect Helen, even if it meant she had to marry a mature, reserved stranger, and she couldn’t risk that the impertinent rascal with whom she was presently sequestered might spread stories about her midnight wanderings.
He reached for the book, flipped it open, and it fell to an illustration of an Arabian sheik, surrounded by his harem. A concubine straddled his lap, her bosom thrust toward him, and he suckled at her breast as a babe would its mother.
Olivia blushed from the roots of her hair to the tips of her toes.
“Really, sir . . .” she sputtered, unable to find sufficient vocabulary to characterize her outrage. “You presume too much.”
“He looks just like me, wouldn’t you say?” He was in her peripheral vision, his cheek all but pressed to her own. She could smell the soap with which he bathed, the starch in which his shirt was laundered, could see a nick where he’d cut himself shaving.
“He doesn’t look like you at all,” she remarked. “He’s handsome.”
The insult was a lie. He was the most elegant, attractive man she’d ever met, and his proximity had her thoroughly flustered.
The vain rogue laughed. “Ah, chérie, I think you like me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.” She glared straight ahead, refusing to shift the smallest inch, or she’d be gazing into his mesmerizing blue eyes.
“Do you like the pictures of the women? Or the men? Which arouses you more?”
The disturbing inquiry baffled her. She could deliver no scathing rejoinder, and she dawdled, paralyzed and dumbstruck, as he touched the page and stroked the concubine’s breast, his thumb circling round and round the nipple. It produced a peculiar effect, as if he were caressing Olivia’s own breast, and her nipples wrenched in response.
Were a woman’s breasts so sensitive? She was twenty-three. How could she not have known what now seemed to be so vital? Did men regularly fondle women’s bodily parts? Was this a typical behavior?
The fevered queries raced by, and she suffered a feeling of unreality, as if she’d been thrust into a foreign country where she didn’t comprehend the language or the rules by which to conduct herself.
His motions on the courtesan’s nipple became more seductive, more tantalizing, and her embarrassment spiraled. She slapped his hand away, rammed the chair backward, and stood. As she’d suspected, he was a gentleman, and he stepped away, granting her space in which to collect herself, though scant composure could be located.
From the moment he’d entered the room, the meeting had disintegrated. Likely, he deemed her to be a harlot, or worse—though she was too inexperienced to know if there was something worse than a harlot. Numerous horrid scenarios careened through her mind, the main one being that she might sustain the calamity of bumping into him the next day while in the earl’s company.