The Devil You Know

The Devil You Know

3.9 32
by Liz Carlyle
     
 

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From acclaimed author Liz Carlyle comes a spellbinding new novel in which the ton's most charming ne'er-do-well meets his match in a most unexpected fashion and discovers the true meaning of desire....
The Devil You Know
Frederica d'Avillez is sure she will never marry. She's had a disastrous London season, and now her longtime beau has

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Overview

From acclaimed author Liz Carlyle comes a spellbinding new novel in which the ton's most charming ne'er-do-well meets his match in a most unexpected fashion and discovers the true meaning of desire....
The Devil You Know
Frederica d'Avillez is sure she will never marry. She's had a disastrous London season, and now her longtime beau has thrown her over for a more eligible miss. But if Freddie can't have a husband, she's hell-bent on experiencing at least one night of unforgettable passion. Where better than in the arms of the dashing rogue Bentley "Hell-Bent" Rutledge? So what if he's a rake, scoundrel, and all-round devil?
Scandal trails in Bentley's wake and fair maidens usually steer well clear of him — and vice versa. But when the opportunity presents itself, Bentley can't resist Freddie's exotic beauty. When their wild, reckless passion has dire consequences, Bentley is forced to choose between honor and freedom. And Freddie soon realizes that Bentley's devil-may-care façade is just that — for she has unwittingly unleashed his dark secrets...and secret desires.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Karen Robards Liz Carlyle weaves passion and intrigue witha master's touch.

“Carlyle never disappoints.” —RT Book Reviews

“Superb characterization, exquisitely sensual love scenes, and luscious writing.”
Booklist

“Rich and sensual, an unforgettable story in the grand romantic tradition.”
—Christina Dodd

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780743437875
Publisher:
Pocket Star
Publication date:
04/01/2003
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
416
Product dimensions:
6.80(w) x 4.22(h) x 1.12(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In which Mrs. Weyden's warnings go Unheeded.

"Tout vient à celui qui sait attendre," muttered Frederica d'Avillez. Her tone made it sound more like a curse than a proverb. It was, she supposed, just a remnant of some long-ago French lesson which now kept repeating itself over and over in her head until it became maddening, rather like that big green and yellow bird she'd once seen swinging on a wire in a Piccadilly shop window. All comes to him who knows how to wait. What a bloody stupid saying. And an egregious lie, too.

At the stable door, she stared grimly into the night for a long, uncertain moment, then forced back her shoulders and marched off in the direction of the terraced gardens. As she paced, Frederica tapped her crop impatiently against her thigh, the muted sting somehow keeping her tears at bay, much as her silly proverb had done for the last several months. The words had given her hope during a miserable come-out season in London. And they had sustained her at home here in Essex while she anxiously awaited Johnny's return from his grand tour.

Well, much good her patience had done her! She should have gone to Scotland with Zoö and the little ones. Instead, she was stuck here with Aunt Winnie and the menfolk, and she and Johnny were done for. Ruthlessly, Frederica shoved a bough of hemlock from her face and pushed on through the shimmering moonlight, her riding boots digging hard into the gravel as she hit the garden path. Here, at the bottom terrace, the gardens were allowed to grow thick and natural. High above in the distance, someone had left a lantern burning by the back door. Frederica should have found it welcoming, but she didn't.

The night was cool but not damp, the air thick with the scent of freshly turned earth. She drew in another steadying breath, and a sudden sense of despair almost overwhelmed her. It drew at her lungs and wracked her shoulders, but she fought it down and picked up her stride. Anger was a better emotion. And she was angry. Spitefully so. The fierce desire to hurt someone was almost frightening. She had come home from London for no good reason. She had been mistaken. Despite all his whispered pleas and smoldering glances, Johnny Ellows, it seemed, had not meant to marry her at all.

Abruptly, she jerked to a halt, scarcely seeing the next flight of steps which loomed up in the moonlight ahead. How could she have been so mistaken? How could she have been so stupid?

Because she was a silly little girl.

Well, the truth hurt, did it not? Things were no different here at home than they had been in London. The surroundings were just more familiar. Society, and apparently even the rural gentry, could always find cause to look down on her. Suddenly, Frederica felt as inadequate in Essex as she had in town. At that thought, something inside her snapped. As if it possessed a will of its own, Frederica's riding crop struck a whacking good blow at the next swag of evergreen, sending snippets of foliage spinning into the night. Unleashing her rage felt oddly satisfying. She was tired of being so perfect, so placid, so bloody damned...restrained. So, again and again, she thrashed at the greenery which verged on the paths and steps, all the while making her way briskly up the terraces.

"He loves me not!" she hissed, striking a blow at the juniper on her left. "Not! And not! And not!" A row of bare-branched forsythia fell victim, dry twigs splintering hither and yon. Stems of yew twirled wildly off into the darkness. The sharp tang of evergreen surrounded her, and still she pushed on, venting her wrath on whatever shrub the moonlight spilt over. The hot press of tears threatened. Oh, Johnny! She had thought...he had said...

But apparently not.

He was to wed his cousin in May. On his father's orders, he had said. He loved Frederica madly, had always loved her, but he could not risk being cut off. There would be no estate, no lovely manor house.

Frederica had reminded him of her generous dowry, but it had done no good. Perhaps his cousin had one larger? The lump in her throat had kept her from asking. So, with a sad smile, Johnny had lifted her hand to his lips and had taken his leave of her forever.

And yet Frederica had heard too well what had gone unsaid. Her blood was not blue enough — or English enough — for the virtuous Squire Ellows. And her cousins' titles, money, and influence notwithstanding, Frederica had been born on the wrong side of the blanket, and so she was a bastard — an orphaned foreign bastard — the worst thing you could be in England, or so it seemed tonight.

She had almost reached the upper terrace which was rimmed with a low stone wall and flanked with a row of boxwoods. The lantern still swung from its hook by the back door, the pale yellow light spilling across the flagstones. Drawing back her whip, she gave the nearest boxwood one last thrashing.

"Jesus Christ Almighty!" exclaimed a raspy masculine voice.

Frederica leapt back, her hand flying to her mouth.

A broad, dark shape emerged from behind the boxwood, his hands working furiously at the close of his trousers. "Bloody hell, Freddie!" barked the man around the stub of a glowing cheroot. "Give a chap an apoplexy, why don't you?"

Heart in her throat, Frederica leaned forward to peer into the shadows. And then, as he buttoned his trousers, she saw a familiar gold signet ring winking at her in the moonlight. "Oh, good Lord!" she groaned. "Bentley Rutledge, is that you? What, pray, are you about?"

Rutledge gave a bark of laughter and hitched up his last trouser button. "What's it look like, Freddie love?" He unclamped the cheroot between his teeth and cocked one hip against the stone wall. "Try to give a little warning next time."

"For pity's sake, Rutledge! Didn't Tess put a slop pot under your bed?"

But her initial shock having faded, Frederica was not especially embarrassed. She had known Rutledge forever, it seemed. He was her cousin Gus's best friend and a favorite at Chatham Lodge, a house which was usually filled cheek-by-jowl with visitors. And although Aunt Winnie could often be overheard exclaiming that Rutledge was an unconscionable rake, her eyes were always twinkling when she said it. Frederica looked Rutledge up and down. Winnie had said some other things, too. Things unmarried young ladies probably weren't supposed to overhear.

But Frederica had overheard them, and she did not doubt for one moment that they were true. Rutledge was a tall, handsome devil with melting brown eyes, a wicked grin, and thick, dark hair which was always too long. In fact, now that she thought on it, he seemed to get handsomer with every passing year. And bigger. And broader. He was strong, too. On Boxing Day, he had caught her beneath the mistletoe. She remembered how he had set his big hands about her waist so that his thumbs almost touched. And then he had lifted her effortlessly into the air, twirling her round as he kissed her — full on the mouth, too.

But it meant absolutely nothing. Every year around Christmastime, Rutledge would catch and kiss all the ladies — Aunt Winnie, Cousin Evie, and even Zoö, whom no one else dared to kiss, because even though she was illegitimate, her father was the great Lord Rannoch. But this year, Rutledge had snatched Frederica up when no one else was about. He had given her the usual swift, smacking kiss. And then, strangely, he had seemed to falter. He almost forgot the twirling part, then the kiss softened somehow, as if their mouths had parted slightly. Then he had lowered her very

slowly, their bodies brushing, his eyes never leaving hers. When her toes again touched the floor, Frederica had felt all hot and strange. But Rutledge had turned away at once. And that had been the last time he'd kissed her — or anyone — beneath the mistletoe.

How strange that she should remember that tonight. Good Lord, she had a tragedy on her hands. Her grief over Johnny flooded back. "I'm sorry to have startled you, Rutledge," she said, fumbling awkwardly with her riding crop. "But it is a bit past midnight. Shouldn't you be in bed?"

"Oh, I should?" In the moonlight, she could see his very large, very white teeth as he grinned. Rutledge was always grinning at her. "And what of yourself, sweet? Slipping back from the stables so late? Who's the lucky fellow?"

For a moment, she couldn't breathe. "None of your business," she finally snapped.

At that, Rutledge slid away from the stone wall and stood a bit unsteadily. "Why, Freddie!" he whispered, grinding his cheroot beneath his boot heel. "It's young Ellows, isn't it? Ah, those Cambridge men have all the luck!"

The jest was like a knife in her heart, stabbing swift and deep. Frederica placed a steadying hand on the stone newel post. "Why must you always tease me, Rutledge?" she demanded, fighting her tears with scorn. "And why is it that you never turn up here unless you're avoiding some scandal? Or her husband? And speaking of scandal, why are you wandering the gardens alone? Can you find no better company than me?"

In the lamplight, Rutledge crooked one eyebrow and moved toward her with his easy, loose-limbed grace. "I was just finishing a smoke, Freddie," he said more gently. "Your cousins and I got back late from the Wrotham Arms, that's all. Gus thought we'd best walk Trent up and down the terrace for a bit. He and Theo just hauled him up to bed. The poor lad will pay for his sins on the morrow, I'll wager."

Frederica swished her skirts past Rutledge and started up the last three steps. "His sins?" she echoed, her back already turned to him. "And the rest of you are pure as the driven snow, I'm sure."

"Pax, Freddie!" Rutledge laughed, seizing her

lightly by the shoulder and turning her face back toward his. "What the devil's got into you?"

And then he saw. Frederica realized it when the sparkle slowly melted from his eyes. "Aw, Freddie, what's all this?" he murmured, his hand heavy through the wool of her habit. He lifted the other hand to cup her jaw and slid the ball of his thumb beneath her eye. "Crying? Why? Who? Give me a name, love. I swear to God, he'll be dead by dawn."

At that, Frederica erupted into something which was not quite a laugh and not quite a sob. Killing Johnny — or at least maiming him — was just the sort of thing Rutledge might do, too, if she asked. But her tears were flooding forth now.

On a sharp sigh, Rutledge caught her hand and hauled her hard against him, sending her hat tumbling into the grass. "Oh, shush, Freddie, shush," he crooned, wrapping a strong arm about her waist. "Don't cry, love. Oh, don't cry. I'm sorry I teased you. I oughtn't have. Just don't cry."

His sympathy made it worse. Or better. She wasn't sure. But on the next awful sob, she threw her arms around his neck. Rutledge settled one big hand on her spine and began to ease it up and down. It was a strong, heavy hand, and Frederica needed someone's touch. It didn't much matter that it was Bentley Rutledge, the worst rogue in all of Christendom. One couldn't help but like him, and, for all his wicked ways, he always made her feel comfortable. He was never arrogant or formal or cold. He was just...Bentley.

He was patting her back now. "Shush, shush," he crooned.

"Oh, Bentley, I'm just so miserable!" she whimpered. And then Frederica allowed herself the rare luxury of burying her face against his lapel and sniveling pathetically. He smelled of horse, tobacco, and far too much brandy, yet his strength and his touch were inescapably masculine.

But she should be hugging Johnny.

The notion came out of nowhere, blindsiding her. Frederica drew breath again, and another sob shuddered through her. In response, Rutledge tucked her head firmly beneath his chin and drew her tight against his length. "What happened, Freddie?" he whispered, brushing his lips against her hair. "Did someone hurt you? Who? You can always tell old Bentley."

And in that instant, she knew that he was right. Bentley Rutledge was just the sort of gentleman one could confide in, because he'd doubtless seen every sort of wickedness life could offer up — and he knew how to keep his mouth shut, too. "It-it-it's Johnny Ellows," she sobbed. "He doesn't want to m-marry me after all."

She felt his hand stop, felt his fingers dig into her spine. "The deuce!" he softly cursed. "That two-faced dog! He's been hanging out after you since you put your braids up."

"I know!" wailed Frederica into Rutledge's coat. "But now his father says he has to m-m-marry his cousin!"

"Oh, his father says!" The derision rumbled in Rutledge's broad chest. "Well, his father is a pompous prig! Ellows doesn't deserve you. Not by half. Gus and I have always said so. And now we know he's gutless in the bargain."

Frederica sniffed again. "What do you mean?"

Rutledge tucked her a little closer. "Ah, Freddie, a man would be a fool not to put up a fight for you," he murmured, patting her lightly on the head now. "I would, were I in his shoes. But — well, I'm not. Wouldn't do at all, of course! All I'm trying to say is that if Johnny Ellows doesn't have the ballocks to — damn! Your pardon, Freddie, but if he doesn't have 'em, then you can do better. Much better."

But Frederica could only shake her head against the rough wool of Rutledge's coat. "But no one else has ever wanted me," she managed to whisper. "And no one ever will. I know! I spent a whole season in London, and not one gentleman proposed. It's because they think I'm not good enough. Not legitimate enough. So it just seemed easier to come home and m-marry Johnny after all. But even Johnny doesn't want me! And now I'm destined to just shrivel up and die an old maid."

She felt Rutledge's body go rigid. "Hush, Freddie." It was an unmistakable reprimand. "Your cousin Gus said you were the prettiest girl in London last season. Those town fops just heard you were already spoken for. Or maybe they were intimidated by your guardian, Lord Rannoch."

"Oh, it's not Elliot!" Frederica sobbed. "It's because of m-my mother. And — and, well, no one can be pretty enough to overcome that."

"Balderdash!" His voice was oddly choked. "You're beautiful enough to overcome any obstacle. Trust me on this, love, because I'm about as jaded as a man can get."

At that, Frederica lifted her face to his, and almost wished she hadn't. Rutledge was staring at her with a gaze that made her breath catch. His mouth was no longer smiling, and his deep brown eyes had gone curiously soft, just as they'd done on Boxing Day.

A long, strange moment held sway. Later, Frederica wasn't perfectly sure why she did it, but she lifted herself onto her tiptoes, pushing her breasts flat against Rutledge's chest. And, oddly, while she was doing it, Frederica was thinking of Johnny — or, rather, thinking of how she had wasted herself on him. She was almost nineteen years old, and she was ready to experience life — real life. Perhaps Rutledge was right. Perhaps Johnny did not deserve her. A mean-spirited little part of her wanted to make him sorry for what he had done and was wondering if she should just ask Bentley to break his legs after all. But most of her brain had already forgotten about Johnny and was thinking only of how Bentley's hands and mouth had felt on hers all those weeks ago.

"Bentley?" Her voice had gone all croaky somehow. "Do you remember last Christmas?"

He was very quiet for a moment. "Might do, Freddie. Why?"

"I mean, when you...you kissed me? On Boxing Day?"

He drew in a slow, deep breath. "Er, vaguely."

"Well, it felt nice," she confessed. "And I was wondering if you — if you might do it like that again?"

There was a long, heavy silence. "Not a good idea, Freddie," he finally answered.

His resistance was intriguing. "Why not? I thought...well, I thought you liked it just a little."

"Oh, I did."

"Then do it again. Please, Bentley?"

His resistance was short-lived. "Oh, hell, Freddie!" he choked. And then, with a soft sound deep in his throat, he bent his head and lowered his mouth to hers.

In the future, Bentley noted, be very, very careful where you take a piss.

It must have been his last clear thought before his lips brushed Freddie's. And somehow, despite a brain slightly clouded by brandy, he had the presence of mind to kiss her tenderly. Sensing her hurt and confusion, he settled his mouth over hers, spread his palm wide against the back of her head, and slid his lips gently over hers until they parted on a breathless gasp. Freddie kissed like an eager virgin, uncertain at every motion, but sweet. So sweet. And all he had to do, or so he told himself, was to make her feel desirable.

Which was precisely the bloody trouble. She was desirable. And wildly beautiful with her honey-warm skin and heavy black hair. He'd first noticed three or four years ago, and the thoughts which had begun to run wild through his head had made him feel like a lecherous dog. Which was why he'd found it prudent to treat her — and tease her — like a sister. Well, he bloody well wasn't kissing his sister now, was he?

Bentley knew he should stop, but, as with most of his sins, he simply didn't. Once begun, it just felt too good to quit. So he settled his other hand low against her back and urged her gently against him as he eased his tongue into her mouth. Freddie gasped, drawing cool air into his mouth and bringing home the reality that all of this really was new to her. But she was twining her arms about his neck now and pushing herself against him with an unmistakable feminine hunger — an invitation he had never in his life refused.

Then, to make matters worse, she began to return his strokes, slowly and sinuously sliding her tongue along his, pushing it into his mouth, and making incredibly seductive sounds in the back of her throat. He really wished she hadn't. He might have had a prayer, might by some miracle have dredged up the fortitude to tear his mouth from hers and go the hell upstairs. To his bed. Alone.

But self-discipline had never been Bentley's strong suit, and when she deepened the kiss, he tightened his grip in her hair and savagely tilted her face fully into his, exposing the curve of her throat. He kissed her there and across her high, beautiful brows, then down her cheek. Frederica gasped again, and, in return, Bentley explored her body with his hands, plundering her innocence with his mouth while stroking her waist, the length of her spine, and the generous swell of her bottom.

He kissed her and kissed her until his head swam with some sort of dark, seductive haze. Somehow, Freddie always had a way of making him ache for something. She made him crave — an emotion he'd damn near deadened with life's excesses. It had to be her innocence. The wanting of a woman whom no man had yet touched. But when he slid one hand beneath her perfect derrière and pressed her more fully against him, Frederica's breath ratcheted instantly upward, her delicate nostrils flared, and he realized, ever so fleetingly, that it just might be something worse. It had been a long time since he'd been able to keep his eyes off the chit.

God. Oh, God. He could not do this. Not to her. And not to Gus. Whatever Bentley's sins, he was a good and faithful friend.

Suddenly, to his great surprise, Frederica tore her mouth from his. "Bentley," she whispered. "Do you really think I'm beautiful? Desirable? Do you desire me?"

In the darkness, Bentley stared down at her. "Ah, Jesus, Freddie! If you were any more desirable, Rannoch might be meeting me at dawn."

Frederica licked her lips uncertainly. "Come with me," she whispered, the words tumbling out in a rush. "We cannot linger here. Someone might see."

Like a lamb to the slaughter — a bizarre simile if ever there was one — Bentley caught her hand and allowed himself to be dragged back down the steps and into the shadows of the next terrace. He was already hating himself when Freddie turned to face him, allowing a shaft of moonlight to slant across her perfect, slightly exotic features. It was her eyebrows, he suddenly decided. God, he'd always loved her eyebrows. Bentley felt his control slip another notch.

She was doing this, he tried to remind himself, because she'd been hurt. Young women were like that. He'd seen it — and steered clear of it — often enough. Older women, the kind he always sought out, were wise enough to know that there was always another lover just around the corner who could soothe the sting of wounded pride. Freddie, heaven help her, did not know that. And it was up to him to explain it.

She pressed her body against his again. Though his hands were trembling, he set them firmly on her shoulders and gave her a good, hard shake. "Sweetheart, don't," he warned. "Don't do this. Don't ever slip off into the dark with a man like me."

She looked at him, half innocent, half seductress.

"Don't you want me?"

"Desperately." Somehow he managed to give her a brotherly peck on the tip of her nose. "Madly. In the worst possible way. Now disappoint me, Freddie. Leave. Go up to bed. Alone."

Wordlessly, she reached up and curled her fingers about his. With an impish smile, she tugged him down onto a wrought-iron bench, then turned her face to his for a kiss. Bloody hell, the chit was a beauty. When he had been away from Chatham for a while, he could make himself forget how beautiful she was. And now she wanted him to kiss her.

"No," he whispered.

"Yes," she answered. "Now. Please."

So he obliged her. Damn him for a rogue and a scoundrel, but he did, crushing her mouth hard beneath his, as if the harshness of it might shock some sense into her. He did it roughly, crudely, forcing her head back even as he dragged her body against his. He shifted his weight, trapping her between the bench and his body, so there was no way she could miss the jutting weight of his cock. He kissed her and kissed her until the tenderness left, and only the visceral need remained. It ceased to be a game. The breath sawed in and out of his chest. He drove his tongue inside her mouth in what should have been an alarming parody. A clear sign of what he really wanted. What he ached for. And still, she did not falter.

Somehow he found the strength to rip his mouth from hers. "Freddie, stop!" His voice was deep, slightly strangled. "This is not a Christmas kiss. No more. We have to stop. Now."

She looked at him through heavy eyes. Eyes which looked suddenly sure, suddenly knowing. The little girl was gone. And with a slight choking sound, Bentley opened his mouth against the delicate flesh of her throat and let his lips slide down and down.

"Freddie." The name was torn from his chest. "Love, if you touch me again — if you so much as brush your lips over my face — I swear to you, I won't be able to stop myself from pushing you down into that patch of grass and f — " He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. "And...and doing something to your body that is really, really wrong."

She put her lips against his ear. "Bentley, I'm tired of being really, really good," she whispered. "Do you want me to die a dried-up old virgin?"

"Oh, dear God," he whispered. And for the first time in his life, the phrase was not a blasphemy.

It was Freddie who slid out of her coat first. His own soon followed and, with it, the last of his restraint. His desire for her was like a living, breathing thing, a thing he could not contain. Swiftly, before he could rethink it, Bentley coaxed her mouth open again and began to slip loose the buttons of her shirt. It was a task he'd done a thousand times, often in the dark, often drunk — drunker, that is, than he was now. And yet his hand shook, and it took longer than it should have done.

Freddie knew what Bentley was about the instant his fingers began to toy with the buttons of her shirt. I can't pretend, she told herself. I can't pretend I don't know. Or that this is somehow his fault.

She did know. And she did not care. She even had some vague notion of just what she was giving up. But Johnny had never kissed her the way Bentley Rutledge did. She doubted — oh, yes, she deeply doubted — that he even knew how. She doubted most men knew how.

Bentley was and always would be a rake. But he clearly wanted her, and Frederica was tired of saving herself for a marriage that would never be. She had desires, a feeling sometimes like white-hot fire in her blood, which she neither knew nor understood. It was a fire that Bentley, she somehow sensed, would understand.

"Freddie." Bentley choked out the word just as cool air breezed across her breasts. "Freddie, for God's sake, say something. Sweetie, I'm no good. Say no. Stop me."

But Frederica just bent her head and rubbed her cheek over the bristles of his day-old beard. It felt so rough and so good. And Bentley smelled the way a man was supposed to smell. Like smoke and soap and sweat all caught up together.

"Oh, bloody hell," he whispered. And then, with hands that shook, he shoved the cambric shirt off her shoulders and into the grass.

She could feel the heat of his breath on her breast. Then he opened his mouth over it and began to kiss it — suck it — through the thin lawn of her shift. Over and over, he drew the tip against his teeth, sending something slow and sweet spiraling through her body. And when Frederica thought she could bear the torment no longer, she arched and gave a soft, strained whimper. But Bentley made a low sound in his throat and turned his attention to the other breast, sucking until the fabric clung obscenely to her hardening nipples.

It was hot, and heady, and frightening. His hands were splayed firmly over her back, pressing her to him. She could smell his hair, the essence of him in the heat which escaped his clothing. It made her ache to touch him back and left her ashamed that she didn't know how. But she trembled when his hands skimmed down her waist to fist in the heavy wool of her skirt. Effortlessly, he dragged it halfway up her thighs and then, on a groan, all the way up. His mouth still on her breast, he eased one hand between her legs.

"Freddie." The word was a desperate plea. "Is this a yes? Sweetie, do you know what I'm asking? If you do, then say yes. Or no. Please."

Freddie slid her hands up his broad expanse of chest and lifted her eyes to his. His powerful muscles shuddered beneath her touch, a testament to his desire. "Yes," she said. The syllable was soft but certain.

"Good Lord, Freddie, this is suicide," he said, then tumbled with her into the stiff winter grass, taking the force of her weight on his chest. She sprawled over him, her thigh pressed against the hard, throbbing ridge which she'd noticed beneath the close of his trousers. She knew what that was. She'd been raised in the country. With three very male cousins. She splayed her hands across his chest and looked down at him through a wild tangle of hair.

With a touch that was gentle, he threaded his fingers through it and pushed it from her face. And then, after a moment's hesitation, he pulled her full against him and kissed her long and deep.

When he broke the kiss, Frederica found herself panting wildly. Gracefully, he rolled to one side and shifted his weight over her. In the heat of passion, boots, stockings, and drawers were stripped away. The chill night air breezed over much of her body. With his weight braced on powerful forearms, Bentley hung over her, his face cast in shadows.

His eyes. Oh, how she wished she could see his eyes again. Funny that she'd never noticed how warm they were. "Yes," she said again, and Bentley's hand went to his trouser buttons, swiftly jerking them free. In the darkness, she could see little and thought it might be for the best. She felt his hand slide between her thighs to touch her intimately. He gave a little groan of satisfaction and, with his knee, gently pushed her legs wide. "Ah, God, Freddie." The words were an anguished whisper. "I hope I can do this right."

And then, without another word, she felt the hard, hot weight of his erect shaft pressing against her body. It was then that she felt a moment of panic. As if he sensed it, Bentley dipped his head and brushed his lips across her ear. "If you say stop, love, I will. I can."

He sounded as if he were trying to convince himself. She shook her head and felt her hair scrub against the grass. "No, no," she said on a gasp, her hands clawing blindly out for him. "Take me. Give to me. Oh, Bentley, I don't care. I don't care what happens." And in that moment, she spoke the truth. She wanted the pleasure his body promised. Wanted it, and feared it, too. But she was so tired of waiting. The heat in her blood was throbbing through her now. The weight of him pinned her, forced her down against the unyielding earth as his legs pushed hers wider still.

He was going too fast. Bentley knew it when he heard another sharp intake of breath. Ruthlessly, he checked himself and shifted his weight to slide first one finger, then two, back and forth through her soft, curling hair. He ached with lust for her, this girl he knew better than to want. But he did want her. And now he was lost — almost lost — in her sweet virgin's body. With each stroke, he slid deeper into the hot, inviting heat until one fingertip was grazing her clitoris with every motion. Freddie began to pant, then to whimper, and the sound of it brought back the full import of what he was about to do.

This is it, old boy, he warned himself. Do it, and you are as good as married. Caught by your codlings. Snapped up tight in the parson's mousetrap.

Or maybe not.

Freddie's family was — well, just a little unconventional. And Freddie might not be fool enough to have him. Her cousins might prefer to simply kill him. Gus would surely try. Rannoch would likely succeed. But he had the most terrifying notion that just once with Freddie might be worth it. The sounds of night and the scent of fallen leaves washed over them, making him somehow more aware of the woman beneath him.

God, she was wet with desire, audibly so, and the thought gave him an incredible sense of power. He wanted her writhing beneath him, wanted to hear her soft, breathless voice against his ear. It would be different, he knew. Sweeter, somehow. And yet he was more than a little scared. Would it hurt? Would she cry? God, that he could not bear.

On the next stroke, he slid two fingers fully inside her, and Freddie gasped. With delicate precision, he drew out and slid in, deeper with every stroke, until he could touch the thin wall of flesh which nature had drawn taut inside her. And suddenly he wanted to rip through it with a ferocity he'd never known before. She was going to be his. The insane thought slammed into him like a brick wall. His. She had been touched by no man save himself, and the need to lay claim to her, to ram his body past that delicate barrier and take her for himself, raced through him like a lightning strike.

And he could wait no longer. Bracing himself above her shoulder with his hand, he took the weight of his cock in the other and gently probed her silken folds of flesh. To his shock, she rose to meet him, and she was so slick and wet he almost lost control.

"Easy, sweeting, go easy," he whispered. "Oooh, no, no, Freddie. Let me, love. Let me do it."

But there was, he knew, no avoiding the next step. Still, he resisted, trying almost unconsciously to draw back. With eager, innocent motions, her body kept rising with his, following him, her nails digging deep into the flesh of his shoulders. He pushed her hips hard against the grass, but when she arched again on a strangled moan, he slid half inside.

Her head thrashed, and she whispered something. Pleading? Begging? Oh, sweet heaven, she was so beautiful he thought he might die. And then, on a soft, jubilant cry, he thrust himself inside. He remembered little after that, which was devilish odd. He usually just watched himself have sex, distantly and dispassionately, not that that made any sense.

But this time, it was as if heat and light rushed through him, driving him into her. He tried, oh God, how he tried to hold back. He squeezed his eyes shut and dug his fingers into the grass, and then into the very earth itself. But he could not hold back the fierce desire which seemed to possess him.

He was drowning. Drowning in her perfect, virginal softness. Her tender flesh drew at him, sucking the very essence of life from his body. Over and over, he pushed and explored. He wanted — no, needed — to make it good for her. She possessed him, was him, and yet he was afraid he could not take her with him. It might have been seconds, or it might have been hours. And then, dimly, he heard Freddie's sweet cry of urgency. Felt her leg hook round his waist to drag her body against him. Her motions were awkward, artless, and beautiful. Oh, so beautiful. His arms — his entire body — shook now.

Freddie arched again with a choking whimper, then her mouth opened on a silent cry, the sound of perfect ecstasy. La petite mort. The little death. And then all hell broke loose inside his head. Never once did he think to slow down, to pull out. Instead, shudder after shudder wracked his body as he drove and pumped his hips into her, until at last, that exquisite light exploded in his brain, and his seed spurted forth, hot and ravenous, marking her as his.

Copyright © 2003 by S. T. Woodhouse

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