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Late July 1815
I want a hero. The words stared blackly off the page into her tired eyes. 'So do I, Lord Byron, so do I.' Bel sighed, pushed her tumbled brown hair back off her face and resumed her reading of the first stanza of Don Juan. She and the poet did not want heroes for the same reason, of course. The poet was despairing of finding a suitable hero for his tale; Belinda, Lady Felsham, simply yearned for romance.
No, that was not true either. Bel marked her place with one fingertip and stared into space, brooding. If she could not be honest in her own head, where could she be? Her yearnings were not simple, they were not pure and they certainly were not about knights errant or romance.
Bel rolled over on to her back on the white fur rug and tossed the book aside, narrowly missing one of the candelabra which sat on the hearth and lit her reading. It was well past two in the morning and the candles were beginning to gutter; in a few minutes she would have to get up and tend to them or go to bed and try to sleep.
She stretched out a bare foot, ruffling the silken flounces around the hem of her nightgown, and with her toes stroked the ears of the polar bear whose head snarled towards the door of her bedchamber. 'That's not what I want, Horace,' she informed him. 'I do not yearn for moonlight and soft music and lingering glances. I want a gorgeous, exciting man who will be thrilling in bed. I want a lover. A really good one.'
Horace, unshockable, did not respond, but then he never had, not to any of the confidences that had been poured into his battered and yellowing ears over the years. At the age of nine she had fallen in love with him, wheedledhim out of her godfather's study and moved him into her bedchamber. He had stayed with her ever since.
Her late husbandHenry, Viscount Felshamhad protested faintly at the presence of a vast and motheaten bearskin on his wife's chamber floor, but Bel, otherwise biddable and compliant with every stricture and requirement of her new husband, had stuck her heels in and Horace had stayed. Henry had always ostentatiously made a point of sighing heavily and walking around him whenever he made his twice-weekly visitation to her room. Perhaps he sensed that conversation with Horace was more exciting for his young wife than his bedroom attentions had proved.
Bel sat up, braced her arms behind her, and looked round the room with satisfaction. Her bedchamber was just right, even if she was occupying it alone without the lover of her dreams. In fact, she congratulated herself, somewhat smugly, the whole house was perfect. It was a little gem in Half Moon Street, recently acquired as part of her campaign to emerge from eighteen months of mourning and enjoy herself.
It was still a very masculine house, reflecting the tastes of its last owner. But that was not a problem; it simply gave her another project to work on, and one that was possible to achieve, unlike the acquisition of a suitable lover, which was, as she very well knew, complete fantasy.
Bel was still becoming used to the blissful freedom and independence of widowhood. She would never have wished poor Henry dead, of course not. But if some benevolent genie had swooped down on a magic carpet and removed him to a place where he could lecture the inhabitants at tedious length on their drains, their livestock or the minutiae of tithe law, she would have rejoiced.
Henry had had a knack of being stolidly at her side whenever she wished to be alone and of stating his minutely detailed and worthy opinions upon every subject under the sun. And she had itched to have control of her own money.
But no genie had come for poor Henry, just a ridiculous, apparently trivial, illness carrying him off in what, people unoriginally remarked, was his prime. Her toes were becoming cold. Best to get into bed and hope the soft mattress would help lull her to sleep.
There was a sound from outside the room. Bel tipped her head to one side, listening. Odd. Her butler and his wife, her housekeeper, slept in the basement. The footmen were quartered in the mews and her dresser and the housemaid had rooms on the topmost floor. It came again, a muted thump as though someone had stumbled on the stairs. Swallowing hard, Bel reached out for the poker as her bedchamber door swung open, banging back against the wall.
Framed in the open doorway stood a large figure: long legged, broad shouldered, and dressed, she saw with a shock, in the full glory of military scarlet. The flickering candlelight sparked off a considerable amount of frogging and silver braid, leaving the figure's features in shadow. There was a glint from under his brows, the flash of white teeth. Her fingertips scrabbled nervelessly for the poker and it rolled away from her into the cold hearth.
'Now you are what I call a perfect coming-home gift,' a deep, slurred, very male voice said happily. It resonated in some strange way at the base of her spine as though she was feeling it, not hearing it. 'I don't remember you from before, sweetheart. Still, don't remember a lot about tonight. Thank God,' he added piously.
The man advanced a little further into the room, close enough for his booted toes to be almost touching Horace's snarlingjaws. Bel scrabbled a little further back, but her nightgown tangled round her feet. Could she stand up? 'Who moved the bed?' he added indignantly.
He was drunk. It explained the slurred voice, it explained why he was unsteady on his feet and talking nonsense. It did not explain what he was doing in her bedroom.
'Go away,' Bel said clearly, despite her heart being somewhere in the region of her tonsils. Screaming was not going to help, no one would hear her and it might provoke him to sudden action.
'Don't be so unkind, sweet.' His smile was tinged with reproach at her rejection. 'It's not that late.' The landing clock struck three. 'See?' he observed, with a grandiloquent gesture that made him sway dangerously. 'The night is but young.' Despite the slurring, the voice was educated and confident. What she appeared to have in her bedchamber was a drunk English officer who could walk through locked doorsunless he was a ghost. But she could smell the brandy from where she was sprawled, and ghosts, surely, did not drink?
'Go away,' she repeated. Somehow standing up did not seem a good idea; she felt it might be like a rabbit starting to run right in front of a lurchercertain to provoke a reaction.
He appeared to be very good looking. Lit by the light of the two candelabra in the hearth his overlong blond hair, well-defined chin and mobile mouth were all the detail she could properly make out, but watching him she was conscious of something stirring deep inside, like the smallest flick of a cat's tail.
'No, don't want to do that. Not friendly, goin' away,' the man said decisively. 'We're goin' to be friendly. Got to get acquainted, ring for a bottle of wine, have a chat first.'
First? Before what, exactly? Suddenly getting up and risking provoking him seemed an attractive option after all. Bel glanced down, realising that not only was she wearing one of her newest and prettiest thin silk nightgowns, but that was all she was wearing. Her négligénot that it was much more decentwas thrown over the foot of the bed. She inched back as the man took a step forward.
And put one booted foot squarely into Horace's gaping mouth. 'Wha' the hell?' The momentum of his stride took him forward, his trapped foot held him back. In a welter of long limbs the intruder fell full length on the bearskin rug with Bel flattened neatly between yellowing fur and scarlet broadcloth. Her elbows gave way, her head came down with a thump on Horace's foolish stub of a tail.
'Ough!' He was big. Not fat, thoughthere was no comfortable belly to cushion the impact. She seemed to be trapped under six foot plus of solid male bone and muscle.
'There you are,' he said in a pleased voice, as though she had been hiding. His face was buried in her shoulder and the words rumbled against her skin as he began to nuzzle into it. His night beard rasped, sending shivers down her spine.
'Get off.' Bel wriggled her hands free and shoved up against his shoulders. It had rather less effect than if a wardrobe had fallen on her. At least a wardrobe would not have gone limp like this. There was absolutely nothing to lever on. 'Move, you great lummox!'
The only reply she got was a soft snore, just below her right ear. He had gone to sleep, or fallen into a drunken stupor more like, she decided grimly. This close the smell of brandy and wine was powerful.
Bel wriggled some more but he seemed to have settled over her like a heavily weighted blanket; there was nowhere to wriggle to. Under her there was Horace's fur, the thick felt backing, and, beneath that, the carpet. It all provided some padding, although rather less than her uninvited guest was enjoying. He appeared to be blissfully comfortable.
His knees dug in below her own. That was already becoming painful. With an effort she managed to move her legs apart so he was cradled between her thighs. 'There, that's better.' The answer was another snore, accompanied by a squirming movement of his hips as he readjusted himself to her change of position. At which point Bel realised rather clearly that this was not better. Not at all.
'Oh, my goodness,' she whispered in awe.
Bel had not been sure quite what to expect of marital relations from her mother's veiled hints during the little talk they had had just before her wedding day. She had expected it to be uncomfortable and embarrassing at first, and it was certainly all of that. But after the first three weeks of marriage, when the worst of the shyness wore off, she also realised that her marital duties, as well as being sticky and discomforting, were deadly boring. She tried to take an interest, for Henry would be highly affronted if she ever did nod off during his visits to her bed, but it was out of duty, not in the hope of any pleasure for herself.
It was not until the other young matrons with whom she began to mix forgot that she was a very new bride that she got her first inklings that she was missing out on something rather special. One day in particular stuck in her memory.
She had arrived early for Lady Gossington's soirée and found herself in the midst of a group of the very dashing ladies who always filled her with the conviction that she was naïve, gauche and ignorant. They settled round her like so many birds of paradise, fluttered their fans and prepared to subject every arrival to a minute scrutiny and a comprehensive dissection.
'My dears, look who's here,' Mrs Roper whispered. 'Lord Farringdon.'
'Now that,' one of her friends pronounced, 'is what I call a handsome man.' Bel had studied his lordship. He certainly fitted that description: tall, slim with a clean profile, attractive dark hair and a ready smile.
'And so well endowed,' Lady Lacey purred. In answer, there was a soft ripple of laughter, which had an edge to it Bel did not understand. She felt she was being left out of a secret. 'So I am led to believe,' Lady Lacey added slyly.
Normally Bel would have kept silent, but this time she forced herself to join in; money, at least, was something she understood. 'Is he really?' His clothes were exquisite, but that was not necessarily any indication. 'I did not realise, I thought the Farringdon fortune was lost by his father.'
Their hilarity at this question reduced her to blushing silence. She had obviously said something very foolish. But how to ask for clarification? Lady Lacey took pity on her, leaned across and whispered in her ear. Wide-eyed, Bel discovered in exactly what way the gentleman was well endowed and just how much this characteristic was appreciated by ladies. It left her speechless.
Now she was able to judge precisely what her friends had been referring to. Her uninvited guest was pressed against her in such a way that his male attributes were in perfect conjunction with the point where her tangle of soft brown curls made a dark shadow behind the light silk of her bed gown. And he was drunk and unconscious or asleep and yet he was still oh, my heavens large. That appeared to be the only word for it. Her previous experience offered no comparison at all. Henry, it was becoming apparent, had not been well endowed.
Bel stopped all attempts to wriggle; the frissons the movement produced inside her were just too disquieting. The stirring of sensation she had experienced on first seeing the intruder were as nothing to the warm glow that spread through her from the point where they were so tightly pressed together. It felt as though her insides were turning liquid, but in the most unsettling, interesting way. Her breasts, squashed by his chest with its magnificently frogged dress-uniform jacket, were aching with something that was not solely the result of silver buttons being pressed into flesh. An involuntary moan escaped her lips.
Oh, my Bel turned her head so she could scrutinise as much as possible of the stranger. There was not a lot she could see except the top of a tousled blond head and a magnificent pair of shoulders that made her want to flex her fingers on them. This must be sexual attraction! Or was it arousal? She was not very clear about the difference, or how one told. Whatever it was, it seemed alarmingly immodest of her to be feeling it for a man to whom she had not even been introduced. She wished Eva, her new sister-in-law, was in London to ask. But the newly weds were honeymooning in Italy.
Evaerstwhile Dowager Grand Duchess of Maubourg and now most romantically married to Bel's brother Sebas-tianvery obviously knew all about sexual attraction. Not only had she been married to one of the most notoriously adept lovers in Europe, she was now passionately attached to Sebastian. Bel had hardly been able to turn a corner in the castle in Maubourg when she had attended the wedding two weeks before, without finding the two of them locked in an embrace, or simply touching fingers, caressing faces, standing close.
There was no one else Bel could trust enough to discuss such things with; she was on her own with this new sensation. The man seemed nice enough, she brooded.