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May, 1817Hepworth Manor, Devon
'How dare you? Lord Thorne, I insist you release me at once!'
Lord Nathaniel Thorne, Earl of Osbourne, laughed huskily, his lips moving to the ebony-haired beauty's throat. She avoided his kiss by struggling in the confines of his arms, the squirming of those slender curves as she lay across him only succeeding in increasing Nathaniel's pleasure. 'You know you do not mean that, my dear Betsy '
'I most certainly do mean it!' She raised her head to glare down at him with eyes of an indignant and deep blue surrounded by long dark lashes, her dark curls smelling of lemon and jasmine.
Nathaniel smiled confidently. 'A kiss, Betsy, that is all I ask.'
Her mouth tightened determinedly. 'Very wellyou asked for this!'
Nathaniel drew in a swift hissing breath as the woman in his arms deliberately pushed against his chest in an attempt to wrench herself free, a painful reminder that he had broken several of his ribs only nine days previously, which had resulted in his being confined to this bed or another ever since.
A fact this little minx was well aware of!
'And you have been asking for this for days!' Nathaniel's arms tightened instead of releasing her as his teeth nibbled at one delicately scented earlobe.
Her struggles ceased, her expression one of blank bewilderment as she looked down at him. 'I have?'
Well perhaps he exaggerated the situation slightly. But after four days spent in London being confined to his bed and fussed over by his closest relativehis widowed and childless Aunt Gertrudefollowed by another four days of discomfort inside his coach as they'd travelled to his aunt's home on the rugged Devonshire coast, Nathaniel had felt in need of some feminine diversion.
Waking from an afternoon nap to find this delicious morsel tidying his bedchamber, also aware that no matter how painful his injuries were they had also allowed him to escape the tedium of a London Season and his aunt's intention of finding him a wife, Nathaniel had decided to reward himself for that lucky escape by indulging in a little sport with his aunt's young companion.
He grinned up at her unabashedly now. 'You have been fussing about my bedchamber, and latterly myself, for this past half an hour: tidying the room, straightening my bedclothes, plumping my pillows.'
During which time he had been gifted with a tempting view of the fullness of her breasts as she leant across him and a tantalising glimpse of the plump, rosy-hued nipples that tipped those delicious breasts!
'It was on your aunt's instruction that I sat with you this afternoon.' The ebony-haired beauty looked down the length of her little nose at him.
'And where is my dear aunt this afternoon?' he enquired.
'She felt rested enough from the journey here to be able to go out in the carriage to reacquaint herself with friends in the area You are deliberately changing the subject, my lord!' She glared her indignation at him once again.
'Am I?' Nathaniel drawled in amusement.
'Yes,' she maintained firmly. 'And I fail to see any encouragement on my part of thisthis attack upon my person, in the mundane actions you have just described.'
Which was not to say that Elizabeth had found those attentions completely disagreeable, if she was being totally honest with herself.
Her last kissin fact, her only kisshad been takenstolenfrom her several months ago by the local vicar's precocious fifteen-year-old son, who unfortunately had a propensity for sweetmeats, cakes, spots and an unbecoming plumpness.
It had only been that expression of lazy satisfaction upon Lord Nathaniel Thorne's handsome face, as he'd pulled her effortlessly into his arms, which had prevented Elizabeth from enjoying the sensation of allowing those sensually sculpturedand no doubt much more experiencedlips to possess her own.
The same satisfaction the earl displayed now as he looked down at the plump swell of her breasts made visible by the low neckline of her blue gown. 'A man can only stand so much temptation, my dear Betsy.'
Elizabeth gave an inner wince at Lord Thorne's continued use of the name bestowed upon her by Mrs Wilson almost two weeks ago, after that lady had declared 'Elizabeth' was far too refined a name for the young lady she intended to employ as a companion.
Nor did Elizabeth appreciate the way in which Lord Thorne continued to ogle her breasts; she had no doubts Mrs Wilson would dismiss 'Betsy' without a single reference if she were to enter the bedchamber and witness this damning scene! 'I am sure I offered you no such temptation, sir,' Elizabeth argued.
He eyed her with amusement. 'Then perhaps it was just wishful thinking on my part?'
'And no doubt I should have expected such behaviour from someone who is obviously so well acquainted with a man such as Lord Gabriel Faulkner!' she came back tartly.
The challenging insult had the desired effect of obtaining Elizabeth's sudden release as she felt his lordship's arms instantly fall back to his sides, which allowed her to struggle back onto her slippered feet. She pulled her crumpled gown into some semblance of order and tidied the disarray of her hair before venturing a glance at him once again.
The icy haughtiness of the earl's expression and the dangerous glitter in the narrowed brown eyes that looked up at her so coldly warned her instantly that she had said something heinous. She sighed inwardly. Despite his suddenly cold demeanour, Lord Nathaniel Thorne, Earl of Osbourne, had to be one of the handsomest men in Englandhe was certainly one of the most handsome males Elizabeth had ever set eyes upon. His fashionably styled hair was the colour of ripe corn, those brown eyes a rich mahogany. His face was stunningly masculine, with high cheekbones, a long aristocratic nose and sculpted lips above a square and determined jaw.
As the earl had spent the majority of the last nine days wearing very little other than a shirt, and occasionally pantaloons, for the comfort of his injuries, Elizabeth could also vouch for the fact that he had very wide shoulders, a muscled chest and stomach sprinkled with a fine dusting of golden hair, lean and powerful hips, and long masculine legs perfectly suited to those thigh-hugging pantaloons and the highly polished Hessians he had worn for their journey into Devonshire.
Until this moment, from the occasions she had witnessed him in conversation with his overly affectionate aunt, she would also have said he was in possession of a tolerably pleasant, if slightly haughty, nature to go along with those rakish good looks.
The dangerous glitter that now lit those dark, almost black, eyes showed another side of him completely. No doubt it was that same ruthlessness of nature that had stood the earl in such good stead during his five years of fighting as an officer in Wellington's army.
'You will explain that last remark, if you please.'
The even pleasantness of Lord Thorne's tone did nothing to soothe Elizabeth's feelings of uneasethe sort of unease one might feel, she imagined, as if the good-natured cat sleeping peacefully upon one's hearth suddenly turned feral!
Her chin rose. 'I noted Lord Faulkner's visit to you five days ago.'
'On the day of his return to England after an absence of eight years, yes.' The earl's manner remained frosty.
'Iwellhis scandalous past is well-known, surely, my lord?'
Elizabeth's throat moved convulsively at the dangerous edge she now heard beneath the mildness of the earl's tone. 'The servants were all agog following his visit to you and I couldn't help but overhear what they were saying about him, about the scandal that marred his past.'
'Indeed?' Those blond brows rose. 'And am I to take it you are the type of young lady who enjoys listening to such malicious gossip?'
Elizabeth felt her cheeks flush at this deliberate set-down. 'It can hardly be termed as malicious when it also happens to be the truth.'
Nathaniel's previous arousal had completely dissipated during the latter part of this conversation. 'How old would you have been eight years ago?' he asked.
'I do not see'
'I asked how old?' he demanded harshly.
She blinked. 'I believe I would have been but eleven years old, sir.'
Nathaniel nodded. 'And no doubt you resided in Cambridgeshire at that time?'
A perplexed frown marred her creamy brow. 'I have never resided in Cambridgeshire, my lord.'
'Then how can you, a mere child of eleven years, who did not even reside in Cambridgeshire at the time of this supposed scandal, possibly speak with any authority as to what is or is not true with regard to Lord Faulkner's past?' Nathaniel looked at her implacably as he sat up against the pillows she had recently plumped.
A delicate blush darkened her creamy cheeks, although that stubborn little chin remained high. 'It appears to be public knowledge that Lord Faulkner was once involved in the seduction of an innocent young girl.'
Nathaniel was well aware of the gossip that had circulated amongst the ton eight years ago with regard to Gabriel Faulkner, one of his two closest friends. He had not, however, been aware that very same gossip was once again in circulation upon Gabriel's return from the Continent to take up his duties as the new Earl of Westbourne. Duties which Gabriel had calmly stated would include making an offer of marriage to one or other of his wards, the three young Lady Copelands, who were the previous earl's daughters. Never having met any of the sisters, Gabriel had apparently not stated a preference as to which of them it should be.
Damn it, Nathaniel should have been in London to at least stand at his friend's side when Gabriel announced his presence back in society, and not languishing in Devon nursing broken ribs. Not that Nathaniel believed Gabriel would need, or indeed appreciate, anyone's support, tacit or otherwise; during his eight long years of exile Gabriel Faulkner had become one of the proudest and most arrogant men the English ton was ever likely to meet!
Still, if nothing else, he would have liked to have been present to see some of those well-bred faces when Gabriel took up his rightful place in society. Instead of which Nathaniel had left London for Devon almost immediately upon Gabriel's arrival back in town, his only means of entertainment being this outspoken young lady who was his aunt's companion.
'Indeed?' he drawled icily.
Elizabeth pursed her delectable mouth. 'You are aware of a different version of events, perhaps?'
Nathaniel's gaze swept over her contemptuously before he replied in a disdainful voice. 'If I am, then I assure you I am not inclined to share it with you.'
He meant to be insulting, and he had succeeded, causing the colour to drain from her cheeks as she felt herself suitably chastened for having seriously overstepped the bounds of her current role of companion.
For it was a role. And one which did not sit altogether comfortably upon the slender shoulders of a young woman who, until two and a half weeks ago, had enjoyed the title of Lady Elizabeth Copeland, the youngest daughter of the previous, and now deceased, Earl of Westbourne.
It was the very reason Elizabeth had taken such an interest in acquainting herself with the gossip concerning Lord Gabriel Faulkner, the man who had not only become the new Earl of Westbourne on the death of Elizabeth's own father almost seven months ago, but also guardian to Elizabeth and her two sisters.
All three of the Copeland sisters had been badly shaken by their father's sudden demise and equally alarmed on learning that, their two cousins having died at the Battle of Waterloo, the title of earl had now passed to a man who was a second or third cousin of their father's. That man was Gabriel Faulkner. A man none of the sisters had ever met. A man, moreover, who was rumoured to have behaved so disgracefully eight years ago that society had chosen to banish him, and his own family had disowned him.
Having lived all of their lives at their father's country estate, Diana, Caroline and Elizabeth had never been made privy to the details of that scandal and, despite having made discreet enquiries upon learning he was now their guardian, none of them had been able to ascertain the exact nature of that disgrace. The only information any of them had been able to garner on the man at the timeit had been left to the recent gossip below stairs at Mrs Wilson's home to fill in the exact nature of that scandalwas his banishment to the Continent eight years ago, and that he had been an officer in Wellington's army for five years, before residing in Venice these past two years.
Lord Faulkner, it seemed, had not been in any hurry to return to England and take up his duties as the Earl of Westbourne, or his guardianship of the Copeland sisters, none of them having so much as set eyes upon him when they had received a letter from that so-called gentleman some months after their father's death, in which he had made an offer of marriage to whichever of the three Copeland sisters would have him!