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Miss Elizabeth Ashton had completed her second Season, a circumstance affording her nothing so much as heartfelt relief, very much as a child might feel when released from the schoolroom on a lovely spring day. To say that she had derived no pleasure from those two sojourns would be an untruth. She was not so unnatural. As much as any female did she enjoy the heady delights of a London Season. What she could not like were the multitude of musts and must-nots dictated to young females by the canons of propriety, many of which she need not regard when at home.
Had it been her choice alone, she would as lief have gone straight home after closing their London house, so eager was she to be at Wyndham Park again. But it was not her choice, and she could not be so selfish as to begrudge her papa and Aunt Emily the high treat of attending this house party, an end-of-Season assemblage hosted by their good friends, Lord and Lady Langley. So she had, perforce, been obliged to tarry here, kicking her heels for the length of a sennight, and heartily bored by a houseful of guests, none of whom had the least thing in common with her. Yet her penance would soon be at an end: they traveled to Wyndham on the morrow.
She had retired quite early, sensibly planning on a long night of rest, but the excessive heat and her impatience to be gone had made sleep impossible. It was very late, and turning from the window to the rumpled, uninviting bed, she paused thoughtfully, then, nodding her head decisively, slipped into her dressing gown and stepped to the door. She turned the knob carefully, opened the door and waited, listening. Allwas perfectly quiet, as it had been for at least an hour. The rest of the house was fast asleep.
Leaving her room, she hurried along the corridor and down the stairs to the library, where she opened the French doors and slipped out onto the terrace. It felt much cooler here and, she thought, well worth this clandestine, nocturnal adventure. What would be her aunt's reaction, were she to discover this indiscretion, Elizabeth could well imagine: nothing less than horrified shock, she was sure, which was quite absurd, after all. What could possibly happen to her here, she wondered, on a private estate belonging to friends? She was as safe as if she were at home. Papa, she knew, would think it a great joke and enjoy a good laugh over it.
She had been picking her way along the white gravel path which led through the garden, and soon came to a small summer house set back some distance from the house. It was a place that had proved to be a welcome retreat more than once since her arrival at Langley Hall, and stepping up to it now, she peered into the open doorway. It was pitch-black inside, and suddenly feeling a tiny thrill of unease, she turned to retrace her footsteps. Before she was able to take her first step, however, her arm was seized in a viselike grip, and she was pulled unceremoniously into the summer house. Fear and shock rendered her speechless.
A husky male voice murmured, "I was beginning to think you would not come."
Stunned into immobility and muteness, she was crushed in a strong embrace, her mouth covered in a harsh, demanding kiss, and for the first time in her life, Elizabeth feared she might faint.
After what seemed an eternity, her unknown assailant lifted his head, but as she opened her mouth to protest, it was again captured by his. This time his kiss was gentler and more sensuous, but she fought wildly upon feeling his tongue enter her mouth through her parted lips. Her efforts were of short duration. As a strange warmth spread through her body, making her knees feel weak, she stopped struggling against him, and her arms slid up to his shoulders. She was vaguely conscious of wondering how something which should be repugnant to her could feel so pleasant. However, all thought ceased after that, and Elizabeth's body took on a will of its own, responding to sensation after exquisite sensation as his tongue made a leisurely exploration of the sensitive interior of her mouth, and his knowing hands slowly tantalized her body.
With his mouth still on hers, he lifted her in his arms, carried her across the room to the chaise and laid her down. She lay there languorously, wondering why he was no longer touching her, but gradually came to her senses. Good God! What was she about? Was she waiting for him to attack her again? She sat up abruptly and said, "Please, you mustn't do this. It's a terrible mistake!"
The same husky voice she had heard before replied, "My dear, spare me your play-acting. Coyness really does not become you, and we both know you are no innocent. You've teased me long enough. Now the time has come to make good on all your promises."
As he spoke, he gently pushed her back and slid down beside her, half covering her body with his own. She raised her hand to push him away, gasping as she touched his bare chest, but again his mouth found hers. At the same time, his hand cupped her breast, his thumb rubbing softly across its peak, and she moaned as another incredible wave of pleasure swept through her body. When his lips moved to her throat and trailed lower to her breast, she was lost.
Later he softly kissed her eyelids, her nose and her mouth, and lightly caressing her shoulder, he murmured, "Ah, dearest, forgive me. I thought you were ... someone else. Only tell me who you are and I'll make it up to you, I swear it!"
But Elizabeth, overwhelmed by what had happened, could only think of escape. Rolling away from him, she rose swiftly and ran from the summer house, straightening her nightclothes as she raced along the path to the house. When she had gained her room and locked the door, she began pacing from one side of the room to the other, trying to bring order to her chaotic thoughts and emotions.
How could such a thing have happened to her? How could she have enjoyed it so? With a blush of shame, she admitted that she had found pleasure in most of it. And in spite of the shame, the memory of those kisses, those caresses and all that had followed kept returning, unbidden, to cause a milder wave of that indescribable feeling to spread throughout her body.
Gradually she became calmer, and at last she sat on the edge of the bed asking herself what she must do. The answer came instantly: nothing. She must put this whole episode out of her mind as best she could, and go on as if nothing had occurred. No one must ever know of it and, after all, since she had no real wish to marry, it hardly mattered that, now, no man would want her for his wife.
Shortly after first light, having bade Lord and Lady Langley goodbye the evening before, Elizabeth, with her father and aunt, climbed into their carriage, and the coachman turned it towards home.
In the morning room of their house in Upper Camden Place, Aunt Emily and Elizabeth sat on opposite sides of the fireplace. The only sounds to be heard in the room were the crackling of the fire and an occasional exclamation from the elder of the two--a tiny, rounded birdlike woman--as she read the much crossed and recrossed letter in her lap. A smile played at the corners of Elizabeth's mouth upon hearing these small cries and utterances, but her remarkable grey eyes remained fixed upon her book.
Presently Aunt Emily looked up at her niece, her bright brown eyes alight with excitement, her letter fluttering in a little plump hand.
"Oh, my dear, you will never guess! Such diverting news!" she cried. "Lady Langley is coming to Bath!"
As always, the mention of Lady Langley's name produced a sudden fluttering sensation in Elizabeth's chest which she refused to acknowledge, and closing her book, she queried lightly, "Yes? And to what do we owe this treat?"
Her aunt smiled triumphantly. "Melanie is making her come-out!" This was said with an air of one making a momentous pronouncement. Then she frowned. "Though why Margaret should wish her to make her come-out in Bath is quite beyond me. It seems a very nip-faring way of doing the thing!"
"Melanie is Lady Langley's daughter, is she not? I expect she wishes the girl to try her wings here before making her London come-out. And I believe, my dear, that you mean to say nip-farthing."
"Yes, that's what I said. Well! It stands to reason that no one of any consequence would do anything so palfrey as to bring a girl out in Bath!"
"You mean paltry. Aunt. A palfrey is a horse," Elizabeth said automatically.
"What on earth has a horse to do with anything? Really, my love, you're not paying attention."
"I'm so sorry," her niece apologized in an unsteady voice. "When do they arrive?"
"Well, I'm not quite sure. Her letter is rather vagrant on that point."
Long familiarity with this small idiosyncrasy of her aunt's speech had rendered Elizabeth, for the most part, immune to it, but there were times when it became so pronounced that she could not resist quizzing Emily about it, and she said, "Is it erratic, my love? How very annoying!"
Her aunt stared at her. "Really, Elizabeth! Have you any idea how very difficult it is at times to have a conversation with you? I've spoken to you on that head before, my dear, and I wish you will pay attention, and keep to the subjective! There is nothing erotic about any of this!"
"Yes," replied her niece humbly. "I shall try to do better."
"Yes, well, as I was saying, it is not clear when they mean to arrive. However, they have taken a house in Laura Place, and there is nothing cheese-paving about that!"
"No, indeed!" agreed Elizabeth, controlling her countenance admirably.
"That is not to say, however, that they would not have done better to have taken a resonance here in Upper Camden Place."
"Oh, certainly! A resonance, er, residence here would have been much more the thing."
"However," her aunt declared, handsomely ignoring her slip, "that is neither here nor there!" She paused thoughtfully. "Where were we?"
"Lady Langley and Melanie are coming to Bath," supplied her niece.
"To be sure! They are coming for the winter, and I cannot help but think that it will do you a world of good, my love. To be seeing new faces and getting about more is just what you need. For you know, my dear, you have been entirely too redusive this past year, what with losing Sir Jonathan and Wyndham, too. But there! We shan't speak of those things."
For just an instant, pain showed in Elizabeth's eyes. "No, pray, let us not. Though it's true that Papa's death was not expected, I always knew of the entailment, and that Wyndham would pass to Cousin Bertram when he was gone. I'm quite reconciled to it, you know, and quite happy with our own little home here."
"Little home" was hardly an apt description of their elegant house in one of the most exclusive areas of Bath, but Emily allowed it to pass and with a faraway look in her eyes, she sighed. "It has been such a long time since I have seen Margaret. So odd how time seems to slip away from one, is it not?"
"Has it been so long?"
"Oh, yes. These six years and more. Do you know, the last time was at Langley Hall at the end of your last Season."
Elizabeth automatically threw up a mental barrier against any memories associated with Langley Hall and fixed her attention upon the direction she knew the conversation was taking. A frown marred her brow. "Aunt Emily, do not, pray, begin teasing upon that subject again!"
If Elizabeth's expression did not warn her aunt to hold her tongue, her tone of voice should have, but Emily foolishly ignored both and said earnestly, "My dearest, I know how you dislike my saying so--but, indeed, how will you ever achieve a respectable marriage if you will not go to London, or anywhere else for that matter? If you could but look with just a trifle more favour upon Lord Braxton ... but if you cannot..."
"I not only cannot look with favour upon him, it is all I can do to be civil to the man!"
"Yes, my dear, and I hope you know that I would never, never ... However, if we could but go to London for the Season..."
"Enough! Will you never learn? How many times must I tell you that I haven't the slightest wish to marry?"
"But, Elizabeth, you cannot know what you are saying! Every female must wish to wed! The life of a single female is not an ideal one--not that I am unhappy, I do assure you--but, indeed, it cannot compare with the protection and consequence offered by marriage!''
Elizabeth's eyes flashed dangerously. "No, let us not pick this bone again! It's been picked clean!" She opened her book, signaling her intention to end the conversation.
How she hated it when they got into such discussions. Why could her aunt not accept her decision to remain unmarried? And--oh Lord!--why must she be reminded of that one wretched event in her life? The talk of marriage, combined with Lady Langley's proposed visit, was making it very difficult to keep unwanted memories at bay.
Emily Godwin gazed at her niece and sighed. From the tip of her golden head to the bottom of her dainty feet the girl was an incomparable. A nonpareil she had been called, but of course, that had been more than six years ago. Six years in which she had buried herself in the country with no man's company but her father's, and now. here in Bath. Oh, it was so exasperating! And though one shouldn't think ill of the dead, Sir Jonathan had been a selfish care-for-nobody. He should have made a push to see Elizabeth married.
Still, it was not too late. She would defy anyone to deny that Elizabeth was as lovely, or even lovelier now, with maturity. If only she weren't so obstinate! It was beyond anything that the girl should behave as though she were past praying for. When she thought of the excellent matches Elizabeth had refused during her two Seasons, she could have wept with vexation! Then to have declined to go for another Season during the succeeding years was really too bad of her!
Miss Godwin sighed loudly again, and Elizabeth, calmer now, as well as feeling a trifle remorseful for having flown out at Emily, laid her book aside and gave her aunt a look of exasperated amusement.
"Come, Aunt Emily, let's cry peace. I'm sorry to have spoken so sharply to you. Do, pray, forgive me," she begged, and somewhat spoiled the effect of this pretty apology by adding, "but you know, you did provoke me!"
"But really, my dear, what else can you expect when you are determined to persist in this foolish notion of remaining a spinster? What will people say?"
"Good God! I care nothing for that!" said Elizabeth, laughing suddenly. "I suppose they will say that I am just another Bath Quiz. I may even become an eccentric recluse, and carry a cane with which I shall beat off all callers. Yes, and I shall wear nothing but black, and--"
"You would not!" cried her aunt in horrified accents.
"Well, perhaps not."
"You are pleased to joke about it, but it is not a laughing matter! And I know very well where to lay the blame! Your father was entirely at fault!"
"Nonsense! Papa had nothing to do with my decision not to marry."
"Indeed he did, and though you will not wish to hear it, I must say that had he not treated you more like a son than a daughter, you would not now be so shockingly independent!"
"What has that to say to anything? I promise you, it is not for that reason I wish to remain single."
"Then it is all those romances you have read that have done the mischief! They have given you the very odd notion that you cannot marry where you do not love. And, indeed, nothing could be further from the truth! I daresay if I put my mind to it, I might think of a dozen cases where love did not enter into the matter at all, and really, such couples manage to rub along together quite tolerably!"
"As happy as grigs, in fact, but be that as it may, I no longer look for love, and I do not intend to marry!"
"Oh, the devil! I do not wish to speak of this any longer!"
"I wish you would not use that language, my dear. Not that I blame you. Had your father not taught you to speak so--Yes!--and then laughed when you did--but, you should not--"
Miss Godwin was interrupted by Wiggons, their elderly butler, who entered the room to announce that Lord Braxton had arrived to pay them a morning call, and he enquired regally, "Are you at home to visitors, miss?"
Elizabeth's relief at this interruption of what was, to her a most distasteful discussion, was offset by irritation upon hearing Lord Braxton's name, but after a brief hesitation, she answered pleasantly enough, "Why, of course, Wiggons. You may show him up."
The man who entered the room a short time later was of stocky build and medium height. He was somewhere between thirty and forty years of age, with sandy-coloured, thinning hair, slightly protuberant eyes of a faded blue, and rather heavy features. He was dressed with propriety, but not modishly, for the points of his shirt collar rose no higher than his jaw line, his neckcloth, while neatly tied, was not remarkable, and his coat, though undoubtedly well made, fitted too loosely to be entirely fashionable.
Lord Braxton considered himself to be the region's greatest matrimonial catch, but never, until the advent of Elizabeth, had he met a female whom he thought worthy of becoming his wife.
He was obviously in no doubt of his welcome, and going immediately to Emily, he bowed over her hand and said, "Ah, Miss Godwin, you become prettier each time I see you. If I am not careful, I shall be losing you to another beau!"
Emily tittered bashfully. "Oh, my lord, do stop fanning me! You are such a rogue!"
"Now, dear lady, you must know that I was not funning you. It is always a delight to see you."
"And I you, my lord," she said coyly.
These pleasantries out of the way, he judged it permissible to turn to Elizabeth, and carrying her hand to his lips, he bestowed an unwelcome kiss upon it, saying fervently, "My dear Miss Ashton! I need not tell you, I feel sure, what happiness it gives me to see you."
Elizabeth forced a smile as she retrieved her hand. "How good of you to call, sir."
"Yes," he agreed, "but not having seen you for the length of a whole day, my dear, I could not stay away. You will allow me, I know, to tell you that you are more lovely each time I see you."
"Thank you," she said coolly, and to forestall any more of his fulsome compliments, she asked quickly, "How is your mother. Lord Braxton?"
Lady Braxton, who lived with her son, was a robust woman who thrived on infirmity, going from one alarming malady to another.
"I am very much afraid that she is not at all well," said Lord Braxton somberly, and he launched into a lengthy description of his mother's most recent sufferings.
Nothing could have been more delightfully interesting to Emily, and she spent some time discussing a variety of cures and remedies with his lordship.
With that topic finally exhausted, he entertained them with the newest on-dits from Town, and then favoured them with a detailed account of his latest improvements to his estate. Aunt Emily flattered and encouraged him throughout all this, while Elizabeth endured it stoically. By the end of the requisite half hour, when he stood to take his leave of them, she felt sure that had she been forced to listen for another moment to his prosing, she must have been provoked into screaming.
"I shall call again tomorrow," he promised them, "for I know you will wish to hear how my mother goes on."
"Oh, yes! We certainly shall!" Emily assured him. "You must call and tell us everything. Poor lady, how she does suffer!"
"Yes," he agreed, "and bears it so well."
Miss Godwin shook her head in wonderment. "It is truly amusing!"
Elizabeth choked. "Amazing, Aunt."
"Yes, I knew you would think so, too."
Lord Braxton now gave an arch smile and said, "I had almost forgot! Among my reasons for calling was a wish to learn if I shall have the pleasure of seeing you dear ladies at the concert this evening."
"How delightful that would be!" Emily cried enthusiastically.
"I am not at all sure that I feel up to going out this evening, Aunt. Let us discuss it later," Elizabeth said hastily.
"My dear Miss Ashton, I should be most distressed to hear that you are not feeling quite the thing," Lord Braxton told her. "I do hope your indisposition will not keep you from the concert. I shall look for you there and shall be quite disappointed if I do not see you."
At that moment, Wiggons appeared to announce the arrival of Mr. Charles Carlyle. The name was unfamiliar to Elizabeth, and she looked questioningly at her aunt. But before she could ask the question that hovered on her lips, their guest had entered the room.
Elizabeth turned, and her breath caught in her throat as she found herself gazing at the most handsome man she had ever beheld.