Newlywed Sarah Rose Hood should be blissfully happy. After all, she is married to her beloved, handsome James, who’s provided her with a lovely home, servants, and all the new dresses and books she could wish for. She cannot help but love him—and fear him, just a bit. For Sarah is unused to the attentions of gentlemen, and suddenly living so intimately with a man fills her with anxiety—and also a puzzling longing. Fortunately, her kind, experienced husband plans to awaken Sarah to the joy of giving—and receiving—pleasure, turning her unease to delicious desire, and forging a true union of body and soul…
Previously published in Lords of Desire.
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Lessons in Pleasure
By Victoria Dahl
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 Victoria Dahl
All rights reserved.
Sarah Rose Hood was in love with her husband. She was almost sure of it.
James was kind and handsome. Considerate and smart. He'd taken good care of her in the two months they'd been married, providing a home and servants and new dresses. She loved him. Surely.
And she feared him. Just a tiny bit.
"I'll be late, I'm afraid," he said, picking up his gloves from the parlor table. He smiled as he tugged them on. "Hanover will want to discuss the provisions of the new bill, and you know how he tends to go on."
Sarah nodded as if she did.
"You needn't wait up." His rich voice traveled in waves over her skin as he leaned down to brush a kiss against her cheek. "Good night, Sarah."
She had to hide a shiver at his touch. "Good night," she returned, still breathing in the strange spice of his soap.
Strange. That was the best word to describe her feelings of late. It was decidedly strange to live in such intimate proximity with a man. Strange to be so abruptly picked up from a life sheltered from the attentions of gentlemen and then simply plopped down into a marriage and everything that entailed.
Not that she hadn't wanted to marry James. She had craved it, but ...
When she heard the front door close, Sarah shook her head and rose to her feet to ring for dinner. The meal would be a solitary affair, as it always was on the nights James spent at his club. She didn't mind. James encouraged her to invite friends over to keep her company; he worried she was lonely. But these evenings alone gave her time to breathe, time free of worrying if she were behaving the way a wife ought to and filling her time with appropriate activities.
The meal of boiled beef and pudding ticked by in peaceful silence, and Sarah spent the rest of her evening curled in a chair in the cozy parlor, sipping wine as she soaked up the drama of the new novel she'd purchased that day. Reading was her greatest indulgence, and James encouraged her to spend as much as she pleased at her favorite bookshop. Another reason she was certain she must love him.
The new novel proved far too delicious, and the wine as well. When Sarah looked up from the story of high-seas adventure and frightening storms, she realized that it was after ten and past time to ready for bed. When she rose too quickly, her head swam with wooziness.
"Oh, my," she breathed, pressing her palm to her forehead. One glass of wine too many. Or two.
She wobbled a bit as she made her way carefully across the room and headed straight for the stairs. Thank God James hadn't come home early to find her drunk. And thank God he'd hired her a quick and capable lady's maid. Sarah felt a sudden urge to hug the girl when a few tugs freed Sarah from the tight embrace of her corset. The deep breath she drew sent sparks floating before her eyes.
"Oh, thank you, Mary!"
"You're welcome, ma'am," the maid responded, her Irish brogue soothing as a whisper.
Each unrestricted breath felt better than the last. An ache took over her ribs and then faded into a pleasant warmth. Sarah smiled at the wall. "Where did you work before you came to us, Mary?"
The girl's fingers froze for a bare second on Sarah's leg before she continued unfastening the stockings. Sarah immediately regretted the question. She did not speak to Mary about personal things. The wine had loosened her tongue.
"I worked for a Mrs. Albertson, ma'am. I was maid to her and her two daughters. They were sixteen and eighteen."
"Ah. I hope I am easier work then. Simpler, at least."
"Girls of that age can be difficult." But of course, she herself was only twenty. Another strange thought.
Most of her friends had held secret fantasies of marrying up. A gentleman of the ton, perhaps, who would sweep a girl into that sparkling swirl of society parties and elegant country retreats. But Sarah had never wanted that. She had wanted love and friendship. Comfort and compatibility. A man of her father's station in life.
When she'd met James, a young barrister who'd just acquired a seat in the commons, her heart had turned over and then beat so hard she'd wondered if he could see the pulse in her neck. He was tall and handsome, his dark hair a fascinating contrast to pale green eyes. And then he'd smiled.
Sarah pressed a hand to her chest as her heart jumped to life at the memory.
Blinking, she found that Mary was standing before her, holding a gown of delicate muslin. "Oh, so sorry." Sarah dutifully held her arms up and let Mary pull her chemise off over her head. Her body was exposed for a moment, pale and vulnerable. She closed her eyes until Mary pulled the sleeveless nightgown into place.
They were nearly done. She would sit in her chair for a few moments while Mary took down the hair she'd braided that morning. She would brush it out and then tidy up before lowering the lamps and leaving her mistress to herself.
Sarah felt the pins in her hair loosen. "Do you have family?" she blurted out, wanting to continue the conversation for reasons she could not fathom. There was that infinitesimal pause in the maid's hands again, but Sarah looked into the mirror and saw Mary nod. "Aye, ma'am. Two brothers, two sisters. A father. Me mum died when I was young."
"Oh. Mine also."
Mary nodded, subsiding into silence. Sarah could not fault her. She had valued the girl's silence all these weeks. It was not Mary's fault that Sarah felt so odd and restless tonight. The wine should have left her exhausted, but while she felt sleepy, her muscles were buzzing beneath her skin, her mind falling over itself with too many thoughts. But she let Mary be, and soon found herself tucked into bed and staring wide-eyed into the dark.
James would join her soon. They shared a bed, and that was, without a doubt, the very strangest part of being a married woman. She, who before marriage had never even seen a man's bare arms, slept in a man's bed every night. Felt his skin and his muscle against her. Breathed in the scent of his body. Eased him with her own.
Kicking her legs restlessly beneath the covers, Sarah flipped over and buried her face in the pillow. Sleep felt so far away, despite her weariness. And each minute that passed, a new thought of James spun through her mind.
Their wedding night. Lying alone in this very bed, awaiting him. His first careful touches. The strange texture of the hair on his body. The warmth of his mouth, his hands. The knowledge that he could do as he pleased.
Her absolute mortification.
But he'd been gentle and patient and kind, and she'd tried very hard not to be afraid.
She'd grown accustomed to the idea now, but it still did not feel natural. It still felt ... strange.
But not as strange as her body felt tonight.
Her mind could not rest. Anxious thoughts skittered through her head, frightening sleep away. She loved him, or wanted to, and the more fond she grew of him, the more worried she became.
She had a secret. A secret she should have revealed to James before they'd married, before she'd even accepted his suit. Now her lie of omission sat between them like a fence, and Sarah was on one side, pacing and alone.
All she wanted now was to throw herself over that fence and into his strong arms, but fear kept her feet glued to the ground.
Sighing, Sarah squeezed her eyes shut and tried to will herself to relax enough to sleep.
* * *
James Hood handed his coat and hat to the butler and rolled his weary shoulders. By God, he was tired. The hours he'd spent fighting for this damned agricultural measure over the past weeks had finally caught up with him. But it was done for now, and the next fight wouldn't start for ... oh, probably three or four days.
He headed straight for his library, then paused at the threshold. Normally, he'd spend another hour there, gathering his thoughts, taking notes, and writing letters. But tonight ... tonight his neck ached and his throat felt raw from too many days spent breathing in the cigar smoke of his colleagues. Tonight he wanted sleep.
Or ... perhaps not just sleep. His gaze shifted toward the dark oak of the wide stairway. His wife was upstairs. His sweet, shy wife. Sarah had likely retired hours ago, and he wasn't brutish enough to wake her just to sate his needs.
He'd always thought himself practical and decent. He'd known that when he took a wife he would honor and care for her. Still, he hadn't really expected that he'd spend whole days thinking of her.
There was something about Sarah. Something serene and soft that drew him close, though he never quite reached her. She was inscrutable. A mysterious feminine creature. Surely time would change that. Time to know her and let himself be known. Time to ease into the comfort of marriage.
A spark of recognition had struck him at their first meeting. And what a relief to find that the pretty girl with the peaceful smile was not only fair but also generous and keen-witted. Now that they were married, he loved to watch her read in the evenings in front of the fire. Loved to watch the emotions flit across her face as she sped through the pages.
Her soft brown hair seemed always to choose that moment to start escaping its knot, her brown eyes would sparkle with excitement, and James would watch her. He could not observe her enough during the day, when she would notice and blush and grow flustered. But when she read, she forgot his gaze.
Perhaps someday she would let him stare whenever he liked.
Smiling, James turned and took the stairs two at a time, though he slowed his step at the door to their chambers and slipped quietly into his dressing room. Once undressed, he started to reach for a nightshirt, but even in the nude the June air felt heavy tonight. Warm and humid.
No nightshirt. Sarah was too reserved to say a word even if she did notice, and it would only get hotter in July. He'd be damned if he'd sleep in a nightshirt during the hottest part of summer. She would get past it.
Decision made, he opened the door to the bedchamber and eased into bed as carefully as he could. The mattress absorbed him, the feathers easing his tired muscles even as they surrounded his skin with heat. Tossing off the covers, he spread out and closed his eyes, but a soft sound floated to his ears.
A sigh. Sarah shifted and sighed again as she settled into a new position.
Perhaps she wasn't asleep after all.
Feeling a cad, James reached slowly out until he touched bare flesh. Her arm, probably. He rolled toward her, rising up to his elbow to see her better.
Yes, her arm, pale and bare, curved back toward her body, her fingers twisted into the fabric of her gown. Shifting, she frowned, her fist tightening in the muslin.
"Sarah?" he breathed. She sighed again. A bad dream, perhaps.
Her skin was cream silk beneath his fingers when he stroked her arm to calm her. He stroked again.
"James?" Her eyes opened and found him.
"You were dreaming."
"Mm." Her eyelids drifted shut. "You look like the shadow of a giant."
"Do I?" Her skin enticed him still. He dragged the pad of his thumb farther, dipping into the crook of her elbow, feeling her pulse. When he moved higher, he felt chill bumps rise on her arm, but there wasn't even a hint of cold in the air. "You look like an angel."
Her soft laugh swirled through the room. "Do angels ever have too much wine after dinner?"
"Did you have too much wine, cheeky girl?"
"I did," she groaned. "But the room has finally ceased its spinning. I hope you are not horrified."
He smiled down at his tipsy wife. "Not horrified at all. But perhaps I should drag the chamber pot close?"
So he did, and watched her body relax and settle, her lips maintaining their soft smile. His hand continued its path to her shoulder. He dipped his fingers beneath the strap of her gown, spread them over her skin. So soft. His little finger ventured lower.
Time seemed to freeze for a moment as her body went still, but then her deep breath raised his hand, and he could no longer resist the temptation to lower his mouth to the bare curve of her shoulder.
Sarah did not respond at first. He felt a familiar guilt press his heart. He wanted her. He wanted her even when she held her breath and waited for him to be done with it. So he wasn't surprised when her muscles turned to stone beneath him.
But when he opened his mouth and touched his tongue to her flesh, Sarah sighed, her muscles relaxed, and James's heartbeat thundered.
* * *
His mouth was on her, heat and wetness. Nothing more than that quiet, simple kiss on her shoulder. But the warmth spread out from there when he drew slightly at her skin. He'd put his mouth to her flesh in the past, had even licked her breasts, her nipples. Somehow, the thought of that affected her more on this night than the actual sensations had before. She breathed and waited.
His hand slipped over her gown, as if he'd read her mind, and his palm cupped her breast as his tongue licked at her shoulder. The two feelings somehow tangled up and made her gasp.
Horrified, she shut her mouth and held her breath. She needn't have bothered. He seemed not to notice at all, just kept licking her skin in little whips of fire, kept his hot palm curved over her breast. His tongue trailed closer to the wide strap of her nightgown. Then he skipped over it entirely, and that wet heat was on her neck.
"Oh." That felt lovely. Lovely. So very wicked. Or perhaps the wickedness was his thumb moving like butterfly wings over her breast. Her nipple pushed up to meet the attention, and suddenly the butterfly wings disappeared under sizzling sparks.
Startled, she flung her hand out ... and found that sparks were not the only startling thing about the night. Her knuckles met up with something hot and hard and surrounded by crisp hair.
They both gasped, James perhaps a little more loudly.
She had never touched him there, had never ... "I'm sorry," she whispered in horror. "I didn't mean to. Did I hurt you?"
"No." But he sounded hurt. Sounded as if he were holding his breath. "Sarah?"
"Y-yes?" His hand tightened on her breast, his thumb and finger pinched her nipple, and brightness trailed through her body. When she recovered from that, she realized she arched up, pressing herself boldly into his grip, mewling a little. Whatever James had been about to say, he forgot it, and his mouth covered hers.
She'd never thought him a poor kisser, but these kinds of kisses had always seemed a bit ... sloppy. Too intimate. But tonight when his tongue slipped against hers, it was the exact right thing. Somehow appeasing and inflaming at once. Enough and not nearly enough.
Sarah turned toward him and kissed him back. That was the end of conscious thought for her. All further sensation tangled up in a great mess of mouths and hands and fingers. He caressed her breasts and stroked her belly, then pulled her nightgown up and off. Then his mouth was on one nipple and his hand on the other and the whole of his hard body pressed against her side. She could feel his shaft snug against her thigh, and his mouth sucking and his fingers exploring lower, until all she could think was, please, please, please.
He was so slow, so gentle, and by the time his fingers snuck into the dark curls between her thighs, Sarah was beside herself. Whimpering and writhing, wanting so much what she had hoped to avoid on other nights. She wanted to be had. Taken. Entered.
His hand stroked her, and Sarah had to hold her breath lest she scream. His fingers slipped easily against her, lubricated by her body, and he ceased to kiss her breasts and merely panted against her damp skin.
She clenched her eyes shut, horrified by the flagrant wetness of her sex, wishing he would simply get on with it and not notice. Her prayers were answered. James eased between her thighs and pressed his maleness to her. When he thrust in, Sarah gulped for air.
My God. My God, it felt so right. So necessary. How had she only thought this tolerable? Tonight when he sank deep, she wanted him deeper. When he stretched her flesh with his startling girth, she shuddered for more.
Lungs straining, she clasped her hands around his sweat-damp back and held him close until he rose to his arms and began to move. His hips thrust. In and out. Sarah had found the in rather uncomfortable before, but now it seemed the entire point. The in. Yes. The in.
Her fingernails dug into his back. James groaned and thrust harder. Her breath tripped out of her lungs as if forced by a bellows. She strained up, up, to meet him. To make the in more and better. And when she lifted her knees higher, it was.
Excerpted from Lessons in Pleasure by Victoria Dahl. Copyright © 2009 Victoria Dahl. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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