Cathy and Jon are nestled happily in the Carolinas until she is summoned home to England. There she discovers that her perfect marriage is a sham and her infamous rogue one step away from the gallows. Only by wedding her hated cousin, making Jon believe she has betrayed his love, can she save him. As fate threatens to part them forever, Jon risks his life to rescue the one prize he cannot live without: the woman whose inner fire both infuriates and beguiles him. Blending unforgettable characters with a searing saga of seduction and dangerous love, Karen Robards’s masterful romance will captivate listeners all over again.
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In the waning days of the summer of 1844, Lady Catherine Hale was more beautiful than she had ever been before in her life. Her shining red-gold hair, a thick mass of waist-length curls when she loosed it, was worn for coolness’ sake in a soft chignon. It formed a shimmering golden nimbus about her small face when caught by the rays of the hot South Carolina sun. Her face was hauntingly lovely, an almost perfect oval dominated by a pair of incredible sapphire eyes, dark silk fringed and slanting at the corners, which added a touch of the exotic to her golden beauty. For the rest, she had high cheekbones flushed a warm peach by the sun, a delicate, straight nose, full, rosy-red lips that her husband teased her about by saying they were made expressly for kissing, and a willful little chin that just hinted at her underlying strength of character.
She was a small girl, with fragile bones, but her body was as exquisite as her face. Her breasts were high and full and just the right size to fit into the palm of a man’s hand (this, too, she had from her husband). Her waist was narrow, her hips deliciously curved above legs that were slender but shapely.
On this particular day in August, Cathy had dressed rather casually because of the heat. But the very simplicity of her low-necked muslin afternoon dress, full-skirted with the tiny puffed sleeves that were all the rage, became her vastly, while its pale yellow color set off the porcelain smoothness of her complexion.
Only nineteen, she was more woman than girl. Her naturally sweet expression softened even more as she glanced out of the back parlor window just as the man who had made her so strode into view. Clearly Jon had just left the fields. A fond smile hovered on Cathy’s lips as she saw that her husband was filthy, his dark face sweat-streaked and his black hair urged by the afternoon’s humidity into the deep waves that were the bane of his existence. His buff-colored breeches and white shirt were coated with a fine layer of grit, as were the high leather boots he wore and the wide-brimmed hat he carried in one hand. Jon worked hard, overseeing the cultivation of Woodham’s vast cotton crop. Cathy knew that he did it solely for herself and their fifteen-month-old son, Cray. Secretly she guessed that Jon sometimes hankered after the wild, roving pirate life he had enjoyed before their marriage and Cray’s birth had prodded him into respectability. But good as he had been at pirating, as she had often told him, it could have only one end: a hangman’s noose. Jon had escaped it twice, and Cathy had no intention of allowing him to tempt the devil again.
Cathy’s smile widened as she saw, rounding the corner of the house, Cray in the arms of Martha, his plump, grandmotherly nurse. Martha had been Cathy’s nurse, too, almost from the moment of her birth. After Cathy’s mother, Lady Caroline Aldley, had died when Cathy was only seven, Martha had completely taken over the job of raising the girl. Cathy loved the woman dearly, and Martha in turn was fiercely protective of both her and Cray. After some initial distrust on both sides, Jon had also been allowed into the magic circle of her devotion. Martha would have willingly laid down her life for any of the three of them, Cathy knew. But of them all, Cathy suspected that Cray was closest to Martha’s heart, and she was glad.
“Daddy!” Cray shrieked happily upon seeing Jon. Cathy had to shake her head at the rather vulgar Americanism. Despite her own thorough Englishness, Cray was every inch an American, his father’s true son. He even looked like Jon! The child’s black curls, gray eyes, sturdy frame, and even occasional mulish expression were his father’s all over again. Cathy sometimes wondered how on earth she was going to deal with another obstinate male when Cray was grown, then shrugged her shoulders. Needs must, as Martha was fond of saying.
“Daddy, Daddy!” Cray was struggling imperiously in Martha’s arms. The woman obligingly set him on the ground. Jon hunkered down, laughing, opening his arms wide, as the little boy toddled across the smooth green lawn toward him. Reaching his goal at last, Cray gurgled with joy as he was caught and swung up high in his father’s strong arms. Cathy felt her heart turn over with love as she watched the two of them. They meant more to her than all the world, and she thanked God every day for the twist of fate which had given them to her.
Jon tossed Cray high in the air and caught him while the baby shrieked with glee. Cathy shook her head, smiling as she watched her tall, muscular husband tussle with his tiny son. Then she hurried out of the house and onto the back lawn before anything untoward could occur. Cray had just finished his supper, and when over-excited had a tendency to lose it in a most disconcerting fashion.
“All right, you two, that’s enough of your foolishness,” she reproved with mock sternness as she walked across the grass to join them. Jon grinned at her cheekily. Cray, watching his father, did likewise. Cathy had to laugh. They were as alike as two watermelons!
“Yes, ma’am,” Jon said meekly as he set his son down.
“Yes, ma’am,” Cray piped an echo, clutching Jon’s long leg for balance. Cathy laughed again, scooping the child up and giving him a quick hug. Cray cuddled into her neck while Jon’s arm slid around her waist, pulling her close as he planted a quick hard kiss on her soft lips. Cathy returned it lovingly, feeling the familiar quickening begin inside her. It never failed to amaze her how, after more than two years together and the birth of a son, Jon’s touch could still make her go weak at the knees. At first she had considered it shameful, thinking that a lady of her breeding, daughter of an earl and descendant of one of England’s most illustrious families, should find a man’s physical attentions coolly distasteful at best. “Close your eyes and think of England,” was the way most ladies of her class described their approach to the marital act. For a long time Cathy had wondered a little fearfully at her own very different response, but repetition had accustomed her to it. Besides, she knew that Jon found her ardor in bed extremely exciting, and exciting Jon had very definite rewards.
“Hungry?” she asked her husband prosaically, to cover thoughts that were rapidly beginning to get out of hand.
“Starving,” Jon replied with a devilish gleam, then leaned closer to murmur in her ear, “for you.”
Cathy blushed, shooting him a laughing, reproving glance. Martha watched this little piece of by-play indulgently. For all Master Jon’s wild ways, he made Miss Cathy happy, and that, in Martha’s opinion, was the important thing.
“It’s time the young master here was abed,” Martha told Cathy stolidly, reaching out her hands for Cray.
“Don’t want to go to bed!” Cray announced mutinously, then looked surprised as his small pink mouth opened wide in an involuntary yawn. Cathy chuckled, passing him over to Martha.
“You’re tired, precious,” she said, bending close to kiss his plump baby cheek. When he still looked unhappy, Jon leaned over to whisper something in his son’s ear that made the child chortle with glee. To Cathy’s amazement, there were no more protests as Martha bore him off, Cray’s arms clutched contentedly around the woman’s neck.
“What on earth did you say to him?” she demanded of her husband bemusedly as she watched Martha carrying the still beaming child away.
“Man talk,” Jon answered with an aggravating grin. Cathy could only shake her head as Martha disappeared with Cray onto the long verandah that ran along the back of the pillared brick plantation house.
“Alone at last!” Jon breathed, his eyes teasing. Before Cathy could guess what he was about he snatched her off her feet and swung her around in a wide circle, then proceeded to kiss her with a thoroughness that left her breathless.
“Jon!” Cathy protested laughingly when she could again speak. “The servants!” She looked meaningfully toward the half-dozen or so opened windows which looked out onto the back lawn.
Jon’s answering grin was wolfish.
“What do you mean, you shameless hussy, keeping me from my supper by your wiles?” he roared, his eyes dancing with amusement as they took in Cathy’s discomfiture. When she would have opened her mouth to remonstrate with him, he whirled her about so that she was pointing in the direction of the house, administering a sharp slap to her rounded posterior. Cathy jumped, giggled helplessly, then allowed herself to be propelled toward the house by the hard arm that curved close around her slim waist.
They strolled for a moment in silence. Cathy breathed in deeply, loving the smell of the waxy white blossoms of the magnolia trees that stood sentinel by the back door. Pressed close against her side she could feel the sweat-dampness of Jon’s shirt, and beneath it the work-hardened muscularity of his ribcage.
“You work too hard,” she remarked seriously, stretching up on tiptoe to press a soft kiss to his sandpaper cheek. His arm tightened around her waist at the loving little gesture.
“So reward me,” he advised her, looking down with a smile at the lovely little face turned up so earnestly to his. At what he saw there one eyebrow quirked upward and he chuckled.
“You’ve got dirt on your nose,” he said, flicking it with his forefinger. Cathy wrinkled the maligned member, her eyes crossing as she tried to see the offending streak for herself.
“It’s no wonder. You’re filthy. What have you been doing, wallowing in the dirt?”
“Just about. The ground is so dry from this drought that we kick up clouds of dust just walking through the fields. If we don’t get some rain soon the cotton will be burnt to a crisp.”
His tone was unusually serious. Cathy looked up at him, her expression troubled. She knew that making Woodham, inherited two years ago in deplorable condition from his estranged father, a paying proposition again was vitally important to Jon. Although she was a wealthy woman in her own right, Jon obstinately refused to touch a penny of her money, insisting on supporting her and Cray and the plantation on what capital remained from his years as a pirate captain and on what the plantation itself could produce. He had never said so, but Cathy was aware that Jon was determined that she, used to every luxury before her marriage, should not have any the less because of it. It was useless to try to persuade him that expensive dresses and jewelry and furnishings meant less than nothing to her compared with him or Cray. His fierce pride refused to let him believe her. His hardheadedness exasperated Cathy mightily. Still, she was deeply proud of him for his never-ending struggle to bring Woodham back to life again.
At Cathy’s extended silence, Jon glanced down at her, his brow wrinkled inquiringly. Noting her concerned expression, he mentally damned himself for worrying her, and promptly attempted to distract her attention by giving her luscious bottom a playful pinch.
“Forget about the drought,” he advised as she squealed protestingly. “Woodham has survived worse, believe me. We’re not quite at the point where you’ll have to do without all your pretty gew-gaws. However, it would help if you could eat a bit less. . . .”
Cathy chuckled at his banter, and proceeded to repay his impertinence by digging him in the ribs with her sharp little elbow. He grunted as she made painful contact, then grabbed for her, intent on administering suitable punishment. She twisted away adroitly, giggling as she picked up her skirts and sprinted for the house. Jon followed close on her heels.
“You’ll pay for that, minx,” he threatened, coming up behind her as she dodged through the back door and scampered for the parlor. She shrieked as his warm breath on the back of her neck warned her of his closeness. But it was too late. His strong arms were around her, snatching her high against his chest.
“Mercy! Have mercy, oh captain pirate!” she gurgled between helpless peals of laughter as he growled with mock ferocity and bore her off toward the stairs.
“Never!” he hissed evilly, starting up the wide, curving staircase with Cathy still imprisoned securely in his arms. She struggled in mock fright, squirming and kicking up her legs in a froth of white petticoats. Happening to glance back down into the hall, her movements stilled abruptly. Petersham, Jon’s wiry little valet and the household’s mainstay, was looking up at them with amused resignation.
“Shall I tell Cook to put dinner back, Master Jon?” he asked in an extremely dry voice.
“Yes!” Jon tossed the word at his old friend with a twinkle, already halfway up the stairs with his now-quiet burden.
“No!” Cathy countermanded quickly. “Petersham, don’t you dare! Jon, we’re having guests, don’t you remember?”
Then, in a muttered aside to Jon, she added, “For heaven’s sake, put me down! What on earth must Petersham be thinking?”
Jon grinned. “I’m sure Petersham’s thinking is right on the money, as usual,” he replied, not even bothering to lower his voice, and continued on up the stairs without making any kind of move to suggest that he would comply with Cathy’s demand.
Cathy, looking back down into the hall with pinkened cheeks, saw that Petersham had permitted himself an answering grin. With an indignant snort she glared at him. Really, these males! When it came to dealings with the fairer sex, they stuck together as if glued!
“Uh—the guests are scheduled for half past eight, if I remember correctly, and it is now gone seven,” Petersham called after them, wiping the offending grin from his face as he encountered Cathy’s darkling look. “Shall I have water for a bath sent up, Master Jon?”
“Later, Petersham, much later,” Jon answered shamelessly, gaining the upper landing and striding off down the hall with his crimsoning prisoner.
“Now, Petersham,” Cathy wailed over Jon’s shoulder, already resigning herself to the inevitability of being disobeyed.
To her surprise, she wasn’t. Jon had no sooner shouldered his way into their bedroom and snatched a lusty kiss than there was a discreet tap on the door.
“Who the hell . . . ?” Jon muttered belligerently, eyeing the offending portal with smoldering eyes. The tap sounded again, and he very reluctantly set Cathy on her feet, striding across to the door and flinging it open.
“Yes?” Jon snapped. The unaccustomed shortness of his tone nearly caused Tyler, the young black houseboy who stood there, to drop the steaming buckets he held in either hand. As it was, the sight of his tall, awe-inspiring master, clearly displeased at being disturbed, glowering down at him, made Tyler gulp, and take a hasty step backward. He was brought up short as he stumbled into Micah, the other houseboy who stood, similarly laden, behind him. Petersham, standing behind them both, clucked disapprovingly as the water in all four buckets sloshed alarmingly. Jon’s eyes fastened themselves on Petersham.
“Sorry, Master Jon, but you did look dirty,” Petersham explained hastily, shooing the boys into the room before Master Jon could explode, as he looked on the verge of doing. Jon looked his valet over slowly as the boys proceeded to fill the dainty porcelain tub that stood, discreetly shielded by a silk-upholstered screen, in one corner of the room.
“This isn’t the first time my wife has incited you to mutiny, old friend. I’m getting rather tired of it.” Jon sounded menacing. Cathy hastily muffled a smile. It was still something of a sore point with him that his pirate crew, of whom Petersham had been one, had been won over to a man by Cathy in the days before she had become their captain’s wife. Before her arrival on board his ship, Jon had been accustomed to his crew’s unquestioning loyalty and total obedience. He still felt slightly disgruntled when he remembered how easily his men had been converted to her cause.
“Sorry, Master Jon,” Petersham said again, looking properly abashed. Then, as the houseboys, having completed their task, scuttled from the room, he added, “I’ll send Martha along in a quarter-hour to help you dress, Miss Cathy, if that suits you.”
“Thank you, Petersham,” Cathy approved before Jon could say anything. Petersham, recognizing from long experience storm signals in his master’s stiff stance, hurriedly took himself off. Jon glowered at the closed door.
“That old reprobate will go too far one day,” he prophesied darkly, then grimaced with reluctant humor as Cathy, no longer able to control her amusement, laughed.
“Petersham’s right. You’re filthy,” Cathy told him firmly as he made as if to reach for her again. “And I have to get dressed. There’ll be plenty of time later for—for—that.”
“Oh, that, is it?” Jon grinned, ignoring her attempts to elude him and catching her around the waist. “And what makes you think I want that?”
Cathy looked up at him through her lashes, a roguish dimple appearing briefly in one cheek.
“The signs are unmistakable, my love,” she said demurely, twisting away from him with a supple movement. “But you’ll just have to wait.”
“And if I choose not to?” he challenged, but Cathy only laughed as she whisked away into the adjoining dressing-room.
When she came back, a sky-blue silk dinner dress that was part of the new summer wardrobe Jon had insisted on having made for her hanging over her arm, he was already ensconced in the tub. Cathy eyed him with idle interest, taking in the broad bare shoulders and dark-furred chest, the steel muscled arms tanned to a teak brown by days of laboring shirtless under the broiling sun. His knees were drawn up almost to his chest to enable his big body to fit into the small tub. Water glistened on his hair and skin and lapped modestly around his waist, hiding that most essential part of him from her view. He looked slightly ridiculous and wholly adorable. Cathy smiled tenderly at him.
“Wash my back,” he invited throatily, looking up in time to catch her eyes on him. Cathy considered, then shook her head.
“I fear for my virtue, sir,” she teased.
“Coward,” he grunted disappointedly, and, surrendering to the inevitable, proceeded to soap his arms and chest. Cathy watched him for a moment, weakening. At age thirty-six he was still the handsomest man she had ever seen, taller by far than average and corded with muscle, his black hair curling wetly around his head. His gray eyes were veiled at the moment by long silky eyelashes, the only feminine touch in an otherwise totally masculine face. Just the sight of that long mouth with its twisting smile was enough to make her heart beat faster. Jon looked up again then, and correctly interpreted the look in her eyes. He smiled broadly as he leaned back in the tub.
“Come here, sweetheart,” he directed softly. Cathy flushed, and looked hurriedly away.
“Don’t be silly. We’re having guests to dinner in less than an hour.” She busied herself by laying her dress out on the bed.
“An hour’s plenty of time for what I have in mind. In fact, the way I feel right now, it won’t take a quarter of that.” Jon grinned wickedly at her hot cheeks.
“I have to get dressed,” Cathy told him, but even to herself her voice lacked conviction.
“Not just yet.” Jon drawled the words as he stood up. Water streamed down his body, flattening the fine black pelt which covered him, parting at his swollen manhood to flow down his long legs.
Cathy’s eyes widened to saucers and she backed as he stepped out of the tub onto the highly polished wooden floor. Water formed big pools at his feet as he moved toward her.
“Jon, no!” she protested weakly, still backing around the foot of the bed. “We’re having people to dinner! We don’t have time! I don’t want. . . .”
“Liar,” he chided softly, his hands shooting out to capture her soft upper arms. “You do want, and I want, and, since you’re my wife, I mean to take advantage of the fact. So shut your mouth, woman, and kiss me.”
Cathy was pulled hard against his soaking chest, feeling the wetness and heat of it penetrate her thin gown, and looked up into his face with a mixture of amusement, irritation, and love.
“You’re impossible,” she accused severely, her hands coming up to rest on the wide expanse of his shoulders. A small girl, she didn’t come much higher than that, and she had to tilt her head way hack to see into his face. The blazing desire in his gray eyes fanned an answering spark in her. Cathy could make no further protest as he bent his head toward her.
“So I’ve been told,” he murmured as their lips met, and then neither of them could speak for a very long while. His kiss was deep and gentle, reminding her of past, shared pleasures and hinting of even more wondrous enjoyment to come. Cathy returned it freely, her inhibitions lost in the wave of longing she felt for him. Seductively she pressed her curved shape against his larger, naked one, quivering as she felt the unmistakable proof of his passion prodding her belly. Eyes closed, oblivious to everything except the pleasure he was giving her and that she wanted to return, her hands stroked down his bare back, molding the strong spine, running teasingly over the hard curve of his buttocks. They tensed beneath her caress, his breathing quickening noticeably. He raised his lips a little away from hers. Cathy opened her eyes to find him looking down at her with a hot intensity that made her heartbeat quicken threefold.
“You’re beautiful,” he told her thickly. Cathy smiled.
“So are you,” she answered with shameless honesty. Jon groaned a laugh before covering her lips with his once again. Cathy felt the tremor in his arms as he swung her up in them and deposited her in the middle of their big bed, following her down. His mouth took hers hungrily, seeking, exploring, while his hands ran over her body, palms flat as they found each soft, feminine curve beneath her dress. His mouth left hers to trail across her cheek, nibble on her ear, then slide down the quivering cord of her neck to feast on the rounded swell of her bosom just visible above the neckline of her dress. Cathy’s arms were locked around his neck and she pressed small, teasing kisses along the salt-tanged line of his shoulder as his arms went around her, his fingers busy as they tried to undo the numerous hooks that fastened the dress up the back. He succeeded with several without too much difficulty, but one halfway down seemed to defeat him. Silently he struggled with it until Cathy, finally becoming aware of his difficulty and his frustrated passion, giggled. Jon raised himself a little away from her, looking down into her face with something that was not quite a smile in his eyes.
“Laugh at me, will you, minx?” he growled “Well, I’ll soon teach you better manners!”
With that he reached down with mock violence to grasp the hem of her dress and jerk it up around her waist. Then his fingers moved to the drawstring of her lace-trimmed pantalets, untying it and tugging them down.
“Jon, no!” Cathy protested, feeling duty-bound to do so. The way he was planning to take her was not proper, she knew. According to the tenets of the time, married people were supposed to make love with as much dignity as the act allowed, not couple in broad daylight with the woman still half dressed, like a wench being tumbled in a haystack!
“Cathy, yes,” he answered mockingly as he dragged her pantalets off, leaving her naked from the waist down except for the hem of her chemise and her silk stockings, held around her slim thighs by lacy blue garters. A froth of yellow skirts and white petticoats nearly covered the upper portion of her body. Cathy gasped, wriggling, as Jon’s hand slid to the blonde triangle of hair between her legs. Then, as he wouldn’t let her go, his fingers caressing her, she quivered and went still.
“Still no?” he murmured teasingly after a while, watching her flushed face with pleasure. Cathy felt her color deepen, aware of his eyes on her but unable to control the instinctive movement of her hips.
“I love you,” she told him softly, her eyes flickering open to meet his. Jon’s face changed, his eyes darkening passionately. At his expression Cathy felt a sudden fierce tightening in her belly.
Jon lowered his head to take her mouth in a devouring kiss, his tongue and lips telling her what he still found hard to put into words. Cathy clung to him unashamedly, her body writhing beneath his, eager for his possession. He groaned at the feel of her soft, undulating flesh, covering her body with his, his muscled thighs pressing her legs apart. Cathy opened them willingly, her nails raking lightly across his sweat-
dampened back, returning his kisses with a passion equal to his. With a single hard thrust he took her. The exquisite sensation left them both gasping. Jon began to move, rapidly at first and then more slowly, pausing, teasing, until Cathy strained against him frantically, her eyes closed, her lips parted as she panted for air.
“Jon, Jon, Jon,” she moaned his name over and over, unaware that she was doing so, her hands making beseeching little movements against his back as she urged him to finish. Finally, when she thought she couldn’t stand it any longer, he withdrew almost all the way. Cathy squirmed against him, her eyes opening in protest. He was watching her, his eyes burning as they took in her desire.
“Want me?” he demanded huskily, his breath rasping hoarsely in his throat.
“Yes, oh, yes!” Cathy gasped, mindless with longing, her hands clutching his broad back, her body moving wantonly against his. With a strangled groan he thrust deep inside her. Cathy cried out, clasping him to her, while his arms tightened around her body like a clamp. She felt him shuddering inside her and gave herself up to ecstasy.
It was some little time later before Cathy became fully aware again. Her heart had slowly resumed its normal rhythm, and her breathing was once again regular. Jon still lay sprawled across her, his big body almost crushing her smaller one. His head was beside hers on the pillow. She turned to look at him, one finger coming up to lovingly trace his hard features. At her touch he opened his eyes, his own warming as they moved over her face.
“Wife,” he said on a note of intense satisfaction, and kissed the slender finger she pressed to his lips.
Cathy smiled at him, opening her mouth to tease him about his reluctance to say the three simple words she wanted to hear. On the rare occasions when he did bring himself to the point of telling her how much he loved her, he was almost sheepish, embarrassed at having to admit to such a thing. Jon belonged to the world of tough, ruggedly masculine men; to confess to feeling an emotion as soft as love was difficult for him. But he had proved his love over and over again with deeds, and Cathy was content.
“Don’t. . . .” she began, meaning to add teasingly, “you have something to tell me,” when a sharp rap sounded on the door. Cathy started, for all the world like someone caught out in a misdemeanor. Jon grinned at her.
“Don’t worry, love, what we just did is perfectly proper.” He mocked her discomposure in an undertone, dropping a hard kiss on her mouth before levering himself off the bed. “We’re married, remember?”
“Oh, hush,” Cathy told him, blushing as his eyes kindled again as they touched on the wanton display she made, skirts raised around her waist, naked limbs sprawled across the flowered silk bedspread.
The knock sounded again, even more peremptorily. Cathy slid off the bed, hastily straightening her skirts and raising her hands to brush ineffectively at her hair, which was tumbling in a golden riot from its pins. Jon watched her efforts, still as naked as the day he was born, hands resting lightly on his hips while a faint smile curved his mouth.
“You look as if you just got out of bed,” he observed, tongue-in-cheek. Cathy glared at him.
“Miss Cathy?” The voice on the other side of the door was Martha’s, as Cathy had known it would be. “Miss Cathy, it’s almost eight o’clock, and your guests will be arriving soon. Shall I help you dress?”
Jon chuckled softly as Cathy went, still struggling uselessly with her hair, to open the door. Before she reached it he padded away into the dressing room. As she let Martha into the room she heard him bellow loudly for Petersham.
Martha’s eyes were twinkling as they touched on Cathy’s flushed face and obvious deshabille before moving knowingly to the half-empty bath, the puddles standing on the floor, and the rumpled state of the bed. But for once the woman chose to remain tactfully silent. She walked over to the bed without casting more than a single look in Cathy’s direction, straightened the covers, picked up Cathy’s discarded pantalets and put them in the basket reserved for soiled clothing, then with an arrested expression moved down to the foot of the bed. Cathy watched, puzzled, as Martha worked to free something from the space between the mattress and the footboard.
“My dress!” she gasped, horror-stricken, as she recognized the crumpled folds of material that Martha was shaking out.
“You won’t be wearing this one, I fancy. And just as well, if it’s one of them indecent ones that you just had made up.”
“They’re not indecent!” Cathy defended hotly for what must have been the hundredth time. “The low-cut bodice is the latest fashion! And you needn’t look so smug, Martha. I’ll just wear another of my new ones, and they’re all cut the same way!”
“I declare, Miss Cathy, sometimes you are a disgrace!” Martha muttered as she put the crumpled dress aside. Cathy ignored her, sluicing her face and hands with cool water from the pitcher on the stand near the bed.
Martha maintained a disapproving silence as she helped Cathy to undress, not even lowering her dignity enough to remark on the fact that the job was already half done. When Cathy had washed, Martha assisted her into fresh pantalets. The dropped shoulder, low-necked styling of the new evening dresses Martha objected to would not permit the wearing of a chemise. Martha, grim-faced, laced Cathy into her stays, tightening the strings with some satisfaction until Cathy was gasping and her waist measured no more than the fashionable hand’s span. Then she dropped the required three petticoats over Cathy’s head and rolled gossamer stockings onto her legs, all the while refusing to utter so much as a syllable.
“Oh, go get my dress. The blush pink one,” Cathy was driven into snapping finally, naming another of the offending garments. With an audible sniff Martha did as she was bidden, while Cathy, draping a shawl about her shoulders for modesty’s sake, sat down at the dressing table and proceeded to try to brush some of the tangles from her hair. Martha came back with the dress before Cathy had made much headway, and, after laying the dress on the bed, took the brush from her young mistress. She began to brush out Cathy’s long hair without a word.
“Cathy, have you seen my razor? I can’t seem to find it anywhere.”
Jon stood in the open doorway between the bedroom and the dressing room, one shoulder propped negligently against the jamb. He was dressed in the sumptuous crimson brocade dressing gown that had been Cathy’s present to him on their first wedding anniversary. Shaving lather obscured the lower third of his face. Through the dressing table mirror Cathy saw an appreciative glint appear in his eyes as they ran over her, dressed as she was in her underclothes with her golden hair hanging in loose waves to her waist.
“I borrowed it,” she confessed guiltily, turning to face him. Jon straightened, coming a little further into the room.
“You borrowed it? What for?” He sounded surprised, as well he might.
Cathy cast a quick look over her shoulder at Martha. If she told the truth her old nurse would rant for hours; Martha’s notions of what was and what was not proper behavior for a lady of good family were extremely rigid. The woman was already eyeing her with suspicion, while Jon waited for her reply with interest.
“I shaved my legs.” Throwing caution to the winds, Cathy announced it defiantly. “According to Godey’s Ladies’ Book, it’s de rigueur with the new sheer silk stockings.”
The effect of this pronouncement on her audience was immediate. Martha visibly swelled, while Jon grinned, his eyes dancing.
“I can’t say that I noticed the difference,” Jon murmured outrageously, looking amused as he came to retrieve his property, which Cathy held out to him.
“Miss Cathy, are you shameless?” Martha demanded rhetorically as soon as she recovered her power of speech. “What would your sainted mother say? The only kind of ladies who do things like that are—well, they are not ladies!”
Jon was grinning widely as he vanished back into the dressing room. He found Martha’s scolds hilarious. And so would she, Cathy reflected sourly as she listened to this seemingly endless one, if they weren’t always directed at her.
“Oh, Martha, do hush!” Cathy finally was driven into snapping. “I’m a married lady now, and I can do as I please!”
“Married lady indeed!” Martha sniffed. “Yes, that you are, for all the good it does either of us! I must say that I’m surprised at Master Jon for letting you carry on the way you do. He spoils you, that’s what it is. Any proper husband would put his foot down! Putting scent in your bath is bad enough—and yes, miss, I can smell it on you, so don’t think to fool me—but shaving your legs . . . ! Well, it’s all of a piece, if I may say so!”
After that Cathy listened to the monologue in fuming silence as Martha styled her hair. If only the woman would go away, she would very much like to put a dab of rice powder, which she kept hidden in a drawer of the dressing table, on her nose. But even more than scent, or low-cut dresses, Martha disapproved of a lady painting her face. If I listened to her, I’d be a regular dowd, Cathy thought resentfully, but could not quite find the courage to openly defy her old nurse by applying the powder in front of her.
When Martha had finished arranging her hair in the elegant looped style that Cathy had lately taken to preferring for evening, Cathy pushed the stool back from the dressing table and stood up. Martha, still grumbling under her breath, went to fetch the disputed evening dress from the bed.
“Stand still,” she ordered Cathy, returning, and threw the dress expertly over the girl’s head without disturbing a lock of her coiffure. As the dress settled Martha twitched it into place, then moved around behind Cathy’s back to do it up. Her mouth was pinched disapprovingly all the while.
“And don’t think I don’t know about that powder in your dressing table, either,” Martha said sharply out of the blue, just as Cathy was beginning to hope the scold was over for the night. Cathy sighed. Really, that was the trouble with servants who had known one from one’s cradle, she thought irritably. They thought they owned you, and could do or say just whatever they pleased. She thought wistfully of how nice it would be to have a regular lady’s maid, one who did as she was told and spoke only to say “Yes, ma’am” or “No, ma’am” in respectful tones. Then, regretfully, she dismissed the notion. Martha’s scolds sprang from love and concern, and Cathy knew that she would miss the woman dreadfully if she ever had to do without her.
When the dress was fastened, Cathy moved to stand in front of the long mirror that stood on its stand near the dressing table, while Martha watched grimly. Cathy ignored the woman’s sour look as she critically inspected her reflection. The dress was a little extreme, Cathy had to admit, although wild horses couldn’t have dragged such a confession from her aloud. It bared her softly rounded shoulders, the neckline straight across, resting on, and seemingly held up by, the pointed crests of her bosom. Her creamy shoulders and the gleaming upper slopes of her breasts were left totally bare, and the shadowy hollow between the twin peaks was clearly visible. Except for the flowing flounce that edged the neckline, the bodice was perfectly plain, clinging tightly to the curves of her figure as it descended into the new pointed waistline before flaring out into an enormous, bell-like skirt that reduced her waist to nothingness. Even the color, deeper than the pastel pinks worn by young girls for years, was new. It seemed to shimmer with a life of its own, though the sheen of the silk was no smoother than her pearly skin, or more glowing than her golden hair. As a final touch, Cathy added her long rope of pearls which she wore looped twice around her neck, and matching pearl eardrops. Standing back, she knew that she had never looked lovelier, but still she felt—just ever so slightly—overexposed.
“A trifle—uh—revealing, wouldn’t you say?” Jon had left the dressing room and crossed to stand behind her, his hands resting lightly on her shoulders as he studied her reflection. “Have you left something off? Like a blouse?”
“Very funny,” Cathy retorted, thinking how handsome he looked in his formal black evening clothes. “You sound more like a husband every day. I remember a time when you would have loved this dress.”
“You mistake my meaning, sweetheart. I do—uh—love it. What I don’t love is the idea of our male guests ogling my wife, as they are sure to do.” Here he slanted a glance at Martha, who stood silently by, the look on her face expressing more clearly than words could have her approval of what he was saying. “Don’t you agree, Martha?”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, don’t get her started again! That’s all I’ve heard from her for weeks!” Cathy was half-laughing as she turned from the mirror. “Anyway, Captain Hale, kindly remember that it was you who insisted that I have a new summer wardrobe, much against my wishes, I might add. You have only yourself to blame if the style is too extreme for you. Besides, don’t you think I look nice?”
“Very nice,” he agreed lazily. “And far be it from me to stand in the way of fashion! But don’t be surprised if old Mr. Graves pours his soup down his shirtfront instead of his throat, all from admiring your charms.” He ran a teasing finger along the low neckline of the gown.
Cathy laughed, reaching up on tiptoe to plant a kiss on his curling mouth.
“There, what did I tell you? Jon’s not so stuffy,” she said triumphantly to Martha. The older woman sniffed.
“As I said before, he spoils you. I only hope he doesn’t live to regret it.” This last was muttered under Martha’s breath, but, as intended, it was perfectly audible. Cathy, very much on her dignity, chose to ignore it. Jon, with a smile at Martha, followed Cathy’s lead.
From downstairs came the sounds of the first guests arriving. Cathy hurried to pick up her gloves and fan. Then she gave Martha a quick, conciliatory hug before taking Jon’s proffered arm.
“What a handsome couple we make,” Cathy thought as she caught a glimpse in the gilt-framed mirror adorning one wall of the entryway of their figures descending the stairs side by side. Jon was so tall and dark, topping her head and shoulders. Beside his commanding masculinity she looked small and fragile, absurdly young to be his wife and the mother of a year-old son. She met his eyes in the mirror, and by his slight frown she knew that he was entertaining similar thoughts. She smiled at him, and after a moment he smiled slowly back.
Besides Mr. Graves, the elderly gentleman who owned the plantation nearest Woodham, there were his wife, Ruth, and daughter, Millicent, awaiting them in the reception room. Cathy was fond of both Mr. and Mrs. Graves, who had gone out of their way to make the Hales welcome to the area, but Millicent was something else again. Nearly thirty, and extremely plain, she had never married. She dressed as befitted a very young girl, and simpered endlessly in her desire to appear youthful. But what really rankled with Cathy was that Millicent never let an opportunity pass to make sheep’s eyes at Jon. Jon, to his credit, blandly ignored the whole thing.
As Cathy turned from greeting these first guests, the remainder of the company began to arrive. In short order the room was filled with chattering people. Cathy and Jon separated, circulating and exchanging light small talk with the new arrivals. Cathy, watching Jon laughing politely over a matron’s description of her daughter’s many suitors, felt a rush of love for him.
Dinner passed smoothly, although Cathy was hard put to it not to laugh when Mr. Graves, true to Jon’s predictions, spilled his soup all over his frilled white shirt. Cathy caught Jon’s eye, saw his lips twitching humorously, and looked hurriedly away, biting her lip. For the next few minutes she concentrated her attention on Gerald Bates, a contemporary of Jon’s who sat on her left hand. By the time she was once again free to turn to Mr. Graves, the urge to laugh had passed.
After dinner, the ladies left the gentlemen to enjoy their cigars and brandy in peace while they retired to the drawing room to sip tea and gossip. It was some half-hour later before the gentlemen rejoined them. As they strolled into the room it was immediately apparent that they had drunk more than was considered proper. Gerald Bates was laughing just a touch too loudly, while some of the other gentlemen were very red of face. Jon was smilingly urbane as always. Cathy marveled, as she sometimes did, at his apparent capacity for drink. The only time she had ever seen him the worse for it was after Cray’s birth, and even then, according to Petersham, Jon had consumed enough straight whiskey to fell a team of horses before showing it.
Cathy threw a reproving look at Jon, blaming him silently for letting their male guests get in such a state. He intercepted it and correctly deciphered its meaning, looking so penitent that Cathy had to smile in spite of herself. He rewarded her softening with a lopsided smile of his own that he knew from experience she found hard to resist. When she still eyed him severely, he made as if to come toward her.
“Won’t you play for us, Lady Cathy?” Gerald Bates’ overloud voice forestalled him. Cathy wanted to decline, but could think of no reasonable excuse for doing so. Instead, smiling at her guests’ polite urgings, she crossed to the small grand piano situated in one corner of the room, and seated herself without fanfare on the padded bench.
“What would you like to hear?” Cathy turned her head to smile at the assembled company. When they assured her that anything she cared to play could not fail to delight them, Cathy launched into the lilting strains of a waltz. Gerald Bates came to lean over the side of the instrument, watching her with poorly concealed pleasure. As she felt his eyes caressing the white flesh exposed by her gown, she began to wish fervently that he would go away. If he kept up his disgraceful perusal, there was bound to be trouble. Jon was fiercely possessive of everything he considered his property, and in his estimation Cathy was just that. If he was aware of it—as how could he not be?—he would not at all like the way Gerald was eyeing her. And Jon, if pushed, was entirely capable of laying Gerald flat on his back, guest in their house or not.
Cathy ended the waltz with a flourish, thankful that it was over. But before she could get to her feet she felt a swathe of soft cashmere drop over her shoulders. Startled, she looked around to find Jon standing behind her, regarding Gerald with a smile that could only be described as tigerish.
“I thought you might be growing chilly,” he said, transferring his attention to her after he was certain that Gerald had gotten the message.
“Thank you, darling,” Cathy replied meekly, wrapping the shawl around herself so that it covered the most extreme parts of her décolletage and rising as Gerald silently melted away. “I was a trifle cold.”
She took Jon’s arm and allowed him to lead her back to her chair, all the while silently congratulating him on his self-control. He could be violently jealous, which Cathy forgave because she knew that it sprang from a deep-rooted insecurity bred by his earlier dealings with women. But she was hopeful that he was at last becoming convinced that her love for him was unshakeable, and his restraint in the face of tonight’s provocation seemed to bear out this hope.
Jon remained at her side for the next forty minutes or so. Cathy had to smile at the spectacle of Gerald taking extreme care to stay well out of their way. But he was wise to do so, she had to admit. Jon as an opponent could be more than formidable. . . .
“Miss Cathy.” Petersham stood at her elbow. Cathy blinked as she looked up at him. She had been miles away.
“What is it, Petersham?” Cathy’s first thought was that Cray must be ill. Nothing less than that would induce Petersham to interrupt when they had guests.
“There’s a man here with a letter for you, Miss Cathy. He says it’s urgent.”
“A letter?” Cathy repeated stupidly, feeling her heart begin to thump. An urgent letter could only mean that something was wrong. With a muttered word of excuse she got to her feet, following Petersham into the hall. As he had said, a man was waiting for her. Cathy paid scant attention to his voluble explanation as she took the letter with shaking hands and, tearing it open, scanned the contents. As she read, she turned as white as the paper in her hand.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” Jon had come to stand in the doorway between the drawing room and the hall. He was frowning as he probed Cathy’s pale face. She looked up at him, her eyes tragic.
“Oh, Jon, it’s—it’s Papa,” she choked, throwing herself into his arms and feeling them close comfortingly about her. “They say he’s dying! I must go to him!”
© 1982 Karen Robards