Widowed by the Battle of Waterloo, the ladies of Lyttlefield Park are reentering London society, where they’ll learn how to live—and love—again . . .
Of all the widows of Lyttlefield Park, Elizabeth Easton seems least likely to remarry. Though many gentlemen would love to get to know the charming Mrs. Easton better, she is devoted to the memory of her late husband. Which is why she’s so shocked to be overtaken by passion during a harvest festival, succumbing to an unforgettable interlude with the handsome Lord Brack . . .
After enduring years of war, Jemmy, Lord Brack, plans to defer matrimony in favor of carefree pleasure. But who could resist a lifetime with Elizabeth Easton, a woman as marvelously sensual as she is sweet? Yet despite their mutual desire, she refuses to consider his proposal. With scandal looming, and their families bitterly opposed to the match, Jemmy must find a way to convince Elizabeth to risk her wary heart on him—and turn one infamous night into forever . . .
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Village of Wrotham, Kent, England October 1816
"Here you go, Mrs. Easton." James, Lord Brack, handed her a pint glass of Wrotham ale.
"Thank you, my lord." Shivers of delight coursed through Elizabeth Easton as she accepted the dripping libation and took a long sip, cool and nutty with a pleasant bite. She'd initially encountered the brew this past summer during her friend Charlotte's first house party, at the insistence of her neighbor, Lord Wrotham. Even though ladies weren't supposed to drink it, she'd enjoyed it, and Lord Brack had remembered.
This weekend party had held more pleasurable sensation for her than she'd known since she'd lost her husband over a year before. Much of it because of the Harvest Festival, here in the village of Wrotham. Some of it was sparked by her best friend's announcement an hour ago that she and Lord Wrotham were to marry before the New Year.
The bulk of it, she suspected, however, came from the handsome young man dancing attendance on her, whose arm she now clasped. Lord Brack, or Jemmy, as his sister Georgina called him, had escorted her about the county festival all day, seemingly to their mutual satisfaction. They had enjoyed shopping among stalls — he'd insisted on buying her one of the sweet little dolls made of stalks of wheat — had a delicious tea, and laughed themselves giddy at the antics of the participants during the various games. With their sizable party, he could easily have changed partners several times during the festivities. Lord Brack, however, had remained at Elizabeth's side all day long. Quite flattering for a widow of six and twenty.
Now they were enjoying a quick pint of ale before the final and, as some had said, most important activity of the day: the crowning of the Corn Maiden.
She wrinkled her nose at the sharp smell of hops. "I wonder why ladies are not supposed to drink ale. Gentlemen should not be allowed to have all the fun."
"We cannot give up all of our best secret pleasures, Mrs. Easton." Lord Brack's sky-blue eyes crinkled as he grinned. He was certainly one of the best- natured gentlemen of her acquaintance.
They strolled away from Mr. Micklefield's temporary stall toward the center of the field where the games had been played earlier. Even though she'd been sensible and worn her sturdy half boots, the newly mown stubble made her wobble. She clutched Lord Brack's strong arm tighter, the startling warmth of him seeping through his green superfine coat.
"Careful there, Mrs. Easton. We don't want you to come to grief."
Lord, don't let her spill the ale on either one of them.
Lord Brack led them to the edge of the circle that had formed around the hulking Michael Thorne, the Harvest Lord, and four young women — local girls vying for the honor of being crowned Wrotham's Corn Maiden.
"They do look pretty," Elizabeth said, motioning to the figures obviously decked out in their finest, most colorful garb, their hair unbound, flowing around their shoulders and spilling over their breasts.
"Yes, they are a bevy of country beauties, aren't they? Mr. Thorne's going to have a difficult time choosing his Corn Maiden." Lord Brack's eyes sparkled as he sipped more ale. "The three not chosen will be quite disappointed, I fear. Michael Thorne's a very handsome lad."
"Does he choose a girl to marry him?" How scandalous that would be, to be chosen — or not chosen — before all the assembled tenants and members of the village.
"Oh, no. Nothing quite so permanent." Brack's smile flashed again. "He claims a kiss only, said to keep the fields fertile through the winter and into the spring."
"That must be some kiss." The four girls preened and giggled as Mr. Thorne walked around them, looking them over with a keen eye.
Lord Brack took another pull at his ale, the torchlight throwing his features into sharp relief. "According to Lord Wrotham, it used to be quite a bit more than just a kiss." He gazed into her face, the gleam in his eyes transforming suddenly into hunger.
"More?" she squeaked. Heat blasted her face, as though she stood too close to the flickering torches. The chilly night became hot as midday.
"Long ago, the Harvest Lord chose his Corn Maiden as his Bride of the Fields. After the toasts and celebration ended, the Lord took his Bride into the fields, and the two spent the night together in a makeshift bridal tent. The next spring, if the Corn Maiden was increasing, it was considered an auspicious sign for a good crop, and the two married."
"And if there was no child?"
"Then no wedding."
"Oh, dear." Elizabeth clutched her glass of ale, her heart beating furiously. "How ... pagan." Aware now of her arm through his, she slipped it out and transferred her glass to that hand. "How could the girl's parents allow such a thing?"
Brack shrugged. "It was the custom, Wrotham said. Pagan perhaps," his voice deepened, "but it was considered a great honor for the girl to be chosen." He nodded toward the Harvest Lord, busy inspecting a harvest bouquet of stalks of wheat and field flowers offered by a very pretty dark-haired maiden on the end. The offering was supposed to be the measure by which the girl was judged, and this one certainly showed hers off to best advantage by holding it in front of her ample bosom. Michael Thorne was getting an eyeful of more than flowers.
Infectious excitement blazed across the girls' faces. Elizabeth's pulse beat faster as Mr. Thorne bent his tall frame to sniff the bouquet. From the tented look of the man's breeches, he was interested in much more than a kiss. A sheer animal heat seemed to leap from him to the girl, their gazes now locked. The power that emanated from them wafted over Elizabeth, making her want to loosen her spencer to cool her body. Lord, she should never drink Wrotham ale again if it made her this fanciful and uncomfortable.
Had the display affected Lord Brack? She sneaked a look at her escort. His cheeks had taken on a reddish hue. He stared at the couple, as enthralled as she.
Too scandalous for their modern time, this pagan performance should be stopped. Yet even in her censure, her gaze inexorably strayed back to the scene unfolding before them inside the ring of torches.
"Has the Harvest Lord chosen his Corn Maiden?" Mr. Smith, the unofficial master of the festival, called from the edge of the circle.
"He has." Michael Thorne spoke, his deep bass voice echoing down Elizabeth's spine.
The power in that voice had her grabbing Lord Brack's arm once more. She needed an anchor if she was to hear this pronouncement.
Lord Brack seemed just as affected as she. Scarcely taking his eyes off the couple, he tossed back the last of his ale, then dropped the thick glass to the ground. His big hand came down and covered hers, heat streaming through her gloves.
She wanted to grasp his hand as well but couldn't think what to do with her own glass. It still contained some ale, which she could not drink, though she loathed to spill it on the ground. It somehow seemed sacrilegious. Still, she wanted more contact with the strong male protection next to her. So she stepped closer toward him, almost leaning against him.
He plucked the glass from her hands, swallowed almost half in one gulp, then deliberately poured what remained on the ground around their feet.
Protection against the pagan gods or sacrifice to them? Where had these fanciful notions sprung from all of a sudden?
Again, the raw animal power of the moment washed over her, and she grasped his hand, pressing it to his arm. If she got much hotter, she'd likely steam in the cold air.
"As the seed goes to the fertile ground, so goes the Harvest Lord to his Maiden ... Nora Burns." Michael Thorne intoned the ages-old chant, then seized the dark-haired Nora, her face alight with joy and triumph, by the hand and pulled her to him.
A jubilant cry went up from the crowd, a wail of lament from the three would- be Corn Maidens. They scurried out of the circle, arms around each other.
Elizabeth's heart thumped so hard she gasped for breath. Could Lord Brack feel her pulse pounding in the hand he held so tightly?
The Harvest Lord led his Maiden into the center of the circle, grabbed her around the waist, and lifted her above his head, spinning them around. After making a complete circle, he lowered her inch by inch to the ground. As soon as her feet touched the field stubble, he grasped her face — her cheeks red, her eyes snapping with excitement — and lowered his mouth to hers.
A stab of desire jolted Elizabeth, tearing through her like a lightning bolt straight to the apex of her thighs. Her breasts tingled as the Harvest Lord claimed his Corn Maiden.
As Thorne deepened the kiss, Nora threw her arms around his neck, pressing herself against the powerful body before her.
Panting, Elizabeth strained forward as well, her hands clasped, viselike, around Lord Brack's arm. A moan of need began in her throat, but she bit it back. What was happening to her?
She'd not been this aroused in over a year, not since her husband Richard — or Dickon, as she'd called him — had gone away to war. She'd felt his death so sharply she'd not even thought about love or desire for another man. Not until Charlotte had dragged her to the house party in August. There she'd met Lord Brack, who she'd found very amiable but hadn't thought of as desirable. Well, not exactly. Nor had she paid much attention to his obvious interest in her. Until now.
His arm tensed as he watched the crowning of the Corn Maiden. From the corner of her eye, she marked his Grecian profile as it stood stark against the flickering torchlight, his gaze fixed on the couple before them. His jaw clenched so tightly she could almost hear it creak. He turned his head to peer down at her, his eyes dark with a desire of his own.
Slipping his arm around her shoulders, he turned them away from the sight of Michael and Nora as applause from the surrounding crowd crashed around them. He led her from the lighted circle, toward a stand of trees at the edge of the field.
Elizabeth had expected her senses would return once she no longer bore witness to the incredible raw sexual power of that kiss. Her body, however, continued to throb, then to ache with the need to feel a man's touch once more.
Lord Brack stopped just at the tree line, well out of the light. He loosed her hands from their grip on his arm, then cupped her face, just as Michael Thorne had done to Nora, and sank his mouth onto hers.
A bolt of fire shot through her, down her arms and legs, through her fingers and toes. Her core heated as though a sun burned at the center, and the ache deep inside her, begun while they had watched the Harvest couple, became a demand she could not ignore.
Brack deepened the kiss, his tongue stealing warm and welcome into her mouth. She arched her neck back, opening herself fully. Let him take her here and now.
As if reading her mind, he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her so tightly to him that every muscle in his chest pressed into her, hard as granite, yet comforting as a safe harbor against her hurts and fears. Ah, but she had missed that sense of safety so very much.
Still his tongue explored, now her mouth, now her ear, where his rough, panting breath sent new shivers down her spine. His lips traveled lower, down her neck. She couldn't repress the moan this time. Her whole body trembled, ached for Dickon to lay her down here on the ground and take her, as he had so many times before.
This wasn't Dickon.
Like a spray of cold water shaken from a rowan tree onto her naked body, Elizabeth jumped back from Lord Brack, suddenly very aware of who he was and where they were.
He too stepped back, blinking as if roused from a dream. "Elizabeth?"
Covering her face with one hand, she held the other out as if to fend him off. What had come over her?
He didn't move toward her but looked away, toward the still-lighted circle where Michael and Nora danced wildly with several other couples. "Please forgive me, Mrs. Easton. I'm not sure what just came over me."
"No, my lord, I must beg your pardon." Elizabeth didn't quite know where to look. Not at him, not at the dancing couples. She settled for the ground at her feet. It was probably best he didn't see her fiery cheeks.
"I am afraid the spectacle of the Harvest Lord claiming the Corn Maiden quite carried me away." He sighed deeply. "I think you may have been affected by it as well?"
Elizabeth risked raising her head. "It was ... most powerful. I believe many pagan rituals are."
"Yes, well, I am sorry I took advantage of you in the moment." He shook his head. "Most unforgivable."
"I forgive you, my lord." She leaned forward, putting a hand on his arm to reassure him. "I was as much to blame." Heat stole through her palm where she touched his arm, and she snatched it back. "One wonders if it is the ritual or the very place itself that channels these feelings."
"You felt it as well?" His eager voice touched that ache deep inside her.
"I must confess I did." She almost whispered the admission. Could she actually be standing here in a field, in the middle of the night, saying these indelicate things to a man? A particularly nice gentleman too. What must he think of her?
He seized her hands, startling her afresh. "Do not be ashamed, Mrs. Easton, I beg of you. I hope you have noticed these last few days of the house party — no, even before that, when first we met — that I have come to have the greatest respect and admiration for you. Gratitude as well for your friendship with Georgina."
"Lady Georgina is a dear, dear friend. I would do anything within my power for her." The pleasurable tingles where he held her hands had begun anew.
"You are one of the kindest spirits I have ever known." He pulled her a step closer. "I have been waiting for the right moment to tell you just how much I admire you."
His gaze warmed her as much as his words. She could fall into those big blue eyes and be lost forever. Willingly. Oh, dear, was she doing it again?
"Lord Brack." She leaned back, pulling her hands from his and winding them firmly around her reticule. "I fear a headache has come upon me suddenly. Likely brought on by that potent Wrotham ale."
"Mrs. Easton —"
She started toward the area where the horses and carriages waited. "Perhaps that is why ladies are seldom supposed to indulge in it." She must get away from this place, before she was truly lost. "Will you please see me to the carriage? I believe it is time I returned to Lyttlefield Park."
"Allow me to escort you back." He fell in step beside her but didn't offer his arm.
Perceptive man. If she touched him again she would completely lose control and quite likely abandon herself to him here and now. And while that prospect had a wild appeal to her at the moment and in this place, in the light of day it simply would not do. "Thank you, my lord, for the offer, but I cannot allow you to leave the festivities on my account." The short drive back to Wrotham Park alone would give her time to cool this unusual desire for him. If she remained here, in the wild sensuality of the night, she might ravish Lord Brack on the spot.
"I believe it has concluded." He swept his hand toward the now-ragged circle where the locals were milling about.
Indeed, the festival seemed at an end.
"It would be my greatest pleasure to see you home safely." He chuckled. "Even though the robbers in the area have been apprehended, a lady at night alone is never a wise choice."
Although this might be the one exception to that rule. "Very well then." Elizabeth resisted a sigh. He'd got what she called a "stubborn man face" on — Dickon had shown it to her enough times that she recognized it on other gentlemen. She would simply have to keep a vigilant distance from this most attractive man. "I thank you for your kind offer."
His joyful smile did nothing to buoy her confidence.
She steeled herself for the touch of his hand. "Should we wait for the others, perhaps? They will be needing the carriage as well." If others accompanied them, surely she'd be less inclined to think heated thoughts about the gentleman seated across from her.
"The distance is less than half a mile. We will send it back directly we arrive." He tapped on the roof, and the coachman started the team. "If you are in distress, we must get you home so you can have some tea as quickly as possible."
"You are truly kind, my lord." Elizabeth relaxed against the soft leather seat and smiled at the personable young man. He would make any woman an excellent husband in due time. It might even be her, if only she were ready to give up her love for Dickon.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wedding the Widow"
Copyright © 2018 Jenna Jaxon.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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