After suffering countless infidelities during her marriage, she's accustomed to scandal. But nothing prepares her for the shocking news that her deceased husband has bequeathed his illegitimate child to her and his friend Alex. As rumors run rampant in the ton, Joanna and Alex travel to the Arctic to claim the orphan. Battling blizzards, dangerous wildlife and a treacherous plot, Alex must protect Joanna, but not before he wickedly seduces her .
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Definition: A Grasswidow (or Grass-widow, grass widow) is a wife whose husband will return after a limited period of time away, usually after a voyage. The "grass" refers to the mattress which used to be filled with grass. The "widow" is left back on the grass/mattress. It might express the idea that the abandoned lover has been "put out to grass." The term is applied "with a shade of malignancy," a tantalisingly opaque comment.
He was late. Eighteen months late.
Alex Grant paused on the steps of Lady Joanna Ware's London town house in Half Moon Street. If he had expected to see any signs of mourning then he was sorely disappointed. No black drapes shuttered the windows and the presence of a large silver knocker on the door indicated that visitors were welcome. Lady Joanna, it seemed, had already thrown off her widow's weeds a bare twelve months after word of her husband's death must have reached her.
Alex raised the silver knocker and the front door opened smoothly, silently. A butler, saturnine in black, stood in the aperture. It was well before the acceptable hour for calling. The butler somehow managed to convey this informationand his disapprovalwith the mere twitch of an eyebrow.
"Good morning, my lord. How may I help you?"
My lord. The man did not know him and yet had managed to place his social standing with some accuracy. It was impressive. It was exactly what Alex would have expected from the butler of so prominent and celebrated a society hostess as Lady Joanna Ware. The greeting was also less than welcoming, warning him, perhaps, that Lady Joanna was not accessible to any old member of the hoi polloi who sought her company.
"I would like to see Lady Joanna, if you please," Alex said.
It was not strictly true. He had very little desire to see Lady Joanna Ware; only a strict sense of duty, the obligation owed to his dead colleague, had prompted him to come and pay his respects to the widow. And seeing the lack of mourning, barely an acknowledgment that she had lost so eminent and respected a husband as David Ware, had made Alex's hackles rise and his wish to renew his acquaintance with Lady Joanna dwindle still further.
The butler, too well trained to keeping him standing on the step like a tradesman, had stepped back to allow him access to the hall, although his expression still showed considerable doubt. The black-and-white marble-and-stone checkerboard floor stretched elegantly to a curving stair. Two liveried footmen, identical twins, Alex observed, over six feet tall, stood like statues on either side of a doorway. And from the room behind them carried the sound of a raised feminine voice that completely spoiled this scene of aristocratic elegance:
"Cousin John! Kindly stand up and cease plaguing me with these ridiculous proposals of marriage! In addition to boring me you are obscuring my new rug. I bought it to admire, not to have it knelt upon by importunate suitors."
"Lady Joanna is engaged," the butler informed Alex.
"On the contrary," Alex said. "She has just announced that she is not." He strode across the hall and threw open the door, ignoring the butler's scandalized gasp and enjoying the look of consternation on the woodenly handsome visages of the matching footmen.
The room he entered was a library, bright with sunshine and fresh with lemon and white paint. A fire burned in the grate even though the May morning was warm. A dog, small, gray and fluffy with a blue ribbon in a fetching topknot, lay on a rug before the fire. The dog was as handsome in its own way as the footmen were in theirs and it raised its head and fixed Alex with an inquisitive brown gaze. There was the scent of lilies and beeswax in the air. The room felt warm and welcoming. Alex, who had had no settled home for over seven years and who had never felt the need for one, never wanted one, was brought up short. To relax in such a room, to take a book from those shelves and a glass of brandy from the decanter, to sink into a deep armchair before the fire, suddenly seemed the greatest temptation.
But perhaps not
The greatest temptation must surely be the woman who was standing by the long library windows with the sunlight threading her rich chestnut hair with sparks of gold and copper. Her face was oval. Her violet eyes were set wide apart above a small, straight nose and a luscious mouth that was so full it was almost indecently sensuous. She was not conventionally beautiful in any way: too tall, too slender, too angular and her face too striking, but it did not matter one whit. In a cherry-red morning gown with a matching bandeau in her hair, she was dazzling. There were no widow's weeds here, not even the lavender of half mourning, to drain the life and vibrancy from her.
Alex had little time to do more than notice just how appealing Lady Joanna Ware was, and to register that appeal at a very deep, masculine and primitive level before she had seen him and had flown across the room to his side.
"Darling! Where have you been? I've been waiting for you for hours!" She threw herself into his arms. "Was the traffic in Piccadilly utterly dire?"
Her body felt warm and yielding in Alex's arms, as though she had been made specifically to match him. Shock ripped through him at the sense of deep recognition. She smelled of summer flowers. For a brief moment her face was upturned to his, her violet eyes wide and surely holding fear, of all things, as well as some wordless appeal, and then she had put one hand on the nape of his neck and brought his mouth down to hers and was kissing him as though she really, really meant it.
It was astonishingly, instantaneously arousing. Alex's entire body responded to the impossible seduction of her lips, so cool, so soft, so tempting. On mature reflection he thought that perhaps kissing Lady Joanna Ware was a somewhat incendiary way in which to end over two years of celibacy, but in the moment he thought of nothing other than the press of her body against his and the absolute need to take her to his bedor her bed since it was, presumably, closer.
Heat coursed through his body, and flagrant desire, wickedly strong. But already Lady Joanna was stepping back and freeing herself, leaving him with no more than a promise of heaven and an uncomfortable arousal. Her lips clung to his for a second and he almost groaned aloud. There was a spark of mischief in her violet eyes now as she cast a fleeting glance down at his trousers.
"Darling, you are pleased to see me!"
She was calling him darling because she had no idea who he was, Alex realized, taking strategic refuge behind a rosewood desk piled high with books in order to hide his body's all too obvious discomfort. He smiled at her, throwing down a challenge. If she could be outrageous then he could match her. She deserved it for using him when she had no idea of his identity and cared even less.
"What man would not be, my sweet?" he said. "Surely my impatience is entirely forgivable. It seems days since I left your bed rather than hours " He ignored her audible gasp and turned to the other occupant of the room, a rather florid man of middle age who had been watching them with his eyes popping out and his mouth hanging open a full two inches.
"I am sorry that I did not catch your name, sir," Alex drawled, "but I fear you are too late with your protestations of love. Lady Joanna and I " He let the sentence hang suggestively.
"Darling!" There was reproach in Joanna's voice now but under it Alex detected more than a spark of anger. "You are no gentleman to make our association public."
Alex crossed to her side, taking her hand in his, turning it over and pressing a kiss to her palm. "Forgive me," he murmured, "but I rather thought you had already demonstrated how intimate we are with that entirely delightful kiss?" Her skin felt deliciously soft against his lips. Hunger stirred in him, ruthless in its demand. He had never been indiscriminate in his love affaires, but after the death of his wife he had not lacked female companionship, pleasant, uncomplicated arrangements requiring absolutely no emotional involvement at all. This woman, though, David Ware's less-than-grieving widow, could not be one of his amours. She was the widow of his best friend; a wife whom Ware had warned him not to trust. Even as Alex acknowledged all the reasons why he should keep Joanna Ware a great deal farther away than arm's length, his body made it very clear that he might not like her very much but he did want her. He wanted her badly.
How inconvenient. How impossible.
It seemed that Lady Joanna liked him even less than he liked her, for she snatched her hand away from him. A hint of color touched her cheekbones and a steely light came into her eyes.
"I am not sure that I do forgive you." There was warning in her tone. "I am exceptionally angry with you, darling." This last word was hissed through her teeth.
"I don't doubt that you are, darling," Alex returned smoothly.
Wrapped in the intense mixture of desire and antagonism, he had almost forgotten the man, who now sketched a stiff bow. "It seems I am very much de trop. Madam." He glared at Joanna, nodded stiffly to Alex and stalked out, slamming the library door behind him.
There was silence, but for the fluttering of a few pages of a book that had been dislodged from the rosewood desk, and the hiss and crackle of the fire in the grate. Then Joanna turned to him and once again Alex felt her gaze search his face. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she looked him up and down, appraising him, hands on hips, head tilted to one side, all pretense of pleasure in his company gone now that they were alone. Anger and awareness simmered between them so strong it was almost tangible. Then:
"Who the hell are you?" she said.
Actually, she knew perfectly well who he was. It was simply that she had been shaken out of her habitual poise by the kiss. Joanna had not kissed anyone for longer than she could remember and then it had been her husband and it had not felt anywhere near as sweet, as thrilling, as downright wicked as kissing this man had done. She had only intended it to be a brief peck on the lips, light and superficial, signifying nothing. Yet as soon as his lips had claimed her she had wanted to run her fingers over the hard planes and taut lines of his face and body, learning him, reveling in the texture of his skin, the scent and the taste of him. She had wanted it so much that it made her weak at the knees to think about it. A hot spiral of lust curled tight in her stomach, she who had never ever expected to feel desire in her life again.
But this was Alex Grant, her errant husband's best friendeven in her mind she invested the words with scornand fellow explorer, who, like David, was forever sailing off around the world in search of war or glory or adventure, trying to find some obscure trade route to China or something equally pointless. She remembered him very well now. Alex Grant had been David's groomsman when they had married ten years before.
Even now it gave her a pang to remember how happy, how hopeful, she had been on that day. High expectations and bad judgment had been a recipe for an unhappy marriage. But on that sunny May morning all that disillusionment had been in the future. She remembered Alex Grant from that day. He had been as improbably handsome then as he was now, though with a softer edge to him. And he had had a wife in tow, a pretty little blonde creature, all giggles and flounces. Annabel, Amelia? Something beginning with A. Joanna could not quite recall her name but she had looked at Alex adoringly and had been as charming and as superficial as thistledown.
Guilt stirred within her. Generally she did not make a habit of kissing other women's husbands since she detested the fact that so many other women had kissed hers. David's infidelities had been no secret, but she had no intention of emulating him. Kissing Alex had been a mistake in more ways than one, it seemed. Already reeling from her startling physical reaction to his touch, she now felt angry with him for being just another philandering bastard.
Alex bowed. He did it elegantly for all that she had tried to dismiss him as no more than an uncouth sailor in his faded navy captain's uniform. No matter that the uniform suited him rather too well, fitting his broad shoulders most flatteringly and emphasizing his muscular physique. He was a man of great physical presence with strength and authority in every line of his bearing.
Just as David had been She shivered.
"Alexander, Lord Grant, at your service, Lady Joanna," he said.
"More at my service than I require, I think," Joanna said coldly. "I have no desire for a lover, Lord Grant."
He smiled, a flash of white teeth in his tanned face. "I am desolate."
Liar. She knew that he disliked her as much as she disliked him.
"I doubt it," she said. "Whatever made you suggest such an outrageous thing?"
"Whatever made you kiss me as though you meant it if you did not?"
Once again the air between them hummed with tension as taut as a spun thread. Ah, the kiss. He had a point. She had never before kissed a stranger with such a degree of enthusiasm. She gave a little flick of her fingers, dismissing the question.
"Had you been a gentleman, you would have pretended that we were betrothed rather than lovers." She stopped, glared. "Though I suppose that having a wife already made such a course of action an impossibility for you."
For a moment he looked puzzled and then his face cleared. "I am a widower," he said.
He was succinct, Joanna conceded. Unlike David, who had always tried to buy popularity with wordy compliments, this man seemed brief to the point of abruptness. Clearly he did not care for anyone else's opinion, good or bad.
"I am sorry." She uttered the formal condolence. "I remember your wife. She was charming."
His expression snapped shut like a door slamming. Cold, forbidding Clearly he did not wish to discuss Annabel Amelia or whatever her name had been.