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Authors: Loveand the Single Heiress

Jacquie D'Alessandro (9 page)

Chapter 7

Today’s Modern Woman should not be afraid to take the upper hand during lovemaking. Touch your lover in the manner you’d like to be touched. Although he may at first express surprise at such bold behavior, be confident that your forthrightness will ultimately lead to very satisfactory results.

A Ladies’ Guide to the Pursuit of
Personal Happiness and Intimate Fulfillment
by Charles Brightmore

C
atherine arrived home from her visit with Genevieve feeling unsettled. Between their conversation about Mr. Stanton and the shooting, she was more than a little perturbed.

Surrendering her bonnet and shawl to Milton, she asked, “Have any messages arrived from my father?”

“No, my lady.”

Fustian. Swallowing her disappointment, she asked, “Where is Spencer?”

“Taking his afternoon rest.”

“And Mr. Stanton?” She pressed her lips together, thor
oughly annoyed that her heart seemed to skip a beat just saying his name.

“When last I saw him, he was on his way to his bedchamber, presumably to rest before dinner. Shall I arrange for tea for you, my lady?”

“No, thank you.” Certainly she was relieved, not disappointed, that Mr. Stanton wasn’t about. “The weather is so delightful, and as I took the carriage to visit Mrs. Ralston, I believe I’ll walk to the stables and see how Fritzborne is faring.” Her head groom had injured his hand while repairing the stable roof just before she’d left for London. “How is he?”

“His usual self again, although I believe the air surrounding the stable still bears an odd hue from the colorful language he spewed after he smashed the hammer down on his thumb.”

Catherine smiled, well imagining Fritzborne’s tirade. She exited the house and struck out across the lawns, heading toward the stables. Late-afternoon sunlight kissed the sky, gilding the fluffy white clouds in a blanket of vivid golds and oranges. She breathed deeply of the warm, flower-scented air, allowing peace to infuse her, the sense of tranquillity that the yellow haze and crowds and odors of London always stole from her.

Yet the calm she sought and had never failed to find somehow eluded her. Obviously the shooting still badly disrupted her peace. A little more time at home, surrounded by Spencer and the familiar atmosphere and things she loved would help her recapture her equilibrium.

The stable’s huge weathered wood doors were flung wide open. After crossing the threshold, she stood just inside the doorway for several seconds, blinking to adjust her vision to the dim interior. The murmur of a deep voice reached her ears from the far corner, where Venus was
stalled, followed by a soft nicker. A smile pulled at Catherine’s lips at the familiar sound her favorite mare made when being brushed. She started forward, anticipating her chat with Fritzborne and a friendly nuzzle from Venus. The rich scents of fresh hay, leather, and sun-warmed horseflesh filled her head, easing away her tensions.

When she stopped in front of the stall, however, she froze. And stared.

It was not Fritzborne, but Mr. Stanton who stood in the stall, brushing Venus with long, sure strokes. Mr. Stanton, who’d discarded his jacket and cravat. Mr. Stanton, who’d rolled back his shirtsleeves, revealing muscular forearms that flexed in the most fascinating manner with each passage of the brush over Venus’s back. Mr. Stanton, dressed in fawn-colored riding breeches that hugged his long legs in a way that made her mouth go dry.

Sweat had dampened a T across the white linen shirt stretched across his broad shoulders and down the center of his back. His hair was disheveled, dark strands falling over his forehead with his exertions. He looked completely undone, yet for some unfathomable reason, the word that burrowed into her mind was
delicious.

Any modicum of serenity she’d managed to regain evaporated like steam. She stood, transfixed, her gaze roaming over his masculine form in a manner that should have appalled her—that
did
appall her—but not enough for her to cease.

The sight of his strong, long-fingered hands easing over Venus, while his low-pitched voice murmured soothing words, filled Catherine with a longing that frightened her in its intensity. She needed to leave—

He looked up, and their eyes met. His hand stilled, and she fancied his eyes darkened. Heat rushed through her at his intense regard, and she barely refrained from dabbing
at her forehead with the back of her hand. And what on earth was wrong with her stomach? It felt so very odd…clearly she’d eaten something that hadn’t quite agreed with her.

“Lady Catherine. I did not know you were here.”

“I…I just arrived.”

He set down the brush, then walked slowly toward her. Her toes curled inside her shoes, and she had to force herself not to back up, to flee his presence, a sensation that irked her. Well, at least now she was irked. That was certainly better, and far safer than…not being irked.

“Where is Fritzborne?” Good heavens, had that husky voice come from her?

“Out exercising Aphrodite. Very romantic names for your horses.”

“I enjoy mythology. Milton said you were in your bedchamber.”

“I was, but only long enough to change into riding clothes. I felt the need for some fresh air.”

A feeling she could well understand, especially as it seemed someone had sucked all the air from the stables.

He opened the stall door and smiled. “Would you care to join us?”

Even as her mind told her to decline, her feet moved forward. She entered the stall and ran her hand over Venus’s satiny nose. The horse nickered and pushed affectionately against her palm.

“She’s a beautiful animal,” Mr. Stanton said, picking up the brush once again.

“Thank you. Did you ride her?”

“Yes. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. She loves to run.”

Silence swelled between them as Catherine watched him glide the brush over Venus’s glossy chestnut back.
Her attention was riveted on the tensile strength of his arms and the way the linen of his shirt pulled across his chest with each long stroke.

“How was your visit with your friend?”

Her gaze snapped back to his, and she experienced the unsettling sensation that he was aware she’d been watching him. “Fine. And your visit with Spencer?”

“Very nice indeed. He’s an exceptional young man.”

There was no mistaking the sincerity in his voice or his eyes, and some of the tension left her shoulders. Running her fingers through Venus’s brown mane, she smiled at him across the horse’s back. “Thank you. I’m very proud of him.”

“As well you should be. He’s very intelligent and remarkably mature.”

“He excels at his studies. His tutor, Mr. Winthrop, is in Brighton, visiting his family as he does for a month every summer. Yet even during his absence, Spencer reads avidly. As for his maturity, I suppose some of it stems from the fact that he spends all his time with adults.”

She watched him as she spoke, noting how he did not waste a single stroke, and except for the sheen of exertion dampening his skin, appeared tireless. “Venus tends to be skittish around strangers,” she remarked. “You obviously have a way with horses.”

“No doubt because I spent my youth working in stables.”

Catherine blinked at this bit of news. “I did not know that.”

He glanced at her, and she had to clench her hands to keep from reaching out to brush back the silky ebony hair spilling across his forehead. Damnation, he should
not
look so appealing. If
she
were sweaty, rumpled, with her hair in disarray and scented with horse, she wouldn’t look in the least appealing.

“There is a great deal we don’t know about each other, Lady Catherine,” he said softly.

His voice, his words, flowed over her like warmed honey, filling her with the unsettling realization that he was right. And the even-more-unsettling realization that she wanted to know more about him. Everything about him. She hadn’t ever thought of what his life in America had been like. Clearly he came from humble beginnings if he’d worked in a stable. Surely that wasn’t a fact she should find so interesting. And obviously he’d had a family there. Friends. Women…

Which certainly wasn’t a fact she should find so disturbing.

“I am hopeful we can remedy that and become better acquainted during my stay,” he added.

The distressing and alarming realization suddenly dawned that she harbored that very same hope. Adopting her briskest tone, she said, “But we already have become better acquainted, Mr. Stanton. Thus far we have learned that we have very little in common and hold diametrically opposed opinions on a number of subjects.”

Instead of looking offended, one corner of his mouth curved upward in clear amusement. “Such a pessimistic view, Lady Catherine. But whereas you choose to view the glass as half-empty, I prefer to see it as half-full. While our literary tastes may differ—”

“—
Drastically
differ.”

He inclined his head in agreement. “We do both enjoy reading. And we agree that your son is a fine young man. And that Venus is an exceptional horse.”

“Yes, well, I’m certain we could also agree that the sky is blue, the grass green, and my hair brown.”

“Actually, right now the sky is streaked with crimson
and gold, the grass is better described as emerald, and your hair…”

His voice trailed off, and his gaze shifted to her hair, making her suddenly conscious of the fact that she’d left the house without her bonnet.

“The lovely chestnut color of your hair, the richness of the deep golds and subtle reds layered through the strands, is not well served when described as merely ‘brown.’” He slowly reached out, and a heated tingle of anticipation raced through her. His fingers brushed just above her ear, halting her breath.

“Except for this,” he said, holding out a piece of hay pinched between his thumb and index finger. “
This
can be described as brown, although I must tell you, I believe most ladies prefer to decorate their hair with ribbons.”

Catherine sucked in a breath and clenched her teeth in annoyance, although she could not decide if she were more annoyed at him for throwing her so off-balance, at herself for allowing him to do so, or at him for not appearing the least bit off-balance. Well, clearly she was more annoyed at him as she had
two
reasons.

“And,” he added, “we clearly share a love of horses…do we not?”

“I can’t deny I love them.” She threw him an arch look. “Horses never argue with you.”

He threw an equally arch look right back at her. “No, they never do.” He walked around Venus to stand beside her. She inhaled sharply and caught a pleasing whiff of sandalwood.

“Our last conversations seem to have ended…awkwardly,” he said, “and I feel bad about it. Can we call a truce?”

Dear Lord, she didn’t want to call a truce at all. She
wanted to summon up the irritation she’d felt toward him, which was far preferable to this heated, almost painful awareness of him. Of his strength. And height. And compelling eyes. And the sight of him, rumpled, the strong, tanned column of his neck visible where he’d removed his cravat.

When
had their relationship taken this unsettling turn? She didn’t know, but she dearly wished she could retravel that road and avoid the disastrous detour she’d somehow taken. “I seem to recall asking you something similar,” she said.

“Yes. Although I suspected you really wanted my complete surrender.”

“And is that what you want, Mr. Stanton? My complete surrender?”

Something flickered in his eyes. “Are you offering it, Lady Catherine?”

He hadn’t moved, yet somehow it seemed as if he’d drawn closer to her, and she took an involuntary step backward. Then another. Her back bumped into the rough, wooden wall.

“Today’s Modern Woman does not surrender, Mr. Stanton. If the occasion calls for it, she may consider a graceful capitulation.”

“I see. But only if the occasion calls for it.”

“Precisely.”

“Well then.” He stepped forward, stopping less than an arm’s length away. He looked down at her, his eyes filled with something she couldn’t read, along with a hint of unmistakable amusement.

Amusement? Aggravating man. How dared he be amused when she was so…unamused. Out of sorts. And damnation, breathless by his nearness. She pressed
herself harder against the wall, but compensated for her cowardice by raising her chin a notch.

He reached out and captured her hand in his, and her breath backed up in her throat at the sensation of his skin touching hers. She detected the roughness of calluses and realized she’d never been touched by hands like his—hands that did not bear the softness of a gentleman’s. Her hand looked pale and small and fragile against the tanned strength of his, yet his touch, while strong, was infinitely gentle. She watched, transfixed, as he slowly raised her hand to his mouth.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed a graceful capitulation, Lady Catherine. I shall look forward to it—should the occasion arise.” The words whispered over her skin, stunning her with a flash of heat. Then, with his gaze on hers, he pressed a warm kiss to her fingertips.

Oh, my
. The sensation of his mouth touching her fingers sizzled pure pleasure up her arm. Before she could recover her breath, he lowered her hand and released it, and she pressed her lips together to contain her disappointment.

His touch was…lovely. Gentle, yet with an underlying intensity that made her feel as if her skirts had caught fire. It had been so very long since a man had touched her. Yet she hadn’t realized that she’d missed it so very much until just now. And never had a touch inspired such a blaze of heat…

Catherine gave herself a mental shake. Good heavens, this wouldn’t do at all. She surreptitiously wiped her fingers on her gown in a vain attempt to remove the provocative feel of his lips from her skin. “I cannot imagine such an occasion arising, Mr. Stanton.”

He had the nerve to smile. “Hope springs eternal, Lady Catherine.”

Humph. The best thing clearly was for her to retreat
and remove herself from his disturbing presence. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Stanton…” She turned and walked toward the stall door. “I’ll see you at dinner.”

Instead of merely letting her leave, he reached out and opened the stall door for her. Not about to let him ruin her perfect exit, she swept through the opening like a ship under full sail.

He immediately fell into step beside her. “I’ve finished grooming Venus, and as there is something I need to discuss with you, I’d be happy to escort you back to the house.”

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