Authors: Alexandra Ivy
Rather to her disappointment, he did not pursue her, instead folding his arms across his chest and leaning casually against the shelves. Not that she was fooled for a moment by his seeming nonchalance. The very air prickled with his restless, tightly coiled energy.
“Actually, I appear to have lost my thirst.”
“Nothing less than a miracle, I assure you,” he drawled, his voice thick with self-mockery. “Perhaps it is because I am suddenly consumed with curiosity.”
She shrugged. “This is certainly a suitable room to sate any curiosity.”
“There is nothing of interest in the dreary tomes. Only you can . . . sate my need, Miss Simpson.”
Sate. A renegade shudder shook her body. Heavens but he was an accomplished seducer. Even standing at a distance he managed to make her body feel as if it were tingling with glorious life.
The sensible part of her warned that she should flee to the safety of her bedchamber. Nothing good could come of playing such games with a practiced rake.
Another part, that secret feminine part she was forced to keep hidden, was reluctant to end the unexpected encounter.
“I presume we are still speaking of your curiosity?” she demanded before common sense could ruin the moment.
A wicked smile curved his lips. “What else?” “What else, indeed.” She rolled her eyes. “Very well, sir. What has stirred your curiosity?”
His head tilted, the movement oddly reminiscent of his aunt. “You seemed surprised that there could be more than one manner of kissing. Does that meanâ”
She smiled as his words came to an awkward halt. Almost as if he could not comprehend a woman of her age being so painfully innocent.
“That I have never been kissed until you did so earlier today,” she finished for him, unwittingly squaring her shoulders as she waited for his laughter. Who wouldn't be amused by a four-and-twenty-year-old woman who could not entice the slightest interest in men?
Instead, a frown touched his brow, an unexpected wariness darkening his whiskey gold eyes.
“Are the gentlemen in your village truly such dolts?”
She shrugged. “I suppose there are a few dolts as well as any number of fine gentlemen.”
“No, I refuse to believe that there could be a one of them with any sense if they have failed to notice a wood sprite in their midst.”
A silly warmth filled her heart at his hint of outrage. Whether it was genuine or not, it was still nice to think that someone had not readily placed her upon the shelf.
“I fear I am rather easy to ignore when I never attend the local functions and only travel to the nearby village to visit the butcher and greengrocer. The only occasion that I am in the company of gentlemen is during church, and most of them possess the manners to resist the temptation to seduce the vicar's daughter in such a holy setting.”
“Good . . . God.”
For once Ian Breckford found himself at a loss. Oh, he understood his shock at her stark confession of never having been kissed. How the devil did any woman reach her age without having stolen into a dark garden with at least one eager gentleman? He even understood his continued erection despite the fact they stood a near acre apart. That soft, husky voice would make him randy if she were halfway across the world.
What he did not understand was the unnerving disappointment that clenched his heart.
Could it be that he still possessed enough of his tattered morals to resist despoiling such lovely innocence?
The devil take it, the chit was the most beautiful creature he had ever encountered. As exquisite as a Renaissance angel. And the mere thought of having her naked beneath him was enough to make his cock twitch with savage excitement. To actually think about forgoing the pleasure she could offer was a sin against nature.
Unfortunately, he could not shake a measure of queasiness at the idea of tarnishing such pure virtue.
When he had made his promise to his aunt not to force Miss Simpson into an affair, it had been with the full belief that it would be an easy matter to seduce her into offering what he desired. A belief that had been confirmed during the brief moments he had leaned against her trembling body. Her desire had been potent enough to perfume the air.
The woman was ripe and longing to be plucked.
But by the gods, Miss Mercy Simpson was not just another female. She was intelligent and kind and prepared to sacrifice her entire life for those who depended upon her. She deserved more than a meaningless tumble by a jaded wreck of a man.
It would be like leading a lamb to slaughter.
Unaware of his tangled thoughts, Mercy shifted uneasily beneath his brooding gaze, her expression one of unwitting challenge.
“I do not need your pity, Mr.â” Her eyes flashed as he held up a warning hand. “Ian.”
Strolling forward, Ian offered a short, mirthless laugh. “If I was pitying anyone, it is myself.”
She blinked. “Why?”
“Because it is not often that I do not simply take what I desire and damn the consequences.” He ran a longing gaze over her delicate form, excruciatingly aware of how the firelight outlined her soft curves beneath the thin muslin gown. If he did not get to his chambers so he could relieve his throbbing erection, he was going to burst. “In truth, I cannot remember the last occasion I have not done so.”
A smile that could have launched those damnable ships curved her lips. Devil take her, for all her innocence she was clearly a born siren.
“And what is it that you desire?”
His breath hissed between his teeth as he made a determined path toward the door.
“You are not that naÃ¯ve,” he muttered.
“Are you leaving?”
“I am wise enough not to tempt fate, or my less-than-dependable sense of fair play.” He wrenched open the door and paused without turning. One glance at that sweet, vulnerable face and he would be on her like a . . . he groaned in genuine agony. “Good night, sweet Mercy.”
The night had been a restless one for Ian. Not an unusual event. Lately most of his nights had been plagued by nightmares.
Of course, until he had arrived at Rosehill his nightmares had not included elusive wood sprites who enticed him with their magical beauty and then danced out of reach when he attempted to grasp them.
It did not improve matters to awaken so hard and aching he was forced to relieve the pressure once again.
The sun had barely crested the horizon when he was out of bed and allowing one of the numerous male servants to assist him with his bath and shave. He expected his own valet to arrive later in the day, thank God. Reaver was accustomed to dashing about London and the surrounding countryside in a perpetual effort to keep pace with his restless employer.
Once attired in his black jacket and silver-striped waistcoat, Ian made his way through the hushed grandeur of the house to the back breakfast room.
As expected he discovered his aunt seated at a small table partaking of her morning meal. In some ways Ella was as predictable as her brother.
“Good morning, Aunt Ella.”
“Ian?” The older woman regarded his entrance with genuine shock. “My gracious, either the accommodations at Rosehill have become shabby beyond repair or the earth is coming to an end. You never rise before noon.”
Crossing the black-and-white tiled floor, Ian grasped his aunt's plump fingers and raised them to his lips.
“Only the pleasure of your companionship could possibly have lured me from the comforts of my bed at such an ungodly hour.”
Ella clicked her tongue, but there was no mistaking the blush of pleasure that bloomed on her cheeks.
“Very pretty, but I am not quite so gullible as to believe such nonsense.”
Straightening, Ian pressed a hand to his chest. “You wound me, my dearest.”
“Rapscallion.” Ella smiled fondly. “Will you join me?”
“But of course.” Politely, Ian turned to the sideboard and studied the generous array of eggs, toast, kidneys, bacon, and his aunt's favorite scones. A smile touched his lips as he recalled the lean years he could barely afford a bowl of porridge while his father wasted enough to feed an entire village. It was a thought he was swift to banish. Nothing could be served by wounding his aunt's feelings. “Ah, nothing less than a feast,” he murmured.
“If you do not recognize any of the dishes, please feel free to inquire,” Ella teased.
Ian filled a plate and returned to take his place at the table. “It has not been that long since I enjoyed breakfast.”
The older woman snorted. “I will eat my favorite bonnet if you have seen the sunrise in the past decade.”
“Very well, your bonnet is no doubt saved from horrid mastication,” he conceded with a grin.
There was silence as they both enjoyed the expertly prepared food, Ian draining two cups of coffee in the hopes it would rid him of the clinging lethargy.
At last Ella patted her lips with a linen napkin and regarded Ian with a curious gaze.
“Why are you here, Ian?”
Ian did not miss a beat as he carefully returned his cup to the Wedgwood saucer. “Have you not always insisted that this is my home?”
“It is, but you have determinedly refused to see it as such.” Her head tilted. “Indeed, you have gone to great efforts to avoid Surrey. So you cannot blame me for being curious as to why you should suddenly arrive on our doorstep.”
“Honestly, I am not entirely certain.” That, in part, was true. If he possessed any sense at all, he would call for his horse and be back in London by this evening. “I only know that after Dunnington died, I . . .”
Ella's brown eyes softened in swift sympathy. “What?”
With an effort, Ian pressed back the raw pain, his hand unconsciously rubbing his chest above his aching heart. The devil take it, would there ever be a day when he could think of his old friend without the savage sense of loss?
“I felt a need to know more of my past.”
Surprisingly, Ella's cheerful countenance was darkened by a hint of wariness.
Ian stilled. Was it possible that his aunt knew of Lord Norrington's dark sin?
“That surely is not so strange.” He leaned back in his chair, the very image of nonchalance. “I know nothing of my mother beyond the fact my father met her on his travels through the Continent and that she died during my childbirth.”
Ella's gaze abruptly dropped to her empty plate. “Yes, well, I do not believe that Norry knew her for any length of time.”
“He must have known her for at least nine months if he was at her side to bring me back to England with him.”
“Actually, I believe he had traveled on to Venice when he heard of her death in Rome and returned to collect you from the orphanage.”
It was certainly plausible, but for some reason Ian felt as if his aunt was hedging. What the devil could she possibly be hiding?
“So she had no family?”
“None that she claimed.”
“Was she a common woman or a lady of society?”
“I . . .” Ella was forced to halt and clear her throat. “I believe she might have been a maid in the villa where he was staying. I am sorry I cannot tell you more.”
Ian gave an unconscious shake of his head. It was not an uncommon story. Many gentlemen made a sport of seducing the local maids. Hell, he'd enjoyed his own share. Ella's discomfort was no doubt a mere reaction at the thought her perfect paragon of a brother sharing his seed with a common servant.
“It seems strange that my father would go to the effort to retrieve me and bring me to his home,” he mused. “It surely would have been more in character to simply have offered a sum for my upbringing.”
Ella lifted her head to regard him with a sad smile. “He is not as heartless as you would choose to believe, Ian. He is a good man.”
“I must take your word for that.”
He interrupted the words he did not want to hear. “Are there any other bastards?”
“No.” Ella's plump hands fluttered at the question. “No, of course not.”
Ian shrugged. It had occurred to him that his father's sin might be foisting a brat upon some unsuspecting aristocrat. It was, after all, impossible for a gentleman to know for certain if a child was actually his own, and if his father had been conducting a discrete affair with some society tart, then he might be willing to pay Dunnington to hide the knowledge that he had left a cuckoo in the nest.
“I do not know why you would be shocked. It is not that uncommon for a gentleman to produce more than one by-blow.” His lips twisted. “I merely wondered if I possessed any brother or sisters and why they were not brought to Rosehill.”
“You are your father's only child,” Ella said with a soft certainty.
Ian was struck by a sudden thought. “Yes. Odd, that.”
“What is odd?”
“The old man is getting on in years. Surely he should be fretting over the need to pass his title to a legitimate heir.”
Ella sucked in a sharp breath. “Really, Ian, this is hardly a proper conversation for the breakfast table.”
“I would think it a conversation often shared around the breakfast tables of the aristocracy,” he drawled. “That is the duty of a nobleman, is it not? To produce a herd of progeny?”
“I . . . I suppose it is.”
“Then why has my father been so reluctant to fetch himself a bride and litter the house with screaming brats?” he demanded. “Could it be that he has yet to discover a woman who can live up to his expectations of perfection?”
“Ian, as much as I love you, I cannot bear for you to speak so scathingly of your father.” Without warning, Ella was on her feet and moving toward the nearby door. “If you will excuse me, I believe Mercy will be awaiting me in the parlor.”
Ian watched her departure with a frown. It was rare for his aunt to lose her temper, and certainly he had never seen her actually storm from a room.
It was enough to make him wonder if she was truly angered by his less-than-flattering comments concerning his father or if there was something else.
Something she was hiding.
Mercy managed to ignore the pressing urgency to go in search of Ian Breckford until Ella had retired to her rooms to prepare for dinner.
It had been frighteningly difficult. More than once, she had discovered her thoughts turning to the wicked, fascinating gentleman when she was supposed to be addressing the invitations for Ella's charity luncheon. And even when she had been allowed her usual hours in the library to work on her studies, her gaze had annoyingly drifted toward the bank of windows, as if she feared she might miss the sight of Ian strolling through the gardens.
It was thoroughly aggravating.
And thoroughly unshakable.
At last she could resist the urge no longer, and, muttering beneath her breath, she left the sanctuary of the library. Moving down the corridor, she had reached the staircase when she noticed the tall, decidedly male form silently slip into the passageway that led to the conservatory.
For a heartbeat she paused. She might be innocent, but she knew quite well it was not proper to chase after a gentleman like a hound on the scent. Especially not a gentleman who was known throughout England as a prolific rake.
But then again, as Ella's companion, it was surely her duty to remind Ian Breckford that his poor aunt had been noticeably disappointed when he had failed to make an appearance for luncheon.
Not giving herself time to consider, she hurried down the steps and through the passageway.
It was the first time she had actually entered the massive iron and glass structure, and she was startled by the long bank of shelves that held pot after pot of fragrant flowers. Heavens. There had to be hundreds of plants stacked within the humid heat of the long room, and all of them putting out enough fragrance to choke an elephant. Mercy wrinkled her nose as she followed the paving stones toward the back of the building.
Rounding an elegant marble statue of Poseidon, complete with trident, Mercy's steps faltered as she caught sight of her prey standing next to the battered desk that was shoved near the workbench.
Even with his back turned to her it was obvious that he was rifling through the drawers, occasionally pausing to pull out a stack of papers before continuing with his search. Mercy frowned, but before she could speak, Ian was stiffening as if he sensed her presence.
She thought he slipped something beneath his jacket before turning to flash her a smile that did not reach his whiskey gold eyes.
“Ah, a wood sprite has appeared among the flowers,” he murmured. “You should wear bells, my sweet, if you intend to sneak about.”
She ignored his taunt. “Are you searching for something?”
“I thought I might make off with the family jewels.” He leaned against the desk, deliberately casual. “That is, if you do not mind?”