Re-release Date: May 1, 2017
Blurb: The people of Alderwood, including young, lovely Lady Mary, received rough treatment at the hands of their last lord, Sir Benwyck of Cryll. When the King grants the estate to Sir Philip, they’re determined to see him gone, and the sooner the better.
Mary certainly didn’t count on an offer of marriage from the handsome knight. Philip’s got one year to show Mary the pleasures of sex to win her as his bride, to bind her with his passion…
Mary had begun learning dance steps almost as soon as she could walk. She loved the feel of the movement, the way her body seemed to flow with the music, becoming a channel for sound to be made visible in motion. Without any conscious thought on her part, her feet moved into the steps, her shoulders dipped and twisted, her knees bent and hips swiveled as the pattern demanded.
All the time her attention remained on her partner. Contrary to his claim, Sir Philip moved with careful grace and dignity through even the most complex steps. Twilight moved into darkness as they stepped, rounded, twisted, and swayed to the rhythm of the music. The torches reflected joyful glints in his eyes, though his mouth showed as an even line over the neat beard. Flashes of light sprayed glorious highlights in his thick, curly black hair, most prominent when he bent his head or turned rapidly. The flickering light cast deep shadows across his face, highlighting the hard lines of jaw and cheekbone.
She hated to show her admiration so openly by staring at him, yet her will to resist was subverted by an even stronger desire to watch him. Each time she looked his way, his gaze was fixed on her. His eyes caught and held her own to the exclusion of all else. Whenever the pattern of the dance brought them face to face or hand to hand, his lips curved into a small, private smile that made her heart start to pound and her breath come faster.
Sir Philip represented an incredible change in her life. In his extraordinary looks, noble carriage, and winning personality, he was unlike any man she’d met before. But more, he actually seemed to like her. The eyes that met hers said he found her attractive. No one had ever looked at her with that combination of admiration and desire. It burrowed into her, tunneling right down into her heart and set something aflame there.
Before long she lost any sense of where she was or what she was doing. The rhythm of the music carried her body in motion, but her attention was all for her partner. They might have been the only two people there for all she was aware of anything else. The touch of his fingers against her hands or on her arms when they met or twirled was the only sensation that mattered, his the only face she saw. Her hand trembled each time she placed it against his, and she felt an answering shiver from him.
When the music eventually stopped, it took several beats before she realized it. In that time she kept dancing, her gaze fixed on his face. Only when his hand on her arm stilled her and the quiet penetrated her bemused mind, did she halt her movement and look around. A few people stared at her, but most were intent on their current partner or already seeking a new one.
Sir Philip leaned over to whisper to her. “Lady Mary, I believe this is where the lord and lady should retire and allow the people to continue their revelry unfettered by the gaze of their masters.”
She nodded and allowed him to lead her away from the dance floor back toward the manor. On the way, he plucked one of the torches from the ground to light their path and picked up a flagon of ale that he tucked into the crook of his arm. A few people waved or nodded as they passed, but many were already deep in an ale-induced haze or intent on finding a partner for the next dance.
Isabel, her young maid, saw her and began to follow, but Mary waved her off, telling the girl she could manage for herself for the evening. For a moment, Isabel’s gaze flickered between her mistress and the lord who was her companion, then she grinned and nodded before turning back and resuming her interrupted flirting. She moved a little and Mary noted the gentleman gathering Isabel’s attention was Sir Peter. A hint of alarm flared. The girl mustn’t set any hopes on Sir Philip’s handsome nephew.
She forgot the worry when she looked at Philip again.
No one else stopped them or interfered. The interior of the manor was deserted and echoed in an odd way. Yet with Philip at her side, she had all the companionship she needed.
“I’ve never heard the manor this quiet,” she said. “Always there’s some noise somewhere, someone talking or moving about. It seems very strange.”
“There is someone about now, though,” Philip said. “We two.”
They reached the door to his solar. He paused there and his gaze questioned her. She wasn’t sure she understood the question, but she knew the answer. She nodded. His grin deepened into a real smile as he pushed the door open and ushered her into the room.
A fire was laid and he put the torch to it before setting the light into a bracket on the wall. The fire threw out heat into the chilly room, and they moved closer to it.
Once inside the circle of its warmth, Philip offered her a drink and poured out cups of ale for each of them. For a few minutes, they drank in silence, staring into the fire.
“My thanks, Lady Mary, for all your effort in making the feast such a success.”
“It was my pleasure, my lord. Many a day has gone by since we’ve had such merriment here. ‘Tis long overdue.”
“Time brings change for all of us.” He drained his cup and set it aside, then reached out, took her cup, and put it on the side table as well. His eyes had a wicked glow that was more than just reflection of the flames in the fireplace when he asked, “May I hold you?”
She nodded, knowing she wanted it, fearful of failing him. He drew her closer, putting his arms around her. He held her carefully, letting her feel his strength, yet in a way that also told her she could break away from him at any time and he’d let her go.
Though she tried to will herself to relax, her body went tense anyway, as though it still expected the assault she grew used to from Sir Benwyck. Philip felt it. He loosened his hold but didn’t let her go. Instead he rubbed a gentle, soothing hand up and down along her back, firmly enough to massage the muscles but not hard enough to hurt. It helped ease her tension, which drained gradually away.
The warmth from the fire penetrated her flesh, but even more, the heat of his body began to work its way into her. Prickles crawled up and down her skin and she raised her head to look at him. She met his intent gaze. His expression questioned her, though a flame burning deep in his blue eyes told her what he wanted. The fine tremor of the arms around her suggested he wanted it very badly.
Mary sighed. Sir Philip was by far the most handsome man she’d ever met, but he was so much more than just his good looks. Noble, strong, and kind. Amazingly kind. That was something she’d never looked to find in a husband.
She reached up and put a finger on his lips to feel their soft, damp fullness. A shiver ran down his body as she touched him. He opened his mouth and pulled her finger into its hot depth with a gentle suction. The sensation shot through her like a bolt of lightning. Energy charged from his mouth, from the heat and pressure there, spreading into her finger and thence all through her. Muscles tightened in her body again, but not with fear, this time.
The tip of his tongue brushed across the finger in his mouth, circled lightly around it, and caressed. She gasped deep in her throat as her breath caught and held there. “My lord!” The words came out almost as a moan with little air behind them.
The hands that had been rubbing her back stilled, then moved up until they reached her neck and pushed beneath the back of the mesh hair covering to find the bare skin below. Clever fingers explored the hollows below her hairline, then moved until they were under her ears. She’d never guessed her earlobes held so much capacity for sensation.
He released her finger and bent forward until he could press his lips to hers. The tingles she’d felt earlier were small and pale compared to the shafts of fire that tore through her. His mouth moved over hers, the touch a rough caress and a potent demand. Her lips parted under the onslaught and his tongue invaded.
He pulled off her hair covering and ran his fingers through her hair, combing out the fine strands while his tongue stroked over hers. It sent a shivery shock through her.
He drew back and released her mouth but kept his hands on her shoulders. “Tell me how it feels,” he demanded. “Does it repel you?”
“Nay, my lord. It’s strange. It makes me feel hot and heavy inside, as though the skin can barely contain the excitement it causes. Is that how it should feel?”
“Aye. Does this feel good to you?”
He stroked his fingers along her throat.
She sighed with pleasure. “Aye, my lord.”
“Philip. Philip when we’re private, Mary.”
“As you will, Philip.” She drew in a sharp breath as his hand moved down the front of her gown. When his fingers approached her breast, the fear started to creep back in.
“What is it?” he asked, feeling her sudden tension.
“Where your hand is.”
“Your breast,” he said.
“Aye. Sir Benwyck used to grab them and pinch and squeeze until he left bruises.”
Philip muttered something too low for her to understand.
“Words not fit for a gentle lady’s ear,” he admitted. “Mary, if you’ll allow it, I’d like to show you what your breasts can truly feel. ‘Tis all we’ll do tonight. And forget not that I’ve promised you can stop me at any time. Will you trust me in this?”
She looked at him, studying his face, the sincerity in his clear, deep blue eyes. As Brianne had said, what had she left to lose?
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