Love letters, p.8
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       Love Letters, p.8

           Lori Brighton
 
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  When most people were still abed, she found herself standing in the damp grass wondering how she’d made such a wretched mess of her life. She paused, reaching toward a red bloom. If she had a garden, she’d have wild flowers. Lovely, vibrant, willowy wildflowers that danced with the breeze. But it didn’t matter what she wanted. With a bloodthirsty squeeze, she snipped the bloom, watching it tumble into her basket.

  It didn’t matter that she had gotten little sleep last night. It didn’t matter that her head hurt. Or that the place between her legs was sore because she’d lost her virginity and was now thoroughly ruined. And it certainly didn’t matter that she loved Gabriel with all her heart.

  She swiped her arm over her damp brow. Even this early, when the ton still slept and only needy were roaming the streets, the sun was hot. The wide-rimmed straw hat she wore provided shade, but did little to protect her from the heat. She tossed her long braid over her shoulder and dropped the basket to the ground. Just thinking about last night produced an ache deep within, an ache that pulled, gnawed, until she thought she’d go insane with want. She shifted, yet the ache only flared stronger.

  Gabriel flashed to mind. His strong hands sliding up her smooth thighs. She shook the thought from her head. How could she? How could she let him kiss her, touch her, make love to her? She’d betrayed her cousin and she’d betrayed Gabriel.

  Cynthia had turned into her mother after all. A woman who’d given up her self-worth for a man who had given her nothing in return. Guilt and shame swirled low in her gut. Her eyes burned with unshed tears. Is this what had become of her? Was she so desperate for human companionship that she’d destroy herself for a touch?

  No. She wouldn’t have let just anyone touch her. Truth was she hadn’t put up a fight when her aunt had forced her into Helen’s identity because she’d wanted to attend. She’d wanted to wear a fine dress, she’d wanted to feel beautiful, but most of all, she’d wanted to dance with Gabriel just once, before he and Helen were engaged. Just once, she wanted him to hold her. To pretend those letters were truly meant for her. How could she have thought that one meeting with the man would sustain her? Kissing Gabriel, making love to him, had made things so much worse!

  “You look beautiful you know,” a velvet voice whispered seductively next to her ear.

  She stiffened. For one brief moment she thought she dreamt. Warm hands settled on her shoulders and turned her. Before she could voice her objections, firm lips met hers. Cynthia knew that mouth, knew the taste of him. Gabriel.

  He was kissing her. She wanted to sink into him, to wrap her arms around his neck. His rough tongue slid across her lips, sending shivers over her skin. She was quickly losing hold of reality. If anyone caught them… Oh God! She shoved the heels of her palms into his chest and pushed.

  He released his hold and stepped back. Realization visibly washed over him as he studied her face. He blinked his eyes wide, then pressed his fingers to his lips, as if confused. “Hell, I’m so sorry.”

  Heat shot to her cheeks. “Please, let us not speak of this.”

  He raked a hand through his disheveled hair. He wore tight breeches and tall, polished boots. He’d been riding and he looked just as lovely as he did in his formal attire. “I thought…I thought you were someone else.”

  She was trembling, blast it! “No, it’s fine. Please, let us forget the incident.”

  She grabbed her basket of roses and rushed down the path. Lord! Had anyone seen them? A servant? Her aunt? Helen? She’d be murdered in her sleep! Her gaze darted from window to window, but there was no movement. Oh, why had he come? Why was he here, making her believe in the impossible once more?

  “Please, Cynthia. Please slow down.”

  She ignored the thrill she felt at hearing her given name on his lips. “I can’t. I have things to do. They’re expecting me.”

  She had to get away from him. Must get away. She made it to the shadows of the manor when he reached her. His strong fingers bit into her upper arm and spun her around. The flowers went flying through the air, tumbling to the ground.

  “No! Look what you’ve made me do!” She dropped to her knees and reached for a bloom.

  “I’m sorry.” He knelt beside her. “Please, let me help.”

  Panic welled within. She couldn’t be this close to him. “No, you’ve done enough!” She wrapped her fingers around a stem. Sharp pain pierced her skin. She gasped and jerked back. A bright spot of blood marred the tip of her thumb.

  “You’ve hurt yourself.”

  “I’m fine.” She jumped to her feet and stumbled back, her shoulder blades hitting the cold brick wall of the home. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t run. She was trapped. An insect at the end of a pin.

  He stood too, towering over her. “You’re not, you’re trembling.” He was watching her closely. Too closely. He started toward her, she had nowhere to go.

  She resisted the urge to squeeze her eyes shut and pray this was all a dream.

  He stopped only a breath away. “Here. Give me your hand.”

  She kept her attention focused on the grass, afraid he’d recognize the emotion in her gaze. Part of her hoping he would. “No.”

  “Now.”

  She swallowed and placed her hands flat against the rough wall. How could she let him touch her? She’d melt and he’d know, he’d know she loved him. And he couldn’t know. He couldn’t. Men like him didn’t love women like her.

  With a sigh, he reached down and grasped her wrist, jerking her hand forward. His fingers were warm, long, strong. The memory of those hands touching her thighs…breasts…rushed through her mind. A bitter sweet memory. She bit her lower lip to keep from curling her hand into his. Much to her horror, tears burned her eyes. She wouldn’t cry. And even as she thought the words, a tear slipped down her cheek. He glanced up, saw the tear, but didn’t say a word. Gentleman that he was. She knew she should look away, but couldn’t seem to. Those eyes… those beautiful silver eyes held her captive.

  His lips pressed into a firm line, he bent his head, his lashes thick and dark on his upper cheeks. “Hmm, drastic indeed.” He smiled, a quick quirk of his lips.

  She laughed, a surprised gasp that left her lips. He must think her ridiculous, crying over a small cut.

  Still smiling, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. White, with yellow embroidered daisies.

  “Here.” He started to give her the linen, then paused.

  “My…”

  At the same time he stated, “That’s not…”

  She froze. He froze. Her handkerchief dangled from his fingers. The same handkerchief she’d left behind at the folly. Her heart slammed wildly against her chest, realizing how close she’d been to admitting the truth.

  He quirked a dark brow. “Your?”

  She shook her head, attempting to smooth her face into unreadable lines and knowing she failed miserably. “Nothing.”

  Those silver eyes narrowed in suspicion.

  “My cousin’s.” She jerked her hand away. “I have to go. They’ll…they’ll be worried.”

  She left the basket and flowers on the ground and hurried toward the house, clutching her injured hand to her chest. Keep going, keep going. Don’t look back!

  “Cynthia! Damn it, stop now!”

  She froze. She couldn’t help herself. The tone of his voice was harsh and she’d been taught to obey.

  Gabriel was suddenly in front of her, his face set in stern lines. Only his hair looked soft, rustling on the warm breeze. “Who the hell are you?”

  She dropped her gaze to the blades of grass at her feet. “No one.”

  “I don’t believe that.”

  “Please,” another tear escaped. “Please just let me go.”

  “I can’t, not until I know…”

  Why couldn’t he leave her alone? Annoyed and frustrated, she snapped her head upright, “What?”

  His hard gaze had grown soft, emotional. “Was it you?” He grasped her upper arms, hold
ing her immobile. His gaze held a frantic edge that frightened her. He wasn’t going to allow her to leave until he had his answers. “Tell me, was it you?”

  But how could she tell him? It would be her ruination. He’d hate her for lying to him. There was no reason to tell the truth.

  “Why, Lord Kennwick, what a surprise,” Helen’s voice hissed like a snake slithering through the garden.

  Cynthia resisted the urge to groan. Gabriel released his hold, but didn’t turn toward Helen. No, he continued to stare at her, his gaze so bold she had to look away.

  Not one to be ignored, Helen moved in closer, her face a mask of shock and fury. “Did I…interrupt?”

  ********

  Cynthia didn’t respond, merely stood there with her hand clutched to her chest. She looked beaten, downtrodden, and most importantly, damn guilty. What hold did they have over this woman? What hold did she have over him?

  “No, you are not interrupting,” he said. “I startled her. She injured her finger and I merely helped.”

  Helen tilted her head to the side and smiled, a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “How gallant of you.”

  Her hair looked brash in the sun. His gaze flickered to Cynthia. Almost the same color, yet warmer somehow. And their eye color… at night one could almost mistake them for the same. His suspicion flared. No. The woman at the ball could not have been Cynthia. Why would she have pretended to be her cousin? It made no sense.

  “I should go.” The companion started across the lawn, rushing as fast as her long, brown skirt would allow.

  Gabriel watched her leave. Watched the way she moved. The way she flowed like water down a stream. Even when she was practically running, she moved elegantly. Much like the woman last night. He swallowed hard, resisting the urge to call her back. Something was terribly wrong. He pressed his fingers to his lips where the skin still tingled from their kiss. The warm spring breeze, the cheerful chirping birds that had thrilled him so this morning were forgotten.

  “It’s kind of you to visit,” Helen murmured, drawing his attention to her.

  She moved slowly around him, throwing him coy looks. Always the flirt. It had amused him when he’d heard the rumors, until he’d realized flirting might not be the only thing she’d been doing. But the woman he’d been intimate with last night had been a virgin. Judging by the way Helen attempted seduction, it seemed unbelievable that she would have saved herself for her husband. He watched her silly parade and clenched his jaw, attempting to keep his anger in check.

  There’d been an unspoken betrothal agreement between them since they were children. His father had wanted their land, her father wanted a highly titled and rich gent for a son-in-law. They’d met when she was ten and he fifteen. He’d thought her a spoiled brat and had attempted to ignore her the entire visit. But she wouldn’t have that. The minx had even tried to kiss him at that tender age. He’d escaped by traveling.

  He hadn’t seen her since. It was two years ago when he’d sent that first letter. His father had died and he realized it was time to settle down, but he hadn’t expected a reply so quickly, and eloquently. He’d been surprised and delighted and since then they’d written at least once a week. He’d been thrilled thinking they would have a unique marriage, the happy family he’d always wished for. He felt he knew her. She knew him. But was it all an act? Had her letters been lies?

  He wasn’t going to marry her without uncovering the truth.

  “Come, walk with me,” he said.

  She batted her lashes at him. “Of course.”

  With her creamy skin and large, blue eyes, she was beautiful, he’d give her that much. The blue gown she wore was rich with ruffles and tight at the bodice, showing her thin figure. The woman he remembered touching last night had been slim, yet rounded in the most important places. A memory flashed through his mind…his hands on those soft, warm breasts. Gabriel swallowed hard, forcing the heat to remain simmering at the bottom of his belly.

  They started through the gardens, their footfalls soft and unhurried.

  When they reached the area where Cynthia had dropped the roses, Helen sighed. “Such a waste. The child is so clumsy at times.”

  “Child?” he laughed. “Isn’t she near to your age?”

  Helen flushed. “Yes, well, some people have a maturity about them, no matter what their age is. Sadly, Cynthia is not one.”

  “Ah, I see. And of course you know her well.” They strolled down the line of roses, shades in all variety. Something nagged at him…a memory that he couldn’t quite grasp.

  Helen plucked a yellow rose from a bush and slid the bloom behind her ear, then glanced up at him with a practiced smile. “What brings you here, my lord?”

  Suddenly, the memory came to him, a rush of cold realization. “You hate roses,” he blurted out.

  She froze, her brows snapping together. “Don’t be silly, I adore roses.”

  His heart pounded frantically in his chest. “No, you stated quite clearly. I remember, in one of your letters. You said you hated roses. I had teased you about what flowers to bring when we met and you said you hated roses.”

  She paled and released a harsh, unnatural laugh. “Yes, well, I’ve changed my mind. A woman can do that, can’t she?”

  Gabriel paused for one long moment, studying her face. She was lying. He was sure of it. But why? What the bloody hell did roses matter? He gave her a tight smile and continued on. “I see.”

  But he didn’t see. Gabriel cleared his throat, attempting to appear calm, although inside his mind spun. “You’re still visiting tomorrow for dinner?”

  “Of course!”

  His plan had been to ask her to marry him then. “I’ll have my cook make your favorite dessert.”

  She clasped her hands together in delight. “Really? I do so love cherry tarts.”

  My favorite dessert? Of course I shall tell you since you’ve written and told me yours. Crème Brulee, or Burnt Cream, as we English call it. I had it only once, but my, it was surprising and lovely.

  His smile was brittle. “Of course. Cherry tarts.”

  She practically skipped beside him in delight. He was anything but delighted. Gabriel felt ill. She hadn’t written those letters and he would bet his title he knew who had.

  “Tell me your favorite color,” he demanded a little more harshly than he’d intended. He softened the command by taking her arm.

  She looked up at him, her brows drawn together in confusion. “Why ever?”

  “So that I may decorate a room in your honor.”

  She flushed, believing the ridiculous lie. “Red, brilliant crimson.”

  Green. Like the lush fields of York in spring time.

  His anger mixed with confusion. He’d known they were silly, but never could he have guessed they’d be this devious. They would not play him for the fool. His gaze went to the door where Cynthia had vanished. Was she an innocent in all of this, or someone more nefarious? The feel of her lips on his was still burned in his memory. His heart sped up just thinking about last night’s kisses. The woman’s taste, her scent…so warm…so familiar. Like…honey.

  “My lord? Are you well?”

  Gabriel turned toward Helen. Who the hell was she? Angel or hellion? Only one way to uncover the truth. He clutched her shoulders. Her eyes blinked wide in surprise. Before she could protest, he pressed his mouth to hers. She tasted of tea and … sherry? She tasted cold. She tasted wrong.

  He started to pull back but she threw her arms around his neck, pressing her body too his. Too thin. The woman was too thin to be the woman from the ball. Her hands moved up and down his form in a frenzy of lust. It was wrong, so bloody wrong.

  He latched onto her arms and pushed her away, but she clung to him like a leech on skin. “Helen!” he pushed her back once more. “Please, stop.”

  She did, her face showing her shock, then anger. Red crawled up her neck and into her cheeks. He’d humiliated her. He didn’t care.

  “I thought
…I thought perhaps…I apologize.” She stepped away and smoothed down her skirt with hands that trembled. But she wasn’t sorry. No, he could see that in her face. She was angry he dared to refuse her.

  Her eyes narrowed as she looked behind him. An odd, evil smile crossed her lips. “I see. Of course, you’d like privacy. Some people who haven’t experienced things for themselves like to pry. I’ll talk to her.”

  Confused, he turned. Cynthia stood there, the basket of roses dangling from her fingers. Her face was pale, her eyes huge and luminous. He felt her gaze like a knife through the heart. Lord, why did he feel like he’d just been caught with another woman? The companion turned and fled toward the house.

  Gabriel didn’t understand what was happening, but he knew one thing, the woman he’d kissed last night, the woman whose virginity he’d taken, was not his fiancé.

  Chapter 4

  Cynthia pushed open the heavy wooden door and stumbled blindly into the kitchen. With a suppressed whimper, she leaned against the rough, stone wall heedless to the curious glances from the cook and maid who were rolling out bread.

  She squeezed tight to the handle of her basket; the memory of Gabriel pressing his lips to Helen’s sent bile to her throat. Deep down she knew she deserved it for betraying her cousin. But she sure as bloody hell wasn’t going to watch Helen marry him. She wouldn’t. It was time to leave. To make her way into the world, even if she had to do it alone.

  “There you are.”

  At the harsh sound of her aunt’s voice she straightened away from the wall.

  The woman’s shoes tapped against the slate floor as she came closer, mirroring the thump of Cynthia’s heart. “You found the basket, I see.” Auntie narrowed her eyes, peering at her through the dimly lit kitchen, studying her face as if looking for something.

  “Yes, Mum.”

  But her aunt didn’t move, merely continued to stand there staring at Cynthia with that familiar look of hatred in her eyes. The same look Cynthia had received the first day she’d arrived. She’d thought her aunt pretty, but there was a coldness that was apparent even to a young child.

 
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