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The Conquest of Lady Cassandra
“(Hunter’s) characterization is superbly subtle, and the sexual chemistry she cooks up between her deliciously independent heroine and delightfully sexy hero is pure passion.” —John Charles, Booklist, starred review
As headstrong as she is beautiful, Lady Cassandra Vernham defied convention when she refused to marry the man who had compromised her. Now, estranged from her family and the subject of speculative gossip, Cassandra struggles to make ends meet. A recent auction of her jewels has brought her a modicum of relief, but one of the most valuable lots was never paid for by the highest bidder: handsome, rakish Viscount Ambury. Cassandra needs that money badly, and not to buy a new hat. It is time for Ambury to settle with her unless he is no gentleman.
Ambury has only to look at Cassandra to begin imagining her in his bed.. He has not settled that outstanding debt for a reason. He suspects that the expensive baubles were stolen, perhaps even by Cassandra, and he has been charged with discovering the truth. Erotic fantasies about her notwithstanding, this worldly sophisticate is not to be trusted, for she already has destroyed his good friend—the man she refused to marry, and who later lost his life in a duel that Ambury suspects was fought over Cassandra.
To Ambury’s annoyance, the fiery Cassandra is not cowed by either past scandals or present suspicions, and she seems to thwart his investigation at every turn. But proximity breeds imprudent passion, and draws these two adversaries into each other’s embrace and life. They discover compelling pleasure with each other, but also much more — about each other, about those jewels, and about secrets they never imagined.
“Wait. Do not run away.”
The voice reached her just as she hitched up her skirt to run. She knew that voice. She dropped her skirt and turned. Ambury strode the hundred feet still separating them.
“I have called for my coach. You should not be walking,” he said.
“I am not ill. I want to walk. If I have to sit still, I will end up screaming.” She turned on her heel and forged on.
His boots fell into step beside her. “Then I will escort you, to make sure you come to no harm.” He raised his hand to his mouth and a shrill whistle shattered the silence. She turned her head and saw the lamp of a carriage slowly grow larger. The clipped sounds of horse hooves sounded down the lane.
She did not have the will to object, nor any good reason other than she wanted to be alone. The carriage caught up, then slowed and followed at a discreet distance.
“What did he say to make you weep?” Ambury asked.
“Nothing rude, if that is what you think. He did not upbraid me for my behavior, or throw the recent gossip in my face and treat it as fact.” She took a deep breath. “He did not scold me that I have dishonored the family and broken my mother’s heart. He did not call up my father’s memory and speak of how distraught he would be if he were alive and I were unmarried and so suspiciously independent.” The litany of Gerald’s normal scolds poured out, bitterly.
“Yet he left you in tears.”
The worst of her frustrated fury deserted her, leaving only sorrow and a sense of impending doom in her heart. And beneath it all, an exhaustion from fighting the world all alone.
“He wants me to go down to see my mother. Also to meet some man he has decided I should marry.”
“It cannot be the first time he has tried matchmaking.”
“It is as predictable as the rising sun. It is the worst during the Season. Then the fellows come here to town, and he is not constrained by whether he can lure me to the country. Last Season, every time I turned around, there one would be, presented by a friend or my mother or some relative. But I knew Gerald had arranged it all.” She tipped her head and gazed up at the sky. “A man should have a bigger quest in life than marrying off his spinster sister, I think.”
“He may just want what he believes is best for you.”
“Do you believe that? Do you think that Gerald is a good brother doing his duty as he sees it?”
Ambury gave it a few moments thought. “I think that he has decided it is what is best for him.”
“I fear even that reason gives him too much credit for thoughtfulness. There are men for whom being the winner in any contest is of paramount importance. I think he is such a man, and he will do anything to achieve that victory, even if it is over a woman and a sister. It is sad, and does not speak well of him, but that is what I am concluding.”
“Whatever his motivations, his goal is not unlike Southwaite’s tonight—to pull you back from the edge of society, so that you are not the subject of rumors merely because you refuse to obey the rules.”
She wanted to explain that it was more than that, only she did not know what it was instead.
Gerald’s behavior would appear very normal to most people. Ambury’s assumptions about the goal made perfect sense. Yet it did not explain the intensity of her brother’s dogged insistence that she submit to his plans, in all their details. It did not explain his willingness to sacrifice Aunt Sophie to get his way.
“It is not marriage alone he wants for me. It is marriage to the man he chooses,” she said, speaking aloud an insight that suddenly came to her. “He never forgave me for refusing Lakewood, for example. He came close to beating me into it when I refused the first proposal.”
“But he did not, I trust.”
“No. He managed it another way. He plotted to make the choice not mine at all.”
They had reached Aunt Sophie’s house. The carriage stopped down the street.
“Thank you, Ambury. Although we did not see another soul on foot all the way here, it is probably just as well I did not make the walk alone.”
She mounted the few steps and opened the door. Merriweather had left a lamp burning in the little reception chamber to the left, and it allowed her to see her way. To her surprise, a hand grasped the door’s edge so she could not close it.
Ambury stepped into the house. The lamp’s light found him and revealed an expression sharp with curiosity. “What do you mean, he plotted to make the choice not yours at all?”
His demand startled her. Her mind scrambled for the best way to step back from a place to which she had carelessly wandered.
“Lakewood was your friend,” she said.
“He was a good friend for years.”
“Then it would be wise for us both not to talk of this. I am sorry that my emotions over my brother led me to be too familiar, and to confide about him. It would be best if we—’
“What did you mean?” He took two long strides until he stood right in front of her.
He was so close that she had to look up to see his face. The lamp’s dull light carved his face into hard planes. It gathered in his eyes, showing them as sapphire jewels. Bright and faceted, they concentrated on her and those careless words.
She had never told anyone about that horrendous day with Lakewood. She had let people think what they chose. Ambury now insisted on knowing, but he really wanted to think what he chose to believe.
She could explain it all, but he would not believe her. When it came down to either accepting the truth of her words or defending the honor of a dead friend, he would choose the latter to preserve the memories.
He waited, hard, strict, and uncompromising. She tried feeding him only a bit of the loaf because he would never swallow all of it.
“He had proposed and I had refused him. I have reason to believe that Gerald encouraged Lakewood to compromise me in order to ensure I would accept his proposal when he made it again, this time to do the right thing and spare me the scandal .”
She saw his outrage. Felt it.
“That is a damnable accusation.”
She had known he would not believe her, but she had hoped . . . perhaps she had hoped that he already had guessed.
“You will believe what you will, Ambury, along with everyone else. However, you demanded to know what I meant. Now you do.”
“What everyone believes is that a willful, rebellious girl tainted her name and that of a good man who tried to spare them both, damn it.”
Heavens, the man was no better than all those gray matrons who shook their heads over her behavior. Well, if he saw the world through the pages of the scandal sheets, so be it.
She donned the face that she wore in public. The one with which she faced down the world. Tonight she faced down only one man, which should have been easier. It was not.
“Being married to him would have spared me much, that is true, but I decided the cost was too high. I much prefer the life I had instead anyway. Being somewhat notorious has its benefits.”
His eyes narrowed. “Does it now?”
“It also has its danger.”
She did not ask what danger he meant, because suddenly it filled the chamber as his anger took on a sensual texture.
His expression altered subtly. Still hard. Still intense, but his gaze lost its cold fury and warmed. He looked at her differently, but no less directly and no more safely.
“I do not know if I believe it happened as you say it did,” he said. “That is because one thought conquers every other in my head when you look at me like that.” His head dipped and his lips brushed hers, surprising her. He inhaled deeply. “One taste and suddenly I am glad that you did not marry him, whatever the reason, which makes me a very poor friend.”
“There are those who disdain me for it, and think I should have retreated into shame.”
“Not me. What a waste that would be.”
His lips brushed hers again. Warm. Teasing. Too sweet to bear. “When I see your mouth, I have to kiss it,” he muttered. “Because it is soft and red, and because it utters challenges to which a man must respond.” The next soft kiss was more seductive than the most erotic touch. It soothed the sadness she had borne out of the party. It distracted her from tomorrow’s problems and dangers.
One thought conquers every other. She knew what some of the others were, and they were such that she should stop this love play. But he cupped her face in strong hands that held her with such care and overwhelmed her battered emotions with refreshing sensations that brought unexpected joy.
“But it is your eyes that truly undo me, Cassandra, and make me forget myself. They incite the best in me, and the worst. I keep imagining your eyes looking up at me, wide and bright and reflecting your pleasure, while I have you in bed.”
He kissed her more fully. Not by me. No, he did not disdain her, at least not for these kisses. The liberties he took and intended did not insult the woman he knew her to be now. He was a man of the world who was glad she was a woman of the world, that was all.
Little whispers clustered in her mind, almost too quiet to notice while he distracted her with thrilling little bites and lures on her lips. They overlapped in a litany of soft warnings and reminders. They wanted to interfere with the melody lifting her spirits. Another time, she thought. Later I will list all the evidence that he is not only moved by honest passion. Right now she could ignore the loneliness and dread for a little while if she did not think at all.
His embrace enfolded her. Strong arms held her close and upright so he could kiss her neck, her chest, then her lips again. She let herself sink into his support. She luxuriated in her reactions, and the changes in her body and skin. It had been longer since a man had held her than Ambury would ever guess, and forever since one had done so with such seductive skill.
It could not remain a soft, sweet game. He was a man, kissing and caressing a woman who offered no resistance. She could not claim surprise when he sat and pulled her onto his lap.
Less luring then. His caresses spoke assumptions that only a fool would ignore. His kiss turned invasive, insinuating the intimacies he envisioned. The pleasure had already conquered her, however, and a yearning for closeness, for the embrace to last until it destroyed her isolation, silenced the last of those whispers. She lost herself more than she suspected he ever did. Scandalous images and desires filled her mind too, of what he might do and what she might feel, of anticipation of pleasure so incredible it was worth being damned for.
He caressed her breast, as she had been silently urging. She moaned from the intensity of the sensation. It was many times more exquisite and powerful than she remembered. He touched in ways that left her breathless and praying it would not stop. She did not try to keep her body from flexing in the rhythm of need that moved her. Her bottom pressed against his thighs, and her hip against his arousal.
In response, his kisses warmed the tops of her breasts while his hand worked against her back. Her dress loosened, giving her body a welcomed freedom. He stopped kissing her and eased the bodice down. She wore only a petticoat beneath, and he slowly lowered that too.
His fingertips slid slowly over her exposed breasts. She looked down and watched that hand glide and bit the tip of her tongue to keep from crying from how good it felt. Pleasure’s torture between her thighs became insistent, pulsing, and wanting. His fingers glanced across her taut nipples, and she could barely contain what it did to her. Her breasts swelled even more as that light touch made her mad with desire. She almost begged for him to use his mouth.
“Cassandra? Is that you, dear?”
The call from the stairs bounced off the remnants of her mind. It sounded far away at first, then blasted like a horn through the night’s silence.
She froze. Ambury did too. She felt a new tension enter him as he reacted to the interruption.
“Cassandra?” Her aunt sounded worried now.
She sat upright. “It is I, Aunt Sophie. I am just returning from the party. All is well.” She prayed the response did not sound as strangled as it felt.
“Thank goodness. Be sure to bolt the door, dear.”
She listened for sounds that indicated her aunt returned up the stairs. Soon the dull thud of light footsteps could be heard on the boards.
She tried to adjust to the world all around her, much like she took stock when awakening from a dream. Her skirt fell and covered most of her legs. Ambury raised her petticoat to cover her breasts.
They sat there, two thwarted sybarites, resisting the evidence that neither would be satisfied tonight.
“I fear we were too loud, if we woke her,” she said finally.
He kissed her cheek.
She stood and turned her back to him. “You had better fix my dress, in case she is awake when I go above.”
He worked the fasteners, then turned her around. “If I were a groom and you a kitchen maid, I would suggest I go out and climb in your chamber window.”
“ ’Tis a pity then that you are an earl’s son, and I an earl’s daughter.” She tried to make light of it, but the physical intimacies still affected them, and had bred a mood that required acknowledgment of some kind.
Just what kind confounded her, and perhaps him as well. He kissed her soundly, deeply, as if giving a promise that they would share this again. Then he walked to the door. She bolted it after he left.
Still in a sensual fog, she mounted the steps and walked to the main bedchambers at the back of the house. Aunt Sophie’s door was open but no lamp shone there. She found her aunt sitting up in bed, wide awake, her white cap catching the moon rays entering through a crack in her drapes.
“Who was that?” her aunt asked.
“How did you know it was anyone?”
“I saw him. You were too enthralled to notice, but I came all the way down and looked in.”
“It was discreet of you to pretend you had not. I appreciate your consideration.” She sat on the bed’s edge. “It was Ambury.”
“Well, that absolves you. He is handsome as his father was, and could always be charming as the devil. One could see it in him even when he was a boy. Any woman would be susceptible.” She cocked her head. “Is he as skilled as his face and manner imply?”
“There is little more disappointing than a man who looks like he will know what he is about, then one discovers he does not understand the subtleties. It would be such a waste if after all of Ambury’s practice, he were such a man.”
Cassandra did not miss her aunt’s own subtleties, and the reminder that Ambury had a rakish reputation. “I do not believe he wasted his practice.”
“That is good news indeed. And he has called on you at least once, so it is not as if he tried to seduce you tonight because he could not think of anything else to do with his time.”
Less subtle this time. “Are you scolding me? Or perhaps warning me?”
“I am not such a hypocrite as to scold. If you hear a warning, it is not because I question your taste in men. However, passion played out on the carpet of a reception hall, which was where that was going, is never going to end well. I apologize if you think I should not have interfered.”
“At the moment, I rather wish you had not.”
“If in the morning you wish the same thing, then enjoy him, dear. Only bring him to your chamber and have some comfort in it. I promise to sleep very soundly.”
The Conquest of Lady Cassandra, copyright © 2013 Madeline Hunter