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Lady of Sin
Award-winning author Madeline Hunter transports readers back to the scandal and intrigue of nineteenth-century England in the enthralling tale of a magnetically sensual man, a virtuous woman, and a love story that will take your breath away. . . .
She arrives at his home without warning or invitation, determined to win him to her campaign to reform women’s rights. Instead, Charlotte, the widowed Baroness Mardenford, ends up being nearly seduced by Nathaniel Knightridge. No woman is safe from the mesmerizing sensual power of the famed courtroom advocate, and Charlotte discovers she is no exception. But does he recognize her as the masked woman who recklessly joined him in forbidden passion a month ago? And how to avoid becoming his Lady of Sin when he decides to pursue her again?
Nathaniel Knightridge dwelled in a special hell, one where men of action and command are rendered powerless by events beyond their control.
Chained in that underworld of the spirit, he awaited the dreadful result of his impotence. The chill in his body could not be warmed by either the fire he sat beside or the brandy he freely imbibed.
The spirits dulled his mind enough to keep his futile fury contained, but not so much that he did not hear every damned tick of the damned clock. It constantly poked at his soul from its place on a far table in the sitting room of his apartment at Albany.
He stared at the fire's flames, all too aware that his vigil paled compared to another being endured a few miles away.
"Sir." The address came quietly. Tentatively.
Nathaniel slowly turned his gaze to the doorway. Jacobs, his manservant, stood there. Jacobs' aging, cherubic face wore a caution born of Nathaniel's angry outbursts all day long.
"A lady is here, sir. She went to your chambers and your clerk directed her here. She insists it is most important."
"If she is here, she cannot be too much a lady."
"Oh, but she is." Jacobs proffered a silver salver. "Her card, sir."
"Tell her I am not receiving."
"But it is—"
"Send her away, damn you."
Jacobs left. Nathaniel poured more brandy. He did not need to look at the clock to know the time. A half hour remained, no more.
He gulped enough of the spirits to send his mind flying for a few blissful moments.
It did not last. Soon he was back in the chair, half-foxed but mercilessly aware. Of the clock. And of voices. Jacobs' and a woman's. Their alternating high and low rumble approached and grew louder until the words became audible.
"I tell you again, my lady, that Mr. Knightridge is not receiving."
"And I tell you that this cannot wait. I do not have the leisure to waste another day looking all over town for him."
Despite the muffling effects of the thick door, that voice sounded familiar. Nathaniel's dulled sense tried to poke around his fogged brain to identify it.
The door opened. Jacobs entered, looking apologetic and helpless. A woman sailed in behind him.
Nathaniel took in the dark hair beneath the crepe bonnet's cream brim, the middling height of perfect posture, the crimson mantle trimmed in fur. Her hand grasped the ivory handle of a parasol.
As she brazenly intruded on his private misery, she passed one half-draped window. The overcast day's silver light revealed her lovely, determined face.
"Oh, God have mercy," Nathaniel muttered.
"Charlotte, Lady Mardenford," Jacobs announced.
Charlotte waited for Mr. Knightridge to stand and greet her. Instead he propped his elbow on his arm's chair and rested his forehead in his hand. The pose communicated weary resignation. It also obscured his eyes.
Dark eyes. Deep set and compelling. They contrasted dramatically with his golden hair.
Those eyes could mesmerize like an actor's and he used them to deliberate effect. Mr. Knightridge did not perform in the theater, but he was known to command different kinds of stages. Those in courtrooms and drawing rooms.
Women were especially vulnerable to his magnetic presence. That was one reason why Charlotte had sought him out today despite her determined efforts to avoid him the last month.
The other reason for her visit, the one that had led her to this apartment today and not his chambers tomorrow, involved his seclusion in this shadowed sitting room and his disheveled appearance.
He finally acknowledged her with a sour, exasperated glance. A long strand of his collar-length hair hung over one eye in a lazy, sinuous curve. His waistcoat was unbuttoned and his collar and cuffs loose. He was the kind of man who still looked handsome when he was unkempt. Disarray became him. She could do without the roguish danger he projected in this state, however.
She removed her mantle and handed it to the servant, who retreated. She positioned herself so that she could not be ignored.
Mr. Knightridge remained in his deeply upholstered, high-backed green chair, his tall body slouched and stretched. He looked her over slowly. Annoyance hardened his countenance.
Then it faded, as if other thoughts had claimed his mind.
He turned his face away and gazed into the flames. His hair, swept back from his high brow except for the errant lock, permitted his profile to chisel the space around it. With its high cheekbones and straight nose and full lips, it was a classicly handsome face but not very soft even in the best of situations, which this definitely was not.
The chamber fell silent, except for the ticking of a clock on a far table.
Charlotte had not expected the visit to start this badly. Then again, she had not anticipated joyful welcome either. After all, she and Nathaniel Knightridge did not like each other very much.
"You are being rude," she said.
He sighed. "No, madam, you are being rude. My man told you I am not receiving and I will not humor this inexplicable invasion. I am in no mood for social calls today. Jacobs will see you out."
"This is not a social call. I am here to discuss business."
"In case you did not notice, I am almost drunk and intend to be thoroughly so very soon. I am in no condition to conduct business, so it must wait."
"It cannot wait."
"Then find another man to irritate with it."
They had never rubbed well together, but he was being unusually blunt today. His behavior would be inexcusable if she did not know the reason for it.
She set down her parasol so he would know she did not intend to leave. The action drew his attention back to her.
"This may not be a good day to put aside your weapons, Lady Mardenford."
"I have never needed weapons with you."
"You act as if you do. You carry a parasol like a sword. You have one with you even in winter when the sun does not shine. I keep expecting you to stab me with it."
"I would never stab you. I might hit you with it if you gave me cause, but never stab."
"If you insist on staying, I may give you such cause. Hence my warning."
"You are being deliberately provocative today. While you have never been what I would call gracious, this is extreme."
His gaze sharpened, then warmed as it took her in again. Male calculation reflected in his eyes. Deep, predatory sparks in them made her nape prickle.
It was a boldly familiar gaze, and it aroused both caution and concern in her, along with an irritating, sensual stirring. It was not a look that a gentleman should let a lady see. It entered her head that his inebriated state not only freed him from the normal constraints, but also permitted him to perceive and remember more than he did while sober.
"You are a fine one to speak of being provocative. It is no mistake, I think, that you donned that dress for this visit. It shows a lot of shoulder. When I see that much of a woman's skin, I know she wants something." He smiled, not kindly. "What is it you want, Lady M.?"
She felt the skin he observed flushing. Her cross bodice did show a bit of shoulder and neck, but not enough to warrant comment. Nor had she chosen it because of this visit. She had a full day scheduled and could not bear spending hours on the town trussed into the stiff stomachers that had become fashionable again for some malicious reason.
Just like Mr. Knightridge to assume a woman dressed only for his benefit.
She composed a sharp response, only to realize he wasn't waiting for one. His mind had turned elsewhere again. She thought she knew where.
The clock chimed the three-quarter hour. It startled him out of the reverie into which he had drifted. "You really should leave. Your visiting me alone could create a scandal."
"If anyone saw me arrive, which no one did, they would assume I sought your counsel, just as I am doing. Besides, the whole town knows we do not have a warm friendship. My reputation is quite safe with you."
Since he showed no inclination to invite her to sit, she took it upon herself to do so. She perched on a cane-backed settee that faced him. From her new position she could see a decanter and glass on the rug beside his chair.
"When you hear why I have come, you will not mind the intrusion," she said.
"I promise you that I will, since I already do."
"Hear me out, that is all I ask. As you know, I am hosting a meeting in four days time. The goal is to begin petitions to send to Parliament requesting changes in the laws governing married women. Including, of course, the laws on divorce."
"I received your invitation. You did not need to call."
"I feared you would not accept because of our—well, our occasional disagreements."
"Occasional? Madam, you and I are incapable of forming a right understanding on any subject."
That was not true. Twice they had come to complete agreement. One time they had not even needed words to know the other's mind.
Of course, he was unaware of that. She was the only one who incurred a debt because of it.
She forged ahead. "I have come to explain why you need to be there. Three times now you have served as defense counsel in trials that touched on the misery some wives endure—"
"Four. I have been involved in four such trials. There was one you would not know about. But go on, please." His voice sounded bored, as if she engaged half his attention at best.
"You have seen and heard first hand how some women suffer. You know better than most the inequities under the law. If you attend the meeting, your mere presence will lend weight to our cause."
"The testimony of lawyers who argue divorces in the ecclesiastical courts will aid you more. My experience only touches on the cases where a bad union leads to tragedy, and those examples will only turn many against you."
"I think you are wrong. There is great sympathy for women who have needed the voice you lend. Also, your fame alone will attract others to the meeting."
He began to respond, but stopped. His eyes glazed. What little attention he gave her flew away.
His hand reached down, found the decanter, and poured liquid into the glass. Lifting the glass, he rose and walked away.
Toward the ticking clock.
"What say you, sir? Will you attend?"
He stood at the other side of the chamber, his back to her. He tilted his head to drink.
"You want me there because I am notorious."
"Not notorious. Famous."
"It is the fame of a circus performer."
"You are much admired. The ladies in particular will appreciate your presence, as you well know."
"You want me because I will attract a crowd? Worse than a circus performer, then. I will be your dancing dog at a village market."
"You will dance to a very pleasant tune. I daresay you will have your pick of the gawkers when all is done, so there will be compensation."
She expected that to recapture his attention. At least she expected a barbed response. Instead he did not move or speak. He just stood there near the clock. Silence fell until only its ticks sounded.
She searched for something else to say, something to disperse the terrible atmosphere gathering. Normally Mr. Knightridge and she ended up arguing when they spoke at all, and a row would be better than this.
Anything would be preferable to the awful expectation that thickened the air.
Time stretched and slowed. The clock's sounds got louder as the silence deepened. They became a beat matching the throb in her chest. From the way his stance grew taut, she knew the hour's chime was imminent.
"My apologies, Lady Mardenford, but I am too drunk to behave civilly. You should leave now."
Yes, she probably should.
She could not. She sensed his turmoil and it twisted her heart. He stood tall, strong and straight, but he looked very alone there. Almost. . . vulnerable.
She owed him much more than he would ever guess, and sharing this terrible vigil was the least of it.
She knew when the moment was almost upon them. He threw back the last of his brandy, then went deathly still. She realized she was gripping the arm of her settee so hard that her fingers hurt.
The clock chimed twice.
The sounds echoed in the chamber for a long time, then left a quaking silence.
Nathaniel abruptly turned. He hurled his glass. It flew across the chamber into a window, smashing a pane on its path out to the city.
The sudden movement and explosion made her jump.
She could see his face now. Eyes blazing and teeth bared, he wore a mask of fury. Beneath the anger, however, deep in those eyes, something else burned. Raw anguish.
She had not expected such a violent reaction. She had not known it would affect him this deeply.
It had probably been unwise to come. She should have left when he asked, but she had not. Now she was glimpsing something she had no right to see.
His hard gaze moved from the shattered window to her. His glare made her swallow hard.
She stood and took a few steps toward him. "It was not your fault. You did your best."
His eyes blazed as he realized that she knew what this hour meant. "An innocent man just hanged. Man, hell. He was a boy. It does not matter that I did my best. It wasn't good enough, damn it."
"You do not know for certain Harry Binchley was innocent. Perhaps—"
"He committed crimes enough in his short life, but not this murder."
"You cannot be sure of that."
"I know." He advanced on her. "Do you think I do this for my amusement? For the fame you say I have? I know the guilt or innocence of those I defend or I would not speak for them."
He walked right up to her until he was so close she had the urge to step back. "I look in their eyes and it is all there. No matter how jaded or cold those eyes may be, the soul is visible if you look deeply enough."
He looked in her eyes that way. His gaze pierced until she feared he really could see her soul.
She fought to hold the invasion at bay. She scrambled to throw up barriers to protect the corners that no one should ever see. Even she did not inspect some of them.
His gaze softened, as if he had perceived more than he expected. To her horror she saw flickers of confusion, even tentative recognition in his eyes.
"Your condition makes you too bold, sir. I remind you that I am not one of your defendants."
In light of his distress, she tried to strike a note of understanding, even kindness, in the reprimand. Instead she only managed to weaken her voice. She heard it shake like that of a frightened girl.
It checked him, however. And amused him. Like a jouster long experienced in tilting with his current opponent, he saw the gap in her armor.
He did not back away, but held her attention with a very different gaze. Hard, angry, and decidedly male, it alarmed her more than the last.
"You knew about this afternoon," he said.
"I was aware of it, yes."
"Did you come to gloat?"
"Whatever our differences, I hope that you do not think I would take pleasure in a man's death, or your discomfort."
He had not backed away. She still wanted to, but did not care for what that would imply.
His gaze shifted and meandered, over her bonnet and face, down to her shoulders. "Why are you here?"
The manner in which his gaze lingered and slid had her skin warming. "My meeting—"
"That could have waited."
She really wished he would move back and not hover like this, projecting a dominating, raw power. She silently cursed the way she was reacting, and the evidence that she had become susceptible to him. She had found ways to make sure she was never at such a disadvantage in her life, but those strategies now failed her.
She prayed that he did not know why.
"I will admit that I guessed—that I thought that you would be most distressed today. I thought if I made my call now, it would comf—distract you a little. Help the hour to pass."
"How like you to think that talk of political meetings would ease a man's need."
Well, goodness, that was uncalled for, and close to disgracefully ribald. "Forgive me. It was stupid of me to think you might need company when clearly all you required was that decanter."
"It was not stupid. It was very kind. Quite soft, actually. A very warm, womanly gesture. I am touched." He smiled slowly. "However, if you truly want to help, if you really want to distract me, there are better ways. When I saw that dress, I dared hope you had realized that."
He reached over and slowly skimmed his fingertips along the low, curved edge of her dress's neckline.
She almost jumped out of her skin, except her skin liked that touch too much to allow movement. She savored the luring stroke and the memories it evoked for a delicious few moments.
Then she backed away. "You are indeed drunk."
He followed, step for step. "As I warned you. I have an excuse. I am sure we can find one for you too."
That flustered her badly. She was against the wall now, and he blocked any gracious retreat.
His fingertips stroked again. A feathery, delicious skimming sensation. He gazed in her eyes with a confident dare. She tightened her jaw and tensed her body to try and contain the lively tremors streaming through her.
"Mr. Knightridge, you are forgetting yourself."
"Indeed I am, and I thank you most kindly. You have succeeded in thoroughly distracting me from the hell of the hour and my dark thoughts. That was your intention, no? To offer solace?" His hand slid up her skin in a trailing, seductive caress of unbearable titillation. It roamed around her neck until it cupped her nape in a gentle hold.
She did not believe he was thoroughly distracted. His manner bore an edge, a danger, that suggested the darkness not only still lived in him but also drove him.
She tried to shrug his hand off, to no avail. She made to move away from the wall, but with one step he blocked her again.
"What a generous woman you are, Lady M. All this time I thought you were an irritating, argumentative, interfering, opinionated female, but I was wrong."
"It was not my intention to distract you like this, for heaven's sake. Get hold of yourself, sir."
"I would rather get hold of a woman. That would be very comforting right now. I assure you, nothing else will suffice." He made a display of looking over each of his shoulders. "I'll be damned, it appears you are the only woman here."
His hand pressed against her neck, easing her forward. Panic and shock broke in her.
"Sir, it is ignoble of you to importune me in this manner. Your inebriation does not excuse it. I insist that you move and allow me to leave. I will not be—"
The next thing she knew he was kissing her.
How outrageous. How disastrous.
How . . . wonderful.
If you could silence Charlotte's sharp tongue, she was a very appealing woman.
That was Nathaniel's first thought on kissing her.
He was behaving badly and he knew it. He was not really drunk enough to excuse the impulse he followed. He was angry enough not to give a damn, however. Angry at the world, at his failure, and, since she was available, at her.
His little goads and teases had indeed kept the darkness from engulfing him. Now desire overwhelmed all thoughts of the day's sickening events. He welcomed the oblivion.
It had been some time since he had kissed a woman. Not since Lyndale's last party. His body remembered the intense passion of that night and ached to repeat it. His muddled senses dredged up the sensations and wonders of that dream and his floating mind experienced them again.
Suddenly he was not in his sitting room but in a darkened salon embracing a mysterious, sensual goddess who knew no restraints.
The lips he kissed were unbearably soft and warm. He swept his tongue in a welcoming, velvety mouth and a low, lyrical sigh played on her breath. A beautiful sound, full of assent and anticipation. He kissed her again and his head bumped her bonnet.
Bonnet? She had been wearing no bonnet. A silken veil covered her hair and a mask obscured her face.
The bonnet interfered with both his kiss and his fantasy. He plucked at its ribbons and cast it away. He pulled his lover into an embrace and savored her soft warmth. He looked in her eyes.
Desire and vulnerability looked back. He had not realized what a potent combination that could be, or the reactions it could stir. Even with that mask, he could see where her soul dwelled. Her face might be hidden, but her essence was open to him.
He blinked and reality intruded. These eyes were not looking out from a bejeweled mask. They were not gazing through the pale light of candles. They were owned by a woman not at all mysterious or anonymous and it was the middle of the day, not night. The middle of a terrible day.
But the eyes seemed the same. And the expression, And the desire. He realized that his befuddled mind was confusing time and place. He was seeing other than was here, but he did not care.
He kissed her again and submerged himself in that ambiguous world where the past and present seemed to merge. Only now he knew it was Charlotte he kissed, even if it felt as if it was the other.
She did not object. He did not have to seduce. She embraced him and accepted and shared, her tongue well silenced now, but not still. The lovely sighs of the memory sang in his head, joining hers.
It felt good. Blissfully removed from reality. The pleasure offered escape as nothing else could.
He cupped her breast with his hand. She arched into it with a little cry. He felt for the hooks closing her dress. She moved as if she welcomed the offer of freedom.
His arousal roared out of control. He wanted to bury his face in her soft breasts and his hips in her thighs and his erection in her tight passage. He would know peace for a brief while before he faced the ugly world again.
He picked her up and carried her to the sofa across the room and set her on his lap. Kissing her hard, devouring her willing passion, he made quick work of the hooks and loosened her stays so he could reach her breasts.
"You are very soft. Very lovely." He kissed the breast he cradled in his hand. "It does not matter that you choose not to speak. I do not need words to know everything about you."
He brushed his thumb over her erect nipple. A muffled cry of pleasure filled his head. A sweet, beautiful moan followed. It pulled him back into the memory.
Her skin tasted so sweet as he kissed her neck, her bare shoulder. His lips moved down, savoring, his tongue flicking at soft velvet warmth. Finally her perfect breast was in his mouth and her delirium at the pleasure carried him to a place where nothing but sensation existed. Pleasure and peace swept him, followed by the urge to lose himself in her lush, feminine comfort. He caressed down her silken nakedness. . .
Garments interfered. A soft mountain of skirt and petticoats. She was not naked.
He pressed through the cloth for the body beneath. He began lifting the fabric to he could reach her legs.
A tight grip on his wrist stopped him. The soft body in his embrace turned to stone. A new cry penetrated the bliss. One of shock.
"Nathaniel, listen," she whispered in a furious scold.
"Did you say something, my dear? If you expressed impatience, I can only respond that I am dealing with your obstructing garments as quickly as I can."
She smacked his shoulder. "Oh, pay attention for once in your conceited life." She pointed away, to the opposite wall. "Listen." She began squirming out of his hold.
Fantasy and reality collided, breaking both into pieces.
"I know he is here." The loud, imperious voice outside the chamber made the afternoon reassemble itself once.
Jacobs' voice matched the other in volume. "My lord, your son is indisposed. He is unwell. I will tell him you called."
"What twaddle. Indisposed, hell. He is probably just sleeping off another night's drunken revel. Go back and tell him I am here."
Charlotte's head turned and her eyes widened. "It is the earl," she mouthed silently. She looked down at her exposed breasts with astonishment, as if she had never seen them before. She seemed to stop breathing.
Suddenly sober, viciously so, Nathaniel set her on her feet and rose as well. "Have no fear. Jacobs will hold him off."
He quickly set to righting her garments. She scrambled to help.
"This is dreadful. If I am found like this—"
"Move your hands. Your stays—the lacing is—"
In a hectic flurry of clumsy actions and Lady M.'s desperate exhortations for speed, they managed to get the stays half-fixed and her bodice up. He began on the hooks in back.
"Stand aside, Jacobs. My son is not in his chamber, ill. I can hear him in that sitting room and I will see him now."
Charlotte froze, then pivoted toward the door, horrified.
"This way." Nathaniel took her arm and sped her to a side door. She broke free, ran to get her parasol and bonnet, then hurried back, tripping twice on the hem of her loose skirt.
He opened the door. "Those stairs lead down to the kitchen. Jacobs will get you out once you are. . ." He made a gesture to indicate the work still to be done on her garments.
Her face burned. She looked close to raving panic. Clutching her dress closed in back and her bonnet and parasol to her breast, she crossed the threshold just as the other door began opening.
"My apologies your visit ended so poorly, Lady M. I am most grateful you called."
She cast him a deadly glare that said he would pay dearly for this day.
Nathaniel closed the door just in time to turn and see his father striding into the chamber.
"Father, what a treat. To what do I owe the rare and inconvenient favor of your attention today?"
Charlotte cursed herself. It had been stupid to come here today. Reckless. Insane.
Now here she was in a small basement kitchen, having her dress fastened by a servant she did not know. A male servant.
It was so humiliating that she wanted to thrash someone with her parasol.
The idea to come here had seemed so sensible when it first struck her. She knew the responsibility Nathaniel would feel for that young man's execution. She had empathized with the anguish it would cause. It had seemed perfectly decent, even necessary, to give the comfort of company to Mr. Knightridge so he would not suffer the vigil alone.
The next time she decided to do such a noble deed she hoped someone locked her in her bedchamber.
Of course, she had not expected him to kiss her. She had certainly never anticipated that if he did she would capitulate so completely. Memories of her abandon caused a new flood of humiliation.
Jacobs finished with the dress. Charlotte accepted her mantle. Jacobs' face remained as bland as a dumpling while he escorted her to the kitchen's garden door. She suspected he had shown other women out this way. Disreputable ones.
Well, she had behaved most disreputably herself. She deserved to be sneaking out of Albany like a soiled dove.
She mounted the stairs and slipped along the covered walkway that led to Albany's back entrance on Vigo Street. Beneath the roof's deep shadows, she trusted no one would recognize her if they should be glancing out the windows of the other apartments. Just to be safe, she would never again wear this mantle or bonnet.
The cold air bit her burning face. She walked to her carriage and gave instructions that she was going home.
As the carriage moved, she sank back in the seat. The full implications of the scandalous episode overwhelmed her.
Bad enough to melt like an ingenue when he kissed her. Bad enough to end up half-naked on his lap. But to almost be found there by his father the Earl of Norriston—to have to rush to dress and sneak out—to have his servant know everything—
And the worst part, the most dreadful and frightening part, the memory that had her stomach sick and her head splitting, was the look in Nathaniel's eyes when he gazed into hers.
And the bold confidence of his advances.
And what he said as they embraced on the sofa.
I do not need words to know everything about you.
She hoped she was wrong, but feared she was not.
He knew far too much about her.
He had realized that she was the woman with him at that party.
Lady of Sin, copyright © 2006 Madeline Hunter