Leighton Buzzard, September, 1817
Rebecca Sweet had never attended a house party before, let alone one hosted by a baron and baroness. Her life for the past nine years had been that of a simple country wife and then widow of a modest farmer who spent more than he earned and took his ease drinking ale and gambling with friends or finding comfort in his mistress’s arms. This sort of event with planned entertainments and servants seeing to Rebecca’s needs was far beyond her experience.
But things had changed for her in the eight months since her husband’s death. His Aunt Jennet, a country gentlewoman, whose dearest friend just happened to be a baroness, had taken Rebecca in. Now, Rebecca was reaping the rewards of their association, even if she felt a trifle awkward doing so. She just wasn’t sure where she belonged. Her husband’s house hadn’t ever felt like home, and Aunt Jennet’s house didn’t either. Rebecca thought back to her childhood, to Black Sheep Farm in Marrywell, but that hadn’t felt like a home either.
Could a sprawling house such as Clipstone Hedge, where she was now, with its red brick and golden stone exterior and too many rooms to count, feel like a home? Perhaps, but it depended on the people inside it. Rebecca realized it was up to her to make a home for herself. She just wasn’t sure how that would happen.
What she could do, however, was perhaps repay Aunt Jennet’s kindness. Her granddaughter, Delia, was also in attendance, and Rebecca had noted that she and a young gentleman at the party seemed to share an affinity for several things. Rebecca was fairly certain they might develop an attachment, but both were shy and might need a little assistance. Earlier, Rebecca had suggested they play chess since they both said they enjoyed it.
They’d played and seemed to have a wonderful time together, as far as Rebecca could tell from her position across the drawing room. With a little more help, they might indeed make a match. The thought filled Rebecca with delight, and not just because it would please Aunt Jennet. Watching two people fall in love was perhaps the closest Rebecca would get to doing so herself. She would take all the joy she could from that.
Rebecca moved farther into the library. With its towering shelves crammed with books and multiple cozy seating areas, it nearly overwhelmed her. Books represented wealth, and this was a display almost beyond her imagination.
She ought to be asleep as it was nearly two in the morning, but lulling herself into a restful state, especially in a place that wasn’t her home, had always been a challenge. She’d thought a book might help, but wasn’t sure how to find something that interested her.
Walking near the bookcases, she gently trailed her fingertips along the spines. Randomly, she chose one and flipped open the cover. Sheep and Goats: The Intricacies of Animal Husbandry. That sounded…dry. She moved to another shelf and removed another tome. Robinson Crusoe. Much better. She’d already read that, but perhaps she’d find another novel that she hadn’t.
After a few minutes of perusing, she found a copy of Pamela by Samuel Richardson. It looked impossibly long. Not that she could finish any of these books before leaving tomorrow, for she was much too slow a reader.
Rebecca startled at the sound of the man’s voice and dropped the book on her toe. She gasped and pulled her foot from under the heavy tome.
“My apologies!” The gentleman rushed forward. He bent to retrieve the book from the floor just as she did the same.
His fingers met hers upon the leather cover. Then their gazes clashed.
Rebecca’s heart vaulted into her throat. She recognized him, for he’d only arrived late that afternoon. The hostess, Lady Philpott, was his cousin, and he was the Marquess of Creslow.
- Bloody. Marquess.
He was breathtakingly handsome, with thick, dark coffee-colored hair, a wide forehead, expressive brows, a patrician nose with a fascinating dimple at the end, lips that were perhaps a touch too wide for a man, and a sculpted jaw and chin that looked as if it belonged on one of the statues in the garden behind the assembly rooms in Marrywell, where she’d grown up. And now that she was this close to him, she could see his eyes were a warm chestnut brown with a smattering of gold flecks near the center. She could very well lose herself in his stare…
“Shall I remove my hand?” he asked softly, almost teasingly.
“Unless you were hoping to read this novel?” She presumed he’d come to the library for the same reason she had. They were both wearing nightclothes. She’d donned a thick dressing gown over her night rail, and he sported a dark green velvet banyan over his pantaloons, which encased his muscular legs.
Overall, he presented an image of unrelenting masculinity that had the effect of somehow making her feel more feminine. Or perhaps more aware of her femininity. She struggled not to fix on the triangle of light sandstone-hued flesh exposed at the base of his throat.
“What’s the title?” he asked. “Perhaps it may suit.”
His brows rose. “A provocative choice.” Their hands were still touching, and the word provocative only made Rebecca more aware of the connection. “You’ve read it before?”
She shook her head. His lips spread in an alluring smile, and Rebecca’s breath arrested in her lungs.
He took his hand away. “I shan’t deprive you of it.”
Rebecca tamped down her disappointment at the loss of his touch, but then he clasped her elbow and helped her to stand. She didn’t need his assistance, but found it more than pleasant.
“You’ve read it?” she asked.
“Yes.” He released her arm, and she suffered another twinge of disappointment. “We passed a copy around at Eton—under the noses of our masters, mind you. They would not have approved.”
“It’s the story of a young maid who is seduced—in reality, she is abused—by her employer.”
“That doesn’t sound like anything I would want to read.”
“It’s strangely compelling, but I actually found it…” He grimaced. “I don’t wish to spoil it any further for you.”
She held the book to her chest. “Don’t concern yourself with that. It’s not as if I’ll be able to finish it tonight, and the party concludes tomorrow.”
“You could just take it with you.” He leaned slightly toward her. His scent of sandalwood and something indescribably male enveloped her in sensation. Why did a scent make her want to move closer to him?
“Are you suggesting I steal it?” she whispered.
He lifted a shoulder. “I presume you’d return it. Unless you live very far away?”
Did he not remember that she resided with Lady Philpott’s dearest friend just a short distance from Clipstone Hedge? “I suppose I could borrow it.”
“I think you should. Just look at their library.” He glanced about. “My cousin and her husband won’t miss it.”
“Is that what you planned to do?” Rebecca asked. “Select a book and take it with you when you leave tomorrow?”
He laughed. “In fact, I am staying tomorrow night as well since I only just arrived. I’d meant to come for the entire party, but I was waylaid at my prior engagement.”
“What was that?” She couldn’t seem to stop from engaging with him. He was charming and so attractive, he made her teeth ache. Also, he was a man, and he was speaking to her and looking at her as no man ever had—not even Horatio. Creslow was regarding her as if he wanted to know all of her. In a short span of time, he’d somehow made her feel…special.
“I don’t think I should tell you,” he said with a devilish smirk. “It wouldn’t be proper.”
Did he think she was some green girl? Perhaps he really didn’t know who she was, not that it mattered. “If it makes any difference to you, I am a widow.”
“Are you?” His gaze dipped to her dressing gown. “Lavender. I should have realized. My apologies.”
“Thank you, but that isn’t necessary. Unless you had something to do with my husband’s death?” she asked with a faint, wry smile. “He died of angina pectoris.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. You can’t have been married long.”
Seven and a half years. “Long enough,” she muttered. “I’m older than I look.” When someone learned she was twenty-seven, they invariably stared at her in disbelief.
“Are you? I’m inclined to hazard a guess, but most ladies don’t care to divulge their age. Instead, I shall answer your question. I was at a gentlemen’s party. A friend is getting married next month, and we were celebrating his last days of bachelorhood.”
“How did you manage to miscalculate your arrival at the house party?” Rebecca could well imagine. It had not been unusual for Horatio to forget to come home from his mistress’s house.
One of Creslow’s brows shot up. “Do I detect a note of sarcasm, as with your question about your husband’s death?”
She kept herself from smiling. “Perhaps a small one.”
“If you’re perchance insinuating that our debauchery got the better of us, you may be right, but I swear it wasn’t for the reasons you think. We were simply having too grand a time. We’ve been friends since those Eton days.”
She liked his lack of guile. “These were your Pamela coconspirators?”
He laughed. “Just so.”
“What reasons did you presume I was thinking?” Why was she practically flirting with this man? She hadn’t done so in years, not since her first and only May Day Matchmaking Festival back in Marrywell.
And that hadn’t turned out very well, despite an auspicious beginning. Charming and thoughtful, Horatio had danced attendance on Rebecca at the matchmaking festival. He was precisely what she was looking for: a kind and amiable gentleman with excellent prospects with which to support her and a family. Furthermore, marrying him would give her the chance to leave Marrywell and her unhappy childhood behind—the opportunity for a home and family of her own, a place where she would feel safe and, most of all, loved.
She might not have fallen deeply in love with him during the week of the festival, but they’d been smitten with each other, or so she’d thought. The promise of love had seemed bright and all but certain. Several months into the marriage, however, Horatio had revealed his true self—that of a lazy, self-indulgent hedonist.
“Let’s see,” the marquess mused, pondering her question. “I was at a gentlemen’s celebration and missed most of my cousin’s annual end-of-summer house party. I suspect you thought I’d been delayed by a woman.”
“Or women,” Rebecca murmured. This time, she couldn’t keep a faint smirk from twisting her lips.
“Aha! You did think that!”
“For the reasons you stated, it seemed the most logical conclusion.”
“My reputation precedes me, I take it.” He sounded rather beleaguered.
“I am not aware of your reputation.”
“Nearly rake status, I’m afraid. Not at all accurate, but it only takes one loose tongue to start a rumor.” His gaze dipped to the book she held to her chest. “I’m keeping you from your reading.”
Honestly, she was far more enthralled with him. “I still haven’t decided if I’m taking the book,” she said.
“Then may I interest you in a glass of sherry or whatever is on the cabinet over there?” He moved past her, nearly close enough for their arms to brush.
Rebecca set the book on a nearby table and followed him. Encountering him was by far the most interesting thing that had happened to her since Horatio’s death. And this sort of interesting was definitely not that sort of interesting. The circumstances of her husband’s death in the bed of his mistress had been rather horrifying. Because of that, no one had batted an eye when she’d appeared at a house party while still officially in half mourning. Indeed, she doubted anyone who knew the details of his demise would blame her if she resumed her normal life.
Too bad she didn’t really have one. It was difficult when you were dependent on your husband’s family because he’d left debt that, after settling, had rendered you penniless.
But Rebecca didn’t want to think of any of that right now. She wanted to drink sherry—or whatever was available—with Lord Creslow.
He picked up each of the three decanters on the tray. “Looks like there is indeed sherry and also port. This last one…” He removed the top and sniffed, then promptly wrinkled his nose. “A very astringent madeira.”
“Port, if you don’t mind.”
He poured two glasses of port and handed her one. “To late-night—or is it early morning?—encounters.”
Rebecca didn’t pause to think how odd it was that she was toasting with a marquess in the middle of the night in a grand country house. She tapped her glass gently to his and sipped the rich, red, fortified wine.
He regarded her a moment. “You’re a widow who survived an unhappy marriage, and I’m a rumored rake. And we’ve met in the middle of the night in a dim library. What do you suppose the gossip would be if we were found out?”
All sorts of lurid things came to mind. Rebecca drank more port, but swallowed too much and promptly coughed.
“Blast,” he murmured, setting his glass down on the cabinet as he moved toward her. Taking her glass, he put his hand on her back and gave her a few pats. “That was my fault.”
Rebecca gave him a puzzled look. “How can that be? I just sipped too great a quantity.” She inhaled and was glad she didn’t continue to cough.
He continued to stroke her back, and what had started as a comforting measure became something…more. Rebecca turned her head slightly, and their gazes locked. His hand stilled against her spine.
“I should go up to bed,” she murmured, perhaps putting more emphasis on the word should than necessary.
“What about your book?” he asked.
“Given the lateness of the hour and the fact that we’re leaving tomorrow, I ought to try to sleep.”
“Try? Were you having trouble? Is that why you came down here?”
“Yes. I sometimes have difficulty sleeping, particularly in places other than my own bed.” Why was she sharing so much with this stranger?
“That’s a shame.” His focus dropped to her mouth. “I imagine you’ve tried any number of remedies.”
She had, in fact, but wouldn’t bore him with the list. “Yes, though I’m always eager for a new suggestion. If you have one.”
“I find sexual intercourse is the best way for me to fall right to sleep.” His lips curled into a seductive smile. “The deep satisfaction just settles into my bones, and my body relaxes until I’m delivered into Morpheus’s arms.”
Had he just said sexual intercourse? She’d barely heard anything after that.
“Have I shocked you?” he whispered. Had he moved closer? “My apologies. I am rather swept up in this intimate moment we are sharing.”
Rebecca swallowed, her heart thudding frantically. “I am too, but how does it end? I’m afraid I’ve no experience outside my marriage and that was woefully devoid of any such romance.”
His brow puckered as he leaned even closer. “That is criminal. There are many ways this could end, and that is entirely up to you. I would suggest it start with a kiss. If you’re amenable.”
She feared she might expire if he didn’t close the scant distance between them and kiss her. “I think it actually started the moment you touched my hand on the book.”
His brow cocked up, and it seemed to lift the edge of his mouth along with it. “You may be right. I confess, when I saw you standing near the bookcase in your dressing gown, your stunning red curls escaping their plait, I felt immediately drawn to you. That you are as engaging as you are beautiful has made it impossible for me to leave, though I know I should. I am not typically this forward, whatever the gossips may say.”
“I haven’t heard a thing about you.” Nothing beyond him being cousin to her hostess, anyway. She licked her lower lip, almost desperate to taste him. She’d never experienced a desire such as this.
His eyes slitted and his nostrils flared. “Now you’ve done it.”
“You’ve shown me your tongue, and now I simply must kiss you. Final chance to tell me to go away.”
That was the last thing she wanted. “Kiss me.”
“A woman who knows what she wants. How utterly captivating.” His hand had remained against her back and now his palm pressed into her spine. His other arm snaked around her waist and pulled them flush together.
He smiled—with a hint of victory or anticipation or perhaps both—just before his mouth took hers. Rebecca clasped his waist with one hand and slid the other up to his warm neck. His lips molded to hers, guiding her in a kiss so sensual, she feared her knees might buckle.
This was entirely new territory. When Horatio had deigned to kiss her, he’d slobbered his mouth over hers and jabbed his tongue into her mouth. There’d been nothing arousing about it. But Creslow’s kiss was an entirely different breed. He brought heat and desire. His lips opened against hers, and she stiffened.
“Something wrong?” he murmured as he kissed the corner of her mouth and then her jaw.
Rebecca cursed her reaction and was glad he hadn’t pulled away, but then she was clutching him rather tightly. “I’m realizing my husband didn’t know how to kiss.”
“No romance and poor kissing skills. Please tell me he had a bounty of other redeeming qualities.”
“I’m afraid not.”
Creslow’s features creased in a faint grimace. “I might wonder if you’re relieved that he’s gone.”
“Relief barely scratches the surface. Perhaps you could continue so I may at least learn how to kiss properly?” Please.
“It would be my honor.” His lips met hers once more, and this time when he opened and licked into her mouth, she pressed against him and wrapped her hand more firmly around his nape.
The kiss was decadent and lush, sweeping straight to the very core of her being. Her body quivered with newfound need. He held her with a raw possession, his hands caressing and seeking, that made her yearn for more.
Kiss after kiss sent her further into a mindless bliss. She was vaguely aware of him steering her backward and then in a new direction until she felt a piece of furniture at the back of her knees. He lowered her until she was perched on something. Slitting her eyes, she saw that it was a settee.
He turned her and guided her to lie back. “Is this all right?” he asked softly, his hands stroking her sides and hips.
“Yes,” she whispered, breathless. “What are you going to do?”
“What would you like me to do?”
“I…I’m not sure. I enjoyed the kissing.” She had to think she would also enjoy the sexual act itself, certainly more than she ever had with Horatio. She’d had to learn to find release on her own, for he’d never been able to provide pleasure, let alone satisfaction.
He leaned over her, planting his knee between hers on the settee. “You’ll tell me if you want me to stop at any moment? I don’t wish to overstep.”
She couldn’t imagine him doing that. Everything he’d done so far was wonderful. She clasped his head and pulled him down for another kiss. “Take the largest steps you like.”
He teased and plundered her mouth until she was fairly drunk on his kisses. Not too far gone, however, that she wasn’t aware of him unfastening her dressing gown. He pushed the garment open at her abdomen, and his hands came up to gently slide it over her breasts. His fingers grazed her, though the lawn of her night rail kept their skin from touching. Still, Rebecca’s nipples tightened, and her entire body clenched with need.
Cupping her, he caressed one breast as his kisses trailed down her throat. With a gentle tug, he exposed the globe. His lips found their way to the swell, then he licked to her nipple. She tightened her grip on his head. He closed his mouth over her and suckled, making her arch up from the settee with a sharp intake of breath.
A swift and desperate arousal careened through her. Her hips moved, nearly of their own volition, as she sought gratification. His knee moved up, pressing against her sex, giving her pressure where she needed it most.
Rebecca reveled in his mouth on her breast and the stroke of his hand against her hip. He lifted the hem of her night rail, and the delightful press of his knee disappeared. She whimpered softly, but then his hand was between her thighs. He stroked her sex, almost cautiously at first, then with more demand. He focused his attention on the nub at the top—the place Horatio never seemed to realize existed—and drove her into a frenzy of desire.
His mouth left her breast, prompting her to whimper once more. Her nipple felt swollen and wonderfully heavy. The sensation carried through her, weighing her body with a hunger she’d never experienced.
She tangled her fingers in his thick hair as he moved down her body. He gently pushed her thighs wider apart just before his lips descended on her there. Did he mean to…? She was aware of this act, but Horatio had never done it. And honestly, the thought of him doing it had repulsed her. But this, Creslow’s head buried between her thighs, was a forbidden desire she’d never expected.
His breath caressed her sex just before he licked her. Rebecca bit her lip to keep from crying out. She dug her fingers into his head as her hips twitched.
He moved his hand beneath her backside, lifting her for his feast as his lips and tongue delivered a devastating havoc on her sex. She couldn’t keep from moving, from seeking that which was so close. But this was vastly different from anything she’d ever experienced. It wasn’t a difficult climb to find the pinnacle. This was a torrent of sensation and pleasure, sending her racing toward completion.
As he suckled the nub, he slid his finger into her sex. She couldn’t keep from crying out then. Her body shook with the storm, the impending crash. He brought her leg over his shoulder and gave her everything she needed.
Her world exploded with fire and ecstasy. He held her, his hand clasping her thigh as he guided her through the beautiful ravishment he’d visited upon her. Rebecca knew in that moment that her life was forever changed. She didn’t have to settle or be grateful for what she’d been given. There was more out there in the world—happiness, self-indulgence, the absolutely unexpected.
When her body quieted, he moved away from her, pulling her night rail back over her sex. Rebecca’s legs felt as though they were made of jelly. She looked up at him, seated at the other end of the settee, his body angled toward her. He wore a devilishly captivating, almost smug smile, and his banyan was slightly askew. Despite her extreme satisfaction, she was actually growing aroused again just looking at him.
“I suspect you’ll sleep better tonight,” he said. “At least, I hope so.”
Given how languorous her limbs felt, she had to agree. “I feel as though you’ve given me a great gift. I’ve never had that before.”
His brows drew together, and he leaned slightly forward. “Which part? I mean, that particular act or, and I hate to think this since you were married, the experience of an orgasm?”
Finally, she understood that word. “Both, really. I have found release, but only by my own hand.”
Anger flashed across his features. “Your husband was clearly a selfish pig.”
Now more than ever, Rebecca didn’t want to think of Horatio. “I’m not selfish. How can I return this delightful gift you’ve given me?”
Before he could respond, a sound from the doorway made them both sit up straight. Rebecca drew her dressing gown tightly about herself.
A footman stood at the entrance to the library, his gaze trained on the hearth. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “This is my last stop before turning in.”
“It’s quite all right,” Creslow said casually as he rose from the settee. He offered his hand to Rebecca. The moment her palm touched his, she wanted to slide her hand farther up his arm and draw him close. She wanted to explore every part of him.
Would he invite her to his bed? It was a house party after all.
“Ah, Lord Creslow, that is you.” The footman spoke hesitantly, almost nervously. “Your presence was requested in the billiards room. I just came from there, and a few gentlemen were hoping you’d return. Indeed, I think one was planning to rouse you from your slumber.” He paused before adding, “I’ll return in a few minutes.” Then he hastily retreated.
The marquess muttered something. He turned to Rebecca, his thumb stroking her hand. Was he aware of the caress, or did he do it without thought? “I’m afraid I must go and see to whichever drunken fellow is seeking me out, not that I’m dressed for it.” He glanced down at himself before meeting her gaze once more. “I thank you for a most spectacular encounter.” He leaned toward her and brushed his lips against hers.
Rebecca took her free hand and clasped his shoulder, holding him while she deepened the kiss for a brief moment. When at last she pulled back, he regarded her with a heat that only stoked her arousal. She looked forward to seeing him tomorrow—and perhaps some time after that.
And for what? A torrid affair?
She’d be more than agreeable.
“You go first,” he said, letting go of her hand. “We shouldn’t be seen together—the footman’s arrival was inopportune enough.”
Rebecca wanted to say that her reputation wouldn’t suffer, but she was a widow still in half mourning. While it might be acceptable for her to attend a local house party, it would be improper for her to be seen cavorting about in the middle of the night with a handsome marquess.
“Thank you,” she said softly. “I shall sleep better than ever, I suspect. Good night.” She forced herself to leave and instead focus on, hopefully, their next encounter.
“Good night,” he called after her.
She turned at the doorway, and the image of him standing there, his dark hair tousled and the faint outline of his aroused cock creasing his garments, seared into her mind. Then she turned and left.
When she entered her room, she couldn’t help but glance toward the wall separating her chamber from Aunt Jennet’s. As much as Rebecca had detested Horatio, she adored his Aunt Jennet, who’d been nothing but kind, including bringing Rebecca to this house party, where she’d had a completely unexpected and amazing encounter.
Perhaps even life-changing.
She’d got a glimpse of what she’d missed being married to Horatio, and for the first time, she wondered if she might want to try that again. Marriage. Perhaps this time she could be certain there was love.
Her mourning period would end in January, and then she could decide what to do. In the meantime, she was grateful for Aunt Jennet’s generosity, and she would do what she could to support a match between Delia and the young gentleman.
Beyond that, Rebecca would look forward to making a home for herself and perhaps even finding love. Did that include the love of her family back in Marrywell?
Once she’d escaped the coldness of her childhood home, she’d never expected to return. She’d also never expected her marriage to be as disappointing as it had been or that her husband would die, leaving her childless and without means.
She could go home…
Her ruthless mother was gone—sent away by Rebecca’s younger sister with a tidy sum upon which to live. That sister, Leah, had returned to Marrywell and married the man she’d loved for practically forever. How wonderful it would to be to see her sister so happy, but painful too, since Rebecca wanted that and doubted she’d be so lucky. Which was fine. Leah deserved that joy more than anyone.
Rebecca’s insides twisted. Whenever she thought of returning, she felt queasy. Facing Leah meant confronting a past of which Rebecca was terribly ashamed.
Better to look forward. If that future happened to include the deliriously wonderful Marquess of Creslow, Rebecca would have no complaints.
However, an affair with the marquess was not an occupation nor was it a marriage. And she couldn’t keep living off Aunt Jennet’s good will. If her sister Leah could make her way outside Marrywell as a paid companion—which was how she’d left several years ago before returning last spring—then Rebecca could find…something.
The question was, what would that something be?Return to Matching the Marquess