Days of Rakes and Roses

By: Anna Campbell

Prologue

 
Fentonwyck, Derbyshire, July 1816
 
“I’ve waited my whole life to kiss you.”
Good heavens! Lady Lydia Rothermere could hardly credit what Simon Metcalf said, or the urgency in his manner while he said it. When he grabbed her hand, the heat of his touch sizzled right to her toes, left her feeling jumpy and needy.
As he lured her a step closer to the hayshed, her voice emerged high and breathy with excitement. “You’re utterly mad.”
“Not mad, merely desperate. You’ve avoided me all summer.” He gave her the dazzling smile that always made her yearning heart tumble against her ribs. “Now I’ve got you to myself, I intend to take full advantage.”
“A-advantage?” Nervously she glanced around the empty stable yard, but nobody was present to observe Sir Reginald Metcalf’s second son making inappropriate advances to the Duke of Sedgemoor’s daughter. His Grace was away in London and not due back until tonight. In his absence, the estate slumbered. The noonday light beat down on the cobbles with almost Mediterranean intensity.
Her senses reeled. Could this really be happening to her? Could Simon be staring at her as if she made the sun rise every day?
She’d been in love with Simon Metcalf since she was four when, as an impossibly grown-up eight-year-old, he’d comforted her after she skinned her knee on the drive. He’d been a handsome boy, tall and strong, with golden hair and laughing blue eyes. He’d matured into a strikingly handsome man, something she was miserably reminded of whenever she saw her uninspiring features reflected in a looking glass.
Hopeless pining had transformed into humiliating torment this last year, since she’d turned sixteen and her fantasies had taken a disturbing direction. She’d spent her life praying for the boy from the neighboring estate to talk to her and smile at her and ask her to dance. Now her dreams, waking and sleeping, had become blatantly physical. Dreams of Simon touching and kissing her. Dreams that left her restless and unhappy and deeply ashamed. As a result, whenever she’d seen Simon this summer, she’d mumbled and blushed and generally acted like a ninny. How she regretted that their easy friendship had deteriorated into awkward self-consciousness.
But now when she studied his vivid features, she read an intensity that trapped the breath in her throat. Even in her innocence, she knew that he meant to kiss her. A thrill shivered through her.
“Come with me,” he said with another daredevil smile, drawing her into the shadowy hayshed. Out of the sun, she should feel cooler, but her blood pumped so furiously, she felt likely to melt into a puddle of longing.
Just past the entrance, Lydia stumbled to a halt and blinked up at Simon in shy astonishment. Her grip tightened on the red rose he’d presented to her when he’d persuaded her to abandon her work in the stillroom. A thorn pricked her thumb, but she hardly noticed the sting amongst all the turbulent sensations assailing her.
Her fear momentarily outweighing Simon’s powerful attraction, she made another unconvincing attempt to pull free. If her father learned she’d been alone with Simon, there would be the devil to pay. Horror of scandal had been drummed into her from the cradle. “You know we can’t.”
He laughed softly, his teeth white against his tanned face. “Of course we can.”
With a blatantly bold gesture, as if he set great events in train, he reached behind her to shut the door. She jumped when the latch clanged down, enclosing them in a world fragrant with last summer’s grass. Persistent sunbeams pierced the cracks in the joinery, lighting the strangely intimate twilight and tracing Simon in gold.
Her heart racing so frantically that he surely must hear it, Lydia let him lead her toward the rear of the barn. She was overwhelmingly aware of their joined hands. The slight roughness of his palms. The firm grip of his long fingers. The soft friction of skin on skin. Excitement trilled through her like a melody.
“Papa would have a fit if he saw us.” Scandal had shadowed the Rothermere family for years. To counter the notoriety, her father had always insisted on perfect behavior from Lydia and her older brother Camden.
“Papa’s not here,” Simon whispered, stopping and turning to face her.
He lifted her trembling hand and pressed it flat against his chest. Beneath her palm, his heart hammered as hard as hers did. Bedazzled, she stared up at him, conscious of his height and the radiating heat of his body and how close he stood.
“What do you want, Simon?” she summoned courage to ask, staring into eyes that burned like sapphire flame. The prospect of Simon kissing her slammed down, settled unfamiliar weight at the base of her belly.
His eyelids fell as he studied her lips. As if he took in her scent, his nostrils flared. She’d known him all her life, but the sexual charge that buzzed between them now was unfamiliar. Both frightening and alluring.
“I want you,” he murmured.
Her startled exhalation emerged as a squeak. “You do?”
“More than the hope of heaven,” he said raggedly, meeting her gaze. In his eyes, she read an ardor that she’d never imagined she’d arouse in any man, let alone her beloved Simon.
“Oh.” Her stomach churned with unbearable anticipation. Constructing a complete sentence demanded too much of her flustered mind.
“Now be quiet and kiss me, Lydia.” The laughter that was so much a part of the man she loved bubbled beneath his low command.
“But—”
He caught her face between his palms and pressed his mouth to hers. She’d imagined this moment so often, never thinking it would happen outside her fantasies. She quivered as unfamiliar sensation shimmered through her. The satiny brush of his lips created delicious warmth. He tasted like salty honey. His musky scent, tinged with horses and leather, made her head spin.
She hovered on the verge of succumbing to the pleasure when he raised his head. His blue eyes were so dark they looked black. “Any more buts?”
“Please… don’t stop.” She sighed, sagging against him and letting the rose drop to the dusty floor.
She caught a flash of what might have been triumph in his face. “Never, love.”
A daring she didn’t know she possessed made her curl her hands over his powerful shoulders. It was difficult to believe that he gave her permission to touch him. More, that he wanted her to touch him. He’d always seemed so impossibly out of reach. Not just because of the four-year gap in their ages, but because he was beautiful and brilliant and all the girls wanted him. Whereas she was quiet and serious and liked to play the observer.
Yet astonishingly, it seemed that he was within reach after all. So within reach that his body pressed close to hers, awakening all sorts of delicious, unprecendented reactions.
When he bent his head, his kiss was all purpose. His tongue teased the seam of her lips, coaxing her toward something which she instinctively knew related to those forbidden feelings that kept her awake every night.
A muffled sound of enjoyment escaped her and he took advantage of her parted lips to spear his tongue inside her mouth. The act was bizarre, discomfiting. Then even as the urge to withdraw pricked at her, strangeness melted into wonder.
Hesitantly she moved her tongue against his. Simon groaned with wordless satisfaction. And for the first time, she truly believed that he wanted her as she wanted him.
Startled joy swelled in her heart, swamping caution. Confidence flooded her and a burning curiosity to discover where these caresses might lead. Lydia closed her eyes and sank into darkness sparking with bliss like twinkling stars in a midnight sky.
Her inchoate longings flared into a blaze of delight. Her hands curved around his neck, bringing that marvelous, skillful mouth closer. His taste invaded her senses. The scent of his skin, familiar and yet not, made her giddy, as if she’d imbibed too much claret.
His hard, strong hands—hands that she’d seen catch cricket balls and untangle fishing lines and calm a hundred fractious horses—trailed up her ribs to cup her breasts. The distant reaches of her mind rang with warning, but all promptings of self-preservation faded under pleasure.
She clung to him, running her hands up and down his long back. She loved his lean power, the hard lines of muscle and bone, so different from her own soft curves. Her nipples tightened into aching points as his caresses ventured nearer to her breasts. Heat pooled between her legs. Blindly she rubbed against him. She was innocent, but not so innocent that she misunderstood the hardness pressing her belly.
She moaned a protest as he drew slightly away. “Lydia, we need to stop. You’re everything I want, but on my honor, I didn’t mean to go this far.”
He sounded breathless and shaken, not at all like the brash university buck who had so daunted her this summer. She’d counted every day he’d been at Oxford. Then when he’d finally returned, she’d hardly mustered courage to say hello.
All her life, she’d been afraid: of displeasing her father, of tarring the family name, of breaking her heart over a man who didn’t want her. But now she knew Simon did indeed want her. His unabashed desire banished all fear, created a new, brave Lydia who scorned her previous self’s timidity.
She cupped his cheek, staring into eyes opaque with need. He looked strained and unsure as she’d never seen him before. “Kiss me again.”
His laugh was unsteady, and he stroked her jaw with a tenderness that set her heart somersaulting. “You test my control to the limits, lovely girl. If I kiss you again, it won’t stop at a kiss.”
Knowing she was about to make a decision that could destroy her life, but unable to relinquish this enchantment, she snatched a shallow breath. She was more frightened that Simon would never touch her again than she was of any consequences. “I don’t want you to stop.”
Happiness transfigured his face. “Lydia—”
Brazenly she rose on her toes until her lips touched his. She felt him struggle for control, even as his hands drifted down to clasp her waist and bring her near again. She knew the precise moment when he gave in. His mouth ravished hers with a passion that made her toes curl in her half-boots while his hands deftly released the hooks on the back of her gown.
Carefully, as though she might break if he handled her too roughly, he drew her down to kneel with him on the soft hay. She clasped her sagging bodice to her chest and met his eyes.
He looked at her as if he loved her. She could deny him nothing when he looked at her like that.
The last of her uncertainty evaporated and her heart began to bang hard against her ribs. She slid her hand free of her gown so that her dress slipped to her waist, revealing her transparent shift. Simon’s eyes burned as they focused on her body.
“Oh, my darling—” He reached out to trace the lacy edge of her shift, slowly dragging it lower. Her eyelids fluttered down as she ceded herself to the promise of rapture.
Then, when finally everything in Lydia’s world miraculously turned right, the barn door crashed open and everything in her world shattered into irredeemable disaster.

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