It was not yet half past nine. The pendulum in the mahogany longcase clock on the landing was swinging steadily, measuring out the seconds of her ordeal, but neither of the fingers seemed to be moving. Not even half past nine yet, and already she felt so nauseous that she had to concentrate not to allow her knees to buckle underneath her. A film of moisture was beginning to tickle on her upper lip. A sharp pain ran through her left arm when it was pinched between long fingernails.
‘Stop fidgeting, girl!’ her mother hissed. ‘Sir John and Lady Wells … Lady Wells, how kind of you to find the time to follow our invitation! Sir John – oh, how well you look! Quite in the pink of health! Lady Wells, how pleased you must be to see your husband so wonderfully recovered!’
‘I am indeed very well, for the time being, dear Lady Gaythorne,’ Sir John replied, gratified at his hostess’s interest in his invariably minor ailments. ‘My visit to Baden has done me so much good. What a blessing, to finally be able to travel the continent again unhindered by war! We owe the great Duke all gratitude!’
‘My feelings exactly, Wells, when I went to Paris last month!’ Lord Gaythorne joined his wife in greeting their guests. ‘Lady Wells, your servant… – Do you know, it’d been an age since I’d been to Paris – not since the Peace, in ’02! And the strange and wonderful thing is that the place hasn’t changed nearly as much as you’d expect. Excellent entertainments, and the most stimulating company! You must come, Wells, it will do you a world of good!’
‘Tea!’ Lady Wells decided in a dry tone of voice and steered her husband away from such immoralising influence.
Gaythorne chuckled. ‘A month away from that harridan is all he requires to set him up… poor John. Well, I suppose you have everything in hand here, my dear? Then I will go and play the humble host …’
Mother and daughter watched the retreating back of their lord and master.
‘And what are you sneering at, young lady?’
Sarah cast down her eyes and bit her lip.
‘Not sneering, ma’am, by no means. Merely rejoicing at the prospect of becoming a married woman, too, and being humiliated by my husband in front of my guests.’
‘Insolence! I hope Brennan is going to beat you when you show such insolence towards him!’
‘Insolence?’ Sarah’s throat was so tight with rage she thought she would gag on it. ‘Is it insolence to wish that my husband won’t mention his … the ‘stimulating company’ he finds elsewhere, in public? Is it disrespectful of me to hope and pray that he will not flaunt his disrespect of me, his complete lack of interest in me, in his wife?’
‘Wife? What’s all this? I keep hearing talk of wives, and weddings, and I refuse to believe it’s true!’
Both women stared at the single gentleman who had ascended the stairs. Sarah was the first to react.
‘Mr Mainwearing!’ she squealed and rushed towards him to grab his hand.
‘Don’t scold her, madam – it’s a hopeless enterprise, trying to tame a kitten!’ Philip Mainwaring laughed. ‘Besides, how would I know that I’m welcome in your house – turning up unannounced, unbidden – if this kitten didn’t maul me? Eh, little one?’
Sarah blushed down to the white lace that peeped up from the décolletage of her gown and released the arm she had been clutching.
‘When did you return to England? Does Gaythorne know? My, Philip, but you look terrible!’ Never one to let an opportunity pass by to make a value judgement, Lady Gaythorne crooned at his evident discomfort. Mainwaring ran his hands along the front of his dark satin coat and stretched his shoulders.
‘You don’t think I’m turned out spruce enough for your house, Emily?’
‘Oh, it’s not your dress; although you really must give away these Italian coats, Philip, they may be well enough for continentals, but London society demands a bit more of an effort. No, you’re deplorably thin, and you’ve gone grey! I would not have recognised you!’
His hair stood on end in thick, grizzled tufts as he pushed his fingers into it.
‘Someone should tell Wellington that the physical hardship undergone by the diplomatic corps is as dire as that suffered by the military,’ he grinned. ‘Besides, Emily, recall that your husband and I are going to be forty years old this year. I’m sure that entitles me to some grey hair – and him to a little more circumference!’
At the mention of her husband’s paunch, Lady Gaythorne snorted.
‘Pray don’t go and encourage him, Mr Mainwaring. I take it that you’ve met Gaythorne since you’ve been back?’
‘At White’s, on Thursday night. But briefly – not worth mentioning at home, I daresay.’
In fact, her husband had had no opportunity to tell her of the return of his schoolfriend because she had not set eyes on him for five days before this evening. Lady Gaythorne clasped her daughter’s elbow again and propelled her towards the drawing-room.
‘Sarah, go and introduce Mr Mainwaring to the Brennans. And see casino şirketleri that he has a drink!’
‘Yes, Mother. Come, sir, into the sharks’ pool.’
He noticed a brief moment’s hesitation before she took his arm again.
‘So – who’s the young buck your mother wants to beat you?’
‘Oh… you heard that…’
‘Yes, I heard that!’ he shot back, exasperated. ‘I may be fast sinking into decrepitude, but I have the use of all my faculties yet!’
‘Oh, that’s good!’ Sarah giggled and shot him a glance that he found hard to read. Mainwaring had for long minutes now been labouring under the awareness that one of his faculties, at least, was extremely keen and active; but that was not something this young girl could possibly have noticed. His sudden shotrness of breath at seeing her at the top of the stairs: a lithe, sparkling figure all in white beaded muslin, her red-golden hair – he’d called her a ginger kitten when she was little, making her growl and kick at him – an artful mass of curls intertwined with gold ribbon. She was radiant, in white and gold, an exquisitely perplexing mixture of a girl he remembered and a young woman he was meeting for the first time.
He had pretended with himself that it was not she, and she alone, whom he longed to see when he walked along Grosvenor Square towards the Gaythorne residence. And he had pretended to be curious, in an entirely avuncular fashion, at how she had turned out, the scruffy child with the wide-set green eyes and the heart-shaped face. All self-deceit. He had known all along that she would be beautiful, and that she would not grow into a statuesque woman like her mother, but remain boyish and supple like the women in her father’s family. Boyish, he decided after a glance at her chest and her naked shoulders, but by no means bony; and pray God that she had not caught him staring. That she had not caught the quickening of his pulse when she slipped her arm into his, her pale, creamy skin so alluring against the dark blue cloth of his coat that his knees had weakened at the sudden bolt of lust that shot into his thighs.
‘Why are they marrying you off?’ he demanded, uncharacteristically harsh. ‘You’re not even – how old are you? You can’t be a day over seventeen!’
‘I was eighteen last month, sir,’ she retorted, quite on her dignity. ‘In fact, I must be, because you gave me a book of poems for my thirteen’s birthday, just before you left for Italy, and that was five years ago!’
‘So it was…,’ he mused. He had succeeded in making himself forget that last birthday gift to his friend’s young daughter, had deceived himself about his motives in encouraging a child to read the graphically erotic poems of John Donne and Andrew Marvell. A child then, a rebellious, stubborn child, her hair always down her back and round her ears, flouncing off in a huff at her mother’s eternal scoldings; and even then Philip had known as surely as he had ever known anything that a little attention, calm, gentle fingers in her hair, behind her ears, would reduce that spiteful kitten to purring satisfaction. He had never touched her; would never allow himself to even entertain the fantasy. But it had given him deep, illicit pleasure to imagine that she would grow up with the voices of poetic seduction in her mind.
‘Did you read them?’ he asked, as if by the way.
Again that quick, green-eyed glance up at his face, testing the water.
‘Yes … But that Marvell is a brute! How can he think for a moment that any lady would … would have him for her lover, when he says all these horrid things to her? About … her lying in a tomb, and being eaten by worms! Who is going to be persuaded by that? I like John Donne much better.’
Philip’s shoulders shook with laughter; his arm seemed to be tugging at hers. She tightened her grip around his sleeve and caught her breath at the hard, ribbed flesh she felt through coat and shirt. Her mother had called him thin, but he was only thin in comparison with the placid corpulence of her father. Of little more than average height, he had the body of a sportsman, lean and ready for physical action, with that indefinable air of reserve that had protected him in his various diplomatic assignments. When she raised her face to look at him, he was smiling down at her, his sunburnt skin in a dozen little creases around his clear grey eyes.
‘In truth, all of these poets are wide off the mark,’ he heard himself pursue this entirely unsuitable subject. ‘They all maintain the polite fiction that young women need to be persuaded to drop their high principles – and their garments. Whereas the opposite is the case…’
‘Don’t say that,’ she begged him lowly. ‘I can’t tell you how … how abhorred in my imagination it is … my gorge rises at it.’
He smiled at her quotation.
‘Well, at least you haven’t grown into a missish little prude but spent at least some of your time in profitable study. Or have you merely made notes on lines usefully quoted in polite conversation?’
But casino firmaları he received no answer. The bright head at his shoulder remained bent, and he realised that he had been deviating from the topic at hand because it was making him helpless with anguish. He clenched his jaws.
‘Tell me then. Who is the pup?’
She stopped at the threshold to the drawing-room, which was crowded with chattering people.
‘William Brennan. Sir Thomas Brennan’s only son. Perhaps you know him? From Preston.’
Philip shook his head, scanning the room. ‘Never heard of him. A merchant? Full of juice?’
‘That’s it. My father has the title, and the place; Sir Thomas has the money. Cotton mills.’
‘But child -!’ Philip breathed, aghast. ‘Your father could have anyone for you! Why doesn’t he allow you a couple of seasons to show yourself in the world? Have you even been presented?’
‘Yes, in April.’
‘So you’ve been ‘out’ for less than two months! Have you danced? Have you flirted? Have you been kissed? Christ Almighty, Sarah -!’
She could tell how upset he was by the fact that he was using her name.
‘Is it that one?’ With a tiny movement of his eyes and brows, Philip pointed at an unremarkable-looking young man who was lecturing an assembly of politely bored ladies. Whenever he inhaled to embark on another paragraph, he closed his eyes and threw back his head a fraction, apparently feeling that he was holding his audience in thrall. The gesture already irritated Sarah so much that she could have screamed. She sucked in her lips and nodded.
‘Come!’ She tried to draw him along the landing to the stairs that led up to the second floor, but he stood his ground. Her face was a study of wretchedness when she looked up at him. ‘Please come! I can’t talk to you in there!’
‘Where are we going?’ Reluctantly allowing her to take his hand into hers.
‘The nursery. No-one will bother us there.’
I’m extremely bothered already, Mainwaring thought desperately as he ascended the stairs behind her, watching the silk-work muslin cling softly to that eternally fascinating curve of waist and hip. The small of her back deserved that epithet, for she was so finely made that he thought his fingers would touch if he clasped her waist between his hands.
Hot and bothered.
‘Oh!’ she exclaimed under her breath.
‘What?’ He had been following so closely behind her on the stairs that he bumped against her when she stopped in her stride.
‘I didn’t get you a drink! How boring of me! Did you want … shall I …’
Their faces were almost level because she was standing two steps above him. They were not touching, but it was a matter of inches; and for a mind-shattering second Philip imagined them naked, there above the commotion in the house. If he were naked, he thought grimly, and as completely immobile as now, there would still be a connection between them, a rod of flesh between his body and hers, slipping between her soft, warm thighs as she stood before him. The thought did nothing to deflate the instrument that would make that connection.
‘No,’ he said, exhaling carefully. ‘I don’t want a drink. Hurry, before some gossip-monger finds us here … in limbo.’
Purgatory, more like.
As she had promised, the second floor of the house was deserted, and Philip couldn’t stop his heart hammering in his chest, and his blood in his cock, when she opened a door at the far end of the corridor.
‘Kitten, I’m not sure that -‘
‘Light,’ she stated and slipped out into the corridor again to pluck a candle from one of the candleholders. ‘Do I look mad?’ she asked when she returned into the room, the flickering light making a rocking horse canter along the wall.
‘You know – Enter Lady Macbeth with a taper.’
She held out her hand as if it were an object of horror and recoiled from it with melodramatic exaggeration. Then she giggled, the light of the candle danced in her hair, and she looked so heartrendingly bright and beautiful that Philip, feeling like an old lecher, stepped back, trod on a spinning top and stumbled.
‘Wha – Oh, blast it -!’
Instinctively she reached out to steady him; but of course he was far too heavy for her to support, and with only one hand because the other was holding the candle. Staggering under the twin influences of the toy under his foot and the girl on his arm, Philip only regained his balance when the back of his thighs came to rest against the heavy nursery table. The candle had gutted, but his body was burning sky-high.
‘Sarah -!’ he gasped. Like molten wax she lay against him, her arms wrapped around his ribs and her hot face buried in the folds of his neckcloth.
‘I’ve spilt wax on your coat… I’m sorry…’
‘Damn the coat!’ He gripped the edge of the table top behind him with both hands.
‘You must help me!’
‘Child, I … I can’t! If your father has decided that you are to marry that … nincompoop, there’s nothing güvenilir casino I can do! What do you think he would say to me if I tried to dissuade him?’
She leaned back a little, but only to be able to lift her face to him; and he wondered wildly whether she was too innocent to notice his raging hard-on, or whether she was in fact provoking him. The mere idea of pulling that vulnerable, achingly lovely girl into his arms was making him tremble with desire.
White moonlight was playing on her anxious face. Diana, chaste goddess, protect me from myself! he prayed. ‘Yes -?’
‘You said it was a shame that I haven’t had time to be kissed yet. Will you kiss me?’
All the correct and proper responses rose to Philip’s tongue, all culminating in the devastating fact that he was almost a quarter of a century older than she was, and that she was engaged to be married to someone else, to the man of her father’s choice.
He remained silent. And when she stood on tiptoes, sliding up against the front of his body to press her lips to his, he felt as if every bone in his body had suddenly dissolved in scalding water, except that one organ that, miraculously, had no bone in it and yet seemed to have turned into a deadly weapon of assault. His hands slid from her naked shoulders down her back and cupped the firm, round orbs that felt so smooth and silky in the ball gown but, he knew, would feel smoother and silkier still in their natural state.
He kissed her gently, at first, brushing her lips, nipping her, but when she moaned lowly under his caresses and opened her mouth, he gripped her more roughly and plunged in.
‘Oh, sweet…,’ he growled a long minute later. ‘Kissing you is like eating a soft, delicious peach! It’s like eating a peach in paradise … a fruit from the forbidden tree…!’
‘Do it again,’ she breathed, almost inaudible against his mouth.
Eventually he took her face into his hands and held it away from himself to scrutinise it. Arousal, definitely; and anxiety.
‘Do you like that?’ he asked, with nothing to control his fierce, raw hunger than the overwhelming tenderness he felt for her.
She nodded, but her lower lip seemed to quiver. ‘Is it very … dull to kiss a girl who doesn’t know how?’
‘Oh, yes…,’ he smiled. He leant towards her to take that full, wet lip between his teeth and pinch it. ‘Can’t you tell how tedious I’m finding it?’
This made her smile, too, so that her lip slipped from his tender bite. She turned her head to one side and kissed the warm, smooth palm of his hand. Her teeth gleamed in the moonlight as she began to nibble at the tips of his fingers. The sight almost made Philip swoon; she never took her eyes off his. She held his spellbound gaze as she took the top half of his thumb into his mouth and sucked at it. Her tongue rubbed and squeezed the soft pad of his thumb in the moist cavity of her mouth, and she did not stop when his other hand returned to her buttocks and yanked her against himself with convulsive force.
‘Oh, merciful God -!’ he cried. His whole body stiffened, and for a few moments Sarah was frightened by his violence, his arm clamped like a vice around her, his thumb still in her mouth, but then his head dropped backwards, and his bared throat seemed so defenceless, although the muscles and veins on it were almost painfully defined by the paroxysm that shook him.
His breathing continued to be ragged, but after perhaps half a minute his body grew limp. First he merely sagged on the edge of the table, but after a deep groan that appeared to have started life as a laugh of some sort, he fell back along the length of it, one arm across his eyes.
Sarah remained where she was, standing now between his knees, her own legs resting against the table, her hands on his thighs. It reassured her that he was not shouting at her for her lewd behaviour; and truth to say, she felt no sense of wrong at all. Various feelings bobbed to the surface of her mind, and the most prominent were a profound admiration of the male body stretched out before her, a sense of amazement at what she had done and a determination to continue doing it.
Beginning with the long, hard muscles in his thighs, she pushed her hands upwards, past that region that had been the centre of his most intense sensations just now, but was as yet too frightening for her to think of touching.
Ah, no, not to think it…! But … no. Not yet.
Playfully, she slipped her fingers between his shirt and his waistcoat, as far up as they would go without straining the buttons, and the feeling of the smooth, hard male flesh underneath the fine cotton made her breathing grow shallow. The recklessness! The utter and complete recklessness induced by physical pleasure! She did not even know whether he was watching her when she began to undo his waistcoat buttons; she had courage enough to undress him, but not courage enough, suddenly, to look at his face.
When she tugged the shirt from his breeches and brushed the bare skin of his stomach with her palms, he reared up on his shoulders with a groan and his fingers were around her wrists again, staying her.
‘Christ, woman!’ he hissed, angry now, after all.