Southampton, England 1815
Sara pressed her fingers to her mouth to stop from gasping as she watched the man and woman writhe together on the tangled bedsheets. Daisy’s plump thighs were locked around the hips of the man who pushed relentlessly inside her. The violent rhythm of his thrusts made the iron bedstead creak as Daisy moaned and cried out his name.
Sara knew she should move away from the half-opened door. But she couldn’t take her gaze away from the frenzied activity on the bed. Her skin prickled, and her heart thumped hard against her breasts.
When Daisy screeched and convulsed as if she were suffering a fit, a small sound escaped Sara’s lips. To her horror, the man on top of Daisy reared back as though he’d heard something. He turned his head, and his eyes locked with hers. Sara spun away, gathered her shawl around her shoulders, and stumbled back along the corridor. She had her hand on the landing door when footsteps behind her made her pause.
“Did you enjoy that?”
Lord Valentin Sokorvsky’s amused voice halted Sara’s hurried retreat. Reluctantly she turned to face him. He strolled toward her, tucking his white shirt into his unfastened breeches. His discarded coat, waistcoat, and cravat hung over his arm. A thin glow of perspiration covered his tanned skin, a testament to his recent exertions.
Sara drew herself up to her full height. “The question of enjoyment did not arise, my lord. I merely confirmed my suspicions that you are not a fit mate for my youngest sister.”
Lord Valentin was close enough now for Sara to stare into his violet eyes. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. His body was as graceful as a Greek sculpture, and he moved like a trained dancer. Although she mistrusted him, she yearned to reach out and stroke his lush lower lip just to see if he was real. His hair was a rich chestnut brown, held back from his face with a black silk ribbon. An unfashionable style, but it suited him.
He arched one eyebrow. Every movement he made was so polished, she suspected he practiced each one in the mirror until he perfected it. His open-necked shirt revealed half a bronzed coin strung on a strand of leather and hinted at the thickness of the hair on his chest.
“Men have … needs, Miss Harrison. I’m sure your sister is aware of that.”
As he moved closer, Sara tried to take shallow breaths. His citrus scent was underscored by another more powerful and elusive smell that she realized must be sex. She’d never imagined lovemaking had a particular scent. She’d always thought procreation would be a quiet orderly affair in the privacy of a marriage bed, not the primitive, noisy, exuberant mating she’d just witnessed.
“My sister is a lady, Lord Sokorvsky. What would she know of men’s desires?”
“Enough to know that a man looks for heirs and obedience from his wife and pleasure from his mistress.”
She felt a rush of anger on her sister’s behalf. “Perhaps she deserves more. Personally, I cannot think of anything worse than being trapped in a marriage like that.”
His extraordinary eyes sparked with interest as he appeared to notice her nightclothes and bare feet for the first time. Sara edged back toward the door. He angled his body to block her exit.
“Is that why you frequent the servants’ wing in the dead of night? Have you decided to risk all for the love of a common man?”
Sara blushed and clutched her shawl tightly to her breasts. “I came to see if what my maid told me was true.”
“Ah.” He glanced back down the corridor. “Daisy is your maid?” He swept her an elegant bow. “Consider me well and truly compromised. What do you intend to do? Insist I marry her? Go and tell tales to your father?”
She glared at him. How could she tell her father that the man he regarded as a protégé was a licentious rake? And then there was the matter of Lord Sokorvsky’s immense wealth. Her father’s seafaring enterprises had not faired well in recent years.
She licked her lips. His interested gaze followed the movement of her tongue. “My father thinks very highly of you. He was delighted when you offered to marry one of his daughters.”
He leaned his shoulder against the wall and considered her, his expression serious. “I owe your father my life. I would marry all three of you if such a thing were allowed in this country.”
“Fortunately for you, it is not,” Sara snapped. His face resumed the lazy, taunting expression she had come to dread. “As to my purpose, I thought to appeal to your better nature. I wanted to ask you not to dishonor my sister by taking a mistress after you wed and to remain true to your vows.”
He stared at her for a long moment and then began to laugh. “You expect me to remain faithful to your sister forever?” His eyes darkened to reveal a hint of steel. “In return for what?”
“I won’t tell my father about your dishonorable behavior tonight. He would be so disappointed in you.”
His smile disappeared. He stepped so close his booted feet nudged Sara’s bare toes. “That’s blackmail. And there’s no way in hell you would ever know whether I kept my word or not.”
Sara managed a small triumphant smile. “You do not keep your promises then? You are a man without honor?”
He put his fingers under her chin and jerked her head up to meet his gaze. She found it difficult to breathe as she gazed into his amazing eyes. Why hadn’t she realized that beneath his exquisite exterior lay a deadly iron will?
“I can assure you, I keep my promises.”
Sara found her voice. “Charlotte is only seventeen. She knows little of the world. I am only trying to protect her.”
He released her chin and slid his fingers down the side of her throat to her shoulder. To her relief, his air of contained violence dissipated.
“Why didn’t your parents put you forward to marry me? You are the oldest, are you not?”
She glanced pointedly at his hand, which still rested on her shoulder. “I’m twenty-six. I had my chance to catch a husband. I had a Season in London and failed to capitalize on it.”
He curled a lock of her black hair around his finger. She shivered. His rapt expression intensified.
“Charlotte is the most beautiful and biddable of my sisters. She deserves a chance to become a rich man’s wife.”
His soft laugh startled her, and his warm breath fanned her neck. “Like me, you mean?”
Sara stared boldly into his eyes. “Yes, although …” She frowned, distracted by his nearness. “Emily might be a better match for you. She is more impressed by wealth and status than Charlotte.”
“You possess something neither of your sisters has.”
Sara bit her lip. “You don’t need to remind me. Apparently I am impulsive and too direct for most men’s taste.”
He tugged lightly on the curl of her hair. “Not all men. I have been known to admire a woman with drive and determination.”
She lifted her gaze and met his eyes. Something urgent sparked between them. She fought a desire to lean closer and rub her cheek against his muscular chest. “I think I will make a far better spinster aunt than a wife. At least I will be able to be myself.”
His lazy smile was as intimate as a caress. “But what about the joys of the marriage bed? Might you not regret sampling those?”
She gave a disdainful sniff. “If what I have just seen is an example of those ‘joys,’ perhaps I am well rid of them.”
His fingers tightened in her hair. “You didn’t enjoy watching me fuck your maid?”
Sara gaped at him.
His smile widened. He extended his index finger and gently closed her mouth. “Not only are you a prude, Miss Harrison, but you are also a liar.”
Heat flooded her cheeks. Sara wanted to cross her arms over her breasts. She trembled when he stepped back and studied her.
“Your skin is flushed, and I can see your nipples through your nightgown. If I slid my hand between your legs, I wager you’d be wet and ready for me.”
Sara’s fingers twitched in an instinctive impulse to slap his handsome face. She waited for a rush of anger to fuel her courage, but nothing happened. Only a strange sense of waiting, of tension, of need-as if her body knew something her mind hadn’t yet understood. She let him look at her, tempted to take his hand and press it to her breast. Somehow she knew he would assuage the pulsing ache that flooded her senses.
As if he’d read her thoughts, he reached out and circled the tight bud of her nipple. Sara closed her eyes as a pang of need shot straight to her womb.
His low voice broke the spell. She covered herself with her shawl and backed away. As soon as she managed to wrench the door open, she ran. His laughter pursued her down the stairwell.
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Valentin stared after Sara Harrison as his shaft thickened and grew against his unbuttoned breeches. He absentmindedly set himself to rights and considered her reaction to him. She needed a man inside her whether she realized it or not. Perhaps he should reconsider his plan to marry the young and oh-so-biddable Charlotte.
His smile faded as he followed Sara down the stairs. John Harrison had a special bond with his eldest daughter. Knowing Valentin’s sordid history, would John allow him to marry his favorite child? It was interesting that she hadn’t been offered to him as a potential bride to begin with.
He strolled down one flight of stairs and made his way back along the darkened corridor to his bedroom. There was no sign of Sara.
Valentin surveyed his empty bed and imagined Sara lying naked in the center, her long black hair spread on the pillows, her arms open wide to welcome him. He frowned as his cock throbbed with need. Sara Harrison would not be a complacent wife. To lay the ghosts of his past, he needed to settle down with a conventional woman who would present him with children and leave him to his own devices.
Before leaving town, he’d spent an uproarious evening with his friends and current mistress, composing a list of the qualities a man required in a society wife. One of her sisters would definitely be a better choice. He suspected Sara would be a challenge.
Her frank curiosity stirred his senses. He’d wanted to part her lips and take her mouth to see how she tasted. He’d forgotten how erotic a first kiss could be, having moved onto more interesting territory a long time ago. Her innocence and underlying sensuality deserved to be explored. Wasn’t that what he truly craved?
He stripped off his clothes and let them drop to the floor. The meager fire had gone out, and coldness crept through the ill-fitting windows and door. At least he had a few days’ grace before he needed to make his decision. John Harrison was not due to return to his family until Friday night. Valentin climbed into bed. His brief, interrupted tryst with the enthusiastic Daisy had done little to slake his desire.
Valentin tried to ignore the unpleasant smell of damp and mildewed sheets as he closed his fist around his erection and stroked himself toward a climax. Imagining it was Sara who touched him made him want to come quickly. He didn’t allow her image to destroy the sensual buildup of sexual anticipation that burned through his aroused body.
He pictured her startled face as she’d watched him fuck Daisy. Had she wanted to touch him herself? The thought made him shudder. His body jerked as he climaxed. He closed his eyes, and a vision of Sara’s passionate face flooded his senses.
His last thought as sleep claimed him was of her coming under him as he took his release deep inside her again and again.
Sara glanced over her shoulder as Charlotte’s girlish giggle rang out again. Whatever Lord Sokorvsky had said was obviously highly amusing. She resisted an urge to frown at the engrossed couple. She’d asked him to pay more attention to Charlotte and had no right to feel disappointed because he’d heeded her words. In truth, she should be delighted. She took a savage swipe at a buttercup in the grass with her parasol and decapitated it.
Daisy, her maid, had been ecstatic about Lord Sokorvsky’s prowess in bed. Apparently he was the best lover Daisy had ever had. She’d gone on and on about the size of his cock and exactly what he could do with it until Sara begged her to stop.
Surely a true gentleman would make love to a woman with more gentleness and civility? Lord Sokorvsky reminded her of a swaggering pirate. Even his skin was tanned like a commoner. And the way he’d rutted with Daisy … She ignored the subtle throb of desire she experienced low in her stomach every time she pictured that rude coupling.
She sighed as she reckoned the distance to the ruins of the medieval castle on the hilltop above them. Her mother had arranged the outing in the hopes of furthering Charlotte’s acquaintance with Lord Sokorvsky. To Sara’s surprise, her plan appeared to have worked.
She lifted the hem of her olive-green calico skirt and set off up the last part of the hill. Someone touched her elbow. She turned to find Lord Sokorvsky at her side.
“Good afternoon, Miss Harrison. Are you enjoying the view?”
Sara favored him with a cool smile, aware of the heat of his gloved fingers on her bare skin. “Good afternoon, my lord. The view was delightful until you obscured it. Please feel free to find another, less able lady to assist up the hill.”
His fingers tightened on her arm. “But I wish to walk with you. You left me in a devil of a quandary last night.”
She shot him a suspicious glance. “I am glad you have reconsidered your options and that I was able to guide you.”
He looked politely confused and then gave her a slow smile that screamed danger. “I’m not talking about your little moral lecture but something far more important that kept me up,” he glanced down at his breeches, “and awake for most of the night.”
Sara kept her gaze on the ragged yellow grass in front of her. Did he think she was naive enough to ask him to explain himself?
“You are far too modest, my dear. Would you not like to know what I am referring to?”
Sara counted each torturous step and tried to control her ragged breathing. Her temper smoldered as the slope grew steeper.
“I was thinking about your breasts.” He glanced at her averted profile. “If I might be even more specific, I spent several hours wondering what color your nipples are. Some women’s nipples match the color of their lips, others are a surprise. Now, your lips are a deep rose pink. Are your nipples the same shade?”
To her annoyance, her nipples hardened into two tight buds as if they enjoyed being discussed. She continued to slog up the hill, refusing to join in such an insulting conversation. An urge to shove her outrageous companion in the chest and watch him roll merrily down the hill threatened to overcome her.
Lord Sokorvsky laughed softly as they reached the outer ring of fallen stones. “Silent, my dear Miss Harrison? That seems so unlike you. Perhaps you are breathless after our steep climb.”
She stepped back and planted the tip of her parasol in the center of his chest. She met his amused violet eyes, a challenge in her gaze. Before she could apply any real force, Lord Sokorvsky brought his hand up and yanked the parasol from her grasp.
“Oh, no, you don’t.”
Deprived of her weapon, Sara cried out as she lost her footing and fell forward. He caught her in his arms and deliberately pulled her flush to his chest. The strength of his muscled grip surprised her. His heart thumped against her cheek as she struggled to right herself.
“Are you all right, Sara?”
Charlotte’s anxious question made Sara jerk herself free. Lord Sokorvsky’s triumphant grin disappeared as he turned to speak to her sister.
“All is well, Miss Charlotte. Your dear sister felt unwell after her exertions.” He bowed to Sara, a picture of concern, and placed his hand over his heart. “I am simply glad that I was available to help a beautiful damsel in distress.”
Sara straightened her bonnet. “You, sir, are no knight,” she hissed as soon as her sister’s back was turned.
His eyebrow rose in a slow arc. “I never said I was. And if you choose to challenge me, don’t expect to be treated like a lady.”
She swung on her heel and stomped off across the grassy mound of the ruined bailey to find better company. This was the second time Lord Sokorvsky had bested her in a fight. Should she ignore him for the duration of his visit and hope he made the right decision about Charlotte or continue to try to influence him? She couldn’t decide.