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Eric crossed the room and took her small form in his arms, crushing the softness and silk of her against his taut, aroused body. He ducked his head to her shoulder and pressed his lips to the smooth white curve. "Lidian," he said hoa.r.s.ely, "my sweet love...you don't have to do this."
"Do you finally believe me?"
"Yes." He let out a long sigh and smoothed his hand over her shining hair. "You don't have to prove anything." He paused and added reluctantly, "We can wait until we're married."
"If that's a proposal, I accept," she whispered, kissing his ear. Boldly she urged his hand to her breast, beneath the thin covering of her chemise.
Eric made a soft sound and fondled the round weight, his touch gentle and ardent. His mouth twisted in a self-mocking smile. "To h.e.l.l with waiting," he muttered, pulling her gown the rest of the way down her body and stripping the chemise from her. Lidian trembled with a peculiar excitement as she stood naked before him, a blush spreading from her head to her toes. Eric sealed his mouth over hers while his hands searched over the pale curves of her b.r.e.a.s.t.s and hips.
Impatiently he shed his own clothes, tossing them to the floor and lifting Lidian in his arms. Carrying her into the bedchamber, he lowered her to the velvet counterpane and stretched his long body over hers. He covered her b.r.e.a.s.t.s with kisses, pausing to bite gently at the sensitive tips and pull them deep into his mouth. Shivering with pleasure, she traced the hard muscles of his back and pressed herself close to him, astonished by the beauty and power of his body. He murmured endearments and praise as he made love to her, fighting to restrain his pa.s.sion. "I've wanted you for so long, Lidian...tried so hard to be patient..."
"You don't have to be patient now," she whispered, touching his chest. It was as hard and smooth as marble, warming beneath her small palms. She felt the pounding of his heart and was amazed that she could affect him so deeply. His hand moved over her stomach to the softness between her thighs, and her breath caught as she felt the intimate stroke of his fingers there. His eyes were clear gray-green pools of light, holding her gaze as he touched her in ways she had never imagined. He pushed her thighs apart and lowered his hips to hers, beginning to enter her. There was a hard, moist probing at her very core, and then a deep, startling thrust. She arched in pain and surprise, but he murmured and kissed her, soothing her until she relaxed beneath him.
They were joined completely, their bodies and hearts pressed so close that they seemed like one being instead of two. Lidian wrapped her arms around his neck, surrendering herself completely to him.
He stared into her small face and smoothed back her hair with an unsteady hand. Pushing deeper inside her, he began a rhythm that made her lips part in soundless wonder. She clung to him, twisting beneath him in rising demand, opening herself wider to him, until all at once the tension broke in a climax of vibrant power.
A long time later, she stirred in his arms and said drowsily, "Our families will be worried. We must leave..."
Eric pressed his lips against her forehead. "I've compromised you."
"Hopelessly," Lidian agreed, tracing an idle pattern on his chest. Her lips curved with a smile. "I hope you're finally convinced of how much I love you."
"Convince me again," he whispered, and pulled her close.
"You look beautiful," Elizabeth said, dabbing at her eyes with a lace handkerchief. They waited together in a small room at the back of the church while the wedding guests were being seated. Lidian smoothed the skirts of her wedding gown, made of layers of delicate white silk and silver trim. The scooped neckline and puffed sleeves were finished with gleaming touches of silver, and the veil was a simple layer of transparent silk fastened to her hair with white roses.
"I suspect you'll be doing this soon with Uncle Garrett," Lidian said.
"That remains to be seen," Elizabeth replied primly.
Lidian laughed. "Everyone knows the two of you adore each other, Mama. I hope you don't make him wait too long."
Elizabeth returned her smile. "We do seem to get on well together," she admitted. "And I am pleased that you asked him to walk you down the aisle in place of your father, Lidian."
There was a knock on the door, and Elizabeth went to open it a crack. She widened it enough to admit Garrett De Gray, who looked exceedingly handsome in a dark formal coat and b.u.t.ter-colored pantaloons.
Garrett smiled at the sight of Lidian in her wedding finery. "My nephew will be so awestruck by your beauty that he'll hardly be able to speak."
"He had better speak," Lidian said with a mock frown. "At least long enough to say his vows."
"Eric asked me to bring this to you." Garrett handed her a small velvet box.
Lidian took the gift with surprise. Nothing could have pleased her more than the wedding present he had already given to her: his promise to have her family estate restored to all its former splendor. Overwhelmed, she had thrown herself into his arms. "If only you knew how I've dreamed of seeing Acland Hall as it once was," she had said, scattering kisses over his face. "It's the most wonderful thing I could ever ask for...well, the secondmost."
"What's the first?" he had asked softly.
"You," she had replied with a smile, staring up at him with glistening eyes.
As Lidian opened the velvet box, Garrett glanced at Elizabeth with obvious admiration. His gaze traveled over her trim form, clad in a peach silk gown. "I can scarcely tell the two of you apart," he murmured.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Your eyesight must be failing."
Lidian looked inside the box and lifted out a solid gold whistle, covered in diamonds and strung on a long gold chain. She smiled, understanding its meaning, and kissed it impulsively.
"What an unusual little ornament," Elizabeth said, staring quizzically at the whistle. "But you certainly can't wear it with your wedding gown, dear."
"I'll carry it along with my flowers for luck." Lidian picked up her flowers and slipped her arm through Garrett's. "I'm ready," she said, and her mother embraced her before leaving to join the congregation.
Waiting with Garrett at the back of the church, Lidian spoke to him quietly. "I hope you have honorable intentions toward my mother, Uncle Garrett."
"I'm afraid I do," he confided. "The De Gray men seem to have quite a fascination for Acland women."
"Thank heaven for that," she said with a smile, and walked with him to the altar, where Eric stood waiting.
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.
The milliner's face glowed with cheerful enthusiasm as she handed a large, ribbon-bedecked hatbox to the tall, dark-haired man. "I hope Miss Heather will be pleased with her new bonnet, Mr. Jeffrey. I'm convinced it's one of my finest creations."
"You've certainly outdone yourself this time, Mrs. Brewster," Jeff Birmingham agreed. "Tis nigh impossible for me to imagine my sister-in-law looking less than radiant in any gift of clothing I buy her, but you always create something exceptional for me to give her for her birthday. I'm indebted to you."
"As I should be to you, Mr. Jeffrey, for what you and your lovely family have done for me. Miss Heather looks so exquisite in my bonnets, every time she's seen wearing one of them in public, my shop overflows with women wanting something just as fetching. Why, since you've been buying gifts for Miss Heather here, my hats have been selling faster than Mrs. Thompson's peach pies."
Jeff laughed with an amiable ease that was contagious. "I'm delighted to have been of some benefit, Mrs. Brewster, though there's no question in my mind that your talent is the real reason for your success. I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't been tempted by the display of beautiful hats in your shop window so long ago."
Thelma Brewster vividly recalled the day two years past when he had come into her shop, looking for all the world like the handsomest man who had ever been born. He had been on much the same quest then and, after carefully perusing her available stock, had described exactly the kind of bonnet he had been looking for, an intricately embellished piece he had seen in a Parisian fashion plate. Though she had advised him of the cost involved, certainly more than she had once considered realistic for the area, he had nevertheless ordered the hat. She had dared more extravagant designs after that, and as a result, her struggling business began to thrive. In spite of his refusal to take any credit for her success, she gave it anyway, knowing she would never have risked venturing beyond her humdrum efforts without having first been challenged by the man.
Since then, she had learned much about Jeff Birmingham, his fine tastes, and his fondness for his family. She was perceptive enough to realize that anyone who doted on his sister-in-law as much as he did would likely coddle his wife as well. That is, if the handsome rake could ever settle his sights on a young lady he wanted to marry. No doubt her business would receive an even greater boost if the future Mrs. Jeffrey Birmingham happened to be as winsome as the present mistress of Harthaven, which seemed a far-fetched feat indeed.
Mrs. Brewster bustled along behind as Jeff made his way toward the door. "You know, Mr. Jeffrey, sometimes I think Miss Heather makes it terribly difficult for you, her being so beautiful and all."
Pausing short of the portal, Jeff turned and raised a dubious brow, somewhat taken aback by her statement. "Your pardon, Mrs. Brewster. I don't think I quite follow you."
The woman lifted her plump shoulders in an innocent shrug. "You're the handsomest bachelor left in these parts, Mr. Jeffrey." She politely refrained from adding, "And also the richest." "So you must be aware of the tizzy you've created, keeping the whole countryside on tenterhooks. People are simply abuzz with conjecture, trying to guess which one of our fair young ladies you'll eventually be choosing for a bride. Personally, I think you'll have a tall order, finding one as rare and as beautiful as Miss Heather. She and Mr. Brandon are a sight to behold when they come into town, and now, with Miss Heather carrying their second child, you'll have absolutely no chance to catch up with your brother, even if you could find a wife to compare."
Jeff smiled in relief, thankful the woman hadn't started to imagine that he was coveting his brother's wife. A few gossips had been rude enough to insinuate such a thing, and he never failed to be appalled by the suggestion that his love for Heather went beyond the boundaries of a deep brotherly affection. "I'm in no hurry, Mrs. Brewster, and believe me, I'm not trying to surpa.s.s my brother. In fact," he lowered his tone as if confiding a well-kept secret, prompting the woman to lean forward in antic.i.p.ation, "I've been far too busy of late to even think of settling down with a wife, much less lend any consideration to starting a family."
Mrs. Brewster was horrified at the thought of the man remaining unattached. "Oh, Mr. Jeffrey, you just can't let Oakley Plantation go without a mistress now that you've finished refurbishing it," she protested. "Your warehouses and lumber mills will grow mighty tiresome in time if you don't have something better to come home to than a big, ol' empty house."
"I'll consider your advice, Mrs. Brewster," Jeff responded, smiling jauntily as he settled a tall beaver hat over his black, neatly cropped hair. Holding the large hatbox aside, he pulled open the door of the millinery shop and winked at the woman as he paused on the threshold. "But I'm afraid I've come to accept my lot as a confirmed bachelor."
"Oh, tish!" Mrs. Brewster waved away his remark. "I'll believe that, you handsome young devil, when I see you laid in your grave with no widow to mourn your pa.s.sing. Now, I'll bid a good day to you, sir, before I set my sights on you myself, lonely widow that I am."
Tipping his hat in a debonair manner, Jeff gave her a rakish grin as he stepped back to the boardwalk. "And what a tempting wife you'd mak-Oooff!"
His last words were jolted from him as a slender, raggedly clad form crashed into him, nearly knocking him back upon his heels and sending his hat and the milliner's box flying helter-skelter. A frightened screech, definitely of a feminine origin, squelched his startled oath as he struggled to regain his balance and, at the same time, a.s.sist the young woman who was teetering precariously toward him on her toes. He straightened to his full height, clasped her narrow waist, and stood her safely upright as he mentally prepared a tactful apology. Then he found himself staring down into the widest, most vivid blue-green eyes he had ever seen in his entire life. A copious wealth of deep auburn hair tumbled in unrestrained confusion around a tear-stained, dirt-streaked face, the sublime beauty of which Mrs. Brewster had just been doubting the existence of.
He was momentarily awestruck as an old familiar dream came winging back to him, one wherein he found himself running across a rolling meadow, chasing the love of his life. Though he had often been haunted by that recurring fantasy, he had never glimpsed the woman's face...until now. It was as if he stood once again on the very brink of that same illusion and looked down upon a visage he had both desired and cherished for at least half a lifetime.
"I beg your pardon, Miss...?" He waited expectantly, hoping she would supply her name, for he was certain it had to be something superlative to do justice to the bearer of it, but his words seemingly fell on deaf ears as the girl tossed an anxious glance over her shoulder. Her eyes widened even more as a giant of a man rounded a distant corner at a run and spied them.
"Hold that girl!" the man bellowed, raising an arm to command their attention. "She's a runaway!"
The girl bolted past Jeff, putting wings to her feet as she leaped over the hatbox and raced into the street, oblivious of an oncoming four-in-hand as she looked back at the man.
Mrs. Brewster screamed and quickly clasped her hands over her eyes to keep from seeing the girl trodden beneath the horses' hooves, but Jeff was already on the run, sprinting behind the fleeing female and, with his long legs, overtaking her.
The girl's breath left her abruptly in surprise as two very capable arms swept her upward against a male form and bore her at a breakneck run toward the far side of the thoroughfare. For a fleeting moment, the din of thundering hooves drowned her outraged protests, but she was determined to berate the man soundly for his improper advances just as soon as she could be heard. Then she glanced over a wide, manly shoulder and gulped as she focused her gaze on a swiftly pa.s.sing coach and the four horses racing ahead of it. The conveyance was so close, the breeze from its pa.s.sage flung dust and grit in her astounded face. She immediately decided she was very fortunate to be alive.
"My goodness!" she murmured breathlessly in awe. "You saved my life!"
The tall gentleman set her to her feet once again, commanding her full attention as he grinned down at her. It was the most dazzling smile she had envisioned since she had given up childish reveries of knights in shining armor.
"I was reluctant to lose you so soon after I found you," Jeff answered glibly, convinced that she had stepped out of his dreams. "What were you running away from in such a panic?"
The shout completely disrupted the girl's tenuous composure, and she would have whirled and fled if not for a large, thick-fingered hand reaching out to seize her upper arm in an unyielding vise.
"Ye're not goin' anywhere, Raelynn Barrett!" the huge man roared ominously. His voice was naturally deep, and though he softened his tone a meager degree as he continued, it still seemed to rock them with its volume. "Not after I've promised ye to another!"
"Unhand that girl, you ruffian!" Thelma Brew-ster demanded as she marched up to them. "This is Charleston, for heaven's sake! No man in his right senses would ever think of accosting a young lady on these streets without fear of being taken to task by our menfolk. You, sir, must be a stranger here to be so vile."
Jeff placed a hand upon the elder woman's arm and c.o.c.ked a warning brow at her, bidding her to hold her silence. He had no idea what kin the man was to the girl, but if the fellow had authority to arrange her life, Jeff could only conclude that he was her father or guardian.
"Perhaps you'd like to step over to Mrs. Brewster's shop and discuss this matter privately," Jeff suggested, briefly indicating the place across the way. His goal was to first try and calm the man with the hope that he would be more reasonable with the girl. A handful of patrons had already gathered from nearby shops, and more were hurrying toward them from across the street and along the boardwalk. "We seem to be attracting a lot of attention here on the street."
"I don't give a blasted hoot who hears me! The little wench is comin' wit' me!"
"Oh, please!" Raelynn sobbed, trying to pry his beefy fingers from her arm. "Please don't sell me to that brute! I've done you no hurt! And you swore on my mother's deathbed that you'd watch over me until I was properly wed. Is this how you keep your promises?"
"Gustav said he'd wed ye when he got around ta it," the man rumbled. "An' that's good enough for me."
"You sold me!" Raelynn railed in a panic. "As soon as our ship touched sh.o.r.e, you went out and sold me to the first buffoon with money enough to suit your purposes." Her voice lowered to a rasping snarl. "I curse the day you came into our lives claiming to be my mother's long lost brother! You took what little wealth we had remaining after my father's death and squandered it buying pa.s.sage on the first ship sailing from England. You might as well have killed my mother yourself! Instead, you let her die of starvation and disease in that rat-infested hold, all for your love of money and gain." Her ire strengthened. "Well, a pox on you, Cooper Frye! I won't be sold to the likes of Gustav Fridrich for two hundred-or even two thousand Yankee dollars!"
"Ye've no choice in the matter, missy," Cooper stated emphatically, drawing the girl relentlessly toward him. "Ye're comin' wit' me right now!"
Jeff had felt his hackles rise even before Mrs. Brewster nudged him sharply in the ribs. He laid a restraining hand upon the other man's wrist and stepped between him and the girl. "Wait a minute, will you?"
"Stay outa this!" Cooper flung the words with enough venom to make Mrs. Brewster stumble back in sudden consternation, but Jeff never wavered before .the other's menacing glare. "'tain't none o' yer affair! This is me niece, an' no other but me own bloomin' self will be decidin' what'll happen to her."
"Well, I'm making it my business..." Jeff said almost pleasantly.
Cooper issued a loud, derisive snort and stepped closer threateningly, pushing his bewhiskered face forward until his broad nose nearly met the thinner, much more n.o.ble one. "Per'aps, stranger, ye'd like to taste me fist in yer mouth."
Jeff refused to retreat before the glowering red eyes that bore into him at very close range, or the foul breath that reeked of a fetid stench like that of one who had pa.s.sed the night swilling strong rum. They were the same height, Cooper Frye easily out-weighing him twice over, but Jeff knew how to handle himself in a fight if it came to that. "You'd be wise to listen to my proposal, Mr. Frye," he cautioned. "If you truly want to sell the girl, then I am offering to buy her."
Mrs. Brewster's startled gasp came a fraction of an instant before Raelynn Barrett caught her own breath in surprise. It remained frozen in her chest as she stared in amazement at the tall, splendidly garbed man who had come into her life only a few moments ago. Why would he want to buy her? With his good looks and polished manners he had no need to lay out coins for a woman, and certainly not such a sorry-looking one as herself. What could he possibly see in her?
A calculating gleam began to shine in Cooper Frye's gray eyes as he considered the expensively garbed man. The dark blue frock coat and gray breeches had obviously been tailored by one of superior reputation in the trade, for the cut was crisp and impeccable. The tall, fashionable riding boots sported turn-down cuffs of gray above polished black leather and, like the smooth-fitting breeches, seemed to mold the lean, muscular shape of the long legs. Cooper was doubtful that he had ever seen such costly clothes before, even on the streets of London.
"Why would ye be wantin' ta buy the wench?" For once, Cooper's voice was mellow enough to be tolerable. "Ye got an itch ta 'ide her away from yer wife an' take yer ease wit' her when ye've got nothin' better to do?"
"For shame, you cod-faced lout!" Mrs. Brewster exclaimed in outrage. "Mr. Birmingham would never dream of doing such a thing!"
Jeff had no wish to destroy the woman's unswerving confidence in him by admitting that he was extremely interested in the girl, at least enough to want to rescue her from this oaf and to see her gowned in clothes as fine as those that Brandon was wont to buy for Heather. The dull brown, threadbare dress Raelynn presently wore did little justice to her uncommon beauty.
"What is the price you'll take for her?" Jeff asked tersely. "Name it, and let this matter be done. The whole town is here to observe this event."
Cooper Frye scratched his bristly chin reflectively and flicked a glance across the wall of faces that was pressing in close around them. "Well now," he drawled, wondering if his intended lie was too extravagant for the other's purse. He decided to leave some room for haggling. "Gustav Fridrich was willing ta pay a b.l.o.o.d.y five hundred o' yer Yankee dollars ta have her. I've got to have at least that much and maybe a hundred more ta be able ta face that ornery German and tell him I've sold the chit ta someone else."
Jeff made sure his offer was far more generous than the stranger could have expected. "Seven hundred fifty should give you enough courage to do the deed."
Cooper's mottled tongue flicked across his wide, gaping mouth as he gawked at the other man. "Seven hundred fifty?" he repeated, staggered by the thought of such an extravagant sum. "For the girl here?"
"We have witnesses." Jeff stated the obvious, nodding toward the ever-growing crowd. "Most of these people know me and can attest that my word is true."
"I can vouch for his integrity better than anyone here," a nearby clothier heartily declared, pushing his tall, broad-shouldered bulk through the ma.s.s of onlookers until he faced Cooper Frye. "In fact, if Mr. Birmingham isn't presently carrying such a sum on his person, I'd be only too happy to send one of the clerks into my shop here and fetch it for him. So if I were you, Cooper Frye, I'd listen carefully to what my friend has to say. He has other friends in this crowd who are equally loyal and who'll be glad to report this event to any interested parties."
"Thank you, Farrell," Jeff murmured. He accepted the man's offer of a temporary loan and, after receiving a leather pouch filled with gold coins from his friend, returned his attention to Cooper Frye and counted out the necessary amount. "Now, Mr. Frye, I'd advise you to heed my words carefully. Before receiving this pouch, you must sign a bill of receipt pledging that you'll never interfere with me or the girl again. If you should do so, then you'll forfeit what you get here today, either by returning it to the last coin or, if you cannot pay, hiring yourself out to me as a servant until the sum is repaid in full. Do you understand?"
"Where's the receipt?" Cooper inquired bluntly.
Jeff accepted a quill from Farrell, who had been astute enough to foresee the need, and quickly rewrote a lading bill to conform to the requirements of the contract. "Sign at the bottom if you're able to write your name," he instructed Cooper. "Otherwise, make your mark."
"I can write me name," the huge man boasted, swaggering a bit before the crowd, but when he applied the quill to the parchment, he bent over the top of a nearby cask and painstakingly scratched out his name in simple letters.
Rolling up the contract, he handed it back to Jeff, who scanned it quickly, then delivered the bag of coins.
"Remember what you've promised," Jeff cautioned. "If you bother us, you'll forfeit the money."
"I heard ye the first time," Cooper answered sharply. Then, with a leering smirk, he faced Raelynn, who stood in stoic silence before him. "Now that ye'll be takin' yerself a rich lover, I don't suppose I'll be seein' ye 'round where I'll be."
Raelynn's eyes flared with fiery rage at his affront; then, as she took command of her temper, they narrowed into cold, icy shards that pierced him where he stood. "'Twill gratify my most fervent wish, Cooper Fyre, if I never, ever see you again as long as I may live."
"What's this now?" Cooper queried in feigned surprise. "Ye'll not be showin' ol' Uncle Coop a bit o' fondness afore we part? After all I've done for ye?"
"Be on your way," Jeff advised the man curtly. "If Raelynn hasn't had enough of your antics, then I certainly have."