The lovely, Natasha Blackthorne, has a new release out. Her Mystery Duke sounds wonderful and I’m looking forward to reading it, which is why I’m sharing it here with you.
HER MYSTERY DUKE is an erotic Regency historical romance, light BDSM elements, Rubenesque /BBW. For adults 18+ only.
Buy Links: Amazon (US) / Amazon (UK) / Smashwords
Blurb for HER MYSTERY DUKE:
Jeanne Darling spent her adolescence coping with her father’s increasing illness and insanity. Left alone by his death and plunged into poverty, she did what she had to do to survive. Now still reeling from the overwhelming physical and emotional demands her father’s care required, she values her peace above all. She doesn’t need anyone or anything except her writing and the safety of her rented garret chamber. She’s about to rise above her past and create financial independence for herself. What she absolutely does not need is the mysterious and possibly insane stranger who walks into the coffee shop and into her life.
David Somerville, the Duke of Hartley, has known pain and betrayal from the people closest to him. Born to privilege, power and wealth, and filled with idealistic vision for humane change, he gives all of himself to his political career. He keeps his life circumspectly under control. But one day, all the carefully arranged threads of his life unravel and his life intersects with Jeanne’s in a way that challenges his view of everything he thinks he knows.
Leagues apart in society, they can only have one possible future, that of protector and mistress. And neither wants to risk deeper connection. However, their overwhelming attraction and resulting sexual games provide them with pleasures neither of them has ever known. Will their sensual journey lead them to discover something rare and magical? Or will their seemingly insurmountable differences and passionate personal goals drive them apart?
Reader Warning: HER MYSTERY DUKE is a work of historical erotic romance. It is not meant to be a guide to or an accurate portrayal of modern BDSM lifestyles or practices. This story contains graphic descriptions of sexual acts and frank sexual language. It also contains light bondage, anal play, sexual toys, cunnilingus, fellatio and spanking. Please be aware, there are no scenes of ménage or sexual sharing in this story.
Excerpt From HER MYSTERY DUKE, pre-edited version.
Indecent. The tall gentleman’s stare was the most blatantly indecent assault Jeanne had ever encountered. Deeper than intense. Intimate, as if he knew everything thing about her.
That penetrating gaze set her palms sweating and made her mouth dry. It was a direct threat. No one could possibly know her. She kept herself too well protected, hidden beneath layers of aloof disinterest. Yet she found herself unable to look away. She just sat there and let that gaze burn her. Burn through the wall she kept between herself and the world. It even seeped under her skin and melted her blood into warmed honey.
A single pane of rain-splattered glass separated them. The thudding of her heart in her ears blocked out the sounds from the common room of the coffee shop and created a sense of isolation.
He wore no hat and his hair lay plastered like spilt black ink streaked across his high, broad forehead. Rain dripped over hard chiseled cheekbones, down an aquiline nose and square jaw, over shoulders that were made even more impossibly broad by a dark blue greatcoat.
He was like something from a dream. A harlot’s very naughty dream.
Oh really. A handsome, mysterious stranger, one who was intensely interested in her and seemed to know all about her? Her imagination was running away with her, taking a life of its own. She closed her eyes and shook her head slightly. The wine hadn’t been that strong as to make her conjure carnal fantasies in mid-afternoon. In public. She dared to look again.
The tall gentleman was gone.
There, see? An author of fairy stories couldn’t be fooled by a waking dream. And yet cold, heaviness sank through her insides, a feeling of loss. How utterly ridiculous. Irritated with herself, Jeanne bent over her mug, inhaling the fruity, spicy scent of mulled wine, and listened to the low rumble of conversations around her. Mrs. Roberts had a new blue bonnet and she was preening like a peacock. Mr. Taylor announced to his friends that he’d just become engaged to Miss Smith and his companions were alternately ribbing and toasting him.
Once a week, she ventured from her garret to this little coffee shop to be among people, as an observer. A customer, keeping a protective distance.
“Miss Darling.”The slightly nervous, boyish voice broke into her peace. “You usually come here on Saturday.”
She forced the irritation from her expression and looked up to meet his freckled face. “Yes, Paul, this week I decided on a change.”
She kept her tone cool and polite, as always.
Mr. Ratherford, her publisher, had sent a note, informing her that she must present herself at his offices and bring the fairy tales he’d requested. As an author of children’s stories, she’d been working for months on the stories but she still had one more story to write, the grand finale in a leather bound volume of the stories that she hoped to have printed. However, she’d been unable to write for several weeks. The harder she tried to create a story, the less she liked anything she wrote. Today, that note had put her into a state of desperation. She’d come here to try and stimulate her mind. It had worked a little too well judging from the daydream of the handsome, mysterious stranger.
“A special occasion?” Paul’s words cut into her thoughts again.
Oh bother! She took a deep breath and struggled to find more patience. Once Paul Cook started, he never let up. But he was just a boy, and a kind one at that. She bit back an impatient response.
Her concentration, her peace, however: they were gone. Never mind. The wind was howling with more intensity outside, and the winter’s day was growing dark far too early. It was time to leave.
As she reached down to retrieve her reticule, the odor of wet wool intruded on her senses, mingled with the citrus-soapy scent of a gentleman’s shaving lotion. A body close to hers. Too close. She jerked her head up and faced a waking dream.
His greatcoat was opened to reveal a fine, silk, embroidered waistcoat that encompassed a broad chest, which narrowed into a flat-as-boards stomach. Water dripped from his hair, leaving wet spots on his hopelessly crushed cravat. He didn’t seem to be aware of his dishevelment.
She met his eyes. His gaze intensified, turning to brilliant, intimidating greenish fire, like an emerald catching the sunlight. Thick, dark lashes and heavy black brows made the color appear even richer.
His voice was deep yet hushed and utterly masculine. It sent another curl of heat through her, stronger, penetrating all the way down from her chest to her navel and into her womb. However, it was the note of despair that made her catch her breath.
Pressure swelled in her throat, a pang of sympathy. Sympathy for others was the most dangerous emotion of all. It could lead one to make painful, unwise sacrifices.
She’d never had such an immediate reaction like this to any man. Tingles raced from her midsection to her toes, not arousal this time but an urge to run. He was dangerous.
And Thérèse? Clearly he was grossly mistaken. Or foxed.
She stood, then took a deep breath, released it and raised her brows up in a haughty mask.“Pardon me, sir?”
His expression sharpened. He took her arm, harshly. “Don’t toy with me.”
She pulled back and he tightened his grip. His hand was large. His hold stronger than any gentleman she’d known.
He leaned so close she could have brushed her lips against his. “Don’t pretend that you don’t know me?”
His deep, hushed voice sent pleasurable shivers through her but Jeanne pushed the sensation aside. As his breath wafted over her, she inhaled deeply but couldn’t detect any odor of spirits. Prickles raced over her scalp like a thousand needles.
Perhaps the gentleman wasn’t in full control over his mental faculties. Dear God. Just like Papa. She’d spent her youth caring for her father in his varying stages of insanity. Life with him had become a prison. Since his death, she had lived in fear of the unbalanced. Now she’d become the target of a stranger’s madness. Another series of prickles raced over her scalp.
She met the stranger’s gaze levelly. “What’s your game?”
“Thérèse, don‘t be this way.” His whisper, laced with steel, was so low, that she unwittingly leaned closer. “We needn’t make any dramatics here. We’re going home.”
This near to him, Jeanne noted the glassiness of his eyes. Again, she sniffed. No hint of alcohol. But then again, having experienced all of Papa’s variances of sanity, she had an instinct for spotting others who were likewise afflicted. This man was definitely afflicted in his mind.
This was the exact situation she always dreaded. Since her girlhood, she always watched others, seeking any sign of madness. She’d had to cope with Papa, that had been her duty, but she was always careful to keep others who showed any inkling of mental instability at a safe distance. How stupid of her to have let herself be distracted by this man’s masculine beauty.
Angry at herself, she jerked her arm, trying once again to free herself. His grip remained relentless.
“Thérèse!” Again, the low steely whisper. “Behave yourself.”
How unwise of her. An insane person could react unpredictably. She ought not provoke him. Yet she knew it was important to present a strong, confident front.
“Sir, I am not your Thérèse and have no wish to be. So please unhand me.” Her heart was hammering at her chest wall so violently, she had trouble keeping her voice even. She lifted her chin and stared at him steadily. “Now.”
“You are deliberately pushing me, Thérèse. I don’t appreciate it.”
Boots sounded on the floorboards. The sound drew her attention to how quiet the public room had become. She glanced around. The other patrons were staring.
“Miss Darling, is everything all right?”
The tall gentleman turned to Paul and regarded him with an icy, haughty stare. “The lady is a friend. Please go back to your counter and mind your business.”
At the velvet over iron tone, the young man’s eyes grew round. He took one step backward and then another, then stood looking uneasy.
“Are you having a spot of trouble here, Miss Darling?”
Jeanne turned to face the shop owner, a large, barrel-chested man.
The stranger exhaled long and loud. A sound of complete exasperation. “As I told the boy, the lady is a rather close friend. I would appreciate a little privacy.”
The shop owner turned to her. “Miss Darling?”
Her heart froze and her chest constricted. She placed a hand to her throat. She didn’t know what to say.
“The gent don’t look right to me.” The owner’s wife squinted at the stranger.
Jeanne glanced at the gentleman’s handsome profile and the proud jut of his jaw. He gazed at her sideways and she caught her breath. There was something about that brief gaze. A lost, disorientated air. Just like Papa when he had been in one of his worst spells and he was trying to hide it by acting arrogantly assertive.
But she had seen. The stranger was truly not in his right mind.
He swayed then braced his hands on the back of the chair and caught himself. Arrogance fell over his face like a mask.
Jeanne’s throat ached. He was so vulnerable. So alone.
Mrs. Cook motioned to the chair Jeanne had vacated. “Sir, you better sit.”
The gentleman stared at the matron, well, rather he glowered down his nose at her. “If you please, the lady and I have some personal business to attend to.”
His eyes jerked from side to side. At the alarming motion, Jeanne started. He seemed to lurch forward. She looked down and saw his hands gripping the chair back. The knuckles were white. The ache in her throat increased.
Jeanne glanced back at Mrs.Cook. The woman wrinkled her forehead. “Go fetch Dr. Miller.”
Paul walked to the door.
“Quickly now.” Mrs. Cook’s voice carried urgency and she made a shooing motion.
Memories rose in Jeanne’s mind. Her father screaming, his face contorted in torment as the doctor painted yet another mustard plaster on his skin in an attempt to draw the poisonous humors out. The endless purges and emetics. None of it doing anything to cure Papa’s mad fits and mental lapses. And then finally, the insane asylum.
But that was how people dealt with madness. It would be how they would deal with this obviously touched gentleman. As if her stays had suddenly shrunk, her chest constricted. No, no, it wasn’t her place to step out of her way to aid this gentleman. He wasn’t her responsibility. She owed him nothing. Her breathing came shorter, faster. It wasn’t safe to stick one’s neck out. And yet the words rose. She tried to hold them back but they burst out, “There‘s no need for a doctor.”
Mrs. Cook frowned deeper. “But he called you Thérèse, that’s a French girl’s name, not yours.”
“He is calling me by my middle name.” Jeanne held her breath and waited to see if this lie would be accepted.
Mrs. Cook blinked several times. “You have a French middle name?”
“Yes. My mother’s mother was French.” Another lie.
The matron’s eyes narrowed. “Just how does this gentleman know you? He seems very well off to be on familiar terms with a decent girl from around here.”
Jeanne caught herself biting her lip. She quickly released it and gave the first answer that came to mind. “He’s my cousin, on my mother’s side, twice removed.”
Again, Mrs. Cook blinked a few times. Then her mouth twisted until she looked like she’d just tasted a particularly sour lemon.
“My cousin is not well.”
“Apparently. More likely drunk as a lord.” Mrs. Cook’s tone became sourer than her expression. “I don’t like this.”
“Pardon me?”Jeanne tried for genteel outrage.
Mrs. Cook’s tone became sharper. “I have known you since you started coming here on Saturdays with your Papa. I always thought you were such a dedicated daughter. A good girl. But I don’t like having fancy pieces courting trade in my shop.”
“Mrs. Cook, this man is my cousin.”
“A wealthy relation who didn’t help you when your dear Papa was ill?”
“My cousin was out of the country at that time—he was in India, making his fortune.”
Mrs. Cook looked from Jeanne to the gentleman and back. Several times. “I don’t see any family resemblance.”
Jeanne swallowed against a tightening throat. Could everyone hear the pounding of her heart? “I favor my father’s side. H-he is my cousin.”
Her voice came out so strained that she cringed internally.
The matron’s expression hardened. “I think you met this gentleman under less than respectable conditions. Perhaps in a place where you’re known by a false name, a fancy French name to make yourself sound more interesting to wealthy gentlemen.”
Jeanne’s mouth dried and anxiety twisted her insides. “That’s not how it happened.”
“I’d appreciate if you took your cousin and left. I’d also appreciate if you never came back. I run a decent shop here, not a place of disorderly assignation.”
Jeanne sucked in a deep breath. That had hurt. More than she wished to admit. This was her place of comfort and respite when her isolation became too much. And she was a horrible liar. But what else could she have done? Consigned this gentleman to Bedlam? Oh God. She’d known he was dangerous. Why hadn’t she listened to that inner voice?
She glanced up at the gentleman. He was gazing at her with an odd, confused expression. Were his eyes a bit glassy? Might he be ill, instead of insane? Surely, if he were that ill, he’d be in bed.
She reached a hand to him. “Let’s leave.”
The gentleman released the chair then took her hand and laced his fingers with hers as naturally as if he’d always done so. “Come, Thérèse.”
They walked sedately out of the coffee shop, just like that, with their gloved hands intertwined.
The rain had let up yet the wind still gusted. With her free hand, she readjusted her scarf. His hold remained firm on her hand until they had traveled a block away. The strength of his grip sent prickles of fear darting into her. He could easily overpower her, if his insane whim so dictated.
He stopped just as they were about to turn the corner, and he looked down at her. A slight smile softened his mouth. “My darling.”
Dear heavens, he was such a gorgeous man. Dangerous, utterly dangerous. But he was still a madman. Any sensible person knew well to be frightened of the insane, she more than anyone. She returned his smile but only to placate him.
“Are we headed in the proper direction for the mews?” he asked.
“Yes, we are. They are just down this street and to the right.”
“Esau has the carriage there.”
Well, there it was. She’d done her part keeping him out of the clutches of an overzealous doctor. God and this Esau fellow would have to watch over him now. She wasn’t about to get anywhere near his carriage and risk him shoving her bodily into it.
She offered another, hopefully warm, smile.
She must have succeeded for he relaxed his grip on her hand and they resumed walking. As they rounded the corner, she slipped her hand from his.
Her heart pounded and she ran faster.
“Stop, please. For the love of God!” His tone was hollow with desolation. Her sympathy panged her yet again. Unwittingly, she glanced over her shoulder.
Wind whipped the gentleman’s dark forelock. He leaned against a street lamp, one hand holding his side. He appeared to be panting for breath, his expression a mask of loss and despair.
Just like Papa. She’d seen those emotions on her father’s face too many times. But the expression appeared so out of place on such an arrogant, masculine face. Her heart constricted. She turned to face the direction she was running and put all her energy into it.
Something came between her foot and the pavement. She lost her balance and fell forward. As the bricks rose to meet her, she threw her hands out to brace her fall. She cried out then reeled from the fall. Her arm began to burn like fire. She knew she wouldn’t be able to run easily for much longer.
She hauled herself to her feet and scanned the shop fronts.
Mrs. Mason’s Bakery.
Relief washed over her. Mrs. Mason had always been friendly. She had even given her day-old bread, on days when she couldn’t pay.
She darted into the shop and the scent of baking bread and spicy cinnamon and apples comforted her.
“Good day, Miss Darling!” Mrs. Mason sang out. “What shall it be today?
“I think I shall have whatever smells of apples and spice.”
“You sit and I’ll bring it right out.”
Jeanne sank into the nearest chair. Moments later, Mrs. Mason brought hot tea and apple pie. But Jeanne found the pie tasted like ashes and could only manage a few tiny bites. Unable to stop twitching and fidgeting, she kept catching herself glancing back at the window.
She jerked her head away.
No, don’t look. He is not your affair.
She forced herself to focus on Mrs. Mason’s steady chatter. The wind made a long, low, threatening howling sound. Such a dreadful day. What about—
No, he isn’t your responsibility.
A loud crash seemed to rumble through her body and shake her bones and resound in the pit of her stomach.
What happened? An accident? A carriage trying to avoid a disorientated pedestrian and yet hitting them all the same?
She jumped to her feet and rushed to the window. Some crates had blown over. Men were shouting and running about. The sky had grown darker.
Against all her caution, her gaze was drawn back to the direction whence she had come.
Oh God, there he was, staggering down the street in a wavering pattern. For such a stalwart-looking man, the gentleman walked so oddly, so slowly. Had he been in the war perhaps and suffered some irreparable head injury that had left him this way?
Almost completely in front of the shop, he glanced up. He had that lost, desolate look.
Her throat burned.
His gaze sharpened. Honed in on her.
Oh, damn. How stupid of her. Of course, he’d seen her at the window. She stepped back several paces. But it was too late. He began walking toward the door.
“Isn’t it just dreadful weather, Miss Darling?” Mrs. Mason exclaimed. “My Ben can take you home in the gig later, if you like. Come sit back down and have a chat.”
Jeanne didn’t answer, her gaze was fixed on the gentleman as he reached for the door. He was coming in. And he looked absolutely furious, in a cold, controlled way that was all the more frightening. Her hand flew to her mouth to stop the cry of protest that sprung from the depths of her and she backed away from the window.
The little bell tinkled as he entered, an incongruously gay herald. His eyes blazed into hers. She gave a little squeak and took several steps backwards until her bottom hit one of the display cases.
As he approached, he looked down at her arm. She followed his eyes. Long red scrape marks still oozed a little blood. She drew it behind her, scratching it along her wool gown and the wounds burned. She winced.
His expression softened. “My darling, are you alright?”
“Dearie, is he bothering you?” Mrs. Mason asked in her grandmotherly tones.
“We have something to discuss,” he answered.
Jeanne inhaled sharply and gave the first plausible explanation that came to her mind. “My father owed him money, he thinks I can pay but I don’t have it.”
The gentleman gaped at her, with eyes gone wide with shock that quickly transformed into raw edged hurt.
His pain sliced into her. She began rubbing her hands together. As if iron bands constricted her, she could barely breathe, so greatly did sympathy overwhelm her. “Please, sir—”
She couldn’t think of what else to say.
His expression hardened, his eyes frosted.
“That’s just about enough.”
At the sound of Mrs. Mason’s voice, Jeanne turned to the serving counter. The older woman narrowed her eyes. She reached behind the counter and pulled out a small pistol.
Every hair on Jeanne’s body stood on end and she gasped. “Oh please don’t—”
“Don’t fret, dearie, I’ll take care of this,” Mrs. Mason said as she leveled it straight and steady at the gentleman.
“Please, Mrs. Mason, put your gun away.” Jeanne forced the words past her tightening throat muscles. “I can handle him.”
“I know how to deal with these uppity nobs. They get two pence to rub together in their pockets, some fancy clothes, and they think they are the lord of the manor.”Mrs. Mason said, keeping her pistol aimed at the gentleman’s chest. “Mister, I think you better leave.”
He frowned.“Madam, do you have any idea to whom you are speaking?”
“To whom am I speaking?” Mrs. Mason asked.
The gentleman stared at her blankly. He lost that arrogant expression. He looked forlorn once more.
Jeanne’s chest tightened again.
“You forget yourself, where you are at. You’re not among your type here, sir.” Mrs. Mason walked closer to the gentleman. “I left my home in Pennsylvania over thirty years ago when I married. And I have lived here among the British and made my husband‘s home my own. But I have never been settled to bow and scrape to your kind.”
“My kind?” The gentleman asked.
Mrs. Mason jabbed the gun into his chest. “I am sixty-seven years old. I’ll be damned before I cower to one such as you.”
The gentleman held his hands up. “I mean no trouble.”
“What else could you be about, coming here and terrorizing a sweet young thing like this?” Mrs. Mason harrumphed.
“I thought we had something to discuss.” He gave Jeanne a cold, hard glance. It was so full of sadness, bitterness that it made her heart jump. “Apparently, I was mistaken.”
“Yes, you certainly were,” Mrs. Mason said.
He turned on his heel and left the shop. The little bell rang in the wake of his departure.
Jeanne returned to the window and watched him staggering and veering down the street. The wind gusted again. It was such a cold day. He had no hat. Where would he go? Who would watch out for him?
He wasn’t her responsibility.
It was dangerous to reach out to others. Someone like him, with a disorder of the mind, would be a bottomless pit of need. Sucking her dry.
He was turning the corner. She put her hand to the glass. Her throat began to burn.
A light touch settled on her shoulders. She started and twisted around.
Mrs. Mason smiled.“It’s all over, dear.”
It was over. She was safe now. He was gone and gone in a way that didn’t involve doctors treating him with all sorts of barbaric, useless torture. She should be relieved. She was relieved.
He might still encounter dangers between here and reaching Esau. But how much was one person required to risk for a stranger?
“Oh, you are shaking.” Mrs. Mason patted her shoulders. “Now don’t you worry. I know his type, a craven fox preying on the weak. But he’ll think twice about harassing you now that he knows you’ve got some friends in this town.” Mrs. Mason pulled her away from the window.
“I am so tired. I need to go home.”
“No, you must wait. Be sure he is gone. You should finish your pie and have some more tea.”
“Yes, of course you’re right.” Jeanne followed her back to the table and chairs. She took some coins out of her reticule and placed them on the table.
Mrs. Mason shook her head. “My treat today.”
“No, I insist.”Mrs. Mason waved dismissively. “I have to attend to the baking but you stay here and rest yourself. Ben will drive you home later. If that coxcomb comes back, you just call for me.”
Mrs. Mason hurried away to the backroom.
Jeanne stared into the steaming cup. Tap, tap, tap.
She looked up. Raindrops pattered the window. No, not rain. Sleet. The drops stuck to the glass then melted and slid down.
What if the gentleman were truly ill and delirious with fever? Not insane at all?He had no hat. Was lost. Alone. The burn in her throat swelled into a sob. She slapped her hand to her mouth and pressed it back.
A touch on her shoulder brought her into the moment. “Why don’t you just stay here tonight?”
Jeanne shook her head furiously. “No, no, I have to go.”
She tore from Mrs. Mason’s touch, arose from her seat and hurried to the door.
“Wait, wait. The gentleman may be waiting—”
Jeanne jerked the door open and exited the shop.
She ran faster than she ever had in her life. But she didn’t have far to go once she’d turned the corner. The gentleman was leaning against a wall. He looked as pensive as ever.
As she approached his expression eased and he reached a hand out. “My darling, let’s go home.”
The wind gusted, sending ice cold straight to her bones and she pulled her pelisse closer to her chin. A passing coach rattled by, its wheels sending a sluice of a cloudy grayish water up in an arc which came dangerously close to drenching them.
She forced a smile. “Yes, let’s go home.”
She’d get him into a carriage and on his way back to where he belonged. Surely that was enough. A gentleman like him must have servants who would watch over him. Her responsibility would be discharged.
“Where the devil is the carriage?” Deep offense resounded in his voice, as if he’d never had to wait for a carriage before.
“Didn’t you tell your driver to wait?”
“Of course I did.”His voice rang with indignation.
“Come,” she said firmly. “Let’s go back to the mews and see about your carriage.”
The groom at the mews nearest the coffee shop said that the gentleman hadn’t left any carriage there.
“Where did you come from before you arrived at the coffee shop?” she asked once they had walked out of earshot of the groom.
The gentleman just stared at her with that highbrow look and compressed his lips. So, he didn’t know where he’d been or where he’d left his damned carriage. She sighed. “We’ll walk a bit and a hackney shall come along.”
He looked down from his lofty heights, almost sneering down his aristocratic nose. “We’re certainly not going to take a public carriage.”
“Well, the carriage is—” She drew her brows together. “Being repaired.”
“Being repaired?”he asked, as if such a thing were a complete impossibility.
Her heart fluttered a series of frenzied beats. Shaky, panicked energy quivered down her legs. She drew in a deep, hitching breath. Calm, she must remain calm. If she stayed calm, he was less likely to have any sort of fit or rage, right? Perhaps she might play the loving mistress? “Darling, don’t you remember?”
He stared at her then blinked several times.
“Don’t you?” She made her voice very soft.
He released her hand. “Blast it, I don’t remember.” His expression went blank yet his eyes widened. “I don’t remember anything.” He frowned. “Except that you were angry with me.”
“Angry about what?”
There was that devastated, desolate look again. The burn returned to her throat and she had to turn away. “It’s terribly cold. We’re being soaked. Let us find a public conveyance and sort all of this out later, shall we?”
He jutted his chin and his features took on an annoyed expression. Apparently, he was not used to listening to others or taking their advice. He blinked once or twice and then he took her hand again and strode determinedly ahead, pulling her with him.
When they found a carriage for hire, the gentleman stared blankly at the driver.
“Sir, where shall I take you?”
“Darling, tell the man.” Again, she tried to make her voice soft. Loving.
He turned to her. His eyes. Now glassy again, a murky, moss green, reflected sheer fear. Her throat constricted. Again, she wondered if he were really ill with a fever. He didn’t remember where he lived. Or he couldn’t remember how to give directions to where he lived. Heavens, it was worse than she’d thought. Oh Lord. She did not want to deal with any panicked hysterics or self-defensive rages like with Papa. She swallowed hard and smiled at him in a hopefully reassuring manner.
He jerked his gaze away.
“Give him directions, Thérèse.” The resentment in his voice made her heart contract. She was intimately familiar with a man not wanting to appear weak. Not wanting to need help.
Wetness pricked the corners of her eyes. Not from the rain but from frustration.
All right, yes, mostly she cried from sympathy.
She did not want this. This couldn’t be happening. She quickly gave the driver directions.
She’d have to take him to her garret for now. The other women frequently entertained men in their rooms. Mrs. Pillmore required her percentage of course. But it wouldn’t seem amiss to anyone. Oh, just imagine how Mr. High-And-Mighty was going to respond to being taken to her garret. But what else was she to do with him? Good heavens, he wasn’t a stray dog. What was she to do with him?
The driver rushed to aid her into the carriage but the gentleman pushed him aside then poked his head inside.
He began peeling off his greatcoat.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“It is appalling inside. You shall have to sit on my coat.”
She stuck her head inside and caught the odor of mildew and a touch of stale urine. Well, clearly not the best but she’d come across worse. On a rainy day, this far east, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
“Please put your coat back on.
“You cannot sit on those seats.”
“You are becoming soaked through. Please, put your coat on.”
His frown deepened. “Thérèse, why are you suddenly so disagreeable?”
“The longer we stand here, the more thoroughly soaked we get from the sleet.”
Was that a hint of a smile on his lips? “Your new bluntness is a refreshing.”
He reached out, as if he were about to help her into the carriage. Then he swayed and listed backwards. His eyes rolled until only the whites showed. He pitched forward.
A startled cry pierced the silence. Hers. She leapt forward, hands poised to catch him. He fell upon her and his weight overwhelmed her to the point her knees buckled.
Then his weight eased. The driver was lifting him. “Let’s put him inside, milady.”
She could have laughed at any other time. But the reality of her situation came crashing upon her. She was now responsible for an unconscious, mentally unstable gentleman. Together, they got the unconscious gentleman inside. She settled beside him and took a deep breath.
The driver closed the door with a slam. The finality of the sound resonated deep in her chest.
What a fine situation she’d willingly trapped herself in.
Her nostrils began to burn. The connivance didn’t smell any nicer with the door shut. She wrinkled her nose. Thank God she didn’t live too far away.
It began to move. To put it more bluntly, it began to rock hard enough to rattle her teeth. His unconscious form shifted and fell against her shoulder.
“Thérèse—” His deep voice sounded sleepy. “The channel is so choppy this time of year. You mustn’t be afraid. Think about Paris. We shall have a grand time in Paris.”
He locked an arm around her waist and drew her near. Sheltering her from the jarring motion with his body.
His very solid body.
The hackney rattled along and another strong jolt hit. She found her face pressed ruthlessly against his chest. The scent of his shaving soap was certainly better than the odors in the cab.
He pressed the curve of her waist then slid down to the swell of her hip. “You have gained some weight.”
Heat suffused her face. Of course, his Thérèse must be a slip of a thing. No one could ever accuse Jeanne of being slender.
“You never ran from me before.”
“No.” He found her hand. “Can you forgive me? Will you come home and stay?”
He didn’t plead. But there was a sincere, earnest, urgency underneath his calm tone that made her believe his sincerity. His remorse. It held her spellbound, unable to resist as he lifted her hand to his cheek. The stubble there was a faint rasp against her fingers. His skin burnt her like live coals. She gasped then jerked her hand out of his hold. She tore her glove off and put a hand to his forehead. Moist, blistering heat.
Thurmp, Thurmp. Thurmp.
Her heart pounded her ears with sudden, jarring violence. Her mouth went dry. God above. She’d been so focused on her fear of the insane, it had clouded her perception. However, the man was dreadfully ill and delirious with fever.
Totally her responsibility.
She swallowed hard and in the semidarkness they rode in silence for long moments. Silence all but for the subtle wheezing issuing from his open mouth as he slipped back into unconsciousness.