WHEN THE SCOUNDREL SINS
Eyes widening, eighteen year-old Annabelle Green stepped back from Quinton Carlisle, against whose hard front she’d so scandalously pressed herself. She brought her hand against her lips. Swollen, hot, wet, throbbing…Oh heavens, he’d been kissing her.
Dear God, she’d let him!
Let? She bit back a groan of self-recrimination. She’d encouraged the midnight embrace in the St. James’s garden, practically falling into the scoundrel’s arms. And she’d enjoyed it, too.
“Annabelle?” he asked softly, bewildered concern thickening in his deep voice. The noise from the crowded ball barely reached them beneath the thick rose bower at the rear of the garden, where dark shadows cocooned them together.
She stared at him, for the life of her not knowing how to answer that simple question. A few minutes ago, she’d slid out the library terrace door to escape the heat and crush of the party for the cool peace of the dark garden. To take a short turn around the brick path. To simply give herself a few minutes when she wasn’t the object of whispers and laughter from the other ladies at the ball who thought she was overreaching. She was only a lady’s companion after all, with no real right to wear silk and jewels and dance with eligible gentlemen—
Then she’d come across Quinton Carlisle in the shadows. And then she’d found herself in his arms, being given the most incredible kiss imaginable.
“Are you all right?” he pressed. If the expression on his shadowed-darkened face was any indicator, he was just as shocked as she was at their encounter.
“You—you kissed me,” she whispered around her fingers, still pressed to her mouth.
“I certainly did.” A devilish grin quirked at this lips. “And you kissed me back.”
“I did not!”
He arched an amused brow at that wholly obvious lie, and Annabelle groaned. It hadn’t been only a kiss, either. It had been a full-out embrace, eager and hungry, with nibbles and sucks and wandering hands—
“I’d like to do it again.” He stepped forward and closed the distance between them. His hot gaze dropped to her mouth. “Very much.”
Her hand fell away from her lips, not to encourage him but because she was utterly bewildered. What on earth had come over them? “But we don’t even like each other!” she squeaked out.
Well, he didn’t like her, at any rate. He was Quinton Carlisle, for heaven’s sake. A man she’d known since she was ten, with a quick smile that always sent the butterflies swirling in her belly and a golden handsomeness she was certain would have made Adonis jealous. And since he was graduated from university this past spring, one of London’s most charming scoundrels and a man who turned heads of bored society widows and wives everywhere he went, even at just twenty-one. Belle would have had to be dead or eighty not to be attracted to him.
But he was also the bane of her existence this season. A man who never seemed to tire of teasing her and playing jokes on her, just as he had since they were children. They were friends, certainly, but this season he seemed to take great delight in angering her until her eyes blazed and flames could have shot out of her head. While she might have fantasized about him, he certainly never gave a second thought to her except how to make her miserable.
Until tonight. When his arms had been around her, his hard body pressing into her soft one and his lips on hers, teasing kiss after kiss from her until she thought she might explode from the ache he sent spinning through her.
And oh, what a delicious mouth he had, too! No wonder all those urbane women in the ton practically threw themselves at him. When he knew how to kiss like that, who cared about his reputation as one of the wild Carlisle brothers?
But Belle cared. Her reputation hung by a thread as it was, simply because of who she and her father were. The companion and the convict. Despite Lady Ainsley’s attempts to bring her into society’s graces, not one person inside that ball tonight was willing to accept her. And all of them let her know it, too. Repeatedly.
She wasn’t part of society, and most of the people at the ball already ignored her because of who she was—a penniless companion whose mother was dead and whose father was in prison for theft, the homeless wretch of a girl that Lord and Lady Ainsley had pitied enough to take in when she was ten. If anyone at the ball was polite to her, it was only because they didn’t to offend the viscount and viscountess by giving her the cut direct. She was tolerated, but that was all. And if she had any hope of being accepted into society, even tangentially, then every moment of her debut season had to go perfectly.
Now she’d put even that tenuous position in jeopardy. Heavens, how could she have gotten herself into this situation? With Quinton Carlisle, no less. Her head spun with it.
“I do like you, Belle,” he corrected in a deep and husky voice.
Then her head practically whirled itself right off her neck. He…liked her?
He lowered his head until his mouth hovered just above hers, close enough that she felt the heat of his breath shiver across her lips. “I can show you how much if you don’t believe me.”
She pressed her hand flat against his chest to keep him away, although her traitorous fingertips began to curl into the brocade of his waistcoat as if to hold him close instead. “Why did you kiss me like that?”
“Because I wanted to.” He leaned in then, to briefly touch his lips to hers. But that kiss was so much more than a peck. It held promises of all kinds of wicked things he’d do to her if she let him…all kinds of deliciously tempting things. “So I did.”
When he grinned at her in the shadows, then leaned in to kiss her again, this time with clearly more intent in mind than a touch of lips—
Her hand flew up to his lips, stopping him. “Why did you kiss me, Quinton?”
He shifted back at that, perplexed. Then he answered softly, “Honestly? I don’t know.”
A stinging sprang up immediately in her eyes. Oh, that was exactly the last thing a young lady wanted to hear after giving away her first kiss…that the handsome man who claimed it had no idea why he’d done it. The rascal couldn’t even come up with a good lie to explain himself, or some affectionate compliment that he was so expert at giving to other ladies. Apparently she didn’t even merit empty flattery.
“You’re definitely not the sort of woman I normally end up spending time with in the shadows.” The raw honesty of that comment burned into her chest. Then he chuckled, as if he found their predicament humorous.
She blinked but couldn’t clear the gathering tears from her eyes. “Was this only a joke to you?” Just another way for him to tease and torment her, as he’d done since they were children? Oh, she knew he was a scoundrel, but she never thought he’d stoop as low as this!
His face turned serious beneath the shadows. “At first, yes,” he admitted. “But it didn’t end that way.”
Anger and humiliation pulsed through her. With a soft cry of humiliation and frustration, she shoved him back. Then she turned to slip out from beneath the bower—
And tripped. Her toe caught on a root looping up from the ground and threw her off-balance.
She fell forward, unable to stop herself. Her shoulder hit the post framing the entrance, and her dress snagged on a large splinter. The loud rip of tearing fabric sounded in her ears only heartbeats before her knees hit the dirt. For one moment, she could do nothing in her stunned shock but rest there on her hands and knees, her head hanging with mortification and her torn bodice hanging loose from her bosom.
“Belle!” Quinton knelt beside her and reached for her arm. “Are you hurt?”
Squeezing her eyes shut against the hot tears, she shook her head. A lie. Because her heart had shattered.
He helped her to her feet. With her arms clamped tightly over her bodice to keep it in place, as if she could also physically fight back the embarrassed shame pouring through her, she wrestled her arm free from his grip. Her vision was too blurred with tears and shadows to clearly see his face—oh, she was glad of it! She couldn’t have borne to see the pity on his face. The humiliation would have killed her.
“Are you all right?” he quietly demanded, taking her shoulders in both hands so she couldn’t pull away again.
A sob choked from her. “My dress…” The expensive ivory and pearl silk gown that Lady Ainsley insisted she wear for her first ball was ruined. Her ripped bodice gaped open over her breasts, the skirt stained with dirt where she landed on the ground.
“Let me help.” He reached for her dress.
“Go away!” She twisted away from him. “Haven’t you done enough to me tonight?”
He stared at her incredulously, his lips parting speechlessly at her angry rebuke. Then his eyes narrowed. “I’ve done nothing—”
“Carlisle!” A man’s voice rang out loudly through the quiet of the surrounding garden, followed by a jarring laugh. “There you are!”
“Christ,” he snapped out, then tried to remove his jacket for her. But it was too late.
Two men came upon them in the dark garden, with lit cheroots and glasses of whiskey in their hands. They froze when they saw Belle, then lecherous grins spread across their faces. Their teeth gleamed bright in the moonlight.
“And he’s busy, too,” the first man drawled.
The second one looped his arm over the first man’s shoulders and tapped his glass against his friend’s chest. “Deliciously so.”
Fresh humiliation cascaded through Belle, and she cringed at the lascivious looks the two men gave her, slowly raking their gazes over her from her dirtied hem to her torn bodice. She turned away, but it was too late. They’d surely recognized her, even in the shadows. And what they must have thought she and Quinn had been up to—
“Go away,” he growled, stepping between her and the two men. His hands drew into fists at his sides.
The first man tsked his tongue, then grinned at her. “And let you have all the fun?”
Belle recognized him—Burton Williams, Viscount Houghton’s youngest son. Her stomach sickened. Oh God, not that scapegrace and male gossip!
“But I never would have figured you for a piece like this,” Williams muttered disdainfully.
Belle’s chest tightened to hard that she couldn’t breathe, that she was certain her heart would stop. She lowered her head to hide her face as the first tear of humiliation slid down her cheek.
“Go away,” Quinton repeated in a snarl through clenched teeth. “This isn’t your concern.”
Ignoring that, and having far too much fun chiding Quinn and humiliating her, Williams laughed. “Tore your dress, did you, pet?”
The other man slapped Williams on the shoulder and gestured toward her skirt. “Before or after she was on her knees, do you think?”
Quinton’s broad body stiffened with anger so intense that it was palpable on the midnight air. “Leave,” he ordered. “And don’t say a damned word this about this to anyone.”
“Or what?” Williams taunted, throwing his glass away into the bushes so he could empty his hands to fight.
Amusement instantly fled from the two men. Their faces turned hard, and they pulled themselves up straight. Tension pulsed electric in the air.
“Quinn, don’t.” She rested her hand on his right arm, knowing that fisticuffs were about to break out. Over her. And if a fight broke out in the garden, then everyone in the ballroom would surely come pouring outside to see. All of London would find her looking like this, would make the same assumption about her and Quinton that Williams and his friend had. “Just walk away, please.”
His eyes flashed like brimstone. “And let them get away with insulting you?”
“Yes!” she choked out, afraid she would burst into sobs. “It doesn’t mean any—”
“Tupping a bluestocking in the garden?” The friend laughed. “That’s desperate.”
“Unless blue stockings taste like blueberries. Do they, Carlisle?” Williams took a step toward Quinn. “Is she a ripe juicy blueberry, ready to pop on a man’s tongue?”
His arm muscles tensed beneath her fingertips as she felt the simmering rage flame through him.
“Quinn, don’t do this,” she begged, unable now to stop the tears. “Please.”
But he shrugged her hand away and stepped forward, fists clenched and heading straight into the fight. In an instant, punches were hurled between all three men, followed by the sickeningly dull thud of landed fists.
Panic surged inside her. Oh dear Lord! She couldn’t be caught out here, not looking like this, not with one of Mayfair’s favorite rakes bare-knuckle brawling over her. Without thinking, only knowing she had to get away from here before she was seen, she ran toward the house. She was desperate to find the retiring room, to hide there until Lady Ainsley could rescue her and put this nightmare to an end.
“Belle, wait!” Quinn called out. She glanced over her shoulder only long enough to see him land a punch that sent Williams reeling. “Stop!”
But the last thing she would do was stop and face him in her disgrace, or watch him get himself beaten up over her. Dear God, hadn’t she been humiliated enough tonight? When she heard him running after her, the fight abandoned to chase after her, she hurried faster through the dark shadows toward the library terrace door. Her shaking hand grabbed for the door handle—
She rushed inside the room. Then halted in her steps to suck in a soft scream of surprise, only to lose her breath beneath hot humiliation when she looked up and saw four of the ton’s biggest busybodies sitting in the library. They stared at her, as if she belonged in the stable rather than in a grand townhouse with them. Then their gazes roamed slowly over her, taking in the torn and sagging bodice, the dirt stains on her skirt.
When Quinton arrived at her side only a few moments later, now looking as disheveled and mussed as she was from the fight, knowing smiles spread across their faces, and their eyes gleamed, like hyenas relishing a feast. A scoundrel and a woman they considered too ill-bred to ever be one of them. He shed his jacket and placed it over her shoulders to cover her, but it was too late. The damage had been done.
Her ripped and dirty dress provided all the proof—and ammunition—they needed to ruin her.
Cumbria, England Near the Scottish Border
Annabelle Green paused as she walked with Lady Ainsley through the gardens at Castle Glenarvon, to glance up at the late afternoon sun as it slowly lowered toward the horizon.
Another day gone.
Her chest tightened painfully as she whispered, “Only one month left.”
The dowager viscountess wrapped her arm around Belle’s and gave a resolute nod. “We will find someone for you to marry.” She patted her arm. “There is still plenty of time.”
Belle wasn’t so certain. Hadn’t the past four years passed in the blink of an eye, only for her to still be unmarried one month before the deadline?
Drawing in a deep breath, she looked across the gardens to the sweeping views of the Cumbria estate she loved, with its river and glen, and further out the long fields leading away to the blue mountains in the distance. Given as a gift to a favorite of the crown during the English civil war, the estate’s creation was done more to hold the border from possible Scottish invasion from the north than for any political or monetary gains, yet it had passed down through the late Lord Ainsley’s family as a treasured, if financially meager, property. The old estate was located so far north that a strong wind could topple it over into Scotland. Yet Annabelle loved every last rock-strewn, heather-tufted inch of it.
It was the only real home she’d ever known. And in one short month, when she turned twenty-five, the property would be hers. If she married.
Or she would lose it forever if she didn’t.
That was the unbearable situation she found herself in. Just as she knew that it was all the fault of love.
“We only wanted the best for you, my dear,” Lady Ainsley said quietly.
Belle squeezed her arm affectionately. “I know, my lady.”
Lady Ainsley and her late husband were fond of Belle and always had been, ever since she came to live with them when she was ten, when her mother died of fever. Her father, who had never been a large part of her life except to cause pain and unrest, had been sentenced to prison two years earlier. Belle had no other relatives. But her mother had once worked for the viscount before Belle was born, and the viscountess wanted to help her, to eventually raise her into being her companion since she had no children. So Lord and Lady Ainsley welcomed her into their lives and treated her as well as they would have their own daughter. Truly, as well as they had his three daughters from his first marriage. They provided a wonderful education for her, all the dresses and accessories she could have wanted, and a safe and stable home. They also wanted her to be well-protected for the rest of her life, preferably in the same kind of loving marriage the viscount and viscountess had shared.
But the road to hell was paved with good intentions, and by trying to protect her, they’d inadvertently hurt her. The viscount had willed the unentailed estate of Castle Glenarvon to Annabelle, held in trust by the viscountess until Belle turned twenty-five—but only if she married by her twenty-fifth birthday. Then, the property would be overseen by her husband and untouchable by her thief of a father who would have stolen it right out from under her nose if he could have. But forego marriage, and the estate would go to the church. Belle would lose everything…her home, the mountains and the wilderness, the darling sheep and their pastures, even the little pond where she swam on summer evenings.
Yet there was no husband in sight.
Thanks to that ill-fated night in the St. James’s garden with Quinton Carlisle that disastrously ended her first and only season, she had no real suitors. She had been clinging to the edges of society by her fingernails as it was, and every soiree she’d attended that season with Lord and Lady Ainsley only reinforced how different she was from the ladies who were born into the upper-class. Although the viscount and viscountess adored her, there was no changing who she really was—a penniless companion with a convict for a father. Before that night, the ladies had been polite to her but reserved, and gentleman paid her little attention. But after, she might as well have been invisible.
The gossip ruined her reputation, while for Quinton it was simply one more story circulating about the rakishness of the Carlisle brothers. And there was nothing to do to solve it. As the son of a peer, Quinton would never be forced to marry a ladies’ companion. She was too far beneath him for that, and even Lord Ainsley, in his anger at Quinton that he’d let this happen, couldn’t make him marry her.
Although at the time, that had been perfectly fine with her. The very last thing she wanted to do was marry. Especially to a man who did not love her.
Her mother’s marriage had been one of convenience, not love, and look where that had gotten her…besieged by creditors, upended in the middle of the night to flee before the rent was due, denied pretty dresses and any day-to-day luxuries that would have made life bearable, abused by her husband when she complained about his drinking and gambling. Belle would never put herself into that same situation.
But now, with her birthday nearing rapidly and no man in sight who would make her a proper husband, time was running out. It seemed as if a marriage of convenience might be her only alternative, one which pierced her heart with dread.
If the choice came down to either marrying a man who did not love her or losing Glenarvon…what would she do?
“We have a plan, and it will work,” Lady Ainsley reminded her, referring to the series of teas and parties they’d planned on throwing. All the area’s most eligible gentlemen would be invited, to give Belle a chance to meet them and decide if any might do for a husband. Of course, the time had finally come to reveal that Castle Glenarvon formed her dowry. With the viscountess’s permission, Belle had always kept that secret, not wanting to be inundated by fortune hunters who wanted the property more than they wanted her. But now, she had no choice. “And there is always Sir Harold’s offer to consider. He is certainly not a fortune hunter, and he would make a fine husband.”
Belle stiffened at the mention of their next door neighbor. She was certain he would make a fine husband.
But not for her.
Not if she wanted to retain any sort of control over Glenarvon. Or enjoy any conversations with her husband other than those about hunting and horses. Oh, Sir Harold wasn’t a villain by any stretch, but neither was he the kind of man she suspected would make her happy in her marriage.
“He has his own property and a goodly amount of wealth, the respect of the aristocracy and the crown, a fine family history…” Lady Ainsley ticked off his qualifications as if she were reading a laundry list. “By all accounts, he would be quite an advantageous match for you. You should reconsider his offer.”
Belle fought down the urge to laugh. Lady Ainsley was being helpful, in her own way. And she wasn’t wrong. A young lady with Belle’s pedigree—or rather, lack of one—would never have been able to marry a man like Sir Harold any other way except by bringing an estate to the marriage as a dowry. But she’d never cared for social rank. Whether society spurned her for the rest of her life or welcomed her with open arms, she couldn’t care less, as long as she was allowed to keep living right here in the home she loved, surrounded by the villagers she cared about.
“I do not believe that Sir Harold and I would be well-suited,” she countered, before Lady Ainsley considered her silence a signal that she’d won the latest battle to convince Belle to marry Sir Harold. “I believe I should look elsewhere.”
“Which is why I sent for Quinton Carlisle.”
Belle nearly tripped. Good Lord! The viscountess surely didn’t mean that she and Quinton—Oh no. No. No!
Stumbling to regain her balance, she squeaked out, “Pardon?”
Lady Ainsley looked at her curiously—or as if she’d just sprung a second head, it was impossible to say which. “To help in your search for a husband, of course.”
Her search for a husband. Not to be her husband. Belle let out a breath of relief, nearly laughing at herself for what she’d thought Lady Ainsley had been suggesting. Quinton Carlisle for her husband! It was a measure of how desperate they’d become that such a thought popped into her head at all. And that perhaps Lady Ainsley had gone mad as a hatter to invite that devil here.
“You invited him to Glenarvon?” Belle breathed out, still too stunned yet to find her voice. “When?”
“I tucked in a note to him when I wrote to his mother last month, to congratulate Elizabeth on finally marrying off one of her sons without scandal. Rather,” Lady Ainsley corrected on second thought, “with little scandal. Trent married the niece of one of this tenant farmers, after all. I am certain tongues were wagging all the way to Cornwall about that.”
Because the viscountess’s vision was fading with age, and her handwriting had long ago become little more than a scrawl, Belle copied over all of Lady Ainsley’s correspondence before sending them to the post. All of it. But she certainly hadn’t seen that letter.
Dread knotted her stomach. “Why?”
“Because we need his help.” The dowager patted Belle’s arm. “If anyone can sort the potential husbands from the undesirables, it will be my great-nephew.”
Ha! The only help Quinton would give would be to cause problems.
Just as he’d always done to her. After all, they’d known each other since they were still in the schoolroom and had met often at estate parties and on the rare occasions when Annabelle accompanied Lord and Lady Ainsley to London. And always, whenever they’d met, the devil had teased and taunted her mercilessly. Childish behavior, like one of those boys in the schoolyard who enjoyed pulling a girl’s braid just to capture the attention of her ire on him. Over the years, the torment only grew, and it seemed that the angrier he made her, the more he enjoyed it.
Until her London season, when he’d finally gone too far.
“You know what happened between us, my lady,” she whispered, struck by how painful that memory was, even now. The very last person Belle needed interfering in her life at this moment was the man who was responsible for driving the final nail into her reputation’s coffin.
“Yes.” Her lips pressed into a tight line. “Which is another reason I asked him here. This is his last opportunity to apologize to you.”
Belle didn’t want an apology. She wanted to forget that horrible night had ever happened. Forced contrition on Quinn’s part wouldn’t begin to make up for the way he’d humiliated her.
“Besides, with the potential for fortune-hunters to come crawling out of the woodwork as soon as they learn of your true dowry, we will need a strong man’s presence to keep them all in line.”
She frowned, not at all certain that Quinton Carlisle was the best choice of man for that duty.
Something else nagged at her. Belle arched a brow. “Did you tell him the real reason you wanted him here?” she asked quietly. She felt a bit like they were ambushing him. Or rather, that Lady Ainsley had ambushed her with her outrageous plan to bring that rascal here.
The viscountess feigned insult at that and wrinkled her nose at the gentle accusation. “He is leaving for America, and I desire to see my great-nephew one last time before he goes. I am an old woman, and I might not live to see his return visit.”
Hmm…so no, she hadn’t told him the truth.
Belle had grown to know and love Lady Ainsley as much as her own mother, and that was clearly a skilled dodge if ever she’d heard one. But the dowager was right; she was up in years, and Belle couldn’t bear to think of losing Lady Ainsley as she’d lost her mother and the viscount. She guiltily bit her bottom lip. “If it makes you feel better to have Lord Quinton here, then I suppose—”
“It does. Thank you for understanding.”
Belle eyed her suspiciously. Well. She’d certainly answered that quickly.
“I am a practical woman, Annabelle,” Lady Ainsley explained, as if reading her thoughts. “Sentiment only takes one so far. At some point, practicality must enter the room.”
Belle supposed. She only hoped she could find a way to make it leave again.
As for Quinton, she doubted the rascal would ever set foot on Glenarvon land, summoned by Lady Ainsley or not. There had been no return letter from him; Belle opened and sorted all the post for the viscountess, and she would have noticed any missive from him. Given the way they’d last parted, she doubted he’d have the nerve to visit, knowing he would have to see her again. She knew the Carlisle brothers well enough to know that they never apologized for the havoc they wrought, and she doubted Quinton had changed that much in the past six years to make him do so.
She took comfort in that. And wasn’t there already enough trouble in her life now as it was?
No matter. Quinton Carlisle was the last person she wanted to think about tonight. Not when the day was this beautiful and most likely one of he last warm evenings of the year.
“If you don’t mind, my lady.” Belle slipped her arm from the viscountess’s. “I’d like to take a walk down by the pond.”
“Very well.” She tilted her cheek toward Belle so she could kiss it. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
Lady Ainsley walked on toward the house, and Belle sighed out a grateful breath as she hurried away in the opposite direction, toward the end of the walled garden and the little path that led away from the house. One way led uphill to the tumbled ruins of the old castle, the other down toward the glen and the secluded pond. Belle turned downhill, her feet moving easily over the familiar path.
For the first time all day, she felt at peace, and she hummed a soft tune to herself as she reached the edge of the pond and began to undress. Her worries slipped away as easily as the layers of clothing, and for a little while at least, she could forget about the future and all its troubles and simply enjoy the summer’s evening.
With a small shiver as she entered the cold water, she took a deep breath and plunged forward, to swam out into the center of the pond as she did most summer evenings when she could get away from the house before dinner. The water refreshed her, cooling away the frustrations that had engulfed her life and now threatened to strangle her. She couldn’t imagine losing Glenarvon and no longer living here, of no longer having these special moments.
“Well, well—what have we here?”
Spinning around, Annabelle gasped with surprise at the sound of the man’s deep voice. Her arms flew up to cover her bare breasts, and she dropped down until the cold water came up to her chin.
Unable to see his face as he stood silhouetted against the setting sun behind him, she stared at the tall stranger standing at the edge of the pond, right beside the pile of her clothes. She swallowed back both her startled fear and her mortification that someone had come upon her like this, naked and vulnerable. And anger took over.
“Who are you?” she demanded in her sternest possible voice, which dripped with irony given the weakness of her current position. Heavens, she couldn’t even run away! “What do you want?”
An impish grin blossomed through the shadows darkening his face. “Belle,” he called out, a laughing lilt to his rich voice, “is that you?”
Oh no. Her shoulders sagged beneath the surface of the pond. Now, she knew!
God help her, she would know that grin anywhere. That overly smooth, charming smile that could con the king out of his crown.
“Quinton Carlisle,” she called out tersely, peeved that he picked here and now of all times to arrive. Typical Quinn. Always showing up at the most inconvenient moments. And incidentally—as if he had some sort of sixth sense for it—where currently stood a naked woman.
Even the last time she’d seen him, when he was just twenty-one and fresh out of Oxford, he was well on his way to becoming a rake. He and his two older brothers had cut a swathe through London’s most notorious venues that season, as if in competition to out-do each other with drunken debauchery. The three had been the foremost topic of gossip, as if the quality couldn’t quite believe that the Carlisle brothers actually belonged to their hallowed ranks. But while the ladies scorned them in public, privately they swarmed to them, and especially to Quinton, whose charming smile had them eagerly surrendering their hearts…and other body parts.
No wonder he hadn’t paid Annabelle much notice that spring, except to torment her whenever he could with teasing jokes and pranks. Why would he give any mind to a shy, country gel who felt more at home in bookstores than in ballrooms when he had the sophisticated ladies of the ton vying for his attention? Such a foolish cake she’d been! She should have known when he charmed her into surrendering her first kiss in the Earl of St. James’s garden that she meant nothing to him.
“So it is you.” With an amused glimmer in his blue eyes, obviously thrilled that he’d caught her in such an embarrassing situation, he lowered himself onto his heels and closer to her level. “Up to your neck in it as ever, I see.”
“And you, as ever a bother,” she muttered, goaded into the same bickering they’d engaged in when they were children. Old habits were hard to break.
He gave a short laugh. A lock of blond hair fell across his forehead as he removed his hat and ran his fingers through the thick waves, which were just as golden as she remembered. His crooked grin grew impossibly brighter.
Oh, she knew that look! And she knew the effect it had on women. Even now, having experienced the devilishness which lurked behind that angelic face, that same grin once again swirled through her. The charming intensity of it curled her toes into the muck at the bottom of the pond.
He pulled off his leather riding gloves and slapped them against his hard thigh as if finding her in such an embarrassing—and increasingly colder—position was a grand joke. And clearly at her expense. “I wasn’t certain if it was you,” he taunted, “or if mermaids had come to Scotland.”
“We’re in England,” she shot back. The pest aggravated the daylights out of her—always had, blast him. “But if you’d like to travel on to Scotland, it’s just ten miles that way.” She gave a jerk of her head toward the mountains in the distance. “Safe travels!”
Instead of being offended, he laughed, his eyes sparkling brightly. That, too, was typical of him…boundless energy and a magnetic personality. “Your loyalty to crown and country is admirable, Belle, but I don’t think Rule Britannia applies to duck ponds.”
Oh, the devil take the man! Pressing her lips together tightly, she glared murderously at him, not trusting herself to respond without saying something she might regret.
He was just as aggravating as she remembered, despite being six years older, more mature—if only physically, certainly not intellectually—and definitely broader and more muscular. A sinking dread fell through her that Lady Ainsley had made a terrible mistake by inviting him here.
But her primary concern at the moment wasn’t his aunt and how on earth the two of them were going to resolve the mess that the late viscount had created in her life—it was getting out of the pond and over to her clothes without Quinn seeing her naked. And judging from the relaxed way he rested back on his boot heels, his forearm lying casually across his thigh, he didn’t plan on being a gentleman and leaving.
“Lady Ainsley is up at the house,” she informed him, goose-bumps forming on her skin. Good Lord, the water was freezing! A few minutes more, and her teeth would chatter.
“I know. But the groom said you were here,” he explained, “and I thought I’d say hello before greeting Aunt Agatha and settling in at the house. So…hello.” Even in the dim light of the fading sunset his eyes sparkled like the devil’s own. “This feels like old times.”
Old times she very much wanted to forget.
Her eyes darted longingly to her clothes at his feet.
He followed her glance. “Are you really…?” He gasped in feigned shock as he reached down to a hook a finger in her dress and lift it from the ground. “Goodness, Belle! You all truly do live wild here in the borderlands, don’t you?”
Despite the chill of the water, her face flushed hot. Leave it to Quinn to so cavalierly point out that she was naked.
But of course, he couldn’t have cared less about her humiliation. And he certainly wasn’t flirting with her, most likely thinking nothing more of her uncomfortable situation except for the opportunity it gave him to torment her, just as he’d done when they were children.
She sighed in aggravation. And shivered with cold. Her teeth began to chatter, and as she shook from cold, she prayed he couldn’t see it. Or anything else she didn’t want him to see. “Would you please—”
“My, my, how careless!” With a shake of his head, he clucked his tongue chastizingly. “Some wild animal could stumble upon your clothes and carry them off, or the wind might simply blow them—”
“Quinton James Carlisle, don’t you dare!” But her threat lacked all force, since she could do nothing to stop him. And drat him, he knew it, too.
Which only caused his grin to widen. She could see on his face how tempted he was to do just as she feared and walk away with her clothes, leaving her as naked as Eve in the garden. The deceitful snake!
“Same Belle I remember.” He laughed good-naturedly, as if he truly were happy to see her. And of course, to tease her again. “Always too serious for her own good. Tell me, do you still prefer to spend your time with books rather than with people?”
“Certain people, yes,” she bit out. And especially you.
As if he could read her mind, he nearly doubled-over hooting with laughter. The rotten scoundrel actually laughed! When he should have had the decency to be remorseful about what he’d done to her all those years ago.
She grimaced with annoyance. Oh, why couldn’t he simply leave her alone and minimize the discomfort for both of them? But of course not. Quinn never did anything to make her life easier. Not if he could get a good laugh out of it.
That much about him hadn’t changed during the past six years, although the rest of him was most definitely different…taller, broader, more solid. And impossibly more masculine. He’d matured from a lanky university student into a full-grown man, right down to the handsome line of his jaw. The tight-fit of his buckskin breeches accentuated the hard muscles of his thighs and his narrow waist as much as the redingote stretching tight across his back exemplified the wide breadth of his shoulders. Since she’d last seen him, he’d transformed into a golden mountain of man, just like his older brothers, yet retained the same charismatic grin he’d possessed since he was a boy.
If he were anyone else, she would have said he was attractive. Perhaps even handsome. Unfortunately, she knew the Carlisle brothers too well, and she knew what lurked beneath their captivating exteriors. Sebastian was the serious one, Robert was the risk-taker, and Quinton…Well, Quinn made his way through the world by his charm.
But his charisma no longer worked on her. She’d gained immunity. The hard way.
In frustration, her hands fisted beneath the pond’s surface. “Why must you always insist on tormenting me? We’re no longer children.”
“No, we’re not.” Something in his gaze darkened heatedly as his eyes fixed on her. “But tormenting you puts fire in your eyes, Belle,” he drawled in a silky voice, “and I’ve always liked seeing the fire in you.”
She shivered. This time not from the cold water. But she knew his smooth words couldn’t be trusted, not this scoundrel. “A gentleman would say his goodbyes and leave me in privacy to get dressed.”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m not a gentleman,” he replied with mock earnestness.
Oh that rascal! For a fleeting moment, she was tempted to show him exactly how much fire flamed inside her and simply walk out of the pond and collect her clothes, as bare bottomed as a newborn babe. And just to see the startled look on his face, because she was certain he thought her incapable of ever doing anything so daring. Perhaps the girl he knew from before wouldn’t, but the woman Annabelle had become might just do something exactly as bold as that.
She trembled at the idea, and despite the cold from the chilling water, an odd yearning of excitement fluttered up from low in her belly. As if she just might possibly be as daring and wild as he suspected she wasn’t—
“God bless you,” he offered, then trailed his hand into the water at the edge. “Brrr! That is rather cold, isn’t it?”
Her eyes narrowed to slits, and she distrusted herself to speak, knowing this time she really would say something indelicate.
“Better come out now, Belle. You’re turning blue.” From the gleam in his eyes, he was enjoying toying with her like this. “Like a blueberry.”
Her breath caught in her throat. Blueberry. Her eyes stung with sudden tears at his thoughtless words. To be that inconsiderate, that unkind to her even now after all these years as to bring up that horrible night—but he only smiled at her, oblivious to the cruelty of his off-handed comment.
Of course, Quinn wouldn’t think anything of it. His reputation hadn’t been ruined because of a fight; his heart hadn’t been shattered. But hers had.
Although she could hide her body beneath the water, she couldn’t hide the dark humiliation gathering on her face like storm clouds or the agonizing mix of anger and utter wretchedness swelling up inside her at the reminder of what happened all those years ago. Because he had to prove his manhood and fight. Because he wouldn’t listen to her and simply walk away. The same male arrogance which might yet cost her Glenarvon.
From the puzzled expression in Quinn’s eyes, he noted the sudden change in her but didn’t yet realize the full implication of what he’d said, and she didn’t dare speak past the tight knot in her throat to explain for fear she might cry. Because she would never allow herself to cry in front of him, never allow him to see how much he’d hurt her.
“Belle, are you—Oh Christ.” As the stupidity of what he’d so thoughtlessly said sank over him, his grin faded, and his eyes softened apologetically. “I’m sorry. It was so long ago that I’d forgotten all about it.”
But she hadn’t, and never would.
All the teasing vanishing instantaneously, he rose to his full height, then turned his back to her and walked off a few paces to give her privacy. “Come out whenever you’re ready.”
With his back turned and his eyes focused on the darkening shadows painted across the countryside by the fading sunset, Quinn heard the soft splash of water behind him as Belle moved quickly toward the bank.
He smiled. Annabelle Greene. Quick-tempered, defensive, serious…exactly as he remembered. Easy to excite and irritate. And a helluva lot of fun to torment.
When they were children, he’d loved to spend his time thinking up ways to goad her to frustration. After all, she’d been an easy target. As a bluestocking whose nose was forever pressed into one book or another, she was always painfully proper and prim even as a child, impossibly shy, and never let herself have any real fun. So he’d nicknamed her Bluebell, a combination of her name and bluestocking, just to antagonize her. The name stuck.
So did his enjoyment of irritating her. He hadn’t lied to her about seeing the fire in her, and as they’d grown into adulthood, he’d enjoyed it more and more. Perhaps it was because too many of the women he associated with would never show an ounce of anger or irritation behind their carefully controlled facades. Not Annabelle. She was refreshingly honest with her emotions. Or perhaps it was because as he’d grown into manhood, the rake in him had come to realize how close anger sat to passion.
He couldn’t say for certain what it was about her that fueled his puckish side, but Quinn still enjoyed taunting her, far more than he should have.
“Are you all right?” he called out over his shoulder. Then he added, just to taunt her, “Bluebell.”
He heard her teeth chatter. Guilt stabbed him for keeping her in the cold water just because teasing her amused him. Or perhaps her answer was forced out between clenched teeth in anger at the use of her nickname. That would certainly be the Annabelle he knew.
Good Lord, had it really been six years since he’d last seen her?
The last time had been in London when she was starting her first season. As a late bloomer not quite grown into womanhood, she’d been at that age when her curves were just beginning to blossom and soften. The stick-with-ears she’d been all her life had suddenly grown into her long legs and big honey-hazel eyes, her previous gawkiness turning graceful and her shyness mellowing into a natural demureness that other ladies only pretended to possess. The Bluebell had suddenly turned interesting, even to the jaded buck he’d already become.
And then, somehow, without quite knowing how it happened…he’d kissed her.
Even now, after all these years and countless intimate encounters with experienced ladies, he remembered that innocent kiss. All fumbles and eager awkwardness, hidden from sight beneath the rose bower at St. James House in the middle of the countess’s annual ball. His arms were around her, his mouth on hers, her willing body pressed hard against his. He remembered the sweet tang of honey on her lips, the wild scent of heather which clung to her skin, the pliant softness of her curves…the utter confusion which gripped him afterward. She was the Bluebell, for God’s sake! Aunt Agatha’s companion. Innocent and inexperienced. And wholly intriguing for all of it.
Then it all went so horribly wrong.
Even then, though, her reputation could have been salvaged, if not for his entrance right on her heels, letting the gossipy hens suspect all kinds of wanton things happening between them in the dark garden. Of course, they hadn’t. Not more than kissing anyway. Belle would never…but it was exactly the kind of incident that the busybody of the ton loved to seize on and cruelly spread. Especially to someone like Annabelle, an outsider who had never been accepted into their ranks in the first place.
In the aftermath, Annabelle and Aunt Agatha suddenly left London, putting an abrupt end to her season. So sudden, in fact, that he hadn’t had the chance to apologize and say goodbye. After that, life changed quickly for him. His father was made a duke, and Quinton, along with his two brothers, were swept up into the unfolding chaos of their new lives, which turned unbearable when their father died. That night at the St. James’s ball grew further and further away, until he’d forgotten about it completely.
Six years had passed, and he hadn’t seen her since. Although based upon the barbs they’d just exchanged, she hadn’t changed. And oddly enough, he was more relieved than he wanted to admit that she hadn’t.
He offered affably, unable to stop himself, “Need any help with your stockings?”
“Just stay right where you are!”
“But I’m very good with ladies’ stockings,” he drawled.
“Oh,” she muttered beneath her breath, “I’m certain you are.”
He chuckled. Same old Annabelle, all right.
It was good to know that some things hadn’t changed, especially when everything else in his life was turning on end. Including the unexpected invitation to visit Glenarvon, which had nearly knocked him flat. So did its implications. Because Aunt Agatha had implied in her letter that she had financial matters to settle, which only boded well for him. The timing wasn’t ideal—he should have already left for America weeks ago, and the last thing he needed to be doing now was loitering in the borderlands. But who would pass up the chance for additional funds in his situation?
Of course, he also knew that the visit to Glenarvon meant seeing Annabelle Greene and that they hadn’t parted under the best of circumstances. But he’d assumed that they could tolerate each other for a few days while he visited with Aunt Agatha and before he rode on to the coast. Then his new life would begin, and he’d fulfill the promise he’d made to his father. And not a moment too soon.
“Quinton! You got dirt in my stockings!”
He rolled his eyes at her angry grumble and grinned. Yep. Exactly the Belle he remembered.
How much exactly had the Bluebell changed during the past six years?
The temptation to satisfy his curiosity about her was too great to ignore. And who could really fault him for taking a quick glance? After all, any man would be curious about a woman he hadn’t seen since she was eighteen, since the night she let him kiss her beneath a rose bower and stole his breath away. A now naked woman standing right behind him…
“And look! There’s grass all over my dress.”
The last time he’d seen her she’d been on the cusp of womanhood. Would she be the same gangly girl he remembered? Would she still be nothing but skin-and-bones, sharp angles, and big feet? Fate would undoubtedly make him pay for this, but he couldn’t help himself—
He glanced over his shoulder.
His breath hitched in his throat when he caught sight of her in the fading golden-purple sunset, all curvy naked and dripping wet, her body half-turned toward him as she hurried into her clothes. Sweet Lucifer. Full breasts with dusky-pink nipples drawn taut from the cold water, round hips and long legs that stretched all the way up from her toes to her…Well. She’d certainly grown into her feet, all right, along with the rest of her.
He swallowed. Hard. Nope, not a single sign left of the stick-with-ears.
The Bluebell had become a woman.
And God help him, he wasn’t prepared for that, or for the visceral reaction in his tightening gut. Good Lord, for the Bluebell. And when she turned to drop her shift over her head and across her shoulders, unknowingly teasing him with another angle of her ripe body, the new view ripped his breath away.
He was wrong. Fate wasn’t making him simply pay for this stolen glimpse of her. Fate had just punched him in the gut for it.
He turned around before she caught him drooling after her like some green pup. Clenched at his sides, his hands trembled, and he inhaled deep, slow breaths to steady himself.
Well, things had certainly changed in the past six years. In all kinds of new and interesting ways.
Coming to Glenarvon was proving to be a grand idea.
“Just one moment more,” she called out. “I can’t quite reach…”
More fabric rustled behind him, and Quinn imagined her lissome body twisting to reach behind her to fasten up her dress, her breasts straining tantalizingly against her low-cut bodice as her back arched. One long leg half exposed by a raised skirt revealing the lacy-edge of her stocking, which he could slowly roll down her thigh and follow along in its wake with his mouth—
“I’m almost through.”
Squeezing his eyes closed, he tried not to think of how round and full her derriere as she bent over to slip on her half-boots. He blew out a harsh breath of aggravation that she of all woman could elicit such a response from him that even now his cock tingled.
“Hurry up, will you?” he prodded irritably. Because he wasn’t certain how much longer he could stand there, not looking.
“There,” she announced. “I’m dressed.”
Thank God. He turned.
And froze beneath the full force of her presence.
Sweet and genuinely enchanting—and far more beguiling than he remembered—Belle gazed up at him through long, lowered lashes. In her sprigged muslin dress, with her damp, caramel-brown hair now pinned into place, she looked perfectly proper, as if she hadn’t just been caught swimming naked. She barely came up to his shoulder, yet packed the punch of an Amazon with her quiet allure and natural grace. Gone was her insecurity, replaced by a shining confidence he remembered seeing in her only once before, right as she’d wrapped her arms around his neck to kiss him.
And that surprised him nearly as much as seeing her naked.
She held her hand out to him, and he caught the scent of heather wafting on the air. The same wild, floral scent he remembered from six years ago. Her cheeks pinked delicately, and the tingle in his cock turned into an ache that swirled up his spine.
She said softly, “Welcome to Castle Glenarvon.” Then she added with a touch of begrudging politeness and a flash of her eyes that reminded him of smoldering coals right before they flamed into a fire, “I hope you enjoy your stay.”
Find out what happens to Annabelle and Quinn...