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The house glowed with the warmth from the hearth in the kitchen. Its welcome heat coated her skin and she felt relief that, despite her situation, she could have some creature comforts for the time being. Harmony was seated at a roughly-hewn wooden bench near the open fire. Before her was a plate of coddled eggs and freshly baked bread, homely food but delicious nonetheless. She told the older woman as much.

Harmony was still trying to decide how to get around her present situation. The woman clearly adored the rake, Lord Darius, just as he had suggested, and although Harmony felt she would be more than cared for, she tended to think the other woman did not intend to question the situation. Furthermore, Harmony had no plan of running off into the woods again, certainly not before she had a decent bath and was more suitably dressed.

Her gaze strayed toward the window, beyond which she could see the strong form of her captor who was presently talking with his men. She sighed and, when she turned her attention back to the amiable Mrs Pommeroy, noticed the knowing look in the woman’s eyes.

‘Come now, let us get you all cleaned up.’ With that, the woman bustled up the stairs with Harmony following directly behind her. The woman led her into a deceptively spacious room with a large bed and, in the far corner, behind a charming screen sat a wonderfully inviting tub.

Harmony opened her mouth to speak but was again interrupted. ‘Now you wait just here while I fetch some things.’ The woman ambled out of the room, leaving Harmony once more to her thoughts.

She walked toward the window, peering out to see what lay beyond.

‘Planning another escape route, I’d venture …’ the low rumble of his voice startled her, for she had not heard him enter the room.

‘Just so that you can chase me down again? I think not.’ She pushed back her shoulders and gave him a rather imperious stare. She felt more confident now that she was on firm ground again. ‘What are you doing in my room?’

He barked out a laugh that caught her unawares, and she felt the look of haughty superiority slip from her features. She watched as he dropped a bag of various effects at his feet before spreading his arms expansively. ‘This is our room.’

Her mouth fell open in what she felt sure was a most horrible display. She could feel his amused gaze upon her, even as her own eyes despairingly took in the solitary bed in the room.

‘But … you said that—’ Her heart was beating an unsteady rhythm, and she clutched a shaking hand to her chest.

‘You need not fear your virtue, My Lady, as I have already said. I have no need for sleep.’ He paused and looked at her knowingly. ‘And I should not risk it in any case … for fear you would kill me as I slept.’

She had no time to respond to that, because Mrs Pommeroy had returned with various linens and what appeared to be some fresh garments for Harmony to wear. No matter the simplicity of their make, she would very gladly swap the flimsy nightclothes she currently wore for something more substantial.

She had never felt as exposed as she did beneath the gaze of that errant lord.

‘I am needed elsewhere,’ he said by way of departure, and she began to wonder just where that might be.

A short time later, her tired body slipped into the liquid heat of the bath, relishing its inviting warmth. The clean scent rose up around her, reminding Harmony just how wretched she had felt only minutes before. Her introspection was broken when Mrs Pommeroy ducked her head around the corner of the screen and asked whether she would like assistance with her hair. Hermione acquiesced fervently. To be frank, however, it was more the company she craved than anything else. And she had an inkling that the other woman knew as much.

She chewed her lip to prevent the questions from falling from her tongue. It was to no avail. She was an eternally curious person by nature, one always prone to asking questions regardless of whether it was her place or not. She did not think the other woman would hold it against her for indulging in a few such curiosities.

‘Mrs Pommeroy … do you mind my asking how you know Lord Marfly? I don’t wish to—’

‘He’s a curious one, isn’t he?’ The older woman’s laugh was deep and rich. and laden with affection for the subject of her comment. Harmony swirled the water about her knees and nodded her assent.

‘He is that,’ she said.

When the woman did speak, Harmony listened with rapt attention. ‘I was his nursemaid, I was … raised him from when he was a babe. Of course, his mother died in child birth.’

Mrs Pommeroy told of the quiet and inquisitive boy he had been and of his fierce loyalty to his family and their people. She also told Harmony of the sins of the father: the gambling and the building of debts. The young Lord had received nothing from his father but an empty title and those obligations upon the older man’s death, and worse still, the pledge of allegiance to that dreaded man Lord Tòmas Ryder, the owner of said debts.

She tried to control the sharp intake of breath as the history was revealed. It did, however, shed much light on the sort of man he was, and the many cryptic statements he had made.

‘Is he a good man still? I wonder,’ she whispered the words, not certain of an answer.

‘You don’t seem so certain that he’s not. He is a good man, and he does all he can for the people loyal to him … he suffers another man’s poor decision.’ She continued smoothing the comb through the wet tangle of Harmony’s curls. ‘He’s been led down the wrong path now, I fear … but not beyond redemption.’

Harmony sat quietly and wondered about that. She was left to such thoughts, shortly thereafter, when Mrs Pommeroy announced that she had best tend to other things about the house. The young woman was left thus in a state of introspection, pondering all that she had heard and witnessed.

It disconcerted her to a small measure to realise that she had not given the least thought to making an escape. Aside from the fact that it would likely be pure folly to attempt such a feat, given she had no mode of transport nor inkling of where she was, a certain part of her was keen to find out more about the man behind her present circumstances.

Why that was, she did not want to contemplate. She told herself that she could never be swayed by a few pretty tales, from an indulgent old woman. She told herself she was likely bored at the prospect of her future, could find little pleasure in the thought of ever marrying a man she held no interest in. It would be far too easy to wish for the handsome lord to be a hero in disguise, but Harmony had never considered herself as one prone to flights of fancy like some of the other ladies of the ton.

Yet, in spite of such reassurances, she found herself stretched out on the bed and gazing at the ceiling, wondering just what it would be like to know such a man. She flushed to recall the way heat had pooled in her stomach, and her skin had tingled to feel the warmth of his firm thigh against her own. She tried most valiantly not to think about what it would be like to kiss a man like him. She suspected it would be very unlike the polite and practiced attentions of the gentlemen she knew. She found their touches respectful, their kisses soft and sweet. Somehow, she did not think the embrace of Lord Darius would be any such thing, and yet she felt strangely certain that he would never hurt her.

It was an extraordinary assertion for a woman to have about the man who had, only that very morning, snatched her from her bed.

She felt she understood the enigmatic young man much better now, thanks to the musings of his former nursemaid. And, although she could never suggest that his treatment of her, his decision to partake in such a scheme, was the right thing to do, she rather felt she recognised those motivations a little better now.

After all, Lord Darius Marfly had nothing to gain directly for his involvement in the exercise. But Mrs Pommeroy had talked extensively of the way his father gambled away their fortune after his wife’s death. Lord Lawrence Marfly had become entirely owned by Lord Tòmas Ryder, a man who, though not of old blood like the Marflys had been, managed to accumulate a vast wealth on the continent. With such wealth inevitably came power.

Lord Ryder was known to be a brutal man, one who slaughtered all in his path. He was also a man who would never allow someone to escape the hold he had over them. Those in his debt remained that way for life, and it would seem that in the case of the late Lord Marfly, that obligation had extended to his heir.

Harmony could not deny the lurch she had felt in the pit of her stomach as Mrs Pommeroy spoke of that very occurrence, when the son was not yet 17. It had been left to him then to ensure the livelihood of his people, to regain what respectability had been lost. He had tried to evade Lord Ryder, but it had been in vain.

It was these thoughts and others of the same nature, which flittered restlessly across her exhausted mind, as she lay back staring at the ceiling. And it was in this same position that, sometime later, she succumbed to the seductive pull of sleep.


*


The warmth was like a luscious coating wrapped around her, calling her to stay in its safe knell. But there was something, a tingling of her skin, which caused her eyes to flutter open in reluctance. Even before her heavy-lidded gaze scanned the room, she was struck by the sudden and inexplicable realisation that she was longer alone. The darkness of nightfall was overwhelming, but for the warm glow of a fire in the hearth and the beacon of the moon peaking in through the far window. He stood there, bathed in its pale glow.

Harmony realised then that she must have fallen asleep in his absence. It was a disturbing thought to know that he could have stood there watching her in a most vulnerable state. His back, however, was turned to her; his gaze was entranced by whatever mysteries lay beyond the windowpane.

His voice was low, uttering words before she could fumble to find her own. ‘It is little wonder you fell asleep. It has been a long day.’

He was a master of the understatement, she mused.

‘You were gone a long time.’ The statement was revealing, but she found herself thrown by the situation and could not hope to conceal her thoughts. This strange man had flustered her from the first. It seemed she had no defence to the fluttering of her stomach upon her looking at him. It was especially so in that very moment, when he fairly glowed in the surrounding darkness: a deceptive siren call, which seemed to cause an ache in the very centre of her being.

‘I trust you found some way to pass the time.’

Her throat felt dry. ‘Yes … Mrs Pommeroy tells a great many stories of your youth.’ His head snapped toward her then; his piercing gaze seemed to cut through the layers of cloth and skin to the very heart of her.

‘It was not her place to tell such tales,’ he whispered in a tone that was dangerously soft.

Harmony extricated herself from the folds in the bed, and brushed errant wrinkles from her simply made garment. She took several steps forward then, in spite of his slightly menacing demeanour.

‘I think perhaps she is correct … on a few points.’ He raised a brow at her in question, but the reaction was belied by the intensity of his gaze. ‘I do not think you wholly bad … regardless of your … acquaintances.’

‘Is that so?’ he whispered.

‘I know about your father and—’

‘Enough!’ He cursed under his breath and glared at her, eyes dark and intent. ‘You have no idea what you speak of.’

She pushed her shoulders back and raised her voice. ‘I do. She told me all.’ Her voice softened, ‘I think there can be better for you … I think—’

‘What is this?’ he burst out, throwing his hands up in the air. ‘What sort of temptress are you. One day in your company and you think to convince me with pretty words and smiles.’

He turned his back on her and she noted the hunching of his shoulders, his raggedly drawn breath. Quite without her knowing why or how, she stepped forward and pressed gentle fingers to his back.

His tone was raw. ‘What are you doing?’

Her caress was tender, a mere breath across his back as she tried to reason that very same riddle. ‘I … I do not know.’ She took a deep breath, watching the way her fingers fanned out against the starkness of his coat. ‘You would have me think the worst but … I do not think you are what you want me to believe …’

His anger lashed out and he moved so swiftly to face her, grabbing her upper arms and hauling her against the warm breadth of his chest. Her gaze flew to his, ferocious in its gleam.

‘You would think me some sort of hero? Stupid girl.’ The words were whispered so that the softest expulsion of breath tickled her cheeks.

Her heartbeat stopped when his lips took her own. She gasped at the unexpected force of the kiss, the texture of his mouth as it tugged on her own. Her lips parted and she knew the sweet taste of brandy on his tongue. It was dizzying, the feel and the taste of him. It was a kiss clearly intended to dominate her, to punish her for speaking out of turn. Somehow, they both forgot that fact.

He moulded her to him, her body pressed flush against his chest. Her fingers curled in the fabric of his coat, clutching. When he set her back from him, she struggled to pull that heady rush of air to her lungs.

‘You are treading dangerous ground,’ he whispered, a husky quality evident in his voice. ‘You should go to sleep and forget your fancy notions.’

Her pink tongue brushed her bottom lip, moistening its swollen shape. She could not help but notice the way his eyes, darkened to obsidian, seemed to track the unconscious action. It released a fluttering in her abdomen, a giddy realisation of power she had never known. He was right, Harmony knew. She ought to go to bed, and yet she found that she did not want to.

‘I find I’ve slept enough,’ she whispered archly. His probing eyes searched hers, a warning clear in their ashy depths.

‘You should know the offer in your eyes … it can torment a man … and I have no intention of—’

‘Does it torment you?’ she whispered.

He pulled her toward him once more, using a broad palm to push against the small of her back. She could feel the heat of him searing the soft and yielding curve of her belly. He was beautiful, she thought, like something of another world. Harmony moved a hesitant finger to brush the line of his jaw, allowing it to dip into the hollow of his cheek.

 

‘You are beautiful,’ she whispered, taking in that gaze, those haunting eyes and the inviting texture of his lips.

‘As are you, My Lady.’ He shook his head. ‘I fear you will be the death of me … Perhaps that is your intention.’

She grinned and leaned toward him. Her nerve endings snapped with feverish excitement, the likes of which she had never known. Harmony knew two things quite acutely then. The first was that she could not find it in herself to care at all for issues of her reputation in that moment. The second was that she could not suffer a marriage to a man she did not love nor yearn for. Yet she yearned for this man.

‘Please,’ she whispered. A groaned imprecation fell from his lips before they brushed her own once more. She opened to him immediately, revelling in the feel of his lips against her own, and the gentle sweep of his tongue.

Large hands swept through the heavy drape of her curls, cupping the weight of her head with their capable strength. A mumbled noise of dissatisfaction fell from her lips when his moved away. She gasped again, though, to feel the gentle suction of his mouth as it traced a path of torment along her jaw and the soft skin of her neck.

Her fingers clutched at the fabric of his clothes, uncertain what to do and yet eager to touch the heated skin beneath. He pulled away again, his molten gaze intent on her own and she watched as his deft fingers moved to detach those obstacles. The breath caught in her throat at the sight of his pale skin, stretched over taut and intriguing muscle.

In that moment, she wanted nothing more than to feel its silky touch against her skin.

‘You are sure?’ he whispered even as his hands moved to her own garment. She nodded yes, distracted by the fingers that trailed over her.

A flush of another sort raised across her skin when she stepped from the last folds of fabric. She had never stood facing a man like this before, but she found the heat of his gaze and the transparent want in its depths to be reassuring.

‘Exquisite,’ he whispered, and she lifted her hands instinctively as though to cover herself.

He shook his head, and grasping one fine wrist in his hand, he tugged her toward the slightly dusty old mirror, which sat in the far corner of the room. Harmony lifted dark eyes to watch him standing by her in the mirror, his intent gaze watching hers reflected. She swallowed as she fought to keep her hands still at her sides.

The sight of herself, flushed and breathing heavily, the glow of firelight dancing on her skin, and the knowledge that he was watching caused a surge to ripple through her. The heat within was building to an intolerable point; it was a curious sort of need that she had ever known. Harmony cast her gaze up from the reflection of herself to catch his piercing gaze.

A gasp rent from her throat when she watched him move to stand behind her. She could feel the heat radiating from his skin, tickling the fine slope of her back. In the mirror, she watched him; the colour of his eyes and the slight upturn to his mouth captivated her. Her throat convulsed when his hand skimmed over the smooth plain of her stomach. She whimpered with the knowledge that he was about to touch her there. Harmony’s gaze caught his, noting the ravenous quality, which lurked there and which she thought must surely mirror her own. Lord Darius pressed a kiss to the seam of her shoulder and his hand fell away as she turned to face him.

She pressed her palms flat against the searing heat of his chest, and moved to match her lips to the action. He was salty on her tongue. Harmony relished the shuddery feeling in her stomach at being this close to something so decadent. She placed open-mouthed kisses along the ridge of his throat; he was heat and salt and sweat. She wished for nothing more than to bathe in him all evening.

Harmony shivered beneath his questing fingers, which brushed in taunting circles across her collarbone and down over her gently rounded hips. His arms then braced around her, and swept her effortlessly against the wall of his chest before he moved them toward the bed.

When he placed her down upon the bed, a broad palm pressing against her stomach to keep her steady before his intent gaze, she was certain that she had never felt quite so lovely before. The image of herself, reflected in his gaze, sent a pink flush across her exposed skin, and he seemed to delight further in her responsiveness.

Harmony’s eyes grew wide as she watched his deft fingers rid his lower body of its final shield of clothing. And the sight of him quite as undressed as her, caused her breath to quicken. She had never seen a man without his clothes before; she had never known quite what to imagine. Yet, although there was something infinitely strange about the sight of that part of him, she felt a torrid sort of fascination as well.

He leaned over her then and the weight of him against her made the blood sing in her veins, and she revelled in the touch of his mouth to hers once more. His teeth grazed across her lower lip, toying with its pillowed texture. And when her lips parted on a rather breathless sound, his tongue brushed across her own. It was dizzying.

He pulled away from her once more, and blazed a trail of heated kisses along the delicate line of her jaw. The path moved down across her collarbone and she clutched at his shoulders as a grasping sort of feeling swarmed within her. She wanted something, though she was unsure precisely what. Her toes curled in anticipation and her fingers gripped him tighter. Her gaze clashed with his then, amid the tingling sensation and the mind-altering fog of caresses. His, normally so piercing with its brightness, was a dark shade she could barely recognise. And there was a possessive sort of gleam in the way he looked at her that made her want, most fervently, to have him hold her always.

 

She was lost then, in the exquisite maelstrom of sensations, all wonderfully new and exotic to her. She could feel it, something strange and unknown, but so wonderful, drawing closer, closer. Then, with the dizzying build up, she quivered and her vision began to fray to a dusky sort of darkness.

 

And it was gone, and she was Hermione once more. Reality sharpened around her: white walls, an office desk, and piercing silver eyes.

 

 

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