About the book
Intrigue makes for strange bedfellows…
Recently widowed Miss Johanna Carlton is tired of her passionless life. For the man she is secretly in love with is no other than her late husband’s nephew. And not only is he a scoundrel, but he obviously detests her.
Mark Carlton, newly appointed Earl of Sinclair, still cannot deal with what his late uncle did to his mother. Or with the fact that he stole the only woman he ever loved from him. Until a naughty letter of hers sets his heart suddenly aflame.
But with their affair kept a secret, a desperate pregnant lady, meddling friends, and a touch of blackmail aren’t the only things that stand in the way of their happy ending. Shadows of their past come back with a vengeance. And they won’t be put to rest until Mark draws his last breath...
“I must say, you exquisite creatures are as a cold, fresh drink of water after my travels in France.” Mark Carlton—recent and reluctant inheritor to the title, the Earl of Sinclair—groaned appreciatively to the bevy of young ladies who had surrounded him. “There is nothing so fortifying to the soul as an English Rose, just waiting to be plucked.”
The ladies covered their laughter with dainty, gloved hands, though some of the more enamored beauties peered coquettishly over the top of their champagne glasses. One even dared to flash a subtle wink at him, likely keen to be the first plucked.
A striking brunette grazed her arm against his. “It cannot be easy, taking on the vast responsibility of becoming an Earl. You ought to find a wife who can share your troubles and cheer your grieving heart.”
“I assure you; I am searching very thoroughly for the most radiant and ravishing young lady in the country. As an Earl, it is vital to have an… intimate knowledge of the daughters of every peer.” Mark smiled, feeling satisfied as the ladies collapsed into another fit of raucous giggles. “Why, you would certainly feel like Countesses once I had lavished you with my particular charms.”
One of the young ladies, a pretty redhead, fanned herself furiously, as though she might swoon and faint at any moment. He tended to have that effect on women, for they had all read about his exploits in the scandal sheets. As far as he was concerned, it made his search for a nightly partner that much easier, for they already knew they could expect an unforgettable evening. And he never failed to deliver.
A blonde toyed with a strand of golden hair. “You are truly wicked, Lord Sinclair!”
“Perhaps, but I can make you see heaven far sooner than any angel,” Mark replied, as quick-witted as he was infamous.
For a moment, he had not quite understood why she was referring to him as “Lord Sinclair.” That title had always been his father’s, and though it had been almost four months since the old Earl had passed on into the hereafter, Mark was not yet used to being revered as a man of true power and station. Indeed, that was the entire reason he had gone to Bordeaux for a month, in order to escape the responsibility.
And to grieve my father in peace… If I had stayed, there would have been chaos.
He knew himself. If he had not gone away, he would have thrown himself into his vices, until there was not a full bottle of brandy in all of London, or a woman he had not shared his bed with.
“Lord Sinclair!” the brunette whispered in a sultry tone, wafting her fan close to her bosom, evidently to draw his eye toward her ripe breasts. “You will have us all panting until we cannot contain ourselves.”
The young ladies all gasped, gulping down their champagne in a vain attempt to cool their delightfully rosy cheeks. It perpetually delighted Mark, to visibly see the influence his words had upon these marvelous creatures.
“Will you dance this evening, Lord Sinclair?” The blonde emulated her dark-haired friend, until it seemed as though they had begun a heaving competition.
Mark looked toward the dancing pairs who whirled and twirled to the jaunty tune of the orchestra. “Perhaps, though I do pity the ladies sometimes.”
“Why is that?” the blonde pressed.
“So many of them do not realize that there is far more enjoyment to be had between men and women than a simple brush of palm on palm.” He took a punctuating sip of his own champagne, and grinned as the buoyant squeals of delight washed over him.
No sooner had he taken that satisfied sip than he saw a sight that closed his throat, making him choke on the bubbling liquid. Spluttering wildly and spraying champagne onto the gown of the horrified blonde, the proud puff deflated out of his chest, as though someone had taken a needle to his proud balloon.
“My goodness, how disgusting! Did you just… spit upon me?!” the doused young lady cried, staring down at her ruined gown. But Mark had no attention to spare for her laundering debacle.
His honey-brown eyes were fixed on a vision in sapphire silk that had just entered the ballroom, praying she had not seen him spit the contents of his mouth onto the wailing unfortunate who was still gawping at him as though he had covered her in something far worse.
Johanna, as I live and breathe. As beautiful as the day I last saw you, and no doubt twice as haughty. You dare to tread upon my territory?
She stood out from the crowd of gaudy revelers, with her elegant, swan-like neck and cream complexion. How he would have loved to trail his fingertips across that smooth skin and feel her tremble in his arms, or stroke his hands across her shiny blonde hair, currently braided into submission atop her head.
He could just make out her slender yet curved silhouette beneath the cascades of silk and felt grateful he had not tried to chase away his choking with another mouthful of champagne. He would surely have spat that out, too, especially as his gaze settled on her pert bosom.
Suddenly, she turned. Panicking, Mark excused himself, before darting toward a long, velvet drape beside the door to the dining room and ducking underneath it.
What am I doing?! She will think me more of an oaf than she already does, hiding behind a blasted curtain like I am fearful of a governess coming to scold me.
And yet, when it came to Johanna, he could not help but revert to boyhood, when he could not even look at a lady without blushing furiously and feeling his tongue tangle in a knot.
Perhaps it was because she had been married to his much older uncle, who was at least thirty years her senior, though she had never behaved as an aunt toward him. Or perhaps it was her beauty, her sensual figure, and the fact she was forbidden to him that made him so uncharacteristic in her presence. Truthfully, he did not know the reason he responded in such a way.
“What in heaven’s name are you doing?” One of Mark’s dearest friends—Liam Westwood, the Earl of Keswick—appeared in the narrow gap in the drape. Behind Liam, the third member of their gentlemanly trio—Kenneth Denninson, the Duke of Hudson—raised a dumbfounded eyebrow.
Mark cleared his throat. “I was just… admiring this paneling.” He stroked the mahogany behind the drape, wishing the ground would swallow him up. “The Countess really has tremendous taste in… um… wood.”
“What are you really doing behind there?” Kenneth interjected. He had always been blessed with the gift of sniffing out nonsense a mile away.
Mark edged out from behind the drape, careful to keep his back to Johanna’s location. “I could just as easily ask you,” he directed his gaze at Liam, “what Johanna is doing here! She is supposed to be swamped in black, smearing ash on her face, and pulling her hair out in grief. Yet she looks as though she is having a wondrous time. I can hear her laughing from here.”
Is she laughing at me?
It was not an improbable notion, but it was not one that Mark’s pride appreciated. He could throw out jokes and jests with aplomb, but when he became the center of the teasing, he did not fare too well. Especially when the teasing came from Johanna.
“Ah…” Liam at least had the decency to look sheepish.
“Ah?” Mark parroted. “Did you not think it prudent to warn me?”
Kenneth rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “If you had not plunged back into your pursuit of romancing every lady in London, there might have been time. We have not seen you since you returned from Bordeaux last week. How could Westwood possibly have warned you?”
“You have spurned the delicious ambrosia of a well-deserved drink for reasons unknown,” Mark accused Kenneth, before turning to Liam. “And you are ensconced in your wife and your child. I needed some entertainment, and the charming ladies of Golden Square have lavished me with it. The pair of you are traitors to our bachelor existence.” He paused. “Besides, time has a way of getting away with a person when they spend all day in bed. Many beds.”
Liam chuckled. “Apologies, Dear Carlton, though I am pleased to see that your summer abroad has reinvigorated you.”
“I never lack vigor,” Mark retorted, with a grin. Even though he had inherited his father’s Earldom, old habits die hard, and his friends continued to call him by his surname. He preferred it, in truth, for he had never much wanted the responsibility of being an Earl.
Kenneth sighed. “Perhaps not, but it appears you lack courage in the face of Mrs. Carlton. I have never understood why the two of you cannot be friendly. You once admired her, shortly before she wed your uncle, if memory serves.”
“I did not!” Mark protested. “Nor would I expect you to understand why she and I will never see eye-to-eye. All you have to do is look at her, or hear her speak, to know she is a joyless sow.”
Kenneth stared at him. “Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much.”
“Methinks the gentleman needs to concentrate on his own romantic life, or lack thereof, before casting aspersions on me.” Mark gave Kenneth a friendly nudge in the ribs. “I have plenty of distractions. The trouble is, I will be expected to speak with her, because she is my uncle’s widow. That is my gripe, for I would rather not waste precious breath that I could spend upon more pleasant, cheerful maidens. It is rather like staring at a blackbird in an aviary, rather than the beautiful, brightly-feathered parrots.”
“Like the one who is presently trying to mop your champagne off her skirts?” Liam’s wife, Nora, materialized out of nowhere.
Mark groaned. “Is this to become an interrogation?”
“More of an intervention,” Nora replied, with a smirk. “Come, take my arm, and I’ll guide you through making amends with Johanna.”
The Countess of Keswick was, perhaps, the most celebrated and feared woman in all of London. An authoress of a rather incendiary, infamous set of memoirs that had sent many gentlemen of the peerage into hiding, she still maintained the wit and wisdom of her former life as a courtesan. As such, every time she threw a ball like this one, the hallways were packed to the rafters, and ladies were seen fighting over an invitation.
Mark put up his hands in mock surrender. “I have no amends to make. We shall be quite happy if we avoid one another, I assure you.” He eyed Nora curiously. “Since when did you start referring to her as ‘Johanna’? I did not realize you were acquainted.”
Nora forcibly took hold of his arm. “You shouldn’t have gone away, Darling. I have been making many new friends since you scurried off to France to enjoy the local…cuisine, and Johanna has been helping me at the orphanage. She’s a rare delight.”
“She is a rare thorn in my side,” Mark muttered, trying to drag his feet as Nora led him toward the opposite side of the room.
Nora clicked her tongue. “I ought to knock your heads together.”
“Her thick skull would crack mine wide open.” Mark tried to glance back at his two friends with pleading eyes, hoping they would help him. “And I doubt she is helping at the orphanage out of the goodness of her shriveled heart. She is likely preparing them for some wicked ceremony, so she might bathe in their tears and maintain her youth.”
Nora cackled. “I have missed you, my dear friend.”
“I have missed you, too,” he replied, meaning it.
Despite Nora’s past, she was the kind of woman that it was impossible not to adore. She gave selflessly to charity, and rallied funds for orphanages all across London, to better the lives of destitute children. Having been raised with nothing, unlike the company she now kept, she understood the world in a way that wealthy people never could. She saw injustice, and she fought it, instead of pretending it was none of her concern. But Mark would not, for one second, believe that Johanna was acting charitably for the same reasons.
“Have I been gone so long that her mourning period is truly over?” Mark side-eyed Nora.
She nodded. “You have, Dear Boy.” Her expression softened. “I know your uncle’s death was strange for you, and you have had to contend with the death of your father at the same time, but she has lost her husband. She deserves your civility, if not your kindness.”
Mark snorted. “I cannot make any promises.”
“I know you like her.” Nora flashed him a wink. “I saw the way you stopped dead when you saw her. You even risked your reputation by spraying champagne upon, and then abandoning, those other ladies. Men don’t do that for women they don’t like.”
Mark gaped in shock. “It took me by surprise because I thought she’d be locked up in her lodgings, weeping over that cruel, evil bastard—if you will pardon my French. It is not because of any… affection.”
“Don’t forget, my friend… I understand men better than anyone. I have learned the language of their expressions and gestures, reading the subtlety you all think you keep so well hidden.” Nora leaned into him, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I know what I saw.”
Before he could retort, he found himself being marched in front of Johanna herself. And, this time, there were no drapes to hide behind. But he did have one powerful weapon left in his arsenal, the one force he could rely upon, without fail. His unwavering, unavoidable charm. If he could not escape her, then he would have to bombard her with a flirtation until she felt just as exposed as he had, when he first saw her standing there.
Johanna had spied her old nemesis the moment he had stepped into the ballroom, though she had had the sense not to cough and splutter. Instead, she had pretended not to see him, in order to gather herself for the moment when they would surely come face-to-face again. Though that did not mean she had not made a discreet observation of him.
He looks well… Very well, indeed.
Tall and athletic, with wavy brown hair and a figure that elevated the elegance of his attire, she could not deny that Mark was the most handsome gentleman at this ball. If they had met here for the first time as strangers, she might have hoped to see some kind of admiration in his warm, brown eyes. But their shared history only served to gain her cold disapproval from his pretty eyes. As such, in order to defend herself, she had no choice but to match his scathing retorts.
Oh goodness… He is coming over! That is fine. I was expecting this. I can endure, then we will go our separate ways, and enjoy our respective evenings.
“Not dressed in black today?” Mark jumped right in with the less-than-subtle jibes. “Did you fear it might make you look dowdy among the ravishing creatures here tonight? I imagine it does make you look even paler.”
She forced a smile. “Having been on the Continent so often, you must have forgotten the etiquette of mourning. I no longer have to wear black.” She took a sip of her drink to moisten her dry throat. “Or did you forget the date of your uncle’s funeral, because you were not there?”
Why do you look so aggravatingly handsome? The Bordeaux sunshine truly has agreed with you… Curse you.
Her gaze lingered on the strong, masculine hand that gripped his champagne glass, knowing there was gentleness in those fingers. She had once watched him stroking the ivory keys of a piano, playing a melancholy tune that she still hummed from time to time. He had thought himself alone, unaware that she had been standing in the shadow of the doorway, listening to the entire thing, and admiring the rippling muscles of his back through his shirt as he had played.
“I will never forget that date, and I do not recall you being present at my father’s funeral, either. One should not cast hypocritical stones unless one is prepared to have something shatter,” Mark replied, putting his lips to his glass. He took a gulp, and she watched the motion of his throat as he swallowed, wishing it were not obscured by a high collar and cravat.
Johanna drew her gaze away, aware that her cheeks were warming slightly. “I could not attend.”
“Neither could I,” he shot back.
“Only because you chose to scamper off to France, ignoring your duties. I almost mistook you for a well-dressed farmer, for your skin is almost as browned as dear Nora’s mahogany walls.”
“Ah, but you did think me well-dressed,” Mark retorted, grinning with satisfaction. “Do not worry for me, though I thank you for your concern. I have not found myself short of attention since I have returned, so there must be an appeal to my sun-warmed skin. I rather think I remind the ladies of summer.”
Johanna sniffed. “I imagine the ladies of London were glad of the reprieve when they discovered you had gone away. Perhaps, in that regard, your absence was of benefit.”
She was aware of Mark’s reputation as a Casanova. It was impossible to be a member of society and not be aware of the trail of broken hearts he had left across the Capital and beyond. With other gentlemen, such a reputation might have made him repulsive, but there was a mischief and a charm about him that seemed to have the opposite effect. Why, at this very moment, there were no less than ten young ladies gazing at him with adoring eyes. Including the one he had accidentally spat upon.
If he were not my dead husband’s nephew, I imagine he would be the perfect remedy for my situation—a passionate salve to heal my solitude.
“You see, Nora, I told you this conversation was futile.” Mark put on a contrived sigh. “Mrs. Carlton disapproves of me. If she only knew the dutiful service I provide to the ladies of London, perhaps she could understand.”
If only I did…
She pushed the thought away, knowing it was improper. Mark was her husband’s nephew and, by proxy, hers. She had never treated him in that capacity, for she had known him since she was a young girl, when her family had spent summers at his family’s manor. Her father had been a merchant, with business acquaintances throughout England’s peerage. In order to keep him sweet, these peers had invited her father and his family to their homes, so he would not seek investment elsewhere and remove a hefty portion of their needed income, to fill the deficit in their inherited fortunes.
“I am sure the physicians are grateful for the services you provide, though I do not know how the mothers and fathers of these poor girls, nor the midwives who tend to them, must feel,” Johanna shot back, immediately regretting her harsh words. But Mark merely smirked.
“I am wise enough to avoid having children,” he said. “There are ways to prevent such things, and I know each and every one. If I was not so careful in my endeavors, there would be countless fathers holding pistols to my head, demanding I wed their divine daughters. And yet, I remain blissfully unmarried. That is not coincidental.”
Johanna’s mind drifted to places it should not, envisioning him without his attire, moving beneath the covers in the act of lovemaking that, in her own experience, was a distant memory. She could not even remember how it felt to couple with a man, or to feel a sensual touch upon her skin.
I remember when you were not so… wayward. Perhaps, I preferred you then. Perhaps, you preferred me.
If she were to close her eyes, she knew she would have been able to recall the vision of him bathing in the river at his family estate. She had not meant to spy on him, but she had been walking in the woods, in order to avoid the tension of her own family, when she had seen him burst through the surface. He had been three-and-twenty, back then, in the prime of his youth, with naturally sculpted muscle and skin that had glistened in the water. Eleven years later, he did not look much different.
“How clever of you,” she said cuttingly. “If you were not so intent on ruining the integrity of so many ladies, you might have found the kind of love that Nora and her husband share. Marriage is not such an abhorrent thing, you know.”
Mark shrugged. “Forgive me, Mrs. Carlton, but you are not the person I would seek marital advice from. After all, you ended up marrying the vilest man in all of England, so your judgment cannot exactly be trusted.” He patted Nora on the arm. “That is not to say that you and Westwood do not have a glorious union. You do. It is enviable, but it is a rarity.”
“I imagine it is near obsolete in your world.” Johanna could not help herself.
Nora laughed softly, visibly trying to disperse the tension. “I will be the first to admit that I found love when I wasn’t looking for it, but I think some part of your heart has to be open to the prospect. Liam would tell you the same thing, for he had more reason to despise the institution of marriage than most.” She paused. “Still, I believe it is out there for everyone, or I certainly wouldn’t have found it.”
After recently beginning a friendship with Nora, Johanna had learned everything about her past and her husband’s. They had both suffered gravely, in their own way, but that had been something of a comfort to Johanna, for if the Earl and Countess of Keswick had been able to overcome their demons and find one another, then maybe there was hope for her, too.
Or am I too old for that, now?
At five-and-twenty, she supposed she would be considered rather long in the tooth for marriage. And though there were always options, if a woman was desperate for companionship, she had vowed not to marry again for anything other than love. Even then, she was not sure love was enough of a foundation to ensure happiness. It had tricked her in the past; what if it tricked her again?
“Ah, if only you had a heart, then you might be fortunate.” Mark’s brown eyes met the blue of Johanna’s, showing nothing but contempt.
She glowered back at him. “I do have a heart.”
“I have never seen it, nor would you have been able to tolerate my uncle if you had a speck of warmth in there.” His hand pressed to his chest, making her imagine the thud of his heart beneath. Despite his harsh words, she had a strange desire to press her ear to his chest, to hear it beating for herself.
Johanna swallowed thickly. “I think the children at the orphanage would attest to my warmth.”
“Out of fear, most likely,” he replied. “You have a very… chilly demeanor, Mrs. Carlton. I would not call you maternal, though perhaps that has something to do with being the nephew of a lady nine years my junior. I fear we missed the opportunity for you to cradle me in your arms and smack my behind when I behaved mischievously.”
Speaking of mischief, she noticed a slight glint of irreverence in his eyes, and though she could not be certain, she thought she saw his gaze drop to her bosom for a moment.
I am imagining it. I must be imagining it. This gentleman would not look at me with any semblance of admiration after saying all of that.
Perhaps he had merely been distracted by the glitter of the diamond brooch that she wore pinned to the side of her sapphire, Empire-line gown. A gift from Nora.
“I believe I see an old acquaintance.” Johanna did not, but she could not abide the mockery of Mark’s tone, nor the chilliness in his demeanor a moment longer. She was contending with enough after the loss of her husband without taking additional blows from his nephew. And as the words, “I would not call you maternal,” chimed bitterly in her head, she knew she had to remove herself from the situation.
You may make jests at my expense, if it pleases you, but I will not tolerate… that.
She would not have anyone casting aspersions on her love for children, nor the maternal affection she would have given to her own, if she had been blessed with them. It was a blade that cut much too close to the bone.
Mark chuckled wryly. “Do you? How convenient.”
“You sound disappointed,” she remarked. “I thought you would be delighted to be rid of me. No doubt there are at least a handful of ladies here whom you have not already mesmerized with your flirtations. I would not want to keep you from them, or them from you, any longer. Good evening to you.”
She walked away before he could respond, though she had no intention of remaining in the suffocating ballroom. It had become much too warm, and it had little to do with the balmy, early-September breeze that drifted in through the windows. At least she did not have to endure the searing, jealous scowls of the other ladies present, for everyone was well aware of the relationship between her and Mark.
I am no threat to them.
How could she be, when Mark so obviously detested her? At the very least, he barely tolerated her.
Finding her way along the hallway, to the entrance hall where several other ladies had gathered to take in some fresher air, Johanna veered left and slipped through a doorway, into the drawing room at the back of the townhouse. She crossed the room as quickly as her feet would carry her, until she reached the door that would lead her into the garden.
Unlocking it with shaking hands, she stumbled out into the warm evening air. She sat down and bent forward, holding her head in her hands. Even then, she would not allow the tears to come.
“What right does he have to make me feel like this?” she whispered, not knowing if she ought to be livid, or enamored, or mortally offended. In the end, all three clashed within her, for though they never seemed to be able to hold a conversation without arguing, she could not rid her mind of the vision of him in the river, nor the ripple of his muscular back as he had played piano.
If only you did not know me as your uncle’s widow… Would matters be different between us?
“Well, that seemed to go as pleasantly as ever,” Liam said, as he and Kenneth joined Mark on the outskirts of the dancing floor. Nora, on the other hand, had followed Johanna out of the ballroom.
Mark shrugged. “Our tongues cannot help but lash when we see one another.”
In truth, he felt somewhat guilty for some of the things he had said, but he would never admit that to his friends. When he was not hiding himself away from Johanna, he could not seem to stop nasty words from slipping out of his mouth. He did not want to be unkind, that was not in his nature, but he could only associate her with his uncle. And that man deserved a torrent of insults, though he had seen fit to die and thus avoid any such slurs.
“I could have sworn I felt the temperature drop,” Kenneth remarked. “Or perhaps it rose—I can never tell with the pair of you. You are like squabbling children.”
Mark tilted his head from side to side, cricking his neck. “That confrontation has worked up something of a thirst. Would any of you care for more champagne?” He nodded to his friends’ empty hands. “After all, it is all at your expense, Dear Westwood. It would be rude not to imbibe as much as possible and leave you with bottles that have not been consumed.”
He did not wait for their reply, as he weaved his way through the throngs of merrymakers. To restore his confidence, he made sure to flash a few wolfish smiles at the prettiest of the young ladies in attendance. When they giggled and whispered, he felt his heart slowing to a more natural pace, for it had been beating wildly throughout his conversation with Johanna.
It is only the cheer of the ball, making my heart beat so… It has nothing to do with Johanna’s slender neck, or her ripe, red lips, or her shining eyes, or those exquisite breasts.
Now, if only he could convince himself that was true.
Out in the dark garden, having just brought her breaths to a calm rhythm, Johanna jumped in fright as she heard the back door of the townhouse creak open. Her eyes snapped up to find a figure in rich, rustling silk making their way across the lawn toward her. She exhaled a sigh of relief, for it was only Nora.
“Do you want some company, or do you want to be left alone?” Nora asked on her approach, as she hesitated to take the seat beside Johanna.
Johanna smiled thinly. “I do not mind your company.”
“Mmm… I had half a mind to slap that silly fool across the cheek for much of what he said, though you seemed to give as good as you got.” Nora sank back into the chair and stretched out her arms. “Still, you shouldn’t pay him any heed. I’ve seen you at the orphanage—you couldn’t love those children more if they were your own flesh and blood, and Lily adored you when she came to visit a few weeks ago.”
Lily Black was Nora’s younger sister. Blind from birth, the young girl did not allow anyone to pity her or think she could not do something simply because she could not see. Johanna had immediately been inspired by the girl and would have liked to have spent more time with her, but Lily and her mother had returned to Liam’s estate in the north after a fortnight in London.
Johanna dipped her chin to her chest. “Do I truly seem cold?”
“Not at all!” Nora insisted. “The thing you’ve got to remember is that these people,” she waved a hand toward the townhouse, “haven’t lived lives like you and me. You came from some wealth, sure, but your family earned it, they weren’t given it. They’ll never understand that people without titles and station tend to put up a façade as a means of protection, because they’ve never had reason to protect themselves from outside judgment.”
Johanna sighed, hearing a great deal of truth and sense in her friend’s words. “Maybe I am cold, but like you say, I was made to be that way. I did not begin like that.” She glanced at Nora, feeling a tremor of anxiety bristle through her. “There have been many mistakes in my life, and I have no one to blame but myself.”
“Mistakes?” Nora leaned toward her friend.
“I know I do not express my emotions well, but I was never taught to,” Johanna went on, not yet sure if she was ready to divulge the buried parts of her past to Nora. “My mother and father never showed affection to one another, and nor did they show affection to me. I was expected to be seen and not heard, and to desire affection was seen as a form of weakness.”
Nora nodded thoughtfully. “Did they come from wealth?”
“Not in the slightest. Everything my father has, he built. I know they suffered hardships before my father’s success, so I suppose it is understandable that they put up façades of their own,” Johanna mused aloud. “But, no matter how I tried, I could not break through their walls.”
She looked out across the shadowed garden, wondering where her parents were at that very moment. They were still alive, but she had not seen them in years. Indeed, she had not seen them since her wedding day, when they had passed her over into her husband, Peter Carlton’s, care. They did not write, they did not ask to see her, and she had long ago ceased trying to get something out of them.
Nora took hold of Johanna’s hand. “It’s no wonder you put on such a strong front, but that’s all it is—a front. I know there’s a warm heart in that chest of yours. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen the way you hold my little girl. There’s nothing cold beneath the surface.”
I used to know how it felt to be soft and vulnerable. Despite my upbringing, I never truly hardened myself to the outside world until…
She thought of the man, before Peter, who she had fallen hopelessly in love with. A business acquaintance of her father, she had assumed he would be the man she would spend the rest of her life with, and she would have been content to do so. She had even given herself to him, believing in every romantic whisper and promise he adorned her with. Back then, she had been too young to know that those promises were nothing but lies, and those whispers were merely tricks to get her to come to his bed.
They had even planned to elope, or so she had thought, until she had told him that she was with child. The very next day, her lover disappeared without a trace, taking her hope of a happy ending with him.
“What does it feel like?” Johanna murmured, drawing a confused gaze from Nora.
“What do you mean?”
“What does true love feel like? Is there passion in your marriage? Do you… desire your husband?” Johanna felt somewhat embarrassed, asking such bold questions, but if anyone would answer them, it was Nora. She had no qualms when it came to such matters, not after the things she had endured when she was a courtesan.
Nora’s face immediately lit up. “There is such love and passion. One feeds the other. Truly, I did not know that kind of intensity could exist until I met Liam. As for desiring him—I desire him every day. Sometimes, I desire him so much that he has to trap me in his arms, so I can’t coax him into another bout.” She chuckled. “And, sometimes, I have to do the same.”
“I would give anything to have that.” Johanna sighed wistfully.
She could not stop the twinge of envy from twisting in her chest. In her limited experience, she could not even imagine such a relationship. Of course, she had thought she felt passion for the man who had abandoned her, but even then, she knew she had convinced herself into believing it was more pleasurable than it actually was. It had been more uncomfortable than anything else.
I do not imagine it would be uncomfortable with Mark. He has had more than enough experience to know what he is doing in a bedchamber.
“You can have it!” Nora cried. “Surely, you must have had some enjoyable encounters with your husband? I know he was old as dust, but they say that with age comes expertise. Didn’t he leave you quivering in pleasure now and again, when he could muster the energy? I’m surprised he could keep his hands off you—you divine creature.”
Johanna turned to Nora, feeling crestfallen. “My marriage had no passion whatsoever. There was no love, either. It was… terrible, in truth. We were like two strangers wandering around in the same house, doing our utmost to avoid one another.” She sighed. “Peter did not arouse any sort of fire within me. On the occasions where we would kiss, it felt rather like an unpleasant chore that had to be endured, rather than enjoyed.”
“I’m sorry for that,” Nora said softly. “I’ve heard of a thousand marriages like that, and the husbands are forever seeking excitement in the arms of women they have paid for. Believe me, I know. Instead of nurturing their own gardens, they clamber over the fence and start picking flowers elsewhere.”
Johanna nodded. “I wish things had been different.”
“You’re young still, Johanna. You can have whatever you want if you pursue it, and there are certain freedoms that come with being a widow,” Nora insisted, with a sly wink.
Freedoms… Does she mean those kinds of freedoms?
Her heart leapt suddenly, as excited nerves shuddered through her long, lithe limbs. How exquisite it would be, to behave as many gentlemen in London behaved and bear no consequences. How exquisite it would be, to behave as Mark behaved.
Johanna turned to her friend with sudden determination. “Do you really think so?”
“I know so,” Nora replied. “You’ve been married. You’ve lost your husband. You’ve got some wealth and property that he left behind. In essence, you might be the most powerful woman in all of London at the moment, at least in terms of sexual freedoms. You want passion? Find it, bring it into your life, and bloody well enjoy it! You have earned that right.”
Johanna squeezed her friend’s hand with refreshed determination. “Do you think you could teach me how? I know nothing about… sexual freedom.” The forbidden word did not roll easily off her tongue. “Will you help me to gain that passionate life that I have been lacking?”
Nora clapped her hands together. “I would be only too happy to guide you in the art of seduction, my dear friend! I might be slightly rusty in my expertise, but I imagine it will come back to me. Once you have the man on the hook, it will be up to you to explore what you desire.” She winked. “Every woman is different, though I can offer guidance in that, too. I have spent many hours researching such things with my beloved Liam.”
“Where do we begin?” Johanna asked eagerly, feeling as though an entirely new realm of delights was about to unfurl for her. As long as she had the courage and the fortitude, perhaps she would find that she could have whatever, or whoever, she wanted.
Nora grinned. “First, we start by getting you back in the house. After that… Well, you’ll just have to wait and see what surprises I have in store.”
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
Daring the Forbidden Earl is now live on Amazon!