The Mysterious Miss Mñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“You are a vision, Miss M.
“Like England herself, beautiful to behold. In fact, I shall call you Miss England.”
“Do not be so foolish, sir. The fabric of my dress is Indian. The design is French and the style Roman. My mask is Venetian. My pearls are Oriental. I think my shoes are from Spain. There is nothing of England here.”
His finger traced the edge of the demure bodice of her dress, where the fullness of her breasts was only hinted at. He hooked his finger under the material and pulled it away from her skin, allowing a soft touch of what was below.
“I suspect,” he murmured, stroking her skin and gazing into her eyes, “underneath you are pure England.”
“Not pure, my lord,” she whispered as his fingers did lovely things to her soft skin. “Not pure at all.”
The Mysterious Miss M
For Helen and Julie, who have been with me in this writing venture from the very beginning, and Virginia, who made our circle complete.
London, September 1812
M adeleine positioned herself on the couch, adjusting the fine white muslin of her gown and placing her gloved hands demurely in her lap. The light from the branch of candles, arranged to cast a soft glow upon her skin, enhanced the image she was bid to make. Her throat tightened, and her skin crawled from the last man’s attentions.
This wicked life. How she detested it.
She checked the blue-feathered mask, artfully fashioned to disguise her identity without obscuring her youthful complexion or the untouched pink of her full lips. ‘The Mysterious Miss M’ could be any girl in the first blush of womanhood. It was Farley’s contrivance that she appear so, and the men who frequented his elite London gaming hell bet deep to win the fantasy of seducing her. Escape might be out of the question, but at least the mask hid her face and her shame.
Unable to remain still, Madeleine stepped over to the bed, discreetly tucked into the corner and covered in lace-trimmed white-and-lavender linens like some virginal shrine. She perched on the edge of it and swung her legs back and forth, wondering how much time was left before the next gentleman had his turn.
Not long, she surmised. She had taken more care in the necessary toilette than usual, thoroughly washing away the memory of that odious creature who had not departed too soon for her taste.
Male laughter, deep and raucous, sounded in the next room. Stupid creatures, seated around tables, as deep in their cards as in their cups, just waiting for Lord Farley to make away with their fortunes. The girls who ran the tables, tonight dressed as she was, like ingenues at Almack’s, were meant to tantalise, but, for a select few, the Mysterious Miss M was the real prize.
Farley would not allow his prize to flee. She had learned that lesson swiftly enough. No matter. There was nowhere for her to go.
Voices sounded outside the room, and she blinked away the memory of how Farley had doomed her to her fate, or, more precisely, how she had doomed herself.
The next man, thankfully the last, would appear soon, and she had best be ready. She checked her hair, fingering the dark curls fashioned in the latest style to frame her face, a pale pink silk ribbon threaded through them.
Something thudded against the door. Madeleine hopped off the bed and hurried to her place on the couch. In staggered a tall figure, silhouetted against the brighter light of the gaming room. He stood a moment with his hand to his brow.
A soldier. He wore the red coat of a British uniform, festooned with blue facings and looped gold lace, unbuttoned to reveal the white linen of his shirt. If only she were a soldier. She would battle her way out of this place. She would be in the cavalry and gallop away at breakneck speed. How lovely that would be.
The soldier, who looked not more than five years older than she, swayed as he swung shut the door. Lord Farley’s generous supply of brandy, no doubt.
Madeleine sighed. He might be foxed, but at least he was not fat. With any luck, his mouth would not be foul. She hated a putrid-smelling mouth. With all his lean muscle, he looked as a soldier should, strong and powerful.
‘Good God!’ he exclaimed, almost tripping mid-stride as he caught sight of her.
‘I am afraid I am not He, my lord,’ she retorted. The candles illuminated a handsome face, grinning with such good humour she could scarcely keep from grinning back.
‘Yes, of course not.’ His green eyes twinkled. ‘And fortuitous for me that you are not, Miss…?’
‘Miss M.’ A charmer. She had met charmers before. The charm wore thin after they took what they wished from her.
“‘The Mysterious Miss M”, I recall now.’ He flopped down on the couch next to her. ‘I beg your forgiveness. You quite startled me. I had not expected you to actually look like a young lady.’
‘I am a young lady,’ she said, playing her part.
‘Indeed,’ he agreed, masculine approval shining in his sea-green eyes and a dimple creasing his left cheek. ‘I swear you are the vision of one. England does offer the finest ladies. I find I must apologise for this humble uniform.’
He presented her with his boot-covered foot and winked at her while she tugged on it. Though properly polished, her fingers felt the leather’s scratches and scrapes. From the battlefield? she wondered. When his foot finally gave up the boot, he nearly fell off the couch. She rolled her eyes.
He laughed. ‘Have I impressed you with my finesse, Miss M?’
‘Indeed, my lord. I cannot recall when I have been so entertained.’
He chuckled softly and swung around, bringing his face close to hers, his expression more full of mischief than lust. ‘And I thought you were here to entertain me.’
She felt a smile tickling the corner of her mouth. He placed his finger on her lip and traced the edge. His eyes filled with a wistful expression that surprised her. A heat she was not quite prepared to feel made her wish to fan herself. As she wiped the disturbing touch from her mouth with her tongue, he took a swift intake of breath and gazed into her eyes so intensely that she lowered them.
He was like the fantasy she conjured up in her loneliest hours. A knight on a huge white stallion, who faced the evil lord in the joust, winning her away. Or the pirate who fought the blackguard and sailed her away in a ship with a dozen sails. He was the soldier, riding in with sabre flashing, to rid her of Farley and keep her safe forever.
Such nonsense. He was none of these, for all the splendour of his uniform, dark, curling hair and sun-darkened skin. He certainly looked the part, though, with his eyes wondrously expressive and a face lean, as if honed by battle.
Once Farley had been a fantasy, when she’d dreamed he was taking her to a marriage bed instead of the one in this room.
The soldier shrugged off his coat, and his loose linen shirt revealed a peek of black chest hair. Madeleine’s eyes fixed on the wiry patch and her fingers itched to discover how it would feel.
As if it would feel any different than the other lust-filled men who forced themselves so hard against her that she pushed on their chests to give herself room for breath. She placed a hand on her breast. What fancy had captured her to give way to such thoughts?
He grinned impishly at her again, the dimple deepening in his cheek. ‘You are a vision, Miss M. Like England herself, beautiful to behold. Nothing mysterious about it. In fact, I shall call you Miss England.’
‘Do not be so foolish, sir. The fabric of my dress is Indian. The design is French and the style Roman. My mask is Venetian. My pearls are Oriental. I think my shoes are from Spain. There is nothing of England here.’
His finger traced the edge of the demure bodice of her dress where the fullness of her breasts was only hinted. He hooked his finger under the material and pulled it away from her skin, allowing a soft touch of what was underneath.
‘I suspect,’ he murmured, stroking her skin and gazing into her eyes, ‘underneath you are pure England.’
‘Not pure, my lord,’ she whispered as his fingers did lovely things to her soft skin. ‘Not pure at all.’
He slowly leaned closer so that she could feel his breath on her lips. With a gentleness she did not know existed, he placed his lips on hers and lingered there, moving so softly, she was only half-aware of him urging her mouth open and tickling the moist inside with his tongue.
She moaned and positioned herself closer to him. Her arms twined around his neck and her fingers played with the curls on his head. He tasted of brandy, but she decided she might like brandy the next time she was compelled to drink it.
He urged her down on the couch, covering his body with hers. The hard bulge of his arousal pressed against her. To her surprise, it pleased her.
Only once before had a man’s arousal not filled her with revulsion. That day in the country when her father’s house-guest, the Lord Farley her older sisters prosed on about, met her out riding and showed her what happens between a man and a reckless, unchaperoned fifteen-year-old girl. She had thought it a splendid joke to be the first of her sisters kissed by a man, but, all too easily, that kiss had led to delights she had not imagined.
The soldier’s muscles were firm beneath his grey wool trousers. His mouth played lightly on her cheek, and Madeleine’s long-suppressed desire tugged at her again. She must not allow herself the weakness. She must control her sensibilities.
His kisses trailed down the sensitive skin of her neck, and she said her rehearsed lines: ‘Shall we go to the bed, my lord?’
Immediately he rose, grinning his dimpled grin. ‘Whatever you command, my lady.’
He gallantly extended his hand to assist her up. His grasp was firm and warm, even through her lavender-kid glove. As she led him to the bed, he kept hold of her hand, the gesture unexpectedly setting off a storm of yearning inside her.
Vowing to get her feelings under control, Madeleine continued her duties, turning back the covers on the bed and facing the soldier. She slowly pulled off her gloves, one finger at a time. Her fingers free, she unlaced his shirt, caressing his warm bare skin as she pushed it off his shoulders. When she unfastened his trousers, the bulge therein attested to the success of her endeavours. She tried not to watch his green eyes darken with passion.
A guttural sound emerged from his throat. Madeleine collected herself and proceeded with the task she was bid to perform. This was the moment for him to pounce on her. She must temper his lusting, so that her dress not become ripped from his impatience.
Even completely free of his clothes, he did not pounce. Instead, he simply gazed at her. All the unwanted cravings of her body rushed back as she gazed at him in return. Usually she avoided a view of the men who bared themselves before her. When Farley first seduced her, she had been too shy to look, but her gaze freely drank in this soldier’s body. He was more beautiful than the drawings of Greek statues in her father’s books. Her eyes widened with surprise at the pleasure of seeing him.
‘Good God, Miss England,’ he exclaimed. He moved toward her. With gentle hands on her shoulders, he turned her around and fumbled with the laces of her dress, his progress painfully slow.
He chuckled. ‘I am woefully out of practice.’
With a resolute purse of her lips, Madeleine spun back to face him and made quick work of the laces. The dress fell to the floor. She tackled the corset next. When she let her shift drop from her body, his gaze was as rapt as hers had been, and her resolve to simply perform her task fled.
His eyes met hers. ‘I feel home at last.’
He ran his hand over her breasts, his fingers barely skimming the soft flesh. Her breasts ached. How could they ache? He’d barely touched them.
‘Wh—where have you been?’ She would distract herself. These feelings were too disturbing. ‘In the Peninsula?’
‘Last at Maguilla.’ His manner turned solemn and his sparkling eyes lost lustre.
Maguilla. So exotic a name, like a magic kingdom far away. But what had happened there to cause his change in mood?
Sadness lingered in his eyes, but he smiled. ‘I have been too long at battle and not long enough at home to have seen what I most have missed.’
‘I do not understand you, my lord.’ She chewed on her lip. ‘What have you most missed?’
His gaze travelled up and down the length of her. ‘England,’ he said in a reverent voice. ‘Every hill, curve, and thicket. All lush beauty and honest comfort.’
Madeleine felt herself blush. She stilled the impulse to cover her most female parts. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘shall we proceed, my lord?’
Quickly she climbed on the bed, her mouth set in a determined line. He followed her, more slowly than she would have guessed. That he was not so eager to slake his desire unsettled her, but not so much as her own yearning. When he climbed in the bed and positioned himself over her, she nearly burst with excitement. It felt too much like what had brought her to ruin, but she wanted this soldier. Wanted him very much.
She stiffened and panic raced through her.
He halted immediately, searching her face. ‘What is wrong?’
Her heart pounded. ‘Nothing. Nothing is wrong.’
He cocked his head sceptically. ‘You are frightened. I do not understand. What frightened you? Did I hurt you?’ He shifted to lie beside her.
She avoided the puzzled look in his eye. ‘No, you did not hurt me, my lord. I am not frightened. You may proceed.’
His hand grasped her chin and brought her face closer. ‘I’ll not proceed, as you say, until you explain.’
She could not explain what she did not understand. Even when Farley had seduced her and her body responded so wantonly, she had not felt like this. So…so excited and breathless.
Was this what young women felt when they loved the man they bedded? Was this a feeling she could never have or deserve?
A tear trickled down her cheek. As it appeared from beneath her mask, he wiped it away with his finger. ‘There now,’ he murmured, stroking her cheek. ‘No need to cry.’
‘It is of no consequence,’ she said, stifling a sob, furious at her tears. Farley would be even angrier, if he knew. Weeping was not in the carefully fashioned script. ‘Please don’t tell Lord Farley about this.’
‘Now, now.’ He sat up and settled her in front of him, wrapping his arms around her. ‘Why would I ever do that? Come. Tell Devlin what troubles you.’
‘Devlin?’ His arms felt like a warm blanket around her. She wished she could remain cosseted within them and never, ever leave.
‘That’s my name. Lieutenant Devlin Steele of the First Royal Dragoons. Youngest brother of the very honourable Marquess of Heronvale. At your service, Miss England.’ He cuddled her closer to him. ‘Tell me what is wrong.’
She released a deep, shuddering breath. ‘Sometimes…sometimes I wish to be what I appear, not what I am.’ The tears came in earnest now, soaking the feathers of her mask.
If only she had not gone riding that fateful day. If only Farley had not seen her scandalous attire, her brother’s old clothes already too small for her. If only she had known that kissing a man could lead to so much more.
She fingered the damp feathers of her mask, hoping they would dry without losing shape or she would be punished.
‘Shh, now, it will be all right,’ he whispered.
No, nothing would ever be all right again.
The lieutenant held her and rocked her and murmured comforting words into her ear. It was a long cry, longer than any she had allowed herself since the night she’d learned Farley had other plans for her besides marriage.
Soon enough, though, she recovered. She pulled away from him and turned so he could not see her face as she removed the mask to wipe her eyes with the linen sheet. When she turned back her mask was in place.
‘Now have you finished, little watering pot?’ he asked, his lovely green eyes the kindest she had ever seen.
‘Silly goose.’ He tapped her on the nose and slid off the bed to grope on the floor for his clothes. Still unsteady, he stumbled and bumped against the bedpost.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
He laughed softly. ‘Getting dressed. Do not worry, miss, I will forgo your favours tonight.’ He cast her a long glance, a woeful expression on his face. ‘Though it may be more difficult than piquet duty in freezing rain.’
‘No, you mustn’t.’ She pulled him back, trying to urge him back on top of her. ‘It would not suit. I am expected to perform.’
‘No, sweet Miss England. You have performed enough tonight.’ He stood again.
Madeleine stared at him, trying not to be transfixed by the flexing of his well-defined muscles as he groped for his trousers. She could not bear it if he should leave so soon.
He turned that mischievous grin upon her, his dimple emerging. ‘We must, of course, give a show for the others in the next room. Create proper noise. Make the poor buggers envious.’
‘Not laughter. Passion. Like this.’ He let out a loud moan. ‘More! More! More!’
‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ she returned. They both burst out laughing, holding their mouths to keep it silent.
He collapsed on the bed. ‘Stop. It hurts to laugh.’ He grabbed his side. ‘Ow.’
She pulled his hand away. To the side of his abdomen there was a scar, jagged and still pink from recent healing.
‘You were injured at…at…?’ She traced the scar with her finger.
‘At Maguilla? As you would say, it is of no consequence.’ He smiled, but without joy. ‘We chased a regiment of French cavalry until the tide was turned and their reserves chased us. I made a foolish attempt to rally the men. A Frenchman met me with a lance instead. The wound is healed now. In two days’ time I return to my regiment.’
‘Back to the war?’
‘Of course. It is a soldier’s duty.’
Two days and he would return to war. He could be injured again. He could lose his life. Never again see his precious England. And, if she knew Farley, Devlin Steele would also return to war penniless.
‘You must call me Devlin.’
She waved her hand dismissively. ‘Devlin, then. Have you won at cards tonight? I mean, in addition to winning me?’
He laughed. ‘Will you be in search of my money next?’
This offended. She had principles, after all. ‘I want none of your money, but you must refuse to play further. Make some excuse.’
‘The game is not honest.’
The silly men who lost fortunes to Farley while trying to win a second chance with her never comprehended. No one won her twice in a night.
‘The devil,’ he mumbled. ‘I never thought to inquire of Farley’s reputation. I should have known better. I shall make my excuses to him. I am indebted to you. You are quite a lady.’
‘Don’t elevate me, sir. I am just as I seem.’
He laughed. ‘You seem quite like the misses in the marriage mart. A young lady of quality.’ He smiled. His eyes turned kind and his voice tender. ‘Indeed, that is what you are. A young lady of quality.’
Her face grew hot with shame. ‘No.’
He struggled to get into his trousers, hopping on one foot and making no progress.
She did not wish him to leave. ‘Lieutenant?’
‘Devlin. Will England win the war?’
He momentarily ceased his struggle. ‘Without a doubt. It is nearly done, I think.’
‘Wellington will see to it, will he not? And you soldiers who fight the battles with him?’
‘Worry not, little miss.’ He ran his finger over her brow. ‘England will endure.’
Madeleine reached out and placed her hand over his scar.
‘Yes?’ He had become still, too, looking directly into her eyes.
‘I wish to make love to you.’ She slid her fingers up his chest.
‘Miss England, it is not necessary.’
She reached behind her head and untied her mask. With trembling fingers, she removed it. His eyes darkened.
She moved closer. ‘I will make love to you. It will be my gift, because you must return to battle.’ With one hand stroking his hair, the other moved downward. Farley had taught her where to touch to arouse. This time, with Lieutenant Devlin Steele of the First Royal Dragoons, it gave her pleasure.
He moaned, softer this time. She clasped her hand behind his head and brought him uncomplaining to her lips. Urging him atop her, she gasped as the firmness of his body bore down on her. Her heart beat faster. She would truly make love to this soldier, this kind man who had been willing to comfort her.
He eased himself inside her with exquisite gentleness, and what typically caused her to deaden all emotion gave unexpected delight. She thrilled to the feel of him filling her, revelling in each stroke, each scrape of his chest against hers, each breath on her face. The only sound she heard was the clap of their bodies coming together and their panting breath. She matched his rhythm, stroke for stroke, press for press, and the sensations he created in her became urgent, spurring her on with each thrust. His pace quickened and her need grew. She would burst with pleasure, she was sure. She would shatter into a thousand sparkling shards. She would escape herself, this life she was forced to lead, the dismal future, in this brief space of time with Lieutenant Devlin Steele.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî