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Igniting

the

Countess

Inevitable Love 3



















Lisa Torquay

Copyright







Igniting the Countess

Copyright 2016 Lisa Torquay

Published by Lisa Torquay

(Originally published with New Concept Publishing)




Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.





Cover Art

Jo Singleton



























Table of Contents

FROM THE BACK COVER



A LONELY NOBLEWOMAN


Loraine Durant, widowed Countess of Crawford, lives her life for her toddler son, the heir of the late Earl. But the world seems to go out of its axis when she lays eyes on the new breath-taking footman. She fights arduously the flaming attraction she feels for him, deeming it inappropriate, failing notoriously. With the shadow of scandal looming over her, she has to stay away from him. When she discovers he is much more than a servant, it is too late and he already hates her.


THE HUMBLEST SERVANT

 

Garth Evans is the bastard son of a Marquis, trying to make his unprivileged way in the world and holding back from trouble with women. Being constantly in the presence of the Countess proves to be a hellish temptation and he can hardly keep his hands off her. After they part, he thinks she is as whimsical and frivolous as any other lady of her rank..


AND A FORBIDDEN ATTRACTION


Now, he hates her for all she represents. Wrenching passion threatens to break his resolve to keep her at arm's length, his desire for her about to burst at any moment


 

Level of Sensuality: Hot, Sizzling





EXCERPT



She could not take her eyes from him for the life of her. They were both silent and the enclosed space felt cramped, hotter.

An eternity passed, neither moved. She heard their breaths; he could surely hear her heart tambour-pounding as in a war. The world went still, so still. She perceived the heat of his body, his scent, and the blaze of his stare as her senses sharpened, primed. Overeager.

Time froze.

And then all was movement again. He leaned his whole body on her, grabbed her waist with one strong arm, flushed her to him, and his male lips descended on hers thirsty, coarse. His stubble bristled on her skin, her breasts pressed against his chest.

She moaned, desisting to oppose any token resistance because this was what she had wanted for a long time. She placed her hands on his strong chest as he feasted on her mouth. He licked her upper lip with such gusto, she almost melted at her core. He abandoned her poor upper lip to go to her lower lip and banqueted on it. He nibbled one corner, slid to the other corner and nibbled it, too. Starvation was all she could feel. She whimpered in sheer frustration. He had no mercy. He nibbled the pouting centre. She had no more shame in her. She snaked her arms around his neck, brought him even closer, demanding whatever he had in store for her. And she did not regret it. He opened her mouth with his and invaded her, full blast, inserting his whole tongue in her warm cavity without ceremony.

God, why did he take so long? Her fingers dived in his sable hair, keeping him locked to her, as her tongue lapped at his with delicious abandon. He pressed her more against the wall, imprinting his hard as a rock erection on her belly, almost incinerating her. Her breasts plumped, fire coursed through her, pooling in her needy middle. His other warm hand closed on her nape and he deepened the kiss—if that was even possible. She opened more for him and in seconds they were devouring each other, voracious and mindless.

He did not spare her because she was a lady. He did not deny her because she was sheltered. He did not recoil because she stood above his rank. He treated her like a flesh-and-blood woman and that ignited her to explosion point. Completely given to the kiss, she rubbed against him as if this would placate her ache. It did not. If anything, it made her more desperate.







Dedication



To all romance writers. Women writing for women, with women.

Chapter One



London, 1822



Lorena Durand, Countess of Crawford, climbed her town house sweeping stairs, eyes on the end of the flight steps, sighing freely now that she came home at last. It had been another of those washed-out tea-parties with false smiles, artificial conversation and useless conventions. She felt overwhelmed with all those social functions. Endless afternoons and evenings lined with every kind of gathering, where her cheeks ached from the forced smiles, decidedly sick with the nothingness of the whole ritual. It bored her to dumbness. And the season was only starting.

 

Her single solace, the time she spent with her little son—probably the one positive thing remaining of her desperately empty marriage. Her deceased husband had meant very little to her. Lorena’s family had pressed her to accept his very haughty suit. The Earl of Crawford had managed to produce an heir between his exclusive club, his exclusive sports, and equally exclusive mistress. Nothing of those touched her a bit. Not her feelings. Not her daily life. And most certainly not her pride. She was more than content to be left to her own devices, unladylike as they might seem. Cooking was one of them, for example. A habit developed during her time spent with Cook in her former petit-noblesse home. Here, in this mausoleum of a townhouse? Cook seemed to have more power than the Countess herself. She could sneak to the kitchen and bake some oat biscuits only on the servant's day off. Blast this whole pedant tonish phlegm!

 

She opened the door to the nursery, her eyes coming up, searching for her son. And stopped short, as much as from the unexpected presence of someone other than the nurse as for something else entirely. A footman bent over the cot repairing one thing or another. He lifted his head and, seeing her at the door, straightened immediately.

 

"Your ladyship." He bowed.

 

A gust of heat tunnelled in her. Probably new staff, she thought. She had never seen him before. She had never seen such a…such a…remarkable man in her life. He was tall, much taller than the average servant, as they usually came from poor backgrounds—where scarcity of food put them in disadvantage during child's growth. The black livery complimented sable obsidian hair that fell over his brow, despite the paste he must surely have applied. In a vain attempt not to stare, she let her eyes fall to his feet. Wrong choice. Because then her light brown eyes lifted from his polished work shoes, up his toned thighs, his broad shoulders, his mobile lips, blade nose, to reach his eyes. Goodness me! His eyes. The afternoon sun coming from the window illuminated his fine face…and his eyes. Dark, so dark, as black diamonds. They had a translucent quality to them that made them black and liquid at the same time. She had never seen anything like that before.

 

She searched her foggy mind for something to say, but first she needed to find air. Urgently. She concentrated on drawing in air slowly, too slowly for her breathless condition. She managed to square her shoulders, lift her chin, and breathe calmly.

 

"You must be the new footman Mr. Pierce mentioned."

 

"Yes, my lady." He answered simply, his broad shoulders square and his chin even higher.

 

His lack of subservience put a pinch of annoyance in her mood. "And your name?" She employed a haughty tone more to hide her reaction to his blatant masculinity than to assert ranks.

 

"Garth Evans at your service, my lady." He bowed again, but this time his liquid black diamond eyes remained on hers, causing something electric to flash in the very core of her.

 

A Welsh name that suited him to perfection. His Celtic looks and tall frame matched the fierce sound of his name. She looked around, only now realising the nursery empty. She must be in very low spirits not to have noticed it before.

 

Trying to tamp down her unlikely reaction to a servant she asked, "Do you happen to know where Master William might be?"

 

"In the garden, my lady, since I had to repair his cot." He eyed her fixedly, so fixedly that her comfort zone became a mere memory.

 

She inhaled again, but the upheaval in her insides persisted. "Thank you." She turned and left the nursery as if the contents of the open Pandora's box flew after her.


 

As soon as Lady Crawford left the nursery, Garth exhaled heavily. Her appearance in there bombarded him with the most unconfessable sins. He had never expected his employer to be so earthshakingly beautiful. Petite, not even reaching his shoulders, he would guess, glossy light brown waves piled elegantly up on her delicate head and big, bright pale brown eyes that flashed at him in an almost physical stare. His very healthy libido responded promptly to her hair-splitting examination of him. She was certain trouble and he would do well to keep out of her delectable way.

 

He looked at the now empty doorway and waited for his body to cool down from the instant arousal that assailed him there and then. So fulminating that, had she not left, he did not know how he would have handled it. Her outlook appeared so lofty that she probably listed among those whimsical noblewomen he had so often crossed paths with in his job. That put a pinch of disparagement in his first impression of her.


No novelty that women noticed him. All of them. Rich and poor; young and not so young. The rich ones hid behind disdain for his humble origins; still, they stole hungry stares. It would have been easy to take advantage of their money and status, but he preferred to sow his oats elsewhere and keep to his own rank. He, better than anybody, knew where mixing ranks led.


Beautiful or no beautiful lady of the house, he had a purpose to pursue. The bastard son of a Marquis, he did not expect things to fall on his lap out of the blue. Even if his father had provided him with an education, he had soon realized he would have to fend for himself if he wanted to survive. He had no reason to complain. The Marquis of Warwick provided for his Welsh scullery maid-turned-mistress, giving her a cottage and some income after he had tired of her. He got along rather well with his half-brother, the heir, and his half-sister; they used to play together in the manor’s grounds. But rank was rank, as he soon learned. His siblings had to follow their strict, ritualized nobility ways, while he…well, he used the servants’ stairs, of course. No resentment there, his mother had taught him that the world was not fair so he went to find more practical things to do. Like assemble enough references to climb the service ladder. At thirty, he needed to rush; this was the first step yet, after a number of setbacks due to coveting ladies and their jealous husbands.

****

Loraine stepped into the garden still flushed from the brief conversation in the nursery. With her repressive and controlling young lady’s upbringing, men meant duty. She had never looked at one with anything other than politeness in society or dutiful respect to her father and husband. Her mother, prior to her daughter’s wedding, had said that the marital bed was made of toleration and endurance. Proven correct, Loraine never thought beyond it. Widowed for two years, she intended to remain without a husband and to concentrate on raising his heir. The Earl of Crawford died in a carriage accident when returning from his mistress’s appointed house. Pitiful death, but she had no qualms in being a widow. It suited her splendidly. Except for…

Lady Crawford,” the nanny interrupted her thoughts. “The Dowager Countess has been here to visit Master William.”

Except for her mother-in-law, evidently. She sighed. The Dowager Countess had never approved of her pampered son’s choice of a wife. Daughter of a baronet with more ambition than a sense of propriety, one who had sought every opportunity to infiltrate the society too far above him and to use his daughter’s beauty as bait to climb the fiercely resistant upper spheres. Needless to say it produced results; she had managed to attract the attention of the pampered count.

“Indeed.” She managed to answer without expressing any inflection.

That the Dowager dared to come into her home while she was absent showed the extension of her power. A power she had yet to hinder if she wanted to keep a minimum of privacy.

****

Her Lady’s maid gave the final touches in her elaborate coiffeur before she declared it to be ready. At least, tonight it would be the Opera, which she liked and thought it had the advantage of giving her some space and solitude while the act was on. Her introspective self was thankful for it. Few platitudes would be needed, only during the intervals, and then she would retreat to the dimness of her box and dream about the story on stage.

She made a point of keeping some semblance of a social life for the sake of her son, who would need to build connections if he wanted to be a prominent member of the ton. Were she to follow her inclinations, she would gladly live in the manor—vast and chilling as it was—riding and planting flowers in spring, going to picnics in summer, and collecting wild berries in autumn. She craved a peaceful life away from the bustling town and her prying mother-in-law.

She stood up and assessed herself in the mirror. At twenty-six, her body had kept few signs of birth but for her full breasts. She had a slim but curvy figure she knew to be attractive to men, though her height leaned on the medium. Tonight, she dressed in a gauzy dress of a water green shade that brought out her golden oak eyes and hair. The result made her comparable to a nymph.

She climbed down the stairs to the entrance hall, seeing the new footman standing by the door. Her heart skipped a beat for no reason at all. His broad shoulders hugged by the livery jacket, his powerful thighs clad in black trousers, and his shiny hair in the candlelight were more appropriate to a ball. He would be a stunning presence in any of society’s event.

The stairs ended and she deviated her attention from him, vexed that she had even given it. But it was impossible to eschew from the torrent of reaction that assailed her. It should be forbidden that such men threaten any woman’s peace of mind. The mind was only the minor part. The currents her body was receiving did not compare. Deviating her stare with a difficulty equivalent to the pleasure her eyes were having during her descent, she looked at the door, which he opened with a formal bow. She hid her face with her fan, sensing a blush flourish on it. She heard his steps following her, as was his duty. The carriage was already in the wait.

He placed the wooden step near it and extended his gloved hand to help her up. She placed her lacy gloved one on his and the world went out of its axes. A current of heat climbed up her arms and flushed her whole body. The warmth of him filtered through the layers of fabric, which did nothing to prevent it. Startled, she looked at him; he had a quizzical glint in his black diamond eyes, that darkened in contact with hers. Her heart kicked again and her breath stalled, dizzy, she was about to lose balance, swaying shamefully. Sensing it, he used his other hand to hold her elbow and everything got a thousand times worse. His touch, impersonal and necessary, seared through her in a way she had never thought possible. Struggling to recover her balance, she quickened her steps to the carriage, sitting far from the door, while it closed behind her. Almost tumbling on the sit and ruining her dress, she opened her fan and moved the fresh air into her burning skin frantically.

The carriage jerked into motion seeming to scatter her thoughts and feelings all over the place. Flushed and breathless, she remembered they would stop by for her dear friend Miss Jennings, who would accompany her to the theatre. Ladies attending alone were sniffed at.

The whole play passed before her in a blur. She could not remember a single word she uttered or heard in the intervals.

****

Next afternoon, after a late luncheon, Garth washed in the tiny bedroom he was assigned, still feeling the remnants of last night’s incident. Their fulminating touch evoked the most inappropriate fantasies into the night, giving him a bad sleep. He imagined a million things he wanted to have done to her, regardless her social stand. The view of her in that green dress mesmerized him, his eyes had clasped on her, his mouth watering sinfully, heat arrowing to unconfessable places. She had looked arresting and he nearly kept staring as she descended the stairs. Luckily, he had kicked himself mentally and blanked his gaze in time not to be caught.

He tried to forget all about it, as this had already been a busy and tiring day. The silver had always to be polished, the furniture moved, carpets dusted, luncheon, tea, and dinner served. A hard day would get him exhausted and he would undoubtedly fall in bed numb.

He descended to the kitchen. Stern Mrs. Pierce, the housekeeper, pushed a silver tea tray at him.

“For the yellow drawing room.” She informed drily, commanding her due respect. “The dowager countess is visiting.”

He gave a slight bow, holding the heavy tray with all the silverware on it and climbed up the servants’ stairs.

Balancing the tray on one hand, he opened the door. First thing he saw: her. So beautiful it hit him right on his firm abdomen, like a cricket ball shot at him with mighty force. In a lavender, fluttering day dress, she sat ramrod straight on a settee.

“You look a fright, my dear.” This from the very elegantly attired and haughty Dowager.

He placed the tray on a side table to start serving it. Disguisedly, he directed his black diamond attention to her. She had light smudges under her luminous eyes. Lack of sleep, possibly. Welcome to the club, he thought grimly. At that moment, her eyes lifted to him and it felt like a slap. Damn her beauty, he cursed inwardly, it was taking him out of focus. Her cheeks coloured; she snapped her eyes down at once.

It’s nothing, Your Ladyship.” She replied with a feathery voice that tweaked in his ears, producing illegal heat.

He went near the settee to place the tripod tea serving table near the ladies, so that they would have somewhere to set the china while eating. His low gaze landed on her perfect, creamy skin.

You should let William come stay with me for a couple of days.”

He was pouring tea in the most refined china he had ever seen, but he could not miss the contrariety that briefly tainted her expression, as briefly as it lined with a bland smile to her mother-in-law.

I am sure it is nothing to worry about. Carrying for my own son is no trouble at all.” So the Dowager was disputing the heir with his mother, he inferred. As far as he knew, the Dowager lived in her own Mayfair house her late husband had left her. The pampered earl got to live alone in this one before marrying.

Approaching the settee with a cup, he offered it to the older woman, as etiquette demanded. The aloof noblewoman did not deign to look at him or thank him, he knew this to be another etiquette.

Oh, but the heir of this ancient house would have the chance to taste a real blue-blood environment.” She piqued.

Lady Crawford blanched, fury entering her eyes, she sucked a slow, disguised breath as she struggled to resume her composure. “You will certainly inform him of that in due time.”

“I must.” The Dowager took a sip with a smug glint on her aristocratic blue eyes.

In that case we can wait further than his eighteen months, my lady.” A delicate put down, it was; dully understood by the vexed Dowager.

Garth neared the settee to serve her cup, bowing to hand it with precision. The tripod obliged him to come too close, round it. Her orange blossoms scent wafted to him and he inhaled it, imagining on which parts of her delectable skin she had dropped the essence; any healthy man would want to kiss each one of them.

Stop it, you scoundrel! He admonished himself inwardly, only his guts did not heed it because her scent, her dignity, her firmness tugged at something far deeper and out of logic’s realm, to land on his midriff like scalding tea and spreading with a burn that seemed to come from the very centre of him.

She took the cup and their hands touched, for the second time in less than twenty-four hours. The tempest of the previous evening stormed all over again throwing his body in pure coal fire.

Brusquely, she pulled the china, sloshing tea over the saucer. She bent her head, but not before he saw the intense blush on her face and the skin of the neck that the round neckline allowed to view.

He lowered his broad torso again extending his hands. “I am sorry, my lady.” Too hoarse, he censured himself. The tension flew around them in thick waves. “Let me change your cup.”


Her body was so strung up she thought she would turn into marble very soon. The strain of having to swallow her mother-in-law’s barbs and the way her skin primed at the man’s proximity were making her a bunch of nerves. She barely managed not to tremble.

Now, he bent over her and she swore she could feel the heat transmitting from his tall frame; his muskiness emanated with a faint touch of dull soap and she wanted to come closer and inhale more of it. It caused her to warm up through her entire being.

You should be more careful, lad!” The Dowager criticised rigidly, not seeming to perceive the electricity in the air.

Loraine had no other choice than to give back the blasted cup, hoping she would not behave so shamefully when she took the next one. He took the china back and this time both avoided contact.

Yes, Your Ladyship.” He responded with that forbidden voice of his.

He came back with a new cup and the heat of him smashed her senses anew, the muskiness of him only making it all so much more wrenching. Her lungs lost air and a light-headedness came over her. Her posture statue-like for if she moved she might do a foolish thing—like reach for him, or worse, approach his firm frame and smell him in the most indecent way.

She took the china head bent, looking as if tea was the sole thing she wanted in her whole life. Then she felt it once more at the same moment a plate with scones appeared in her line of vision. What the deuce would she do with food? Her hunger sloshed from very different sources. If it happened again, she would burst, no doubt. She murmured a thank you and set the delicate scones on the tripod, eating the very last thing on her mind then. She drank the tea, the hot liquid pulling her focus to its sophisticated taste. But then it mingled with the heat inside her and the world went suddenly so tropical she thought about splaying the windows so that the cool September would bring in some fading, bland air into her over-alert senses. The tropical feeling had to remain, though. Her mother-in-law would deem her witless if she dared do such a thing.

The older woman started saying something she could not make sense of, but pretended to listen carefully.

Without looking away from the woman, she directed. “That will be all for now, Mr. Evans. Thank you.” She found herself unable to eliminate that detestable tone of superiority from it, but she had to terminate one source of distress to be able to deal with the other.

From the corner of her eye she saw a hard glint enter his stance, and then he bowed and left dutifully.

The Dowager went on blabbing and blabbing for what felt like hours, of which she did not hear a single syllable. When she took her leave at last, the relief was almost too intense to disguise.




Chapter Two


Blessing occurrence that tonight there had been no social event to attend. With what transpired during the day it would have been at least uneasy to go out. So she had dinner on her own, informally.

Relaxing as the evening might be going, she felt restless. The strange sensations that had been coursing through her with and without his presence could only be labelled alien and nonsensical. Why on Earth would she feel this way? It had never, ever, happened before. Evidently, she had heard of such things. Some airheaded misses even eloped in the name of something as elusive as love. Humph, love! There was only duty and a life controlled by everyone around. You had just to give the slightest misstep and scandal would stick to you for a traumatic lifetime. No, oh no. Better an empty life than a bitter one.

As she strolled away from the dining room she remembered another footman had served dinner. She had been stretched between relief and a baffling sense of absence which she found difficult to swallow. Seeing how things had gone in the last couple of days, it would be weird to wish for his presence when it unsettled her like thunder in the night. Be that as it may, she had to own to the fact that dinner became a dull meal served by the second footman.

She had not been looking where she went and she saw she had come to the back garden. The September cool air welcomed her and she wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders. She sighed and looked up to a clear night, despite this being London.

She had given some steps among the flowers when she noticed a figure sitting on one of the benches curved over something she could not devise. Her heart lurched and somersaulted. She feared she would recognise that [darkest than night hair and tall frame anywhere now. For a moment, she did not know what she should do—stay or run. He decided for her as his head came up and he focused dark eyes on her. Deep currents fluttered in her middle, she had to put her hand there to stanch it. Something passed in his stance which she did not identify.

Putting what he had on his lap to the side, he stood and bowed.

My lady.” But in those words there was not a trace of submission, there was a kind of unbreakable dignity that she had not perceived before. “I just finished here and will retire…”

No, please.” This must be his scarce free time after work and she did not want to become famous for being a tyrant with her servants; she had never been, for that matter. “Just keep on doing whatever it was.” He had paced forward and she had to bend her head back to follow him. “I did not mean to disturb.” She motioned to go; she felt like she was doing a daring thing.

The effect of his presence on her would never become familiar, she feared; because now, there were currents, masses of them, emanating from his broad shouldered body involving her in something hot, illicit, and compelling, like invisible cables pulling her to him against her will, against the clarity of her mind, against anything conventional.

“I was playing chess.” He explained.

Tearing her lingering attention from him, she looked more detained at what he had left aside. A lantern hung from the side wall, shedding a warm glow on the bench. A tiny wooden board and pieces lay there set on a way that had surely been played. How curious for a footman to be interested in chess, a highly intellectual game more fit for Oxford graduates.

“Are you winning?” She berated herself for the inane question.

The corner of his sensuous mouth kicked up and she nearly gasped with the knockout of it. “I cannot be sure.” The rough satin of that sound was worth a swoon. “Do you play?”

Her gaze travelled from one corner to the other of his sensuous lips, taking in every little detail, like the stubble that surrounded them. Her distorted mind flashed the image of those lips running over her skin, bristling, sowing a thread of incandescent tingling. It would be unbearable, impermissible to own to the things that the thought did to her. Where did these wretched ideas come from, for darn’s sake?

She shook her head slightly to say no, as much as to shake off her overactive imagination. “This is not a game taught to ladies.” Lamentably, she thought. “How did you get an interest in it?”

As a boy, to say the truth.” His gaze slid down to her mouth causing it to tingle. Her heart accelerated some more.

“How curious.” She blurted without thinking.

His brows lifted. “Is it too elaborate for a footman?” The moving of his brows called her to his eyes, dark in the night. She dove deep into them to find a seditious physicality of their expression.

No!” She said all too quickly. “I did not mean it.” She mended clumsily. “It is rare to see anyone amuse themselves with chess.” She had seen men playing it, evidently, but cards were infinitely more popular.

“I learned it back in Hereford.” He volunteered.

I thought you were Welch.” Even though his hometown lay close to the Welsh border. Somehow the distance between them had shortened and she did not know how it happened.

My mother is. She gave me her name because she had no husband.” He bent his head slightly down to meet her gaze, the movement emphasizing his height and arrowing melting heat to some nameless place.

Her lips formed an ‘oh’. The matter-of-factness in his sentence did not deceive her for a single second. It might have hurt. “I am sorry to hear that.”

No need. We managed.” A wry smile enhanced his already irresistible attractiveness.

Their glares locked and she felt pulled to the depths of his, getting lost in a daze of longing totally unknown to her. With herculean effort she dis-rooted hers from his, concentrating on the bush beyond him.

“I-“

Would you-“

They spoke together. She stopped, waiting for him to finish.

Would you like to learn?” Her quizzical expression pondered a thousand things she would like to learn from him. About him. With him. “Chess, I mean.”

She went into a loss what to answer. “It would not be appropriate.” Sadly, because now she wondered about the game.

“We from the lower classes have a very broad view of what might or not be appropriate.”

Of course, they did. Had she not heard several stories, including his? Learning something new would help her carry on, she conjectured.

A small smile formed on her elegant lips. “That would be nice.”

She ignored the small voice telling her that this was about a very different kind of game. This quickening of her heart signalled the thrill someone might have at the thought of playing with fire. It was precisely what she was doing, the daring stirred her, provoked a chill on her skin.

He approached her, so close, looming over her person. Her eyes bulged as she bent her head backwards even more, his height so…so appealing. Extending his hands, he caught the ends of her shawl and wrapped it more protectively around her shoulders.

It is turning cold.” He explained; as if her chill came from the cool breeze that blew that moment. With his gesture her temperature went decidedly up.

The moment hung there, with the warmth of his body mixing with hers, as if his hands holding the ends of her shawl had the power of transmitting waves and more waves of involuntary tremors through her. The air caught in her lungs and then slipped in and out in short puffs, throwing her off balance inside.

Eyes wide, she made herself nod and gave a step back out of sheer force of will. “Thanks.” She murmured weakly.

Tomorrow, same time?” That came rougher than before, like tons of hot chocolate making her feel a thousand times more of what she was already feeling.

She took a couple of seconds to make sense of what he said. Oh, the chess lesson! “Yes, if it will not be a bother for you.”

Definitely not, my lady.” But his attention took in every single detail of her face, causing her to feel bare.

It also froze her to the spot, his deep voice turning her mind to wool, his broad frame dominating her, causing her to feel a sort of lethargy that thawed some spot hidden in her.

She had to go. At once! Forcing herself to do the right thing she moved. “Good night.” When he bowed in that bold way of his, never leaving his stare from her, she turned and hurried away before she changed her mind.

****

“Your hair is dishevelled.”

He looked at who said that in the servant’s dining room mid-morning. He had seen her around but did not know who she was. It must have shown on his face.

“Oh, I am Ruth, her lady’s maid.” This time she looked at him coquettish, barely hiding her appreciation of him.

Just so she did not feel embarrassed, he raked a distracted hand over his sable obsidian hair, already sensing she might come on to him.

“I am Garth, the new footman.” She could not miss the coldness in his tone.

She did not look slightly put off when she smiled teasingly. “Dinner is at five. Maybe I can hold a place for you next to mine.”

He did not smile back. If anything, he scowled at her invasion of his personal space. “It is not necessary.” His eyes hardened on her. “I am sure there will be enough chairs for all.”

Only then it seemed to hit her that he had not followed her lead. “No doubt.” She breathed a tight laugh. “The Crawfords can afford it.”

Assenting drily, he turned to go and take the carpet out of the drawing room for airing. Most households, big or small, viewed servants’ flirtations with suspicious eyes. He had seen it in the Warwicks as well. He had no intention of jeopardizing this position for a roll on the grass on a free day in the city outskirts. Any tavern would provide him with that without the added peril for his income.

But no tavern would make him forget his daring last night. Why the hell did he offer to teach her how to play chess? Could he not have reduced himself to his humble position and keep his damned mouth shut? But seeing her so beautiful in a simple dress and coming closer to her than was sensible or appropriate had meddled with his senses. And now he would have to endure the strenuous pleasure of having her around for the chess lessons. Then he had given in to another tormenting impulse to adjust her shawl. What he really had wanted to do was to pull her to his arms and forget that she was a whimsical Countess. Fortunately, he stopped himself before he violated every household’s golden rule—not to mix ranks if it could be helped. Not that his parents were any example to follow but when it came to the lady of the house the conducts were diametrically different.

The drawing room door stood ajar as he approached with muffled steps on the hallway carpet. Coming near it, he saw Lady Crawford sitting on an escritoire bent over a sheaf of papers writing with an engrossed air. His attention locked on her as his body heated uncomfortably.

Her wavy light brown hair received illumination from the window behind her, brightening the loose soft bun that must have been done with the specific purpose to be undone. He imagined the locks free, falling around her as he bent to inhale its perfume from behind. His eyes followed down her aristocratic profile and the elegant pink mouth made for nothing that was decent or ladylike. The thought unleashed an even less decent chain reaction. Mesmerized did not describe it at all. It felt more like a spell. A spell he had to break.

My lady.” The hoarse grave voice was not in his plans.

She lifted her head up as if startled. When her golden oak eyes collided with his it felt like lightning attacking directly his lower parts.

I am sorry to interrupt, Your Ladyship.” His unwelcome roughened voice continued. “But Mr. Pierce told me to take the carpet for airing.”

She blushed and breathed in through her parted lips, a proof of awareness he did not care to acknowledge.

Several seconds of electrical silence passed. The clock ticked, a bird sang outside, the trees swished with a breeze.

Their eyes still locked.

She blinked a number of times. “Of course, Mr. Evans.” She motioned for him to come in. “Just go about your tasks.” Her mellifluous tone seemed to grip him where it shouldn’t.

He bowed deferentially, but could not take his eyes from her. “Excuse me.” He forced himself to lower his gaze to her delicate feet. It did not get any better. He imagined his hands peeling down those prim stockings to reveal the soft skin underneath to be touched and tasted. He was positively sweating now.

Trying to get down to work, he saw that the big Aubusson went under several pieces of furniture. He would take some time on it.

****

He walked inside with so much posture that he could easily be mistaken for a nobleman. His obsidian hair falling stubbornly over his brow, as his voice washed over her, puddling somewhere she did not even have a name for.

He scrunched down on the floor boards and started rolling the carpet from the opposite side of the room. The movements of his arms pulled at his livery jacket evidencing the ripple of muscles under it. She stared in a daze, his head bent on his work, dark hair gleaming bluish in the morning light. Then he went to the side to loosen one end from under a settee, his trousers bunching up his strong thighs. Instinctively, her attention went immediately to his…oh. Rather voluminous. The room temperature seemed to go up several degrees, as her hand flew inadvertently to her bosom. She barely managed to stop a gasp from escaping her lips.

Commanding herself to look down on the week’s menu, she tried to forget his presence. The settee leg fell back on the bare floor with a thud. Restlessly, her gaze searched for him. He lifted his black diamond eyes to hers.

“I am sorry for the noise, my lady.” That voice of his again.

Not to be minded.” A wonder she was able to utter coherent words, because her unruly stare went back to his… This time he saw it. Mortification tinted her cheeks with bright red as their stares locked again.

She should leave the room and let him do his job! She did not think her legs would carry her though. Inside she became pure jelly. There was no way to avoid her fidgety hand to fluff her hair uncomfortably, which made it worse because her fingers felt sweaty. Jerkily, she lowered her hand and made her eyes follow.

Right, strawberry tarts as a side dish for roast pheasant would not do. She scratched it nervously. She dipped the pen in the ink again, but did not remember what she was going to write. The ink dripped on the paper unused. She just watched it without seeing it, distracted by her achy swollen breasts that threatened to spill from her modest neckline.

He continued working while her movements went increasingly clumsy and unnatural. Her mouth was dry and she needed some water urgently. Just then, the carpet moved under her feet. He had come near the escritoire. His hands were on the carpet, the carpet under her feet, almost a touch from him. She was going to combust. He lifted his eyes to her, she moistened her lips, his stare darkened on them and it felt as if someone had released steam in the room.

Without thinking, she pulled the bell, praying that someone appeared in record time. A maid came, she ordered water. At that moment, he finished rolling the damned carpet and came up with it on his arms, as if he carried a woman in them. She searched some point beyond him on the back panels, trying desperately not to imagine it was her there.

He turned to some point beyond her on the window. “Excuse me, my lady.”

She flicked an awkward nod and he left. The air she had not known she had trapped in her lungs blew out as she sagged on her chair. When the water came, she drank it as if she had not had any fluids in weeks.


Garth exited to the backyard and flung the Aubusson in the watery September weather, mad at himself. He had no right to react to her like he kept a volcano ready to explode inside him! She was the Countess, for pity’s sake! He rubbed his hands over his stubble face to disperse the whole thing. It did not go away. It would have to or this job would become harder than it already was.

Mr. Pierce interrupted his thoughts as the butler delivered another task.


****

She would have to plead a headache if she wanted to be on time for the chess lesson, she thought restlessly, between a wan smile to the baroness talking to her from the other side of the dinner table and a sip from her wine. A cauldron of simmering feelings had burned inside her all day. She could not have begged off this dinner party as she had accepted it days ago. Neither would she miss the lesson, not for the life of her. She had to admit she felt excited, exceedingly so. Her muscles were but a second from springing up from her chair and carrying her very far from all this frivolity.

Mr. Edgerton, on her right, turned to her. “Are you not enjoying the food, my dear?”

The second son of a duke, he got invitations for all the most important occasions in society. A perfect, or should one say, almost perfect gentleman, he bore the typical nobleman appearance with balding blond hair and rather common blue eyes set in his forty-something face.

She tried her brightest smile, which enchanted him, she could tell. “The food is grand, Mr. Edgerton, but I fear I have overdone tea this afternoon.” Food was the blasting last thing she thought about right then.

He would not be as rude as move his eyes, but she sensed his unwelcome scrutiny anyway. “I daresay it would be preposterous the idea that you could overdo anything.” He gave a bland smile to sugar the remark.

She smiled back, faking flattery. “You are only too kind.”

It is not kindness to express admiration for such a fine lady.” The inappropriately intimate tone did not move her.

At that moment, the butler announced cigars and brandy awaiting the gentlemen in the study and tea awaiting ladies in the drawing room, causing her to breath relieved with the end of the inane conversation.

Widows attracted all kinds of predators in her circles, which annoyed her to no end. These pampered fat fobs did not awake her interest. And she was in no way going to be used by them as some kind of alternative to the luxurious brothels they attended.

Maybe, the fact that she came from country gentry made her different from these people she rubbed elbows with these days, she mused as she exited the dining room. On certain days she recollected nostalgic her girly time playing in the country house with her dolls and around the grounds. The peaceful, quiet days filled with some cooking, embroidery, and chats with her mother seemed to have more authenticity to them.

Almost walking faster than she should, she reached the entrance door, after excusing herself with Lady Knightsbridge, the dinner hostess. The butler helped her with her cloak, as she hurriedly put on her gloves. Her carriage stood waiting at the door. Sitting on the upholstered seat, her heart jumped to a frantic pace, her breath irregular and she did not seem to be able to maintain her hands calmly folded on her lap.

She could barely wait for the second footman to help her down when the carriage parked in front of Crawford House. Agitatedly, she climbed up the front steps. Her foot fell on a loose stone, causing her nearly to go off balance. She needed to tell Mr. Pierce to have it mended. She rushed to the stairs, pretending to go up. As soon as the footman turned to leave, she changed directions to the back garden.


She had gone out tonight, Garth thought as he sat in the back garden bench. She had certainly forgotten their appointment or she had not even intended to keep it, not bothering to tell him, the humblest servant in the household, for she would not deem it important enough.

Opening his chess box, he displayed the pieces in their right order on the board. The cheap wooden board folded to form a box where the pieces should be kept. He had seen it in a small shop downtown and had bought it, happy that he could afford this small luxury. He observed the painted pieces in white and red, common chess colours then, about to start a game.

A swish sounded in the dim lantern light. He lifted his head and there she was. Instantly, he froze with the surprise of it. But more than that, he froze with her beauty. In a dark blue dress, visible through the opening of her cloak, a diamond around her neck and her hair piled elegantly on the top or her head, secured by diamond pins, she was a vision to behold during a lifetime. Realizing his mouth had fallen, he struggled to close it as he stood and bowed.

“My lady.” Nevertheless, his eyes continued on her. Impossible to tear them off. Impossible to block the effect she had on his lower body.

Hands joined in front of her, straight spine and regal, her attention darted to the board on the bench and back to him. “You thought I had given up the lesson.”

The silky way she said it had drastic consequences on him, his middle twitching to life. Hell, he would have to go to one of those taverns in his next free day, which happened only once a fortnight.

“It crossed my mind, yes.” That came without a shred of deference and he could not regret it. He did regret the hoarseness that came with it, though.

Their eyes locked then and stayed that way for too many seconds, the light brown of hers obscured by the night. “I would have sent word if that had been the case.” The information amazed him as much as confused him. He expected lofty ladies like her to be disdainful of the lower ranks. But she? She was proving to be different. Apparently, at least.

She finally broke the contact and lowered her head to her hands, pulling the fingers from her glove one by one. Her creamy skin revealing little by little felt like stripping and the twitching in his middle intensified.

Her eyes lifted to him again like a blow. Silence decked the night one more time until he got hold of his unruly self.

Please, my lady.” He motioned to the bench. The cool night still offered the chance for someone to sit outside. Soon it would be too cold for that.

Thank you, Mr. Evans.” She sat primly on the end of the bench to one side of the board.


The small board made him sit near, very near her. The sight of him had already scrambled everything inside—her heart galloping, her blood rushing in her ears, and a rising warmth that the cool night would not soothe.

To make matters worse, now she sensed the heat of his body next to hers together with the muskiness mixed with neutral soap she was learning to identify as only his.

I think we can start by describing the movements of each piece and then go into some standard strategies.”

That sounds sensible.” Of course, she had never imagined that the different pieces had different movements on the board and even less that a player had a number of so-called strategies at their disposal.

Their heads bent over the board, inches from each other, the heat and the proximity hindering her clear thought. She hoped she did not seem like a ninny incapable of understanding a game. But his hoarse tone enthralled her and she paid attention to every single word he was saying.

I like the queen,” She intervened when he had explained the other pieces. “She has free access to the whole board!” She smiled spontaneously.

He looked at her and his black diamond eyes dropped to her lips. Her smile faded and she blushed intensely. He seemed to get a grip and lifted his eyes to hers. Their stares merged for more time than they should. A certain lethargy started enwrapping her at the same time her heart went frantic, the counter currents they fomented rendering her immovable, gawking, as if waiting for something, as if expecting a move. Passive. Ready to be swept away, ready to relinquish control, ready to be taken, simply taken and have this…this longing quenched, eliminated. Incinerated.

Yes, despite being the queen, she has more freedom than the king.” His comment ripped her from her lamentably entranced state.

She made herself come to her senses. “Maybe this is the reason they don’t teach it to ladies, lest they get ideas.” She opined independent for the first time in her life.

That might be the case.” His focus on the game, he organized the pieces on the board. “Let us play a match.” He directed.

A good thing the back garden remained secluded from the rest of the house, or they might very well have become a tableau for prying eyes.

She did not know if he allowed her to win the first basic match, but she was exceedingly enthusiastic that she did.

“Never mind that.” He dismissed jokingly. “It is beginners luck.”

Nonetheless, I am enjoying it all too much.” She took a piece in her hand to examine it. “Had I known it to be so entertaining I would have learned it before.”

You have potential.” He admitted sincerely.

When would a nobleman from the ton ever acknowledge a lady’s intellectual capability? She had never seen it. Women of her class had the roles of brooding mares and party decorations solely. This felt entirely new to her.

Thank you.” She said genuinely gratified. Becoming serious, she wondered about the time. “I think I should retire now.”


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