Excerpt: Invitation To Pleasure
Book 3.5: Invitation To Series
Newmarket, England, December 15th 1814
Daniel loved his elder sister, Rheda, he really did. He even loved his little niece and nephew, Samantha and Wilton, especially when they were asleep. And he admired Rheda’s husband, Rufus Knight, the Earl of Hascombe. But he hated how, at Christmas, and all the other ‘family’ occasions, he was summoned to the Earl’s estate to dress up fancy and make polite conversation with the guests his sister took pleasure inviting into her home.
None of the other guests cared less if he was here or not. He was hopeless at cards and didn’t have the schooling to contribute to the conversations between the men. The unmarried ladies ignored him because who wanted a mere Baron for a husband. While the married women with boring, older husbands thought all they had to do was beckon with a crooked finger and he would service them gratefully.
Why had he bothered to come?
Because he loved his elder sister Rheda, and for some reason she’d wanted him here earlier than he usually came north for the festive period. She was the reason he still had his estate. Her selfless efforts while he was growing up.
Their father had bled his estate dry with his gambling and womanizing. After his father’s death, Rheda had spent the next five years trying to save his estate until he was old enough to run it. Situated near Deal in Kent, Rheda had, for a short time, taken up smuggling to save Tumbury Cliff Manor from bankruptcy, before breeding the best cavalry horses known to man. Instead of attending Eton, Rheda had home-schooled him and could only just hold his own with writing and arithmetic, something that as the current Baron de Winter, he found embarrassing. He felt more at home in the stables, hence why, after dinner tonight, he made his way across the large cobblestoned courtyard toward Rufus’s immaculate and impressive stables which housed the best racing horseflesh in the world.
As he approached, it dawned upon him that there should be more grooms around. You didn’t leave animals as valuable as this unattended. What if there was a fire, or a horse fell ill, or was stolen? He quickened his pace. Perhaps there were no grooms because Rufus had given them the day off to shop for Christmas? Rufus may well have given most of them the night off to spend with their families, but still his instincts saw him jog across the cobblestones.
His heart jumped into his throat when he saw the door to the main stable ajar; normally it was locked and guarded.
He slipped inside, walking silently on his toes. He waited until his eyes adjusted to the dark before creeping forward. He saw the young groom, Blake, lying motionless inside the first stall. He hesitated, wondering if he should retreat and call for reinforcements. He was just about to turn back when he spied movement near the stall at the rear. The stall held Rufus’s recent expensive purchase, a colt as black as the coal burning in the drawing-room grate, named Apollo.
Someone was opening the stall. Who would try to steal Rufus’s colt? Daniel hoped they were experienced horsemen; Apollo was temperamental, to say the least.
Daniel crept forward. He thought his ears were playing tricks on him because as he drew closer, the murmured reassurances spoken to the excited colt sounded feminine in nature. It couldn’t be. The colt needed a firm hand. Apollo sometimes forgot who was boss, and he needed a man’s strength to subdue his wildness.
Daniel straightened from his crouch and moved with more assurance toward the end stall. It bloody well was a woman with the colt. She might be disguised in men’s clothes, but he’d seen Rheda, his sister, wearing trousers enough times to recognize the enticingly feminine curves. The shapely behind sat atop legs almost as long as the colts. Hair as light as straw hung down the middle of her back, tied with a ribbon. She was holding Apollo’s nose, and whispering in his ear.
Was she touched in the head? Even if she was a thief, he felt the urgent need to protect her from her folly. Apollo could trample her to death.
“Don’t make any sudden movements, back slowly away from the colt so as not to frighten him,” Daniel spoke softly from the entrance to the stall. Instead of following his sensible advice, he watched her stiffen, her hand still on the colt’s nose and in utter disbelief Daniel saw her other hand move to grip Apollo’s mane as if she were about to… Goddamn her to Hades, she bolted onto the colt’s back.
“Step away unless you wish to be trampled.”
Her voice was breathy but held an air of command. He couldn’t see her features in the gloom, but he’d swear she was gentrified. She had an unmistakable air of arrogance, proving she was used to talking down to men. Instead of obeying her, he stepped into the middle of the stall doorway.
“Horse thieving is a hanging offence. I’d hate to see that pretty neck stretched.”
“I am not stealing, so you need not worry on my behalf.”
His hands fell from where they sat on his hips, and he moved a few steps forward. “I know you’re stealing, love. That is Lord Hascombe’s new colt, Apollo.” He wished he could see her face. “Now, get down before you hurt yourself. Young Apollo here is not known for his good behavior.”
“That’s because you simpletons don’t know how to handle him. He is obedient for those he respects. Besides, I’m not your love. Now, I shall ask nicely one final time. Get out of the way!”
Daniel stood undecided. He could not simply step aside and let her steal his brother-in-law’s valuable colt, but neither could he rush the horse. “We appear to be at an impasse as I have no intention of letting you take him.”
He heard the smile in her voice. “Let me?” With that she made Apollo rear up and his hooves came very near to Daniel’s face and body. Daniel held fast. Surely, she was testing him?
“I’m not moving so you may as well tell me why it’s not stealing.”
He heard a very unladylike curse issue from her lips, impressing him even more than her horsemanship.
“My grandfather gifted me Apollo, therefore, my father had no right to sell him to Lord Hascombe.”
Daniel moved forward and stroked Apollo’s nose. “If this is true, why not inform Lord Hascombe of the situation? I’m sure he would listen.”
She snorted. “Would you willingly give up an animal of this quality and value?”
“If he had been sold without the owner’s permission, yes. Can you prove it was a gift?” The silence spoke volumes. “I see. Well, get down from there and come into the house. We shall see what Lord Hascombe has to say.”
He didn’t know her first name, but he knew who had given the horse to Rufus, the Marquis of Wentworth, Charles Marsh. Daniel had been right; she was gentry, yet way above an impoverished Baron. He waited, for he was not about to turn his back on Lady Marsh and the colt.
With a sigh, she dismounted just as the stable door crashed open and voices started yelling. Apollo reared, and Lady Marsh went flying, landing with a thump on the straw-covered floor. Daniel raced forward and tried to block the colt from crashing down on the prone young woman. The horse butted him with his head, and he fell backwards on top of her. At least he’d protect her from further harm.
However, Lady Marsh spoke to the excited colt in a calm, lilting voice and the animal stopped prancing, and stood with nostrils flaring and eyes wide in the middle of the stall.
The pair lay still, not wishing to startle the colt again. Daniel didn’t mind. The soft curves he lay upon reminded him it had been a long time since he’d been with a woman.
Then he chided himself. Lady Marsh was not a lady to dally with unless he wanted marriage. At three and twenty, he had no intention of seeking a bride. He had his estate to rebuild first. There was nothing he could offer a woman of her stature.
Michael, the head groom, arrived with a halter and soon led the animal to another stall. He returned immediately. “They have drugged the grooms. I believe someone is out to steal Lord Hascombe’s horses.”
Daniel felt her stiffen beneath him.
“Well, the thief is not in this stall.” He watched Michael lift the lantern he carried and look at the second pair of boots sticking out from under Daniel. “This is my paramour from Kent. She came up to surprise me. It was not safe for her to travel dressed as a woman. She couldn’t go through Christmas without some of my loving,” and he ran his hand down Lady Marsh’s side. He enjoyed hearing her quiet hiss of outrage.
“Well, you picked a dangerous place for a liaison, my lord. Apollo isn’t used to his new surroundings yet.” Michael looked over his shoulder. “Plus, it looks as though we have a thief on the premises. He, or they, have drugged the other grooms. I only avoided being doped because I had to help his lordship with the Christmas tree. You may well have stopped him stealing this valuable colt.”
“I’m sure I did,” he said ironically. “He wouldn’t have expected to find me here.” That got him a jab in his ribs.
“I shall leave you to your…, well, be careful and keep an eye out for the culprits.” With that, Michael backed out of the stall. He stopped and bent down to leave the lantern at the door to the stall. “You’ll need this so you are not surprised again.”
As soon as Michael’s footsteps faded, Lady Marsh pushed at Daniel’s chest. “Get off me.”
“I’m quite comfortable where I am, thank you. Besides, is that any way to thank me for saving your neck, Lady Marsh?”
Her breathing was her only reply.
Daniel’s temper flared to life. “Would you have preferred me to introduce you as the person who drugged the staff and tried to steal the colt? I’m aware that a lady’s reputation is far more valuable than the colt.”
“Not to me. If not for you, I’d be well away with Apollo. Now I’ll never get him back.”
“Is your Grandfather alive to vouch for his gift?” He noted that she was no longer trying to push him off, and he would not move unless she asked. The feel of her beneath him stirred very pleasant sensations.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake. If he were, would I be here risking everything to steal him? Now get off me,” and she shoved hard, sending him slipping sideways onto the straw. She was on her feet and racing to escape before he’d taken his next breath.
Daniel stuck out one leg and sent her tumbling face first onto the hay. He was on top of her in a moment. “You may be a lady, but your manners are appalling. Where is my thank you?”
She turned her head to look at him over her shoulder. “And if he hadn’t called you lord, I’d never have known you were a gentleman. This is no way to treat a lady.”
Daniel snorted. “Ladies don’t steal high spirited colts,” he whispered in her ear.
“You know who I am, however, I have no idea who you are. What is your name?” He couldn’t help a smug smile. She was interested in him, but then to his regret she added, “So I know to avoid you.”
“Daniel Kerrich, Baron de Winter, at your service, my lady.”
She frowned and said. “Blast. The Earl’s brother-in-law has caught me. Are you going to tell him what I tried to do?”
She knew who he was. That was interesting. He’d never been to London in his life, but he supposed people had gossiped about Rheda and her background. “Perhaps you could persuade me to simply let you go,” he suggested nuzzling her neck. That got him an elbow in his stomach. He laughed as he rolled off her. “I was teasing.” He leaped to his feet. “Come on,” he held out his hand to help her to her feet. “I’ll introduce you to Rufus. Let’s see what we can sort out.”
She took his hand, and he marveled at how finely boned she was. Her hand was tiny compared to his. How on earth she’d had the strength to control Apollo… She must have the touch? Some people could almost talk to a horse and get them to do anything. He was one of those people. Maybe she had the gift too. He pulled her to her feet with little effort.
“Why are you doing this for me?” she asked quietly.
When she turned into the lantern light, he finally got a look at her face and he almost stopped breathing. Her hair was a mess, and her face was covered in dust and dirt. Yet, she was still the most arresting woman he’d ever seen. Strands had come loose and wisps of hair fell around her face, as if it too wanted to stroke the perfect unblemished skin. He would have known she was highborn; her breeding was evident in her fine features. Her nose, eyes, and lips were in perfect symmetry to the size of her face. Vivid blue iris’s surrounded dark pinpoints that flared as the light flickered. Her eyelashes were so long he wondered if she had to detangle them every morning when she woke. Her nose was cute to the point of being childlike, but her lips… They were definitely all woman. Pouty and luscious, and he wanted a taste so badly he had to pinch his thigh to remember who she was.
“I’m the only man who could understand why you’d get worked up about a horse. Once you bond with a special steed, it’s difficult to part with them.” She opened and then closed her mouth, surprised at his understanding. He bowed and with one hand indicated she should precede him from the stall. “Let’s just say I admire a woman who is passionate about horses.” Under his breath he added, “A passionate nature usually means passionate in bed too.”
They reached the entrance to the large stable block and Daniel’s body hummed when he saw the mistletoe hanging above the large barn door. He slowed his step and pulled her to face him, pointing upwards as he did.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I will not kiss you; I hardly know you. Besides because of you, my plan is ruined.”
“I can’t help the fact your plan was a terrible one. For all you knew, Rufus might have wanted to show Apollo off to his visitors. The estate is large. Did you really think you’d be able to slink in and out unaided?” He pulled her closer. “As to a kiss, a chaste peck is often the norm, but a more passionate kiss would be appropriate considering I saved you from facing Michael’s wrath.”
She raised a face filled with alarm but also desire. He could read it easily in her expressive eyes. “Now then,” he said smiling, “a kiss is a thing to be shared, not given nor rushed.” Tipping her chin up, he gazed into those wide, luminous eyes and more than simple desire began to unfold—possessiveness—a sensation foreign to him where a woman was concerned. He felt, for a moment, as if he was gazing into the eyes of an angel, and he touched her smooth cheek with reverence.
“Have you any idea,” he murmured softly, “how enchanting you are? Tell me your name.”
* * *
The way he spoke those words, combined with his touch and the kindness he’d done her this evening, had the seductive impact Georgiana had dreaded from the moment she’d looked into his handsome face.
When he’d lain atop her, all hard muscle and withheld strength, she felt as if she were beginning to melt and float inside. As his head bent and his lips drew near, she couldn’t pull her gaze from his hypnotic green eyes. And worse still, she didn’t want to try.
“Georgiana,” she answered breathlessly as his lips drew closer.
When his lips took hers in a kiss, she knew that it would be nothing at all like the chaste kisses she’d experienced hidden behind the potted plants at countless balls. Having reached twenty-years-of-age, she’d experienced her fair share of innocent kisses. His mouth slanted over hers with fierce tenderness, while his hand curved round her nape, his fingers stroking her sensitive skin along the collar of her shirt, and his other arm encircled her waist, pulling her tightly against his hard, hot body.
Lost in a sea of pure sensation, Georgiana slid her hands up his muscular chest to wrap her arms around his neck, clinging to him as if her world depended on her staying as close to him as she could. Desire unfurled deep within her at the feel of his erection and she clung tighter to him, sliding her hands down his back to his firm buttocks.
He kissed her long and lingeringly, both gentle and persuasive. So, when he touched his tongue to her trembling lips, this time coaxing them to part, insisting actually, she eagerly admitted him. His tongue slid between her open lips, filling her mouth. His hand shifted from her waist, sliding upward toward her breasts.
He tasted of everything forbidden and everything she wanted.
She barely noted the moan of encouragement that escaped her above the pounding of her heart. Never had she let a man take such liberties, and never had she wanted to let him. She hoped the kiss would never end.
Just as she silently made her wish, Daniel’s hands left her body, and he fell sideways, out cold on the cobblestones.
“You were right, Baron. She didn’t come alone, however, I didn’t expect to have to save her from a kiss. A kiss she looked as if she was enjoying.”
Georgiana chose to ignore Billy’s chastisement. She peered down at Daniel’s prone form. “He will be all right, won’t he?”
“Aye, he’ll have a sore head when he wakes so best we take our leave before he rouses. No chance of getting the colt then?”
She bent down and reached out to touch Daniel’s face. He looked so young and less sure of himself as he lay on the ground, knocked out cold. She hoped he wouldn’t hate her. He was the first man she’d ever felt an ounce of grudging respect for.
“No, the groom took him,” she answered sadly. “We will have to find another way to retrieve the colt. He knows who I am and why I’m here.”
As Georgiana and Billy, her groom, slipped quietly away through the outbuildings, to find the horses they had tethered several miles east of the Earl of Hascombe’s estate, she thought over how her plan had gone so badly wrong. As she mounted Black Devil for the ride back to her father’s estate, she tried not to let her despair cloud her head.
She would get Apollo back, and now that she’d met Baron de Winter, she realized he was the perfect foil in her new plan.
She prayed that next time her idea wouldn’t go so horribly wrong, as she would pay a much higher price than just a kiss. Just a kiss! Daniel’s kiss made her dream of sandalwood and spice—all things wanton and terribly nice.