No good deed goes unpunished…
To save her hen-witted sister from scandal, Philippa Sanders ventures into a rake’s bedroom – and into his power. Now her reputation hangs by a thread and only a hurried marriage can rescue her. Is the Earl of Erskine the heartless libertine the world believes? Or will Philippa discover unexpected honor in a man notorious for his wild ways?
Blair Hume, the dissolute Earl of Erskine, has had his eye on the intriguing Miss Sanders since he arrived at this deadly dull house party. Now a reckless act delivers this beguiling woman into his hands as a delightful Christmas gift. Does fate offer him a fleeting Yuletide diversion? Or will this Christmas Eve encounter spark a passion to last a lifetime?
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The Boar’s Head, Salisbury, Christmas 1823
Philippa was his, however undeserving he was. Erskine had a piece of paper to prove it. And it was time he introduced her to some of the benefits of married life.
He unlaced her fingers from her wineglass and placed it on the nightstand. She’d nearly emptied the glass, thank goodness. He leaned in and placed his lips softly on hers. She released a little huff of surprise, but didn’t draw away.
Because her mother had told her to submit? Or because she wanted him to kiss her? He prayed it was the latter.
Exquisitely aware of her innocence, he kissed her chastely, rediscovering the satiny texture of her lips and her tart, intriguing taste. To support his weight, he splayed his hands on the counterpane. With encouragement from the claret, she’d stopped acting as if he was about to devour her, but he knew he hadn’t banished her fears.
After an interval both delightful and frustrating, she pressed forward with a breathy sigh. Reluctantly he withdrew. He lifted one hand to brush his thumb across her plump, glistening lips, pulling the lower one down to reveal a glimpse of straight white teeth. Her eyes were as dark as a starless night. He could dive into her gaze and never come up for air.
Puzzlement creased her forehead. “You kissed me.”
She didn’t sound entirely pleased. A tender smile curved his lips. “I promised I would, remember?”
“After I married you.”
He said what he must, although every word cut like a razor. “I’m prepared to wait.”
The faint line remained between her dark brows. “You don’t have to.”
He bit back a sigh and cupped her cheek. “We’re strangers, Philippa. I want you, but I’m not a barbarian. If you’re not ready, I can give you more time.”
For a prickling interval, she studied his face in silence. He struggled to convey patience and understanding, although she must also see his barely contained hunger.
He steeled himself to retreat to the room next door. Or perhaps she’d relent and let him sleep beside her. Holding her in his arms without possessing her would be torture, but still it seemed preferable to the lonely hell of a night without her.
Reluctantly Erskine withdrew his hand and straightened. He told himself that this was for the best. No man of honor could expect his wife to welcome him tonight, whatever rights this morning’s ceremony had conferred.
Which wasn’t much consolation when he faced a cold bed.
“Sleep well, Philippa.”
In the light of candles and fire, her eyes turned even darker. He shifted away slowly like a man going to his execution. He knew he did the right thing, but the knowledge offered no satisfaction.
His wife remained very still, watching him, although her hands curled slowly into the sheets at her waist. He expected Philippa to look relieved or, best of all, grateful. He’d like her to be grateful. A grateful wife was likely to invite him to consummate their union sooner rather than later. Hopefully before he went completely mad wanting her.
He’d risen to his feet before she spoke. “I trusted you yesterday.”
Because of that, he’d lay down his life for her. “Yes, you did. Thank you.”
Without lowering her gaze, she bit her lip. He wasn’t sure where she was going with this, but he’d much rather stay than leave, even if she only wanted to talk.
“You’ve always been kind to me.”
It was his turn to frown. “You make me sound like an aged uncle.”
A rueful smile twisted her lips. “You’re nicer to me than Uncle Theodore ever was.”
He didn’t smile back and his voice emerged with a bite that he regretted but couldn’t contain. “Philippa, let me be frank-I don’t feel remotely avuncular when I look at you.” He sucked in a breath and spoke the words likely to terrify her into running back to her unpleasant mother. “The first time I saw you hovering in the shadows like a little ghost, I wanted you. I wanted you when we were trapped in the dressing room. That’s why I kissed you. Every hour since then, I’ve wanted you more. Tonight I’m offering you a postponement, but I don’t… I can’t let you think that I’ll accept a chaste marriage.”
He waited for an appalled reaction, but she didn’t flinch away. Neither, confound it, did she leap into his arms declaring overwhelming desire.
“I…see,” she said slowly after a tense interval.
He stepped closer to the bed, even if it was a step he’d need to retrace when he left her. “Have I shocked you?”
“A little.” She paused. “You have a husband’s rights.”
“I’m not a bully.”
“No, you’re not.”
He should go. This awkward conversation just extended the torture.
Her eyes flickered away and her hands stopped twisting at the sheets. Instead, she began to pluck nervously at them. Not much of an improvement.
Why the deuce was the chit nervous? Hadn’t he just given her a reprieve? Surely that saintly act alone must cancel out a few of his sins in the heavenly register.
“It’s late,” he said regretfully, starting to feel like a fool standing in the middle of the room, gazing at Philippa like a dog slavering at a butcher shop window. He turned to leave.
Erskine stopped, wondering if he’d heard her aright. Slowly he faced her. He couldn’t read her expression. “What did you say?”
Her deep breath made her breasts swell voluptuously against her nightgown. He closed his eyes. God give him strength. She wasn’t doing this to get him excited. Although he was undoubtedly getting excited.
She licked her lips. How he wished she wouldn’t.
Philippa swallowed and spoke in a rusty whisper. “I said… don’t go.”
He braced his shoulders and told himself he could be strong. They had years to get this right. A wedding night was just another date on the calendar. “You don’t want to sleep alone in a strange place? I can understand that.”
Her eyes flashed with annoyance, surprising him. “No, I don’t want to sleep alone. But that’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean?”
Her lips tightened with displeasure. “You’re the blasted rake. You work it out.”
His heart kicking into an excited gallop, he stared at her without moving. It took him far too long to realize that while she looked uncertain, she also looked… interested.
He could work with interested, by God.
On an astonished laugh, he dived across the floor and onto the bed, dragging her into his arms. “Prepare to be ravished, lassie!”
Before Philippa could reply or, heaven forfend, change her mind, he captured her lips with his in a kiss that wasn’t chaste at all.