Officer’s TemptationMarlowe hummed quietly as he walked, feet springing against the damp earth. His dark hair hung in thick curls against his forehead and the air was heavy in his lungs, still ripe with the smell of the afternoon rain and the fresh spice of the birch trees that lined the road. He was glad that he had waited in the tavern for the rain to pass. It had turned out to be quite the downpour. He was now late, of course, but he was willing to risk his father’s irritation and his mother’s disapproval. And as for the girl… well, he had disappointed women before.He should have taken a carriage perhaps, or even a horse. But he had wanted to stretch his legs, to feel the solid earth beneath his feet, to walk the roads of his boyhood. And to forget, of course. To pretend the war had never happened, that he had never seen the blood or smelt it against the baking earth. It was odd to be here now, to be home again, where the scent of wildflowers tickled his nose instead of the scent of unwashed men.He wondered, somewhere at the back of his mind, if that wasn’t the real reason he had gone into town on foot. He had felt the humid languor in the air before leaving. And when the first light drops had fallen like small pins in the streets, he could have rushed home before the downpour. But perhaps he had lingered on ulterior motives- to avoid the whole meeting. To keep pretending that he was simply himself, not a soldier returned home, distinguished, and now in sudden need, according to his family, of a wife.It wasn’t that Marlowe wished to disappoint his parents. It was just that he wasn’t interested in what they wanted. The poor girl they were trying to fling at him, a certain Miss Katherine Jennings… It wasn’t her fault, either. He did not want a wife; he wanted time. But to try explaining that to his parents… they simply didn’t understand. He had thought that it would be wise to return home, to the familial estate of his c***dhood for a time. But now London was sounding better and better. The press of the crowds, the laughter and liquor of the ton. Easier to forget when you were never alone.He squinted against the sky, though it was dim, heavy with the clouds that had rolled in earlier that afternoon. There would be no beautiful sunset tonight. Just the quick fall of darkness. He flexed his fingers at his waist and sighed. Still stiff, but healing. His family would be dressing for dinner now, and wondering where he was. Well, it was what it was. His boots splashed in the mud.That was when he heard the sound of hooves, the wild rush of beating against the earth. He looked behind him, but saw no one on the road. Then, faster than he could think, he heard the rustle of the leaves, the thud of the steps. A red horse bolted from the hedgerow, saddled, but with no rider. It startled as it saw him, reared back its head in fear.”Whoa there,” he flung his hands up at the horse, which had paused its flight after its jump and was now stamping the ground nervously, eyes wide. Marlowe approached it cautiously, and the horse seemed to calm as he lifted his hands towards the b**st. He patted its neck soothingly. “There boy, where is your rider?”The horse snorted and stomped its foot, flicking its ears back with wide eyes. Marlowe glanced towards the copse of trees behind the hedgerow. He heard something as well. His muscles tensed as the brush parted.It was not at all what he had expected. A woman, in a dove grey riding habit. Her fair hair was mussed under her hat. Her face was pink with exertion, her eyes sharp.He found that his mouth was unfortunately open. He snapped it shut, and grabbed the horse’s reins. “Good evening. Does this belong to you?”Her dark eyes flashed. Green, he saw, dark as emeralds. “I should say so.” She gestured down at the riding habit with the crop she held in her hand. “Although I’ve half a mind to give him away to the first person I see. I suppose that’s you. Do you want him?””I… well…” he fumbled for words, not normally having to fend off questions from beautiful women emerging from woods.”You don’t want him, I can tell you that. He has a bit of the devil in him.” She was closer now and looked him up and down. “Although I dare say you could handle any sort of trouble he threw at you. You look a competent sort.” She brushed a stray hair from her face and narrowed her eyes at him, as if daring him to argue. “A military man?”He shifted his weight, not quite at ease with this startling woman. “You aren’t from around here. I know everyone.”She crossed her arms, and the stiff fabric of her short jacket could not disguise the swell of her breasts underneath. “Well, you don’t know me.” She extended her gloved hand. “I’m Lady Balfrey.”He took it briefly. “Lieutenant Marlowe Hughes.” He straightened his shoulders. “I just returned home from Spain.””I was right, of course.” Her lashes fluttered briefly. It was an entrancing sight. He felt his eyes dance across her face. The flushed cheeks, carnation pink, the dazzling eyes, and a lush mouth, the color of holly berries.”Might I accompany you home, Lady Balfrey?” He knew her name now, of course. She would be the wife of the neighboring lord. They would have been married while he was away, hence how she had escaped his acquaintance until now. He ransacked his mind for memories of Lord Balfrey, but though they were acquainted, they had never been close. Nicholas Balfrey had been a different sort of boy than Marlowe. He was quiet and bookish while Marlowe preferred to explore and ride. He wondered what such a man would feel about having his wife appear from the bushes like a wanton dryad, flushed and rumpled as if she had been rolling around with a satyr just there behind the trees… But no, he must quell that line of thinking.She tilted her head at him, and there was an odd look in her eye, as if she could see the licenstious thoughts that had flashed through his mind. The high color was beginning to fade from her cheeks and she looked thoughtful now, less agitated. “Yes, you may, Lieutenant.” She handed him the reins. “But you mind this horrid b**st. I’ve had enough of him today.” Her voice had dropped- the pitch low and sultry.He guided the horse, which seemed docile enough now as they began the path towards her estate. “What exactly happened with this poor fellow, Lady Balfrey?””Call me Arabella, please.” She sighed. “I miss the sound of my name. I think I can trust you with it, can’t I?” She blinked twice, dark lashes fluttering.He was taken aback and almost stopped in his tracks. Her dark eyes searched his face. There was something so off-putting about her. She bit the corner of her lip. Distracting. “Of course. And you must call me Marlowe. At least…”She snorted. “At least when we are alone. Don’t worry, Lieutenant, I haven’t forgotten all propriety.” She smoothed a hand over her skirt, which was stained with green patches and then waved an arm towards the horse. “I wanted an adventure, so I took this old devil out and he doesn’t like me, so he threw me at the first opportunity.”She tilted her head towards Marlowe. “It’s so lonesome to be cooped up at the house every day. Riding helps. My husband is gone to London, you see. He often is. He doesn’t think it necessary for me to accompany him on business.” Her look darkened, but she directed it towards the hedgerow. “And my acquaintance is very limited here.””Yes, Nicholas always did keep to himself.””You know him?” Her generous mouth pulled down into a frown.”Not well. But our families are acquainted.””My family is in Scotland,” she said. He had thought he had detected a bit of an accent, but he said nothing. “Many of my friends as well.” She shrugged. “But we haven’t been here long. Only two weeks.””So recently?””We were in London before. But his father died, so we must sort out the family estate. Well, I must. He does as he wills.””I see.” His first curled tighter around the reins.”Surely you’ll come calling. Now that we are acquainted?” she asked. They rounded the last bend in the road just as the wooded area fell away. Her house was suddenly visible on top of the next hill, sitting like a crown above the rolling countryside, only partially hidden behind the large oaks that stood like grand sentinels around her grounds.”Of course.”She stopped suddenly, and faced him. “You know, I think I’ll go alone from here. Give me the b**stie’s reins.” Her hand brushed his as he passed them to her. She looked into his eyes thoughtfully. He blinked at the sudden intimacy, felt the breath catch in his lungs as her hand rested against his.”I can accompany you the rest of the way.”Her hand still lingered on his. “No. I expect I’ll see you soon.” Her eyes lingered on his face. “I should like to see you soon.”And suddenly the soft warmth of her hand was gone and she was walking away. He watched her for a moment, the sight of her gray skirts billowing in the light breeze. A fat drop of rain hit his head, jolting him back to reality. He had a dinner to attend.#It was three days later when the note arrived. A small white envelope, the paper heavy underneath his hands. He walked with it to his study, heart racing. He knew who had sent it instinctively. When the door was closed, he leaned against the solid weight of his desk, flipping the envelope over in his hands, yanking out the card.It had been three days, and all he had done was think about her. His parents had been furious, of course. Furious that he had been late, furious that he had been soaking wet, wool coat stinking from the second downpour, furious that he had been distracted all night during what was left of dinner. But they were good people, polite people. They concealed their anger under tight masks.He had been unforgivably rude to Miss Jennings, barely paid her any mind at all. Oh, she had been pretty enough in her own way, dark-haired and wide-eyed, but she seemed so meek and tame compared to Arabella.Arabella. The name echoed through his mind, through his body. Conveniently, the echo seemed to ignore her surname. The fact that she was married at all. The fact that Marlowe should not be thinking about her in such ways. Not her sparkling eyes or rounded mouth or the loose strands of hair that had framed her rosy cheeks. Certainly he shouldn’t have been thinking about the press of her breasts against her riding jacket, nor the hint of hip implied by the swaying lines of her skirt.He had left his card the very next day, of course- ridden up to the house as early as was socially acceptable. He had paused at the gates, but steeled himself with the knowledge that he had visited the house before; it was not so odd to call on neighbors who had recently returned to town, there was no ulterior motive.The house had been a bustle of energy. He had seen it even from the relative quiet of the hall. Furniture was being moved around, the place was in disarray. He’d given his card quickly to the butler and then left, although he had been desperate to know if she had been at home. Had she seen him ride up from the windows? Had she regretted her impulsive informality? Had she been frightened by what she had seen in him?Now finally here was her response. He studied the card. Her name, engraved in looping letters on her card, and then on the back, a written invitation. “This evening, around 6.” He crossed his arms, ran his thumb along the rigid paper. There was no mention of Nicholas. His card had not been sent along with hers. Was he still in London?A surge of nervousness sent pins into his stomach and his hand trembled for a moment as he tucked the card away into his jacket. It was a rush of feeling, an elation of sorts, and an excitement. His muscles were tense with it and he paced the room once, twice, trying not to think of her. Arabella, silver and fair as the goddess Diana, emerging from a moonlit wood. The curve of her cheek, elegant neck, and shoulders… he imagined them bare, as the goddess’s must have been… and lower still, the ripe swell of her breast, only hinted at beneath her clothes, but.. He stopped himself and clenched his stiff hand. He was getting carried away. It had always been one of his worst tendencies. He needed to exercise. A ride would clear his mind.His parents had been hoping to call on the Jennings family for dinner, but he gave them his regrets. His tongue hesitated when they asked him whose invitation he had accepted. He could not bring himself to tell them about her. She was his secret. Instinctively he protected her. After all, she had not yet formally announced her presence in town. And so, he told them he was dining with an old friend in town. They frowned, but the Jennings were close friends. They would understand.The sky was fast darkening when Marlowe left on foot. It was not a long walk. Only a few minutes of road separated his home from hers. He had thought about riding, but ultimately decided against it. He didn’t want to spend the time handing over the horse to a groom. He couldn’t spare even seconds of their time together.When he arrived, the gate was open. The house lights didn’t seem to have been lit yet, and the dark windows reflected the last pale light of the sinking sun. His heart seemed to skip a beat as he walked the gravel path to the door and up the stone steps of the portico. He raised his hand to knock at the door. It swung open immediately.He sucked his breath in through his teeth. No butler opened the door, but Arabella, herself. She ushered him inside as he drank in the sight of her. She looked like a fairy creature, dappled in the pale blue light of evening that seeped in through the windows to caress her pale skin. Her hair was uncovered, pinned in a small roll against the nape of her neck. Blonde curls framed her face.”Marlowe,” she said. Her voice was soft, and she faced him nervously. The blue shadows pooled around her eyes, grazing the dips of her collarbone, highlighting the curving tops of her breasts, exposed by the low neck of the gown, which she wore with no fichu.He realized that he was breathing quickly, as if he had been running. He tried to calm himself, though he could still feel the tightening in his stomach, the tension in his shoulders as she moved, ever so slightly towards him.”Arabella. I got your message,” he said. His voice was lower than he had intended, spoken in the cadence of a secret, rather than an innocent fact. He ran a hand through his dark hair. She was so good at putting him off balance.She took a step towards him, and then a step back. Her lips parted softly. “I’ve sent everyone away.” Her hips swayed as she moved, and the thin fabric of her gown clung to them, exposing the outline of her form beneath the bell-shaped dress.”What?”She looked up and down the hall, towards the shadows that huddled in corners, making bold lines in the crevices of the wood-paneled walls. “All of the servants,” she said softly. “All of them. I gave them all an evening of leave. I told them to visit the village fair.” She smiled faintly, and then looked up at his face. Her eyes raked over him, seeking reassurance.His throat felt tight. “Your husband?”She wet her lips with her tongue. “In London.”His head was spinning. “Arabella… This…is…” Was it possible that she reciprocated his feelings? So wild and inappropriate that he hadn’t dared dream?She bit her lip. “You understand me, don’t you?” Another step closer. She was mere inches away and he could smell the scent of her, something like violets and pine, wild and sweet and free. He thought the air felt hotter, closer, now, although outside it had been cool and crisp with the coming night. The air stirred with her motion, he felt the breeze of it against his skin.”Yes.” The word was more of a whisper. It was hard to speak knowing what was between them, the unspoken promise of her words.She nodded. Silently, she turned, and walked into the shadows of the house. He followed her, watching his feet pass over the checkered tile. She did not lead him upstairs. Instead, she pulled open a paneled door that led to a small drawing room. The large, paned windows faced west, and let in more light. Her skin looked silver, the shadows blue and lilac. She shut the door. A silver key was already in the lock. She turned it with a click.He could hear her breathing; it was coming fast, in ragged puffs. He faced her. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. He reached out slowly, and rested his hand against the curve of her shoulder. Her skin was hot and alive beneath his touch. Carefully, he drew his hand over the graceful line of her collarbone and up to her neck. He could feel the tiny hairs on her skin raising with his touch. She trembled.Her lips parted. “I’m not afraid,” she said. “I had to see you again.” Tentatively his fingers rose up her delicate throat until he cradled her cheek in his hand. Her skin was hot, burning to the touch, although it looked so pale and cool in the twilight dark. She took a step closer. His hand cradled the back of her head as she looked up at him with her half-lidded eyes.The heat of her body radiated forward, could not be contained in the thin fabric of her dress. He was entirely conscious of her presence, the wild scent of her skin, the nearness of her flesh.”Why?” His eyes scanned her face, questioning her emerald eyes, resting on her full lips.She took a half step towards him, lifting her hand to his chest. He felt a tightness there as his heart beat heavily beneath her fingers. Without thinking, he swept his other arm to her waist and pulled her to him. The soft tips of her breasts pressed against his chest as the heat of her skin burned him through his clothes.”I had to know,” she said, looking up at him, “what this was.” Her lashes fluttered like a butterfly’s wings. He could watch her speak for hours he thought, reaching his fingers across her face. She gasped as he caressed her jaw with his thumb and pulled it slowly across her mouth. Her lips were as smooth as silk. His fingers traced their shape. If she smelled and felt so perfect, what would she taste like?He tightened his grip around her waist and bent his head to hers. His lips brushed hers, and he felt her mouth open beneath his, pliable and warm. Her mouth was honey-sweet, and he pressed his tongue against her lips, drinking in the taste of her. She responded with a small moan, pressing her body against him as she arched her back. Her tongue darted across his lips, and he found he could no longer ignore the desire rising within him. His fingers curled against her scalp, bunched in the silky fabric of her gown. He kissed her again, more deeply, feeling drunk off of the sensation of her lips against his, her tongue sliding beside his.Even with the distraction of her kisses, her breasts were no longer a distraction he could ignore. He pulled his mouth from hers, and kissed the skin of her neck. She spread her hand against his chest, and he felt her fingers working against the buttons of his waistcoat. He pulled his hands to her shoulders, pushing down the short sleeves of her white dress, exposing all of her shoulders. He traced his fingers against the skin, soft as a rose petal, and across the tops of her breasts. He pulled his hand over them, gathering them in his hands, and felt her nipples stiffen underneath the thin fabric. She didn’t seem to be wearing anything underneath the dress. He pulled his thumbs over the small pricks, and was rewarded when her breath came at a gasp. She bit her lip and he dropped his arm to her waist again, kissing her over and over while she pulled at the collar of his coat. He shrugged it off. It fell unheeded to the floor.”I don’t know what this is, Arabella. God help me, I can’t seem to stop.” It was so hot in the room. He felt as if his whole body were flushed. Every bit of him was burning with desire for her. For this woman he barely knew. This woman who had appeared out of nowhere only days before. Who was married to another man.”I don’t want you to stop,” she said, pulling open the last buttons of his waistcoat. That too, fell to the floor, quickly followed by his cravat. She wrapped her arms around him, pulling up the long ends of his shirt. He helped her raise it over his head, but then she was back in his arms. He trailed a finger down her neck, back to her breasts. Her skin was hot and alive beneath his touch. He could feel her pulse under his hand, beating heavily against him, reminding him of the batting wings of a bird. His hand dipped below the collar of her gown, taking a soft handful of her flesh, and as he brushed his fingertips against her nipple, he drew out another moan from her pink lips. Her eyes closed as her she arched her neck backward. “Please don’t stop.””What about your husband?”She kissed his mouth hard, let her body rest against his. “I don’t care about that now. Do you?” Her hips pressed against his, and he knew that she must be able to feel the hard pressure of his longing against her hip. He grabbed her around her waist and pulled her up into his arms, then backward, settling her against the low table behind her.”No.” More kisses, and then he drew her white dress up over her curving legs. She shuddered, but did not stop him as he ran his calloused hands against her velvet flesh, up higher across her silky thighs. Reaching the tops of her hips, he paused, slowly traced his hand to the side, over her soft mound of flesh and silken hair. She was wearing no undergarments at all, and he quickly found the center of her molten heat. She was wet, and radiating desire for him. The thought was intoxicating. He wanted to explore her body with his mouth, his hands, his manhood, every part of him that lived.”Arabella,” he whispered.She pulled him close, ran her hands over the stiff muscles of his back, under his shirt, and over the muscles of his buttocks. As her hands roamed, he quickly pulled at the buttons and flaps of his trousers, letting himself free, taking himself into his hands.Her eyes were heavy-lidded, trained on his face and she arched her back, as if to encourage him. He didn’t need another invitation, and with one deft motion, he steered his cock between her waiting thighs. He groaned as he entered her hot center. She was a woman wed, and no meek virgin. She was hot and ready for him and slipping into her was like slipping into a hot bath.She moaned softly and he quieted her lips with a kiss, stilling himself within her as her tongue slipped around his. His hand wrapped around the back of her head as she wrapped her legs around him in welcome. Marlowe’s heart seemed to be beating faster than it ever had before as her scent flooded his nose. The music of her gasping voice beside his ear, the slick press of her lips, the strength in her fingers as she wrapped them around his arms.Slowly, he rolled his hips towards her and she rocked back with the motion. They barely breathed, clinging to each other in the heavy air. He felt beads of sweat roll across the muscles of his chest. “Marlowe,” she whispered, clutching him tightly as they rocked together. She was more than he had ever dreamed, this moon goddess with the silver skin. He kissed her neck and wrapped his fingers in her hair as they pressed together over and over again. He was beginning to lose himself in her, and so forced himself to slow his rythym and lifted his head from her lips. He pressed his hands against her shoulders as he moved in her. “I want to see you,” he said, pulling at the flimsy fabric of the gown. “All of you.” He had to, in case he never had another chance. The sight of her naked beneath him would sustain him for years. She nodded, and he reached around behind her, undoing the buttons that lined her back. The fabric slid off her shoulders and chest. He withdrew from her slowly and she gasped as he pulled himself out of her inch by inch, his slick member slowly emerging from between her legs.With his arms around the small of her back, he pulled her against him, sliding her off of the table. The gown tumbled down her body like a silken waterfall. He gasped at the sight of her bare skin, every curve uncovered and bathed in the purpling evening night.He took a breath in admiration. She was no Diana, he thought as she stepped out of the puddle of cloth. No, she was not the goddess of the hunt at all. She was Venus, her skin as pearly as sea foam, her lips as fresh and sweet as spring.She clasped him, and they fell together to the floor, knees pressing against soft carpet. Marlowe ran his hands up and down her body, across the smooth planes of her stomach and soft rise of her breasts. He had never had such a visceral reaction to a woman before. He was entirely under her spell.She pulled him down, lying on her back beneath him, and shifted, opening her legs, so that he was sheathed inside of her again, melded to her hot flesh. They rose and fell together against the soft rug, hips sliding together faster now, in a wild rhythm. He could feel the immense pressure building in him as he bent his forehead to hers, drunk on the sweet sensations of her body. She was gasping, raking her hands across his back, and with no warning, he felt the incredible pull of her release, the smooth muscles inside of her clenching against him as she whispered his name. She wrapped her legs tightly around him, yanking him deep into her core as she climaxed.He panted, releasing himself with her, waves of pleasuring rippling through his body. He felt transported, carried away into a different world, where he was nothing but he, here with this woman who was only what she was. Two people, joined together in the half-light of a dying sun. She was mostly shadows now that the sun had all but set. She stilled beneath him, her slender arms encircling him. Her lips now felt cool against his cheek as a bead of sweat rolled down his brow. He rolled beside her, and scooped her into his arms, where she fit more perfectly than anyone had before.”What are we going to do?” she asked. He gently pulled a damp curl from her face, and kissed her sweetly on the forehead.”I don’t know.”Mr. Croft, the butler, started in surprise when Marlowe let himself in through the servants’ door that led to the kitchens. “Your mother said you would be gone to town, sir.” Though he raised an eyebrow at Marlowe’s unkempt appearance– hair wild from the wind and damp from the light rain that had accosted bursa escort him on his way home, coat and boots splattered with mud, he didn’t ask where he had been. “Shall I send your valet to your rooms?”Marlowe yanked his boots off, leaving them by the door along with the messy heap of his greatcoat. “Yes, thank you, Mr. Croft. Is there any supper?””I can have something sent to your rooms, sir. Although I believe they are still serving in the dining room.”Marlowe looked up in alarm. “I beg your pardon? Are my parents here? I thought they said they were going to call on the Jennings.””It’s my understanding that the Jennings called on your parents first, sir. They are all upstairs in the main dining room. Shall I tell your mother that you will join?””Ah. Well, thank you, but no, Mr. Croft. Just have someone bring something up to my room. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a mess.””Of course, sir.” Mr. Croft inclined his head briefly. Marlowe took the servants’ stair to his room on the first storey, slipping a bit in his stockinged feet over the polished wooden floors. He ran his fingers through his damp hair, body alive with a hundred emotions. First, there was elation, a giddiness so profound it bordered on intoxication. The taste of Arabella’s skin was on his lips, the memory of her lush body played over and over in his mind, the sounds she had made, mewling underneath her as he had sheathed himself inside of her echoed over and over in his ears. Dear God, just the thought gave him goosebumps. But then, of course, there was the irritation. His parents, unfortunately at home and with the Jennings, no less! No doubt Miss Katherine Jennings had accompanied her parents and was sitting downstairs being promised something Marlowe could not give her, because here he was, sneaking into his own room like a whelp, fresh from a tryst with a married woman. He swallowed hard. Ah yes, married. He had conveniently forgotten that she was married while he had been grinning like a madman as he walked home, conjuring visions of her milky breasts in his mind’s eye. What a fool he was! It was a delicate situation and no doubt about it. No wonder his nerves were frayed. He had scarcely sat down on his own bed when there was a knock at the door. “Enter!” he called, frowning to himself, flexing his stiff hand against his thigh. “Ah there you are, Thomas,” he said as his new valet entered. Thomas had just been promoted from footman and was still very formal and eager to please. “I’ll just get ready for bed, if you don’t mind. Oh and a bit of supper. Did cook not send you up with anything?””I beg your pardon, sir, but your mother has requested… well, demanded your presence downstairs.”Marlowe stopped exercising his hand and glanced up in alarm. “What?””Mr. Croft sent her your regrets that you would not be joining the party in the dining room. She said that no one is to bring dinner to your rooms, that you are to be dressed immediately and join the company downstairs.” Thomas twiddled his gloved fingers at his sides, clearly uncomfortable. “What am I? A c***d again?” He stood quickly, glowering. “No, no, it’s not your fault,” he said, seeing Thomas’s nervousness. “Just help me dress, then. There’s no arguing with her when she’s like this.” He sighed as Thomas helped him out of the damp clothes and into a fresh suit of clothing. “There is nothing quite like staying with one’s parents to make one long to return to war,” Marlowe quipped sourly as soon as his coat had been slipped on over his shoulders.Thomas gave him an alarmed expression. “As bad as all that, sir?” Marlowe lifted his chin as Thomas set about tying the cloth around his neck. When Thomas was done, Marlowe gave his appearance a once over in the looking glass across from his bed and straightened the cravat, loosening it just a bit. “Pay no mind to me, Thomas, I’m just in a dark mood.” Thomas was collecting the pile of Marlowe’s soiled laundry. Marlowe wondered if Arabella’s scent still clung to clothes and frowned. “But thank you for your help, Thomas.”He sighed again. It was time to face his mother. ***Marlowe coughed awkwardly as he entered the dining room. Five faces turned to him in unison. “Well I’ve made it to dinner,” he announced, making a beeline for the chair that a footman was even now pulling out for him. His mother’s face soured under her artfully piled hair. Her dark locks were only now beginning to be streaked with gray and her face was still attractive, though in a sharp sort of way. “To dessert, you mean.”His father patted her on the hand. “Now, now, dear.” He turned to Marlowe. “You’re back early from your engagement, then.” Marlowe forced a smile. “A misunderstanding,” he said. “I got the date wrong.”His mother’s eyes sparked and she rose to give her son a kiss on the cheek. “Well, isn’t that lucky. Now you finally get to meet my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Jennings. You’ve already met Miss Jennings, of course.” Marlowe did not miss the slight note of reprimand in her voice in reference to the dinner he all but ruined only three nights ago. He ignored her reproach and turned to the older gentleman who had risen from his seat at his side.”Mr. Jennings,” he bowed his head, “how do you do?”He walked over to the other side of the table where the two women sat. One, older and plump, but with a kind face. “Mrs. Jennings, what a pleasure.” The other… Marlowe blinked rapidly as she stood, carrying with her the scent of jasmine and orange perfumes he had not thought of since he had been under the Spanish sun. Had she worn that scent at their last meeting as well? Dark waves of rich brown hair framed her face. Her extremely attractive face. He had been so distracted after his first meeting with Arabella that he had forgotten the fineness of Miss Jennings’s features. “Miss Katherine Jennings, so good to see you again so soon.” She blinked at him slowly and her generous mouth spread into a smile. “Lieutenant,” she said, “the pleasure is mine.”He returned to his place at the table and sat quickly, feeling cross at his mother. Miss Jennings was unfortunately lovely, he noted, as if for the first time. It was unfortunate because he already knew that there was nothing that he could offer her. And it was clear from the glance exchanged between his mother and Mrs. Jennings that there were certain… expectations. Clearly, his mother was going to attempt to throw the poor girl into his path at every opportunity. Perhaps if he had met her but a week sooner… but no, there was no conceivable world in which he could pursue Miss Jennings if he knew that Lady Arabella Balfrey also existed.He felt a flush come over his cheeks at the thought of her. He swallowed hard. “Marlowe’s just returned from the war,” his mother was saying. “We’re so pleased to have him back.””Where were you stationed, my boy?” asked Mr. Jennings. He had a weathered face, but it was clear that he had once cut a dashing figure himself and still retained an athletic look. “I spent some time in Spain, myself. Of course, it is nothing compared to Italy.””Oh darling,” Marlowe’s mother cut in, grabbing his father’s hand, “wasn’t I just saying that we should see the continent?”His father scratched at his graying sideburns and didn’t comment, only pressed a spoon into the cake that had just been set on the table. “Perhaps we could all go together,” his mother continued. “I’m sure we would all love a tour.”Marlowe tried not to choke on the first bite of lemon buttercream at the thought. What could be worse than staying with his parents than touring the continent with them? A footman hurried to fill his glass at the sound of his startled coughing, and he drank gratefully.Miss Jenning’s face was flushed. “It would be so exciting to visit Florence,” she said. Her voice was wistful, hopeful even. Her father looked at her indulgently. “Dear Kate has a flair for the arts,” he explained. “She’s been begging to be set loose in Italy to see the works of the Renaissance masters.”Marlowe looked at his plate. If he wanted to be polite, to give the appearance of interest in Miss Jennings, he would have inquired about her artistic pursuits. He did not. An awkward pause settled over the diners while he helped himself to more wine. His father cleared his throat. “I confess it has been many a year since I’ve toured Italy.” He looked at his wife and patted her hand. “Perhaps we should make arrangements. Especially if it would please you, Meg.”Mrs. Jennings beamed and looked at her daughter. “Nothing could please me more than to travel with such dear friends. Although, we would, of course, have to return before the start of the season, wouldn’t we Katherine?”The lovely Miss Jennings smiled most becomingly and met Marlowe’s eye. He looked rapidly away, trying not to scowl. “Well, let us make the proper arrangements, then!” Mr. Jennings raised his glass. “To Italy!”Marlowe tried to keep the dismay from his face as the rest of the glasses were raised with laughter and good cheer. Still, there was plenty of time to excuse himself from the trip. He wondered how he could do it gracefully, without risking his mother’s ire. He barely spoke through the rest of dessert, preoccupied as he was with his plotting. “How about the gentlemen go for a smoke in the study?’ Marlowe’s father queried as they all rose from the table. “I have an excellent brandy to show you, Joseph,” he said turning to Mr. Jennings, who smiled amiably and clapped Marlowe’s father on the back.Marlowe’s mother gave him a look. “Oh no, dear. You know that I had my heart set on cards. We can’t play without an even number. If you aren’t inclined to join us, at least lend me Marlowe.” She hooked her elbow through his, practically pulling him into the drawing room. Mr. Jennings chuckled and shrugged his broad shoulders. “Perhaps another time, then, Henry. We must let the ladies have their say.””Of course, of course. Though there’s no reason we can’t bring the brandy to us.” Marlowe’s father rung a bell as the company entered the drawing room, sending a servant to fetch the drink from his study. “Set up the card table, dear,” Marlowe’s mother said to his father. “I just want to stretch my legs for a moment. Marlowe will accompany me, of course.””It only just rained, mother,” Marlowe said, still attached to her via her surprisingly strong grasp.”No matter,” she said, giving her friend Mrs. Jennings a knowing look as she whisked him out the door and into the damp gardens. The air was humid and close though the light rain was over. Marlowe sighed as he was tugged down a garden path, away from the house. The smell of the rain tickled at his nose, fresh and sharp with the scent of the wet flowers. “Mind your step, mother. The paving stones are slick.””And you, mind your manners!” she said hotly. “What was that business at dinner? You could have scarcely ignored poor Miss Jennings more thoroughly. I thought perhaps I ought not to mention it, that you were merely tired the first time. But this is twice now that you have slighted the company!” “I was not expecting company.” A wet branch slapped his trousered leg as they passed. He scowled, but fortunately, it was too dim for his mother to notice. “You were trying to avoid company, is more likely.” She sighed and her tone changed from vexation to kindness. “I know things have been difficult for you,” she said softly. “Since you have been home. Don’t think that I haven’t noticed all of the hours you spend in solitude. It isn’t healthy.”He stretched his hand reflexively. “And there is something different about you,” she mused. “Some change has marked you. You’ve been almost frenetic the past few days. Always riding, always pacing. What ever is the matter with you, my dear boy?”It was kindly asked, but still he sneered. “There is nothing the matter with me, mother. Although I predict that you will remain unconvinced of it and that you already reason that whatever ailment it is you have prescribed to me will only be cured by a wife.”She snorted through her nose. “So alike, aren’t we! Mother and son. So stubborn! But yes, you have guessed it. To be frank, I do think that a bit of romance would cure these wild moods of yours.””I have no need of romance.” “You have no idea what it is you need,” she chided. “At the very least, I do expect you to be kind and attentive to Miss Jennings. Do you not find her to be a lovely girl?””She’s very lovely.”His mother harrumphed. “Let’s turn around here,” she said stopping abruptly in her tracks. They looped back towards the house, but she was only content to walk in silence for so long. “Get to know Miss Jennings, at least. Even if it is only as a friend, it would do you some good. And speaking of friends, I did hear that Lord Balfrey was returning soon. You got along well enough in your boyhood. Perhaps he will call when he returns from London.”He felt his body stiffen and hoped that she didn’t mark it. He changed the subject to something safer. “So tell me about Miss Jennings,” he said, regretting it even as the words passed his lips. She squeezed his arm in excitement. “She’s a wonderful girl. Just had a very successful season. Two proposals! She’s quite the catch, and I do hope you realize it soon because I would not be surprised if some other gentleman snapped her up quickly. I doubt she will make it through her second season without an engagement. She’s very accomplished. And of course, nothing would be grander than having the dear girl as a daughter. Her mother and I have been friends since our girlhoods, though she only recently moved back. And her father and yours were chums at Oxford. No two families could be closer!” They had returned close enough to the drawing-room door where his mother didn’t think it prudent to continue her gossiping and for that he was glad.The drawing-room was alight with activity when they returned indoors. Mrs. Jennings was at the pianoforte, playing a lively number while Miss Jennings sang along. She did have a nice voice, Marlowe granted. It was strong and sweet and clear as a bell. The two older gentlemen had already set up the card table and were clinking together their brandy glasses, clearly in the middle of a lively discourse. There was nothing to do but sigh and take up a seat next to his mother at the card table.*****The next day was uncommonly hot and Marlowe found it impossible to remain indoors as well as desperate to see Arabella. He felt restless and ill at ease in the warm house, especially with the news that his mother had given him the night before concerning Lord Balfrey’s imminent return and the family trip to Italy already seemingly moving forward.He therefore lept at the opportunity when his father, over breakfast, mentioned that he had noticed some disrepair of the old stone fence that ran along the northern property line. Marlowe’s mouth had gone dry at the mention of it, as that was where his family’s land bordered on the estate of Lord Balfrey. The section of fence that his father mentioned was near a shady copse of trees, just off of a broad field where he imagined a lady might go riding for pleasure if she were so inclined.”I’ll see to it myself,” Marlowe had said. Though his father had protested that some of the grounds workers would be sent in due time to make the repairs, Marlowe had urged him not to send anyone else. “I need to be out of doors doing something useful,” he had told his father simply, but perhaps some emotion had cracked in his voice, for his father had only looked at him with regretful eyes and nodded, telling him to be sure to at least have the supplies taken over by the grounds workers.Marlowe had felt conflicted over the falsehood for a moment. It was clear that he had touched his father in some way, stirred some sort of pity in him when the truth was that he only longed for a glimpse of Arabella. The thought of her chased away any negative feelings however, and he soon found himself under the blazing sun, a cart of stones and mortar by his side, facing down the crumbling little wall. And so he had set to work, dust and grime soon covering his hands and upper arms. His injured hand ached a bit in protest at the rough treatment, but he was glad for the exercise, the feeling of the blood surging through his veins as he lifted the heavy stones into place, and the ache of his muscles as he spread the thick mortar. The day only grew hotter as the morning stretched towards noon. He found himself constantly using his arm to wipe his lank hair from his face, his thin linen shirt clinging to his sweat-soaked back. He soon cast the shirt aside without another thought, savoring the sensation of the sun and wind against his bare chest. He smiled and realized that he was content, Arabella or no.It was almost just after that thought that he heard the light sound of faraway hoofbeats. He gazed through the thin line of trees, squinting in the bright light and his heart surged as a horse and rider came into view. The seconds stretched as he waited for them to come closer, for the pair was a woman, clad in gray, astride a dusty red horse. He hailed them, looked at his ruined shirt on the ground, and decided not to put it back on, choosing instead to wipe his hands on the cloth as the horse and rider approached quickly, at a trot.The excitement was like a lightning storm throughout his entire body as he raked his starving eyes over her upright carriage, the soft swell of her body under her gray riding habit, the curls that burned like golden flames around her cheeks, escaping from under her hat.Her green eyes were wide and serious, her mouth slightly agape. “Lieutenant,” she breathed and she slowed the horse to a stop, raking her eyes over the sight of his bare chest, flushed from the sun. She dropped the reins, and he came beside her, helping her dismount. He swallowed hard as he placed her gently on her feet. “Lady Balfrey,” he said tentatively. His face was threatening to break out into the most ridiculous grin. “Arabella…””Marlowe,” she took a step forward, her voice still so quiet. “I hadn’t expected to see you here. Or anywhere… ever again.”He stepped closer to her, felt the heat radiating off of the baking stones of the wall, the smell of the horse, and the perfume that clung to her skin. “I hoped that you would ride this way today,” he said. “I wanted to see you. I’ve been dying to see you.”She watched him closely through her lashes. “I wanted to send for you, but I couldn’t see how to get rid of them for another night, the servants, I mean. And I wasn’t sure if you… if you still wanted me.” Her blonde curls were sticking to her forehead in the heat. Her cheeks were in high color and she looked briefly away, as if uncertain of herself.”Of course I still want you. You’re all I think about.” It was true. God knew it was true. The desire for her was singing through his veins. He woke up every night in the throws of it, cock impossibly hard at the frustration that she was not beside him in his bed to relive his dreams. Her eyes danced over his body. “Everything has changed,” she said as she stepped away from the horse and closer towards him. He caught her in his arms, breathing in the scent of her, feeling the soft crush of her full breasts against his chest as he grabbed her by the waist. Their mouths seemed to meet in a rush, lips against lips and tongues slipping past tongues. He felt his cock instantly stiffen as he kissed her with a fierce hunger. He wanted to rip her clothes from her body, to be inside of her immediately, but he schooled his impatient body with difficulty, broke his mouth away from hers at last. “I know someplace we can go,” he said meeting her hungry eyes. “If you would like.”She licked her lips. “Yes. Now?”He bent and picked up the linen shirt he had left heedlessly on the ground. “Now.” She nodded and he went to retrieve her horse, which had edged away to forage in the grass underneath the trees. He helped her up quickly and then mounted behind her. It was a tight fit. Her rump pressed against his groin, sliding against his already alert cock with every bump in the horse’s gait as he edged it into motion towards the woods. He drew her closer to him, splaying a hand over her stomach as he guided the horse. “I thought you were giving the horse away,” he murmured in her ear, pressing his lips against her soft skin. “Said he had a bit of the devil in him, didn’t you?”She shivered at the caress of his mouth against her ear. “I like a bit of mischief,” she purred. She could doubtless feel the evidence of his own appreciation of mischief poking into her backside, so he only grabbed her tighter in response. “Where are we going?” she asked, leaning against him. The shadows of the leaves above cast a dancing pattern against her skin and he could hear the slight burr of her accent as she spoke.”A place I found as a boy.” He nuzzled his head against the back of her neck, trailing a few kisses along the sensitive area as she arched her back towards him. He had to remind himself to pay attention to the path, to guide the horse forward even as his hand explored her stomach, rising over her ribs and higher, towards the collar of her gown. She stiffened as he let his hand trail over the round swell of her chest. Heavens, how he longed to free her of her clothes, to touch the bare skin underneath the fabric.The ride to the glade felt both torturously slow and horribly fast as they continued deeper into the woods, him drinking in all of the sensations of having her so near while wishing to be nearer still, and her seeming to delight in the attention, pressing against his chest and sighing in delight. “I’m so glad things are not awkward between us,” she confided. “I had worried…””You shouldn’t worry,” he said. “I would let anything unpleasant come between us.”The small glade was just as he remembered, including the clear brook that had swollen in the late summer rains. He dismounted quickly and offered her his hands. “Do you fancy a swim?” He asked as he placed his hands around her waist, pulling her down off the horse. She grinned at him, eyes sparking like the light that shone through the branches. “It is ever so hot today,” she said. He could see that she was breathing heavily. Her chest was rising and falling quickly underneath her stays. Her throat and cheeks were quite pink above her white shirt. He grinned back at her, stupidly, and pulled the horse near a small tree, where he tied its reins around the trunk. “Sit beside me,” he said, gesturing to an outcropping of stone near the water’s edge. He sunk to the ground and pulled off his boots while she sat elegantly beside him, gray skirts pooling around her legs. Slowly, she removed her own gloves and set them aside.He turned to her then, caressing her neck and jaw. She closed her eyes, dark lashes resting against her flushed cheeks. He pulled his hands up to her hat, unpinning it, and setting it gently beside his boots and her gloves. Her beautiful mouth was open, face uptilted as he did so. How he longed to kiss her!But he did not. Instead, he slid his knuckles back down her neck, beside the lace of her collar, fingertips touching her hot collarbone as they slid down the white shirt and over to the buttons that closed her short riding jacket. He undid them easily and brushed his hands over her shoulders, pulling the jacket off her slowly. Still, she sat beside him, trembling with her eyes closed. He moved on to the buttons of her skirt, undoing each fastening nimbly until the skirt sat loosely around her waist. Then he pulled at her white shirt, lifting it easily above her head. His heart beat faster as her chest and pale arms slipped from the cloth. He untied her stays, removed them, to be placed in the same pile as the rest of her clothing. She opened her eyes and looked at him, burning with longing. He could not help himself then. He rounded on her, pulling her to him as he kissed her. Her mouth seared against his as she kissed him back furiously. He found himself lowering her to the ground, her body flattening below his, knees rising to either side of his hips, skirt bunching between them as he pulled his hands over her body, cupping her soft, full breasts over the fabric of her shift. She moaned and arched beneath him, yanking her hands through his hair and over his bare shoulders while he flicked his tongue against the hot, soft skin of her neck, and reached between them to pull her legs free of her skirt. Soon only the shift remained, a flimsy barrier. He pulled it up her silky legs, higher and higher while she rolled her hips against him.His fingers froze on her thigh, inches away from her hot center. The word caught in his mind, stunned him. “What?” He raised himself up, and she wriggled out from under him. She grinned, and stood, pulling her own shift over her head. “You promised me a swim,” she said, bending to yank off her stockings and shoes.The sound that escaped his lips was more of a growl than any coherent word as he stared at her suddenly nude form. He had not thought that it was possible to be any more aroused, but his damned cock felt like it would explode, his chest, his stomach, his balls tight with anticipation and need. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Her elegant arms, her full breasts, tempting as ripe fruit against her chest, capped in deliciously pink, peaked nipples. The planes of her flat stomach, the hint of her ribs underneath, the curve of her navel, the triangle of golden hair that clung between her legs… He wanted to be inside of her so badly it hurt. She smiled devilishly and turned quickly, his view of her bouncing breasts replaced with one of the perfect curve of her buttocks as she ran to the edge of the pool. “You minx!” he groaned, jumping to his feet, yanking off his trousers as fast as he could, then chasing her to the water.She shrieked playfully and splashed into the pool. He caught her within two bounds, yanking her to his chest as the cold water surged over his legs and hips. He shivered, but buried his face in her hair, pressing his insistent cock against the heat of her skin under the water. It slipped between happily into the cleft between her cheeks, and he ground it into her backside as she struggled to get away, giggling.”Are you a water nymph, then?” he asked into her ear as he pulled his hands up over her stomach, bursa escort bayan dragging cold water over her body. She wriggled some more as his wet hands found her breasts, cupping them, kneading the warm skin, teasing her hard nipples roughly. She rolled her backside against him in protest, eliciting another growl. “Yes,” she said, but it turned into a breathy moan as he lowered lips to her warm throat.She twisted in his grasp, and he let her, so that she was facing him once more. Her slippery body pressed against his, soft mounds of her breasts sliding against her chest, his cock now pressing against her warm belly. She rolled her hips towards him, and reached up for him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. Their mouths met again and again in exploration. Her slick tongue coiling around his, flicking against his lips. It was torture and ecstasy.And then she yanked at him, pulling him off his balance and forwards into the water. They both went under in a tangle. He made a shocked sound as they surfaced and splashed her in the face while she laughed. “No wonder your horse is such trouble,” he said as he blew droplets of water from his face. “I see where he gets it.”She grinned and stood slowly, letting him admire the curves of her body, even more tantalizing with the silver droplets running in rivulets down her skin. “Come here,” she commanded, heading towards the shore. He could not help to obey. She was watching him with heavy-lidded eyes. “Lie down.” He chose a spot on the sun-warmed rocks and stretched out against, all too conscious of his heavy cock, still standing at attention. “Stop torturing me,” he begged as she walked towards him slowly, hips swaying suggestively.And then she lowered herself over him, biting her lip, carefully placing a slender leg on either side of his hips. His heart was beating out of control as she lowered herself inch by inch until the cleft in her legs hovered just over his hungry prick. And then she lowered herself even more, brushing her slick lips against the ridges of his manhood, letting his cock slide lengthways between her legs. He groaned, pushing himself up on his elbows as she slid up and down his length, rolling her hips forwards and backwards, spreading her slick heat up and down his shaft. And then, just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, she reached between them, raising herself slightly. He felt her tight grip on his member as she pulled it up, nudging the tip in between the hot folds of her skin. He groaned aloud as she took him inside of her, impaling herself on his shaft inch by inch until he was entirely housed within the tight, wet, hot confines of her magnificent cunt.He grabbed her hips and shoved himself into her as far as he would go, closing his eyes in elation. “Lord in heaven,” he swore softly as she began to buck against him, riding him mercilessly. He snapped his eyes open as soon as he realized they were closed, not wanting to miss out on a second of the sight of her. Beads of water were dripping over her lush body, slipping over her round breasts that were swaying with her motions. In moments, she was whimpering, and leaned forward, bracing her hands against his shoulders. “Oh Marlowe!” she cried, and suddenly, he felt the intense shock of her pleasure clenching around his swollen cock, practically milking him in waves of pleasure. He stilled his hips inside of her, clenching his eyes shut as she took her due. He was shaking with the need to find his own release. He tried to push her to the side, but she would not be budged. “I need to… Last time I didn’t think… Aren’t you worried about c***dren?” he gasped. She looked at him from under her long lashes, green eyes burning. Her thighs clenched around him, her cunt tightened. “I want you inside of me,” she begged. “I want you filling me constantly.” She bit her lip and rolled her hips forward again lurching against his already straining member.It sent him over the edge. His whole body seemed to tense up and then suddenly break with release as she rode him. He gasped, eyes shut tight as he wove the flood of his release, filling her with his seed. She sank against his chest, breathing heavily as his heart gradually slowed. “My husband is coming back next week,” she said softly. “But I want to see you. I don’t think I can stop.””I can’t either,” he said, choosing to ignore the unfortunate mention of her husband. He paused, pulling her close to his chest. “My family is thinking of touring the continent– Italy. I may be gone for a few weeks.””No,” she said. “I couldn’t bear it! I need you to be near.”He kissed the top of her head. “We will figure something out, my dove. Perhaps I will find some way to extricate myself from their plans.”She hesitated. “Marlowe, you know my hus– you know Nicholas, correct? Your family is acquainted.”He tensed. “Yes.””When he returns, I can make sure that he hosts company. Your family and you can come and we can see each other with permission! And then perhaps if we strengthen the friendship… Well, what if… we were to join you in Italy?”He sat up in alarm, causing her to fall to the side. “What?””I’m quite sure that I could arrange it. And that way we could be together.””Arabella… that sounds like a uniquely dangerous idea.”She frowned at him. “Nonetheless, I shall pursue it. I’m not afraid of taking a few risks in order to be with you, Marlowe.” She bit her lip, brow furrowed. “Unless you don’t want to be with me?”He swallowed, eyes raking in her beautiful face, the tenderness and vulnerability of her expression. “Of course I do. I want it more than anything.”She smiled gently. “Then I shall make the plans.”A week and a half after his tryst with Arabella in the woods, Marlowe was sitting down to breakfast with his mother and father. The light filtering in through the tall, rounded windows was dim and leaden, which Marlowe thought was an appropriate setting for his mood. He unhappily served himself some toast and coffee, staring into the black liquid as his mother prattled on about some fabric pattern she had seen in the shops that morning.The coffee was hot and scalded his throat, but it did help clear his mind. He had been awake for a few hours already and gone for a ride along the property line. He had done so daily since he had last seen Arabella there, but no matter how he longed for it, she had not appeared. His father was flipping through the newspaper. “I do believe we’re in for quite the downpour today,” he mentioned offhandedly. “The leg’s been twinging. You won’t be able to take your afternoon ride, Marlowe.” Marlowe had always disbelieved that his father’s leg- which had sustained some injury decades ago- was capable of telling the weather. But since his own injury to his hand… well, perhaps it did feel a bit stiffer than usual today. He wondered if his perspective of the matter was only further clouded by his bleak mood, which was worsening now that he was beginning to despair of ever seeing Arabella again. He worried. Had she had said something untoward to her husband? Would Lord Nicholas Balfrey come to his door any day now, demanding that he satisfy the slight against his wife’s honor?His thoughts dispelled as a footman arrived carrying the morning’s correspondence on a silver tray. There was nothing for him. He tried not to let his disappointment show and took a long drink from his cup, on which he almost choked when his mother made a high pitched squeal. “Oh, Dearest!” she said, turning to Marlowe’s father, “we have just received the most exciting invitation!” His father’s head peaked over the corner of the paper. “Oh?” Marlowe frowned at his mother. “It had best warrant your reaction, Mother,” he chided. “I nearly drowned myself in coffee.” Still, he placed his hands flat against his thighs under the table so that they could not betray his excitement. Beneath his irritated exterior, his heart had begun to race. His mother gave him a sharp look of reprimand and then presented the card so that they could read it. “We’ve been invited to Hartsthrone Hall for dinner tomorrow evening. Lord Balfrey has indeed returned, and written that he looks forward to renewing his acquaintance with our family and making introductions to his wife. How lovely!”There was a rustling of papers as his father turned a page. “That is lovely, my dear, but you do seem rather excited for a simple dinner engagement.”Ah yes, well, it says that Lord and Lady Keating will be there as well.””The Duke and Duchess!” his father’s voice was a low sound of approval. “I say!” “Indeed!” his mother smiled, setting aside the card. “And I forgot to mention the best part. The Jennings family has also been afforded an invitation.””You don’t say! I didn’t know that Lord Balfrey was acquainted with the Jennings.””They did mention it once, Dearest. I believe that they met in London. During Miss Jenning’s first season.””Ah yes,” his father rumbled. “Yes, now I recall. Well, I daresay we will accept?””Indeed! I shall send our note straightaway. Marlowe, I suppose it is not too much to hope that you will not make too much of a grump of yourself?”Marlowe glanced out the window and fought to keep his voice cool and detached. “On the contrary, Mother. I am most pleased. Did you not tell me that I would do well to pursue some new friendships?”She snorted, and gave him a sharp look, setting her breakfast aside. “Truly a day for amazements. Has my own son taken my advice to heart?” He smiled at her blandly. “It would seem so.””Well, at any rate, I’ll be going back into town, then.”His father looked up in alarm. “You only just returned!””I’d like to purchase something for the Balfreys. Lord Balfrey is newly married, you know. Or recently, enough. I should like to find some token of congratulations. And then call on Mrs. Jennings to discuss the dinner. We will want to make the proper impression on the duke and duchess, of course. I think the ribbon I bought this morning would be quite fetching on Miss Jennings. Perhaps I shall make a present of them to her?””But the weather, dear.””Yes, yes, I know. I shall have the top put up on the landau. If the weather is truly torrential, then I will prolong my visit. “His father shook out his paper and folded it on the table. “Perhaps I might go with you then, Dearest. I had thought of taking the Landau myself, to return a book to Mr. Jennings and then perhaps going for a smoke at the club.”His mother nodded curtly in approval and stood, straightening her wine-colored skirts. “Yes,” she agreed. “It would be best if you joined me, then.””I hope you will find something to amuse yourself while we are gone,” Marlowe’s father said with a glance in his direction. “I know you’ve been spending a great deal of time out-of-doors.”Marlowe smiled at his father and meant it. “Don’t worry yourself, Father. I’m feeling very fine today. Perhaps I’ll browse your study for something to read.”His parents’ eyebrows shot up and he found his pride a bit rankled as his mother exclaimed, “Our son! Reading for pleasure! Good gracious, Henry, did you ever think you would live to see the day?”His father chuckled and patted his mother on the small of her back, guiding her out of the room. He gave Marlowe a soft, kind smile as they left. Marlowe stood brusquely, whipping his napkin back onto the table. He did, in fact, occasionally enjoy reading, even if he did not seem to enjoy it as much as his parents both suggested he might. He had always just preferred the doing of things, rather than the reading of them. Still, he shrugged off the perceived slight. His parents meant well, he knew they did. They must be happy to see him seemingly enjoying himself again. Of course, that had everything to do with the invitation. Now that Nicholas Balfrey had returned to Hartsthrone Hall, Marlowe would finally have a formal introduction to Arabella. They were bound to be seeing a lot more of one another, once Arabella had been officially accepted into the local social circle. His mother’s dinners with the Jennings would surely grow to include Lady Balfrey. It was an uplifting prospect and he struggled to keep the grin from his face. *******The rain his father predicted had indeed arrived, spilling from the heavy clouds just after noon in a sudden and torrential downpour. Marlowe was safely ensconced in the library, sitting near the fireplace and enjoying the fire that the servants had lit to ward off the unexpected chill. In the back of his mind, he could hear the rain, pounding against the roof and walls, dimming the noises of the house into a soft and comforting roar. Outside, the fields were flooding slightly. He could see the rivulets of mud washing over the grounds just through the window panes where the wind pushed droplets across the glass. There was a book under his hand, lying open across his thigh. His fingers idly caressed the leather cover. It was an old volume, and its binding was soft and worn with age, as velvety under his fingers as the skin high up on Arabella’s thigh. The skin that he found himself lusting after even now. He was so engrossed in these thoughts, that he did not hear the knock on the door, and found himself flinching when he heard someone clearing their throat.”I beg your pardon, sir.” One of the footmen, John, was standing uncertainly at the door. In one gloved hand, he was holding the silver tray with a single card. “There’s…” John shifted uneasily on his feet, “a caller, sir.”Marlowe’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as he glanced from the window to John’s uneasy face.John followed his gaze. “Even so, sir. It’s… a bit of an unusual circumstance.” The young man’s face seemed to color. Marlowe rose to his feet quickly and in a few powerful strides was at John’s side. The calling card on the silver tray was soaking wet. The ink was bleeding around the curved edges of the letters. Miss Katherine Jennings, the card read. Her address had been smeared to illegibility by the rain. “She was inquiring after your mother, sir,” John said. “I told her that Mrs. Hughes was visiting in town, but… I didn’t think that it was prudent to send the young lady away.”Marlowe placed the card back on the tray and sighed. His book was lying on the side of the armchair, spine facing upwards. How was it that the pages seemed so much more tantalizing now that there was some other duty to attend to? “Well, where is she then?” he asked with a sigh.”The front hall, sir. She didn’t want to be seated in the parlour.”Marlowe frowned but nodded, dismissing the man. He was not eager to play host, but seeing as his parents were doubtless waiting out the rain in town, it was his duty as a gentleman. On a less gentlemanly thought, he wondered if he could perhaps deliberately bore Miss Jennings with his company. Make her complain to her mother that a match with him simply would not do. He nodded to himself. It seemed a likely course of action. And then he saw her standing in the hall.He nearly choked on his own tongue.Miss Jennings was standing in his entryway, holding a soaking wet bundle to her chest. She was drenched. Her black hair was piled on top of her head, dark curls sticking to her pale neck. Her dress, a thin, summery muslin frock in the most pastel of greens was plastered to her skin, clinging to every single curve of waist and buttocks and leg and calf, revealing the most intimate contours of her body. And what was more was that the downpour had rendered the flimsy fabric practically translucent!She had heard his footsteps by now, and as she turned, heavens above! He could see the curve between her legs, and above, as she pushed her bundle forwards, self consciously, the ribs and outlines of the ribbons of her stays as well as the hard protrusions of her nipples under the wet, clinging fabric.”Forgive me,” she said dryly, “I seem to have created some puddles in your hall.”He swallowed hard and forced himself to drag his eyes upwards to her full red lips and wry blue eyes. “It seems that you are quite drenched,” he commented. Thankfully, she had adjusted her arms. The nipples were no longer visible. He wondered if she had realized how naked she looked when she had arrived. No wonder poor John had seemed so scandalized. She made an awkward attempt to pass him the bundle she was carrying. “This was for your mother,” she said. “It’s what’s left of the fabric that she lent mine.””Right,” he said, taking the damp cloth. “Very good.” It immediately began to soak into the fabric of his coat. He eyed it awkwardly, suddenly unsure of what to do with his hands. Her pale arms crossed over her body as she attempted to cover herself without looking as if she were. “I suppose that I will be on my way, then.” She turned abruptly on her heel and his eyes shot upwards to the ceiling, but not quickly enough. He had not missed the sight of her shapely buttocks, fabric cupping her bottom, sticking to her legs as she walked.”Oh no,” he said. “That won’t do at all.” He swallowed. “It’s so damp out.” Truly, it was the understatement of the century. “You should wait out the rain. But you should take off that dress. That is to say, you should change your dress, not that… not that you should be in any state of undress. I could help you with the dress…” Oh dear. He was bungling this. He shut his eyes quickly. Why was it so hard to think? “That came out wrong. What I meant to say was that perhaps you would like a change of clothes? I believe that there are some old dresses of my sister’s in her room.”Her cheeks were bright pink, but she gave him a little smile and her eyes glinted with humor. “That would be ideal.” He averted his eyes. Twas safer by far to look at the floor. “I’ll call a maid.” He hurried for the bell. He would certainly not be escorting her to the bedroom himself. His heart seemed to beat faster at the thought. Which, he reflected, was exactly why he would be going nowhere near this lovely creature and any beds or private nooks where his imagination might provoke certain unseemly thoughts. “Look for me in the library when you are done,” he said quickly as a maid came to rescue him from his plight. And then he was alone in the hall, holding a soaking wet bundle of cloth, standing like a ninny struck dumb. He dumped the cloth to the floor in a huff and rung for another servant.As soon as that was in hand, he turned quickly and found himself safe inside the library in moments. He sank into the chair, head in his hands, heart beating just a bit too fast. Damn his perverse mind. Here he was, a man in love, tempted from his mistress at the first pretty pair of legs that came walking through his door. Granted, he had already been in a certain frame of mind, daydreaming as he had been about the sweet temptations of Arabella’s flesh. He heaved in a sigh of relief. That actually explained things quite a bit. He had already been quite aroused when Katherine Jennings had made her extraordinary arrival. It was only natural that the feelings he had for Arabella had been transferred for a moment. It did not, in fact, indicate any sort of weakness in his ardour. Thus relieved, he forgave himself his momentary lapse and reached for the strong Scottish whiskey his father kept in the library.So it was that by the time Miss Jennings arrived in the library, he was feeling substantially more at ease, reassured by his thoughts (and perhaps the tumbler full of whiskey). She was now dressed in a light yellow garment with round sleeves. The dress was a bit too short for her, her round breasts peaking a bit more than he would have liked over the bodice, her ankles flashing under the too-short skirts, revealing a pair of house slippers also borrowed from his sister. Still, it was a marked improvement, and she smiled at him warmly, clearly more at her ease.They smiled at each other blandly for a moment, and then Marlowe remembered to look away from her bright blue eyes, which were wide and framed by long lashes. “How did you find yourself caught in the storm?” She sighed, and walked closer to him, examining the spines of books on the shelf. She had an excellent profile, with a nose that pointed up ever so slightly at the tip. “Mama had asked me to return the fabric to your mother. It was cloudy, but she didn’t believe it would rain. And since it wasn’t too hot, I didn’t bother to take the carriage.””Do you ride?” She shrugged and pulled out a book. “From time to time. I don’t like to ride out alone, however. I was in an accident when I was younger. My filly threw me, and I broke my finger.” She replaced the book and then showed Marlowe her hand. There was a small crook in her pinky finger. “I am loathe to risk an accident like that again.””Your hands are very important to you,” he noted, “because of your art.”Her eyebrows shot up. “Yes, that’s right.” She gave him a friendly smile. “I didn’t expect that you remembered.”He sighed and then regretted it, as breathing in brought him the slightest hint of her scent beside him. Orange and jasmine. “I apologize for any slight I offered you that night.” He frowned. “And the time before. My mother and I… ” he waved his hands uselessly. “We have our disagreements.”She nodded. “I understand. Every family does.”The moment had arrived. “She has certain expectations of me,” he said. “She wants me to be someone that I am not.” Miss Jennings blinked at him slowly, comprehension dawning on her pretty face. “Oh,” her lips were perfectly round, “I see.” She blinked again and smiled gently. “I quite understand what you mean. My parents… have their own expectations as well. But you and I, we should not have to live within the bounds of what others think that we ought to do. Perhaps we could have our own expectations of each other, namely that we do not expect more than the other is willing to give? Simple friendship, if you will.”He grinned at her, unexpectedly enjoying her company. “My mother did say that I could use more company,” he admitted. “I wholeheartedly denied it, just to spite her, but since the war… Well, so many of my friends were soldiers, you see. Some of them are still fighting. Some of them will likely never make it back. And it is difficult for me now to be around others that I used to know, who haven’t seen what I have seen. Who haven’t been changed by it.” He sighed and swiped a hand down his face. “I’m prattling on again. Would you like to see the art collection?” he asked impulsively. She returned his grin. “I would love to,” she said. “And for the record, you do prattle. But I like it. Much better than your sullen silences over dinner.”He found himself suddenly repressing a snort of laughter, “Teasing me already, Miss Jennings?”Her answering smile was devilish. “There is such ripe material for it, Lieutenant Hughes. How could I stop myself from harvesting the bounty that lies before me?””You are an impish girl. Who knew you hid such a sharp tongue?””Why,” she exclaimed, “Anyone who deigned converse with me for more than a few moments would know it!” She pressed a delicate finger to her chin. “But as for you… who could guess that a young man such as yourself would be turning into a prematurely stodgy old fellow?” She touched his arm lightly. “But I think that we shall cure you of it yet.””I’m afraid that I may be a more difficult case than you realize,” he admitted. His mind drifted, as it was want to do, to Arabella. He felt the flicker of unease wash over his body, remembering the dinner invitation, and that he would be expected to dine with his lover’s husband, of all people. He felt unwell at the thought. The shadow of his feelings must have shown in his eyes, for Miss Jennings glanced at his face and gave him a reassuring smile, patting his arm companionably. “We shall see,” she said simply. They were approaching the stair now that led up to the gallery on the next floor. He offered her an elbow as they climbed, her holding the edge of her slightly too short dress in her hand out of habit. “Have you seen the gallery before?” he asked. “I know that you seem to be fast friends with my mother.””I have,” she said. “But I always enjoy pouring over the collection. One frequently finds new details to enjoy in complex works.”The upper landing was dim and cool. A draft stirred by Marlowe’s ear, and he tucked a lock of his wavy hair behind it. Miss Jennings didn’t seem to notice. She had dropped his arm immediately, and begun trotting down the long corridor that ran the length of the floor. The tall walls were papered in blue, and large framed canvases were hung at intervals along their length. It was an art collection that had been started by his grandparents many years ago, added to occasionally by his own parents. He knew the paintings like the back of his hand, having grown up staring into them, wistfully longing to visit their exotic locales.Miss Jennings had stopped before a large piece. Marlowe hauled himself over, stopping behind her elbow. “I have always liked this one,” he said.”What draws you to it?”He hesitated. “The little boats. That’s why I liked it when I was a boy. Seems a stupid thing to say now.” “Not at all. They are quite well executed, don’t you think? Look at the precision.” He stared at the canvas. “I suppose so, but I must confess that I know very little about art.””You don’t need to in order to appreciate a piece. But I find that doing so adds even more richness to the enjoyment. Look here,” she pointed, “do you see the way the that the painting mimics your own vision? The way that the buildings along the canal get smaller and smaller as if you were truly standing on a bridge in Venice, looking down the river? That is called perspective. The Italians are masters of it. You’ll see the shading as well. The colors grow dimmer, less vibrant to mimic the way our eyes cannot perceive colors so well at a distance. It’s practically mathematical, recreating the order of the universe on a canvas.”She turned then and smiled at him. “Now I am the one who is prattling.””No,” he said, frowning at the canvas. “Go on. I have never heard anyone discuss a painting in such terms.””Do you see the people there, in their little boats?” she asked and continued after he nodded. “You perceive their faces, do you not? You can make out their clothing. Step closer.” He edged up behind her as they stepped closer to the painting, making it so that the escort bursa whole picture was reduced into blotches and dabs of paint. “Look now,” she instructed. “Do you see their faces?”His eyebrows raised in surprise. “No,” he said. “There is nothing at all! Just tiny brushstrokes. I thought that I could see the eyes… but there is nothing but a hint of shadow here. No detail at all.””The work of a talented artist is to create an illusion,” she said. “This is one such method. Such tiny little details that make up the whole of a person. And you only perceive their secrets when you are close.” She stepped back suddenly and exclaimed. “I hadn’t noticed, but look!” He looked around in bewilderment. “What?””The sun has come back out!”Indeed it had. He had not realized that while they had been studying the painting the light had changed subtly. He had not needed to squint to see the tiny figures on the canvas as the clouds had been rolling away outside and the oppressive roar of rain had died out without him noting it.She turned to him and smiled. “As much as I would love to continue your art education, I should be away back home. Mother will be worried that I got caught in the downpour. She always thinks that I will take ill after being caught in the rain.”He nodded. “But I shall drive you home,” he said. “I’m afraid my parents took the landau, but come, let’s have the buggy hitched.””I would insist that you not go through the trouble,” she said, “except for that I have borrowed your sister’s dress and I would hate to ruin it by brushing the hem through the mud.””So it is settled, then” he said, and with her on his arm, they walked down to the stables, had the buggy hitched in no time and enjoyed a quick ride to her home, chatting amicably the entire time. It was not until he was returning on his way home that he remembered the dinner that was awaiting him. His reunion with Arabella and her husband. His stomach went cold at the thought.Hartsthrone Hall was much larger than his parents’ house, stretching proudly atop the crest of the hill. Its pale stone exterior was still lit up from the last rays of light that stretched across the top of the rise, making the facade gleam with a golden warmth. The windows, unlike the last time he had visited, were shining like bright lanterns, allowing tiny peeks into the world behind their glass. Inside the house, somewhere past the heavy marble columns and glittering windows, Lady Arabella Balfrey waited for him. Along with her husband.His chest was a confusing flutter of feelings. It was tight with anticipation, his heart feeling too large to be contained behind his ribs. And of course, there was that mysterious elation, the giddiness of knowing that she was near. He barely registered the grandeur of the front hall as he followed his parents, walking behind them in a daze to the sitting room where they were led.It was not the same intimate parlour where she had taken him before. This was a massive room, built to impress. It had changed somewhat since he had been there as a boy, over ten years prior. The details of his memory surged with the incongruence of the present. He took in the long pale blue curtains that framed the large windows, the sprawling carpet in its mix of buttery tones and light blues. Stiff looking round-backed chairs were arranged around a few cornflower blue settees. Behind them, a small fire was lit, working along with the dozens of candles to burn away the shadows of the encroaching twilight and its corresponding chill.Then he saw her. Arabella. Her face was already trained on his, pale green eyes wide and serious, mouth soft and seductive. She was dressed in pale blue, with the light of the candles reflecting in her golden curls. She had looked so much in harmony with the room that he hadn’t noted her at first. She belonged here, it was clear, this mistress of the golden hall. She was walking towards him now in small dainty steps, followed by a dark stranger at her elbow.But of course, it was not a stranger after all. It was only Nicholas- Lord Balfrey, her husband. He had changed only a little since Marlowe had seen him last. His face was the same, a little long with a slightly pointed chin, a broad nose, and dark eyes that were both kind and sad. He had always had the look of a mournful cow, Marlowe thought unkindly.Nicholas’s wide mouth broke into an unexpected smile as he clasped him by the forearm in a friendly gesture. “Marlowe! What a pleasure to see you again! Or is it Lieutenant Hughes, now?””It’s whatever you please, my lord.”He scoffed. “No titles then. For either of us. I would prefer to recall the golden days of our boyhood than my current obligations. Do you agree?”Marlowe gave him a curt nod. His eyes drifted anxiously to Arabella at his side. Nicholas immediately noticed and smiled. It was such a small thing, but Marlowe thought he could see a change come over Nicholas as he looked at his wife. He stood up straighter, his shoulders broader, his chest swelling with pride. “Let me introduce you all to my charming wife, Lady Arabella Balfrey.”Marlowe forgot for a moment to breathe as Arabella extended her small hand to his. “A pleasure,” he gasped and then quickly moved aside for the introductions to be made to his parents. He stared at Arabella stupidly. She looked away, a mischievous smile on her face, but they had no time to talk, for the next set of guests was already entering. The Jennings had just arrived and Marlowe rushed to them, pulling them into conversation as soon as the greetings were done with in order to distract himself from paying too much heed to Arabella, who was now chatting sociably with his parents and Nicholas.Miss Jennings smiled at him warmly. “I’m still indebted to you for your hospitality the last time we met,” she said. “My mother was most scandalized about the whole situation. Though she won’t mention it for embarrassment now…” She smiled in the direction of her mother, who had joined Marlowe’s parents on the settee. He caught Arabella’s eye for an instant and looked away immediately, back at the beauty before him. Miss Jennings was wearing her dark hair pinned up and a few dark curls had escaped to frame her face. Pearl pins dotted her dark hair like constellations in the night sky. Her other winning features, which had been so much on display when she had arrived at his home after the rainstorm, were now only hinted at underneath a lovely peach silk gown that brought out the flush in her cheeks.”Think nothing of it,” he said. “Twas nothing more than any friend would do.””Hm, yes. Speaking of friends, is it true that you grew up with Lord Balfrey there? My family met him and in London during the season.”He caught Arabella’s eye again on accident as he looked towards Nicholas. “It’s true.” He looked back at Miss Jenning’s face, allowing himself to be lulled by her reassuring presence. It was an odd sensation, to let himself relax around her while still knowing Arabella was watching somewhere behind his back. It was rather like being caught in the ocean between two shifting currents.Miss Jennings laughed. “Well, then I shall have to ask him for some of your more embarrassing c***dhood escapades.”Marlowe must have made a face, for she laughed again. “I promise to wait until after dessert.” She eyed the lavish room. “It’s like a treasure trove in here, is it not? And Lady Balfrey there like Helen of Troy. She would make quite the portrait, would she not?”He shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “Yes, quite.”She didn’t seem to notice his discomfort. “I am hoping that we shall be friends,” she confided. “I barely knew her in London. The season was so busy! But I have longed for better friends in the country.” She smiled again. “Though I suppose I can add you to my roster now that you’re back. I must confess that while your parents are charming, there is something to be said for keeping company with younger blood. I am feeling quite rich in neighbors now.”He gave her a small smile in return and found it frozen as Nicholas approached them. “Miss Jennings, I do believe I overheard you asking Lieutenant Hughes about our c***dhood escapades?”She blushed prettily. “Forgive me Lord Balfrey. It was perhaps impertinent of me!”Nicholas smiled at her warmly. “On the contrary, I fondly remember those halcyon days.” He gave Marlowe a mischievous glance. “Did the lieutenant ever tell you how we stole a horse on accident?”Miss Jennings’ eyes lit up as she clasped her hands together in excitement. “Indeed not! Whatever happened?”Marlowe groaned and looked away as Nicholas laughed. “No need to be embarrassed, Marlowe. We were… what was it… f******n, perhaps? Well-“But his story was cut off as the new guests arrived. Lord and Lady Keating were being shown into the room and the conversation stalled immediately as introductions were made. The pair were rather older than everyone present and very stiff and formal. Lady Keating was tiny and wizened. Lord Keating was the opposite. One of the largest men that Marlowe had ever seen, though dressed impeccably.They joined the others on the settees and the conversation grew stilted as the party waited for dinner. When it was called, Marlowe leapt to his feet, thinking to escort Arabella on his arm. But his father had already offered her the courtesy, and Marlowe found himself unfortunately leading his mother.There had been no question of sitting near Arabella at dinner, as he did not rank highly enough for that honor, but he had still managed a nice enough time, chatting pleasantly with Miss Jennings and her father who were both near to him. He even found the elderly Lady Keating to be a surprising wit. And of course, there was Arabella. Just be nearing her, basking in her presence was enough to make the dinner worth his while. He drank in glances of her between bites, between sips, noticing that she seemed to be watching him the whole while, a secret lurking in her eyes as she chatted with the others.It was not until after dinner that he managed a moment alone with her. It was carefully contrived. She had led the procession from the dining room- the women following her to the sitting room to chat while the gentlemen went for a smoke and a drink in Lord Balfrey’s study. Marlowe had dawdled behind the pack of gentlemen. And Arabella was lingering at the door after the ladies had filed into the room ahead of her.His heart beat faster at her scent as he drew near. “I have an idea,” she whispered as he walked by. “Play along when it is time.”He nodded his head briefly before taking a few quick steps to catch up with the other men. He wasn’t sure what exactly Arabella had in mind, but he felt nervous, ignoring his brandy in the study while Nicholas tried to pull him into reminiscings and his father chatted about banking with Mr. Jennings and Lord Keating.When it was time to join back up in the parlour, Marlowe’s heart was beating faster. His palms were itchy with sweat. If Arabella was planning something, it must be soon. For the evening games and chatter would surely not extend more than an hour or two longer. Lord and Lady Keating, citing their advanced ages, were already excusing themselves from the company.Only moments after they had departed, Arabella caught his eye and then turned to Nicholas.”Husband, I have something that might be more diverting than a card game for tonight’s entertainment in mind.” Her voice was raised loudly enough so that the whole room turned to hear. A playful smile lurked in the corners of her eyes, but she studiously avoided looking back at Marlowe.Nicholas smiled indulgently at her. “What is it, my dear?””What if we were to view the moonrise from the abbey ruins? It is such a striking view. And the moon is to be full tonight.”Nicholas hesitated. Puzzlement clouded his eyes. “At this hour? It is so dark! I wouldn’t want to risk injury to any of the ladies in the party…””We could take a lantern, dear. I just thought it would be something novel. You know how I tire of cards and games!”Marlowe’s mother grinned at Lord Balfrey. “Lord Balfrey, do not hesitate on account of us ladies! I for one think that it would be quite interesting to get out of doors.” She turned to the Jennings women. “What do you think, my dears?”Mrs. Jennings nodded her agreement. Miss Jennings smiled slowly. “It does sound like a picturesque view. The moonlight on the ruins…”Her father smiled indulgently. “Much like one of your paintings. I would be willing to take the exercise as well.”Arabella clapped her hands in delight. “Then it is settled! Send for the lanterns, Husband.”Nicholas shrugged good-naturedly and went to do as he was bidden. In a few short moments, he returned with a servant, bringing in a few small lanterns for the gentlemen to carry and the party was ready to head out-of-doors.Arabella grabbed Marlowe by the arm. “Come, Lieutenant Hughes. You must walk with me. I have a passion for horses. You must tell me about all of the breeds that you encountered in Spain.”Nicholas smiled at his wife indulgently. “It’s quite true, Hughes. She will talk your ears numb about horses. I hope you have the stamina for her!”Marlowe dipped his head politely as he and Arabella fell into a conversation, walking slowly behind the others past the house gardens and across the rolling field that sloped towards a wooded area. It was not very difficult to find their way. The sky was a deep and luminous purple, still rich with the dredges of lingering summer twilight and dotted with brilliant crystalline stars. The night air was crisp and refreshing in his lungs and the slight pressure and warmth of Arabella’s arm was a constant a pleasure at his side. The voices of the others seemed to fade away as he and Arabella spoke of nothing and everything, lost in each others company. After about fifteen minutes, and nearly halfway to the ruins, Arabella grabbed his arm. “Now,” she whispered in his ear. They were under the canopy of dark leaves now, and the air was close, full of secrets.And then she cried out. “Oh!” and clasped his arm, bending at the waist. The light of his lantern bobbed in the sudden movement, sending golden beams across the black crisscross of branches above. He worried for a moment that she had injured herself, but she squeezed his arm reassuringly.The party ahead stopped and shifted. “What’s wrong?” Nicholas turned around, walking a few steps closer as the others shuffled behind him. A moth with pale wings fluttered near his head. He swiped at it as he hurried to Arabella’s side.She scoffed. “I’m such a clumsy thing. I seem to have twisted my ankle a bit on a root.”Nicholas eyed her with concern, setting his lantern so that it shone against her leg. She raised her skirt a bit and pretended to check it. “How is it?””It is a bit sore to put weight on.” Arabella bit her lip in a convincing manner. “But it looks well enough.””Then we must turn around.””Oh no, dearest! We musn’t! I did promise our guests the view…””Well, you shouldn’t go all that way if your ankle is hurt. I shall escort you home immediately.”Arabella fluttered her lashes. “But no! You must lead the others there! I will go back on my own.””That’s absurd!”Arabella looked from Marlowe to Nicholas innocently. “Perhaps you are right. But someone must lead the others to the abbey. What if Lieutenant Hughes were to escort me? Surely he has seen the ruins before. You two must have explored them as lads?”Marlowe jumped to attention. “Yes, Nicholas. That would be the better way. It would be my pleasure to escort Lady Balfrey back home. You must go ahead with the rest of the party. My mother and Miss Jennings seemed especially eager for the novelty. We mustn’t disappoint the ladies.”Nicholas shifted from foot to foot for a moment and eyed the others who were waiting patiently under the sprawling branches of an oak. “Yes, yes, you are both quite right. It’s the only thing to be done. Thank you, Hughes, for the gallantry towards my wife.”Marlowe swallowed uncomfortably. “Think nothing of it.”Nicholas nodded curtly. “Be careful, of course. We will be back home post haste. Just a quick peek and then we will return.” He turned to the rest of the party, waved to Marlowe and Arabella, wishing her a speedy recovery.Arabella leaned heavily against Marlowe’s arm as they made their way down the path. As soon as the lanterns of the other party were out of view, she leaned completely into him. Her full breast slid against his arm.She laughed. “Did I not tell you I would find a way for us to be together!”He wrapped his arms around her small waist and kissed her on her magnificent lips. The smell of her was intoxicating – like wild violets growing underneath the pines. Her lips were sweet and soft against his, her tongue nimbly teasing against his lip.”You appear to be an exceptionally bold little lass.” He kissed her again and then pulled away. “But are you not concerned that someone will wisen up to your ruse?”She leaned into him, pressing her breasts against his chest, letting her body follow the curve of his as she kissed him deeply, gliding her tongue alongside his. “It is worth the risk to be with you,” she said seriously. Then she straightened. “Come, we must hurry if we are to have our time together. The others will be home in less than an hour. And I have much more entertainment for you yet!” The slight burr of her accent betrayed her excitement and she grabbed his hand, pulling him back down the path towards the house.They went as quickly as they could back through the woods and field. As they neared the house, she pulled at his arm and pointed. “There!” He followed her gaze to a small stone outbuilding, a shed of some sort. “Blow out the lamp,” she instructed. “So that the servants do not spy us from the windows!”He did as instructed and the two of the crept across the lawns to the small building. The smell of the garden’s flowers was thick in his nose. The air around them seemed to be knitting together. There was a hint of rain coming, he thought. A slight moisture building around them as Arabella fumbled at her pockets for a moment and then produced a small key, which she used to undo the door. He went inside, carefully stepping over the threshold. Arabella followed him in.The scent of fresh earth tickled his nose and the air was hot and close, the little stone chamber having stored up all of the heat of the sun during the day. It was bordering on stifling in the small space and everything seemed too loud in the dead air- the rustle of her dress as she turned, the click of the latch as it settled into its place. Even his own breathing was too loud, as was her voice, scratching against his ear.”Light the lamp.”He fumbled with his tinderbox for a moment, wincing at the sound of the lid and then the dry catch as he lit a flame for the lantern. The acrid smell of smoke joined the scent of musty earth and Arabella’s perfume as the fire danced to light, beating away the deep shadows.He could see now that it was indeed a small space, made even smaller by the pitch of the sharply-angled roof. There was a console table, battered and sagging against the wall. Various wicker baskets hung from the ceiling, stuffed with rags and other bric-a-brac. Gardening tools were hung on pegs against the walls, others heaped in piles in the corners. There were no windows, for which he was grateful- only a few small cracks in the wooden door worried him. Surely the light would creep out, alerting anyone who might be nearby to their presence.He set the lantern on the table and turned to her. He was sure the tension would show on his face, that she would see it and think that he was having second thoughts. He watched her carefully.Her eyes looked golden in the light, as sly and sharp as a cat’s, heavily-lidded and thoughtful under her long lashes. “We don’t have much time,” she whispered, reaching her small hand to his chest, down the smooth silk of his waistcoat. He felt his abdomen tighten, reacting to her touch.He licked his lips. “This is a bad idea. Someone might find us.” A damp curl of his own hair tickled his ear. He was sweating, he realized.”They won’t,” she said. Her hand went lower, gently trailing below his navel and hips. She pressed it boldly against the rising bulge in his pants. The heat of her hand soaked through the fabric, into the sensitive skin of his cock, which was tightening and rising at an alarming rate. He made a low, involuntary sound in his throat as she stroked him through the fabric.She took it as encouragement, fiddling with his clothing, undoing the flap and fall that concealed his manhood. His length practically sprang out into her hand. It was exquisite torture as she ran her smooth hand up and down the shaft of hot flesh, and he gasped her name, drinking in the sight of her flushed face, light curls sticking to the curve of her cheeks, breasts rising in firm crescents above the top of her gown. He brushed away the sticky lock of hair and swallowed hard. This was a bad idea, his mind seemed to be saying. But the little warning voice was fading now into a whisper.His fingers dug into her shoulders. He sighed in pleasure as she continued her ministrations.And then she dropped to her knees. “What are you doing?” he gasped.She was facing his member, studying it with a vicious intensity as she held it in her hand. He was entirely in her power now, even her breath against his skin was enough to make him shake with longing. And then she suddenly shot out her tongue, flicking against his head as quick as a little snake. He struggled to contain a groan of pleasure as he wrapped her fingers in her hair. “Wherever did you learn this?” he hissed. It was really not proper, what she was doing… But he felt the questions dissolving as she continued, not bothering to stop to answer.Her lips were kissing the tip of his manhood, and she was taking the head of him into her rosy mouth. He struggled against the sensation for a moment, thinking to stop her… to tell her that it was too much, too dangerous, but he couldn’t. He wanted her now, consequences be damned. His world narrowed into the vision of her blonde head, the impropriety of it forgotten as his thoughts faded into instinct- coarse and base instinct and desire.He struggled against the a****listic urge, wanting nothing more than to shove his whole length immediately into her hot, sweet lips, to fuck her beautiful mouth as he suddenly longed to fuck her cunt. The feelings were enough to break him, the visions of him, holding her head still, pulling down those beautiful, perfect piles of curls, as he slammed in and out of her small mouth, but he resisted.Instead, he pulled her up roughly by the elbows. Their mouths met in a slur of wild and violent kisses, teeth and tongue and lips crushing together as she pressed herself to him, guiding him to the console. He lifted her up without another thought, placing her on the ledge as she wrapped her legs around him. He thought he heard something outside, but damn it, he didn’t care if he was caught now. He needed to fill her, to be inside of her completely, and he pawed roughly at her fine blue gown, yanking it up above her knees.His fingers slipped against her stockings and then the smooth expanse of skin on her upper thigh. He reached urgently between her legs, fingers slipping against her hot, wet entrance. He groaned to feel her, soaking with her need for him, and spread her open with his fingers. She bit her lip, rolling her hips towards him, a throaty moan escaping from her mouth. His cock was straining, dripping at the tip. He stroked it in one hand while he shoved his fingers into her with the other.She made the most delicious sounds as she rubbed her. Her legs were spread for him now, braced against the table, and he could see her pink hole, shining with arousal under her slick curls while his fingers dipped in and out. Her back was arched against the wall, skirts yanked all the way up, her head back and eyes closed. He bent to her and bit her neck, as he guided his cock into her.She yelped and grabbed him, wrapping her legs around him as his fat cock spread her. “Oh Marlowe,” she moaned. Then her language descended into something more primal as he moved in and out of her, fucking her roughly. Not words- only scraps of them, coarse, throaty moans and gasps and sighs. He scarcely recognized himself, now, transformed as he was by his lust. He wanted to possess her, debase her. He bit at her neck, sucked her supple skin as he penetrated her over and over again, grabbing at her waist, her breasts, her neck with abandon.Distantly, he was aware of the cadence building in her low moans of pleasure, of the grunting he made with his exertion, of the heavy rocking of the table against the wall. But he didn’t care. He was buried inside of Arabella, his love, his muse. And then she cried out particularly sharply and threw her head against his shoulder. Her sweat was soaking his neck as she tightened her grip around his back, driving him all the way inside of her.He felt it then, the wild clenchings of her release. He grit his teeth, and held himself still for a moment, only pulling his cock from her as her limbs grew limp around his. She looked at him questioningly, but understood as he guided her back down to the floor.He pressed his cock to her lips, and she opened for him. The second his cock touched her lips, he gave into himself, pressing his shaft further into her while she gagged, struggling to accommodate him while he shoved himself inside of her mouth.The smooth expanse of her wriggling tongue, the silky press of her lips, the slick texture of the inside of her cheeks caressed him, and it was only moments before the need for release overpowered him. He held her face firmly between his hands, gasping as he felt the rush of fluid spurting from his cock, dripping down her throat. She endured it without flinching, only coughing for a moment as she swallowed the hot fluid.When he was done, he gasped, feeling suddenly weak as he pulled out of her mouth and helped her rise. The scent of the thick air was now thick with the a****listic musk of their sweat. She clasped to him, trembling and he wrapped his arms around her.”Wherever did you learn that?” he murmured in her ear. But she froze in panic against his body. That was when he realized it too. There were voices from somewhere outside. He blew out the light of the lantern in a panic, and they stood, breathing heavily together in the complete darkness. Waiting….** The End – for more content, visit my page & subscribe **
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