Whispered Kisses, страница 1
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Wild, Untamed Passions
“I know you might not believe me, Leigh,” Jace said, pulling her into his arms, “but I’ve never wanted any woman the way I crave you. I’ll want more than a night or two from you, much more.”
She gazed into his jungle-green eyes and said impulsively, “Surely you know I feel the same way, Jace, and you can have me without all these exasperating games.”
His fingers traced her flushed cheeks and parted lips. “If that’s true, Leigh, then no more games. But you have to be sure of me and yourself. There will be no turning back.”
She took his face in her hands and pulled his head down to hers. “I am sure, Jace. Now, if you don’t kiss me, I’m going to scream.”
Leigh felt more alive in his arms than she had in her lifetime. She wanted his kisses, embraces, all of him. She yearned for them to be together, tonight and forever, no matter what the dangers …
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Dedicated to: my niece Robyn Leigh Taylor Harris and to my special friends in Athens Crystie Dekle and Linda Blanchard
Acknowledgment to: Elaine Raco Chase Thanks to a talented writer and a good friend who advised me this story should be told as a long historical, not as a short contemporary, as originally written in 1981. She was right!
March 11, 1896
Laura Leigh Webster was annoyed by the late invitation with its ring of a summons. She did not mind having dinner with her stepuncle and guardian, Lord Chadwick Hamilton, but she hated to endure another unpleasant evening with his petulant lover Louisa and their friends. Still, she supposed it would be best to just dress quickly and join them. She was going to be going on a safari with these people; she might as well learn to enjoy their company.
As Leigh fastened a locket around her neck, visions of British East Africa floated dreamily through her mind. That wild and exotic land seemed to call to her as the American West had called to settlers. Even though Chad was taking Louisa, Reid, and Cynthia along, Leigh was eager to leave on their journey. Her tasks here were finished for a while, and others could wait until her return. It was time for a taste of adventure.
Leigh had come to London in February to claim an inheritance from her grandfather, William Webster, who had died in December. So far, she had learned a great deal about the family business and her enormous inheritance from Chad, who was her legal guardian until she reached twenty-one in November and who was to continue running the textile empire for her.
Chad had also introduced her to a constant social whirl that was like nothing she’d ever experienced back home in Texas. It was delightful learning her way around London and getting reacquainted with Chad. She smiled as she remembered how infatuated she’d been with her grandfather’s shadow when she was fifteen. He’d been quite charming then, too! But if she didn’t hurry, she’d get no warm smiles from him tonight! She locked her door and dropped the key into a string purse.
At the hotel’s entrance, a waiting carriage approached the fashionably chad female before a doorman returned to aid her. Leigh asked the smiling driver if he was available to take her to Stams Street. The man looked at her strangely but nodded, jumping down to assist her into the carriage. Then he asked for the address again. Leigh spoke it, then spelled it for him, deciding it might be her American accent that had him confused.
They headed off in an easterly direction. It was almost dusk, and lanterns on the carriage were burning to warn pedestrians against stepping into its path. Leigh noticed that streetlamps were being lit where electric street lighting was unavailable. The driver talked to her over his right shoulder, telling her about London. Leigh was too polite to say she had already toured his beloved city. Yet, as she studied the sights they were passing, she did not recognize any of them.
Her ears and nose told her they were nearing the waterfront. She heard the soft ringings of bells as anchored ships bobbed on the rising tide, and squeaking noises as they rubbed against wooden docks. She heard unlowered sails flapping in the breeze, and sailors passing orders back and forth as they prepared for late landings. Then, she saw masts towering above structures for the storing of goods before or after loading. Down a street or two, she glimpsed the cluttered docks surrounding the Thames River and a variety of vessels—small crafts, sailing ships, and one steamer. She leaned forward and tugged on the driver’s arm. “Are you sure you know where Stams Street is?” she inquired.
He smiled and replied, “Tae be sure, lass. There she ‘tis.” He pointed ahead to where a glowing lamp illuminated a sign which read STAMS STREET. He halted and jumped down. As he assisted her from her seat, he smiled amiably and said, “Number six be down there, near tha end, lass. That’ll be three shillings.”
As he held out his hand, Leigh fetched the money from her purse and paid him. She walked to the shadowy street—more like an alley, she told herself—and glanced down the full length to a walled deadend. She didn’t like this situation. No one was about, and it would be dark soon. There must be a mistake. Before she could ask the driver to either wait for her or to escort her to the door, he departed in a rush. The hurried clattering of his horse and carriage drowned out her calls to him.
Her blue eyes wide and apprehensive, she checked her surroundings. The air was cooler and damper at this secluded location so close to the water. Still, no one was in sight. Dusk was closing in on her and the alley. She heard no music, only faint noises of dock work and lapping water in the distance. It appeared too deserted and dismal for a restaurant to be nearby. Perhaps, she reasoned as she tried not to panic, it was a private address and a surprise party was in store.
Leigh walked to the building marked 6 and halted. Sighting the address, a small amount of relief filled her. She approached the heavy door and knocked, the sound ringing hollow and faint in the enclosure. Nothing. She pulled on the handle. It was locked. Balling her fist, she pounded on the thick door. No response.
Concern created tiny lines on her forehead and between her brows. This setting explained the driver’s o
Leigh scolded herself for jumping to dark suspicions about her stepuncle and guardian. The Webster estate was worth a large fortune, but she knew for certain that Chadwick Hamilton wouldn’t inherit it if something happened to her. In fact, since she had the power to ensure his lucrative and prestigious position, it was to his advantage to keep her safe and well. Besides, Chad was more than fond of her, a fact that his jealous and greedy mistress had trouble accepting.
Perhaps, Leigh mused, Chad was watching her this very minute, testing her courage and wits before they left on the dangerous safari. He did have a devilish, mischievous streak. Or, Leigh reasoned, maybe this alarming joke was Louisa’s doing, meant to terrify her into running home to America. No, she refuted. Chad would be furious with his lover for playing such a perilous trick on his ward. Whoever was to blame, what she had to do was correct the error, and fast. This location was certainly dangerous for a woman alone. She needed to leave, now.
But before doing so, she would knock on every door in the forsaken area to see if someone trustworthy was around to assist her. There was no response at any of them. Most were marked with names of companies and included their business hours, all ceasing at five o’clock. She noticed the brass lettering on one: Alfred Johnston, Exports/Imports, British East Africa—her destination when she sailed on Monday.
Leigh felt uneasy, as if she were being watched. She wished she had her pistol or rifle for protection. On the ranch, she had confronted dangers before: wolves, thieves, snakes, and occasional rustlers. But she had been armed and usually not alone. Leigh scolded herself for getting into this predicament.
The man spying on Leigh was enchanted by her beauty and baffled by her presence in such a hazardous setting. When she lifted her face to observe her surroundings, he noticed that her features were exquisite, her eyes large and expressive. They were a rich blue shade that matched the campanula and monkshood that his mother had loved and grown in her flower gardens. Her brows and lashes were a dark brown, in startling contrast to her golden-blond hair with its sunny highlights. His gaze slipped over the way her hair was secured into a chignon at the back of her head, tendrils dangling down her neck and near her ears. Those short curls seemed to dance playfully in the breeze as if reveling in their freedom and closeness to such enticing flesh. A deep and vivid blue aigrette was pinned snugly against the flattering hairstyle, a spray that seemed to match her eyes, if his were seeing correctly in the fading light.
His stirring study continued. Her face was oval-shaped and her complexion was tawny from unprotected hours outdoors, a fact he found unusual for a proper lady, since most avoided the harsh sun with parasols to keep their skin like ivory silk. Her lips and cheeks seemed naturally pink and alluring. It did not take long for him to realize she had more than enough charms to stimulate a man’s interest and desires.
From his advantageous position above her, he could see her clearly though the light was fading. She was slender, of medium height, and her figure was appealing. Very appealing, he concluded, as he was reminded of how long it had been since he’d enjoyed a woman’s charms. Despite his many experiences with the fair sex, something told him he had never had a woman like her before.
He tried to divert his carnal yearnings by examining her clothing, seeking clues to her presence on the docks. She was wearing a gown with a blue velvet bodice that dipped to a point onto a cream brocade skirt. The tulle overskirt was decorated with blue floral sprays and the elbow-length sleeves were lifted and puffed at the shoulder, giving an impression of good posture and pride. A not-too-low neckline called his attention to that satiny area of bare flesh, and his fingers itched to wander over it. A small bouquet of blue silk flowers was attached to cream flouncing on the full bosom and made a striking contrast. Ivory sweepers that trailed the skirt gave off a soft rustling noise as she walked in soundless kid slippers.
He shook his dark head to clear it. He could not understand what a lady was doing here alone. She seemed to be looking for someone or a meeting place, perhaps a lovers’ rendezvous. If so, the man was a fool to be late and to sacrifice a moment in those arms! He was certain everyone had left the area, and that number 6—where she had first knocked—was unrented. He watched and listened.
Hoping this was merely an accident on someone’s part did not lessen Leigh’s tension and annoyance. She threw her cloak around her shoulders and headed toward the alley entrance with the main street nearby. At least she would be safer on the lamplit street where a carriage might come by at any time. Until one did or she reached a larger and better lighted street, she should keep moving in the same direction from which they had arrived.
Though Leigh’s kid slippers made little noise on the stone street, her gown and petticoat rustled noticeably. She came to a sudden halt, and her panic mounted. Two sailors blocked the alleyway. Perhaps that explained why she’d had the eerie feeling of being watched. One took a long drink from a bottle, then tossed it aside. Glass shattered loudly. The two men laughed and nudged each other, then headed her way.
If they hadn’t already sighted the begowned and vulnerable lady, Leigh knew they’d see her—there was still enough light for them to spot her cream colored skirt and blond hair. It was foolish to scream for help and appear terrified and helpless. Yet that was how she felt as they closed in on her, leering, laughing, and joking in a crude manner. From their rumpled clothing and the way they were walking and talking, they had been drinking heavily, and her father had always said a drunken man was dangerous and unpredictable.
Leigh thought quickly. The two sailors were between her and escape. Weaponless, she had only her wits for aid. Perhaps a bluff would work on them and gain her freedom from the entrapping area. She mustn’t let them know she was shaking in fear. She had to put up a bold front and hope they were sober and smart enough not to assail a lady—if they could consider her one when she was in this awful location at night, and alone.
Walking forward, Leigh held her shoulders and head high as if unafraid of anything, especially them. She tried to pass between them without speaking. It didn’t work; each grabbed at a wrist. As she yanked backward to free herself before they got a good grip, her maneuver put them between her and the alley entrance again.
“How dare you touch me!” she cried. “Move aside so I can pass. I’m late for my dinner with Lord Salisbury,” she informed them, praying that powerful name would frighten them into obeying her.
The two sailors looked at each other, then howled with laughter. “Come on, me pretty wench, dinna be puttin’ on airs wif us,” one taunted in what she thought was an Irish or Scottish brogue.
“Yeah,” the other one agreed. “We’ll hae us a guid time right ‘ere. Ye been waitin’ long, me bonny lass?”
Leigh sent them a cold and arrogant glare. “Move aside or you’ll be sorry,” she warned, taking two steps backward. “Just like that stupid carriage driver who let me off at the wrong address. I suppose he thought it would be a funny trick on a naive American visitor. Neither I nor the prime minister will find this joke amusing.” Her mind searched for a plan. She hadn’t seen anything lying in the alley to use as a weapon—no brick, board, bucket, or such. “If it’s money you’re after, I only have a few pounds and shillings with me. I’ll give it to you after you let me pass. I can go on to Lord Salisbury’s and you can go somewhere to buy another bottle.”
One man pulled a bottle from his pocket and said, “We got us a bottle o’ guid Irish whiskey. Let’s be movin’ down tha alley sae nobody’ll disturb us. Ye ken have tha first sip after a wee kiss.”
“Let ‘er drink tha whole bottle, Jaimie, whilst I work under ‘er skirt,” the other man teased. “We been at sea to long to wait. Ye be ‘ere an’ dressed fur business. We’re as guid as any customer ye’ll find tonight, me bonny lass. What’s yer price? We hae plenty o’ money.
“She’s got two ends, Sean. We ken enjoy ‘er at tha same time.”
The men’s vulgarity riled and frightened Leigh. She glared at them and stated, “I’m not a … a prostitute. I was on my way to a party, but the carriage driver left me here by mistake. If you come near me, you’ll pay with your lives.”
“Mistake, ye sae?” one sailor mocked her dilemma. He looked behind him, then back at her “Nae matter. We need a woman bad, an’ ye’re ‘ere. If ye be guid an’ nice, we’ll let ye go afterward. If ye dinna do as we sae, ye’ll git hurt. Then-n-n,” he said, drawing out the word to an intimidating length, “we’ll tak’ ye tae our capt’n an’ he’ll sell ye to one o’ them sheiks, after he be done wif ye. Which’ll it be, lass? Us or a bad dream?”
“If you dare harm me, you foul—” She didn’t get to finish her desperate threat before they grabbed for her once more.
Leigh fought like a wildcat, kicking, scratching, pelting her attackers with all her might. She heard her gown rip, and increased her struggles. Her hair came loose and the aigrette was flung to the ground. Her cloak was yanked off and cast aside. She wished she had on her boots, as her slippers did little—if any—damage to their shins. Several nail-tips broke as she clawed at her wicked assailants. They reeked of whiskey, body odor, greasy hair, and horseflesh. They seemed to be all over her, and winning the fierce battle.
The man spying on the predatory scene from an ajar window above them knew he had to help the young woman. He had hoped to remain concealed until her departure, but those ruffians were forcing him to expose himself. It was obvious the careless beauty was lost and in trouble. She was a superb fighter, but no match for those two wild animals. He had hesitated too long as it was. And there was something more that alarmed him about this brutal assault. He didn’t believe those men were really sailors. Their uniforms were not genuine navy issue. Someone had gone to considerable trouble to arrange this. Swearing under his breath, he rushed toward the back stairs, knowing if he was captured tonight it would cost him his freedom and probably his life.