Tempted By His Kiss, страница 1часть #1 серии Byrons Of Braebourne
TEMPTED BY HIS KISS
TRACY ANNE WARREN
TABLE OF CONTENTS
About The Author
By Tracy Anne Warren
About The Publisher
Cade Byron tossed back the whiskey in his glass, then reached for the bottle on the side table next to his armchair. Pouring another hefty dram, he downed the second libation as quickly as the first, the alcohol spreading in a burst of fire over his tongue and throat. Leaning back his head, he closed his eyes and waited for the liquor to do its work. With any luck it would ease the ache in his leg.
Confounded thing, he cursed silently, trying not to think too much about the badly healed wound in his right thigh. Always acts up when the weather turns wet—or in today’s case, icy, since it’s snowing outside.
He supposed he could always take a draught of the laudanum the damn quack had left for him, but he hated the stuff and took care to avoid it. He never felt himself when he used laudanum. The opiate clouded his senses to the point where the world seemed to spin around him like some kind of fantastical, disjointed dream, leaving him listless, stultified, and confused. Hard liquor might be just as destructive in the long run, he realized, but at least it dulled his pain without erasing who he was; and even more important, without robbing him of his sense of control.
He knew all about how it felt to lose control. To be denied free will while one trembled on the brink, a second shy of breaking, of begging, of agreeing to violate one’s most sacred oaths in order to make the agony stop.
His stomach tightened, a faint wave of nausea rising with the memories. Shoving them aside, he reached again for the glass and bottle, hand shaking as he poured a double measure of whiskey and drank it down. Warmth and calm stole through him. The sensations were artificial, no doubt, but right now he would take what he was given. If only he could add peace to the equation.
That’s all I want, he sighed in his head, peace and quiet and to be left the hell alone.
Which is exactly what he’d told Edward last week when his older brother came for a visit, determined to dislodge him from his exile and return him to the bosom of the family—and in the case of the Byrons, that was a very big bosom indeed.
“You’ve buried yourself up here like a bear in hibernation,” Edward had told him as he paced the study with a long-legged stride. “It’s been six months now. Don’t you think it’s time you re-joined the world?”
“From what I can see, the world appears to be spinning along just fine without me,” he replied.
Edward frowned, his black brows granting him a fearsome look. “Well, Mama is not fine. She’s worried, especially since you refuse to answer her letters.”
Cade raked his fingers through his hair. “I read them. Tell her I’ve read them, and…appreciate them. Give her my love. More than that, I can’t offer right now.”
“Look, I know what you went through in Portugal—”
“Do you?” Cade asked in an almost expressionless voice.
Edward had the grace to lower his gaze. “I know enough. And because of it, I’ve given you room. Let you have time to yourself to grieve and heal. But all you seem to be doing is grieving with none of the healing. You look like bloody hell, Cade. Come to Braebourne with me. Be with people again, with family. Come home.”
For the tiniest moment, Cade had considered the plea, but just as quickly discarded it. “I am home. This estate is mine, or so I was informed in the reading of Uncle George’s will. Now, if that’s all, Your Grace, I suggest we go have our dinner before it grows cold.”
Cade had known Edward wanted to argue further—and his brother had. But after three futile days that did nothing to change Cade’s mind, Edward finally conceded defeat, climbed into his coach and drove away.
Or been driven away, Cade mused, knowing he’d forced his brother out—out of his house, out of his life. Just as he wanted.
And I do, he assured himself. I want solitude. Solitude and peace.
Taking up the bottle again, he refilled his glass, the last drops of whiskey draining out in a slow drip-drip-drip. Setting the bottle aside, he lifted the glass to his lips.
Just then, the study door opened on a set of well-oiled hinges, a tiny old man with a downy nimbus of white hair slipping into the room. Cade gave him no more than a cursory glance before leaning his head against the high seat back once again and closing his eyes.
“Have Harvey carry in some more wood for the fire, would you, Beaks?” Cade commanded in a low tone. “And bring me another bottle of scotch. This one’s ready for the rubbish bin.”
“Aye, my lord. Oh, and ye’ve a visitor here to see ye.” With that, the old man shuffled from the room, as silently as if he had never been there at all.
Cade scowled. What had Beaks said? Something about a visitor? Well, if there is someone fool enough to call on me, they can just take themselves off again. He reached for the whiskey bottle, cursing under his breath when he remembered it was empty.
A faint rustling came from the direction of the door. Turning his head toward the sound, he caught a shimmer of grey as a woman came into view. She hovered, her fine-boned face and slender form revealed in the low light of the fire. Her hair was the pale blond hue of moon glow, her eyes the soft, silvery blue of a mist-shrouded lake. Dusted pink as new blush roses, the colour of her lips and cheeks gleamed against the creamy whiteness of her skin.
For a second he wondered if she was a phantom brought on by too much drink, her ethereal beauty more in keeping with a faerie story than reality. But then she took another few steps forward, a lump of snow sliding off the toe of one of her plain, brown half-boots that proved she was every bit as substantial as he.
Cade’s fingers tightened against the glass in his hand. “Who the bloody devil are you?” he demanded.
Meg Amberley pulled her woollen cloak more firmly around her body and fought the urge to retreat. She supposed she couldn’t claim she’d had no warning regarding the reception she might receive.
“Master don’t want no company,” the old servant, who opened the front door, had informed her when she arrived. “Get on yer way now.”
But she couldn’t “get on her way,” not with the snow whirling from the sky in violent, blinding fits. When the wheels of her traveling chaise had nearly skidded from the road less than a half mile back, she’d known they had no choice but to seek shelter. And for good or ill, this was the shelter!
Now that she had managed to gain entrance into the manor house, she needed to secure permission from the owner to remain. Unfortunately, however, it seemed the owner might present a more formidable obstacle than the weather itself. I’ve faced worse in my nineteen years, she reassured herself, and I will face this man, too. Of course, it might help if she could actually see him.
To her consternation, much of the room lay in heavy shadow, the snowstorm having doused all but a last hint of afternoon light. The ruddy glow emanating from the f
Drawing a steadying breath, she caught the earthy odours of leather and burning wood, along with another fragrance that was both sharp and sweet—and alcoholic.
“Well?” he barked in a tone as rough as the liquor he had obviously been drinking.
Meg jumped, then shivered. Really, she thought, a gentleman ought to stand in the presence of a lady. But then, he didn’t seem much of a gentleman at the moment, in spite of his supposed title.
“Have you a name, girl, or are you mute?”
She raised her chin. “Of course. And I am not mute. I can speak quite clearly.”
“Good. Then why do you not answer the question? Your name?”
Frowning, she clasped her gloved hands together. “I’m Meg…um…Miss Margaret Amberley, that is.”
“Well, Meg…um…Miss Margaret Amberley, why have you intruded on my solitude?”
Her muscles drew taut at his mocking rejoinder, but she pushed aside any affront. “I am come in search of shelter. My…um…my cousin and I were forced here, you see, since the roads have become far too treacherous for travel.”
“Cousin, you say? Where is this cousin?”
“She…um…preferred to wait without. In your drawing room.”
Actually, her “cousin” was only her maid, but as she was journeying alone, she had decided to maintain the pretence of a genteel companion for safety and propriety’s sake. Suddenly, she was glad she had done so.
A length of wood crackled in the fireplace before giving a faint pop. “This is a private residence,” he informed her in a blunt tone. “I do not offer shelter.”
When he said nothing more, she realized their interview was over—or at least that he thought it was over. Her lips parted in astonishment. “But surely you cannot expect us to make our way in this weather?”
“There’s an inn five miles or so from here, I suggest you try that. Now, where is that deuced Beaks with the new bottle I ordered?”
A raw knot formed in her belly, sudden anxiety loosening any last governance on her tongue. “My lord, I would beg you reconsider. The storm is quite severe and growing worse by the minute. You cannot in all good conscience cast us out!”
“A good conscience is highly overrated, I have found, particularly when it interferes with one’s own preferences and pleasures.”
She peered at the shadowy outline of his head, his face still indistinct and wished again that he might have the courtesy of revealing himself. “Allow us to stay the night at least,” she said. “My mai—um…my cousin and I shall be no trouble at all, I promise.”
“You are already trouble.”
“But nothing. Now, go along would you, young woman, and leave me alone.”
Her limbs refused to move, stunned by his heartless refusal. “So you would send us out into the cold? Quite literally consign us to our deaths?”
He gave a snort. “I hardly think you’ll perish of a little snow. What is there? An inch? Two?”
“No, my lord. There is half a foot at least and more coming down by the second.”
“Half a foot! What nonsense is this? The last I looked there was naught but a dusting.”
Up went her eyebrows. “Then a goodly amount of time must have passed since your last glimpse outside.”
On a grumbling murmur, he leaned forward, rising tall, then taller still, out of the depths of his high-backed chair. Her lips parted as he moved fully into the light, her hand curling tight against her breast, her heart beating out a rapid tattoo.
Her first impression was one of height and lean, masculine strength, his frame well over six feet, with wide shoulders, a solid chest, and arms and legs that looked as if they must be fashioned of pure, corded muscle. And yet, he seemed too thin, his white linen shirt and fawn breeches hanging loosely on his body, making her wonder if he had recently lost an unintended amount of weight.
The natural tan of his skin carried a faintly wan cast, the vivid forest green of his eyes standing out in stark relief. His hair was dishevelled and lay around his head in short, thick chestnut waves, one curl dangling in riotous abandon against a stubborn forehead. The rest of his face held an inward determination and the same masculine strength she had first noted—from the angular planes of his cheekbones to the fine length of his nose and square jaw. His lips added a winsome punctuation to a countenance that held a raw, almost sensual beauty.
He was handsome enough to take her breath, and he did, air racing from her chest in a swift rush. But even as she struggled to recover her equilibrium, she noticed something else, something that made her flinch with a mixture of sympathy and dismay.
He wore no cravat, his shirt collar open at the neck in a way that enabled her to glimpse what she would never have noticed otherwise. There, encircling his throat like some gruesome ribbon, lay a line of scar tissue. The wound’s edges were mostly healed, but still new enough to show bits of pink.
His gaze met hers for a long moment, and then, with a dismissive expression, he turned and walked across the room. Or, rather, he limped, his uneven gait startling her yet again.
Halting on the far side of the room, he leaned down to peer out the window before rubbing a pair of fingers against the frost-covered glass. Obviously dissatisfied with the results, he cursed beneath his breath, then unlocked the window and flung it upward. Icy wind blasted into the room, the dark green velvet curtains on either side of the embrasure billowing out like sails at full loft. Snowflakes spit and whizzed, swirling around him as he stuck his head and shoulders out the window.
Is he mad? She wondered, hugging her cloak more tightly around herself. For his part, he seemed oblivious to the cold, the thin material of his shirt fluttering around him as his hair whipped about his skull, leaving it even more tousled than before. He hung there for nearly a minute, braced against the frame while the storm engulfed him in its fury. Then, abruptly, as if he knew he’d reached some limit, he stepped back and straightened, shards of snow and ice glittering in his warm chestnut brown locks.
“You’re right,” he declared in grim resignation. “There are several inches on the ground. Personally, such would not prevent me from journeying on, but I suppose a lady might find it alarming.”
“Anyone with sense would find it alarming!” she retorted, suddenly not caring what he might think. A fresh burst of wind roared inside, threatening to steal what little warmth remained in the room. Shivering, she hurried forward, brushed him out of the way and slammed the window shut, flipping the lock in place to keep out any lingering chill. She glanced up, her eyebrows lifting at the grin riding his face.
“Cold?” he inquired.
She nodded. “As you must surely be.”
“I’ll thaw out again if Beaks ever brings me that whiskey. So,” he said with grudging acceptance, “I suppose you shall be remaining.”
“Yes, if I might,” she murmured, aware how close he stood, close enough that she could see the snowflakes melting in his hair. She restrained the odd urge to reach up and brush them away, her pulse gathering speed at the thought of touching his hair, of touching him.
Breaking eye contact, he gave a muffled grunt and swung around to stalk toward his chair. “Tell Beaks to find you rooms, you and your cousin. You can stay the night, then be on your way as soon as this storm subsides.”
She trembled, unsure if the reaction had anything to do with the temperature. “Th-Thank you, my lord. I am most grateful for your hospitality.”
He gave another low-throated grunt, one that carried a touch of irony, as he resumed his seat. Arranging his legs in front of him on a low footstool, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
He made no reply.
“Your pardon, my lord,” she persisted, “but I just realized our earlier introduction was of a rather one-sided nature. You know my name, but I am afraid I do not know yours.”
At length he opened his eyes to half-staff, appraising her with a speculative gleam. “It’s Byron. Cade Byron.”
“Ah. A pleasure, Lord Byron.”
“No, not Lord Byron. I’m not that blasted poet, you know. Byron is my family name and I’m Lord Cade. Now, is there anything else you require?”
“No, not at present…Byron, Cade Byron,” she added in repetition of his former mockery of her own name.
His green gaze twinkled in acknowledgment of her riposte, but he didn’t break a smile. Closing his eyes again, he settled back against his chair and left Meg to make her own way from the room.
Cade awakened the next morning to high, soft feminine voices talking in the corridor that led past his bedroom. The only such voices he ever heard in his bachelor household were those of the two housemaids he employed, who came twice a week to clean and do laundry. But they were generally quiet, especially in this section of the house. Actually, he was surprised they were here today at all, given the storm. Well, they can deuced well leave the dusting and polishing for another day!
Sitting upright in bed, he groaned against the stab of pain that shot through his skull—the result, no doubt, of too much drink last night. After a moment’s pause to let the sensation pass, he reached for his dressing gown, slipping into it as he rose from his bed. Crossing in his bare feet, he twisted the doorknob and wrenched open the door.
He stopped dead at the sight that greeted him, finding not the serving women, but his unexpected houseguests, Meg Amberley and her cousin, whatever her name might be. The cousin’s plain brown eyes grew wide, her impish gaze sweeping over him from head to toe before she raised a hand to her mouth and giggled. As for Miss Amberley, she stared, a faint wash of pink smudging her cheeks. Still, she did not look away.