Disoriented, Jessica sat up in bed untangling sheets as she tried to comprehend what disturbed her slumber. Shadows played on the wall and the closed door across the room. A dim light from the waning moon peeked through a slit between the heavy velvet draperies covering the double-hung windows.
Chink . . . Clang . . . Thud . . .
The sound. She’d heard it before. On other nights. Other terrifying nights. She worked frantically to compose herself, took deep breaths, clutched at the counterpane, as the sound drew nearer, became louder.
Chink . . . Clang . . . Thud . . .
Chains, it was the sound of dragging chains she heard as someone, some thing, came nearer.
And there was moaning, an awful sound as if someone was in great pain or dying.
Jessica yanked the covers up to her chin, held them tightly as she froze in her bed. She felt the prickle of perspiration as it trickled down her back. Pain radiated through her fingers as she clenched the counterpane and tried desperately to hold on to her wits, her sanity.
It was happening again!
Chink . . . Clang . . . Thud . . .
It appeared from nowhere in front of the fireplace where the roaring fire had long ago reduced itself to glowing embers. It appeared as neither man nor woman, just some pernicious creature with no distinct features.
Chink . . . Clang . . . Thud . . . Groan.
It drifted toward her, floating, otherworldly, maliciously ethereal.
She could swear it hissed her name.
“Jesssssiccccaaa . . .”
Slowly it lifted what might have been an arm, a hand.
It reached out toward her.
She screamed. She screeched with such volume her throat grated with pain. She shut her eyes tightly willing the demon to be gone, tugged the covers up over her head. The sheets were damp with sweat. She shivered from top to toe, trembling like the last leaf on a tree weathering a wild winter storm. Waiting, listening, for how long she didn’t know.
When she dared to peek out once again the horrible apparition was gone.
Trying desperately to get back to sleep, she tossed and turned as she distressed over the smallest sound, the slightest movement, her hold on sanity tenuous.
When the light of day finally broke through the crack between the draperies and the movement of the staff in the hallways heralded the start of a new day, she fell into an exhausted, agitated sleep, nightmares of her grotesque vision haunting her dreams.
“Jonathan? Jonathan Stratton? Come out from behind that potted palm and let me see you. It is you. I haven’t seen you in a dog’s age, you old blighter. Rumor had it you’d drowned with the sinking of The Fair Isles. But here you are. And it looks as if you’re none the worse for wear.”
Jonathan dragged his gaze away from the two ladies he surreptitiously watched across the ballroom. With an effort, he refrained from cursing at the gentleman who had discovered him despite his position in a shadowed, unassuming corner. He had been hidden there for quite some time doing nothing more than watching the blond-haired angel in animated conversation across the ballroom.
He said, “Hello, Saxtonby. Obviously, the reports were wrong. I arrived only yesterday aboard the Renegade in from the China Sea.” He couldn’t believe his bad luck. Unless things had changed dramatically in the more than five years of his absence, Andrew Saxtonby, Viscount of Reignsfield, couldn’t keep his mouth shut if it was stitched closed. Gone were the original plans he’d made. He’d have to go to her that very evening if he wished to take her unaware of his return. If he waited even a day, Saxtonby would have the news of his reappearance all over the ton by morning.
He shot his sleeves in turn before taking the hand the viscount offered.
“Well, Sheffield,” Saxtonby said, changing to a more formal demeanor and address, probably in response to Jonathan’s cool retort, “it appears as if your extended travels were successful. I’d like to make an appointment with the tailor responsible for that waistcoat and jacket. They fit to a ‘T’. The hunter green color is positively stunning. His choice or yours?”
Jonathan hardly wanted to spend time chatting about men’s fashions with the gentleman who very likely defined foppish attire for the entire realm. Royal purple britches, a lavender jacket, and a lavender waistcoat embroidered with gold threads were not a statement of sophisticated taste in his personal opinion. “Assuming you still reside at your old address, I’ll send you his direction. Excuse me but I must go now.” He turned quickly away, before the tedious viscount could start anew, and started across the hot, crowded ballroom to face the angel of his past, the demons of his future.
He could hardly believe he was seeing her. After all these years, there she stood as beautiful and desirable as the day he’d left her. As he slowly approached, his eyes skimmed her person thoroughly, remembering that day so long ago when they were as one before their tearful separation.
“Jessica, I really must leave.” He held her tightly against his chest. He could feel her warm, firm breasts pressing against his beating heart as he rested his cheek on the top of her head.
He leaned against a tree, an ancient oak that had been planted many generations before he was born, and peered out from the bluff on which they stood. Lazily cutting its path through the serene valley below, the river was a distinctive shade of blue very much the hue of Jessica’s tear-filled eyes. The surrounding countryside was verdant. The fertile fields displayed the new green growth of the late spring promising a plentiful harvest come autumn. Here and there he could see a house, a barn, some cattle grazing. All was peaceful. He could easily imagine the many lives that continued their daily chores unaware of the torment going on above them.
Inside him, his heart was breaking as the pain of his imminent departure seized him fully.
“No, you cannot. I’ll not let you. What if you never come back? Who knows where you’ll go, what dangers you’ll face?” She drew back and gripped the lapels of his jacket.
He could feel her long, golden blond hair, so soft, so lush, cascading down her back over his hands at her trim waist.
“I have no choice, my heart. You know your parents, your father, are against our marriage. He refuses to believe I have any purpose but to have your inheritance.” Jonathan sighed heavily with the thoughts of the Earl of Dumbarton’s outrage when he had asked for his only daughter’s hand. The man had insulted Jonathan thoroughly, had called him a slacker, a fortune seeker, summarily dismissing all of the time he had been respectfully paying court to his daughter, his only child and the heiress of his unentailed estates. It was not Jonathan’s fault his own father had been a gambler and a rake, had driven his mother to an early death with his careless ways and then lost the family fortune and all of its lands to slake his desire to gamble and debauch. Jonathan had never entertained such activities. He had never had the desire to do so.
“But, Jonathan, how can you leave now?” she demanded persistently, her sky-blue eyes pleading and brimming with unshed tears.
“I have a title but no fortune. I cannot support you.” Jonathan was trying his hardest to reason with her and the passion that was a part of her. Though she was intelligent and had a logical mind when she chose to exercise it, she was not doing so now. There was much too much emotion involved.
“Then I will go with you. We’ll go together. I love you, Jonathan. Don’t leave me. Don’t desert me.” Her voice cracked as the once controlled tears finally found a path down her cheeks.
She was a beautiful girl, only ten and eight years on her last birthday. Her golden hair and blue eyes were only a part of the stunning picture she made. She was petite and pert. Sassy and alert. Her nubile body was just filling out to show the promised charms of womanhood. Jonathan had known he would love her forever within five minutes of their meeting at one of the country socials. And two years later he was still loving her, wanting her.
“If there were any other way, do you honestly think I’d go?” He gently lifted her chin with his forefinger to gaze deeply into her tear-swollen eyes. “I love you, Jessica. I willingly do this for you, for us, for our future together. I will prove to your parents, especially your father, I am worthy of you. I will bring not only my title but a fortune along with my restored estates back with me to lay at your feet.”
“Three years, Jonathan. So much can happen in three years. What if you find another?” She ran her fingers through his hair, looking into his eyes as she blinked away yet another tear.
“I will never love another, Jessica. You are my heart and my life. It is with you I wish to spend eternity. I promise I’ll come home to you, only you. You’re mine now and always. Will you promise to wait for me?” He lowered his head to place his lips softly upon hers. She reached her arms around his neck, held on as if doing so could keep him there. Jonathan pulled her closer. “I want you, Jessica, I love you. Promise you’ll wait for me.” Jonathan’s voice was low and rough, filled with his desire.
“I would wait forever for you, Jonathan. But I fear what the future may bring to me once you are gone. My father’s plans are beyond my control and I’ll only be able to forestall his wishes for so long.”
“Jessica . . .” he started, his voice lost as her lips went back to his.
She pressed her slender, lithe body against his larger frame. He could feel her breasts swell and her nipples ruche with her desire. She gently ran her tongue over his lips, enticing him still further.
His groan was low and gruff. “You make it near impossible for me to resist, to keep my sanity.”
“What must I do to make resistance impossible?” she whispered in a gentle voice against his lips. She slid her hand down along his arm until she found his hand then lifted it to her lips, intimately kissed his palm. He released a deep breath but when she placed his warm hand upon her desire-swollen breast, a shudder rent his body.
He swept her up into his arms then knelt to gently place her on the soft green of the grass surrounding them.
Almost shaking with his impassioned emotions, he undid the tapes of her gown to slide the soft, silken, aqua-blue fabric off her shoulders and down her arms. Moments later, it lay in an opulent heap just past his reach. Returning to his task, his eyes surveyed the soft lushness of her breasts as they pressed gently against the sheer, silk chemise. He could not help but notice how her breath had quickened. Gently he plucked the ribbon to let go of her last protection. Her breasts fell from their restraints into his warm, waiting hands. The rosy glow of the setting sun made them blush along with the heat of his breath upon them. “Jessica, you are so lovely,” he murmured as he stroked the taut nipples with his fingers. He lowered his head to take one of the tips into his anxious mouth.
Jessica gasped as she felt the warm moist heat of his attentions, then the tantalizing feel of his teeth exciting her nipples. She ran her fingers through his hair and clung desperately to him. “Jonathan . . .”
Jonathan raised her petticoats as he slid his hand up the outside of her leg until it rested upon her upper thigh.
She was breathing heavily and trembling softly in his arms. She clutched his hair tightly in her hands.
Fearing she would tear his hair out by the roots, Jonathan slowly removed her fingers and pressed them flat against his chest.
She started to unbutton his waistcoat, followed by his shirt shortly thereafter. Once undone, Jessica nudged the layers of concealing fabrics from his shoulders. Jonathan hastily tossed them to the ground. Then she slid her fingers over his chest, raised her lips, and kissed the skin and muscles.
He took another deep breath. “I swear, Jessica, you test my self-control.” He took her mouth again plundering the soft, moist warmth with his tongue and feeling her arch against him.
His hand moved back under her skirts but this time he placed it firmly but gently upon her inner thigh. He stroked her there, felt her hips move toward him. He moved his hand up and placed his palm against her mons and thought he would be scorched by her heat if not by her unrestricted desire as she pressed up against the firm object that was his hand. He parted her legs slightly and with no protest as she enjoyed his deep kisses and tender, intimate touching. She was more than damp from his attentions and, as he slid his finger between the petals that enfolded her secrets, she stopped in her feminine gyrations. He hesitated only momentarily before invading her passage with his slick digit.
“Jonathan!” she gasped as she grabbed his hair once again.
He stroked her maiden’s core with his finger and found the pearl of her passion with his thumb. No sooner had he touched it than he felt the first shudder course through her body. He returned his lips to hers and whispered soft words of love. And still he stroked her feeling the tension grow and grow as her body arched against his body, against his pleasure-giving hand.
Then it was upon her, the cascading of delight and passion, desire and release. She convulsed in his arms as he made quick to undo his pants. “Now, my love, now I’ll come inside you.”
In seconds, he was holding his greater weight on one elbow and positioning himself at her portal. His first thrust was slow and gentle and he hardly entered the soft moistness that awaited him. But Jessica was still in the throes of her passion. “Yes, Jonathan! Yes!” She pushed up and buried him inside her.
The moan escaped her throat as he covered her lips. He was large and she was tight, and he knew he was slowly losing his self-control from the glorious feel of her even though they both were still.
He moved in her slowly, cautiously. He heard her breathing accelerate again and felt her building with him. He quickened his pace losing track of where they were, who they were and that he must leave her very soon.
Then the release was upon them both. Who knew who had felt it first? As one convulsed in their elation, the other joined and together they crossed time and the universe to find themselves alone and united.
“Forever, Jonathan,” she whispered, “only you, forever.”
So long ago. His heart still stung from her lack of correspondence, from her broken promises. Had he really meant so little to her? How could he have misjudged her so?
He felt a hand on his arm staying his progress across the room.
“I see you came, my lord,” a firm, matronly voice commented beside him. He had been so intent upon his ruminations he had not heard Lady Sarah approach. “I had no doubt you would. She is still as lovely as ever, is she not? Is she as you remember, despite the years that have passed?”
“Yes, madam. Yes, she is even lovelier than my memory would have me believe.”
“Well, shall we do it then, my lord? Shall we start the process of setting things to rights? They have been wrong for far too long. Have they not?”
“I’m ready. Lead on, Lady Sarah. Let us see if it is only my heart that has been broken.”
With that the matron placed her hand upon his extended arm and they finished their way through the crush of the ballroom.
This is the second book in the The Order of The Crimson Lotus Series.