Luckily, he thought, the vines were as sturdy as they’d appeared. Otherwise, he’d be landing on the stone court below with a large thud. There was little moonlight so he had to feel his way carefully across the surface and try to avoid scratching–damn! A rough twig caught him.. He hoped he wasn’t bleeding. He hadn’t felt like going seducing wearing a shirt.
He made it to the window he wanted and found it slightly open. He smiled. He’d found a way to coax the information that Mrs. Beryll opened a window at night out of her, without any suspicion on her part that he would make use of the window. He slowly opened it wide. With difficulty and more scratches on his bare torso, he eased into the room.
There she was, Mrs. Esther Beryll, the widow who’d stirred his manhood the first time he saw her, in John Dunphy’s informal parlor two days ago. He hadn’t found a woman to interest him in month. And now this relict of a shopkeeper was the one to tempt him.
He padded to her bed and looked down at her. She looked so small lying curled up with her fist tucked under her cheek. He leaned over her and lightly kissed her cheek, murmuring, “Esther.” She stirred, but only to flick at the annoying insect on her cheek.
He smiled and leaned over and began giving her butterfly kisses on her exposed forehead, cheek, chin and shoulder. She tried rubbing her face but came in contact with his stubbly chin. Her eyes opened.
For a second or two she was back in bed with her husband, Jacob, when they’d first been married and he was still trying to please her. Then she remembered where she was–in Kay Dunphy’s home and someone was in her bed.
She opened her mouth to scream but a large hand, hard with calluses, covered it. Garick Ailesworth whispered in her ear. “Don’t scream, Mrs. Beryll. This is just a friendly visit,” and kissed her again.
Garick Ailesworth didn’t think of himself as a vain man, but he knew women liked his looks and his body. He had only to walk into a ton gathering to stir up the flocks of debs and their mothers. As a former pirate he alarmed the mothers; as a six-foot, well-muscled male, he both excited and frightened the daughters.
Not that he had any interest in debs. Well-experienced widows were more his line.
“If you promise not to scream, I’ll take my hand away.”
As soon as his hand was gone, she hissed, “Scoundrel! Get away!” and she pushed at him with surprising force. She was able to scramble out of bed on the opposite side.
Garick stepped back from the bed in surprise. “I thought we were doing very well together, Mrs. Beryll. You seemed to enjoy my company these past few days.”
She glared across the bed at him, hands on hips. “Your company! You mean those little touches when you sat next to me at table.”
“I thought we had become friends today on the hunt.” They had spent the afternoon riding back together from a morning hunt.
He hadn’t moved around the bed towards her. This wasn’t working out the way he’d planned. He rubbed his naked chest reflexively and felt the scratches from his window entrance. Curse her! What was the matter with a little romp?
Esther Beryll moved around her bed and crossed the room to the door. She unlocked it, opened it and looked outside. Very quiet–no one was stirring.
“My Lord Ailesworth, will you leave?”
He decided to retreat. A good sea captain knew when to attack and when to change course quickly. A change of course would be a good idea here.
He sauntered to the door as though he’d always meant to leave and stood where the candle in the sconce in the hall shed light on his chest. Esther was determined not to look but her eyes slipped down. All hard muscle covered with a light dusting of golden hair, narrowing at his waist line, pointing she knew where.
She forced her eyes up and saw the grin on his face and the light in his eyes. “All this could be yours, Mrs. Beryll, Esther, anytime you wish,” he growled and before she could resist, he caught her hand and laid it on his chest with his on top.
She gasped and pulled hers away, but not before she felt that hot skin and hard muscle.
He smiled and sauntered out. She looked up and down the hallway nervously but no one was about. She closed her door, locked it and leaned up against it, breathless.
Her hand still tingled from the feel of him. And she had wondered what he looked like under those form-fitting pants and coats he wore. All the men wore them, of course, but none of the men she’d seen had looked as he did in them. The other men who’d arrived at the Dunphys two days ago were all fine gentlemen, but none looked like Ailesworth.
She went back to her bed and tried to calm herself for sleep. Instead her hand still felt tingly from the pressure of his hand and his warm chest. Why was he so warm, hot even? He was so big, too. Big and warm. Why couldn’t it be safe, she sighed, to a accept his caresses?
She got into bed and pulled the covers over her, carefully tucking them under her chin, as though that would protect her. To think: he’d climbed in her window from the vines! What kind of man would do that? A buccaneer, that’s who. All those tales about him must be correct. He must have been a sea pirate to try anything so mad.
As Esther settled into bed, she began to smile. To think that she, Esther Beryll, widow of a shop keeper, had attracted the dangerous Garick Ailesworth, whom every woman in London must desire. As she settled herself further into her pillow, she admitted that she also wanted him, but not like this, not sneaking into her room.
Besides, whatever did he see in her?
In the morning, Esther sat at her dressing table and gazed at herself in the mirror. The sun streamed through her window. It would be a lovely day.
She stared at herself. She had never been able to see what caused some men to stare at her with hot eyes and sometimes come close enough to brush her skirts with their legs and stare down her bodice, not that Ailesworth had done that. When she looked in the mirror, she saw a woman of average height, with the neckline on her night rail high and secure about her neck. She never wore low necklines because she felt her generous breasts needed more concealing than revealing. Her waist was narrow and her hips were slim. She knew her figure attracted men but many other women had generous figures. She discounted her thin face and brown hair. In this she was only partially correct. Her brown hair was thick, wavy and shone with a high luster. Her nose and mouth were pleasant but her eyes were startling. They were sloe eyes, of a blue almost black, slanted and heavy-lidded. Looking at herself, she saw only that they were too big for her thin face and not a pleasant cornflower blue that seemed to be an Englishman’s ideal.
Alma had come into her room as she did each morning. Alma Nelson was Esther’s friend and house mate, but on the occasions when Esther visited her old friend, Kay Dunphy, in her home, Elmscourt, in the middle of the hunting ‘Shires, Alma came and played her maid. It gave them both a respite from their little house in London on Cargill Street.
Alma stood behind her and saw the temptress that others saw. She smiled at Esther and patted her shoulder. Esther smiled back and suddenly looked like a girl again. Alma grinned at her. Both women thought the other attractive and underestimated her own looks. Alma considered herself plain, discounted her figure and only cherished her profile- a pure line of nose, chin and throat that her Mother had delighted in drawing in silhouette. But, Alma thought to herself, it’s hard to talk to a man while displaying your profile. If there were ever any men to talk to.
“Alma, Ailesworth came into my room last night.”
“What! But you locked your door.”
“Through the window.”
Alma gasped and went to the window to look. “How did he do it?”
“On those vines. He scratched his chest coming through the window.” She blushed slightly.
“What did you do? I mean…”
“I evicted him. He went. He’s no rapist.” She sighed. “He kissed me, just little kisses on my face.” She wouldn’t tell Alma about how he put her hand on his chest. That hand still felt different –warmer, more rounded–than the other.
“Oh, Esther! I’ve seen him. He’s so handsome. And his form! Of all the men here, he looks best in buckskin pants.”
“Yes, I know.” Esther continued to brush her hair. “He said yesterday that he was leaving today. With Lord Colebrook. He doesn’t look at me like I’m a succulent piece of partridge for his starving stomach!”
“Esther! Colebrook is a great deal older, isn’t he?”
“No, but he looks at least ten years older than Ailesworth. All in black–no color at all. Thank God for white cravats.”
Alma moved behind Esther and began coiling and fastening her hair. “And Lord Grainger?”
“Very polite and pleasant sort.”
“Who’s the last?”
“De Sable. Now there’s a handsome devil. Slim with coal black hair. Ailesworth’s hair is a whole mix of colors.”
Alma smiled to herself. All these men had arrived two days ago along with their host, John Dunphy, their huntin’-mad host. They weren’t expected as they had gone further North to hunt. The weather had failed them, with a deluge of rain, so they came to Dunphy’s to try their luck with the Berkshire hunt.
Usually Esther didn’t visit Kay when John was home. Esther thought it was because she was there to keep Kay company, but Alma suspected it was to keep her husband out of temptation’s way: the seductive-looking Esther. Apparently Lord Dunphy wasn’t tempted because there had been no talk of Esther leaving early.
“Are you through, Alma?’
“Yes, my dear. What are you wearing today?”
Esther stood and thought, as though she had a great deal of choice. “The peach, I believe.”
Of course, the peach. She had only three day gowns and simply wore one after another. As Esther dressed, she said, “Let us hope Lord Ailesworth goes to London today. I wouldn’t put it past him to try again.”
“You could close your window.”
“No. No, he won’t. He’ll not make a fool of himself.”
“Did he make a fool of himself last night?”
“Oh, no. Cool as can be. He said he was mine anytime I liked.” She straightened and looked at Alma. “All right?”
“Yes. Enjoy your breakfast.’
Esther sighed. “I hope Ailesworth doesn’t sit next to me.” Esther’s blush increased a fraction.
Alma tidied Esther’s room and then hurried down to the kitchen to see what gossip she could pick up at breakfast. She’d already told Esther that everyone knew that three of the gentlemen were plump in the pocket with De Sable the exception. He needed to marry an heiress but he seemed in no hurry.
Esther entered the breakfast room looking as tranquil as she usually did. As Ailesworth rose to his feet, he admired her carriage and posture, among other things. How could a widow look so untouched, he wondered.
“Please be seated, my lord.”
“Perhaps I can hold your, your plate, madam.”
Oh, the devil he was! She couldn’t stop a slight blush.
“No, thank you.”
He grinned and sat down.
De Sable entered the room. Esther breathed more easily. She sat down at a distance from Ailesworth and began her breakfast of shirred eggs and ham. De Sable sat at her elbow and began talking of London gossip in a pleasant way to her.
She finally had to say, “Lord de Sable, I live out of the way of society. I don’t follow the gossip in the papers.” She smiled to soften her rejection.
Damn! His groin tightening, Ailesworth dismissed the vow he’d made the night before and decided he’d keep trying to seduce Esther Beryll. He needed to find out her direction in London. She’d been able to deflect everyone’s indirect inquiries as to her location. He’d thought of asking Dunphy but his man, Chambers, would know how to find it.
De Sable seemed struck by her smile also. Now the fool was trying to find her direction by asking directly. She parried his every question. Ailesworth smiled to himself. Only subtlety would work with this lady.
She was clearly more than a shop keeper’s wife. She must have been a member of the gentry at least, to be a friend of Lady Dunphy. She talked and carried herself like an aristocrat but had the gentle manners of a woman raised with a loving hand. No one in the ton that he’d met had her gentleness.
He remembered the feel of her small hand on his chest last night. It had felt cool and he knew she had wanted to go exploring with it. He’d also felt small calluses on her fingers. She must not be able to afford servants and did her own work.
Just looking at her made his groin thicken and throb, so he tried to put his eyes and thoughts on his breakfast. But breakfasts weren’t very interesting.
“Ailesworth! Are you leaving today?” De Sable slid his eyes sideways at Esther, who ate her way steadily through her large breakfast. Did she always eat so well or was she appreciative of the generous amounts of food Lady Dunphy served, Ailesworth wondered.
Ailesworth decided to tease de Sable. “What are your plans then, when you get to town? Have some interests to look after?”
De Sable suspected that Ailesworth was poking at him, but he couldn’t keep himself from responding to it. “Always have interests, Ailesworth.”
“New ways to make money? You should tell me. I’m always interested in new ways to get rich.” He gave de Sable a wide grin, just for the deviltry of it.
De Sable straightened himself and frowned. “It’s common to talk of money, Ailesworth. Especially in front of a lovely lady.” He picked up Esther’s hand–with a piece of buttered roll in it–and kissed it.
She stared at him in amazement. Common to talk about money! She was as common as dirt, then, as she and Alma had to talk about money, usually how little they had, every day. She put the piece of roll in her mouth.
Ailesworth had to bite his lip to keep from laughing aloud. De Sable had the perception of a village idiot, but that was to insult the idiot. It was obvious from Esther’s out-of-fashion clothes, carefully mended, he’d noticed, that money was in short supply for her.
“Well,” Ailesworth was able to say, once he had his expression serious again, “I’ll be leaving in an hour if you care to ride with me.”
“Yes, I see. Perhaps so.”
He shouldn’t have encouraged de Sable. He probably needed to stay at the Dunphys for awhile and fill up on food. The man ate more than Ailesworth did.
Ailesworth slanted a glance at Esther and saw she was steadily working her way through her eggs and ham. The footman–Dunphy only had one–poured her some more tea.
She was relieved to hear that Ailesworth was leaving shortly. She ignored the little pang that told her she’d miss his attentions and his focus on her. Since he was leaving, and she’d never see him again, she decided to memorize his appearance.
His hair was tawny brown and gold, combed straight back She’d once been taken to the estate of Lord Dillwood, an eccentric who kept a menagerie. His lion was old and tired but he’d been prodded into roaring at the staring, giggling children and for that instant, his old mane had stood out stiff and proud. Lord Ailesworth looked like that; on the alert, his brown eyes flecked with light, with yellow as he looked at her as though she were a little package of juicy meat.
His features were patrician, though it was obvious his nose had been broken at least once. His eyes matched his hair, a kind of tawny gold. His mouth was too wide but those lips! She dropped her eyes to her plate, blushing a little. She hadn’t blushed so much since she was sixteen. What was the matter with her?
Ailesworth slid a glance at her and saw her blush. He knew she’d been covertly observing him. That blush was good news.
Esther stood, as did both gentlemen. “I’ll make my farewells, then, my lords, as you are leaving today.” De Sable tried to catch her hand again but she deftly moved to the door.
“Adieu, Mrs. Beryll,” said Ailesworth in what he hoped was a normal voice.
“Goodbye, Lord Ailesworth” she said firmly and curtsied to both men. She left the room and the footman closed the door behind her.
“Damn! What a body! And those eyes.” De Sable sunk into his chair and shook his head. “I’d like a little romp with her, but she wasn’t having any.” De Sable addressed his roast beef again.
De Sable shook his head. “No, but she wouldn’t give me her address so there’s an end to it.”
Ailesworth looked at him. No wonder no one in that family had a pot to piss in. Thick as a plank, all of them.
Ailesworth left a few minutes later and went upstairs to harass Chambers, who was packing.
Esther told Alma how de Sable kissed her hand while it held a piece of buttered roll and the two ladies collapsed in laughter.
“But Alma,” Esther sputtered, “it didn’t bother him at all. He certainly has the address to carry it off.”
“Maybe he wanted a bite of your roll,” and the ladies were off again.
“You should have seen Ailesworth’s face. He was biting his lip to keep from laughing.” She wiped her eyes. “The look he gave Lord de Sable! I don’t think he regards him very highly.”
The two ladies settled down to work on altering two dresses Kay had given to Esther. Kay’s sister, similar in size to Esther, always left clothing behind when she visited Kay and never wanted it returned. Kay saved them for Esther.
Esther couldn’t quite concentrate on her alterations. She had her ear tuned to her window which opened onto the front of the house. She thought she heard a horse. She got up and stretched. Then she ambled to the window and looked out.
Ailesworth and de Sable were mounted, ready to leave. De Sable’s valet was lounging nearby, picking his teeth. Ailesworth’s valet was climbing into a small, but handsome coach. She could hear de Sable shout at his valet, who shrugged, threw away his toothpick–more like a twig–and climbed into the coach.
She saw that Ailesworth was smiling. He glanced up and saw her. His smile became a wide grin and he tipped his hat to her. De Sable noticed Ailesworth’s action and also glanced up. At the sight of Esther, caught gawking at the sight of Ailesworth’s fine muscular legs pressing against his horse, de Sable tipped his hat also. He gave a lovely smile.
Esther smiled back at him and raised her hand in what she hoped was a regal farewell. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ailesworth’s smile, as though he knew she’d been staring at him.
She nodded and turned away from the window. That beast, Ailesworth, was laughing.
Later that day, Esther asked Kay, subtly she thought, about Ailesworth. Kay wasn’t surprised. Ailesworth’s sexual charisma was very powerful. Kay found him frightening but she was pleased with her husband’s reaction to Ailesworth’s presence: he’d made love to her every night since the men had returned. Kay assumed that John felt he had to establish his rights over her. She found it thrilling and tried a little, a very little flirting with Ailesworth. It did John good to see another man smile at her. Sometimes he spent so much time with his hounds and his horses, he neglected her.
She was sorry Ailesworth had left.
“He’s called the Beast, you know. He used to have a beard and it exactly
matched his hair. Since he’s also ruthless where women are concerned, it fits.
“Exciting, isn’t he?”
“Well, yes, he is.” Esther had decided not to tell Kay of Ailesworth’s attempt on her virtue. She didn’t know why.
“He’s also notorious for being in trade. As the heir to an earl, he shouldn’t be in trade. Instead of being a pink of the ton, rattling around London, as aimless as most of the first sons, he ran away to sea. He spent years sailing and now he owns his own fleet. John says he’s into other ventures, too.”
“I heard he was a pirate.”
“John said he almost lost his first ship to pirates. After that, he made sure he had sufficient gun power to protect himself and perhaps do some pirating on the side. He never discounts the rumors about him. I think he likes to be shocking.”
“Yes, I imagine so.”
“I saw he was attracted to you, Esther.”
“Yes, but you know he only wants a mistress.”
”No, Kay! I won’t. I can’t” She shook her head.
“Is it because your family…”
“Don’t mention them! Please, Kay.”
“I won’t, Esther, but not everyone sees your family as you do.”
“They’re shameful! I don’t want people to know I’m related to those sisters of mine, roaming the Continent, living with one man after another. There’s no money left, you know. The house is falling down since my father died. The servants are all likely living on turnips and oats.”
“It was one of my father’s crazy schemes just before I left, putting good fields of hay into oats which never grew well, trying to recoup his gaming losses.’
“Oh, Esther. If only you’d…”
“I was lucky to get out when I did and marry Beryl. You don’t know what was going on.” Esther’s lips thinned. She looked too wise, Kay thought, for her twenty-six years.
Kay jumped up. “I have to see to the children. Come with me and then we can take naps when Clarissa and Eric do.”
Esther got up and gave her friend a spontaneous hug. “Thank you, Kay. You’re a good friend. Just don’t try to match make. You know it never works.”
Esther sighed. “Too bad de Sable has no money. He’s so handsome.”
Kay giggled. “None at all.” As they walked down the hall towards the nursery, Kay said, “He’s more like an animal, big and marauding.”
Esther said nothing. She knew Kay meant Ailesworth and not de Sable.