Fascinated by Marissa Day
“Alicia, you cannot sneak away from your own engagement party.”
Alicia Hartwell looked closely at her cousin. Verity’s brow was wrinkled and she held her mouth in a decided frown, without the crinkling around her eyes that indicated she was holding in a laugh. Her disappointment was genuine, then.
“I’m not sneaking away,” Alicia replied levelly. “I need to go to the retiring room. Look.” She displayed the gold ribbon dangling from the end of her bronze satin sleeve.
“You’ve been tugging on the thread for at least an hour to get that to come off. I saw you.” Verity spoke conversationally with a wave of her fan, and a slow glance around the ballroom. Alicia frowned again, running through the possible reasons for the difference between Verity’s stern tone and her casual gesture. Probably Verity did not want to attract notice, which was difficult as she was talking with one of the grand celebration’s two centers of attention.
The other, Lord Carstairs, was currently deep in conversation with Mr. Corwin Rathe, a man said to be very high up in government circles. Her fiancé’s preoccupation was why Alicia had chosen this moment to make her escape. Judging by the intensity of the discussion, it would be a while before Lord Carstairs noticed her absence.
“Verity, please.” Alicia’s fingers strayed to the cinnabar brooch she wore on the white velvet ribbon at her throat. It was a nervous gesture she’d never been able to break herself of. “I just need a breath of air. I’m exhausted from everyone staring.”
The ballroom overflowed with a glittering crowd that included most of fashionable London. It seemed that every one of them kept glancing Alicia’s way to measure and judge. Worst of all was her family: her guardian uncles and the entire flotilla of Hartwell cousins, but especially her three oldest aunts. Aunt Eugenia patrolled the edges of the ballroom like a palace guard, ready to pounce in with a covering remark in case Alicia said something untoward or did not remember to smile at reasonable intervals. Even foolish, amiable Aunt Mary had bustled up several times to remind Alicia to keep circulating among her guests. Aunt Hester, of course, just sat on her chair in the corner and watched.
“They’ll think you’re going to meet someone,” Verity remarked.
“Is that what you think?”
“No, of course not.” Verity’s face crinkled. In fact, they both knew Alicia having any sort of lover—secret or otherwise—was as far out of the realm of possibility as her drinking the Thames dry. “But you know how people are . . .” Verity let her words trail off, and fanned herself furiously. Few members of Alicia’s family had ever taken action to try to make things easier for her. Part of that was a consequence of being just one among a huge cohort. Part of it came because no one quite knew what to do with an orphaned relative who was also utterly devoid of comprehension when it came to the feelings of others. Only Verity had ever tried to understand her.
“Don’t be too long,” said Verity at last. “If we have to invent a sick headache for you, the aunts will never let either of us hear the end of it.”
“Thank you.” Alicia started toward the retiring room again at what she hoped was a casual pace.
Had she been any other woman, tonight would have been Alicia’s moment of triumph. Uncle Gavin and Uncle Morris—her guardians since she was a child—had spared no expense. Verity’s older sisters had exercised every fiber of their cool minds and well-developed tastes to make sure each detail of the celebration was perfect. The ballroom had become a wonderland of light and color. Pink and gold silks hung on the walls, creating a shimmering backdrop for the profusion of scarlet roses and white orchids that filled every porcelain vase. Alicia herself had been dressed to coordinate with the decorations. Her gown of bronze, figured satin and gold ribbons had a train appliquéd with white orchids. Her hair, which was a tarnished gold color, was piled high on her head and dressed with creamy roses among the pearls and citrines. Even Aunt Hester, the oldest and sternest of her aunts, seemed satisfied. Girls who had tittered at Alicia behind their fans at their coming-out balls, and had swept past her on the arms of new husbands, watched her with faces pinched by jealousy. And they whispered, even as Alicia walked right past them.
“. . . look surprisingly well together, I thought, but still . . .”
“. . . when he could have any woman in London . . .”
“. . . imagine such a man with Alicia Heartless!”
Alicia kept her eyes straight ahead, as if she did not hear a thing. The name, at least, was an old gibe, one which could do her no more hurt. Especially not now that she was formally engaged to Lord Carstairs.
“Alicia. What are you about?”
The iron-cold voice brought Alicia up sharply. She turned to see Aunt Hester standing poker stiff beside her.
Aunt Hester’s eyes were the pale, Hartwell brown and her hair was snow-white. She had never worn any colors but black and gray in Alicia’s memory, and had never shown pleasure in anything for that same length of time. Alicia sometimes wondered whether Aunt Hester was as devoid of sympathy as she herself was, and if it was her destiny to become this hard. It was an idea that nagged at her like no other.
“Well?” inquired Aunt Hester coolly. “It is nowhere near time for you to be leaving.”
“I’m going to the retiring room, Aunt,” she answered. “To have this ribbon pinned.”
Alicia’s nerve quailed as it always did when she faced Aunt Hester. She’s going to insist on accompanying me. It’s no good. It never was. It was true what she’d told Verity. She was tired. She was not used to so much attention. She needed to get away, to let her accustomed calm settle back over her again. She had planned her retreat with great care during dinner, while she worried at the loose thread on her ribbon. But if Aunt Hester did not agree, her plan was ended. No one in the Hartwell family—not Uncle Gavin, who was its head, not even Verity, who was its boldest member—defied Aunt Hester on any matter, great or small.
Aunt Hester’s needle-sharp eyes traveled up and down Alicia’s form, looking for flaws, or weakness. “Very well,” she said slowly. “But mind you return quickly. I will not have anything being seen as amiss this evening, Alicia. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Aunt.” She must have applied an acceptable level of obedience to her tone, because her aunt nodded, leaving Alicia free to go.
The retiring room was empty of all except the ladies’ maids, which made it possible for Alicia to walk straight through into the dim, quiet hallways of Hartwell House without having to stop and make conversation. Alicia made her careful way through side corridors and adjoining rooms to lessen the likelihood of being seen by such guests as inevitably wandered away from any society rout.
At last, she reached the conservatory that was Uncle Gavin’s pride and joy. She paused in front of the pocket doors, listening. The tension in her shoulders that had built from the pressure of all the stares in the ballroom had not eased. Was it possible someone still watched from the corridor’s shadows? But Alicia heard no rustle of breath or cloth as she slipped through into the conservatory.
As warm as the conservatory was, it was cooler by several degrees than the crowded ballroom, and blessedly quiet. Alicia drew the pocket doors shut behind her and paused again. A breeze touched the back of her neck. She turned, but saw nothing except the closed doors and shadows.
Alicia retreated farther into the darkness, inhaling the scent of greenery and citrus. Alone among the moonlight and carefully tended orange trees, she could breathe, and she could think without anyone watching to make sure her expression suited the occasion. When Alicia was not concentrating, her face had a tendency to go blank. A blank face was most emphatically not appropriate for a young woman at her engagement party, or so she had been informed by Aunt Eugenia a total of seven times this evening alone.
She had tried very hard tonight. Lord Carstairs did not seem to have noticed anything amiss during their two dances. He certainly had not said anything. But then, her impression of him was that he was a discreet and polite man; a gentleman rather than a gallant. That suited her. She did not want gallantry. A gallant would expect her to blush and flutter her eyelashes and perhaps swoon. Such a man would at least expect her to feel, and to reciprocate feeling.
No matter how hard she tried, strong feeling for any other person was as far beyond Alicia as the moon. She fingered her brooch where it pressed against the hollow of her throat. Her fingers traced its familiar, knotted carvings. People around her spoke of affection, of familial love, and—as she grew older—of passionate love. But Alicia found nothing she could recognize in their words, no answering chord of comprehension within herself. She had read dozens of novels passed to her by Verity, and had made a close study of Byron, Keats and Shelley, looking for clues as to what love must be. She watched the girls at the parties she attended. She saw them gaze into the eyes of their dance partners, saw them leaning together, and sighing, and helped them as they schemed for a few minutes alone with their chosen one.
And absolutely none of it touched her. Oh, she could feel. She knew frustration, anger and sorrow. But this other emotion, the sympathy that connected one human being to another . . . that was utterly foreign to her. It was as if other people lived in a world of vibrant color and warm light, while she walked apart through cold, gray mist.
It was the same when she looked at Lord Carstairs as when she looked at anyone else. She could see that he was handsome. He was tall, and an active life and active service had left him with a finely shaped body. His hair was a fine shade of chestnut and he wore it in a sailor’s queue that looked quite well on him. She found his weathered face to be aesthetically pleasant, especially his bright gray eyes. Added to this, he had a considerable fortune, and unlike some members of the nobility, he took his parliamentary duties seriously, which kept his mind active and engaged.
Alicia sighed. It was a shame, really. So much good fortune in a marriage partner should have been given to someone who had the ability to feel it. At the same time, it was those gray eyes that gave rise to the disquiet that had caused her to need to remove herself from their celebration.
When Uncle Gavin and Uncle Morris had called her into the library to inform her of the proposal they had received, they had made it perfectly clear Lord Carstairs was looking for someone to keep his house, raise any heirs and nothing more. The relief Alicia had known in that moment was, for her, intense. Here, she had thought, is a man with whom I will not have to pretend I am capable of comprehending love. She had agreed to the arrangement at once.
Since then, however, the little time she had spent with Lord Carstairs had given the impression that he was a man who was fully awake to the world. Alicia was accustomed to carefully observing those around her. Because it was so difficult for her to understand what they were feeling or what they meant, she needed all the clues she could possibly gather to navigate social situations. She feared Lord Carstairs’s alert gaze, the way he seemed to understand what a person was thinking before they spoke. Such a man could not long remain ignorant of the malformation of her character. What if he decided he did not want to tie himself to a blighted woman and retracted his offer? This, she knew, would bring much unpleasantness down on her, and her family. While she might not posses a heart, she did have a conscience. A large number of Hartwell girls were coming out and courting. If Lord Carstairs cried off the marriage, it would make their lives difficult.
The long, low rumble of the pocket doors being drawn open rippled through the conservatory’s silence. Alicia froze. Contrary to what Verity might fear, Alicia was sensible to the delicacy of her position. She had left her own engagement party and isolated herself in the conservatory. People would, in fact, think she had made an assignation. There would be talk. Aunt Hester would be angry and Lord Carstairs would be embarrassed.
Fortunately, except for the patches of moonlight streaming through the arched windows, the conservatory was quite dark. Alicia slipped sideways to the shelter of a carefully contrived grove of potted orange and lemon trees. Surely it was only someone else looking for a moment’s respite from the ballroom’s crush. They would stroll about for a few minutes, then leave, and she could return to her party. This time she would work harder to put a smile on her face for Lord Carstairs. She had practiced the expression in front of the mirror. She could do it.
Footsteps pattered lightly across the tiled floor. It was not one person who entered the conservatory, but two. A young man led a young woman by the hand. The young woman clearly had no trouble putting a smile on her face. Even in the dim moonlight, Alicia could see how the slender, pale flower of a girl gazed raptly at her companion, a dark-haired fellow come fresh to manhood, to judge by his wiry build. To Alicia’s dismay, the pair moved directly into the curve of the little citrus grove, so only a thin screen of trees and greenery separated them from her.
But these two did not notice her. They had eyes for only each other. The young man wrapped both arms around the girl’s waist. As their bodies pressed together, levity deserted the couple.
“Julian . . .” the girl whispered.
“Hush, Melissa. I know.”
Julian cupped Melissa’s delicate face in both his hands, and lowered his mouth to hers. It was an open, heated kiss these two shared, unabashed and unhurried. Alicia stared, clenching her cinnabar brooch. Julian’s hands slid up Melissa’s back, slowly, as if he treasured each inch of netted satin that passed under his palms. Then he drew his fingers around to the side, brushing Melissa’s breasts so that she hummed low in her throat, even as her mouth continued to work against his.
At last they broke the kiss. Alicia thought they would leave, but they stayed pressed against each other, smiling into each other’s eyes.
“I need you.” Melissa laced her fingers into her lover’s dark hair. “Please, Julian.”
“Oh, my dear,” Julian breathed, and kissed her again, flicking his tongue lightly against her lips. “I want you so. But we should take care . . .”
“Please,” whispered Melissa once more.
Julian, it seemed, had no heart to refuse her. Again they kissed, and Melissa’s hands wandered freely over her lover’s body, touching everywhere; shoulders, chest, muscled thighs, and lingering especially over his taut buttocks. Julian sighed and growled and pulled Melissa closer, crushing her soft body against him, rubbing his hips against hers until she gasped.
Alicia knew she should close her eyes. She should back away. But she could not move.
Julian turned Melissa in the circle of his arms so that her back was to him. He ran his hands lightly down her front, pausing at her breasts, stroking them lightly but thoroughly, so that she shivered against him and he smiled wickedly. Then he leaned her forward, keeping one arm wrapped about her waist and his hips pressed firmly against her as he opened the tapes of her dress with his other hand. Julian was more expert at such work than Alicia would have expected a man to be, for in a matter of moments, he was able to draw Melissa’s shining ball gown over her head and lay it aside on the ironwork bench.
Melissa swung her arms up over her head and pirouetted on her toes to face her lover. The moonlight turned her chemise translucent, showing up her curved figure in clear silhouette. Julian went down on one knee and held out both hands. Melissa walked gracefully into his arms, fully aware, it seemed, of her own beauty in that moment.
Slowly, Alicia became aware of a strange sensation. The soft, gray mists that always seemed to cradle her thoughts had thinned. In their place came an awareness of confinement, as if she pressed up against the cold, mullioned windows of the conservatory, watching the lovers from the far side.
Julian wrapped his arms around Melissa, bringing her close, so he could rub his face against her belly. It was an intimate gesture, and the sensation of division, of the glass wall, inside Alicia’s mind strengthened. What was it these two had in them that she did not? She had searched and searched for answers to such questions, but her inability to comprehend had never seemed to her as monstrously unfair as it did in this moment.
Julian stood, dragging his hands up Melissa’s rib cage, holding her gaze with his own as he brought his hands to her sloping shoulders. She was breathing hard, and her eyes were half-lidded. Melissa arched her back, and Julian pushed her chemise down to bare her breasts to the moonlight and his flashing gaze.
“Is it not beautiful?” said a man’s voice.
Shock caused Alicia to shoot upright.
“Don’t worry, Alicia,” whispered the man, and now she thought she heard a smile in his deep voice. “It’s quite all right.”
Now she recognized the voice. Lord Carstairs, her fiancé, stood behind her, and very close. She could sense the warmth and solidity of his body, and catch his masculine scent of leather, spice and brandy even over the heady aroma of the orange trees.
It was not possible to expire of shock, not really, but in that moment Alicia wished she could. Perhaps she could manage a faint. Her knees felt weak enough to buckle credibly.
On the other side of the screen of trees and greenery, Julian murmured to his Melissa. He closed his hands over both her bared breasts, kneading them firmly, watching the delight on her face. She grasped his forearms, pressing herself toward him.
“I was leaving,” Alicia whispered, to Lord Carstairs and to herself, even as she watched Julian’s hands working against Melissa’s soft, white breasts. His fingertips grasped his lover’s ruched nipple and rolled it back and forth. Melissa pressed her hand over her mouth to stifle her moan.
“I was leaving,” Alicia said again.
“Shhh . . .” Lord Carstairs reached around and pressed two fingers lightly against Alicia’s lips. His other hand grasped her arm so that his palm rested against the small space of skin between her sleeve and the top of her glove. “Be patient a moment. I will get us both away.”
Lord Carstairs’s hands were warm. Somewhere, distantly, Alicia was aware of the warmth from his skin spreading down her arms to pool low in her belly. It was a gentle touch, but not soft. It would not be right if it was soft; she was oddly sure of that. Her lips felt callouses on his fingertips, perhaps from the ropes he’d handled as a sailor. Suddenly, strangely, Alicia wanted very much to take those fingers into her mouth.
Lord Carstairs removed his hand from her mouth, but slowly, drawing his calloused fingers across her lips, leaving trails of light behind.
Julian was murmuring to Melissa. Reflexively, Alicia leaned forward, straining to hear. Her left hand pressed tight against her own belly. Lord Carstairs showed no sign of moving, or of taking his heavy, broad hand from her arm. She should pull away. This was wrong of her, of them. If he would not take her out of here, she should leave on her own. What this other couple did, the way they now lay down on the tiled floor so Julian could kiss his way down the curve of Melissa’s body . . . This was indecent. But watching it, staring at it—that was worse. As Julian’s hands slowly pushed Melissa’s muslin chemise up over her thighs until he exposed the tangled nest of gleaming curls between them, Alicia knew she should at the very least turn away. This struggle inside her, this push of her awareness against the glass wall inside her mind, this was dangerous. She felt that instinctively. There was danger here. She must retreat, back into the safe, gray, distant place where she had always existed. Where she was safe
What is this? Where do these thoughts come from? A shudder ran through Alicia and she clutched her brooch until its figured edges bit into her hand.
Slowly, almost reverently, Julian lowered his head to Melissa’s naked thighs. He kissed first one, then the other, as his hands shifted them apart. Melissa sighed against one hand while the other tangled in Julian’s hair, urging him closer. Despite her urging, despite her sighs, Julian moved slowly, kissing and licking, but at last he pressed his smiling mouth to those dark curls. Melissa’s hips lifted, and he tucked his hands beneath her, kneading and squeezing her buttocks as he had her breasts. He began to lick her there as well, hard and firm. Melissa clenched her eyes shut and pressed her hand more tightly over her mouth to smother her cries. The fingers of her other hand she knotted tightly in Julian’s hair, holding him in place, demanding that he continue.
“We can go now,” breathed Lord Carstairs into Alicia’s ear. “If you wish.”
A question waited beneath those words. Could Lord Carstairs honestly believe she wanted to stay here and watch? She didn’t. She couldn’t explain this paralysis that left her unable to so much as turn away from the sight of Julian’s hot, wicked actions with mouth and hands, and Melissa’s wanton delight in all he did to her body.
And yet, she still couldn’t move. Melissa had begun to thrash madly. Julian moaned against her and gripped her thighs as his mouth pressed more tightly against her. Something was happening, some change. Melissa’s delight had taken on a fever pitch, and Julian held her hips tightly, squeezing and lifting her to his wicked kisses, taking her further, and further still, into the strange and dangerous world of delight.
“Please,” whispered Alicia. “Take me out of here.”
“Come, then, Alicia.” Gently but firmly, Lord Carstairs guided her toward the door.