Chapter One"A great courtesan possesses both
curiosity and courage."The Journals of Augustin X
Wiltshire Downs, England
Early spring, 1822
Naked, he sat cross legged upon a brilliantly hued carpet, a voluptuous woman on his lap. Her bare legs were on either side of his hips, her feet crossed at his back. One masculine hand rested on her thigh, fingers splayed, while the other curved around her waist. Her head was arched back, throat exposed, eyes closed, the look on her face one of sublime pleasure. His head bent, the edge of his smile carnal and anticipatory, captured forever in the act of his tongue gently touching an elongated nipple.
The artist had drawn the man in a state of arousal, a condition surely accentuated out of all proportion.
No man, Margaret Esterly thought, could be quite that large.
Her gaze returned to the painting time and again, even as a flush crept up her neck. A scene of sensuality and abandon. Almost shocking. But beautiful in a strange and unsettling way. That was the only reason, Margaret told herself, that she studied it with such avid curiosity.
The caption that accompanied the drawing was both confusing and evocative: The face, the ears, the breasts are rich with sensation. But close attention must be made to speak softly, murmuring words of tenderness in anticipation of the pleasure to come.
"You're too fascinated with those books, Miss Margaret."
She blinked, glanced up, her face warming.
On the other side of the table, Penelope sat chopping onions and frowning at her. The two years since they'd left London had brought a few changes to their lives, chief among them the friendship they shared. A not surprising development,considering that they were both London born and raised.
Margaret wanted almost desperately to be quit of London and its memories. To her surprise, Penelope was more than willing to join her in the country.
With Jerome's death, she had no family. Her parents had died of influenza when she was only a child. Her grandmother, a former governess, had raised her, but she had passed on a year after her marriage to Jerome.
The small cottage Margaret had rented from Squire Tippett two years ago wasn't a prepossessing place. The only furniture was a bureau, two small cots, two chairs and a small wooden table she despaired of ever making stand straight. Finally, she had shimmied a piece of wood beneath one leg, but it still wobbled from side to side. A fireplace took up one whole wall, a welcome warmth during the winters on the Downs.
"It's a good thing you hide them above the rafters when the girls come. I can just imagine what their mothers in the village would say if they knew you read such things," Penelope scolded.
Silbury Village, their new home, was situated in a river valley with a commanding view of the chalk uplands and the stark white form cut into the hillside. Majestically sized, not unlike the White Horse at Westbury, it was difficult to discern the shape of the carving except in spring when the villagers trimmed and re-cut the turf. Then, it was all too evident that the angles and curves formed the image of a crown. As if some ancient royal presence had marked this place forever his.
Almost completely encircling the village was the Bristol River, its waters churning through two grist mills. Perched above Silbury on a nearby hill were the skeletal remains of a priory. Thetown itself was full of twisting paths and unexpected steps, and houses constructed from the stones of the ruins, giving the buildings an aged, almost pallid appearance.
It was, as Samuel had told her, an inward looking place. The villagers were content enough to build the docks for which they were famed and ignore the world. It was because of her friend that she was here at all. Samuel had been born in the village and knew the squire from which she rented her small cottage.
Penelope stood, emptied the contents of the bowl into the stew over the fire. Their main meal of the day had not contained meat for weeks, but they were never short of onions. Margaret was beginning to detest the smell and taste of them.
"I have never read the third volume," Margaret said in her own defense. "He writes most compellingly about the Orient, Penelope."
Penelope turned and looked at her, one eyebrow rising. A perfect chastisement, Margaret-thought. She could not have done better with her students.
Another change in her life. She had begun teaching a few girls from the village over the last year. Doing so had given her an opportunity to use those lessons her Gran had taught her.
She would never have children of her own; that fact had been proven during her five-year marriage to Jerome. But three mornings a week, seven little girls ranging from five to ten years of age came to her cottage. For those hours, she thought not about her precarious financial situation, nor of her loneliness, but of each girl's talents and needs. Annie's enthusiasm for learning was delightful, as was the way Dorothy was advancing in her reading. She answered their questions and smiled at their laughter.
In turn, shelearned from her students. On their walks she'd been shown how to listen for the grouse, or watch a new moon in order to predict the growing season. Margaret had stood in a meadow as she'd been instructed by seven excited voices, concentrating upon, the clouds and feeling small and insignificant beneath the bowl of sky. Had she'd ever truly seen the sky in London?
It was, after all, a satisfactory life. One that would be remarkably content but for two things-her loneliness and the fact that she was nearly desperate for money.
No longer the proper English wife she always was, Margaret kissed a handsome stranger.Now the dashing earl will not rest until the beautiful widow he held in his arms so briefly is his forever.