Lady Myddelton's Lover

By: Evangeline Holland

Chapter 1




June 1907

London



London society would have given their eyeteeth to see the very proper Aline, Countess of Myddelton as she was now. Her auburn hair waved loosely about her bare shoulders, and a negligee of the barest silk and lace hugged her lithe curves, the hem shushing like molten liquid across her restless feet, which tapped a nervous staccato. She paused before the mirror over the fireplace mantle and nervously smoothed her unbound hair, disengaging a few stray curls from the knots of ribbon on the bodice of her negligee. Her face stared back at her, pale and wide-eyed, and for one moment, Aline contemplated dousing the lights, covering the dinner, and fleeing to her bedroom, where she could pull the blankets tightly over her head.

No, she said inwardly, her mirror image squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin—she would not be a coward. It was her thirty-fourth birthday, and after spending two lonely years in mourning, taking a lover of her choice was the best—perhaps the only—decent gift she could present to herself. Her eyes shifted to the ormolu clock ticking merrily on the mantelpiece, noting the late hour. He should have arrived by now. His tardiness increased the prickly quiver of anxiety coursing through her.

She moved towards the window overlooking Charles Street and jumped back when she noticed a man pausing on the kerb to stare up at her narrow townhouse. She inched to the window again—the kerb was empty save the soft moonlight bleaching the pavement an opalescent white. She bit her lip as a faint sensation of disappointment washed over her—until she remembered the doorbell went directly to the empty servant’s hall in the basement.

Aline hurried to the mirror and pinched her cheeks for a bit of color, before rushing out of the sitting room, down the stairs and to the front door. Her heart beat triple time and she stopped herself at the door, running a cursory hand over her hair and negligee one last time. The knob was cold and smooth in her palm as she twisted it and pulled open the door, shivering at the whoosh of cool night air sweeping into the entrance hall. She looked up…and up…eyes widening at his immense height. He must be nearly two meters tall!

As she stared at him, her…lover (the word seemed so much more physical now that he had arrived) immediately removed his hat, but with the moonlight streaming behind him, she could see nothing but an outline of wide shoulders and rough-cut gilt-colored hair.

However, she could smell him; a warm, pungent bouquet of masculinity and ocean breeze, and she flushed at the reaction the stranger’s steady, quiet regard elicited within her.

“Will you come in?” She stepped aside and gestured for him to enter.

“Thank you,” He murmured, a hint of an unfamiliar accent elongating his gravelly vowels.

He ducked his head to step into the entrance hall and she closed the door, plunging them into an uncomfortable, yet slightly thrilling semi-darkness. She peered up at him, gasping softly, overcome by his largeness.

Aline hummed lightly to clear her throat. “Shall we, ah, go upstairs?”

“Yes…I suppose we can,” He replied slowly, his lovely accent more pronounced (she decided that it was lovely, rather than strange).

He gave her sitting room a sweeping glance of assessment as he set his hat on the embroidered antimacassar folded over her striped couch, noting the small, but ornate French furniture and elegant, delicately scented plants and flower arrangements filling the room. She followed his line of vision to the table set for two, where she noted that for someone with little experience of illicit affairs, she felt her arrangement of the sitting room was rather seductive. A bottle of champagne sat, slightly tilted, in a bucket of ice, beside a cold supper of chicken and a dessert of hot house fruits grown at Myddelton Park, and the lights were dimmed to an elegant and intimate radiance.

His eyes then came to rest on her, and Aline touched a cut crystal bowl filled with her prize roses to steady herself beneath the warm, syrupy caramel of his regard. A thick fringe of lashes veiled his deep-set brown eyes, his nose was straight and narrow, and the shadow of a dark blond beard failed to mask his voluptuary’s mouth. She released a breath she did not know she held when he lowered his lashes to the movement of his hands as they unbuttoned his coat, and she allowed herself to drink him in, noticing, with a start, how extraordinarily vital he appeared. He seemed to radiate a sunny vigor from his tanned skin to the smooth waves of his golden hair, vigor and vitality incongruous with the careful, almost dull starched shirt, dark trousers and black coat deemed proper for gentlemen. Then he returned his remarkable eyes to her and she could not see anything else, could not feel anything else but the way her body leapt to his warmth, her skin prickling with awareness and her nipples tightening beneath her negligee.

He almost seemed to know her response to him and he smiled. Aline released her hold on the rose bowl and stepped towards the table, where she poured two coupes of champagne. His fingers, large and blunt, were over hers before she could turn to hand him a glass, and she drew a shaky breath before turning to face him. Their glasses clinked and champagne sloshed with their toast. Aline forced herself to meet his eyes over the rim of the coupe as they finished the first glass of champagne. She set her glass on the table and placed a hand on his arm when he opened his mouth to speak, the tiny bit of alcohol and the silence giving her a bit of Dutch courage.