She had to escape.
The rumble of sophisticated chatter, the blaze of chandeliers that splashed hot wax onto the dancers below and the profusion of smells that heralded the lavish supper to come, all overwhelmed Lady Holly Taylor. It had been a mistake to attend a grand social event so soon after George's death. Of course, most people would not consider three years to be “soon.” She had gone through the year and a day of Deep Mourning, barely venturing from the house except to take garden walks with her small daughter Rose. She had worn black bombazine and covered her hair and face with veils that symbolized her separation from her husband and the unseen world. She had taken most of her meals alone, covered all mirrors in the house with black crepe and written letters on black-banded paper, so that every interaction with the outside world would bear the signs of her grief.
Second Mourning had come next. She had still worn all-black clothing, but had relinquished the protective veil. Then, on the third year after George's death, Holly had undergone Half Mourning, which had allowed her to wear gray or mauve, and to participate in small, inconspicuous women's activities, such as tea with relatives or close female friends.
Now that all stages of mourning were finished, Holly had emerged from the dark and comforting shelter of the grieving period into a bright social world that had become terribly unfamiliar. True, the faces and the scene were exactly as she remembered…except that George was no longer with her. She felt conspicuous in her aloneness, uncomfortable in her new identity as the Widow Taylor. Like everyone else, she had always regarded widows as somber figures to be pitied, women who wore an invisible mantle of tragedy no matter what their outward attire suggested. Now she understood why so many widows who attended events like this always looked as though they wished they were somewhere else. People approached her with sympathetic expressions, offered a small cup of punch or a few consoling words and left with a discreet air of relief, as if a social duty had been performed and they were now free to enjoy the ball. She herself had done the same thing to widows in the past, wanting to be kind and yet reluctant to be affected by the desolation in their eyes.
Somehow it had not occurred to Holly that she would feel so isolated in the midst of a large gathering. The empty space beside her, where George should have been, seemed like a painfully obvious gap. Unexpectedly, a feeling akin to embarrassment came over her, as if she had stumbled into a place where she did not belong. She was half of something that had once been whole. Her presence at the ball only served as a reminder that a dearly loved man had been lost.
Her face felt stiff and cold as she inched her way along the wall toward the door of the drawing room. The sweet riot of melody the musicians played did not cheer her, as her friends had hopefully suggested…the music only seemed to mock her.
Once Holly had danced as lightly and swiftly as the other young women here tonight, feeling as if she were flying in George's protective arms. They had been made for each other, and people had once commented with admiring smiles. She and George had been similar in size, with her own diminutive stature matched by her husband's less-than-towering frame. Although George had been average in height, he had been wonderfully fit, and so very handsome with his golden brown hair and alert blue eyes, and a dazzling smile that was never long in hiding. He had loved to laugh, dance, talk…no ball or crush or dinner party had ever been complete without him.
Oh, George. A wet aching pressure grew behind her eyes. How lucky I was to have you. How lucky we all were. But how am I supposed to go on without you?
Well-meaning friends had pressured her to come here tonight, intending that this should begin the days of freedom from the smothering rituals of mourning. But she wasn't ready…not tonight…perhaps not ever.
Her gaze scored across the crowd, locating various members of George's family as they socialized and ate delicacies from gilded Sevres porcelain plates. His older brother, William, Lord Taylor, was escorting his wife to the drawing room, where a quadrille was about to begin. Lord and Lady Taylor were a well-suited couple, but their tepid affection did not begin to approach the genuine love that she and George had shared. It seemed that everyone in George's family—his parents, his brothers, and their wives—had finally recovered from his death. Enough that they could take part in a ball, laugh and eat and drink, allow themselves to forget that the most beloved member of the family was in an early grave. Holly did not blame them for their ability to carry on, now that George was gone…in fact, she envied them. How wonderful it would be to escape the invisible mantle of grief that covered her from head to toe. If not for her daughter Rose, she would never have a moment's respite from the constanche of loss.
“Holland,” came a murmur from nearby, and she turned to see George's youngest brother, Thomas. Although Thomas had the same attractive features, blue eyes and amber-streaked hair that all the Taylor men shared, he lacked the mischievous spark, the slow dazzling smile, the warmth and confidence that had made George so irresistible. Thomas was a taller, more somber version of his charismatic brother. He had been a steady source of support ever since George's death from typhoid fever.
“Thomas,” Holly said brightly, forcing a smile to her stiff lips, “are you enjoying the ball?”
“Not especially,” he replied, while sympathy flickered in the azure depths of his eyes. “But I believe I'm navigating it better than you, my dear. There's a pinched look on your face, as though one of your megrims is starting.”
“Yes, it is,” Holly admitted, suddenly aware of the persistent pain in her temples and the back of her skull, the throbbing that warned of worse pain to come. She had never had a megrim in her life until George's passing, but they had started after his funeral. The severe headaches appeared unexpectedly and often drove her to bed for two and three days at a time.
“Shall I escort you home?” Thomas asked. “I'm certain that Olinda would not mind.”
“No,” Holly said swiftly, “you must stay here and enjoy the ball with your wife, Thomas. I'm perfectly able to return home unescorted. In fact, I would prefer it.”
“All right.” He smiled at her, and the similarity of his features to George's made her heart wrench painfully and caused the throbbing in her head to sharpen. “At least allow me to send for the family carriage.”
“Thank you,” she said gratefully. “Shall I wait in the entrance hall?”
Thomas shook his head. “I fear there is such a crush of vehicles outside that it may take several minutes for ours to come to the forefront. In the meanwhile, there are several quiet places for you to wait. As I recollect, there is a nice little parlor that opens onto a private conservatory. You'll find it past the entrance hall, along the hallway to the left of the curving staircase.”
“Thomas,” Holly murmured, touching his sleeve lightly and managing a wan smile. “What would I do without you?”
“You'll never have to find out,” he replied gravely. “There is nothing I would not do for George's wife. The rest of the family feels the same. We'll take care of you and Rose. Always.”
Holly knew she should have taken comfort in his words. However, she could not rid herself of the troubling awareness of being a burden for George's family. The annuity left to her at George's death was so small as to be inconsequential, making it necessary for her to sell the elegant white-columned house they had occupied. She was grateful for the Taylors' generosity in giving her two rooms in their family residence. She had seen the way other widows were shunted aside, or compelled to marry again, just so a family could be rid of them. Instead, the Taylors treated her as a beloved guest and, even more, as a living monument to George's memory.
As Holly moved along the wall of the drawing room, her left shoulder blade suddenly met the hard, gilded edge of the ornately molded doorframe. Blindly she darted through the open doorway, into the keyhole-shaped entrance hall of the mansion belonging to Lord Bellemont, the earl of Warwick. The town estate was designed for house parties in which politics were plotted, marriages were engineered and fortunes were changed. Lady Bellemont possessed a well-deserved reputation as an expert hostess, inviting the perfect mixture of aristocrats, politicians and accomplished artists to her balls and soirees. The Taylors liked and trusted Lady Bellemont, and had deemed it appropriate for Holly to reenter society at the first ball of the new Season.
The circular space of the entrance hall was flanked by two immense curving staircases. Conveniently situated on the ground floor, the main rooms of the mansion branched into clusters of parlors and visiting areas that opened onto outdoor conservatories or small paved gardens. Anyone wishing for a small private meeting or romantic rendezvous could find a secluded place with no difficulty.
Breathing easier with every step that took her farther away from the crowded drawing room, Holly strode along the hallway toward the parlor that Thomas had suggested. The skirts of her corded silk evening dress, dyed in a shade of blue so dark as to approximate black, swished heavily around her legs as she walked. The hem of the gown was weighted with wadded and stitched bunches of silk and crepe that gave it the currently fashionable fullness, so different from the light, floating skirts of the gowns that had been in style before George had died.
The parlor door was half-open, and the room was unlit. However, clear icy light filtered through the windows, illuminating the parlor just enough that Holly could see without the aid of a candle. A pair of curving French armchairs and a table occupied one corner, while a few musical instruments reposed in mahogany stands nearby. Fringed velvet swags shrouded the windows and the top of the fireplace mantel. The thick carpet underfoot, patterned with floral medallions, muffled her footsteps.
Slipping inside the shadowy, quiet space, Holly closed the door, put a hand to the sung banded waist of her gown and gave a long sigh.
“Thank God,” she whispered, relieved beyond measure to be alone. How strange…she had become so accustomed to solitude that she was uncomfortable in a crowd. She had once been socially adept, fun-loving, at ease in any situation…but that had been because of George. Being his wife had given her a confidence that she now sorely lacked.
As she wandered deeper into the room, a cool draft wafted over her, making her shiver. Although her boatshaped neckline was modestly high, nearly covering her collarbone, her throat and the tops of her shoulders were exposed to the open air. Seeking the source of the breeze, Holly realized that the parlor opened onto a conservatory leading to the outside gardens, and that the French doors had been left ajar. She went to close the doors, then hesitated with her hand on the cold brass knobs as an odd feeling came over her. As she stared through the frosted-glass door panes, she felt her heartbeat escalate to an uncomfortable speed, until it pounded and throbbed in every limb.
She had the feeling of being poised at the edge of a cliff with endless air below her. The urge to withdraw quickly into the safety of the parlor, perhaps even back to the overheated clamor of the drawing room, came over her in a strong surge. Instead, she gripped the doorknobs tightly in her palms until they turned slick and hot in her perspiring palms. The night lured her outward, away from everything safe and known.
Trembling a little, Holly tried to summon a laugh at her own foolishness. She stepped forward, intending to fill her lungs with a blast of bracing air. Suddenly a huge, dark shape appeared before her…the towering form of a man. Holly froze in utter surprise. Her nerveless hands slipped from the doorknobs, while shock sent prickles all over her body. Perhaps it was Thomas appearing to inform her that the carriage was ready. But he was too tall, too massive to be her brother-in-law, or any other man of her acquaintance.
Before she could utter a word, the stranger reached inside and pulled her across the threshold. With a small cry, Holly stumbled forward, dragged unwillingly out of the parlor and into the night. Momentum brought her full against him, and she was nothing but a tumble of silk and stiff limbs in his arms. He handled her easily, his strength so great that she was as helpless as a kitten in his large hands.
“Wait—” she gasped in bewilderment. His body was as hard as if he were wrought of steel instead of flesh. The cloth of his coat was smooth beneath her perspiring palms. Her nostrils were filled with the scents of starched linen, tobacco, brandy, an utterly masculine mixture that reminded her somewhat of how George had smelled. It had been so long since she had been held like this. In the past three years she had not turned to any man for comfort, had not wanted any embrace to interfere with the memory of the last time her husband had held her.
She was not allowed any choice about this, however. As she spluttered a protest and writhed against his solid body, he bent his head and murmured close to her ear.
The sound of his voice stunned her…a deep purring rumble, like the voice of Hades as he dragged an unwilling Persephone down to his underworld kingdom. “You took your sweet time about getting here, my lady.”
He thought she was someone else, she realized. Somehow she had stumbled onto someone else's romantic rendezvous. “But I—I'm not—”
Her words were crushed into silence as he covered her mouth with his. She jerked in startled reaction, amazed and horrified and abruptly furious…he had taken away George's last kiss…but that thought was burned away in a sudden blaze of sensation. His mouth was so hot, pressing and demanding until her lips were forced apart. She had never been kissed like this, his mouth imparting a message of such lurid desire that she wilted from the heat. She turned her head to escape him, but he followed the movement, angling his head more intimately over hers. The pounding of her heart increased to a deafening roar, and she whimpered in instinctive fear.
Holly sensed the exact moment when the man realized that she was a stranger. She felt him go still with surprise, his breath stopping. Now he would release her, she thought hazily. But after the long hesitation, he changed his grip, his arms still secure but no longer crushing, and one large hand slid up her back to cradle the bare nape of her neck.
She had been a married woman—she had thought herself to be experienced and worldly-wise. But this stranger kissed her in a way no one ever had, invading her, tasting her with his tongue, making her shiver and recoil. The subtle hint of brandy flavored his sleek, warm mouth…and there was something else…some intimate essence that lured her strongly. She eventually found herself relaxing against his hard body, accepting the tender ravishment of his kiss, even answering the exploration of his tongue with timid touches of her own. Perhaps it was the suddenness of the encounter, or the concealing darkness around them, or the fact that they were utterly unknown to each other…but for a feverish moment she became someone else in his arms. Compelled to touch him somewhere, anywhere, she reached around his neck and felt the smooth, hard nape of his neck, and the thick, short locks of hair that curled slightly against her fingertips. His vast height made it necessary for her to rise on her toes to reach him. She slid her palm to his lean cheek, discovering the grain of heavy close-shaven bristle.