If a shy spinster, approaching the age of five and twenty was still allowed to dream the wistful fantasy of being swept off her feet by a knight in shining armor, surely her mind would conjure up the delicious, not to mention naughty image of the very man who stood directly across the ballroom.
Sighing, Eden feigned left, and rose up on tip toes to gaze through the gently fluttering fluted palm leaves. He was certainly worthy of a swoon, and a sigh. But upon closer inspection, it was much too clear to her that the role of shining knight was a tad too….banal for this man.
No, Eden thought dreamily as she hid deeper into the corner, using the potted palm to shield her, he was not the shining knight of any fairy tale. But the tarnished one. The way he stood against the wall, arrogant and assured, his heavy lidded gaze sliding slowly over the ballroom, like a hawk circling prey, waiting for the right moment to swoop down and capture it with his sharp talons was the stuff not of girlish dreams, but a woman‘s fantasy. Definitely, there was more than a hint of danger and ruthlessness about him. Not to mention a nerve prickling…awareness…that made him seem much too dangerous for the roll of benevolent knight. No, she thought, her breathing heavy, not a knight, but a villain, a man to pluck a woman up and bind her, carrying her away. A villain who would not just threaten a proper ravishment, but who would darn well follow through with it. Oh, yes, villain. A spectacularly beastly, and beautiful one at that.
It was just as well he was not the knightly type. Spinsters of a certain advanced age craved adventure, and other rather amoral deeds that her younger counterparts had not yet come to realize could be so exciting. But exciting it was to think of him, and watch him while he was unaware. It was even more exciting to think of him deep in the night when she was alone in bed, and her mind was allowed free rein. Oh, the ravishing that went on in her dreams!
Yes. She was rather certain that the man who stood directly opposite her would give any lady a grand adventure--that and a good deal more, she mused.
This was the third time she had seen him. And while it gave her body a thrill, and set her heart racing to sneak peeks at him through the dancing couples, and the potted palms of the ballrooms, it was also disheartening. Next week she would be up north, to her beloved Yorkshire and the craggy cliffs of the North Sea. While she adored it at her country home, she felt the heavy sense of loss. For these past three nights had single handily been the most exciting of all the past eight Seasons of her existence. Not even her come out, could match it.
Silly chit she was being. She didn’t even know his name. Didn’t know anything about him, only knew he was the most beautiful specimen of the male specie she’d ever come across. Not only was it his handsome beauty, or the very fit body she reminded herself yet again, that she should absolutely not be staring at, but there was something else there. In his eyes. A hard glint. Ruthlessness? Determination? Whatever it was, it drew her like a moth to the flame. The dark, brooding hero who would take what he wanted. Oh yes, she was being drawn dangerously close to his heat, and one touch, she would go up in flames.
But it wouldn’t be her, she reminded herself. She was Eden Westlake. One of those Westlakes. Her family, and the generations that came before them had been given the epitaph, the Wicked and Wanton Westlakes. Her kin was known for their exploits, for their beauty and poise, and confidence. For their passionate love, their torrid affairs, and wild, reckless natures. Every member of her family lived up to the name, except for her. She was the changeling. The black sheep. The odd man out.
The legendary Westlake charm and beauty had not trickled down to her. Nor had the confidence, and the sensuality that made her family the speculation, and envy of the ton.
With the Westlake legend to lead them on, it hardly mattered that her brother, the Duke of Trevere carried with him a prestigious and powerful title. He was one of the highest ranking peers in Britain, and certainly the richest--and most powerful.
All of this, one would think, would combine to make her, the second youngest sister of the current duke, a marriage magnet. But eight years after her come out, Eden Westlake had managed only two proposals--both of them broken within months of acceptance.
Third time is a charm her brother would always mutter. But Eden knew only bad luck came in threes.
“There you are, what the devil are you doing with your face in the palm leaves?”
“Sssh, lower your voice.”
“Really, dear, you needn’t go to such lengths to hide yourself. You look utterly breathtaking tonight in that gown. Although, I feel I must warn you, you are precariously close to spilling what God gave you from that bodice, and if old Cavendish looks up from his chair, he‘ll get an eyeful.”
With a quick glance down, and a grimace, Eden realized that yes, it was true. She was spilling out of her gown. She always spilled out of her gowns. “He has rheumy eyes anyway,” she muttered, which made her companion laugh.
“Rheumy, jaundiced, trust me, men have a knack for stealing peeks at whatever takes their fancy.”
“You were the one who insisted I wear this gown tonight” she hissed in a burst of frustration. “Why didn’t you tell me it didn’t cover enough?”
“Forgive me, I didn’t know you would be bent at the waist, hiding behind the potted palms. Now then, what exactly are you stalking, hmmm?”
But Cynthia Westlake, or Auntie Cyn, as she and her siblings affectionately dubbed her, had been into the champagne tonight. Her eyes were glistening with mischief, and her cheeks were slightly rosy, lending her thirty nine year old face a radiant brilliance. Cynthia Westlake was a diamond of the first water, and a beholder of that infamous Westlake beauty and charm. That she was a spinster hadn’t caused her a second of being on the shelf. Auntie Cyn would never hear of it. She was too vibrant, too full of life to let something so insignificant as her unmarried state define her.
Cynthia Westlake could have any man she wanted. The fact she didn’t had always been of interest to Eden. Especially since Eden had entered the same house of mourning as her aunt--spinsterhood.
“Well, come on then,” Cyn whispered, “what are we looking at?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Darling, you make a miserable liar. Come,” Cyn murmured, nudging her out of the way, “let me have a look for myself.”
There was nothing to be done now. Auntie Cyn, would have her way, and if she didn’t, and there was a tussle behind the palm tree, it would raise curiosity. And Eden could not live with yet another humiliation in the ballrooms of the ton.
“Hmm,” came the throaty reply. “I approve.”
The palm leaves slipped back into place, and Eden watched as her aunt straightened her hair.
“You can’t know what I was looking at,” Eden challenged, even though her face was growing a heated shade of red.
“Well, it wasn’t the footman, dear. He’s seventy if he’s a day. I believe, it must have been the dark haired gentleman standing against the wall, the one with the longish black hair, and mysterious eyes, and the delightful little grin.”
“Grin?” Eden shoved her aunt aside to peek through the tree limbs. She’d never seen him smile. What a sight to behold that would be. Too late, she heard the tinkling laughter of her aunt behind her.
“Thank you, darling, for confirming my suspicions. He is delightful isn‘t he?”
“You,” Eden fumed. “You should know better at your age.”
Cyn waved her hand dismissively. “I’m nine and thirty, not moldering, darling. I’m still quite capable of discerning who is delectable and who is not.”
“I should say so.”
“Oh, lovely,” Eden groaned. Her aunt’s long time friend, Lady Dhesmond, Dhes to her family, was pressing her way into the corner. It was far too small a corner for three ladies wearing ball gowns, but Dhes, not to be left out of the gossip pushed her way in.
“Who is delectable?” Dhes asked. “I must pass my opinion. You know, Eden, my opinion is invaluable in this instance.”
“Between the fronds. Straight ahead,” her aunt instructed as she parted the leaves with her gloved hands. “Tall, black hair, fierce expression that just calls to a woman to fix and make happy.”
Eden rolled her eyes. Aunt Cyn and Dhes were a liability. And she would be the victim.
“Oh, yes,” Dhes murmured appreciatively, “most delectable. My, such a ferocious scowl, positively fierce,” she murmured. “Sinful beast,” she whispered, her lips curling up in approval. “Yes, he’ll do, Eden, luv. Perhaps Cyn, we should escort Eden here and see if we might put a smile on that pouting mouth.”
“You wouldn’t dare!” Eden hissed.
“Wouldn’t we?” Dhes challenged. “And what kind of mentor to you would we be, if we did not make the most out of that magnificent gown, and what’s more, that magnificent chest of yours?”
Cyn wrapped her hand around her arm. “Come, my dear. A little promenade to the buffet is in order, I think.”
“Display your plumage,” Dhes instructed.
“I am not doing this. You can’t make me!”
It was one thing to stalk someone in private, and dream of him in the privacy of her thoughts. It was another matter altogether to go prancing before him, displaying herself like…like…some sort of brazen courtesan. Besides, she had neither the looks or the confidence to carry out such a thing. And no one knew that better than her aunt, and Lady Dhesmond.
Dhes smiled, and gave her an encouraging squeeze. It was met with a matching one from Cyn, and a conspiratorial whisper. “Darling, if you want to make the beast play, you must draw him out. And to draw out a beast like him, you must entice him. And there is only a very few things that entices the kind of beast you have been lurking after.”
“And that is?” she demanded. Why she enquired, she had no idea. She had no intention of seeking his attention, nor was she going to indulge her two companions by performing like some sort of pet monkey. But too late, she had asked, her curiosity, always the bane of her existence, was piqued, and now her companions were most certainly amused. Dhes’ eyes were glowing,
“Why, flesh, of course, is what entices a predator such as him,” Dhes replied. “Fresh, innocent, and out of his reach--for now.”
“Come,” her aunt insisted, “let us bait the beast and see if he wishes to strike.”
With a groan, Eden allowed herself to be dragged off and out of the corner. She was going to be ill. She was quite certain. While trying to settle her rioting stomach, and protesting sensibilities, she was mentally heaping a bunch of curses upon the heads of her sister, Eve and Dhes’ daughter, Adele, for leaving her alone with these two match making crazed women. Who truly did mean well. Although, she rather they performed their skill far away from her.
“Smile,” Dhes demanded, “we are not taking you to the stock.”
“A surprise since I feel like I am slated for death,” she answered back, aware her cheeks were flushing furiously. “You know I am miserable at this sort of thing.”
“Yes, and tonight we are going to change all that. Oh, look, he emerges from the shadows,” Cyn murmured to her friend. “Smile, Eden, and lure him to his doom.”
“And my brother teases me about reading too many lurid novels,” she muttered, even as she glanced over her shoulder and gave an all too quick, and all too awkward smile.
Oh Lord, when could she leave this place….
* * * *
The palm fronds were swaying again.
He hid his smile, pretended to keep his gaze straight ahead, but instead he studied the topiary from his peripheral vision. He had noticed the slight movement a few minutes ago. Strange, all the blasted plants had seemed to sprout with animated life these past three nights. But tonight, the palm threatened to come loose of its gilt planter and begin walking over to him. This was no subtle movement, but a full fit of apoplexy.
He closed his eyes, instantly the image of his voyeur came to mind. Opening them again, he watched her sashay across the ballroom, accompanied by two women. He had watched her earlier tonight, the image of her lush body fitted into a tight fitting bodice was melted and ingrained in his brain. But this…studying the sway of her hips, the way they beckoned was a new kind of torture.
She was not the sort of woman he entertained. Experienced was his first requirement, and this one, she was an innocent. Second, he picked his partners carefully, wanting no entanglements. This one had already gotten him all tangled up. Third, he wanted skilled lovers. But the thought of tutoring this one, of showing her the ways to pleasure him set fire to his brain, and unholy itch in his cock. And itch that would not be put off for much longer.
She was everything he had ever privately fantasized of. Innocence. And willingness to sin. And everything he could never have. But that fact hadn’t prevented him from dreaming things he shouldn’t. From thinking, and wising, and damn it all, hoping of things that might come to pass, but knew wouldn’t.
His mind, and his dreams were vast, and in them, he had done unspeakable, dark and dirty things to her. Damn those dreams. He wanted to drink himself into oblivion and never leave those dreams, or those unspeakable acts upon an innocent.
He was not here for this. This ball was business. And she…by all that was holy, she would be sheer pleasure.
No, business before pleasure. It had always been his way. It had never been a struggle before, especially when the business was going to achieve his dream. And he wanted that dream with a ruthless determination that would not be undermined.
Oh God, that smile. He pressed forward, coming out of the shadows, lured by that shy grin and the lowered lids, and the flush of her cheeks, and the pink cast spreading across her bosom. Unspeakable things…the memory taunted him.
Base desires had always been so easily, and effectively smothered. He’d never been a slave to them before, but lately, well, lately he had become a bit of lecher in his dreams. He’d had this woman, every pleasurable way he desired. It should have left him satisfied. Dreams always did. But tonight, well, he was hungry for something more than the intangible and the ethereal. He wanted something real. Alive. Wanted to touch her, taste her…have her…
Pressing off the wall, he followed in her wake, driven by some unknown need, some force that would not go unheeded. Pure, unbridled desire rule him tonight. Not business. Not the idea of achieving his dream, and fulfilling a bargain. But lust. Unadultrated. Unquenchable. Unrepentent Carnal desire at its most base level.
What was wrong with him? He never thought this way. Never needed this way. He could get off with his hand and feel just as good as he would with a quick tup. But tonight, he knew that there was nothing quick that could satiate him. Just as there was nothing that could stop him from coming up behind her, and secretly running the tip of his finger along the seed pearl buttons that closed the back of her gown.
So pretty, so feminine. So damn innocent in that pale pink frock. He wanted to rip the bodice in half, scattering the seed pearls, wanted to fall to his knees, clutch her hips in his palms and run his mouth and tongue down the length of her spine till he reached the lush bottom that cradled him so invitingly now.
He wanted to possess her, thrust into her, feel her stretch and welcome him, despite the fact he was so far beneath her.
Dirty unspeakable--shameful--things. Damn those dreams….
Foolish ladies to leave your lamb unprotected he thought as he glanced quickly at the two women who had left her alone at the table, and were now busy talking with other matrons.
His prey stiffened at his touch, turned her head slightly as he pressed into her, her scent washing over him, drugging him like smoke from a pipe.
He was losing his mind, his will. Some madness ruled him. A madness he had never encountered before, but one that now gripped him. It was a ravening hunger. He’d experienced it before. That need to take, to possess. Cold, starving street urchin that he was, he had wanted to reach out for something that wasn’t his, that would never bee his, wanted to sate himself on something fine and warm--and soft. That feeling was baek, only now it was ten times stronger, ten times hungrier. And he wanted it so much more…
Get the hell out, his voice warned. You’ll ruin everything.
He studied the line of her neck, the fine hairs at her nape, the way gooseflesh prickled to her skin. He heard her breathing, sharp, heavy, almost panting, and his blood answered, thickening.
Jesus, Granger, the voice cried, what the hell are you doing?
Dark, unspeakable things…
What are you going to do, cart her off, take her to your bed and ravish her?
He let out his breath, it whispered across her nape, tickling the hairs against her skin, making the gooseflesh spread.
Mine. The voice that had risen upon first seeing her and would now not be silenced echoed in his brain, drowning out all warnings. Mine.
For the first time, ever, he ignored his instincts, pressed closer to her, shielded her back with his chest as he dragged his fingertip slowly down her spine and watched as she shivered.
“You have my attention,” he whispered, the sound deep, husky, dripping with barely contained desire, “Now, what do you propose to do with it?”
Taste of Spring!
HEAT oven to 350ºF.
LINE 8-inch square pan with foil, with ends of foil extending over sides. Mix crumbs, 1/2 cup flour and brown sugar in medium bowl. Cut in margarine with pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse crumbs; press onto bottom of prepared pan. Bake 15 min.
MEANWHILE, beat cream cheese spread and granulated sugar with mixer until well blended. Add eggs and 2 Tbsp. flour; mix well. Blend in 1 Tbsp. lemon zest, juice and baking powder; pour over crust.
BAKE 25 to 28 min. or until centre is set. Cool completely. Refrigerate 2 hours. Sprinkle with icing sugar and remaining zest just before cutting into squares to serve.
** a tried and true recipe from Kraft Canada's What's Cooking Magazine***
1-1/2 cups Honey Maid Graham Crumbs 1/2 cup sugar, divided 6 Tbsp. butter, melted 2 pkg. (250 g each) Philadelphia Brick Cream Cheese, softened 3 cups cold milk, divided 2 pkg. (4-serving size each) Jell-O Lemon Instant Pudding 3 cups thawed Cool Whip Whipped Topping
MIX graham crumbs, 1/4 cup sugar and butter until well blended; press onto bottom of 13x9-inch pan.
BEAT cream cheese, remaining sugar and 1/4 cup milk with whisk until well blended. Spread over crust.
BEAT pudding mixes and remaining milk with whisk 3 min. Pour over cream cheese layer in pan. Let stand 5 min. or until thickened; cover with Cool Whip. Refrigerate 4 hours.
**Another favorite from Kraft Canada's What's Cooking Magazine. This recipe is also equally fabulous when made with light or lower fat alternatives!**