Her Dark Master: Chapter 1
Victoria Rose Ashford sat primly in the front salon, watching through lowered lashes as her mother gushed over the visiting Colonel Jameson. Though the man cut a debonair figure, the gray at his temples coupled with the wide, blunt mustache reminded her more of a grandfather than a pleasing suitor.
No, he was most unsuitable, regardless of her mother's desires. Warnings, more like, though Tori also dismissed those as idle threats. Refusing proposals was not uncommon when a girl was still in her first few seasons. Why, her best friend Laurel Edison had turned down two herself.
"Miss Ashford, perhaps you would favor me with a turn at the pianoforte?"
Stifling a sigh, she seated herself at the instrument, taking as much time as she dared to arrange her skirts, the music, the cushion beneath her.
Bringing her fingers to the keys, she deftly coaxed a tune from the pianoforte. Not her favorite activity, by far, but at least it precluded conversation with the Colonel. She cared little for his battlefield exploits or his stern command of the Indian people under his jurisdiction. He was much too rigid for her tastes.
Polite applause followed the last strains of music and she stood, giving a light curtsy.
"You play splendidly, Miss Ashford."
"Thank you, Colonel." The platitude sounded forced and insincere to her ear, but he seemed to take no note of it.
Instead, he studied her intently. Was it her overactive imagination or did his gaze linger at her breasts? Surely he would not commit such a breach of etiquette.
"Do you have any other talents, Miss Ashford? Singing? Poetry?"
Tori cleared her throat and smiled at him. "No, I am afraid the pianoforte is my only real talent."
His mustache quivered alarmingly and his lips curled back. "I doubt that, my dear. It is my finding that young women such as you are remarkably talented in many areas. Once they receive proper instruction."
She blinked, positive she misheard. Misunderstood. Her secret writings must be affecting her more than she first believed if she was finding hidden meaning in the most innocent of comments.
"You are absolutely correct, Colonel," her mother said, moving to stand beside him. "Victoria has always been a quick study."
"Indeed?" the Colonel murmured, his shuttered gaze stalking her.
Her mother slipped her arm through his elbow. "Would you like another cup of tea, Colonel?"
Finally pulling his eyes away, he shook his head. "No thank you, Lady Ashford. I must be off. I trust I will find you both at the Harrington ball?"
"Yes, of course."
"And you, my dear, will you consent to allowing me a spot on your dance card?"
Tori slanted a discreetly pleading look at her mother, to no avail. Swallowing hard, she nodded. "As you wish."
His mustache quivered again and she caught the huff of air as he exhaled.
"Very good. Very good, indeed." The Colonel's eyes glinted. "Lady Ashford, if you run into our mutual friend Mr. Wolffe, would you be so good as to pass along my greetings?"
Tori glanced quizzically over at her mother's in-drawn breath, surprised to see two small lines bracketing her mouth. "I am quite certain I shall not see him again, Colonel."
"But just in case, please keep my words in mind." With a bow and a final intense stare, he was gone.
Tori did not wait for the door to close behind him before dashing up the stairs, skirts high in hand.
"Victoria," her mother said sharply, stopping her at the top of the staircase.
She looked back. "Yes?"
"Come sit with me, please."
Tori slowly walked back down the stairs, studying her mother. Behind her green eyes lurked a shadow. Of late, she'd grown more assertive in her desire to see Tori wed. The friction between them over the subject reared frequently, but Tori knew deep down her mother only wished her happiness.
She sat on the sofa and hoped this wasn't going to be yet another lecture on the necessity of a good marriage. She already knew that. She also knew Corwin would be the absolute finest match she could make. If she could make it.
Given his indifference to her, Tori feared a liaison between them would be impossible. However, she was not quite ready to give in. She still had time. She joined her brother Ryder and Matthew once a month for shooting lessons. She lived for those days when she managed to make Matthew forget she was more than a child and less than his friend's sister. A pity they didn't occur more often.
"I have given you plenty of opportunity to secure your own future, have I not?"
Heart tightening, she stiffened. "What do you mean?"
A frown marred her mother's brow. She rubbed her fingers to her temple and then shrugged. "You cannot have Corwin, Tori. You must leave that childhood dream behind and accept your future as a woman. A woman of status, married to a man with the wealth and means to care for you gloriously for the remainder of your years."
The words ripped at her. She ducked her head, refusing to allow any tears to fall. "I harbor no lost hope on Corwin, Mother, but neither do I wish for comfort over love."
"With security comes love. The Colonel can offer you that."
She stared at her dame, completely aghast. "You cannot be serious!"
Had the countess's eyes shimmered before she looked away? "There is nothing objectionable about him."
"Of course there is. He's old and stiff and...." She gulped, trying to find some other tangible quality that would make her mother dismiss him as a possible suitor. "And he looks at me in an unseemly way!"
Lady Ashford's gaze swung back, resting on her with such intensity that Tori felt the need to confess her sins, both old and new. Remarkably she managed to hold her tongue and her poise.
"He is a man, Victoria, and you are both beautiful and charming. Looking at you is a natural instinct." A wan smile lifted her lips. "And he is not so old, really. Hardly much more than I."
This was too much. Tori leapt to her feet. "No, Mother, this is madness. Why? What is going on that you wish me to wed someone like him?"
A very visible tremor wracked the countess, and her skin paled to an even whiter hue than usual before she regained control. "Family is most precious, Victoria. And you are already one and twenty. If you do not wed this season, then you may never do so. You will be a spinster. Alone, no children, no husband. Is that what you wish?"
Bitterness welled in her. No, a solitary life was most definitely not what she wanted. But neither did she wish a staid, boring life with a man older than her late father. She wanted Matthew Corwin.
Before she could make another comment, her mother rose and hugged her close. "I only want you happy and safe, my dear. Please remember that, no matter what." She patted Tori's cheek. "Now, go upstairs and get some rest. You look wan."
Tori turned away, making for the sanctity of her room. She twisted the key in the lock and leaned against the door, pondering both her mother's odd comments and the Colonel's visit. Something about the man caused warning bells to ring, but she could not quite decipher why. He'd behaved the perfect gentleman. But his pointed looks and even more pointed comments did not sit well.
With a sigh, she pushed away from the door and rummaged in her wardrobe, digging beneath a mountain of hatboxes for her leather satchel.
True, she had a ball to attend later this evening, but she owed her editor a new installment. What started as a lark had become a profitable, intoxicating adventure. Three years earlier, she had discovered her brother's secret stash of Opals--an underground paper of salacious adventures and sex--during a game of Blind Man's Bluff. Time and again, she'd crept into his room while he was out and pilfered the papers, reading without truly understanding them. Laurel, of course, had been no help either. It had taken some time, covert eavesdropping and a good bit of bribing the parlor maids for Tori to make sense of it all. Once she had, her newfound knowledge did more than thrill and titillate her. It roused her into a new awareness of everything and everyone around her. Including Matthew.
Most especially Matthew.
She began to notice how he moved and the way his eyes and hands spoke deeper than his words. Wondered and pictured how his body would entice and entangle with hers amid silken sheets and soft feather down. Soon, the stories of The Opal became almost ordinary. Though they still had the power to arouse, she found herself wanting more. Her imagination yielded hotter, more explicit visions of her and Matthew.
At last, fantasy fueled by frustration drove her to pen her own lascivious tale. Then another and another until one night, in a very tipsy whispered conversation with Laurel, she determined she would publish these stories. Despite the heady port, her friend had been aghast and rightfully so. The suggestion was ludicrous, even if Tori had known how one went about getting published.
Still, the heady temptation was too much for Tori's daring nature. First, she pinned down exactly when The Opal was delivered and how. That had been ridiculously easy. Finding the messenger boy and convincing him to carry an anonymous letter to the publisher had been more difficult--not to mention expensive. She'd had to coerce the little ragamuffin with nearly all her pin money.
Three years later, she and the messenger were both amassing a tidy sum from the writings. She paid him well for his silence even though he didn't know what her missives contained. Even her publisher had no idea of her identity.
In one dizzying swoop, she'd gone from innocent miss to published sex author, a career that, if discovered, would assure her ruin. No man, not even the Colonel--and definitely not Matthew--would wed her should the truth be known. And, despite her protests to her mother, she did still pine for Matthew.
Tori pulled her thoughts away from both the Colonel and Matthew, settling herself down to write.
It was a pity, though, that her heroines received more pleasure than she'd ever known. Likely ever would.
Innocent in real pleasures she might be, but her fictional characters and those of her fellow authors in The Opal Chronicles tutored her well. She'd gained insight she'd wager no other unmarried miss of the Ton possessed. With that knowledge came a sort of instinct that told her Matthew Corwin would be a man to reckon with in the bedroom. If only.... She sighed heavily, fearing such an arrangement would never occur between them. But still, he provided much needed inspiration and fantasy.
Pulling the leather folder open, she dug out her nib and parchment, re-reading the last bit she'd written.
Ewan's hand slid higher up her thigh, trembling over the silky flesh. He could smell her excitement. The honey already dripped from her cunny, wetting her thin linen chemise.
"My lord, it's frightfully hot in here. Why do you not disrobe?"
Ewan glowered at the upstairs maid. "I told you to stay silent. You'll have to pay for that."
The maid giggled before remembering her role and assuming a pouting demeanor. "Pay, my lord?"
"Aye, wench." He slapped the inside of her thigh, and his cock tightened at her squeal. He traced the faint mark his palm left behind. "On your knees."
Her tits swayed deliciously as she complied, giving him a saucy wink over her shoulder. Her arse tilted at an enticing angle.
Ewan shifted behind her, running his fingertips along the backs of her legs up to her round, fleshy bottom. He pressed his palms flat against her. "Not quite warm enough, wench." He drew his hands back and brought one down hard. Fast. Again and again until her delightful bum turned a rosy, splotchy hue of deepest red.
She screeched and flailed on the bed with each stroke of his hand, her tears muffled by the pillows.
Tori shifted uncomfortably on the chair as she read. Her hand clenched at her lap, rubbing with slight pressure her own sensitive mound.
This was the sort of passion she wanted. The sort of sexual heat that only a strong man could offer. A masterful man.
A man like Matthew Corwin.
Tori glanced at the gilded mantle clock and sucked in a sharp breath. She was literally running out of time. If she wished to receive her weekly payment, she must turn her manuscript over to the runner in less than an hour.
"Blast it." She bent once more over the parchment. Her mind fast and naughty, she scribbled out a satisfying scene for Ewan and his maid, dabbling out the final words just as the clock rang the quarter hour.
"Hurry, hurry." She blew over the last page to dry the ink, bundled the pages in a discreet package, donned her cloak and crept from the room.
Fortunately, the runner always showed up on time in the same spot, an alleyway not more than two blocks from her house. That made getting in and out unnoticed much easier.
Delivery complete and the latest round of pound notes in hand, Tori snuck home as quietly as she'd left. When she reached her room, she let out her held breath, calmed her racing heart and stashed the money.
"Miss Victoria, are you awake?"
Glory's soft voice muffled its way through the thick oak door. Tori smoothed her hair and unlocked the door for the upstairs maid.
"Yes, Glory, what is it?"
"Miss Edison would like a word."
Tori brightened. "Send her up, please."
The maid left and moments later Laurel Edison took her place.
"Laurel, whatever is the matter? You're white as snow and twice as cold. Come by the fire."
Laurel's body shook beneath her hands as Tori drew her further into the room.
"Shut the door," Laurel pleaded, fear thick in her voice. "Lock it. Oh, Tori, we're in deep trouble."
Her own sense of dread rising, Tori complied. "What's wrong?"
Tori gasped. "Impossible."
"No, it's true." Laurel dug in her pocket for a mangled bit of vellum. She held it out to Tori with a shaking hand.
I know your secret. Unless you deliver to me fifty pounds, your mother will also discover the truth. Arrive at 9:00 tomorrow, southwest corner of Hyde Park, past the duck pond. Look for the tree wrapped with a green ribbon. I chose it to match your eyes.
Bile rose in Tori's throat. She would be utterly ruined. More than ruined.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God," Tori muttered at the threat slashed across the page. She raised stricken eyes to her friend. "When did this come? How did you get it?"
Tears spilled from Laurel's eyes. "A boy at market asked me if I was Miss Edison, friend of Miss Ashford. When I answered yes, he gave me this note and ran. Didn't even wait for a coin." Laurel dragged in an audible, ragged gust of air. "Tori, what are we going to do? We'll be ruined."
Fear, dark and enveloping, more terrifying than anything she'd ever known, choked Tori. She licked lips dry from fear. "Maybe he does not speak of The Opal." She flicked a nail along the edge of the blackmail note. "It could be anything he speaks of, Laurel, don't you think?"
Her friend stared at her as though she'd sprouted four arms and a third eye. "And what else have you done that would warrant a blackmail note, Victoria?" she ended on a near screech, pressing the back of her hand to her lips.
"Good point." For a brief moment Tori wondered if her messenger could have been responsible, but quickly abandoned that notion. He earned a handsome sum for his assistance. Though fifty pounds was a huge sum of money to someone in his position. No. No, she refused to believe it was he.
Someone else knew.
Sick at both stomach and heart, she wadded the paper and stuffed it into her skirt pocket. "I suppose, then, there's naught to be done but pay him."