"Why?" Elle Shipton demanded.
James Sinclair's dark gaze slid slowly over her body in a sensual caress.
Involuntarily, she heated and tensed. The look was just too intimate for an afternoon.
"I want you," he explained, his voice low and seductive. "I've wanted you since you were seventeen. You've haunted my dreams. I want to possess you, to caress your pale breasts and hear you moan with pleasure. I want to feel your long legs wrapped around me and hear your breath coming in gasps hard and fast when I enter you."
Elle looked at him in fury. She was no shy virgin. At twenty-six, she was considered a spinster by the gossips in the county, but she didn't care. She led life her way. When she wanted a lover, she sought someone who was discreet and wouldn't tarnish her reputation, but she didn't need some husband to tell her how to live her life. She had plenty of money. At least, she used to, she thought ruefully. With that security, she'd decided long ago to let the gossips wag their tongues about her unmarried state. What they didn't know didn't keep her awake at night.
"Then why don't you bed me and be done with it?" she asked, her chin coming up in defiance.
James gave a short bark of laughter. "I assure you I've entertained the idea, but I do not seek some quick coupling. I've obsessed about you, and it may take years to get you out of my blood," he admitted candidly. He gave her a puzzled, appraising look. "I don't know why it's you who stirs me so. I've seen more beautiful women, but I want to know I can claim you any time of the night or day. I know you care about your reputation. This is the only way I can have you stay in my home. When I tire of you, you can charge me with adultery and divorce me. It's not unheard of these days."
"What makes you think I'll accept this?" she demanded in outrage. "I'd be little more than a courtesan."
"Quite simply, my dear, I hold all the cards. As I told you, either we marry or your brother goes to debtor's prison. The choice is yours." He crossed his legs and linked his fingers behind his head and watched her as a spider might regard a fly trapped in its web.
Elle turned from that view to the window. She watched Davy cross the lawn with his beloved Phoebe. The winter sun shined down on them like a blessing, and his eyes, so much like their mother's, crinkled in laughter.
He was her only family.
"How do I know you're telling the truth?" she asked, suspicion making her eyes narrow. "This could be some sort of ploy."
"Look at the notes yourself," he offered and went to his desk to withdraw a bundle of papers.
Elle took the papers with a steady hand. She quickly flipped through the papers to see page after page bearing her beloved Davy's signature. She had a head for figures. The amounts easily outstripped their inheritances.
A tight knot formed in her stomach as her last hope crumbled. "Oh, Davy, how could you?" she cried.
James gave her a cool gaze. "Your brother is weak, my dear Miss Shipton. His gambling has increased over the last two years. Even if he sold Waverly Place and all his lands, the money would still not be sufficient to cover these debts. I'm afraid he's even run through the inheritance your father left you. A man such as he would never survive prison life. I'm offering you a way to save him and yourself," he pointed out.
His words rang true. She adored her younger brother but had long ago recognized his weaknesses. He had too much of a fondness for the drinking and gambling the darker side of London offered.
"How do I know you'll keep your word to pay his debts?" she asked warily.
"You don't," he said simply. "You'll just have to take it on faith."
Elle gave an unladylike snort. Her faith, like her money, was gone.
"I will pay them off, but not all at once," he assured her.
"Why not?" she demanded. "This is a paltry sum for a man of your resources," she said, throwing the papers down on his desk.
His look told her he did not suffer fools gladly. "If I paid off all his debts, you might suddenly disappear. I think not, my dear."
"Stop calling me that!" she demanded.
"Dear? But why not? That's what you'll be, my dear, darling wife."
Elle felt herself shake. This was all some horrible, unimaginable nightmare.
"And if I say no?" she asked.
"You have that choice, of course, but many are planning to call in his notes soon. It has only been through my persuasion they've held off this long, and he shouldn't be your only consideration. He's mangled your finances too. With no dowry, your choice in husbands will be as limited as your options in occupations. As my wife, you'd have everything you desired--jewels, houses, the finest dresses, servants to wait upon you. You'd want for nothing."
"Nothing except for love," she replied, her voice despondent. She took lovers instead of seeking a husband because she was holding out for a man who could enrapture not only her body, but also her heart. Despite her worldliness, she still believed in love, something his proposal lacked. All the childhood dreams of her future lay shattered like a fragile crystal vase.
"Love is for fools," he scoffed scornfully. "It makes one a slave to his emotions. What I offer you is infinitely better and far more lucrative."
Elle shuddered at the callousness of his words but was not surprised. Everyone in the county knew of his mother's affairs.
"Why didn't your father put a stop to it?" she asked. Her question was one she'd always wondered about.
James didn't even pretend not to understand. "He was too afraid she'd leave. His love made him weak, and she was cruel and merciless. She knew the power she held over him and used it to the best of her advantage, flaunting her affairs in front of him. I'm glad the woman is dead, and I'm glad he's finally free of her," he said, referring to his father's death six years earlier. His eyes were flat and held no emotion.
Elle turned back to the window to rest her head against the cool glass pane and felt a cold shadow of horror pass through her. The man knew nothing of love. She looked at Davy below with his lanky frame, dashing grin, and features that mirrored her own. He was too much like their mother. Frivolous and silly, but none of that mattered. She knew what love was. Davy would never make it in prison, and he was all she had left.
She sighed miserably. A marriage of convenience. The thought sickened her. It was what she'd always fought against and why she'd never chosen a husband.
"What is your answer?" he asked.
For a minute, nothing but the clock on the mantel sounded in the vast room. James was right. His offer was kind. He, at least, was offering marriage. Better to be a wife, even an unloved one, than some courtesan passed from man to man.
She looked at him with assessing eyes. Tall and muscular with dark hair framing his face, at thirty he made a fine figure of a man. But his attractiveness wasn't due entirely to his physical presence. He had certain self-assurance about him. People obeyed without question when he spoke. And he could be charming. She'd seen him at parties with a bevy of beautiful young women twittering about him, and she had to admit she understood their attraction. She'd wondered about him and what it would be like to have him as a lover with his hands touching her body intimately, his mouth on her breasts and stroking her pussy, his cock sliding into her sleek, wet core.
But she'd always rejected the idea.
Most women would be happy to accept what he was offering. She just wasn't most women, because he was a man who ruled his affairs, and she would not be ruled, at least not forever.
With her eyes closed, she succumbed to the inevitable. What choice did she have now? At least he attracted her; maybe marriage to him wouldn't be so bad. At least it wouldn't be forever.
"I'll do it," she responded and turned to see him staring at her with some unfathomable expression.
A muscle worked in his jaw.
"When?" he asked, his voice sounding harsh and rough.
She gave his question a momentary thought. "Would a month be soon enough?"
He nodded. "A month would be fine. In the meantime, I'll take steps to hold off his creditors."
"Thank you," she responded stiffly, nausea roiling in her stomach. "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to collect my brother and his fiancee and return to Waverly Place. This day has been trying," she said as she made her way to the door.
His hand stopped her.
"Not just yet," he said, and she looked up to see eyes darkened with desire. "I would like some token of your intent."
"My intent?" she asked, looking down at the hand holding her arm.
His hand came up to caress her cheek and slid down her long, slender neck to the expanse of her breasts.
She clamped her jaw shut. The man was attractive, but she chose lovers on her terms.
"Some token of your admiration. After all, you'll be my wife soon," he murmured and pulled her closer.
Stiffly, she let him hold her. She had no right to protest, thanks to Davy. She could feel the full length of his body, and she brought her hands up to rest on the sinewy muscles of his arms. Despite her distaste for the situation, she felt a rising tide in her blood. She was attracted to him and always had been.
His lips brushed her cheek in a gentle caress and then slid along, seeking her closed lips. His tenderness surprised her, and his expertise titillated her.
Elle closed her eyes and began to relax as he continued the onslaught. His kisses were soft, and she gasped when he sucked her lower lip in between his teeth. She opened her mouth and felt the warm, velvety slide of his tongue against hers. He deepened the kiss, and she shuddered as his hands skimmed down the sides of her breasts to grasp her hips and pull her firmly against his rigid cock.
"You are so beautiful," he whispered and began to plant kisses along her neck and down to the fine muslin covering her breasts.
Her body responded to his touch. She felt hot and flushed, and the material of her dress rasped roughly against her skin. Her hardened nipples chafed against the material.
"It's going to be so good between us," he murmured as he gently kneaded her breasts. "I want you to touch me, to feel what you do to me."
He took her hand and slowly guided it down his chest and across the flat planes of his stomach to the hardened cock straining against his breeches.
"Mmm," he murmured when she grasped him. He moved her hand up and down in a stroking motion.
Elle found the heavy feel of his cock exciting, and when he removed his hand, she continued the motion.
"You've no idea how long I've dreamed of you touching me like this, or how long I've wanted to touch you," he whispered.