The island of Tobago, 1865
The heated night pressed in, cloistered and heavy, as it jostled for position in the crowded room. Twirling, writhing bodies skated around the ballroom in time to lively music. The rush and crinkle of expensive fabrics blended with the string orchestra-come-island band, both warring for dominance with the dull roar of conversations.
Felicity Hartsford snapped open her silk fan and worked it in an effort to bring a modicum of coolness to her face. Between the added bulk of her fancy skirts and the feathered, beaded mask, she feared a faint was not far off. Even though the many doors to the room were thrown open to encourage the cool night air, the interior of the venue was stifling.
Black-and-white-clad staff members darted as quickly as ghosts through the throng, quietly managing the guests' needs. Interspersed amidst the silks and satins of the women and the dark, fashionable evening suits of the men were the military officers, brilliant with their colored sashes and medals winking in the candlelight.
This was nothing more than pretty plumage to help them navigate the hormone-charged gathering.
Lifting a hand to her upswept hair, Felicity patted the chestnut locks, making certain none had fallen. It had taken her housekeeper and part-time lady's maid an hour to fashion the style. She didn't want to damage it. Smoothing the silk dress where it laid over the small swell of her stomach, she stifled a sigh and tried to adjust the confining boning of the corset--a necessary evil since she possessed unfashionable curves.
She scanned the partially obscured faces of the couples who passed by but recognized none of them. The balls and routs of the Carnival Season had been going on for two months since Twelfth Night, and already she grew bored attending so many of the same functions.
Every one of them was the same: identical speeches, the same boring pieces of gossip, the unrelenting parade of marriageable men and women all locked in an age-old mating dance. Even her best friend appeared caught up in the tide of flirting, and from her flushed cheeks and glittering eyes, Felicity doubted she'd be available for chatting any time soon.
Gah! The insanity of it all, especially when she could do no more than politely greet the hopefuls, practically leg-shackled as she was to a man she'd only met a handful of times in the past six years. It was an unwanted, impossible situation, but familial devotion trumped personal want.
Suddenly, the need to escape rolled over her in crushing waves. The scent of melted candle wax assaulted her nostrils as well as clouds of perfume, pomade and sweat so strong she gagged, covering the unladylike reflex behind the lace-fringed panels of her fan.
If I don't get some air, I will embarrass myself, cause a scene, and disappoint Father.
Collapsing her fan, she let it dangle on her wrist by the ribbon on the base then began the seemingly long circuit around the room's perimeter. Pockets of hawk-eyed mothers exchanged fact points on the men while pods of wallflower companions looked at the assembly with longing and boredom in their expressions. Tucked away in shadowy corners behind potted plants, couples talked in semi-privacy, much closer than the open dance floor allowed.
A sharp stab of jealousy attacked her heart as she acknowledged how much she wanted a flirtation like that for herself. Never had she been allowed the luxury of being wooed by a dashing man, since her father had announced her engagement on her sixteenth birthday little over nine years before. Since then, she'd been off limits to any of the prowling males, set away on an imaginary shelf without even the memory of passion's kiss to keep her company or give her anticipation of the marriage that loomed in the near future.
A clog of tears invaded her throat and stung her eyes. Being here, keeping up the damn appearance, was going to strangle her.
Desperate, Felicity quickened her steps. She wanted the right to choose her own destiny, to mingle in the world as an equal instead of a woman. She wanted... Frowning, she paused to think about that for a second. Money and power were vital to life here, but they made for dismal companions. More than anything, she wanted to be loved and respected for herself. She made important decisions on her own every day, trying to keep the plantation running, so why shouldn't she at least attempt to find a bit of happiness for herself?
Because there was no hope of that, that's why. As a daughter of the British Empire and the offspring of a decorated war hero to boot, here in the islands, she was considered little more than property, only good for bearing an heir and a spare, expected to maintain outward signs of civility and gentility, regardless of the truth.
She longed to break away from convention, to challenge Fate--to live free and have personal choices. Felicity set her lips into a tight line. She'd never experience love and seduction if she waited around for it, so the solution to the problem would be to take it wherever she could find it. Only, which one of these trout-faced men could she trust with her virtue as well as her reputation?
Unfortunately, no one of this island interests me that way.
Shoving the illicit thoughts to the back of her mind, she focused on the doors. With her escape route in her sight, she darted through a temporary clearing in the crowd, but at the same moment, a man stepped into her path, and she collided against the hard wall of his chest.
"I apologize..." Her mumbled excuse became swallowed in the general cacophony of the room as she tipped her head up to meet his gaze. Steely, swimming in multi-hues of gray like a storm at sea, his eyes twinkled back from behind his half-mask. Her stomach clenched, and a flutter of pure desire made itself known between her thighs. "I--"
"I'd say the bulk of this collision is my fault." The unmistakable twang of an American accent rang through his voice. His lips curved in a sensuous grin that promised dark whispers and forbidden kisses even as his grip on her arms tightened. "Forgive me."
"I would be delighted to but only for your name." Shocked at her boldness, Felicity drank in his appearance.
The requisite black evening clothes and white shirt were a tad more relaxed in their cut than the European style--definitely favoring an American influence. From the way he held her in the scant embrace, she could feel his tensed muscles. He wasn't a stranger to hard work, yet he was here, mingling with the upper crust of society. Not merely an estate worker. She lifted her gaze, taking in the golden waves of his hair that didn't quite reach his starched collar.
Frowning because the mask obscured part of his features, she would happily do many things for his eyes alone if she could only see them sparkle again.
"My name, huh?" As the orchestra began a new tune, he shifted his grasp, sliding one hand to the small of her back as the other claimed her hand in the classic stance of a waltz. Her fan slipped unheeded to the floor. "To hear you say it with the lips of an angel, I would gladly tell you."
Heat flooded her cheeks, and she found herself doing the unthinkable. She entered without regret into the bantering game. "Ah, if that were true, I would have had to fall from the heavens, so why then would I spend time here with these people?"
"You do not like your contemporaries?"
Shivers raced up and down her spine, over her skin, as he led them gracefully through the steps of the dance. "That is not the issue. Being here at all is."
"I see. Perhaps the festivities are what you find fault with?" As they made it to the back half of the ballroom, he pulled her closer to his body by inches; the warmth of his breath fluttered a tendril of hair at her brow.
Felicity panted, partially due to the exerting dance coupled with the constricting corset and partially because his nearness brought out an intense hunger in her. "Carnival is fascinating, especially away from the structured affairs of the privileged. Their customs infect the blood, prod me to do impermissible things."
"Intriguing." With fleeting grace, he drew his lips over her temple. "I'd love to see you in the grips of abandon."
"Oh." Her earlier thoughts came rushing back with the strength and heat of a thousand suns. Trails of flame licked over her limbs, and she pressed closer on the next turn, so close now she felt the power in his legs, the tensile strength of his muscles beneath her fingers as they rested on his shoulder. Perhaps this man could be the one she could experiment on. "What is your name, or shall I call you a prince of the shadows?"
A flicker of something dark veiled his eyes for a second, so quick it vanished before she could ponder its existence. "My name is Nathaniel Donovan."
Ah, the reclusive Mr. Donovan. She relaxed, boldly holding his gaze. If the rumors around the island were to be believed, this man never socialized, preferring to remain on his estate. Rarely was he seen in public, and it was rarer still that he went anywhere except the shore near his property. There was something about him being haunted by the death of his wife. She'd never paid much attention. "Hello, Mr. Donovan. I'm Felicity Hartsford, but please, leave off the formality and call me Felicity. Our subject matter is intimate enough."
"It would be my honor and pleasure." Another few dizzying turns passed until he spoke again. "I'm in the mood for quieter conversation. You have the air of a woman who is a thousand miles away." His fingers on her back traced a line on her spine. It almost branded her for the heat he left behind. "Would you indulge me in a stroll through the gardens? From all the bragging the owner does, I feel compelled to see them."
She teetered on the edge of a precipice between doing what was proper and what was wickedly forbidden. As if he sensed her hesitation, he pulled her into him another delicious inch. The swell of her breasts brushed his chest, sending a host of urgent pulses through her veins. Her nipples tightened in anticipation. With this man, in their masks, some amount of anonymity was at play, and she didn't need to be concerned about impropriety. He was the perfect choice to gain what she desired while keeping her name intact.
"I must tell you these soirees hold no interest for me. I would much rather spend my time in rapt devotion of one beautiful woman instead of a room full of false praise and predatory females." Another few turns put them very near the line of open doors.
The crowded dance floor coupled with the oppressive heat, and Nathaniel's proximity finally broke down the last vestiges of her reserve. She nodded. "Only if there is a promise of a kiss at night's end." She gasped at her boldness then blushed furiously as his eyes darkened with interest and poorly disguised desire. It was heady, powerful, that she could affect a man in such a way and gave her courage to continue the game.
"This I can most definitely give you."
Her core throbbed at the blatant invitation for much more than a stolen kiss. Everything existed in this one moment as if the culmination of her dreams hovered so close she could reach out and grasp them. If she did, maybe then she could be happy and make peace with her life.
She licked her dry lips, shivering when he followed the small action. "Um..." Perhaps it was time to try her wings and make the one decision she had total control over. "I've heard the night-blooming plants within the heart of the maze are prizewinning."
"Indeed. Being able to look upon the secret folds of a delicate flower for the first time is truly an exquisite experience." With gentle pressure on her back, he whisked them through one of the doors and onto the patio, leaning into her so his lips tickled the delicate shell of her ear. "Drinking in a bloom's unique fragrance, feeling its softness on my fingertips, coaxing out its sweet nectar is its own reward." Slightly, as if she imagined it, he touched his tongue to her earlobe, tracing a moist path down the side of her throat, pausing at the lace edge of her collar.
Felicity gaped at him. Foreign heat had replaced the blood in her veins. For the moment, everything was forgotten as she sank into the double meaning of his words. Would he really go that far? Would she? Did she wish to proceed? She glanced backward into the gaiety of the ball and shivered. Nothing about that world could stop her from exploring the dark, heady lure of what she could find with Nathaniel.
Come what may, she wanted to do this strictly for herself. She had a need that wasn't being met and would never be, regardless of her pseudo-arranged engagement. It was strictly a matter of caring for herself now. The magic of Carnival seemed to overtake her common sense. Out here in the shadows, there was no one to tell her what to do or who to talk to.
It was every bit of the freedom she longed for, and she intended to enjoy every moment of her ruination if that was indeed where this flirtation was headed.
No one could take it from her.
"Let us not waste any more time." Gooseflesh raised on her skin when he drew her hand through his crooked elbow. She wished she wasn't wearing gloves, for the temptation to touch him, feel his skin against hers, was too much to process at the moment. As they crossed the sweeping expanse of the patio and followed a winding path of crushed gravel and shells, a kernel of fear unfurled in her belly.
What would her father say? What would Captain Addams? Felicity bit her bottom lip. Chances that her father would be lucid enough to comprehend were slim as those moments were growing smaller all the time. And her intended, well... She gave an inaudible sigh. Quite frankly, she didn't give a fig what he thought. She could count on one hand with fingers left over their conversations together.
He didn't care about her as a person. Their engagement was for show in this small community, for leverage with his Navy compatriots to further his career. For all purposes, the joining would be a sham. To her way of thinking, a difference in age of sixteen years was too much. They had nothing in common except her father.
Everything ended now. As of this moment, she was taking back her life, and to hell with what anyone thought. If she'd learned one thing from living on the island, it was life is precious and can be stolen from you at any moment. Crystalline pictures imposed themselves in her mind's eye: her mother's struggle then subsequent death from malaria five years before; the day her father fell down in the sugarcane months ago from a stroke he hadn't yet recovered from; her older brother who everyone assumed was lost at sea.
Best to enjoy the fleeting moment while she could and damn the consequences.
Aware of Nathaniel's scrutiny, she drew him to a halt. "I have never done anything so rash or forward." She yanked off her mask. It dangled on her fingers before the sea breeze picked it up and carried it a few feet until it fell.
With slow movements, he did the same, and now she could see how his smile lit his eyes in the dark. "Neither have I, yet I'm compelled to continue." He held her chin between his thumb and forefinger, bringing her lips to his.
Her feet felt full of lead and just as heavy. Firm but soft, his touch was considerate and demanding all at once. She pulled slightly away and stared, stunned. "You are breathtaking." The warmth flooding her cheeks had nothing to do with embarrassment. She merely spoke the truth then followed the statement by lifting a shaking hand to touch his face. At the last second, she remembered the gloves and stripped them off, allowing them to tumble to the ground near the masks. Beneath her fingertips, he was warm, alive. She traced the prominent slope of his nose, the strong line of his jaw, the furrow of his eyebrows. God. I want this man like nothing I've ever wanted before. The trip to hell will be well worth the act.
"Every caress you give brings me closer to my knees, sweet angel, and yet you are the one who truly takes my breath." He captured her hand, pressing a line of feather-weighted kisses to her palm and up the sensitive inside of her arm. "Never outside of my dreams have I encountered one such as you." It was almost a prayer, so softly was it uttered.
She wondered if these were practiced words, said to coerce a woman into his bed. They seemed as genuine as the man himself. Looking deep into his eyes, seeing nothing except sincerity shining in the moonlight, Felicity instinctually trusted him even as she trembled from his attention. "Come."
Through the gloom, she led him, past the boundaries of the house, skirting around the gardens, traipsing over the dew-kissed grass until they'd gained the outbuildings. The charred, smoky aroma of bonfires filled the air. Off in the distance, shouts of revelry echoed as the indentured workers, both Indian and African, held their own Carnival celebrations--only these parties would be of a much wilder nature, full of drinking, drugs and public fornication in the streets. They lived for the next high from the entertainment.
Now she understood why. Life was too fragile and short.
Tribal drumbeats from the African immigrants provided a steady, underlying pulse, spurring every footstep, matching the racing trip of her heart as she tugged Nathaniel behind her. They reached an abandoned set of one-room cottages, most likely used when slavery was prevalent. Now abolished for more than twenty years, former slaves had moved on to become indentured servants, and some chose to work for estates other than their former owners. Residency on Tobago was a transient event at best, especially when people constantly moved between this island and the bigger sister island, Trinidad.
"Quickly. The maze should be just ahead." The primal rhythm infected her blood and sank into her brain, disconnecting her common sense. Excitement and lust ran rampant through her bloodstream until all she could concentrate on was the man whose hand she clutched in the humid night.
Tall, clipped hedges rose before them, and opaque darkness settled heavily throughout the maze itself, swallowing them both. The path twisted and turned, went left and right, until they came to a dead end.
"We're lost." She turned to Nathaniel, more unnerved by the misdirection than the glint of hunger in his storm-tossed gaze.
"That depends on how you view the situation." He swept her into an embrace, pressing urgent kisses over her cheeks, her brow, her chin. "It could be we are ready to find ourselves."
Felicity had no time for protest, no room for questioning, before his hands were on her, caressing every curve, sending fire over her skin, through her brain, between her legs. A low moan escaped her throat when he claimed her mouth and his tongue touched hers. She'd never experienced anything remotely like it or the heated sensations erupting throughout her body.
"Relax. Let me take you away from here." His whispered words rang in her ears as his fingers played at the low, square bodice of her ball gown. "Let me show you pleasure that Carnival can bring, show you what wearing the feathers of the festival really means."
She reeled as he shoved the bodice down to reveal her breasts to his gaze. Night air, cool in the maze, drifted over her skin, and she shivered, more so when he eased one fleshy mound from her corset. Digging her fingernails into his shoulders, a surprised gasp flew from her as hot spikes of need shot through her body. He suckled at her puckered nipple, laving it with his tongue. When he blew on the moistened skin, her head lolled back, thrusting her goods farther up for his inspection.
"Oh my." She glanced at him, saw the same stark need in his expression that she felt, and shuddered. Heat trickled between her thighs as she realized she wanted him there but had no idea how to broach the subject. Instead, she contented herself with baring her other breast, pulling his lips to the neglected bud. She buried her fingers in the hair at his nape, holding him closer.
A deep groan echoed from Nathaniel's chest. He plied the pebbled nub with attention, scraping his teeth across her flesh. Felicity squirmed, bumping her hips against his in a quest for something she knew next to nothing about. She'd heard the estate workers talk of how things were between men and women, but she'd never experienced it herself, let alone seen it done.
"God, it's been such a long time." He yanked up the fabric of her skirt, cursing softly when he encountered the stiff form of her bell-shaped crinoline. "What the hell?" His fingers skimmed her waist, apparently searching for the ties holding the device to her person.
"It is only for balls and formal occasions. My everyday dresses do not require such things." Trembling with a need she didn't understand, she fumbled with the buttons on his shirt. "I want to touch you, see your skin."
"No time." He hooked a leg around hers, tumbling them both to the soft ground.
She landed cradled in his arms, her crinoline crushed awkwardly between them. "What now?" It wasn't exactly the most romantic position or the most comfortable.
"What?" Feeling woefully stupid and ill-prepared, Felicity stared up at him. She wriggled under his weight, desperate to feel him move in her body, yet her restrictive clothing prevented most touching.
"Just this." Nathaniel edged off her and unzipped his trousers, tugging the fabric to his knees. His manhood sprang out, its pale, wrinkled flesh stark against the velvety darkness of the night. She gasped at her first glimpse of the male member, and then he lay back on the ground. "Straddle me."
Uncertain, she gathered handfuls of her blue silk skirts, pulling up the layers of lace-edged petticoats until she felt the breeze against her semi-bare feminine parts. "But my drawers..."
With a strangled cry, he scrambled to his knees, pulling her close, then yanked down the garment in question, removing them from her legs in a flurry of movement. "I will explode if we don't hurry." He lay on the ground, reaching for her.
Was that a good or bad thing? Not knowing the answer but feeling the same urgency he did, she mounted him as if he were a horse, resting awkwardly over his waist, the coolness of the ground seeping into her knees. "Nathaniel, I--"
And then his hands were beneath all the superfluous fabric, the fingers of one hand caressing her hip while the other played at her damp curls. She shook when a calloused finger slid along her slick cleft, teasing the sensitive folds. "Oh, Nathaniel..." Tremors climbed her inner walls. Wetness eased around his finger as he moved it back and forth, petting her sex. The rigid steel of his cock bumped against her backside, waiting to be employed.
Felicity panted, unable to form words of how his playing made her feel, except it was unlike anything she'd experienced. She eased forward, allowing him greater access, her hands on his shoulders. He plunged two fingers into her channel, moving in and out, coaxing her into higher realms of awareness. Flutters of sensation became ebbs of exquisite pleasure so intense she cried out. A whimper escaped her throat.
There was no time to acclimate to the new feelings. She felt his hands on her hips, lifting her then bringing her crashing down onto his rampant cock. His thick girth filled her, the length sliding through every inch of her core. An intense pain sliced along her insides but died into bliss when he thrust up into her.
Her world slid sideways as wave after wave of ethereal pleasure broke through her body, pouring feelings and sensations into her she couldn't describe let alone pay close attention to. Not knowing what to do or how to act, her eyes drifted closed while his hips pistoned, pumping his member into her passage. She moved blindly with his frantic rhythm. His grip on her hips grew painful. A last thrust then he went slack upon the ground, leaving her chest heaving, her limbs like jelly, and an unaccountable, unfulfilled ache deep in her womb.
She collapsed onto his chest, breathing heavily, her vision dark from lack of oxygen. She wondered what the fuss was about, but a fierce flash of happiness welled into her being.
The decision had been hers, and she'd gladly given it. It would keep her happy through the coming months when gaiety would be hard to find. Life did go on even after an illicit coupling in a garden--even if it wasn't the life she'd wanted.