Iveley Hall, Buxton, England
Ethan MacCarrick thought the bored wife he was about to tup might be a bonny wench.
However, this was a best guess. At present, his vision was compromised by whisky, the great equalizer of women's charms. Even after the wind-whipped half-hour ride to her home, he was drunk; in fact, he seemed to be getting worse.
But the womanbehaved as if she was pretty, he assured himself as he removed his jacket, tossing it toward a divan in her opulent bedroom and missing it. Even in his muddled state, he detected a superficial silliness about her that men would tolerate only if she was fair. Plus, she'd been confident when she'd propositioned him in the shadowy hall of the Buxton tavern, having had no doubt whatsoever that he would meet her tonight.
She had a French accent and was tall, he thought, though she was now reclined, and he'd only briefly stood next to her when they'd met. They'd been together just long enough for her to pass him an expensively perfumed note with directions to her home, to ask if he could be circumspect, and to murmur what she planned to do to him.
Ethan was a red-blooded male of twenty-three - her wicked plans for him had seemed just the thing.
As he crossed the spacious room to the whisky service, she rose to her knees on the bed. "Did you wait to leave fifteen minutes after my maid and I left?" She feared her husband might hear of this indiscretion when he returned from his trip.
Ethan served himself a drink. "Aye, I waited." He wouldn't have traveled with her, anyway. A rake's first rule of thumb? Always ride your own horse to a meeting with a woman you're about to bed, so you can leave when you like. Else they'll want to cling for the night.
Ethan loathed clinging women.
"Did anyone see you riding here?" she asked.
"No, no' a soul."
"Because I can't have my husband hearing about - "
"Enough!" She was already grating on his nerves, and he hadn't even used her yet. "You're no' the first married woman I've had," he answered honestly. "I've done this many a time before."
"Of course, I'm sure you have," she said hastily. When he finally made his way toward her, she murmured, "You're such a handsome young devil, Ethan. So tall. So strapping."
He drank, frowning into his glass at her use of his given name. He hadn't quite caught hers back at the tavern, when she'd been whispering in his ear, describing herself on her knees, sucking him deep. "Youngdevil? I dinna get the impression you were that much older than I am," he said as he reached the bed.
She laughed. "Just a bit." Her features were clearer now. She was pleasing enough. Maybe early thirties. "I'm old enough to know what I want, and when I saw you, I knew I had to have you." She took his drink from him and set it on the bedside table. "But I bet women throw themselves at you, don't they?"
"Everywhere I go," he said, not bothering to hide his arrogance. It was true. He was a young, rich laird, and women liked his looks. And it seemed the more drunken and cruel he became, the more they wanted him.
"So if it hadn't been me tonight, it could easily have been another woman from the tavern?"
"Easily," he replied. When he'd left, the raven-haired barmaid he'd been contemplating had cast him a hurt expression. So had her sister. He'd shrugged at them as if he hadn't cared. Because he hadn't. "One woman or two."
"Then why me?" the wife asked breathlessly, angling for a compliment he wouldn't give.
"I like married women better, find them more convenient." He never heard from them again. A married woman readily faded into the past, one among many in his memory - as she should. And if her husband was weak enough and stupid enough to get cuckolded, then he deserved it, and Ethan would oblige.
"So all I am is a convenience?" She gave a mock pout as she began unbuttoning his shirt with deft fingers.
His callous treatment seemed to be exciting her. "Say my name with your accent," she whispered.
"Doona know it."
She smiled. "It's Sylvie - "
"Doona need to," he interrupted sharply, making her gasp with desire.
He was used to women who liked a cold, domineering male in their beds, but he sensed she might want him to be worse than that. On his solitary ride over here, he'd had time to think about the situation, and his drunken mind said something wasn't right about her.
Her perfume cloyed, but not more than that of the woman he'd had last night. She was tall, voluptuous, and dark-haired - the type that normally attracted him. Yet as she licked his chest, brushing his shirt away from his body, he again found that something about her was off-putting.
People had long said that Ethan had no more feelings than an animal. Well, right now pure instinct was telling him not to take her. He frowned as her mouth eased down his chest to his navel, her destination unmistakable.
But could the message possibly be louder than the Scotch and the promise of a below job?
Aye, it is. He plucked her fingers from his trousers and stumbled back.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm leaving." Bending for his shirt, he lost his balance, but he swiftly righted himself. He knew he'd been drinking too much lately. He was the oldest brother and head of a family that suffered, and the responsibility of it, and the inability to change it, weighed more heavily on him than anyone would dare suppose.
But his drinking was helping nothing.
"Leaving?" she cried. "You can't be serious."
He gave her one curt nod.
"Then why did you come here? What did I do?"
"No' a thing." Where the hell had he dropped his jacket? "Just doona care to any longer."
"Tell me what you want, and I'll do it.Anything, " she added plaintively, making him shudder in disgust.
Turning from her, he said, "Doona wantanything from you. No' anymore."
"You cannot do this!" She shot to her feet and stormed over to him. "Just pass me over like a woman you've bought." Her anger transformed the refined French inflection of her voice to a sharper, more common accent. Ethan had heard similar before - it was a lower-class accent. "Like some stray whore!"
"If the shoe fits..."
"No one treats me this way, not now.No one! " She darted in front of him. He turned from her once more, and she did it again, antagonizing him. Already his decision to leave was justified. "I'll have you horsewhipped for this!"
Finally he spotted his jacket. "Get the hell out of my way."
"I'll whip you myself!"
"Temper, temper, wench." He faced her with a sardonic expression. "Now I'mreally no' going to f**k you."
She screeched, flying at him, nails raking down his face before he could shove her from him. He pressed his sleeve to his cheek and saw the crimson, stark against the white linen. "You goddamned bitch! You doona ken what you're provoking."
He headed for the door, but she beat on his back, screaming, "Do you know what I could have done to you?"
When Ethan whirled around, her face was streaming with tears, her eyes alight with fury. "Touch me again, and I'll break my rule about no' slapping crazed bitches who canna take no for an answer."
"Do it, then!" Had her expression flashed with excitement?
To scare her so she'd leave him be, he made as if to backhand her -
The door crashed open.
There stood a gray-haired, enraged man.Must be the aging husband , Ethan thought with a tired exhalation as he lowered his hand.Pistols at dawn and another death on my hands.
"He tried to force himself on me!" the wife shrieked, tears still streaming.
Ethan swung his gaze on her. "Are you mad, woman? You invited me here!"
More men filled the doorway, hardened ones - henchmen. A blond giant flanked the old husband, looking almost more enraged.
"Never!" she cried. "He must have followed me home from the inn tonight."
The husband narrowed his eyes on Ethan's face. Ethan swiped a hand over his cheek. "Oh, bloody hell," he said wearily. "She scratched me when I wanted to leave." Though Ethan was still drunk, even he recognized how ridiculous that sounded.
"Sylvie, are you injured?"The husband's grasping for this like a lifeline.
"You canna be serious. Can you no' see she's lying?" Ethan made a disgusted sound. "The witch asked me here, I vow it - "
"No," she wailed loud enough to crack glass. "He tried to rape me, but I fought him. Do you see his face?"
Ethan gave her a look of pure fury, staring at her while telling the man, "Ask at the inn, ask anyone there. She invited me." But she had been circumspect. Would any of the patrons have seen them together in that hallway for the brief moments when she'd approached him?
The woman shook her head fiercely. "My maid was with me at the inn and when we came home. Ask Flora! Ask her!" Touching the back of her hand against her forehead, she sank to the edge of the bed. "Oh, God," she whispered, "I was so afraid."
Ethan gaped in amazement.Christ, she's good -
With a bellow, the old man charged for Ethan. Habit took over. Ethan threw a fist, breaking his nose - blood spurted.
"I'll see you in Newgate for this!" the husband roared, cupping his face.
It was important for Ethan to remember something. What was it? "Goddamn it, I did nothing to this woman...and she instigated it all."
"Get him!" the old man thickly commanded his men.
At that instant, the answer Ethan sought came to him, and he lunged for his jacket.
A blow crashed against the back of his skull. His face pounded the floor. Fists rained down again and again, kicks to the gut.... He fought the blackness for as long as he could; he had to explain, had to defend himself.
He dimly heard the bitch crying to her husband, worrying about the scandal if this were to go to trial...their reputations, their standing...other husbands with his power would take care of this themselves.
Ethan knew that in this isolated part of the country the lords were their own entities, laws unto themselves if they chose, always with henchmen willing to do black deeds. And they hated strangers, much less foreigners.
The note, his deliverance, was stowed in his jacket pocket just feet from him. He tried to speak but could only grunt in pain. An attempt to reach for it earned him a booted kick to the chest.
Forcing his eyes open, he saw that she was crying hysterically, seeming to believe her own lies. "With you and Brymer gone, I was an easy target."
The cuckold was soothing her, wrapping her in his coat. "I should never have left you - "
"Th-that fiend was in the house with me, withMaddy !" she added significantly. Whoever this Maddy was, the mere mention of her in this context made the old man swing his gaze on Ethan. Seeming dumb with rage, eyes glazed over with it, he assured her they'd take care of this on their own - no one would have to know. Ethan felt true fear rippling through him.
They'd make sure the Scottish bastard never raped another woman as long as he lived.
Castration.Cold sweat broke out over Ethan's body; they were going to take a knife to him.
The old man hesitated, then gave a nod. "Brymer, take him out back. See it done."
This Brymer was the giant with the killing look in his eyes. "It will be a pleasure." He hauled Ethan up, dealing a punishing blow to his jaw. Ethan tried to shake it off, but blackness consumed him....
He woke to the bite of a rope cinched around his wrists. A bone-deep ache radiated from his shoulders up to his clenched fingers. He tried to open his eyes - only one swollen lid would crack enough for him to see - and found himself strung up to the rafter of some type of stable. A blood-soaked gag filled his mouth.
Ethan saw a tall, burly man sitting on the edge of a stool that was about to buckle under his great weight. His meaty leg bounced with nervous energy as he cast Ethan furtive, guilty glances. The man knew. He knew Ethan was being wronged. Of course, the wife would have done things like this before. Ethan yelled behind his gag and grappled against his bonds, frenzied to tell him about the note.
From behind him, he heard a door creak open. Brymer asked, "Is he awake yet, Tully?"
"Only just," Tully said, heaving his big frame to his feet. "I was thinking...m-maybe one of us should ride to the inn, and just ask a few questions."
"Van Rowen wants us to do a job on him," Brymer said. "So that's what we're going to do." Brymer was eager for it.
Van Rowen. Why did the name sound familiar? When Ethan got out of this, he would kill Van Rowen, ripping him apart with his bare hands. The man had no idea what he'd just brought down on himself and his entire family -
Ethan heard the unmistakable sound of a blade being unsheathed, and he fought to free his hands.
"But, Brymer, what would it hurt to ride - "
"I just returned from the inn. No one saw anything untoward." Brymer moved into Ethan's field of vision. "They just saw Mrs. Van Rowen eating a meal with Flora for about an hour before they left." He picked his teeth with the knifepoint. "Coachman swears he saw no one else and drove them home alone, as does Flora."
"But sometimes...it seems Mrs. Van Rowen might - "
"On the other hand," Brymer continued, ignoring Tully's words, "this one here's aforeigner , swilling spirits. The barmaid said he's a mean drunk and a Scottish brute."
That spiteful bitch...just because I passed her over...
"His die is cast, Tully. But as for you, you'll either follow your orders - or you'll take yourself off Van Rowen lands tonight."
No, no.Ethan could pay him a fortunenot to do this.
Tully's shoulders slumped.
No, goddamn it, no!
"Hold his head," Brymer ordered.
Tully did as he was told, taking Ethan's head in his thick arms. Ethan fought against the grip, spitting curses behind the gag.
"Wh-what do you plan to do?"
"First off, I'm going to finish what Mrs. Van Rowen started," Brymer said with a nod at the marks on Ethan's face. "I bet the ladies fancy his looks. They won't ever again after tonight. Of course, that'll be the least of his worries."
When Ethan felt the cold blade against the heated skin on his right cheek, he twisted, using all his remaining strength to break free. Nothing.