The Pursuit of Pleasure

What They're Saying...

Dartmouth, England

May, 1794

 

“I do say I’ll never marry, but I have always wanted to be a widow.”

The young woman’s voice, with its droll, self-aware tone, wafted down the length of the assembly room’s dimly lit balcony, floated into the darkness and entwined with the smoke dancing off the hot end of Commander Jameson Marlowe’s cigar.

He clamped down on the cheroot to keep from laughing out loud. He didn’t need to check around the other side of the column to know who was speaking. He’d spent years away and still, he knew—she came to his mind as swift and unbidden as a gunshot.

Lizzie. No one else could manage to be so ridiculously charming.

“A widow? You must be joking.” Another young woman spoke, sounding scandalized—her breathy little voice rose higher with each word.

“I’m not.” Lizzie was emphatic. “If I were a widow I’d have everything I need. Independence. Social standing. Financial stability.” She let out a sigh full of frustrated wistfulness. “It would be perfect. A marriage without the man.”

“You can’t mean it!” 

The owner of the breathy voice didn’t know her friend very well, it seemed. Lizzie always meant it. Always.

Defiant Lizzie Paxton. Still full of the same mischievous intent at two and twenty as she’d been at twelve. Jamie could picture her impudent, challenging smile as she tossed her opinions off like hand grenades. He grinned into the night, leaned his head back against the column and took another deep drag from the cheroot, his mind whirling to quickly reshape his plans. Perhaps the time had come to teach her a lesson about being so cavalier with other people’s lives?

Jamie ground out the cigar with the toe of his boot and stepped out from behind the column. “She always means it. Don’t you, Lizzie?”

Two young women dressed in fashionable white muslin chemise dresses turned toward him. But only one of them smiled. Ever so slightly.

Lizzie.

A pain, sharper than he could have anticipated, lanced through him at the sight of her, like the pang of an old injury that ought to have healed. Despite the years he’d spent away, despite the fact she’d grown up, he instantly recognized the girl he’d known inside the beautiful woman leaning negligently against the balcony railing—the same ginger-tinted hair, the same boneless, feline physicality. The same slightly feral smile—the smile that always led to mischief.

She slowly straightened from where she lounged against the railing. Her pale dress, belted with a sash of bright green satin that matched her eyes, accentuated the liquid grace of her body. On anyone else, it would have looked demure.

On Lizzie, it looked like a challenge.

One he was definitely going to accept.

“Is that you, Marlowe?” The near indifference in her voice poured over him like whisky, full of warmth and bite.

Oh, yes, he would need to keep his wits about him with this Lizzie. “It is indeed I.”

Her sparkling gaze flicked over him. “Back from the wars, are you?”

“Yes.” He sketched a bow. “From service in His Majesty’s Royal Navy.”

“Oh. Well, good for you.” She turned back out to the night, but he caught the flash of something that was very nearly a smile brewing along her lips—perhaps she wasn’t as indifferent as she wanted him to think.

Nor was her companion, who sent her an urgent look. And a soft jab in the ribs.

“Oh, all right. Celia, may I present Mr. Jameson Raphael Marlowe?” Lizzie flourished a fine-boned wrist in his direction. “Jamie, Miss Celia Burke.”

No one had called him Jamie in years. “Commander Marlowe, at your service, Miss Burke.” It was a courtesy title—Commander. It only meant that he was a First Lieutenant who was clever and useful and lucky enough to have been given command of a lesser ship. But being useful was also how he had landed himself in Dartmouth.

 So he put his cleverness and charm to work, bowed over Miss Burke’s perfumed hand and graced it with a kiss. “An honor.”

Miss Burke’s cheeks colored prettily.

Which Lizzie noticed, too. “Come to make moon eyes at the ravishing Celia, have you? You’ll have to get in line, even at a backwater assembly such as this.” Lizzie’s brilliant eyes teased even though she pursed her lips to keep from smiling.

He remembered that look, but it was much more effective now that she was so beautifully grown up. “No. Although Miss Burke is indeed ravishing.” He straightened and turned to face his childhood friend—and the reason his childhood had ended. “It’s you I’ve come to see, Lizzie. I’ve got a proposition for you.”

This time Lizzie’s mouth smiled along with her eyes, her apricot lips widening in delight.

In contrast, poor Miss Burke gasped at his audacity—her blue eyes practically popped out of her head. It must be a rare thing for gentlemen to give Lizzie as good as they got.

“Oh, off you go, Celia.” Lizzie gave her friend a gentle nudge toward the stair. “I’m safe as houses with dear old Jamie.”

She made him sound like a silly, senile old sailor. He’d take pleasure in disabusing her of that notion.

“She’ll send my mother out,” Lizzie surmised as Miss Burke left with a wide-eyed last look over her shoulder at her friend. “We’ll have to leg it.”

She turned and without waiting, led the way through a narrow door and down the creaking servants’ corridor. It was somehow perfectly natural Lizzie should know the hidden ways and back rooms of the local assembly hall as well as she knew her own home. She was just that kind of young woman, always had been—the sort of lazily inquisitive girl who acted as if she had a perfect right and a perfect reason to be where she oughtn’t.

“Well, Lizzie.” He forced his mind back to the business at hand. “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation.”

“Yes, you could.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Help it—you could have helped overhearing us, as any polite gentlemen should have, but you obviously chose not to.” She didn’t even bother to look back at him as she spoke, but he was sure he heard the teasing smile in her voice.

Such intriguing confidence. He could use it to his purpose—she had always been up for a lark.

He caught her elbow and steered her into an unused parlor, but once through the door she just seemed to dissolve away, out of his grasp—his empty fingers prickled from the loss.

Jamie closed the door. In the fitful moonlight illuminating the room, Lizzie looked like a pale ghost, weightless and hovering in the flickering light filtering through the tall casement windows.

He took a step nearer—he needed her to be real, not an illusion. Over the years, she had become a distant but recurring dream, a combination of memory and boyish lust, haunting his sleep. She had always been there, in the very backwaters of his mind, swimming just below the surface.

And so, he had come in search of her. To banish his ghosts.

She took a sliding step back to lean nonchalantly against the arm of a chair, all sinuous, bored indifference. “What are you doing in Dartmouth? Aren’t you meant to be messing about with your boats?”

“Ships,” he corrected automatically, and then smiled at his foolishness for trying to tell Lizzie anything. “The big ones are ships.”

“And they let you have one of the big ones? Aren’t you a bit young for that?” She tucked her chin down to subdue her smile, and looked up at him from under her gingery brows. Very mischievous. And very challenging.

But she was warming to him.

And he was four and twenty—young to be in command, but old enough to tangle with Lizzie and win this time. If it was worldliness she wanted, he could readily supply it.

He mirrored her smile. “Hard to imagine isn’t it, Lizzie?” He opened his arms wide, presenting himself for her inspection.

Only she didn’t inspect him. Her eyes slid away to inventory the scant furniture in the darkened room. “No one else calls me that anymore.”

“Lizzie? Well, I do—I can’t imagine you as anything else. And I like it. I like saying it—Lizzie.” The name hummed through his mouth like a honeybee dusted with nectar. Like a kiss.

He moved closer so he could see the emerald color of her eyes, dimmed by the half-light, but still brilliant against the white of her skin. He leaned a fraction too close to her ear and whispered, “Lizzie. It always sounds somehow…naughty.”

His provocation had the desired effect—she pulled back, wariness flickering across her mobile face, as if she were suddenly unsure of both herself and him. But in another moment, she masked her expression in that worldliness, and let her gaze sweep from him head to toe.

Jamie held himself still for her perusal. Plans and strategies became unimportant—the only thing important right now was for Lizzie to see him. It was, for no reason he could articulate, essential that she finally see that he was a man—a man who knew what he wanted, and would do what it took to get it.

And what he wanted was her.

But she kept all reaction from her face.

He was jolted to realize she didn’t want him to read her thoughts or mood—that she was trying hard to keep him from seeing her.

It was an unexpected change—the Lizzie he had known as a young girl had been so wholly passionate about life. She had thrown herself body and soul into each and every moment, each action and adventure. She had not been covered with this veneer of polished indifference.

And yet it was only a veneer—he was sure of it. And he was equally sure he could make his way past it.

He drew in a measured breath, and sent her a slow, melting smile to show, in the course of the past few minutes, he’d most definitely noticed she was a woman.

Her response was…careful—an unhurried turning away. It was a quality he’d never seen in her before. How intriguing.

Finally, after what felt like an infinity, she broke the moment. “You didn’t answer. Why are you here? After all these years?”

He chose the most convenient truth. “A funeral. Two weeks ago.” A bleak, rain-soaked funeral that couldn’t be forgotten. The downpour that day had chilled him to his very marrow—he went cold just thinking about it, unable to shake the horrible feeling swilling in his belly like a wash of cold bilge water.

It was wrong, all wrong. Frank couldn’t be dead. He shouldn’t be dead. And yet he was. They’d found his body, pale and lifeless, washed up cold and unseeing upon the banks of the Dart. Drowned.

At least that was what the local authorities said. But he knew better.

Frank had been murdered. And he would prove it.

“Oh, no.” Lizzie’s murmur brought him back. “My condolences, for what they’re worth.” She ran her palm up and down her other forearm as if she, too, were chilled. “Anyone I knew?”

“Lieutenant Francis Palmer.”

“Frankie Palmer?” She looked stricken—her full lips dropped open in astonishment. “From down Stoke Fleming way? Didn’t you two go off to sea together, all those years ago?”

“Yes, ten years ago.” Ten long years. A lifetime.

“Oh, Jamie. I am sorry.” Her voice had lost its languid bite.

He met her eyes warily—sincerity had never been one of Lizzie’s strong suits.

No, that was wrong. She’d always been sincere, or at least truthful—painfully so, as he recalled—no matter the consequences. So, she did have some scruples.

He kept that caution in mind. “Thank you, Lizzie. But I didn’t lure you into a temptingly darkened room to bore you with dreary news.”

“No, you came to proposition me.” The mischievous little smile crept back—Lizzie was never the sort to be intimidated for long. She had always loved to be doing things she ought not.

A heated image of her sinuous white body temptingly entwined in another man’s arms rose unbidden in his brain.

Damn his eyes, what other things had Lizzie been doing over the past few years that she ought not? And with whom?

Jamie quickly jettisoned the irrational spurt of jealousy—her more recent past hardly mattered. He was here to settle an old score. “Yes, my proposition. I can give you what you want—a marriage without the man.”

She went unnaturally still for the longest moment, before she slid off her perch and glided closer. So close, he almost backed up. So close, her rose petal of a mouth came but a hairsbreadth from his own. Then she lifted her inquisitive nose and took a bold, suspicious whiff of his breath. “You’ve been drinking.”

“I have,” he admitted without a qualm.

“How much?”

“More than enough for the purpose. And you?”

“Clearly not enough. Not that they’d let me.” She turned and walked away—sauntered really. She was very definitely a saunterer, all loose joints and limbs, as if she’d never paid the least attention to deportment and carriage. Very provocative, although he doubted she meant to be—an image of a bright, agile otter, frolicking unconcerned in the calm, green of the river Dart, twisting and rolling in the sunlit water, came to mind.

“Drink or no, I meant what I said.”

“Are you truly proposing? Marriage? To me?” She tried to laugh at the idea as if it were a joke.

“I am,” he averred. “Marriage without the man.”

She eyed him more closely, her gaze narrowing even as one marmalade eyebrow rose in assessment. “Do you have a fatal disease?”

“No.”

“Are you engaged to fight a duel?”

“Again, no.”

“Condemned to death?” She straightened with a fluid undulation, her spine lifting her head up in surprise as the thought entered her head, her pose of worldly indifference temporarily obliterated. “Planning a suicide?”

“No and no.” It was so hard not to smile—such an arch, charming combination of concern and cheek.

The cheek won out—she gave him a suspicious smile. “Then how do you plan to arrange it—the ‘without the man’ portion of the proceedings? I’ll want some sort of guarantee. You can’t imagine I’m gullible enough to leave your fate, or my own, for that matter, to chance.”

A low heat flared within him—devil take him, she really was considering it.

“And yet, Lizzie, I think you may. I am an officer of His Majesty’s Royal Navy and am engaged to captain a convoy of prison ships to the Antipodes. I leave only days from now. The last time I was home, in England, was four and a half years ago, and then only for a few months to recoup from a near fatal wound. This trip is slated to take at least eight. Years, that is. If I survive. ”

Her face cleared of all traces of impudence. Oh yes, even Lizzie could be led.

“Storms, accidents and disease provide most of the risk,” he continued. “Don’t forget we’re still at war with France and Spain. And the Americans don’t think too highly of us, either. One stray cannon ball could do the job quite nicely.”

“Is that what did it last time?”

“Last time? I’ve never been dead before.”

The ends of her ripe mouth nipped up—the heat in his gut sailed higher. “You said you had recovered from a near fatal wound.”

“Ah, yes. Grapeshot, actually. In my chest. Didn’t go deep enough to kill me, though afterward, the fever nearly did.”

Her gaze skimmed over his coat, curious and maybe a little hungry—the heat spread lower, kindling into flame.

“Do you want to see?” He was being rash, he knew, but he’d done this for her once before—taken off his shirt on a dare. He’d lived off the promise of that day for years.

Jamie peeled off his cravat, shucked the coat, unbuttoned his waistcoat all the way, and flipped open the close of his shirt at his throat in a trice, tugging the linen open to reveal the motley spray of bullet scars across his otherwise smooth chest. Daring her to look this time.

And look she did—her eyes widened as she leaned forward, inching her inquisitive gaze closer. So curious—always had been. Like a nearly wild barn cat sniffing at a pot of cream, she couldn’t seem to help herself.

He would help her—he took her right hand and placed it flat against his skin.

A mistake.

Jamie sucked in a breath through his teeth as her cool, nimble fingers danced tentatively across his flesh. Damn her eyes—such open, agile curiosity. It was unbearably erotic—his nipples contracted and his eyes threatened to buckle shut. Her touch had propelled him from want straight into compulsion. Devil take him, less than twenty minutes in her presence and he was desperate to have her, to bury himself in her chaotic heat.

He should have known. He should have been prepared for the rush of desire skittering like a hot, searing wind across his exposed flesh. There had always been something about Lizzie—and only Lizzie—that got under his skin. Maybe it was the way she looked at a body, all teasing, insolent dismissal, or the way she smiled behind her eyes. Though it really didn’t matter how she looked at him. It only mattered that she still made his skin prick and his gut clench and his pulse race. It only mattered that his fingers itched to trace the long, white line of her nape and kiss the impudent little smiles from her face.

Please God, let her say yes, so he could finally have her in his bed, beneath him, at least for a few days. Lizzie was bound to be good at that—she was a woman made for hedonism.

Jamie anchored his hands to his side to keep from pulling her to him. It would put her off to do anything uninvited, so though her simple touch was pleasure so painful it was nearly unbearable, he didn’t want the sweet torture to stop. So he endured her feather light strokes and tried to remember to breathe.

“Well,” she whispered at last. “I don’t know when I’ve been more surprised.”