The Taste of Innocence

The 14th Cynster Novel
First published in Hardcover 2007
Paperback from Avon Books
ISBN 978-0-06-084087-7

When New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens created the world of the Cynsters, she introduced readers to the glittering ranks of aristocratic British society, where arranged marriages are the norm for securing dynasties, where passion is an art practiced by sophisticated lovers and high-born mistresses, and love is a potentially dangerous indulgence.

For no gentleman is this more true than for Charles Morwellan, the 8th Earl of Meredith. Although he's seen the many successful unions of his Cynster connections, he has also watched his father's obsessions nearly destroy his family and fortune, a mistake Charles will not repeat. But as Lord Meredith he must marry, so he offers for Sarah, daughter of his neighbors, Lord and Lady Conningham. She's intelligent enough to run his social life, beautiful enough to grace his arm, and old enough to know the value of his offer.

For most young ladies of the ton, the right marriage is the culmination of years of training, perfect deportment and intricate plans and statagems that would impress a general. But as a lady of independent means with a life of her own, Sarah is unwilling to surrender her independence unless it be for unbounded love.

But Charles always gets what he wants. He convinces Sarah to give him two weeks to win her, after which-if he succeeds-they will marry immediately. And so begins an intense courtship. By day, Charles and Sarah are models of decorum indulging in innocuous walks, polite conversation, sedate waltzes. But each night they steal away to the lush, moonlit gardens where sensual embraces turn to searing kisses, which soon become much more. Both are swept away on a tide of passion and feeling neither can resist.

But after the wedding, despite nights of insatiable passion, by day Charles maintains an aloof distance as if the near-sinful sweetness of their nights exists only in a dream. Sarah battles to prove that true love is a force that can't be contained, a gift worth fighting for, but it's only when she's engulfed in a web of increasingly dangerous incidents that Charles discovers how much he's willing to surrender to protect...the taste of innocence.

A New York Times, USA-Today & Publishers Weekly Bestseller!

"Laurens expertly spices up the passion-rich plot with danger and intrigue. Sinfully sexy and deliciously irresistible." John Charles, Booklist.

"Stephanie Laurens delivers a lush and sensual love story between an alpha male who refuses to recognize love, and a strong and resourceful heroine who will not stop until she captures his heart." Suan Wilson, Fresh

"Another winner." Romance Junkies

"Readers will relish the romance and be riveted by the suspenseful action." A Romance Review

"Intrigue, mystery and a love story you won't want to miss." Romance Readers Connection

"Danger, intrigue and seduction aplenty - will leave you satisfied yet hungry for more. Don't miss the passionate, the unforgettable, THE TASTE OF INNOCENCE." Romance Reviews Today

February, 1833
Northwest of Combe Florey, Somerset

He had to marry, so he would.

But on his terms.

The latter words resonated through Charlie Morwellan's mind, repeating to the thud of his horse's hooves as he cantered steadily north. The winter air was crisp and clear. About him the lush green foothills of the western face of the Quantocks rippled and rolled. He'd been born to this country, at Morwellan Park, his home, now a mile behind him, yet he paid the arcadian views scant heed, his mind relentlessly focused on other vistas.

He was lord and master of the fields about him, filling the valley between the Quantocks to the east and the western end of the Brendon Hills. His lands stretched south well beyond the Park itself to where they abutted those managed by his brother-in-law, Gabriel Cynster. The northern boundary lay ahead, following a rise; as his dappled grey gelding, Storm, crested it, Charlie drew rein and paused, looking ahead yet not really seeing.

Cold air caressed his cheeks. Jaw set, expression impassive, he let the reasons behind his present direction run through his mind-one last time.

He'd inherited the earldom of Meredith on his father's death three years previously. Both before and since he'd ducked and dodged the inevitable attempts to trap him into matrimony. Although the prospect of a wealthy, now over thirty-years-old as-yet-unwed earl kept the matchmakers perennially salivating, after a decade in the ton he was awake to all their tricks; time and again he slipped free of their nets, taking a cynical male delight in so doing.

Yet for Lord Charles Morwellan, 8th Earl of Meredith, matrimony itself was inescapable.

That, however, wasn't the spur that had finally pricked him into action.

Nearly two years ago his closest friends, Gerrard Debbington and Dillon Caxton, had both married. Neither had been looking for a wife, neither had needed to marry, yet fate had set her snares and each had happily walked to the altar; he'd stood beside them there and known they'd been right to seize the moment.

Both Gerrard and Dillon were now fathers.

Storm shifted, restless; absentmindedly Charlie patted his neck.

Connected via their links to the powerful Cynster clan, he, Gerrard and Dillon, and their wives Jacqueline and Priscilla, had met as they always did after Christmas at Somersham Place, principal residence of the Dukes of St. Ives and ancestral home of the Cynsters. The large family and its multifarious connections met biannually there, at the so-called Summer Celebration in August and again over the festive season, the connections joining the family after spending Christmas itself with their own families.

He'd always enjoyed the boisterous warmth of those gatherings, yet this time…it hadn't been Gerrard's and Dillon's children per se that had fed his restlessness but rather what they represented. Of the three of them, friends for over a decade, he was the one with a recognized duty to wed and produce an heir. While theoretically he could leave his brother Jeremy, now twenty-three, to father the next generation of Morwellans, when it came to family duty he'd long ago accepted that he was constitutionally incapable of ducking. Letting one of the major responsibilities attached to the position of earl devolve onto Jeremy's shoulders was not something his conscience or his nature, his sense of self, would allow.

Which was why he was heading for Conningham Manor.

Continuing to tempt fate, courting the risk of that dangerous deity stepping in and organizing his life, and his wife, for him, as she had with Gerrard and Dillon, would be beyond foolish; ergo it was time for him to choose his bride. Now, before the start of the coming season, so he could exercise his prerogative, choose the lady who would suit him best, and have the deed done, final and complete, before society even got wind of it.

Before fate had any further chance to throw love across his path.

He needed to act now to retain complete and absolute control over his own destiny, something he considered a necessity, not an option.

Storm pranced, infected with his underlying impatience. Subduing the powerful gelding, he focused on the landscape ahead. A mile away, comfortably nestled in a dip, the slate roofs of Conningham Manor rose above the naked branches of its orchard. Weak morning sunlight glinted off diamond-paned windows; a chill breeze caught the smoke drifting from the tall Elizabethan chimney pots and whisked it away. There'd been Conninghams at the Manor for nearly as long as there'd been Morwellans at the Park.

Charlie stared at the manor for a minute more, then stirred, eased Storm's reins, and cantered down the rise.

* * *

"Regardless, Sarah, Clary and I firmly believe that you have to marry first."

Seated facing the bow window in the back parlor of Conningham Manor, the undisputed domain of the daughters of the house, Sarah Conningham glanced at her sixteen-year-old sister Gloria, who stared pugnaciously at her from her perch on the window seat.

"Before us." The clarification came in determined tones from seventeen-year-old Clara - Clary - seated beside Gloria and likewise focused on Sarah and their relentless pursuit to urge her into matrimony.

Stifling a sigh, Sarah looked down at the ribbon trim she was unpicking from the neckline of her new spencer, and with unimpaired calm set about reiterating her well-trod arguments. "You know that's not true. I've told you so, Twitters has told you so, and mama has told you so. Whether I marry or not will have no effect whatever on your come-outs." Freeing the last stitch, she tugged the ribbon away, then shook out the spencer. "Clary will have her first season next year, and you, Gloria, will follow the year after."

"Yes but, that's not the point." Clary fixed Sarah with a frown. "It's the…the way of things."

When Sarah cocked a questioning brow at her, Clary blushed and rushed on, "It's the unfulfilled expectations. Mama and Papa will be taking you to London in a few weeks for your fourth season. It's obvious they still hope you'll attract the notice of a suitable gentleman. Both Maria and Angela accepted offers in their second season, after all."

Maria and Angela were their older sisters, twenty-eight and twenty-six-years-old, each married and living with their husbands and children on said husbands' distant estates. Unlike Sarah, both Maria and Angela had been perfectly content to marry gentlemen of their station with whom they were merely comfortable, given those men were blessed with fortunes and estates of appropriate degree.

Both marriages were the conventional norm; neither Maria nor Angela had ever considered any other prospect, let alone dreamed of it.

As far as Sarah knew, neither had Clary or Gloria. At least, not yet.

She suppressed another sigh. "I assure you I will happily accept should an offer eventuate from a gentleman I can countenance being married to. However, as that happy occurrence seems increasingly unlikely" - she gave passing thanks that neither Clary nor Gloria had any notion of the number of offers she'd received and declined over the past three years - "I assure you I'm resigned to a spinster's life."

A massive overstatement, but…. Sarah flicked a glance at the fourth occupant of the room, her erstwhile governess, Miss Twitterton, fondly known as Twitters, seated in an armchair to one side of the wide window. Now in middle-age, Twitters's gray head was bent over a piece of darning; she gave no sign of following the familar discussion.

If she couldn't imagine being happy with a life like Maria's or Angela's, Sarah could equally not imagine being content with a life like Twitters's.

Gloria made a rude sound. Clary looked disgusted. The pair exchanged glances, then embarked on a verbal catalogue of what they considered the most pertinent criteria for defining a "suitable gentleman," one to whom Sarah would countenance being wed.

Folding her new spencer with the too-garish scarlet ribbon now removed, Sarah smiled distantly and let them ramble. She was sincerely fond of her younger sisters yet the gap between her twenty-three years and their ages was, in terms of the present discussion, a significant gulf.

They naïvely considered marriage a simple matter easily decided on a list of definable attributes, while she had seen enough to appreciate how unsatisfactory such an approach often was. Most marriages in their circle were indeed contracted on the basis of such criteria - and the vast majority, underpinned by nothing stronger than mild affection, degenerated into hollow relationships in which both partners turned elsewhere for comfort.

For love.

Such as love, in such circumstances, could be. Somehow less, somehow tawdry.

For herself, she'd approached the question of marriage with an open mind, and open eyes. No one had ever deemed her rebellious, yet she'd never been one to blindly follow others' dictates, especially on topics of personal importance. So she'd looked, and studied.

She now believed that when it came to marriage there was something better than the conventional norm. Something finer; an ideal, a commitment that compelled one to grasp it, a state glorious enough to fill the heart with yearning and need, and ultimately with satisfaction, a construct in which love existed within the bonds of matrimony rather than outside them.

And she'd seen it. Not in her parents' marriage, for that was a conventional if successful union, one without passion but based instead on affection, duty and common cause. But to the south lay Morwellan Park, and beyond that Casleigh, the home of Lord Martin and Lady Celia Cynster, and now also home to their elder son, Gabriel, and his wife, Lady Alathea née Morwellan.

Sarah had known Alathea, Gabriel, and his parents for all of her life. Alathea and Gabriel had married for love; Alathea had waited until she was twenty-nine before Gabriel had come to his senses and claimed her as his bride. As for Martin and Celia, they had eloped long ago in a statement of passion impossible to mistake.

Sarah met both couples frequently. Her conviction that a love-match, for want of a better title, was a goal worthy of her aspiration derived from what she'd observed between Gabriel and Alathea and, once her wits had been sharpened and her eyes had grown accustomed, from the older and somehow deeper and stronger interaction between Martin and Celia.

She freely admitted she didn't know what love was, had no concept of what the emotion would feel like within a marriage. Yet she'd seen evidence of its existence in the quality of a smile, in the subtle meeting of eyes, the gentle touch of a hand. A caress outwardly innocent yet laden with meaning.

When it was there, love colored such moments. When it wasn't….

But how did one define that love?

And did it mysteriously appear, or did one need to work for it? How did it come about?

She had no answers, not even a glimmer, hence her unwed state. Despite her sisters' trenchant beliefs, there was no reason she needed to marry. And if the emotion that infused the Cynsters' marriages was not part of an offer made to her, then she doubted any man, no matter how wealthy, how handsome or charming, could tempt her to surrender her hand.

To her, marriage without love held no attraction. She had no need of a union devoid of that finer glory, devoid of passion, yearning, need and satisfaction. She had no reason to accept a lesser union.

"You will promise to look, won't you?"

Sarah glanced up to find Gloria leaning forward, brown brows beetling at her.

"Properly, I mean."

"And that you'll seriously consider and encourage any likely gentleman," Clary added.

Sarah blinked, then laughed and sat up to lay aside her spencer. "No, I will not. You two are far too impertinent - I'm sure Twitters agrees."

She glanced at Twitters to find the governess, whose ears were uncommonly sharp, peering myopically out of the window in the direction of the front drive.

"Now who is that, I wonder?" Twitters squinted past Clary, who swiveled to look out, as did Gloria. "No doubt some gentleman come to call on your papa."

Sarah looked past Gloria. Blessed with excellent eyesight, she instantly recognized the horseman trotting up the drive, but surprise and a frisson of unnerving reaction - something she felt whenever she first saw him - stilled her tongue.

"It's Charlie Morwellan," Gloria said. "I wonder what he's doing here."

Clary shrugged. "Probably to see Papa about the hunting."

"But he's never here for the hunting," Gloria pointed out. "These days he spends almost all his time in London. Augusta said she hardly ever sees him."

"Maybe he's staying in the country this year," Clary said. "I heard Lady Castleton tell Mama that he's going to be hunted without quarter this season from the absolute intsant he returns to town."

Sarah had heard the same thing, but she knew Charlie well enough to predict that he would be no easy quarry. She watched as he drew rein at the edge of the forecourt and swung lithely down from the back of his gray hunter.

The breeze ruffled elegantly cropped golden locks. His morning coat of brown Bath superfine was the apogee of some London tailor's art, stretching over broad shoulders before tapering to hug his lean waist and narrow hips. His linen was pristine and precise; his waistcoat, glimpsed as he moved, was a subtle medley of browns and black. Buckskin breeches molded to long powerful legs before disappearing into glossy black Hessians, completing a picture that might have been titled: Fashionable Peer in the Country.

Irritation stirring, Sarah drank in the vision; his appearance - and its ridiculous effect on her - really wasn't fair. He knew she existed, but beyond that…. From this distance, she couldn't see his features clearly, yet her besotted memory filled in the details-the classic lines of brow, nose and chin, the aristocratic angles and planes, the patriarchal cast of high cheekbones, the large heavy-lidded, lushly-lashed blue eyes, and the distracting, frankly sensual mouth and mobile lips that allowed his expression to change from delightfully charming to ruthlessly dominating in the blink of an eye.

She'd studied that face - and him - for years. She'd never known him to appear other than he was, a wealthy aristocrat descended from Norman lords with a streak of Viking thrown in. Despite his aura of ineffable control, of being born to rule without question, a hint of the unpredictable warrior remained, lurking beneath his smooth surface.

A stable boy came running. Charlie handed over his reins, spoke to the lad, then turned for the front door. As he passed out of their sight around the central wing, Clary and Gloria uttered identical sighs and turned back to face the room.

"He's really top of the trees, isn't he?"

Sarah doubted Clary required an answer.

"Gertrude Riordan said that in town he drives the most fabulous pair of matched grays." Gloria bounced, eyes alight. "I wonder if he drove them home? He would have, don't you think?"

While her sisters discussed various means of ascertaining whether Charlie's vaunted matched pair were at Morwellan Park, Sarah watched the stable boy lead Charlie's hunter off to the stables rather than walk the horse in the forecourt. Whatever Charlie's reasons for calling, he expected to be there for some little while.

Her sisters' voices filled her ears; recollections of their earlier comments whirled kaleidoscopically-to settle, abruptly, into an unexpected pattern. Leading to a startling thought.

Another frisson, different, more intense, slithered down Sarah's spine.

* * *

"Well, m'boy - " Lord Conningham broke off and laughingly grimaced at Charlie. "Daresay I shouldn't call you that anymore, but it's hard to forget how long I've known you."

Seated in the chair before the desk in his lordship's study, Charlie smiled and waved the comment aside. Lord Conningham was a bluff, good-natured man, one with whom Charlie felt entirely comfortable.

"For myself and her ladyship," Lord Conningham continued, "I can say without reservation that we're both honored and delighted by your offer. However, as a man with five daughters, two already wed, I have to tell you that their decisions are their own. It's Sarah herself whose approval you'll have to win, but on that score I know of nothing whatever that stands between you and your goal."

After a fractional hesitation, Charlie clarified, "She has no interest in any other gentleman?"

"No." Lord Conningham grinned. "And I would know if she had. Sarah's never been one to play her cards close to her chest. If any gentleman had captured her attention, her ladyship and I would know of it."

The door opened; Lord Conningham looked up. "Ah, there you are, m'dear. I hardly need to introduce you to Charlie. He has something to tell us."

With a smile, Charlie rose to greet Lady Conningham, a sensible, well-bred female he could with nothing more than the mildest of qualms imagine as his mother-in-law.

* * *

Ten minutes later, her wits in a whirl, Sarah left her bedchamber and hurried to the main stairs. A footman had brought a summons to join her mother in the front hall. She'd detoured via her dressing table, dallying just long enough to reassure herself that her gown of fine periwinkle blue wool wasn't rumpled, that the lace edging the neckline hadn't crinkled, that her browny-blond hair was neat in its knot at the back of her head and not too many strands had escaped.

Quite a few had, but she didn't have time to let her hair down and redo the knot. Besides, she only needed to be neat enough to pass muster in case Charlie saw her in passing; it was too early for him to be staying for luncheon and there was no reason to imagine that her mother's summons was in any way connected with his visit…other than the ridiculous suspicion that had flared in her mind and set her heart racing. Reaching the head of the stairs, she started down, her stomach a hard knot, her nerves jangling.

All for nothing, she chided herself. It was a nonsensical supposition.

Her slippers pattered on the treads; her mother appeared from the corridor beside the stairs. Sarah's gaze flew to her face, willing her mother to speak and explain and ease her nerves.

Instead, her mother's countenance, already wreathed in a glorious smile, brightened even more. "Good. You've tidied." Her mother scanned her, comprehensively from her forehead to her toes, then beamed and took her arm.

Entirely at sea, her questions in her eyes, Sarah let her mother draw her a few yards down the corridor to where an alcove nestled under the stairs.

Releasing her arm, her mother clasped her hand and squeezed her fingers. "Well, my dear, the long and short of this is that Charlie Morwellan wishes to offer for your hand."

Sarah blinked; for one instant, her mind literally reeled.

Her mother smiled, not unsympathetically. "Indeed, it's a surprise, quite out of the blue, but heaven knows you've dealt with offers enough-you know the ropes. As always the decision is yours, and your father and I will stand by you regardless of what that decision might be." Her mother paused. "However, in this case both your father and I would ask that you consider very carefully. An offer from any earl would command extra attention, but an offer from the 8th Earl of Meredith warrants even deeper consideration."

Sarah looked into her mother's dark eyes. Quite aside from her pleasure over Charlie's offer, in advising her in this, her mother was very serious.

"My dear, you already have sufficient comprehension of Charlie's wealth. You know his home, his standing - you know of him, although I accept that you do not know him, himself, well. But you do know his family."

Taking both her hands, her mother lightly squeezed, her excitement returning. "With no other gentleman have you had, nor will you have, such a close prior connection, such a known foundation on which you might build. It's an unlooked-for, entirely unexpected opportunity, yes, but a very good one."

Her mother searched her eyes, trying to read her reaction. Sarah knew all she would see was confusion.

"Well." Her mother's lips set just a little; her tone became more brisk. "You must hear him out. Listen carefully to what he has to say, then you must make your decision."

Releasing her hands, her mother stepped back, reached up and tweaked Sarah's neckline, then nodded. "Very well. You must go in - he's waiting in the drawing room. As I said, your father and I will accept whatever decision you make. But please, do think very carefully about Charlie."

Sarah nodded, feeling numb. She could barely breathe. Turning from her mother, she walked, slowly, toward the drawing room door.

* * *

Charlie heard a light footstep beyond the door. He turned from the window as the door knob turned, watched as the door opened and the lady he'd chosen to be his wife entered.

She was of average height, subtly but sensuously curved; her slenderness made her appear taller than she was. Her face was heart-shaped, framed by the soft fullness of her lustrous hair, an eye-catching shade of gilded light brown. Her features were delicate, her complexion flawless-including, to his mind, the row of tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose. A wide brow, that straight nose, arched brown brows and long lashes combined with rose-tinted lips and a sweetly curved chin to complete a picture of restful loveliness.

Her gaze was unusually direct; he waited for her to move, knowing that when she did it would be with innate grace.

Her hand on the door knob, she paused, scanning the room.

His eyes narrowed slightly. Even across the distance he sensed her uncertainty, yet when her gaze found him she hesitated for only a second before, without looking away, she closed the door and came toward him.

Calmly, serenely, but with her hands clasping, fingers twining.

She couldn't have expected this; he'd given her no indication that marrying her had ever entered his head. The last time they'd met socially, at the Hunt Ball last November, he'd waltzed with her once, remained by her side for fifteen minutes or so, exchanging the usual pleasantries, and that had been all.

Deliberately on his part. He'd known - for years if he stopped to consider it - that she…regarded him differently. That it would be very easy, with just a smile and a few words, for him to awaken an infatuation in her, a fascination with him. Not that she'd ever been so gauche as to give the slightest sign, yet he was too attuned to women, certainly, it seemed, to her, not to know what quivered just beneath her cool, clear surface, the sensible serenity she showed to the world. He'd made a decision, not once but many times over the years, that it wouldn't do to stir that pool, to ripple her surface. She was, after all, sweet Sarah, a neighbor's daughter he'd known all her life.

So he'd been careful not to do what his instincts had so frequently prompted. He'd studiously treated her as just another young lady of his local acquaintance.

Yet when he'd finally decided to select a wife, one face had leapt to his mind. He hadn't even had to think-he'd simply known that she was his choice.

And then, of course, he had thought, and visited all the arguments, the numerous criteria a man like him needed to evaluate in selecting a wife. The exercise had only confirmed that Sarah Conningham was the perfect candidate.

She halted before him, confidently facing him with less than two feet between them. Confusion shadowed her eyes, a delicate blue the color of a pale cornflower, as she searched his face.

"Charlie." She inclined her head. To his surprise, her voice was even, steady if a trifle breathless. "Mama said you wished to speak with me."

Head high so she could continue to meet his gaze - the top of her head barely reached his chin - she waited.

He felt his lips curve, entirely spontaneously. No fuss, no fluster, and no "Lord Charles," either. They'd never stood on formality, not in any circumstances, and for that he was grateful.

Despite her outward calm, he sensed the brittle, expectant tension that held her, that kept her breathing shallow. Respect stirred, unexpected but definite, yet was he really surprised that she had more backbone than the norm?

No; that, in part, was why he was there.

The urge to reach out and run his fingertips across her collarbone-just to see how smooth the fine alabaster skin was-struck unexpectedly; he toyed with the notion for a heartbeat, but rejected it. Such an action wasn't appropriate given the nature of what he had to say, the tone he wished to maintain.

"As I daresay your mother mentioned, I've asked your father's permission to address you. I would like to ask you to do me the honor of becoming my wife."

He could have dressed up the bare words in any amount of platitudes, but to what end? They knew each other well, perhaps not in a private sense, but his sisters and hers were close; he doubted there was much in his general life of which she was unaware.

And there was nothing in her response to suggest he'd gauged that wrongly, even though, after the briefest of moments, she frowned.


It was his turn to feel confused.

Her lips tightened and she clarified, "Why me?"

Why now? Why after all these years have you finally deigned to do more than smile at me? Sarah kept the words from her tongue, but looking up into Charlie's impassive face, she felt an almost overpowering urge to sink her hands into her hair, pull loose the neatly arranged tresses, and run her fingers through them while she paced. And thought. And tried to understand.

She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't had to, every time she first set eyes on him, pause, just for a second, to let her senses breathe. To let them catch their breath after it had been stolen away simply by his presence. Once the moment passed, as it always did, then all she had to do was battle to ensure she did nothing foolish, nothing to give away her secret obsession - infatuation - with him.

It was nonsense and brought her nothing but aggravation, but no amount of lecturing over its inanity had ever done an ounce of good. She'd decided it was simply the way she reacted to him, Viking-Norman adonis that he was. She'd reluctantly concluded that her reaction wasn't her fault. Or his. It just was; she'd been born this way, and she simply had to deal with it.

And now here he was, without so much as a proper smile in warning, asking for her hand.

Wanting to marry her.

It didn't seem possible. She pinched her thumb, just to make sure, but he remained before her, solid and real, the heat of him, the strength of him wrapping about her in pure masculine temptation, even if now he was frowning, too.

His lips firmed, losing the intoxicating curve that had softened them. "Because I believe we'll deal exceptionally well together." He hesitated, then went on, "I could give you chapter and verse about our stations, our families, our backgrounds, but you already know every aspect as well as I. And" - his gaze sharpened - "as I'm sure you understand, I need a countess."

He paused, then his lips quirked. "Will you be mine?"

Nicely ambiguous. Sarah stared into his gray-blue eyes, a paler shade of blue than her own, and heard again in her mind her mother's words: Think very carefully about Charlie.

She searched his eyes, and accepted that she'd have to, that this time her answer wasn't so clear. She'd lost count of the times she'd faced a gentleman like this and framed an answer to that question, couched though it had been in many different ways. Never before had she even had to think of the crux of her reply, only the words in which to deliver it.

This time, facing Charlie….

Still holding his gaze, she compressed her lips fleetingly, drew in a breath and let it out with, "If you want my honest answer, then that honest answer is that I can't answer you, not yet."

His dark gold lashes, impossibly thick, screened his eyes for an instant; when he again met her gaze his frown was back. "What do you mean? When will you be able to answer?"

Aggression reached her, reined but definitely there. Unsurprised - she knew his charm was nothing more than a veneer, that under that glossy surface he was stubborn, even ruthless - she studied his eyes, and unexpectedly found answers to two of the many questions crowding her mind. He did indeed want her - specifically her - as his wife. And he wanted her soon.

Quite what she was to make of that last, she wasn't sure. Nor did she know how much trust she could place in the former.

She was aware that he expected her to back away from his veiled challenge, to temporize, to in one way or another back down. She smiled tightly and lifted her chin. "In answer to your first question, you know perfectly well that I had no warning of your offer. I had no idea you were even thinking of such a thing. Your proposal has come entirely out of the blue, and the simple fact is I don't know you well enough" - she held up a hand - "regardless of our long acquaintance - and don't pretend you don't know what I mean - to be able to answer you yay or nay."

She paused, waiting to see if he would argue. When he simply waited, lips even thinner, his gaze razor sharp and locked on her eyes, she continued, "As for your second question, I'll be able to answer you once I know you well enough to know which answer to give."

His eyes bored into hers for a long moment, then he stated, "You want me to woo you."

His tone was resigned; she'd gained that much at least.

"Not precisely. It's more that I need to spend time with you so I can get to know you better." She paused, her eyes on his. "And so you can get to know me."

That last surprised him; he held her gaze, then his lips quirked and he inclined his head.

"Agreed." His voice had lowered. Now he was talking to her, with her, no longer on any formal plane but on an increasingly personal one, his tone had deepened, becoming more private. More intimate.

She quelled a tiny shiver; at that lower note his voice reverberated through her. She'd wanted to increase the space between them for several minutes, but there was something in the way he looked at her, the way his gaze held her, that made her hesitate, as if to edge back would be tantamount to admitting weakness.

Like fleeing from a predator. An invitation to…her mouth was dry.

He'd tilted his head, studying her face. "So how long do you think getting to know each other better - well enough - will take?"

There was not a glint so much as a carefully veiled idea lurking in the depths of his eyes that made her inwardly frown. She was tempted to state that she had no intention of being swayed by his undoubted, unquestioned, utterly obvious sexual expertise, but that, like fleeing, might be seriously unwise. He'd all too likely interpret such a comment as an outright challenge.

And that was, she was certain, one challenge she couldn't meet.

She hadn't, not for one moment, been able to - felt able to - shift her gaze from his. "A month or two should be sufficient."

His face hardened. "A week."

She narrowed her eyes. "That's impossible. Four weeks."

He narrowed his back. "Two."

The word held a ring of finality she wished she could challenge - wished she thought she could challenge. Lips set, she nodded. Curtly. "Very well. Two weeks - and then I'll answer you yay or nay."

His eyes held hers. Although he didn't move, she felt as if he leaned closer.

"I have a caveat." His gaze, at last, shifted from her eyes, drifting mesmerically lower. His voice deepened, becoming even more hypnotic. "In return for me agreeing to a two-week courtship, you will agree that once you answer and accept my offer" - his gaze rose to her eyes - "we'll be married by special licence no more than a week later."

She licked her dry lips, started to form the word why.

He stepped nearer. "Do you agree?"

Trapped - in his gaze, by his nearness - she managed, just, to draw in a breath. "Very well. If I agree to marry you, then we can be married by special licence."

He smiled - and she suddenly decided that no matter how he took it, fleeing was an excellent idea. She tensed to step back.

Just as his arm swept around her, and tightened.

His eyes held hers as he drew her, gently but inexorably, into his arms. "Our two-week courtship…remember?"

She leaned back, keeping her eyes on his, her hands on his upper arms. His strength surrounded her. She felt giddy. "What of it?"

His lips curved in a wholly masculine smile. "It starts now."

Then he bent his head and covered her lips with his.

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