The sleepless soul that perished in his pride...
"Come on, damn it." Sweat beaded on Caine's back as he thrust into the woman beneath him, her customary mewling sounds making bile rise in his throat. He wanted to be done with her so she would leave.
She was always ravenous for sex when she woke up, which was why he normally made himself scarce, but she had caught him unawares, climbing into his bed late last night after he had drunk himself into a stupor. He had come awake abruptly when she mounted his morning erection, for which he very nearly throttled her as he pushed her to her back.
"Oh, yes, Caine...that's it," she panted, her face wreathed in ecstasy. Olivia Hamilton, widow of the late Marquis of Buxton, and now Caine's patroness, was building toward her climax. "Now, Caine. Now."
Her legs gripped his flanks like an industrial clamp, urging every ounce from him, whether he wished to give it or not.
She tossed her head back and moaned. A stream of bright sunlight slanted across her neck, showing the fine lines of her advancing age, which she claimed to be forty, but which he suspected was closer to forty-five. But she could have been twenty-five and it wouldn't have made his duty any easier. Fitting punishment for a man who had once been so immersed in a world of sin that he'd earned the nickname Vice from his comrades-in-debauchery. What a perversion of fate, to have been trapped by his own immorality.
Outside, the crisp snap of a gunshot signaled the start of the morning's fox hunt and the beginning of yet another weeklong house party, where he would hang on the fringes while England's most dissolute peers descended upon Northcote Hall. People he had once ignorantly called friends, in a home he had, in another lifetime, called his own.
Northcote had belonged to Ballingers since the fourteenth century, surviving sieges, the uncompromising elements of the Devon coastline, and a fire that had nearly gutted it a hundred years earlier. But it hadn't survived Henry Ballinger. His father.
The earl had been a good man, but distracted, the death of his wife pushing him deeper into his own world, his business ventures faltering until debt covered his head, and his son's head upon his death. Caine had barely escaped with the shirt on his back when he had learned how far-reaching the devastation. The entail on Northcote had lapsed. There had been no way to save it from the auction block, leaving an empty title as his sole inheritance.
Two years his father had been dead, his broken body found upon the rocks at the base of the cliffs. The last step in Henry Ballinger's march toward self-destruction was his inability to pay back the money loaned to him by the wealthiest nobleman in the region, Edward Ashton, Duke of Exmoor. There were many defeats the earl could accept, but not when it concerned a debt of honor. In that, his fall from grace had been absolute.
And so began Caine's own descent, his mind increasingly consumed with a growing hate, certain that his father would still be alive if the duke had given him more time to pay. Exmoor had pushed his father to his death as though the duke's hand had been on his father's back.
Since then, Caine's life had become a hellish purgatory, turning him into a man without a soul, without a conscience. He had nothing -- nothing but the silent, impotent rage that kept him rising day after day, instead of taking his gun and putting a bullet through his brain.
Olivia whimpered beneath him, conveying that he was being too rough with her. But even that wouldn't make her leave. It wouldn't end this insanity, or change his circumstances. Or bring back the life he had once taken for granted.
"No, Caine," she begged when he began to pull out of her, his timing a near science.
She cursed his cruelty in tormenting her, which gave him a perverse sense of satisfaction. She may have a hold over him, but he had something she wanted badly. Eight inches of it.
His lack of cooperation was only a momentary annoyance, however, as she arched her hips up to draw him in and stroked her sex until she came, her muscles convulsing around his shaft, trying to wring his seed from him. But he wasn't taking any chances. He always wore the rubberized French letter to protect himself from impregnating her. One seed swimming upstream, and she'd have him in a choke hold for the rest of his life.
His duty complete, Caine rolled off her, letting the breeze from the open window cool his anger and his overheated body. Summer had finally settled in, banishing spring's chill to the hours before dawn.
The smell of the white jasmine that grew in abundance around the house drifted into the room, bringing with it the only vivid recollection Caine had of his mother. She had died when he was four years old, but the haunting fragrance taunted him with brief flashes of memory, of an ethereal figure with a sad smile.
"Caine," came the impatient voice of the new lady of the manor. "Untie me." She tugged on the red silk scarves securing her wrists to the bed posts.
Caine didn't bother to look at her. "No."
"Blast you, Caine! Untie me now."
He had tied her up for his pleasure, not hers. It kept her from touching him. "I think I'll ring for the maid," he said, reaching for the bellpull.
Caine's hand hovered around the black silk cord. "Why not? The girl might discover a whole new appreciation for you, especially after you docked her a day's wage for spilling a cup of tea." Olivia reveled in her petty cruelties; it was the only thing that gave purpose to her life.
"She deserved it, the clumsy twit. I should have fired her on the spot."
"Your constant belittling made her nervous."
"Stop making excuses for these incompetent servants. You're always taking their side. One would think you cared about them."
Caine didn't want to think his actions were motivated by anything other than a desire to prod Olivia. She needed these little doses of humility, though it rarely took the edge off the bitch she was when not lying flat on her back.
"I don't care about anyone," he drawled. "You of all people should know that only too well."
"That's because you have no heart."
"True. But it's not my heart you want, is it? Now, you might want to close your thighs." His fingers wrapped around the bellpull.
"Someday, Caine, you're going to push me too far...and then I'm going to burn your beloved house to the ground."
Caine's hand curled into a fist. He had already been the recipient of her spite, as one by one she systematically destroyed the paintings of his ancestors that had hung in the portrait gallery for centuries. The few that remained now moldered in the attic.
"I see I have your attention," she said. "Good. Now untie me."
With a snarl, he loosened her bonds. Rolling away from her, he clasped his hands behind his head and stared up at the ceiling, thinking about the depths to which he had fallen; the single, fatal character flaw that had caused him to barter his body and soul.
"That was not well done of you, my lord," his unwanted bed partner chided as she rubbed feeling back into her arms, the pampered, spoiled princess of doting parents and a moronic husband who'd had the good sense to die.
"You got what you wanted, Olivia. Now leave me in peace, for Christ's sake."
"You're a mean brute, Caine, but utterly delicious." She slid her palm down over his stomach, the tip of her forefinger circling the head of his penis, now free of the condom.
He gripped her wrist and brought it down hard on the mattress. "Leave off," he growled.
"Don't be angry with me."
"I told you not to come to my bedroom."
"But you didn't come to me, and I needed you."
"So find another bedmate for the night."
"You're the only one I want."
Caine snorted. "You don't actually believe that delusion, do you?"
"Please, Caine. Stop barking at me." She sidled closer to him, her gaze running over his naked body. "Let me make it up to you."
Caine knew what she was going to do and told himself to stop her. He couldn't stand her, yet his body blared for some kind of fulfillment.
Her warm breath whispered across his rigid flesh a moment before she took him into her mouth, her blond hair teasing his groin. She was mocking him, knowing how bitterly he resented it when she did this.
She cupped him, massaging with expert fingers as her wet mouth slid further down his shaft, sucking hard, increasing its dimension as much as he tried to hold back the stirrings of his treasonous body.
Her lips closed tighter around him, her tongue toying with the crest, nursing just the head before going deep, her hand pumping the base as her mouth took in as much of him as she could manage, the suction building along with the speed, the pressure expanding in his loins.
On the verge of spewing his seed, she mounted him, her moan a husky contralto as she took the fully aroused, unprotected length of him inside her body.
Caine immediately wrenched her off him. "Damn you!"
Anger flared in her eyes as she leaned back against the pillows, her rouged nipples showing dark against the pale outline of her body and the blue satin sheets behind her. She looked like she wanted to hack him into little bits. But knowing she would get nowhere by inciting him further, she switched tactics, her lips curving into a pout, which for some godforsaken reason she thought worked on him.
"Why must you deny me? You know how much I want a child, yet you hold on to your precious seed like it's gold. I have money. I could give a babe all it desired: a governess to tend its dirty nappies, a wet nurse to offer up a tit when it's hungry."
"But no last name -- unless you're suggesting marriage, and of course there is the fact that you don't possess an ounce of moral fiber."
"As though you do," she retorted. "Vice is your virtue. You're as conscienceless as they come."
She was right, of course. Vice had always been his stock-in-trade. "Don't you have guests to entertain?" he remarked pointedly, rising from the bed and grabbing his trousers from the floor. Shoving his legs into them, he stalked to the window.
Not surprisingly, she ignored his cue to depart. "Give me a child, Caine. Alfred was unable to do his husbandly duty. It's unfair, I tell you. Who shall take care of me when I'm old?"
"I don't give a damn."
"Every woman should have a child of her own."
"We've been through this before. The answer is still no. You may hold my finances, but you won't hold my future."
"How horrible of you to say such a thing. Haven't I given you everything you want? The finest clothes, pin money for your gambling, the cellar stocked with your favorite liquors, and my body to warm your bed. What else could you want?"
The one thing he seemed destined to live without, Caine thought bitterly.
"I try to be understanding of what prompts you to behave so cruelly. I know things have not been easy for you."
"Do not patronize me," he warned.
"Fine. Since you wish to be frank, and have raised the issue of your circumstances, let's discuss them, then. The cold truth is, I do hold your future in my hand."
His gaze snapped over his shoulder, the fury on his face making her flinch. "Don't doubt that I could find another patroness."
"But could you find one who owns your ancestral home?" she said with a taunting lift of her eyebrows. "Northcote obsesses you, Caine. It runs through your veins like a drug and you can't exorcise it. Now it belongs to me. I will get what I want eventually. I always do. So why not stop fighting it?"
Caine shut her out, knowing he was trapped by his own demons and unable to break free. Damn her for a soulless bitch, for tossing his weakness in his face.
His gaze centered on the sea beyond the cliffs. The turbulent blue-green water of the Bristol Channel mirrored his mood, waves cresting with white foam as they crashed thunderously against the jagged rocks that rose hundreds of feet high.
Despite the ghosts left to haunt him, this was home, his solitary link to the world he had once known. Northcote was his identity, his safe harbor, and without it he felt unanchored, adrift. Olivia had called it his obsession, and it was. He couldn't just walk away, no matter how much it ripped at his pride to submit to her sexual demands. He couldn't relinquish this last piece of his life.
Caine heard her rise from the bed and move toward him. "Though you deserve to be banished for your less-than-lover-like behavior," she said in a sultry voice, "I can't seem to send you away. You're very hard to resist, my lord." She wrapped her arms around his waist, her breasts flattening against his back as she purred, "And so very well endowed." Her hands slid over the front of his trousers.
His fingers closed around her wrist with just enough force to make her whimper. "Don't make me tell you again."
She pulled her hand away. "Please try to be civil today. You'll scare off my guests with that black scowl."
"As if I give a damn. You know how I feel about having those barracudas here." He hated being paraded about as her stud.
"I enjoy these gatherings. This place is as lifeless as a graveyard, otherwise."
"If you don't like it here, then why did you make your dearly departed, cuckolded husband buy it?"
"Because I found a wicked sort of pleasure in its tragic history. People throwing themselves off cliffs in despair. How very dramatic."
Caine tensed, her intended barb striking true. "Shut up."
"Oh, dear. I'm sorry. That was your father, wasn't it? I had forgotten."
"You're a vicious bitch, and you damn well know it." Christ, he had to get out. He was suffocating.
As he turned from the window, he caught a glimpse of two riders. The duo burst from the woods at breakneck speed, performing the most reckless of maneuvers as they raced toward the house.
When the lead horse attempted a perilous leap over a crevice, Caine's attention focused on the rider. Female. An idiotic female who was taking unbelievable risks with her life and that of her mount.
She was beating her male counterpart by a good two leagues as they thundered into the courtyard in front of the house, her husky laughter ringing in Caine's ears as she came to a dust-raising halt.
With a light hop, she dismounted, not waiting for assistance. With her feet now touching the earth, Caine was surprised to discover how petite she was.
She shook her hair away from her face; it had become unbound during her mad dash to the finish. The dark cinnamon tresses were lush and reached just beyond the middle of her back.
Beneath the straight, silky veil was a face of the most striking features. Piquancy battled with classic beauty. Incredibly high cheekbones melded with a mouth so dazzlingly wide as to affect the whole aspect of her face when she smiled. Dark brows slanted above eyes whose color he could not discern, but which instinct told him were as blue as the water behind her.
"I've beaten you, Court," she said to the other rider in a breathless, laughing voice, pressing a light kiss to her horse's muzzle. "Do you yield?"
From his mounted position, the man offered her an exaggerated bow. His sandy brown hair, cropped close to his head, gleamed in the mid-morning sun. "I do, my lady. I submit to your greater horsemanship. You may count me as another man who has fallen victim to your superior skill."
She tapped his knee with her crop in a playful gesture. "Remember that when next you challenge me."
"Only a very foolish man would challenge you," he returned in the same light vein. His attention was then diverted, directing Caine's gaze to what he had spotted. Or rather to whom.
Lady Rebecca St. Claire, Olivia's niece, was strolling along the garden wall, her maid a few paces behind. The lady cast coy glances over her shoulder toward the man.
"If you'll excuse me, Cousin?" he said in a distracted tone. "There's a matter that requires my prompt attention."
Her amused gaze traveled in the same direction. "Oh, yes. I can see that 'matter' requires immediate attention," she returned in a teasing voice, her eyes alight.
With a conspiratorial grin, he saluted her with his crop and cantered off toward his quarry. She stood for a moment, watching him, sunlight glinting off the gold buttons of her riding outfit, a hunter green confection with a daring neckline and a clever split skirt that allowed her to sit her mount astride.
Unexpectedly, she glanced up and caught Caine watching her from the window. Her unflinching regard conveyed that she knew he had been eavesdropping. That didn't bother him. He had never claimed to be a gentleman and wouldn't pretend to be one now.
The whinny of her restless mare ended the long moment of appraisal. She inclined her head, the gesture distinctly mocking, as she turned and led her horse away.
Impudent baggage. She didn't know whom she taunted, and he was of a mind to educate her. Images ran rampant through his brain as his gaze followed the provocative swing of her backside, which held his undivided attention until she disappeared from sight.
"Don't drool, darling," Olivia chided in a proprietary tone. "I might take offense."
Caine reluctantly turned to look at her, forcing a bored expression to his face. "Jealous, Lady Buxton?"
She lightly fingered the ties of her dressing gown, her nipples showing clearly beneath the filmy material.
"Don't be absurd, darling. I can have you whenever I want." As if to prove her point, she took the three steps separating them and pressed her body to his.
Caine stared down at her with disinterest. "The equipment needs a rest." He brushed past her and grabbed his shirt.
"She really affected you, didn't she?"
He tucked in his shirt, playing obtuse. "Since I've had the misfortune of knowing more than one 'she' in my life, perhaps you'd care to elaborate?"
"You know exactly who I'm speaking about. The little tart with all the hair." Envy rang in her words. Olivia's own hair was beginning to thin in spots, forcing her to wear hairpieces to enhance what nature had not given her.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Caine shoved his foot into his boot. "And if she did?"
"Then I'd have to remind you that you can look but not touch."
Caine clenched his jaw and rose slowly from the bed. Closing the short distance between them, he stared down into Olivia's sly green eyes. "I give you certain liberties, but I'm not a man who takes well to women who attempt to control me. Remember that."
Her catlike smile told him she would humor him until it suited her to do otherwise. "This gathering has suddenly become far more interesting than I would have imagined."
"For you, maybe." Caine headed for the door, knowing full well where he was going. To the stables -- questioning his motives the entire way for allowing a fiery bit of temptation to garner a reaction from him.
Olivia's words stopped him halfway out the door. "You don't know who she is, do you?"
Something about the way she framed the question unnerved him. He looked over his shoulder and noted the gleam in her eyes. "I assume you're referring to the hellbent-for-leather horsewoman?"
"I guess you wouldn't recognize her, would you? There really is no familial resemblance, and she does spend a great deal of her time in Paris, from what I understand."
"Get to the point."
"Does the name Edward Ashton mean anything to you?"
Everything inside Caine froze.
"Yes, I can see it does." She met him at the doorway. Caine stood immobile as she reached up to trace a finger along the jagged scar on his left cheek. "Does it still hurt?"
"No," he bit out, jerking his head away, his entire body suddenly feeling taut and explosive.
The scar was a reminder of his folly, compliments of one of the duke of Exmoor's henchmen. But Caine figured he deserved what he got for going to the man's London townhouse, drunk and wanting to avenge his father's death. He never made it past the front door. A burly footman had the advantage of sobriety, heft, and a broken bottle.
Caine remembered waking up in a charity hospital, where someone had deposited him, his brain feverish and his body awash in sweat as infection set in. Two months he had stayed, his world reduced to a solitary sphere of comprehension: revenge.
His gaze narrowed on Olivia's face. "Who is she?"
She reveled in her secret a moment longer, then replied, "Lady Bliss Ashton. Exmoor's darling daughter."
Caine felt as though someone had reached down his throat and divested him of his innards. "What is she doing here?" he demanded in a deceptively soft voice. "Did you invite her?" He took a menacing step toward her. "I swear, if you did -- "
"No, blast you. I didn't invite her." For an instant she looked frightened, but then her hauteur surged back in full. "She must have come with her cousin."
"Well, get her the hell out of here."
She arched a brow. "And only five minutes ago you wanted to fuck her. How mercurial you are, my love."
Caine took another step forward, purposely crowding her. "Don't push me, Olivia."
"If you want her gone," she said, lifting her pointed chin and glaring at him, "then do it yourself. Certainly a big, bad man like you can drive away one little female. You do so excel at being a bastard."
"Remember that when you find her body washed up on the rocks," Caine snarled as he stalked from the room.
Copyright © 2003 by Melanie George