Man of Her Affairs Ch. 02

bylepetiterose©

Finally, she turned into a hallway and was met with a surge of noise and light. The ballroom was a mere fifteen feet away.

'Miss Grey?'

Charlotte turned with a start. 'James!'

'I am afraid not.' A figure moved towards her from further down the hall. It was a tall, blonde haired man dressed impeccably in shades of beige and green, which picked out his light, moss coloured eyes. 'My Christian name is Lucian.'

Charlotte sighed with relief and gave the man a tremulous smile. Viscount Thorsby.

'Are you alright, Miss Grey?' The Viscount stopped beside her and looked down in concern.

'Yes. I, uh, just needed a moment away from the crowds. I was about to make my way back to the ballroom, in fact.' She knew she was blushing. Charlotte tried not to look into Thorsby's eyes, as she was sure the truth was stark in her own, tear rimmed ones.

Those eyes were watching her shrewdly, even though his mouth tilted in an engaging half smile. 'With your hair unbound?' he asked softly, his hand stretching out to capture a fiery lock and twist it around his fingers.

'Excuse me?' When had he gotten so close?

'Your hair. It is no longer in the style it was half an hour ago.' He brought the lock to his mouth and brushed it gently against his lips. 'I like it this way.' His eyes caught and held hers and Charlotte felt frozen to the spot.

When she did not reply, Thorsby moved closer, the inches between them disappearing in a whisper of cloth. His eyes darkened seductively, flicking down to her breasts and then back to her mouth. He licked his lips.

'Lord Thorsby, I think we should return to the ballroom.' Charlotte tried to infuse her words with confidence and authority, but the waver in her voice gave her away. James' warning rang in her ears.

'I think not, Miss Grey.' A cold finger slid down her cheek, catching her lower lip before reaching her jaw. Tilting her chin up, he smiled in satisfaction as she glared up at him. 'I will enjoy training you, little minx.'

Roughly, he pulled her to him, a hand painfully entangling in her loose mane as the other found her bottom and jerked her closer to his arousal. Like James', it was large, hard and hot and ground insistently against her.

Charlotte tried to scream but it was swallowed by Thorsby's kiss. Desperate and hard, it lacked the finesse with which James had teased pleasure from her even as he sought to dominate.

She struggled to think of a way to escape and Thorsby's grip on her was strong. As her mind worked, she felt her assailant's hand slither to her front and delve unceremoniously between her thighs, the material of her dress stretching tightly across her hips.

She was still sensitive after her encounter with James, so when Thorsby's fingers prodded against her core, she could not help but let out a whimper of pain.

Of course, Thorsby mistook it for pleasure and began to stroke her vigorously. 'Mmm, you like that? I knew you would.' He bit down on her shoulder and pressed harder into her. 'There is more to come. You are mine, now.'

'No, she is mine.'

Charlotte's heart missed a beat.

Abruptly, the Viscount was yanked violently away from her, only to be thrown to the ground. James was on him in an instant, and proceeded to deliver blows of such ferocity that Thorsby's head was snapped left to right as each one landed.

All Charlotte could do was sink against the wall in relief. Dumbly, she watched James deliver the blows to the horrid Viscount. Inside, however, two words repeated like a mantra in her mind: Thankgoodnessthankgoodnessthankgoodnessthankgoodness!

Suddenly, James stopped. Breathing heavily, he stood and dragged the Viscount up by his shirtfront. His hands were red with blood.

'If you ever come near Miss Grey again, I will kill you.' Soft with menace, his voice was ice. 'Do you understand?'

Viscount Thorsby did not reply. Instead, he yanked himself away and took off towards the back of the manor. He would probably leave via the servants' entrance.

For several moments it was silent in the hallway. Sounds of laughter and music drifted down from the ballroom. Charlotte glanced towards it. No one had seen the incident.

'Did he hurt you?'

Charlotte's gaze snapped back to James. He had his back to her. 'Excuse me?'

'Did. He. Hurt. You?' His voice was rough and broke on the last word. He cleared his throat

'James¬--'

'DID HE?' A split second and he was beside her, hands clutching her shoulders as he looked into her eyes desperately.

'No.'

'Thank God.' He pulled her into a warm embrace, his chin coming to rest on the top of her head. 'Thank God,' he sighed again.

To Charlotte, James' reaction was shocking. Where was the indomitable man of a mere fifteen minutes before? Who was that avenging god who had so violently protected her? And now, having known her for only a day, why did he care so much for her safety?

And why did she feel so content in his arms?

Disconcerted, she pulled away. 'I must go fix my hair if I am to reenter the ballroom without suspicion,' she mumbled. And because it could not go unsaid: 'Thank you. Thank you for rescuing me.'

When he did not reply, she finally looked up at him. He was staring at her, amber eyes fixed and intense. His expression was odd, as if he was about to be sick.

'Are you okay?' She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder

'Peachy.' He bit off sarcastically

She jerked her hand away. 'Well, then, will you return to the ball?'

He gave a noncommittal shrug. Obviously, his quota of words had been used up for the evening.

Charlotte waited in case he would reply. After a few seconds of him staring stonily at her, she shook her head irritably and, with a swish of skirts, glided into the depths of the manor and up a flight of stairs. Anne had probably fallen asleep on her bed. It would only take a few minutes for her to restyle Charlotte's loose locks.

*

'Where have you been?!'

As expected, Lady Gainsbourgh was in a near rage. Charlotte cringed at the shrill note in her voice. As she had reentered the crowd, hair once again perfect, her grandmother had dragged her to a hidden alcove out of the way of the main ballroom, and was now scolding her like a child.

'First, you allowed Lord Earlsford to dance with you in an unseemly manner.'

Charlotte opened her mouth to try defend herself.

Her grandmother shot her a glare. 'Anyone who saw could see that all he wants is to be beneath your skirts!' She was beginning to go white as she worked herself into a froth. 'Secondly, you two looked as if you were ready to tear out each other's throats, AND THEN,' Charlotte wondered how long the much older woman was going to last, 'you disappear for nearly an hour afterwards! Charlotte, if you do not behave with the proper decorum I--' Lady Gainsbourgh froze, her eyes fixed on her granddaughter's shoulder. 'What is that?' she asked in a horrified whisper.

Charlotte began to feel uneasy. 'What is what, my lady?'

'I cannot believe it. My dear, is that a bite mark?!'

Paling, Charlotte lifted her hand to feel her shoulder. Against the smoothness of her skin were indeed the indentation marks of teeth. Viscount Thorsby's.

'Grandmama, it is not what you think--' she said quickly, but was interrupted.

'Charlotte Grey, I know it is exactly what I think! And I tell you I will not allow it! Do you hear me! You may think you are above the laws of Society and may do what you like, including carrying on with men in dark corners, but you are not.'

'I do not think--!'

'I gave you the benefit of the doubt when you entered my home. I believed your breeding would come through as soon as you reentered society, but I see I was wrong. All that traveling and independence have ruined you. You are practically a heathen! I can only hope that no one else has noticed yet. If so, we still have time.'

Through her growing incredulity and anger, Charlotte still managed to detect the oddness of that statement. 'What do you mean?'

Lady Gainsbourgh drew herself up to her full, not quite considerable, height. 'It means, my dear, that I have decided that you will marry in the next fortnight. And to a man of my choosing.'

Charlotte froze in shock. 'You can not make me.'

'I assure you I can and I will.'

'I am not some pawn to be played at will. I am full grown woman with a mind and will of my own!'

'You are a foolish child who will find herself ruined if not locked into the safety of marriage soon!

'I do not need marriage, nor do I want it. Why should I be shackled to a man, probably old enough to be my grandfather or has a lower intelligence than a sheep, to satisfy you and the ton?'

'Because that is the way things are, Charlotte, and only an idiot girl thinks otherwise!' She grabbed her granddaughter's wrist. 'Come, girl. Think! What humiliation will you bring down on your father through your behaviour?'

'Do not dare presume what my father may think of me!'

'If I am ashamed of you, then what will he be?' her grandmother hissed.

The words cut Charlotte like daggers of glass. Jerking herself from the bony grasp, she stumbled away, trying to breath through the sudden pain in her chest. Tears began to burn at the edge of her vision, as she stared blankly into space.

'I will tell the guests of your sudden illness that has forced you to retire. I do not expect to see you for the rest of the evening.' The dead voice of Lady Gainsbourgh floated to her, barely breaking through the storm of emotions reeling in her mind.

Then, she was alone.

*

James clenched his hands into fists slowly, opened them up till they stretched to their full extent, and then squeezed back into fists. He heard a few bones pop.

The night had definitely not gone the way he had planned.

When he had come across Thorsby pinning Charlotte to the wall, his hand between her thighs and his tongue down her throat, James saw red. The following few moments were a blur, and the next thing he knew he was beating the man within an inch of his life. He had been fury incarnate . Everything in him screamed to kill the Viscount. How dare this low life try to ruin Charlotte? How dare he force himself upon her and--

James had stopped cold and abruptly felt extremely ill.

Because that is what he had done. He had forced himself on her, heartlessly ignored her pleas to stop and made her surrender to him in one of the most elemental ways possible. He was just like Thorsby.

Disgusted with himself, James leant against the stone balustrade of the large balcony on which he stood, and looked out over the shadow-cloaked gardens.

He was mad in the head. He had to be. It was the only explanation for each and every action he had taken over the past hours. If he was not, that opened up a very deep and dark kettle of fish that he did not particularly want to explore.

First, the waltz with Charlotte. He had acted out of character, taking advantage of the dance and forcing her with each step and spin to move closer into his arms. She had felt exquisite. The only excuse he could muster was that, every time his thigh had brushed against hers, every occasion momentum pushed her against his chest, the fire of his desire had urged him to do it again.

And then there was the moment when he had decided to follow her into the depths of the manor. Reckless. Thoughtless. Callous. If anyone had come across them...but the feel of her! And the sight and sound of her as she had climaxed... He allowed himself to relive the memory for a brief moment. She had been so wet, so ready. If she had not run away... Instantly, he grew heavy and thick.

Teeth gritted, he inhaled deeply, trying to keep control of himself. No, never again. Or at least, he admitted to himself, not with her. She deserved better.

The rattling shudder of a door ricocheting off a wall broke his train of thought. Surprised, James spun around in time to see an ivory clad woman burst onto the balcony and make her way to the flight of stairs leading into the garden. She was about to descend before he realized that it was Charlotte. No other woman shimmered like her that evening.

'Miss Grey!' he called out before he could stop himself. 'Charlotte,' he tried again when she showed no signs of stopping.

She hesitated on the stairs, but then glanced back. In the moonlight, silver trails of tears traced a path down her face.

He strode towards her, concerned by her obviously distressed state. But when he neared her, he saw that she was not crying because she was afraid or hurt.

No, Charlotte's tears were tears of anger.

Her eyes glimmered in fury as she watched him approach. 'I am to have an arranged marriage,' she said without preamble.

James stopped dead. He felt as if he had been punched. 'What?'

'Unless I do something. Which I am, of course I am.' She seemed to be talking to herself more than him. Her voice shook with emotion. 'Besides, I have the finances to support myself.' Her gaze snapped back to his. 'What would you do?'

James was still trying to come to terms with her first shocking statement, never mind those that followed. 'Charlotte, wait a minute. Why are you to have an arranged marriage?'

Looking exasperated, Charlotte exhaled irritably. Climbing two steps to his side, she jabbed at her shoulder, which had started to sport a light bruise in the form of a half moon. 'Because of this, James. Viscount Thorsby bit me as he was... accosting me. My grandmother saw it and to cut a long story short, she fears I shall become a harlot and disgrace the family. I am to be married off to guard against this apparently inevitable event.' And with that, she descended the rest of the stairs into the garden.

James followed quickly after staring dumbly at her receding back for a moment, trying to come to terms with the news. 'Charlotte, where are you going?' he called out as he caught up to her. She moved surprisingly fast in that dress.

'To think.' She did not bother to look at him.

'About what? Good God woman, just stop for a moment.' He reached out and grabbed her wrist, swinging her around to face him.

'Is it not obvious?' she cried out angrily. 'About how I am supposed to get out of this!'

His heart leapt. He was surprised at how hard it was to think of her promised to another man.

She began pacing. 'I need to access my finances. They are stored in foreign banks but are located mainly in Europe.' She ran a hand though her hair in concentration. It was loose again. She grunted in frustration.

'But that could take months. Do you have that much time?' he asked quietly. His stomach twisted as he waited for her answer.

'No. I have two weeks.' She collapsed onto a bench. 'But I can still try.' She looked up at him defiantly. 'If I flee to my father, I know he will send me back. Therefore, I need to locate and purchase lands immediately.'

'You are not untouchable on your estates, Charlotte.'

'I know, but I can make it a damn sight harder for my family to marry me off. I have dealt with pirates, I can deal with a bunch of measly aristocrats.' She had risen from the bench, nervous energy making it impossible for her to keep still.

James' brows raised at her profanity. Charlotte was more distraught than she looked.

A hand was in her hair again and she stared into the shadows. 'But time! I do not have enough time!'

Suddenly, her head snapped up and she looked at him with a hopeful expression, though there was an edge of trepidation. 'Lord Earlsford. James.'

He jumped as he heard his name on her lips. In the night, it sounded so seductive. Concentrate! he reminded himself.

'Will you help me?' she asked, then continued quickly, 'I mean, I have not been in London long and you have connections and,' she licked her dry lips, 'I...I would appreciate it, even on such a slight acquaintance, if you might aid me in contacting... that is to say...could you aid me by being my man-of-affairs, so to speak?' The last bit was said in a rush.

Her question was met with silence. 'Just till I am established, of course,' she assured him weakly.

Why was he remaining silent? Charlotte's small ray of hope began to diminish slightly as James just stared at her, expressionless, for over a minute. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Of course he would refuse. She had hardly known what she was saying when the idea burst into her mind. What made her think he would agree to such a plan? The relationship she was proposing, platonic though it was, would be considered by anyone else as outrageous! It was daring, and could probably ruin them both but--

'I will help you.' His voice was strangely hoarse, but to her it sounded like a choir of angels.

Before she knew it, and to his obvious surprise, she had flung herself at him, hugging him for all she was worth. 'Really? Oh, James, I promise you it will not be long. I will be off your hands in no time.' Suddenly, Charlotte felt her tears return, but this time in relief. 'How do I ever thank you, James?

'Please, do not think of it.'

'But just ask for anything and--'

He shifted uncomfortably and his voice sounded strained. 'Charlotte. Stop.'

But she could not help herself. Filled with a sudden, giddy euphoria, she stretched up and gave him a peck on the lips.

And then, surprised at their softness, she kissed him again, her lips lingering gently against his. Her breath caught, and quivering shiver shot through her. Oh my goodness.

She felt James jerk away slightly in surprise. Unbidden, her hand shot up to sink into his hair to hold him firmly to her. Pressing up against him, she deepened the kiss, letting out a small moan as her tongue flicked out to hesitantly taste his lips. Salty.

Her other hand joined the first and, heady with the suddenly irresistible temptation of his lips, she was about to test their plumpness with her teeth when she was jerked away. Suddenly, she found herself held at arms length, James' large hands at her shoulders.

She let out a small whimper of disappointment, but then her desire dazed eyes focused on James. Staring at her as if he had never seen her before, his nostrils flared, jaw tense, he seemed to be struggling with himself.

'What are you doing?' he snapped

'Kissing you,' she replied innocently, 'What is the matter?'

He let out a tense sigh. 'We cannot do this, Charlotte.'

She frowned at that. 'You were very eager earlier.'

'That should not have happened.'

'And this mourning?'

'That. Is. Enough.'

'But you forced me!'

'Exactly! And I will not do it again. I will not be like Thorsby!' His expression was pained.

'You are nothing like him!'

'Oh God, Charlotte, please.'

'But you want me.'

'Maybe. But that does not mean I can have you. Please do not make this harder for me.'

'It already is hard,' she whispered seductively, and daringly reached out to draw her finger along the clear outline of his arousal.

'Charlotte!' Sharply, he sucked in his breath as the ridge of her nail rasped against him. His grip on her loosened.

Immediately she was against him, hands sliding up to his neck as her mouth found his.

'Stop it!' He caught her wrists in his hands and held them captive against his chest. 'You do not know what you are doing.' His voice was hoarse, eyes wild..

'Yes, I do. I know exactly what I am doing.' And suddenly she did. Heat suffused her insides, her intimate flesh tingling as she said the words. She wanted him. She ached to have him. Stepping closer, she brought her thighs to brush suggestively against his.

His eyes burned into hers as a muscle began to pulse in his jaw. 'You could not possibly understand what you want.'

In answer, she began to sway gently against him, feeling his thick shaft twitch against her stomach. 'Because I am a virgin? Inexperience does not mean ignorance, James.' She smiled a womanly smile as he gave a low groan of need. 'I am no longer a naïve girl. I have seen enough to understand the way the world works.'

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