tagRomanceThe Officer's Temptation

The Officer's Temptation

byscarletlarouge©

Marlowe hummed quietly as he walked, feet springing against the damp earth. His dark hair hung in thick curls against his forehead and the air was heavy in his lungs, still ripe with the smell of the afternoon rain and the fresh spice of the birch trees that lined the road. He was glad that he had waited in the tavern for the rain to pass. It had turned out to be quite the downpour. He was now late, of course, but he was willing to risk his father's irritation and his mother's disapproval. And as for the girl... well, he had disappointed women before.

He should have taken a carriage perhaps, or even a horse. But he had wanted to stretch his legs, to feel the solid earth beneath his feet, to walk the roads of his boyhood. And to forget, of course. To pretend the war had never happened, that he had never seen the blood or smelt it against the baking earth. It was odd to be here now, to be home again, where the scent of wildflowers tickled his nose instead of the scent of unwashed men.

He wondered, somewhere at the back of his mind, if that wasn't the real reason he had gone into town on foot. He had felt the humid languor in the air before leaving. And when the first light drops had fallen like small pins in the streets, he could have rushed home before the downpour. But perhaps he had lingered on ulterior motives- to avoid the whole meeting. To keep pretending that he was simply himself, not a soldier returned home, distinguished, and now in sudden need, according to his family, of a wife.

It wasn't that Marlowe wished to disappoint his parents. It was just that he wasn't interested in what they wanted. The poor girl they were trying to fling at him, a certain Miss Katherine Jennings... It wasn't her fault, either. He did not want a wife; he wanted time. But to try explaining that to his parents... they simply didn't understand.

He had thought that it would be wise to return home, to the familial estate of his childhood for a time. But now London was sounding better and better. The press of the crowds, the laughter and liquor of the ton. Easier to forget when you were never alone.

He squinted against the sky, though it was dim, heavy with the clouds that had rolled in earlier that afternoon. There would be no beautiful sunset tonight. Just the quick fall of darkness. He flexed his fingers at his waist and sighed. Still stiff, but healing. His family would be dressing for dinner now, and wondering where he was. Well, it was what it was. His boots splashed in the mud.

That was when he heard the sound of hooves, the wild rush of beating against the earth. He looked behind him, but saw no one on the road. Then, faster than he could think, he heard the rustle of the leaves, the thud of the steps. A red horse bolted from the hedgerow, saddled, but with no rider. It startled as it saw him, reared back its head in fear.

"Whoa there," he flung his hands up at the horse, which had paused its flight after its jump and was now stamping the ground nervously, eyes wide. Marlowe approached it cautiously, and the horse seemed to calm as he lifted his hands towards the beast. He patted its neck soothingly. "There boy, where is your rider?"

The horse snorted and stomped its foot, flicking its ears back with wide eyes. Marlowe glanced towards the copse of trees behind the hedgerow. He heard something as well. His muscles tensed as the brush parted.

It was not at all what he had expected. A woman, in a dove grey riding habit. Her fair hair was mussed under her hat. Her face was pink with exertion, her eyes sharp.

He found that his mouth was unfortunately open. He snapped it shut, and grabbed the horse's reins. "Good evening. Does this belong to you?"

Her dark eyes flashed. Green, he saw, dark as emeralds. "I should say so." She gestured down at the riding habit with the crop she held in her hand. "Although I've half a mind to give him away to the first person I see. I suppose that's you. Do you want him?"

"I... well..." he fumbled for words, not normally having to fend off questions from beautiful women emerging from woods.

"You don't want him, I can tell you that. He has a bit of the devil in him." She was closer now and looked him up and down. "Although I dare say you could handle any sort of trouble he threw at you. You look a competent sort." She brushed a stray hair from her face and narrowed her eyes at him, as if daring him to argue. "A military man?"

He shifted his weight, not quite at ease with this startling woman. "You aren't from around here. I know everyone."

She crossed her arms, and the stiff fabric of her short jacket could not disguise the swell of her breasts underneath. "Well, you don't know me." She extended her gloved hand. "I'm Lady Balfrey."

He took it briefly. "Lieutenant Marlowe Hughes." He straightened his shoulders. "I just returned home from Spain."

"I was right, of course." Her lashes fluttered briefly. It was an entrancing sight. He felt his eyes dance across her face. The flushed cheeks, carnation pink, the dazzling eyes, and a lush mouth, the color of holly berries.

"Might I accompany you home, Lady Balfrey?" He knew her name now, of course. She would be the wife of the neighboring lord. They would have been married while he was away, hence how she had escaped his acquaintance until now. He ransacked his mind for memories of Lord Balfrey, but though they were acquainted, they had never been close. Nicholas Balfrey had been a different sort of boy than Marlowe. He was quiet and bookish while Marlowe preferred to explore and ride. He wondered what such a man would feel about having his wife appear from the bushes like a wanton dryad, flushed and rumpled as if she had been rolling around with a satyr just there behind the trees... But no, he must quell that line of thinking.

She tilted her head at him, and there was an odd look in her eye, as if she could see the licenstious thoughts that had flashed through his mind. The high color was beginning to fade from her cheeks and she looked thoughtful now, less agitated. "Yes, you may, Lieutenant." She handed him the reins. "But you mind this horrid beast. I've had enough of him today." Her voice had dropped- the pitch low and sultry.

He guided the horse, which seemed docile enough now as they began the path towards her estate. "What exactly happened with this poor fellow, Lady Balfrey?"

"Call me Arabella, please." She sighed. "I miss the sound of my name. I think I can trust you with it, can't I?" She blinked twice, dark lashes fluttering.

He was taken aback and almost stopped in his tracks. Her dark eyes searched his face. There was something so off-putting about her. She bit the corner of her lip. Distracting. "Of course. And you must call me Marlowe. At least..."

She snorted. "At least when we are alone. Don't worry, Lieutenant, I haven't forgotten all propriety." She smoothed a hand over her skirt, which was stained with green patches and then waved an arm towards the horse. "I wanted an adventure, so I took this old devil out and he doesn't like me, so he threw me at the first opportunity."

She tilted her head towards Marlowe. "It's so lonesome to be cooped up at the house every day. Riding helps. My husband is gone to London, you see. He often is. He doesn't think it necessary for me to accompany him on business." Her look darkened, but she directed it towards the hedgerow. "And my acquaintance is very limited here."

"Yes, Nicholas always did keep to himself."

"You know him?" Her generous mouth pulled down into a frown.

"Not well. But our families are acquainted."

"My family is in Scotland," she said. He had thought he had detected a bit of an accent, but he said nothing. "Many of my friends as well." She shrugged. "But we haven't been here long. Only two weeks."

"So recently?"

"We were in London before. But his father died, so we must sort out the family estate. Well, I must. He does as he wills."

"I see." His first curled tighter around the reins.

"Surely you'll come calling. Now that we are acquainted?" she asked.

They rounded the last bend in the road just as the wooded area fell away. Her house was suddenly visible on top of the next hill, sitting like a crown above the rolling countryside, only partially hidden behind the large oaks that stood like grand sentinels around her grounds.

"Of course."

She stopped suddenly, and faced him. "You know, I think I'll go alone from here. Give me the beastie's reins." Her hand brushed his as he passed them to her. She looked into his eyes thoughtfully. He blinked at the sudden intimacy, felt the breath catch in his lungs as her hand rested against his.

"I can accompany you the rest of the way."

Her hand still lingered on his. "No. I expect I'll see you soon." Her eyes lingered on his face. "I should like to see you soon."

And suddenly the soft warmth of her hand was gone and she was walking away. He watched her for a moment, the sight of her gray skirts billowing in the light breeze. A fat drop of rain hit his head, jolting him back to reality. He had a dinner to attend.

#

It was three days later when the note arrived. A small white envelope, the paper heavy underneath his hands. He walked with it to his study, heart racing. He knew who had sent it instinctively. When the door was closed, he leaned against the solid weight of his desk, flipping the envelope over in his hands, yanking out the card.

It had been three days, and all he had done was think about her. His parents had been furious, of course. Furious that he had been late, furious that he had been soaking wet, wool coat stinking from the second downpour, furious that he had been distracted all night during what was left of dinner. But they were good people, polite people. They concealed their anger under tight masks.

He had been unforgivably rude to Miss Jennings, barely paid her any mind at all. Oh, she had been pretty enough in her own way, dark-haired and wide-eyed, but she seemed so meek and tame compared to Arabella.

Arabella. The name echoed through his mind, through his body. Conveniently, the echo seemed to ignore her surname. The fact that she was married at all. The fact that Marlowe should not be thinking about her in such ways. Not her sparkling eyes or rounded mouth or the loose strands of hair that had framed her rosy cheeks. Certainly he shouldn't have been thinking about the press of her breasts against her riding jacket, nor the hint of hip implied by the swaying lines of her skirt.

He had left his card the very next day, of course- ridden up to the house as early as was socially acceptable. He had paused at the gates, but steeled himself with the knowledge that he had visited the house before; it was not so odd to call on neighbors who had recently returned to town, there was no ulterior motive.

The house had been a bustle of energy. He had seen it even from the relative quiet of the hall. Furniture was being moved around, the place was in disarray. He'd given his card quickly to the butler and then left, although he had been desperate to know if she had been at home. Had she seen him ride up from the windows? Had she regretted her impulsive informality? Had she been frightened by what she had seen in him?

Now finally here was her response. He studied the card. Her name, engraved in looping letters on her card, and then on the back, a written invitation. "This evening, around 6." He crossed his arms, ran his thumb along the rigid paper. There was no mention of Nicholas. His card had not been sent along with hers. Was he still in London?

A surge of nervousness sent pins into his stomach and his hand trembled for a moment as he tucked the card away into his jacket. It was a rush of feeling, an elation of sorts, and an excitement. His muscles were tense with it and he paced the room once, twice, trying not to think of her. Arabella, silver and fair as the goddess Diana, emerging from a moonlit wood. The curve of her cheek, elegant neck, and shoulders... he imagined them bare, as the goddess's must have been... and lower still, the ripe swell of her breast, only hinted at beneath her clothes, but.. He stopped himself and clenched his stiff hand. He was getting carried away. It had always been one of his worst tendencies. He needed to exercise. A ride would clear his mind.

His parents had been hoping to call on the Jennings family for dinner, but he gave them his regrets. His tongue hesitated when they asked him whose invitation he had accepted. He could not bring himself to tell them about her. She was his secret. Instinctively he protected her. After all, she had not yet formally announced her presence in town. And so, he told them he was dining with an old friend in town. They frowned, but the Jennings were close friends. They would understand.

The sky was fast darkening when Marlowe left on foot. It was not a long walk. Only a few minutes of road separated his home from hers. He had thought about riding, but ultimately decided against it. He didn't want to spend the time handing over the horse to a groom. He couldn't spare even seconds of their time together.

When he arrived, the gate was open. The house lights didn't seem to have been lit yet, and the dark windows reflected the last pale light of the sinking sun. His heart seemed to skip a beat as he walked the gravel path to the door and up the stone steps of the portico. He raised his hand to knock at the door. It swung open immediately.

He sucked his breath in through his teeth. No butler opened the door, but Arabella, herself. She ushered him inside as he drank in the sight of her.

She looked like a fairy creature, dappled in the pale blue light of evening that seeped in through the windows to caress her pale skin. Her hair was uncovered, pinned in a small roll against the nape of her neck. Blonde curls framed her face.

"Marlowe," she said. Her voice was soft, and she faced him nervously. The blue shadows pooled around her eyes, grazing the dips of her collarbone, highlighting the curving tops of her breasts, exposed by the low neck of the gown, which she wore with no fichu.

He realized that he was breathing quickly, as if he had been running. He tried to calm himself, though he could still feel the tightening in his stomach, the tension in his shoulders as she moved, ever so slightly towards him.

"Arabella. I got your message," he said. His voice was lower than he had intended, spoken in the cadence of a secret, rather than an innocent fact. He ran a hand through his dark hair. She was so good at putting him off balance.

She took a step towards him, and then a step back. Her lips parted softly. "I've sent everyone away." Her hips swayed as she moved, and the thin fabric of her gown clung to them, exposing the outline of her form beneath the bell-shaped dress.

"What?"

She looked up and down the hall, towards the shadows that huddled in corners, making bold lines in the crevices of the wood-paneled walls. "All of the servants," she said softly. "All of them. I gave them all an evening of leave. I told them to visit the village fair." She smiled faintly, and then looked up at his face. Her eyes raked over him, seeking reassurance.

His throat felt tight. "Your husband?"

She wet her lips with her tongue. "In London."

His head was spinning. "Arabella... This...is..." Was it possible that she reciprocated his feelings? So wild and inappropriate that he hadn't dared dream?

She bit her lip. "You understand me, don't you?" Another step closer. She was mere inches away and he could smell the scent of her, something like violets and pine, wild and sweet and free. He thought the air felt hotter, closer, now, although outside it had been cool and crisp with the coming night. The air stirred with her motion, he felt the breeze of it against his skin.

"Yes." The word was more of a whisper. It was hard to speak knowing what was between them, the unspoken promise of her words.

She nodded. Silently, she turned, and walked into the shadows of the house. He followed her, watching his feet pass over the checkered tile. She did not lead him upstairs. Instead, she pulled open a paneled door that led to a small drawing room. The large, paned windows faced west, and let in more light. Her skin looked silver, the shadows blue and lilac. She shut the door. A silver key was already in the lock. She turned it with a click.

He could hear her breathing; it was coming fast, in ragged puffs. He faced her. "Don't be afraid," he said. He reached out slowly, and rested his hand against the curve of her shoulder. Her skin was hot and alive beneath his touch. Carefully, he drew his hand over the graceful line of her collarbone and up to her neck. He could feel the tiny hairs on her skin raising with his touch. She trembled.

Her lips parted. "I'm not afraid," she said. "I had to see you again."

Tentatively his fingers rose up her delicate throat until he cradled her cheek in his hand. Her skin was hot, burning to the touch, although it looked so pale and cool in the twilight dark. She took a step closer. His hand cradled the back of her head as she looked up at him with her half-lidded eyes.

The heat of her body radiated forward, could not be contained in the thin fabric of her dress. He was entirely conscious of her presence, the wild scent of her skin, the nearness of her flesh.

"Why?" His eyes scanned her face, questioning her emerald eyes, resting on her full lips.

She took a half step towards him, lifting her hand to his chest. He felt a tightness there as his heart beat heavily beneath her fingers. Without thinking, he swept his other arm to her waist and pulled her to him. The soft tips of her breasts pressed against his chest as the heat of her skin burned him through his clothes.

"I had to know," she said, looking up at him, "what this was." Her lashes fluttered like a butterfly's wings.

He could watch her speak for hours he thought, reaching his fingers across her face. She gasped as he caressed her jaw with his thumb and pulled it slowly across her mouth. Her lips were as smooth as silk. His fingers traced their shape. If she smelled and felt so perfect, what would she taste like?

He tightened his grip around her waist and bent his head to hers. His lips brushed hers, and he felt her mouth open beneath his, pliable and warm. Her mouth was honey-sweet, and he pressed his tongue against her lips, drinking in the taste of her. She responded with a small moan, pressing her body against him as she arched her back. Her tongue darted across his lips, and he found he could no longer ignore the desire rising within him. His fingers curled against her scalp, bunched in the silky fabric of her gown. He kissed her again, more deeply, feeling drunk off of the sensation of her lips against his, her tongue sliding beside his.

Even with the distraction of her kisses, her breasts were no longer a distraction he could ignore. He pulled his mouth from hers, and kissed the skin of her neck. She spread her hand against his chest, and he felt her fingers working against the buttons of his waistcoat.

He pulled his hands to her shoulders, pushing down the short sleeves of her white dress, exposing all of her shoulders. He traced his fingers against the skin, soft as a rose petal, and across the tops of her breasts. He pulled his hand over them, gathering them in his hands, and felt her nipples stiffen underneath the thin fabric. She didn't seem to be wearing anything underneath the dress. He pulled his thumbs over the small pricks, and was rewarded when her breath came at a gasp.

She bit her lip and he dropped his arm to her waist again, kissing her over and over while she pulled at the collar of his coat. He shrugged it off. It fell unheeded to the floor.

"I don't know what this is, Arabella. God help me, I can't seem to stop." It was so hot in the room. He felt as if his whole body were flushed. Every bit of him was burning with desire for her. For this woman he barely knew. This woman who had appeared out of nowhere only days before. Who was married to another man.

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