Twelve – First Battle
Five seconds later, Stephen caught Beth on the first floor landing and gripped her arm in a crushing hold. The force of it caused her to whirl around and bump into his chest so violently that tears of sudden pain filled her eyes. She had a stinging reproach ready on her lips but Fenton did not grant her a chance to speak. He dragged her along to the nearest door, forcefully shoved her inside and threw the door shut, never releasing the vice-like grip on her arm.
“Confound it, Beth Williams! I will have you listen to me, right here and now!”
Beth was in no fit state to listen to anyone, least of all to this scoundrel of a man who treated her like a mad dog! She thumped his chest with her free hand and, breath burning in her lungs, she tried to wrench her arm loose!
“Let … go … of … me …” The words came in staccato gasps, as if she could not find the air to speak them, but every one of them bit into Stephen’s heart like sulphuric acid drops. Belatedly, he realised he was bruising the soft flesh of her upper arm! He abruptly lessened his grip – only, to stroke the damaged spot with the back of his fingers. Heat flared up in his groin like molten gold, and he fixed his eyes upon the sweet curve of her rosy mouth, now trembling under her fury.
“I am so sorry, Beth. I had no wish to injure you but …” He felt his lips twist in a painful smile, meant as an apology but sadly lacking. “I always seem to anger you or hurt you, do I not?”
His eyes bore into Beth’s with vulnerable honesty, causing her heart to flip-flop inside her chest. He was apologizing? Stephen Fenton? Impossible! And how could she possibly answer that question of his without uncovering her own uncertain and foolish heart? Speechless and hurting, Beth just kept on staring into those impossibly beautiful blue-grey eyes, her blood hammering in her ears.
“Look,” he said, his voice soothing and gentle, “I know what I did, all those years ago. Beth, I have not lived a day without regretting it deeply and painfully!”
Stephen saw the hurt blossom in her eyes, spilling over in big, shiny tears, that came rolling down her cheeks, and he instantly regretted his heedless words. My God! How could he have been so rude and thoughtless!
“Come here, my sweetling,” he whispered and gathered her into his arms, where she dissolved into mindless sobbing, shaking with every heart-wrenching gasp she made. Revelling in the feeling of her slender, soft body against his heart, Stephen dreamily stroked her back with soothing gestures, while his head went empty of thoughts except for the huge tenderness he felt for Beth.
Beth … who still had not stopped fighting him and was still trying to pummel his chest, though her strength was beginning to fade away. Beth … so intimately near and yet, so distant.
Beth was so thoroughly immerged in her excruciating memories that she felt completely lost. All conscious thoughts were drowned in that overwhelming, bone-deep feeling of miserable loss, the death of dear Mama and darling Julian. Again she re-lived those terrible hours of that long-ago day, when villagers brought back the bodies of the two people she loved most in her young live. Mangled, disfigured, broken bodies … of her mother and brother, whose curricle she had witnessed being driven off the road by Lord Fenton’s phaeton. Those few seconds, when she stood there, rooted to the spot, alone and paralyzed with horror, when she watched Lord Septimus as he peered over the rim of the abyss that swallowed her family. He had not done a single thing to assist them, nor had he gone down the slope to investigate. Instead, he had gripped his young son’s arms in a tight grasp, brought his face close to the boy’s and hissed. “Do not ever tell anyone you were the one driving that phaeton, Stephen! Better, do not betray to anyone that we were here at all. There are no witnesses. No one will ever know what just happened. Promise me, Stephen, swear it!”
Beth could still hear those words in her dreams, even after all these years. The pain was hot and searing, burning her heart to ashes, robbing her from every happiness she ever felt. Oh, how she longed for the pain to go away and leave her free to start a life without the images of Mama and Julian, lying dead and broken on a wooden board.
“Shhh, my sweetling, be still. All is well, all is done. I will make it up to you, my dearest, I swear I will.”
Those words, uttered in Fenton’s mellow baritone rumble, penetrated the misery Beth was in and she startled when she felt his strong heartbeat against her flushed cheek. She ventured to look up at him. In his eyes was a soft glow that made her heart jump. His gaze travelled over her face and settled on her mouth, and in the dim light of the room, Beth saw his lips part for just a tiny bit. The tip of his tongue slid over his finely outlined lips, awakening a response, deep in Beth’s stomach. Mesmerized, she stared at that beautiful mouth and could not stop her hands from moving upwards, along that broad, hard expanse of chest, towards his neck.
Stephen lowered his face to Beth’s and brushed her lips with his in a divinely tender caress. She just felt so good in his arms, her fragrance muddling his senses and her soft, slender body complying to every pressure of his. Under the gentle assault of his teasing tongue, her rosebud mouth opened and her own tongue dashed to meet him. He was pleasantly surprised and instantly aroused. God knew he did not need much to be swept into arousal by any gesture she made!
She allowed him to kiss her, first gently, then, as he deepened their kiss, responding to him with a passion of her own. A small cry of delight, coming from her as he pressed closer to her, sent him reeling with burning need.
“Oh, Beth … sweet, beautiful, exquisite Beth! Are you aware of what you are doing to me? Can you not feel what I am feeling for you? I want to worship your body with mine, my beauty! God is my witness but I confess I have always burned for you, my splendid governess!”
Through the woolly layers of rapture bestowed upon her by Stephen’s sweet kiss, Beth fought to regain her composure when she heard those last words. This was no kiss of love but one of lust! Her eyes flew open and she cast a glance to her surroundings. His bedroom, they were in his bedroom!
“What … what did you just say?” she stammered, blinking into focus.
“You know what I said, my exquisite beauty! You and I are made for each other. We were meant to give pleasure and delight to each other. It feels so good, Beth, so right to hold, kiss, caress you. Let us seal this wonderful feeling with our union, my sweet. Be my love, now, tonight!”
“I … I cannot understand … whatever do you mean?” Beth breathed, hurt blurring her voice, and still unable to comprehend what just happened, she cautiously freed herself from Fenton’s hold.
“I wanted you the minute you stepped into this house, Beth! I have wanted you for … my whole life! Your beauty, your body, your liveliness and passion, everything about you makes me ache for you, my sweet!”
Beth could swear she felt her heart shatter into pieces, the pain of it so deep and churning that she backed away, just to increase the distance between them and be safe from being charred by his hideous lust. So that was how he felt? That was what he thought her to be? A harlot?
When Fenton took a step towards her, extending his hand, Beth gave a choked cry and fled.