Original Handcut Silhouette by Kathryn Flocken
The shock of being gathered into Jasper’s embrace was so stunning to her senses that Winnie gasped. For an instant, she was not sure what to do but then, she became aware of the welcoming warmth of his strong body and arms. He was offering her the much craved comfort she was so desperately in need of. That solid realisation caused her own arms to slide up to Jasper’s neck. She reached for the square mass of his muscular shoulders, and then for the soft skin of his neck, where her fingers discovered the raven waves of his hair. Unable to restrain herself, she weaved her hand through the warm softness, and revelled in the pleasure it gave her.
Jasper became aware of the gentle caresses on the sensitive skin of his neck, and a tingle of desire ran all the way up along his spine. Lord! How very right Freddie felt in his arms…
On their own accord, his hands began exploring the soft curves of her slender body. To his delight, she had already removed the bandages, and he avidly caressed Freddie’s deliciously shaped breasts. When Freddie moaned in response, he shifted her in his arms so that his mouth could claim hers. He was in desperate need of assuaging his thirst for the soft, rosy lips, that had been tempting him, these past hours.
It was Winnie’s first kiss, ever. Jasper’s mouth was firm, and warm, and it was doing something so particularly strange to her insides that Winnie felt her knees buckle. His tongue teased her lower lip, and then his teeth worried it, sucked it until she responded. She tentatively opened her mouth to welcome him.
Jasper’s hold on her tightened, pressing her even closer to him. Somehow, it was the right thing to be so close to him, Winnie thought. While his tongue ravaged her mouth in slow strokes, tasted her, drank her, Winnie pressed closer to the hard chest, that was crushing her breasts. It should have been hurtful, yet it was not. It was delicious. Visions of Jasper without a shirt – and she remembered it vividly – were now completed by the feel of him. Her fingers worked by their own accord on the buttons of his shirt, desperate to feel what was beneath. She was not disappointed. All hard muscles, warm, velvety skin and the contrasting roughness of a sprinkle of black hair.
Her body – Winnie realised with amazement – knew what to do. She rubbed her breasts against Jasper’s torso, rejoicing in the startled groan he uttered. It was pure delight. As a tingling sensation thrilled through her body, and left a trail of quivering pleasure, all the way from the top of her head to the tips of her toes, Winnie forgot all else and surrendered to Jasper’s passion.
When raw lust swept over him like a wave, Jasper suddenly had an image of Jessie flashing through his mind. Just so had it felt when he held his dearest Jessie in his arms. The pleasure was exactly the same as when he had been on the verge of making love to Jessie, a long time ago, in their large bed. The soft, pliant curves, the lush breasts with their hardened peaks, the warm honey of the mouth, the feminine sent of lavender, it all forced Jessie’s image back into his mind, like a bolt of lightning. Only now, it was not Jessie.
He was unfaithful to her memory while he was kissing another in her stead. Worse still, while he was very close to bedding another in her stead.
With deliberate slowness, he freed his mouth and gently pushed Freddie away until their bodies no longer touched.
“I am truly sorry, Freddie. My behaviour is rude and unforgivable. I think it best that you return to your room, after all.”
He closed his eyes to ward off the vision of Freddie’s sudden hurt and hot tears. Seconds later, he heard the door close, and found himself alone, aching with need.
The next day dawned with a hint of snow in the air. The bleak countryside was buried under grey-leaden skies. It was bitterly cold, and the fields around York showed a thin blanket of frost. The mail coach horses’ breath was a white plume in the still winter air.
Other than Jasper, Fiona and Winifred, there were three passengers for the journey to Newcastle. With a twelve hour drive to endure, and the coach overly crowded, the journey promised to be miserable in every sense of the word.
Winifred sat squeezed between the coach window and Jasper, who held Fiona in his lap. Next to him sat a burly farmer, and the man had his arms around a basket containing two hens, like if it were a bucket full of golden eggs. On the bench opposite were two matrons of middle-aged years, carrying baskets of parcels, wrapped in brown paper. The third occupant was a clergyman, who was reading in a thick, black bible. They were all chattering cheerfully, apart from Winifred and Jasper. The two ladies – apparently acquainted with each other – were gossiping about their neighbours, and the farmer was addressing the clergyman with questions about some other man, they both seemed to loathe a great deal.
Winifred was feeling dejected to the point of despair.
She had not slept a wink after what she had experienced the previous night. First there had been the encounter with Bracknell and the threats he had uttered. Next – and this was far worse – Jasper Danvers had hit her hard with his rejection of her, for that was what it had been. Winnie, who had opened herself to him, had been thrown aside, without the slightest consideration for how she might feel about it. Just her bloody luck, to offer herself to the first man ever who touched her heart, and to be rejected at the same moment. And now, Jasper Danvers was conducting himself with condescending indifference as if nothing happened.
Fiona’s small voice broke through Winnie’s black melancholy, and she realised that the little girl had been quiet since they left York, which was over an hour ago.
“Yes, what is it, my sweetling?”
“Victoria says she is bored. She wants you to tell her a story.”
Winnie inwardly chuckled because of Fiona’s cleverness, which forbade her to show boredom. So the girl used her doll to accomplish her own wish.
“Give her to me,” Winifred said. “I will tell her a story, which my mother told me.”
Fiona handed her the doll with a solemn little face and turned toward Winnie, so that she could listen better. From the corner of her eye, Winifred saw Jasper accommodate his position to allow his daughter a better view.
Winifred placed Victoria on her own lap and made the doll face her.
“Now, Victoria,” she admonished, “you know your mama wants you to be a good girl. One that does not whine about being bored. Listen to the story, and then you must be content.”
Fiona giggled in response but said no more. She stuck her thumb into her mouth and settled back against her father’s chest.
“This is the story of Cinderella,” Winifred began.
Jasper winced inwardly. What a paltry choice of a fairy tale and one that spoke of a little girl without a mother to boot. Yet Fiona seemed fascinated, and her blue eyes were sparkling with anticipation. Freddie’s voice was low and deep, Jasper registered, and gradually, everyone in the coach fell silent as if mesmerized by the music of it. Every single occupant – from the farmer and the clergyman to the two chattering matrons – stared in enthralled attention at Freddie.
Jasper forced himself to look at her and could not tear his gaze away. Freddie was truly enchanting. Her face was alight with enthusiasm as she told the story of the orphaned girl and her wicked stepmother and vicious stepsisters. Her eyes glittered with hidden tears over Cinderella’s unholy fate and daily misery. Her musical voice tore at Jasper’s heart until he had to shake his head to escape the spell.
It did not work. The memory of their kiss, the previous night, sprang into his mind.
He was instantly hard with need once again. Curse it! He was a man of thirty-five, not a green stripling or schoolboy!
He closed his eyes and leaned back against the squabs, fighting to overcome his unease.
When the coach stopped in Middlesbrough for a belated luncheon, the two matrons and the farmer disappeared through the inn courtyard gate. The clergyman joined them again when the journey resumed.
Jasper noticed the curious glances the man bestowed on Freddie. The rather stocky man of the cloth had draped himself luxuriously over the bench opposite theirs and had apparently lost interest in his bible. Jasper braced himself for a prying conversation because he fancied he could see the man’s brain working to find an opening.
Sure enough, for the next moment, the clergyman pointed at the sleepy Fiona who was trying to take a nap on Freddie’s lap. “That is a fine little girl you have, young sir,” he addressed Freddie in a heavy Northern accent.
Freddie startled because she had been staring out of the window at the flat green Yorkshire landscape. “W…What? Oh, I am sorry, sir…I was not paying attention. No, she is no mine, but his.”
She gestured toward Jasper with a flick of the head.
“Oh, truly?” The clergyman said, wonderment in his voice. “I could have sworn you were her father, by the manner in which you take care of her. Are you…”
“He is my younger brother,” Jasper interrupted. “I am truly grateful that he decided to accompany me on this journey, and help me with Fiona.” He pointedly stared at the man, in an attempt to divert his interest in Freddie.
“Indeed, indeed,” the man nodded, not yet ready to let go of the subject. “And are you travelling all the way to Scotland?”
“Yes, we are,” Jasper replied. “And you, sir? Are you on your way North, all the way, too?”
“To Newcastle, I am afraid. I am taking up a position at St Nicholas Cathedral as a canon. It is my home town, but I spent my life in Oxford for the last thirty years so it will be a happy reunion after so long a time.
“Let me congratulate you, then,” Jasper said in a jovial tone. “I am certain you are deserving to be in the town of your youth after so successful a career.”
“Indeed, indeed,” the clergyman continued, then narrowed his beady black eyes again. “Are you widowed, sir? I see no female companion here.”
“I am,” Jasper replied, as curtly as he could muster, in the hope it would cut the man off. No such luck.
“Ah, how sad,” the man tutted. “The Good Lord taketh and giveth in an equal way, as the Scriptures teach us. You should endeavour to find a good woman and give the child a mother, once again, sir.”
Jasper felt his already inflamed temper boil at this meddling comment. “I am most offended, sir,” he burst out. “It is none of your business to try and…” That was when Freddie placed a small hand on his arm to calm him. He turned to look at her and saw the plea in her dark eyes. He snapped his mouth shut and resumed a stony silence, staring out the window.
The clergyman, however, was not to be deterred. “My good sir, I cannot see why you should be offended by my well-intentioned attempt, to be of assistance in your predicament. My vocation as a man of the cloth commands me to help my fellow men when I witness their struggle in life You are in need of a female companion, and it is my duty to make you see reason.”
“His wife died in childbirth,” Freddie said in a low voice. She adjusted the sleeping Fiona in her lap, grateful that the child did not have to hear all this. “My brother has not yet coped with her death. Please refrain from further comments, sir, I beg you.”
The clergyman nodded. To Jasper’s astonishment, he again opened his bible and began reading it. Jasper searched for Freddie’s gaze, but she had already turned away.
A warm feeling rose inside him as Jasper inwardly reconstructed the conversation. Freddie had defended him. She had taken his side, without thinking, without qualms. He had not expected that after the way he had treated her the evening before.
Shame squeezed his heart as Jasper recalled his appalling behaviour.
Lord Almighty, but he must have appeared an utter fool! He should have considered all that Freddie had gone through before he totally forgot himself. All the anguish she must have endured through that blackguard Bracknell, and the pain she must have experienced during Bracknell’s manhandling of her. And he, Jasper had not even asked if she came out unharmed. No, instead he had all but ravished her with his lust and his kisses. He was no better than Bracknell.
But – dear God! What a kiss that had been…Jasper could summon the feel of Freddie in his arms, once again, and the way she had kissed him back. It had rocked the sheer fundaments of his senses! How right she had felt in his arms. All that wonderful plethora of emotions overwhelming him, until the memory of Jess brought him back to reality. Jess…Always Jess…And, as Freddie so rightly pointed out, the fact that he had still not coped with Jess’s death.
When he had accompanied his Jessie to her last resting-place, Jasper had made a vow to his beloved wife’s memory, and that was never to give his heart to another woman, ever again. Of course, he had known lust again. He was, after all, still a man in the prime of his life. He had quelled that lust with the occasional courtesan, in London’s many bawdy houses, whenever the need became too urgent. How would he have survived without doing so, otherwise?
It had been lust, last night, of course, it had. Nothing but pure carnal desire to tear off Freddie’s clothes and take her then and there, with a desire so strong it had taken every ounce of his control to resist the massive urge. Not only had he needed Jessie’s memory to set the lure of Freddie’s luscious body aside, but also, some other, more puzzling feeling. Jasper had not wanted to quell his lust with sweet, young, innocent Freddie Preston. Somehow it had seemed the vilest thing to do in the world, and he would not stoop to defiling a maiden.
It was past nine in the evening when they finally arrived at the Old George Inn in Newcastle, a stately Georgian three story building. By then, Fiona was exhausted, so Jasper carried her inside. The innkeeper, a tall, burly man in his forties with a bald head rushed to meet the guests.
“A room for me and my brother, and with a cot for my daughter, if you please.”
Winifred caught the bark of Jasper’s words as she hurried after them. Wretched man! She was not going to spend the night in his room, not by any means! Only then she remembered she was dressed as a man, which meant she could not just contradict Jasper’s orders without raising suspicious looks. Jasper had just proclaimed her his brother. Drat. She bit her lip and followed them upstairs, where she heard Jasper order a bath and some hot food. The innkeeper bowed and left.
Winnie was about to scold Jasper when Fiona woke with a plaintive cry. “Papa…I am so hungry…”
“Come, my sweet, Papa will care for you.”
“I want Freddie to wash me,” Fiona whined. “Freddie is so much better at it than you. You always rub soap in my eyes when you wash my hair.”
And so it was Winnie who bathed Fiona, and afterwards, combed and dried her hair while Jasper was feeding her chicken broth and bread. Fiona relaxed visibly, and when she had finished, she yawned.
“I want to go to sleep, Freddie. Will you tell me the story of Cinderella again?”
“Of course, sweetheart,” Winnie complied.
While the story was being told, Winnie saw Jasper disappear behind the screen, to bathe. She had to concentrate hard, the whole time that splashing sounds could be heard from the tub. Worse, she could just imagine that long, hard body relaxing in the warm water, the cloth lathering soap onto that silken, tanned skin, Jasper’s finely honed muscles working while he cleansed himself. Holy Mother of God, she felt sweat breaking out all over her body! What was wrong with her? And what was Jasper thinking, acting as if he were alone in the room, instead of in a young lady’s presence? He was probably doing it on purpose, to make her feel wanton and discomforted! Well, she had no business thinking about the father when she was telling a story to the daughter. Resolutely, Winifred concentrated on Fiona.