THE LIBERTINE is an erotic historical romance - book two in the Taskill Witches series. HQN Books, March 2013.
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COVER COPY: His powers could save her from ruin, or guide her swiftly to it..
Lennox Taskill is a dissolute rogue, a powerful witch who some say even trades his enchantments for profit when it pleases him. His only loyalty is to his coven, his disdain for humanity sealed by the searing memory of his mother burning at the stake. So when the wife of a wealthy landlord comes seeking his help, the beguiling Chloris Keavey unwittingly presents Lennox with his greatest opportunity for distraction...and retribution.
By failing to produce an heir, Chloris faces a terrible threat: being turned out by her heartless husband. Now, she vows to get with child, even if it means surrendering her body—and soul—to Lennox’s seductive magic. But with a witch hunt brewing, Lennox and Chloris are soon risking everything for their forbidden nights of ecstasy…and to protect the secret that could cost them their lives
"Walker deftly spins a captivating tale that will have readers holding their collective breath until the last page is turned." ~ Publisher's Weekly.
Saint Andrews, Scotland, 1715.
Even as she urged her mount through the forest Chloris Keavey questioned her judgment and sanity, for the place she sought was an ominous, gaunt dwelling where those who practiced witchcraft gathered under the protection of their leader. It was a dangerous undertaking, and when she caught sight of the building a shiver ran through her. Stone built and covered in ivy, the house merged into its setting, as wild and foreboding as the forest itself.
"I pray that my quest is not ill fated," she murmured, steeling herself for what she might encounter. Chloris approached with a mixture of wariness and determination, for it was both a last resort and a terrible risk. The people who gathered there practiced forbidden magic, despite the threat of persecution and death that hung over their kind. Who was most insane—those who defied the law laid down by King James VI of Scotland over a hundred years earlier, or her for willingly seeking them out?
A breeze swept up around her on her approach, stirring the tall trees that surrounded the dwelling. Early spring leaves and blossoms seemed denser at this spot, which meant the trees cast the building in shadows as they swayed in the breeze. Evening was on its way. A candle set in a small window to one side of the heavy wooden door was the only welcoming sign she saw.
Dismounting, she looped her horse's reins around the branch of a tree then approached the house. Now that she was closer she saw the barns and wooden outhouses beyond, nestled deeper in the trees. It was there that the commerce was undertaken, the cart and carriage construction. The work that proved a respectable mask for the other practices that went on here. Over the door she saw that a word had been carved into the wooden plinth. Somerled. It did not sound like a warning, but neither was she clear on its meaning.
When she rapped on the door a young woman appeared. The woman lifted the candlestick from the window, held it aloft and eyed Chloris with caution. "What or who is it that you are seeking?"
Was she a servant, or was she one of them, Chloris wondered. There was no cap covering the woman's head and her hair was hanging loose about her shoulders. Her eyes were unusual, being a misty gray color. In all other respects she appeared none other than a normal young woman.
"I have been advised that a..." Witch. Chloris paused. She knew she must avoid saying the word. "...that a knowledgeable one abides here. Someone who might be able to advise me on an intimate matter."
"What intimate matter might that be?" The young woman looked beyond Chloris, as if checking she was alone.
Chloris had been told she would have to state her cause to gain entry, so she was prepared. It was hard to voice the nature of her problem, however, especially to a strange woman. The sense of discomfort she felt was great, and yet the woman before her scarcely blinked when she said it aloud. "I've been told that your leader can influence a woman's...fertility."
"Who told you this?"
Mention of her contact by name drew a nod from the woman. She stood back and ushered Chloris into the hallway. "Wait here a moment and I will announce you."
Chloris stood in silence and then looked back at the door. Evening was already closing in. She would have to be back at Torquil House in time for dinner or her absence would raise suspicion. It was still possible to leave, to disappear into the encroaching evening and return to the safety of her cousin's home. No. I need to be here. They might be able to help me. The risk was great, but her options were few. Anything, absolutely anything was worth an attempt, and Chloris Keavey, wife of Gavin Meldrum of Edinburgh, was determined to be a brave soul.
Before she had the chance to think on it any longer the young woman returned, nodded, and led her into a parlor. Chloris followed, warily. Once inside she discovered it was far from what she might have expected, being both pleasantly furnished and warm, with the fragrant aroma of a peat fire filling the room.
Apart from the fire there was only one candle, the one that was held by her escort. The young woman nodded beyond the fireplace. "I'll leave you to your dealings."
She was gone inside a blink, taking her candle with her.
As the door clicked shut Chloris looked about the room. With only the glowing embers in the grate to see by it took her a few moments for her eyes to adjust. Then she noticed that the parlor was comfortable, with solid wooden chairs arranged around the fire and a well stacked bookshelf at the nearside of the hearth. On the far side she spied a generous stack of peat. The flagstones in front of the fireplace had been well polished and glinted in the firelight.
Almost immediately she knew she was not alone.
There was someone sitting in the gloomy shadows beyond the fireplace. It was the feeling of being watched that alerted her to the presence. Shrouded in darkness as the seat was, she could not discern the person, nor did the person make it easy on her by revealing themselves. Instead they remained hidden, watching her.
Chloris clasped her hands together so that they did not tremble. Never let them know you are afraid, her father had taught her, when she was a bairn. She swallowed, reminding herself that she was not easily frightened. Despite the lurid tales she'd heard told about the nature of witches, the house indicated some level of sophistication. Grandeur, even. Perhaps the old woman would be kindly. Something had kept her and her coven safe for a number of years, after all. Chloris could only guess at what it might be. She had come here with little information other than what she'd overheard the servant girls discussing. When she'd taken Maura aside and asked for the whereabouts of the local coven and its leader, she did so out of desperation. Now that she was here, the stories she'd heard about witches over the years came to mind and made her uneasy. Chloris did not want to be afraid. She'd made the decision to come here and she stood by that.
She coughed aloud and took several paces forward, closing on the fireplace. Peering into the gloom, she tried to discern features of the person sitting in the armchair.
"Good evening," she said, her voice faltering.
The figure moved in response, long booted legs stretching across the floor toward her.
Chloris peered in disbelief. It was a man. How could this be?
She had expected a mature woman who could aid her with her problem. Either that or at least speak with knowledge about women and the problems of their sex. Instead it was a man who sat before her, languid—yet poised as a nobleman.
She struggled to maintain her composure, but her heart beat erratically. This was so far from what she had expected, and she had thought on it at length. Chloris was practical by nature, and whilst she had her doubts about how much their forbidden craft could achieve, she'd felt sure an older woman would have some sage words about fertility.
"Good evening." His voice was deep and resonant.
It sent a shiver through her, because she could not see his features clearly. In his hand she saw that he nursed a crystal glass half full with dark wine.
"Please take a seat and speak with me about your concerns." The man leaned forward in his chair.
Chloris inhaled sharply. The firelight cast his face in stark relief. There was a wild look to him for he had harsh, angular features and dark winged eyebrows that barely shaded the brilliance of his strange blue eyes. The firm outline of his mouth and the rakish look in his eye were evidence of a sensual nature. That left her in no doubt the rumors she'd heard about the carnal nature of those who practiced witchcraft were indeed true. On a woman she might have been able to ignore any blatant signs of their wanton ways, not so this man. She was scarcely able to look away though, despite the fact that she felt the urge to run. "Forgive me, Sire. I have made a mistake in coming here."
Frowning, he rose from his chair. "Why so?"
Chloris stepped back into the shadows.
His eyelids flickered and he scrutinized her more intensely.
Chloris attempted to lower her gaze, but still found herself compelled to consider his impressive personage. He was built large and wore a skirted coat in dark red, with a fitted waistcoat beneath. The lace at his cuffs was well made but not overly extravagant. His knee breeches emphasized his build, tightly fitted about the thighs as they were, and his woolen stockings and buckled boots also displayed his stature. His clothes were finely made and stylish, but he wore no wig and his dark hair was loose and hung to his shoulders. In sum, he was dangerously attractive.
She mustered a response, forcing her gaze back to his. "On reflection I am not sure you are the right person to help me."
A knowing smile passed over his handsome mouth. He stepped after her. "If a soul calls to me I am obligated to assist, if it is within my power to do so. In coming here, you have already called to me."
"No." The more she backed away the closer he seemed to be, looming over her, bright eyed and determined.
"Why not?" His manner was blatant to the point of rudeness. He swigged from his glass, draining it, and set it down on a nearby table. Devilment shone in his eyes. It was almost as if he was aware of her discomfort and its cause.
"I do not wish to discuss my intimate matters with a man." A man who was several years younger than her, by the looks of him.
"We are equally able to help you, man or woman. I will treat you no different for being a woman, if you treat me no different for being a man." Humor danced in his eyes. "We are equal in our humanity, are we not?"
His statement shocked her. It went against the rebellious ways she expected of his sort, and it was certainly nothing she ever expected to hear a man say. In her experience men were all too ready to demean a woman for their own aggrandizement, not elevate her to their own status. Shocking her was, no doubt, his purpose.
He circled her as he continued to speak, eyeing her from her head to toe, his gaze lingering particularly on her double breasted riding jacket as if he was able to discern her figure beneath. "I am aware of the matter that has brought you here. You described your problem to Ailsa, did you not?"
Chloris felt her face heat. Presumably Ailsa was the woman who had opened the door, and she had gone into the parlor to announce the visitor. That meant he was already fully aware of her problem. That and his bold inquisitive stare as he circled her, looking her up and down with total candor, made her situation verge on humiliation. She was desperate for help. Nevertheless she could not discuss matters of her marital bed with a young man, a man who some would say was in league with dark forces.
It was a mistake. She regretted coming and turned away, heading for the door.
He closed on the door quickly, striding over to bar her way.
Chloris drew to a halt. Her breath was trapped in her lungs. Cornered as she was, she defended herself. "Aren't you afraid that someone will reveal the presence of your coven here, so close to the royal burgh of Saint Andrews?"
It had been an attempt to divert the nature of the exchange on her part, but it only seemed to amuse him. A lazy smile passed over his handsome face. "Coven?" He gestured around the room, where he was her only host. "What coven?"
The man's manner was infuriating. "I know that people come to you for assistance," she explained, "for your knowledge of..." Magic.
"The old ways." He grew serious for a moment and she caught sight of a weary look in his expression. "What we believe in and practice are simply old ways, passed down from mother to child." His eyes darkened. "It is time for the church and its slaves to cease the persecution of those who differ from them."
Chloris felt oddly moved by his comments, and her mood leveled. "But I have heard that people like you are still hunted down. Surely you take a risk every time someone comes into your home for help."
He considered her thoughtfully. "Those who come to us in earnest often have little cause to be angry and oust us. Is that your intention?"
Remembering her own need and its intimate nature, she shook her head in shame. "No, I..."
He cocked his head on one side, as if considering her comment. "You think I should be more cautious than allowing a strange woman into my home?"
Somewhat affronted, she rounded her eyes at him.
He laughed softly then bowed his head. "Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I should be more cautious. It was Maura Dunbar who advised you to come here. I do not recognize you. In what way are you an acquaintance of Maura?"
Chloris immediately regretted her comments, for they had drawn her into a deeper conversation. "She is a servant at the home of a friend of mine."
More accurately, Maura was the servant of her cousin, Tamhas Keavey, with whom she was visiting. Chloris was unwilling to draw her cousin into it. Tamhas was a prominent landowner and a member of the town council of Saint Andrews. He would be appalled to know she was here with people who he thought should be strung up for their beliefs and practices.
The man studied her then nodded thoughtfully. "Intriguing." His eyes glittered darkly. "As you are known to Maura I will choose to trust you to stay a while longer in my home."
Again Chloris' face heated. She had the feeling he was more than a little amused by their exchange. Before she could respond he moved, quick as lightning, and reached for her hand. His action took her by surprise and she was unable to react before he unfastened her kid glove, tugged it off and touched her bared hand.
"You wear a wedding band, I see."
He rested her glove over the doorknob.
Chloris stared at it. She knew what it signified. He no longer barred the door. If she picked up the glove she would be on her way.
"Tell me," he continued, "do you wish to be with child, or to avoid that situation?"
Still he held her hand, keeping her close to him. She should have been affronted by his forthright questioning, and yet he was so strangely compelling that she whispered her response. "I wish to...to be with..." It was his stare, so bold and suggestive, that made her falter. Pulling her faculties together, she braced herself. "I wish to fall pregnant with my husband's child."
He considered her at length. All the while he stroked the tender skin on the inside of her wrist with one finger, softly, drawing her to him.
Try as she might, she could not summon the will to pull her hand free.
"Tell me your name." His voice was so melodic, so seductive.
When she did not respond he inclined his head. "Your given name will suffice."
"Chloris," she whispered.
"Chloris." He repeated it as if exploring the word that drew her attention, learning it inside and out. "Chloris." He said it even slower, rolling the word around his mouth as if tasting it—as if tasting her.
Her legs went weak under her.
He reached his free hand out.
She flinched, thinking he was about to touch her face.
He paused, then pulled a spring blossom from her hair. Chloris realized it must have been trapped in the loose tendrils that had escaped her lace cap during her hasty ride. What surprised her most of all was his actions. First he examined the small bud as if it were of great importance, then he slipped it into his pocket. "You have no child."
"No. I am barren."
"I doubt that." His comment was glibly stated.
She pulled her hand free of his and snatched her glove from the place he had rested it. "You seem to revel in being forthright to the point of rudeness, Sire." Moreover, his words only made the pain worsen. It also made her doubt his skills. "What would you know of my life? Eight years I have been married and now my husband is ready to disown me."
Regret swamped her immediately. She'd blurted it out and now she was embarrassed by her confession. Only she and Gavin knew about her shame over this private matter. A man such as Gavin Meldrum, with a sizeable fortune and numerous commercial interests, wanted a son. She had proven to be a failure in his eyes. Nevertheless her pride made this difficult for her. She rarely spoke of it, even to her closest friends, although she suspected many friends and acquaintances in Edinburgh whispered about her sorry state of affairs, and some of her friends had suggested ways in which she might fall pregnant, many of them quite immoral and totally unacceptable to her.
Tugging on her glove, she made ready to leave.
"Why do you attempt to turn away now? Now, when you have finally summoned the will to come here?"
It unnerved her that he knew that it had been a dilemma for her. Of course he did. In all likelihood, she surmised, it was a dilemma for anyone who came here. They practiced witchcraft, after all.
"The hardest part is over," he added.
She met his gaze, determined not to be cowed by him, no matter how striking his presence. "Maura said she saw an older woman when she came here last week. I thought it would be the same for me."
"Ah, so it really is because I am a man that you reject my potential assistance in this matter."
She opened her mouth to ask why else, and then thought better of it. Everything she said only seemed to mire her deeper in this awkward discussion.
"I was not here last week." A shadow passed through his eyes. "I am often away on...family concerns." There was a mysterious, secretive edge to his expression and it made her wonder about the nature of his family concerns. "But I returned less than an hour ago and I was here for your visit. That is because fate has deemed it so."
Chloris stared at him. Fate. Could it be true?
Moreover, how could it be that she was so strangely intrigued by the man, when she balked at the idea of discussing her intimate matters with him? He was no more than twenty five years of age in her estimation, and yet he was so strangely age-old, even though he was also rebellious in his ways. She was about to turn thirty years, and she was afraid to be alone with him. It was his air of questionable morals. He was unruly, a wolf in sheep's clothing. He was also overly frank while he referenced her malady without stricture or concern.
"You are skittish and wary, Mistress Chloris. I understand why. However it is a shame because I sense you truly believe I have the power to help you." Once again he spoke bluntly, but this time it was somewhat more serious and sympathetic.
She nodded. "Yes, I did believe that you might be able to help me. I know little of your ways," she added cautiously, aware that many would think her insane walking into the house such as this, "however, as a child I had a nursemaid who had some skills as a healer. She used to take me for walks along the shore and in the meadows, and she would tell me about the plants and herbs and what ailments they could be used for. She was very fond of me, and I of her."
The man's curiosity seemed baited. "Tell me something of her ways."
Chloris thought back to those times. "She wore scarlet ribbons around her wrists. She told me it was to ward off rheumatism."
"Yes, she said it eased the pain. Others said that the ribbons were a sign of her..." her voice dropped to a whisper. "...her bond with the devil."
When she grew quiet he nodded. "You were not afraid of her though, and that is what has made you brave enough to come here."
"My need is what made me brave enough. There is no other path available to me." She lifted her chin. She was not used to sharing such intimate details about herself. "However, it is because of my Eithne, my nursemaid, that I believed it might be worthwhile coming."
He studied her carefully. "Tell me, what became of your nursemaid?"
It was not she expected him to ask, for it was the part of the story she would rather not have shared. His gaze held hers though, refusing to let her ignore the question, demanding the truth. It was obvious that if she denied him any knowledge that he asked for, he would refuse to help her. She took a deep breath. "A dreadful illness took most of my family, the cough. Some say she protected me from it because she favored me. Others said she was unwilling to help the rest of my family by healing them." She paused. "Eithne was turned out by my guardian."
Eithne had been turned out by her cousin, Tamhas Keavey, with whom she now visited, but that was not the point. At the time she'd been a child and Tamhas's ward. He'd been a man in his early twenties and the only one willing to take her in when her parents perished.
The man stared at her, assessing her. "You did not believe she was responsible?"
"No, I didn't. The ability to cure the illness was beyond Eithne. But she knew things and she whispered for me in her prayers, using words that I didn't understand." Seeing the interest in his eyes she went on. "She told me I would be protected from the cough."
It was so much more than a cough, but she knew they called it that in order to force its darkness back, to stand up to it. Chloris stemmed the other painful memories. Memories of the way her cousin and guardian had called Eithne a slave to the devil while he cast her out. Chloris had been plagued with doubts, respecting him as she did, but she had never been able to believe it.
Drawn back to the moment, she lifted her head. When she met the man's stare she had the eerie suspicion he knew what she was thinking. "I was always happy when she held my hand."
"She was a woman who respected the old ways." He spoke softly.
Chloris felt comforted. Had he moved closer? His knees were pressed against her full skirts, but she had not been aware of him moving. "What do you mean when you say that, old ways?"
"Some call us pagans, heathen, because we believe in the power inherent in the natural world and we seek it in our rituals. Many Christians have benefited, and they will not speak out against us. However, they cannot defend us because they would be in danger of being called out themselves." He shrugged. "We are forced to live a secretive existence."
His tone had turned embittered, and Chloris felt he had shared something that was fundamental to his character. There was a brooding, almost angry look at the back of his eyes.
In a blink, it was gone.
He smiled, briefly. "Enough of that. We understand each other a little more now." He inclined his head. "There are rituals that we undertake to increase both virility and fertility." His gaze raked over her. "If you are willing I will perform the rituals myself, in order to help you."
He was so close she felt the heat of his body, yet the whispered nature of their conversation suited her more than the blatant words he had delivered before. "What would these rituals entail?"
"I would need to lay my hands upon you."
She knew by his expression that he meant more than holding her ungloved hand. Could she allow this compelling young man that liberty?
She needed to know more. "Why do you need to do that?"
"To evoke the essence of spring and direct it inside you."
His whispered words affected her oddly. She felt suddenly hot, her limbs heavy. His eyes burned more brightly. Was it the reflection of the glowing embers in the hearth?
"By drawing on the essence of something from the natural world we harness the gift of birth and rebirth." He lifted his hand and opened his palm to her. It gleamed, as if he held sunlight right there in his palm.
Gasping aloud, she saw what he intended—to demonstrate. A moment later he spoke again, but his words made no sense. He repeated the phrase several times beneath his breath. Chloris could not look away, so intense was his gaze.
Heat swelled in the pit of her belly. Glancing down, she saw that he now held his palm open in front of her skirts. It was directly above the spot where she burned, and when his hand moved and he whispered those strange words, so the heat roiled and gathered within her. Her thighs shuddered, her core tingling.
It was so carnal a sensation and so utterly unexpected that she swayed and her head dropped back.
Then he blew across the bare skin of her exposed neck. A gentle breath it was, and yet it felt like the wind through the trees to Chloris. Heavily scented, as if carrying blossoms like the one he had plucked from her hair.
Beneath her corset her chest felt constricted. Panic rushed in on her. Recoiling, she whispered. "No. No, I cannot—"
He stepped away, breaking the connection. When he looked back his eyes were normal once again. "Take your leave. Think on what has been said and done here."
There was no doubt she would think on it, at length, if only she could get away and gather her faculties. She could scarcely function due to the wild throbbing in her loins.
Fumbling for the door handle, she could do no more than mumble her thanks to him in response, rendered speechless as she was by his demonstration of magical power.
Mercifully, the door clicked open.
With her breath captured in her chest, she forced herself to meet his eyes. "Yes?"
"You asked if I could trust you. My instinct told me yes, and once I had touched you...I knew without doubt that I could trust you. That's why I took off your glove."
That was why. Her palm tingled in response to his comment, and at the very same moment she knew that he was informing her of something much deeper than the issue of trust between them. What was it—that he could connect with her intimately that way, perhaps read her thoughts and gain the measure of her, by running his fingertips over her skin?
When she responded, she could hear the tremble in her own voice. "I see."
"A great deal can be learned and achieved through touch," he continued, and his voice was low and heavy with suggestion, "and through laying my hands on you, I could ensure that all your desires could be fulfilled."
Desires? Flustered, she tried to muster an appropriate response.
One corner of his mouth lifted. "You know where to find me."
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