No longer the proper English wife she always was, Margaret kissed a handsome stranger.Now the dashing earl will not rest until the beautiful widow he held in his arms so briefly is his forever.
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September 30, 2000
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Excerpt from After the Kiss by Karen Ranney
A great courtesan possesses both curiosity and courage.
The Journals of Augustin X
Wiltshire Downs, England Early spring, 1822
Naked, he sat cross legged upon a brilliantly hued carpet, a voluptuous woman on his lap. Her bare legs were on either side of his hips, her feet crossed at his back. One masculine hand rested on her thigh, fingers splayed, while the other curved around her waist. Her head was arched back, throat exposed, eyes closed, the look on her face one of sublime pleasure. His head bent, the edge of his smile carnal and anticipatory, captured forever in the act of his tongue gently touching an elongated nipple.
The artist had drawn the man in a state of arousal, a condition surely accentuated out of all proportion.
No man, Margaret Esterly thought, could be quite that large.
Her gaze returned to the painting time and again, even as a flush crept up her neck. A scene of sensuality and abandon. Almost shocking. But beautiful in a strange and unsettling way. That was the only reason, Margaret told herself, that she studied it with such avid curiosity.
The caption that accompanied the drawing was both confusing and evocative: The face, the ears, the breasts are rich with sensation. But close attention must be made to speak softly, murmuring words of tenderness in anticipation of the pleasure to come.
"You're too fascinated with those books, Miss Margaret."
She blinked, glanced up, her face warming.
On the other side of the table, Penelope sat chopping onions and frowning at her. The two years since they'd left London had brought a few changes to their lives, chief among them the friendship they shared. A not surprising development, considering that they were both London born and raised.
Margaret wanted almost desperately to be quit of London and its memories. To her surprise, Penelope was more than willing to join her in the country.
With Jerome's death, she had no family. Her parents had died of influenza when she was only a child. Her grandmother, a former governess, had raised her, but she had passed on a year after her marriage to Jerome.
The small cottage Margaret had rented from Squire Tippett two years ago wasn't a prepossessing place. The only furniture was a bureau, two small cots, two chairs and a small wooden table she despaired of ever making stand straight. Finally, she had shimmied a piece of wood beneath one leg, but it still wobbled from side to side. A fireplace took up one whole wall, a welcome warmth during the winters on the Downs.
"It's a good thing you hide them above the rafters when the girls come. I can just imagine what their mothers in the village would say if they knew you read such things," Penelope scolded.
Silbury Village, their new home, was situated in a river valley with a commanding view of the chalk uplands and the stark white form cut into the hillside. Majestically sized, not unlike the White Horse at Westbury, it was difficult to discern the shape of the carving except in spring when the villagers trimmed and re-cut the turf. Then, it was all too evident that the angles and curves formed the image of a crown. As if some ancient royal presence had marked this place forever his.
Almost completely encircling the village was the Bristol River, its waters churning through two grist mills. Perched above Silbury on a nearby hill were the skeletal remains of a priory. The town itself was full of twisting paths and unexpected steps, and houses constructed from the stones of the ruins, giving the buildings an aged, almost pallid appearance.
It was, as Samuel had told her, an inward looking place. The villagers were content enough to build the docks for which they were famed and ignore the world. It was because of her friend that she was here at all. Samuel had been born in the village and knew the squire from which she rented her small cottage.