Seven Years to Sin – Sylvia Day

There was something irresistibly exciting about watching athletic males engaged in physical combat. Their base, animalistic natures were betrayed by their unmitigated aggression and ruthlessness. Through their exertions, their bodies displayed a power that stirred a woman’s most primitive instincts. Lady Jessica Sheffield was not immune, as she’d been taught a lady should be. She could not take her eyes off the two young men wrestling exuberantly on the lawn on the opposite side of a narrow, shallow pond. One would soon be her brother-in-law; the other was his friend, a scapegrace whose wickedly handsome countenance spared him much of the censure he should rightly face. “I would like to tumble about as they do,” her sister said wistfully. Hester, too, watched from where they sat beneath the shade of an ancient oak tree. A gentle breeze swept by them, ruffling the blades of grass flowing along the parkland to the impressive Pennington manse. The home sprawled beneath the protective shield of a wooded hill, its golden stone façade and gilded window frames catching the sunlight and creating a feeling of serenity for all who visited. Jess returned her attention to her needlework, regretting that she had to chastise her sister for staring when she was guilty of the same conduct. “Such play is lost to women after childhood. Best not to covet what is beyond our grasp.” “Why can men be boys all of their lives, but we women must grow old while we are yet young?” “The world was made for men,” Jess said softly. Beneath the wide brim of her straw hat, she snuck another glance at the two grappling young gentlemen.

A barked command stilled them midscuffle and caused her spine to stiffen. Simultaneously, all their heads turned in the same direction. She found her betrothed approaching the two younger men, and the tension left her in a slow abatement, like the receding of a tide after a crashing wave. Not for the first time, she wondered if she would ever lose the sharp apprehension she felt whenever discord was evident or if she was so well trained to fear a man’s anger that she would never be free of it. Tall and elegantly dressed, Benedict Reginald Sinclair, Viscount Tarley and future Earl of Pennington, strode across the lawn with the purpose of a man who knew well the power he wielded. She was both reassured by that inherent blue-blooded arrogance and wary of it. Some men were content with the knowledge of their own importance, while others felt the need to wield it indiscriminately. “And what is a woman’s contribution to the world?” Hester asked with an obstinate pout that made her look younger than her ten and six years. With an impatient swipe at her cheek, she brushed back a honey-hued curl the exact shade of Jessica’s hair. “To serve men?” “To create them.

” Jess returned Tarley’s brisk wave. They would be wed in the Sinclair family chapel tomorrow before a carefully selected and elite gathering of Society. She looked forward to the occasion for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that she would finally be free of her father’s unpredictable and seemingly unprovoked rages. She did not begrudge the Marquess of Hadley his right to stress the value of social esteem and her part in securing it. It was the harsh manner in which he redressed her shortcomings that she deplored. Hester made a sound suspiciously like a snort. “Those are our pater’s words.” “And the dominant view of the world at large. Who would know that better than you and I?” Their mother’s ceaseless efforts to bear the Hadley heir had cost her life. Hadley had been forced to suffer through another wife, another daughter, and five years before finally seeing the birth of his precious son.

“I do not believe Tarley looks upon you as a breed mare,” Hester said. “In fact, I think he has a tendre for you.” “I would be fortunate if that were so. However, he would not have offered for me had I lacked a suitable bloodline.” Jess watched as Benedict chastised his younger sibling for his rough play. Michael Sinclair looked sufficiently contrite, but Alistair Caulfield looked anything but. His posture, while not overtly defiant, was too proud to be remorseful. The three males made a riveting grouping —the Sinclairs with their rich chocolate-hued tresses and powerfully lean frames, and Caulfield, who was said to be favored by Mephistopheles himself with his ink-dark hair and devilishly attractive features. “Tell me you will be happy with him,” Hester entreated, leaning forward. Her irises were the same brilliant green as the lawn beneath their feet, and they were filled with concern.

Her eye color was a trait inherited from their mother along with their pale tresses. Jess had taken their father’s gray eyes. It was the only part of himself he’d ever given her. That was not a lamentable circumstance in her opinion. “I intend to be.” There was no way to ensure that, but what point was there in worrying Hester needlessly? Tarley was their father’s choice, and Jess would have to become accustomed to it, whatever the outcome. Hester pressed on. “I want neither of us to leave this world with the pitiful relief our mother did. Life is meant to be savored and enjoyed.” Jess twisted on the marble half-moon bench upon which she sat and placed her needlepoint carefully in the bag beside her.

She prayed Hester would always retain her sweet, hopeful nature. “Tarley and I respect one another. I have always enjoyed his company and discourse. He is intelligent and patient, considerate and polite. And he is an extremely fine specimen of a man. One cannot overlook that.” Hester’s smile brightened their shady location better than the sun could have. “Yes, he is. I can only pray that Father will make an equally handsome choice for me.” “Have you set your cap for a particular gentleman?” “Not entirely, no.

I am still in search of the perfect combination of traits that will suit me best.” Hester looked at the three men, now talking with some seriousness. “I should like a husband of Tarley’s station, but with Mr. Sinclair’s more jovial personality and Mr. Caulfield’s appearance. Although I do believe Alistair Caulfield is likely the handsomest man in all of England—if not farther reaches—so I will have to settle for less in that regard.” “He is too young for me to assess in that manner,” Jess lied, eying the object of discussion. “Stuff. He is mature for his age; everyone says so.” “He is jaded from lack of guidance.

There is a difference.” Though Jess was plagued by too much restriction, Caulfield suffered from none at all. With his three older brothers taking up the expected roles of heir, military officer, and clergyman, there had been no role for him to fill. An overly doting mother had only worsened his prospects of learning any responsibility. He was infamous for his risk taking and inability to walk away from any bet or challenge. In the handful of years Jess had known him, he’d grown wilder with every passing season. “Two years’ gap is no gap at all,” Hester argued. “Not when comparing a score and ten to thirty-two, perhaps. But comparing ten and six to ten and eight? That is an age.” Jess caught sight of Benedict’s mother hurrying toward her, a sure sign that her brief respite from the whirlwind of final-hour preparations was over.

She stood. “In any case, your admiration is best directed elsewhere. Mr. Caulfield has little chance of serving a useful purpose in this life. His lamentable position as the superfluous fourth son practically ensures he will achieve little consequence. It is a shame he has chosen to cast off the benefit of his good name in favor of reckless pursuits, but that is his mistake and it should not be yours.” “I have heard it said that his father has given him a ship and a sugarcane plantation.” “It is highly likely Masterson did so in the hopes his son would take his dangerous proclivities to a distant shore.” Hester sighed. “I sometimes wish I could travel far, far away.

Am I alone in such longings?” Not at all, Jess wished to say. She thought of escape in passing, but her station was so narrowly defined. In that regard, she was at a greater disadvantage than women of common birth. Who was she if not the Marquess of Hadley’s daughter and the future Viscountess Tarley? If neither of them wished to travel extensively, she would never be given the opportunity. But sharing such ruminations with her impressionable sibling would be inappropriate and unfair. “God willing,” she said instead, “you will have a spouse eager to indulge you in all things. You deserve it.” Jess untied the leash of her beloved pug, Temperance, and gestured to her abigail to collect her bag. As she moved to pass her sister, she paused and bent to press a kiss to Hester’s forehead. “Cast your eye upon Lord Regmont at supper this evening.

He is comely, most charming, and recently returned from his Grand Tour. You will be one of the first diamonds he meets since his return.” “He would have to wait two years for my presentation,” Hester retorted with more than a little disgruntlement. “You are worth the wait. Any man of discerning taste will see that straightaway.” “As if I shall have a choice in the matter, even if he was to find me intriguing.” Winking, Jess lowered her voice and said, “Regmont is a close associate of Tarley’s. I am certain Benedict would speak highly of him to our pater should that become necessary.” “Truly?” Hester’s shoulders wriggled with the fevered anticipation of youth. “You must introduce us.

” “For a certainty.” Jess set off with a wave. “Cast your eyes away from ne’er-do-wells until then.” Hester made a show of covering her eyes, but Jess expected her sister would return to her perusal of the men as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Jess certainly would. “Tarley’s tension is high,” Michael Sinclair noted, dusting himself off and staring at his brother’s retreating back. “You expected otherwise?” Alistair Caulfield collected his jacket from the ground and shook off the few blades of grass clinging to the superfine. “He gains a leg shackle tomorrow.” “To the Diamond of the Season. Not such a bad fate.

My mother says Helen of Troy could not have been more beautiful.” “Or a marble statue more cold.” Michael looked at him. “Beg your pardon?” From across the shallow terrace pool separating them, Alistair watched Lady Jessica Sheffield cross the lawn toward the house with her little dog in tow. Her slender figure was encased from neck to wrist to ankle in pale floral muslin that clung to her with the breeze. Her face was turned away from him and shielded from the sun by a hat, but he knew her features from memory. He was irresistibly drawn to stare at such beauty. Many men were. Her hair was a delight of nature, the strands longer and thicker than any other blonde he had ever seen. The tresses were so pale as to be almost silver, with streaks of darker gold adding richness to the whole.

She’d worn it down on occasion before her presentation, but now it was as restrained as her deportment. For someone so young, she had the cool demeanor and reserve of a more mature woman. “That pale hair and creamy skin,” Alistair murmured, “and those gray eyes . ” “Yes?” Alistair noted the amusement in his friend’s voice and strengthened his own. “Her coloring suits her temperament perfectly,” he said briskly. “She is an ice princess, that one. Your brother had best pray she breeds quickly or risk losing his cock to frostbite.” “And you had best watch your tongue,” Michael warned, repairing his dark brown hair with a quick combing with both hands, “lest I take offense. Lady Jessica is soon to be my sister-in-law.” Nodding absently, Alistair found his attention once again drawn to the graceful girl who was so perfect in both physical and social deportment.

He was fascinated with watching her and waiting for some crack in the porcelain-smooth exterior. He wondered how she bore the pressure at her age, the very pressure he had grown intolerant of and now rebelled against. “Apologies.” Michael studied him. “Have you some quarrel with her? There is an edge to your tone suggesting so.” “Perhaps there is a slight sting,” he admitted gruffly, “from her failure to acknowledge me the other evening. Her cut direct was a marked difference in manner from that of her sister, Lady Hester, who is quite charming.” “Yes, Hester is a delight.” Michael’s admiring tone was so like Alistair’s when speaking of Lady Jessica that Alistair raised his brows in silent inquiry. Flushing, Michael went on, “Likely Jessica did not hear you.

” Alistair shrugged into his jacket. “I was directly beside her.” “On the left side? She is deaf in that ear.” It took him a moment to absorb the information and reply. He had not imagined any imperfections in her, although he felt some relief to know there was one. It made her more mortal and less Grecian goddess. “I was not aware.” “For the most part, no one takes note. Only when the noise is high, during large gatherings, does it become a hindrance.” “Now I see why Tarley selected her.

A wife who only half listens to rumormongers would be a blessing indeed.” Michael snorted and started toward the house. “She is reserved,” he conceded, “but then the future Countess of Pennington should be. Tarley assures me there are hidden depths to her.” “Hmm . ” “You sound doubtful, but despite your excessively comely face, your experience with women is not equal to Tarley’s.” Alistair’s mouth curved wryly. “Are you certain?” “Considering the irrefutable fact that he has ten years’ advantage on you, I would say so.” Michael threw his arm around Alistair’s shoulders. “I suggest you concede that his greater maturity likely gives him a superior platform from which to note hidden qualities in his own betrothed.

” “I dislike conceding anything.” “I know, my friend. However, you really should concede defeat in our recently interrupted wrestling match. You were moments away from seeing me the victor.” Alistair elbowed him in the ribs. “If Tarley had not spared you, you would be pleading for mercy now.” “Ho! Shall we determine the winner with a race to the—” Alistair was running before the last word was out. Within hours, she would be wed. As the dark of night lightened into the gray of predawn, Jessica hugged her shawl tighter about her shoulders and walked Temperance deeper into the forest surrounding the Pennington manse. The pug’s rapid steps crunched atop the loose gravel trail in a staccato that was soothing in its familiarity.

“Why must you be so picky?” Jess chastised. Her breath puffed visibly in the chill air, making her long for the warmth of the bed she had yet to crawl into. “Any spot should suffice.” Temperance glanced up with an expression Jess swore was akin to exasperation. “Very well,” she said reluctantly, unable to refuse that look. “We’ll go a bit farther.” They rounded a corner and Temperance paused, sniffing. Apparently satisfied with the location, the pug presented her back to Jess and squatted in front of a tree. Smiling at the bid for privacy, Jess turned away and took in her surroundings, deciding to explore the trail more thoroughly in the light of day. Unlike so many estates where the gardens and woodlands were invaded by obelisks, reproductions of Grecian statues and temples, and the occasional pagoda, the Pennington estate displayed a welcome appreciation of the natural landscape.

There were places along the pathway where it felt as if civilization and all its inhabitants were miles away. She had not expected to enjoy the feeling so much but found she did, especially after hours of meaningless interactions with people who cared only for the title she was marrying into. “I shall enjoy walking you through here,” she said over her shoulder, “when the sun is up and I am properly attired for the activity.” Temperance finished her business and moved into view. The pug started back toward the house, tugging on the leash with notable impatience after taking so long to find a proper piddle spot. Jess was following when a rustling noise to the left put Temperance on alert. The dog’s dark ears and tail perked up, while her tan muscular body tensed with expectation. Jess’s heart beat faster. If it was a wild boar or feral fox, the situation would be disastrous. She would be devastated if something untoward happened to Temperance, who was the only creature on earth who did not judge Jess by standards she struggled greatly to meet.

A squirrel darted across the path. Jess melted with relief and gave a breathless laugh. But Temperance did not stand down. The pug lunged, ripping her leash from Jess’s slackened grip. “Bloody hell. Temperance!” In a flash of tiny limbs and fur, the two creatures were gone. The sounds of the chase—the rustling of leaves and the pug’s low growling—quickly faded. Tossing up her hands, Jess left the walkway and followed the path of trampled foliage. She was so focused on tracking, she failed to realize she’d come upon a large gazebo until she very nearly ran into it. She veered to the right .

A female’s throaty laugh broke the quiet. Jess stumbled to a startled halt. “Hurry, Lucius,” the woman urged breathlessly. “Trent will note my absence.” Wilhelmina, Lady Trent. Jess stood unmoving, barely breathing. There was a slow, drawn-out creaking of wood. “Patience, darling.” A recognizable masculine voice rejoined in a lazy, practiced drawl. “Let me give you what you paid for.

” The gazebo creaked again, louder this time. Quicker and harder. Lady Trent gave a thready moan. Alistair Lucius Caulfield. Inflagrente delicto with the Countess of Trent. Dear God. The woman was nearly a score of years his senior. Beautiful, yes, but of an age with his mother. The use of his middle name was startling. And, perhaps, telling .

? Aside from the obvious, perhaps they were intimate in a deeper sense. Was it possible the roguish Caulfield had a tendre for the lovely countess, enough that she would have reason to call him by a name not used by others? “You,” the countess purred, “are worth every shilling I pay for you.” Dear God. Perhaps not an intimacy at all, but a . transaction. An arrangement. With a man providing the services . Hoping to move on without giving herself away, Jess took a tentative step forward. A slight movement in the gazebo prompted her to still again. Her eyes narrowed, struggling to overcome the insufficient light.

It was her misfortune to be bathed in the faint glow of the waning moon while the interior of the gazebo remained deeply shadowed by its roof and overhanging trees. She saw a hand wrapped around one of the domed roof’s supporting poles and another set a short ways above it. A man’s hands, gripping for purchase. From their height on the beam, she knew he was standing. “Lucius . For God’s sake, don’t stop now.” Lady Trent was pinned between Caulfield and the wood. Which meant he was facing Jess. Twin glimmers in the darkness betrayed a blink. He saw her.

Was in fact staring at her. Jess wished the ground would open and swallow her whole. What was she to say? How was one supposed to act when caught in such a situation? “Lucius! Damn you.” The weathered wood whined in response to its pressures. “The feel of your big cock in me is delicious, but far more so when it’s moving.” Jess’s hand went to her throat. Despite the cold, perspiration misted her forehead. The horror she should have felt at finding a man engaged in sexual congress was markedly absent. Because it was Caulfield, and he fascinated her. It was a terrible sort of captivation with which she viewed him—a mixture of envy for his freedom and horror at the ease with which he disregarded public opinion.

She had to get away before she was forced to acknowledge her presence to Lady Trent. She took a careful step forward . “Wait.” Caulfield’s voice was gruffer than before. She froze. “I cannot!” Lady Trent protested breathlessly. But it was not the countess Caulfield spoke to. One of his hands was outstretched, extended toward Jess. The request stunned her into immobility. A long moment passed in which her gaze remained fixed on the twin sparkles of his eyes.

His breathing became harsh and audible. Then, he gripped the pole again and began to move. His thrusts began slowly at first, then became more fervent with a building tempo. The rhythmic protests of the wood battered Jess from all sides. She could see no detail beyond those two hands and glistening gaze that smoldered with a tangible heat, but the sounds she heard filled her mind with images. Caulfield never took his eyes from her, even as he rutted so furiously she wondered how the countess could take pleasure in such violence of movement. Lady Trent was nearly incoherent, coarse words of praise spilling from her lips between high-pitched squeals. Jess was riveted by this exposure to a side of sexual congress she’d been mostly ignorant of. She knew the mechanics; her stepmother had been most thorough. Do not cringe or cry when he enters you.

Try to relax; it will decrease the discomfort. Make no sound of any kind. Never voice a complaint. And yet Jess had seen the knowing looks of other women and heard whispers behind fans that hinted at more. Now she had the proof. Every pleasured sound Lady Trent made echoed through her, tripping over her senses like a stone skipping over water. Her body responded instinctively—her skin became sensitive and her breathing came in quick pants. She began to quiver under the weight of Caulfield’s gaze. Although she longed to run from the purloined intimacy, she was unable to move. It was impossible, but it seemed as if he looked right through her, past the façade forged by her father’s hand.

The bonds holding her in place broke only when Caulfield did. His serrated groan at the moment of crisis acted like a spur to her flank. She ran then, clinging to her shawl with both arms crossed over full and aching breasts. When Temperance dashed out of a bush to greet her, Jess sobbed with relief. Scooping up the pug, she rushed toward the trail leading back to the manse. “Lady Jessica!” The calling of her name as Jess returned to the relative safety of the rear garden caused her to stumble. Her heart raced anew at being caught. She spun in a flurry of pale blue satin skirts, searching for the caller and mortified at the thought it might be Alistair Caulfield with a plea for discretion. Or worse, her father. “Jessica.

By God, I’ve been searching all over for you.” She was relieved to see Benedict approaching from the direction of the house, but relief bled into wariness. He maneuvered through the yew-lined garden paths with such a brisk, determined stride. A shiver moved through her. Was he angry? “Is something amiss?” she queried carefully as he neared, knowing it must be to cause him to seek her out at this hour. “You have been gone at length. Half an hour ago, your abigail said you’d left to walk Temperance, and you had already been absent for a quarter hour when I inquired.” Her gaze lowered to avoid any appearance of challenge. “I apologize for causing you concern.” “No need for apologies,” he said in a clipped tone.

“I simply wished to have a word with you. We are to be wed today, and I wanted to allay any nerves that might plague you before the event.” Jess blinked and looked up, startled by his consideration. “My lord—” “Benedict,” he corrected, catching up her hand. “You are chilled to the bone. Where have you been?” The concern in his tone was unmistakable. She wasn’t certain at first how to respond. His reaction was so different from the one her father would have had. Thrown off guard by her own confusion, she began to reply almost without thinking. As she relayed the tale of Temperance leading her on a merry chase after a squirrel, Jess studied her future spouse with more care than she’d invested in a very long time.

He had become a staple in her life, an obligation she accepted without need for deep contemplation. Inasmuch as she was able, she had grown comfortable with the inevitability of sharing a life with him. But she did not feel comfortable now. She remained flushed and agitated by the way Caulfield had used her to further his own pleasure. “I would have walked with you, if you had asked,” Benedict said when she finished. He gave her hand a squeeze. “In the future, I pray you do so.” Emboldened by his gentle manner and the lingering effects of the wine she’d drunk too liberally of at supper, Jess pressed on recklessly. “Temperance and I found something else in the woods.” “Oh?” She told him about the couple in the gazebo, her voice low and faltering, her words tumbling over themselves because she lacked the vocabulary and confidence.

She did not speak of the coin exchanged between the countess and Caulfield, nor did she divulge their identities. Benedict didn’t move the entirety of the short time she spoke. When she finished, he cleared his throat and said, “Damnation, I am horrified that you were exposed to such unpleasantness on the eve of our wedding.” “They did not seem to find the encounter unpleasant at all.” He flushed. “Jessica—” “You spoke of allaying my nerves,” she said quickly, before losing her courage. “I should like to be honest with you, but I fear overstepping the limits of your forbearance.” “I will advise you if that limit is reached.” “In what manner?” “Beg your pardon?” Benedict frowned. Jess swallowed.

“In what manner will you advise me? With a word? A loss of privilege? Ssomething more . definitive?” He stiffened. “I would never lay a hand to you or any woman; I would certainly never fault you for honesty. I expect I will be far more lenient with you than with anyone else of my acquaintance. You are a great prize to me, Jessica. I have waited impatiently for the day when you would be mine.” “Why?”

.

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