Widowed young, Lady Julia Grantleigh can’t imagine finding love again. Certainly not with the fearsome Major Holsworth, her late husband’s boyhood best friend, whose harsh, brooding presence has always unnerved her.
But a mysterious gold bracelet that turns up in her chambers seems to have other plans. When its clasp gets caught in Holsworth’s uniform, some disrobing is required—and Julia discovers the fine line between fear and desire.
After that one passionate night, Marcus Holsworth is as eager as Julia is to put their indiscretion behind them—as a farmer’s son, he has no business loving a woman of Julia’s class, and he won’t dishonor his best friend’s memory by embroiling his widow in scandal.
He’d do the sensible thing and walk away—but he fears Julia’s in danger from the same traitor who he suspects may have murdered her husband. Bound together by fate, Marcus and Julia learn soul-shaking lessons about when to let go, and when to hold tight to a chance for love.
I should point out that HOLD ME CLOSE is set in the era of Jane Austen. It’s the one historical tale in the collection, and it provides a delicious origin story for the bracelet that will unite the lovers in the contemporary stories that follow.
Want a little excerpt? Here you go. This is from fairly early on, when a collision in a darkened room causes Julia’s bracelet to snag on Holsworth’s uniform. Things get steamy pretty quickly after this, but I’ll give you a little taste:
Good Lord, was he aware she’d always disliked him?
He breathed out an impatient sigh. “You never did approve of me, did you?”
Well, that took care of that question as well.
It was he who’d first disapproved of her, of course. But even so, if she’d been so indiscreet as to let her feelings about him show, it was time to make amends. “You were my husband’s dearest friend,” she assured him in the most gracious tone she could manage. “Christopher respected you as he respected no one else in the world. And I would never gainsay his judgment.”
Holsworth gave a dark laugh. “A suitably equivocal thing to say. Your husband always respected me. And of course a proper lady would never refute the word of her lord and master, no matter how sharply her private opinion might diverge. Your manners are, as always, exquisite, Lady Grantleigh.”
Well, then. Holsworth was rather more nimble at this bantering business than she’d given him credit for. He’d managed to shut her mouth entirely, for the moment at least.
“Come now,” he said abruptly. “We must get into the light, or I’ll never get this blasted bauble of yours unhooked.”
Blasted bauble? That helped her find her tongue again. “It’s your blasted clothing that’s hooked my bauble.” It was a silly retort, and by no means a proper one, but it was strangely refreshing to speak so tartly. How long had it been since she’d teased or joked with anyone?
Oh, she knew—she knew exactly. Eighteen months.
Since Christopher had been taken from her.
That Major Holsworth, of all people, should spark the habit in her again was rather painfully ironic. But she couldn’t seem to stop herself.
“Besides,” she heard herself saying, “why should I follow you anywhere? You haven’t yet explained why you were skulking about in the darkness in the first place.”
His shadowed outline stiffened. “I never skulk, Lady Grantleigh,” he said. “I am merely unaccustomed to the frenzy of society ballrooms, and withdrew a moment to admire the moonlight.”
“We’re in the wilds of Devon, sir. Ballrooms here are hardly frenzied.”
“Compared to the wilds of India, ma’am, your ballroom is frenzied indeed. And I might point out that you yourself were doing some skulking.”
Her chin jutted forward. “I wasn’t skulking. I live here.”
“Fair enough. In that case, you might know of a reasonably private space where I could actually see to disentangle us. If you could lead us there, I’d be most grateful.”
Ah, yes. Disentanglement was, of course, the goal.
If they stood here much longer, all but entwined, someone was sure to come upon them and think they were in the midst of a scandalous romantic rendezvous.
“There’s—there’s a sitting room just a little way behind us,” she said. “Hidden behind that stand of date palms.”
“Good,” Holsworth said, his deep voice rough. “Since this might require removal of my coat.”
Her heart skipped a beat, or perhaps tried to perform several beats at once. She swallowed hard. “Removal of …your coat?”
Well, they certainly couldn’t let anyone else be witness to that. As far as the sticklers of Society were concerned, a gentleman showing his shirtsleeves to a lady was tantamount to stripping nude.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “that damnable bracelet’s snagged between my coat and my linen in some maddeningly complicated way.”
Maddeningly complicated. Yes, that phrase seemed apt at the moment.
For the man as well as the predicament.
And for her own mood, too. She was irritated, frustrated, of course, by the absurdity of the situation, but also somehow…buoyant.
I am almost enjoying this.
Not a thought she wanted to consider in detail.
Thankfully, Holsworth got things moving. He set one large hand to the small of her back, and wrapped the other about her trapped wrist, presumably to keep the bracelet from ripping at his clothing as they walked, or perhaps to spare pressure on her arm. It might even be…courtly of him, she supposed. Considerate, at least. Perhaps even protective.
Despite his sometimes primitive manners, the man seemed more than capable of protecting a woman.
A realization which sent a peculiar flutter through her insides.
To her relief, he released her wrist to open the sitting room door and to throw the lock shut behind them, but then he made the fluttering worse by reaching across her to feel for the tinderbox that was always kept on a little table just inside the room.
And then it occurred to her that he’d been teasing before: he knew perfectly well this room was here. After all, he’d grown up in this house. Had in fact spent more years in it than she had.
A maddeningly complicated man, indeed.
He struck the flint, and a wood splint flared. He dipped it into the lantern beside the tinderbox, so neatly he scarcely rattled the glass, and the candle-wick hissed into flame.
Now a golden circle of light surrounded them.
And, oh, she wished they were still lost in darkness.
The sight of him, so very close, was after all far more disconcerting than being with him in the shadows. Lord, she’d never paid attention to the shape of Holsworth’s mouth before, to the generous sweep of his lower lip.
Or to how striking his dark eyes were, with their black fringe of lashes. Christopher had been so fair, his hair nearly as silken as a child’s and his pale scalp showing along his part, but Holsworth’s hair was thick and dark as night, its waves so dense she couldn’t tell if he parted it at all.
And then of course there was that frightening scar…
Oh, why should she be more self-conscious now than she had been in the shadows about the warmth of his breath mingling with hers?
He seemed to be studying her face, too, his body unnaturally still, his gaze intense but impenetrable in its intentions. She felt it like pressure against her skin—and had the disconcerting sensation that she was being stroked with black velvet.
A flush of heat ran up her throat.
Perhaps he noticed the color come into her cheeks, because he looked away suddenly, grasping her wrist again almost roughly. “Let me get a look at that bracelet,” he said.
He had to crane his neck awkwardly since it was snagged right near his collarbone, and he twisted her wrist back and forth to see the closures as best he could. His eyes widened suddenly, and his gaze snapped back to hers. “Where did you get this?”
His tone was sharp, almost accusing, and his fingers closed tighter on her arm.
“Why do you ask?” And what business is it of yours? Her pulse was growing more rapid again. Did he recognize the bracelet after all?
“It’s from India,” he said harshly, and it seemed to be a statement and a question all at once.
“It is,” she confirmed, refusing to let her discomposure show on her face. After all, she was under no obligation to tell him that she herself had no more information about the bracelet than that. “How did you know?”
“The color of the gold—a purer alloy than Europeans use. And the inscription appears to be in Sanskrit.”
“Yes,” she said. “Do you know what it says?”
He hesitated. “I can’t see enough of it to tell. In any case, I’m no scholar. Urdu and Marathi are of more use to army officers.”
Christopher was a scholar. That thought went through her with a pang.
Oh, why was she here with this piratical soldier and not with her gentle husband? Why should the man who’d spent years having bullets fired at him be alive, while the one who’d sat safely behind a desk have perished? The universe made no sense at all.
And why on earth could she not stop feeling so conscious of the heat and size of Holsworth’s body, of that disquieting exotic scent of his, of the dark tinge of stubble along his jaw?
This excessive awareness of him was merely the reaction of her flesh, to be sure. For all these months since Christopher died, she’d lived in dreams and shadows, lying in her cold bed alone at night. She’d barely remembered she had a body.
And Holsworth was certainly very bodily.
So large and strong and irrefutably male. So vital, she fancied she could hear his heart pulsing, the blood rushing beneath the surface of his skin.
Suddenly the thought of him putting his arms around her, of him putting his mouth against hers, began to beat at the back of her skull like a drum.
Thankfully, Holsworth, for his part, now seemed focused entirely on practical matters. He had his chin down, squinting at the bracelet again. “Where is this pin you mentioned? To release the clasp?”
She had to feel for the tiny metal nub herself, her knuckles brushing the underside of Holsworth’s jaw and pressing into his uniform front as she searched. Goodness, the man was hard as a rock, everywhere.
Holsworth could probably snap her in two if he wanted. And judging from the harsh expression on his face just now, she wasn’t entirely sure he didn’t want to.
There—her fingertip found the pin at last. She pressed her nail into the tip as she had the first time, and waited for the front seam to pop open.
It didn’t pop.
She pressed once more.
“It—it’s not working.”
“Damnation,” he swore. “You must have damaged the mechanism in the fall.”
“I must have damaged it? May I remind you that you knocked me down. Deliberately, I might add. And you still haven’t explained why.”
He blew out an impatient breath. “I thought you were—oh, never mind what I thought.”
She planted her one free fist on her hip. “In any case, it was your weight that struck the bracelet, not mine! I merely struck the floor.”
He swore again—a word she wasn’t familiar with, and which might not be English at all, but uttered in the unmistakable tone of male obscenity.
“Are you sure you can’t just pull your hand out?” he asked, gripping her wrist with thumb and forefinger as though he were about to force the issue himself.
“Stop that!” she snapped. “If I were capable of pulling my hand through, don’t you think I’d have done it by now?”
“Well, I can’t seem to get the fabric free,” he said, as though that were somehow her fault. “It looks like part of my shirt is caught inside that little separation where you say the clasp is, and the inside of my lapel’s caught in the seam on the other side. It’s like the bloody thing bit down on me, on purpose.”
She laughed. “You’re attributing malevolent intention to my bracelet?”
“You explain it.”
“You’re big as a bull,” she said bluntly. “Your weight probably forced the two sides apart just long enough to wedge the fabric inside. And they closed up again when you got off me. And now it’s—it’s jammed somehow.”
She didn’t feel as though they were bantering anymore. Merely being quite direct with one another. But it was strange—as uncomfortable as she felt with him in so many ways, she also felt more at ease in his presence than she ever had when they were actually trying to be civil. Necessity makes strange bedfellows, she thought. And instantly regretted the image that brought into her mind.
“Big as a bull, eh?” he said, musing, his voice oddly softer than before. “That I am, I’m afraid.” His gaze met hers again, steadily, and now his brow creased with concern. “Good Lord—I didn’t hurt you, Lady Grantleigh, did I, when I knocked you down? I suppose I should have asked you that much earlier than this. Beg pardon—I’ve spent my adult life disabling enemies, not inquiring after their welfare.”
Again, she laughed. “Enemies? Do you count me among their number?”
To her shock, a tinge of ruddy color appeared on his cheeks.
“No. Never,” he said. “Of course not.” Lord, his eyes were so very black, almost unfathomable. And somehow, as deep as they were, they seemed to reach far inside of her, too. “You must know, Lady Grantleigh,” he said softly, “you are everything admirable.”
Oh. She wasn’t at all sure what to say to that. It became a little hard to breathe, and the flesh prickled all along her arms, and along the fronts of her legs.
Standing close to him had been far easier to manage when he was being harsh with her.
“On your wedding day,” he said, just as softly, his eyes still boring into hers, “do you know what Christopher asked of me?”
“No,” she whispered.
“He asked me to protect you, and look after you, if ever he could not.” His gaze sharpened, somehow, and he seemed about to say something even more profound. But then his mouth pursed, and his eyes slanted back down at the bracelet again. His tone became lighter, ironic. “And look what a fine job I’m doing of it.”
The joke did nothing to lighten the strange tension that gripped her. Christopher had asked him to protect her?
The oddest sensation twinged in the center of her chest.
The sheer power of the man seemed palpable, pressing down against her.
And, then, for some reason, the image of the carved dancing girl atop the jewel box came into her mind, the silky-looking cloth about her hips, the pearls draped over her bare breasts. And Julia’s own breasts seemed to tighten.
Good Lord. She really did have to dispel this strange mood that was taking her over, or the next thing she knew, she’d be thinking dangerous thoughts about Major Holsworth taking off his coat, and perhaps his shirt as well, and she’d be wondering what that huge, hard body of his looked like when it was stripped bare.
She gave her head a little shake. “Oh, please, Major,” she said, trying to keep her tone nonchalant. “Don’t be so serious about things. What’s happened here was a silly accident, nothing more. Something to laugh over one day.”
He nodded gravely. “I’m glad to hear you have that attitude,” he said, “because it’s about to get worse.”
A peculiar thrill raced down her spine at his words. “Worse? In what way worse?”
“If the pin on your bracelet won’t work, and you can’t slide your wrist through, there’s no help for it, Lady Grantleigh.” He drew a rather ragged breath. “I’m going to have to start disrobing.”