I’m Lara Archer, and I’m here today to share a Teaser from my latest, HOLD ME CLOSE, my contribution to the Nice Girls’ THE CHARMED BRACELET Anthology. My story, set in Jane Austen era England, is the historical background tale that sets off the series of “Love Stories Linked Through Time.”
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.
She tries it on just before returning to a party in the ballroom, and almost immediately, fate intervenes…in the form of a shadowy figure she literally runs into in the conservatory.
Here’s a little taste of what happens next:
Before Julia had time to scream, a great weight struck her, and she was knocked to the ground. Rough hands were at her throat, and a low, harsh voice demanded, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
He might not have recognized her, but she knew instantly who her assailant was.
“Holsworth!” she hissed with what little breath she was able to draw, even while instinct had her twisting to free her arms and legs from the warm bulk pinning her to the floor. Her backside and shoulders throbbed from where they’d hit the hard marble. “You will get off me this instant!”
The huge dark form above her stiffened, and the hands that had been about to throttle her flew back. “Good God!” Holsworth’s deep voice swore. “Julia—Lady Grantleigh!” And she could feel the desperate tension in his body as he sought to scramble away.
It was a relief to be released from the crush of his weight, but as his torso rose, her left wrist was tugged awkwardly along with it.
“Wait!” she cried. “My—my bracelet is caught. Don’t pull!”
He froze in place, still hovering just inches over her, his palms now pressed to the floor on either side of her shoulders, his knees on either side of her thighs, covering her, but somehow managing to avoid actually touching her. “What?”
“My bracelet!” A hot blush burned from her very core. The thoughts she’d had about him entering her chamber upstairs made her want to shrink away in shame. “It’s—oh, I think my bracelet’s snagged somehow. On your—your uniform coat.”
In fact, his coat was the least of her worries. Judging from the warm air against her calves, the hem of her gown was jumbled all the way up around her knees. And Holsworth was so close she could catch the scent of his cologne, a warm mix of bay leaf and leather, with a hint of some tropical spice. The intimacy of their position was…simply too much. Somehow worse in the darkness than it would have been in the light.
Holsworth shifted his weight carefully onto one knee, and took her wrist in one of his big hands. She could feel his fingers working their way around the bracelet, seeking the spot where it had attached itself to his uniform.
If only there were enough light for her to see his face. If he were the one who’d put the mysterious bracelet in her chambers, he’d surely recognize it by touch, and she wanted to see his expression when he realized what it was.
Using her free hand to push up slightly off the floor, she managed to wriggle her way to something more approaching a seated posture, and to her relief, Holsworth squatted back on his haunches to give her room. Her forearm was still pinned to his chest, of course. And her legs were still trapped between his, with no easy way to extricate them without knocking the man over, at least until the bracelet was released and she had the use of both her arms again.
Good heavens, he was a big man, especially at such close quarters as this. Christopher had been only a little taller than she was, and lean of frame. The size and power of Holsworth’s body was a different thing entirely—he seemed to loom, to threaten, whether he wished to or not, the sheer mass and heat of him dominating all the available space.
Blast it. Much as she wanted to know whether he’d given her the mysterious gift, her nerves longed for him to get the bracelet loose so she’d be free of him as well.
His fingers made another circuit of the gold oval, his touch hot whenever it brushed her wrist. “I don’t understand how it’s managed to catch on me at all,” he said at last. “The surface feels smooth all the way around.”
“It—it has hidden closures,” she said. Surely that information would identify the bracelet for him, if he was in fact the source of it. Her heart beat a little harder than before. “There’s a concealed hinge at one end, and a pin at the other that lets the two halves slide apart. Some part of that mechanism must be stuck in the fabric of your coat.”
“It seems stuck in the cloth of my shirt as well,” he growled, giving the bracelet an experimental tug. “It won’t give way on either side. Good Lord, you women find the most infernally complicated ways of ornamenting yourselves.”
Well, that answered her question: the tone of simple masculine irritation made it quite clear the bracelet hadn’t come from him.
“I can’t get it loose,” he said, tugging again. “And we certainly cannot stay here on this floor.” Without waiting for a reply, he let go of the bracelet and seized her waist with both hands. Then he simply stood, his powerful arms sweeping her to her feet as easily as if she were a child’s doll.
Her stomach lurched and her lungs seemed to bump her ribs, and worst of all, standing didn’t render their posture appreciably more appropriate. With her bracelet still snagged, they stood close as lovers, his arms about her, her forearm pressed to his chest with her fingers all but brushing the underside of his jaw.
And, Lord, much as she really, truly did want to get away from him, some deeper, less civilized part of her was having other impulses entirely. He was so warm and strong and solid, so utterly male, she felt the strangest urge to bury her face against his chest and breathe in more of his cologne.
Which she most certainly would not allow herself to do.
At least gravity dropped her skirts more or less into the correct position again.
“Generally speaking,” she found herself saying, to dispel the enforced intimacy of the moment, “it’s men who make the ornaments ladies wear. Ladies are in fact obliged to wear them, to shore up masculine pride.”
“Is that so?” he answered, this time giving the bracelet and his lapel a simultaneous, and still quite ineffectual, pull. “And who obliged you to wear this particular one? And why now, precisely? You weren’t wearing a bracelet earlier tonight.”
She arched her brows, though she doubted he could see them in the darkness. “You made an inventory of my jewelry?”
A pause. “Not of your jewelry specifically,” he said. “But soldiers learn to observe everything closely. Knowing details tends to save lives.”
“Ah. Like you observed my failure to keep myself adequately fed.”
Holsworth made a sort of scraping noise in his throat, and the vibration of it ran through the bracelet into her wrist. “That observation wasn’t meant as an insult, Lady Grantleigh,” he said. “It was—merely an expression of concern for your well-being.”
“Was it? I don’t know a single lady who wouldn’t take umbrage at being called too thin.”
It was absurd, of course, to banter with him as though they were seated at a dinner party instead of latched together like this in a shadowy conservatory, but somehow it took the edge off the discomfort of the situation.
“In fact,” she continued, “some ladies would go into a decline at hearing such a thing, and never show their faces, or their figures, in society again.”
Holsworth went very still, and she could make out just enough in the dim glow of moonlight to tell that he was staring hard at her. “You never struck me as that kind of woman,” he said.
“As what kind of woman?”
“Trivial. Vain.” His voice darkened, seemed to drop half an octave. “Unaware of your true value.”
Oh. He was still staring at her, and suddenly bantering with him didn’t seem like a wise thing to be doing, at all.