Bonus Scene: The Hero’s Prologue
In The Rogue, Constance and Saint’s first meeting is told from the point of view of Constance. This extended version of the Prologue tells of their first meeting from Saint’s point of view, and then continues with more of that fortnight at Fellsbourne, six years before they meet again at Castle Read in The Rogue. I’ve never before written an entire scene twice—once from the heroine’s point of view and then again from the hero’s. But this time both Saint and Constance’s versions were so clear in my mind and heart that I had to do it. I’m thrilled for the opportunity to share Saint’s story with you now.
She watched him.
In shadow beyond the twinkling of chandelier flames her hair gleamed gold and her hands clasped the doorpost with fervor. Tucked into the corner at the slim opening in the paneling, she hid so that her view commanded the entire room. She had a graceful tilt of the head, a sublime bosom, and quick, animated eyes peeking through a half-mask of some shimmery white fabric. Those eyes had been fixed upon him for a quarter hour.
At this house party by his cousin’s request, Frederick Saint-André Sterling knew none of the young lords present. He hadn’t even a uniform; he’d sold it to buy food for his horse. He had nothing to recommend him to a girl of great beauty. Yet despite the dozen wealthy, titled men present, she watched him.
She was either very new to her profession, or very bad at it.
A gentleman would not watch her in return, no matter her purpose here. But he was not a gentleman. So he stared, and she did not draw her gaze away or even bat her lashes.
No coquettishness. No coyness. Only clean, open appraisal.
He could like this girl.
Across the room strewn with drunken men and amorous women, he walked to her. But when he stood within reach of her, a moment passed, and another, and still neither of them spoke, as though standing and staring at a stranger from less than a yard’s distance was not entirely out of the ordinary.
“You were staring at me,” he finally said.
“You were staring at me,” she replied. Her voice was a whisper of satin or cream or something equally pure and rich that he could not afford.
“One of us must have begun it,” he said.
“Perhaps it was spontaneously mutual. Or it was coincidence, and both of us imagined the other began it.”
He smiled. “How mortifying for us both then.”
“Or fortunate.” Her lips arced into impish delight. Her eyes were blue like no hue of nature he’d ever seen, like the feathers of some fantastical creature of Celtic myth—intelligent eyes and full of mischief and laughter. She was young. Her skin was smooth, her breasts high. But she was not without flaw. The roundness of youth clung to her cheeks and her brows were uneven, one curved like an Arab’s scimitar, the other squared like a blacksmith’s hammer.
He liked her flawed.
“Dance with me,” he said.
Her gaze darted into the ballroom. Men and women in various states of costume disported themselves in carnal attitudes about the place—there against a column, here while pretending to dance—a fondle, a tickle, a light slap accompanied by giggles. The heir to the Marquess of Doreé was hosting a bacchanalia. A masquerade no less. This girl did not suit the surroundings. She was a spring lily in a hothouse of autumn blooms.
Her fingertips drummed the doorpost. “I cannot dance tonight,” she said.
Perhaps she was not so naïve after all.
“Cannot?” he said. “Or will not with me?”
Fingers pausing, she said quite directly, “If I could, I would only with you.”
Her hair was tied in a simple queue and her gown was of fine but plain stuff, not in the mode of the sheer skirts and plunging bodices of the women strewn about the ballroom. She was a maid, perhaps, wearing her mistress’s cast-off clothes. Pity, that. As a rule he did not dally with servants or slaves.
But the curve of her lips tossed his rules to the dogs. She was watching him so closely, the heat of her gaze hungry upon his skin and quite swiftly, predictably, awakening hunger in him.
“What is your name?” he said.
“I haven’t one,” she said after the briefest pause. She had not expected him to ask. Interesting.
“I will call you Beauty. But you have heard that before.”
“Then I suppose I must call you Beast,” she replied easily.
“For what I’m thinking now, you should.”
The square brow shot high above the satin mask. “What are you thinking now?”
“That your lips are perfection.” Soft and lush and prone to movement.
A new sort of smile slipped over those generous lips, confident and hesitant at once. She had many smiles, he was coming to see, each of them little miracles revealing the girl beneath the beauty tantalizing bit by bit.
“Men have told you this before,” he said.
“Why do you care what other men have said to me?”
“Because I wish to be the first, the most eloquent and original. Yet I cannot be that. And so I fail before the battle has begun.”
“For your attention.”
“You have my attention. Entirely.” She was staring at his mouth, and she gave him another of her mischievous grins. “This seems obvious to me, but perhaps you are slow-witted.”
“Undoubtedly. I would like to kiss you.”
“I must go,” she whispered.
But she did not. She remained staring up at him as though she were as drawn as he was to this singularly unproductive activity.
“You haven’t been invited to this party,” he said. “Have you?”
His heartbeats quickened—unaccountably.
“Are you a servant in this household?”
White teeth caught at the corner of her lips. “I must go,” she repeated, and this time she did, slipping through the doorway and into the dark.
He went after her, shutting the door behind him. It let into a black, narrow corridor; his shoulders nudged the walls on either side, but he could see nothing. It was a hidden passageway for servants, perhaps, running the length of the ballroom. She must know this house well to traverse such a place without a lamp, while now he was blind. But he had spent countless moonless nights finding his way through cane fields and alleyways. The music and laughter behind him grew muffled. Her light tread in the dark ahead guided him and he caught up to her swiftly.
“Don’t go. I beg of you,” he said into the darkness.
Miraculously, her footsteps halted and he came upon her in an instant. He could see nothing of her, but he could hear her quick breaths, and her scent filled him. Roses. Not the dark richness of red or the delicate sugar of pink. White roses, subtle, rising from green like a late snowfall on spring grass.
“What did you hope to accomplish by entering that room?” he said, bending closer to memorize the scent.
“I wanted to see it,” she said. “I—” Abruptly she halted her words. “I needn’t tell you.”
“You have been barred from the company. No wonder.”
“Wolves prowl this place tonight. You are a lamb.”
“Hardly. I have just turned eighteen,” she said with umbrage so light and fresh it could lure sailors from the sea.
She was a singular girl.
“Ah,” he said, smiling. “A veritable crone.”
“Your tongue is delightfully noble, sir.” A soft rustle of cloth accompanied the words. “I am all gratitude.”
He leaned a shoulder into the wall. “I cannot see you. Have you just curtsied?”
“Of course. That compliment deserved it.”
Her laughter sounded both simple and honest. “You called me a crone.”
“Indeed you did,” she said.
“No. I couldn’t have. That must have been the other fellow in this blackened crevice with us. The lout. But fret not. I will dispatch him when we are finished here.”
“Finished?” The word was laced with a plea. It dug beneath his waistcoat.
“Why did you stop when I asked you to just now?” he said.
“You did not ask. You begged. I pitied you.” She spoke quickly, lightly. She was not mocking him. She was playing with him.
His chest swelled with an unthinkable, untenable sensation. His spine felt suddenly straighter, longer, and his shoulders like he could carry the earth upon them.
“Do you know you might be in danger from me?” he said.
“If I were in danger from you, wouldn’t you now be endangering me rather than warning me of it?”
He moved forward the inch that sank him into her cloud of scent. From a distance he had thought her tall, but now so close he felt her warmth and how small she was compared to his height; how slight.
“Perhaps I will endanger you yet.” He heard the change in his voice that came with the slow, insistent pulse of heat in his body now.
“You won’t,” she said.
“How do you know that?”
“Because I want you to. And I could not be so fortunate for once to have such a wish fulfilled.”
“Girls like you . . .” he said. “Girls who play at danger, get hurt.”
“What if I’m not playing?” There was no taunt in her tone. No teasing. And no playing now.
He should back away. Leave her be. He wasn’t much of a gentleman, but he did his best to follow the code of decency he had learned long ago.
Seducing an innocent girl in a blackened corridor was most definitely not decent.
“What can you be about, I wonder,” he said. “Were you spying in the ballroom?”
Aha. She had her eye on a young lord, perhaps in hopes of securing a protector, a fine house, a living more appealing than a maid’s wages. But she spoke like a gentlewoman. Doreé had no sisters. A cousin? Or a local man’s daughter sneaking onto the lord’s estate to capture the attention, and perhaps the hand, of a man of worth?
That counted him out.
“Who was the lucky man?” he said not as lightly as he wished.
“What if I only intended to peek through that crack in the door?” He felt her gaze upon him even in thorough blackness, like a woodland creature that could see at night, as though she studied his face like she had across the ballroom. “What if I had been watching it all in disappointment and increasing boredom, on the cusp of relinquishing my vigil in favor of the book on my bedside table?”
He pictured the ballroom behind them, the half-clothed females and the young nobles pawing at them, all in a haze of wine-soaked revelry.
“Boredom?” he said.
“Just because I have never before seen debauchery doesn’t mean I know nothing about it,” she said with some asperity.
He laughed. She was delight and temptation at once. “Then what, oh easily jaded one, held you back from the superior enticement of your book?”
Silence met the darkness that was redolent with her fragrance.
Then, whispered: “I saw you.”
A surge of confidence rose in him, propelled by insanity. “Now I will kiss you, and be damned for it.”
“Why? Is it a sin to kiss a woman?”
“A woman, not typically.” This couldn’t be. “A girl like you, yes.”
“Then pretend I am only a woman tonight.”
“Tomorrow,” she whispered, “pray for us both.”
He swallowed across the surge of pure, clean lust that rolled through him. Lifting his hand, he moved slowly. He had always been the swiftest; no one could match his speed on foot or with a blade. But with this girl he suspected he must go very, very slowly.
Their breaths sought the darkness between skin and desire. He felt by instinct the heat of her body, then the caress of her hair against his fingertips. Finding the satin ribbon of her mask and trapping it between thumb and forefinger, he pulled it loose.
She gasped. “Ouch!”
“Forgive me,” he murmured, smiling.
“You caught my hair.” But she was laughing. “You might have asked, you know.”
The silk ribbon was smooth and slick, too fine for a servant unless she had borrowed it from her mistress. “Do you need it again?”
“The mask or my hair?”
“If you were mine”—if she were his—“I would buy you combs inlaid with diamonds to adorn your hair.”
“Can you afford diamonds?”
“Mm . . .” Honesty it must be. “No.”
“No.” He had never before wanted to be a rich man. Now he did, aggressively so.
“Wildflowers, then,” she said with a little sigh of sorts, hopeful and daring at once.
“Adorn my hair with wildflowers and I will dance for you upon the meadow. Like a faery maiden. Would you like that?”
“Quite a lot, I suspect,” he said, recognizing now quite swiftly that he should not, could not, must not do what he had intended and wished and absolutely ached to do to her—with her. He needed distraction. He needed a bucket of cold water poured over his head. He needed to get the hell out of this place with this girl of mingled innocence and fearlessness that he knew now was quite obviously not servant, prostitute, or demi-rep. He needed to run before it was too late. “I think I should like to linger for a moment now in this imaginary scene on the meadow,” he said instead.
“But I need more details. For instance, what will you wear for this performance?”
“It will not be a performance. Rather, a celebration of freedom.”
“Freedom from what?”
“From everything! So I will probably wear something shockingly immodest. White. Sheer. You know the sort of thing, I daresay.”
He had never run from anything. Or anyone. Only toward. Miles and miles and miles he had run in his childhood and at war, never thinking to run away until this moment.
“I’m beginning to understand how the scene in the ballroom bored you,” he said. “Who are you?”
“Just a girl, as you have said,” she said diffidently. Then closer, warmly: “A girl who wants her first kiss to be with you.”
First kiss. The satin ribbon that was now twined about his fingers promised pleasure. A kiss was not a dalliance. It wasn’t even seduction, not the way she was begging for it. It was barely anything.
This was a mistake.
“I am glad to oblige you in that.” He lifted his hand and in the darkness found her shoulder. Her skin was too smooth, too soft. She was a gentlewoman. She must be. And he should not be doing this.
He traced the slender bone to the hollow of her neck and felt perfect woman. This time she did not gasp. She shivered.
“Oh,” she said softly.
Cradling her jaw in his palm, he heard her breaths quicken. The curve of her throat was decadent beauty. He had taken no wine tonight, but he must be drunk. Reeling between awe and lust and some unnamable disbelief, he caressed her skin. A sound arose from her throat—a sound of surrender. She did not move away. Instead, she leaned into his caress.
“Tell me to stop,” he forced himself to say.
“No man has ever— I’ve no’ been touched.”
Her words lilted. Scottish.
He trailed one fingertip down the curve of her neck. He ached, a hard, desperate ache that needed satisfaction. Just one kiss. One touch. One taste of her and he would go.
“I cannot believe this is happening to me,” she whispered and he felt her breaths against his lips.
“Then we are as one in our disbelief.” He could no longer resist. He lowered his mouth to hers.
Barely a kiss at all. Barely enough to draw in her scent, discover her trembling, and feel the ground fall out from under him.
“Sweet heaven,” she whispered.
Her fingers gripped his shoulder and she pressed her mouth against his fully. She was incredibly soft, her lips full, her scent a whorl of beauty, her skin brushing his warm and quivering. Her kiss was unschooled, simple, and generous. She sought his lips without hesitation. No modesty. No fear. She kissed him.
Capturing her lips, feeling them part beneath his, inhaling the damp heat of her mouth, he met her eagerness with Herculean restraint. This was her first kiss. He was no gentleman, but he knew what a girl deserved of her first kiss—gentlewoman or not.
He tasted her, one kiss, and then another, carefully, gently, without haste, keeping tight rein on his need to truly kiss her. Her quick breaths fanned his skin, her lips tender, perfect beneath his, fitting to his as though meant for him.
Meant for him.
She would be his. She was his. Lust was gripping him in the ballocks but the blazing certainty that this woman in his hands was no mere dalliance was like a flame lit into darkness.
Insanity. Yet certainty.
And now he must . . .
go . . .
Her fingers tightened on his shoulder, and she pressed to him, seeking, hot temptation as her mouth opened and whimpers of impatience came from her throat and funneled through him to clasp his groin.
To hell with restraint.
He took her mouth entirely. Lips open, hard breaths melding, they sank into the kiss. When he caressed her tongue she hiccupped in surprise, then offered it willingly, mimicking him, stroking him, and he felt her everywhere—in his hands, his gut, his chest. She was eager, lush, her mouth hot, wet, and his. She was giving herself to him and he knew that she was his.
He must halt this. Now. In a moment, he would drag her close and her innocence would swiftly be a thing of the past.
“Tell me to stop,” he said harshly. “Push me away.”
“I cannot.” Her mouth sought his again, demanding with fervent, swift kisses. “You must take yourself away. For I find that I cannot make you go.”
He deepened the kiss and she surrendered. His hands that had never before wanted to hold anything except steel now ached for her. He needed to touch her, to learn her, to know her. All of her—her hands and throat and breasts and the heat between her thighs. He needed to feel her body against his and make her feel him.
He broke away and lurched backward.
“I’ve got to go,” he forced out.
“I know.” Her voice shook. “I know. Will you . . .?”
“Will I . . . ?” he said, gulping over the block of confusion in his throat.
“Will you be sorry?”
“For kissing you?”
“For leaving me?”
“Yes. So, perhaps you should leave instead.”
“If you suggest that because you believe I won’t be as sorry to leave as you, you are mistaken, sir.”
He ran his hand around his neck and plastered the other palm to the wall, holding himself to it, away from her.
“We are already having our first disagreement,” he said, struggling for sanity. “That’s a poor sign, you know. Clearly we are doomed right from the start. Probably best to end it straight off.”
She laughed and the glory of her laughter showered him with need.
“All right,” she said. “Though I thought we might allow it another ten seconds.”
“This? Standing in blindness? Not touching? I won’t survive another ten seconds,” he uttered.
“How do you know that?”
He swallowed back a groan. “I have the wisdom of age and experience to guide me.”
“Experience.” The sweet laughter was gone. “With women, I suppose.”
He placed his palm over his heart. She could not see the gesture in the dark, but he did it anyway.
“I say to you now, with complete honesty and in all sincerity,” he said, “with no hope of anything at this moment beyond being heard: in this thorough darkness your face is more clearly etched upon my memory than that of every other woman I have ever met.”
“Half of my face.” The laughter was back.
“Granted.” She was perfect. “And your eyes.”
“It cannot be true, that you see my face and no others now,” she said.
“I tell you it is God’s truth.”
A pause, and then, hopeful: “Really?”
“Go. Now. Go.”
“All right. Good night, sir.” The light shuffle of her slippers sounded on the floor.
A weight bore down upon his chest.
He reached forward and his fingers cinched her wrist.
She did not resist. She sighed as he kissed her wrist, the bones and butter-soft feminine beauty, then her hand, then the tips of her fingers. It made her breaths hitch. He knew what she was feeling; he was hard as stone and wanted her to feel it too. Before he did something that asininely boorish, he must release her. This girl deserved more than an anonymous mauling in a dark passageway. Considerably more. The urge to protect her crowded his chest.
He set a kiss upon the inside of her hand and she shuddered, and he thought perhaps that he was damned. A caress here, a kiss there, a lifted skirt, and she would be his. She wanted his touch as much as he wanted to touch her.
He dragged his feet backward and opened his hand. Her fingers trailed across his palm and then were gone.
“Good night.” His voice was choked.
She did not reply. Instead she moved farther into the black. He listened until every one of his straining senses emptied.
For some time he stood alone in the dark, hand around the hilt of his sword, drawing one breath after another, each longer and deeper than the last, struggling for stability. Finally, he broke away from the wall and traversed the corridor. It was much shorter than he expected. When his fingers found the crease of a door, he opened it and stepped into the gallery adjacent to the ballroom.
Bathed in the light of a single sconce at the opposite door, the room was peopled now only by massive marble figures. There stood Cupid and his beautiful Psyche, his arm supporting her and his hand upon her breast. There a worthy Gaul reclined in the throes of death, the golden collar around his neck his sole claim to the heathen nobility of which his Roman conquerors stripped him. And over there a burly Centaur forced himself upon a resisting Sabine woman.
He stared at the last pair for a long moment. His girl had not resisted. Quite the contrary. And yet she was undoubtedly an innocent.
He made his way through the mansion to the room he shared with his cousin and found it occupied by that inebriated lord and a tart wearing red silk stockings. Closing the door quietly, he went away from the festivities, as far as he could. In a part of the house that seemed to be under renovation, with cold hearths, furniture under covers, and the scent of new paint, he found a sofa and settled in it to sleep. He had slept in far greater discomfort before: fields, ship decks, sheds, ditches, snow banks, jail cells. In comparison, dusty cushions in a chilly parlor belonging to a marquess was luxury.
But he did not sleep. Instead he pictured the girl, heard her, and the cold crept beneath his skin like ice in the Pyrenees.
A nascent beauty, yet sweet enough to draw any man’s notice. Unkissed until tonight. Fine speech. Uncalloused hands. Playful, curious, eager eyes—and tongue. And confident; no shy wallflower or prim upper maid would have spoken to a stranger as she had. This girl had no fear.
Who in the blazes was she?
When a hint of dawn peeked through the windows, he arose and walked to the stable block. The dawn was rising in fog from the lake and casting the spring into otherworldly mystery. He would ride and then swim. What better way to wash from his memory her smile, the sound of her laughter, and the candid glimmer of her eyes, than by exhausting himself on horseback and immersing himself in a frigid river? It was simple: he had dreamed her, dreamed her voice, her scent, her soft skin, dreamed touching her, kissing her. No girl of her youth, beauty, and quality would have been allowed to spy on that party. No girl like that would even be on this estate while these entertainments proceeded. And no girl like her would have allowed that sort of kiss.
So she was certainly a dream born of years of wartime deprivation. Soldiers far more foolish than he had bemused themselves to distraction with fantasies and charming phantasms.
He guided his horse onto the path away from the house. Mists clung to the verdant earth, shrouding the edge of the woods so that at first he thought the milky white mare standing there was some sort of ghost. It turned its head and nickered to his horse, proving itself a mortal beast.
Dismounting and tethering his mount beside the mare, he peered into the forest that was shot through with pale silver rays of sun, and he saw her.
Carefully she moved through the trees, garbed in a cloak that was gray like the dawn. As though he were now seeing some fantastical creature of myth, her unbound hair cascaded over her hood and spilled down her back, gold and shining, and she carried a bow, the arrow nocked to it as she took each silent step.
He moved forward and his boot cracked a stick. At once a scurry of movement crinkled the woodland underbrush, and she snapped the bow upward and jerked her right arm back. But she did not shoot. Instead she uttered a word suited to dockside taverns and abruptly swung the point of her arrow around at him.
She lowered the bow. Now she wore no mask. Lips he had tasted in the dark joined a pert, confident nose. She smiled. With warmth. Unguardedly.
“You were not a dream,” he said, idiotically.
“I am not a dream.” Her voice was brighter than in the midnight darkness, suited to the dawn.
“You are.” She was here. “You must be.”
“I might say the same of you.”
“Then say it.”
She blinked. “I dreamed of you.”
“Every night until last night. Last night finally it was not a dream.” She stood perfectly still, staring at him. Then she laughed, a buoyant sound of unbound pleasure.
He was frozen to the spot. “Who are you?”
“I am the girl who dreamed of you her entire life.” Color lit her cheeks. The fluid, fine quality of her tone marked her unquestionably as a girl of rank. How could she be other than a sister of another guest, left to her own devices on this vast estate while her ramshackle brother drank and gamed and whored under the same roof?
Whoever the cad was, he would call him out for leaving her unprotected from men like him.
“May I approach you?”
“You should not.” She pinned her lips together. “But I wish you would.”
They both moved forward and met at the edge of the wood. She carried with her still the scent of roses and it filled him.
“I don’t want to frighten you,” he said.
“That would be impossible.”
“In the manner you imagine.” Her eyes seemed to search his face. He had kissed her as no man should kiss a gentlewoman, without regard for her modesty or innocence, passionately. Yet now she looked at him as though he meant only good to her. Beneath the gold clasp of her cloak, her chest rose and fell swiftly. She had wanted him last night, had chosen his kiss, and was not shy of it now. They stood close and lightning ran through his veins.
“But you mustn’t touch me again,” she said.
“I could not without your consent. Never.”
Her uneven brows jerked upward. “Really?”
“I vow it.”
She tugged her lower lip between her teeth for an instant, then seemed to square her shoulders. “It was wrong of you to kiss me.”
“I’m fairly certain that I am not entirely at fault for that.” He lifted a brow. “You kissed me too. You invited me to kiss you.”
Her lips twitched. “I should not have.”
“You are no gentleman, sir.”
“You refuse to be chastised?” she said lightly.
“Do you regret having kissed me?”
“I should. I don’t. It was . . .”
“It was the best thing that has ever happened to me,” she said with quiet conviction.
He felt drunk. “Tell me this is real.”
“It is more real than anything I have ever felt.”
It couldn’t be. “Do you say this only to oblige me?”
“Why should I?”
“Women do that.” His mother had done that. Starving for affection, kindness, love, she told his father anything she thought he wished to hear. Yet the cruelties persisted.
A dart creased the bridge of her nose. “Ask me any question. I promise to reply honestly.”
“Hm.” He crossed his arms and exaggeratedly stroked his whiskers as though in thought, and watched the pleasure return to her eyes. “If I said that I fancy ladies who smoke cigars, would you smoke one for me?”
She seemed to consider. “Yes. I have never smoked a cigar before. I should like to try it. But if I found it disgusting I would cease.”
“And if I said that I prefer brunettes to blondes, what would you do?”
“Dye my hair red.”
“You are contrary.”
Laughter played upon her lips. “I am endeavoring to prove my point.”
“What if I told you that I have nothing, no wealth, no connections, no prospects, only the sword at my side to recommend me?”
Her lashes made a single, certain beat. “Then I would pray for your good fortune and hope that your sword serves you well.” She bit her lip again. “You don’t really like cigars and brunettes, do you?”
“Never this early in the morning.”
She showed her teeth when she smiled. It turned something in him inside out.
“Why are you hiding your brogue from me?”
Confusion shaded the blue of her eyes for an instant. Then she hid it. Aha. This girl did know how to dissemble. Of course she did. That she stood here with him now proved it.
“There are no Scotsmen at this party,” he said. “I’ve no idea who you are. Even if I did, you needn’t fear me. I will not harm you.”
“I have had little company with . . .” For the first time she spoke carefully, it seemed. “With strangers.” A pause. “With . . . men.”
“How can I gain your trust?”
For the length of a dozen heartbeats, she only studied his face.
“Do not ask again who I am,” she said. “Do not ask anyone. If you do that, I will see you. But if you discover my name, I will disappear.”
“You have my word.”
She turned from him, glanced back briefly, smiled, and tugging her hood around and over her hair moved toward her horse.
Leading their mounts, they walked along the edge of the wood. As the sunlight brightened from silver to gold, he saw her flaws more clearly: the girlish roundness of her cheeks, the tangle of unkempt hair tucked into the hood, the too-large teeth that chewed on the lip meant to hide them. Desire swamped him, a longing of equal parts animal lust and honest admiration.
“I beg your pardon for frightening off your quarry,” he said. “What were you tracking?”
“A hare. My friend is fond of rabbit stew.” She offered another smile, but smaller this time.
Her friend. Woman or man? He mustn’t ask. He mustn’t even be here.
“Have you ever caught one?” he said.
“Many.” Her brows cut upward. “Don’t tell me you are the sort of man who does not believe a woman capable of such things.”
“Someday I should like to learn how to wield a blade too,” she said, glancing at his sword.
“Then Diana will become Athena.”
“Virgin huntress turned warrior goddess?” With a playful glimmer in her eyes she added, “Perhaps.”
In the distance, the sun was rising over the house that sprawled in aristocratic elegance alongside the lake.
“Are you unconcerned about being seen?” he asked, and had to add, “With me?”
“We will not be seen. The servants are not yet abroad, the shepherds have gone to the north hills, and the milkmaid is on holiday.”
She knew this estate well, its schedule and rhythms.
“The milkmaid is on holiday?” he commented. “How singular.”
“I suspect your host thought it prudent, given the tenor of the gathering.”
Your host. Not hers. She was not staying at the house. Perhaps she was a neighbor, a local gentleman’s daughter, or a prosperous farmer’s, stealing onto the estate for a bit of spying and poaching. Her gown and cloak were like the dress she had worn the night before, simple but fine. But her horse was exceptional. Perhaps it was her mistress’s as well.
He was inventing excuses to convince himself that she was not what she must be. A lady. A girl far above his reach.
“Ah,” he said. “The milkmaid is very pretty, I guess.”
“And yet you are left to your own devices.”
“For any man to accost should he find you unprotected.”
“Yes. But I might have already met such a man. Although, admittedly, I accosted him.”
His stomach twisted. “Did you?”
She peered sideways at him. “Didn’t I?”
Air rushed back into his lungs. He wanted to laugh. He was as unsure now with her as he had been the first time he grasped a sword: certain of its rightness, yet afraid it was only a dream.
“We should ask him,” he said.
“Good idea. Did I accost you?”
“I rather thought it the other way round.”
“Oh,” she said. “We are both eager to take the blame, it seems.” They had come to a fountain built into the side of the rising wood where a natural spring trickled forth, a place of shrubs and wildflowers and old pines. A path stretched from it toward the lake far distant, where formal gardens gave way to an elegant Greek temple. But here the woods flanking the cow pasture were abandoned to wilderness.
“Whatever the case,” he said, his boots making prints in the dewy earth beside the path hewn by the hem of her cloak. “You could be importuned again. Not by me, of course.”
“You have vowed, and whatnot.”
“And whatnot. But perhaps by another man. Or others.”
“I suppose,” she said with an unconcerned nod and it struck him that perhaps she did not know the danger she stood in, alone, unprotected—that perhaps she did not know the nature of most men.
“It seems you are in need of a protector.” He placed his left hand on his sword and his right hand upon his chest. “I beg of you, my lady, allow me to serve you.”
“Thank you, sir. But you have mistaken me.”
“I am no damsel in distress to require a knight errant.” She gestured with her bow. “I can protect myself, you know.”
“And yet I wish to protect you nevertheless.”
Marvelously, a rosy flush came into her cheeks. “I must go now. I am expected elsewhere.”
He watched her draw her horse away across the pasture, scattering the mists as she went. Then she paused, lifted a hand to the edge of her hood, and turned to peer over her shoulder.
“Tomorrow morning,” she said. “Will you meet me again?”
“And the morning after that?”
“And after that?”
“Until you wish it otherwise,” he assured her.
“At the footbridge.”
But she remained there, looking at him. “Last night was not the first time that I watched you.” Pleasure seemed to radiate from her. “It took you far too many days to notice me. And now we have so few left. I hope you will not waste any more of them.”
“I could not.”
Creases of worry reappeared between her brows. “Remember, the moment you discover me, I will disappear.”
It was like a fairy tale, the sort he had heard as a boy, in which an impetuous youth got ensnared by the manipulations of a sorceress. Unlike in those stories, however, he possessed no golden hoard that a sorceress would desire, and no claim to a throne she might covet. And he was certain that no witch’s eyes had ever shone with such honest entreaty.
He bowed solemnly. “Let your wish be my bond, my lady.”
* * *
The month was fast advancing, and the marquess’s heir must now be about the business of becoming a bridegroom. This party had been the bachelor’s last hurrah. But all such celebrations came to an end in church ceremonies, and that day, it seemed, was near.
An amiable man with a likeable face, Jack Doreé had shared a glass of wine or two with Saint while the others disported themselves with the demi-reps. Doreé seemed disinclined to debauch.
“Connie’s a good egg,” he explained one night, waving his glass in the air in an inebriated salute to his absent betrothed, the daughter of a reclusive duke, apparently. “The ol’ girl don’t deserve a carousing groom on the eve of her wedding.”
Saint couldn’t find fault with that. “Then why the women?”
“Not my doing.” He gestured to a man with guinea hair and sharp eyes. “Styles brought them. Strong appetites in that area, don’t you know.” He winked. He seemed an affable fellow for allowing his friends their fun while he denied himself.
But on the last dawn as Saint neared the footbridge, he was ready to damn Jack Doreé for ever calling quits to the party. Snow-flowers littered the banks to either side of the bridge, the burble of the stream rose up about her, and shoots of sunlight rained upon her hair.
For the first time in fourteen days, he went right to her. She did not withdraw. She wanted him near; he knew this. For a fortnight they had met and walked and spoken of everything, easily, with such pleasure—everything except the desire that kept them both returning to this place at dawn, the ache of need that grew stronger with each secret hour spent together. Until now he had remained distant. Safely distant.
The time for safety and distance was over.
“I must have satisfaction,” he said.
Now she stepped backward, but only one step. “What sort of satisfaction can you expect to have here? Now?”
“Your name. Give me your name and I will be a happy man.”
Her eyes showed both relief and pleasure. “You are too easily satisfied. And yet I cannot satisfy you in this.”
“I will not allow this to slip away.”
“Will not is strong language. You have no authority over me.”
“I cannot allow this to end.”
“Yet you must.”
“Your voice reveals the reluctance I feel in my heart in anticipating this parting.”
Her eyes retreated. “Pray, do not speak of your heart.”
“Deprive me of touch, taste, and hope,” he said. “But I insist on being allowed to speak.”
“Then speak. Say what you mustn’t, and together we can both regret it. At least then we will share something, even if only regret.” She smiled gamely.
She could not be real. This could not be real. He had never imagined that a woman could exist so perfectly attuned to him, and he to her.
“I won’t speak of love,” he said, “for I think you would not believe it. But know that if I had any notion that you would believe that word, I would name it.”
She met him with honest eyes and he saw in the startling blue his feelings returned. Beneath his ribs, the world seemed to spin faster.
He went to his knees. There was no other place he could be now before her.
“This is . . .” he began.
“Extraordinary,” she whispered, and made as if to extend her hand to him. But she sank it inside the fold of her cloak instead.
“By your own admission, you know little of the world,” he said. “You have no way of knowing that this, between us, is out of the ordinary.”
An awkward movement of her throat made the golden clasp on her cloak twinkle. “I know it isn’t real, this—this friendship. It is not regular life, tested by regular cares. It is,” she whispered, “forbidden.”
“And therefore sweeter?”
He took a deep breath. “I have had six years of war, with plenty of regular and irregular cares. I don’t mind believing in forbidden sweetness now.”
She smiled brilliantly. “You should stand up. You look like you are praying. It’s making me uncomfortable.”
“I haven’t prayed in years. But I might begin now.”
“Not to me,” she said upon laughter.
“Of course not to you. For you, however—yes. Prayer, you know, is the last refuge of the hopeless.”
Her eyes shone. “Shall I give you a parting gift?”
The tight lurch in his chest sent him to his feet. “I will accept any gift from your hands. But do not say it is in parting. I cannot allow that.”
“You’ve already said that.”
“Yet you refuse to accept it.”
“Give a man a moment to revel before the cause for reveling is wrested from him, will you?”
“All right. I will allow him his reveling,” she said slowly, deliberately, “if in reveling he touches too.” Her eyes widened, as though her own words surprised her.
They astonished him. “You are inviting me to touch you again?”
His heart pounded.
“My modesty is a sham, it seems,” she said with a little shrug. “I am the worst sort of bawd, and yet I am even a failure at that. I thought you would see it. I thought you would discern it in my eyes and voice. I thought you would act. But you have not. You are too faithfully the chevalier dedicated to preserving my honor.” She looked down at her clasped hands. “But now I find that I cannot endure tomorrow without enjoying today what I must not.”
“You thought I would see what?”
“How much I want you to kiss me again.” Her vibrant gaze swung up to his. “I long for it. I would have said this before, days ago. But my companion told me that a lady must not declare herself until she is certain of a gentleman’s sentiments first.” She stepped forward and lifted her face. “I am certain now. Would you like to kiss me again?”
“Would I like to kiss you again?” He backed up. “No.”
Dismay suffused her features. “Does my admission now, offered so freely, shatter the notion of maiden goddess you have contrived of me? Are you disgusted by my plain speaking?”
He laughed. “I don’t think you are a goddess.”
“Knowing this, I like you better, and I liked you quite a lot already.” Then she frowned. “Do you think me a bawd?”
“But if I am merely a woman, why won’t you kiss me?”
He gripped the nape of his neck. “Offer me your hand only. Perhaps your fingertips. But not your lips again, for God’s sake.”
Her brow creased. “Not even for one kiss?”
“The mere memory of the first has been virtual torture to me for fourteen eternally long days. Allow me a second kiss, and I will be lost.”
“Then I will allow it and we will be lost together.”
He loved her frankness, her directness, her resoluteness. He thought he quite probably loved the whole girl. It wasn’t possible. And it certainly was not wise. But there it was.
He took the step that reduced the space between them to a sliver of air. The scent of white roses tangled in his head.
“You are mistaken in me,” he said with a huskiness he could not hide. “I am no chevalier like the knights of old, no chaste hermit to do his lady’s bidding without demanding restitution for it. I want much more than a kiss. And you quite obviously haven’t any idea what you are doing to me right now.”
“It is ungentlemanly to tell a woman she is naïve,” she said unsteadily.
“You are not merely a woman.” He held his breath, lifted his hand, and stroked his fingertips along her soft cheek. A surge of power rose inside him. “You are the woman who will command my heart until the day it no longer beats.”
“A declaration worthy of the stage,” she whispered, her eyes glimmering as his fingertips traveled the delicate angle of her chin. “I have heard that gentlemen in London like to shower ladies with bad poetry.”
He smiled. “That was not bad poetry.”
“What was it?”
“The truth,” he said, tracing the curve beneath her lower lip with one fingertip.
“You outdo yourself,” she said in a hushed voice, her lips parting.
“Give me a stage and I will declare myself in even more dramatic terms until I have no breath remaining to declare. But first allow me freedom to stroke this cheek until I have had my fill.”
“When might that be?” she said thinly.
“Truly, you should have been a poet. Or an actor. You recite exaggerations as well as one. Will you ever kiss me? What sort of man are you to delay in such a thing?”
“If I am—” His voice caught. She was all soft trembling, and yet beneath that she was effervescent, brazen certainty. “If I am to have only a second kiss, and not a third, fourth, fifth and twelfth, I will enjoy to the utmost the anticipation of that kiss. Do you like it when I touch you?”
“Sublimely. More than your beloved exaggerations can even express. It makes me— I don’t have words for it.” She leaned into his touch. “But who said it must be only a second kiss and not a third, fourth, twelfth and hundredth?”
“A hundred kisses—a third kiss—” he said upon a harsh breath, “would make you mine.”
“You foolish man. Don’t you understand?” Her eyes sparkled. “I am already yours.”
The single word, uttered in shock, came across the mist-strewn morning.
They broke apart.
Jack Doreé stood at the edge of the wood, dogs cavorting about his feet, a double-barreled Manton clutched in his fist. His face was a mask of astonishment, and fury.
And at that moment Saint did finally understand. He understood that not only had he reached too high in desiring this girl, but that the fall would be deadly.
* Many thanks to Martha Trachtenberg and Georgann T. Brophy for their assistance in preparing this Bonus Scene.