Authors: Laura Landon
A wave of regret washed over her. She felt as if she were deceiving him. But she had no other choice. This afternoon she’d realized that her attempts to discourage him were actually having the opposite effect. He was used to females vying for his attention. When she didn’t encourage him at every opportunity, she became a challenge.
Hannah knew what she had to do, but she was loath to follow through with her plan. She was quite fond of Lord Rafe. He was the most unusual man she’d ever met. He was the first man with whom she could be herself. Perhaps the reason was because he didn’t know who she was. Perhaps it was because he didn’t know
Hannah thought about how easy it was to talk to him, how often she found herself laughing at something he said. She would miss the friendship that was developing between them. But Grace was right in warning her not to let him become attracted to her.
Allowing him to pursue an association with her wasn’t wise. It was time to do whatever it took to discourage him. And she realized the answer was to pretend she was as attracted to him as every other woman he’d ever met. Only then would he run from her the same as he ran from any who pursued him.
Hannah prepared herself for the role she had to play, then released a soft sigh when she heard footsteps behind her. She knew it was him.
He stopped when he reached her, but she didn’t turn. She wasn’t ready yet.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said, stepping to her side. “You’ve spent a great deal of time out-of-doors since you arrived. My guess would be that you love the fresh air but are trapped indoors much of the time when you are in London.”
She turned her head. “Yes, I love it outside. There’s a sense of freedom in the country that I don’t experience in the city. Do you visit London often?”
“I did when I was younger. I was the second son of a marquess, you know, and expected to make a showing at a certain number of social events each Season.”
“When did you stop?”
“Going to London? Or attending the social scene?”
“Either. Would I be incorrect in assuming they both happened at the same time?”
He laughed. “No, you would not.”
She kept her gaze focused on his. “When did you stop?” she asked again, keeping her voice soft and low.
He hesitated as if he was thinking. Or as if captivated by the tone of her voice. Which is what she intended.
“When Thomas married Caroline,” he finally said. “I felt as if the pressure to find a bride had been lifted. Then, when the two of them provided an heir to ensure the Wedgewood line continued, I knew it was no longer essential that I marry anytime soon.”
“And during all that time, you didn’t meet one young lady with whom you felt an attachment?”
“No. But I blame that on Thomas.”
Hannah felt a giggle bubble to the surface. “Really? How was that your brother’s fault?”
“Not only had he already laid claim to the only perfect female in London, but I suddenly realized I couldn’t settle for a future that didn’t promise to be equally as blissfully happy as theirs was.”
“Their marriage does set the standards for happiness quite high.”
“Yes, it does. And until recently, I didn’t think it was possible for me to find that same happiness.”
His admission jolted her insides. She’d have to be dim-witted to miss his implication. And she hadn’t survived this long by being naive.
His declaration caused an emotion to consume her that was partly joy, partly elation, and partly terror. Grace had been right. He had become infatuated with her. She should have realized it sooner. And she would have if she hadn’t been so infatuated with him, if she hadn’t been so
reluctant to ignore the emotions she never thought she would experience.
She turned her head as he sat on the balustrade next to her. This brought his face even with hers and allowed him to look her in the eyes.
“Has anyone told you that you are the most beautiful woman in the world?” he asked.
Hannah wanted to laugh, but she couldn’t. The look in his eyes was too intense not to take him seriously.
Her beauty had been proclaimed more times than she could count, but never with the intent Rafe meant with his declaration. He was pursuing her on a human level—as a man pursues a woman he wants to get to know better. A woman he wants to court. The men in her past weren’t interested in courting her. Nor were they interested in getting to know her on any personal level—except one.
His words confirmed her belief that once she gave in to him, she would no longer be a challenge. Although the thought of severing their budding friendship saddened her, she knew it was necessary—no,
Hannah lifted her gaze to meet his. “Not lately. Thank you,” she whispered.
He stood, then reached for her hands.
She was surprised to find that her fingers trembled when she placed them in his. She didn’t anticipate such a reaction.
With a gentle lift, he brought her to her feet. He was going to kiss her.
Hannah realized his intentions with the same surety that she’d learned to read in every man before they acted.
And this time she would allow him to kiss her—something she never allowed a man to do.
He stepped closer, then wrapped his arm around her waist. The heat that radiated between them was intense enough to ignite a fire; the vibrancy that exuded from each of them was powerful enough to bring a dead man back to life.
With a slow, familiar ease she found endearing—and startling—he cupped his hand to her cheek and rubbed his thumb over her lips. His touch was a gentle caress that brought to life every nerve in her body. With a slight shift of his body, he brought his head closer.
Hannah found herself leaning toward him, reaching to experience the feel of his lips against hers, eager to bring about a completion of what his actions promised.
Then he kissed her.
His touch was soft and gentle, containing a shyness that took her by surprise. And for several long seconds, she reveled in the innocence of their first encounter.
His first kiss lasted but a moment, the briefest of meetings that served as an introduction. Then, with a moan that contained a desire for something more, he pressed his lips to hers and kissed her again.
His arms wrapped more securely around her body and brought her closer to him. Hannah skimmed her palms up the front of his jacket and twined her arms around his neck.
Her movement caused a reaction that intensified the slow-burning fire that smoldered within her.
With a yearning that seemed to border on desperation, he deepened his kiss, drinking from her, demanding from her, giving to her.
The passion she thought their kiss would satisfy was having the opposite effect. She found herself wanting more, desiring something beyond a kiss. And she knew only too well what that something was.
He kissed her with more passion, and the fire inside her burned even hotter. A warmth she’d never experienced before consumed her, and she knew, in only a few more seconds, it would be too late to extinguish it.
She breathed a heavy sigh and attempted to loosen her hold on him. Instead, her hold tightened, as if some unknown force controlled her body and the orders she gave it.
She believed there was nothing of the carnal side of life she hadn’t experienced, but never had she faced the upheaval she was experiencing now. Never had she battled an assault so fierce as the war raging inside her because of his kisses. And it was a war she was losing.
He kissed her with more passion, asking more from her, demanding more. And she knew that, whatever he wanted, she would give it to him.
His lips parted atop hers. His tongue skimmed her lips, probing the entrance to her mouth as if requesting admittance.
When it wasn’t immediately granted, his finger pressed ever so gently against her chin and she opened to him.
His tongue breached her entrance, dipping, delving, dredging pure emotion from her. He deepened his kiss even more. And all was lost to her.
All reasoning abandoned her. She couldn’t think, could only accept what was happening to her and demand more. He left her desperate for something he hadn’t given her
yet, frantic for more of what he offered, feverish for a place she’d glimpsed he could take her.
Her legs weakened beneath her, and his arms tightened around her when she sagged into him. She was totally dependent on him, needing him to remain upright and requiring his assistance in order to take her next breath. She
what she knew only he could give her.
This couldn’t be happening. Feelings like this were dead to her. She’d killed them long ago, destroyed them when she’d arrived starving on the streets of London fifteen years ago without a farthing to her name. With no one to help her. With little chance to survive. She’d abandoned the last shred of respectability that was left her after she’d been raped, obliterated any sense of decency her father had ingrained in her, and stamped down any integrity that hadn’t been beaten out of her. And the man kissing her was resurrecting every emotion she thought she’d buried long ago.
He kissed her again. Even though she thought it was impossible for them to continue further down the path they were traveling, she felt more drawn in by his kisses. And his touch.
His hands caressed her flesh, touched her, and molded her breasts in his palms. Then his arms twined around her. He ran his hands down her spine, traveling lower, and then lower yet.
His all-consuming effect totally controlled her. She knew what step was next. She knew what her body told her she
to happen. And if she didn’t stop their progress, it would be too late. She couldn’t allow it. No matter how desperately she wanted it, she…couldn’t…allow…it.
She placed her palms against his chest and pushed, gently at first, then with more pressure. Of course he relented. She knew he would. There was never a question that he wouldn’t. But a little voice inside her head told her she hadn’t stopped him soon enough. That it was already too late.
With an abrupt halt, he lifted his lips from hers.
The separation was painful; the loss unbearable. She regretted her action the minute she no longer felt his flesh against her. She felt the loss as if a part of her had just died, because that was what had happened.
She reminded herself that a future with him was impossible. He was the brother of a marquess, and she was a—
The thought stopped her cold. She could never allow him to do to her again what he’d just done. Stopping him the next time would be harder—perhaps impossible.
She allowed him to wrap his arms around her and pull her close, because it was difficult to stand on her feet without his assistance. She allowed herself a moment to rest her cheek against his chest, because she needed time to slow her breathing. She allowed herself to listen to the racing of his heart in his chest, because it was something she could take away with her—the knowledge that her kisses had the power to cause his heart to thunder as loudly and rapidly as his kisses made her own heart thunder.
When she could no longer battle the resurging desire to kiss him again, she dropped her arms to her sides and stepped away from him.
“Are you all right?” he asked, the tone of his voice husky and filled with an emotion she’d heard often in the voices of men she’d been with, but had never understood its origin.
“No. Are you?”
He shook his head, then took in several deep gasps of air. “I knew it would be like this,” he said finally.
She turned away from him and pressed her fist against her stomach. How could he have known? No matter how much experience he’d had with the baser aspects of life, she’d had more. And she had no idea it would be anything like this.
She walked away from him and took the steps that led to the garden below the terrace. She needed to be alone. She needed to think.
She hoped he wouldn’t follow her but knew he would. His concern for others was one of his most endearing strengths. She knew he would have to make sure she was all right; she knew he wouldn’t leave her after the earth-shattering kiss they’d just shared.
She walked down one of the paths that led to a small pond in the center of the garden and stopped when she reached the water’s edge. The moon was full and bright, and its glow reflected off the water.
“Did what happened when we kissed frighten you?” he asked from close behind her.
She shook her head. “It didn’t frighten me. It saddened me.”
He turned her to face him. “How could our kiss sadden you?”
“It saddened me because nothing can come of it. What we shared cannot continue. It can never happen again.”
“How can you say it will never happen again? I can hardly keep from kissing you again right now.”
She shook his hands from her shoulders. “You can’t.”
“Because I cannot allow it. I can’t allow you to continue your infatuation with me.”
“Infatuation? You think what I’m feeling is infatuation?”
“It doesn’t matter what it is. It can’t continue.”
He reached for her again and held her at arm’s length. When she refused to look at him, he dropped one hand from her upper arm and placed his finger beneath her chin. He lifted until she was forced to look at him.
“I’ve always believed I would find someone special, just like Thomas found Caroline, and Raeborn found Grace. I knew if I was patient and remained faithful, God would place the woman He’d chosen for me in my path. Well, He did. You’re that woman.”
Hannah felt her jaw drop and her eyes open wide. “You think
placed me in your path? You think
intends for us to be together?” She twisted away from him and stepped around him. She needed to put distance between them. She needed to absorb what he’d just said—and remain calm.
“Lord Rafe, God did not play a part in our meeting each other. God does not intend for us to become anything more than acquaintances who happened to meet at a country party hosted by mutual friends. I regret that you felt more from the kiss we shared than what was actually there. I wish you had not, because I cannot allow anything more to develop between us.”