Authors: Laura Landon
A frown furrowed across his forehead. “Miss Bartlett, please join me.” He patted the ground near where he sat, then held up his hand to assist her to the ground. “I’d like to clear up several misconceptions you have about me.”
Hannah hesitated, then gave up and took his hand and sat beside him.
“First of all,” he said, “I find perfect people boring. And I’d wager you do too. Secondly, all you need to do is ask anyone in my family and they will tell you I am
from perfect. And thirdly, I have
aspired to perfection. I find people who aspire for perfection to be very frustrated individuals. They also deceive themselves if they think they can ever achieve perfection.”
Hannah looked into the serious expression on his face. “I see I touched on a delicate subject. Please forgive me.”
He breathed a heavy sigh, then placed his forearm atop his raised knee. He sat that way for several moments looking out onto the water, then turned to face her again. “Please, excuse my bluntness. I am the one who needs to ask your forgiveness. I thought I’d mastered my reaction to everyone’s opinion that I am something I’m not. Evidently, I feel comfortable enough with you to let my true feelings show.”
She offered no reply to his admission, but not because she didn’t have a question or two she wanted to ask. It was merely that being so curious would have exposed more of his true nature than was safe for her to know. Allowing herself to understand him better would have put the wall she’d erected around her emotions at risk. Thankfully, wisdom prevailed and she kept the separation from him intact.
Just then, a strong gust of wind loosened a wisp of her hair and blew it across her face. Before she could pull it back, he reached up and gently pushed it from her forehead. But he did not remove his fingers from her face. He cupped his hand to her cheek and held her.
She knew she shouldn’t allow him to touch her so intimately, but when she placed her hand over his to move it away, he turned his palm upward and twined his fingers with hers.
“See how perfectly your hand fits in mine,” he said, not as a question, but as if stating a fact.
She wanted to pull her fingers from his grasp, but her muscles refused to obey her orders. She looked to where their hands touched and saw what he meant.
Their hands were not similar—his were much larger, rougher, and calloused. His fingers were thicker, longer, and stronger. Yet together they made a perfect match.
The fit of her hand nestled into his seemed as if two halves had been brought together to form a whole. Where his were large and strong, hers were small but not fragile. Where his were rough and calloused, hers were soft but not weak. Where his were robust and forceful, hers were gentle but not frail.
She suddenly saw how perfect a match he was for her. If only she could erase the last fifteen years.
She felt a gentle tug to her arm and allowed herself to be pulled toward him. She knew what his intentions were and was helpless to refuse him. He wanted to kiss her, and she wanted the same.
He lay back on the grass and pulled her with him. She went willingly.
She leaned over him and pressed her mouth to his. She fed the hunger she felt in his kiss and kissed him with more abandon. She wanted to kiss him because she told herself this was the last time she would allow it.
Tomorrow she would think about leaving. Removing herself from being tempted by him was the only way to ensure she would be safe. She could no longer deny the intense attraction between them. Separating herself from him was the only way she could make certain his fascination for her died.
She deepened her kiss and reminded herself that this was the last time she would kiss him. She offered him as much as she had to give, but only as long as she remained in control. When she felt herself weaken, she lifted her mouth from his.
Her breathing came in rapid and shaky gasps. His breathing matched hers. The fact that their passion could turn to a raging inferno so quickly frightened her to death. It was a warning she could never ignore.
“We should return before Grace sends a search party to find us. We’ve been gone long enough.”
Rafe sat up and pulled his grandfather’s watch from his pocket. He flicked the latch, and the lid opened. “You’re
right. We’ve been gone more than half an hour. We need to return.”
He rose to his feet and reached out his hand to help her stand. “Do you feel it?” he asked when she placed her hand in his.
She thought to pull her hand from his and pretend she didn’t understand his meaning, but that would be useless. She felt the same attraction when they touched as he did. “It doesn’t matter what I feel. There can never be anything between us. I won’t allow there to be.”
He didn’t argue with her as she thought he would, nor did he reply to her statement. He only looked at her with a knowing smile on his face and walked with her to the boat.
Yes, the sooner she made arrangements to leave, the better.
annah didn’t separate herself from the women for the rest of the day for fear of finding herself alone with Rafe. After dinner, she adjourned to the drawing room where Grace and her sisters had gathered while the men challenged each other to a game of either billiards or cards.
The truth was that she didn’t trust herself alone with him. She didn’t trust that she would be strong enough to stop him if he tried to kiss her again. And she knew that eventually their actions would go beyond kissing. Passion as intense as what they experienced always did.
She breathed in a shaky gasp and focused her attention back to the various conversations taking place.
“What female have you invited to accompany Rafe tomorrow, Caroline?” Josie asked.
“I’ve asked Lady Laurin to join us. She’s Viscount Canderly’s middle daughter. She’s a few years Rafe’s junior, but she’s quite mature for her age.”
“I hope Lord Rafe shows more interest in her than he has the other young ladies you’ve placed in his path.”
“I do too. She’s just returned from her first Season and was reported to have made quite an impression on the young bucks in search of a wife.”
“How did she escape having an offer?” Mary asked.
“If rumors are to be believed,” Grace said, “suitors were lined up requesting for her hand.”
“She refused them all?” Frances asked.
“Her father did,” Caroline added. “Lady Laurin is quite a beauty and supposedly her father’s favorite. He is very particular who he considers for his daughter. And none of the men who asked for her hand met his expectations.”
“Well, he can’t have any objections where Lord Rafe is concerned,” Anne said. “I don’t know of anyone more perfect.”
Sarah laughed. “If Lord Rafe were any more perfect, he’d be a saint.”
“Well, what do you expect from a vicar?” Josie replied, and all her sisters laughed.
The sisters continued to recount examples of things Rafe had said or done that qualified him for sainthood. But Hannah didn’t hear any of their comments. How could she when the blood rushed with such fury through her head? She could barely breathe. She couldn’t think.
Rafe was a
! A man of the
She wanted to laugh, and would have if the truth weren’t so tragic.
The man she’d kissed with such abandon, and allowed such liberties, was a vicar.
A fresh wave of panic rushed through her. She wondered if he knew who she was—
she was. She wondered if he realized he’d kissed the famous Madam Genevieve. That he’d declared his interest in a prostitute—a
The room swayed beneath her, and she grasped the cushions of the sofa.
“Are you all right, Hannah?”
Hannah turned to find Grace watching her. There was a deep frown on Grace’s forehead and a look of concern in her eyes. “No…No, I don’t believe I feel well. I think I’ll retire early.”
She rose, and Grace rose with her. Caroline joined them.
Hannah wished everyone a good night, then walked to the door on legs that threatened to buckle beneath her. Thankfully, Grace reached for her arm when they left the room, and together the three of them walked up the stairs.
Grace and Caroline followed her into her room, and Caroline closed the door behind them. “I have to leave,” she blurted out before she could think of how to make her request without such bluntness.
“You want to leave?” Grace asked.
“When?” Caroline asked.
Caroline rushed to her side. “Why, Hannah? What’s wrong?”
Hannah turned on her two friends. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?” they both asked.
“That he was a vicar! A
, for heaven’s sake! And you allowed him to associate with me! You let him talk to me and spend time with me and get to know me, knowing what I am!”
“You’re our friend,” Grace said. “We’ve been friends our whole lives.”
“I’m a whore!”
“No!” Grace grasped Hannah’s upper arms and shook her. “When you’re here with us, you’re Hannah Bartlett, our childhood friend. Madam Genevieve is who you are in London. Here, you’re the Hannah we grew up with.”
“Which person do you think Lord Rafe will think I am when he’s forced to make a choice?”
Her friends hesitated. Then Caroline answered a little shakily, “I trust that you will be Hannah to him.”
“Trust?” Hannah turned her back on them so they couldn’t see the hurt in her eyes. “In the life I lead, trusting anyone can get you killed.”
“If you give him a chance, maybe you’ll see Rafe is different,” Caroline said. “You won’t know until you see what his reaction is when he finds out.”
Hannah couldn’t stop the laughter that threatened to escape. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t want to be around when he finds out.” Hannah turned and faced her friends. “I intend to leave first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, I sent my carriage and driver back to London with instructions not to return until the two weeks were over. May I have the use of a carriage and driver to take me home?”
“Are you sure you can’t stay?” Caroline asked.
“I’m sure,” Hannah answered. “I should never have come.”
“Yes, you should have.” Grace rushed to her side and gave her a warm hug. “You are always welcome in any of our homes. Don’t ever forget that.”
“I know I’m always welcome,” Hannah said when both Grace and Caroline released her. “But that doesn’t change how things are now. I need to leave. I’m not brave enough
to see the disgust and revulsion on Lord Rafe’s face when he discovers my identity.”
Hannah held up her hand to stop Grace’s and Caroline’s denials. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t wish to be around when he finds out.”
“Very well,” Caroline said. “I’ll have a carriage ready for you whenever you want to leave.”
“At dawn,” Hannah said. “I’ll be ready to leave by dawn.”
“You’re certain?” Caroline asked again.
Hannah nodded. “I’m certain.”
Caroline and Grace gave her a final hug, then left.
When she was alone, she collapsed on her bed and curled in a tight ball. She wanted to laugh at the cruel joke God had played on her by placing Rafe in her life. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t find any humor in the feelings his kisses had awakened.
afe glanced at the group of women approaching and smiled, although the last thing he felt like doing was being cheerful. The disappointment he experienced was overwhelming. She hadn’t come down from her room yet. Perhaps she was more ill than Caroline’s sister Mary thought. All he knew was that she’d retired early last night, complaining that she didn’t feel well and wanted to rest. No one had seen her since she’d gone to her room.
“So what opinion have you drawn of her?” Thomas asked from behind him.
“Lady Laurin. The young woman your sister-in-law has invited to tempt you into joining the ranks of the married instead of enjoying your freedom as a single person.”
Rafe looked at the charming young lady walking between Caroline and the Duchess of Raeborn and smiled. “She’s very pretty.”