Madeleine knew the nobleman would recognize her. They’d spent too much time together for him not to know her upon first sight. She groaned. Where Sir Ashby was, she was positive his friend, the brooding Lord Montayne, would soon appear. She did not care to see him face-to-face, especially since he had been so angry at her when they’d parted.
Moving stealthily, she hoped to avoid attention. Just as she thought she’d made her way unseen, she heard shouts headed her way.
“Stop, thief! Stop!”
A cutpurse ran by her swiftly, throwing a cursory glance over his shoulder. She despised people who preyed upon others and would see this shabby scoundrel caught. Madeleine stepped out, ready to give chase when something slammed into her, knocking her to the ground. She tried to draw a breath but the wind had been knocked from her.
Instinct caused her to roll into a ball, her arms wrapping around her in a protective cocoon. She had spent many a time lying on the floor after one of Henri’s swift punches to her belly and knew she must guard her ribs at all costs. Oh, God, it hurt so much when one broke. Please, not again. Not again.
A hand, firm but reassuring, touched her shoulder. A voice came through the fog rolling through her brain. It wasn’t Henri! She half-laughed, half-gasped, as she opened her limbs and came to lie on her back. She even reached into her pocket and stroked Henri-the-Pebble, validating that she was alive and unharmed.
Yet who had attacked her? She peered up into the blinding summer sun but could not see who stood above her. Then the shadow moved, covering her face from the harsh light.
“Why, if it isn’t Lady Montayne,” said the dreaded familiar voice. “Where the Hell is my favorite cloak?”
As Ashby faced Marielle, all the intense longings for her rushed through him.
Why hadn’t he taken Garrett up on his generous offer of a manor? Mayhap then he might have felt worthy enough to pursue the beautiful woman that stood before him.
He placed his hands upon her shoulders. “I love you,” he admitted softly. “The reasons why those words never came seem so pitiful now.”
Marielle tensed. “It is too late for us, Ashby.”
“Is it?” he asked, clinging to hope as Pandora surely had.
“Yes. We were never meant to be.”
That sliver of hope pushed him to ask, “Then why are you here?”
“Because tonight is all we will ever have.”
She lay her cheek against his chest and wrapped her arms about his waist. He enveloped her, holding her gently against him. Her silent tears soaked his tunic. To comfort her, he kissed the top of her head, then he lifted her chin with a finger and gently touched his mouth to hers.
Passion ignited between them. The kiss stoked the fire that had lain dormant within them for close to two months. All the desire built up inside of him spilled forth from his mouth into hers.
She tasted as before, only sweeter now. He wanted her more than he had wanted any other woman at any other time. Yet she was not his for the taking.
Maybe she never had been.
*Excerpt coming October 2020