As Spencer strode quickly along the pavement, he saw up ahead a woman turn the corner and head in the same direction he did. Recognizing her by her cloak as his neighbor, Spencer decided to catch up to her and introduce himself. He wondered if she were the countess or one of the daughters of the household. It would be convenient if she were a daughter and he came to know her even before the Season began. She might make for a good countess. Already, he knew she enjoyed daily exercise. She moved with purpose. If she were intelligent and could hold a decent conversation, his work would be done. He could offer for her before the Season even began and not have to go through all the motions of courting a woman.
He had almost caught up to her when a figure stepped out, brandishing a knife. In the still of the morning, the thief’s voice carried as he said, “Gimme your coin, my lady. Now.”
Spencer started to run as the woman replied, “I have none with me but I live just ahead. Come eat something and we can talk.”
Was she mad—asking a robber to dine with her?
He reached the pair and knocked the knife from the young thief’s hand before soundly punching the bastard in the face. The boy crumpled to the ground.
Turning to the lady, expecting her gratitude, he was stunned when she slammed her palms into his chest, knocking him back. Spencer stumbled a moment and then regained his balance.
“What the bloody hell did you just do?” she demanded.
“Wh-what do you mean?” he sputtered. “I just saved you, Woman.”
“Saved me?” Her bright blue eyes flashed in anger at him. “From this poor girl?”
Lady Adalyn turned and caught sight of Everett. She crossed the room with purpose and slammed her hands into his chest, pushing hard against it.
Anger simmered in her eyes when he didn’t move and she cried, “What the bloody hell did you do to my cousin?”
“I … didn’t do anything,” he stammered, wanting to protect Miss Goulding’s privacy.
“That is an outright lie. Louisa’s cheeks were flushed with embarrassment.” Lady Adalyn paused. “Oh, my heavens. You took advantage of her, you bastard.”
She slapped him hard, totally catching him off guard, and he stumbled back a step.
“I will kill you, Camden!” she shouted, raising both hands.
Everett knew she meant to claw his face or attack in some manner. He grabbed her wrists and forced them down. She tripped and fell into his chest but quickly recovered, jerking free and raising her hand to strike him again.
“No, you don’t,” he said, wrapping his arms about her so that her arms were bound to her side.
The trouble was that she was now flush against him. Her soft breasts pushed against his chest. She wriggled, trying to escape, moving against him so that his manhood began to stir. That wonderful, intoxicating vanilla scent enveloped him, going straight to his head.
Her beautiful face contorted with rage. “You are a bloody scoundrel. You aren’t fit to speak to Louisa, much less touch her. Don’t think you will wed her. I won’t allow it. Do you hear me? Now, let go of me, you bloody oaf. Or I’ll—”
Everett slammed his mouth down on hers.
He didn’t know what else to do in order to quieten her. She wasn’t the kind of woman who would listen to reason. She already thought him guilty of some terrible sin against her cousin.
Instead, he quickly realized he wanted to sin.
“I am sorry we seemed to have gotten off to a bad start. If I did anything to cause this rift, I apologize.”
She studied him a long moment. “I still believe you to be a rake, my lord, but somewhere in there is a good man. Else you wouldn’t be such a close friend to Everett. I apologize for being waspish with you. I feared that Everett and Adalyn might try to force us together during the upcoming house party. I know she is holding it to find me a husband.”
“Or me a wife,” Owen countered. “That’s what Ev thinks.”
The color rose on her cheeks, making her very appealing.
“I am sorry that I have made this all about me. They are conspiring on both our behalves.”
He grinned. “Then perhaps we should unite, Miss Goulding. I have no desire to enter a state of matrimony at this point. Perhaps we can stick together during this house party.”
“How so?” she asked, her brow furrowed, making her very attractive.
“You can shepherd away any young lady setting her sights on me. I will steer away any rogues that show an interest in you.” Owen smiled charmingly. “And I will sing your praises to any gentleman that you find interesting.”
“Hmm.” She considered his proposition. “That might not be such a bad idea, my lord.”
“Owen. If we are to conspire together in this endeavor, I would like you to call me Owen.”
“Owen,” she tried out.
He found he very much liked the way she said his name.
“So, we would protect each other and our interests?” she asked.
“Yes, indeed. I do plan to flirt because that is what I do when women are around. I can’t seem to help myself. However, you can help me avoid being found in any kind of compromising position. I will keep the rogues from you and only encourage those you might have an interest in.”
“Your proposal is intriguing, Owen.”
“It’s bloody smart if you ask me,” he quipped. “What do you say, Miss Goulding?”
She smiled brilliantly. “I say that you should call me Louisa.”
Percy hadn’t come to Westfield to kiss Minta Nicholls.
And yet he found himself doing that very thing.
He was conscious of so many things. The sweet smell of vanilla coming from her skin. The feel of her fingers, warm on his arm. The softness of her lips against his.
Raising a hand, he cupped her cheek, wanting to touch the smooth skin. His lips slowly brushed against hers, an aching sweetness pouring through him. Her hand left his arm and both her fists clutched his lapels, pulling him closer to her. His pulse thumped wildly in his throat as the blood rushed to his ears. His heart pounded so loudly he feared she would hear it and laugh at him.
But it didn’t stop him. His lips continued to caress hers slowly as time slowed and then ceased to exist. All that mattered was this breathtakingly beautiful woman, who was far more than her pretty face and shapely curves.
He increased the pressure, his mouth asking more of her. His hand slid from her cheek to her nape and held her still. The other moved to the small of her back, moving her forward, anchoring her to him. Slowly, his tongue swept back and forth along the seam of her mouth and her lips parted, granted him entrance.
Into Heaven …
She tasted as sweet as she smelled. His tongue swept along hers, mating with it. He could sense her surprise and wondered if she had ever been kissed. If she had, certainly not like this.
He grew bolder, demanding more of her, heat filling him. His fingers pushed into her hair, tangling in it, even as his tongue tangled with hers. She caught on quickly and though he barely knew what he was doing, instinct led him and she joined in with ease. With eagerness. Little sighs came from her, urging him on.
He had never kissed a woman for this long. His previous kisses had only lasted a few seconds. This kiss went on and on. Or was it one kiss which blended into another and another? He didn’t know and didn’t care. He simply let it continue, holding her near, kissing her until he was breathless and knew she had to be, too.
“Tell me about playing the violin,” Win urged. “You are remarkably talented.”
“Thank you,” Sera said softly. “It is something I turn to often. When I am sad, playing can cheer me. When I am excited, it can calm me. When I am lonely, my violin is my friend.” She paused. “I played quite a bit after receiving news of Captain Marsh’s death and again when Minta left for England and I remained in Canada.”
Win’s gut twisted. He didn’t like hearing how the army captain’s death had affected her. It made him angry. Then he realized he was jealous—of a dead man. That was utterly ridiculous. Sera had already told Win she did not love Marsh. That she merely wondered what might have been between them if he had lived and returned to her. Still, it troubled Win.
And that worried him.
He felt too much for this woman when he didn’t want to feel anything for her. He feared if he attended his friends’ house party, it would throw them together too often and his feelings for her would magnify. He couldn’t allow that. He couldn’t marry Sera Nicholls. He didn’t want to marry Sera Nicholls. Win wanted to continue to divorce his feelings from himself and be neutral regarding his future wife.
It would be impossible to attend. For if he did, he would kiss her. Do more than kiss her.
And that would be disastrous.
Reed let his heart speak.
“You are the one for me, Vanessa. You will have to decide if I am the one for you. Don’t answer me now. It would be unfair to you to say yes. You never came out into Polite Society. You need to mix in it a bit, starting with this house party.”
She gazed at him, dazed, unspeaking.
He hoped he hadn’t overwhelmed her, but he wanted her to know going into this event that he had deep feelings for her.
“You say … you believe … that we are meant to be?” she asked, doubt in both her eyes and tone.
“I will fight for you if I need to. You are a diamond of the first water, Vanessa.”
She bit her lip, causing desire to flare within him. “I fear you will change your mind when the other ladies arrive. I doubt I will compare favorably to them.”
“You should not compare yourself to others. Because no one compares to you,” he said, his voice tender.
He bent, touching his lips to hers again.
“I have done what I needed to do. I hope I have left a lasting impression upon you, especially with the gentlemen who will soon arrive who will wish to steal you away.”
She looked so beautiful and yet so unsure. For a moment, he warred within himself, wondering if he was good enough for this fragile creature.
It didn’t matter. He had to have her.
Vanessa was The One.
Something stirred within him. He wanted more than a kiss from this woman.
He wanted all of her.
The thought was shocking. Thrilling. And utterly foolish. He was damaged goods, both physically and deep into his soul. He had never thought to wed when he was an officer in His Majesty’s army. At this point, Devin was at loose ends, having no idea how he was going to support himself. Taking Julia Birmingham as his wife was out of the question.
He might not want to wed her—but he still wanted to kiss her. His head warred with his heart, telling him it would be unwise if he attempted to do so. The practical Miss Birmingham might slap him. But if she didn’t? He wanted to plumb her depths. Though she had been friendly during dinner, he suspected that she’d held back a part of herself. He wanted to get to know the parts of her that she did not display to others. Why he wished to do so was a mystery to him.
He hoped he could begin solving that mystery soon. Possibly even tonight.