Deliberately, Charlotte moved her palms to the broad wall of his chest. His heart beat out of control underneath her fingertips. She pushed against him and pulled back, breaking the kiss.
“Gray, we must stop,” she said gently, sounding perfectly in control but knowing her heart beat as fast as his did.
He looked at her in confusion a moment, then those beautiful blue eyes flickered with desire. The yearning she saw almost broke her resolve and Charlotte forced herself to keep from hungrily kissing him again. Instead, she brought a palm to his cheek, feeling the slight stubble against it.
“Are you all right now?”
His hand went to her wrist and encircled it, his thumb slowly stroking the delicate underside, making her pulse jump.
“I would say I’m sorry … but it would be a lie,” he said, his voice low and rough.
She bit her trembling lower lip, not trusting herself to speak.
His other hand went to her waist a moment and then he pushed himself to his feet, bringing her with him. Her thumb stroked his cheek once, reveling in the feel of him.
“You were having a nightmare,” she said softly.
His brow creased. “I can’t seem to rid myself of them,” he admitted. “There were times I had to follow orders that were given … and even times I issued orders myself … that caused the deaths of men under my command. It’s impossible to let go. I hear the anguished cries of the dying. The dreams can be vivid.” He swallowed. “I’ve tried to stop feeling—because with feeling comes vulnerability. I already hurt so much for those who were lost.”
“War is savage. The atrocities you saw may never leave you. But Gray, you and your commanding officers only did what you thought best. The loss of life is inevitable in battle. Please don’t keep holding yourself responsible.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry you saw me like this.”
“I only hope I brought some comfort to you. I was afraid to awaken you.”
Instead, he’d awakened something within her that would never give her rest.
“Why would I need to work with Mr. Nicholson?” Gemma asked the spymaster.
“Because he is a trained field agent. And if you’re caught in someone’s residence in a room where you shouldn’t be, you can pretend you are having a tryst with him.”
Burke saw the blush spread across her cheeks.
“So … Mr. Nicholson would be my cover if that occurred. That we are having an affair.”
“Yes, my lady. His job is to play the rogue. The womanizer. He’ll be wooing other women. Looking for information, as well. But he’ll also pretend to be involved with you. You’ll need to attend some parties together. Meet up at others. He is there to protect you while you both seek out information which will prove the traitors involved and the depth of their betrayal. We are talking about highly placed gentlemen in society, Lady Covington. The proof will have to be irrefutable.”
“I’ll do it,” she said, determination in her voice.
“It’s too dangerous,” Burke blurted out.
She gazed at him coolly. “That’s what you’ll be there for, Mr. Nicholson. To make sure that danger doesn’t find me. And if it does? You’ll extricate me from it.”
Left unsaid was that Burke hadn’t been able to do that for her husband.
“All right,” he said gruffly and looked to Morris. “On one condition.”
“Name it,” the spymaster said.
“That she learns how to defend herself.”
“Why?” she asked. “Isn’t that something you can take care of?”
“I can’t be everywhere with you all the time. If a situation arises, you need to know how to fire a gun. And how you can immobilize a man.” He glanced back to Morris.
The spymaster nodded. “Go ahead. Get her ready. You have one week until the Season begins.”
The duke asked, “Would you like a sherry? Or a brandy, my lady?”
She really shouldn’t. But the thought of never having time alone with him again made her reckless.
“A brandy would be lovely, Your Grace.”
He poured the amber liquid into two glasses and joined her on the settee. Raising his glass, he said, “To friends—both old and new.”
Ashlyn sipped the liquid, which burned a path to her belly, spreading warmth throughout her.
But the heat that was already present before her first sip was due to the presence of the man beside her.
Gilford drained his tumbler. He lifted her tumbler from her fingers and set both aside, gazing at her intently until she grew so warm, she thought she might faint. The air crackled between them.
And then he brought his fingers to her cheek and stroked it gently.
His touch almost undid her.
Ashlyn sucked in a quick breath before all the air left the room. Both Gilford’s hands cupped her face, his palms like fire against her flesh.
“Do you know how beautiful you are?” he asked softly.
She licked her lips nervously. “No one ever told me so.”
His crooked smile caused her heart to skip a beat.
“Then everyone else is a fool.”
He leaned toward her slowly, his hands keeping her in place as if he knew she would flee as a scared rabbit might from the hounds. Ashlyn’s heart pounded against her ribs fiercely. She began trembling.
His lips paused just before they touched hers. “Are you afraid?”
“No,” she whispered.
But she was. Afraid she would ignite when he kissed her. Afraid of what she would feel. And how the hurt would never heal once he did. She wasn’t the one meant for him. Another woman was. Yet in this moment, Ashlyn behaved totally out of character and threw caution to the wind.
She wanted him to kiss her. Touch her. Make her feel alive. For years, she’d bottled up all emotion within her. Until this man came along.
His lips still hovered just above hers. “I want to kiss you. Will you let me?”
Her reply was to bring her hands to his shoulders and pull him toward her.
Their lips collided and the sparks she feared did ignite. Ashlyn felt herself melting. Relaxing. Wanting. What, she didn’t know, except that he knew how to give it to her.
Anna threw her arms around Dez in gratitude, pressing her body against his. Memories flooded him of holding her. Kissing her. Longing to make love to her. As she snuggled closer, he thought how they seemed like two halves, coming together as a whole after years of separation.
With a recklessness that he couldn’t resist, Dez lowered his mouth to Anna’s. He brushed his lips against hers softly. He would do anything to see her made whole again.
She grew still. He knew he had acted too quickly. Had probably destroyed every bit of trust he’d gained with her. Reluctantly, he lifted his mouth from hers.
Meeting her gaze, something flickered in her eyes. Confusion. Wonder. Delight. With widening eyes, she reached up and grabbed on to his hair and forced his mouth back down to hers. He tried to lift it but Anna was having none of it. Her grip tightened and kept him in place as she started kissing him. Hungrily. Greedily. Over and over.
Then Anna broke the kiss. She searched his face, her body trembling.
“You’re real,” she croaked.
He wasn’t the Dez from her past. He was from now. She hadn’t created him from the black hole of nothingness. It was really, truly Dez.
And he was here …
She wasn’t mad after all. Dez had found her. Rescued her from that vile asylum. He had taken her out and brought her to the place they loved.
She would never let him go.
“Yes, Anna. I am real. You are not at Gollingham anymore. Lord Shelton—your cousin, Tom—and I came and got you the minute we knew you were there.”
Images flashed in her mind. Scattered and confusing. She remembered voices. A carriage. She thought of fragments this Dez—her Dez—had told her. She had heard some of it but pushed the rest aside, simply reveling in having him with her. But this was a flesh and blood man, not some imagined creature she had kept hidden in the recesses of her mind and resurrected when she most needed him.
This. Was. Dez.
The love of her life.
He cradled her face tenderly. “You are free, Anna. You will stay free. I will see to that. I would give my life for you.”
She knew he would. He had loved her. Wanted to wed her.
He had saved her.
Dalinda remained at the pianoforte. She knew she should leave but couldn’t bring herself to do so. Instead, she opened the cover and began to play again. She sensed when Lord Sheffington came to stand behind her but continued until she reached the end of the Beethoven number.
His hands suddenly rested on her shoulders, the heat from his fingers singeing her skin.
“If that was you without any practice, you must be a formidable musician when you have spent time at the keys.”
Gently, his fingers squeezed her shoulders and then his thumbs began moving back and forth in a caress. Her core tightened as need began to throb there, something which had never happened before.
“Your voice is rich and low. What is that called?” he asked softly.
“A contralto,” she said unsteadily. “I prefer singing in a lower register than most women.”
His fingers went to her nape and stroked it slowly, bringing delicious chills running along her spine.
“You sense what is between us?” he asked.
She closed her eyes. “I do—and it frightens me.”
Her eyes opened and she looked over her shoulder. His green eyes smoldered.
“Are you afraid?” she asked.
“A little,” he admitted.
“Because I want you so badly. I have never wanted a woman as I do you, Dalinda.”
It was the first time he had called her by name. It felt … right. As if he should always have known her.
“I am drawn to you as well, Rhys.”
He hissed upon hearing his name come from her. He bent and pressed his lips to her nape, the kiss tender yet scalding. He moved to where her neck and shoulder joined and kissed her there. Her head fell away, giving him better access. Rhys joined her on the bench, his mouth again touching her throat as his hands captured her waist. She had no thoughts of fleeing, though. Dangerous as he seemed, she was compelled to stay.
He lifted his head, his gaze intense. She shuddered.
“May I kiss you, Dalinda? On the mouth?”
“If you don’t, I might kiss you first,” she replied honestly.