“What do you think?” she asked.
“I like it,” he said, his voice rough.
“It’s...not anything like what I would normally wear.”
“No, and that’s a good thing. You aren’t wearing one of those flowered monstrosities to our engagement party.”
“But...people will look at me.”
“Yes,” he said, his voice rough. “I imagine they will.”
“I don’t want them to look at me,” she said.
“But they will, agape. You’re to be the princess, one day their queen. You were a woman they all cared about, a woman they adored, back when you were first engaged to be married to me. Their eyes will be on you no matter what you wear. Better that when they look they see a woman with confidence.”
“But I don’t think I have any,” she said.
He moved to her. “You should.”
“Because you are the woman most deserving of the crown. You should hold your head high if only for that reason.”
He lifted his hand and reached behind her, taking hold of the pins in her hair and releasing the hair from its bun, letting it fall around her face in soft waves. He had touched her hair before, and it had been an oddly sensual experience. His touch, combined with the intense expression on his face, was taking things somewhere beyond sensual now.
He was making her knees kind of weak. Making it hard to breathe.
But he didn’t even think she was beautiful.
“We should practice,” he said.
“They’ll expect us to dance.”
“Yes. See? All eyes on us, no matter what you wear. And we need to put up a good front. Because salacious details about my past keep ending up on the front page.”
“What now?” she asked.
“‘How Many Lovers for the Dishonorable Heir?’”
“And...how many?” she asked.
“Not answering. And I don’t know.”
“Yes, well. I’m not exactly proud of my behavior. But I am good at dancing.”
“This is all so... Oh.” He wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her against his body. Then he took her hand in his, rough and hot, not an aristocrat’s hands. But then, he hadn’t been living an aristocrat’s life.
“Do you know how to dance still, or is that forbidden for a novice?” he asked, leading her into the first step of a slow dance to no music.
“I’m out of practice,” she said, trying hard not to lose her breath. He was so warm and hard, and she was pressed up against him.
And in that moment she realized just how very much she wanted him. A deep, burning ache that spread from her core and ignited in the rest of her body. Such a strange thing. Lust was one of the little luxuries that had to be put away for the kind of life she’d been trying to lead, but she was all but bathing in it now.
She was so aware of his hand on her waist, his fingers entwined with hers. With each breath he took and how it made his chest rise to meet her breasts, how it made her nipples feel tight. Made her feel desperate for more. More of his touch. More of him.
“So am I,” he said.
“You don’t seem like it.”
“Well, there isn’t much in the way of formal ballroom dancing in the casinos I frequent.”
“Is that all you’ve done since you left?”
“Basically. I live in the casinos, literally. I don’t own a home. There’s never been any point.”
“You make money gambling?”
He lifted a shoulder and kept dancing. “I have a gift.”
“You’re a card counter, aren’t you?”
“Not on purpose. But if I happen to be a bit more observant than the average person, is it my fault?”
“You really are a bad man.”
He chuckled, slow and deep, the sound rumbling through him, and her, sending shock waves of sensation through her body. “And I don’t even work at it. It just comes naturally. How about you?” he asked.
“How about me what?”
“Do you have to work at being good?”
She blinked. “Um...I don’t know really. In some ways, no. But then, what I do...I don’t do it because it’s good. I do it because I don’t have anything else to do. Because...maybe because it’s easy to be good if you don’t want much of anything. I could never have gone to hide out at a casino, for example, because I had no desire to be around anyone. I couldn’t go sleep my way through Europe like you because I didn’t want anyone to see me, much less sleep with me. And I could hardly go get drunk because you aren’t supposed to mix alcohol and pain pills,” she said, dryly. “All things considered, I don’t know that I get any brownie points for good behavior.”