Telling himself that he was merely trying to help her jog her memory, he said, “What was it that you expected?”
She shook her head, her smooth brow furrowed, her eyes never leaving his. “I don’t know.”
Her hesitant words and steady gaze only confirmed what he already suspected, which was that her real fiancé had evidently given freer rein to his passion. As Stephen gazed into those inviting silvery eyes, he abruptly decided that he was practically obligated to live up to her memory of Burleton. His conscience shouted that he had another, selfish reason for what he was about to do, but Stephen ignored it. He had, after all, promised Whitticomb that he would make her feel safe and cherished. “Perhaps you were expecting—” he said softly as he slid his arm around her waist and touched his lips to her ear, “something more like this.”
His warm breath in her ear sent shivers up Sheridan’s spine, and she turned her face away from the cause, which brought her lips into instant contact with his. Stephen had intended to kiss her as Burleton might have done, but when her soft lips parted on a shaky breath, his intentions slipped from his mind.
Sheridan knew the moment his arm tightened on her waist and his lips began to move insistently against hers that she couldn’t have been expecting this . . . not the stormy rush of sensation that made her gasp and cling tighter to him, nor the compulsion to yield her mouth to his searching tongue, nor the frantic beating of her heart when his fingers shoved into the hair at her nape, holding her mouth tighter to his while her body seemed to want to meet and forge into his.
Stephen felt her lean into him and fell helpless victim to it. When he finally managed to drag his mouth from hers, he lifted his head and stared do
wn at her flushed face, stunned by his unprecedented reaction to a few virginal kisses from an inexperienced girl who hadn’t seemed to have the slightest idea how to kiss him back. He watched her lids open and gazed into her slumbrous eyes, a little annoyed with his loss of control and distinctly amused by the fact that an untutored slip of a girl was responsible for it.
At three and thirty, his preferences ran toward passionate, experienced, sophisticated women who knew how to give and receive pleasure. The notion that he could have been so violently aroused by a child-woman who was currently draped in an ill-fitting peignoir belonging to his current mistress was almost comical. On the other hand, she had shown herself to be an eager and willing student during those minutes in his arms, and there hadn’t been a sign of maidenly shyness, not even now, as she stood in his arms, steadily returning his gaze.
All things considered, he decided, Charise Lancaster was probably not inexperienced, but rather improperly tutored by Burleton and his predecessors. The realization that he himself had been the naive one made Stephen grin as he lifted his brows and inquired dryly, “Was that more what you expected?”
“No,” she said, giving her head a firm shake that sent her shining hair spilling over her right shoulder. Her voice shook, but her eyes never left his as she confessed softly, “I know I could never have forgotten anything that feels like that.”
Stephen’s amusement vanished, and he felt an unfamiliar ache in his chest. Without realizing what he was doing, he laid his hand against her cheek, his fingers splaying over the incredible softness of it. “I wonder,” he mused aloud, “if you can possibly be as sweet as you seem.”
He hadn’t intended to voice the thought, and he didn’t expect any reply, let alone the amazing one she gave him. In the voice of one confessing a terrible secret, she said, “I don’t think I am sweet at all, my lord. You may not have noticed it, but I believe I have a rebellious nature.”
Stephen squelched his shout of laughter and fought to keep his face straight, but she mistook his silence for dissent. “It would seem,” she said in a shaky whisper, as her eyes dropped guiltily to the front of his shirt, “that I must have been quite good at hiding it from you when I had all my wits about me?”
When he didn’t reply, Sheridan stared at the tiny ruby studs winking in his snowy shirtfront, savoring the sensation of a strong masculine arm around her waist. And yet she had the hazy feeling that there was something wrong in what she was doing. She concentrated on the feeling, trying to force it to take shape and reveal itself, but nothing happened. It was as unreliable as her own reactions to her betrothed; to everything, in fact. One minute she hated her gown, her fiancé, and her loss of memory, and she wanted to be rid of all of them. And then he could change all that with a warm smile or an admiring glance . . . or a kiss. With a single smile, he could make her feel as if her gown were fit for a princess and that she was beautiful and that her memory was best lost. She couldn’t understand any of that, particularly why there were fleeting moments when she felt she didn’t want to remember. And, dear God, the way he kissed her! Her whole body seemed to melt and burn, and she loved the feeling at the same time that it made her uneasy and guilty and uncertain. In an effort to explain all that to him and even perhaps ask his counsel, Sheridan drew an unsteady breath and confessed to his shirtfront, “I don’t know what sort of person you think I am, but I seem to have a . . . a formidable temper. One might even say I have a . . . a completely unpredictable disposition.”
Helplessly enchanted by her candor, Stephen put his fingers beneath her chin and tipped it up, forcing her to meet his gaze. “I’ve noticed,” he said huskily.
Her expressive eyes searched his. “That doesn’t bother you?”
There were several things that “bothered” Stephen at that moment, and they were not related to her disposition. Her full breasts were pressed against his chest, her molten hair was gliding over his hand at her back, and she had a soft, full mouth that positively invited a man’s kiss. The name “Sherry” suited her perfectly. She was dangerously and subtly intoxicating. She was not his fiancée, she was not his mistress; she deserved his respect and his protection, not his lust. Intellectually, he knew that, but his brain seemed to be hypnotized by her smile and her voice, and his body was being ruled by an arousal that was becoming almost painful. Either she didn’t understand why he was rigid, or she hadn’t noticed, or she didn’t mind, but whatever the reason, he was content with the result. “You ‘bother’ me very much,” he said.
“In what way—” Sherry asked, watching his gaze drop to her lips and feeling her heartbeat triple.
“I’ll show you,” he murmured huskily, and his lips seized hers with violent tenderness.
He kissed her slowly, urging her to participate this time, not merely to yield, and Sheridan sensed the subtle invitation. His hand curved round her nape, stroking it softly, while his other hand drifted up and down her spine in an endless caress. His parted lips moved back and forth on hers, urging them to open for him, and Sheridan responded with tentative uncertainty. She matched the stroking movements of his mouth, and felt his lips part more; she touched her tongue to them, exploring the warm male contours, and she felt his hand clamp tighter against the base of her spine.
She leaned up on her toes, sliding her hands up the hard muscles of his chest, over his shoulders, arching her body as she brought him closer to her . . . and suddenly his arms went around her like iron bands, and the kiss became fiercely hard and urgent. His tongue caressed hers and then drove into her mouth, sending shivers of primitive sensations through Sheridan’s quaking body, and she clung tighter to him, kissing him back. His hands shifted, sliding up the sides of her breasts, starting to caress them. . . .
Warned by an instinct she didn’t understand and didn’t challenge, Sheridan tore free of his mouth and shook her head at him in a near-panic, even though a part of her desperately wanted him to kiss her again.
Stephen reluctantly loosened his grip on her and dropped his arms to his sides. With a mixture of disbelief and amusement he gazed down at the exquisite young beauty who had just managed to drug not only his senses, but his mind. Her face was flushed, her chest was heaving gently with each apprehensive breath she drew, and her dark-lashed eyes were wide with confusion and desire. She looked as if she wasn’t certain what she wanted to do. “I think it’s time we did something else,” he said, making the decision for both of them.
“What do you have in mind?” she asked shakily.
“What I have in mind,” Stephen replied wryly, “and what we are going to do are very far apart.” He decided to teach her the rudiments of chess.
It was a mistake. She beat him twice in a row because he couldn’t seem to keep his mind on the game.
Stephen scrupulously avoided all thoughts of her the following day, but as his valet laid out his clothes for the evening, he found himself looking forward to supper with Sherry more than he could remember anticipating a meal in a very long time. He’d ordered some decent clothing for her from Helene’s dressmaker and insisted that at least one gown be delivered to her later that day with the remainder to be delivered as they were readied. When the modiste had reminded him hysterically that the Season was about to begin and her seamstresses were all working night and day, Stephen had politely asked her to do the best she could. Since Helene’s purchases at the exclusive shop resulted in astronomical charges, he had every faith the dressmaker would manage to put a decent wardrobe together and that she would charge him exorbitantly for the added haste.
Within hours, three seamstresses had arrived at the house, and although he wasn’t naive enough to suppose that, on such short notice, his dinner partner would be garbed in the highest fashion, he was rather eager to see how she looked in a proper gown. As he tipped his head back so his valet could brush lather under his chin, Stephen decided that no matter what Charise Lancaster wore, she would do it with her own special flair, whether it was a golden draper
y cord or a ball gown.
He was not disappointed in that, or in their evening. She walked into the dining room, her titian hair tumbling over her shoulders and framing her vivid face, looking like an exotic ingenue in a soft aqua wool gown with a low, square neckline and fitted bodice that managed to call attention to the tops of her full breasts and accent her narrow waist before it fell in simple folds to the floor. Shyly avoiding Stephen’s frankly admiring gaze, she nodded graciously at the footmen standing at attention near the sideboard, complimented the silver bowls of white roses and banks of ornate silver candelabra on the table, then she slid gracefully into the chair across from him. Only then did she lift her face to his, and the smile she gave him was so warm, so filled with generosity and unconscious promise, that it took a moment for Stephen to realize she was merely thanking him for the gown. “ . . . you were much too extravagant, though,” she finished with quiet poise.
“The gown is far from extravagant and not nearly as lovely as the woman wearing it,” Stephen replied, and when she looked away as if she were truly embarrassed by his remark, he reminded himself very firmly that she didn’t intend to seduce him with that melting smile of hers, or the graceful sway of her hips, or the swell of her soft breasts, and that this was a very inappropriate time, place, and woman to evoke thoughts of satin pillows beneath glossy titian hair and full breasts swelling to fit his seeking hands. In view of that, he turned his thoughts to safer topics and asked what she had done with her day.
“I read the newspapers,” she replied, and with candlelight shimmering on her hair and glowing in her laughing eyes, she began to regale him with a hilarious commentary about the gushing reports she’d been reading in the back issues of the newspapers about the doings of the ton during the London Season. Her original intent, she explained, had been to learn all she could from the newspapers about his acquaintances and all the other members of the haut ton before she was introduced to them. Stephen’s conscience rebelled at letting her do that when she wasn’t going to meet anyone at all, but, he reasoned, the endeavor seemed to have cheered and occupied her, and so he asked her what she had learned thus far.