He stopped walking when the small crushed rocks of the path gave way to springy turf. A fountain, dry and empty of everything but the last remnants of moldering leaves, stood before him. To his right, a statue of William Pitt stood on a stone base. Pitt’s cast-metal head brushed the limbs of the trees that ringed the park.
Alone with a politician on such a night. Diana would laugh, if he told her.
And then a stick cracked behind him, and before he could turn to see who had invaded his privacy, he heard a voice. Her voice.
He could see her only from the periphery of his vision, but still all his thoughts, so sound and rational, were swallowed up by her presence. He was nothing but a deep abyss of want, and only she could fill him.
He didn’t want to turn at the sound of her voice. If he simply stared into the hydrangea for long enough…then he would be a coward. He turned to face the woman who could bring him to his knees.
She approached until she was close enough that they could speak without shouting. Still, he couldn’t make out her expression. The new leaves of an ash tree blocked most of the moonlight, save for a few variegated patches that wandered across her cheek.
“Elaine.” His voice sounded too gruff, like a tiger’s rumble.
“Evan,” she whispered. It was the first time she’d used his Christian name, and he felt a little thrill run through him at the intimacy.
“What are you doing here?” He narrowed his eyes. “What are you doing here alone?”
“My parents are waiting for the coach. Papa is discussing politics with Lord Blakely, and Mama…” She shrugged. “In any event, I told them I wanted to speak with a friend.” She took a step closer. “And I do.”
She was within arm’s reach. He exhaled. “Do not trifle with me.”
“Is it trifling for me to say that I enjoy your company?”
“I’ll be your friend in daylight. I’ll treat you as a comrade in every gas-lit ballroom. But alone, under moonlight, I’ll not pretend that I want you for anything but mine.”
She didn’t say anything. She simply looked up into his eyes.
He reached out and laid one finger against her cloak in warning. “If you don’t want to be kissed, you’d better leave.”
She’d stolen all the oxygen from the air, and with it, every ounce of his rationality. She was going to run away.
But she didn’t. She stayed. He slid his finger up her arm to the crook of her elbow. With the moonlight dappling her face, painting her skin in cream and ivory, she looked like an illusion—a fairy-story princess conjured to life by the sheer strength of his want.
He pulled her to him. They were shielded by shrubbery and trees and the shadow of William Pitt, and even though he could still hear the clop of horse hooves, nobody could see them. There was only so much temptation a man could resist.
He lowered his mouth to hers.
She was most definitely real. She opened to him, warm and irrefutably solid. When he slid his tongue across her lips, she gave a small gasp of sincere pleasure. His arms went around her and he pulled her close. And then he was kissing her in truth, tasting her, unable to stop himself from plumbing her depths. He had the oddest sensation that if he let her go, she would float away. And yet she kissed him back. Her hands slid down his coat. Her tongue found his. Their lips met again and again, melding together until her breath was his, her kiss was his, her soul…
Even in the moonlight, even with her pressed against him, he knew better. Her soul was not his. Reality was the illusion. She’d been maddened by moonlight and taken by surprise. At any moment, she would come to her senses. But until then…
Until then, he was going to kiss her, for no reason except that he loved her and she would let him. He wouldn’t let any note of bitterness destroy the sweet taste of her.
He could sense when she began to withdraw. Her hands stopped clutching him closer. Her kiss grew less fevered. Finally, she pulled away from him. Only a few inches, but it was far enough that he could no longer smell her sweet scent. She wasn’t a part of him—not any longer.
“Westfeld,” she whispered, and with that word—his title, instead of his Christian name—the barriers between them returned in full force. “I—I don’t—I didn’t know what I was doing.”
He couldn’t help himself. He molded his hand to her face. “Elaine.”
She bowed her head and leaned against him, and he brushed his lips to her forehead.
“It happened,” he said. “I understand. I shouldn’t—” But he couldn’t bring himself to apologize for kissing her. He should have kissed her, damn it. He would hold that memory inside him forever—a moonlit kiss, half dream, half solid truth. And so he ran his gloved thumb along her lips, reluctant to relinquish his hold on her.
“Don’t speak,” he said. “Of all the things I wish for in this world, I want you to find happiness. I suspect you never will have that with me, and I’ve resigned myself to the matter.”
“Don’t feel pity for me. Someday, I’ll find someone I can make happy—truly happy. I’m sure of it. But for now, I’m perfectly content to have had this one moment with you. I won’t ask for anything else.”
“Oh,” she said. “Evan.”
“Elaine,” he said softly, “can I make you happy?”
The breeze against his collar was light and insubstantial, close to nothing. He felt her cant away from him ever so slightly.
He’d had no hope of her. Still, her silence was a resounding refutation of his every dream.
“There we are,” he said, pulling away from her and offering her his arm, polite and gentlemanly once again. “Then I shall settle for making you happier.”
Elaine was never quite sure how she made her way home. Her mother’s happiness burbled over in the carriage, but Elaine barely felt capable of containing the beat of her own heart.
She watched the Mayfair houses roll past, one dark shadow passing after another.
They went by Westfeld’s house along the way, a few short streets from her own home. The front windows were alight, and she could imagine him arriving home to his butler and his servants and…and was there anyone else? His mother stayed in the country; he had neither brothers nor sisters. And at this moment, with the memory of his lips still burning against hers, she was all too aware that he was not married. She could see the savage edge of his smile. I am not going to pretend that I want you for anything other than mine.
Her hand rose and curled at her throat.
Was that what she had made him do? Pretend?
The carriage jolted to a halt in front of her own home. Once she was safely ensconced in her room, the evening ritual required none of her attention. She was washed and undressed. Her hair was combed and then braided. But when she tried to sleep she felt his mouth on hers. The sheets against her skin brought to mind the strong band of his arms around her, the tightly-controlled tension of his muscles. And when she shut her eyes, she could see his eyes boring into hers.
He loved her. He loved her still.
Sleep eluding her, Elaine pushed out of her bed and threw her window open to the night air. The wind against her shoulders was as cruel as a cold exhalation.
She could look into his eyes forever. She tingled when he was near. She had stopped scoffing in disbelief at his pronouncements months before. Instead, when he’d told her all would be well, she had wanted to believe him.
His kiss had been as soft as breath itself, and nearly as vital. When had that happened? When had he begun to light a room by entering it? When had she begun to look for him when she first arrived at a party? When had she started to think of him first when she heard something amusing?
Over these last months, she’d altered, too. She no longer held back, hiding her head in the sand like some stupid creature. If she had hated him for what he’d made her into all those years before, she had come to love herself. Whatever resentment she’d harbored had blown away.
> He loved her, and it hurt him.
He was close, so close. She could trace the route to his bed down streets lit by dim gas lamps. As she leaned out her window into the chill, the row of three-story houses vanished into the murky night before she could identify his. Ten years ago he’d hurt her. But today…
Elaine took a deep breath of cold air and held it in her lungs, held it until her chest stung.
He’d told her he could move the world, if only he had a lever long enough. Of course there was no need for him to identify a place on which to rest it. Over the last months, he had become her fulcrum: an immovable bulwark in which she could repose all her trust. He loved her.
She loved him back.
The realization folded over her, silent as the city street beneath her window. Two streets down. A mere handful of houses.
She could wait until she saw him next. She might signal her change of heart to him through any number of methods—fans, touches, even a whisper in his ear when next they were together. But no. All of that felt wrong.
She thought of him alone tonight with his bitter, savage smile. They had caused each other quite enough pain for a lifetime. If she was to make him happy, she wanted to start now.
Elaine took a deep breath, closed her window, and then rang the bell for her maid.
Sleep eluded Evan.