her cheek. His fingers were wet and cold but solid and real. He touched her gently, as if he expected her to disappear if he pushed too hard. “When you told me Weston had hired you, all I could think was that you’d been laughing at me the whole time. That you’d pretended everything. That you’d never cared. But it wasn’t a lie, was it?”
Her heart thumped. He couldn’t be excusing her. He couldn’t possibly think to forgive her. “I told you I was married.”
“But you were fourteen.” He brushed water from her forehead and then swept a thumb down her nose. “You were fourteen when you were seduced, and your father threw you out of the house.”
She couldn’t speak. She was choked by an emotion that she couldn’t name, something bigger than mere relief and more powerful than even hope.
“Since then, you’ve made your way on your own.”
He turned from her and shut the door. When it closed behind them, the scant light from the outside was cut off. She was left in darkness with a man she couldn’t see.
“It was true, what you said.” His voice floated out of that nothingness, close and yet so far away. “You hated me at first.”
“Yes. But it didn’t last long. It couldn’t.”
He let out a sigh at that, soft and warm. “That’s what I hoped. Jessica.” He paused, took a deep breath. “I must humbly beg your forgiveness.”
“My forgiveness?” Her breath seemed to belong to someone else; she had to fight for every lungful of air.
“I told you I would be your champion. I haven’t done very well by you.”
It would be foolish to cry at those words. In the dark, she could pretend it was just rainwater. She reached out, clumsily groping for his hand. He gripped her tight.
“You don’t need my forgiveness.”
“No?” His hand curled about hers. “Tell me, then, why I have been reliving that awful moment when I left you, again and again. Tell me why it hurts me here—” he pulled her hand against the wet wool that covered his chest and spread her fingers “—when I remember that I walked from you. Explain how I am to ever deserve your trust, if I can’t have your forgiveness first.”
“You don’t need my forgiveness. You’ve had it since the day you gave me your coat. I think I was already half in love with you then.”
His hand crept to the small of her back as she spoke, drawing her close. When she was silent, she could feel the steady beat of her pulse in her throat. That pounding could not fill the impossible silence. It sounded like the opening strains of a symphony, quiet and subdued, with the entire orchestra poised to join in. Her hand curled in his coat in prelude. She could feel his entire body shift, leaning in toward her.
And then he kissed her. That first taste of him overwhelmed her senses with a pleasure so sharp it could have cut. His clothing was wet against her; his lips cold at first. They warmed. She tasted the rain on him, and then the heat of his mouth. He jolted her to life with that kiss. There was no hiding from her wants, no pretending that she could simply survive any longer.
No. He’d become necessary to her, and this was more frightening than anything she’d experienced before. At any second, he could break her. He could break her more easily with kindness than a thousand cruel words. She almost cried out at the tenderness in his touch. Every brush of his lips felt like falling.
Maybe she was just waiting to hit the ground.
His hands slid to her hair, finding pins in the dark. He pulled them out one by one, until her hair tumbled down her back, a heavy mass, half wet, half dry. He caught it in his hands as it fell. Then he pulled from her and let out a little breath.
“Oh, Jessica.” He leaned his forehead against hers. “You should have told everyone what a hypocrite I was. I lectured you with a straight face about how profligacy hurt women, and then refused to see how it had hurt you. Don’t tell me I don’t need your forgiveness.”
That almost did break her. He was vulnerable, too. They were both groping about in the dark, afraid to find one another.
Jessica found the clasp of her cloak in the dark and released it. The sodden weight slid from her shoulders. “Mark,” she said, “I would never wish you harm.” Her voice shook. “Whatever you need from me, I’ll give it. Gladly.”
“I need this.” His arms came around her. Water from his coat soaked through her dress. She couldn’t make herself care about it, not now, not with his mouth seeking out hers once more, not with his lips covering hers, his body hard against hers. He was so firm, and yet she had only to set her hand on his chest and he pulled back. No; he wasn’t going to hurt her. Not today. Not now.
But what of tomorrow?
Jessica shook her head, clearing it of those worries, and gave herself up to his kiss. There was nothing but the give and take of lips and tongue and teeth, nothing but the ebb and flow of breath cycling into kiss cycling back into breath again. She pulled back briefly, fumbled in the dark until she guided him to the sofa in the front room. They sank onto it, and he kissed her again, leaning over her. The cold and wet of his clothing gave way to a warm, damp humidity.
His hands cupped her cheeks. He held her as if she were precious. Tonight, maybe, she would be precious to him. This minute and for every minute it lasted.
The buttons of his coat were hard lumps pressing against her; she undid them, at first absently, and then in earnest. He paused only to strip the garment off. And then he found her lips in the dark once more. Not just lips; their bodies met, her hips nestling against his, her chest brushing his. It felt so right to cradle him, so right to feel that pleasure flooding her. He felt so good, she was sure this couldn’t last.
When he pulled away, she wasn’t surprised; she’d been expecting it for minutes. But instead of calling a halt, he knelt before her. His hands tangled in her skirt, lifting it, pushing her petticoats up to gather at her hips. Cool air touched her thighs. Her whole body tingled in anticipation.
And then his hands, hot now, slid up her knees.
“Jessica.” His thumbs slid farther up, finding the wetness of her sex. He made a strangled sound.
But it was nothing to the shock that filled her. His caress, tentative at first, slid against her most intimate parts. His fingers were hesitant in their discovery, then became more sure.
“Is that right?” he asked, his thumb sweeping over the nub of her pleasure. It felt so good.
Her hand joined his. “Right there. Like that. Oh, yes. Like that.”
Again he tempted her, tormented her, his hands uncovering all her secrets.
“I want—” she began, but stopped, letting out a small cry, as he caressed her once more.
“Tell me what you want.” His voice was strong, urgent.
“No—oh, Mark—we can’t. We have to stop. I don’t know what you’re thinking.”
He paused. And then he pulled his hands away, letting her skirts fall. She ached all over. Her body screamed at her for completion. Still, she scrambled to her feet.
“There’s a basin over there, if you want it.” She pointed, realized he couldn’t see her, and stumbled over to a side table near the entrance. Her hands shook as she found a lucifer by shape, shook when it failed to light once, twice—on her third try, a sharp sulfurous smell filled the room. She cupped the precious flame and lit a candle. The light danced, too bright, and too late she realized her mistake. If he could see her eyes, he would see…everything.
Behind her, Mark had found the basin. He washed his hands methodically before turning back to her.
“Let me explain something to you,” he said. His trousers were tented out in front of him; she tried not to focus on that telltale bulge. “You warned me once not to make a romance of you.” He advanced on her again. But when he got to her, he didn’t try to kiss her. He turned her around, so her back was to him, and folded his arms around her. “You have only one chance to escape.”
nbsp; His hands slid to her waist, curled in the sash of her dress.
“I plan to thwart you,” he said against her neck. “I am going to make you understand that you deserve to have romance. And you, my dearest, will not be able to stop me.”
He pulled the ends of her sash, letting it float to the ground.
He undid the top button at the nape of her neck. “I never should have listened to you about that anyway.”