If death had its opposite, it was this. She came to life for him, her whole body tingling. Her breasts awakened. Her thighs parted. She fairly sizzled. And when he leaned in and captured her lips, it sent a shot of vitality through her being.
She didn’t wait for him to take the lead. Miranda slid her hands down his hips of her own accord. She found the hard ridge of his erection in his trousers.
He froze and pushed away from her. “I’m not so ruled by my lusts that I must consort with you, even under these trying circumstances.”
“I don’t want you to consort with me. I want…” Miranda lifted her head and looked into the blue of his eyes. “I need you to touch me. To hold me. To remind me I’m still living.”
He focused on her intently. Then slowly, slowly, he leaned back into her. He set his lips against hers, light at first.
This was what it meant to be alive—to conjure his want from kisses, to have her breath stolen with desire. She kicked her skirts up to her knee, and he obliged her by pushing up onto his forearms and then sliding the material farther up, parting her legs as he did so.
She spread herself out for him, and he slid to the floor beside her. Her drawers slid off, and he parted her folds with his thumbs. Before she could quite comprehend what was happening, he leaned over her and set his mouth on her sex.
He was the most determined, intense man she’d ever met. Small surprise that when he brought that intensity to bear on her, she exploded. His tongue slid down the length of her slit and then up, up, to swirl around the button of her sex. He slipped a finger inside her, and then another.
“Oh God,” she heard herself moan. “God, Smite. Do that again.”
He did. He did it harder and faster, until the heat pulsed around them in waves, until she felt elevated on high. Her orgasm passed through her, tearing her to pieces. Her fists clenched in her skirts, and she screamed. It wasn’t just a release. It was a vindication of sorts.
He pulled away an inch and reached for his own trousers. Miranda had a moment of dim comprehension, before she set her hands atop his.
“Wait. I don’t have my sponge in.”
He paused for only the briefest of moments. “Where is it?”
“Upstairs. My bedchamber.”
He slipped one arm under her knees and the other about her shoulders. Before she quite knew what was happening, he lifted her in the air. Her hand slid across the straining muscles in his back. “What are you doing?”
“Taking you upstairs.”
He did. She never would have imagined that it might feel so lovely to be held. He cradled her close, up the two flights of stairs. When he arrived in her bedchamber, he set her on her bed, and then crossed to her chest of drawers. He pulled the stopper on the vial of vinegar and a sweetly sour scent filled the room; glass clinked, and he turned back to her.
She held out her hand, but he didn’t give the sponge to her. Instead, he climbed beside her. He pulled up her skirts and parted her legs. The sponge was cold for one second against her flesh—but he pushed it inside her, trailing both heat and cold in his wake.
“Is that right?” he asked, his fingers still lodged inside her.
He curled his finger inside her passage. “And that?”
“God,” she breathed. “Yes.”
“What about this?” His thumb ran along her.
“Too much. Not enough.” She pulled his hands away from her, sat up, and reached for his trousers. This time, the buttons came undone easily. His member sprang out, hot and hard.
“I want you,” she said.
He made a deep noise in his throat, almost a growl. He kicked off his trousers and knelt before her. “Say it again.”
His hands found her thighs.
“I want you,” she repeated.
He pushed inside her, stretching her. “God. You’re so good.”
She gripped his arms and watched his face. His thrusts were hard and impatient; he bit his lip in concentration. His breath grew ragged. He was warm, so warm, and so alive. His hands found hers and clenched tightly around her fingers. And she was connected to him—deeply, intimately, perfectly. He drove away the last cold threads of fear from her, replacing them with life. He came hard inside her in a burst of heat.
He collapsed on top of her. They didn’t speak for long minutes. He played his hand through her hair, twirling it about his fingers casually.
This was the point where she would have reached up and caressed his jaw. She would have run her fingers down the bridge of his nose and cupped his cheek in her palm. Instead, she took his hand in hers. She spread his fingers across her own cheek, guided him to stroke the side of her face.
“This is what I’d give you,” she whispered. If she could.
His eyes drifted shut. She maneuvered his hand along her jaw; his fingers trailed along her lips. She couldn’t touch his face, but she could still touch him. She could feel him relaxing against her, all that residual awareness seeping away. She entangled his fingers in hers.
“Stay with me,” she heard herself whisper. Stay all night.
He must have known what she was asking. His arm curled around her. He inclined his head to hers.
“Miranda,” he murmured. “Darling.”
There had been a space between the words, a single breath. He hadn’t stayed with her before, but tonight…tonight was different. Tonight she needed to be held. She needed someone warm and vital to remind her that not all youth ended in death.
“I can’t,” he said.
He let out another breath. “Won’t,” he clarified.
He didn’t apologize. He didn’t explain. Miranda had never expected to have all of him, and so no matter how she yearned to hold him, she opened her hands and let him go.
SMITE HAD SET THE term of his arrangement with Miranda at one month because he’d thought it just short enough that they’d both avoid unnecessary emotional entanglement.
As the curtain rose at the Theatre Royal six days into the affair, he was contemplating how enormously he’d mistaken the matter. He was entangled already.
Miranda sat beside him, her gloved hands folded in her lap. Her attention was fixed on the stage before them. Her eyes were bright and she leaned forward eagerly.
They had taken seats in the pit of the theater. Both of them had dressed in plainer, simpler clothing, so as to not draw attention to themselves. It had been a tactical decision on his part to sit among the common folk. In a box, dressed in finery, everyone would see them. And everyone would talk.
Smite had enough ribald jokes to contend with from his fellow magistrates; he didn’t want them to add Miranda to their repertoire.
Normally, he’d have kept Miranda in seclusion. But when she talked of the theater, her eyes lit. Her voice grew animated. And maybe—just maybe—he’d wanted to see them light more.
He was definitely in danger.
But Miranda’s eyes were not alight with pleasure now. They were narrowed on the stage in front of her, and she sat back in her seat.
“Oh dear,” she whispered.
“What is it?”
“If they brush that castle wall the wrong way, it’s going to topple over,” she said under her breath.
He followed where she gestured with her chin. He hadn’t noticed it himself. But now that she mentioned it…the wall swayed in a light draft. He raised an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged. It had never occurred to him that she might criticize the theater.
It should have.
As the first act proceeded, she muttered about the acting, the execution of stage directions, the costumes. Miranda apparently took the business of putting on a play quite seriously.
If she’d been writing scathing commentary for the Bristol Mercury, she’d have had an adoring readership.
“It’s a ghost,” she muttered. “You’re scared! You’re acting as if you’re speaking to a passing dairyman.”
Then, a moment later: ?
??Oh, no wonder. That has to be the least frightening ghost in all of England. Could he deliver his lines with any less feeling? ‘Avenge me. Has the post arrived yet? Pass the saltcellar.’”
Smite choked back an outraged laugh.
Not so successfully. The man next to him nudged him with his elbow and glared at him pointedly. “Shhh!” he warned.
The other man hadn’t noticed Miranda’s commentary. Indeed, Smite could scarcely hear her himself. It was Smite’s poorly-suppressed response that he was condemning. But Miranda didn’t stop, and the theater seemed more and more absurd with every whispered remark. She drew his attention to people walking in before their time, lines got wrong, speeches mangled. She mocked costumes. He actually did laugh out loud. Twice.