Daisy could hardly believe it. Her first kiss. She had always envisioned it as a romantic moment in an English garden…There would be moonlight, of course…and a fair-haired gentleman with a boyish face would say something lovely from a poem just before his lips met hers. It was not supposed to happen in one of the basement rooms of a gambling club with a Gypsy card dealer. On the other hand, she was twenty years old, and maybe it was time for her to start accumulating some experience.
Swallowing again, she fought to control the reckless meter of her breathing, and stared at the part of his throat and upper chest that was revealed by his partly opened shirt. His skin gleamed like tautly stretched amber satin. As he drew closer to her, his scent invaded her nostrils in a drift of luxurious masculine spice. His hand lifted gently to her face, the backs of his knuckles accidentally brushing the tip of her small breast along the way. It had to be accidental, she thought dizzily, while her nipple contracted tightly beneath her velvet bodice. His long fingers slid around the side of her face, tilting it to an upward slant.
Staring into the dark pools of her dilated eyes, he drew his fingertips to her mouth, stroking the plush surface of her lips until they were parted and trembling. His other hand slid behind the back of her neck, caressing at first, then grasping lightly to support the weight of her head…which was a good thing, since her entire spine seemed to have dissolved like melted sugar. His mouth came to hers with tender pressure, exploring her lips with repeated brushes. Warm delight seemed to leak into her veins, flowing through her until she could no longer resist the urge to press her body against his. Rising on her toes, she gripped his hard shoulders with her hands, and gasped as she felt his arms slide around her.
When at last his head lifted, Daisy was mortified to discover that she was clinging to him like the victim of a near-drowning. She jerked her hands away from him, and retreated as far as the wall would allow. Confused and ashamed by her response to him, she scowled up into his pagan eyes.
“I didn’t feel a thing,” she said coolly. “Though I suppose you deserve credit for trying. Now show me where the—”
She broke off with a surprised squeak as he reached for her again, and she realized too late that he had taken her dismissive remark as a challenge. This time his mouth was more demanding, his hands cupped around the back of her head. With innocent surprise, she felt the silken touch of his tongue, a sensation that sent writhing sweetness all through her. She shivered as he searched her mouth intimately…as if the taste of her was something delicious.
Finishing the kiss with a last coaxing nuzzle of his lips, Rohan pulled back to stare into her eyes, silently daring her to deny her attraction to him.
She mustered the last few shreds of her pride. “Still nothing,” she said weakly.
This time he hauled her fully against his body, his dark head lowering over hers. Daisy had never thought a kiss could be so deep, his mouth feeding slowly on hers, his hands pulling her up and against him. She felt his feet pushing between hers, his chest hard against her small breasts, his kisses teasing, caressing, until she quivered like a wild creature in the support of his arms. By the time he released her mouth, she was limp and passive, all her consciousness focused on the sensations that drew her toward some unknown end.
Opening her eyes, Daisy looked at him through a haze of sensuality. “That…that was much improved,” she managed to say with dignity. “I’m glad I was able to teach you something.” She turned away from him, but not before she saw his quick grin. Reaching out, he pressed at the hidden catch on the door, and opened it.
To Daisy’s discomfiture, Rohan went with her into the dark passageway and accompanied her up the narrow stairs, guiding her as if he could see like a cat in the dark. When they reached the top, where the outline of the reading room door was visible, they paused in tandem.
Feeling called upon to say something, Daisy muttered, “Good-bye, Mr. Rohan. We shall probably never meet again.” She could only hope so—because it was a certainty that she would never be able to face him.
He leaned over her shoulder, until his mouth was at her tingling ear. “Perhaps I’ll appear at your window one midnight,” he whispered, “to tempt you for a ride across earth and ocean.”
And with that, he opened the door, pushed Daisy gently into the reading room, and closed it again. Blinking in confusion, she stared at Annabelle and Evie.
Annabelle spoke wryly. “I should have known you couldn’t resist something like a secret door. Where did you go?”
“Evie was right,” Daisy said, as flags of bright color burned at the tops of her cheeks. “It led to no place that I wanted to go.”
Although the clothes that Annabelle Hunt had brought were far more appropriate for half mourning than full mourning, Evie decided to wear them. She had already gone against the dictates of propriety by wearing fabrics other than crepe, and there was hardly anyone in the club who would dare to criticize her; so it didn’t make much difference whether she wore black, brown, or gray. Moreover, she felt certain that her father would not have minded.
Picking up the note that Annabelle had included with the clothes, Evie read it once more, a smile touching her lips. “I had these made in Paris,” Annabelle had written impishly, “without taking into consideration the consequences of Mr. Hunt’s virility. By the time I am able to wear them again, they will be out of fashion. My gift to you, dearest friend.”
Trying on the soft gray wool, which was lined with silk, Evie discovered that it fit nicely. However, her pleasure in the new gown was swamped in a wave of melancholy as she thought of her father. Wandering disconsolately down to the main hazard room, she saw Sebastian speaking to a pair of dust-covered masons. He was much taller than either of them, and inclined his head as they replied. Then he made some quip that drew laughter.
A glint of humor lingered in Sebastian’s eyes as he happened to glance in Evie’s direction. His gaze softened, and he took leave of the masons, coming toward her with unhurried strides. Evie fought to contain a rush of eagerness, afraid of appearing foolishly infatuated with him. However, no matter how sternly she tamped her feelings down beneath the surface, they seemed to sift out like diamond dust, sparkling visibly in the air around her. The odd thing was, he seemed similarly glad to be in her presence, for once discarding the guise of a jaded rake, and smiling at her with genuine warmth.
“Evie…” His golden head bent over her upturned face. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I…no.” She rubbed her temples fretfully. “I’m weary. And bored, and hungry.”
His quiet chuckle seemed to cut through her gloom. “I can do something about that.”
“I have no wish to interrupt your work—” she said diffidently.
“Rohan will manage things for a while. Come, let’s see if the billiards room is empty.”
“Billiards?” Evie repeated reluctantly. “Why should we go there?”
He slid her a provocative glance. “To play, of course.”
“But women don’t play billiards.”
“They do in France.”
“From what Annabelle says,” Evie said, “women do many things in France that they don’t do here.”
“Yes. A very forward-thinking race, the French. Whereas we English tend to view pleasure with deep suspicion.”
The billiards room was indeed unoccupied. Sebastian sent for a luncheon tray from the kitchen, sat with Evie at a small table at the corner, and diverted her with conversation as she ate. She couldn’t quite understand why he would take the time to entertain her, when there were many responsibilities that required his attention. And years of seeing the glazed-over boredom on men’s faces when she talked to them had reduced Evie’s self-confidence to a crumb of what it should have been. However, Sebastian listened closely to everything she said, as if he found her endlessly interesting. He encouraged her to say daring things, and he seemed to delight in her attempts to spar with him.
After Evie had finished her plate, Sebastian tugged her to the billiards table and handed her a cue stick with a leather tip. Ignoring her attempts to refuse him, he proceeded to instruct her in the basics of the game. “Don’t try to claim this is too scandalous for you,” he told her with mock severity. “After running off with me to Gretna Green, nothing is beyond you. Certainly not one little billiards game. Bend over the table.”
She complied awkwardly, flushing as she felt him lean over her, his body forming an exciting masculine cage as his hands arranged hers on the cue stick. “Now,” she heard him say, “curl your index finger around the tip of the shaft. That’s right. Don’t grip so tightly, sweet…let your hand relax. Perfect.” His head was close to hers, the light scent of sandalwood cologne rising from his warm skin. “Try to imagine a path between the cue ball—that’s the white one—and the colored ball. You’ll want to strike right about there”—he pointed to a place just above center on the cue ball—“to send the object ball into the side pocket. It’s a straight-on shot, you see? Lower your head a bit. Draw the cue stick back and try to strike in a smooth motion.”
Attempting the shot, Evie felt the tip of the cue stick fail to make proper contact with the white ball, sending it spinning clumsily off to the side of the table.
“A miscue,” Sebastian remarked, deftly catching the cue ball in his hand and repositioning it. “Whenever that happens, reach for more chalk, and apply it to the tip of the cue stick while looking thoughtful. Always imply that your equipment is to blame, rather than your skills.”
Evie felt a smile rising to her lips, and she leaned over the table once more. Perhaps it was wrong, with her father having passed away so recently, but for the first time in a long while, she was having fun.
Sebastian covered her from behind again, sliding his hands over hers. “Let me show you the proper motion of the cue stick—keep it level—like this.” Together they concentrated on the steady, even slide of the cue stick through the little circle Evie had made of her fingers. The sexual entendre of the motion could hardly escape her, and she felt a flush rise up from the neck of her gown. “Shame on you,” she heard him murmur. “No proper young woman would have such thoughts.”
A helpless giggle escaped Evie’s lips, and Sebastian moved to the side, watching her with a lazy smile. “Try again.”
Focusing on the cue ball, Evie drew back and struck it firmly. This time the colored ball sank neatly into the side pocket. “I did it!” she cried.
Sebastian grinned at her triumph and proceeded to set up various shots for her, positioning her body and adjusting her hands, and using every possible excuse to put his arms around her. Enjoying herself immensely, Evie pretended not to notice the audacious caress of his hands. However, when he caused her to miss a bank shot for the fourth time, she turned to him accusingly. “How could anyone make a proper shot when you put your hand there?”
“I was trying to adjust your posture,” he said helpfully. At her mock-accusing glance, he smiled and half sat on the billiards table. “It’s your fault that I’ve been reduced to such behavior,” he continued. “I assure you, I myself find it appalling that the only pleasure I obtain these days is chasing after you like an adolescent lordling with a housemaid.”
“Did you chase after the housemaids when you were a boy?”
“Good God, of course not. How could you ask such a thing?” Sebastian looked indignant. Just as she felt a twinge of guilt and began to apologize, he said smugly, “They chased after me.”
Evie raised a cue stick as if to crown him with it.
He caught her wrist easily in one hand and pried the stick from her fingers. “Easy, firebrand. You’ll knock out the few wits I have left—and then of what use would I be to you?”
“You would be purely ornamental,” Evie replied, giggling.
“Ah, well, I suppose there’s some value in that. God help me if I should ever lose my looks.”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
He gave her a quizzical smile. “What?”
“If…” Evie paused, suddenly embarrassed. “If anything happened to your looks…if you became…less handsome. Your appearance wouldn’t matter to me. I would still…” She paused and finished hesitantly, “…want you as my husband.”
Sebastian’s smile faded slowly. He gave her a long, intent stare, her wrist still clasped in his hand. Something strange crossed his expression…an undefinable emotion wrought of heat and vulnerability. When he answered, his voice was strained from the effort to sound cavalier. “Without a doubt, you’re the first one who’s ever said that to me. I hope you won’t be such a pea goose as to endow me with characteristics that I don’t have.”
“No, you’re endowed enough as it is,” Evie replied, before the double meaning of the statement occurred to her. She burned a brilliant scarlet. “Th-that is…I didn’t mean…”
But Sebastian was laughing quietly, the odd tension passing, and he pulled her against him. As she responded to him eagerly, his amusement dissolved like sugar in hot liquid. He kissed her longer, harder, his breath striking her cheek in rapid drives.
“Evie,” he whispered, “you’re so warm, so lovely…oh, hell. I’ve got two months, thirteen days and six hours before I can take you to my bed. Little she-devil. This is going to be the death of me.”
Feeling rather sorry about the bargain she had made with him, Evie tightened her arms and sought his mouth with hers. He groaned low in his throat and kissed her, and reached out to shut the door of the billiards room. Fumbling with the lock, he turned the key and sank to his knees before her. Her shoulder blades pressed hard against the closed door, and she leaned heavily on the paneling, her mind reeling with confusion and excitement. He hiked up her skirts, his hands searching beneath the layers of fabric, tugging at the tapes of her drawers.
“Sebastian, no,” Evie whispered shakily, mindful that they were in one of the public rooms. “Please, you can’t…”
Sebastian ignored her protests, delving beneath her skirts and pulling her drawers to her knees. “I’ll go mad if I can’t have at least this much of you.”
“No,” she said weakly, but he was beyond hearing.
His hand was on her ankle, and his mouth was at her knee, nibbling and licking through the silk stocking. Evie felt a shocking jolt of desire, her heart drumming violently, her flesh awakening with irresistible hunger. Sebastian pushed the front of her skirts up to her waist and clamped her hands over the mass of fabric. “Hold them,” he muttered.