The antithesis of everyone else in her life.
Hugh wracked his brain for a way to calm Clara. She’d enjoyed their sensual dinner, came on his tongue with the sweetest of cries, yet tears streaked her round cheeks. He couldn’t quite fathom it, but he was dedicated to ensuring their departure. Even the ache in his cock marginally subsided to allow a more tender emotion to emerge.
“I’ll decide what’s silly and what’s not,” he said, urging Clara to her back to more easily observe her expressions. For some reason, he didn’t like the idea of her hiding anything from him. “Now, what happened? One minute you were writhing in pleasure and the next, tears appeared.”
She sniffled and wiped at a couple drops caught in her thick lashes. “I don’t know… It all became quite overwhelming. While it was wonderful, it’s also the first time I felt such peace in a long time. First time I’ve felt cared for… like I mattered.”
Fuck the Netherfields for making you feel otherwise.
The immediate gut reaction shocked him with its fury. He wasn’t known for fiery outbursts, even the inner workings of his mind maintained a harmonious balance. But the abuse Clara endured with little complaint and no end in sight grated against a raw nerve. Swallowing back righteous anger, Hugh wrangled his voice into a semblance of calm. “You matter, Clara Netherfield. Never doubt it. In fact, I’ll make it my mission during the next week to guarantee you don’t.”
A watery smile blinked up at him as a resigned sigh fell from her lips. “I fear you’ll spoil me, and I won’t want to leave.”
Hugh shook his head and kissed her forehead, willing her to sleep after the emotional day she’d had. He didn’t care to muster a response because what could he say?
He feared the same thing.
Worried one week may not be enough, and that kind of thinking led nowhere good. Clara was his daughters’ friend. She was a young woman—though not quite as innocent as he believed and with more responsibilities on her shoulders than an English miss should carry.
Anything beyond their allotted time was out of the question.
He'd never understood the fascination his peers had for women at such tender ages. Their physical appeal was obvious, but once they spoke, any ground won by feminine charms evaporated due to silly girlish chatter. Hugh preferred the woman in his bed to possess more than a pretty face. Intellectual conversation. A maturity gained through experience. That's what he sought.
Yet he found Clara the most bewitching woman he'd ever met, and she only aged two and twenty.
“You’ll spoil me, too, little lamb,” he whispered. Glancing fondly down at the woman in his arms, Hugh brushed another kiss across her forehead before resigning himself to rest as well, ignoring the way her thigh butted up against his erection.
Tonight had been about Clara, not him, and he was profoundly grateful for that decision. Because she deserved pampering, deserved to be someone’s priority—even if their time was limited.
“Tell me truthfully. How many T.L. Kenny novels have you read?”
They picnicked in a clearing of the forest, a burbling brook meandering through rocks worn smooth over centuries, and Hugh couldn’t resist learning more about Clara and her affinity for naughty books.
After a morning of awkward greetings once she woke up to find herself entangled in his embrace, it seemed things were finally settling into a comfortable rhythm between them again. An atmosphere not clouded by lust but by curiosity, though desire lay banked in the slightest touch of the other.
“Promise not to judge?” She offered him a scone slathered in butter, and he nodded before taking a bite. Clara had insisted on an equal exchange during their meal today.
I wish to understand the pleasure you derive from it, since it’s so different from how I feel feeding my mother.
Once she’d admitted to her reasoning, he couldn’t find it in his heart to deny her the simple request. So they sat under the sun sharing the morning’s repast. The ground proved a little moist after yesterday’s rain, but the flat rock they found served as the perfect picnic spot once covered with a thick blanket.
“All of them.” She shrugged as if she hadn’t confessed to accomplishing a major feat.
Hugh’s brows rose in astonishment. “All of them? But that’s twelve books! How on earth did you get your hands on so many living under the cheap thumb of your parents?”
“I have a friend who lets me borrow them, and that’s all I’ll say on the matter. Would you like another strawberry?” Clara smiled and motioned towards the fruit sitting in a corner of the basket they brought.
“Don’t try to change the subject. This friend wouldn’t happen to be Sarah or Mary, would it?” How his daughters would manage to purchase such items escaped him, but they certainly had the funds to do so. He spared no expense when it came to their purse money.