The adamant denial settled him somewhat. He knew he was being hypocritical—worried about his daughters reading a dirty book while enjoying the fact that Clara had read and clearly learned from them how to not fear the sexual act. But what respectable father wanted to think of his daughters educating themselves on sex? Even putting the two in the same sentence made him shudder.
No, ignorance was bliss in this case.
“So there’s another hellion gadding about London withHer Dark Earl? Lord help us.” One was more than enough for him.
“I wouldn’t classify the person as a hellion, but no, I’m not the only one. Nor do I believe we’re confined to two admirers, but I shan’t burden you with such knowledge.” Clara patted his knee like he was a wayward boy whose childlike innocence must be protected, and the comparison amused him.
Hugh was far from being a sheltered youth.
“I’ll have you know I read the copy I kept from you.” He’d done so the day after discovering it in her possession, an unexplainable need plaguing him to learn why this dark earl fascinated her so much.
Clara gasped, her blue eyes widening. “I don’t believe you.”
Warming to the subject, he quoted a passage he found quite intriguing. "Lord Delacourt watched Cordelia scamper away, intent on hiding from him. As if the imp had a chance of eluding him while her feminine scent lingered on the air, guiding him towards her."
"You... you memorized it?" Clara sputtered, and Hugh enjoyed shocking her with the quick recitation.
"If I read a book, it's only natural to remember its contents. And what lewd contents your little book entails. Including a version of hide and seek I certainly never played as a child."
"But their way of playing sounded exhilarating, did it not?" Rising from her curled position, Clara stretched her arms overhead before hopping to a neighboring rock. "Come along, wolf. Catch your little lamb."
Like a shot she was off, jumping from rock to rock until she reached the grassy shore, racing into the dense forest of trees.
Her carefree spirit energized him and brought forth an answering lightness in his own soul. The girls had never been the outdoors type, and even as toddlers, Louisa made sure they acted like ladies. Not to say his children had a rigid upbringing, but their family stuck with expected protocols, especially after the scandal of his and Louisa's impromptu wedding.
Time for running free of those restrictions never quite materialized, and it unnerved him to learn the art of fun from a young woman at forty-two years of age.
"Have I overestimated your stamina, my lord? Surely a jaunt through the woods shouldn't tire you overly much." Her teasing voice carried on the wind, and Hugh abandoned his seat in favor of finding his wanton little lamb.
Piles of damp leaves littered the forest floor as Clara sprinted away from Hugh, her sturdy boots getting covered in the muck leftover from the rainstorm. But she didn’t care.
A fantasy of hers was coming true!
When she’d read the scene inHer Dark Earl, a peculiar sensation had bloomed in her belly. As if she’d indulged in one too many of Cook’s lemon tarts and her body rebelled by causing a twisting nausea to occur. Except this wasn’t exactly that.
Hergut felt fluttery.
But she didn’t feel sick.
She felt alive.
Her emotional breakdown the evening before had added a somber tint to their affair, and that’s not what she wanted hanging over their heads. A carefree game was just what they needed.
Ducking behind a fallen bough, Clara attempted to calm her racing heart and labored breaths, straining to hear Hugh’s approach. She couldn’t believe he’d readthe book—quoted its pages to her! The men she knew looked down their noses at romances, novels in general, really. Even her regular reading sans T.L. Kenny’s lascivious storieswerekept secret from her parents as she feared they’d ban the books in order to free her to attend to more of their needs.
“You realize I own these woods, don’t you?” Hugh’s voice boomed through the air. “I’ve grown up here and know all the best hiding places.”
Yes, but was he thehide-and-seekchampion at MissHartford'sSchool for Girls two years running?
Oh, how she missed that brief time in her life, whenher mother andfather had decided she should learn something of the outside world before having her return home to study under a tutor. It had been a relief to focus on her education while enjoying the freedom of being among girls her own age—unfettered by duties at home.
Ignoring Hugh’s taunt, Clara crept away from her resting spot to slip down a shallow embankment, praying he attributed the rustling of leaves to a deer rather than her stampeding footsteps. Unfortunately, her momentum became too much, and she ended up slamming into a giant tree trunk, clinging to the rough bark for balance as the breath whooshed out of her lungs.
Good grief, don’t hurt yourself. It’s only a game.
A shadow caught her eye at the top of the incline she just descended, but then a branch swayed from above, shifting her attention. Every sound and movement magnified in Clara’s mind.