There was a movement in the crowd, and her head turned inexorably, like a compass needle turning north.
Montgomery was scything across the dance floor toward them, his cold bright eyes trained on Lord Ballentine like a marksman aiming a rifle. Ballentine’s arm turned rigid beneath her hand, his body immediately responding to the threat.
When the duke reached them, the air around him was snapping with barely checked tension.
“Miss Archer,” he said, his eyes remaining on Lord Ballentine.
Ballentine bobbed his head. “Duke.”
Montgomery offered his arm to her, still staring at the young viscount. “Allow me.”
Ballentine didn’t miss a beat; he did not quite fling her hand away, but he released her speedily and bowed. “Miss, it was an honor.” He turned to Montgomery and nodded. “Duke.”
Annabelle stared at Lord Ballentine’s retreating back, then at her hand, now curled over Montgomery’s forearm. He had rescued her in the middle of the ballroom.
She did not dare to look at him. She felt the tightly coiled tension in his muscles through layers of silk and wool, felt the eyes of a hundred people on her. Her skin was burning hot. Would that the floor opened and swallowed her now.
The merry tunes of another quadrille picked up, and Montgomery led her away from the dance floor as the stomp stomp stomp of the dancers’ feet echoed the frenetic pulse of her blood.
The reception room was a blur, and then the cacophony of voices and music faded and cool air touched her heated face. Montgomery was still staring ahead as he walked, displeasure swirling around him like steam.
“I advise you to stay away from Ballentine,” he said.
“I had no intention of keeping him close, Your Grace.”
“You danced with him.”
“Because he and Lady—”
She bit her lip. She didn’t have to explain herself; she was her own woman.
“The next time he comes for you,” he said, “turn him away. His company is a risk for you.”
She dropped her hand from his arm, her throat tight with frustration. “Then perhaps Your Grace should take the matter up with Lord Ballentine.”
He stopped in his tracks and manners, Hades take them, forced her to face him.
An angry heat filled his gaze. “I just did,” he said, “take it up with Ballentine, though given the way you look tonight, he might yet forget all about his self-preservation.”
She raised her chin. “What is wrong with how I look?”
His gaze dragged over her bare throat, and something dark flashed in his eyes. “Wrong?” he echoed.
She glared at him, almost willing him to say something awful.
“Hell,” he said softly, “you aren’t playing coy, are you?”
“You are the most alluring woman in the ballroom tonight, and obviously unprotected”—he cut her off—“flirt with the worst libertine of London, and every man here regards you as available.”
She had never liked him less than in this moment. “Please do not trouble yourself on my behalf,” she said. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
His brows lowered. “Now that is where we disagree.”
He was walking her backward, and the light dimmed and the walls were closing in.
She sobered in a blink.
She was in an alcove. With a man looming over her. The music of the ballroom hummed faintly from a hundred miles away.
She had been so focused on squabbling with him, she had followed him here trustingly like a calf to market. Because this was Montgomery. He was dutiful, and sincere . . .
He was still a man.
And he was close, so close she could smell the clean, soapy scent on his neck.
Instinctively, she stepped back.
Her bare shoulders bumped against cool plaster.
She swallowed, her throat working audibly in the silence.
She had not seen the predator in him. Until now. Now she could almost taste his intent . . .
It took him one step to close the distance between them.
She raised her hands.
They landed flat on a solid chest.
He braced his forearms to either side of her head against the wall.
“Enough,” he murmured, “enough.”
He lowered his head, and she felt his lips, smooth and silken, against the side of her neck.
Was that a kiss?
She stared over his shoulder unseeing as the heat of his skin touched her throat.
This man and I are going to kiss.
She had known, hadn’t she?
She had been aware of him since she had first seen him, aloof and commanding on Parliament Square, and this . . . this was the natural conclusion.
They seemed suspended in time, cheek to cheek, his scent in her nose, as he held himself still and waited, waited for something . . .
Her hand curled into the lapel of his jacket.
He pulled back, took one hard look at her face, and then his mouth was on hers. His fingers thrust into the soft hair at her nape, the warm pressure of his lips parted hers, and his tongue delved in, slick and demanding.
Liquid heat poured through her.
She was being kissed by Montgomery.
And she was pressing closer, tasting him, letting him in.
He wasn’t aloof now. A tug angled her head back, and the kiss became voluptuous; soft, urgent strokes of his tongue against hers, firm, knowing lips guiding hers . . . She sagged against him and his arms tightened around her, and the feel of his controlled strength brought all her sensitive places pulsing to life. She moaned softly into his mouth, and she heard his breathing fracture. His hands began coasting over her bare arms, the tender sides of her breasts, the dip of her waist . . . palmed her hips . . . clasping, kneading . . . he froze. His fingertips dug searchingly into the tops of her thighs. Lord. No corset there, no drawers.
She tore her lips from his. “I didn’t—”
He made a gruff sound in his throat. His hands clamped over her bottom and hitched her up against him, and she felt him between her legs, hot and heavily aroused. Her thoughts shattered. She arched against him on instinct, needing to offer her softness to his hardness.
His head tipped back and he groaned, low like a man in pain, urging all that was female in her to both torment and soothe him with her body, her hands, her mouth . . .
He released her and eased back.
No. She followed him, chasing the intimate friction.
His hands wrapped around hers and flattened them against his chest. “Annabelle.” His voice was hoarse.
She hadn’t thought she’d ever know reckless, ecstatic desire again, and now he had filled her to the brim with it. She wanted him inside her, and that feeling could not end, not yet.
She rose to her toes to fasten her mouth to his again, but he turned his head, and her kiss landed on his jaw. A gentle rejection, but a rejection still.
Her heart seemed to plummet down into her stomach.
She didn’t dare face him. But she felt the wild thud of his heart beneath her trapped hand. His breathing came in gulps. So did hers.
Sweat cooled on her skin.
From afar, she could again hear fragments of the music.
She had tried to climb Montgomery like a cat.
She took a step back. “I . . .” Her voice was thready. “I don’t normally . . .”
“Shh.” He leaned his warm forehead against hers. “I forgot myself.”
He hadn’t. If it weren’t for his self-control, where would this have gone? There was no curtain. She was not even wearing undergarments . . . What must he be thinking?
He turned her around.
His hands gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t move.”
She heard his knees crack softly, and she understood that the duke was picking up scattered hairpins from the floor, and then he set about reassembling her coiffure. With astonishing alacrity, too. He knew a thing or two about women’s hair. He certainly knew a thing or two about seduction; she would have let him have his way with her in an alcove, where anyone could have walked past.
His fingers slid around her neck, his thumbs stroking lightly over her spine.
“I can hear you thinking,” he murmured. “Your word, that you will not go haring off into the night now.”
“Your word, Annabelle.” His voice was low and insistent.
She gave an indignant nod.
“Good.” He pressed a kiss to her nape, soft and quick. “Tomorrow, we will talk.” He gave her a gentle push. “Now go.”
She left the alcove on unsteady legs, blindly following the sound of the music. The feel of his mouth on her nape lingered, sizzling like a branding . . . Someone touched her arm, and she flinched.
“Annabelle.” Catriona was staring back at her.
“There you are,” she said, wincing at the unnatural pitch in her voice. “Where were you?”
“Your hair is mussed,” Catriona said.
Her hand went to the back of her head. “Oh. It must have come loose while I was . . . dancing.”
Catriona’s eyes were concealed, behind her glasses. So she had found them. Still, she looked alien.
Her mouth was tingling violently from Montgomery’s kisses. Next time she saw him, she would remember how he felt and tasted. This knowledge threw the rest of the world off center.