He exhaled sharply. “That explains it. You know, I had the impression you wanted to slap me. I thought you must be utterly mad.”
“Oh, I was mad. I felt as though I stood in his lordship’s study all over again.”
He sat up and stared down at her. “Tell me his name.”
“I’d rather not. He was horrid, but he was not the one who destroyed my life. I did.”
“Destroyed?” He frowned. “You are anything but. I’ve never known a woman as valiant as you.”
She blinked rapidly at the velvet canopy. “I wasn’t the only one affected. My father . . . the look in his eyes when I told him—”
It was as though she had switched off the light in him, whatever had remained after her mother’s death anyway.
“I don’t think he forgave me before he died,” she said hoarsely. “We were informed after it had happened; the coroner said it was sudden, that it was his heart. But, Sebastian, he was never good at taking care of himself; he needed me for that. He probably hadn’t even noticed he was unwell, and had I been there . . .”
“No,” Sebastian said, and then she was in his arms, surrounded by heat, and strength, and certainty. “He was a grown man,” she heard him say. “You made your choices; he made his. Don’t take on other people’s crosses. The only person you can control is yourself.”
“But I didn’t,” she whispered against his chest, “I didn’t control myself.”
And she had lost, how she had lost. Her virtue, on a dusty stable floor. Her babe, her father’s respect, and then, after laying her father to rest, there had been the news that Aunt May, tough northerner though she was, had succumbed to her perpetual cough. And yet once again, she now found herself naked in the arms of a nobleman.
She strained against Sebastian’s arms, and he let her up.
“I was foolish and impulsive,” she said. “I’m surprised to find you of all people so forgiving about it.”
He was silent for a long moment. “It’s not my forgiveness you need,” he said, “nor mine to give.”
He drew back the counterpane and tugged the covers loose.
She let him arrange her as he wished, her back to his chest, his nose against her nape, both his arms and the blanket snug around her. Trapping her well and truly. She was beyond caring; exhaustion was drawing her under like quicksand, and her eyelids drooped.
His lips brushed against her ear. “These wild depths in you, they call to me,” he murmured.
His arm around her waist grew heavy, and she knew he had fallen asleep. Like a man who hadn’t slept in nearly a full day, and had loved a woman twice in a row.
Behind her closed eyes, her mind spun in lazy circles, round and round.
The night had not turned out as she had expected. Lovers were expected to bring each other a pleasant time, but she had also nearly brought him her tears. And he had listened graciously, as a friend would, and there hadn’t been a hint of judgment in his eyes.
Then again. Since he wanted her as his mistress, her lack of virtue played into his hands very conveniently, didn’t it? She frowned, willing the nasty little voice to go away. But would he have ever asked an innocent to become his paramour? No. On a profound level, she knew that his sense of honor would forbid that. And would he accept a bride from his own class who had had a lover before? Again, no.
His arms tightened around her in his sleep, as if he sensed her turmoil even then.
She might have cried, if she weren’t so tired. She belonged here, right here wrapped in these strong, nonjudgmental, protective arms, and she wasn’t sure where to begin again without him.
Sebastian woke with a deliciously sleepy woman sprawled over his chest. The warm strands of her hair fanned over his throat and torso like a silken net. For a heartbeat, he only held her.
It was impossible not to touch her. His hands began to glide over the graceful lines and curves of her body, stroking slowly, reveling in the velvety feel of her against his palms. In the smoky light of dawn, her smooth pale skin shimmered like a pearl.
With a soft rustle, he drew back the sheets and nudged her onto her back.
She made a tiny, unwilling sound, a drowsy attempt to burrow back into the shelter of his body.
A gentleman would let her sleep. But there was nothing tempered, nothing civil in his response to the sight of her in his bed, trusting and naked and soft. Only the urge to feel the tender, willing clasp of her body around him, to see her eyes swimming with the pleasure he gave her.
He moved between her legs and scattered kisses across her collarbone, her neck, her sleep-flushed cheeks.
She stirred beneath him, her lashes quivering as she emerged from her dreams.
He kissed them, too.
When he drew back, her eyes were open, the green depths hazy. He was smiling down at her like a besotted fool as he watched her memories of the night return.
A shadow passed over her face.
He paused. Was she too sore for more of his attentions? But she was already shifting to accommodate him, and the silky brush of her thighs against his hips swept any conscious thoughts from his mind. Her nails bit into the balls of his shoulders, telling him she didn’t want him gentle; she was urging him on with small scratches and throaty moans until his own groans and the sound of bodies coming together in a frantic mating filled his bedchamber.
* * *
He sprawled back against the bed’s headboard, blissfully spent, with Annabelle nestled in the crook of his arm. Her fingers drew circles on his chest. He could feel her breath flow over his cooling skin in gentle puffs. How strange, how marvelous, that he should hold a whole armful of bliss, when he had never set out to pursue it. This sort of happiness was not for men like him, or so he had thought.
He kissed the top of her head. “I will buy you a yacht,” he said.
Her hand on his chest stilled.
“I admit it’s not a Greek galleon,” he continued, “but we could sail to Persia. And I’ll buy you a house near Belgrave Square.”
He’d do it tomorrow, buying her house. With her nearby, he’d be able to kiss her soft mouth before setting out in the mornings. He’d come home to her after a long day in Parliament and take her to bed.
Annabelle was silent.
More silence. It was beginning to sound meaningful.
He cupped her chin and made her face him, and the look in her eyes took him aback. Weary and miserable. As if all at once the fractured night and a dozen regrets had caught up with her.
“I have not pleased you,” he said slowly.
“No,” she said, “that’s not it.” She sat up and took the sheet with her, clutching it to her chest.
A shard of ice slid down his spine. “Then what is it?”
She lowered her lashes.
“Look at me,” he ground out.
She obeyed, and he could see the delicate muscles working in her throat as she was trying to hold his gaze. A horrible sinking feeling gripped him as his mind raced, enumerating the facts. She was naked and in his bed. Just ten minutes ago, she had been gasping in his arms with pleasure. She obviously wanted him.
And yet she was retreating, raising up a wall around her with the sole purpose of shutting him out. It set his every predatory instinct on fire.
“Why did you come to me last night?” he asked.
Another nervous glance. “I did not come to you for a business transaction.”
“Why,” he repeated, “did you come to me?”
Her shoulders drooped. “I wanted you,” she murmured. “I wanted you.”
“And that has now changed?”
She shook her head, her eyes turning oddly shiny. Good God. Was she about to cry?
“Annabelle . . .”
“I will always want you, Sebastian,” she said. “How could I not?”
The words should have elated him, but there was an awful ring of finality to them. Like the singing of a blade as it came down. And pretending it wasn’t happening had never stopped a fatal blow.
“You are not going to stay, are you,” he asked flatly.
She bit her lip. “I can’t. I told you so before.”
“You came to me,” he said. “You came to me and I told you I cannot offer you more.”
“You did, yes. But neither can I.”
He gave a soft, derisive laugh. “Indeed you did not say you would agree to my terms. I assumed. I made an assumption. Naturally, the result is a misunderstanding.”
“I never meant—”
He held up his hand. “You can’t leave. Not after this.”
She looked at him beseechingly, and it made him want to give her a shake. “How can you even contemplate it?” he said. “It is extraordinary between us, and you know it.”
“Yes,” she said, “but it hasn’t changed anything, has it?”
It had changed everything. He knew with certainty now that they wouldn’t be done for a long, long time.
“Don’t,” he said hoarsely, “don’t throw away what we have just because you cannot have everything.”
Her gaze strayed furtively to the door. She was preparing to flee.
An emotion spread in his chest, black and heavy like oil. He had felt it once before, years ago in his late father’s study when it had first dawned on him that he was on the brink of losing everything.