Authors: Angeline Fortin
Ian stared down at Hero’s open expression.
Lifting her hand, he pressed a kiss to her palm and then to the inside of her wrist, his eyes never leaving hers. “Believe me, Hero, it is my greatest pleasure to have you here.” The suggestive tone of his low brogue left her eyes wide but not wary. Instead, they were bright and expectant, he thought. Anticipation, she had said. That she was waiting for something to happen. He was waiting as well, but where she had indicated something more mysterious, Ian knew exactly what he was waiting for.
“I’d like to kiss you again, Hero,” Ian said softly as he
pulled her beneath the hanging branches of a nearby willow. She didn’t respond but only stared up at him. Her lips were parted and moist and Ian swore he could see her pulse beating rapidly at the base of her throat. “Have you no response?”
“Ian,” he reminded
her huskily, leaning in until Hero was pressed back against the trunk of the tree. Ian inhaled the scent of her, warm and musky from the heat with just a hint of lemon. She smelled as much like summertime as she looked. He ran a finger along the edge of her neckline, up until his fingers brushed against the length of her neck. Her skin was damp and warm, her pulse fluttering as wildly as he had thought. “Have you not thought on it at all since last night?” he whispered, brushing his lips against her ear. He felt her intake of breath stir against his cheek but when she remained silent, he persisted. “Do you deny it, Hero, when you did little more than torture me all night?”
Hero exhaled shakily
, and Ian felt her fingers skim lightly over his cheek. “Did I? Oh, Ian,” she sighed, prompting Ian to draw back enough to meet her gaze. Hearing his name slip so easily from her lips ignited a flare of heat in Ian’s heart. She looked softly inviting, her lips parted and waiting for his kiss.
“Tell me,” he whispered, his brogue thick with desire.
“I want …”
“Daughter! Daughter! Look at me!”
by her father’s urgent calls, Hero turned away only to squawk in a most unladylike manner and cover her eyes with a gloved hand. “Good Lord, Papa!”
Ian, too, turned in time to see the Duke of Beaumont running across the short dock then jumping into
the pond with a shout of pure glee … stark naked.
“I can’t believe you can keep this all straight.”
“It just takes practice and familiarity, both of which you will gain in time.”
“Don’t be so modest,” Ian chided.
“You are an amazing woman.”
Hero blushed with pleasure at
Ian’s praise but bowed her head, and he couldn’t help but smile at her modesty. It seemed she had been in a constant flush all day, and he had enjoyed every moment of it. Despite her father’s interruption, their picnic and walk home had been enchanting. She hadn’t been able to stop looking at him beneath her lashes. He knew this, of course, because he had been much the same. His slow seduction had continued even while studying the ledgers all afternoon, though Hero had seemed determined to remain as businesslike as possible. He assumed she was wanting to make certain he’d didn’t regret accepting her help.
What he did regret was that in the last several hours, she hadn’t looked at him at all.
“Thank you, my lord,” she said. “I worked very hard to learn all there was to know about running this estate.”
“Well, I thank you for showing me
so much already,” Ian went on, flipping idly through the pages of the ledgers he and Hero had been poring over. Though there was so much more to learn, Hero had shown remarkable intelligence and considerably more patience than Jennings in walking him through the workings of the property. The scope of his new responsibilities was still intimidating but at least he was beginning to believe that he would eventually have it all within his grasp. “If Jennings had explained the operation of the gas house as concisely as you have, I might have gotten a handle on the entire situation long ago.”
“Jennings is one who thinks that one should just know how things should be or politely stand a
side and allow him to take over,” she explained. “He has little tolerance for me, I assure you. Robert let him have his own way with the estate for too many years, and Jennings likes to do things his own way. I’m sure he was hoping you’d be the same way.”
“More likely he was hoping I’d never turn up at all.”
“Never that,” Hero laughed. “Jennings would have liked the alternative even less, I’m sure.”
Hero’s eyes finally met his and though a gentle blush blossomed on her cheeks, she held his gaze.
She truly had the most unusual eyes he had ever seen. Such a remarkable blend of blue and green, each color defined until they met and blended. He could stare into them forever, Ian thought, before an even more profound realization struck him. It wasn’t that he could. He wanted to.
It was a disturbing and unexpected realization.
Enthralled by t
he intense look in Ian’s eyes, Hero couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. Was he recalling that sweet interlude under the willow tree? Regretting his actions as thoughtless and rash? It was difficult to let her heart assure her of the former when logic told her that her own feelings seemed impulsive and rash. That more time should pass before her emotions could be so firmly engaged.
This was the time for gentle words like
admire and esteem, not like. Not love.
She needed to remember that.
To not rush herself or Ian. Her mother had told her long ago that the swiftest way to disengage the attentions of a gentleman was to declare one’s feelings too quickly, and Hero didn’t want that at all.
“I’d like to apologize once again for my father’s beh
avior this afternoon,” she said finally, rising and taking a step away, breaking the intimate bubble that had cocooned them. “It was most unbecoming a duke of England.”
“Think nothing of it,”
he responded, his brogue low and husky as he rose as well. He towered over her so Hero had to tilt her head back to look at him.
“And thank you once again for offering your aid in retrieving him.
I don’t know how I would have gotten him out otherwise.”
Ian’s eyes were dark with something Hero couldn’t define, but she soldiered on
, “You’re very good with him.”
“He’s a good man, Hero, if a tad impetuous.”
Ian paused and reached out to take her hand. “Though I do not cater to the duke to gain your favor, it gratifies me that in doing so I please you.”
Hero blushed once again and looked down at their entwined hands.
Oh, he did please her ever so much! “He is a good man, and no one shows him the kind of patience and even camaraderie that you have today. Not my brother or sisters or even myself.”
“Perhaps I get on so well with him because I am a child at heart myself,” Ian said with a nonchalant shrug.
“But before you think too highly of me you should know that I so envied him the pleasure of jumping into those cool waters, I appreciated an excuse to follow him in. With the weather being so unusually hot, I would have been hard put not to encourage him to give it a go if he hadn’t leapt in on his own.”
Hero just shook her head and
, rising to her toes, pressed a tender kiss to Ian’s cheek. “
are a good man, my lord Ayr. Thank you.”
Ian slanted his brows
, offering a decidedly roguish grin. “If going about my normal business gains me your sweet kisses, I shall have to try to be a better man and see what more happens.”
a brow at his suggestive words, trying to gauge his intent. “Are you toying with me, Lord Ayr? Now that I am not a sister, do you believe that a lonely widow in your home might be an easy conquest for you?”
The words might normally have offended Ian, impugning as they did his honor and integrity, but he couldn’t take offense. Her words were nothing more than an honest inquiry, he could tell. If Hero were curious for his intentions, he was no less. This entire situation, this unusual yet undeniable magnetism, was quite beyond anything he’d ever experienced. It had been so instantaneous that he couldn’t recall a single moment of detachment.
And he wasn’t alone in being rather mystified by the intense
desire between them. Ian would wager his life on it. Hero felt the compelling attraction between them as irresistibly as he did, whether she had admitted as much or not. Her long looks over the tedious carriage ride the previous day and those in the gardens that morning had proven it, and he didn’t believe it was merely gratitude for him allowing Hero her home. She wanted him as much as he wanted her.
All of it was a portent of things to come and, for a woman of questionable experience, perhaps a source of indecision.
He could do little but say what was in his heart to calm her fears. Stepping closer, Ian reached out to cup her cheek in his palm. His thumb brushed over her bottom lip as he pulled her closer. “Do you truly believe I toy with you, Hero? That I see you as nothing but a body to warm my bed?”
Her cheeks flushed scarlet but she didn’t look away.
Nor did she answer.
A tender smile curled the corner of Ian’s mouth as he moved even closer, his other hand rising until he cradled her face in his hands.
Hero tilted her head back to look up at him, her hands as if by their own will rising to his chest. He gazed down at her, her face partially cast in shadows in the waning light of the hall. “You are a beautiful woman, Lady Ayr, but not the only one in the world. Beauty only begins an attraction such as this. I believe there is much more awaiting us.”
“Much more?” she asked breathlessly as he stroked her cheek with the pad of his thumb.
“How much more?”
How much more indeed, Ian thought.
He wanted her as his own. That much he had already acknowledged, but Ian didn’t want her for only a brief affair. He wanted her forever at his side. Good God, he was truly going insane to be thinking such nonsense after only a few days’ acquaintance. Especially when Ian had never considered sincerely courting a woman in all his thirty years.
t he was the marquis, some rational part of him argued in justification. He would need an heir someday, and for that he would need a wife. The idea of possessing this incredible woman, having her for his own, roused some raw, primal urge in Ian. He could have her.
Ian brushed his lips across her cheek before whispering in her ear, “So much more.”
He felt her shiver at the words as he trailed his lips lightly across her jaw until they hovered over hers. Ian felt her sigh, felt her hands clench against his shirt, inviting his lips to take hers.
“Daughter!” Beaumont bellowed, and Hero jumped away from Ian with a flush of embarrassment. She swallowed deeply, her tongue darting out to wet her suddenly dry lips. Ian’s eyes followed the motion and darkened with a desire even Hero could recognize.
“I believe your father has finally fallen into disfavor with me,” Ian said drily.
“Daughter, where are you?” her father yelled again. Suddenly the whole situation sent a shaft of humor and joy spearing through her and Hero bit her lip to stifle the grin that sprang to her lips. Ian’s touching words had whisked away the lingering uncertainty she’d had regarding his motives and left her with a bubble of elation that welled up inside of her until it spilled over in a burst of laughter.
“You think this is amusing?” Ian asked
, though his lips were twitching now as well.
Hero laughed again, covering it with her hand to hide it as she leaned weakly against one of the nearby columns, losing her breath to her tightened corset.
Ian leaned in and took her lips in a brief but fierce kiss.
Hero’s heart soared and pounded with excitement as he pulled away with a promise. “Be warned, fair Hero, one of these days, I’m going to seize the opportunity to kiss you properly.”
“In here, Papa!” Hero called, dashing to the door before turning back and dipping a saucy curtsey to Ian. “I will look forward to it, my lord.”
Ian grinned back at her and Hero turned away
, unable to stop the smile that stretched her cheeks.
“What is it, Papa?”
Her father bore the expression of a child who had lost his favorite toy. His cravat was skewed to the side and the rest of his clothing was equally rumpled. “I cannot find my rooms.”
“Oh, Papa,” Hero sighed, reaching up to straighten his cravat.
The duke’s day nurse, Simms, appeared breathlessly in the hall. “I’m sorry, m’lady. He got away from me.”
matter, Simms,” Hero said, looking back to find Ian lingering in the door of the study. A part of her wanted to remind Simms of the importance of his duties so that she might return to Ian. To see if he would hold on to his promise to kiss her properly right away.
“Who is that?” Beaumont asked
, pointing at Ian.
“That’s the marquis, Papa, remember?”
Sympathy wiped away the last of the humor in Ian’s expression and Hero knew the moment for flirtation and romance was past.
With a disappointed sigh she turned away. “Come, Papa, I’ll show you the way.”
“Do you think I could get a pudding
“And with dinner as well?”