“What will you do there? I can’t stand to imagine you alone and struggling on your own.”
“I won’t struggle,” she claimed with more confidence than she felt. “I’ll find a new job as a companion or governess, but I’ll move to a rural area where he would never search for me.”
“You really suppose you’ll be able to get away from him?”
“Out of sight, out of mind, Mr. Dudley. At the moment, he’s intrigued, but after I’m gone, he’ll forget all about me.”
“Perhaps,” Mr. Dudley cautiously concurred.
“Can you help me plan a furtive journey south?”
Mr. Dudley stared at his sister, and another visual communication passed between them.
Mr. Dudley shrugged. “I’ll take you myself in our carriage.”
“What? No, I didn’t mean you should go to all that trouble on my behalf. I merely want your advice as I devise a method of—”
“I’ll take you, Miss Lambert. I won’t have you flitting off by yourself. Let’s not quarrel about it.”
He spoke with a resolve that could have matched Penworth’s when he was at his most obstinate. Dudley wouldn’t be dissuaded, and since he’d made such a generous offer, she ought to be gracious enough to accept it.
“All right,” she consented.
“When would you like to go?”
“Friday would be best.” It was two days away. “The twins are heading to Edinburgh, to sail to London, themselves. Everyone at the castle will be occupied with their departure, so my own escape won’t be noticed.”
“Oh, I think your absence will be
, Miss Lambert.”
“Not for a while, Mr. Dudley, and by the time it is, I will have vanished.”
“IT’S such a lovely evening.”
“Yes, it is.”
John scowled at Violet, assessing her beautiful blond hair and perfect face. Why had he proposed to her?
The castle was overflowing with guests, and he had slipped away with Violet for the stroll she’d requested, but it had been a debacle. Though John had tried for inane banter, he couldn’t maintain any semblance of affability. Their prior cordiality had disappeared, and they’d trudged about, moping and lost in thought.
He was dying to tell her she was too young for him, that she should end his misery by going back to England and marrying some eighteen-year-old boy who’d be excited to have her.
“Thank you for walking with me,” she said.
“You’re welcome. I’m glad you suggested it. We’ve hardly spent any private time together.”
“No, we haven’t.”
They were approaching the castle, the uncomfortable promenade nearing its end, and he could barely hide his relief. A few dozen more yards, and they’d have returned to the party. He’d be swallowed up by the crowd; he’d be shed of her.
They reached the stairs, and he was frustrated as she pulled him to a halt.
“May I ask you a question?” she inquired.
“Are you still angry with me? It seems that you might be.”
He glanced up at the castle. A trio of fiddlers was playing a lively tune, and their music drifted out. Candlelight poked through the windows and doors. It was a magical, stirring sight.
He wondered where Lily was. He wondered what she was doing.
She hadn’t attended the soiree, declaring herself weary of the festivities, and he couldn’t blame her. They’d agreed to meet later, after everyone was abed, and it was the only topic he could contemplate.
He peered down at Violet, reflecting on how he’d betrayed her by carrying on with another woman right under her nose. He knew it was wrong, knew it was immoral and cruel, but he couldn’t renounce his affair.
Lily was like a disease in his blood. There was no cure. There was no antidote.
His wedding to Violet was almost a year away. He hoped that—when the date rolled around—he’d have had his fill of Miss Lily Lambert, and she would be gone from his life.
But what if she wasn’t? What if a year passed, and he desired her more than ever?
What then? What then?
The frantic query echoed in his head, and he shoved it away. He had to quit obsessing over Lily. Since he was standing arm in arm with Violet, it was particularly disconcerting.
“I was curious.” Violet hesitated, unable to continue.
“I know you won’t like to hear me mention your mother—”
“No, I won’t.”
“—but I was worried that she might have . . . have made a derogatory comment about me. Is that why you’re upset?”
“I haven’t discussed you with my mother. Nor would I.”
“Well, then. Good. Because if she
say something, it wasn’t true.”
Like a frightened rabbit, she skittered away, climbing up onto the terrace and hurrying inside before he could ask what the hell she’d meant.
She and Barbara must have quarreled. He couldn’t imagine what Barbara might have said, and he didn’t wish to be apprised. He was in no mood for trouble between Violet and Barbara, and he refused to referee any discord.
As if he’d conjured her up by thinking about her too intently, Barbara emerged from the shadows.
“John, are you really going to marry that girl?”
“Yes, Barbara, I really am.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I realize that. She was the best candidate in an entire flock of debutantes. I selected her after a lengthy search. I
to marry her.”
“No, you don’t.” She clucked her tongue like a mother hen scolding her chicks.
“Don’t presume to tell me what I want or don’t.”
“She’ll make you miserable.”
“Barbara, I will not debate my pending marriage with you. It’s none of your business.”
“Not my business? If your future contentment isn’t my business, what is?”
“Leave it be.”
“You should wed Miss Lambert, instead.”
“What did you say?”
“You love her. It’s so patently clear.”
Panic slithered through him, and he peeked about, terrified that others might be loitering and would have overheard the ridiculous remark.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he claimed.
“Do what you want for a change,” she urged. “Behave with a reckless abandon. Do the unexpected.” She grabbed his coat and shook him. “You’re my son. Though you deny it, some of my blood is raging in your veins.”
“There’s nary a drop.”
“Who cares about Esther’s opinion? Who cares about a bunch of stuffy sods in London? Let them all go to the devil. Make yourself happy. Pick Lily. Let her make you happy. Violet never will.”
John clasped her hands and removed them.
“Good night, Barbara.”
His heart pounding, dismay rocking him, he spun and escaped.
“YOU’RE not afraid, are you?”
“When I’m with you? Never.”
Lily clasped John’s hand a bit tighter, wanting to seem very brave, but she was a tad frightened—despite how fervidly she claimed otherwise.
They were descending into the cavern under the castle, headed for the ancient hot springs where she’d suffered the twins’ foul play. She’d assumed she would never again visit the isolated place, but he’d begged her to accompany him, and she’d been unable to refuse.
Though he had no clue of her intentions, she was leaving in the morning. Her small assortment of clothes was folded in her portmanteau. Mr. Dudley’s coach was loaded, the driver and outriders hired. The speedy journey would begin as soon as she appeared on his stoop.
She would never see John Middleton again.
While she’d promised she would stay with him, she hadn’t meant it, and in light of his experiences as a boy— when his mother had left him and never returned—he would view her act as an incredible betrayal.
If she had had any sense, she would have declined this final opportunity to dally, but she loved him too much. A night of intimacy would build fond recollections that would console her during the ensuing weeks and months without him.
She’d never met a man like him, and she would always be proud that she’d known him, that he’d fancied her. They would revel and frolic till dawn forced them back to their bedchambers. Then she would sneak away.
They arrived at the bottom of the winding staircase, John steadying her as she entered the grotto. His lantern had set the ceiling aglow, and she smiled at being reminded of how beautiful it was.
“Are you still all right?” he asked.
He escorted her to a stone bench carved from the rock. They’d brought a large picnic basket, but there were several more boxes discreetly shoved out of sight.
“What’s this?” he inquired as he pulled one out and glanced inside.
“After my incident, I had two footmen carry down some extra provisions. I didn’t want anybody to ever be caught as I was.”
“You’d have been a good soldier.” He riffled through the supplies, seeing candles and blankets, dried beef and preserves. “You certainly packed enough for an army.”
“I wasn’t taking any chances.” She frowned. “You’re not angry that I took the liberty, are you?”
“Of course not. I wish I’d thought of it.” He grinned. “It never occurred to me that a person could run into trouble down here. To me, it always seemed such a magical spot. I didn’t think disaster preparation was necessary.”
Neither had she, but the twins had taught her many valuable lessons, the main one being to be cautious, to be wary.
She sat and retrieved a bottle of wine Cook had put in the picnic basket. Lily wondered as to the woman’s opinion when she’d assembled the romantic meal. She had to have understood that the earl would use the items for an assignation.
Had word spread that the paramour in question was Lily? Or would Cook presume he was enamored of a guest?
Lily stifled a sigh, realizing that the servants’ attitudes no longer mattered. In a few hours, she’d be gone. Very likely, no one at the castle would ever ponder her again.
She was pouring the wine as he knelt in front of her.
“I want to swim with you”—his wicked expression had her laughing—“and I want you naked when I do it.”
He was already removing her shoes, his naughty hands sweeping up her legs to her garters. Swiftly, he had her stockings off, her feet bare on the cool stones. She might have protested or refused to shed her clothes, but she wouldn’t.
Whatever he asked her to try, she would try it. On this night—this
night—she would be the seductive vixen for whom he yearned.
He urged her to stand so he could unbutton her gown. It slid to her ankles, and she stepped out of it and draped it across the bench.
He made quick work of her corset, then her drawers, yanking them down and off so she was attired only in her chemise. She was still covered from bosom to mid-thigh, but if she’d been completely nude, she couldn’t have felt more exposed.
The fabric was worn and faded, and it rubbed her nipples, enlivening them. They poked at the material, the rigid tips galvanizing his attention.
He bent down and kissed one, then the other, but as he grabbed for the hem to wrench the garment over her head, she panicked. She wasn’t quite ready to be as brazen as she’d intended.
She eased away and smiled a smile as old as Eve’s.
“My turn,” she said. “If I have to be naked, you have to be naked, too.”
“My pleasure, you minx. Have your way with me.”
He flung his arms to the side, like a prisoner lashed to a crucifix, and she chuckled and began stripping him.
Coat, shoes, stockings, shirt. As each piece fell away, the excitement between them escalated. When she had him reduced to only his trousers, he pulled her to him, their bodies melded, and he instituted a stirring kiss that left her dizzy.
He backed into the pool, his trousers still on, and he guided her in after him, a stair at a time. The water rose to her calves, to her hips. He sank down and held his arms out to her. She floated into them, and he hugged her close, the kisses starting again.
Her legs were wrapped around his waist, and she was balanced on his lap. They bobbed together. He tugged off her chemise so she was nude, her bare chest pressed to his. The warm water made them both slippery, adding a sensual element to the encounter that rendered it particularly decadent.
She plucked at the waistband of his trousers, reminding him that she was undressed while he was not.
“You!” She sounded like a stern headmistress. “You are wearing entirely too many clothes.”
“So I am. You must divest me of them.”
He stood and she was on her knees, so he towered over her and undid the top three buttons.
She hovered like a supplicant, watching him, awe-struck by his male beauty. She wanted to remember him just as he was at that moment: happy, aroused, and totally fixated on her and what they were about to do.