Since then, however, the little time she had spent with Lord Carstairs had given her the impression that he was a man who was fully awake to the world around him. Augusta was accustomed to carefully observing those around her. Because it was so difficult for her to understand what they were feeling or what they meant, she needed all the clues she could possibly gather to navigate social situations. She feared his alert gaze, the way he seemed to understand what a person was thinking before they spoke. Such a man could not remain long ignorant of the malformation of her character. What if he decided he did not want to tie himself to a blighted woman and backed out of the marriage? This, she knew, would bring much unpleasantness down on her and her family, While she might not possess a heart, she did have a conscience. The girls of her family were coming out and courting. If Lord Carstairs cried off the marriage, it would make their lives difficult. But she was the beggar in their agreement; his lordship could afford to be the chooser.
The long, low rumble of the pocket doors being drawn open rippled through the conservatory’s silence. Augusta froze. Contrary to what Valeria might fear, Augusta was sensible to the delicacy of her position. She had left her own engagement party and isolated herself in the conservatory. People would, in fact, think she was waiting for someone. There would be talk. Lord Carstairs would be embarrassed, and that could make for difficulties. Fortunately, except for the patches of moonlight streaming through the arched windows, the chamber was quite dark. Augusta moved to the shelter of a carefully contrived grove of potted orange and lemon trees where her shadow would not be distinguished from those of the plants. Surely it was only someone looking for a moment’s respite from the ballroom’s crush, as she had done. They would stroll about the decorative plants for a few minutes, then leave, and she could return to her party. This time she would work harder to put a smile on her face for Lord Carstairs. She had practiced the expression in front of the mirror. She could do it.
Footsteps pattered lightly across the tiled floor. It was not one person who slipped into the conservatory, but two. A young man led a young woman by the hand. The young woman clearly had no trouble putting a smile on her face. Even in the dim moonlight, Augusta could see how the slender, pale flower of a girl gazed raptly at her companion, a dark-haired fellow come fresh to manhood, to judge by his wiry build. To Augusta’s dismay, the pair moved directly into the curve of the little citrus grove, so only a thin screen of trees and greenery separated her from them.
But these two did not see her there behind the ferns and orange trees. They only had eyes for each other. The young man wrapped both arms around the girl’s waist. As their bodies pressed more tightly together, levity deserted the couple, replaced by a strange intensity.
“Julian . . .” the girl whispered.
“Hush, Melissa. I know.”
Julian cupped Melissa’s delicate face in both his hands and lowered his mouth to hers. It was an open, heated kiss these two shared, unabashed and unhurried. Augusta stared, clenching her brooch. Julian’s hands slid up Melissa’s back, slowly, as if he treasured each inch of netted satin that passed under his palms. Then he moved them around to the side, brushing her breasts so that Melissa hummed low in her throat, even as her mouth continued to work against his.
At last they broke the kiss and Augusta thought they would leave, but they stayed, pressed against each other, smiling into one anothers’ eyes.
“I need you.” Melissa laced her fingers into her lover’s dark hair. “Please, Julian.”
“Oh, my dear,” Julian breathed, and kissed her again, flicking his tongue lightly against her lips. “I want you so. But we should take care . . .”
“Please,” whispered Melissa once more.
Julian, it seemed, had no heart to refuse her. Again they kissed, and Melissa’s hands wandered freely over her lover’s body, touching everywhere: shoulders, chest and muscled thighs, lingering especially over his taut buttocks. Julian sighed and growled and pulled her even close, crushing her soft body against him, rubbing his hips against hers until she gasped.
Augusta knew she should close her eyes. She should back away. But she could not move.
Julian turned Melissa in the circle of his arms so that her back was to him. He ran his hands lightly down her front, pausing at her breasts, stroking them lightly but thoroughly, so that she shivered against him and he smiled wickedly. Then he leaned her forward, keeping one arm wrapped about her waist and his hips pressed firmly against her as he opened the tapes of her dress with his other hand. He was more expert at such work than Augusta would have expected a man to be, for in a matter of moments, he was able to draw Melissa’s shining ball gown over her head and lay it carefully aside on the ironwork bench.
Melissa swung her arms up over her head and pivoted on her toes to face her lover. The moonlight turned her chemise translucent, showing up her curved figure in clear silhouette. Julian went down on one knee and held out both hands. Melissa walked gracefully into his arms, fully aware, it seemed, of her own beauty in that moment.
Slowly, Augusta became aware of a strange sensation in her. The soft gray mists that always seemed to cradle her thoughts had thinned. In their place came an awareness of confinement, as if she pressed up against the cold, mullioned windows of the conservatory, watching the lovers from the far side.
Julian wrapped his arms around Melissa, bringing her close so he could rub his face against her belly. It was an intimate gesture, and the sensation of division, of the glass wall inside Augusta’s mind strengthened. What was it these two had in them that she did not? What connected them so tightly?. She had searched and searched for answers to such questions, but her inability to comprehend had never seemed to her as monstrously unfair as it did in this moment.
Julian stood, dragging his hands up Melissa’s rib cage, holding her gaze with his own as he brought his hands to her sloping shoulders. She was breathing hard, and her eyes were half lidded. She arched her back, and Julian pushed the sleeves of her chemise down to bare her breasts to the moonlight and his flashing gaze.
“Is it not beautiful?” said a man’s voice behind her.
Shock caused Augusta to shoot upright.
“Don’t worry, Augusta,” whispered the man, and now she thought she heard a smile in his deep voice. “It’s quite all right.”
Now she recognized the voice. Lord Carstairs, her fiancé, stood behind her, and stood very close. She could sense the warmth and solidity of his strong body, and catch his masculine scent of leather, spice and brandy even over the heady aroma of the orange trees.
It was not possible to expire of shock, not really, but in that moment Augusta wished she could. Perhaps she could manage a faint. Her knees felt weak enough to buckle credibly.
On the other side of the screen of trees and greenery, Julian murmured to his Melissa. He closed his hands over both her bared breasts, kneading them firmly, watching the delight on her face. She grasped his forearms, pressing herself toward him.
“I was leaving,” Augusta said, to Lord Carstairs, to herself, even as she watched Julian’s hands working against Melissa’s soft white breasts. His fingertips grasped her ruched nipple and rolled it back and forth. Melissa pressed her hand over her mouth to stifle her moan.
“I was leaving,” Augusta said again.
“Shhh . . .” Lord Carstairs reached around and pressed two fingers lightly against Augusta’s lips. His other hand closed about her arm, not so much holding in place her as firmly suggesting she should stay where she was. “Be patient a moment. I will get us both away.”
Carstairs’s hands were warm. Somewhere, distantly, Augusta was aware of that warmth spreading down her arms to pool low in her belly. Her lips felt the callouses on his fingertips, perhaps from the ropes he’d handled as a sailor. It was a gentle touch, but not soft. It would not be right if it was soft, she was oddly sure of that.
Lord Carstairs moved his hand from her mouth, but slowly, drawing those calloused fingers across her lips, leaving trails of light behind.
Julian was murmuring to Melissa. Reflexively, Augusta leaned forward, straining to hear. Her left hand pressed tight against her own belly. Lord Carstairs showed no sign of moving, or of taking his heavy, strong hand from her arm. She should pull away. She should leave on her own. This was wrong of her, of them. What this other couple did—the way they laid down together on the tiled floor so Julian could kiss his way down the curve of Melissa’s body as his hands slowly pushed her muslin chemise up over her thighs until he exposed the tangled nest of gleaming curls between them—this was indecent.
But watching it, staring at it, that was worse. Augusta knew she should at the very least turn away. This struggle inside her, this push of her awareness against the glass wall inside her mind, this was dangerous. She felt that instinctively. Glass could break, and once broken could not be made whole again. There was danger here. She must retreat, back into the safe, gray, distant place where she had always existed. The place that separated her from other people, from passions of all sorts, from love. That was the place where she was safe.
What is this? Where do these thoughts come from?
A shudder ran through Augusta and she clutched her brooch until its figured edges bit into her hand.
Slowly, almost reverently, Julian lowered his head to Melissa’s naked thighs. He kissed first one then the other as his hands shifted them apart. Melissa sighed into the palm of one hand while the other tangled in Julian’s hair, urging him closer. Despite her urging, despite her sighs, Julian moved slowly, kissing and licking, but at last he pressed his smiling mouth to those dark curls. Melissa’s hips lifted, and he tucked his hands beneath her, kneading and squeezing. He began to lick her there as well, hard and firm. Melissa squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her hand more tightly over her mouth to smother her cries. Her other hand she knotted tightly in Julian’s hair, holding him in place, demanding that he continue.
“We can go now,” breathed Lord Carstairs into Augusta’s ear. “If you wish.”
A question waited beneath those words. Could Lord Carstairs honestly believe she wanted to stay here and
? She didn’t. She couldn’t explain this paralysis that had overtaken her, leaving her helpless to so much as turn away from the sight of Julian’s hot, wicked actions with mouth and hands, and Melissa’s wanton delight in all he did to her body.
And yet, she still couldn’t move. Melissa had begun to thrash madly. Julian moaned against her and gripped her thighs as his mouth pressed more tightly against her. Something was happening, some change. Melissa’s delight had taken on a fever pitch, and Julian held her hips tightly, squeezing and lifting her to his wicked kisses, taking her further, and further still, into the strange and dangerous world of delight.
“Please,” whispered Augusta. “Take me out of here.”
“Come then, Augusta.” Gently but firmly, Lord Carstairs guided her toward the door.