The day of the dinner engagement with Jack and his family arrived, and that afternoon, Becky sat in her favorite chair in the salon warming her toes by the fire, an unopened book on her lap. Tonight was the first time Becky would see Jack since the morning of his proposal over a week ago. But tonight, her entire family would be in attendance, including her sharp-tongued Aunt Bertrice, who’d arrived from Yorkshire for the holidays just this morning.
A knock sounded on the door and she looked up to see a footman peek into the salon. “You’ve a visitor, my lady. Mr. Fulton is here to see you.”
Jack! She hadn’t expected him to arrive before dinner. She jumped out of her chair, set the book aside, and shook out the flounces in her slate-colored skirts. “He’s early.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Please show him up.”
A few moments later, Jack entered, bringing with him that masculine virility that shone about him like an aura. He was tall and broad and everything she ever imagined when she’d lain alone at night and envisioned perfection in a man.
Just inside the room, he stopped, a smile curving his wicked lips. The footman left, closing the door behind him.
“Thank God,” Jack said, his voice an arousing amalgam of roughness and quiet. “I thought I’d never see you alone.”
Her fingertips fidgeted in her skirts.
In two long, silent strides over the carpet, he stood before her. He hooked one broad arm around her waist and tugged her against him.
Every muscle in her body stiffened, but then his mouth descended over hers, and she melted.
His lips were the richest dessert, soft and creamy, passionate, as hungry for her as she was for him. She dropped her skirts, twined her arms about his neck, and kissed him back with the force of all the twisted emotions that had confounded her in the last several days.
If only it could always be like this. Her guilt and fear melted away, slid down her spine and pooled at her feet, leaving her fresh and pure and clean. Open to whatever he offered her.
He could make her lower all her shields. All he needed to do was keep kissing her, keep his lips pressed against her cheek, her eyelids, her jaw. Keep his hands firmly gripping her about the waist, holding her steady.
This was togetherness. If only they could stay like this, joined, inseparable…
But it ended all too quickly. He pulled away gently, then bent his forehead to hers. “I’ve missed you,” he murmured, his breath a whisper over her lips.
“I’ve missed you, too.”
“I’m going crazy for wanting you.”
Should she tell him the truth? Admit that she wanted him, too? Had desperately craved his touch every day since she’d last seen him?
Once, she’d felt this way with William, but that had faded sooner than she ever could have predicted. It was all a figment of her wishful imaginings, this security she felt in Jack’s arms. Even that had already proved false—for she’d been in his arms when all those people had stormed into the bedchamber last week.
He stroked the back of his finger down the side of her cheek. “You want me, too. I feel it.” His lips moved to her ear, his breath dancing over her lobe. “Let’s finish this nonsense. Marry me.”
She sighed. As much as she wanted him, she couldn’t suggest another evening with him in Sheffield’s Hotel.
He didn’t want that anymore. He wanted more. He wanted too much.
Pulling back, he scraped a thumb over her brow, smoothing it. “I’ve made up my mind—I made it up a week ago. I want you. I’m ready to commit to marrying you.”
She stared up at him, her forehead furrowed in consternation. “How can you say that so easily? How can you commit your life to someone you hardly know?”
He shrugged. “I’ve chosen my path. I will not be dissuaded from it. Not now, not ten years from now. This is what I what. You are what I want.” He gazed down at her face, his dark eyes intent. “Do you understand
“I…think so.” She turned away. “But it’s not so simple for me.”
“Why?” he demanded.
She crossed her arms tight across her shimmery gray bodice, closing herself off to him. “I never thought I’d marry again. I thought I’d live out the remainder of my days as a widow bluestocking.”
He chuckled. “You? A bluestocking?”
Once again it struck her how very little they knew of each other. Scandal aside, he intended to spend a lifetime with her based on nothing but their immediate carnal attraction. They possessed only a sliver of knowledge of each other beyond it.
She remembered those long days at Kenilworth after she and William had married. William had grown distant,
and she’d begun to realize they weren’t as well matched as he’d led her to believe. She’d never felt lonelier.
Since William died, she’d surrounded herself with her family, and more recently, Cecelia, and though she was physically lonely, that feeling was nothing compared to the soul-deep aloneness she’d felt at Kenilworth.
It wasn’t a difficult stretch of the imagination to think the same thing might happen with Jack. He was a bachelor rogue. Thirty years old, accustomed to gallivanting about the globe and taking lovers when the mood struck him. Accustomed to his freedom. Perhaps he’d loved a girl once, but that was long ago. Did he have the first idea how to know—to really know—a woman? Did he have the first idea how to be a husband? For that matter, did she have any idea how to be a proper wife?
“Becky?” He touched her hair, lightly stroking his fingers over the braided strands twisted at her nape. “I would make you happy,” he said, his voice quiet but emphatic. “I swear it.”
“Would you?” Turning back to him, she searched his eyes and found nothing but promise in them.
“I swear it,” he repeated. His lips descended on hers again, sweet and warm. His gentle touch swept through her, softening her muscles and her resistance.
“Marry me,” he whispered against her lips.
“No,” she whispered back. Then she winced as he stiffened. “Jack…I….”
His hands curled around her shoulders, but he didn’t pull away.
“I don’t mean it to sound so final.” Give him a chance, Kate had said, and she was right. It would be ridiculous, not to mention foolish, to dismiss Jack out of fear that he might be another William. “You must give me time.”
The tightening of his fingers on her shoulders was subtle, but she felt it. “I want you, Becky. Now.”
“I’m not ready.”
With a harsh, frustrated breath, he drew back, thrusting his hand through his blond-streaked hair. “I’m going to convince you otherwise. You’re afraid because of what happened to you last time. But you keep forgetting: I’m not him.”
“I know. Just…please. Be patient with me.”
“I’m not a patient man.”
“It will take time for me to learn how to trust again.”
A small thrill wound through her at his insistence, at the steely determination in his eyes. “And once I win your trust?”
“Then…if it can be done…yes. I will consider marrying you.”
He squared his shoulders. His brown eyes bore into hers in direct challenge. “I will win your trust, then. It won’t take long.”
He seemed very convinced of that, but she knew herself better than Jack did. “I hope you’re right,” she said with a small smile.
“I am right. By month’s end, we’ll be at the altar.”