When they reached the spring, Max shrugged out of his coat and spread it across the large flat rock. They sat side by side, removed their gloves, and tossed pebbles into the water until he asked, “What is it you wanted to talk about?”
Olivia swallowed hard. There was nothing to do but to get straight to the point. She lowered her hands, still clutching a pebble she hadn’t thrown yet, and looked straight into his eyes. “I am concerned…I fear…you might misunderstand our…association.”
He just gazed at her, a deepening frown creasing his brows.
“Please understand, I have no intention of…” She took a breath and tried again. “My future has been laid out for me, you see. I intend to live out my life here, at Stratford House, close to Meg and Phoebe and their children. I will not marry.”
Still, he didn’t say anything.
“I…You see, I want to be the spinster aunt.”
When he didn’t immediately answer, she jerked her face away from him and looked down at her fist wrapped around the little pebble. She uncurled her fingers and let it drop to the ground.
Finally, he spoke. “Do you think I was considering marriage?”
She went instantly hot all over. “No, of course not.” Biting her lip, she looked up and confessed, “Well, not today…but the way you’ve been… I…don’t know. If that was the direction of your thoughts, though… I just wanted you to know that I don’t foresee marriage—to anyone—in my future. So there is no point in courting me, or in me accepting the…er…advances…of any suitor.” She hesitated and then added a belated and breathy, “I’m sorry.”
His hand covered hers, his palm heavy and all-encompassing. It was the first time he’d touched her skin directly with his own, and the effect sucked the remaining air from her lungs.
“I had no intention of asking for your hand in marriage.”
Olivia went instantly stiff, humiliation threatening to choke her.
Glancing at her, he raked his free hand through his hair. “God, I’m sorry if that’s what I…” He hesitated, and his expression gentled as he leaned in closer to her. “Listen to me, Olivia. Thank you for being honest with me. You’re so special, so unlike any woman I’ve ever known, and you deserve my honesty in return. The truth is, I don’t intend to marry, either.”
“You don’t?” she murmured. Didn’t all dukes require wives and heirs?
He flinched, a subtle withdrawal. “It’s very complicated.” His lips twisted. “I suppose it comes down to the fact that I’ve always known I’d make a very poor husband. I wouldn’t want to cause any woman unhappiness, so I’ve known for a long time that marriage wasn’t for me.”
“Oh.” She looked up at him, confused on many levels. “Then what—why are you— Why did it seem like you wanted to—?”
She stopped speaking abruptly as the truth slammed into her. She didn’t think she could get any hotter from embarrassment, but now she was certain she must be scarlet. She tore her gaze away from him again.
Suddenly, the pressure of his palm on hers took on a completely different meaning, and she yanked her hand out from under his like it had scorched her. She turned wide eyes on him. “Oh. Oh, dear.”
His brow furrowed, and he leaned closer to her, the concern deepening on his face. “What’s wrong—?”
She raised her hand to stop his words, then closed her eyes and bent her head forward with a groan, slapping her palm over her forehead. “I am so stupid.”
“I should have known that’s what you wanted from me.” She braced herself, removed her palm from her forehead, and looked up at him. “I’m sorry, Max. I won’t…I thought you understood—I’m simply not the kind of woman who’s free with her…favors.”
The last word almost caught in her throat, and she coughed, even as her traitorous body rebelled against her words. She was flushed and needy. Whenever his skin touched hers, it relieved some of the ache while at the same time spreading the desire for more.
Max spoke softly. “I know that.”
“Do you? Are you certain? Because—” She hesitated, then gazed at him. “I’m so confused. I don’t know what this is…” She waved her hand between the two of them. “But…I can say with almost complete certainty that it is becoming a rather unusual friendship.”
“I’m very attracted to you, Olivia.”
His words made her body jolt backward. “What?”
Her voice came out in a squeak. There it was again—she sounded, and certainly looked, like a complete ninny.
“I’m attracted to you,” he repeated. “And I believe you’re attracted to me, too.”
Her mouth went dry. She couldn’t say she wasn’t attracted to him—that would be a lie. “Be that as it may,” she managed, “it doesn’t… I can’t…” She sucked in a breath. “I told you—I want to be the spinster aunt. By that, I don’t mean the disgraced spinster aunt.”
His green gaze narrowed. “Do you think that’s what I’d do? Disgrace you?”
No, he’d touch her all over with those big hands of his. He’d relieve her need, bring her pleasure…
Oh, Lord. The way she was beginning to think about Max was utterly scandalous and improper. She must not think of what he’d do to her. Goodness, her body was running hot one second then cold the next. She was completely out of her depth.
“I don’t know,” she said breathlessly. She shook her head. “This discussion is highly…” embarrassing, awkward, distressing, “…improper.”
He lifted one shoulder in a shrug, but a smile teased at the corners of his lips. “You brought the subject up.”
“Because I felt it must be brought up before things went too far. I was feeling…” She searched desperately for the right word.
“…an attraction,” he finished for her.
She screwed her eyes shut. “Yes. An attraction.”
After a long silence, he murmured, “It doesn’t need to be like this.”
“Like what?” Her voice was a wisp of sound on the air.
“What should it be like?”
Her hand was resting flat on the rock, and he lifted it in his own. When she didn’t move away, he turned it over and placed a soft kiss in her palm, his lips and fingers warm against her skin.
Olivia found the gentle touch so wildly erotic that she had to focus on her breathing—it was speeding up so quickly, the world was blurring.
“It should feel good,” he murmured against her palm. “Exciting.”
“It does,” she said on a near groan.
He lowered her hand and squeezed it between both of his own. “Don’t be afraid of me, Olivia. I will do nothing to you that you don’t want. And I would never, ever see you disgraced.”
God help her, she was tempted. So tempted. Every cell in her body demanded that she submit, that she say, Yes, Max. Take me. Do whatever it is with me that you please.