The door opened into a light-filled library. In contrast to the rest of the darkened, dirty house, this room glittered with attention.
The light was dazzling. The room stretched the length of two or three regular-sized rooms and floor-to-ceiling bow windows covered the south-facing outside wall; each window section boasted either a cushioned bench or a stuffed chair, ideally situated to make the most of the daylight. Interspersed between the windows were bookshelves no taller than Sara’s shoulder, each brimming with the printed word.
The inside walls had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves divided into two levels, creating a U-shaped display; staircases at either end gave access to the balcony level; both descended into hearth areas containing intimate arrangements of sofas, chairs and tables in front of the large marble fireplaces. Glancing up, Sara saw the balcony even stretched above the doorway. On either side of the lower level, rolling ladders had been attached to provide access to the higher shelves tucked underneath the balcony. Smaller shelves, identical to the ones along the window walls, created small corridors of books.
Stepping farther in, Sara felt overwhelmed by the contradictory sensations of comfort and awe the room inspired.
A hand holding an almost empty glass appeared from behind one of the armchairs facing a hearth. “Sawyer,” a voice barked. “The brandy is gone. Bring me whiskey.” The word was slurred, coming out as whish-key.
Heavens, the man was foxed and it wasn’t even tea time. Her resolve wavered momentarily, but Sara narrowed her eyes and walked over to his chair, her skirts swishing with the force of her stride. She stopped at his side, her arms folded her chest, her frown disapproving.
Mr. Grant rolled his head and looked at her with bleary eyes. Staring for a moment, he chuckled. “Of course,” he muttered. “Why wouldn’t you be here.”
Sara opened her mouth to reply, but he continued to speak. “You’re everywhere, aren’t you? Well, may as well make yourself useful then. There’s whiskey over there. Just bring the bottle.” He gestured loosely toward a cabinet by the stairs. The remains of the glass disappeared down his throat.
Sniffing, Sara followed his gesture to the cabinet and opened it. It took her several minutes to locate the one labeled “whiskey,” and she noted all the empty space in the cabinet. Had he not filled it completely or had he drunk it all away? She did not want to contemplate the answer.
She turned back. Her earlier righteous indignation had kept her from registering him exactly, but from this position, what she saw rooted her to the spot.
A loosened shirt and trousers were all he wore; even his shoes and stockings were off, revealing long, narrow feet and toes. His open shirt revealed the bronzed skin of his chest, covered with golden hair. Oddly, Sara felt the urge to press her cheek to his exposed chest and feel that hair against her skin. His left leg was stretched out in front of him and he was rubbing his thigh, almost absently, his head leaning back against the chair with his eyes closed, his blond hair in tousled disarray. The golden wolf’s head of his cane glinted in the sun where it rested against the nearby sofa.
The glass in his hand rose again. “I’m waiting,” he said in a singsong voice. The glass plunked down on the side table, nearly falling off. The table itself teetered for a moment.
She blinked, the brief spell broken. Reminded of her purpose, she thinned her lips into the disapproving frown and once more approached him. Reaching the chair, she placed the bottle on the table beside his glass. Before she could straighten, however, his hand clamped around her wrist and pulled her toward him.
With a truncated shriek, Sara landed across his lap, her bottom hitting his left leg. He winced and his other arm formed a steel band around her waist, shifting her to his right one.
“Mr. Grant!” she gasped.
“Hmm,” he grunted. “I don’t like your bonnet.” He began plucking at the ribbons, ignoring her hands trying to stop him. He scowled when the ribbons knotted, so he wrapped his fingers around them and jerked them off, breaking both from the bonnet itself. Smiling in triumph, he tossed the destroyed ribbons on the floor and the bonnet sailed to the sofa.
Mr. Grant then tightened his arm around her waist and captured her two hands with one of his own, effectively halting her struggles. “Stop,” he commanded in a soft, deep voice.
Sara stilled, her eyes locked on his. The pale blue orbs seemed to be having difficulty focusing, but remained steady, connecting with her startled gaze. She could see pain in them, but it was being pushed aside by a rising heat. She was acutely aware of the hard muscle pressing along her waist, holding her to his solid chest. She could feel his torso rise and fall with each breath he took; hers sped up in response.
He slowly released her hands and one naturally settled on his chest for support, her fingertips resting on his exposed skin. It was hot beneath her touch and the dusty hair tickled and twined around her fingers. Coarse, her mind registered, but pleasant. His eyes closed and he inhaled deeply; Sara felt the air expand his rib cage. Her spine prickled with awareness and the knowledge she had never been so close to a man before.
His eyes opened and met hers again. “Miss Collins,” he said, his voice husky. “You are everywhere.” He lifted his hand and brushed his fingers along her cheekbone, moving back to thread into her hair. “What is your name?” he asked.
She swallowed. “Sara.” Her voice was little more than a whisper.
The corner of his mouth lifted. “How do I know that is the truth? I do not know your name and you are not actually here.”
She looked at him, confused.
“But I am glad you are,” he continued, his gaze shifting to her lips. He licked his. “I’ve been quite curious about how you taste.”
His fingers tightened in her hair and he pulled her head down to his. He paused just before their lips met, his curving into a small smile. “Yes,” he murmured, “quite curious indeed.”
Mr. Grant closed the small distance between them, his lips capturing hers with confidence and skill. Sara held herself rigidly, unsure of what to do, how to react. It was a foreign experience, having a man kiss her. Her eyes were wide open, but all she could see was him. His own eyes were closed again and she felt his breath against her cheek, his nose nestled against hers.
He shifted, angling his head and his lips, both firm and gentle, moved over hers, caressing her mouth. Warmth slipped out of his mouth and over her skin, burrowing itself into her pores. It was an odd sensation, but not unpleasant. In fact, Sara was even beginning to enjoy it. Her eyes fluttered shut and a small sigh escaped her as she began to move her lips in rhythm with his, provoking an answering moan from the man beneath her.
He tightened his grip on her hair and his kiss grew more pressing. When his tongue traced her lips, touching them for the first time, a thrill shot down her neck and she trembled. When his tongue came out again, she eagerly met it with her lips, the slight opening giving him all the space he needed to slip in.
Mr. Grant seemed to like it when she mimicked him, so she followed his retreating tongue into his mouth, playfully dancing with it as he had with hers. With each pass of his tongue, her mind emptied more and more until that remained was awareness of him.
Sara didn’t know how long the kiss lasted; her senses were consumed by him, by the feel of his lips and tongue against hers, the pounding of his heart beneath her hand. It was with disappointment that she realized the kiss was slowing, that he intended to pull away.
When he did, Sara slowly opened her eyes, needing to concentrate on focusing. Mr. Grant leaned his head against the chair, and though his eyes were still closed, a smile covered his face. His arms around her had loosened and fallen away.
“Ah, my dream Nymph,” he said. “You did not disappoint.”
Sara stared, reality crashing around her once more. Mr. Grant had not actually been kissing her, but a dream. He didn’t think she was even here.
Shame and embarrassment filled her stomach, sickening her. Her first kiss and the man was too drunk to even know she was there.
She pushed away from him and got to her feet. Her fingers were shaking as she smoothed her dress. Spying her bonnet on the sofa, she reached for it.
“Yes, dream Nymph, leave me. As always, leave me.”
She glanced back at Mr. Grant to see him watching her through narrow eyes. The smile remained on his face, and he waved her away dismissively before he closed his eyes again and settled deeper into the chair.
Gripping her bonnet, Sara left, her dignity in tatters around his feet. She kept her eyes on the floor, the carpets and dark wood blurry through the pooling tears. Stumbling back into the darkened corridor, she saw that George was still arguing with the horrid butler.
She headed straight for the still open door. She heard George call out her name, but she didn’t stop until she had climbed back onto the cart.
She needed as much distance between her and Windent Hall, and its master, as she could get.
Her mother shrieked in her ear. Hussy!
Nathan opened his eyes into inky darkness. For a moment, the thought that he had gone blind scattered across his mind, but after blinking a few times, he was able to make out the shapes of nearby furniture in the moonlight. Given the cottony dryness of his mouth and the ache in his neck, the truth settled over him, unwelcome.
He had passed out in the library again.
He allowed himself a small smile. Despite the ache and dryness of his mouth, this was the one time he didn’t regret he had. His dream Nymph had visited again, but this time she had allowed him liberties she hadn’t before. Prior to this dream, she had danced away from him, always out of reach.
But last night—or this afternoon?—had been different. Before she could escape, he had captured his Nymph and held her close.
Triumph had surged through his veins when she settled on his lap, and once he had gotten rid of that blasted bonnet obscuring her face, he hadn’t been able to resist kissing her, learning her taste.
Sweet mother of Christ, it had been incredible. Even now, the memory of her lush curves pressing along his body and the sweet taste of her mouth had him shifting against the increasing tightness in his trousers.
With a sigh, Nathan twisted to turn on the table lamp next to the chair. The wick caught and the flame gave off a small aura of light. Pulling away from the lamp, he accidently knocked the half-empty bottle of whiskey, causing it to spin and fall off the table, landing on the floor with a large thunk.
Jumping up from the chair with a curse, Nathan reached down to save the amber liquid from spilling everywhere. Righting the bottle on the floor, he patted around under the table for the cork. His now wet fingers curled around the object and he pulled it out.
He stilled when the light showed him something else in his hand accompanying the cork. Two lengths of white ribbon, knotted together, threaded through his fingers. Their ends were slightly frayed as if they had been forcibly pulled off what they had been attached to, something like a bonnet.
Nathan sat back on his heels, staring at the ribbons.
Oh bloody hell.