The end of May had arrived and people were eager for the charity fair. Children’s activities and performances were arranged for during the day and the evening had a traveling theater troupe performing for the adults, followed by bonfires and feasting and dancing. It was a yearly event that the Ladies Auxiliary for the Betterment of Widows, Orphans and Other Unfortunates held to raise funds for said unfortunates, and Claire and Sara had helped by organizing the children’s performance for their parents and other adults in the town.
Sara now stood several feet away from the dancing floor, watching her friends laugh and twirl, smiling at how much they were enjoying themselves. Claire and Louisa never lacked for partners, much to Jacob’s dismay. He consoled himself by frequently claiming a husband’s privilege to dance with his wife; if they had been in London, it would be a scandal. Sara thought he didn’t mind this particular adjustment to country life.
Bonfires and torches lit the area, fighting off the chill of the spring night. More than one couple disappeared into the darkness, Sara noted. Mr. Pomeroy, recently returned from Ramsey Gate, had shared supper with them, but excused himself soon after, explaining that there are some things the vicar should not be a witness too; it was much easier to discuss it with repentant souls when you were not a participant, he declared with a rueful smile.
Tugging her shawl around her shoulders, she smiled at passing revelers. People greeted her and called out congratulatory comments for the successful children’s pantomime, at which she blushed with pleasure. No one stopped, however, to speak with her at length, and no one asked her to dance, aside from Jacob. She could not refuse her friend’s husband, but winced with embarrassment with every misstep and crunch of his toes. Jacob was kind enough not to comment and even asked her again later, but she preferred to stand on the sides, away from the more crowded areas, and watch her friends enjoy themselves.
Sara glanced over at the food table, constantly refilled by volunteers, her gaze lingering particularly on the pasties and sweets. Supper had been just before sunset and her stomach was beginning to grumble again. Surely a pasty or two wouldn’t hurt, she thought. Claire and I worked hard with the children, so perhaps I deserve a treat. Thinking more on it, her mouth began to water with the thought of the crescent-shaped delight.
She continued to convince herself of the merits of eating a pasty this late at night, her eyes roving over the dancers again. The music had ended and everyone was applauding while preparing for the next set. Sara smiled when she saw Jacob whisper something in Claire’s ear and her responding laugh and gentle touch to his arm. Louisa had left the floor with some ladies Sara recognized from church and was quenching her thirst at the lemonade table. As she watched, a young man Sara didn’t know approached her friend and spoke to her, gesturing to the dance floor. Louisa stiffened when he first spoke, but after a lengthy perusal of the man and some questions, gave her assent and allowed him to lead her onto the floor.
The couples were lining up, giving Sara a clear view across the floor. It was then she saw him, Mr. Grant, and her breath caught in her throat.
He was standing directly opposite her, his gaze intent as he met her eyes. With his black clothes, he blended into the darkness, the bonfires trying to illuminate him with little success. They had not encountered each other since that day in the shop; although she had seen him lurking around the fair, he had not approached her, despite their gazes meeting several times.
She had come to expect the intensity with which he looked at her; it both confused and thrilled her. Since the shop, she now knew that his look meant he desired her. Mr. Pomeroy didn’t look at her like that; if he did, she was unsure if it would have the same effect on her as Mr. Grant’s gaze did.
The man wielded power with his gaze and he was difficult to fight.
But she must continue to try.
As she watched, he pivoted on his heel and walked around the dance floor, his gaze leaving hers only for moments at a time. His intent was clear; he was coming to speak with her, possibly even ask her to dance. Despite the usual dismay at that prospect, Sara’s breathing hitched again with nervous excitement and her mind raced with what to say to him. She must make her position clear. She was not inclined toward his pursuit and did not appreciate his inappropriate attentions. The nervous excitement pulsed in her chest, putting lie to her thoughts.
Her ear tingled in memory of the touch of his tongue and her mouth parted involuntarily. She pressed them together as he neared her.
“Miss Collins,” he greeted with a nod of his head.
“Mr. Grant,” she acknowledged with a slight curtsey.
He stood beside her, looking out over the dancers; Sara took pains to not look at him. Claire and Louisa twirled and spun with their partners. “Are you enjoying the evening?” he asked after several moment of silence.
“I am, thank you.”
“Your friends seem to be as well.”
“Yes.” Why was she so eagerly anticipating his dance request? She hated dancing and found her lack of ability embarrassing, thinking everyone was watching her making mistakes. Perhaps she should pull the rug out from under his feet, so to speak. “If you wish to ask me to dance, I would rather you didn’t. I shouldn’t like to refuse you.” The words came out in a rush and she felt her face set on fire from her audacity.
Sara felt him turn toward her. “You would refuse me?”
She gave a shaky nod, unwilling to look at him and see censure on his face.
“Then I suppose it is a good thing I was not planning on asking you.”
She felt the anticipation deflate from her body, her shoulders slumping.
He continued. “It saves us both the embarrassing scene.”
She turned her head toward him. With that annoying sardonic smile, he tapped his left leg with his cane. “This makes dancing difficult. I have not asked a lady to dance in over a decade.”
Oh. Her face flushed with embarrassment after all. She had not even considered that he would be unable to dance. She had been so consumed by her foolish anticipation and thoughts of how to make her position clear that she did not fully comprehend his situation.
“I am sorry,” she said, staring at the ground. “I did not mean to offend you.”
Mr. Grant gave a deep chuckle. “You may consider us even if you answer a question.”
Sara looked at him again, caution in her eyes. Seeing it, he chuckled again and put his hand over his heart. “’Pon my honor, I mean you no mal intent. It is just a question.”
She nodded. “Very well.” His chuckles, unexpected and endearing, made her stomach flip.
“Are you hungry?”
Sara blinked, thrown off guard by his question. Of all the things she had been expecting him to ask, that was not among them.
He gestured to the food table. “I ask because I noticed you looking at it repeatedly, like one who has not eaten in days.”
Her face was flaming now and she turned away from him, returning her attention to the dancers now forming a new set.
Mr. Grant put a large hand on her arm, warm and gentle. Awareness spiraled around it, warmth spreading over her skin through her dress. “I do not mean to embarrass you,” he said. “I merely noticed it and am hungry myself. Would you care for something to eat?”
Sara swallowed and shook her head. “No, thank you.” She had already decided to forego the pleasure of a pasty.
“Are you certain? You were looking quite longingly.”
She shook her head again. “I have already eaten supper.”
“That was hours ago. Surely you could stand to have a few nibbles of something.”
“I am fine, I assure you.”
“Well, I am not,” he said, taking her elbow. “Come and keep me company.” He pulled her along with him, approaching the food table. He released her and hooked his cane over his arm to take a plate and began filling it with small cakes and seafood patties.
How in the world can the man eat so much? Sara thought. Out loud, she said, “Once again you have commandeered me away from what I was doing.” Her mouth watered as she watched him put several Cornish pasties on his plate.
Mr. Grant glanced at her, his eyes mocking. “You were occupied by something important? Oh yes, watching your friends have fun.”
“I was enjoying myself,” she replied, defending herself.
“Hmm. Do you like pasties?”
Sara tore her eyes from his plate. Her stomach growled. He chuckled, making her face flush again.
“Come, let us sit.” When she didn’t move, he spoke again. “I understand that choice is important to you. You can either stand at the side of the dance floor, alone, to watch your friends take pleasure in the evening. Or you can sit with me where you can still see your friends, but no longer be alone.” When he saw her hesitation, he continued. “Look, true to my word, I have been pleasant, haven’t I?”
Sara couldn’t stop the quick laugh. “You and I have different definitions of pleasant, sir.”
He grinned at that. “For me, then. I have been pleasant in comparison to other behavior previously demonstrated. Come and sit with me.” His tone had turned cajoling. “I can further practice my good behavior, perhaps soon even be suitable for genteel company.”
His playful tone relaxed her. She laughed again and followed him to the open table at the side, half shrouded in darkness. She settled her skirts under the table, feeling her knees brush against his. He situated the plate between them and took a seafood patty, popping it into his mouth. Gesturing to a volunteer, he requested two glasses of wine to be brought to their table, indicating his cane. The volunteer hurried away to do his bidding.
“You are shameless,” Sara accused.
“Guilty,” he replied with a grin. “If I have to live with it, I might as well make it useful when I can.”
“How did it happen?” she asked. She quickly closed her mouth and looked down at her hands folded on the table. “I am sorry, I did not mean to pry.”
“I fell from my horse when I was fifteen,” he answered. “I was fine until the rearing horse landed on my leg. The surgeon did his best.”
“Dear heavens, you were very fortunate to not have lost it completely.”
“You apologize quite a bit. Why is that?”
Sara pulled back at the change in subject. “Should I model myself after you and throw my conscience away?”
“Not at all. But it seems your conscience overwhelms you. I am surprised you do not buckle under the weight of it.”
“I thought you were going to practice pleasantness.”
He selected a sweet cake and offered it to her. At her shake of head, he put it into his mouth. “You are correct. I shall be more diligent, but be sure to tell me if I am failing. Tell me, have you heard from your brother recently?”
Sara shook her head. “No. I have not expected to. Adam writes infrequently. Even if he were more prolific, the nature of being on a ship prevents regular access to the post.”
“Ah. So no sea stories for you.”
She smiled. “I have been reading some of Hakluyt’s stories recently for entertainment.”
“Hakluyt? The minister who wrote down sailors’ stories?”
Sara nodded. “Yes. I find the tales he relates absolutely fascinating. I just finished reading of Frobisher’s first voyage. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be the first one to see all those ice fields. Ice and snow for as far as the eye can see. And to think there are people who live there. Incredible, is it not?”
“This sort of thing amuses you?”
“Does it not amuse you? Think of the adventures one may have.”
“So you are an adventure seeker? You do not strike me as the sort.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He smiled and shook his head. “What sort of adventures have you pursued?”
She bristled at his mocking tone. “I fail to understand what I have done to deserve your mockery, sir. I do not ridicule that which amuses you.”
He leaned forward on his elbows, challenge glinting in his eyes. “That whole ‘treat your neighbor as yourself’ bit again? I doubt you would mock my amusements if you even knew what they were.”
Swallowing, she lifted her chin in uncharacteristic defiance and answered his challenge. “Try me.” Her voice was a squeak.
His brows lifted in surprise. “Very well. My dreams amuse me.”
“Indeed? What sort of dreams amuse one such as you?”
“I believe I’ve mentioned it before, Nymph. I dream of you.”
Sara stared at him. He had been serious about that?
“Oh, yes,” he said in a raspy voice, his eyes darkening into clear, hot springs. “I dream of you.”
Had she spoken out loud?
“I dream that you come to me at night, your body veiled in a thin night rail, hugging your curves. Your hair is undone and the curls tease your nipples into tight buds as you walk toward me.” His gaze flickered over her hair and settled on her lips. He licked his own. “You open your mouth without hesitation when I kiss you and our tongues touch and learn each other anew every night. I touch your neck, feel your pulse beat and speed up when I trail my fingers down to your bosom.”
She felt her pulse race, true to his words. His eyes were following the path he described and she felt it as much as if he were actually touching her. Fingers of fire threaded down her throat and she felt her nipples harden to the point of aching. Wetness pooled between her legs and she shifted in her seat.
Mr. Grant raised his eyes to hers again, trapping her with the blatant lust she saw in them. “I kissed you, Nymph, the day you came to my library. I put my tongue in your mouth, and I dream of doing it again and again and again and doing so much more than that. That is what amuses me.”
Sara’s breath came in short pants. Her body ached to be touched—for his touch, she knew. How had he done this to her with mere words? The temptation of him was tantalizing.
As she watched, he looked down at the plate of food between them and selected a cake, popping it into his mouth. When he looked back at her, the lust she had seen had been banished, replaced with an innocuous expression. Had it merely been her imagination moments before? Had he done this to be cruel to her? Or was this all a part of his challenge, of him believing her incapable of adventure, of being incapable of answering his mockery?
She found her voice. “Well,” Sara said, pursing her lips. “You are proving to be unpleasant again.”
He cocked a brow, one side of his mouth curling up. “Am I? I suppose I could be doing worse. This is the most you have ever spoken to me without retreating into one of your silences. That must count for something.”
“Why are you like this?” she asked. “Why do you insist on provoking me?”
“Why do you not fight back?”
Sara was saved from answering by the wine arriving. She took a quick sip, surprised at how easily it went down. The ants were not present, despite the taxing conversation. Odd.
Mr. Grant took a pasty and pushed the plate toward her. “Have something to eat.”
Sara shook her head. “I have no wish to eat.”
“Yet you keep looking at it. Take something.”
“I cannot eat your food. It would be unmannerly.”
He smiled. “I filled my plate with both of us in mind. I cannot eat all this on my own.” He took a big bite of his pasty, arching his eyebrows as he chewed. Juices ran down his chin and he wiped them away with his napkin. He extended his arm, offering her his pasty.
Sara stared at him, watching his eyes turn from chilly pools to hot springs once more. This time she knew it was not her imagination. She knew what he wanted her to do, but she couldn’t do it. Not like that.
When she didn’t accommodate him, disappointment flickered in his eyes and he pulled away, taking another bite. He chewed slowly, watching her closely as she sipped her wine. Swallowing his food, he chased it down with wine. He narrowed his eyes at her.
“Why do you dislike taking what you want?” He asked his question in a soft, dark voice. It was a distinct shift from his previous, more playful tone.
“Excuse me? I don’t understand what you mean.” The ants began to slowly march in her throat. She cleared her throat, feeling them fall away and disappear.
“I think you understand exactly what I mean,” he replied. He picked up a pasty and put it into her hand. “You want to have a pasty; I can see it in your eyes and hear it from your stomach. There is nothing wrong with taking what you want.”
“That is the definition of greed, sir,” Sara replied quietly, the pasty warming her hand and teasing her nostrils.
“To eat when you are hungry is greed?”
“To desire more when you have already been satisfied is.”
“But hunger is never permanently satisfied. Surely that philosophy cannot be applied here.”
Sara stared at him. Gluttony is a sin, girl. What would people say if they saw the way you eat? You know how people talk about girls who carry too much weight on them.
“Go on,” he encouraged. “Eat it.”
She looked at Mr. Grant, his eyes steady on hers.
You are the Devil’s instrument, girl, with the way you open yourself up with sin.
“It is getting cold,” he said. “Stop thinking about it and just eat it.”
She shifted her gaze to the pasty, her eyes eating in the crisp, golden exterior. The crescent, despite its large size, fit nicely in her hand. The soft heat enveloped her skin, reminding her of how his body felt against hers, of the hot trail his gaze had left on her.
Sara slowly lifted the pasty to her mouth, fitting the corner in between her teeth and bit down. The pasty crumbled in her mouth, and the flavor of meat and onion swarmed over her tongue. She closed her eyes in ecstasy and chewed.
“There you go, Nymph.” His voice was soft and billowed around her, seductive in its cadence.
She took another bite, savoring each taste. She smiled at him around the food, enjoying his returning one, thrilled to see his eyes shifting to hot springs again, her insides leaping at the growing lust she now recognized in them.
“Sara, here you are.” Claire’s voice broke the spell and Mr. Grant leaned back, putting more distance between them. “We’ve been searching everywhere for you.”
She turned her head to see Claire approaching with Jacob, his gait unsteady and her arm around his waist. It appeared she was supporting him. She stood, putting the pasty back on the plate. Mr. Grant rose with her as well. “Is Jacob ill?”
Claire rolled her eyes. “Not exactly. He participated in a drinking contest. Whoever could drink three pints of ale the fastest would win two pounds.”
Jacob grinned, listing to one side. “And a glorious contest it was!” he roared. Other men added their roars to his, pounding the tables.
“One you did not win,” Claire pointed out, displeased.
“Do not burden me with your details, woman,” he said, an unsteady frown on his face.
“We need to return home,” Claire said to Sara. “Louisa is already fetching the carriage.”
“Of course,” Sara replied, moving away from the table. She turned back to look at him and gave him a quick curtsey. “Good night, Mr. Grant. Thank you for the pasty.” She looked at him, confused by the warring sensations of relief and regret at leaving him.
He looked at her, his eyes hot springs, and answered her curtsey with a slight bow. “I assure you, Miss Collins, the pleasure was all mine.”
Nathan watched her go, licking the juices off his fingers as she disappeared into the crowd with her friends.