Sara took his offered hand and stepped out of the coach, looking at the manor house before her. Far from being the depraved brothel she had imagined, the building was a perfect square, three stories tall of red brick with climbing ivy covering the front façade. Flat windows gleamed in the setting sun and the large front door stood open invitingly. Her shoes landed on well-tended gravel and her eyes scanned the groomed lawn, the green glistening as the sunlight kissed it goodnight. Gentle hills rose in the distance, peeking out over clusters of trees.
This house was cared for; this house was a home.
“What is this place?” she asked, looking at Nathan. His eyes were on her, blue and unreadable.
“Cloverfields,” he replied.
“You know the owner?”
He nodded. “We will not be disturbed.”
She turned her gaze back to the house, impressed by its understated elegance and welcoming ambiance.
“What do you think?” His question was odd. They were still standing next to the coach, her hand in his.
Sara smiled, not looking at him. “I admit it is not what I had in mind.”
“You were expecting a bawdy house, perhaps? With red silk drapery and gold carpeting, plush pillows and mattresses that envelop you, and erotic statues everywhere?”
She blushed, dropping her head. He took a step toward her and his heat spread along her arm, which was now held against his chest. Nathan lowered his head to her ear, his low chuckle caressing the sensitive skin. “Men and women make love everywhere, Nymph, not just in bawdy houses.”
Her face was now on fire and he pulled away, still chuckling. He tugged on her hand and they moved toward the manor house, his cane in his other hand supporting his leg. They hadn’t gotten far when pounding footsteps came from around one corner of the house. A lanky teenage boy with short hair and square head appeared at a run, his face red from his exertion.
He halted in front of them, his breath coming in short gasps. “Sorry, Mr. Grant. Da said you’d be comin’ in the morning. Mum’s got the room ready still.”
“Never mind, Liam, just help Sawyer with the horses and trunks.”
“Aye, sir.” The eager lad jerked his head in a nod and made to do as ordered.
“Liam.” Nathan stopped him and gestured to Sara. “My wife, Mrs. Grant. My dear, Liam Taggert, boy of all jobs. His parents are the caretakers.”
Her throat immediately was flooded with ants, so Sara simply smiled and nodded at the boy. He grinned back, his red cheeks ballooning on his face. “Welcome to Cloverfields, Mrs. Grant. Anythin’ you need, just give us a shout.”
When she continued to just smile, Nathan squeezed her hand and spoke. “Bring our trunks to our room.” He dismissed Liam with a nod and resumed their walk to the door.
A middle-aged couple stepped out, the man short and thin accompanied by a woman of matching stature. Both smiled and moved out of the entrance, bowing and curtseying appropriately.
Nathan released his hold on Sara and offered his hand to the man. “Taggert, it is good to see you again.”
“Mr. Grant, welcome to Cloverfields.” The man shook his hand. He spoke with an Irish cadence.
“Thank you. Liam also extended greetings. Mrs. Taggert,” Nathan turned to the woman, “I understand we are earlier than expected. Please forgive the inconvenience.”
“Oh, it is no bother, sir,” Mrs. Taggert said. Her lilt echoed her husband’s. “The room is all done up.” She looked at Sara expectantly.
Nathan gestured at her. “Allow me to present my wife, Mrs. Grant.” He smiled at Sara’s reaction. “Hearing that still makes her blush,” he said conspiratorially to the Taggerts. They beamed in response.
“Mrs. Grant,” Mrs. Taggert said. “If you have not eaten, we can quickly have something laid in the dining room. It may not be fancy, but you will not be disappointed.”
Sara opened her mouth, but the ants still would not allow her voice to work. She merely smiled again and nodded. Nathan settled his hand on her back. “Why don’t we have it in our room? Mrs. Taggert, show her where it is while I have a word with your husband.”
Sara was led away by the chatty housekeeper, who had no trouble maintaining a one-sided conversation; Sara smiled and nodded where appropriate. The woman led her into the house, made bright by windows and wall sconces already lit in anticipation of the evening. The dark wood trim and pale yellow walls were pleasing and Sara made a mental note to examine the paintings in more detail on the morrow. The wide stairs, also of dark wood, hugged the walls up to the higher levels. Sara ran her hand along the bannister, appreciating the smooth gleam.
Moments later Mrs. Taggert stopped at the end of the hall and opened the door, gesturing for Sara to precede her. “This is the master suite, Mrs. Grant. I hope you find it suitable.”
Sara stepped into a room much larger than she had expected. Taking up the space of two normal-sized rooms, there was a sitting area situated around the large hearth, a generous fire taking off the chill of the evening. Two large leather armchairs sat in front of the fire, angled toward the heat and each other; a low table separated the two. The lower portion of the wall with the door sported bookshelves, already stocked, and on top of them were sentimental memorabilia. At one end was a nicely laid out set of decanters with crystal tumblers winking in the firelight.
The other side of the room was dominated by the four-poster bed. Sara was certain that if she combined all the beds she had slept in during her lifetime into one, it would be roughly the size of this one. Stretching far beyond her length and likely three times her width, the deep gold bedspread and matching plush pillows and bed curtains beckoned, a bedroom siren promising deep sleep and pleasant dreams.
The bed faced two sets of windows, stretching nearly from floor to ceiling, and made up the corner facing south and east. Two sofas faced either side of the window corner with a polished round table in front of them, creating a sitting area with a view of the park. Sara imagined herself sitting there in the early hours, reading as she had some morning tea.
Two doors flanked either side of the bed and Mrs. Taggert led her to one of them, opening the door. “This is the mistress’ dressing room,” she said, taking Sara into a room grander than any she had occupied while a governess. A large wardrobe stood at angle in one corner with a full-length rounded mirror close by. A delicate white vanity with gold trim and a cushioned chair sat opposite, next to another door. The top third of the wall was glass, allowing in light from the main room. Dazzled, Sara felt a moment of eagerness to sit at the vanity on a bright morning to see how these windows flooded the room.
Mrs. Taggert opened the second door in the room, which led into a bathing area. The glass wall continued in there, casting light onto the bright tiled mosaic that lined the washing area. Two basins sat beside each other on a high table, a long mirror on the wall encompassing them both. A giant porcelain bathing tub—the largest Sara had ever seen—with brass claws held a place of prominence beside a small fireplace. A privacy chamber was in the corner, discreetly closed.
Fully in awe of her surroundings, Sara forgot all about the ants in her throat. “It is all so breathtaking,” she murmured.
A deep chuckle caught her attention and she turned to another door opposite of the one she had used. Nathan was standing there, leaning against the jamb as he watched her. “I am glad you approve,” he said.
It finally occurred to Sara why there were two doors to the room and two basins and shelves with copious amounts of towels. Of course the master’s dressing room would be opposite the mistress’, but never had she expected to share the bathing room. How embarrassing would it be if he were to walk in while she was in the tub—a tub, she belatedly realized, that was large enough to hold two.
Her face was on fire, she was certain.
Mrs. Taggert murmured quietly, “Dinner will be but a few minutes.” She left the room.
Nathan remained at the door, his smile remaining as he watched her shift uncomfortably. He had seen the instant comprehension overtake her and it had amused him even more. He was glad of her reaction to Cloverfields, for he wanted this to be an enjoyable experience for her—as much as she declared she was willing, he knew she would need to be comfortable and coaxed into her adventure.
He straightened and held out his hand to her. “Come.” She hesitated only a moment before moving to him and taking his hand. Linking their fingers together, he brought her back out to the main room and led her to the window sitting area as Liam brought in Sara’s trunk and deposited it in her dressing room. Sawyer followed with Nathan’s, doing the same.
He continued to hold her hand, standing before her. “Is this location satisfactory?” he asked quietly. “The Taggerts are discreet and we are far enough away from Taft that none should come upon us.”
Sara nodded and looked at the window wall again, her eyes wide. “I just . . . I never expected . . .”
She looked at him, her gray eyes glowing with a wonder that hit him in the solar plexus. “I never knew ordinary people lived in places like this. Kings and queens, of course, but someone like me? Never.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Surely as a governess you would have lived in grand houses.”
She shook her head. “The Perkinses were merchants; they had money but were also frugal. Even if they weren’t, governesses are relegated to the schoolroom and servant quarters. Even Claire only saw the main rooms of Aldgate Hall when she or the children were summoned, which was rare.”
“And is Ridgestone not like this?”
Her gaze traveled the length and width of the windows again as she spoke. “The master suite may have some luxuries that I do not know of, but there are no windows such as these. It is our own little Versailles, is it not?”
Nathan released her hand. “Watch this.” He moved and pulled on a cord next to one of the windows. Heavy red curtains rose from behind the low, thick windowsill until they covered the bottom half of the windows. He moved to the other set and repeated the process, a thrill jumping in his stomach at her mouth open with amazement.
When he finished, he resisted the urge to present the curtains with a flourish of his hands by putting his free hand behind his back, the one other gripping the head of his cane tightly. “This way we can still benefit from the light in the mornings but retain our privacy.” He couldn’t stop one side of his mouth lifting in a smile. “Also at night.”
Nathan enjoyed seeing the red overcome her face; it nearly matched that of her hair. He wondered how much deeper he could make that red.
The knock on the door prevented him from finding out. It opened, admitting Mrs. Taggert, who was carrying a tray. Nathan indicated the sitting area by the hearth and she placed the tray on the table before disappearing into the mistress’ dressing room.
Nathan offered Sara his hand and she took it, allowing him to lead her to the other sitting area, leaving his cane by the windows. It struck him, just as it had at their arrival, how soft her hand was in his. As he helped her to one of the chairs, he realized how reluctant he was to let that hand go.
She settled her skirts, her gaze landing on the dressing room door. “Mrs. Taggert does not have to unpack my trunk. I am used to doing it for myself.”
Nathan sat in the chair opposite and took one of the plates from the tray. He began to fill it with cheeses, meats, bread and fruit. When it was full, he handed it to her and she took it. “You are not a servant here, Sara. You are Mrs. Grant.”
“Yet we both know I am not.”
He poured two glasses of wine and then filled his own plate. “It doesn’t matter what you and I know; what matters is what everyone else thinks. And they all think you’re Mrs. Grant.”
She swallowed a grape. “Whose place is this?”
“Do you really want to know?”
She looked down. “I suppose it is best I do not.”
He popped some bread and cheese into his mouth and washed it down with some wine. He sat back in his chair and regarded her. “Rule number four: Don’t let me do that.”
Sara looked at him, confusion in her eyes. “Do what?”
“Allow me to subjugate you.”
He drank some more wine. “As soon as I offered you some sort of challenge, you backed down. This is your adventure. You came to my house and stood up to me then; if you had not, we would not be here. If this is going to work, you must be able to stand up to me. If you do not, it is no longer your adventure.”
Nathan watched as she picked at her food. She did drink some wine, but little food passed her lips. He disliked how she did this, how she retreated into her silences; it made him uncomfortable. One of his strengths as a politician had been his ability to read other people.
She looked up and seemed about to speak, but Mrs. Taggert chose that moment to exit the dressing room. She walked as unobtrusively as possible out of the room and Nathan looked at his companion expectantly.
Sara took a bite of bread with cheese and ham, staring into the fire, not saying anything.
Nathan felt disappointment fill his chest. Once again she retreated into herself, once again showing hesitancy at their bargain. Nearly every moment of silence since he had picked her up earlier that day radiated reluctance and he was growing weary of it.
Frustration replaced the disappointment. He had meant what he had said earlier in the coach; he had no wish to be with a woman who did not want to be with him. He never had made it a habit to force women and he was not about to start now.
She had been the one to come to him; in retrospect, she had experienced a moment of insanity and he knew it—he knew it and Primordial Nathan knew it, but they both had been so blinded by the prospect of laying claim to the dream Nymph that they had disregarded that tiny, miniscule, pertinent fact.
Of course Sara Collins would not want him. She was an innocent, a governess, a pure soul who forgave men for sins against her. Why would she ever want to be with a man who treated her as he did? He never should have agreed to her ludicrous proposition; she deserved better, and by agreeing to it, he once again proved to himself just how unworthy of her he was.
But, he rationalized, it was not his fault they were in this situation. She was the one who had propositioned him. He was not the one showing a decided lack of enthusiasm. He had done everything he had promised thus far, had even gone out of his way to show her consideration by selecting Cloverfields, and this was how she repaid him.
No, she was the one who was reneging on their bargain and he should feel no guilt whatsoever for his part. They would not be here if it weren’t for her. He might have flirted with her in Taft, stolen a few kisses, but he never would have taken the step to ruining her if she had not instigated it.
“Fine,” he bit out, making no effort to keep the anger from his voice. She blinked out of her trance and looked at him. “I’ll tell Mrs. Taggert to repack your things. We will return to Taft in the morning. I will spend the night in the stable.”
She blinked her large gray eyes at him, confusion clearly identifiable in them. “Excuse me?”
Nathan rose. “I have no wish to damage your reputation any further. If we return in the morning, we can likely find some way to explain your absence.”
He started to move toward his dressing room. “I suggest in the future that you tell the gentleman you are with that you have changed your mind. You could have contacted me at any time to do so. Leading me on to this extent when you so clearly do not want to be here is the far less honorable thing.”
Inside the dressing room, he grabbed a few things and stalked out into the main room, intent on leaving without another word to her. She was little more than a tease, and if she had been a gentleman, he would have called her out for treating him in such a dishonorable manner. To have promised something and then reneged—it made no difference to him what she had promised. It was the same moral as if she had taken money from him, promising to invest it in something, only to be revealed as a confidence trickster—and that was considered criminal.
Nathan retrieved his cane and risked one last glance at her, some part of him wanting to see her reaction: Would it be disappointment or relief? He didn’t know which one he was hoping for.
But he received neither. Instead, Nathan saw her hand pressed to her heaving chest, her pale face tingeing blue as no oxygen entered her lungs. He stared in surprise, never having expected to see such a thing happen to her. Her mouth worked and the panic in her eyes screamed at him to help.
It was the panic that snapped him into action. Dropping what was in his hands, he closed the distance between them in seconds, cursing his limp for slowing him down. “Sara, what is the matter?” he asked, trying to keep his voice calm and steady. No sense in causing her more distress. “You can’t breathe?” At her head shake, he asked, “What can I do to help?”
She shook her head and with her free hand showed four fingers. She ticked off one at a time, trying to inhale as she did so.
He frowned and pulled her up from the chair. She continued to tick off her fingers, struggling to breathe. As she did so, he loosened her dress, releasing the garment and pushing it off her shoulders to pool at her feet.
How she managed to shriek when she had no air, he had no idea.
With her dress around her ankles, shift and stockings exposed, fingers ticking off, Nathan rubbed her back, hoping to relax her. He heard some air enter her lungs and whatever she was mouthing became slightly audible. “In two three four, out two three four.”
He joined in this mantra, continuing to rub her back. Slowly he felt her body relax and the color returned to her face. Her eyes turned grateful the more air reached her lungs.
“I’m sorry,” she wheezed. “I did not mean for this to happen.”
A small part of his mind recognized that he wanted to keep making those small circles on her back. “What exactly happened?”
A weak smile pulled at her lips. “I was not able to breathe.”
His right eyebrow twitched. “I surmised as much. I am more concerned with why. Were you choking?”
She shook her head and wouldn’t meet his eyes, her face pinkening with embarrassment. An unfamiliar urge overtook him, one that had him closing the small distance separating them and sliding his arms around her to hold her close to his body, offering comfort. She stood stiffly in his arms for a moment before he felt her body sigh and she pressed her cheek against his chest. Her arms moved and he felt her small hands settle on his back, hugging him in return.
“I do not want to return to Taft.” Her voice was muffled against his shirt. “Not yet. But if you do, I will return with you.”
“I don’t want to return either.” His palm traced the length of her spine and back, his stomach easing with relief.
“Then why did you say we would?”
“Because I am a fool.”
She made to move away from him, but he held her firm against his chest. “I don’t understand.”
Nathan sighed. “It’s not important.”
They stood in silence, his hand continuing its journey up and down her back and his chest warming where her breath touched his shirt. It didn’t surprise him when his body became more aware of hers pressed against him, her breasts soft against his harder planes. Her fingers were tracing small lines on his back and awareness shafted down his spine, settling in his groin and causing the familiar increase in weight to begin. His cock started to swell.
Nathan lowered his nose to her head, inhaling the scent of her hair. Oddly, he wanted this moment to last longer, for them to remain in this moment of comfort.
He knew the minute she noticed something. Those tantalizing lines along his back trailed to a stop and she shifted against his body, adding an additional sensation that had him biting back a groan. She pulled away and this time he let her, dropping his arms.
He watched as Sara crouched down and gathered her dress in her hands, giving him a splendid view down her shift. Straightening, she pulled the garment back up and clutched it to her chest. He could see her trembling, though she lifted her chin with bravado and met his eyes. Her eyes revealed her inner war, her new-found adventurous side fighting with her conservative nature. Knowing he needed to restrain himself, he mentally put Primordial Nathan in a cage with thick iron bars.
“Sara,” Nathan said, his tone gentle, “All I intend to do tonight is hold you. Nothing more.
“You have had a long day of traveling. A woman’s first time can be uncomfortable enough under ordinary circumstances. I have no wish to add to your discomfort. We can wait until you are more at ease.”
Primordial Nathan howled his displeasure in his ear, but the look of relief on Sara’s face was worth it.
“Nothing more?” she asked, her voice soft.
“Nothing more,” he confirmed, just as much for himself as for her. “You can sleep in your shift and I will keep my smalls on, so you can be assured I will do no more than sleep next to you.”
She swallowed and looked into the fire. If possible, her voice was heavy with disappointment. “I was hoping at the very least you would kiss me with your tongue again. I have been waiting all day for you to do so.”