Nathan inhaled deeply and grimaced as he turned his head on his pillow. Exhaling, he lifted a hand to scratch his chest before lowering it to rub the base of his semi-hard cock. Wakefulness had interrupted a very pleasing dream of his bed companion, a dream in which he had exercised more control than he had last night. It hadn’t been an embarrassment, not by any means, but he still had not performed the way he had planned; that sort of introduction to the carnal pleasures had definitely not been on his agenda.
But that could easily be rectified. He would introduce her to the skills of his hands as well as the delight of waking up being pleasured. A smile tugged at his mouth as he felt himself harden completely even at the thought of touching her again. He hadn’t lied; she had not displeased him last night. He could not remember the last time he had felt so sated, and they hadn’t even fully consummated their adventure. As soon as she was able, he would rectify that as well. But for now . . .
He rolled onto his side and reached, his hand seeking her warm, soft curves. When it found nothing but cool sheets, his eyes flew open.
She wasn’t there. Nathan lay very still for several moments, ears straining for sounds coming from the dressing room or lavatory. The prolonged silence merely confirmed that she in fact had left the entire suite, not just the bed. Disappointment lumped itself in his chest and he scowled, pushing it away and sitting up. Opening the bed curtains, he swung his legs over the side and sat there, squinting against the sunlight. A glance over his shoulder at Sara’s side of the bed deepened his scowl; not only had she straightened the covers as best as she could around him, but he had just committed the despicably maudlin deed of referring to it as her side of the bed. One night with the woman and he was already growing sentimental about it.
He shook his head, clearing his mind of such thoughts. The unexpected contentment of the previous night should not have any bearing on either of their emotions, especially his. This was a carnal arrangement, nothing more. She lusted for adventure and he lusted for her; there were no other expectations. He would do well to remember that despite this week she was not for him.
End of discussion.
That established, Nathan stretched and strode into his dressing room to prepare himself to continue their week.
“Which way did she go?” Nathan demanded of Liam.
The young man’s face paled at Nathan’s tone and he visibly swallowed. “I told her about the folly and pointed her in the direction. She asked about anything of interest to see on the estate.” The adolescent’s voice squeaked several times in nervousness.
“And you let her walk off by herself?” Nathan continued. “This is her first time at the estate. Did it not occur to you that she could get lost or that something more dire could happen to her?”
Liam shook his head, unable to speak in the face of the tirade. His normally rosy cheeks blanched under the force of the unexpected anger. He swallowed again and lifted his chin, clenching his teeth to show Mr. Grant he could take his rebuke like a man.
“I am sorry, sir,” he said, clearing his throat to avoid squeaking again. “She’s gone for a walk, is all. I didn’t think nothing of it.”
“That much is clear,” Nathan bit back.
“Mr. Grant,” Mrs. Taggert’s voice broke in. She did not waver when his scowl honed in on her. “Mrs. Grant stated that she wished to walk and explore the estate on her own. Liam was complying with her wishes.”
“My wife’s wishes do not overrule her safety,” he replied, some of the anger seeping out of his tone. “I should have at least been informed; I would have accompanied her.”
A small smile tugged at Mrs. Taggert’s lips. “She said that you should be allowed to sleep as long as possible. She recognized that you have been out of sorts of late,”—she emphasized “out of sorts,”—“and that you need your rest.”
“Hmph,” Nathan grunted. “How long ago did she leave?”
“Less than an hour,” Liam offered. “She said she would return in time for luncheon.”
With a nod, Nathan turned and walked off in the direction of the folly. The mother and son watched him leave, his stride purposeful and barely hindered by the use of his cane. “Do not worry yourself,” Mrs. Taggert told her son. “Mr. Grant is merely adjusting to being a newly married man in love. He meant no harm.”
Liam squirmed. “I should have—”
“Never you mind that,” his mother interrupted him. “Just take yourself off to the stable and finish up in there. Your da needs your help.”
Moving to do just that, Liam paused. “I like Mrs. Grant. She’s a nice one.”
“Yes she is,” Mrs. Taggert agreed, watching her son leave. If only they really were married. The love part she had no doubt, but she would stake her best bonnet on their absent vows. Shaking her head at who Mr. Grant had become, she returned to the kitchen to start preparing the luncheon meal. It was not her place to question the master, no matter that she had changed his nappies.
Sara saw him coming when he was still quite a distance away. His uneven gait was unmistakable; even if he didn’t have a limp and cane, the way her body responded to seeing him left no doubt in her mind who he was.
She had woken up in the morning, encased in heat and the body of a man. Nathan had literally been wrapped around her, her back pressed against his chest as his arms held her loosely, his knee pushed between her legs.
It had been glorious, and she had been hard-pressed to wiggle out of his embrace without waking him. If it hadn’t been for her bodily needs, she likely would have given into the temptation of rolling over and watching him sleep. Maybe even kiss him awake, like in that fairy tale when the prince awakened the princess.
It wasn’t until after she had managed to get out of the bed and returned from attending her needs that reality had settled in. Staring at his naked chest being kissed by the early morning sunlight, dazzling her, had the seriousness of what she had embarked upon fully hit her. Her doubts had been present in the coach ride to Cloverfields, but the immensity of what she had done assailed her as she stared at the expanse of toned naked male flesh and its dusting of pale hair.
You little trollop! I warned you what would happen, girl!
Adventure indeed. Madness, more like. Damnation even.
So she had fled—left the house, she preferred to call it—a good, restorative walk in order. Liam had pointed her in the direction of the folly at which she now sat on a makeshift casement, large trees interspersed within the artistically crumbling columns and walls providing shade.
Now she watched the dark figure approaching, his stride intent on closing the distance quickly. The man wasn’t even wearing a hat; she wished fleetingly she could have that sort of freedom.
That thought, along with most of the others currently in her mind, dissipated the closer he came. Her eyes roamed over his clothed body, her skin remembering the feel of it pressed against her, her breasts tightening at the memory of his mouth suckling them. She licked her dry lips and pressed her thighs together against the sudden ache they felt, a longing for his hips to rest between them. Sara closed her eyes, the sensation of waking up in his arms surrounding her, surprising her with its strength so many hours later.
She heard his steps as he grew closer, the dull thud against the grass. They faltered, then stopped. When she opened her eyes, Sara met his gaze, the deep cold of the blue familiar and no longer chilling. He looked at her for a long moment, his mouth tightening slightly before he took a breath and spoke.
“You are not sleeping?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“I thought I might have awakened you.”
“You did not.”
He stood there, cane tapping against his boot. His gaze left hers, raking over the scenery. He gestured awkwardly, something that surprised her. “You like this? The folly, I mean?”
Sara nodded. “Yes. It is quite meditative. Is it unsafe?” she asked when he kept looking at it.
“No, it is sound. It was designed to appear as though it is in ruins, but the engineers ensured it is perfectly safe. You had no difficulty in locating it?”
She shook her head. “Liam’s directions were excellent.”
“I am relieved to hear it.”
His cane kept tapping against his boot, his gaze back on hers. Neither of them spoke for several moments. A small tug pulled at one corner of his mouth and he moved toward where she sat and leaned toward her through the window. Sara licked her lips, her eyes flickering down to his mouth. “You, Mrs. Grant, have a talent for silence.”
Nathan lowered his head and took her mouth as he had wanted to do since waking that morning. His hand came up to cup her cheek, his thumb tracing her cheekbone as he plied her lips, teasing them with his tongue, requesting entrance to her warmth. She responded, the enthusiasm from the previous night lacking.
He pulled away, leaving his hand lingering against her cheek and regarded her for a long moment. Her eyes were downcast and a slight blush tinged her skin, and he wondered about her lack of response, so contrary to the previous night. Perhaps she was uncomfortable with affection in the daylight or out of doors, even though there were none around to see them and the folly afforded them a decent amount of privacy even if there were.
Nathan straightened, an odd sensation prickling his shoulders. It took him a moment to recognize it, as his conscience had been suppressed for many years. He shifted, trying to dislodge the uncomfortable feeling of his skin being filled with nettles.
He offered his arm to her. “Shall we?” Sara obediently rose from the casement and exited the folly, taking the offered arm. Her light hand settled on him as any other lady’s would, but a unique awareness emanating from the contact had him straightening his posture even more. Her scent wafted to his nose and brought to mind how he had pressed his nose into her neck before falling asleep. Nathan swallowed, hard, feeling a tad overwhelmed by the experience.
“Is there a particular direction you would like?” he asked, deciding to be cordial about it.
Sara shook her head. “It does not matter. Wherever you wish.”
“Luncheon is still some ways off,” he replied. “If you wish to see more of the estate, there is a bit of a hill that provides a nice vista.”
“That sounds lovely.”
They walked in silence for several moments. He was learning that his companion did not speak much, especially when she was distraught. Surely she still could not be bothered by his kiss?
Nathan cleared his throat to break the silence. “I am accustomed to being surrounded by people who say nothing while using a plethora of words. Your silence is eloquent.”
In the corner of his eye, he saw her bonnet dip down toward the ground. “I am sorry,” she said, her soft voice even more difficult to hear.
He made a grunt of impatience. “Do not apologize for not speaking. I am not going to force you to converse with me if you do not wish to. However, if something is troubling you, I would prefer you voice it.”
Her bonnet did not raise but her head did shake her refusal. Nearing a copse of trees, he led her down a weaving path. The air cooled in the shadows as they made their way to the base of the hill.
“Sara,” he tried again, trying to keep the impatience from his voice. “I truly wish you to feel comfortable enough to speak your concerns with me. If we are to rub along for this week, we ought to make an effort to be honest with each other.”
She did not respond, instead focusing on climbing the ascent of the hill. Nathan did not fully blame her, for the slope was steep enough to steal their breath away as they climbed. He had the advantage of his cane providing him more support and traction; he adjusted his arm until his palm slid around hers, and he linked their fingers together, gently pulling her up along with him.
Sparks flew out of her palm and traveled up her arm, sending Sara into deeper confusion. She could not understand how her mind could be so indecisive regarding the matter. When she had walked alone earlier, her mind was clear in its contemplation, acknowledging the gravity of the situation. She had even determined to speak with Nathan about ending their arrangement early and spending the rest of the week in separate bedchambers.
But watching as he approached the folly, wonderfully handsome with that smolder in his eyes she was coming to recognize, all such thoughts fled until all she could think about was his kiss. It remained that way until he had called her Mrs. Grant, effectively startling her mind into functioning properly once again.
Now, with his strong hand linked with hers, thought was threatening to abandon her once more.
He pulled her along with confidence, assuring her by his grip on her hand that he would help her should she stumble. They neared the peak, the wind playing with the strings of her bonnet. Sara raised her free hand to hold them in place.
They crested the hill, coming to a stop near a large rock. Nathan released her hand and climbed up on top of the rock, his limp not hindering him in the slightest. She wondered briefly at his agility in spite of his impairment.
He looked down at her with a small smile on his face, offering his hand. “Come up with me, Sara,” he invited.
“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly,” she replied immediately, shaking her head.
“It wouldn’t be proper.”
“Was it proper of you to burst into my library in a wet dress and demand this week with me?”
Her face flamed and she looked away from him, unable to reply.
“I won’t let you fall, if that is your concern.”
She shook her head again. Sara heard him give a long exhale and the scrape of his boots against the rock indicated he was climbing down. She felt him come and stand near to her, his presence a lodestone to her awareness. He took her elbow and turned her to face him. She kept her head down, but he lifted her chin until she had no choice but to look up at him. She could feel her pulse beating against her neck rapidly and she fought to control her breathing. Her eyes involuntarily focused on his mouth again.
“Sara,” he said, his voice uncharacteristic in its gentleness, “you must trust me.”
She swallowed. “I am confused,” she whispered.
A flicker of relief crossed his face. “About what?”
“This. What we are doing.”
His hand fell away from her chin and he took a step back. Sara saw his lips start to tighten into their familiar scowl. A few ants climbed into her throat. “Please don’t be angry,” she begged, unwilling to have another attack in front of him. “Please just allow me to explain.”
“I am . . .” Nathan cleared his throat. “I am not angry.” It wasn’t anger filling his stomach but disappointment. No wonder he had awoken alone this morning; she was having second thoughts after all. He supposed the light of day always made people see things differently than the dark of night.
She looked relieved. “Thank you.” She fell silent for another moment. Nathan guessed she was gathering her thoughts. “I find that I am at war with myself.”
“All my life, I have been told that it is a sin to know a man as a wife knows her husband before I am married. I have heard many stories of fallen women and the hardship their lives become. My mind knows this.”
“But?” Nathan prodded when she fell silent again. This was nothing he hadn’t heard before from countless mothers. He had thought that Sara’s thirst for adventure had overridden this lesson, but it appeared to be a temporary thing. The disappointment continued to solidify in his stomach.
He had not realized how much he had wanted this adventure as well.
“But when I am close to you, when I see you, those thoughts are replaced by others. Ones I know I should not have, but cannot stop. I don’t even know if I want to stop.”
That gave him hope. He prodded her again to make sure. “What sort of thoughts?”
Her face, already pink from the wind and likely her confession, deepened some more. “Thoughts like,” she swallowed. “Thoughts like the ones you shared with me at the fair that night.”
“Is that so?”
She nodded. Her voice had fallen to a whisper. Nathan stepped closer again to hear her better and to keep the wind from snatching her words away. “I want you to kiss me. With your tongue, again and again. I want you to touch me like you did last night, only more and better, if that makes any sense. I know what this makes me, but I can’t seem to stop it. Even now, even with what I just told you, a part of me wants you to take me back to the manor so we can be private, and the other part of me hates me for it. I have lied to my friends, opened myself up to carnal sin and have said more brazen things in the last week than I have my entire life. I do not recognize myself anymore.” Misery covered her face.
Well, if that didn’t have his shoulders prickling again. For the better part of his political career, Nathan had learned the skill of not feeling like a cad—one couldn’t, in his chosen profession. Too many broken promises and disappointed constituents. But seeing Sara tearing herself apart like this—he rolled his shoulders to rid himself of the nettles burrowing under his skin. Being an honorable man had not been an expectation as a politician and he found it an uncomfortable fit now, despite its necessity.
He said, “You are under no obligation to see our arrangement through to the end.” Primordial Nathan reared his head and howled in anger. Nathan continued. “I have no wish to seduce unwilling women.”
“But that’s where my confusion lies,” Sara replied, still holding her bonnet to keep it from flying away. “I am uncertain if I am willing or not. What about my adventure?”
“Adventures come in many forms. Sexual knowledge need not be one of them.”
“What are you saying?”
Nathan’s mind raced. He had to come up with a plan to have her stay and satisfy her conscience as well. He would allow her to leave if she truly wanted, but he must try first to prevent that. “We can make this week about doing things you have never done before. That would be considered an adventure, would it not?”
She regarded him for a moment. “I suppose it could,” she replied slowly. “But what sort of things do you mean?”
He shrugged. “You tell me. What are some things you have never done but always wanted to?”
Sara looked off into the distance toward Cloverfields. “Travel,” she said after a few moments. “I have always wanted to go to Scotland.”
Nathan felt one of the corners of his mouth tug up. “Well, I can’t get you to Scotland and back in a week, but you have traveled here, a portion of it on your own. That seems pretty adventurous to me.”
A responding smile crept over her face. “I did do that, didn’t I?”
He nodded. “And there was nothing sinful about it. At least, not in the eyes of God. Society is another matter but the ramifications are less eternal.”
Her face pinkened again at his teasing tone. He hadn’t teased in years. That did explain his lousy attempt. “What else have you always wanted to do?”
She fell silent again. He was learning to wait them out, understanding that she would talk when she was ready. When she did, her question had Primordial Nathan doing a little jig. “Will we still share a bed? Without the martial intimacies?”
“If that is what you want.”
She nodded. “I enjoyed sleeping with you.”
“Then we shall continue. What else would you like to do this week?”
Sara shook her head. “I cannot think of anything worthwhile.”
He took her hand in his. “Let me be the judge of that. If it is something you have never done, then it will be worthwhile this week.”
“You will think me foolish.”
“I vow upon my grandmother’s grave that I will not.” He placed his other hand over his heart for emphasis.
“Your grandmother’s grave?” she asked. “You were close to her?”
Nathan refused to be drawn into that conversation. “This week is about you, Sara. Tell me, what is something you have always wanted to do?”
She shook her head again. “I truly cannot think of anything beyond traveling.”
“It does not need to be anything significant or monumental. For instance, have you ever rolled down a hill?”
“Rolled down a hill?” she echoed.
He nodded. “You know, lie on your back at the top and then roll down.”
“Never. I have never done that.”
Nathan blinked. He hadn’t actually expected that to be her answer. “Truly?”
She shook her head.
“Then I suppose you have never walked with bare feet through the grass.”
She looked momentarily appalled before swallowing and lifting her chin. “I have not. Anyone might happen upon me and see something they should not. It is not proper to tempt others into sin.”
“Well, I believe I am already doomed to spend eternity in damnation; I was a politician after all.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her. Since when did he wiggle his eyebrows at a woman? “I am the best candidate to view your bare feet. There is no risk to my immortal soul. We shall roll down the hill and then we shall walk with bare feet back for luncheon.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly.”
“Sara, you are going roll down that hill if I have to push you myself. Then, if you do not take off your shoes and stockings, I will chase you down and tear them off myself. Is that clear?”
Sara ate luncheon that day with the dirtiest dress she had ever worn. And she couldn’t stop smiling.