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Диксон Хелен

Carrying The Gentleman's Secret

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From his vantage point inside the dining room of the hotel, Alex watched Lydia enter. She stood in the doorway, her gaze doing a slow sweep of the room. Seeing him rise from the table, she walked towards him. Instead of the pale, humiliated woman he’d feared to see, she had lost none of the quiet, regal poise that had struck him earlier. She was the personification of calm, giving no indication of what had transpired earlier—or the tears that unbeknown to him she had shed in her room. Alex felt his admiration for her grow. He reacted to her. It was automatic after too long a period of celibacy.

Her body moved serenely as she crossed the room. Her ivory skin was flawless. In contrast to this, her hair, parted in the centre with a profusion of heavy corkscrew curls on either side, with the rest of her thick hair braided and pinned at the back, glistened like polished jet. Her eyes, surrounded by a heavy fringe of dark lashes, were large and luminous green. She was darkness and light, shadows and moonlight. Completely enchanted, he stepped round the table and held out her chair. As she took her seat and thanked him he breathed in the heady scent that came from her. She really was quite stunning. Little wonder Henry had been unable to resist her. How could any man with blood in his veins withstand her?

‘My compliments,’ he remarked softly, his eyes appraising her as he took his seat across from her. ‘You look lovely. How are you holding up?’

Lydia’s flesh grew hot and a tremor passed through her now she was face to face with him once more. A smile of frank admiration gleamed in his eyes when he looked at her, his sternly handsome face stamped with nobility and pride, his powerful, muscular body emanating raw power and sensuality. She smiled at him, the smile lighting her eyes with intelligence.

‘I am very well—considering what has happened,’ she replied, frustrated by the slight quaver in her voice. ‘Where is Henry?’

‘You will be relieved to know he has left Gretna.’

‘Yes, I am—extremely relieved. I trust he has gone back to his wife?’


‘And the gentleman you were with earlier. I do so hope I have not deprived him of your company at dinner.’

‘You mean Harris. He’s my valet—secretary—whatever he wishes to call himself on the day and he’s been with me for longer than I care to remember. What I will say is that he’s indispensable. I am a busy man, Miss Brook. Harris takes care of my needs. At present he’s making the most of some time to himself.’

The hotel dining room was filled with elegant, fashionable people. But it was these two that caught the eye and drew the most attention. They were a striking couple, Lydia still attired in the dress she had designed and made herself for her wedding. She knew light-coloured gowns were popular for brides, but Lydia had had to make do with the fabrics available to her. With its sloping shoulders, full sleeves and close-cut bodice tapering to a small point at the waist, the full skirt pleated into the waistband, it drew many an admiring glance. Alex, over six feet tall when standing, created a strong presence in the room in a way other men failed to do.

The waiter poured the wine. Alex sat looking at it, but he didn’t drink it at once. His countenance was brooding and something vibrated off him, some sort of curious life force akin to restless energy.

‘Did you not consider accompanying Henry to London?’ Lydia asked.

He shook his head. ‘At present I have no wish to spend time in his company if it can be avoided. Besides, I have business in the north to take care of. I expect to be here for at least a week.’

‘I see.’ Taking a sip of her wine, Lydia glanced at him over the rim of the glass. ‘Does your sister know about me—about what Henry intended?’

‘She is aware that he left London with a woman—not her identity,’ he replied, fascinated by her, noticing how her face captured and absorbed the soft glow of the candles on tables and in wall sconces around the room.

‘As far as I am concerned that is how it will remain. I have no doubt she will deal harshly with him, but she will not leave him. Her marriage means everything to her. She made vows. She said until death.’

‘I’m sorry—truly. If I have caused her further grief, it was not intentionally done. I was quite taken in by him. He appeared genuine. I had no reason to doubt him. But the truth is that once you begin to trust someone, to allow them into your life, to allow yourself to be touched by what you believe to be someone’s inherent goodness, then not only have the walls been breached but also the armour has been pierced. He has made a fool out of me and I have no one but myself to blame for trusting him.’

‘You are too harsh on yourself, Miss Brook.’

‘I don’t think so.’ She managed to smile thinly. ‘At this moment I am feeling more than a little bewildered, ill used and extremely angry.’

‘I can understand that. What is your profession, Miss Brook?’

She hesitated. ‘I am a seamstress. My employer, Alistair, also employed my mother—until her death a year ago.’

‘I am sorry. Were you close?’

‘Yes, very close. I miss her greatly.’

‘And are you good at what you do?’

‘Yes, I believe I am. I also like my work—which I will have to return to even if I have to grovel to Alistair to take me back.’

‘Henry has much to answer for.’

‘I cannot argue with that.’

‘He has a chequered past—you weren’t to know. Life is one huge lark to him. He has a weakness for a pretty face. I have come to know him well since he married my sister and I have become familiar with his appetites. Like those he associates with—a pack of wild, swaggering, privileged young lordlings—he is known for his excesses and is one of the very worst examples of the ruling class and his upbringing.’

‘Are his parents still living?’

Alex shook his head. ‘As an only son, an only child, he was the pride of his parents with his future laid out. While those less privileged had to fight their way through life, Henry had it all handed to him. But he didn’t realise that. He did not have the perspective that allowed him to recognise how lucky he was. He thought that whatever he wanted he could have.’

‘Are his parents alive? He never spoke of them?’

‘No. On the death of his mother his father drank and gambled the estate into the ground, leaving a heap of debts which forced Henry to make an advantageous marriage.

‘Hence his marriage to my sister, who presented him with a generous dowry and who doted on him. He was raised in the belief that he is entitled to do anything his privileged birth tells him is his due. Not only is he charm personified, he is also expert in the art of persuasion. He has a habit of dazzling young ladies.’

‘Especially a humble seamstress who doesn’t know any better,’ Lydia said, beginning to suspect that her companion’s family must be very rich to have settled such a large dowry on their daughter.

Alex gave a lift of one eyebrow and he smiled suddenly, a startlingly glamorous white smile that unbeknown to him made his companion’s heart skip a beat. ‘Humble? Miss Brook, I suspect you are many things, but humble is not one of them.’

She returned his smile, a soft flush staining her cheeks. ‘Perhaps not as humble as I ought to be—but stupidity cannot be ruled out. I thought it odd at first that he paid me so much attention.

Me! A seamstress—and the daughter of a seamstress! He gave me flowers, presents—he flattered me. It had never happened to me before. I let him lead me on. My behaviour was a reaction to a weakness in myself that caused me to fall victim to his plethora of charms.’

‘You were flattered by his attentions. You cannot be blamed for that.’

‘No, perhaps not,’ she said with a sigh. ‘Why does Henry’s wife put up with his philandering?’

‘At first, in her blissful state of a new wife, Miranda, secure in her marriage, didn’t react to the attention Henry was getting from other women. His infidelities were subtle initially. Happier than she had ever been, even when she heard the whispers, she was unwilling to believe them. And then the knowledge grew from a practical examination of the facts at hand—his absences from home, from the marital bed, returning reeking of another woman’s perfume. During one particular amorous encounter, when the lady Henry was pursuing refused his advances, she made it known to Miranda. Naturally, she was devastated and had cause to wonder where Henry’s infatuation for other women was going to lead them—not to mention what potential for unhappiness lay in his seeming inability to control it.’

‘I cannot understand why she doesn’t leave him?’

He shook his head. ‘She’s become resigned to it—not that she likes it, not one bit, but she knows she will never change him so she gets on with her life regardless. She insists on discretion. He always leaves them in the end. Yes, Miranda loved him as soon as she set eyes on him. But apart from the emotional side of their relationship marriage was mutually beneficial to both of them. She hankered after a title and, financially, Henry needed the money from her dowry to restore his crumbling estate.’

‘I see. Then I wish her joy of him. Knowing what I do now, I cannot envy her. I can only fear for her. He is a baron, you say? I did not know that he was titled, but I knew he was different from me. But what of you? Are you titled, too?’

‘No.’ As a self-made businessman, Alex chafed beneath the privilege of meaningless titles, family history, and velvet capes and ermine.

‘Then what do you do?’

‘I am a businessman, among other things.’

‘I see.’ She didn’t really, but considering it rude to appear too inquisitive, she let it go at that and began eating the food the waiter had placed before her. ‘And do you have a wife, Mr Golding?’

‘My wife died.’

‘Oh—I’m sorry.’

‘There is no need. Blanche, my wife, was killed when the carriage she was travelling in overturned.’

‘How tragic. must miss her.’

His face became guarded. ‘Yes.’

‘I...I hope you don’t mind me asking. My mother always did say I talk too much.’

He looked at her and met her eyes, staring at her for a moment, then he shrugged and smiled, the moment of melancholy having passed. ‘I don’t mind. It happened three years ago. I have no need to hide anything. It is better to speak of such things than keep them hidden,’ he said, but Lydia saw his eyes held more seriousness than his voice, which told her it still affected him more than he would have her know.

‘I agree. It is always best. You...have not thought of remarrying?’

‘I am not looking for a wife,’ he told her, his words and his eyes conveying a message. ‘I am quite content to remain as I am, to go my own way and to enjoy female company from those who desire my company.’

‘And always careful to elude capture,’ Lydia said softly.

‘Always.’ He smiled. ‘I have not known you twenty-four hours, Miss Brook, and already you are beginning to know me a little too well.’ He looked down at his plate. ‘We should eat before the food gets cold.’

Picking up his fork, after toying with his food, Alex gazed across the table at her lovely face. My God, he thought, she really was a beauty. Her long lashes drifted down as she looked at her plate, her soft red lips slightly parted. Her hair and gown were both unadorned, yet the effect was almost like nakedness, and Alex was both embarrassed and ashamed of the animal thoughts that flew through his mind as he looked at her.

Looking up, Lydia met his gaze and raised her brows in silent enquiry.

He smiled. ‘What?’

‘Why are you looking at me like that?’

‘Why shouldn’t I look at a beautiful woman? You, Miss Brook, would make a saint forget his calling.’

Lydia swallowed, feeling her cheeks redden. The very fact of this weakness was an irritant to her, making her vulnerable to her own body. ‘I’ve heard many flowery compliments in my time, but that, Mr Golding, is the most flowery of them all.’ Later she would realise her mistake. The delicious food and the quiet, warm atmosphere of the room had lulled her into regarding her companion as an equal, a person whom she could relax with.

‘You are a strange young woman, Miss Brook. I find your company both pleasurable and enlightening.’

‘I’ll take that as a compliment.’

‘You are more intelligent than most women of my acquaintance and, if you are not careful, you will have me falling in love with a woman’s mind—but her physical attributes cannot be ignored,’ he murmured, his gaze languidly sweeping over her, his eyes settling on the gentle swell of her breasts straining beneath the raspberry dress, measuring, lingering, a slow smile curling his lips.

The soft sincerity of his voice, the tone of it, rippled over Lydia’s flesh and took her breath away—behind the words she detected an intractable force, coercing, seducing, and she was drawn to it, but then she remembered her purpose for being there. She tried to think of something to say, something that would restore the camaraderie and repartee of a moment before, but she was unable to say anything for the moment.

‘What else did Henry tell you about himself, Miss Brook?’ Alex asked, aware of the awkwardness of the moment and trying to steer clear of the direction in which his mind was wandering, but unable to take his eyes off her.

‘That—that his home was in America. When he proposed marriage I told him we should wait, to give it time until we knew each other better. But he said time was something he didn’t have. His father was dying across the Atlantic Ocean and he had to go home as soon as possible. I had no reason to doubt him. I cannot match him in education or experience—what knowledge I have was taught me by my mother. She was the daughter of a clergyman in Yorkshire. I have to work to make my living. Our backgrounds are dissimilar in every way.’

‘And yet you were prepared to marry him.’

‘Yes. He promised me so much.’

Alex smiled, noting that her every movement as she sat was graceful and ladylike. There was a serenity of expression and stillness that hung about her like an aura and just being with her was an experience he had not sufficiently prepared himself for. She really was quite beautiful, far more beautiful than any woman present, and she intrigued him, troubled him. His instinct told him that hidden desires were at play beneath her layer of respectability. He noted a certain unease in her eyes and what lay behind the unease was a sense that something was not quite right. Yet exactly what it was, not knowing anything about her, Alex couldn’t have said.

‘You saw Henry as a purveyor of dreams.’

‘Perhaps it is best not to dream at all,’ she said softly.

‘How long have you known him?’

‘Three months.’

‘Where did you go? Where did he take you?’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘He is well known and popular among members of his club, his reputation that of a man about town who likes a good time.’

‘My time off from work was limited. We saw each other on Sundays and sometimes I could manage an afternoon during the week. We were alone mostly.’

‘That stands to reason. He wouldn’t want to advertise the fact he had taken a lover.’

‘We were not lovers,’ Lydia was quick to inform him, her cheeks flushing pink with indignation that he thought they were. ‘Never that.’

‘No? Then I have no doubt this is the reason why he insisted on a sham marriage. His desire to possess you must have been overwhelming—even though he never had any intention of leaving his wife.’

‘On occasion he did introduce me to a selection of his friends. Surely they would have said something—unless they didn’t know he was married either.’

‘Believe me, Miss Brook, they knew,’ he said drily.

‘You mean they were in on the deception? So I really was just some kind of amusement to liven up their bored lives?’

‘I’m afraid so. I told you it is not the first time he has done something like this, although he has never gone as far as being prepared to enter into a sham marriage to get what he wants. You must have something the others lacked.’

She bristled. ‘No, I’m just another one in a line of women.’

‘Were you impressed by him?’

She looked at him steadily. What woman would not be, she thought, having been raised as she was. ‘It was all so new to me. A different world.’

‘And now? Will you go back to what you were doing?’

‘I already told you that I have to. I have to work to live, Mr Golding. Throughout my life I have lived with the belief that happiness, security and future success would be available to me through the mainstay in my life—my mother—with her calm and gentle but firm ways. When she died all that changed—until I met Henry.’

Alex nodded with understanding. ‘I am sorry. And your father?’

Immediately Lydia’s eyes darkened and her face tensed. She looked away. ‘He...he is not in my life.’

‘I see.’ There it was, Alex thought, that was the something which was not quite right. He was intrigued. Why the reluctance to talk about her father? Sensing that his enquiry was sensitive to her, he did not press further. It was not his concern. ‘And your employer? Do you get on with him?’

‘I have always tried to, for my mother’s sake—they were lovers, you see.’

‘Then if that was the case, will he not help you?’

‘Alistair is a hard master. Working for him, I will never be more than an overworked, underpaid employee. I want to have a chance to make my own way, to be the dressmaker I know I can be—that my mother wanted me to be. I want to be a woman in my own right.’ She sighed. ‘I don’t expect you to understand. How could you possibly?’

Alex did understand—more than she would ever realise. As the deprived son of an impoverished and more often than not inebriated estate worker, on the death of his parents when he was just a boy, his maternal grandfather had paid for his education at Marlborough and then Cambridge. Alex would be eternally grateful to his grandfather for making this possible, even though he’d spent almost every penny he had doing so.

When Alex was eighteen, with his entire fortune of one hundred guineas given to him by his grandfather, he had worked his passage to America. Life had taught him that he had to grasp the opportunities when they arose. Nothing was going to be given to him. Gambling his money on a series of investments had paid off. Thirteen years later he had made his fortune and never looked back.

He continued to excel in business like Midas. The only other venture he had engaged in was the pleasurable pursuit and conquest of the opposite sex.

Though thoroughly put out by this whole sordid affair with Henry which had disrupted the smooth order of his business life, he was impressed by this young woman’s astuteness and he was amazed she hadn’t seen through Henry’s deception. She exuded tension and a certain authority and despite everything his curiosity was aroused as they ate their meal. She had an easiness of manner and a self-assurance and poise that was entirely at odds with her background. He was warmed by her sunny smile, the frank gaze and artless conversation, and he found himself sparing the time to listen to her.

There was an air of determination about her that manifested itself in the proud way she held her head and the square set of her chin and a bright and positive burning in her eyes when she outlined her plans for the establishment she hoped to open one day.

She told him how she was apprenticed at thirteen and how she had gained a thorough knowledge of fabrics and the business of supplying dressmakers. She had made a study of ladies’ fashions and, inspired by what she had learned and her own ideas, she had high hopes for the future. She told him she had a small nest egg put by and when she had saved enough she would realise her ambition and her mother’s before her. Alex found himself being carried along by the wave of her high expectations.

Finally falling silent, she looked at him and sighed. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to talk so much. You must wonder how I can speak so enthusiastically about my work after what Henry has done. He told me all my hopes and dreams would be fulfilled once we got to America. Well, that won’t happen now—but I refuse to let what he has done to me ruin my hopes for the future. I cannot believe how I let myself be duped like that.’

‘No? They say love is blind.’

‘Love?’ She laughed at the absurdity of it. It was as humorous as it was bitter. ‘Oh, no, it wasn’t love. I was flattered that a man of such glamour and charm—with a merry smile and a certain devil-may-care approach to life—should pay me attention.’

‘So you didn’t love him?’ Alex felt curiously relieved on being told this, but once again he felt there was an edge to her manner—subtle, yes, but there—which led him to think there might be another reason why she had been so ready to accept Henry’s proposal of marriage, that she might be running away from something and she had seized on the opportunity to escape. After all, she had admitted she didn’t love Henry. So what other reason could there be?

Lydia smiled, a faint frown puckering her brow, and when she spoke it was as if the question was directed against herself. ‘How does one analyse love? It has always been one of life’s great mysteries to me. How can anyone adequately explain it? It’s like trying to explain why the sun shines, why the earth spins and why the moon controls the tides.’

He laughed. ‘The things you mention are rational to me. They are divined by nature.’

‘That’s another thing. How to explain nature.’

‘You sound very cynical, Miss Brook. Love does not need an explanation, surely? Love, so I’m told, is something that grows out of nothing and swells as it goes along. No one can tell another why if happens—only how it is.’

Lydia smiled at his teasing tone. ‘Now who is the cynic?’

‘Touché, Miss Brook. Tell me. Why would you want to go back to working for Alistair if you were not happy?’

She looked at him. ‘Happy?’ She pondered the question a moment. ‘I don’t think the world has much to offer in the way of happiness,’ she said, more to herself. ‘There’s too much grief—too much pain.’

‘And you have known both, I suspect.’ He looked across the table at her, his eyes curiously intense. ‘You have just told me that you do not love Henry, which I find curious since you agreed to marry him. Why, I ask myself, would a woman who is both beautiful and clever do that, unless you are running away?’

She looked at him sharply. ‘What makes you think that?’

‘It’s merely a suspicion I have. I am right, though, aren’t I?’

She looked down at her plate, tension in the angle of her jaw. ‘Yes—at least—something like that.’

‘Running away is not always the sensible thing to do.’

She looked at him from beneath her long lashes. ‘You may be right, but sometimes one is left with no choice.’

‘That’s true, but generally I think it is better to face the problem head on and deal with it.’

‘That’s easy for you to say.’

‘Why are you running away? That is if you want to talk about it.’

She eyed him with wary indecision, wondering what he would say if she were to divulge the more sinister truth behind her acceptance of Henry’s proposal of marriage, a marriage that would take her away from London—from England—far away from the awful truth that the man she had come to realise was her father, a man she had believed was dead, was very much alive. Having no wish to discuss this highly personal matter with a complete stranger, she shook her head. ‘No, thank you, I really do not want to talk about it.’

‘I understand, but I suspect it is connected to the grief and pain you mentioned.’

‘Yes, I have known both, borne out of attachment to the person or people who cause it, and knowledge.’

From bitter experience her mother had told her that knowledge was life’s blood in this world, that once gained it should not be thrown away, but used sensibly, ruthlessly, if necessary, that with knowledge a person could rule the world. And so she had applied herself diligently to her learning and then set about doing what her mother had told her to do. But when she had met Henry it hadn’t worked out that way.

She was a woman who had encountered hardships for most of her life. Even working for Alistair where her performance was valued and he paid her slightly more than the other girls, she’d learned to take care of herself, never allowing others to venture too close—her mother excepted when she had been alive—never completely letting down her guard lest the price of that familiarity would mean an equality of mind. She had allowed Henry into her life, but she had only given of herself as much as she had wanted to give.

‘My dream was that one day my luck would change and I truly thought it had when Henry came into my life. Suddenly I had a wonderful future before me, but it was not to be.’ She smiled, a smile that was quite enchanting and unbeknown to her did strange things to her companion’s heart. ‘Please do not mind me, sir. Considering who I am you are being most kind and understanding. But you should not trouble yourself. As a gentleman, you must be embarrassed by such a situation, I am sure.’

‘Not at all. You are a refreshing change to most of the ladies of my acquaintance. I find you are an interesting person to talk to. No doubt you will want to return to London immediately.’

‘Yes,’ she said decisively.

‘Can I be of service to you?’

‘No—thank you. You have done enough.’

The meal over, with his hand beneath her elbow Alex escorted Lydia out of the room. She was startled by his close proximity and she was puzzled by her body’s response to the simple sensation of his hand on her arm. They stood at the bottom of the stairs in the small hall, facing each other. Lydia’s lips parted in a tremulous smile, and her expression softened.

‘I am thankful you saved me from what would have been a terrible fate. I’m so sorry about your sister. You must be concerned about her—about the whole situation, in fact. It can’t be easy for her having an unfaithful husband—or for you, knowing what you do about him.’

Alex was strangely touched by her concern. He felt a stirring for her that was new to him on first acquaintance with any woman—a mixture of awe, desire and surprise that this glorious creature had actually fallen for Henry’s smooth ability to manipulate the situation. She possessed the animal grace of a young thoroughbred and a femininity that touched a chord hidden deep inside him. Her full lips were inviting, her drawn-up hair displaying to perfection the long slender column of her throat—white and arched and asking to be caressed. In fact, she looked like a beautiful work of art.

When she had confronted him earlier, normally he would not have reacted quite so angrily, but he had been on edge ever since he had found out that Henry had absconded to Scotland with an unknown woman. He had been on edge before that, having spent an extremely tiresome few days dancing attendance on Irene—the wilful, spoilt sister of his good friend Sir David Hilton.

He had spent the past few weeks as David’s guest at his house on the outskirts of Paris, a city which David loved and to which he would escape at every opportunity. David had returned with him to London, his sister accompanying him. Alex had intended spending the day prior to him learning about Henry’s escapade at his house, Aspen Grange, in Berkshire. David was a close neighbour and the two of them had planned to do some fishing. It had been unfortunate for Alex that Irene had come along. That she nurtured hopes of marriage between them was evident, for she had hounded him ever since the demise of his wife.

But Irene would be disappointed, for he had no intention of marrying again in a hurry. He had nothing but contempt for an institution that he had once believed would bring him happiness and fulfilment, but which had brought him nothing but misery instead.

‘If I were not tied up in the north on business, I would offer to take you back.’

‘Please do not concern yourself with my welfare. I’ll be all right, really,’ she said with more determination than accuracy. ‘I can find my own way.’ A wistful look clouded her eyes and her lips curved in a tremulous smile. ‘It feels strange when I remember that tonight should have been my wedding night. I did not think it would end like this.’ She sighed, meeting his eyes. ‘None of that matters any more. We will not meet again, sir, for I doubt our paths will cross in the different societies in which we move.’

Alex was reluctant to let her go. The light shone on her soft dark hair and he visualised himself touching it, loosening it from its pins, running his fingers through it, feeling it caress his naked flesh as they shared an embrace. Despite her lowly background she was not of the common kind and there was also about her a mysterious, almost sweet and gentle allure. She had the poise of a woman fully conscious of her beautiful face and figure, and his instinct detected untapped depths of passion in her that sent silent signals instantly recognisable to a lusty, full-blooded male like himself. The impact of those signals brought a smouldering glow to his eyes as he imagined what it would be like to possess such a glorious creature.

‘It need not be like that.’ His expression suddenly changed and the lightness disappeared from his tone as he came to a decision. ‘You strike me as a sensible young woman—and a beautiful one—although from my experience the two do not always keep good company.’

‘What are you saying?’

‘I realise that this should have been your wedding night,’ he said, speaking softly, holding her with his gaze, knowing that she, too, was the victim of irresistible forces at work between them. ‘You don’t have to be alone tonight.’

He waited for her to reply, watching her, knowing that her reaction to his suggestion would determine everything between them. She looked startled by his question and for a moment held his gaze with innocent perplexity. A sudden shock of hunger that she might accept shot through him, but he was to be disappointed.

His words and their implication did indeed take Lydia by surprise. What shocked her even more in that second when it registered was her inclination to accept his offer. She had spent most of her life in the more deprived areas of London—she was not naive and would have had to be a fool not to have known the implication of his words. Throughout the meal and the warmth that had developed between them, and the way he’d listened to her as she had told him about her work and hopes for the future, she had been quite carried away.

She watched his smile. It was a most appealing smile. Her resolve hardened automatically at the sight of it. After today she knew well enough what degree of complicity an appealing smile was able to conceal. Henry had taught her to discount any warmth she might feel for another human being. To feel that way led to weakness, which could be fatal.

Hot colour flooded her cheeks and she took a step back abruptly. ‘Either I am mad, sir, or you are,’ she said, keeping her voice low so as not to overheard by others drifting in and out of the hall. ‘What kind of woman do you think I am? I do not want to sound ungrateful for your kind attention, but I feel that now you are either carrying gallantry too far or pitying me to the extreme.’

‘I am not being gallant, Miss Brook, nor do I pity you,’ he said, his eyes held by this vibrant, graceful woman who was so close he only had to raise his hand to touch her. ‘That has nothing to do with it. I assure you I am completely serious.’ He spoke softly, so cool, so self-assured, holding her gaze.

‘Yes, I can see you are, and if you wonder at my decision to turn you down it is because I have a well-developed instinct for self-preservation.’

‘Not so well developed, otherwise you would have seen through Henry from the beginning,’ he murmured.

‘No doubt you think that because Henry picked me up from the back streets of London I am fair game. You are mistaken. How can you suggest anything so improper? I am not a whore. I am not for sale. If you were any sort of gentleman, you would not have said what you just did.’

The savagery in her tone startled Alex. ‘It was merely a suggestion. I thought that after all that has happened today you might not want to be alone.’

‘I like my own company, Mr Golding. Henry has turned out to be most unworthy. If I agreed to what you suggest, I could well be uniting myself with another equally unworthy.’

Alex’s jaw tightened, and he stepped away from her. So, she thought she could impose on him with her ladylike airs. But then, furious with himself, more than with her, after all she had been through that day, he understood how insulted she must feel by his improper suggestion. ‘If you are going to cast doubt on my good intentions, then there is nothing more for me to do than bid you goodnight and wish you a safe journey.’

‘Goodnight, Mr Golding,’ she said in a shaky, breathless voice, trying to ignore the dull ache of disappointment in her chest, regretting this new turn of events that had ruined the closeness that had developed between them throughout the meal.

Alex looked at her face, drawn by the candlelight reflecting softly in the depths of her eyes and the appealing pink of her lips slightly parted to reveal shining white teeth. His conscience rising up to do battle at what he had suggested, he tried flaying his thoughts into obedience, but he could smell her perfume in the air, which weakened his resolve.

He had known and made love to many beautiful women, but he could not remember wanting any of them on first acquaintance as he wanted Lydia Brook. What was it about her that he found so appealing? Her sincerity? Her innocence? Her smile that set his heart pounding like that of an inexperienced youth in the first throes of love? He told himself that what he felt was the ache of frustrated desire, but whatever it was he could not deny that she affected him deeply. Almost without conscious thought, as she was about to turn away he found himself reaching for her.

Lydia was surprised when he suddenly took hold of her arm and drew her into a curtained alcove beneath the stairs. The light was muted, the space small, forcing them together. She gave a sharp jerk, trying to pull herself free, but his arms went around her, drawing her close.

‘Please,’ she gasped, lifting her head and dragging her eyes past his finely sculpted mouth to meet his gaze, suspecting he was going to kiss her. ‘This should not be happening.’ Raising his hand, he gently brushed her cheek with the tip of his finger, moving it down with sensuous slowness. Her skin grew warm with pleasure.

‘I know,’ he said, bending his head to whisper quietly against her hair, and she impulsively turned her head slightly to meet his cheek with her own. ‘Just one kiss, Miss Brook. Where’s the harm in that?’ The contact with her flesh was electric. He raised his head, his smouldering eyes gazing down at her face as if he were memorising it, then they fixed on her lips.

Quite inexplicably Lydia’s heart gave a leap of desire and, when her gaze settled on his mouth, she was lulled into a curious sense of well-being by his closeness as a rush of warmth completely pervaded her and her lovely eyes became blurred. ‘Just a kiss, then,’ she whispered.

‘Just a kiss, Miss Brook,’ he murmured in a husky whisper.

Very slowly, he lifted his hands and placed them on either side of her face. His eyes darkened as he leaned forward, and at his touch Lydia trembled slightly—with fear or with excitement, she didn’t know which—but she did not draw away as he lowered his head the final few inches, and placed his mouth on her soft, quivering lips, cherishing them with his own, slowly and so very tenderly. His gentleness kindled a response and a warm glow spread over her, but also a fear began to possess her, a fear not of him but of herself and the dark, hidden feelings he aroused within her.

Suddenly his arms encircled her and she was drawn closer to his hard chest, moulding her body to his rigid contours. A flame of white heat rushed through her. She allowed him to hold her in his embrace, feeling the strength of him against her as slowly his warm parted lips, tender and insistent, continued to claim hers, moulding, caressing and possessive.

The shock of his kiss was one of wild, indescribable sweetness and sensuality, violent yet tender, evoking feelings Lydia had never felt before. She felt her body ignite as she responded eagerly, pressing herself closer still and opening her mouth to receive his. He smelled of brandy and cologne, and it intoxicated her senses. Blood pounded through her veins and her stomach tensed, but she didn’t try to move away. Imprisoned by his protective embrace and seduced by his mouth and strong, caressing hands, which slid down the curve of her spine to the swell of her buttocks and back to her arms, her neck, burning wherever they touched, Lydia clung to him, her body responding eagerly, melting with the primitive sensations that went soaring through her. Nothing in all her twenty years could have prepared her for his kiss and she became lost in the joy, the heat and the magic of the moment.

A soft moan interrupted the quiet space, and Lydia realised it came from her. Suddenly her world had become exquisitely sensual, where nothing mattered but this man and what his mouth locked hungrily on hers and the closeness of his body was doing to her.

Alex held her unresisting, pliant young body close, his lips caressing her cheek, her jaw, before finding her lips once more. He was a virile and an extremely masculine man, well used to the pleasures of the flesh that were available to him. But this woman confounded him. She was pure, untouched innocence, a woman who had never known a man’s intimate embrace. As her mouth fed his hunger, his body strained towards her.

When he finally released her lips they were both breathing heavily. Standing unmoving, as though still suspended in that kiss, her lips moist and slightly parted, slowly Lydia began to surface from the dangerous cocoon of sensuality where the absolute splendour of his kiss had sent her and where she had no control over anything.

Tenderly, Alex caressed her cheek with the tips of his fingers. She was utterly lovely, breathtakingly so, and he was moved by emotions almost beyond his control, wanting so very much to kiss her again, but this time with all the hunger and passion that threatened to engulf him. He told himself to slow down, to be content with what she was willing to permit, not to push her into anything, but at that moment his desire was to continue to be close to her, to savour the sweetness of her. He was seized by an uncontrollable compulsion to make love to her—reluctant to allow this glorious young woman to slip through his fingers. He cupped her face in his strong hands, gently brushing a strand of hair from her cheek and tilting her face to his.

‘Don’t spend this night alone. Stay with me.’

She gazed up at his face, darkened in the dim light, feeling a numbing of her senses as her desire for him took on a dangerous life of its own. There was a need in her and she couldn’t understand the nature of that need. Where had it come from? All she knew was that this man was the man to satisfy that need. She wanted him. She wanted more of what he could give her, but she must not. Her own thoughts shocked her. What was she thinking? This man was of a different class, living in a different world. He might not have a title like his brother-in-law, but he was of the gentry. It seeped out of him in volumes. It spoke of power, confidence and strength—and more than a little arrogance.

‘No. I really must go.’

For a moment Alex stood there, looking down at her face flushed with desire in the dim light, her eyes glazed with it.

‘Why? Are you afraid of me?’

‘No, of course I’m not,’ Lydia said shortly, but she realised as soon as she had said it that it was a lie. Of course she was afraid of him, afraid of what she might do with him if she stayed any longer, because that was exactly what she wanted to do. To feel his lips on hers once more, to feel those exquisite feelings his lips had ignited in her.

‘I must go.’ She flung herself away from him and even though her legs were trembling and her flesh was on fire she began to climb the stairs with all the dignity she could muster, knowing that he continued to watch her like some dark brooding sentinel. Never had anyone affected her like this in her whole life. The thought of giving herself to Mr Golding sent a tremor down her spine, but it no longer shocked her, the events of the past twenty-four hours having finally drained her of all feeling so there was hardly any emotion left in her.

And yet she could not put what had just happened from her mind. The feelings she had experienced when they had talked over dinner took some understanding—she had felt herself being drawn to him against her will by the compelling magnetism he seemed to radiate and the memory of his smile and how he had looked at her, how his incredibly light blue eyes had hardly left hers for a moment and the intimacy of his lazy gaze made her tremble and heat course through her body.

She told herself that to enter into any sort of relationship with a complete stranger could be both foolhardy and ruinous. But Alex Golding’s suggestion in the aftermath of Henry’s betrayal constituted a phase in her life that was both flattering and essential for her pride. His desire for her had aroused an equal desire in her. It was the kind of desire that was completely new to her, the kind of desire that, despite all his efforts, Henry had never been able to stir.

She tried telling herself that the two men were not in the least alike, but how could she know that? She didn’t know Alex Golding.

She had a flicker of doubt that what she was about to do was foolish, but then she reminded herself that the steps she was about to take, that what would happen, would be on her terms and that afterwards she would walk away and no one would be any the wiser at what she had done.

She shivered, but it was not because she was cold. Suddenly she felt warm—far too warm. Something was happening to her. It was as if a spark had been lit that could not now be extinguished. A need was rising up inside her—a need to be close to the man who still watched her, to this stranger—to wallow in the desire that had suddenly taken hold of her, to saturate herself in this newfound passion his embrace and his kiss had awoken in her.


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