“Stop arguing, Serena, and take it.”
Her hand closed around the head, and she pulled it from him.
“That,” he said, “is a weapon. If I do anything you don’t like, hit me on the head. It’s dark. You’re unaccompanied. And I am seeing you home.”
She looked up at him. “I don’t understand.”
He didn’t, either. “Don’t make too much of it.” Hugo shrugged and set off down the street.
SERENA DIDN’T KNOW what to think as she trotted down the street beside the Wolf of Clermont, swinging his heavy walking stick. His strides were not long, but they were quick and steady, and her heart beat quickly as she kept pace with him. Her mind was whirling nearly as fast.
When they slowed to pick their way across a street, Serena tried again. “I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”
“Yes, you do,” he said, not looking at her. “You understand perfectly well what is happening. We’re attracted to one other, and it’s inconvenient.”
She sucked in a breath.
“Don’t act so surprised. If I were a greengrocer, and you the charming shopkeeper’s daughter across the street, we’d be calling the banns this Sunday. Likely we’d anticipate our marriage vows while our parents looked the other way.”
“I wasn’t acting surprised. But you’re trying to unsettle me again, and I—”
“I am not. I am as far out to sea as you are.” He spoke in a rumble so deep she almost didn’t notice the complaint in his voice.
Serena halted on the street corner; he turned to look at her. “If I were a footman,” he said, “and you a maid, we’d know every nook, every closet where we might hide away together.”
Safe, her dastardly senses whispered. He’s safe. There was something comforting about his forthright recital—comfort with an edge that only sharpened when he took a step closer to her.
“If I were a cobbler,” he said, “I’d offer you a discount on shoes.”
“Now you’ve completely lost your mind.”
“No. It would give me an excuse to measure your feet with my bare hands.” His lip twitched up. “And don’t think I’d stop at your toes.”
She had both her hands on top of his walking stick. She felt herself lean toward him, ever so slightly.
“But you’re not,” she said. “You’re the Wolf of Clermont, and I’m the woman you cannot drive away.”
“Can’t is such an unforgiving word,” he said. “I prefer do not wish to.”
This was a man who had walked away from his family at fourteen. He had a reputation for getting what he wanted.
But there was so much more to him than the boorish drone she’d once envisioned. He had talked about crushing her hopes and dreams, but when he stood next to her, he drove away the despair she’d carried for so long.
She wanted to steal him away—not to deprive Clermont of his use, but to have him for herself.
“Don’t tell me I can’t,” he was saying. “It implies an incapacity.”
“Can’t,” Serena repeated with a smile. “Can’t can’t can’t.”
“Ah, now you’re just taunting me.” He reached out and touched the side of the walking stick. “It’s a good thing this is between us, because otherwise I might forget that I’m not a footman. Or a cobbler.” He took another step in, and he was so close now that he warmed the night air around her. It scalded her lungs.
She’d thought him safe. She was wrong; there was nothing safe about him. But he stood along the path to safety. If she could steal his loyalty for her own…
For a brief moment, a dark shadow passed over her at all that would entail.
She squelched it. Never mind how she was to accomplish it. There was no point looking down when climbing. She’d repeated the word can’t, but after months of can’t, she was just going to have to prove that she could.
She uncurled one of her hands from the walking stick and laid it against his cheek. His jaw was rough and stubbled under her touch.
His breath sucked in. “Not a good idea, Serena. I’m no simple grocer. I don’t intend to marry, and even if I did, it is my job to thwart you.”
But he didn’t move back. He didn’t move forward, either. He simply waited, his eyes dark in the night.
Serena let go of the walking stick; it balanced on end, momentarily, before crashing to the ground.
And then he did move, slowly, leaning those final inches toward her.
At first it was just his lips that brushed hers, warm and certain, a fleeting pressure, swiftly removed. Then he rested his hand on her hip, drawing her to him. His mouth brushed hers once more; his lips parted, nipped at hers, and then again. Her whole body warmed.
She mimicked his motion—parting her lips—only to have him take them between his own, nibbling at her. She could have lost herself in that back-and-forth—the warmth of his breath, the taste of his mouth on hers. Shockingly, overwhelmingly sweet.
She’d thought of a kiss as the passive pressing together of lips—not this exchange of caresses. She was coming to life beside him—parts she’d never paid much mind to hummed in desire. The back of her neck tingled as he drew her close. The bottoms of her feet prickled with anticipation, as he kissed her again.
He licked at her lips, and she opened her mouth in shock. And as she did, he swept his tongue inside.
That act should have disgusted her. It didn’t. It felt amazing. Wonderful. She opened herself up to him, and then, tentatively, reached out her own tongue. His hands slid up her body, up the curve of her bu**ocks to clasp her spine. One of them caressed her arm, her elbow. And then his fingers cupped her breast. Lightly, slowly, and then, when she didn’t move away—when she pressed against him—with greater firmness.
And even though she knew that touch was a dreadful liberty, it felt right to have him touch her there—a heated counterpoint to the play of their lips.
“Ah, Serena,” he murmured. “This is not a good idea.” But he didn’t stop.
His hand slid slowly down her torso to the curve of her belly. And there his fingers came to a halt.
Serena froze. She swiftly covered his hand with hers, and just as abruptly pulled away. Her heart raced.
“What is it?” he said. His voice was husky, but his eyes narrowed. The streetlamp stood behind him, coloring his dark hair with warm tones.