He hadn’t said anything as she looked him over, but he was hardly unaware of her perusal.
“Are you flexing your muscles for me?” she asked.
“That,” he said smoothly, “would be vanity.”
She felt herself smile in response—the first smile since she’d entered his room. “So, yes, then.”
He gave her a darkly wicked grin. “Should have known better than to try to bamboozle the governess.”
Serena took a step toward him, and his smile froze. She reached out and touched the point of the pin to his abdomen. His breath stopped. She trailed it up his ribs, and had the pleasure of seeing him break out in gooseflesh.
“I want your shoes.” Her mouth was dry; she could scarcely swallow around the words.
He bent to remove them. As he did, his trousers grew tight around his bu**ocks, and the muscles in his behind shivered.
So did she. She waited until he straightened before handing him another pin. “Do it again. I want your stockings.”
This time, when he bent, he showed off for her—turning at an angle, flexing precisely so. He had to know how his thighs looked with all that wool hugging them. He didn’t say a word, but when he’d discarded the knit wool of his stockings, he met her eyes and winked.
He’d made a game with the pins, one that stole her dread away. Still, she handed him another hairpin. “Do you have enough yet for your nefarious plan?”
“Not quite.” He grinned. “Besides, you’re doing so well on your own. I’d hate to interrupt you.”
Her confidence was coming back. Serena tapped him on the chin with a head of a pin. “For that impertinence, sir, I demand your belt.”
“You demand it, do you?” He set his hands on the buckle, and tightened it. “Then I suppose I am bound to comply.” The tongue of the belt came loose, and then he pulled the belt slowly away. His trousers slipped down his hips a few inches as he did, revealing a dark arrow of hair, dotting down the front of his stomach.
She wanted to know where that trail of coarse hair led.
“Now,” she began, “I want—”
“Now,” he interrupted smoothly, “it’s time for me to redeem my pins.” He fixed her with a steady look.
It was only a moment that he looked into her eyes—half a second, scarcely even long enough to blink—but already her pulse jumped in response. His smile broadened. Her skin tingled. She was aware of every inch of her skin—her shift scarcely covered her limbs; her corset bound her br**sts tightly. She wasn’t sure if it was fear or arousal that had her so suddenly on edge.
“My first order.” He set a pin in the palm of her hand. “Wait right there until I come back.”
She blinked, but he ducked out of the room before she could gather breath to protest. She took one step forward, before remembering that he’d asked with a pin, and under the rules of the game, she couldn’t follow. But he didn’t return—not for several minutes. She heard the clanking of metal and the working of a bellows—what in God’s name was he doing? Eventually, there was a hiss like steam and his muffled oath.
He finally returned bearing a towel. A steaming towel.
“This is a trick,” he said. “I learned it prize-fighting. Lie down on the bed.”
At that bare command, Serena froze. He paused and cocked his head, and then set a pin on the table beside her. “I’m not touching you—recall that I can’t until you ask. Lie down on the bed.”
Serena swallowed and complied. He sat next to her; the mattress gave way beneath his weight.
“Put this over your face.”
He handed over the cloth, hot and moist—almost too hot to touch. She unfolded it gingerly and then laid it over her eyes, covering her nose.
“Breathe in,” he said. “Slowly, now.”
The air was humid; she could feel the heat penetrating her skin, relaxing muscles she had not realized she’d tensed.
“Now exhale.” She did; the air beneath the towel cooled temporarily.
She was drifting away on warmth with every breath. “This is lovely.”
“Yes,” he said. “The more limber you are before a fight, the less likely you are to be hurt. Don’t know why that would be, but I suspect the same might hold true here as well.”
She let out a little sigh of contentment. “What now?”
“I couldn’t say,” he replied. “I’m out of pins.”
She pulled the towel from her face. “How can that be?”
He was watching her intently—his eyes dark, his mouth set in a determined line. He gestured to the table where he’d been laying pins the whole time. “I told you to breathe.”
She had thought that lust would be selfish, no matter who entertained it. But there was a decided lift to his chin, a look in his eyes. He’d done all that for her—to steal the tension from her muscles, the fear from her heart.
She was safe. This was the man she’d come to know. Determined, yes, and ambitious, too. But also playful and kind. He hadn’t hurt her. He’d seen her distress and he’d soothed it away.
She pushed one of the pins he’d piled up over to his side and took a deep breath for courage. “Take off my corset, Hugo.”
He’d scarcely touched her since he’d taken her hair down—just the brush of his fingers against hers as the pins had changed ownership.
He touched her now, curling one hand around her hip. His other rose to address the knot of her front-lacing corset. He loosened the garment almost reverently. His fingertips seemed almost to scorch her, even through the stiff fabric of her undergarment. Her lungs caught fire as he loosened the laces. She took a deep breath and inhaled his smell—something like salt and citrus.
Slowly, he undid the fastenings, peeling her corset from her. Released from confinement, her br**sts swelled out in front of her, covered only by the thin fabric of her chemise. The air was cool against her skin, but she could scarcely feel it.
His breathing had grown ragged. His gaze rested on the swell of her br**sts, where her ni**les made sharp peaks in the linen of her undergarment. His eyes moved in time with the cycle of her breath—up and down, as if he were already joined with her on some level.
He slid her pin back to lie next to the others. “Touch your br**sts.”
His voice was rough; his words sent a current of heat through her. She brought her hand up, never taking her eyes from his. She cupped the curve of one breast in the palm of her hand and his pupils dilated. She ran her thumb along the upper slope and he licked his lips. Her own touch sent a weak spark of pleasure pulsing through her, but it was his gaze—worshipful, almost devout—that magnified the thread of pleasure, encouraging it to grow.