She had no idea what words to interpose in that pause. She knew he’d admired her. That much had been obvious, even that first day by the river, and it had only become more pronounced as time passed.
“It doesn’t matter now. I know you well enough to know you’d never have implemented your threats.”
She heard his sharp inhalation, saw his hand jerk toward her and then slip away. “I would like to think I wouldn’t.” His voice was low. “But long experience tells me that I can’t make that promise. Don’t tell yourself otherwise. I don’t trust myself, Free, and you shouldn’t either.”
Oh, she didn’t trust him—at least not to tell her the truth about himself any longer. “Do continue,” she said politely. “Suppose that I went and told Delacey about your involvement. That would surely ruin some of your other plans. How would you stop me? Would you pen a letter I wrote to a lover, filled with sordid imaginings? Or would you aim for the purely financial? I can give you my banking arrangements; if you wish to make a hash of them, I can provide you with all the necessary details.”
“Free.” His voice was dark and forbidding. “Don’t.”
“Or maybe you’ll attack my parents. My sisters. I’ll make a list of all the people I love. I can hand over a complete dossier tomorrow, if that’s convenient. Of course, if I am allowed to register a preference…” She took a step toward him and set her hand on his chest. “I would prefer to be ruined by you. In the flesh.”
He growled deep in his throat, and his hand came up to cover hers. “What are you doing, Free?”
“Tell me, Edward. Tell me truly. What is this awful thing you’ll do to hurt me?”
He didn’t speak.
“I won’t even try and evade it. I’ll make it simple for you. All you have to do is look me in the eye and tell me that you could willingly ruin my life if I threatened yours. Go ahead.”
He let go of her hand and turned away from her.
“I knew it,” she said. “You stupid, stupid man. I knew it. You with your ‘of course you don’t trust me’s and your fake blackmail. You’re so clever, you almost fooled me.” She felt her throat catch. “You almost made me believe that I couldn’t trust you. But you failed, do you hear me? You failed utterly. I could put everything in your hands, and you’d never betray me. I could shut my eyes and throw myself to the ground, and you’d catch me before I had a single scratch.”
He blew out his breath.
“I knew it when I first saw Delacey in there,” she said. “For the tiniest instant, I thought he was you. Don’t be offended; it was a trick of the light. It was a trick of my heart, looking for you even when I knew I wouldn’t find you. For just one moment—that moment when I thought that I’d seen you—I smiled. And I felt the whole world come alight.”
He was stock-still, completely unmoving.
“And then he turned, and I realized who it was.” She gave a little laugh. “Once, many years ago, I had this dream. It was rather racy, if you must know. There was a young man I fancied, and in my dream…” She cleared her throat delicately. “In any event, I shut my eyes in my dream, focusing on the sensation. And then I opened them, and as things are in dreams, that handsome, charming young man had turned into the aging vicar. All my want washed away in a cold flush of revulsion. That’s what it felt like tonight. He came and spoke to me, and all I could think was, Free, you idiot, this is what it’s like not to trust a man. I don’t care what you say. You would never, ever hurt me.”
“I would,” he growled.
“You’re so arrogant that it never occurred to me that you doubted yourself so. But you do, don’t you?”
He made a surprised noise. And then he turned back to her. “I doubt every inch of happiness that comes my way.”
She set her hand on his wrist. “Don’t.”
“I can’t ask you to trust me,” he said. But he didn’t draw away. Instead, he turned his hand in hers, so that his gloved fingers faced hers, interlacing.
“You don’t have to ask.” She ran her thumb along his palm. “That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to ask me to trust you. I already do.”
“You shouldn’t.” He wrapped his other arm about her waist, pulling her to him abruptly. “A trustworthy man would never do this.” And before she had a chance to say anything—before she could even contemplate the heat of his body pressed against hers or the hard muscle of his chest—his lips found hers. No preamble; no light brushes. There was no need for it; the memory of their last kiss was on both their lips already. His mouth was hard and desperate, lips opening to hers. The unshaven stubble on his cheeks brushed her. It made the kiss all that more complex—so sweet, so lovely. She’d wanted this—wanted him—and now she didn’t need to hold back.
Still, she set one hand on his chest and gave him a light push. “Wait.”
He stopped instantly, pulling away. “What is it?”
She laughed and dropped her voice to mimic his. “‘A trustworthy man would never do this.’ Oh, yes, Mr. Clark. Look how untrustworthy you are. You stopped kissing me the instant I asked you to do it.”
“Damn you, Free.” But there was a note of dark amusement in his voice.
She twined her arms about his neck. She had to stretch up to do it, her body lengthening along his. She leaned forward and set her lips against his neck. “Damn us both.”
He tasted of salt, and he let out a breath as she touched her tongue to the hollow of his neck, following it up his jawbone.
“You’ll pay for that.” His voice was a low rumble in his chest. His fingers slid up her ribs; his left hand cupped her breast. And then he kissed her again. This time, his kiss was slow and gentle. His fingers against her breast warmed her, making slow circles that matched the stroke of his tongue. She’d been right: He was the absolute best scoundrel she’d ever known.
She’d heard another girl talking about how a man’s kisses had made her insensible, unable to think. It seemed so odd now. Why would anyone want to stop sensing at a time like this, stop thinking about how lovely it all felt? The entire world felt more—sweeter, more solid, more real, as if his mouth on hers grounded her to earth. As if that careful caress, the fingers of his left hand sliding under the neckline of her gown, were sketching the details of the night sky for her, putting in moon and stars over the dark cloud of London’s soot.