The Cotswolds, England
He was the most beautiful boy she’d ever seen.
In fact, the stranger standing by the bridge on the other side of the river was so shockingly handsome that a wave of heat and dizziness crashed into Lilias Honeyfield. It was either his artist-worthy face or the fact that he was wearing a kilt that was affecting her so. She’d never seen such well-formed calves—or any male’s calves for that matter. Regardless, the result was the same: she lost her balance.
Her gaze darted to the water below, and she sucked in a sharp breath as she threw her arms out to regain her balance. A warning tingle swept over her skin at the possibility of falling into the cold water of the River Eye. Her belly tightened, teeth clenched, and toes curled against the damp, rough bark beneath her feet. She would not fall. She refused to fall.
Her friend Owen slowed to a concerned pace in front of her. “Lilias?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him, finding the center point of his back and staring at it in the hopes that she would feel steady once more. But her pulse was beating faster, her confidence in herself shaken. It had been foolish to cross upon this log over such deep water while wearing so many layers of clothing, but that’s what was required to get to the secret place she wanted to show Owen. She often came here to avoid her pesky younger sister, and she suspected he might need an escape from his father. The marquess was not a very warm person, and that was putting it kindly.
She bit her lip, glancing toward the water again. If she fell into the river, she’d sink like a stone, even though she could swim quite well. Owen might jump in to save her—they were friends, after all—but they were relatively new friends since he’d only moved to the Cotswolds a month earlier. Besides, he had not wanted to cross on this log. He’d said it was dangerous. He’d said they should not even be out here alone.
Owen needed to gain some courage, and she intended to help him do so. He was far too stuffy and proper. She’d been working on that since the day they met. She liked him well enough that she’d risk her safety to save him if he fell in, but would he do the same? Her mother said Lilias lived as if she were an invincible heroine in one of the Gothic romance novels she liked to read. It was probably true, though she didn’t think she could be blamed. Life was deadly dull out here in the country at Charingworth Manor, and creating fantasies in which she starred made her days so much more interesting.
A quick glance toward the bridge confirmed that she’d not merely imagined the boy. He still stood there, and he was still staring at the water as if mesmerized by something in it. Whatever held his interest must have been quite fascinating for him not to notice them. And whyever was he wearing a kilt? She took another step forward, and her foot slipped slightly, forcing her concentration to Owen’s back to keep her balance.
Owen didn’t appear very strong, she realized. She eyed his dark, superfine overcoat while slowly placing one foot in front of the other and moving forward, steadier now, toward the other side of the river. In fact, he looked as if he sat inside all the time worrying about all the things that might bring him harm. He was a worrier and most definitely not one to take chances. This day was a rare exception.
Upon further contemplating what would occur if she were to fall into the water, she had serious doubts that Owen could actually haul her out with the added weight of her shift, pantalettes, petticoat, and stays, not to mention the encumbrance of her gown. She quirked her mouth, considering. It was more likely she’d take him down with her. That was hardly the stuff Gothic romances were made of. Though, in truth, she didn’t fancy him as much of a hero, anyway.
She allowed her gaze to skitter once more to the boy. His dark head was bent forward, the sun gleaming off his thick hair. Without looking up, he raised a hand to his neck, tugged on something for a minute, and then his white cravat was dangling from his fingers before it dropped to the ground by his shiny, black hessians and his overcoat.
She liked him instantly. He was a mystery, and this was the sort of meeting that could be in a Gothic romance. She grinned and pressed her bare toes more firmly against the log, glad she’d removed her shoes and stockings, despite Owen’s protest that it wasn’t proper. Honestly, who cared out here in the woods? She didn’t. The beautiful boy didn’t. The heroines in her novels didn’t let a little thing like propriety stop them, and Lilias wanted to be like one of them—strong, bold, and one half of a love for the ages.
“Who the devil are you?” Owen bellowed, making Lilias jerk and teeter yet again.
She threw out her arms once more, and her heart lodged in her throat, even as her attention shot back across the water to the distractingly fine-looking boy. Her gaze crashed into his, and his eyes widened as hers did the same.
He wasn’t simply beautiful; he was darkly beautiful. Like a true Gothic hero. Heat flooded her at the silly thought as she stared. Then she blinked, and her lips parted in utter shock.
He’s shed his shirt.
It was her first glimpse of a male’s chest, and it sent her right off the log into the frigid water of the River Eye.
~ ~ ~
Nash Steele reacted instinctively and dove in after the girl, though the boy she was with stood there gaping down at the river where she’d disappeared with a scream. The icy water took Nash’s breath and snatched his senses for a moment, and flashes of the past froze him: His twin, Thomas, charging at him in rage when he’d found Nash kissing Helen. The uneven way Thomas had run because of his bad leg. The white puffs coming from Thomas as his weak lungs worked to meet the demands he so rarely made of his body. The early-winter ice cracking beneath Thomas’s weight. Helen screaming as Thomas disappeared, followed by Helen screaming at Nash not to go after Thomas. Helen clinging to his arm, and Nash practically shoving her away so he could dive into the frozen lake to save the brother who had been born a breath and a scream after him. Nash searching but finding nothing but dark water and death.
A kick to his forehead jerked him from the torturous memories that had sent him out into the unknown woods surrounding his new family home in the first place. A curse was ripped from his lips, and he reached out in front of him, grabbing at the water with the desperate hope that he’d be able to locate the girl. His fingers grazed something solid, and he didn’t hesitate. He curled his hand around the body part, registered that he likely held the girl’s ankle, and a cry of relief bubbled from him. The joy was short-lived when her other foot connected with his nose. Pain burst upward and spread across his forehead. A crunching sound echoed in his ears.
She broke my nose.
He shoved the shock away as he caught her other foot before she kicked him again. With both ankles clasped, he jerked her toward him and down so he could circle an arm around her waist. She went rigid in his grasp and then wild. She swung out and tried to twist toward him, but he gripped her more tightly, knowing they’d never make it to the surface that way. His lungs were already starting to burn. She thrashed about, making it hard to keep hold of her, and she got him good several times. Still, he took the blows, not letting go. She was in a complete panic, and no wonder. Girls were required to wear too many layers of ridiculous clothing.
He kicked toward the surface, glad for once in his life that his parents had always demanded perfection from him in everything. He was a strong swimmer.
As a future duke should be.
His mother and father’s words echoed in his head as he swam toward the light, holding on to the girl. He broke free of the water, hauling her up with him and gulping in greedy breaths of the cool air. A panicked scream blasted him from his right, and for one moment, terror gripped him. The girl was no longer thrashing.
She’s dead. She’s dead as Thomas was dead. I’ve failed again.
He turned her slowly toward him, and his eyes met hers, brilliant blue but filled with fear. Not dead. Just frightened. A tremor of relief went through him. “I’ve got you.”
“I think I broke your nose,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper.
The girl was definitely stunned, and his nose definitely felt broken. It throbbed with pain, but before he could comment, the boy yelled, “Bring her to me!”
Nash frowned and looked around to find the boy, who was now at the shore. He was madly waving his skinny arms at them. “Is that your brother?” he asked, turning the girl around so her back was pressed against his chest. She shook her head as he snaked his hand around her waist. “Lean against me. I’ll swim us to shore.”
She did as instructed without so much as a word. By the time they got to the shore, the boy was there, frantically splashing into the water but stopping as it lapped against his boots. Nash released the girl as he stood and then helped her to her feet.
The boy shoved between them and turned an angry green gaze on Nash. “Don’t touch her.”
They were the exact three words Thomas had said to Nash when he’d found Nash and Helen kissing on the ice. Nash released the girl at once, and the boy shoved him out of the way to circle an arm around the girl’s waist.
“Are you all right?”
“I—Yes, I think so,” she replied, her voice shaking and the click of her teeth telling Nash that she was freezing.
“She needs to get out of the water and home into dry clothes,” Nash suggested, looking toward the bridge and his own dry clothes, which he had discarded when he’d intended to take a swim.
“I know that,” the boy said, sounding irritated.
Nash touched a finger to his aching nose as the boy started to lead the girl past him, but she stopped, her friendly gaze settling on him. “Thank you for saving me.”
Before Nash could answer, the boy said, “I would have saved you if I could swim.”
“You can’t swim?” the girl bellowed in a way Nash had never heard a proper girl bellow before.
The sudden urge to laugh shocked him. He had not felt that desire since Thomas’s death a year earlier. Nash clenched his teeth. He didn’t deserve to laugh when Thomas never would again.
“Owen!” the girl exclaimed, snatching Nash from spiraling back into the past. “Whyever did you not tell me that?”
“I—” Owen opened and closed his mouth, his face reddening.
He’d been embarrassed. It was obvious to Nash but apparently not to the girl. She stood there, hands now on her hips and a quizzical look upon her face.
Owen’s blush spread to the tips of his ears just as Thomas’s used to. The instinct to act like a big brother as he’d done for Thomas roared to life.
“I don’t think it’s the sort of thing one goes around announcing,” Nash offered, catching Owen’s grateful look as Nash moved out of the water. Behind him came the splashing of someone following him.
“Wait!” the girl called. “Where are you going?”
Nash didn’t pause. He’d only be here a few months before he was off to Oxford, and he neither wanted nor needed friends. And they certainly did not need to become close to the likes of him. He was a bad seed. He’d caused his brother’s death. No one had said those exact words aloud, but his parents’ silence had told him everything.
“Did you hear me?” she asked, closer now. “What’s your name? Perhaps you’d like—”
“I heard you,” he growled. “And it’s Nash.” He didn’t say his title in case either of them had heard about his brother. Nash hated the pity and the curiosity that always surfaced when someone realized he was the Marquess of Chastain, the son of the Duke of Greybourne, older brother to Thomas, now one year dead.
Tragic. They’d shake their heads. So tragic that Thomas fell through the ice. That he was born sickly. That you couldn’t save him. How did the fall happen?
The question was inevitable, as was the lying.
Fingers brushed his shoulder and then a hand grasped his arm. He stopped and whirled around. He didn’t like to be touched. Not anymore. He shot her a withering glare, even as her large blue eyes latched on to his. He saw the moment she realized he didn’t care for her hand on his arm. Her lips parted, and she released him. No color of embarrassment stained her cheeks, though. Instead, to his surprise, the girl gave him a determined look.
“I was going to say that perhaps you’d like to spend the day with us. I’m Lilias Honeyfield, and this is Owen—” The boy cleared his throat, and Lilias rolled her eyes. “I mean, this is the Earl of Blackwood and the future Marquess of Craven.” Nash could tell by her tone that she found the need to announce Owen’s title ridiculous.
He liked her attitude toward titles very much, and he was shocked by how much appeal her offer held. They didn’t know him, his secret, or what he’d done. They didn’t know that he did not deserve to be happy. They didn’t know that once, not so long ago, he’d selfishly decided he was tired of looking out for his sickly brother. Tired of trying to be perfect as his parents demanded and not cause them a moment’s worry because they already had so much of that with Thomas. Tired of going unnoticed, except to be criticized.
He hadn’t realized how lonely he was until that very moment, and it was all her fault.
“You need to go home,” he snapped at the girl. “You’ll freeze to death out here in those wet clothes, and I want no part of it. Not that I care,” he added. Caring about someone brought responsibility, and if you failed, if you slipped just once… Well, they might just end up dead.
“Oh yes,” she said with an all-too-knowing smirk. “I could tell by your jumping in the water to save me that you are exactly the sort of person who cares for no one but himself.”
“I’m leaving,” he replied, not liking the way the girl looked at him as if she knew him better than he knew himself.
Not waiting for her response, he swiveled on his heel and crunched his way across the carpet of gold, red, and brown leaves to the bridge where his overcoat, shirt, and cravat lay. He bent over, scooped them up, and twisted around, nearly stumbling backward to find the girl, Lilias, standing there, hands on hips, determined expression still firmly in place, and her head tilted back to spear him with the look of a hunter eyeing its prey. Behind her, Owen stood like an eager pup.
“You need a friend,” she replied, matter-of-fact.
Owen cleared his throat, and Lilias’s gaze darted over Nash’s shoulder for a breath, an apologetic smile coming to her face. Then she settled those eyes—more the color of a stormy sky than a clear summer one—on him once more.
“You actually need two friends,” she amended.
“No,” he said, brushing by her. “I don’t.”
“You do,” she objected, having the cheekiness to sound exasperated with him.
Owen gave Nash a sympathetic look as Nash started past him along the trail back to his house. Nash got no more than four steps when Owen said, “You might as well not fight it. Lilias will make you our friend one way or another. She’s a fixer of broken things.”
Nash stiffened at that revelation but did not slow his pace toward his home. “I’m not a thing,” he tossed over his shoulder as he shoved low-hanging branches out of his way. “And you don’t know me.”
He lengthened his stride so the woods would swallow him up and make the boy and girl disappear. He chanced a look behind him and saw only trees. But then she bellowed, “I don’t need to know you to see you’re broken. We’ll be round tomorrow, Nash—to call for you.”
He laughed at that ridiculous statement as he strode toward home. They couldn’t come to call on him tomorrow. For one thing, they did not know where he lived. For another, he was certain the girl’s mother would not let her go galloping about calling on strangers who were almost men. He was seven and ten summers, after all. It wasn’t proper.
That he’d even considered propriety made him laugh again. It felt strange and good, and that second feeling immediately brought the guilt and silenced the mirth.
He considered Lilias as he made for home, recollecting his hand inadvertently brushing against a swell of soft flesh on her chest. He pictured her face, large blue eyes streaked with gray, high cheekbones, full lips with a ready smile, and long hair that was light like a moonbeam, though he’d only seen a flash of it before she’d fallen into the water. Her wet gown had been molded to her, and when he thought on that and the outline of her curves, he realized the girl was not as young as he’d assigned her to be. So what the devil was she doing alone in the woods with a young earl crossing over a slippery log?
Proper girls didn’t do that. Then again, a proper girl didn’t kiss a boy as Helen had kissed him, and a good brother did not return the kiss of the tutor’s daughter when he knew good and well his younger brother, the one he was supposed to protect, was enamored of the girl. But Nash had selfishly done just that. He’d wanted to act on his own desires for once instead of his obligations as a future duke and as Thomas’s older brother. And the result had been Thomas’s death.
It could not be undone. The withdrawal of his parents’ affection could not be undone, either. It was strange that losing the little bit of love they had shown him had been such a blow. He could not blame them. His action had been the worst sort of selfishness, and he did not deserve to be happy. And friends equaled happiness, so he wanted none. It was a good thing Lilias Honeyfield did not know where he lived. He may not want her as a friend, but he didn’t want to hurt her, either. He wasn’t worried about the boy, Owen, coming to look for him. It had taken one look at his besotted face for Nash to know Owen would do whatever Lilias told him, as well as nothing she did not tell him, to do.
~ ~ ~
Four nights after meeting Lilias and Owen, the sound of pebbles being thrown against his window ripped Nash from his sleep. He stared openmouthed out his bedchamber window and down into the moonlit garden where Lilias Honeyfield—or more properly, Lady Lilias—and Owen were standing. He’d gained that little bit of information about her when Nash had heard her speaking to the butler the first time she and Owen had appeared at his door. She’d informed Sterns that Lady Lilias and the Earl of Blackwood were there to call upon Nash, and Owen had added that Lilias was the daughter of Lady Barrowe and the late Earl of Barrowe, at which Lilias had shushed her friend. Of course, Nash declined to see them that day, as well as the three other times they had come.
But here she was—again—the persistent chit.
“Nash!” Lilias whispered furiously up at him, somehow managing to convey the tone of a bellow without actually yelling.
She was a slip of a thing with a halo of moonbeams for hair and what appeared to be a gathering of dogs surrounding her, and damn, if he could not look away. Lilias Honeyfield certainly was not a quitter. She’d somehow managed to figure out where he lived in less than a day, and he had no doubt that Owen had only come along at her demand. Her behavior was unheard of in polite Society, but she didn’t seem to care.
He was about to close the window on the pair, but then he thought about how it was night, and dark, and she was a slight girl, and Owen was not exactly the sort of fellow who could protect a girl if ruffians should come upon the two of them. Of course, the dogs could, if they listened to commands, and if they weren’t shot by the ruffians first. Though, it seemed doubtful that ruffians would be about in the Cotswolds. Still, he should not risk her safety. That would be unwise, and future dukes had to make wise decisions always. He’d colossally failed in that endeavor thus far in his life. Perhaps he was overlooking a chance to reset his course.
Nash scowled down at the pair. “You’re making it so I have to come below and speak with you,” he whisper-shouted.
“Indeed I am,” Lilias said, laughter in her tone.
Nash drummed his fingers on his window. The girl was pesky and smug and made him unexplainably want to laugh.
“If you don’t come down here this instant, I’ll command my hounds to bark.”
He couldn’t tell if she was threatening him or teasing him, but feeling more lighthearted than he had in a long time, he shot back, “You wouldn’t.”
“She would,” Owen confirmed, a blob in the darkness. “And her hounds will listen because she fixed them just like she wants to fix you. They are loyal to the death.”
Devil take it, but Nash’s curiosity lit up like a bonfire. “Did she fix you, too?” he asked Owen, suddenly unreasonably, ridiculously hopeful that this girl he did not know could make him feel something other than self-loathing.
“No,” Owen promptly answered, “but she’s working on it. She says tonight is the night I’ll discover my inner courage. She’s going to teach me to swim.”
And just like that, Nash saw an unexpected path to redemption. Owen clearly had a tendre for Lilias. It dripped from every word he spoke. If Nash could help Owen get the girl, perhaps he wouldn’t hate himself anymore. He’d failed Thomas, but he could help this boy. Nash’s nostrils flared at the possibility.
~ ~ ~
Lilias had absolutely known she’d be able to breach the walls Nash had erected around himself. Well, maybe she had not known for certain, she relented as she stood shivering beside him on the bank near the water. She did not really know him yet, after all. But she wanted to. She’d practically been fixated on him since meeting him in the woods four nights prior.
She blamed the obsession on two things. First was her love of Gothic romance novels. Nash was mysterious, just like a Gothic hero, and absurdly handsome, and she could admit to herself that she’d fantasized once or twice or a thousand times about being the heroine in a book with a gentleman who looked like Nash.
Second, and she’d only confessed this to Owen in a weak moment and sworn him to secrecy after she’d appallingly blabbed her secret, she did have a need to try to fix broken animals and people. The compulsion had been with her a long time, ever since her father had started drinking after he’d gambled a great deal of his money away. If her memory served her, she’d been nine at the time. She’d tried to help him by asking for nothing, for trying to make things last, but she’d not been able to fix his problems in the end. He drank himself to death, or at least that’s what she’d heard the doctor say from her eavesdropping position crouched at the other side of her parents’ closed bedchamber door.
“Why do you wear a kilt? Are you Scottish?” she asked as they stood on the riverbank.
“I’m half-Scot on my mother’s side, and I wear it to annoy my mother. She thinks her family wild barbarians.”
Lilias had done things to annoy her mother in an attempt simply to get her attention after her father had died, but it had not been successful. Her mother was too sad to be annoyed. “Does it work?” she asked.
“Not so far. She hasn’t said a word. It’s as if she doesn’t even notice.”
“I’m sorry,” Lilias said, her chest squeezing for him. Her mother seemed to at least notice when Lilias was doing something irritating; she just didn’t care.
Nash didn’t respond. One of his boots clopped against the dirt, followed immediately by the other. Her awareness of him, the broad chest that strained against his white shirt, and the long bare legs she could see because he was wearing a kilt gave her a thrill that was entirely new to her. She’d read about such reactions women had to men. Her novels were filled with such things, but she supposed she had not truly believed that such tremendous emotion was real.
But heavens! It was like an ocean in her chest when Nash chucked off his overcoat and dropped it to the grass. Owen mimicked Nash, and the roiling waters inside her settled. Poor Owen looked like a pup compared to Nash, but she’d never let on so as not to hurt Owen’s feelings. Friends did not do such things to each other. They bolstered each other up; they did not tear each other down.
She stole one last glance at Nash while he had his attention on the water. He had a fine noble nose, strong lips, a square jaw, and chiseled cheekbones. He leaned suddenly toward the water. What was he doing? She glanced to where she thought he was looking. He must have been trying to decide the best place to show Owen how to swim. Moonlight shimmered off the river, and it seemed to glitter off Nash’s skin as he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and revealed powerful forearms. She wished he’d strip his shirt off, but she knew it was too much to wish for. She also knew she shouldn’t wish for such a thing, but the knowledge didn’t stop the yearning.
Her awareness of him felt electric, the way the air before a storm sometimes felt as if it could prick you. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t spoken more than a sentence since appearing in the garden and telling her in a gruff voice to lead the way. All he had done was greet Owen and tell him that he looked to be the sort of man who would easily pick up swimming. Then he’d patted each of her hounds on the head and told them they were good boys. Those two things confirmed her instinct that Nash wanted friends, despite his words to the contrary, whether he realized it or not.
With all these thoughts in her head, she bent down to remove her slippers, but before she could do so, Nash’s voice washed over her from above. “What are you doing?”
It seemed obvious to her, but in her experience—admittedly only with her father—a man’s powers of observation often needed spectacles. So she brought herself upright and pointed down at her feet. “Taking off my shoes so I can teach Owen to swim.”
“Do you have parents?” Nash’s tone was incredulous.
Before she could answer the question, he launched another at her. “Do you have a chaperone?”
She opened her mouth to respond, but another question came at her like a bullet. “How the devil did you get out of your house unnoticed? You’d be ruined if anyone caught you with us.” He shoved a hand through his wavy hair. “One of us would have to wed you.” His left hand took the place of his right to tangle through his thick, dark hair. She wanted to touch that hair, but thankfully, she refrained. He glanced to Owen. “Had you thought of that?”
Owen answered with a shake of his head as Lilias stood there in mute fascination. Nash scoffed. “Of course not. Are you prepared to wed this girl?” He pointed at her, and she found she still could not speak. Owen apparently did not have the same affliction. He opened his mouth to respond, but Nash cut him off just as he had done to Lilias. “I don’t know how I ended up out here. I—”
“I do believe the woman in my house is my mother,” she interrupted, certain he was about to leave them and she desperately did not want him to go. “She claims to be, anyway. And if she’s not, well, then—” Lilias set her hands on her hips as she imagined one of the heroines in her books would do when giving someone a set down. “That would be shocking. It would inspire loads of questions. Such as, what did she do with my mother?” Lilias tapped a finger against her chin, another Gothic heroine move. “Hmm… I do look like her, so I think it’s safe to say that she is my mother, and we can conclude that I do have a parent,” she finished cheekily.
Nash’s lips parted in obvious astonishment, and she did not bother to repress her smug smile. Finally, it was she who was rendering him speechless. She offered a quick prayer of thanks to God for her elephant-like memory and then said in a scolding voice, “My father died this past year.” She notched up her eyebrows to let Nash know that now was the appropriate time for him to feel remorse for his unthinking question.
Instead, he turned to Owen and asked, “Is she always like this?”
Owen nodded, his mop of blond hair falling across his right eye.
She would have been incensed by Nash’s question, which implied there was something wrong with her, except his tone held unmistakable admiration. She grinned. Finally, someone who had an appreciation for people who refused to conform! She allowed herself one moment to savor this before she launched back into the task of volleying answers at him just as quickly as he’d shot questions at her.
“I did have a chaperone, Miss Portsmith, but I only had her for a short while. My papa didn’t believe in chaperones. He had a free spirit stuck in an earl’s stuffy life.”
When Nash laughed, she grinned and kept going. “Mama drove Miss Portsmith away with unreasonable demands—Miss Portsmith’s words, not mine—but I must confess, I was not sad to see her depart. I didn’t particularly like having someone watch my every move and want to accompany me everywhere, but I do think my sister, Nora, could use a chaperone. She’s only nine, and she’s quite a handful already.” She took a breath, certain Nash would tell her to be quiet or some such thing, but a smile teased his lips. He appeared to be following her every word. Another tingling thrill went through her. “I get out of my home down a convenient tree.” She pointed to the trousers she’d borrowed from the stable master’s son, Lucas, so she could climb down the tree at her bedchamber window and teach Owen to swim with ease.
“Thus the trousers,” Nash said, seemingly amused. He pressed his lips together in a knowing smirk.
She returned the look. “Yes. I’m rather a good climber. My father encouraged me, to my mother’s dismay, when I was younger. I don’t suppose he ever considered I might use the ability to leave the house at night when I was not supposed to. Or maybe he did.” She shrugged, pushing back the sadness of her father’s loss, which was always at the edges of her happiness. “I can go about rather freely since my father passed, my chaperone fled, and my mother—”
She stopped herself from confessing that her mother took laudanum nearly daily and locked herself in her room for most of the days and nights. Even Lilias had boundaries of propriety she would not cross, and one did not confess such scandalous secrets. Well, at least not until one knew someone better.
He arched lovely, dark, expectant eyebrows at her.
“And my mother’s preoccupation since my father’s death,” she added lamely.
“I see,” Nash said, his deep voice filled with understanding, and she truly felt he did understand. Somehow he knew what she had not said, and in that moment, it seemed as if an unspoken bond formed between them.
“I’ve been wondering how you flitted about the countryside with me,” Owen piped up, breaking the spell.
Lilias offered her friend an indulgent smile. He had not asked, not once since she’d met him, and it had always bothered her. She didn’t know why, but it seemed he should have at least asked. Nash had asked. It made her want to sigh happily.
“As to being ruined,” she continued, wanting to finish answering Nash’s questions with the hope that eventually he’d answer some of her own, “you two are our nearest neighbors. The others are so far away that being seen in your company and then ruined is hardly a concern. So don’t fret that you might have to wed me.”
“It’s you who would need to fret if you had to wed me,” he responded, then chuckled.
But to her, the laugh was forced. It covered the truth of his words. He found himself unworthy of marrying. How fascinating. He was most assuredly a Gothic hero in the making.
“I feel I’ll make an excellent husband,” Owen blurted.
“Of course you will,” Nash replied.
Nash’s kind words to Owen were quite endearing but not yet true, and it would not do for Owen to fool himself. “You’ll make an excellent husband one day,” she assured her friend with a friendly pat on the arm. “But you are only five and ten summers,” she added.
“I’m the same age as you!”
She nodded. “Yes, and I’m not ready to wed yet, either.”
What she didn’t say was that he needed to become a lot less stuffy before he tried to find a wife. Romantic heroes were not supposed to be so concerned with propriety. Though, to be fair, she knew Owen’s obsession with being proper had to do with the fact that his mother had run off with their horse trainer. Lilias suspected Owen was trying to make up for his mother’s shocking lack of decorum by having so much of his own.
“I do believe I’ve answered all your questions,” she said to Nash. “Shall we get started teaching Owen to swim?”
“Why at night?” Nash asked instead of agreeing to begin.
She bit her lip, not wishing to admit the truth of the matter, but there didn’t seem to be hope for avoiding doing so. “Several reasons. One is that I cannot very well strip down to my unmentionables in front of the two of you to teach Owen to swim.”
“I’d say not!” Owen exclaimed.
Nash, however, shockingly said, “I’ve seen girls in their unmentionables before.”
“Well, of course you have!” Owen guffawed, which irritated her.
Apparently it irritated Nash, too, for he scowled at Owen, but she pressed her lips together on intervening. He’d been the one who wanted to shock Owen. It served Nash right that Owen had readily thought him a rogue.
But she did need to ensure he understood that just because she did not care for the fact that girls were bound by different rules than boys were, she did have a proper upbringing and plenty of self-worth. “I am not the sort of girl who will be showing anyone but my husband my unmentionables,” she stated, giving him what she hoped was a warning look like the one her father used to give her when he’d lost patience with her antics. It had been rare, but it had occurred.
“That’s obvious,” Nash said.
She frowned, unsure whether it was a compliment or not and if he thought that a good thing.
“What are the other reasons?” he asked.
“I thought if we surprised you, you might be intrigued enough to come.”
“You’re quite honest, aren’t you?” He sounded as if he was not used to such behavior.
“I don’t see the point of being otherwise. Now…” Though the conversation was fascinating, the night was slipping away. “Shall we start?”
“I shall start,” Nash replied. “You’ll sit there.” He pointed at the grass.
“I shall not!” she said hotly.
“You will or I’ll leave and not help at all.”
“But it was my idea to teach Owen to swim!”
“It may have been, but you are a girl.” She opened her mouth to protest, but he continued. “And I have enough honor that I cannot, will not, allow you into dangerous water at night. You could catch cold. You could slip and twist your ankle. You could be bitten by a snake. I would never forgive myself if something happened to you.”
That was the most gallant thing anyone had ever said to her. She couldn’t even muster the outrage to protest again, nor the wish to show him what an excellent swimmer she was. She ought to be irritated, she supposed. He wanted her to sit on the bank while he taught Owen to swim, after all, but she could not find a hint of the emotion in her. He had not said he didn’t think her capable; he’d said he wanted to protect her. Warmth filled her, and she had the most embarrassing desire to sigh at him.
Instead, she simply nodded. “I suppose someone should keep watch.”
“Yes,” he agreed quite readily, sounding relieved, and she half wondered if he had thought she’d argue. “You will make an excellent guardswoman.”
So for possibly the first time in her life, Lilias did as she was told and sat while Nash taught Owen to swim. He was kind and patient, and he was an excellent instructor. In no time, he had Owen with his head underwater, stroking his arms and kicking his legs. And as the grand finale to the night, Owen swam for five strokes to Nash. Lilias jumped up in her excitement, caught her foot on a tree root, and fell face forward onto the dirt, twisting her ankle in the process.
She cried out in pain, and before she could even right herself, Nash was there, grabbing her by the forearms and then helping her up. “Are you all right?”
In the moonlight, she could see the outline of his strong jaw, his head tilted toward her, his eyebrows raised. His hands were cold from being in the water, but she didn’t mind one bit. “I’m fine,” she said, not wanting to admit that her ankle was already throbbing.
“Thank God,” Owen said, coming up behind Nash.
When Nash released her and she put all her weight on her ankle, she almost fell down again. Nash caught her by the elbow and tugged her to his side, where he encircled her waist to hold her up. She had never felt protected like that in her life.
“You can’t walk home like this,” Nash said.
She hated to be helpless, but he was right, and the idea of him carrying her was not one she minded. She was really warming to it when he turned to Owen. “Can you carry her?”
Lilias felt her jaw drop open, but before she could recover from the sting of him not wanting to do the deed himself, she was being pushed gently out of Nash’s strong embrace and into Owen’s hands. Owen awkwardly slipped an arm under her leg as she protested, and he ignored her. He got her up against his chest, took two steps, and promptly tripped, sending them both flying forward, but Nash somehow managed to stop them from falling.
“I’m sorry, Lilias,” Owen said, and she could hear the misery in his voice.
“I’m sure she’s quite heavy,” Nash assured Owen, to her astonishment and irritation. “She looks it.” And then he jostled her out of Owen’s grasp, into his own, and gripped her under her legs while bringing her into the crook of his other arm and against his very solid, wet chest. “Which way?” he asked her.
She pointed, still vexed with him. Owen gathered their things and then fell into step behind them as they made their way through the dark woods to her home. When they got to the road that led to Owen’s home, he handed Nash’s things to her, and then Owen bade them an awkward farewell, as if he did not want to depart.
“Let’s meet tomorrow,” she told Owen. “We’ll work on your swimming again.”
“We can meet at the bridge,” Owen said, and to Lilias’s delight, Nash agreed, though he did sound a trifle reluctant.
Once Owen departed, Nash strode along toward her house for a moment, and Lilias racked her mind for a way to ask him about his family that was not too intrusive. She’d seen a family portrait on one of her visits, and there was a boy and young girl in the painting who had to be his siblings.
“Do I truly look heavy?” she asked, unable to think of a better way to start the conversation.
“No. You look perfect, and you’re light as a feather.” His compliment would have made her smile, except he sounded irritated, and he picked up his pace, as if he wanted to be rid of her. At this rate, they’d be at her house in no time.
Blast. She wanted to learn something about him.
“Then why did you tell Owen I looked heavy?”
He paused, glancing down at her. In the moonlight, she could just make out his face and see his eyebrows arch. “Sorry about that. I didn’t consider it might hurt your feelings. I was trying to ensure that Owen was not embarrassed if he couldn’t carry you.”
Her chest tightened at his words. “You’re quite nice.”
“No. No, I’m not, Lilias,” Nash replied and started walking once more. Silence stretched for a long time, and as her home came into view, Nash said, “But Owen seems to be truly nice. He reminds me of my brother.”
“You have a brother?” she asked, refusing to feel guilty about not mentioning the portrait she’d seen.
“Not anymore.” His clipped tone did not invite questions, so she bit her lip as he set her on her feet. He took his belongings from her, silence stretching and nearly killing her, and then he slowly put on his shoes. When he finally stood, she thought it likely he’d simply leave, but he said, “He died last year.”
His words stole her breath, and for a moment she recalled the image of the light-haired boy in the portrait. “Oh. I’m terribly sorry. How did he die?”
The pain in Nash’s voice pierced Lilias’s heart. She inhaled a long, steadying breath as her own grief over the loss of her father rose to the surface. “Is that why you decided to help me teach Owen to swim?”
“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “How will you get back into your house unnoticed?” he asked, changing the subject.
“The tree I used to get down.”
“With that injury?”
“I’ll manage.” Her ankle ached terribly, but she didn’t want to admit it—nor did she want him to leave yet. “It’s very selfless of you to help Owen.”
“No, it’s not. I’m hoping to get something out of it,” he said. “Where’s the tree?”
She pointed to her bedchamber, and he put an arm around her waist and helped her over. “What do you hope to get out of teaching Owen to swim?”
He slid his arm from her waist, but his fingers lingered on her arm, as if to ensure she was steady before releasing her. Nash Steele, the Marquess of Chastain, as she’d discovered from his butler, was a protector whether he knew it or not. His touch disappeared, and she felt the loss of it all the way to her toes. They stood in silence for several breaths, and she was beginning to think he was not going to answer her.
Finally, he said, “Redemption.”
The word was low and throbbing. It caused an ache in her gut. “For what?” she whispered.
Again, they stood in silence, this pause longer. An owl hooted from a tree above, and her dogs, who always slept in her bedchamber, began to bark in response. Lights started flickering in the window to the right of her bedchamber. Nora. The ninny. She was afraid of every little sound, and soon she would wake their mother.
“What do you wish redemption for?” she urged him, her heart pounding with the knowledge that she had to hurry and make her way up the tree to the safety of her bedchamber.
A sigh filled the space between them. “My brother’s death,” Nash finally said. “I killed him.”
She could not have heard him correctly. “You said he drowned.”
“He did,” Nash replied. “But I was the reason he was on the ice. My selfishness killed my brother. So you see, Lilias, I am not nice.”
Before she could point out that someone who wasn’t truly a good person would not even be worried about whether they were good or bad, her window slammed open and Nora leaned out with her nightcap still on. “Lilias Honeyfield, I see you down there in the moonlight, and in a minute, Mama will, too. I’m going to wake her. Then you’ll be in the soup, as you deserve for never taking me with you!” With that, her sister disappeared from the window.
“You’ve been caught now,” Nash said. To her pleasant surprise, he sounded regretful, which could only mean he wanted to see her again.
She waved a dismissive hand as she grabbed a tree branch. “Nonsense. It would take the house coming down around my mother’s ears to wake her. The laudanum—” Lilias bit her lip on the slip as she struggled to pull herself up the tree, but her ankle hurt something dreadful. “Give me a push?” she asked, not knowing what else to do. Eventually her mother would wake up if that tattletale Nora shook her long enough.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” Nash said, his hands coming to her hips. His touch shot heat through her. “Is she ill?”
“No,” Lilias said, shocked at the husky sound of her voice. She cleared her throat. “She’s sad since my father’s death.” And though she did not wish to leave Nash, she had to, so she tugged herself up as Nash hoisted her. She finally got a hold on the sturdy branch, and her foot found a good knot in the tree so she could make her way to the next branch. She turned and looked down at Nash. His head was tilted up to look at her, and his hands were on his hips.
“You’ll still come to the bridge tomorrow, won’t you?” she asked.
“Yes, I promised I would.”
Relief flowed through her, but then she had a worry. Would he mention what she’d said about her mother to Owen? Truly, she didn’t want anyone to know. She wasn’t even sure why she’d told him. “About my mother—”
“I’ll keep your secret.”
And he thought he wasn’t good… He was perfect. Never mind she’d only spent a few hours in his company, but he was wonderful. And she was going to mend him so he could be hers.
~ ~ ~
The fall went along in the dreamiest of manners. Lilias, Nash, and Owen met every day for Owen’s swimming lessons. When Owen finally mastered swimming, she feared Nash would not meet them anymore, but that tragedy was skirted when Owen asked Nash to teach him how to fish. The three of them spent September together with Nash instructing them both on the finer arts of fishing—she begged to be included—and the process continued into October when Owen asked Nash to teach him to fence and to ride better. Lilias was already an excellent rider, but as she again did not want to be excluded from Nash’s instruction, she pretended she wasn’t.
Nash seemed to have taken on the role of older brother to Owen, but he didn’t talk about it. She could not bring it up, though, because it was never just the two of them, and she didn’t want to reveal what he’d told her in confidence about his own brother. He was gruff and grumpy at times, but he had honor and a fiercely protective side.
By the start of November, Lilias knew three things for certain: she was hopelessly in love with Nash, she wanted time alone with him, and the only way to get him to herself to find out if he felt the same about her was to seize the day. With that in mind, she sat at her desk and penned a note to Nash asking him to meet her at the bridge before the appointed time she, Owen, and Nash were supposed to rendezvous that evening. She was going to teach the boys about the constellations, which was something her father had taught her in one of his tentative moments.
Just as she was signing her note, her door swung open and Nora stood at the threshold with a grin on her face and letter in her hand. Lilias frowned at the interruption. “What do you want?”
“A rather stuffy footman brought this round for you, but I’m not inclined to give it to you.”
Lilias jumped up and lunged for Nora, but her sister was faster on her feet than Lilias was. Nora dashed down the hall into her own room, slamming the door behind her as she went.
Lilias was halfway down the hall when her mother screeched, “Be quiet, girls! I’ve a horrid megrim, and I got no sleep last night.”
“Sorry, Mama,” Lilias called back, feeling guilty that she was actually glad to hear her mother had not slept well the night before. That meant she’d likely retire to bed early tonight, making it easier than usual for Lilias to leave the house without being noticed. Not that it was overly hard in the first place.
Her momentary pleasure turned sour as she tiptoed toward Nora’s room, intent on taking her sister by surprise. It actually did not feel so grand that her mother never noticed that Lilias sneaked out of the house. In fact, at times, her mother almost seemed to forget that Lilias existed, except she had mentioned just yesterday that Lilias needed a new wardrobe to go to London next Season. Mama intended to introduce Lilias to Society to marry her off and get one daughter out from under foot. Those words had pricked.
Lilias sniffed and shoved her injured feelings away. Mama was overwhelmed and melancholy, as she had been since Papa died. Lilias reminded herself not to take it personally. After all, Mama ignored Nora, as well. Regardless, Lilias did not want to be clothed to be wedded off. She’d already found the man she hoped to eventually wed, and she’d done that in a pair of borrowed trousers.
She grinned to herself as she flung her sister’s door open. Nora screeched and jumped off her bed, but Lilias tackled her and they both fell onto the bed in a fit of giggles. “Give me my letter!” Lilias demanded, laughing.
“What shall I get in return?” Nora asked through bursts of her own laughter.
“What do you want?” Lilias made a grab for the note.
“Your cloak,” Nora said abruptly.
Lilias stilled. She knew the one Nora was talking about without having to ask. Papa had purchased her a fur-lined cloak before he’d died. It had been the last gift he’d ever given her. After he’d gambled away so much money, presents had been scarce. He’d promised Nora one, too, but that had not come to fruition. Lilias had been feeling rather guilty now that the weather was so cold about having the cloak when her sister did not, so she had not worn it yet, which also made her feel bad since it had been a gift from her father. This was the perfect solution.
“All right,” she said.
“Truly?” Nora’s blue eyes popped wide.
Lilias smiled and held out her hand for the letter. “Truly, dearest. Just be certain to take good care of it.”
“Agreed,” Nora said and relinquished the letter.
Lilias hugged her sister before scrambling off her bed and returning to her own room to read the note.
My father has business in London that he requires me to attend to with him. I’ll return in a sennight. Don’t teach Nash about the constellations without me tonight. Oh, and let him know where I am. Also, I want to learn to dance. Will you teach me? Father says I’ll need this skill in London eventually.
With a grin, Lilias folded the letter, put it in her drawer, and tucked the one she’d written to Nash beside it. She tapped her fingernails against the glossy dark wood of her writing desk. Tonight, she’d be alone with Nash. Finally. And if he showed even an inkling that he felt for her as she’d come to feel for him, that was all the hope she needed.
~ ~ ~
Nash trod through the moonlit woods toward the bridge where he was to meet Lilias and Owen without really noticing anything around him. His thoughts were on Lilias. In fact, she’d been all he could think about since he’d first hoisted her up into the tree the night he’d started teaching Owen to swim. It seemed as if the harder he tried not to think about her, the more he did.
And he shouldn’t allow it. It wasn’t even because of Owen. Nash had completely misjudged Owen’s feelings toward her. His friend had told him a month ago, after a swim one afternoon when it was just the two of them, that he was going to find the perfect wife one day—a woman who respected the rules of Society and behaved with proper decorum. That certainly was not Lilias. Owen also had told Nash that his mother had scandalously run off with her horse trainer, so Nash understood what drove Owen to want propriety in a wife. Nash wasn’t glad it had happened to Owen, but he couldn’t ignore the relief he had felt knowing that Lilias was not who Owen was looking for. Owen had become his friend, but Lilias had become more than that. Exactly what, he wasn’t quite sure. He’d been trying to fight it. Whatever it was, he knew he didn’t deserve it, but it was impossible to fight the happiness she inspired.
He strode along the path thinking of her, shoving branches out of his way. When he glanced toward the bridge, he saw her. She stood in the moonlight, her hair glistening in the rays, her head tilted back, presumably looking at the stars. He looked around for Owen, and when he didn’t see him, Nash picked up his pace in anticipation of a few moments alone with Lilias. When he was very close, her dogs—who were surrounding her—started barking.
“You brought the dogs?” he called.
Normally, she didn’t.
She turned toward him, white teeth flashing in the dark as she grinned. “I left them outside in anticipation of coming tonight. I didn’t want to be alone while I waited for you.” Before he could ask about that, she said, “Hush,” to the dogs, who immediately quieted. She made a shivery sound on the heels of that statement.
He frowned, coming to stand beside her on the bridge. He touched a hand to her threadbare cloak. “Is this all you wore out here tonight?”
She shrugged. “It’s all I have. I had a fur-lined cloak, but my sister didn’t, and she’s been taking long walks out of doors lately, so…”
“So you gave her your cloak?” he asked, taking off his overcoat and settling it on her shoulders.
“You don’t have to give me your coat,” she protested, but he noticed the way she tugged the lapels together. It made him feel good to ensure she was taken care of.
“I know,” he replied, his voice rough with the emotions he was repressing—the ones that scared him. “Where’s Owen?”
“He’s in London. He sent me a note this morning and said to tell you he’ll be back in a sennight. He also asked me not to teach you about the constellations without him.”
“Oh,” Nash said. They were alone, after all. “I—” He should leave, but he couldn’t make himself say so. It was the right thing to do, yet the words would not come.
He was aware of everything about her all at once. She smelled like a lily. Did she know that? Her head came precisely to his shoulder. She hummed when it was quiet, just as she was now doing. It made him think silence scared her.
Yes, he should most definitely leave. She didn’t need to be tangled up with him, and yet, when he turned toward her and she, too, was facing him, it was as if there were an invisible string pulling them together.
“Why do you hum when it’s quiet?” he asked.
A beat of silence passed. Then two. Then three. He should not have asked. “I’m sorry.”
“No.” She swallowed. “I hum to stay happy.”
“You’d be sad if you weren’t humming?”
She shrugged. “Possibly. Things have been gloomy since my father died. Actually, even before then.” Another beat passed. “My house used to be loud, cheery. Now it’s so very quiet. My mother insists upon it. So when I’m not there, I sometimes hum.” She paused again. “If I tell you some secrets, will you keep them?”
“Yes.” The word flew out of his mouth without thought, and in that moment, he realized that he’d die before ever willingly betraying her. She had found a way into his darkness, and she might be the only thing that could penetrate it with her light. He wanted that so much.
“My father gambled away almost all his money before he died. We are basically penniless. We still live in our home by the grace of my uncle.”
The news made him want to throttle her dead father for leaving her so vulnerable. “I’m sorry,” he said, trying to keep his feelings from permeating into his tone.
“Don’t be. Money doesn’t make happiness.”
“I know that to be true. My family’s miserable.”
“And wealthy,” she said, her delicate hand coming to rest upon his arm, something no perfectly proper girl would ever do. No, Lilias Honeyfield would never be the sort of girl to follow all the rules, and Nash had never been so glad about anything in his life.
All of a sudden, he knew what he wanted. He wanted to protect her from those in Society who would look down upon her for her lack of conformity. He wanted to protect her as he’d failed to protect his brother. Someday, he could offer that to her with his hand. His family was wealthy, titled, and had land. His father was a duke. Nash would one day be a duke. He could offer her every protection, and she could give him light.
Internally, he shook himself. Who was he to think such things? He had no right after what he’d done, and yet—
“Nash, what happened with your brother?”
It was the one question he always dreaded. Nash tried to pull his arm away from her, but she grasped him.
“I told you already,” he said. “I killed him with my selfishness.”
“Tell me exactly.”
He sighed. “My brother was born sickly. He looked up to me, and I was supposed to protect him, watch over him. And I did. But no matter how much I gave, my parents wanted me to give more. I was to let my brother win at anything I did with him, and I followed that order. Always.” Nash paused and swiped his hand over his face. “I was to stop speaking when he spoke, and I did. I was to give him things of mine that he wanted, from toys as children to pistols as we got older, and I did. I wanted to go on a grand tour with my uncle, and they said no since my brother couldn’t go because of his health. And one day, my brother asked me for one more thing, and I did not grant the favor he requested.” He paused again and looked to the ground as shame rolled over him. “I chose to be selfish, and that selfishness killed him.”
“What did he ask for?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter.” The guilt roared in his ears.
But it did. Still, he didn’t want to see the look on her face if she knew. It would be the same look his parents had given him when he’d told them that his brother had asked him to ignore the tutor’s daughter, who had been flirting with him, because Thomas liked her and wanted a chance with her, but Nash had ignored his brother’s request. Helen had flirted with him, and he’d encouraged her selfishly. The worst part was that Nash had not even truly liked her. He’d simply wanted to think of himself first for once.
“We can all be selfish sometimes, Nash. It’s a human quality.”
“I was supposed to be his protector,” Nash replied, refusing to let her grant him forgiveness when she didn’t even know the whole truth. “My brother was furious with me when he realized what I was doing. He charged me on the ice, the ice cracked beneath him, and he fell through.” Nash swallowed the knot in his throat and forced himself to look up. “I couldn’t save him.”
The tears rolling down Lilias’s cheeks shocked him. “I couldn’t save my father, either,” she said. “I tried.”
Nash gently wiped away her tears, then took one of her hands in his, glad she was not going to press him for all the details. “Tell me.”
“He was different,” she said, sniffling. “A dreamer. A writer. But his parents forbade him from pursuing ‘such folly.’ I think that’s why he encouraged us, me and my sister, to do as we wished. I think that’s why he did not place the usual boundaries upon us that most girls of the ton are required to live and die by. Mother despised it.” Lilias let out a laugh at that, partly bitter, partly understanding. “He sent a story to a publisher once.” She bit her lip, then spoke again. “I’m not supposed to know that, but I do.”
He didn’t ask how. She was clever, this girl. He could picture her with her ear to some door. “My mother told him not to do it. She was fearful, I think, of what would happen if his story got accepted.”
Nash nodded, understanding. It was odd to him how people in their set frowned upon work, especially if one got paid.
“It didn’t get accepted,” Lilias continued, “and he started drinking and gambling. And then—” She waved a hand in the air, and he could feel her helpless despair. “He simply slumped into his plate one night and was dead.”
She was crying softly now, and he put his arms around her and drew her close. Her head came under his chin, and her soft body pressed along the length of his. A tremor of awareness went through him unlike anything he’d ever known. He wanted to take the sadness from her.
“I tried,” Lilias continued, her voice muffled. She turned her head, pressed her cheek to his chest, and slipped her arms around his waist. He felt her fingers lock behind his back. “I tried to save him, but I couldn’t. And so now—” she paused and tilted her head back to look at him “—I try to save other things.”
Owen. Her dogs. Nash. Did he deserve to be saved? He didn’t think so, but she did because she was a dreamer like her father. She was rare and precious, and she needed someone far better than he was, and yet he found himself leaning toward her, drawn to her goodness, drawn to every single thing about her, from her smile, to her dimples, to the way her hair always looked in lovely, wild disarray, to how she didn’t follow a single dictate that ladies of her upbringing were supposed to. He pressed his forehead to hers, telling himself that if she drew back, he would understand. But she didn’t, and he was filled with hope. Her breath mingled with his, sweet and enticing. He wanted to kiss her. He’d never wanted anything more in his life.
Bringing his hands to her back, he brushed his lips to hers ever so gently to give her time to pull away, to tell him to stop. When she moaned, searing need rushed through him, but he reined it in. He didn’t want to frighten her. He slid his hand up the perfect curve of her spine until his right hand held the slender column of her neck, and his left hand came to her lips. He ran his thumb over her mouth, and when she moaned again, he traced the soft fullness of her lips with his tongue. He’d never felt anything so good in his life.
He had to feel her heat, taste her goodness. He parted her lips with his tongue, half expecting her to stop him, but she tugged him closer, and as his own need mounted, she kissed him with a hunger and a sweetness that made him feel completely alive and as if redemption was possible with her.
“Lilias,” he said, breaking the kiss, wanting to tell her the things in his head. “God, Lilias. You make me feel—”
“Lilias! Nash!” Owen burst through the trees before Nash could react. Owen came to an abrupt stop, his jaw dropping and silence descending. As Lilias and Nash scrambled apart, Owen’s gaze stayed on Nash, narrowing.
“What are you doing here?” Lilias exclaimed.
“Shall I leave?” he asked, his tone sharp.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Lilias burst out, her voice sounding a tad high to Nash. “I, well, I was sad about my father, and Nash was simply—Well, he was simply—”
“Comforting her,” Nash supplied, knowing there was nothing else to be said. They’d had their arms entwined about each other, after all, their faces a hairsbreadth apart.
Owen moved toward Lilias and past Nash, scowling at him. A slight suspicion arose that Nash didn’t even want to acknowledge.
“Lilias, why didn’t you tell me you were sad? I’m here for you,” Owen said, slipping his arm around Lilias’s shoulder.
The urge to throw Owen’s arm off her astonished Nash with its intensity. And when Lilias dipped under Owen’s arm and away, Nash could not suppress the gladness.
“I need to go home,” Lilias murmured. “I, well, I don’t feel well.”
“I’ll walk you,” Nash and Owen offered at the same time.
She shook her head, and Nash said, “We’ll both walk you.”
“No, I’ll see you two tomorrow.” She turned, took a few steps away from them, then turned back. “Owen, what happened to your trip to London?”
“My father took ill. He’s abed, but I had to wait to be certain he was going to stay there before slipping away.”
Lilias nodded. “I see. So you won’t be going to Town anytime soon?”
Nash glanced at her, hearing an odd hitch in her voice. Hopefulness? Maybe he was only hearing what he wanted to hear.
Owen shook his head. “I doubt it. He wrote his solicitor to conclude the business on his behalf.”
“I see.” Nash could not mistake the disappointment he heard in her voice, and when Owen tensed, Nash did, as well, and his niggling suspicion grew tenfold.
“Tomorrow, then,” she said, whistling for her dogs to follow, and then she left Owen and Nash as if there were something chasing her.
When she was totally out of sight, Owen turned to Nash, his irritated expression apparent, even in the moonlit night. “Race me.”
Nash frowned. “What?”
“Race me,” Owen repeated, his voice hard.
“What are we racing for?” Nash asked, that suspicion now nearly choking him.
“The right to court Lilias.”
And there it was. A swift punch of unwanted truth to his gut. For one moment, he was robbed of the ability to speak, but then he finally found his voice. “I thought you said you wanted a wife who would behave properly and never go against Society rules.”
“Of course I said that,” Owen growled. “I didn’t want you to know I liked Lilias, but I do. And you do, too.”
He did. God, he did, but it was as if he were standing on that ice again and Thomas was before him. He could put Owen’s desires above his own as he had failed to do for Thomas. There wasn’t ice under Nash’s feet now, simply solid ground, but he was going under anyway, drowning fast. “What you saw was two friends, nothing more.” The surface was gone, as was his hope.
“I think she likes you,” Owen said, his voice glum. And before Nash could respond, Owen added, “I know about your brother. My father heard in Town the gossip of what occurred.”
All the air left Nash’s lungs.
“Tomorrow, I’ll challenge you to a race, Nash,” Owen said. “Who knows, perhaps I’ll win and Lilias will finally see me.”
Nash swallowed the desire to declare that Lilias was his. She was not. He did not deserve her. “I’m certain you’ll win,” Nash replied, meaning it. He would not race his hardest.
Owen nodded and left Nash standing in the woods alone.
Nash couldn’t say how long he remained there, but the sun came up eventually, and when he made his way home, he vowed to himself not to be the thing that drove Lilias and Owen apart, no matter what the cost to himself.
~ ~ ~
The next morning, Lilias hurried to meet Nash and Owen for their morning ride. She’d overslept because she’d had such trouble getting to sleep the night before. Every time she had closed her eyes, she would recall every detail of Nash kissing her. She hated to wish Owen away, but wish him to London, she did. Yet, when she came to the clearing where they always started their ride, he was there, and she felt guilty for the disappointment that filled her.
She glanced around the clearing, not seeing Nash, and then he came over the hill and jumped over a fallen tree that, to her, looked nearly impossible to clear. Nash reached Owen at the same time she did.
“You ride dangerously,” Lilias chastised Nash, though she was secretly amazed.
“I ride the way I live,” he said, his voice so solemn her breath caught and worry blossomed.
“You should be more careful,” she said. If anything were to happen to him, she would be devastated. “But I will say, you are the best horseman I have ever seen.”
“I believe I’m now better,” Owen said. His tone was boastful, and his expression irritated, like a petulant child.
Lilias bit back the wish to retort, realizing Owen must be feeling as if he were in Nash’s shadow. She was certain no boy would wish to feel that way. Owen scowled at her. She placed a placating hand on his arm. “You are a fine horseman. I—”
“Race me, Nash,” Owen demanded, shrugging off her hand. “Let me prove I’m better. Unless you are afraid to?” It almost sounded like a taunting challenge. She clenched her teeth at the foolish pride of men.
“Owen, no,” Lilias said, certain he’d be embarrassed in a race against Nash.
“Yes,” he clipped.
“Nash—” she tried.
“If he wishes to race, I cannot, as a gentleman, decline.”
“Then don’t be a gentleman,” she fumed. But it was hopeless. Before she knew it, they took off, leaving her behind as they raced back toward the fallen tree Nash had just jumped.
Lilias held her breath, watching, admiring Nash’s form and hoping Owen did not make too poor of a showing. To her shock, Owen pulled ahead of Nash and started to lengthen the distance between them. But then Nash seemed to gain ground as they moved like lightning toward the fallen tree. Her heart began to pound as they drew closer and closer to the tree, but to her relief, Nash pulled his horse to the right, away from the tree. She assumed Owen would do the same. But just as she was exhaling, her mouth slipped open as Owen jumped the tree and his horse came tumbling down on the other side, pinning Owen underneath.