As Devon paused to allow a carriage to pass, a heat spread across his back. Someone was following him.
Turning, he cast a quick glance down the street toward Habersham's shop. He would not be at all surprised to see old man Habersham running after him to continue their chat of the Mad Duke's antics. Yet all that met his eyes was a group of austere-looking ladies ordering some poor footman to load their packages into a carriage.
Then he noticed a set of ladies' boots scurrying around them before disappearing behind a food vendor.
He was being ridiculous. Why would anyone be stalking him? He shook off the thought and continued down the sidewalk. The clean buildings of Bond Street began to diminish, making way for simple shops, taverns, and the occasional brothel. The crowds thinned and the people traversing the area now were common folk out running errands.
A comfortable feeling of peace filled Devon as he left the trappings of wealth behind, favoring the simplicity of a society revolving around trade. It was as if two separate worlds inhabited the city. As usual, he wanted nothing to do with the world to which he belonged.
Moving onto a side street, he strode into the shadows of stone buildings that grew closer together as he progressed. He had just rounded another corner when he heard footsteps at his back. Being followed in this section of town was never a good sign. He'd only needed to lose all the money in his pocket once to discover the truth of that sentiment.
He spun, determined to catch whoever it was off guard. The only movement that met his eyes was the swirling edge of a blue dress as it whipped around a corner.
Was that a woman following him? Why? He didn't want the answer to his question as much as he wished her to stop. He had endured enough for one day and wanted nothing more than to have a drink and escape life for a few hours. He passed onto a wider street and continued walking, still aware of a heated gaze across his back and quick footsteps behind him. This had gone on long enough. Someone would surely be missing the lady back at the shops where she belonged.
He turned, ready to confront her and send her on her way, but saw no one. Good. That was done. Yet, as he was pivoting to continue down the street, something made him look back once more. It was then that he caught sight of the voluminous skirts of a blue dress extending from either side of a light post. The occupant of the dress was carefully hidden from view, but she was no spy. She had clearly underestimated the size of the dress she was wearing. He hadn't seen a dress that large in ten years. Devon smirked. Perhaps she was stalking some other prey, but glancing around the empty street, he knew they were alone.
Devon decided to ignore her. She would give up her quest soon enough. He was heading into the darker side of London, after all. Surely, she would not dare follow him there. He passed the window of a small shop and saw the reflection of the hem of her dress behind a horse tethered across the street. What did she want of him? Could she not see that he was in no mood to entertain ladies?
Lengthening his stride, Devon soon neared the entrance to the Stag and Doe. The tavern was seedy enough that no lady in her right mind would pursue him inside, yet it offered the highest quality drink on this end of town. Best of all, within these doors he was a nameless, untitled man and nothing more. Whatever the lady in blue wanted of him, she could damn well wait in the street surrounded by dirty sailors for all he cared.
He was finally free-free of whispers behind his back, free of his own identity, and free to spend the evening drinking his problems away.
Pausing as he opened the door, he smiled at the thick smell of lager and smoke hanging in the air. As he breathed in the sweet smell of anonymity, something careened into his back with a small "Umph."
He turned and looked down into the face of the woman in blue. "Woman in blue" indeed, for staring up at him were the purest blue eyes any man could behold. Her golden hair slipped from its elaborate style where it was topped with a hideous hat covered with several large flowers. She was lovely in an unconventional way. Perhaps he was in the mood to entertain women...one woman in particular. He grinned.
"Is there a reason you're following me, ma'am?"
"Following you? I'm not following you! I'm simply entering this fine establishment for some refreshment on a warm afternoon," she blustered.
"Yes, the Stag and Doe does often draw the Bond Street shopping crowd on warm afternoons." Whatever the reason this vision in out-of-date fashion had followed him here, it was certainly not for afternoon refreshments.
"I can see why, with its convenient location and inviting décor. Now, if you don't mind, I would like to go inside." If her chin tilted any higher, she would be thrown off balance and fall into the street behind her.
Devon quirked a brow and gave a tip of his hat as he motioned her inside. "By all means."
She paused just in front of him and appeared to be admiring his waistcoat with odd intensity. He glanced down but only saw the gold chain of his new watch glinting in the sun. She gave him an assessing stare, shot a quick glance down the street they had traveled, and then entered the tavern. Who was this lady? And what the devil was she playing at?
The same elderly man who always tended bar set a glass down on the long wooden surface that ran along one side of the room. A wall covered in bottles of spirits stood at his back. He nodded in Devon's direction, eyes lingering on the lady standing frozen beside him. She had the look of a wide-eyed fawn in a room full of hunters.
A few brave women were in the tavern, all drinking merrily, yet from the look of her, this lady was just that-a lady. She most likely had never been inside a tavern and had chosen a poor time to follow him, for this was where he planned to while away the remainder of his afternoon.
"It is customary to continue walking through a door and then sit at a table," he rumbled over her shoulder, causing her to jump.
"Of course. I was merely assessing where I might find the best table."
"I'm planning to sit there by that dirty window. I always find the afternoon light to be the nicest when viewed through a hundred years of grime." He took a few steps across the room before turning to look at her with an easy smile. "Care to join me?"
He moved past barmaids stepping around them as they dipped between tables serving drinks. The men in the room sat gathered, laughing and telling stories, while swirls of smoke rose from their cheroots.
He pulled her chair out and watched in amusement as she dusted it off before sitting. With her back straight and her hands folded neatly in her lap, she looked more out of place than a fish resting comfortably on a grassy hill. He sat opposite her with the hint of a curious grin lingering on his lips. Her hand darted to the pearl necklace around her neck. That piece of jewelry was a bit too fine for this part of town. She would likely be set upon by thieves if she was found alone. He said nothing, only watched her, willing her to speak and tell her reason for following him through the city.
"I do believe I should know your name if we're to have refreshments together."
A smile curled the corners of his mouth. She made the Stag and Doe sound like the finest of London salons where they would chat over a cup of tea. She was in for a rude awakening when the drinks came, if that was her anticipation. "That may be the first time drinks have been referred to as ‘refreshments' inside these walls," Devon mused.
As a barmaid approached, he ordered something potent and equal to the task of erasing the day he was having.
"I'll have one of those as well," she offered politely.
"It appears the lady will have one as well," he repeated with a smile aimed at the barmaid.
When they were alone again, she added, "I have heard that they are well known for that drink here. That's why I came."
"The drink you ordered. Your reason for coming here," Devon supplied.
"Yes, I've heard that, um, sangarees are delicious." She was clearly bluffing, because her cheeks were turning deeper shades of pink by the second. "You never said your name."
"That I did not, did I?" He stretched his legs, crossing them at the ankle, and narrowed his eyes on the woman across the table. The irony was not lost on him of having traveled this far into the shady side of town for anonymity, only to be asked who he was upon arrival. Of course she would want to know his name.
Although, if she had followed him from Bond Street as he suspected, then she most likely already knew the answer to her question. Therefore, he looked her straight in the eye and lied. "Mr. Grey. Since we're on such friendly terms as to share a few sangarees, you may call me Devon."
"That doesn't seem quite proper. Calling you by your given name, I mean."
"Will you tell on me?" he asked with a conciliatory tone, granting her the roguish smile that tended to make ladies swoon.
"No, I won't be telling anyone of this." She smiled a quiet, secret smile, clearly delighted with the idea of sharing a secret with him. Some part of him was enjoying this clandestine meeting as well, which was odd since he grew bored with all females within seconds of being introduced. Surely, the same would be true today. Perhaps what held his attention were the mystery surrounding her arrival and the low point in life at which she had found him.
"Devon." She tried his name out tentatively. "It's nice to meet you. I'm Lil-" She paused to clear her throat before saying, "Lily Whitby."
"A pleasure, Miss Lily Whitby. Are you from London?"
"No. Are you?" She still sat with her hands folded neatly in her lap as if they were at tea and half the ton were present. Would she ever reveal her interest in tracking him through the streets of London today? She didn't seem disposed to offering any information about herself.
Perhaps if he spoke freely, she would as well. "God, no," he said. "My home is in North Yorkshire. I've only been forced to endure the city recently."
She was looking like a tightly bound ball of nerves as two large men sat down at the table beside theirs and began a loud conversation about bosoms. He shot one of the men a look that could slice tough meat and they quieted down. Lily, unfortunately, still looked ill at ease. She would never confide her reasons for following him if she felt uncomfortable. He sighed, not sure how to calm her.
She looked like a bird about to take flight as she asked, "Say, do you have the time?" Her eyes flitted across his chest for a moment before returning to his eyes. What was that about? He supposed he would find out soon enough. How odd this encounter was becoming.
"Do you need to leave so soon? Our drinks look to be arriving."
Just then the barmaid set two large tankards on the rough wooden table between them. He watched Lily's eyes grow wide. She leaned forward and took a tentative sniff of the brew. Being made of Batavia Arrack, citrus fruits, spices, and sugar, it was a sweet drink, thick and soothing after a long day. This little tavern was the only place he'd managed to find rack punch outside the Antilles.
He took a swallow. It could also knock you on your arse if you had more than one. He smiled. This little meeting could get very interesting if she took a sip.
Her gaze turned thoughtful as she took in their surroundings once more and then glanced at him. What was she considering?
With a nod of agreement over some unsaid inner battle, she lifted the tankard to her lips and began to drink. "Gulped" was a more apt word because she did not come up for air for quite some time.
Devon chuckled. "Easy. It won't grow feet and walk away. You don't need to down it so fast." He watched as she drained half of her glass. "Or perhaps you do."
"Perhaps I do." She smiled. "I confess that I have not had the opportunity to do..." She broke off to wave her hand in the air indicating their surroundings. "Things like this. My home life, such that it has been, has not allowed for freedoms like time with friends or..." Her voice disappeared into a bubble of laughter that overtook her for a moment before she could continue. "It has not allowed time for me to eat or sleep. No, beverages partaken with strange men in taverns simply do not happen. Not to me."
He could see that the liquor she had just ingested was taking effect because her posture had relaxed a fraction. She glanced out the grimy window with a pensive frown. "This city doesn't seem at all bad to me. Then again, a crossroads with a flock of ducks would be more exciting than my life as of late."
"To be entertained by London, you must be easily entertained by society." He repeated the word, grinding it out with a clenched jaw: "society." He looked down at the table, studying the beverage in his hand. "I much prefer a life lived outside its constraints." He spun his tankard around in a slow circle on the table before him.
Glancing up, he noticed she was watching him. Wasn't he supposed to be interrogating her? He blinked away his disparaging thoughts about the London peerage and got back to his task. "Where is your home? Or do you no longer live there? You spoke of it as if you had moved away."
"Oh, I live there still. In a small town with no society to speak of. This is practically the first time I've left home, other than my time at finishing school." She tipped up her tankard, looking into its almost empty depths. "I used to look out at the sea that borders our estate and dream of traveling to distant lands." She set the stein down with a clink on the wooden table, looking at him with a dazzling smile. "You know, if a book exists on the subject of travel, I believe I have read it. However, London is as far as I have gotten as of yet."
His eyes flashed at her mention of travel. "An affinity for travel is something I can relate to." That was an understatement. "I spent five years on an expedition to Africa studying native plant life and geographical mapping. That was after a Himalayan Mountain excursion but before a brief stop off in Spain." But now he was home. His jaw clenched and he worked to keep the frown from his face.
"You have truly been to all of those places?" Her eyes widened and she leaned in toward the table with interest. "Tell me, are the Himalayas as magnificent as Mr. Childers Caldwell describes in Flora and Fauna of the Himalayas?"
"Ah, Mr. Caldwell. I met him once at a base camp." He shook his head over the memory of the obnoxious man. "He complained incessantly. It's a wonder he traveled anywhere beyond his own garden with the way he went on about the poor quality of the food, the cool weather, and the dirty, uneducated people. Quite annoying, really." He took a sip before continuing. "I later read his book and, to this day, suspect it may have been written by his traveling companion and passed off as his own work. But, yes, the descriptions of the grandness of the mountains were quite accurate."
"Have you written anything on the subject I might have read?" Lily asked.
"No, I haven't the patience to write a book. I presented the Royal Society with several plant specimens upon my latest return and wrote an article for a journal. It was a fascinating trip."
"I should read your journal article," she offered.
Was she truly interested in his travels? Who was Lily Whitby and where had she been hiding? He had decided all ladies were only concerned with hair ribbons and retelling the latest on-dit. How refreshing. Of course, she had followed him, so was she speaking the truth? She was still talking, he realized as he snapped his attention back to her.
"That was when I began to read every book in our library on farming techniques. Since then, my life has been completely absorbed in the workings of the land. So, clearly by this point, I could use some reading materials about unknown plants, as mine are a bit too known."
He laughed. She continued to surprise him at every turn. "I apologize. I'm only trying to picture you as a farmer."
"I do play a large role in the management of crop yields and plantings. But no, I do not reap the harvests with my own hands. My skills are better suited to poring over journals for modern farming techniques than digging in the dirt." She quirked the corner of her mouth in thought. "I would hate to see the state of things if I didn't do so."
"You are quite unexpected, Lily. Tell me more of your life." She was quite unexpected indeed. Wasn't he supposed to be gathering some information from her? Oh, her arrival, with the following business. Yes, he needed to get around to that eventually. For now, he wanted to hear of a life not lived within the bounds of London.
"My life is rather quiet. I won first prize for my La Belle Sultane roses last year at the parish rose festival. And I..." She grew quiet, looking down at her hands. Her gaze turned to his as she said, "I haven't lived a large life. Not like you. My adventures have all taken place between the pages of a book. Tell me more of your travels."
"I don't know. Your death-defying defeat of your enemies to claim first prize for your roses sounds fascinating," he quipped, taking another sip of his drink. "That breed is beautiful. They deepen to a dark purple with growth, don't they?"
"I can't believe you know of them," she said in amazement.
"Have you ever seen an African daisy? They grow wild on the plains. Their deep violet petals are pinched together in the center to make them look like tiny spoons around a black center."
"I would very much like to see that one day." She had a wistful look in her eye that he wished he could harness and hold in his palm forever.
"I had one brought back and placed in my gallery with the other plants and artifacts from my travels. When I long for a place other than London, those specimens of exotic culture keep me sane. I could show it to you." How ill-advised were his words? Would he scare her away or draw her in with his invitation? He waited for her reaction.
She blinked in surprise. "I meant that I would like to see it in its natural setting. I couldn't possibly go to your home. It wouldn't be..."
"Proper? Lily, haven't we covered this ground already? Consider it an open invitation from one plant admirer to another."
"I will consider it. Perhaps with an escort?" She took the last drink from her tankard, setting the empty vessel down on the table. She appeared to be lost in thought for a moment. When she looked up, she asked, "What made you return from your expeditions if you enjoy them so?"
He signaled the barmaid for two more drinks before answering. "Ah, um...there was a death." He dropped his gaze to the table for a moment. "I returned for the funeral services. Sorry to be morbid when we are just becoming acquainted."
"Duty to family is something I quite understand. My father passed recently, though I don't wish to speak of it now, either."
"It was my father's death that brought me home as well. I had to...take care of things here." Bury his father, take up his title, survive the ridicule of the ton...indeed, he'd been busy.
"One is never quite the same after a loss such as that. You have my condolences."
He dismissed her comment with a wave of his hand. He had no desire to discuss who he was-and who everyone in the ton perceived him to be.
"Life goes on and the sun still rises on us," she offered with a sympathetic tilt to her head.
"Yes, it does, but enough of this melancholy conversation." Two fresh drinks were placed before them. "Shall we?" he asked.
"Oh yes, another drink would be lovely."
Devon shook his head, wrapping his hand around the fresh tankard of sangaree before him. "This hasn't been the afternoon I'd imagined, yet I can't say I'm regretting it."
Lily grinned in return. "I had thought to do some shopping today. I don't know that I would have had the nerve to leave my home if I had thought this was where the afternoon would find me."
Holding up his tankard toward her, he offered, "To unexpected meetings and exotic flowers. Or should I say unexpected meetings with exotic flowers? Either way, it is a fine way to spend the day."
Devon watched as her blush deepened, spreading up her neck. She smiled a smile that would keep him warm on endless damp English days.
"To exotic flowers and strange men," she returned between laughs, then took a drink. "This is really quite delicious. I had always thought liquor to be harsh, dark brews of liquid fire."
"You must keep strong spirits in your home. Some liquors do seem to be constructed of nothing but fire, not all though." He leaned one forearm on the table with a grin. "I once had a sweet wine made from small blossoms of a tree that grows at the base of the Himalayas." He lowered his voice as he continued, "I woke up a day later in clothes I didn't own, hanging upside down bound in tree vines." He sat back, smiling at her astonishment. "Trust me. It doesn't need to be a harsh, dark brew to throw you for a loop."
"Oh my! How'd you find yourself in that predicament?"
"Although I'm sure it is an exciting tale of drunken debauchery, I regret to say I have no memory of it." He shrugged. "I later found out that the wine I was served was typically used in small doses for ceremonial purposes to introduce young warriors to their spirit companions. I, however, had a guide with a regrettable sense of humor who plied me with the concoction the night before we were set to leave camp."
"Oh dear." She laughed, her blue eyes dancing at his story. He would tell a thousand stories a thousand times over only to watch those bright eyes laugh. By the third tankard of drink, she'd removed her hideous hat and laid it on the table. Her golden blond hair was tumbling down around her face. He had never seen a sight so beautiful. Perhaps she had followed him here for some unknown reason. Yet, those reasons were lost at the bottom of their empty steins.
The afternoon turned to dusk over stories of his adventures and hints of her serene country life. Soon the tavern grew louder as more patrons entered and more drinks were poured. He really should escort her back to her home for her own safety, yet he could not bring himself to end their afternoon together.
"Lily, how is it that we've never met until this day?"
She paused, her smile fading as her eyes dimmed to a thoughtful expression. "Devon, the truth is this. I have spent the past six years tending to my-"
She screamed as one of the large men from the table beside them descended on her, taking one of her breasts in his filthy palm.
Devon was out of his chair and over the table in a heartbeat. He and the man toppled to the floor together. His fist connected with the man's jaw.
How dare he touch Lily in that manner?
Devon swung again, hearing the snap of the man's nose breaking as blood flew everywhere. But the contact with the man's face didn't ease the rage that coursed through Devon's veins over this stranger laying a finger on Lily.
Another blow blackened the man's eye. He should have been more aware of his surroundings.
Picking up the limp body under him by the shirt, Devon pummeled him another time. He should have known that something like this would happen in such a hovel of a tavern. If he had not been so starry-eyed over his drinking companion, he may have noticed the man approaching.
How could he have allowed that to happen? The man's friend was now pulling at Devon's shoulder.
Through the haze of anger and splattered blood he heard, "Just a bet, gov'na. Meant no offense." Devon released the shirt held tightly in his grasp, dropping the man's limp weight to the floor.
Standing, he glanced around at Lily to find her standing pressed against the dirty window, her eyes glazed over in shock. He spun on his heel, threatening the man at his back, "Next time you choose to wager, choose someone else's lady. For if you or anyone else ever lays a hand on her again, I'll come back here and kill you with my bare hands."
"I don't doubt it, sir. I'll never disrespect your lady again, sir."
"See that you don't," Devon sneered as he turned away.
He stepped over the unconscious man on the floor and held his hand out toward Lily. Pausing for only a moment of indecision, she laid her hand in his and allowed him to lead her to the door. Her hand trembled slightly in his. Had the man hurt her? Was she traumatized by what she had seen Devon do? Now she would think him a brute. They didn't speak a word to one another as they walked past the bar, back to the entrance.
The sounds and smells of the tavern died instantly as the door closed behind them, replaced by the musty scent of coming rain and a baby crying somewhere on the next block. He looked down at Lily standing at his side. Her hand was still wrapped in his and he did not want to let it go. Not now. Not here on the street. Perhaps not ever. She stared straight ahead without a word.
"Are you injured?" When Lily didn't answer, Devon turned her cheek so that she was looking into his eyes. "Lily, are you injured?"
"I don't think so." She licked her pink lips. "But I do feel a bit off."
"A bit off," he repeated. "Not hurt?"
"No, but I'm dizzy and my head feels rather hollow." She tapped the side of her head as if checking it for fullness.
"Do you mean you're foxed?" He couldn't help the grin that tilted the corners of his mouth up.
"Is that what I am? My, but I have never experienced this before." A bubble of laughter escaped her as she began to list sideways into him like a ship on stormy seas.
His arms rose immediately to steady her. Where was a hack when he needed one? She was in no condition to walk back to Bond Street. Glancing up and down the street, he assessed which direction would take them out of this area of town the fastest.
They had spent longer inside the tavern than he realized, for the sun was beginning its descent, gleaming off windows on the opposite side of the street while they stood in the shadows. Before long, these streets would begin to crawl with pickpockets and light skirts out to make some coin. It was no place for a lady, and certainly not one who was foxed for the first time. Had she said "the first time"? How was that possible?
Then, as if conjured by a magician, a hack rattled around the corner. Devon's arm flew up in signal and the carriage slowed. He opened the door and led her forward toward the step.
"You've never been foxed before? How old are you?" His curiosity over this woman was mounting, which was a bit disconcerting.
"Three and twenty last month. But there was never any time for that, and..." She turned to him, shaking her finger in imitation of some apparently extremely crotchety old man as she said, "...young ladies don't do that." She giggled. "You know what, though? I don't know why not. This is terribly fun."
"I am in complete agreement with you there." He half assisted, half hoisted her into the carriage. "It makes all of life's ugly realities disappear. For a few blessed hours anyway.
"Where should I tell the driver to take you, Lily?" Devon entered the carriage after her, sitting on the seat to her left. She widened her eyes a fraction but said nothing. He supposed the gentlemanly thing to do would have been to sit opposite her on that large, empty bench seat, but he wasn't feeling very gentlemanly at the moment. Too many sangarees would do that to a man.
"Oh...um...I'm not sure where to go from here."
"I find that I'm not ready to return home, either," he agreed.
"Yes. That must be it. Too much fun and all."
"I'll instruct the driver to take a turn around the park for a bit while we come to our senses, shall I? I can't very well deliver you to your home in this condition anyway."
"To my home, yes. I couldn't possibly go there just now. I didn't realize how much I'd consumed until I stood up when that man grabbed me. By that time, the fight was all around me and..." She looked down and instantly went into alarm. "Devon! Your hand! You're bleeding!"
"That does tend to happen when you punch a man in the face. It's only a scratch." He inspected the back of his knuckles with a frown. "I believe I removed his tooth, if that brings you any comfort."
She pulled open the reticule at her wrist and retrieved a small square handkerchief. "Give me your hand."
When he hesitated, she held out her hand and motioned for him to comply. Something in the tilt of her head and the look in her eyes made him wonder if she had played nursemaid before. He had been bandaged as a boy too many times to count and knew the look of efficiency and experience at once.
Who was she and who had she cared for before?
An odd sense of jealousy bit at him, which was completely irrational since he had only met her today. Whoever had benefited from her care in the past was irrelevant. Bringing his mind back to the present, he offered her his hand with the bloody knuckles.
As she began to wrap the handkerchief around his hand, tying it neatly at the corners, he could not pull his focus from the feel of her fingers on his palm. The light, glancing touches made him want more. He cleared his throat. "I cannot imagine what gave him the idea that he could take such liberties with you. That oaf in the tavern, I mean."
Her face flooded with color as she looked down at herself in an assessing manner. "I don't know, either! No man has ever tried to do anything like that. Although I have never before squeezed into one of Mama's old dresses." Her mouth closed abruptly, and her eyes widened as if she realized she had said something inappropriate.
"This isn't how you usually dress?"
"Heavens no," was her only response, clearly closing the door on the subject. "There you are. You will want to clean that and bandage it properly when you get home."
The handkerchief was wound and tied neatly around his hand with a perfect knot in the center. He couldn't imagine that he could do a better job of it once home. He tended not to bandage his scratches anyway. Life aboard a ship had taught him that fresh air and sunshine healed better than any bandage. He shrugged off the advice and lifted his gaze to Lily.
His eyes lingered on the view of exposed pale skin her dress offered before meeting those clear blue eyes. Her breasts were displayed like delicious cakes in a baker's window. He kept his eyes on hers but could not seem to control his fingers as they greatly desired to dip into the cake frosting before him and take a large lick.
"I rather like your dress." He ran his fingers over the row of lace that trimmed the deep neckline, skating one finger along the creamy skin it exposed. He watched as she swallowed and looked back into his eyes. She did not flinch or pull away as he had expected her to. Even when foxed, ladies tended to attempt an air of propriety, in his experience. But Lily was not like other ladies. That much he knew.
"Did he bruise you here? When he grabbed you?"
"No," she whispered.
"Good. I would hate to have to return to the tavern to kill him." His finger traced back across the lace, almost touching her skin but not daring to do so.
She had only spoken two small words, yet they pounded in his ears with joy. She wanted him to stay. She wanted to be with him. It took every fiber of his control not to dive onto her right there, in the back of a hired carriage as it jostled down the street. But Lily deserved better than that. She had recently been mauled by a drunken ruffian, and he didn't want to be the second in line for that honor this day. No, he would take his time with her. They had all evening to be together, after all.
"I won't leave. You've been through quite a trial. And I'm not inclined to leave you just now anyway." Emboldened by her words, he trailed the backs of his fingers over one creamy mound and watched as it rose and fell with her quickened breaths.
Lifting the pearl necklace from her throat, he ran a finger under it, gently pulling her closer. Her eyes blinked once, then twice, before fluttering shut as his lips met hers.
It was a sweet kiss, the innocent kiss of someone who'd only read and heard of kisses but had never experienced one firsthand. He almost chuckled. Kissing her once more in the reverent manner she must have envisioned was appropriate, he allowed her to grow comfortable with his closeness.
Sliding one hand around the back of her neck, he held her still while he increased the intensity, his lips searching hers, his quiet request becoming a demanding growl. She made a small squeak of alarm as his tongue slid past her teeth. Then she leaned into him in a blatant plea for more. Her citrus-flavored mouth was soft and willing under his lips. He felt her hand reach for his shoulder, landing light and shaky as if she was afraid to touch him.
His arm slipped around her waist, wrapping around her, pulling her closer. The contact was not enough. He needed more. She must have felt the same, for she pushed closer to him, her breasts pressed against his chest. In that small motion, she seemed to let go of all pretense of ladylike behavior, because she then slid her hands into his hair and began to kiss him back, mimicking every flick of his tongue and press of his lips.
He lifted her and set her on his lap. Breaking contact with her lips, he trailed kisses across her cheek to tug on her earlobe with his teeth, kissing his way down the slim column of her neck. Her hands wound around the back of his neck, twining his hair between her fingers.
His lips paused at the base of her throat to suck on the point where her pulse pounded wildly. Her head fell back on a moan.
He kissed his way down the expanse of exposed skin at her neck, wanting to feel her body, to taste her. The contact was not enough, but her large dress would not allow him the access he so desired. He pushed down the piles of fabric bunched between them to run his hands over her thin yet curved frame, only to have her skirts bounce back to block his path. He groaned in frustration only to hear her giggle over his difficulties with her dress.
"You find this amusing, do you?"
"Only a bit." She offered him a dreamy smile as her eyes dropped to his lips and her smile faded. She kissed him again, the intensity growing with every passing second. The carriage hit a bump and their heads collided, breaking the moment that could have drawn out forever.
He chuckled and set her back on the seat at his side, watching her rub her forehead with a frown. "The back of a carriage is no place to do this."
"Yes. I can see now the dangers involved," she said with a crooked smile.
"Lily, you have no idea the danger you are in at the moment." He ran the backs of his fingers down the line of her jaw, watching as she tried to decipher his words of warning.
"Only if you wish to be."
A silence fell between them as they gazed into each other's eyes. All that could be heard for the next few minutes was the gentle clip-clop of the horse's hooves hitting the cobblestone road. He did not want to leave her on some doorstep and have this day end.
"I want to show you my gallery this evening. Come home with me."
She sat watching him for a moment with pursed lips. "What if someone sees me? Sees us...alone...in your gallery?"
"I live alone and have well-compensated servants. I'll show you the findings from my travels." Please say yes, he pleaded in silence.
She took a deep breath, her eyes never leaving his. "Yes. To see your plantings and artifacts, I will come."
Devon released the breath he'd been holding as a smile spread across his face. He would not have to leave her. Not yet.