“I don’t typically ponder them aloud.” Her face flushed.
“Far be it from me to stop you. I have a stake in the conclusion.” He plunked his elbow on the worktop and propped his chin in his hand, studying her. Her little one-person debate had him riveted. As did her fetching features when she was deep in concentration.
As many women as he’d charmed and seduced in his life, he could honestly say he had never, ever encountered a woman like this one. Her background wasn’t the half of it.
She rolled a sugar lump back and forth with the tips of two fingers. He wanted to suck those slender fingers into his mouth and run his tongue over them, between them, lapping up the sweetness until she gasped with forbidden pleasure. The fantasy was so vivid, he could taste it.
Chase straightened, cleared his throat, and rapped his knuckles against the worktop in an affable manner. “Let me know when you have your answer, then. I’m available Thursday next, if that suits.”
With her eyes still trained on the sugar, she signaled for a pause. “One moment.”
Naturally, the answer would be in the negative. No woman of her sense, given the opportunity to consider the matter fully, would weigh both sides and arrive at acceptance. That was why he sent his conquests spinning off guard with charm and flattery, why he dazzled them with lush surroundings and sparkling wines. Why he kept his liaisons to one night, and no more.
Because if a woman looked too close and thought too long, she would see the truth: He was a despicable, shameless cad. Alexandra Mountbatten knew it. She’d understood him from the first. Her answer would be no.
So why was he holding his breath in anticipation?
Perhaps the brandy had muddled his senses.
Or perhaps he couldn’t help wondering how it would feel for a rational, clear-eyed woman to see him—truly see him—and still find him worth the risk.
His heart clawed up his throat and battered his eardrums, and all because a tidy little governess was taking longer than usual to reject him. Absurd. Stupid, really.
At last, she put an end to the suspense.
“I don’t want you to kiss me,” she said, “now that I’ve thought it through.”
See? There it was. She was clever enough to see the black, rotted mess where his soul ought to be, and she wanted no part of it.
She lifted her tiny, delicate hand to his cheek. Not to deliver the slap he deserved, but in an exploratory caress. Her gaze drifted over his face like an apple blossom, finally coming to rest on his mouth.
“I think . . .” She wet her lips. “I think I’d rather kiss you.”
And before Chase could begin to reckon with the shock of those words, she did.
The moment she touched her lips to his, Alexandra knew she’d made a severe miscalculation. Her carefully tallied sugar lumps were merely sweet piles of lies. By insisting on taking the lead, she’d told herself she could satisfy her curiosity and retain control.
Control. Hah. She couldn’t control something she scarcely understood. No more than a landlocked, untraveled farmer could board a Yankee clipper and set a course for the moon.
Alexandra hadn’t the faintest idea how to navigate passion.
However, within moments he began to lead the way.
Her kiss became his. A series of light, teasing brushes of his mouth against hers. He tasted her upper lip, then the lower. Taking his time, as though the kiss were a puzzle. As though he found her compelling. Fascinating.
And then he nudged her lips apart and swept his tongue between them.
Alex was startled by the intrusion, reeling with sensations, but she didn’t dare pull away.
To the contrary. She dared to move closer.
This was her first kiss. Good or bad, awkward or accomplished, she’d remember it for the rest of her life. But more than that, she wanted him to recall it, too. He’d forgotten her after their chance meeting in the bookshop. This time, she was determined to etch herself on his memory. No matter how many kisses had come before hers, or how many would come after—this one, he would remember.
No shyness. No hesitation. She meant to give as good as she received, or die of mortification trying.
As he deepened the kiss, she leaned into the embrace, sliding her hands up his shoulders until her fingertips met at the nape of his neck. He wore his hair clipped short there, and she teased her fingers through the dense fringe.
He moaned softly, and the sound was pleading. Resonant with longing. Vulnerable.
Then, with a growl, he caught her up in his arms and lifted her body against him. Her thin shift might as well have been nothing. Her toes barely scraped the floor. His tongue stroked hers in a bold, suggestive rhythm, and she couldn’t catch her breath. Heat built between their bodies, welding them together. His uninjured hand gathered to a possessive fist, gathering and twisting the back of her shift.