Home > Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)(15)

Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)(15)
Author: Tessa Dare

“Simms?” The duke’s voice echoed down the narrow stairwell, arresting her on the landing. “Are you ill?”

“No,” she said, hastily dabbing at her eyes before she turned to him. “No, I’m well. I’m sorry for leaving the table so abruptly.”

Slow footfalls carried him down the stairs. “Don’t be. It was the cap on a sterling display of poor etiquette. Well done, you. But my mother was concerned for your health.”

“I’m fine, truly. It was just the blancmange.”

“The blancmange?” He frowned. “I find it revolting myself, but the stuff almost never drives me to tears.”

She shook her head. “It’s my sister’s favorite. I’ve been missing her all day, of course. But when that blancmange appeared before me, it all just . . .”

“Hit you,” he finished for her, coming to join her on the landing. “All at once. Like a landslide.”

She nodded. “Exactly so. For a moment, it was like the air went to mud. I couldn’t even—”

“Breathe,” he said. “I know the sensation.”

“Do you?”

Perhaps he did, she thought, surveying the fine lines at the corners of his eyes, and the weariness that pooled like shadows beneath. She could believe he was intimately acquainted with this lonely, desolate feeling—perhaps even more so than she.

“Give a moment,” he said. “It will pass.”

The stairwell was suddenly very warm, and very small. The walls seemed to push them closer together. She was aware of his looming size, his male heat. His powerful good looks. And that rich, lingering hint of his musky cologne.

“Perhaps we should go back,” she said.

“Wait. You have something”—he touched a fingertip to the corner of his own mouth—“just here. A stray bit of sugar, I think.”

She cringed. How embarrassing.

She extended her tongue and ran it slowly from one corner of her mouth to the other, then back again. “Better?”

He blinked. “No.”

She raised her hand to dab at her cheek.

“Stop. Just let me.” He reached one hand forward, bracing the side of his palm against her cheek and brushing the corner of her mouth with his thumb.

Mercy. She was the farthest from home she’d ever been in her life, adrift in a vast, lonely sea of emotion. And his touch against her bare skin, so warm and assured . . . It was like someone throwing her a rope.

A connection.

He skimmed a light touch under her bottom lip. “You,” he said softly, “have quite the mouth on you.”

“So I’ve been told. It’s my worst fault, I think.”

“I’m not sure I’d agree.”

She forced a cheerful tone. “I do have many faults to choose from. Impertinence, stubbornness, pride. I curse too much, and I’m terribly clumsy.”

“Well.” His touch stilled, and he tilted her face to his. “This week, all those faults make you perfect.”

He would go and say something wonderful.

She tried to smile. It didn’t quite work. Her emotions were chaotic, swinging back and forth between caution and thrill, and a mad voice inside her kept foolishly insisting that she needed to keep her lips very, very still . . .

Because this man was about to kiss them.

Pauline had been kissed a time or two. She knew how a man’s face changed as he was preparing to do it. The small lines around his mouth disappeared, and his head made a subtle tip to one side. His eyelids grew heavy, lowering just enough to reveal a dark fringe of lashes.

His gaze focused intently on her mouth.

He leaned close.

Her insides trembled. This was the moment where she needed to . . . do something. Close her eyes, if she wished to be kissed. Take a swift step back, if she didn’t.

She shouldn’t want it. She hated to think what impropriety rakish dukes might expect of serving girls, and she didn’t want to give the wrong impression. But it had been a very long time since she’d been kissed. And even longer since she’d heard any words so kind as the ones he’d just spoken.

In the end, she compromised by remaining perfectly, breathlessly still.

And he didn’t kiss her.

He withdrew his touch and brushed past her, continuing down the stairs with a clatter of footfalls. “Simms, give my mother my regards.”

“But where are you going?”

“I’m riding ahead to London,” he called up to her. “Tonight.”

Griff managed to procure a young gelding from the inn’s stables. The horse was nothing to pace his favored bay warmbloods at home, but the beast looked strong and impatient—ready for some hard riding over open country. He’d do.

The moon was rising bright and round in the sky, ready to light his journey. Griff swung into the saddle, ignoring the thinness of the borrowed tack and the inconvenient tightness of his topcoat across his shoulders. These wouldn’t be the most pleasant miles he’d ever covered on horseback, but comfort wasn’t his priority tonight.

He had to get away.

That had been a very close thing, just now in the stairwell. A very close, warm, sweet, enticing, vulnerable thing.

Her lips had been so soft. A ripe berry-pink. Still glistening, where she’d searched them with her tongue. Quivering with emotion. He could have kissed them.

He’d wanted to, more than he’d wanted his next breath.

Sweet heaven.

Bloody hell.

He’d thought he was done with this. For months now he’d ignored invitations and innuendos from women all over Town. A mud-spattered, sugar-dusted, smart-mouthed serving girl in drab linsey-woolsey could not prove his complete undoing.

As he nudged the horse into a canter, he realized he hadn’t laid out a very good strategy for living the rest of his life as the New, Not-Truly-Improved, Just-Vastly-Less-Interesting Griffin Eliot York. For the past several months he’d been too absorbed by other emotions to feel any sensual deprivation. Any mild stirrings of unrest were quelled by routine physical exercise or the occasional halfhearted frig.

In retrospect, it seemed ridiculous to believe he—he!—could remain celibate for the remainder of his years. He should have known it would be coming: that day when his neglected c**k did perk with interest, rise up and wave in a jaunty, “Ho, there—remember me?”

As his luck would have it, that day was today.

There was something about Pauline Simms that had him fascinated. She was so defiantly proud of her common origins, yet so hungry for approval.

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