The footman’s steps retreated, and a minute later Cedric picked up the sound of a lady’s booted steps on the garden path. He heard her gasp when she came close enough to see him.
“My lord! You’re bleeding!” Anne rushed over. Her scent hit him, an alluring scent of orchids that was uniquely hers. He sensed the warmth of her hands close to his own as she joined him at the fountain. She clasped his palms and gently touched his stinging skin. He’d become so used to the cuts and scrapes that he barely noticed them anymore.
She clasped his palms and gently touched his stinging hands. He repressed a shiver. Without sight, all he had left to make sense of the world were touch, taste and smell. Anne’s touch lit a hint of fire beneath his skin.
“Bleeding?” he asked dumbly, too wrapped up with the sensation of silk skirts brushing his shins. His hurt hands long forgotten. Excitement burned in his veins, and that old urge to seduce rose to the surface. He couldn’t recall a time when she’d been this close to him of her own accord.
“Yes, my lord. There are bits of gravel in your palms. Did you…” She hesitated to continue.
His need for her withered at the pity in her tone. “Did I fall? Yes,” he answered curtly. He’d never needed pity, and he didn’t want it now, certainly not from her. He puffed out his chest and scowled in her direction. An unsettling silence filled the air between them. Anne always had the power to put him on edge, make every muscle coil and tense. What expression was she wearing on that face of hers? Were those delicate brows he remembered arching above her lovely eyes with surprise, or set in a frown? Damnation, he wished he could see her.
“Would you let me help you?” Anne asked quietly.
“How?” Skepticism filled Cedric’s tone.
Rather than reply she tugged her gloves off and grasped his hands, putting them into the cold, crisp water of the fountain, and her fingers gently rubbed and scrubbed at his stinging palms. Then she brought his hands back up.
“Do you have a handkerchief?” she asked.
“In my breast pocket,” he said. He felt her hand delve into the pocket of his vest and retrieve it. The simple action was strangely erotic and sent his pulse fluttering. He was always the one to slide a hand under a lady’s bodice, or skirt. It was quite a different experience to have a lady’s hand moving under his clothes. He could feel the warmth of her skin close to his chest. With an inward grin, he relished the sensation of her soft hands invading his clothes.
When she found his handkerchief, she patted his hands dry and then held his palms up. Her warm breath glided over his skin in a soft pattern as she blew gently on his cuts to dry them.
“I don’t think they will bleed further. You must take care not to do anything rough to them for a few days so you won’t excite the cuts again.”
Her scolding tone caught him off guard and shattered the warm bubble of desire around him. “Thank you, ma’am,” he replied stiffly, more from shock than anything. “Pardon my bluntness, but why have you come?” The burning question why still plagued him.
Anne was silent for a long while before speaking. When she did, her hands pulled away from his, severing their contact.
“I am sure you’ve heard about my father.”
“I have,” Cedric said softly. “He was a good man, and I do not say that about most men of my acquaintance. You have my deepest sympathies and condolences.”
Pain lanced through him, sharp and sudden behind his ribs. His own parents’ coffins being lowered into twin graves. His two little sisters clutching his arms on either side, their cherubic faces stained with tears. Those were memories he did not want, memories he fought every day to keep buried.
“Thank you.” Her voice was steady, but he knew how strong Anne was and it made him proud of her. At the same time, he wanted to draw her close and whisper soft, sweet things in her ear, to comfort her.
That shocked him. Since when was he the sort of man to comfort? He was a rakehell, a seducer and rogue of the worst sort. Not one who cuddled a woman to his body.
“It is actually his death which has brought me to you.”
“Oh? I can’t imagine how…”
“If you forgive me for my bluntness, my lord, the truth of the matter is that I need to marry. My father’s death has left me wealthy and unfortunately more of a target for the fortune hunters of the ton than I would have liked.”
He didn’t miss the tinge of desperation in her voice. As long as he’d known her, she’d always shied from the public eye, and the burden of being an heiress must have been a great one.
“And what has this to do with me?” Cedric asked. Surely she didn’t think…it was too much to hope that she would ask him to court her again.
“I need a husband, and most of the eligible men seeking a bride are not what I would ever consider to be suitable matches. I came here…hoping that perhaps…” Her hands grasped his, and the action startled him, but he kept calm and gently held on to her.
What did she hope? His chest tightened. “Speak your mind, Miss Chessley,” Cedric demanded, perhaps a little too strongly. Her grip on his hands loosened, and his hands dropped into his lap.
“Perhaps this was a mistake. I shouldn’t have bothered you,” Anne muttered apologetically. He heard her rise to leave.
Cedric stood with her and reached blindly in her direction, hoping to catch her wrist to halt her. Instead his hand curled around the flare of a womanly full hip. Rather than release her, he dug his fingers in, just hard enough to halt her escape. A startled gasp came from the sudden contact.
“Tell me what you came to say, please,” he half-pleaded, not wanting her to go.
He’d spent so much time alone of late, which he’d thought he preferred given his condition. But Anne’s company was welcome. It reminded him of better times, yet it left no sting of his lost sight. Rather it lit a fire in his blood, reminding him of the way he used to tease her and how she’d resisted him with her delightful verbal sparring. He restrained himself from a grin when she did not try to escape his hold.
“I came to ask you if you would consider marriage…to me.” The last two words were a breathless whisper so faint, he wondered if he’d imagined them.
“You want to marry me?”
Amazon Best-Selling Author Lauren Smith is an attorney by day, author by night, who pens adventurous and edgy romance stories by the light of her smart phone flashlight app. She’s a native Oklahoman who lives with her three pets: a feisty chinchilla, sophisticated cat and dapper little schnauzer. She’s won multiple awards in several romance subgenres including being an Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Award Quarter-Finalist and a Semi-Finalist for the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award.
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