Sunday 1st June 1862
Guy stood in the back row of people gathered for the group photograph being taken on the croquet lawn. Lord Armstrong was standing beside him, propped on a croquet mallet, breathing heavily and uttering the occasional protest at the length of time they were required to remain still. Seated directly in front of him was his wife. Lady Armstrong had remained motionless since Esme had placed her there, yet Guy could sense her disapproval of her husband's impatience in the rigidity of her posture.
He could see nothing of Esme, hidden behind the camera, save the sweep of her plain grey gown, the same dress she had worn yesterday when taking photographs in the smoking room and the day before in the drawing room. On both occasions and on this one too, Lord Armstrong had decreed his requirements, and each time Esme had nodded her agreement and proceeded to take a very different photograph, without once contradicting him. The man was insufferable. He was also single-minded, arrogant, uninterested in anyone else"s opinion, and oblivious to any point of view but his own. Lord Armstrong did not converse, he informed and opined. He had informed Guy that he would "likely do very well" for his niece and proceeded to give his opinion on where the couple would set up home. It was clear from the conversation that this was only the first of a lifetime of edicts.
"Thank you for your patience, ladies and gentlemen. I am sure this will make a memorable image."
Esme emerged from behind the camera. Her hair was ruffled, wisps of it escaping from her chignon and clinging to her cheeks, which were brightly coloured. She looked charmingly dishevelled and utterly enchanting as if, thought Guy—and not for the first time—she had emerged from a passionate embrace, rather than the cover of her camera. Her appeal went far beyond her looks, though. She was so very different from the company he had been trying very hard to enjoy for the last two days, avoiding hers, as they had tacitly agreed he would, in order to pursue the goal which had brought him here.
Trying and failing. The time had passed excruciatingly slowly, speeding up only when Esme appeared with her photographic paraphernalia. He was convinced she was focusing on him, and only him, through her lens. Convinced that like him, she was straining at the leash they had placed on the attraction that had sizzled from the first between them. He had not been able to throw off his gut instinct, that he was here at this house party to meet her, not Lord Armstrong. That every moment not spent in her company was a waste of time. He felt as if he had been positioned on the wrong side in a battle.
As the other guests began to drift towards the house in search of refreshments, Guy gave up the fight, making his way over to Esme. "I have been the perfect guest, utterly undemanding and unfailingly polite. I surely deserve some time off for good behaviour."
She smiled at him quizzically. "You are making an excellent impression."
"I knew you were watching me."
"You are one of the guests I am here to photograph, of course I have been watching you."
"So I'm wrong, then? You haven't been missing me, as I have you?"
"One can't miss what one has never had. We are almost strangers."
"We are kindred spirits," he persisted.
"Who barely know each other."
"That can be remedied easily enough. I'll help you pack up." Without waiting for her to object, he began to dismantle the tripod, from which she had already removed the camera.
"You leave me no choice." She picked up the box containing photographic plates, leaving him to push the barrow she used to transport her equipment around the estate. "We'll have to hurry. I have been allocated one of the estate cottages, and have my darkroom there. If I don't develop and fix the plate before the collodion film dries, the developing fluids won't work."
"I'd very much like to watch, but if I will get in the way, I'll wait outside."
"I don't suppose there's any point in my telling you to go back to the house?" But as she spoke, she was ushering him in, taking an apron from a peg.
She was fastidious and efficient as she went about her business, taking the trouble to explain each step. He watched fascinated as the images developed in the solution, clear and sharply defined to his untutored eyes, though Esme was much more critical. "There," she said, as the final negative was fully developed, "as you can see, the camera doesn't lie."
He studied the image of his own face ruefully. He was looking grimly forward, his jaw quite obviously clenched, and one hand at his side curled into a fist. "I look as if I am trying very hard not to punch my host."
"And he has eyes only for the back of his wife's head."
"I think she is very unhappy."
She drew him a pointed look. "I cannot venture an opinion. She is one of my best clients. This commission is her doing, and worth a great deal to me."
Esme worked on in silence, frowning. She had rolled the sleeves of her gown up, and put on a pair of cuffs. There was a delicate tracery of veins on her wrists, but her arms were lithe. Her skirts brushed against him as she worked. Her breasts were clearly outlined as she reached for a jar or a bottle. Her hair was ruffled, her cheeks flushed, her mouth—what he would give, to kiss that mouth.
"Did you say something?" Esme turned around to come face to face with Guy, and stopped in the act of pulling off her cuffs as their eyes met. Ever since their first meeting she had been telling herself that the attraction she felt had been one-sided. Studying him through the lens of her camera over the last two days, she continued to tell herself so, attributing the look of longing she detected in his expression at times to his desperation to escape, and not any desire for her. Now she was forced to admit that she had been lying to herself, and her own pent-up desire sent a wave of heat through her body.
They closed the small gap between them in one fluid move. Resistance didn't occur to her. She had never needed anything so intensely as this. Guy wrapped his arms around her waist at the same time as she wrapped her arms around his neck and lifted her face as he dipped his. There was no finesse in their kiss. Passion flamed instantly at that first touch, and they lost themselves, claiming each other with their mouths. Never, Esme thought hazily, she had never been kissed like this. She hadn't known that kissing could be like this.
Their kisses deepened, and Guy pulled her tight up against him. She stopped thinking and revelled in the sensations he was rousing in her as their tongues met and tangled, as his hands swept over her body, down her back only to be defeated by her crinoline, then over her breasts, making her nipples ache against the boning of her corsets, and her soft whimper making him moan in response. Her hands fluttered against his back, down to the delightful tautness of his buttocks, and under his coat. Through the silk of his waistcoat, his back was hot, the muscles tense. She longed to feast her eyes on him naked. She wanted to feel him, hot and hard inside her, feeding the aching that his kisses were rousing, taking her…
Shocked by her vivid imagination, she struggled to disengage herself at the same time as he swore under his breath and let her go. They stared at each other, wild-eyed, their breathing ragged.
"I didn't mean…" Guy said. "Though I have wanted to since that first day—you have to believe me when I tell you, Esme, that I don't make a habit of this. I don't mean never, but not for a long time, and I have never felt like this, I swear."
She believed him, because she felt the same herself, though it would be dangerous to say so, to affirm his romantic conviction that fate had brought them together. She had never imagined herself to be the kind of woman to be carried away by desire, and yet she was relishing it, the thrill of it, the excitement of it, the unexpectedness of discovering that she was capable of such intense feelings, and of arousing them in Guy.
She was playing with fire. There was no place for such passion in her life, no place for any man in her life, but she wasn't thinking about the rest of her life at the moment. At the moment, all she was interested in was now. This man. The whirlwind of feelings he was arousing in her.
Esme cast caution to the winds. She would follow where he led. "Sweep me away," she said, twining her arms back around his neck. "Let's not fall back to earth just yet."
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