The ballroom of Killellan Manor was packed. Candles blazed from two huge chandeliers, adding to the brightness of the gas lighting, which was making the heat in the room and crush of bodies insufferable. Guy, in full evening dress, felt as if he was melting like a candle after the galop he had just danced, but there was not a breath of fresh air coming in from the open windows. As the orchestra struck up for a polka, he thanked the stars for his foresight in keeping the second half of his dance card free, snatched a glass from a passing waiter, and stepped out onto the terrace.
The champagne was warm. Grimacing, he set the glass down on the balustrade after one sip. On the far side of the room, pinned as ever to her husband's side, Lady Armstrong, ethereal in a silvery-blue confection which billowed out over an extremely wide crinoline, looked to be enjoying the ball as little as he.
Guy edged further out onto the terrace. Two more days, and this seemingly endless house party would be over. Twelve days ago, he had escaped by this very route, and every day since then, he'd had to fight the urge to run away. Harder still had been the battle he'd waged with himself every time he saw Esme. The desire to cross the invisible line separating them was so strong sometimes, he had to stride away in the opposite direction. He had stuck to his promise to stay away from her, for the sake of her reputation and her work, but as to the reason he had come to the party in the first place—Max was doomed to disappointment.
He had intended to wait until the bitter end of the house party to make his intentions—or lack of them—known, but looking around him, Guy changed his mind. Tomorrow, he would confront Lord Armstrong, but for now there was only one person he wanted to talk to. Guy returned to the ballroom, pushing his way through the stragglers on the floor, for the polka had ended, and almost everyone was headed to the dining room, where a buffet supper was laid out. Dinner had been nine ostentatious courses. How did the ladies, laced and corseted and crinolined, manage to eat anything at all without bursting their seams?
In the main reception hall, he lost interest in this question, for the door to the temporary studio lay open and inside he could see Esme. She had spent the evening taking photographs of couples from the guest list carefully selected by Lord Armstrong. She wore her plain grey dress. Her rich chestnut hair was a tangle, and on her face was such a melancholy expression, his heart ached for her.
He said her name. She turned, her eyes lighting up, a smile forming on her generous mouth, before she remembered herself. "Guy, you mustn't…"
"I'm not going through with it," he said, pushing the door shut and crossing the room to take her hands in his. "I can't do it, Esme. I've decided."
"But you must. You have been trying so very hard—I've been watching you. People listen to you. Lord Armstrong approves of you. And Mercy—Lady Armstrong—only this morning, Guy, she told me that she thought it would be a good match. Lord Armstrong's niece is not at all like him. A thoughtful young woman, apparently…"
"I am delighted to hear that she's not a chip off the old block and I wish her every happiness in whatever she does with her future," Guy interrupted her, "but I'm not going to meet her, never mind marry her."
Esme wanted to cheer. She bit her tongue, forced herself to tear her hands free, to take a step away from his dangerously tempting presence. "What has made you change your mind? You've spent the last few days trying so hard…"
"…to keep away from you."
"Don't say that! We agreed that what we feel for each other can have no influence on your future."
"What I feel for you is fundamental to my future, Esme."
"No!" She couldn't let him say more, though she longed, to hear what he meant. "Your brother's plans, Guy, remember? The money he needs to save the family estate. And you—what about your ambitions? The influence you could have…"
"Has been vastly inflated and is vastly overrated. Oh, don't get me wrong, there's power here in abundance, from both sides of the political divide—not that it's much of a divide, they're two sides of the same coin. They're not interested in change. I have several times been called a radical."
"Perhaps you've been too ambitious, aimed too high."
"I thought I was aiming as low as I was prepared to. I've impressed a few with my rhetoric, but that's all. I have nothing in common with these people."
"But in time…"
"Never mind them." He took her hands again in a firm clasp. "I've known from the moment Max proposed this match that I would have to make compromises, but I didn't know until I met you what I would be forced to sacrifice."
"No, no, you mustn't say that."
"It's the truth, Esme. No matter how much you want to deny it, it's the truth. Meeting you changed everything for me. You made me look at the future my brother mapped out for me in such a different light. I would have the satisfaction of having done my duty. If I was blessed with children, I"d have the contentment of working for their future. I may have been able to further some of my most cherished causes, though never on my own terms. I"d have been content. And safe. And bored. Do you see?"
She saw it all too clearly. Her own future was mapped out in the same terms. She would be content and safe and bored. "You would have made your brother very happy."
"But not myself. I want so much more from my life. It's my life. You've made me see that so clearly. I want adventure and challenge and unpredictability. Don't you want those things, too?"
She stared at him, helpless with longing. Yes, she wanted to say, despite this morning"s conversation with Mercy which had confirmed all she'd known from the first. Her life was her own, to make what she wanted of it, and she had worked too hard to ever change that. She would find a way to inject more passion into her work, and she had Guy to thank for making her determined to do so. Yet still, she wanted to say yes.
"You can't deny it. We are kindred spirits, Esme. You know that, don't you?"
Kindred spirits, who had no future together. She knew that, but at the moment, she didn"t care. The only thing that mattered was to be in his arms. To surrender just this once to the passion which he roused in her. To have this, if nothing else, to remember for the rest of her life.
"Kiss me, Guy," she said, wrapping her arms tightly around him.
They kissed. Slow, deep kisses to make up for all the kisses they had been missing in the days spent apart, yearning for each other. They kissed, and they murmured each other's names, and then there were more kisses, until the noises from the other side of the door, as the first guests started to depart, disturbed them.
Guy cursed under his breath, casting an infuriated glance at the door. "Shall I help you pack up?"
Esme was inclined to confine her precious camera to the devil at this moment! "I've already processed the last of the exposures. I can collect my kit in the morning. The door to this room has a key. It will be safe enough here overnight."
"You want to go?" Guy said, looking dismayed. "Of course. It's late. You've been working all evening. You must be tired."
She was alight with desire, and her body was protesting wildly at this interruption, but it was still possible—ought she to agree, to go back to her cottage herself? Good grief, could it be that was what Guy wanted? "Are you tired?"
He laughed. "Sleep is the last thing on my mind, believe me."
"What is the first thing?" she asked, daringly.
He ran his hand down her back to rest on her waist. His smile was every bit as sinful as the thoughts his touch aroused in her. "You, of course, though I can't tell you what exactly I'm thinking. You would be shocked."
She yearned to be shocked, which made her forget all about her doubts and her inhibitions. Nothing had prepared her for this, and she was glad of that. Tonight would be special in every way. "I'm not in the least bit tired," Esme said, returning Guy"s smile. "Will you come back to the cottage with me?"
He inhaled sharply. "Are you saying what I think you are saying? Are you sure?"
Esme nodded. "I want you to sweep me away. Completely. And I'm absolutely sure. Unless you…"
He pulled her tight up against him, kissing her fiercely. "I have never in my life wanted anything more."
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