The fates were smiling on them, Esme thought as Guy opened the door of the studio she had set up for the ball, for the servants were outside busily organising carriages, and the foyer was temporarily empty. She decided to take it for a sign that she was doing the right thing. Laughing, they ran until they reached the shadows of the hedge which bordered the carriageway, where they kissed again.
The short walk back to her cottage was punctuated by kisses. By the time they entered the front door, kisses were not enough. The bedroom was at the back of the house, a tiny room with a single bed. They kissed in the doorway. Guy shrugged out of his dinner jacket and ripped off his collar and tie. There were more kisses. His waistcoat fell to the floor. Her crinoline was becoming a serious obstacle.
"We need to get rid of this thing," Guy said, but when Esme reached for the fastenings of her gown, he shook his head. "Let me. I want to remember every second of this first time."
It would be the only time. She should say so, but she didn't want to. Semantics, she told herself, knowing she was lying to herself. She ought to tell him—but then he kissed her on the mouth again, slowly, his tongue licking along her bottom lip, and his hands began to work at the fastenings of her bodice, and he was murmuring her name and she couldn"t think of anything save this moment.
He turned her around, kissing the nape of her neck, then her shoulders as he eased the bodice of her gown down her arms. Feathery kisses such as she had never known, setting up little flickers of sensation everywhere he touched, and all of them connecting up to the heat tightening inside her. Her bodice fell to the floor. He unfastened the skirt of her dress, and found the ties of her crinoline, unfastening those too, allowing her to step out of both. More kisses, but when she grew hungry he slowed her, unfastening her corsets, then his hands cupping her breasts through her chemise, making her gasp. Her nipples were so hard. He circled them with his thumbs, then took off her chemise, and she stood almost naked before him and he told her how beautiful she was and she believed him, though no man, none, had ever seen her thus or looked at her in this way.
She hadn't ever made love, Esme realised now. She hadn't ever understood the true meaning of the phrase. She knew this was what she was doing, but she refused to contemplate what it meant. All she wanted now was to make love to Guy as he was making love to her. To touch him, pull his shirt off, run her hands over his warm skin, to press her mouth to the taut smoothness of his chest, to feel the tension in his buttocks as she touched him, and to feel the hard length of him pressed against her.
There was a rhythm in their lovemaking that he set, slow and sure, each touch arousing, before they discarded another piece of clothing, and another, until they were naked in each other's arms, and they reached the point where there could be no more holding back. She shuddered with delight when he entered her, clinging to him, holding him. His face in the light of the one candle she had lit was tense with the effort he had been making to sustain their pleasure, but as she shifted her hips again, urging him deeper inside her, he groaned, and thrust. She was so ready for him that her climax came almost immediately, wave after wave of pleasure ripping through her, her cries making him thrust harder, faster, pulling himself free of her just before his own climax took him.
And afterwards, he pulled her back into his arms again. She lay, floating on a blissful cloud, her slick, damp skin sticking to his, their breathing slowing together, and finally understood what it was to be half of one whole. Then Guy spoke, and the words brought her crashing back to reality.
Esme extricated herself from his embrace. "You don't love me. You can't love me." Her reaction was instinctive, her speech panicked, but as she grabbed her dressing gown, tying the sash tightly, part of her was protesting. Guy loved her. Guy loved her. "No," she said again, sadly, regretfully. "No."
Guy got up from the bed, taking her by the arms. "Listen to me. I know you think it's all too sudden…"
"We've known each other less than two weeks."
"But in the time we've spent together, we've grown to understand one another. We know each other, Esme, in all the important ways," he persisted. "And I have known from the start that our meeting was momentous."
Looking into his eyes, her heart lurched. She felt the same, but to admit that would be to admit the feelings she had been trying so desperately to repress. The feelings Mercy had seen writ large on her face for days. The feelings she could now see writ equally large on Guy's face. He loved her. And she…
No! She couldn't say it, not even to herself. She had to put an end to this now, once and for all. She shouldn't have made love to him. She wished it hadn't been so perfect. She had known it would be, she had been certain it would be, which is why she shouldn't have made love to him.
Panic gripped her. She wanted so desperately to tell him how she felt, and she wanted equally desperately to deny she felt it. Remember, Esme, she told herself, remember all the reasons you have for walking away. For heaven's sake, she had recited them to Mercy only this morning, why couldn't she recall them? She should have recalled them much earlier than this, but what she'd demanded instead was to be swept away. And Guy had done exactly what she'd asked him to do. Be careful what you wish for.
She couldn't lie to him. She had no choice but to lie to him. She had to put an end to his hopes and her dreams right now. "I'm sorry," Esme said wretchedly, "I'm so sorry, Guy."
His expression changed immediately at her ominous tone. "What do you mean?"
She could do this. For his sake and her own, she had to do this. "I'm so sorry, you have misjudged the depth of my feelings. And I'm sure," she continued, ignoring his anguished protest, "that when you return to London and more familiar surroundings, that you will realise you've mistaken the depth of your own, too."
"I won't. I don't believe you have, either."
"You have to. It's true," she persisted grimly.
"If it was, you would never have made love to me. I know you, Esme, and what's more, I know what it's like to make love to a woman who is only interested in my body, so don't even try to pretend that is the case. I love you. I know this is love, real love, lasting love."
"No," she persisted, though it felt like a stab to the heart. "When you return to London…"
"My feelings won't change," he said, pressing a kiss to her hand. "I know they won't, Esme. I can wait."
"Wait for what?" She shook herself free again, utterly tormented, desperate only to be alone, to surrender to the storm of tears that she was determined not to let him see. "We can't have any sort of future together, Guy. If you were imagining us married…"
"What else! You cannot have imagined I would ask you to be my mistress?"
"I haven't imagined anything between us because there can't be anything between us. I have my own life to live, and I don't want or need to share it with anyone else."
"You think I would try to dictate to you, to interfere?"
"It"s my life, Guy, not yours, and I"m happy with the road I have taken. You are only just setting out, at the start of your journey. You have no idea where it will take you."
"You mean that you don't want me tagging along with you, is that it?"
"I have compromised too much already. I don't want to compromise any more. I don't want to compromise you, either. Do you see, Guy?"
He began to pull his clothes on. "I am not an idiot. I know that there are any number of decisions to be made if we are to make a life together, and sacrifices too, but it would be worth it. We would be happy together, Esme. Together, we would be much, much happier than apart."
She winced, wishing his words did not pierce her heart, wishing fervently that he was right. But he was wrong. She left the bedroom and waited for him to finish dressing, needing the minutes alone to steel herself. To fight the desire to surrender, to tell him that she would think about it, to snatch a few more hours, a few more days with him. Knowing that if she did the days would turn into weeks and months, and ultimately end in disaster.
"I am going to speak to Lord Armstrong first thing in the morning," Guy said, entering the room, holding his coat over his arm. "I will naturally have to leave straightaway."
"Naturally." Her heart was pounding. She wanted to throw herself into his arms. She forced herself to remain where she was. "I wish you the very best of luck, whatever you do."
"I love you, Esme."
I love you, too. She pressed her lips together to prevent the words spilling out. She crossed the room and held the front door of the cottage open. "Goodbye, Guy."
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