While Jenny packed up the remains of the picnic basket, she and Hadley strolled along the water's edge, tossing leftover crumbs to the swans. Gazing at the graceful birds who barely stirred the shimmering waters, Mary felt as if she had stepped into a dream. Yet the afternoon had passed all too quickly and the thought of what awaited her upon her return—Sir Richard and further discussion of her marriage filled her with dismay. She tossed out the last of her breadcrumbs with a sigh, and found her wistful gaze lingering on Lord Hadley.
In the past couple of hours, she had begun to relax, to be herself. She no longer felt so tongue tied and shy, but she still couldn't quite puzzle him out. It was almost as if he was two different men inhabiting one body. At times he was the most noble Conte di Caserta, a model of urbanity, but then in unguarded moments, he revealed with a suggestive word, a wicked look, or an intimate touch, a playful, teasing side, as if he forgot his noble mask.
He caught her staring and Mary swiftly averted her gaze.
"You are distressed?" he asked softly. "Why?"
"It's nothing," she answered.
"Your sigh betrays you, Miss Edwardes."
"Was it really aloud?" She hadn't realized she'd given away her thoughts.
"Sweet and sad, it was. I have failed to divert you. Perhaps I should have thought of something else."
"A vestige of jam tart, I believe. But alas," he gave a helpless shrug. "I have no napkin."
Before she realized what he was about, he brushed her lips in a feathery kiss, lingering at the corner of her mouth, where his tongue flicked out to taste her. The unexpectedness of it stunned her. "Lord Hadley! Wh-what are you doing?"
"If you have to ask, I must be losing my touch. Perhaps I should try again?"
Still too dazed to formulate a response, he took advantage to steal another kiss, this one as soft as the sigh that escaped her lungs. He increased the pressure then, slanting his heavenly mouth and lightly nibbling her lower lip. His kiss was warm and soft and wonderful, making her forget she was supposed to protest.
"You are deliciously sweet, Mary, like ripe strawberries, but now I have taken a taste of you, I only want more."
"Please," escaped her lips.
Was it a protest or a plea? She wasn't sure. If the former, it was feeble even to her own ears. How easily… how eagerly… she had capitulated to him…and far worse…how desperately she wanted more.
"Please?" he repeated. "Please stop, or please kiss you again?"
"No." She averted her head with what he surely knew was a toothless protest. His manner was far too familiar, far too intimate. She knew she shouldn't permit him any more liberties, but good heavens!
"Come now, Mary." He turned her bodily back to him, his warm gaze seeking hers, his honeyed voice cajoling. "It's only a kiss, after all."
Only a kiss?
Perhaps he had no idea how devastating a kiss could be…or mayhap he knew exactly what it did to her. "Perhaps this is normal for you, my lord, but I am an unsophisticated girl and unaccustomed to casual kisses."
"No? Then perhaps it's past time you became accustomed. Shall I really kiss you, sweet Molly? Truly and thoroughly?"
Was this the course of a seduction? Is this what he had planned all along? She searched his face for the answer only to lose herself in his blue eyes. Fear gripped her.
Not of him, but of her weakening will. "Don't," she whispered.
He muted her protest with his mouth, catching her breath and replacing it with his own.
This kiss was different, paradoxically soft and firm, it demanded a response that she was helpless to deny. Mary closed her eyes, responding and melting into him as he nipped, and licked, and suckled her lips. Like a vortex, he pulled her into the kiss, stealing the air from her lungs, along with any remaining will. His warm slick tongue teased, gently urging her to open. When she parted, just a fraction, he took command. He entered her mouth deeply, seeking, exploring with his smooth, wet tongue, the contact of which instantly sent a flood of warm moisture between her thighs.
Only a kiss?
It was staggering.
Her mind was lost to time and place, as if nothing existed beyond his divine mouth. He discarded her bonnet and tangled his fingers in her hair. She whimpered, clutching at his lapels, yet he refused to relent. Mercilessly, he intensified the kiss, pulling her so far in; submerging her in so much sensation that Mary thought she would drown in the pleasure of it.