Hugh Grey stood in the shadows at the Haslemere assembly, as far from the light as he could get and still make out the dancers. For November, it was oppressively hot inside. No surprise there—the room was packed with revelers. Too many sweating bodies crammed into a space barely large enough to contain them. He was present for one reason only.
To catch a glimpse of Miss Eleanor Broxton.
Hugh had nearly concluded she was not in attendance, and his patience was on a short tether. He had business to take care of. In two days, he would board a ship for North America. Canada, to be precise, if one could be precise when it came to such a vast breadth of land. Not for him the battlefields of the Peninsula and the never-ending war with Napoleon. He wanted something new, and the colder climes of Canada suited his temperament.
A blond head flashed by. Not Eleanor, devil take it. When the dance ended, and Hugh had yet to spot her, he began to move toward the anterooms. She’d stayed away, proving she was wiser than he by half. It was difficult to progress quickly through such a crowd, but because of his size, people moved aside for him. And emerging from a sea of bodies, there she was.
Hugh stopped cold, flummoxed. “Miss Broxton.”
He bowed, and she offered her hand. “Mr. Grey. You’re not leaving?” He loved the cadence of her voice. So caressing, wrapping her words around him. And could that be a spark of pleasure in her eyes?
“I was, yes.” Hugh was still holding her hand. Reluctantly, he released it.
“So soon? It is early yet.”
He hadn’t intended to do anything more than feast his eyes upon her, but he said, “If you will dance with me, perhaps I’ll stay.”
“I—” A handsome young buck approached, full of himself. How easy it would be to grasp him by the collar and send him on his way.
“My dance, Miss Broxton.” She spared the boy a glance before turning back to Hugh.
“The next, then,” she said. He nodded and watched her walk away with her partner. After a moment, she looked back at him. Not once, but twice, the second time a hint of a smile curving her lips. Something clutched at him, just under his ribs, and would not let go.
Should he wait and hope to claim his dance? If she hadn’t looked back at him and smiled, he probably wouldn’t have. He worked his way over to stand with those who were not dancing. And that’s when Hugh spotted Sir William, Eleanor’s father, his cold and forbidding eyes staring at him. Challenging him.
Hugh got the message. As long as the man drew breath, Eleanor would be off-limits to the likes of him. Even though his brother, Adam, was Broxton’s man in the House of Commons, Hugh still wasn’t good enough. He should never have come here. Why was he tormenting himself?
Instead of waiting for his dance with Eleanor, he made his way to the entrance, all the while counting himself a fool. Nothing had changed, nor ever would, if Sir William continued to believe the worst of him.
Eleanor, for once, was glad of the general chaos that was an assembly ball. It limited interaction with one’s partner. If her eyes roved around the room, said partner would probably not even notice. Or care. She took full advantage of the situation, especially after they’d gone down the middle, to find Hugh in the press of people.
Since he was taller than most of the men present, she had no difficulty spotting him. To her dismay, it looked as if he’d decided to leave. No. He’d asked her for the next dance. Well, she had been the one to do the asking. He’d simply nodded his assent. But when she’d looked back at him, his eyes had gleamed out at her from the dimness. He had wanted to dance with her.
Eleanor made a rash decision to follow him. Assemblies were less formal than private balls, so excusing herself wouldn’t matter. Much. It didn’t matter to her, in any case. “Mr. Buckley, I’m feeling a bit unwell. Pray excuse me.”
“No, I’ll be fine. Please stay and find another partner.” A perfunctory curtsy, and she made her escape before he had time to balk any further.
In truth, she was feeling, if not unwell, strangely agitated. She hadn’t felt that way since the house party at Deborah Grey’s country estate earlier in the year, where she had met Hugh. Like a fool, she’d initially set her sights on his brother, Adam, only to discover he was enamored of someone else. But Hugh had swept in and somehow managed to take her mind off Adam. In fact, he’d captivated her. He’d taught her how to shoot an arrow—his big body surrounding her—even though she’d been hopelessly inept at it… The memory had never left her. And the night of the ball, before its abrupt end, he had walked with her in the garden and stolen a kiss. Remembering the feel of his lips on hers sent a thrill right to her core.
She was desperate not to lose sight of him. Nudging, and in some cases shoving, merrymakers out of her path, she set a course for the entrance. The room was dimly lit, and she prayed her parents wouldn’t be on the lookout for her. Recalling where they’d been standing when she’d last seen them, she veered away from that part of the room and ducked her head. Their vigilance was suffocating. Out of their range at last, she glanced up, searching for Hugh. But he was nowhere to be seen. He must have already gone.
That didn’t deter her. Grabbing her shawl from the pegs near the door, she threw it around her shoulders and ventured out into the cold. She would find him.
Icy sleet lashed at her, and she wrapped her shawl close around her, dodging puddles and piles of dung. Carriages were lined up along the street, the coachmen huddled around fires, drinking and laughing. She kept to the shadows to avoid their notice. Hugh would be heading for the livery to claim his horse for the ride back to Longmere. Her eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness, and she lifted her skirts and picked up her pace.
Thud! She slammed into something that felt like a wall, and the breath whooshed out of her. The wall turned and grasped her arms. “Eleanor.”
It was Hugh, wearing a heavy greatcoat. And now that she’d found him, she had absolutely no idea what to say.
He reached for her hand. “Let’s get out of this deuced weather.”
That suggestion held promise, though it was also fraught with danger. But she allowed him to lead her. When they reached the stables, Hugh opened a swinging door on the far end of the building and drew her inside. They were in a storage area, with bales of hay piled in neat stacks. Tack hung on the walls and rested on long plank tables. The air was redolent with horse, manure, and saddle oil. He seemed to be familiar with his surroundings, unerringly finding a short stack of bales for them to sit on and pulling her down next to him. Warmth immediately surrounded her.
“I’m afraid it’s not as elegant as you’re accustomed to, but it’s the best I could do on such short notice.” His teeth flashed white in the darkness. He found this situation amusing, did he? Eleanor tried to think what, exactly, she wanted to say, but he spoke first.
“Why did you follow me?”
Why indeed? Through the neighborhood grapevine, she’d heard he had bought a commission. What if she never saw him again? She wanted to be near him, hear his laugh, his soothing voice. And she craved more than that. She desperately wanted him to touch her. Kiss her. Hold her. Do everything a man does with a woman. Oh God. She couldn’t possibly say any of that.
“I heard you were leaving. I wanted to say good-bye.”
“The gossips have done their work, then.” He chuckled, a low, provocative sound in the dark. “I should thank them.”
Eleanor sighed. He’d wanted to see her, too. “Why didn’t you stay for our dance?”
“Your father looked as if he might call me out, if I dared speak to you. I thought it best not to goad him by dancing with you.”
Her father again. Would he never allow her to live her own life? Decide for herself what was best for her? Defiance reared its head, spurring her to be rash. “I’m not answerable to him. To them.” She had to include her mother in this, since she was worse, in many ways, than her father. She expected—demanded—Eleanor’s absolute obedience to whatever directives were set out for her, and Eleanor had had her fill of it.
“I can hardly believe that.”
He was right. Until she was married, she was dependent on them. It had been a foolish thing to say, but she felt daring tonight, and a twisting, bunching feeling down low in her belly made her reckless. “Where are you going, Hugh? When will you be back?” And then, hesitantly, she said, “I wish you weren’t leaving.”
Damn. Why did she have to say that? His cock stirred, and he was glad of the darkness. Grasping her shoulders, he drew her close. He shouldn’t take such liberties, but here they were, in this secluded place, alone. It was so dark he could barely make out her features, so he traced his fingers over her face. He explored her cheekbones with his thumbs, finally skimming them across her lips. She gasped, whether from shock or desire, he couldn’t say and didn’t care. And then he did what he’d been longing to do since their first kiss that night in the garden. Lowering his head, he set his lips on hers.
At first Eleanor didn’t respond, receiving his kiss in an innocent, untaught way. When he whispered, “Open your mouth, sweetheart,” she complied without hesitation. After a moment of simply soaking up the pure joy and sensual experience of his open mouth on hers, he plunged his tongue into the warm moistness of her. He wasn’t sure how she would react. To his everlasting delight, she threw her arms around his neck, pressing her breasts into his chest. Hastily, Hugh shrugged out of his coat. Hardly knowing what the hell he was doing, he got to his feet, dragging her with him. His arms went around her, but he couldn’t hold them still. He was beyond that.
He ran his hands up her sides, pausing at her breasts, pressing his thumbs against the fullness overflowing her stays. His swollen length was crushed against her with unmistakable urgency, something even an inexperienced girl would recognize. Downward his hands moved, until they cupped her magnificent derrière. He filled his hands with it, aware he should stop, but also knowing he wouldn’t unless she demanded it. But she didn’t. On the contrary, she welcomed every onslaught he made against her innocence.
Operating purely on the pent-up desire raging in him since last spring, he slid her skirts up so he could touch her with no impediment. He hesitated for a beat, allowing her the chance to push him away, to call a halt to what they were doing. But she did not.
Eleanor was floating in a haze of sensuality. Never before had she experienced anything like this desperate need that now held sway over her. She couldn’t have denied it even if she’d wanted to. Which she most decidedly did not. When Hugh stroked her inner thighs, above her stockings, she purred with pleasure.
He spoke softly into her ear. “I want to see your breasts, Eleanor. Feel your breasts. Will you let me?”
God help her, she wanted that, too. She tugged her dress down over her stays, so that the tops of her breasts were exposed. Hugh pushed the straps of her chemise off her shoulders, and her breath caught when he slid his hand underneath and found the tip of one breast. He rolled it between his fingers, delicately pinching, until she moaned, “Oh, God, Hugh. Oh, God.” And then he pulled up her skirts and returned his attention to her thighs, moving ever closer to her most intimate place.
Suddenly, before she could find her moorings, he was stroking her there, the most sensitive part of her. She felt as she had the one time she’d been to the sea and floated on the buoyant water, the feeling joyous and surprising. When the pleasure grew so intense she thought she might lose her mind, Hugh pulled her down onto their makeshift bed. She was too far gone to even consider stopping him.
He pushed up her skirts, and in the darkness she saw him fumbling with his falls, felt him pressing against her entrance. But just as she was on the verge of exploding, he hesitated. “Eleanor—”
“Don’t say anything,” she said, putting a finger to his lips. “I want you, Hugh Grey.”
And then he was pushing inside her, little by little, and sliding back out, giving her time to accustom herself to his invasion, then thrusting forward again. She felt no pain, only a sense of fullness and an incandescent joy that he was now a part of her. When at last he broke through her barrier, she barely noticed, because she was focused on the one thing that truly mattered: release from this torture, this agony of bliss she was drowning in. Hugh thrust a hand between them and found her center once again, and Eleanor dropped over the edge at last, crying out fiercely. He followed her, emitting a primal grunt of release, then dropping down to cover her body with his.
Two thoughts occurred to Hugh as he lay there in the warm cocoon of Eleanor’s body. His backside was damned cold, and second, what the hell had he done? Taken advantage of a chaste girl by stealing her virginity, that’s what, all for the sake of satisfying his uncontrollable urge to have her. And worst of all, he’d ruined her, if anyone were to find out. It was that last thought that spurred him into action, even though he’d much prefer lying on the hay bales with her in his arms for hours more. He sat up and buttoned his falls, then fished in his pocket for a handkerchief. He found Eleanor’s hand and set the square of linen in it.
“Eleanor, you must get back to the ball. Your father will be wondering where you are. If we were to be discovered—”
He couldn’t see her expression clearly, but when she spoke, she sounded like a thoroughly pleasured woman. “Nobody will discover us. And I’m not concerned about my parents.”
Hugh smiled at her bravado, then leaned down to kiss her once more. “That’s foolish, and you know it. Up you go, you must be off.” He stood and brushed himself off while she cleaned herself. When she rose, he made sure no telltale strands of hay marred her skirts.
“My shawl,” she said, when they were nearly to the door. “Where is it?”
Hugh glanced around, finally spotting it, a splash of darkness against the hay, and hurriedly wrapped it around her shoulders. He did not let go.
“You must return on your own, Eleanor. We can’t be seen together.”
“I’m aware. This is good-bye, then,” she said, her eyes wide.
He nodded, unable to speak. What could he say? He refused to apologize for making love to her. He knew her well enough to believe she would have called a halt if she hadn’t wanted him. But there was a huge difference between what two people wanted and what was prudent, and they’d crossed that line. He wished to hell he’d never bought that commission, but it was too late now. Besides, nothing had changed. Broxton would never countenance a union between him and Eleanor.
So he said the one thing that seemed to make sense. “You’ve given me a precious gift, Eleanor. Thank you.”
She nodded, and he opened the door, peering into the night to make sure nobody was lurking outside. And then reached for her hand. They walked together until the lights of the assembly rooms might have revealed them. There was one thing that must be said.
“You will inform me if there are consequences. Adam will know how to get word to me.”
Nodding, she said, “Good-bye, Hugh. Be safe.” Rising up on her toes, she brushed her lips across his.
When he could see that she’d entered the building, he returned to the stables and asked for his mount. He rode home to Longmere in a persistent, icy drizzle, half buoyant, half miserable. He’d just made love to the woman of his dreams, but was soon to be separated from her for God knew how long.
What a damned mess he’d made of things.