Chapter Seven

18th August 1822

Once more I must make amends for several days of silence. There has been little chance for me to write since I left Canaefty Castle in the company of Lady Rothminster and Lord Talin three days ago. Our journey has been long and slow, but very far from tedious. My travelling companions are both intelligent and easily accommodating; our time confined to the carriage has passed congenially.

Tonight we are staying at the Kings Arms in Oxford and although I would dearly like to make an extended visit to this university town—a place where my brother spent a good many years of his life—I know Lord Talin is keen to arrive in Town. As a man educated at Cambridge, he laughingly declares he cannot leave Oxford soon enough. He says he fears his allegiances will come out and he will end up with every young sprig in the town playing drunken pranks on him. I know for a certainty, however, that it is only getting to see his aunt which worries him.

Of course it is Lady Rothminster's condition which keeps our pace slow and has forced us to stop at both Hereford and Cheltenham along the way. Her ladyship is not nearly as sickly as she was when I first came to Wales—and I secretly allow myself some pride in her recovery—but it is true that she tires very easily and finds sitting in one attitude uncomfortable in the extreme.

I am a little off-balance too. It is hard to believe I left London only four weeks ago. Look at all which has happened in that time. Then I was come to Wales to visit my brother and contemplate a quiet life of retirement in the country. Now I am returning to Town in the carriage of an earl, along with his cousin, a marchioness, to live in the house of a lady whose brother-in-law is a duke. I do not think I can be blamed for feeling anxious and excited and a great many other contradictory emotions.

I am sorry to be leaving Wales though. I will miss all those I have met there; Mr Mending and his sisters, Miss Vale and her brother, the blacksmith and his family, even the little old lady who runs the haberdashery—along with all her grandchildren and dogs. More than anything I know I will miss Catrin's easy manners and indefatigable energy. My brother is a lucky man. He has found himself a wife who is as loving and kind as she is pretty; and I am lucky too, for I have gained both a sister and a friend.

It is Lady Elizabeth who concerns me most. There is something not right with her life in Wales and I know it will continue to play on my mind. Out of everyone in Canaefty I found her the most difficult to understand. Do not mistake me, she was everything that was kind and good, all I can say is that she held herself back; and not just from me, from Lord Talin, from Lady Rothminster and Adam—even from her brother. I wish there was a way to bring her out into society. Perhaps I will ask Lady Rothminster about her ailment and see if I cannot do a little research while I am in Town. I simply will not be content if I do nothing to advance her cause, for I do not believe for a second—despite Adam's reassurances—she is happy.

Samantha hurriedly cleared her diary away, along with her blotting paper, powder and pen, and then rushed to the mirror to check that she had not splashed ink on herself. She was already late for dinner; it would be unpardonable if she was not presentable when she went down.

Tonight they dined in a private parlour, a floor below the bedchambers, and Samantha arrived just as the first course was about to be served. Two young maids were setting out the food. The youngest, a pretty young girl with copper curls, fumbled in her task and blushed a deep red when Lord Talin happened to smile in her direction. Samantha fancied he did not notice the poor girl—for his countenance was almost always genial, and he was already rising to his feet in response to Samantha's arrival.

This was not, however, the first time Lord Talin's good looks had proved an uncomfortable companion on their journey. His person and title inevitably attracted a great deal of female attention. In truth he had been the object of not only covert looks, but outright vulgar propositions during their stops along the way.

Samantha had to be fair to him though, if he noticed the effect he had on women, or indeed, if he partook of the favours so freely offered, at least he did not choose to acknowledge as much in front of his travelling companions.

As soon as she was seated at the table Samantha mentioned her diary and cited it as the reason for her lateness. Lady Rothminster accepted this with good favour and went on to lament that she had not the aptitude for keeping a diary.

"I am good at making a start," she admitted, with a small and self-deprecating smile. "I buy a sweet little book and inscribe my name on it with great credit to my calligraphy lessons as a girl. I set about decorating the paper with scribbles of flowers and birds; I even take time to scent the pages. Sometimes I get as far as making an entry or two—my record is a week—and then suddenly a month is gone by before I remember to add anything else. Now my sister, Eleanor, she writes about everything. She surrounds herself with not only her own diaries, but other people's memoirs and newspaper accounts and makes notes on them all."

"I do not think I am as committed to my writing as your sister," Samantha answered ruefully, "but I do like things written down. Feelings, places, people—all that I experience and should not like to forget. For instance, I have a memory of sitting with my mother on the swing in our flower garden when I was no more than five years old. She wore a yellow cotton gown with mother of pearl buttons that day. I also recall that she was humming a tune by Hayden which Papa was playing on the pianoforte indoors. The windows were open and the sound travelled across the garden to us. This is a singular and rather insignificant memory which has endured for almost twenty years of my life, and yet, without referring to my diary, I should find it difficult to remember all I did last week." She shrugged. "I do not even properly understand why it is so important I should not forget these things—all I know is that it is."

The servants departed and Lord Talin leaned forward in his chair; all etiquette thrown to the wind as he rested his head on his hands and his elbows upon the table. "Now there is something to tease my imagination!" he declared, with a slow and thoroughly irreverent grin. "Miss Parks keeps a diary. How dearly I would love to find out what mysteries and secrets are contained within those pages. There is something about the thought of a diary which brings out the worst in me. Do not leave it unattended, young lady, for I am almost certain that my curiosity is stronger than my morality. Indeed," he said, turning to include his cousin, "I wonder what she makes of us, Mary. Of a surety it must be written down."

"Oh, I discount you entirely," Samantha teased, airily waving his conceit away.

Lady Rothminster laughed. "As we all should," she agreed. "Just consider yourself fortunate that I have not the energy to do anything but eat my dinner, Coben, for otherwise Miss Parks and I would band together and then you would be sorry for your impertinence. Miss Parks, you must feel free to give him all the set downs he deserves in my stead—not that I think it will do you any good. I daresay he will only laugh and take whatever you say as a compliment. He likes to think himself outrageous."

"Here, see, I am outrageous," he cried in feigned indignation. "And you like me the better for it. Just as you like that I torment you." He turned to address Samantha. "My cousin once invited me to be her honorary older brother. It was a grave mistake on her part, for I have made full use of this invitation ever since. There is a great deal of fun in seeing how many times I can make her regret her decision."

"I hope you are keeping a tally, Coben," her ladyship quipped, "for I have certainly lost count."

He laughed and rudely pointed his fork at her. "I do not think you tired at all, Mary. I think you are purposefully trying to put me off my guard."

Despite this, both he and his cousin were in high good humour; and they could say what they liked of one another, Samantha could tell they were close. The squabbling was all part of the bond between them. The continual snipes and bickering helped to cement rather than destroy their affection. Samantha found herself a little jealous of their relationship. Adam never joked with her the way Lord Talin did with Lady Rothminster and she did not know any of her cousins. Her mother's family never visited and her father had no relatives still living. If she did as Adam asked and went to meet her cousin in London, would it be this way between them?

But that was for later, and when the second course arrived Samantha decided it was time to ask Lady Rothminster about her husband's family—more specifically, about Lady Elizabeth.

"I have only known Lizzy for two years," her ladyship answered cautiously. "My husband tells me she had a childhood plagued by ill-health, but her lung weakness is of more recent date. She suffered an attack of pneumonia seven years ago and the damage is something she will have to live with for the rest of her life."

"And should this discount all treatment?" Samantha cried indignantly. "What if there is a way for her to find relief from her symptoms, even if it is only temporary? I have read of modern practices where medicine-infused vapours are used to treat the lungs. I will need to do more reading on the matter, of course, and find the relevant books, but what better place than London to do research. I am determined to discover some way to help Lady Elizabeth. I think it incredibly sad that she is unable to travel with us. She deserves the chance for excitement and adventure as much as anyone. Just imagine if I found a remedy that, although not curing her ailment, would appease it enough for her to partake of the London Season. Would it not be incredible?"

"Indeed it would," Lord Talin agreed, "and if you are looking for medical books then I have them aplenty at my house on Grosvenor Square. My father wished for me to study either medicine or law at university." He grimaced. "In that, as in everything else, I let him down. I much preferred art and history. In the end I studied architecture. Father cursed me for months when he discovered I was going against his will, and there is no doubt in my mind he would have disinherited me for it were I not his only son."

Here he laughed, but neither Samantha nor Lady Rothminster felt inclined to laugh with him. There was nothing funny about the unpleasant relationship Lord Talin had shared with his father.

"Still," he soldiered on, choosing not to comment on their silence, "the fact remains that he bought me medical books. The collection now graces my study in much the same way the wallpaper does. You are more than welcome to look through the books whenever Lady Henry comes to call on her sister, Miss Parks. My aunts are not necessarily close, but they do at least like to project the illusion of intimacy. You will visit Talin House every Tuesday."

"Thank you." Samantha was glad to know she would have the opportunity to call on him when she was in Town. In her experience men were notoriously bad for visiting their relations.

"It would be a great comfort to know Lizzy's suffering was eased," Lady Rothminster added. "If you can find anything to make her attacks more bearable I and my husband shall be forever in your debt."

Three more courses came and went. There was venison steak served with port sauce, potatoes and onions. Fresh salmon mousse spread on soft bread rolls with cucumber and celery, and afterwards a delightful pigeon pie. With each remove Lady Rothminster became less and less involved in the conversation and visibly more tired. When the first of their desserts were being placed before them—sweet little butter cakes surrounded by rich fruit buns—Coben finally told her she ought to go to bed.

"Come now, Mary, you are entirely done in!" he pointed out when she protested.

"Dinner is not over, I cannot possibly go—"

"Yes, you can," he interrupted. "Miss Parks and I will finish our dinner and then go up to bed. Truly, you are extremely tired and we have yet another day of travelling before us. You will gain nothing by denying yourself sleep tonight."

"Well, perhaps you are right," she admitted. Her readiness to agree with him was proof, if it was needed, of just how tired she had become.

Immediately Lord Talin went to find a servant to take a message upstairs to Lady Rothminster's maid, but her ladyship was almost asleep in her chair by the time he returned. Instead of waiting for the maid to come down he decided to escort his cousin to her room himself, momentarily leaving Samantha on her own. This was time she spent in looking about the room, something she had not had a chance to do upon arriving for dinner.

The Kings Arms was a neat, high-ceilinged, square-shaped building in the centre of Oxford. Adam had recommended it to them for their journey, rather than the busier coaching houses. He admitted to spending many pleasant hours within its walls while studying at Oxford, and as though to confirm this, several of the rooms downstairs had been occupied by students upon their arrival. Indeed, Samantha had been surprised to find a physics lecture taking place in the tap.

As for this parlour in particular, it was a mix of modern and old, but no less comfortable for the confusion. The double sash windows were on a level with a gas lamp outside, and this combined with a solitary branch of candles on the mantle, was all that was needed to light a room decorated bright yellow. The dining table was square and solidly made, as were the ladder-back chairs, and there was a small space between the table and window for the food to be served on trolleys.

Remarkably fine portraits lined the walls with ladies wearing wide skirts and tall wigs, and men in coats a kaleidoscope of vivid colours; all looked eerily alike. Samantha decided that some unfortunate young man had lost mightily at the card table and sold his relatives to cover his debts.

By the time Lord Talin returned the harmonies of a violin, viola and cello, could be heard floating up from somewhere below their parlour.

"The music students have decided to play for their supper," Lord Talin explained as he entered the room. "An impromptu assembly is about to take place in the coffee room. It is fortunate that they are closer to us than they are to the bedchambers, and that my cousin is already dead to the world." He sighed. "What a shame it is that we cannot go down and join in with the dancing. I believe I would enjoy partnering you a great deal, Miss Parks."

"We shall keep the door ajar," she decided, looking down at the severe gown of black crepe which was once more making an appearance for dinner. "You are right. We cannot possibly go down, but I should like to listen all the same."

He paused, having just pulled the door shut. "I can do better," he said, and walked to one of the windows to lift the sash. "They have the windows open downstairs to make the temperature more tolerable. We shall do the same. Ah, as I thought, the music is even louder like this." He strode to ring the bell for service. "And I think we should have some champagne, to celebrate our last evening on the road together, and to console ourselves for not being able to go downstairs. Do you like champagne?"

Samantha shook her head. "I have no idea."

"What? Have you never tried it?" His face was full of shock. "In that case I absolutely insist you drink with me; and do not pull a face young lady, an introduction to champagne is all part of your education. It will be either champagne or lemonade served during evening entertainments when we get to Town. I know of a certainty which one I would prefer."

A serving maid, the one who had earlier blushed under his gaze, answered Lord Talin's summons. He asked for a bottle of champagne to be brought up with two glasses. "It will set off the remainder of our meal quite nicely."

Samantha looked down at her plate, having forgotten that one course still awaited them. The thought of sitting cosily tête-à-tête in a parlour with Lord Talin now purged her appetite. His knowing eyes followed hers to the plate and he smiled in satisfaction, as though he had read her thoughts and accepted the compliment wholeheartedly, the wretch!

Resuming their places at the table, Lord Talin and Samantha ate in silence. Every now and then she would look up to find his eyes resting upon her, but she did not think he was staring to deliberately unsettle her. The intense set to his features suggested he was deep in thought and probably not seeing her at all.

He confirmed this assumption by visibly starting in his chair when the maid returned with their champagne. Samantha pursed her lips, determined not to laugh at his expense. The girl soon departed and he poured them both a glass.

"What are you thinking about so seriously?" she asked. "You have been silent for a long time and you are staring"—her smile would not be contained—"which is incredibly rude." Surely it was not outrageous to be impertinent with a friend.

"Am I staring?" He seemed surprised. "My apologies."

He took a drink from his glass and encouraged Samantha to do the same. Champagne was not too dissimilar to wine, she discovered. The bubbles tickled down her throat as she swallowed, but although it was a peculiar sensation, it was not an unpleasant one.

"In part I have been thinking of what will happen when we get to Town," he admitted, "and how it will affect our friendship."

"Will it affect our friendship?"

"It is not what I would wish for," he conceded, "but there is no question that the nature of our acquaintance will have to change. We can no longer be unheeding of the proprieties, as we are now, completely alone and with our chaperone asleep in her room a whole floor above us." He smiled wryly. "There will be no sitting hatless on a picnic blanket in the sun without inviting the whole world's attention; and certainly no rides in my phaeton unless our destination is Hyde Park. I fancy you will find it somewhat confining after your time in the country."

"You speak as though I am some naïve young miss and this is my first visit to London. You know perfectly well that I am five-and-twenty and have lived for four years in the City."

"Yes," he said softly, "in the City. You have lived your entire time in London as a servant—and you can pretty it up as much as you want, but you were a servant—and there is a world of difference between living in the City and living in Town. Tell me, as a nurse and companion, did you take a maid with you when you went out?"

"I certainly had a maid at my disposal."

"And what would happen if you tripped over in the street, went out in a gown a year out of date, or smiled kindly on an unsuitable gentleman? Would you have to worry that someone had seen it and that it might be published in the newspapers the next day? Worse yet, would you dread to walk out all week for fear your caricature would appear in the printer's shop window?"

He took a deep drink from his glass and then continued.

"Despite your employment, despite your position as a gentlewoman, you have always enjoyed a certain amount of freedom in your life. If you think you will find this same kind of freedom during your time in Mayfair you are sadly mistaken. You cannot afford to take a single misstep, you must be ever mindful of the way you dress, the way you behave and the company you keep—more so if you are to pull off a career as a singer without the protection of a husband. You cannot have any hint of scandal touch your name. We"—he gesticulated between them—"cannot be seen to be on any friendlier terms than a nodding acquaintance. My reputation must in no way be seen to touch yours."

Samantha was aghast. "We cannot be seen together… we cannot even talk?"

"Yes… no!" He moved to sit in the chair immediately beside her, and after a slight pause, reached to take her hand. "It is true that we cannot be regarded as more than slight acquaintances, but that will not stop us talking. I will make visits to Aunt Jane and you will make visits to Aunt Anne. I am sure there will be more than ample opportunity to carry on our friendship in private. Plus you must not discount my cousin's house on Hanover Square. We will meet there from time to time."

"But it will not be the same," she replied gloomily, watching as his fingers distractedly played with hers. They were both wearing gloves, as was custom at dinner, but all Samantha could think about was the picnic at Canaefty, and of when she had seen both his hands and forearms bare.

"It will not be the same," he agreed, "and I shall be sorrier than I can say to relinquish your company in public—albeit only temporarily. A year from now, when you are slightly more established and have begun to create a name for yourself, then we can think about being seen together more often."

A year! It felt an inordinately long time to Samantha.

"Which is the other part of why I was thinking so seriously," he added. "I would be a sorry kind of gentleman indeed had I not already considered what must be done to protect your reputation. Tonight I was simply wondering whether or not I would ask you to dance—since I will not get the opportunity to do so when we are in Town. We have musical accompaniment most fortuitously arranged, and we can be private here to respect your mourning. All we have to do is close the drapes."

"Dance?" Samantha was astonished. "Here?"

"Yes." His smiled widened. "Why not? No one will see us. Miss Parks, I would very much like to dance with you." His hand gently squeezed hers in encouragement. "And to make things even better, they are beginning to play a waltz, do you hear?"

Samantha nodded.

"Can you waltz?" he asked, already getting to his feet and leading her to do the same.

"Mama taught me." It was a miracle her voice did not waver. "We had neighbours in Suffolk who were kind to us, and of course there were assemblies in Lavenham. Mama even thought we might take a house in Bath one year."

He seemed to find this amusing. "And whom did she hope you would dance with while you were in Bath—the elderly or the infirm?" His hand moved to the small of her back, directing her to the space between the table and the window. There would not be much room, even with the trolleys pushed to one side. They would have to be mindful of the furniture or they would come away with bruises.

He left her only to go to the window and close the drapes.

Funny how it was only now, when the light from the gas lamp disappeared, Samantha began to have doubts about being alone with Lord Talin. Only the branch of candles on the mantle lit the room, and the streets of Oxford—along with the rest of the inn—suddenly felt a very great distance away.

"I think Mama had a wealthy young doctor in mind."

"A doctor?" He returned to take her hand. His other settled at her waist. "Would you consider marrying a medical man?"

"I would not consider marrying anyone. As you say, I have had a great deal of freedom in my life, despite my occupation—and part of that freedom is in knowing I have a competence of my own. Marriage, to me, has always signified the loss of that competence, ergo the loss of my freedom. I have never thought it a particularly appealing proposition."

Lord Talin encouraged her to stand closer to him, a great deal closer than waltzing required. For a moment Samantha forgot to breathe. She could feel him, warm and solid, all the way from her hips to her breasts. She knew it was only polite to look up into the eyes of her partner when she was dancing, but it could not be done with Lord Talin. Samantha told herself it was because he was almost a foot taller and it would hurt her neck to look up at him, but in truth she was blushing so hard she dared not look at anything other than the buttons of his waistcoat—especially so when his leg moved intimately between hers and lead them into the first steps of the dance.

"And what of love?" he inquired softly. "Would you still discount marriage if you fell in love?"

"How can I tell when I have never been in love?"

Lord Talin kept the pace of the waltz slow—perhaps because of their proximity to the furniture. Each measured step emphasized the sensuality of what they were doing. She could feel the strength of his body, confident and controlled, supple and graceful against her own. She could smell the starch in his shirt and the shaving soap he used, along with another scent, a scent which was Lord Talin's alone.

"Do you even believe in love?" he asked a moment later. "And I am not talking about the tame and safe kind of love which one feels for friends or family. I am talking of a true romantic attachment, Miss Parks; the type that sets its possessors into fiery passions and jealous rages."

"I would have to be blind indeed to discount it, seeing as my brother is so happily married, and even if he was not, I only have to look at your cousin's marriage." She smiled into the fabric of his waistcoat. "Did I tell you that she and Lord Rothminster kissed at the breakfast table right in front of me? It was the day his lordship left Wales with Adam."

Lord Talin chuckled. "No, you did not. Did he really? Right in front of you?"

"Right in front of me," she confirmed, "and right in front of the servants too."

"Well!" he exclaimed. "Well, well!"

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Do you believe in love?" she asked.

His answer was immediate. "Yes."

Curiosity got the better of her. "Have you ever been in love?"

He took time to consider. So long Samantha thought he would not answer at all. "No, I have never been in love," he admitted eventually. "Although I fancied I was once, when I was fifteen and just learning that girls were to be worshiped rather than tormented. Her name was… her name was… good God! I cannot even remember her name. It began with a 'C' I think; Caroline or Constance or Charlotte. She was daughter to the innkeeper near my estate in Cumberland. She was three years older than I—dark-haired, dark-eyed and long-limbed. I might have forgotten her name, but no man forgets a body like that. She had the most magnificent pair of… ow!"

Samantha deliberately stood on his foot.

"Bloody Hell," he cried out, but the tell-tale skin around his eyes crinkled and contradicted the harshness of his words. The fiend was laughing at her!

"I do not need to hear how magnificent any parts of this woman were!" she declared, glaring angrily up at him for his language, his impropriety… his innate ability to infuriate her. "Especially not those parts that come in pairs."

"No?" he inquired, desperately trying to hide his humour.

"No!" she replied emphatically.

"No," he agreed, more soberly. "I suppose you do not, but at least it has made you look up at me, which, I confess, is exactly what I hoped for."

Samantha's eyes widened.

Only now did she notice that, even though the music played on, they had stopped dancing. They were, in fact, alone in a parlour in Oxford and practically embracing.

"I do not like being jealous of my waistcoat," he whispered, "but how is it to be helped when you are paying all your attention to my buttons—fabulous though they are—and giving none of your attention to me?" She felt his thumb lightly brush her cheek. "I like it when you look at me," he stated, his voice catching. "You have the most peculiar eyes, Miss Parks. They are the stormy grey-green of the sea right now, and with just the barest hint of jade to show for your temper. Sometimes I look at you and those same eyes are the colour of young ferns on a fresh spring morning; pure, untroubled, and untouched by anything bad in the world."

Gone was Lord Talin's laughter. Even his eyes no longer smiled.

"Every mile nearer to London and Mayfair we get, the more I wonder if I have not made a mistake in bringing you with me and to an environment that demands the repression of all emotion; but deep down I know it is because I am a selfish man and cannot do without you." Both his hands moved to cup her face. "I will have you know, Miss Parks, that I have danced with thousands of women at hundreds of balls, and in half a dozen different countries. How is it that one dance with one woman can tempt a man so readily into folly?" Samantha noted that his cheeks were slightly flushed and he was breathing harder than the easy pace of their dance warranted. "But this is not a night for caution. No. Tonight I am going to do precisely as I wish; as I have wanted to do from the first."

Samantha's heart raced ahead of itself. "I wish you would not talk nonsense," she complained, but this was defence—a means to gather her wits and start thinking clearly, for at that moment he looked very much like a man contemplating sin.

"Yes," he agreed, "we should most definitely stop talking." And then he leaned closer, and all hopes she had of regaining her wits vanished completely.

Lord Talin kissed her.

The contact was brief and feather-light to begin with; a tentative and uncomplicated meeting of mouths, and a request by him for permission to continue—which was just as well. Samantha would have thought less of him had he taken her compliance for granted. In fact, considering the confident and compelling nature of Lord Talin's personality, his hesitancy in this instance was rather endearing.

Curious, Samantha encouraged him by moving closer, pressing her lips to his and hoping he would understand that she did not really know what she was doing. This gesture, however small it was, seemed to be all the invitation he needed. With her permission ascertained, Lord Talin unleashed the full extent of his ardour, and there was nothing Samantha could do but accept his kisses and hope that they could both survive the ferocity of them.

She knew what it was like to lose herself in passion—she did so every time she sang—but kissing Lord Talin was something different altogether. The touch of his lips, the caress of his hands was so compelling she could not even think through it. All she knew was that when he stepped between her legs and slowly inched her towards the wall, she allowed him; and when both his hands left her face—one to cup a breast through the silk of her gown, and the other to brazenly caress her bottom—she did not even consider telling him to stop.

Every moan and whimper she uttered drove him to kiss her a little more fiercely, compelled his hands to move with greater daring; and when he licked along the seam of her mouth, demanding that she open for him, Samantha did, shyly letting her tongue meet with his.

They fought, each trying to outmanoeuvre the other, but it was a tussle Samantha cared not if she won or lost. All she wanted was to be closer to Lord Talin, which was ridiculous really, considering his tongue was inside her mouth and there was not an inch of space between their bodies. His legs were to either side of hers, crushing her skirts, and she was pressing up to meet him.

Her hands were half in the air, unsure where they ought to settle, but she wanted to touch him. She wanted to touch him very badly indeed, and so she started with his hair, running her fingers through the fine strands. She could not feel the texture because of her gloves, but it was the perfect length, just long enough for her to tangle her fingers into and hold on to.

Glorious!

She explored further, her hands leaving his head to find their way down his neck and to the ridge of his shoulders. Muscles flexed sinuously under his coat—physical evidence that there was a strong and capable man hidden behind the beautiful face and impeccable tailoring. Her hands moved on, reaching down to his trim waist and then further, to mirror his caress by settling over the swell of his buttocks.

Lord Talin used a word normally only ever used in the stables and groaned deep in his throat. Panting for lack of breath, and not the least concerned about recovering it, Samantha knew she was lost, utterly, delightfully lost; lost in his embrace and the newly discovered knowledge of her own sensuality.

It was Lord Talin who eventually brought the kiss to an end, wrenching his mouth away and breathing heavily. It had to be him. Samantha would not have willingly forsaken it if he had he given her all week.

Too late did she understand the wantonness of her position; her back to the wall and her lower body pinioned by his hips. His hands were at her waist, kneading spasmodically as he recovered his breath. She heard him inhale deeply. He did not kiss her again. When he leaned forward this time it was to rest his forehead against the cool plaster above her head.

"I thought myself stronger than this!" he whispered. "I made a promise to myself, a vow to be only your friend."

Samantha blushed, not knowing what she ought to be feeling… elation, shame? There was no precedent in her life for what had just happened, but when she sought reassurance in his eyes, all she could see was a beautiful man with a crushed neckcloth, dishevelled hair, slightly swollen lips and a look just as astounded and uncertain as her own.

Slowly, an inch at a time—and as though he expected her to run at any moment—he moved away; and perhaps she would have run had not her legs been shaking, and had not curiosity held her captive. Instinctively she sought to smooth the creases from her dress and repair the damage to her hair, but it was hopeless. The creases would only be removed with the aid of a hot iron and her chignon was missing several pins. Almost half her hair had escaped and was hanging loose about her shoulders.

"I ought not to have kissed you," he said after a long pause. "I know that. God knows I ought not to have, but you tempt me, Samantha. You are so artlessly and naively passionate!" He ran his hands through his hair. "Thirteen years I have spent in society as an eligible without once finding any appeal in innocence. Certainly I have never before taken such liberties with an untouched and gently-reared young lady." He cleared his throat and colour flooded his cheeks. "Of course I am fully aware of what is owed to an innocent woman of good birth in this kind of situation. By rights I should offer you marriage, but you must not be alarmed. Cad that I am, I will not behave honourably in this instance. Already I know you would greet the prospect of marriage to me with as much horror as I would the prospect of marriage to anybody."

Well!

Goodness!

He was right of course. Samantha had no intention of hearing a proposal from him merely because of one small indiscretion. It was not, however, entirely pleasing to be told that the gentleman in question would find it horrific himself!

"Forgive me," he amended. "I did not mean to offend you. It is too easy to forget that you are not yet a member of the ton and still somewhat in ignorance of my true character, or the extent of my depravation."

"On the contrary," she corrected him. "Ever since we met, all everyone seems to do is talk to me about your reputation—or lack thereof. Adam says you plan never to take a wife."

"And he is right." Lord Talin looked directly at her, his blue eyes incredibly dark in the candlelight. "I decided many years ago that I would always remain a bachelor. The reasons for this are private to me and my immediate family. Rest assured that it is in no way a reflection on your charms or, indeed, my feelings towards you; which are increasingly fond."

Samantha nodded. Her curiosity was far from sated. She desperately wanted to know why he had made such a promise, and why he had stuck to it, even as a man grown; but his last words spoke powerfully to her. The truth was that they were both growing increasingly fond of each other, and perhaps it was a good thing that they would have a period of forced separation after tonight. She certainly had no wish to fall any further into folly with Lord Talin. If they wished to remain friends, such indiscretion could not be allowed to happen again—and she would be sorry indeed to lose his friendship.

Her thoughts turned to more practical problems—most especially of how she was going to get to her room without anyone seeing her dishevelment. Lord Talin suggested checking that there was no one in the corridor or on the stairs to her room before she left the parlour, and went immediately to look himself.

When he returned, Samantha paused on the threshold, momentarily unwilling to leave him. Tomorrow they would arrive in London and all his warnings about the need for discretion between them would come into existence. It was certain that they would not be alone, or be able to speak privately for quite some time. It felt wrong to leave him without at least saying something about the kiss.

"My lord?"

"Yes?" he answered cautiously.

"It was a very nice kiss," she told him. She had hoped to sound teasing, but her voice was more breath than sound. "I am not sorry it happened," she added in earnest, before scampering through the open door and not giving him a chance to ruin things further by pointing out that she was the one now talking nonsense.

Only nice! What a bouncer!