She gasped. “Lord Winstead!”
Wrong thing to say. But so terribly entertaining.
“I jest,” he said to her.
She stared at him.
“The saying of it is the jest,” he quickly explained. “Not the sentiment.”
still, she said nothing. And then: “I think you have gone mad.”
“It is certainly a possibility,” he said agreeably. He motioned to the corridor that led to the west stairs. “Here, come this way.” He waited for a moment, then added, “It’s not as if you have a choice.”
She stiffened, and he realized that he had said something terribly wrong. Wrong because of something that had happened in her past, some other time when she had had no choices.
But perhaps also wrong simply because it was wrong, no matter what her history. He did not pinch the maids or corner young girls at parties. He had always tried to treat women with respect. There was no justification for offering Miss Wynter anything less.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, bowing his head in esteem. “I have behaved badly.”
Her lips parted, and she blinked several times in rapid succession. She did not know whether to believe him, and he realized in stunned silence that her indecision was heartbreaking.
“My apology is genuine,” he said.
“Of course,” she said quickly, and he thought she meant it. He hoped she did. She would have said the same even if she hadn’t, just to be polite.
“I would explain, though,” he told her, “that I said you had no choice not because of your position in the employ of my aunt but rather because you simply do not know your way about the house.”
“Of course,” she said again.
But he felt compeled to say more, because . . . because . . . Because he could not bear the thought of her thinking badly of him. “Any visitor would have been in the same position,” he said, hoping he did not sound defensive.
She started to say something, then stopped herself, probably because it had been another “Of course.” He waited patiently—she was still standing over by the painting of the third earl—content just to watch her until she finaly said, “Thank you.” He nodded. It was a gracious movement, elegant and urbane, the same sort of acknowledgment he’d done thousands of times. But inside he was nearly swept away by a cascading rush of relief. It was humbling. Or, more to the point, unnerving.
“You are not the sort of man to take advantage,” she said, and in that moment he knew.
Someone had hurt her. Anne Wynter knew what it meant to be at the mercy of someone stronger and more powerful.
Daniel felt something within him harden with fury. Or maybe sorrow. Or regret.
He didn’t know what he felt. For the first time in his life, his thoughts were a jumble, tossing and turning and writing over each other like an endlessly edited story.
The only certainty was that it was taking every ounce of his strength not to close the difference between them and pull her against him. His body remembered her, her scent, her curves, even the precise temperature of her skin against his.
He wanted her. He wanted her completely.
But his family was waiting for him at supper, and his ancestors were staring down at him from their portrait frames, and she—the woman in question—was watching him with a wariness that broke his heart.
“If you will wait right here,” he said quietly, “I will fetch a maid to show you to your room.”
“Thank you,” she said, and she bobbed a small curtsy.
He started to walk to the far end of the galery, but after a few steps he stopped. When he turned around, she was standing precisely where he’d left her.
“Is something amiss?” she asked.
“I just want you to know—” he said abruptly.
What? What did he want her to know? He didn’t even know why he’d spoken.
He was a fool. But he knew that already. He’d been a fool since the moment he’d met her.
“Lord Winstead?” she asked, after a full minute had passed without his having finished his statement.
“It’s nothing,” he muttered, and he turned again, fuly expecting his feet to carry him out of the galery. But they didn’t. He stood breathlessly still, his back to her as his mind screamed at him to just . . . move. Take a step. Go!
But instead he turned, some traitorous part of him still desperate for one last look at her.
“As you wish,” she said quietly.
And then, before he had a chance to consider his actions, he found himself striding back toward her. “Precisely,” he said.
“I’m sorry?” Her eyes clouded with confusion. Confusion twinned with unease.
“As I wish,” he repeated. “That’s what you said.”
“Lord Winstead, I don’t think—”
He came to a halt three feet away from her. Beyond the length of his arms. He trusted himself, but not completely.
“You shouldn’t do this,” she whispered.
But he was too far gone. “I wish to kiss you. That is what I wanted you to know. Because if I’m not going to do it, and it appears that I am not, because it isn’t what you want, at least not right now . . . but if I’m not going to do it, you need to know that I wanted it.” He paused, staring at her mouth, at her lips, full and trembling. “I still want it.”
He heard a rush of air gasp across her lips, but when he looked into her eyes, their blue so midnight they might as well have been black, he knew that she wanted him. He had shocked her, that much was obvious, but still, she wanted him.