“No,” she said, her brow coming together in distress. “That’s not what I meant. You know it wasn’t—”
“I am responsible for every person on this land,” he cut in. “For you, too, while you are here. And as long as I know that someone wishes me il, it is my charge and obligation to make sure that I do not carry a single other person into my danger.”
She stared at him with wide, unblinking eyes, and Daniel wondered what she saw. Who she saw. The words coming from his mouth were unfamiliar. He sounded like his father, and his grandfather before him. Was this what it meant to have inherited an ancient title, to have been entrusted with the lives and livelihoods of all who like his father, and his grandfather before him. Was this what it meant to have inherited an ancient title, to have been entrusted with the lives and livelihoods of all who resided on his land? He had been made the earl so young, and then been forced to leave England but a year later.
This was what it meant, he finaly realized. This was what it all meant.
“I will not see you hurt,” he said, his voice so low it almost shook.
She closed her eyes, but then the skin at her temples wrinkled and tensed, almost as if she was in pain.
“Anne,” he said, stepping forward.
But she shook her head, almost violently, and an awful choking sob burst from her throat.
It nearly tore him in two.
“What is it?” he said, crossing the distance between them. He put his hands on her upper arms, maybe to support her . . . maybe to support himself. And then he had to stop, to simply breathe. The urge to hold her closer was overwhelming. When he’d come into her room this morning he had told himself he would not touch her, he would not come close enough to feel the way the air moved across her skin. But this—he could not bear it.
“No,” she said, her body twisting, but not enough to make him think she meant it. “Please. Go. Just go.”
“Not until you tel—”
“I can’t,” she cried out, and then she did shake him off, stepping back until they were once again separated by the chil air of the morning. “I can’t tell you what you want to hear. I can’t be with you, and I can’t even see you again. Do you understand?” He did not answer. Because he did understand what she was saying. But he did not agree with it.
She swalowed and her hands came to cover her face, rubbing and stretching across her skin with such anguish that he almost reached out to stop her. “I can’t be with you,” she said, the words coming out with such suddenness and force that he wondered just whom she was trying to convince. “I am not . . . the person . . .” She looked away.
“I am not a suitable woman for you,” she said to the window. “I am not of your station, and I am not—” He waited. She’d almost said something else. He was sure of it.
But when she spoke, her voice had changed tenor, and she sounded too deliberate. “You will ruin me,” she said. “You won’t mean to, but you wil, and I will lose my position and all I hold dear.”
She looked him in the eye as she said that, and he nearly flinched at the emptiness he saw in her face.
“Anne,” he said, “I will protect you.”
“I don’t want your protection,” she cried. “Don’t you understand? I have learned how to care for myself, to keep myself—” She stopped, then finished with: “I can’t be responsible for you, too.”
“You don’t have to be,” he answered, trying to make sense of her words.
She turned away. “You don’t understand.”
“No,” he said harshly. “No, I don’t.” How could he? She kept secrets, held them to her chest like tiny treasures, leaving him to beg for her memories like some damned dog.
“Daniell. . . ,” she said softly, and there it was again. His name, and it was like he’d never heard it before. Because when she spoke, he felt every sound like a caress. Every sylable landed on his skin like a kiss.
“Anne,” he said, and he didn’t even recognize his voice. It was rough, and hoarse with need, and laced with desire, and . . . and . . .
And then, before he had a clue what he was about, he puled her roughly into his arms and was kissing her like she was water, air, his very salvation. He needed her with a desperation that would have shaken him to his core if he’d let himself think about it.
But he wasn’t thinking. Not right now. He was tired of thinking, tired of worrying. He wanted just to feel. He wanted to let passion rule his senses, and his senses rule his body.
He wanted her to want him the very same way.
“Anne, Anne,” he gasped, his hands franticaly tugging against the awful wool of her nightgown. “What you do to me—” She cut him off, not with words but with her body, pressing it against his with an urgency that matched his own. Her hands were on his shirt, tearing at the front, puling it open until he felt her on his skin.
It was more than he could bear.
With a guttural moan, he half-lifted, half-turned her until they went tumbling to the bed, and finaly he had her exactly where he’d wanted her for what felt like a lifetime. Under him, her legs softly cradling him.
“I want you,” he said, even though it could hardly have been in doubt. “I want you now, in every way a man can want a woman.” His words were coarse, but he liked them that way. This wasn’t romance, this was pure need. She’d almost died. He might die tomorrow. And if that happened, if the end came and he hadn’t tasted paradise first . . .