“Is that what you think?” she asked, her voice deadly quiet. “That I allowed myself to be manipulated? Did you ever stop to consider that I knew exactly the sort of games he was playing? That I tried to play along, even when he was writing the rules?”
Her glare could have frozen over the Atlantic.
“I’m not perfect, Cresswell.”
No, she wasn’t. But neither was I. Or anyone else in the world. But she was perfect for me. It’s what I would have said, had she not continued her impassioned speech.
“I make mistakes. I know what kind of person you are, and I knew from the moment I first met him who Mephistopheles is. Yes, I could still picture being friends with him, even after he tried manipulating the situation. I don’t believe in hating someone because they’ve made poor choices. Perhaps I am naive, but I will always hope the best will win out in a person. Maybe one day that will change, but for now? I’d like to believe redemption is possible, even if that makes me the biggest sort of fool.”
I reached a hand out uselessly. “Audrey Rose, I didn’t mean—”
“If you and I are going to move forward together, we will need to do so knowing that we are flawed. I will hurt you, Thomas. I hope never in the same manner again, but there will undoubtedly come a day when I royally make a mess of things. And I do want you in all the ways you want me, you bloody fool. I want you so much it drives me to utter…” her attention fastened on my lips, her mind seemingly at a loss while she fought the longing I saw in her gaze, “… distraction.”
Her focus remained on my mouth and whatever leash I’d managed to tame myself with slipped. I inched closer and pulled her to me, careful of her injury. I didn’t want to fight about people who didn’t matter. If anything, I was glad she had more experience to draw from. I now knew with certainty that she did choose me. Not because I was the only option available, but because she truly wanted me.
I thought about the dragon cane I’d commissioned, the reason why I wanted to gift her with that particular symbol. And yet… it didn’t feel like the right time to broach that subject. There would be plenty of time for other serious discussions. For now…
I ran my thumb over her lower lip, memorizing the shape of her mouth. I could gaze at the dip in her upper lip for hours, enchanted by the spell it cast over me. I slid my hand along her jaw and her eyes fluttered shut, a sound of contentment escaping.
My pulse roared like a raging river in response, but I held back. I slipped my hand into her hair, angling her face toward mine, savoring each hitch in her breath, each jump of my heart. It seemed like we’d waited a millennium to get here. And I languished in the slight teasing before our kiss. I brushed my lips against hers, once, twice. Each pass gaining the slightest bit of pressure. I moved before our mouths made that final contact, kissing the corner of her lips, her cheek, along the underside of her jaw.
I drew slow circles down the side of her bodice and she arched into my touch, urging me lower. I wanted to slide my fingers along the silkiness of her stockings, feel the layers of her full skirts brush over my skin as I explored her body the way she seemed to beg me to. I brought my mouth back to hers and kissed her, slow and languorously, savoring the feel of her.
She replied with a sigh, a plea. “Thomas. Please.”
I nearly came undone. Our kiss deepened. My tongue swept into her mouth, teasing, light. She moaned and yanked me partially on top of her, knocking the books off the settee. I couldn’t help a nervous bout of laughter from escaping. “Easy there, Wadsworth. I’d want to ravish me too, but if we’re not careful, we’ll alert the whole household.”
“I don’t care,” she said, flashing a wicked grin. She wound her arms around my neck and brought me near. This time, running her hands down my back. Her touch unleashed me.
Careful of her injury, I fit myself between her legs and resumed my attention to each place she directed it. I used every method of deduction I knew to discover what she liked and did it again. I dropped kisses and trailed them with my tongue, adoring the gooseflesh that stood at attention. When she took my hand and placed it on her thigh, my breathing stopped. I knew precisely what she was asking. I would deny her nothing.
I traced a slow line down to her calf, then slipped under her skirts, heart hammering as I inched upward. I’d never done this before. “Are you sure?”
A bemused smile crossed her face. “Are you afraid? Or is this too much for you?”
I grinned against her lips as she angled herself toward me, her breathing erratic when I began tracing designs along her bare thigh. Before I could tease her, her mouth was on mine and all my thoughts returned to deducing each subtle shift of her body.
Soon she whispered my name like a prayer again and again. I didn’t stop until her grip on my back loosened and her whispers faded into sweet kisses. We lay there in the parlor, breathing heavily, flushed bright from kissing, and grinning like two besotted fools. I’d never been more content a day in my life.
“I love you, Thomas.”
“Of course, you do. I’m the tall, dark, hero of your dreams, remember?” I pressed my lips to her temple and drew her into the circle of my arms. “I love you, too. For much the same reasons.”
She buried her face in my chest, shaking from laughter, and I fell a little more in love.