“I just didn’t know,” she said. “I didn’t realize.” But these were only words now, with meanings even she did not understand. She had no idea what she was talking about – what it was she didn’t know or didn’t realize. She just . . . She just . . .

She looked up. She just needed to see his face.

“Honoria,” he whispered, looking down at her as if he’d never seen her before. His eyes were warm, chocolaty brown and rich with emotion. Something flared in their depths, something she didn’t quite recognize, and slowly, ever so slowly, his lips dipped to meet hers.

Marcus could never have explained why he kissed Honoria. He didn’t know why he’d done it. He was holding her while she cried, and it had seemed the most natural, innocent thing to do. There had been no inclination to kiss her, though, no urge to take it further.

But then she looked at him. Her eyes – oh, those amazing eyes – glistening with tears, and her lips, full and trembling. He stopped breathing. He stopped thinking. Something else took over, something deep within him that felt the woman in his arms, and he was lost.

He was changed.

He had to kiss her. He had to. It was as basic and elemental as his breath, his blood, his very soul.

And when he did . . .

The earth stopped spinning.

The birds stopped singing.

Everything in the world came to a halt, everything but him and her and the feather-light kiss that connected them.

Something stirred to life within him, a passion, a desire. And he realized that if he hadn’t been so weak, so debilitated, he would have taken it further. He would not have been able to stop himself. He would have pressed her body against his, glorying in her softness, her scent.

He would have kissed her deeply, and he would have touched her. Everywhere.

He would have begged her. He would have begged her to stay, begged her to welcome his passion, begged her to take him within her.

He wanted her. And nothing could have terrified him more.

This was Honoria. He had sworn to protect her. And instead . . .

He lifted his lips from hers, but he couldn’t quite pull himself away. Resting his forehead against hers, savoring one last touch, he whispered, “Forgive me.”

She left then. She could not exit the room fast enough. He watched her go, saw her hands shaking, her lips trembling.

He was a beast. She had saved his life, and this was what he had done in return?

“Honoria,” he whispered. He touched his fingers to his lips, as if he might somehow feel her there.

And he did. It was the damnedest thing.

He still felt her kiss, still tingled with the light touch of her lips under his.

She was with him still.

And he had the strangest feeling she always would be.

Chapter Fourteen

Mercifully, Honoria didn’t have to spend the next day of her life agonizing over her brief kiss with Marcus.

Instead, she slept.

It was a short walk from Marcus’s bedchamber to her own, so she set her mind to the task at hand – namely, putting one foot in front of the other and remaining upright long enough to reach her bedchamber. And once she did that, she lay on her bed and did not rise again for twenty-four hours.

If she dreamed, she remembered nothing.

It was morning when she finally awakened, and she was still in the same frock she’d been wearing since she’d got dressed – how many days ago was it? – in London. A bath seemed in order, and a fresh change of clothing, and then breakfast, of course, where she quite happily insisted that Mrs. Wetherby join her at the table and talk about all sorts of things that had nothing to do with Marcus.

The eggs were extremely interesting, as was the bacon, and the hydrangeas outside the window were absolutely fascinating.

Hydrangeas. Who would have imagined?

All in all, she avoided not just Marcus but all thoughts of Marcus quite well until Mrs. Wetherby asked, “Have you been by to see his lordship yet this morning?”

Honoria paused, her muffin suspended halfway to her mouth. “Er, not yet,” she said. The butter from her muffin was dripping onto her hand. She set it back down and wiped her fingers.

And then Mrs. Wetherby said, “I’m sure he would love to see you.”

Which meant that Honoria had to go. After all the time and effort she’d put into caring for him when he’d been in the depths of his fever, it would have looked very odd if she’d simply waved her hand and said, “Oh, I’m sure he’s fine.”

The walk from the breakfast room to Marcus’s bedchamber took approximately three minutes, which was three minutes longer than she wanted to spend thinking about a three-second kiss.

She had kissed her brother’s best friend. She had kissed Marcus . . . who, she supposed, had become one of her own best friends, too.

And that stopped her almost as short as the kiss had done. How had that happened? Marcus had always been Daniel’s friend, not hers. Or rather, Daniel’s friend first, and hers second. Which wasn’t to say –

She stopped. She was making herself dizzy.

Oh, bother. He probably hadn’t even thought of it once. Maybe he’d even still been a little bit delirious. Maybe he wouldn’t even remember.

And could it even really be called a kiss? It had been very, very short. And did it mean anything if the kisser (him) had been feeling terribly grateful to the kissee (her) and possibly even indebted, in the most elemental of ways?

She’d saved his life, after all. A kiss was not entirely out of order.

Plus, he had said, “Forgive me.” Did it count as a kiss if the kisser had asked for forgiveness?