He saw her. Sitting on the grass, so still she might have been a statue. She was hugging her knees to her chest, gazing up at the night sky with an expression of serenity that would have taken his breath away if he weren’t already so wrecked by fear and fury, and now by relief.
Hugh made his way slowly, favoring his leg now that speed was no longer of the essence. She must have been lost in her thoughts, for she did not seem to hear him. At about eight steps away, however, he heard her sharply indrawn breath, and she turned.
He didn’t say anything, just kept walking toward her.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, scrambling to her feet.
“I might ask the same thing of you,” he snapped.
She drew back in surprise at his display of anger. “I couldn’t sleep, and I—”
“So you thought you would wander outside at half three in the morning?”
“I know it seems silly—”
“Silly?” he demanded. “Silly? Are you bloody well kidding me?”
“Hugh.” She reached out to place her hand on his arm, but he shook her off.
“What if I hadn’t seen you?” he demanded. “What if someone else had seen you?”
“I would have gone inside,” she said, her eyes searching his with an expression of such perplexity that he nearly flinched. She could not possibly be so naïve. He had raced through the house—he, who on some days could barely walk, had raced through this bloody monster of a house, unable to beat away the memory of his mother’s cry.
“Do you think that every single person in the world has your best interest at heart?” he demanded.
“No, but I think every person here does, and—”
“There are men in this world who hurt people, Sarah. There are men who hurt women.”
Her face went slack, and she didn’t say anything.
And Hugh tried so very hard not to remember.
“I looked out my window,” he choked out. “I looked out my window at half bloody three in the morning, and there you were, gliding across the grass like some sort of erotic specter.”
Her eyes grew wide, and they might have filled with alarm, but he was too far gone to notice.
“And what if it hadn’t been me?” He grabbed her arms, both of them, his fingers biting into her flesh. “What if someone else had seen you, and what if someone else had come down here, with different intentions . . .”
His father had never been one to ask permission of the women in his life.
“Hugh,” Sarah whispered. She was staring at his mouth. Good God, she was staring at his mouth, and his body felt as if it had been set afire.
“What . . . What if . . .” His tongue felt thick, and his breath was no longer even, and he wasn’t even sure he knew what he was saying.
And then she caught her lower lip between her teeth, and he could practically feel the soft scrape of it across his own lips, and then . . .
He was gone.
He crushed her to him, his mouth taking hers with no subtlety, no finesse, nothing but raw passion and need. One of his hands tangled itself in her hair, and the other roamed down her back, finding the lush curve of her bottom, pulling her close.
“Sarah,” he moaned, and some part of him realized that she was touching him, too. Her small hands were behind his head, holding him against her, and her lips had softened and opened, and she was making little sounds that shot through him like lightning.
Never once breaking the kiss, he shrugged off his coat and let it fall to the ground. They sank to their knees, and then she was on her back, and he was over her, and he was still kissing her, hard and deep, as if he could remain in this moment forever, just so long as his lips never left hers. Her nightgown was white cotton, designed for sleep, not temptation, but it left the flat plane of her chest bare, and soon he was trailing his lips across her creamy skin, wondering how close he could get to those perfect breasts without taking the edge of her bodice in his teeth and tearing the bloody thing off her completely.
Her hips shifted, and he groaned her name again as he found himself settling between her legs. He was straining against his trousers, and he had no idea if she knew what that meant, but he was not capable of cautious questions. He arched himself against her, knowing full well that even through their clothes, she would feel him at her core.
She let out a little gasp at the pressure, and her hands grew fierce against him, sinking into his hair before sliding down his back and under his untucked shirt.
“Hugh,” she whispered, and he felt one finger along the line of his spine. “Hugh.”
With fortitude he had no idea he possessed, he pulled back, just far enough so that he could look in her eyes. “I will not— I won’t—” Dear God, it was hard to wrench out even a single word. His heart was pounding, and his insides were twisting, and half the time he wasn’t even sure he was still breathing.
“Sarah,” he began again, “I won’t take you. Not now, I promise. But I have to know.” He didn’t mean to kiss her again, but when she looked up at him, she arched her neck, and it was as if he’d become possessed. His tongue found the hollow of her collarbone, and it was there that he finally got the words out. “I have to know,” he repeated, and he tore himself away to once again see her face. “Do you want this?”
She looked at him in confusion. Her desire was written all over her, but he needed to hear her say it.
“Do you want this?” he asked, his voice down to a hoarse plea. “Do you want me?”