Her lips parted, and she nodded. And she whispered, “Yes.”

Hugh let the breath leave his body in one ragged exhale. The magnitude of her gift suddenly hit him. She was opening herself to him . . . and trusting him. He’d told her he would not claim her virtue, and he wouldn’t, at least not tonight. But he wanted this woman more than he’d ever wanted anything else in his life, and he was not enough of a gentleman to button her back up and send her to her room.

He reached down with one hand until he found the hem of her nightgown. She gasped as his finger slid underneath, but the sound was lost under his own moan as he ran his hand along the warm skin of her leg.

No one had ever touched her there. No one had ever dragged their hand up and up until it was above her knee. That spot was his now.

“Do you like that?” he whispered, lightly squeezing.

She nodded.

He moved a little higher, still far from her center, but he shifted his grip a little so that his thumb stroked the tender skin of the inside of her leg.

“Do you like that?”

“Yes.” It was barely a sound, but he heard it.

“What about this?” His other hand, the one that had been toying with her hair, cupped her breast through her nightgown.

“Oh my— Oh, Hugh.”

He kissed her slowly, deeply. “Was that a yes?”


“I want to see you,” he said, dragging his lips to her ear. “I want to see every inch of you, and I know I’m not going to, not right now, but I want some of you. Do you understand?”

She shook her head.

“Do you trust me?”

She waited until their eyes met. “With my life.”

For a moment he could not even move. Her words reached into him, grabbed his heart, and squeezed. And when they were done with that, they moved lower. He’d thought he’d wanted her before, but that was nothing compared to the primal lust that washed over him with her three softly spoken words.

Mine, he thought. She’s mine.

With trembling fingers, he untied the little bow that kept her neckline modest, and he wondered what foolish, foolish person thought to put such a thing on a nightgown that was not meant to tempt. It was a bow, and he got to unwrap her.

With one little tug of his fingers, he was opening his gift, and with one more little nudge, her gown was sliding down, baring one perfect breast. Her neckline had not loosened enough to show them both, but there was something intensely erotic about having just the one.

He licked his lips and slowly pulled his gaze back to her eyes. He did not say a word, and he did not look away from her face as he took one hand and lightly skimmed his palm over her nipple.

He didn’t ask her if she liked it. He didn’t need to. She whispered his name, and before he could say a word, she nodded.

Mine, he thought again, and it was the most incredible thing, because until recently, he’d assumed—no, he’d known—that he would not find someone, that there would never be a woman he would call his own.

Softly, he kissed her lips. Then her nose, then each of her eyes in turn. It was bursting out of him that he was falling in love with her, but he had never been a man to speak of his feelings, and the words choked in his throat. So he kissed her one last time, truly and deeply, hoping she recognized it for what it was, an offering of his very soul.

Yours, he thought. I am yours.

Chapter Fifteen

Sarah was aware that she shouldn’t have gone outside in the middle of the night. She wasn’t allowed to step outside her house in London without a chaperone; she knew very well that a post-midnight jaunt in Berkshire was equally verboten.

But she had been so restless, so . . . itchy. She’d felt wrong in her own skin, and when she had climbed out of bed and touched her feet to the carpet, her room had felt too small. The house had felt too small. She’d needed to move, to feel the night air on her skin.

She had never felt this way before, and truly, she had no explanation for it. Or rather, she hadn’t.

Now she did.

She’d needed him. Hugh.

She just hadn’t known it.

At some point between the carriage ride and the cake and the crazy waltzing on the lawn, Sarah Pleinsworth had fallen in love with the very last man she should ever have wanted.

And when he kissed her . . .

All she wanted was more.

“You are so beautiful,” he murmured, and for the first time in her life, Sarah truly believed that she was.

She touched his cheek. “So are you.”

Hugh smiled down at her, a silly half grin that told her he did not believe her for one second.

“You are,” she insisted. She tried to make her face stern, but nothing could dampen her smile. “You shall have to take my word for it.”

Still, he did not speak. He gazed down at her as if she were something precious, and he made her feel precious, and in that moment, all she wanted in the world was for him to feel the same thing.

Because he didn’t. She knew that he didn’t.

He had said things . . . little things, really, just an odd comment here and there that he surely did not expect to stick in anyone’s memory. But Sarah listened. And she remembered. And she knew . . . Hugh Prentice was not happy. Worse, he did not think he deserved to be.

He was not the kind of man who sought large crowds. He did not wish to be a leader among men. But Sarah also knew that Hugh did not wish to be a follower. His was a fiercely independent nature, and he did not mind being alone.

But he had been more than alone these past few years. He had been alone with only his crushing sense of guilt to keep him company. She did not know what Hugh had done to convince his father to allow Daniel to return to England in peace, and she could not begin to imagine how difficult it had been for Hugh to travel to Italy to find Daniel and bring him back.