Hadrian Bothwell has come home to Cumbria to take over the reins of the family estate from his bachelor brother, and to renew his acquaintance with Avis Portmaine, a neighbor for whom he’s carried torch for twelve years. Avis hasn’t married in all that time, and while scandal lurks in her past, Hadrian knows none of the harm that befell her was her fault. So why is the lady still so very alone?
Hadrian moved closer, Avis looked away as the dance prescribed, but when the music died, and he lifted her from her final curtsy, he didn’t step back, but rather, dipped his head and brushed a kiss to her mouth.
A true spinster might have stormed away then, but Avis leaned in, and Hadrian took the opportunity to put his arms around her.
Simply to hold her.
“Thank you,” he said, “anything more vigorous than a landler and I’d have been unable to creak my way through it.”
“Hush.” She stayed tucked against his chest, and he shut up, concentrating on the feel of her, warm and soft against him. His hands made slow sweeps across her back and inside him, something finally, finally came to rest. Exhaustion hadn’t done it, cold plunges hadn’t done it, swilling whiskey with Fen hadn’t done it, but holding Avis, merely holding her, brought him peace.
“Thank you for the dance,” Hadrian said, stepping back to consider her. “Though the sun is fast waning, and I don’t want you to take a chill.” He had his coat off and snugged around her shoulders in a moment, then slid an arm around her waist as they turned back toward the gardens. “What are you thinking?”
Twelve years ago, he would have known.
“You are so kind.”
“To inveigle you into dancing? To dragoon you away from your guests and steal you a while all to myself?”
She shook her head.
“Nobody touches me, Hadrian.”
He understood. Old people could touch others, probably had to, when their spouses were gone and their children were grown. Gran Carruthers was a clutchy little thing, but one expected that. As a widower, Hadrian knew what it was to be off limits to human touch, to drift along in the isolation of his own skin, lonely in ways the mute beasts never had to suffer in their barns and byres. He already knew that pain well, though he’d only lost Rue a couple years past, while for twelve years Avis…
“The lack of familiarity from your servants and neighbors is out of respect,” he suggested.
“Not respect,” she said, steps slowing. “I’m contaminated by my unfortunate past and you need not pretend otherwise.”
And like many left alone too long, she’d grown heedless of the more genteel social conventions, or perhaps she’d grown desperate to connect with somebody—anybody. “If you’re lonely, why not get out more, call upon the occasional neighbor, come to services?”
“Don’t be an ass.”
He puzzled over that as they wandered past the daffodils, though the flowers were spent, and only the occasional late bloomer still bobbed over its fallen comrades.
“Am I an ass to suggest you socialize?”
“I’ve tried socializing, Hadrian.” She pulled his coat more closely around her. “I’ve hauled Lily around the parish with me to every neighbor and tenant in the shire, and it’s always the same. Some might be willing to overlook my past, but others will not, and I come home feeling more angry and…. Why are we talking about this?”
“Angry and what?”
She huddled closer to him. “Crazy,” she said very softly. “Like I’m turning invisible, my skin becoming transparent, or as if I’ve magically leaped over what remains of my youth, to be an old woman in a young woman’s body.”
He stopped their meandering and brought her more fully into his embrace.
“You are not old, you are not invisible, you are not crazy,” he said, “and neither am I.”
He kissed her again, but this time it wasn’t a gracious little gesture offered at the end of a gracious little dance. He tasted her lips, the soft, sensitive fullness, the intriguing corner of her mouth with that small, barely noticeable scar. When she only burrowed closer to him and threaded her fingers into his hair, he seamed her lips with his tongue, slowly, exploring contour and response, until she opened for him and he had to pause.
“Assure me, please,” he said resting his forehead against hers, “that I do not take advantage. I could not live with myself—“
She fused her mouth to his and Hadrian’s gentlemanly restraint was sorely tried by the feel of lush breasts against his chest and deft feminine fingers tracing his ears, winnowing through his hair, and settling on his nape.
“Again.” She breathed it against his mouth, her tongue seeking his, and Hadrian
fell into the kiss like the starving man he’d become.