“Just a small errand,” Charlotte said.
Louisa crossed her heart and promised, “We won’t move from the spot.”
So, like the servant her uncle made her, Lady Elizabeth carried the note to her cousins’ friend. Some instinct made her look over her shoulder as the girls vanished down Druid’s Walk with their beaus. They’d left her alone and unprotected at a public masque.
In what had to be a planned maneuver, Louisa dragged Sir Anthony Hamilton down one secluded side path. Charlotte led Viscount Stonehurst down another. Neither gentleman seemed unwilling.
Only women of easy virtue strolled Druid’s Walk on an evening. Unlike the rest of the pleasure gardens, the pathway was unlit. If any of Almack’s patronesses spotted them, her cousins would never receive the vouchers they craved.
Lady Elizabeth adjusted her gray mask and pulled her thin cloak around her body like armor. She should run and hide, overcome by fear. Instead, her few moments of freedom made her feel… elated.
Her cousins’ chaperone had taken to her bed with a migraine. Rather than stay home, Charlotte and Louisa had thrown a massive tantrum. Finally, their father—Elizabeth’s guardian—had flung a gray mask at her. “Here. It’s as gray as your hair, but it’s all you deserve. You watch over my girls, or else.”
At twenty-three, her hair was the silver-blonde of moonlight, not gray, but as usual, her family never missed a chance to put her down. Normally, they refused to let her leave the townhouse so she’d given a silent cheer but kept her eyes downcast. Tonight, she enjoyed her first glimpse of London society. She stopped and drank in the scene. Burning torches and masses of candles illuminated the pleasure grounds.
In the central rotunda, ladies in low-cut, colorful dresses danced with elegant gentlemen. Others sat in tiered boxes and dined on wafer-thin ham and peas. Maybe the prince regent was among them, but Elizabeth couldn’t make out faces from this distance.
Across the pleasure gardens, she spotted the tallest dragoon she’d ever seen. Looking at him sent sparks of desire down her spine and made her tingle inside. Not that he’d notice a drab thing like her.
Exploring the most notorious path in Vauxhall Gardens sounded exciting and scandalous. The evening had turned into a romp, but Elizabeth loved every minute of it. Something hot and carnal unfurled inside her. She craved the tall dragoon’s hands on her body and his lips on her breasts.
The mix of ale-soaked Cits, young bloods, and the ton’s highest sticklers fascinated her. Abandoned among strangers, most aristocratic young ladies would have the vapors, but not Elizabeth. The last few years had put steel in her soul.
A movement at the edge of the crowd caught her eye. The dragoon she’d seen earlier elbowed his way through the throng. Imposing and self-contained, he seemed to be searching for someone. His intensity fascinated her. As she took an involuntary step toward him, she wished he hunted for her.
In her dreams, he’d take her somewhere secluded and strip the clothes from her body. He’d hold her and love her until they were both too weary to move. With a self-mocking smile, she realized her dreams would stay just that. Shrugging, she set off on her explorations.
As she walked along Druid’s Walk, the other patrons’ free and easy manners surprised her; fascinated her, too. A group of Cits staggered toward her. One swayed on his feet and poked at his friend. “Bet you don’t dare.”
“She’ll be flattered,” another encouraged.
One grabbed her arm. “Give us a kiss then.”
Her spine stiffened, and her haughty look would have quelled a sober man. With her silver-blonde hair drawn back into a severe bun, she looked more servant than heiress. Her threadbare gray cloak—mud splattered, and too short—marked her as easy prey.
Elizabeth tried to push him away, but his tight grip dug into her flesh. Panic rose inside her. She batted at his arm and kicked his shins. Snarling, he wrapped one arm around her waist and buried his free hand in her hair.
Her throat dried. Cold chills ran down her spine. Her stomach felt like she’d swallowed a cannonball. One minute she wanted to run. The next, an adrenaline rush of anger coursed through her blood. She slapped her attacker’s cheek. His pained roar made his companions laugh and urge him on. “Kiss her. Kiss her.”
She’d often pictured her first kiss, but she’d thought it would be a chaste brush of her lover’s lips against hers. This high-handed assault left her angry and shaken. He slammed his lips down on her face. She turned her head aside, avoiding a full-on kiss on her mouth. Heart beating overtime, she kicked his shin and slapped him again. Her aim was off and she accidentally poked his eye. He released her and shoved her to the ground.
Her silver-blonde curls came loose, tumbling over her shoulders like a moonlit cloud. Ignoring the throbbing in her behind, she scrambled to her feet and backed away. When he tried to grab her again, he caught her mask. His clumsy hands tore it from her face. She picked up her skirts and ran.
Trembling, she glanced around. Trees towered over her, their branches meeting overhead and blocking out the stars. The pleasure gardens swarmed with beautiful women. Beside them, she felt frumpy and unattractive, the drudge her family had made her. She looked around, seeking the imposing dragoon she’d seen earlier. Not that he’d give her a second glance, but she could hope.
At first, the darkness felt like a comfort blanket, but the further she ran, the more menacing it seemed. Branches twisted into strange shapes. Small animals rustled between the tree trunks. A few couples strolled toward her, lost in each other and their sexual intentions.
Some of the men gave her appraising looks. Others openly ogled her. She hated them, hated this place. Deflated and shaky, she wished she was back in the cramped attic room her uncle had assigned her. Not that she found much comfort there.
By the time she turned thirty and came into her fortune, she’d have dwindled into an old maid. Her only suitors would be fortune hunters. She’d rather die unwed than let another greedy male get his hands on her money. Meanwhile, she ached for a lover’s caress. All that aside, she needed to either find her cousins or work out how to get home.
She ran until her breathing came quick and fast. Pausing, she planted one hand over the stitch in her side. She sank onto a bench and waited until her heart stopped beating like a musket barrage in her chest. Her hands flew to her hair. It felt wicked and wanton to wear it loose in public.
She’d been foolish not to realize her cousins were up to something. They were as self-centered and mean-spirited as Uncle Augustus. Their temper tantrums cowed even him. Publicly, they behaved with propriety, of course. At least they had until tonight. That said, her family’s toadying ways denied them entry to the ton’s highest echelons.
Her cousins knew better than to try to compromise their suitors into matrimony. Stonehurst and Hamilton would never wed social climbers like them. If anyone saw them, their reputation would be in shreds. And who would her uncle blame for their folly? Elizabeth, of course.
Uncle Augustus would probably beat her. Goodness knows, he’d threatened to often enough. At the very least, he’d lock her in her room again. He’d only let the servants bring her bread and water. Rather than risk punishment, she kept looking for her cousins.
Searching Druid’s Walk’s secluded nooks left her red-faced and embarrassed. Part of her wanted to try some of the things she saw. The stolen kisses and sensual games she’d interrupted would have mortified most young ladies. Elizabeth wanted to stay and watch. Of course, back home at Blayneton Court, she’d stumbled on similar goings-on in the stables.
When she peered into a secluded shelter, her eyes widened. A man lay across a woman’s lap, his bare bottom stuck in the air. The woman beat on it with her slipper, turning it bright red. At every hard stroke, he moaned with delight. His legs trembled and he came with a bellow. His cum marked the woman’s legs and pooled on the ground between her feet.
Elizabeth hadn’t known a spanking could be so erotic or enticing. The man’s pleasure had been palpable. The man’s cries and the red marks covering his behind made Elizabeth run her hands over her own derriere. She couldn’t imagine letting anyone handle her like that.
Eyes wide, she backed away. A group of women flocked toward her like noisy geese. Full of life, they wore bright colors and enjoyed the night. By comparison, Elizabeth’s life was as gray as her cloak—and just as shapeless. Even the threadbare comparison held up.
Their drunken high spirits and colorful clothes fascinated her. They lived every minute to the full. Tonight, Elizabeth intended to do the same.
Each night, as she lay in bed, she pinched and stroked her nipples until they turned into hard red pebbles. Once they ached for a man’s kiss, she’d stroke the little nubbin between her legs, the one the grooms had called a clit. Pressing on it sent shockwaves of delight through her body. Intimate juices flooded between her legs. Good as it felt, she craved a man’s hands on her breasts or his finger exploring her pussy.
After tonight, her dream lover towered over other men, had a self-contained, detached air, and he came with a dragoon’s uniform.
Shaking out her curls, she let them fall behind her like a waist-length waterfall. The small rebellion made her feel freer than she had for years. She’d keep searching for her cousins, but she’d take any pleasure she could along the way.
When she stared through a curtain of willow branches, she froze. Fascinated, she stared at a naked woman as she kneeled at her lover’s feet. His cock filled her mouth, and the woman’s every hollow-cheeked suck made his eyes roll back in his head.
Another suck, and he thrust deeper into the woman’s throat. His body shook, and Elizabeth swore he came in the woman’s mouth. She swallowed most of his cum, but some must have spilled onto her chin. She wiped her face on her sleeve then rose to her feet. Her eyes narrowed when she spotted Elizabeth, and her lips twisted into an angry grimace. “Wotcher think you doing? Bloody peeping Tom.”
Cheeks flaming, Elizabeth hurried away but if she ever had the chance, she wanted to pleasure a man like that. When she stared into a seashell-lined grotto, a woman cackled. “Want to join us, dearie?”
A man reared up from the bench, silhouetted by the lone candle burning behind him. Good heavens, his breeches are around his ankles. His lust-filled grin, all sharp teeth and evil intent, chilled Elizabeth’s blood.
He leered and closed one hand around his cock. He used the other to haul up his breeches. “Come on in, Blondie. Show us what you’re hiding under that cloak.”
Elizabeth’s pulse beat a staccato rhythm. Her brain froze, right along with her feet. Her mouth soured as he moved toward her. Like a rabbit transfixed by a bright light, she could barely breathe let alone move. His hand shot out and he shackled his fingers around her wrist. The movement sent his breeches tumbling back down his legs.
Don’t look down. Don’t look down, she thought, blushing as her eyes rebelled against her. Unlike most young ladies, she understood the mechanics of sex, but horse and pigs were one thing. A gentleman shouldn’t bare his nether parts in public. And did that thing between his legs twitch?
The letch with bare balls leered at her and yanked her closer. His dark gaze felt threatening and evil. Behind him, a whore straightened her clothes and rose to her feet. The look the woman gave Elizabeth said she’d find no help there.
“Release me,” Elizabeth demanded.
Her voice came out high-pitched and tremulous. The pulse in her neck fluttered wildly. She tried to pull free, but his fingers felt like an iron band she couldn’t break. His breath—all brandy fumes and onions—made her heave.
Behind his mask, her captor’s eyes shone with lust. “Don’t play games with me, missy. Respectable women don’t flaunt their curls or walk alone in places like this.”
Frantic, she glanced around for an escape route. Earlier, she’d enjoyed the atmosphere, even pictured herself tempting that dragoon with her body. Now the darkness choked her.
She’d been a fool to think she could walk this place unmolested.
Brigade Major Richard, Lord Rothbury searched for his friends. As he peered over the crowd, he spotted a serving girl with astonishing hair. He needed to free it from that horrendous bun and watch it tumble over her shoulders. Her slender form and graceful step pulled him toward her. She exuded innocence and curiosity as she set off toward Druid’s Walk. No inexperienced female ventured there on a wild night like tonight.
Hidden behind their masks, the patrons behaved too freely. Druid’s Walk became a place for pleasure and indiscreet sex. Seeing that serving girl go there alone roused his protective instincts. He needed to ensure her safety, but it took him a while to make his way through the crowd.
His size always made him stand out, and tonight, he drew predatory looks from some of the ton’s ladies. He’d been immune to women’s charms since his first love ruined his life. He didn’t understand why that serving girl called to him on a primal level.
Finally, he reached Druid’s Walk. Looking far ahead, he saw a group of Cits accost her; he clenched his fists and started toward them. Those louts needed to learn better manners. Just as he approached, she broke free and vanished into the night. The silly chit ran further into the Walk’s notorious depths.
Five drunken idiots had harried the woman who fascinated him. He released the cold fury that lived inside him and strode toward them. Menace dripped from his gaze. Dangerous and deadly, he knew five to one weren’t bad odds… for him. He’d honed his fighting skills during his seven years fighting in the Peninsular War. Teaching drunks who thought they were invincible some manners came naturally to him.
He tapped the nearest one on the shoulder. “You need to treat ladies with more respect.”
The drunk said nothing, just flailed his arms wildly, trying to hit the dragoon’s head. Sidestepping, Rothbury planted his right fist in the drunk’s face and his left in his gut. The man doubled over and threw up.
The other four rushed him in a group. Rothbury’s first punch broke a man’s nose. His second dislocated another’s jaw. One kick and another drunk doubled over on the ground. Two more punches and the last two sprawled on the mud at his feet.
Breathing steady and even, Rothbury towered over them. If they’d have been in his unit, they’d have been on a charge. Tonight, he’d leave them sprawled on the pathway and follow the blonde who’d enchanted him.
The need to possess her clawed at his soul. Her beauty drove him wild and turned his balls blue. Not that he could afford a mistress or even a couple of hours with a whore. If she was the innocent she seemed, he’d see her safely home. But he wanted her to be wicked and willing.
By the time he found her again, she’d attracted Lord Dawlish’s attention. That man’s reputation was so dark his peers had blackballed him at White’s.
Elizabeth choked back a scream. The man with the up-and-down breeches held her captive in a grotto that reeked of sex. Determined to break free, she dug her heels in the path. He still dragged her toward him like a fisherman reeling in a catch.
His leer told her she’d be lucky to escape with her maidenhead intact. Everything about the letch who’d grabbed her made her blood run cold. Getting up close and personal with that thing jutting between his legs wasn’t in her plans.
And still he dragged her closer. “Name your price, before I take what I want for free.”
A female called from the hideaway, “Dawlish, dearie, come back ‘ere and screw me. Stick it in and we’re done.”
His attention faltered. Elizabeth wrenched her wrist free. Two panicked steps and she ran into a blue-coated chest.
Shoving at his chest, she kicked his shins. Nothing moved him, but his gaze could have started another frost fair on the Thames. When she stared at his face, his eyes flashed like ice chips behind his black mask. She’d recognize his height and build anywhere. Fingers crossed, her dragoon had found her and come to her rescue.
His fur cap added more height and covered most of his hair. The black mask covering the top half of his face gave him a rakish air. His cheeks were full of craggy angles and rocky plains. His lips looked stern and unyielding, but she wondered how they’d feel if they brushed against hers. Her instincts demanded she trust him. As her panic subsided, she knew he’d keep her safe.
The dragoon bristled when he glowered at Dawlish. Catching both her wrists in one hand, her rescuer held her at arms’ length. The breadth of his chest fascinated her, and she could sense his inner strength. She shuddered then stilled, but her heart still beat overtime in her chest.
Dawlish was older, with a thickset body and a mouth as mean as her uncle’s. Her dragoon’s good looks and protective manner delighted her. He had stepped in and saved her, sort of, but his gaze condemned her as Dawlish’s whore. He felt more friend than foe, but he looked ready to march away when she needed him to stay.
Lifting her head, she tried to sound brave. “Please, sir, let me pass.”
When he didn’t move, she tugged one hand free of his hold and shoved at his chest. He recaptured it in an instant. “Damn it, girl. Stand still for a minute.”
His touch sent a series of lightning strikes down her spine. Her nipples pearled and poked at the thin fabric of her gown. With him, she could fulfill her wickedest dream. The one where she gave her virginity to a handsome stranger. Memories of a stolen moment of passion would sustain her until she turned thirty—she hoped.
Dawlish snarled like a mongrel ready to fight over a bone. He still fumbled to lace up his breeches. “I saw her first. Come here, girl. I’ll pay whatever price you demand once you’ve spread your thighs for me.”
Self-conscious and horrified, Elizabeth stared at the ground. After six years of her cousins’ insults, she felt like the nonentity they called her. She hated that. Back before her parents died, she’d felt pretty. Her mother had told her that her hair shone like moonlight and her eyes gleamed like the palest topaz.
Washed out, her cousins called them.
For her dragoon, she wanted to be beautiful. She took a step closer to him. “I’m not here by choice, sir. I swear it.”
He spoke softly as if soothing a spooked mare. “Easy, girl. Allow me to escort you back to the Grand Walk.”
Dawlish yanked her wrist free of the dragoon’s grip and dragged her toward him. His touch felt like a million spiders scuttling over her skin. Does the wretched man ever bathe? Solid, square, and sweaty, he leered at her through piggy eyes. “Come on, Blondie, name your price.”
Just when she thought the dragoon’s gaze couldn’t be any colder, it turned into an arctic blast. Mouth set in a straight line, he pried Dawlish’s fingers from her wrist. “She’s not willing. Leave her be.”
The vein in Dawlish’s forehead bulged. His cheeks turned mottled scarlet. He shoved at the dragoon’s chest like a schoolboy spoiling for a fight. Her rescuer curled his lip and brushed him aside.
Once Dawlish realized he couldn’t move her dragoon, he shoved Elizabeth behind him. “Rothbury? Playing the hero? After the way you screwed your family? I don’t think so. Lavinia will laugh when I tell her you’ve taken to defending whores. Back off, and mind your own business. This little pigeon’s mine.”
The look the dragoon—Rothbury—gave Dawlish would have curdled milk. The atmosphere felt thick with menace. Elizabeth felt sure there were undercurrents at play here that she didn’t understand.
Rothbury’s jaw clenched with carefully suppressed anger. “The lady’s changed her mind.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks burned. Dawlish made her feel dirty and cheap. She pulled her free of his grip and shoved at his back. When he stared at her over his shoulder, his gaze held a degrading mix of menace and desire. “She’ll be willing once we’ve agreed on the price. Besides, you can have her when I’ve finished.”
The whore marched out the grotto, all rouged cheeks and pushed-up bosom. “William Dawlish, you could have screwed me back there, but you couldn’t get it up. You wait until I tell the other girls. Triple my money, or I’ll make your droopy dick the talk of the town.”
Dawlish scrambled in his belt pouch and tossed her three guineas. “Money-grubbing bitch. Take your coins and get out of here. I’ve sweeter fruit to pick now, no matter how innocent my new bit o’ muslin acts.”
The whore scrambled for the money, tucked it in her ample bosom, and gave Rothbury a flirtatious grin. She’d lost one of her lower teeth and the others had rotted down to black stumps. “Looking for some company, dearie?”
With a hasty shake of his head, Rothbury stepped aside. Before she left, the whore bestowed a black-toothed smile on Elizabeth. “Don’t worry, love. Dawlish ain’t up to much tonight, not after all the brandy he’s supped.”
Dawlish tried to shove Rothbury aside. “I’ll take the chit now. Hand her over and find some other whore to play with. And you, girl, I’ll pay extra if you run those angel curls of yours over my chest as you straddle my waist.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks burned, and she knew they’d turned scarlet. Leaving her hair loose and flowing had been a mistake. If she’d scrunched back into the bun she hated, she’d have looked more like a lady.
Rothbury had detested Dawlish since he’d married Lady Lavinia. He’d no time for Lavinia either. She’d been his first love, but she’d thrown him over for his father. Once his father died and left her a young widow, she’d waited less than a fortnight to wed Dawlish. According to his grandmother’s letters, there’d been no mourning period, no black gowns, and no living in seclusion. No thoughts for his sisters’ welfare either.
Lavinia had left for London, eager to cut a dash in society and spend her new husband’s fortune. Rothbury hoped she bankrupted him the way she had his father.
Anne, his oldest sister, had been seventeen to his twenty-two when his father’s horse refused a fence. His father had flown from the saddle, and the fall had broken his neck. He’d died instantly. While Rothbury had fought for his country, Anne had not only raised herself but cared for their younger sister. When Lavinia deserted them, they’d slipped into genteel poverty.
He wanted more for them than a life spent keeping hens and growing vegetables. The letter informing him of his father’s death had followed him around the peninsular for months. His father had left the girls in dire straits.
Rather than support her stepdaughters, Lavinia had remarried within days. Rothbury glowered at Dawlish, determined not to let him force himself on an innocent. Military life had taught Rothbury the emotional control his teenage self had lacked. Otherwise, he’d have punched Dawlish’s ugly face on a daily basis.
Then the wretched woman he’d protected kicked his shins and shoved at his chest. So much for gratitude. A familiar cold ate into his bones. This girl was no different from Lavinia, but she played the innocent to perfection. He couldn’t regret his urge to protect her more.
Capturing her wrists, he prepared to shove her at Dawlish and leave. Touching her sent lightning strikes down his arm and into his heart. Melting it. Warming it. Making him want things he couldn’t have. Things like a loving wife and a family of his own. He’d never wanted a woman the way he wanted her.
When she looked up at him, he saw the terror in her eyes; terror he’d added to. He hated himself for that. She blinked, and her topaz-colored eyes flashed with angry lights. Stunning and awesome, he’d never seen their like. Whatever her morals, he couldn’t leave her to Dawlish. For her, Rothbury would lock his anger inside him and escort her home. Of course, once he’d seen her safe, he’d return and teach Dawlish about good manners and respect.
Elizabeth had endured six years under her uncle’s harsh regime. She yearned for a single affectionate smile or a kind touch. A pleasant word would have made her day. Most women her age had a husband and children by now. The only marriage her uncle would permit Elizabeth to make was to his slack-jawed son. She’d never wed her cousin, so while she subdued her sensual nature, she yearned for a sexual encounter.
Looking at Rothbury made her stomach flutter. She felt as though a thousand hummingbirds took flight inside her. If he’d let her, she’d love him until their passion exploded like the fireworks scheduled for later.
An illicit fling with him might be her only chance to lie with a man who wanted her body rather than her fortune. Breathing deeply, she filled her lungs with lemon and piquant herb essence. Knowing him would be a delight, but she worried her inexperience would hold her back. Of course, she had to get away from Dawlish and his hard-to-fasten breeches first.
The strength she sensed inside Rothbury heightened her desires. With him, she felt precious and protected. After standing alone and unwanted for so long, she hadn’t expected that. When he glared at Dawlish, she saw the ice in Rothbury’s gaze. If he ever glowered at her that way, she’d turn tail and run.
His gaze softened when he looked at her. His eyes reminded her of gray skies. Unfathomable. Changeable. Cold, but glowing with a promise of things to come. She could drown in their depths. Offering him a shy smile—a hesitant mix of frustration and desire—she gazed up at him. “I would be glad of your escort, sir.”
Her dragoon stood tall and stiff, as if on sentry duty outside Carlton House. “My pleasure, my lady.”
Dawlish blocked her way. “I don’t think so.”
Rothbury shoved him aside as if swatting a fly.
Stumbling, Dawlish cursed. “Devil take you, Rothbury, that pigeon’s mine.”
Elizabeth darted past him, ducked around Rothbury, and stood in the center of Druid’s Walk. Rothbury curled his lip at Dawlish and offered Elizabeth his arm.
Dawlish’s face turned beetroot red and he trembled with rage. “She’s a poxy whore who’ll give you clap.”
Mortified, Elizabeth stiffened. A tic started in Rothbury’s jaw. His gray eyes burned with fury. He glared at Dawlish as if he was a dung beetle. When he looked at her, his gaze softened and he offered her his arm. When she rested her fingers on it, he gave her hand a squeeze. The kind gesture stole her heart. He was a hero who could have stepped out of one of the novels her uncle had banned her from reading. Of course, she still had a stash hidden beneath her bed.
Rothbury’s solid strength and fresh essence were the only good things in this sordid episode. If her uncle didn’t practically keep her prisoner in her own home, she’d want to know Rothbury better. Intimately even. She hoped he felt the same.
Until Rothbury rescued her, Elizabeth had thought Druid’s Walk seedy and sordid. His presence set her pulse racing. Everything about him made her think of seduction and sex. If her uncle had let her share her cousins’ dance lessons, she would have waltzed down the pathway. Since she didn’t know the steps, she swayed in time to the distant music.
Dawlish followed them from the grotto. Alcohol and a stiff corset hampered his movements. “Rothbury, you of all people understand taking another man’s leavings. My Lavinia taught you that.”
Rothbury stiffened. He removed Elizabeth’s hand from his arm. Two long strides carried him back to Dawlish’s side. Rothbury’s fist shot out. His punch broke Dawlish’s nose. Blood poured over his chin and dripped onto his linen shirt. He staggered and dropped to the ground. “You’ll meet me for this, Rothbury.”
Elizabeth felt the temperature drop as Rothbury’s arctic manner returned. His eyes darkened into storm clouds and his voice dripped with disdain. “Not if you don’t want me to repeat the whore’s story about your droopy dick. The ton will chortle over that for months. That said, I’m more than willing to meet you. It will have to be after we’ve settled the business with Bonaparte, of course. Wellington’s recalled me to his staff. My seconds will call on you to discuss the time and place. I’ll choose pistols, but you know that already. Weren’t you laughed out of Manton’s after your pitiful performance on their shooting range? Of course, everyone knows I never miss.”
Elizabeth swallowed hard. She didn’t want anyone fighting over her, especially with pistols. She paled and shook her head. Dawlish made an inarticulate growling sound and scuttled back into the grotto.
Rothbury turned back to Elizabeth, and again he offered her his arm. “Come along, my dear.”
Again, he drew her toward the bright lights and music.
“You’ll regret this, girl,” William Dawlish snarled.
Elizabeth looked back and shook her head. “Not as much as you if I whisper your whore’s words in the right ears. You paid her off with guineas, but you can buy my silence by forgetting tonight ever happened.”
Rothbury’s lips twitched, but he didn’t smile. Too intense to be handsome, he would forever haunt her dreams. Her dreams were the only place she’d see him after tonight.
Rothbury led her away from the grotto, but stopped when the path forked. One road would take them back to the main rotunda. The other led to an out of the way hut. She turned toward him, her gaze puzzled. “Is something wrong?”
His features softened. “My lady, what did you think of the things you saw earlier?”
Her cheeks heated and she dropped her gaze. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I didn’t know such things went on at Vauxhall, but they made me… curious.”
He took her hand. “The right fork takes us back to the music and dancing. The left gives us privacy and a chance to assuage your curiosity. Your choice, my dear.”
Her heart hammered a polka beat in her chest, and she shivered with nerves. Her shy smile lit her face. Swallowing hard, she whispered, “The left fork, please.”
His gaze swept over her, cool, assessing, and intense. Finally, he smiled and drew her down the left hand path. “I can’t pay you as much as Dawlish, but we could have a little fun. Or you can leave me and find a better paying customer.”
Shame flooded Elizabeth’s soul. He thinks I’m a whore, but my night’s getting more exciting by the minute. Wicked and scandalous, too, but this is my only chance to take a lover. “My gratitude’s freely given, sir.”
He took her hand and led her along a deserted path to a wooden shelter. “We can step in there and lock the door, assuming it’s not already occupied.”
Elizabeth’s pulse pounded and her courage almost failed her. If anyone discovered them, her reputation would be in shreds. Not that she cared. A spotless reputation meant nothing if her uncle never let her step out into society. Burning for Rothbury’s touch, she whispered, “Yes, please.”
A knot of nerves formed in her stomach and her pulse fluttered like a caged bird. By the time he’d bolted the door and kicked a used fish skin beneath the bench, her nipples beaded in anticipation. The tingling inside her erupted into a volcano of delight. Damp heat flooded between her legs, but she waited for Rothbury to make the next move.
Breathing fast and eager, she sat on the bench—more a wooden daybed, really. Wild desires raged through her, making her eyes widen and her pulse bound. She felt giddy and wanton, a woman in every sense of the word. When he palmed her left breast through her threadbare gown, his touch set her body alight. A fire blazed in her blood, building, burning, scorching until it flowed like molten lava in her veins.
He stood before her, all military perfection and strength. She’d never seen a more magnificent male. He leaned forward, brushing his lips against hers. Wildfire shot down her spine. Her breasts ached for his touch and her body burned with need. Rising to her feet, she wrapped her arms around him. Her legs shook like the calves’-head jelly the cook had served last night.
Nervous but excited, she slid one hand inside his military trousers and grasped his cock. Thick and pulsing, she couldn’t close her fingers around its base. Briefly, she wondered if it should be that big.
His stern gaze softened, and a smile played around his lips as he unfastened her cloak and lay it over a bench. “It’s not much padding, but if you use my jacket as a pillow, it will protect your head.”
Butterflies rampaged around her stomach. Her tongue flicked over her lips, and her breathing came in quick, eager pants. She’d finally discover the pleasure a man and woman could share, and she couldn’t have found a more dashing gentleman to take her virginity.