Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 4)(19) by Lorraine Heath
“Since my sister’s death and then my father’s, yes, I very often feel lost. Untethered.”
Those words were so true that it frightened her to think she could speak them to him so easily. She wanted to trust him with everything, completely, implicitly, but she knew she couldn’t. Too much was at stake. “Do you suppose we could make a pact, at least for tonight, to talk of nothing except the future?”
“How can we speak of what we do not know?”
“The present, then. It seems forever since I’ve only been concerned with the present.”
“Then tonight we shall focus on the here and now. Where shall we begin?”
So much to choose from, she hardly knew where to start. Then her stomach embarrassed her by making a little rumble, taking the choice from her. “I suddenly realized I’m quite famished.”
He smiled. “A woman after my own heart. Let’s see what we can find.”
As he guided her through a throng to the banqueting hall, she thought under different circumstances that she would indeed be a woman after his heart. He was strong, kind, and solicitous. He pleased her in small ways. He brought her smiles when she’d thought to never smile again.
She hadn’t come to London to find happiness, and yet it hovered, like a butterfly testing the petal of a wildflower. But no matter how much she wished otherwise, it’d not stay for long.
“Hold me, Mr. Swindler, dear God, please hold me.” The words were whispered out of fear, mingled with embarrassment. She seemed to be the only one in a panic as the hot air balloon ascended. The other passengers uttered a few hushed exclamations of awe and wonder. As Mr. Swindler’s arm came around her, she clutched the lapel of his jacket and buried her face in the nook of his shoulder. He was as sturdy as the cliffs, as comforting, as he murmured, “You’re perfectly safe, Miss Watkins. We’re not going anywhere.”
“We’re going up.” She could hardly believe that she was standing in a basket—in a basket!—floating toward the heavens. She feared that she was going to bring up the warm meat pie he’d purchased her earlier. She’d not considered that watching the earth move away from her would make her head spin.
Hot air balloon rides were a weekly occurrence at the gardens. The balloon was moored so its ascent was controlled. Once the passengers had a good look around, it would be brought down for another group. From the ground it had looked to be so much fun. She didn’t know why the thought of going up bothered her. She’d looked out over the cliffs her entire life, but they didn’t wobble, they didn’t move. Steadfast and strong, they could support her. Could the basket hold the weight of everyone inside it? Or would they find themselves falling through its center to the earth below?
“Listen, Miss Watkins. Is that the quiet you longed for?” he asked softly. She heard it then. The din of the crowds had retreated. There was no whir of carriage wheels or clatter of horses’ hooves. They were above the noise. She almost thought up here that she could hear Elisabeth whispering to her. How close were they to heaven?
The basket gave a little jerk. She released a tiny squeak and tightened her fist on his jacket as though it would hold her up if the balloon started to fall.
“It’s quite all right; we’ve simply met the end of our tether,” Mr. Swindler purred near her ear. If she weren’t so terrified, she might have swooned from his nearness. “Open your eyes.”
“I don’t think I can,” she whispered, hoping none of the other four passengers were listening to her.
“Don’t look down. Simply look across. Trust me, Miss Watkins.”
Swallowing hard, she barely opened one eye. She could see treetops. She opened the other and released a startled laugh. She could see rooftops. “Oh, look, there’s the Thames.”
She didn’t know why she was surprised to see it. The gardens were built at its edge. Some people arrived in boats at its waterside entrance. Its nearness was one of the reasons that the gardens were so green and vegetation flourished. The sun was beginning to set, creating a spectacular view awash in orange and lavender. What more was to be seen beyond this small area? How would her home appear from on high? She found herself envying the birds.
“I almost wish it would break free of its tether. Almost.” She brought her gaze to Mr. Swindler’s. He wasn’t peering out over the land spread out below them like some elaborate tapestry. His eyes were on hers. “You’re missing the sights.”
His lips slowly shifted up into a sensuous smile. “I don’t believe I’m missing anything.”
She wondered at the taste and feel of his mouth. What a strange thought. To realize how desperately she wanted to experience his kiss, how she yearned to have him desire her. Even knowing that his interest in her might be influenced by an association with Rockberry that he’d not claimed, she still found herself drawn to him. She’d hoped to distract him from his purpose in serving Rockberry, and she was the one distracted.
With her tongue, she touched her lips, imagining his causing them to tingle and swell. His gaze dipped to her mouth, and she wondered if his thoughts were traveling the same path as hers. His eyes darkened and narrowed. Beneath her hands resting on his chest, she could feel the stillness in him, the tension building as though he fought some inner battle and was very close to losing whatever control he possessed. He took in a shuddering breath. He swung his gaze out to the Thames, and she wondered if her small, insignificant actions had stirred his passions. Judging by the deep furrows in his brow and the tightness in his jaw, he was bothered by something. How fascinating, but then she shouldn’t be surprised by her interest when everything about him intrigued her.
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