A soft, unexpected sound from behind him caused him to drop his glass. It landed on the rug with a soft clink. The hair standing up on his arms told him without looking who had just entered the room. Or was it simply wishful thinking?
He pulled upon the last thread of his control as he turned about and painstakingly absorbed every detail of the vision standing just inside the doorway. Even though he knew it was she before he saw her, he was unprepared for the sight of Grace standing there silently before him. She was wearing a virgin-white cotton nightgown with a floor length long-sleeved wool robe—the nightwear of choice for the discerning spinster. And yet, she couldn’t have looked lovelier if he’d conjured her image up in his mind wearing the most provocative of lingerie. Her hair was down and loosely braided in a thick tail that hung over her shoulder to her waist. She was dressed for…bed.
He was entranced. Yet how could this be? He had seen his share of women in the most provoking nightwear, guaranteed to inflame a man’s desire, and yet nothing he had seen before had ever had him wanting to simply drop to his knees and worship a woman with all the passion in his soul. His quixotic thoughts were interrupted by her sudden nervous chatter.
“Oh, I’m sorry to disturb you, Your Grace, but well, I couldn’t sleep and thought to read, and thought the library would have a most excellent suggestion, I mean, selection, of books…er, something to read, so I thought I’d have a look again, and learned also, that my spectacles…were…” Her voice tapered off.
They stood staring at each other for what felt like an eternity before he finally broke the silence. “Miss Radclyffe. Do you always run about your home, when any number of guests might be up and about, wearing nothing but your night clothes?”
His sudden surge of anger actually caught him by surprise. The thought of her running into another guest while wearing nothing but her night clothes, even if she were more covered than most ball gowns, set his teeth on edge and he was furious at the thought. What if Cliff had still been about? Perhaps that was what she was hoping for, to catch Cliff unawares? It didn’t escape his notice that they had had an awful lot to say to each other over dinner. He even noticed his friend touching her arm a few times, and he shamefully remembered wanting to jump down the table and punch his friend in the face at the time. He had been horrified over the impulse.
“You weren’t, perhaps, planning a rendezvous in the library with a certain marquess by chance?” He knew his face was rigid.
“A…what?” She stuttered. “You think…I can’t…”
Grace was so angry she was at a loss for words, quite the opposite of her earlier verbal explosion of run-on thoughts. She had been unable to function properly for thoughts of the duke plaguing her all day, and now he was accusing her of setting up an assignation with another man? Such designs had never even crossed her mind, and she was simply stunned his thoughts would run in that direction.
For a moment, all she could do was stand there and gape at him. Finally, she pulled her thoughts together and twirled on her heel intending to leave…immediately. He was too much the insufferable boor to even waste her breath with a witty retort. To think she even considered this ridiculous lout for a single moment. Ugh. Well, now that she saw what he was like, he was well and truly made for Beatryce.
She had almost made it out the library door before strong hands gripped her arms and pulled her back inside. He spun her around and pressed her against the nearest bookcase. She wasn’t more than a hairsbreadth away from his chest.
He held her trapped, and the intensity in his gaze was back, but no longer cold. He sounded breathless, and she could smell brandy as his breath caressed her face. Shivers ran up her arms at his close proximity and the purposeful look in his eye. She was suddenly feeling too hot, and she knew she was blushing. His hands gripped the shelves on either side of her head now, and his knuckles were white with his grip, creating the perfect cage to hold her in place.
“Grace, I’m sorry.”
He paused and held her gaze. For a moment, Grace allowed herself to stand there, locked in his sights. Despite her anger over his earlier implications, she undeniably longed for things that could never be. She was attracted to this man on a basic, animal level. It didn’t matter that society frowned at their differing classes. His head drew nearer, and for a fleeting moment, she was confident he would kiss her, and oh, how she wanted it. But she was consciously aware that it would be a mistake. He was nearly betrothed to her cousin, and though her cousin and she were not friends, Grace would never betray her family that way, especially with a man she barely knew. It was wrong.
So before their lips could meet, Grace ducked under his arm and darted out the library door.
Stonebridge remained completely still. He closed his eyes as he tried to hold on to her lingering scent and the image of her staring up at him with so much intensity—with desire in her eyes. Then, ever so slowly, he leaned his head against the books where only moments before she had stood within his arms, within his reach. His heart still beat erratically.
He had nearly kissed her. And what a mess that would have been. And yet, he was completely undone, for it wasn’t he who had stopped it from happening.