"Mr. Rosedale, your presence is only required for dinner this evening. After that you are here by choice, free to take your leave anytime you choose. You needn't provide a reason. Just as I am free to request your departure from this estate. I wish our time together to be a consensual flirtation."
The rapid beat of her heart filled her ears. Bella kept her gaze straight ahead, fighting the impulse to glance to Mr. Gideon Rosedale. His presence a physical force that demanded her complete attention.
But Mr. Rosedale's reason for being in this room was a double-edged sword. It pricked her interest, but also pricked at her conscience. The thought of him kissing her, touching her all for the lure of money...it struck a chord deep within her. A chord that did not sit well at all. She knew before even meeting Mr. Rosedale that she could not match Esmé's blasé attitude about such financial arrangements, and therefore she had devised her terms. A flirtation was something she could possibly engage in. A paid servant was not.
But how would he react to her terms? She still could not believe she had laid them out like that. Cool. Impersonal. Her voice had not wavered the slightest bit. Remarkable, given her nerves were drawn tighter than an archer's bow.
"Your ladyship, dinner is served."
She whirled from the window at McGreevy's words. The butler had opened the double doors leading to the dining room. Mr. Rosedale walked to her side and offered his arm. Bella laid her hand on the fine black wool and the second before he took a step he caught her eye and gave her a small smile. If it were meant to put her at her ease, it worked. The tension slipped away and in its place settled a definitive, undeniable spark of attraction.
He led her into the dining hall and to the far end of the long mahogany table where two places were set. The light from the silver candelabras stationed at regular intervals along the table danced on the gold bands encircling the crystal goblets. The table was set with her finest Limoges china, stark white linens and heavy silver flatware. Velvety darkness backed the three tall arched windows on one wall, acting as a curtain closing out the rest of the world.
Lowering into the chair Mr. Rosedale pulled out at the head of the table, Bella watched as he settled himself with complete ease into the adjacent chair, as if his presence at such a formal dinner was a natural and frequent occurrence.
The footman poured the wine and placed a bowl of leek soup before each of them. Though she had tried not to stray from her usual routine with Esmé, she had taken great care in the selection of the dishes for this evening's meal. As she waited for Mr. Rosedale's approval, she reached for her glass. Yet the full-bodied Bordeaux did little to calm the butterflies infiltrating her stomach.
His silver spoon skimmed the surface of the sage green liquid then he brought the spoon to his lips. The man had the most beautiful mouth. Firm. Sensual. Made to bestow kisses.
"My compliments to your cook."
She let out a small sigh of relief and picked up her spoon. "I'm pleased you approve."
His whiskey brown eyes locked with hers. The edges of his lips quirked. "Most assuredly."
His deep voice wrapped around her like a gentle caress, leaving her with the impression he wasn't just referring to the soup.
"You have a beautiful home, your ladyship. Yet it pales in comparison to you."
The heat of his gaze seared her skin. A flush rose from her chest, pricking her neck, her cheeks. She smiled and tipped her chin, her shoulders rounding before she caught herself and straightened her spine. "Thank-you." She licked her lips, struggling to find a topic to discuss. "Do you travel often?"
He brought his spoon to his lips again. She silently cursed the stark white cravat for hiding his throat. How she would love to watch the strong lines of his neck work as he swallowed. "Have your travels taken you to Scotland before?"
"No. This is a first. I rarely stray beyond a couple of days ride from London." He leaned back as the footman removed the first course and laid out the second. His shoulders were so broad the wooden back of the chair was completely hidden. "And what of you? Do you stay close to Bowhill, or do you dare to venture beyond?"
Her fingers tightened around her fork. "I haven't traveled to England in years."
His smile soothed the knot forming in her belly. "How fortunate for Scotland to be given such a gift. London is prized for its diversions, but most grow bland after a short time. There is one, however, that never loses its appeal."
"And what would that be?"
"The British Museum. Just when I think I've explored every one of its treasures, I discover a new find."
Fortunately, he kept the conversation flowing for she knew she was failing miserably in her role as hostess. It took considerable effort to simply refrain from studying him too closely. Time and again her naughty mind attempted to wander down paths that included such musings as if the body beneath his strict black evening attire matched the classic angles and planes of his face.
His features were that of the marble statues she had once glimpsed on a long ago visit to the very museum of which he spoke. But even the Italian masters would have been hard pressed to achieve such flowing symmetrical precision in their works. He was not overly masculine - there was nothing rugged or blunt about him. Nor was any angle too sharp, or plane too flat. He was the ideal brought to life - a timeless image of man in his prime. His freshly shaven, chiseled jaw held not a hint of his dark brown hair, the color of deepest sable, which was just a snip from being too short. And those whisky brown eyes...she could definitely lose herself in the rich golden-flecked depths.
'I believe this one will suit' Esmé wrote. And Mr. Rosedale did suit. Bella could feel her spirits rising with each admiring glance and each word from his lips. She had forgotten what it felt like to be the object of a male's attentions. It was infinitely pleasing and gave the evening a rosy glow. Whether she would be brave enough to seize the opportunity and take him to her bed in the coming days...of that she wasn't yet certain.
So when dinner was completed, she instructed the footmen to clear the table. As her guest partook of a glass of port and she of a cup of tea, she allowed herself a few more minutes to bask in his attention. Then she set her empty cup on the barren white linen and moved to stand. He drew out her chair before the footman stationed along the wall could move a muscle, and led her out of the dining room to the foot of the staircase leading to the second floor.
Her hand drifted off his arm as she turned to stand before him. Then she let her gaze travel down his body once more. He was tall, even taller than she. A rarity, given the number of gentlemen she had met who were on eye level or less. And he carried the height very well. Not lanky or bullish, but broad shouldered and with a fitness that spoke of frequent exercise. Yet his imposing presence did not intimidate her. Maybe it was the overwhelming totality of his perfection that prevented, until now, her noticing the magnitude of his height.
"Thank-you for dinner, Lady Stirling. I had a very enjoyable evening."
She swallowed to moisten her suddenly dry mouth. "As did I. Would you care for a carriage to be brought round to see you back to Garden House?"
"Thank-you, but it's a pleasant evening and the walk will do me good."
His mouth curved in the most divine little smile. Heady warmth washed over her, lulling her senses. Breeching the line of polite distance, he took one small step toward her and slowly reached out to rest his hand on her waist. The heat of his palm penetrated her silk gown, sending a bolt of lush sensation through her.
"Dinner is over. Our flirtation begins," he said, his voice a deep, suggestive rumble.
In his fathomless half-lidded gaze, she glimpsed carnal pleasures beyond her most scandalous dreams. A flush of arousal swept up from her belly. Her breaths turned short and heavy. The air crackled between them.
The moment stretched on, growing taut, pulling tighter...
He lowered his head then paused, his mouth an inch from hers. Unable to resist the offer, she swayed into him, her eyes fluttering closed.
Warm lips brushed hers. Once. Twice. The lightest of touches.
Blindly seeking more, she lifted up onto her toes and flicked her tongue against the seam of his lips. Large hands grabbed her backside, jerking her tight against his muscular body. He slanted his mouth harshly over hers. An intense wave of desire saturated her senses. She opened her mouth eagerly, her kiss strong and full of unleashed, unbridled passion. Passion that had been locked away for too long. Passion that reveled in this small gift of freedom.
A moan of pure, unadulterated longing shook her throat. She clutched his broad shoulders, the muscles hard beneath her hands. The rich, masculine scent of him filled her every breath. The hot brush of his tongue against hers fed the flames burning white-hot inside her, until they threatened to consume her.
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