The male animal, from all that she had read, was mainly drawn to bright colors and pretty, shiny things— military uniforms would not be so decorative the higher a man climbed in rank otherwise. They liked handsome, fast horses, well-trained dogs and two kinds of women— the unquestioning, unchallenging, undemanding sort with a good dowry, or the lively, daring, adventurous type. Mrs. Lightbody used to say that men married the former and kept the latter for mistresses.
Since Emma did not fit either category, she was best suited to spinsterhood and a governess post. Lady Bramley, so it seemed, was of the same opinion.
But Captain Hathaway had danced with her and chattered amiably out of kindness, to put her at her ease, and she would always remember that service with warm gratitude. What she felt was nothing more than that, she reassured herself with a stern sniff and a deep, steadying breath.
She looked down at the solitary pink pearl she'd managed to capture when the necklace broke. It nestled now in her white-gloved palm, a sad, lost little thing without its many sisters. A quarter of an hour ago, this pearl had been dancing with her, feeling the warmth of her skin and the rapid rhythm of the pulse in her neck. Perhaps the memory still clung to it and would be held forever within that smooth orb.
"Miss Chance, you ran away from me! How could you abandon me?"
Jolted out of her reverie, she spun around to find Captain Hathaway striding toward her in a purposeful fashion. She backed up to the table.
In one gloved hand he held her string of pearls. Mended. He had sought every last one that fell and then strung them back together and fixed the clasp.
"Had a devil of a time to find 'em all," he said proudly. "Even found a few in the punch. Good thing nobody swallowed any, eh? Turn around then."
Emma stared. Behind her back, she closed her fist tightly, hiding the one pearl she had saved. He was so pleased with himself that she didn't want to point out that he hadn't found them all. "I didn't run away from you, Captain. I was taken away."
"Ah." He gestured, holding up a finger and making a little spinning motion with it. "I'll put it back for you. Where it belongs, eh?"
Was it proper? What would Lady Bramley say? Would she approve?
Most certainly not.
But Emma Chance was not a child any longer. She ought to be allowed to use her own judgment occasionally, for surely that was all part of finding maturity.
Turning her back to him, she held her breath while he returned the pearls to her throat. She felt his fingertips struggling with the clasp at her nape. Head bowed, her eyes closed, she drank in every precious, forbidden moment until she had quite forgotten there was anybody else in the kitchen. Or the world.
He swore under his breath.
"It's no good. The clasp is too dainty. I cannot manage it with these damned gloves."
Emma opened her eyes and saw the offending articles tossed to the table. In the next moment his bare thumbs brushed her skin. She caught her breath and her sight became foggy so she closed her eyes again. They were lost once more, just the two of them, in a London Particular. This time it had followed them all the way to Surrey.
An almost unbearable happiness lifted her heart and quickened the beat, as if there were little wings inside it, fluttering frantically to raise the organ up out of her body and take her spirit with it. But was it happiness or something else? She'd never known the like of it.
Captain Hathaway was clumsy with that tiny clasp. It took him several minutes to secure it, fumbling and cursing softly under his breath— apologizing each time he did so— and then, even when the task was done, his thumbs did not immediately leave her body. Their caress lingered lightly, but daringly, just an inch or so from the top of her spine, tracing it downward and then back to the necklace. His fingers rested shyly on her shoulders. It was no more than the passing shiver of a breeze and yet her entire body was awakened by it, her eyes wide opened again— an involuntary response to his touch. As if she was afraid of missing something in what little time they had left.
He cleared his throat quite fiercely, as if annoyed with himself. "Well, there we are. All better, Miss Chance?"
She turned to face him again, the fingers of her left hand checking the pearls and finding them all in order. All but one, of course. "Yes, sir, much better."
When he swept a fallen curl back from his brow it stood upright in a draft of warm air, like a question mark.
"Thank you, Captain." She put both hands behind her back again. "It was very good of you to go to such trouble." He was the first man she'd ever seen, who ought to be untidy, she thought with a sudden, unusual burst of passionately illogical contemplation. Guy Hathaway ought to be rumpled and creased and wet with kisses— oh, she'd better stop herself. The drumbeat of her heart was too hard and lusty. She might die here and now from these violent palpitations. Her crumpled corpse would be most embarrassing for Lady Bramley.
"It was the least I could do."
Suddenly he raised his hand again, his naked thumb and forefinger gently touching her chin. Lifting it a half inch.
"Miss Chance, there is something I must do. Hold very still."
Still? Impossible. She was all a-quiver inside. Could he not see and feel it? It hurt to breathe and yet, at the same time, she trembled with exhilaration. Her heart's beat thumped harder and faster in her ears, a galloping horse obscuring all other sound, racing wildly with no idea of its destination. Simply running joyously and free for as long as it would be allowed. The ground shook under her feet.
"With your permission," he said. "There is a stray eyelash fallen to your cheek. Might I be trusted to deliver you of the nuisance?"
"Oh?" Eyelash? Cheek? What things were these? How strange those words sounded suddenly. Foreign and incomprehensible.
Apparently he took that small sound for permission. He dampened his naked fingertip with a lick of the tongue and then, slowly and carefully, he removed the tiny thing that had troubled him so.
"There. Now it won't bother you," he murmured, his voice slightly husky.
She felt her body tipping forward. Tumbling, rather. To right herself she briefly brought her hands, still clenched into fists, to his chest.
He cupped her elbows to steady her balance, and she heard a little gasp from one of the kitchen maids. Or was it her own?
"Captain Hathaway, what are you about with Miss Chance? I thought you were looking for your sister?" Alas, Lady Bramley had returned while Emma was lost in his power, unaware of anybody or anything else in the kitchen. Coming to check upon the stain's removal, the lady had found instead another displeasing sight.
"Well, young man? Did you not mean to search for your sister?" she demanded, coming to stand between the guilty parties.
"I did, madam, but your nephew said he—"
"Then kindly leave Miss Chance to me and go...do... anything else. Shoo, young man." She took his gloves from the table and thrust them at him. "You are not needed here."
He gave a terse bow, spun around and walked out. But at the door he stopped and looked back. Lady Bramley, by then, was bent over Emma's stained frock again, trying to frighten it into behaving itself.
Over that well-meaning lady's head, Emma caught Captain Hathaway's sly wink and a smile that went right through her flesh to carve itself on her bones.
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