The First Item on the List (72/141)

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The pages of her guideline sprang into her mind, neatly printed in her own hand, stark black letters at the start of the first line: Do not whatever you do under any circumstances say this or anything like it. There truly was no way even she could forget she wasn’t supposed to say it. But the reasons why were so nonsensical, unfair even, and her will to follow convention blindly so weak…Wisteria had her face turned to one side, too focused on her planned words to think about where she ought to be looking. The study’s wallpaper had a runner patterned in silver filigree, right under the molding around the ceiling. “Now is either the very worst time for it or the very best,” she said, “and I cannot tell which.”

“Ah. Tell me what it is, and I will tell you which it is?” Lord Nikola offered.

Wisteria swallowed. Her eyes still on the glittering filigree on the walls, she asked, “May I kiss you, my lord?”

In the silence that followed, she heard his indrawn breath, sound sharp and meaningless to her. Was that Yes or No or Next topic please? I need words, my lord, I cannot guess the answer. Still he did not speak. She glanced to his face and could read nothing in his countenance, not even a smile. This cannot be good. “I apologize, my lord. I should – please, forget I—”

He laid a finger against her lips and she fell silent. Lord Nikola licked his lips. “You have a way of catching me by surprise, Miss Vasilver. I – I do not suppose it will shock you to know that I have kissed and been kissed more than once, but – do you know – I do not think that before today anyone has ever actually asked me.” He shifted his hand to cup her cheek.

Wisteria met his gaze in blank incomprehension. “But how else would you know if you could or not?”

“That is a very good question and I wish I had a good answer for you.” He leaned close enough that she could catch the faint scent of champagne on his breath. “But I liked your first question better still.” His head was tilted to avoid bumping noses, lips not quite touching hers. “In answer: yes, absolutely, please do.”

She let her eyes close – it was strange to see his face so close and she wanted to focus on how he felt – and touched her mouth to his. The sensation of that contact ran through her like a transmitted shock, warming her face, fingers, toes. She was not at all sure what she was doing, apart from it being Number One On the List of What Not to Do, but his lips were soft and gentle and tasted of champagne, his touch delectable as his hand slid over her cheek to the nape of her neck, and she wanted to do more of it. Wisteria dipped her chin after the kiss, touching her forehead to his. “Oh. May we do that again?” she asked in a whisper, and he answered by tilting her face up for another kiss.

§

She had the most incredible mind, unlike any Nik had seen before. The web of rationality and logic seemed to weave through every part of it, as if nothing could happen inside her head without her conscious awareness of the how and why of it. He’d seen people whose emotions were stunted or warped by layers of intellectualism and had more than half-expected that to be the case with Miss Vasilver, but it didn’t seem to be. Affection, desire, anger, fear, love, compassion – all were present in the usual size and textures, albeit united by cool strong threads of reason. The texture and feel of her mind was delightfully intricate, as welcoming as her lips under his, an open invitation to lose himself in exploration. He wasn’t interested in analysis – his first impression was that he’d never seen a mind so organized, so fully sane – but he gloried in the vista.

Her question had astonished him, not only unlike a gentlewoman but at odds with Miss Vasilver’s entire dispassionate demeanor. When he’d finally parsed it, he’d thought perhaps she was intellectually curious even if emotionally unengaged. Their tentative first kiss did not contradict that hypothesis, but with the second she slid one hand to the nape of his neck and curled her fingers through the hair at the base of his ponytail to hold him as she shifted closer. Her other hand caressed his chest through his shirt, above the waistcoat and under his jabot, crystal beads on her trailing sleeve tinkling. Her mouth moved uncertainly against his. Nik was reminded powerfully of his own first experience: lacking the slightest idea what he was about and desperate to learn. He parted his lips enough to nibble at hers, and she responded enthusiastically, fingers clutching in his shirt to pull him nearer. Nik wrapped his arms around her waist and tugged. Her body curved to slide into his lap, ruffled skirt rustling as her legs stretched sideways on the upholstered cushion next to him. She pressed him against the sofa back, fingers sliding under his waistcoat to caress his shoulder as she kissed him with unashamed longing.

Her passionate intensity caught him off guard, as unexpected as her question but even more welcome. One hand stroked down her thigh, over the curve of the ruffle, feeling the smoothness of silk under his fingertips and the tiny bumps from the glittering crystals in the dress. His other arm cradled her back, hand on the fine mesh that covered her shoulder. The layers of cloth between them felt like an unwanted barrier; he ached to touch her skin, to strip off his gloves and unfasten the row of buttons under the silken waterfall of the gown’s one-shouldered cape. He gripped her shoulder to keep that hand from wandering to the buttons, but his other hand made its way down the length of her long leg to find her stockinged ankle. She made no missish objections; instead she snuggled closer as his gloved fingers pushed her skirt higher, baring her calf to his caress. He left her lips to kiss his way along her jawline, nuzzling at her hair, breathing in her scent, overwhelmed by the sensation of her. “Oh, my lord, that feels wonderful,” Miss Vasilver murmured in his ear, her voice strangely level but the truth of her words made plain by the way she held his head close, body squirming deliciously in his arms. Maybe this is like her, he thought, intoxicated by desire. She is so forthright in everything else, why not about this? His hand reached to her knee beneath the skirt, then her lower thigh as she slid down to push his hand higher, rubbing her soft cheek against his, fingers tangled fast in his hair. The layers of fabric were pushed thick and snug enough to give more resistance as he tried to move higher still. The difficulty forced Nik to think for a moment, and realize what he was doing. You’ve taken this well beyond a kiss, boy. He drew his hand away, moving it to rest atop the skirt, and then wrapped both arms around her back. Withdrawing entirely seemed far too much to ask, but he could try to get some control over himself.

His breathing was ragged as she pressed a kiss against the top of his ear, the sense of her mind so close a sensuality of its own, her fingers warm beneath his jacket. The intimacy was maddening, demanding reciprocation. She must know what she’s doing to me. His hands behind her back pulled off one of his gloves as if of their own accord. Her tongue stole along the curve of his ear and he whimpered, lust so acute it was almost painful.

Miss Vasilver paused at the sound. “My lord?”

Nik clung to her, knowing that he ought to move away, back off before he carried things too far, and unable to bring himself to do so.

“I’m sorry…I did something wrong, didn’t I?” Miss Vasilver’s voice was hushed but even. “I did not intend…I know I should not have even asked, I—”

Nik kissed her to stop the flood of words. “Shhh.” He stroked her back beneath the cape, touched her hair, ached to feel it between his fingers but knew better than to disturb its carefully crafted perfection. “You did nothing wrong, my lady, not in my opinion, I just…need a moment.” She ducked her head in a nod, shifting as if to move away. His arms remained locked about her, unwilling to release her even as he struggled to master his desire. Which he knew logically would be easier without her warm appealing form pressed against him, but logic did not enter into it. “Please don’t go,” he whispered.

“I should be very happy to stay,” Miss Vasilver replied, just as soft, and tucked her head against his shoulder. “I like kissing you,” she added, so matter-of-fact that he laughed.

“And I you,” he told her, kissing her forehead, careful to keep his hands on her back and not move them to any place more dangerous or tempting. “But I…I do not wish to lead you into…anything you would regret, my lady. I give you my word, I did not seek out privacy in order to take advantage of you.”

“Oh.” She stilled, half-sitting sideways in his lap, her cheek against his jacket.


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