“Here. ” She pulled him into the alcove of the gothic cathedral’s side door. “We’ll wait here until it’s safe to continue. ”
From behind a stone column, she peered across the green. She saw Aaron Dawes and Rufus in their militia uniforms. She hated that poor Rufus would find his father that way—but from what she knew of the Bright family history, it wouldn’t be the first time. Villagers trickled out from their homes, to see what had caused the commotion.
“Once everyone’s attention is focused on the All Things,” she said, “we’ll make a run for it. ”
She glanced toward Christian and found him gazing at her.
“My God, Violet. Look at you. You’re remarkable. ”
Her cheeks warmed with a blush. After all this time, it was nice to be noticed.
He took her by the shoulders and swiveled her to face him. “By now, you must know how sorry I am, and how much I care. I want to make it up to you, and I will. If only you’ll wait. Can you find it your heart to do that much?”
“Christian…even as a girl, I found it in my heart to wait. I waited all those years you never noticed me. And that was when you were an undeserving, callow youth. We’re grown now, and both much improved in character this past year, I daresay. I can find it in my heart to do a great deal more than wait. I can find it in my heart to lie for you, steal for you, take your secrets to my grave. I was…” Her voice failed her for a moment. “I was willing to kill for you just now. ”
He rubbed her arms and swore. “I hate that I put you in such a position. ”
“You misunderstand. I’m not asking you take pity on me. I’m saying, trust in me. Ask more of me. ” She took his hand and pressed it to her chest. “This heart can do more than wait. This heart could love you so strongly, so fiercely—you’d feel the force of it all the way in Brittany. Or in Bali, for that matter. But you must give me something more than vague notions of a future courtship. My parents are determined to see me married. Your own sister has appointed herself my matchmaker. Am I supposed to resist them all, for heaven knows how long, simply on the promise of a few apricot ices in the park and a night or two at Vauxhall?”
“There’s nothing else I can offer you,” he said. “Unless I abandon my assignment, end my career, and heap shame on my entire family. I just can’t do that to them, Violet. Not after everything else. ”
“I wouldn’t ask that. I don’t want to ask you for anything, can’t you understand? There’s a question I’m wanting to be asked. ”
His expression changed. “Oh. ”
“A rather important question. ”
He blinked. “I see. ”
Did he? If he’d caught the hint, he showed no intention to act on it. Perhaps he wasn’t prepared to go that far. But now that she’d said this much, Violet simply couldn’t back down.
“I’ve spent so much of my life in the corners. Watching you live life to the fullest and patiently hoping to catch your attention someday. I can’t keep waiting like that anymore. ” His gaze fell, and she dipped her head to catch it. “Everything would be different, if… If I weren’t waiting on a someday fantasy, but acting true to my betrothed. ”
His arms tightened, binding her to his chest. “Violet. I hadn’t even dared to dream you might accept me this soon. You deserve a great more groveling and atonement first. But if you’re sure you want this here, now…”
She nodded. Actually, she’d wanted it in London, a year ago. But here and now would suffice. “Yes. I do. ”
A bewildered, ecstatic smile lit his face. He had it quickly mastered, shoved back under the manful composure. But not before she’d seen that flash of emotion. It was like a blink of pure joy. She loved that she’d caused it.
She loved him.
“One moment. ” He stepped back. He pulled on the lapels of his coat to straighten it, then pushed both hands through his hair to calm the ruffled waves. She loved him for the small endearing gesture of vanity. Even with the wild hair, coarse attire, and the twice-broken nose, he was the still the most handsome man she’d ever known.
He turned back to face her and took her hands in his. “Violet. Dear, sweet Violet. ”
Her heart leapt. Even though she knew full well it was coming, her heart insisted on that joyful bounce. At last, it beat. At last, at last.
“Violet, I…” He stopped, frowning.
Now her heart pinched. No, don’t stop. Why are you stopping?
“Good Lord. You’re shivering like a leaf. ”
“It’s all right,” she forced through chattering teeth. A freezing gust of wind stung her cheeks. Her nose must have been bright red. “C-carry on. ”
“God’s truth. ” He wrapped her tight in his arms, enveloping her in delicious masculine warmth. “Darling, you know I would fall to my knees, beg your forgiveness, extol your virtues, and plead for your hand. But it’s too damn cold for speeches. Just know that I love you, to the very center of your brave, beautiful, generous soul. And if you’ll have me, I won’t ask you to wait another day. I’ll marry you right here and now. ”
“Right here and now?” Surely she’d heard him wrong. “If only it were possible. ”
He kissed her lips. “It’s Christmas, Violet. Anything’s possible. ”
“I don’t understand. ”
He glanced up at the church looming over them. “I know we’ll have to do it again someday. Inside one of these, rather than huddled outside the door. With our families and friends and a clergyman and a license, and every lavish bit of froth you ever dreamed. You’ll be so beautiful, and I’ll be so proud. ” He touched her face. “But I will make my vow to you right now, on this doorstep, with God and all these carved saints looking on. And if you’ll have me…from this night forward, you will be Lady Christian Pierce in my heart. ”
His thumb caressed her cheek. His eyes held her, warm and strong. “I, Christian James, take you, Violet Mary, to be my wife. To have, to hold. To love, honor, and cherish. To amuse, to pleasure, to make smile and laugh. To dance with, at every opportunity. To respect always, and tease on occasion. To confide in, whenever need be. To treasure, protect, admire—”
She couldn’t help but give a nervous laugh. “I don’t think these words are in the vows. ”
“They’re in my vows,” he said gravely. “But in the interests of time, I shall to return to form. All that richer-poorer, sickness-health business goes without saying. And I will gladly forsake all others, so long as we both shall live. ” His hand slid back into her hair, grasping tight. Raw emotion roughened his voice. “I need a lifetime with you. ”
She began to tremble, and not from the cold.
“I, Christian,” he whispered, “take you, Violet. And I pray to God you’ll see fit to take me. ”
Her heart swelled. She loved this man so much it hurt.
“Christian. ” She took his hand in both of hers. And whispered, “It’s time to run. ”
There was simply no time to waste.
Now that everyone had assembled before the All Things Shop, Violet knew they had a clear path round the church and the remainder of the green. To the Queen’s Ruby rooming house, where Violet and all the other visiting ladies stayed.
She led him around the back of the building, through a little-used entrance. As she’d suspected from the lights warming the parlor windows, it seemed all the ladies had gathered in the large front room.
Violet made her way down the corridor and put her ear to the wall.
“Ladies, ladies. ” Through the jumble of conversation, she made out Diana Highwood’s voice. As always, the voice of calm and reason. “Ladies, please. I know the news from Summerfield is alarming, but I have faith everything will be fine. Mr. Dawes has instructed us to remain gathered in the parlor until he returns. The militiamen are searching the village. ”
Violet bit her lip. If the militiamen were searching t
he rest of the village, that meant the safest place for her and Christian was here. For the moment, anyhow.
Another chorus of replies rose up from the ladies, and Violet took advantage of the noise. She grabbed Christian’s sleeve and pulled him up the back stairs.
“Where are you taking me?” he whispered, as they made their way down the deserted corridor.
Lifting a finger to her lips for silence, she opened the door to her chamber and pulled him inside.
What supreme patience it cost her, not to slam the door shut. But Violet forced herself to guide it by slow degrees. Inch by torturous inch. By the moment the latch finally turned with a gentle click, her heart must have beat a hundred times.
At last, she turned to him in the darkened room. “I’m not taking you anywhere. I’m just…taking you. ”
“Oh. ” He exhaled. “Thank God. ”
Placing her hands to his chest, she backed him toward the bed. When the mattress hit him in the back of the knees, he sat down on the coverlet. Fabric rustled as she hiked her skirts a bit. Just enough to sit on his lap.
“I, Violet Mary, take you, Christian James. ” She touched his cheek. “To be my husband. To have, to hold. To love and honor. All that sickness-health, richer-poorer business too. Forsaking all others, so long as we both shall live. “
His hand found hers. “You didn’t promise to obey. ”
“No, I didn’t. ” She kissed his jaw. “What if I substitute, ‘To make wild, passionate love to at every possible opportunity’ instead?”
“I’ll take it and gladly, so long as…” He sucked in his breath as her lips grazed his neck.
“So long as what?” She kissed his ear.
“So long as this counts as an opportunity. ”
“Of course. It’s all the honeymoon we’re likely to get. ”
His arms tightened around her, and together they fell back onto the bed. Kissing, caressing, clutching at each other. Pulling futilely at one another’s clothes.
With one swift, arousing flex of his arms, Christian flipped her onto her stomach. His strong, rough fingers tore at the closures of her gown and the tapes of her corset. As the garments came loose, she could hear his breath grow increasingly ragged. His desire increased hers. Dampness surged between her legs.
He tossed her skirts to her waist. His weight covered her as he positioned himself between her sprawled legs. Violet was shocked. What did he mean to do?
She felt the moist heat of his tongue against her nape. He bit her exposed shoulder.
“Someday,” he growled against her ear, “I’ll take you like this. ”
With one hand, he pulled her hips up and back, bringing her swollen sex flush with the hard ridge of his arousal. He thrust against her a few times, rubbing her through the layers of his trousers and her petticoats. Her aching breasts rubbed against the counterpane. She found herself riding his movements, craving yet more friction. It was wild and animal, and it felt so very, very good.
Then he stopped, rolling his weight to the side and lifting her by the waist. He repositioned them so that she sat on her knees, straddling him face-to-face. He kissed her neck and shoulders, wrenching the loosened fabric down.
“And someday,” he breathed, “you’ll take me like this. Slowly, sweetly. As we kiss for hours. ”
Holding her hips in his hands, he rolled her pelvis. A moan of pure pleasure eased past her lips.
More. She needed more.
As he pushed the gown and chemise lower, sliding her arms free and then baring her to the waist, she rocked against him in an instinctive motion.
“Yes,” he groaned, taking her bared breasts in his hands and thumbing her hard nipples. “You’re so lovely. So beautiful. ”