“I love you.”
Three strange, small words that held so much power.
Not that Lady Georgiana Pearson – daughter of one duke and sister to another, child of honor and duty and pristine presentation, and perfectly bred female of the ton – had ever heard them.
Aristocrats did not love.
And if they did, they most certainly did not do something so base as to admit it.
So it was a shock, frankly, that the words spilled from her lips with such ease and comfort and truth. But Georgiana had never in her sixteen years believed anything so well, and she had never been so quickly rid of the shackles of expectation that came with her name and her past and her family. In truth, she embraced it – the risk and reward – thrilled to feel at long last. To live. To be.
Risk be damned; this was love.
And it had freed her.
Certainly, there would never be a moment as beautiful as this – in the arms of the man she loved, the one with whom she would spend a lifetime. Longer. The one with whom she would build a future, and hang her name and her family and her reputation.
Jonathan would protect her.
He’d said as much as he’d shielded her from the cold March wind and shepherded her here, into the stables of her family estate.
Jonathan would love her.
He’d whispered the words as his hands had unfastened and lifted, peeled and unwrapped, promising her everything as he touched and stroked.
And she’d whispered them back. Giving him everything.
She sighed her pleasure to the rafters, nestling closer to him, cushioned by lean muscle and rough straw and covered in a warm horse blanket that should have scratched and bothered, but was somehow made soft, no doubt by the emotion it had just witnessed.
Love. The stuff of sonnets and madrigals and fairy tales and novels.
Love. The elusive emotion that made men weep and sing and ache with desire and passion.
Love. The life-altering feeling that made everything bright and warm and wonderful. The emotion all the world was desperate to discover.
And she’d found it. Here. In the frigid winter, in the embrace of this magnificent boy. No. Man. He was a man, just as she was a woman, made one today in his arms, against his body.
A horse in the stables below whinnied softly, pawing at the floor of its stall, huffing its desire for food or drink or affection.
Jonathan shifted beneath her, and she curled into him, pulling the blanket tighter around them. “Not yet.”
“I must. I am required.”
“I require you,” she said, putting on her best flirt.
His hand spread over her bare shoulder, warm and rough where she was smooth, sending a thrill of delight through her. How rare it was that someone touched her – first a duke’s daughter, then one’s sister. Pristine. Unmarked. Untouched.
She grinned. Her mother would have a fit when she learned that her daughter had neither need nor intention of coming out. And her brother – the Duke of Disdain – the most impossible, entitled aristocrat London knew… he would not approve.
But Georgiana didn’t care. She was going to be Mrs. Jonathan Tavish. She wouldn’t even keep the “Lady” to which she was entitled. She didn’t want it. She only wanted him.
It did not matter that her brother would do his best to stop the match. There was no stopping it any longer.
That particular horse had left the proverbial barn.
But Georgiana remained in the hayloft.
She giggled at the thought, made giddy by love and risk – two sides of one very rewarding coin.
He was shifting beneath her, already sliding out from the warm cocoon of their bodies, letting the cold winter air in and turning her bare skin to gooseflesh. “You should dress,” he said, pulling on his trousers. “If anyone catches us —”
He didn’t have to finish; he’d been saying the same thing for weeks, since the first time they’d kissed, and during all the stolen moments that had ensued. If anyone caught them, he’d be whipped, or worse.
And she’d be ruined.
But now, after today, after lying naked in this rough winter hay and letting him explore and touch and take with his work-hewn hands… she was ruined. And she didn’t care. It didn’t matter.
After this, they would run away – they would have to in order to marry. They’d go to Scotland. They’d start a new life. She had money.
It did not matter that he had nothing.
They had love, and it was enough.
The aristocracy was not to be envied. It was to be pitied. Without love, why live?
She sighed, watching Jonathan for a long moment, marveling at the grace with which he pulled on his shirt and tucked it into his breeches, the way he tugged on his boots as though he’d done it a thousand times in this low-ceilinged space. He wrapped his cravat about his neck and shrugged on his jacket, then his winter coat, the movements smooth and economical.
When he was done, he turned for the ladder that led to the stables below, all long bones and lean muscle.
She clutched the blanket to her, feeling cold with the loss of him.
“Jonathan,” she called softly, not wanting anyone to hear her.
He looked to her, and she saw something in his blue gaze – something she did not immediately identify. “What is it?”
She smiled, suddenly shy. Impossibly so, considering what they had just done. What he had just seen. “I love you,” she said again, marveling at the way the words slid over her lips, the way the sound wrapped her in truth and beauty and everything good.
He hesitated at the top of the ladder, hanging back, so effortlessly that he seemed to float in the air. He did not speak for a long moment – long enough for her to feel the March cold deep in her bones. Long enough for a thread of unease to curl quietly through her.