‘My dear Lady Isobel, have you come to assist me with the plumbing?’ Harker drawled as he looked down at her through the green-shadowed gloom. After a fraught moment he raised his weight off her and on to his elbows.
‘Plumbing?’ Isobel stared at him. ‘What on earth are you talking about? Let me go this—ouch!’
‘You are lying on a hammer,’ he explained. ‘If you will just move your shoulder a trifle... There. Is that more comfortable?’
‘No, it is not. Will you let me up this instant, Mr Harker!’
‘The ground is quite dry under these evergreens and you are lying on sacking.’ There was the hint of a smile tugging at one corner of those sculpted lips. ‘You are being very demanding—I really do not feel you can expect anything better if you will insist on an alfresco rendezvous with me in early February.’
Isobel tried to sit up and succeeded merely in pressing her bosom against his chest. Harker’s eyes darkened and the twitch of his lips became an appreciative smile. She fell back, opened her mouth to scream and then remembered Lizzie—the last thing she wanted was to frighten the child by bringing her to this scene.
Furious at her own powerlessness, she put up her hands and pushed against his shoulders. He did not shift. Isobel felt her breath become shorter. Oh, the humiliation—she was positively panting now and he doubtless thought it was with excitement. Even more mortifying was the realisation that he would be right—her instincts were responding and she was finding this exciting. This was her punishment for daydreaming about his body. The reality was just as deliciously hard and lean and—
‘Get off!’ She felt aroused, flustered and indignant, but she did not feel afraid, she realised as the green eyes studied her. ‘I have not the slightest intention nor desire of making a rendezvous with you, Mr Harker, inside or outside.’
‘Then whose thigh did you think you were fondling?’ he asked with every appearance of interest.
‘Fondling? How dare you! I lost my balance.’ The feel of those taut muscles under the leather was imprinted on her memory. ‘I thought a gardener had fainted, or hit his head, or a gamekeeper had been attacked by poachers or something.’ His body was warm and hard and seriously disturbing to a lady’s equilibrium, pressed against her just there...and the wretch knew it. He shifted slightly and smiled as she swallowed. Oh, yes, he was finding this very interesting. No doubt she should be flattered.
‘And there I was, thinking that the sight of me in my dressing gown was enough to lure young ladies into a damp shrubbery,’ Harker said. ‘I was, of course, about to decline what I assumed was your most flattering offer.’
‘Decline?’ She stared at him. That he could imagine for one moment that she had actually followed him there in order to...to...canoodle... Indignation became fury. ‘Why—?’
‘Why? Because well-bred virgins are far more trouble than they are worth.’
‘Oh!’ The insufferable arrogance of the man!
‘This is probably madness, but as we are here, it seems a pity to waste the moment.’ She realised too late that her hands were still on his shoulders and tried to pull herself away, but there was nowhere to go. He bent his head and took her mouth, all with one smooth, well-practised movement.
The last man to kiss her had been both drunk and clumsy. Harker was neither. His mouth was hot and demanding and sent messages straight to her belly, straight to her breasts, as though wires connected every nerve and he was playing with them. Panic at her own response threatened for a fleeting moment and then she got one hand free, twisting as she did so. The smack of her palm against the side of his face was intensely satisfying.
‘You...you bastard,’ she spat, the moment he lifted his head. The word seemed to rock him off balance. The green eyes darkened, widened and he pushed himself up and away from her. The wave of anger brought her to her feet, shoving against him for balance as she crashed out of the shrubs onto the path. ‘Is this revenge because I took you to task for your insulting words to Mr Soane last night? You arrogant, lustful, smug bastard!’ It was a word she never used, a word she loathed, but now she threw it at him like a weapon.
‘Cousin Isobel? Are you in the shrubbery?’ Lizzie’s voice sounded as though she was coming towards them.
‘Stay there,’ Isobel said fiercely, jabbing a finger at him. ‘Just you stay there.’ Harker straightened up, one hand rubbing his reddening cheek, his mouth twisted into a rueful smile. The mouth whose heat still seemed to burn her own.
Isobel turned on her heel and almost ran along the twisting path to meet the child. The tug of the ribbons at her throat stopped her in time to rescue her bonnet. She brushed leaf mould from her skirts, took a deep breath and stepped out onto the lawn.