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"Tell me, sir, do they teach music appreciation in poaching school?" Catherine asked.
"Dance appreciation too," Montgomery said, offering his arm. "May I?"
She studied the rakish grin a moment before accepting. She was aware of the heads swiveling to follow them as they walked past a row of whispering matrons, even more conscious of a pair of jade-green eyes spearing them from across the room as they merged with the dancing couples.
Montgomery's movements were fluid and assured, amazingly light and graceful for a man of his size. She did not anticipate so strong a reaction to the feel of the steely muscles against her fingertips or the memory that came flooding back of him stripped to the waist, his black hair dripping water onto his naked flesh. She did not expect the liquefying reaction in her own body each time he took advantage of the music to draw her boldly into his arms.
"I must apologize for being so abrupt this morning," he said, leading her in a delicate circle. "I had been riding all night and was suffering a general lack of patience, having lost myself several times on the forest paths."
"Apologies hardly suit your character, Mr. Montgomery. But why did you not say you were a friend of my brother? It would not have excused your abominable behavior, but it might have helped explain it."
"He counts poachers and highwaymen among his friends?"
"I have been to his offices in London. I have seen some of the company he is forced to keep."
They parted, exchanging steps with other partners in their quadrangle before dancing together again.
"An apology from you would not be remiss either," he said thoughtfully.
"An apology from me?" She tilted her head up with a frown. "Whatever for, may I ask?"
"Creeping up on me unawares. Standing in the shadows watching me bathe."
Her mouth dropped open. "I certainly was not watching you, sir. Had I known there was anyone bathing in the clearing, I would not have gone within a hundred yards of it. I was merely attempting to water my horse and--" She stopped and clamped her mouth shut. The maddening, all-knowing smile was back on his lips, encouraged by the distinct gleam of amusement in the blue-black eyes. "Please take me back now. I see Lieutenant Garner has returned with my refreshment."
"My dear Mistress Ashbrooke--" He raised her hand to his lips and pressed the heat of his breath against her gloved fingers. "It has been many long months since I have held such an incredibly lovely woman in my arms, and I am loath to forfeit the pleasure just yet. I'm afraid the lieutenant will have to wait."
"I hardly think--"
"Do I still frighten you? Even in a crowded room?"
She caught her breath and stared up at him. Hamilton was moving toward the edge of the dance floor carrying the tiny crystal glass of water. The orchestra was playing and couples were moving all around them. Montgomery was smiling, challenging her, calling her bluff.
She raised her hand and settled it around his wrist. She felt his hand tighten on her waist again and imagined she could hear the swelling of whispers that rippled around the room as she accorded a second dance to the stranger from London. It was scandalous behavior, as scandalous as the way his midnight eyes held her, demanding her full attention, relegating all else--the music, the laughter, the buzzing of conversations--to the distant background. She was only dimly aware of the flashes of colored silk that passed them, of the brilliant splashes of candlelight that reflected off the panes of the windows and doors. She was not sensible at all to the fact that he whirled her away from the close confines of the ballroom and danced with her out onto the terrace, around and around, swirling her away from the lights and the noise until they had only shadows and the dusting of starlight overhead.
Drawing her closer, Montgomery embraced her in a way that made her feel molded to the hard contours of his body. The circles they inscribed became smaller, their footsteps slower, until they were barely moving at all, hardly swaying to the strains of the music. Catherine felt a mindless drumming in her blood and knew he was holding her too close. The night was too dark, the air too fragrant with the scent of roses. She lowered her gaze a fraction and it was no longer his eyes that held her transfixed, but the sensual curve of his mouth--a mouth that was descending toward hers even as his hand slid up from her waist to cradle the nape of her neck.
His lips touched hers, and the shock trembled through her body. A feeble protest shivered free on a sigh, but she could not even summon the strength or wit to make it sound convincing. All of her senses became centered around the feather-light pressure of his mouth, on the teasing, taunting dalliance of his tongue as it sampled, tasted, prepared her for the bold intrusion that followed.
His arms tightened and his lips slanted more forcefully over hers. A second gasp gave him the opening he sought, and his tongue slid possessively into the shocked heat of her mouth. Catherine felt her knees give way and her stomach tum to jelly, hot jelly, heavy as molten lead that slithered downward into her limbs on each silky, probing caress. Her fists clenched and unclenched. Her fingers spread open across the velvet thickness of his frock coat and inched higher . . . higher, until her hands were circling his neck, clinging to the powerful breadth of his shoulders. She pressed eagerly into his embrace, thrilling to the strength in his arms as they enfolded her.
She thought she had known every kind of kiss a man could offer--what mystery could still remain in the simple touching of lips? Hamilton's kisses, to be sure warmed her deliciously and sent tiny shivers of satisfaction through her body, more so than those of any other man before him. Yet he had never inspired this surge of liquid heat that was now setting her veins on fire. His body had never commanded hers to melt against him, to move with him, to question the cause and cure for this incredible, burning tension. Even her skin had grown tauter, tighter, and her belly was fluttering with urges that made her want to move closer, to feel the heat of him with her bare flesh.
She was kissing him back, she knew she was, but Montgomery ended the kiss suddenly, breaking away with an abruptness that brought a cry of disappointment from her lips. His face was in shadow--she could barely discern more than the black slash of his brows--but she sensed a shared feeling of surprise. As if he had not expected the rush of pleasure she could feel thundering through his chest.
He held her away from his body, as if he did not trust any further contact, and when he spoke he tried to make his words sound light and casual.
"I did warn you about unscrupulous rogues who would not hesitate to take advantage."
"So you did," she murmured. "You also threatened to teach me a lesson in reality. Was that it?"
"Reality?" he whispered. "I'm not even sure I know what that is anymore. I thought I did. . . ."
Catherine shivered as he brushed his fingertips along the curve of her throat. She turned her head slightly, the better to feel the warmth of his flesh on hers . . . and her eyes opened wide in horror.
The figure of a man was standing less than five paces away, his silhouette framed in the glare of lights that spilled from the open french doors. His hands were rigid by his sides, the fingers of one fist crushed around a tiny crystal glass.
Catherine gasped and jerked out of Montgomery's arms. "Hamilton!"
"I hope I am not intruding," the lieutenant said, his voice cracking with anger.
She took several halting steps toward him. "Hamilton . . .it isn't what you think. . . ."
"Is it not? Pray then, by all means, tell me what it is. You send me for a glass of water, then dance away with a fe!low to whom you have only just been introduced. Ten mmutes later I find you wrapped in his arms and"--he finished the sentence with a sneer--"you tell me it isn't what I think."
"Hamilton, please . . ."
"I think, madam, you were kissing this gentleman, and with no great show of reluctance. The act hardly requires more explanation than that . . . unless, of course, you have recently formed the habit of kissing perfect strangers and see nothing untoward in the deed."
Montgomery gave up an audible sigh. He reached to an inside pocket and extracted a thin black cigar. "You are not giving the lady much of a chance to explain. If you did, she might be able to tell you the kiss was entirely my idea, and that she simply . . . endured it."
"Endured it?" Garner's face remained impassive, carved out of stone, as he watched Montgomery strike a sulfur stick and touch it to the end of his cigar.
"It is her birthday, is it not?"
"And you thought to take advantage of the situation by forcing yourself on her good nature?"
"I did not force anything on anyone," Montgomery said quietly. "I was merely expressing my felicitations."