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Anthony Bridgerton’s control hung by a strand finer than any embroidery thread. With visible effort, he stepped to the side and indicated the direction of Bridgerton House. “Please go inside.”

 

Kate Sharma’s arms seemed to cross even more firmly across her chest, and her chin rose.

 

He was trying to do the right thing, the honorable thing. Hearing Kate Sharma confess her entire life was lived for her family, just as he was, solidified his decision. Anthony would marry her. There was nothing else to be done. He couldn’t stay away from her, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to. Society already scorned both families. What was one more log to the bonfire of scandals? Kate’s loyalty to her family meant if, God forbid, he died like his father, she would care for their children as his mother did. She would care for all of them. If she would just….” Go. In. Side.”

 

Kate’s expression grew more obstinate, something he didn’t think possible. Dark eyes narrowed, and she threw down a verbal gauntlet, challenging him, “What did I tell you about you and your orders?”

 

Those words were a slashing sword, slicing through the remaining strands of control. The verbal gauntlet Kate threw down worked better than any simpering bat of the eyes the ladies of the ton employed to flirt. The desire that was always burning coals when he was around Kate roared into an inferno as they met each other in the middle of the Gazebo, coming together with a desperation he had never felt before. Her scent surrounded him, and he molded her to him, wanting to erase every boundary between them and make her feel the same raw need that consumed him. Hands shaking, he grabbed bunches of silky indigo skirts, leaving them even as he pulled her closer. The gloved hands in his hair gripped him tightly as his questing fingers sought the liquid heat of her.

 

Kate stiffened against him, her surprised gasp the only thing that could cool the blood pounding in his head. He released her, hands raised as he mentally berated himself. What was he thinking? This wasn’t a brothel, and she wasn’t a whore. She was his future wife, and he informed her and the conflagration raging in him.” I will stop! I will stop.”

 

Shaking her head, she reached for him even as he backed away, bringing his head back down to hers and ignoring all reason, insisting, “Do not stop! No, do NOT stop!

 

The words were a declaration of her own, and Anthony knew Kate was aware of what she agreed to. For once, they would throw everything away: duty, honor, respectability, and whatever the morning brought. 

 

Anthony mustered every ounce of willpower to pull his lips from Kate’s, not to rush this time, their first time. This wasn’t a sprint race, and he would make this a night to carry with him however long their engagement lasted. There was only so long he could go without touching her, and Anthony trailed a path to her neck where the pulse there was a match for his own. The breath that caught in Kate’s throat was heard and felt as he tasted the salt of her skin and breathed in the intoxicating combination of lilies and sun-kissed skin. She tasted like summertime, and he turned her in his arms, lips brushing the hollow below her earlobe, nipping there to feel her shiver. 

 

Kate gasped as he found the soft curve of her neck, and his hands slid upwards, following the stiff stays to her breasts. Even through the barriers of cloth, he felt the swell of them. All these months of stealing glances at the hint of cleavage, the shadows between her breasts made the impeded access more erotic. Anthony could get drunk on her breathy sounds, the feel of her back against his chest, and the rounded warmth of her derriere against his groin. Trailing fingers traced a path to the back of her gown and the fasteners there.

 

The filmy gown drooped, and it pleased him when Kate straightened, pushing her shoulders back to make the unfastening easier. She wanted this and wanted him, and a fresh surge of desire pounded with his heartbeat. Even when he was young and new to sex, he never felt such a primal need to mark every inch of a woman as his.

 

Silk slipped from Kate’s shoulders, the dress puddling at her feet as Anthony ran appreciative hands along the taut smoothness of her bare abdomen. Turning her with hands on her waist, Anthony brought his lips down on hers with renewed enthusiasm. He hadn’t even seen what the dress covered yet, but his fingers explored the satiny underthings, the line of her collarbone to bare arms. Not that she was unresponsive, her gloved hands ran through his hair, the breadth of his shoulders, and cupped his jaw to meld their upper bodies even as he held their hips together with the same fierceness. 

 

Anthony pulled away, almost undone by the glazed desire in Kate’s eyes when they opened and the breath that came between lips swollen from kissing. From him.  He allowed himself a moment to get himself under control and to enjoy the sight of Kate in her unmentionables, as the ladies called them. Her eyes glimmered in the candlelight as she brought gloved hands to the lapels of his dinner jacket, slipping under them. Kate hesitated, and he read the question reflected on her face. The dinner jacket joined Kate’s dress at their feet, and she stifled a laugh when he removed his cravat. The loops around his neck were kinked, requiring each to be unwound, and there was no way a man could look dignified removing one. Shoving the offending cloth in his pocket, Anthony’s lips came down on hers, kissing the laughter from her lips. When no words were involved, they got along splendidly, he thought with a bemused smile.

 

Feeling her hands tugging at his waistcoat, Anthony stepped back enough to unfasten the buttons, with a certain amount of masculine pride, enough of an exhibitionist to enjoy the wide-eyed curiosity on Kate’s face even as she pushed it off his shoulders. Perfect, he thought as she slowly touched the top button of his crisp, white shirt. Even here, she was a dance partner, an equal participant, and, with his nod, undid each button just as he had done with her dress. Impatient, he waited until the exact numbers of buttons were unfastened before pulling it over his head.

 

Balling up the shirt, he tossed it to the side in a way that would horrify his valet. Kate watched him, and he let her get a good look at him, even as he took in the remainder of her clothing. What was it about a woman’s garter and stockings that felt more intimate to look upon than bare flesh, he wondered with the last bit of his brain that still worked. Kate’s hand touched his bare chest with a silken fingertip, curious as she traced the hair there.

 

He thought the gloves had to go immediately, even though the touch of her warm hands on his body would add oil to his fire.  Finger by finger, he pulled each free of the silk, his eyes never leaving hers as he drew it off. Dark eyes flared, and he saw the tiny hairs on her arms raise as he worked the second off.  

 

Those eyes widened when he lifted her free of her dress and placed her on one of the stone benches in the gazebo. Here he could appreciate the view, her hair coming loose from their pins and curtaining her face as Kate touched his face with delicate fingers as if memorizing the planes and angles he saw in the mirror every day. When she got to his chin, Anthony nipped her thumb, feeling the entire hand and arm tremble as he ran both tongue and teeth along the length as she pulled free.

 

With Kate standing on the bench, Anthony found it convenient placement to rest his head against her stomach, feeling the warmth of her skin against his cheek, the intoxicating scent that drove him so mad he wasn’t sure he wanted to return to sanity. Kate’s hands on his head held him closer, and he turned his face and kissed the bare skin of her stomach. Their eyes met as he dropped to the top of her thigh. The garter and stockings were drawn down a bit at a time, first one leg, then the other. 

 

There were only two pieces of clothing left on Kate when he stood again, holding her eyes with his as Anthony unfastened the hidden caches on the lavender underthings. No fear or uncertainty shone in the amber depths, just excitement and perhaps nerves. It was hard to tell if she was flushing in the dim lighting, standing there in nothing but stays. Anthony worshiped her with his eyes, anticipating when he would be able to put his hands where his eyes lingered. There wasn’t an inch of skin he didn’t want to touch.

 

Tearing his eyes off Kate for the two seconds it took to grab the throws and pillows was the hardest thing he ever did, but even that cushioning was better than the ground. Kate’s amused quirk of her brow reminded Anthony of how ridiculous he probably looked with his suspenders drooping at his sides as he fussed with blankets. That amusement faded when he lifted Kate off the bench, letting her slide the length of his body until they were face-to-face again, noses touching as they sank to the ground.

 

Anthony groaned as he lowered Kate to the blankets, her hands exploring his chest even as their lips met in a more intense kiss. This one was different; the segue into another phase. Kate wasn't a shy maiden, ignorant of her own body's needs. He could tell in how she responded to his hand at the curve of her hip that she wasn't overwhelmed with the sensations but allowed him to guide her towards a known destination. This may be a route she had never sailed, but Anthony was happy to be that vessel. The journey would be unique for him, a first and a last in more than one way. 

 

Sparing a moment of irritation for his pant, Anthony reminded himself of their location. Keeping an ear out for any servant who could come out to see why a single light flickered in the gardens or -god forbid- a family member came looking for him, Anthony needed to be ready to intercept them. A single, barked order to leave could save both of them a lot of uncomfortable questions. 

 

Slipping his hand from Kate’s hip to the junction of her legs, Anthony never broke their kiss, the dance of lips and tongues that allowed him to drink her gasp and then the deep moan as his fingers contacted the slick heat of her center.

 

She was already close, Anthony realized as he slid a finger into her and felt her body quiver.  He remembered a similar quiver when he asked her at Aubrey Hall if she knew all the ways a woman could be seduced. Anthony pushed himself upright, removing his hand from her body and his mouth from hers. Baffled eyes blinked open, and he crawled backward, making his destination clear. Comprehension dawned when he kissed her inner thigh. Kate gulped. He saw her throat work even as she nodded.

 

Anthony realized that Kate wasn’t the only one on the brink as his tongue tasted the salt-sweet of her arousal. Confined by his trousers, he couldn’t remember the last time he was so hard it was almost painful. He put it from his mind as Kate’s body tensed around him, muscles clenching even as he saw her hand reach for his. Their hands locked together, and Anthony increased his intimate kiss, pressing his tongue harder, and the grip on his hand tightened. He watched, heard, tasted, and felt her release as if they shared the same body. Only the continued tension in his muscles reminded him only one of them was falling into a haze of lassitude.

 

Anthony didn’t know what to do for the first time in memory. What was right was at war with what he wanted.  His breathing was harsh in the quiet of the gardens. The hand clasping his pulled, trying to draw him back up where Kate’s chest still rose and fell fast. He would let her decide. Anthony knew any choice was ultimately hers as he tore at the buttons of his trousers with his free hand. If she didn’t want to cross this particular line, well…there were other ways. A single touch of her hand would probably make short work of him.

 

Kate’s legs spread further, and he settled just shy of the perfect angle to join their bodies. Every muscle in his body felt as hard as his erection as Anthony held himself above her. Thick lashes lay against cheeks still warm and flushed. For the first time since this dance began, Anthony spoke with more than just body language, a hoarse, “Kate….”

 

Their eyes met, and he allowed himself to brush against the heat of her, jaw clenched when all he wanted was to sink in and lose himself. Kate blinked rapidly, an instant of awareness, and her answer was in those dark eyes as much as the slight nod. Arms came around him, embracing and pulling him down even as her mouth opened, accepting and returning the searing kiss. Even her legs pulled him closer, accepting and welcoming him.

 

Mimicking his tongue’s slow, smooth motions in Kate’s mouth, Anthony pushed forward a little more with each probing kiss. His skin felt like it was on fire, and his nerves were tense like piano wires as he forced himself into a pace that looked leisurely. Attuned to her every movement, touch, and breath, Anthony felt for any pain he may cause her, but there was no sudden tensing of muscles or change in any of a million points where their bodies met. When he finally was buried fully within her, Anthony exhaled a shaking breath of relief. He imagined this a hundred times, no a thousand times, and the reality was better than his active imagination could anticipate. 

 

Unable to stop, Anthony began moving, and, amazingly, he felt Kate responding around him, her desire building again. One hand clutched his hair as their breathing became gasps. No longer kissing, Anthony could only hold his lips against hers as he reined in his climax, giving her the time to catch up. Forehead to forehead, Anthony’s gasps took in the air of her breathy moans. They shared everything right down to the same air. Like a horse race, she clung to him as her completion flew down the backstretch, overtaking him and carrying him across the finish line. As she clutched him to her with every muscle, inside and out, Anthony surged forward one last time as he came so hard that the orgasm erupted not just from his hips and groin but also his entire spine as he poured himself into Kate even as she spasmed around him. 

 

Heart pounding so hard he could hear the blood rushing in his ears, Anthony shuddered with the aftereffects. A hand rested against his chest, where his heart thudded. It was Kate soothing him, bringing him back to himself. He shifted slightly to rest his weight on one elbow to cover her hand with his own. Her free hand smoothed the damp hair at his temple back, and he wished there were words in the English language that would articulate what was going through his mind. 

 

They didn’t speak as their combined breathing slowed to something close to normal.  Anthony gathered Kate to him and rolled enough so he wouldn’t crush her. After countless casual encounters, he couldn’t remember a time he felt as emotionally stripped and vulnerable. His eyes opened, and Kate looked as drained as he felt. Spent. Emotionally, physically, and sexually spent. Tomorrow, he thought firmly. Tomorrow they would talk about the future, but tonight he would enjoy this small oasis of peace listening to the haunting call of a nightingale. Kate's eyes searched his, darker in the dimming candlelight. Like him, Kate didn't break the calm with words. Linking his fingers with hers, Anthony brought their joined fingers to his lips before reaching behind him blindly, grabbing one of the blankets he tossed and yanking it over them, cocooning their bodies from the world. Sleep crept up on them, and the candles slowly guttered out.