Last, he put that gold and ruby ring back into the lockbox and shut it tight. There’d be no theatricals or parties for him today. He had work to do, and there was no way around it.

He was who he was.

As for whether Diana would have him—he could only pray she’d give him another chance to ask.

Several fatiguing, bloody hours later, Aaron rode through the village on his way back. It was out of his way, but something wouldn’t let him go home until he passed by the cheerful façade of the Queen’s Ruby, with its begonia-stuffed window boxes and green shutters.

He stared up at the window he knew to be hers. Dark, like all the others. Ambervale was a few hours’ distance, and it would likely be almost dawn before the ladies returned home. Aaron hated to imagine what Diana would think of him, promising to attend and then failing to appear. He should have thought to send word at least, but there hadn’t been time.

Well, there was nothing for it but to apologize tomorrow.

He nudged his horse and turned down the lane that led home. As he neared the cottage, he saw a weak light burning from within. Strange. In his hurry, he must have neglected to extinguish his lamp before leaving.

He took his time putting up the horse, making sure the mare had water, feed, and a good brushing down. Then Aaron had a glance at himself and grimaced. The fresh new shirt he’d worn for the occasion was spattered with blood. He gave a grim chuckle, thinking of how he’d been so careful not to mar it with the smallest drop from his shaving accident.

Right there by the pump, he yanked the shirt loose of his waistband, pulled it over his head, and cast it into a bucket of water to soak. No use bringing the thing inside. Then he doused his own head, torso, and hands, washing away all the evidence of that evening’s miserable, bloody work. Finally, he stood erect, pushed the water from his face and hair, and went into the cottage.

She was there. Sitting at his table, head rested on her stacked arms.

She woke with a start, her eyes wide and unfocused until they settled on him. “Aaron. You’re here.”

“I’m here. And you’re here. What about Ambervale?”

“I told everyone I had a miserable headache and begged Miss Bertram to read my part. I didn’t go.”

“We heard from one of the inn’s girls about Mr. Maidstone’s accident. And I knew you’d be called to help. How is he?”

Aaron sighed and rubbed his jaw. “He’ll live. His leg’s set as best I could manage. It was a bad break, and it will take months to heal. But if he gives it time, it should heal cleanly.”

“Seeing your face is a relief. I worried what you’d think when I didn’t come.”

“I wanted to come help you, but I decided I’d only be in the way. But I knew you’d be famished once it was over. And perhaps needing some company, too.” She averted her gaze, and her eyelashes fluttered.

It suddenly occurred to him that he was standing before her shirtless. And that she’d noticed. Her wide-eyed, sleepy gaze wandered over every damp contour of his arms and chest. But she sat between him and the bedchamber, where all his other clothing hung. Improper as it was for her to see him half dressed, he couldn’t clothe himself without drawing imprudently near . . . so he simply did nothing at all.

Well, he did clear his throat.

Her gaze snapped up to his face.

She pushed to her feet. “I brought over some dinner.” As she indicated the covered dishes on the table, her mouth pulled to the side in a self-deprecating smile. “Don’t worry, I didn’t cook it myself. It’s just odds and ends from the Queen’s Ruby kitchen.”

He didn’t know what to say—the fact that she’d known, that she’d given up the evening’s amusement to be with him. Her thoughtfulness wasn’t any sort of surprise, but still . . . His heart insisted it meant so much more.

And she was so damned beautiful. Whatever gown or costume she’d been meant to wear for the theatrical, it had been hung away again. She wore one of her simplest, everyday frocks. But her hair was still put up in careful coils and ringlets, like an artifact of the revelry she’d forfeited tonight.

He drew close and caught a lock of that lovely golden hair, wrapping it around his finger. “I’m sorry you missed the outing.”

“I’m not sorry.” She swallowed hard. “I mean, it couldn’t be helped.”

“Of course it could. You needn’t have stayed home. I know you were looking forward to seeing your sister and your friends.”

“I was mostly looking forward to you.”

He skimmed a touch down her cheek, overwhelmed—and at a loss to imagine what he’d ever done to deserve those words. To deserve this woman.

“Well, then. Perhaps I should get some plates and—“

He pulled her into a kiss.

He was hungry, yes. Hungry for her. His soul was starved for just this.

He’d been returning to this house, to this very room, every night of his life. But this was the first time in a long time it felt like truly coming home.

She was soft and welcoming. She smelled so damned good.

He cinched an arm tight about her slender waist, trapping her arms against his bare chest. Her fingertips explored, stroked, caressed. And then slowly slid upward, until she wreathed her arms about his neck and held him tight.

They kissed and touched. He put a hand to her breast, kneading and shaping. She sighed, arching into his caress. Begging for more. He pulled her up against him, insinuating one thigh between her legs. She rewarded him with a husky moan and a deep, demanding kiss.

It was night. They were alone, and no one was going to interrupt them. In the other room, a bed beckoned. He was already half undressed. It didn’t take a fortune-teller to see where this was going.

He murmured, “If you don’t want this . . .”

He couldn’t even complete the sentence. Want this, he silently pleaded. Want this—want me, want this life we could share—as much as I want you.

“I want this,” she whispered. Her hips rolled against the firm slope of his thigh, sending streaks of raw lust through him. “Aaron, I . . . I want it so much.”

“I had a question I meant to ask you tonight.”

“I know.” Her blue eyes tipped up, meeting his gaze directly. “I came here to say yes.”

Because there was nothing left to say. If she wanted him, he was hers. Tonight, tomorrow, always.

He swept her off her feet and into his arms. Her little shriek of laughter delighted him. He’d been wanting to do that since the first.

As he laid her down, he wished he had a better bed. A plusher mattress on a hardwood frame. Softer linens and quilts. But none of these misgivings were enough to dampen his lust. Not in the least. As he slid a hand under her skirts, his cock felt like a rod of steel in his trousers. He hadn’t known this pitch of erotic desperation since he was a youth of sixteen.

Nevertheless, he resolved to take things slowly. He knew her pleasure must come first, or it wasn’t likely to happen at all.

As he fumbled with the hooks down the back of her frock, nerves swarmed him like agitated bees. He hoped to God he could make this good for her. He’d never bedded a virgin. Hell, he hadn’t been with any woman in quite some time.

He’d spent his youth working too hard to chase after girls. Eventually, a friendly widow in the next village had taken him in hand—and taken him in plenty of other ways, teaching him the lay of the female landscape. They’d had an easy friendship, but he’d broken it off when he’d started courting the schoolteacher. And after the schoolteacher had dropped him, he’d wasted a few evenings carousing in town to soothe his wounded pride.

And that was the sum of it.

Here he was, a virile, red-blooded man of seven-and-twenty, and he could count his lovers on one hand. His hand, of course, being the most familiar lover of all.

Diana’s hands were a welcome improvement. They were soft. So soft, and so wonderfully curious. As he tugged down the bodice of her frock, she skimmed inquisitive touches up his arms, across his shoulders, down the planes of his chest. Awakening his every nerve and whipping his heartbeat to a gallop.

He removed her frock and carefully laid it aside, leaving her clad in a sweet, simple chemise and stockings. Silk stockings, from the feel of them. He ran a hand up her calf, imagining the feel of her legs locked around his waist. Just the thought made him groan with anticipated pleasure.

“You like them?” she asked. “They’re my best.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t change when you decided to stay home.” He touched the edge of her ribbon garter, but he didn’t untie it.

She gave him a kittenish smile. “Oh, I did change. I put these on for you.”

Lust streaked through him, nearly cleaving him in half. Neither of them were even naked yet, and he was already primed to spill.

“God, I love you.” It wasn’t the eloquent confession she deserved. But something in him had to erupt, and words seemed the safest quantity.

She laughed and kissed him. As their tongues danced, he sent his fingers to undo the tiny buttons queued down the front of her shift. There were hundreds, it seemed.

At last he’d loosened enough of those buttons to draw the edges apart and slide his hand inside.

He was a smith. He worked with hard, solid, unforgiving materials all day long. But this . . . Ah, this was softness.

Nothing could compare to the sensation of her breast filling his hand. Nothing. He stroked, lifted, kneaded, teased. He couldn’t get enough of touching her.

He dropped his head, trailing kisses down her neck and breastbone, wrenching the edges of her shift aside until the rest of the buttons popped free. He paused just long enough to register the color of her nipple—a pale, tawny pink—before taking it in his mouth.

She gasped and sighed. Her fingers wove tight in his hair.

With one hand, he raised the hem of her shift, taking time to savor the glide of silk before seeking the delicate folds of her sex. She parted her thighs with an eager innocence, but from there progress slowed.

She was so small, so tight. Just working a single finger into her sheath took ages. And as men went, Aaron knew he was on the larger side. His past lovers had been glad of it. But in this situation . . .

Gathering all of his patience, he stroked that single finger in and out, all the while suckling her breasts and rubbing the heel of his palm against her pearl. Her erotic, breathy moans encouraged him, as did the increasing heat.

But when he tried to add a second finger, she tensed all over.

He withdrew his touch at once, cursing his rough workman’s hands. He drew her shift down, covering her to the knees.

“I don’t want you to fear this. And I can’t bear to cause you any pain.” The words were hell to get out, but he knew he must. “Perhaps we should wait.”

Her blue eyes glistened with emotion. Her kiss-swollen lips parted, spilling the most un-Diana-Highwood words he’d ever heard her speak.

Diana savored his blank look of surprise.

He wasn’t accustomed to such language from her. She wasn’t accustomed to using such language. But on this point, propriety could go hang. She wouldn’t leave any room for ambiguity.

She struggled up on her elbow, turning onto her side so that they faced one another on the bed. “Aaron, I was attracted to you from our first acquaintance. Infatuated with you not long after. But I fell in love with you because you put the reins in my hands. You trusted me to know my own mind, and you gave me the courage to follow my heart. That’s the reason I’m here tonight.”