He stroked her arm. “If you tell me you’re certain . . .”

“I’m certain. All my life I’ve kept a safe distance from my own emotions. No longer. If fear is part of this, then I want to feel fear. Pain, as well. And joy and anxiousness and need and pleasure and . . . and everything, all at once. I want to experience all of it, and I want it with you.”

A finality settled on his features. “Then you’ll have it.”

Yes. Feeling triumphant, Diana relaxed back onto the bed, stretching her limbs in a sinuous plea for his touch.

He caressed her with his eyes first, sweeping a determined gaze over her body.

“Do you understand pleasure?” His hand eased between her thighs, cupping her sex through her shift. “This will go much easier if you reach climax first.”

He asked her the question so baldly. Even hopefully. She answered with the truth. “Yes.”

She arched her back, pushing into his touch.

“Yes,” he said. “Show me what pleases you.”

Her boldness faltered. There was admission, and then there was demonstration. But she pressed her eyes closed, gathered her courage, and reached down to cover his hand with her own. She didn’t guide him under her shift but pressed his fingers to her flesh through the muslin, working the smooth, strong friction in just the right place.

Once he’d established a rhythm, she relaxed her grip and melted against the mattress. He kissed her breasts, her ears, her neck. His skillful touch and talented mouth were arousing sensations different from any she’d ever experienced. This wasn’t a moment’s gratification in the bathing tub. This was an ocean. A vast sea of pleasure, swirling around her, lifting and tossing her in ways she couldn’t control.

The only course was surrender.

Her breath grew ragged, and she writhed, uneasy, on the bed. He fitted his mouth over her nipple and drew hard, teasing the tip with wicked lashings of his tongue. The joy was so acute. A delicious urgency bloomed and spread through her whole body. She dug her heel into the mattress, rolling her hips to meet his touch.

“Yes,” he whispered, abandoning one nipple just long enough to catch the other. “That’s it.”

He removed his hand from between her legs. She whimpered at the deprivation, until he moved to cover her with the full length of his body. He still wore his trousers, but the sheer heat and weight of him were sensual gifts. The hair on his chest teased her sensitized nipples. His hips nudged her thighs wide, and then the smooth, thick column of his trapped erection settled snug in her cleft.

Yes. This. The firm, perfect pressure was just what she’d needed. He moved against her in a slow, tantalizing rhythm, and she rode his motions.

“Aaron.” She clutched at his shoulders and neck, holding on for her life as the pleasure tugged her in ten different directions.

And then it all came together in one brilliant, shattering wave of joy.

No sooner had her climax ebbed than he was backing away, yanking at the buttons on his trousers and cursing his boots as he stripped to his skin. He pushed her shift to the waist, gazing boldly on her most intimate places. But before she could think to squirm or shy from him, he’d settled atop her again.

His thighs were hard against hers, and covered with hair, much like his chest. The smooth, broad crown of his manhood prodded at her core.

He groaned. “I . . . I don’t know that I can wait much longer.”

His hips flexed, and he pushed forward.

She buried her face in his neck, determined not to cry out.

He cursed. “It will be better next time. I promise.”

It hurt. It hurt fiercely—so much that only the tang of blood made her aware that she’d bitten her lip.

It will be better next time, she consoled herself as a series of slow, persistent thrusts took him deeper. Brought them closer. It will be better next time.

But once she’d reconciled herself to the promise of Next time. . .

This time started to feel rather good.

She wouldn’t climax again. That wasn’t even a question. But the sublime feeling of being needed, desired, loved with such vigor and passion . . . this was a new, intoxicating pleasure all its own. She held him tight, loving the feel of his flexing, straining muscles as he buried his length deep at the heart of her, then strove to go deeper still.

His motions quickened, grew less elegant and controlled. Her breathing was labored in a way that would have alarmed her in her youth.

He kept his weight balanced on his elbows, and she curled her neck to kiss him on the chest, the neck . . . anywhere she could reach. She ran her tongue along his collarbone, feeling brazen and seductive.

With a strangled groan, he slid one hand to her backside, holding her tight for a final barrage of thrusts. His face twisted into a mask of torturous pleasure.

At last, he slumped atop her, growling and shuddering with the force of completion. Filling her deep.

He remained inside her, slowly softening as his labored breath caressed her neck.

He was quiet and still for a long, long time. Because they’d earned this, too—this refuge in each other. In all her life, she’d never felt so perfectly loved and safe.

“You can’t know,” he finally whispered into her hair. “You can’t know how long I’ve wanted this.”

She turned her head, seeking his kiss. “I think I have some idea.”

Diana slept late the next morning. She assumed everyone in the Queen’s Ruby would.

She’d been back safe in her own bed for less than an hour before the carriages had rattled into the village center. The girls had come tromping up the stairs, giggling and whispering to one another. It would seem they’d managed to have their fun without Diana’s help. She was glad of it. Part of her had been tempted to come out of her room and ask for all the details. She wanted to hear all the news of Kate and Minerva.

But she’d decided there would be time enough for those questions in the morning. Her night with Aaron had left her blissfully sapped of strength, and she was supposed to be ill.

So when Charlotte had opened her door a crack and whispered a cautious “Diana?”she hadn’t answered but pretended to be asleep. And then she’d fallen asleep in truth.

She slept hard. Her body had earned it.

When she woke, she could hear the sounds of breakfast. Her chamber was situated directly above the dining room, and she knew well that distant murmur of porcelain and cutlery, delivered on air scented of buttered toast.

She rose, washed, and dressed in her favorite frock, then clattered down the stairs.

She floated down the stairs.

She was in love. She was getting married. She would have a sweet little cottage in this village she’d come to think of as home, and she and Aaron would build a life and a family together. It might not be the future her mother had planned, but it was more happiness than Diana had ever dreamed she’d grasp.

And by the end of today, everyone would know the truth.

In the corridor, she slowed, intrigued by the sounds coming from the dining room.

A roar of shushing ensued. There was a rattle of panicked flatware.

Then Diana turned the corner and entered the dining room, and everyone fell completely, eerily silent.

“My goodness,” she said. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

One of the girls set down her spoon. “See, I told you she’d know nothing about it. It couldn’t have been her.”

“Hush, Fanny.” Miss Price cleared her throat and looked Diana over. “You look quite well this morning, Miss Highwood. One would never know you were ill last night.”

“Thank you.” Diana spoke slowly, not liking the suspicious tone in Miss Price’s voice. “I am feeling much improved.”

All of the ladies regarded her warily, even as they sent speaking glances to each other.

Oh, Lord. They knew. They all knew. Someone had noticed her sneaking out to see Aaron. Or sneaking back in afterward.

“I don’t believe it of her,” one girl whispered.

“But it couldn’t have been anyone else,” another replied.

“It’s probably a compulsion. I’ve heard of it happening with some girls. They know it’s wrong, but they can’t help themselves.”

No, no, no. Diana wasn’t suffering any compulsion. She was in love. She was floating. That’s what she’d wanted everyone to see today. Not sordidness.

Instead, they all looked at her sideways and whispered behind their hands.

This was ruination, she realized. Her twenty-three years of delicate refinement didn’t matter anymore. Everyone stared at her with revulsion and fear in their eyes. As though her pretty blue frock had been soiled with soot—and if they came too close, it might stain them, too.

She felt truly ill now. What would they think of her? What would this mean for Charlotte?

One thing was certain—their image of the perfect Miss Highwood was now irretrievably shattered.

Miss Price elbowed her neighbor. “Do it. Someone has to ask.”

“I’ll do it. I’m the landlady. It should be me.” Dear old Mrs. Nichols rose from her seat and clasped her hands together in an attitude of prayer. “Diana, dear,” she began gently. “Did you have anything to tell us? Anything at all, about last night?”

The rain was back. With a vengeance.

Aaron didn’t know what to do with himself. All the Queen’s Ruby ladies would surely be sleeping in today, Diana included. He couldn’t go call on her until late afternoon, and there wasn’t much sense braving this downpour to go anywhere else. He’d looked in on Mr. Maidstone early that morning, after walking Diana back to the rooming house.

He decided to start on a wrought-iron gate for the front garden. He’d long been planning to replace the humble wooden one. He’d just never found the time.

Today, he had all the time he wished.

He built a roaring fire in the forge and took out a length of squared stock. To make spiraling balusters for the gate, he needed to heat the iron to a glowing yellow, crank furiously to secure it in a table vise, grasp the end of the rod with tongs, then twist the metal in as many rotations as he could manage before it cooled.

Then repeat the whole business again. And again.

It was hard, sweaty work—and just the distraction he needed today.

He’d been at it for an hour or two when he saw a figure hurrying up the lane. Who would come out in this weather? He hoped it wasn’t the Maidstone girl again, come to tell him her father had taken a turn for the worse.

But when the door burst open, in came Diana.

She removed her cloak and hung it on a peg near the door, then played stork by standing on one foot, then the other, tugging off the canvas gaiters covering her shoes.

Aaron merely stood and stared, letting his rod of twisted iron go cool in the vise. “You shouldn’t be out in this weather. You’ll catch cold.”

Perhaps he should have greeted her with Good day, or What a pleasant surprise, or Did I tell you last night that I love you to the depths of my soul? But he couldn’t be bothered with pleasantries now. She’d pledged herself to him, always. He wanted “always” to be a long, long time.

“I just needed to see you. To talk to you. It couldn’t wait.” She hurried toward him.

He cursed his thoughtlessness again. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to bark at you. But have a care for your hem and slippers.”

He nodded at the ground.

She’d crossed from the paved half of the smithy and trod straight onto the cinders, dragging her damp flounce through the packed soot. That sort of soil was near impossible to clean. Anyone who saw it would know where she’d been.