But when the pleasure ripped through him, his eyes squeezed shut of their own accord. The fierce jolts of ecstasy sent him someplace dark, and then someplace bright . . .
And then somewhere utterly blank.
Her sweet embrace brought him back. That, and the relentless drumming of the rain.
Somehow he managed to carry her to the table and set her down on the planked surface. He pulled up his trousers and slumped next to her, weak all over.
No more work was getting done on that gate today.
Shaking off the postcoital lethargy, he turned and met her gaze. “If you don’t . . . I . . .”
“No,” she jumped to assure him. “I didn’t mean that way. I have no regrets about today. Or last night. None at all.”
He exhaled with relief. “Whatever the problem, I’ll mend it. That’s what I do. I mend things.”
“Whatever it is, whatever it takes, I will mend it. If you don’t know it by now . . .” He drew a sooty line down her cheek. “Diana, I love you more than my life.”
She bit her lip. “That’s just it. My life’s at stake. I may be charged with a felony.”
After long, tense moments, he finally gave her one.
She only wished this were a laughing matter. “It’s not a joke, I’m afraid. I’m under quite serious suspicion.”
She sat tall on the table, letting her legs dangle over the edge. “When I came down from my chamber this morning, all the ladies were in the dining room. They were whispering about me among themselves. I thought they must have found out about us, about last night. But that wasn’t it. Mrs. Nichols accused me of something entirely different. They think I’ve been stealing.”
“Stealing?” He frowned, all amusement gone from his eyes. “You?”
“There’s been a rash of small things gone missing from the rooming house.”
He nodded. “Charlotte told me about that.”
He waved off the question. “Not important now. Go on.”
As she spoke, she tugged at her soiled bodice, pulling it straight. “Last night, while all the ladies were gone to Ambervale, several more items disappeared. This time, some were valuable. Miss Price is missing a gold brooch, and a guinea was stolen from Mrs. Nichols’s own desk. And since I was the only lady who stayed home . . .”
“You couldn’t have been the only one there. What about the maids?”
She shook her head. “Only Matilda was there, and she slept in the same room as Mrs. Nichols. If she’d stirred, the landlady would have noticed. In their eyes, I’m the only one who could have taken the things.”
“Of course I didn’t,” she said. “I’ve never stolen in my life. It’s clear no one wants to believe it was me, but it seems the only logical explanation. They think I’ve developed a compulsion of some kind. Some sort of illness that drives me to steal.”
She exhaled heavily and wove her hands into a tight lattice of interlaced fingers. “Miss Price has requested a magistrate. I have no choice but to tell them the truth. I’ll tell them it couldn’t have been me, because I was here with you, all night long.”
His eyes flared. “What? Diana, you can’t tell them that.”
The vehemence of his reply took her by surprise. He pushed off the table and went to the forge, raking the coals of the dying fire and feeding it new splits of wood.
“I don’t think I have a choice,” she said. “It is the truth.”
“Yes. And if you tell them, you will be ruined. In truth.”
“Better to be a ruined woman than a suspected thief. Don’t you agree?”
He didn’t agree, nor give any response at all.
“That missing brooch is gold, Aaron. It’s worth a great deal. Thieves are hanged for stealing less.”
“No one’s going to hang you. You’re not a thief. The items will turn up, or someone else will confess. They have no evidence, only suspicion.” He approached her and put his hands on her shoulders. Their weight settled, heavy as a yoke. “Why tell everyone about last night and invite uncharitable gossip?”
She shrugged. “Perhaps I don’t care about the gossip.”
“Then try a little harder.” Diana was frustrated now. Hadn’t he promised to trust that she knew her own mind?
She tried to explain. “When I came downstairs this morning and saw them all staring at me, I thought we were found out. For a moment, I was stricken by sheer terror. I was certain I’d be ruined. But then something changed. Once I’d resigned myself to the inevitability . . . I felt strangely free. Unashamed, excited. Aaron, I want people to know.”
“Well, I don’t. Not like this.” He released her and began pacing the smithy.
She watched him, perplexed. “I don’t understand. Aren’t we planning to marry?”
“Aye, but I wanted to wed you in a respectable fashion. If they hear about this, people will think we only married because I seduced you and you had no choice.”
“So this is about your pride,” she said. “Your reputation, not mine.”
“It’s both, Diana. But yes, I have a reputation, too. People respect me in this village. This is my home.”
“I hope it will be my home, as well.”
“Then think this through. What if word gets around London that you were defiled by a local craftsman? Good families might stop sending their young ladies to Spindle Cove. The whole village would suffer, and it would be my fault. I might not be able to support you then.”
This probably wasn’t the time to remind him that her dowry, while modest by aristocratic standards, could keep them comfortable for decades. He would only receive it as another insult.
“Aaron, I don’t know what to say. Except that perhaps you should have thought about all this before you carried me to your bed last night.”
He rubbed his mouth. “I wasn’t thinking last night. Obviously.”
Diana struggled to not take offense. She tried, very hard, to interpret his words in the kindest possible light.
When she’d come to his cottage last night, she’d done so with forethought and a full knowledge of the risks. However, he’d been taken by surprise to find her there. And he’d been in a vulnerable state, after a long day spent grappling with mortality and fatigue. Perhaps if he’d had time to think it all through, he would have sent her home and not made love to her.
But even so . . . How could he regret it now? What they’d shared had been so wonderful. At least, it had been wonderful for her. She felt ready to be with him, marry him, pledge her life to him.
Maybe he didn’t feel as ready as she did.
“Aaron, I understand if you’re afraid. I’m frightened, too. We knew it wouldn’t be easy to announce our plans, even under the best of circumstances. But I don’t see a way around telling the truth.”
“It’s easy,” he said. “We wait. In a day or two, this theft business is sure to be resolved. Then I’ll propose to you properly.”
“What if this theft business isn’t resolved? If I’m asked to explain myself, I’m stuck. My choices are between ‘suspected thief’ and ‘known fornicator.’ No matter what, I’m never going to be ‘Perfect Miss Highwood’ again. And it may seem strange, but I’m happy about that. I’m ready to just be me.” She looked him in the eye. “So there’s the question, I suppose. Do you love me? Or just some precious, perfect idea of me?”
His fingers tamed a stray lock of her hair. “Of course I love you. Perfect or not, I think the world of you, Diana. That’s why I can’t bear for our friends and neighbors to think something less.” He swept a gesture down her soiled frock. “I don’t want them believing you’re this kind of girl.”
She flung her arms wide. “Apparently, I am this kind of girl. And you didn’t seem to mind ten minutes ago.”
“That’s different. You know it’s different. There’s what happens between the two of us, and then there’s parading it for public view. We know how we feel, but to anyone else . . .” He cringed at his dark handprint sprawled lewdly over her breast. “You look like a lightskirt who’s entertained a gang of colliers.”
She recoiled, stung. “And yet I didn’t feel truly dirty until just this moment.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I know exactly what you mean. You want a lightskirt in your bed at night, and by day you want a perfect virgin.” She pressed a hand to her heart. “But I need a man who knows me. Who wants me. And who isn’t afraid or ashamed for the world to see it.”
“So now I’m ashamed?” His gesture was impatient. “Diana, our night together wouldn’t be such a scandal if anyone—your friends, family, neighbors—suspected that you care for me. But they haven’t seen the slightest evidence of that. Have they?”
The edge of accusation in his voice cut her deeply. He was right, she supposed. If she had been more forthright about her feelings for Aaron, the truth of last night wouldn’t come as such a surprise. For that matter, she wouldn’t have needed to lie about a headache in the first place.
“I . . . I’m not a woman who bares her feelings easily.” Out of habit, she reached for the vial hanging about her neck. It wasn’t there. Her fingers closed on air, and she felt bereft with nothing to cling to. “I’ve always been reserved.”
“Reserved,” he echoed. “Until this past week, you barely acknowledged me when we crossed paths in the lane. I’ve never taken offense. But now you call me ashamed? You know that’s not fair.”
All Diana knew was that she had to leave.
With shaking fingers, she put her clothing to rights as best she could and headed for the door. If he would abandon her to face false accusations of thievery before admitting to his own true actions, there seemed nothing more to discuss. She was on her own.
“Don’t go away angry,” he said, his tone gentler than before. “We’ll reside in this village for the rest of our lives, God willing. In a week, any absurd accusations of theft will be forgotten. But if you tell everyone about last night, the gossip will linger for years. I just want to be careful, that’s all.”
“I’ll be careful. I have a great deal of practice being careful. Don’t worry, Aaron.” She whirled her cloak about her shoulders and secured it tight in front. “I’ll make it home with these stains unseen. No one needs to know about us. Ever.”
She slammed the door, and Aaron’s ribs rattled with the force of the crash.
Damn. He hadn’t handled that well.
With two sisters in his care, Aaron had been on the receiving end of some feminine fury in his life. But Diana’s was a first-rate exit. One that begged, Chase after me. Grovel and plead and promise to give me anything I ask, everything I need.
He had every intention of doing just that.
Curse it, he never should have made that remark about lightskirts. He’d sounded disgusted by her, when in reality he was only disgusted with himself.
This entire situation was his fault. He never should have allowed her to stay last night. If another man had treated Diana—or any woman, for that matter—this way, Aaron would have raised hell. And the entire village knew it. He was the resident big brother. He protected the female contingent of Spindle Cove. But he’d failed to look out for the woman he loved.