She wanted this to last and last.

When he did pull away, he made no effort to hide that he was affected, too. It was all there, in his eyes. The deep wellspring of mutual desire and need they’d barely tapped.

“Mr. Dawes,” she sighed. “What do we do?”

She tested it. “Aaron. What do we do?”

He put space between them. “I suppose this is where I should revise the speech I started last night. Remind you that you’re a gentlewoman and I’m a craftsman, and nothing can come of this. And tell you we should just go back to trading longing glances across the green and never speak of this again. But the thing is, I don’t feel like giving that speech this morning.”

“Oh, good,” she said, relieved. “Because I’m not at all in the mood to hear it.”

“We’re both sober. It’s a fine, clear day. You’re a grown woman, and a clever one. I believe you understand the situation. And I’m going to trust that you know your own mind.”

Her heart swelled. What a lovely, lovely gift. No one else had ever done the same.

He put one hand over hers. “We have something, the two of us. I don’t think we could name it quite yet, much less decide what we’d do to keep it. But if you like, we can spend more time together and puzzle it out.”

“I would like that. Very much.”

Goodness. It was settled, then. She had a proper suitor for the first time in her life—and he was a blacksmith. If her mother learned of this, she would be taken with fits.

She added, “But we should probably be discreet. At least for now.”

Something flashed in his eyes, and she was worried she’d offended him. It wasn’t that she was ashamed, of course. Just careful.

She fingered the vial of tincture hanging around her neck. Old habits were difficult to break.

He reached to untie the reins. “I’d best be getting you back to the rooming house. I did promise your mother you wouldn’t freckle.” He gave her a wry wink. “I hear there may be a shilling in it for me.”

Before he could set the team in motion, she rose up on the curricle seat, turned, and forced down the collapsible cover so that sunlight splashed them both.

“There.” She removed her cloak and settled beside him, putting her arm through his. “Now we can go.”

“I’ve assigned all the parts,” Charlotte said, handing copies of the play to the assembled ladies in the Queen’s Ruby. “We’ll read through it once this morning.”

“Heaven knows, there’s nothing else to do,” lamented Miss Price, looking out the window at another rainy day.

Diana looked down at her copy with URSULA labeled at the top. “Really, I didn’t think this was settled. Why am I playing Ursula?”

Charlotte said, “It’s the easiest role in the play, I promise you. The rest of us will be running about screaming and pleading for our lives, and you just stand there and look pure.”

Diana lifted a brow. Pure? Would they still find her the ideal person for this role if they knew she’d been kissing Mr. Dawes in the vicar’s curricle yesterday?

She shook herself. “I’m sorry, what?”

She scanned the first page and found her part, then read aloud in an even voice. “Oh, wreck and woe. My father hath betrothed me to the son of a heathen king. I should sooner die than be so defiled.”

“Do speak up, Diana,” her mother chided from across the room. “No one can hear you. Imagine Lord Drewe is standing just offstage, waiting for his cue.”

“And put emotion into it,” Charlotte added. She stood and flung one arm to the side, pressing the other wrist to her brow. “Oh, wreck and WOE. I should sooner DIE.”

Diana sighed. “I don’t think I possess the dramatic talent for this.”

“Well, perhaps I just don’t feel equal to it today.”

Diana paused. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t hide behind this excuse any longer. But she didn’t want to be sitting here in the rooming house when she could be with Aaron.

Kissing Aaron. Touching Aaron. Embracing Aaron and feeling surrounded by his big, strong arms.

She had no heart to play the martyred virgin right now.

“I knew it,” Mama wailed. “Oh, I knew that sun would do you an ill turn. No more rehearsal for you today. Go straight upstairs and rest. I will not have you falling ill when it’s time for our outing to Ambervale. Do you have any more of that infusion from Lady Rycliff?”

“I’m sure I don’t need an infusion, Mama. But perhaps I will go.” She turned to Miss Bertram. “Would you be so kind as to read my part for today?”

“I think you would make a marvelous Ursula. And you would be doing me a great favor.”

The girl took the booklet from Diana’s hand, smiling shyly. “Well, Mr. Evermoore does love my reading voice.”

Diana tried to soothe her conscience as she left the room. She hadn’t lied. Mama had merely assumed, wrongly, that she felt ill. Just like she assumed, wrongly, that Diana would follow her instructions to go upstairs and rest.

Instead, she gathered her cloak and slipped out the rear door.

As she neared the smithy, a giddy flutter rose in her chest. No horses or wagons in the front meant she’d likely caught him alone. A sheen of perspiration rose on her brow even before she entered the steamy, spark-filled forge.

She entered to find Aaron not pounding at the anvil but hunched over a bit of fine metalwork at his worktable.

“Good morning,” she said, swaying her skirts a bit.

He looked up only briefly and gave her a curt “Good morning” before returning his concentration to his task. “Sorry you’ve caught me in a busy moment. I can’t leave this, or it will cool unfinished.”

“Of course. Should I come back another time?”

A furrow formed in his heavy brow. “No, don’t go. Unless you want to.”

“I’d like to stay.” She settled on her usual stool. “If I won’t be troubling you.”

Now he looked up, and his dark eyes caught hers. “You could never be any kind of trouble.”

Never mind the roaring forge, that look sent heat rushing through her. Oh, dear. And here she was, caught without her fan.

He returned to his labor, and she sat quiet and still. She did love watching him at his work. This was different from his display of brawn and sweat she’d admired the other day. When he worked with fine metal, all that power was pushed through a narrow funnel of concentration.

The result was passion. He had an artist’s passion for his creations. She touched the quatrefoil pendant in her pocket.

He set the piece aside and wiped his brow with his shirtsleeve. He left a black smudge of soot on his temple, and she found it strangely enticing. A mark of that passion, emblazoned on his skin. It spoke of virility in a primal way.

“What are you making?” she asked.

He showed her a silver bracelet, formed of two twining vines. “It’s a special order for a jeweler in Hastings.”

“You’ve been selling your work in Hastings?”

He nodded. “Rye and Eastbourne, too. I’m hoping to expand to Brighton soon.”

He shrugged. “Perhaps. But there’s only one of me. There’s a limit to how much I can do on my own.”

“Have you thought about taking on an apprentice?”

“It’s not working the forge that I need help with, so much as everything else. Fosbury says what I really need is a wi—”

He cut off the word, but Diana completed it in her mind.

What I really need is a wife.

It made sense. Marriage was a partnership in any social class. Among gentry, the lady’s contribution was a dowry or well-placed connections. As a craftsman, Aaron would do well to marry a woman with practical skills to help him manage his household and his business.

They traded awkward glances, and they both seemed to be thinking the same thing. What were they doing here? He wasn’t the kind of suitor her mother would accept, and she couldn’t be the wife he needed. If marriage was impossible, they were only flirting with heartbreak and scandal.

Still, she couldn’t bring herself to leave.

We have something, he’d said yesterday, and he was right. Diana wasn’t ready to give up on it yet.

He went back to his work, raking the fire and pumping the bellows that fueled the forge. “Much as I’d like to take the day off and spend it with you, I have to finish this piece. I’ve promised to deliver it tomorrow.”

“I understand. Is there any way I can help?”

“That’s kind of you to offer, but I’m not going to have you hauling wood and water.”

“Why not? I helped with such things the night Finn was hurt.”

“Aye, but that was an emergency. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied, I never would have allowed it.”

“If you’d tried to send me away, I wouldn’t have listened.” She had a tenacious streak. There had to be something she could do. “Have you eaten your noon meal?”

“Then that’s what I’ll do. While you finish that piece, I’ll prepare a meal. Then we’ll sit down to eat and have time to talk, but I won’t feel I’ve distracted you from your work.”

“Aaron, please. Let me do this. You did say you’d trust that I know my own mind.”

“So I did.” He blew out his breath and wiped his hands on a rag. “Very well, then.”

He turned to the hearth and scooped some red-hot embers with a tiny shovel, then handed the shovel out to her.

She moved to take it, though she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do with it next.

“Yes, of course.” Of course. How could anyone cook without a fire?

“One of the fishermen brought me something fresh from the catch this morning, and there’s fresh butter and cream, as well. Potatoes and onions in the bin. Poke about the cabinets, and I’m sure you’ll find whatever else you need.”

“I could do with a kiss. Will I find one of those in the cabinets?”

“That I have right here.” He tilted his head and gave her a brief, yet exhilarating, kiss.

She clutched the scoop of glowing coals. “I’ll be just fine, you’ll see. Now back to work with you.”

She turned and headed toward the rear door of the forge. Beyond it, a narrow yard separated the smithy from his cottage.

At the sound of her Christian name spoken in that intimate, low baritone, a thrill went through her. She nearly spilled the coals. “Yes?”

“If you need anything, you will ask?”

“Oh, of course I will,” she assured him. “Don’t look so worried. It’s not as though I’ve never done this before.”

Diana had never done this before.

Any of it.

Not light a fire, not clean a fish . . . and most certainly not cook a meal. But she was going to do all this today, and she was going to do it well.

She entered the cottage kitchen. It was a sparely furnished room, but orderly and clean. There was no denying it could do with a woman’s touch—the curtains hanging in the window were recently laundered, but faded.