With this man there was an edge to the excitement. Where she trusted Radcliffe not to hurt her, she instinctively knew this man did not worry overmuch about any consequences. He could ruin a woman without regret. Radcliffe would never do so.
His sense of right and wrong was too strong.
"Does the blush go all the way down?" he whispered seductively in her ear, and Charlie swallowed as a shiver convulsed her.
Feeling out of her depth, she cast her eyes about in search of Bethand Radcliffe. Her gaze was halfway around the room when she caught a glimpse of a man that made her stumble again, hard. Ralphy! "Are you all right?" he murmured with concern, steadying her.
"I Nay." She managed an apologetic smile. "I fear I have overdone the dancing, my lord. Would you mind terribly if I cried off the rest of this dance?"
"I am shattered. But I should not wish you to faint from overexertion," he murmured gallantly. Taking her arm, he led her off the floor, his gaze sweeping over the ice blue gown she wore with its needlelace trim and silk-lined sashes in a darker blue. "I noticed you had not sat out a single dance since arriving.
Mayhap a cool beverage would revive you," he suggested solicitously as he saw her seated in one of the few empty chairs lining the wall. "Shall I fetch you one?"
"Please," Charlie murmured, her gaze drifting around the room as soon as he moved away. She wasn't sure, but she thought Ralphy had seen her and might approach her now that she was alone.
"There you are!" Beth appeared before her suddenly in the new fawn breeches and coat that had arrived that afternoon. "You are a difficult one to keep track of."
Charlie nearly smiled at that complaint. She knew Beth had known exactly where she was all evening, but had been misdirecting Radcliffe as promised.
Tom had made her job easier by not showing up to need distracting.
"We saw you dancing with Norwich." Radcliffe's disapproval was obvious.
"Norwich?" It took her a moment to realize that he meant her dance partner. "Oh, aye. The heat was affecting me adversely so he went to fetch me a beverage."
"It was more likely the fact that he was holding you too damn close that was affecting you adversely," Radcliffe snapped, then forced a smile. "Come. I think some fresh air may do more to revive you than a beverage and his presence."
"Oh, but" she began, grimacing when he raised an eyebrow at her in question.
"Well, I really would like a drink. Besides, is it not rude to just disappear on him?"
"I shall fetch you a drink in a moment," he promised, urging her toward the doors to the terrace. "As for being rude, it was rude of him to hold you so closely on the dance floor."
"Still, Radcliffe, it does seem unconscionably ill-mannered to simply leave like this," Beth murmured, following them.
"Then, Charles, you should probably stay behind to explain that Elizabeth was feeling faint, needed some air, and is now in my care."
Beth's eyes widened, her footsteps faltering. "Oh, but"
Whatever she wanted to say was lost to them as Radcliffe drew Charlie onto the terrace and closed the doors with a decided snap.
"Self-absorbed, spoiled little whelp," he muttered, leading her to the railing that ran the length of the terrace.
"Are we still talking about Norwich?" Charlie asked with amusement. She had never seen Radcliffe so upset. He was acting almost jealous.
"He should not have risked subjecting you to possible scandal that way."
"Scandal! We were not dancing that closely," Charlie argued with exasperation.
"Had the two of you been unclothed, you would have been making love."
"But I do not love him, and we were not unclothed, and we were no closer than this." The last came out a bit breathlessly as she realized how close they were.
They had gravitated toward each other with each word they had spoken.
Now she smiled at him, unaware of the hunger in her eyes or the seductive quality of her voice as she murmured, "Does that mean if we were unclothed, we would be making love?"
"Elizabeth." Her name was a groan on his lips as he took her in his arms and kissed her with all the pent-up frustration he had experienced that evening as he had watched her flit from the armsof one man to another.
Charlie melted in his arms like chocolate over the fire. Her arms slid up around his neck, her hands gliding into his hair, her lips opening hungrily beneath his. It was hot, sweet, and over quickly. It seemed to her that it had just begun and he was gently setting her away with a groan.
Charlie opened her eyes slowly, disappointment and hunger plain in her eyes.
Seeing it, Radcliffe released a pent-up sigh, then offered her a regretful smile. "Perhaps I should fetch you that punch now," he murmured huskily, then moved away, slipping through the partially open doors they had come through moments earlier.
Charlie watched him go with a sigh of her own. Her body was humming, desire thrumming through her veins like a living thing. She could still taste him on her lips, she realized unhappily as she stared blindly at the dancers swirling by the doors. In comparison, Norwich's effect on her when he had pressed her close on the dance floor had been rather tepid.
Groaning inwardly, she turned away from the windows, only to pause as a movement from the shadows caught her eye. She was tensing in anxiety when a figure suddenly moved into the light from the terrace doors.
"Tomas!" she greeted him with a strangled voice, her eyes shifting instinctively toward the door that Radcliffe had just stepped through. The door that had been open when they'd stopped kissing, but that he had closed behind them when they'd come out. How long had he been standing there watching them?
A hard grasp on her upper arm drew her gaze reluctantly around to see that he now stood before her. And he was furious.
"You did not mention that you and Radcliffe were kissing cousins."
"I he was just" she stammered, her mind searching for and discarding explanation after explanation. Not that Tomas seemed in the mood to listen anyway, she decided with a sigh as he drew her closer in a mockery of an embrace.
"Or is it just that you share your kisses with everyone?"
"Now, Tomas," Charlie tried a soothing tone as she pressed her palms flat against his chest, attempting to ease some space between them. He was neither willing to be soothed nor held at bay. A growl of what Charlie presumed was strangled rage sounded from his throat then his head suddenly swooped down to cover her lips with his own.
Charlie was too stunned to react at first, and then she was too disappointed.
She felt absolutely nothing. His lips were firm and warm and moved across her own with obvious skill, and yet he might as well have kissed a post for all the response he managed to wring from her. The contrast between her lack of response to him and her weak-kneed, fluttery-tummy response to Radcliffe was terrifying to her. What if Radcliffe was the only one who could stir her in that way?
What if no one else could raise her passions?
Recognizing her lack of response, Tomas redoubled his efforts, his tongue sweeping over her lips and pushing into her mouth. Charlie remained pliant in his arms and simply waited, her body remaining stubbornly uninterested.
This was horrible.
A gasp finally brought the tepid embrace to an end. Pulling apart, they turned as one to see Radcliffe standing frozen in the door, a drink in hand. He looked shocked. Frozen even. But no more so than Beth, who stood beside him.
Groaning inwardly, Charlie fatalistically awaited the outburst of rage that was burning in Radcliffe's eyes. There was none, however. As quick as a blink he forced the rage from his face, stepped forward, handed her the drink with a cold, courtly bow, then turned and walked back into the ball.
Sighing, she looked down into the drink briefly, then glanced at Tomas who, taking a page from Radcliffe's book, suddenly bowed toward her with stiff dignity, then walked into the building as well. It figures, Charlie thought wryly. Just like a man. Kiss a girl, then blame her for it. She hadn't asked either man to kiss her, had she? Yet here they were, both of them storming off as if discovering she were some sort of tart. Men! Her gaze slid to Beth to find her glaring daggers. "Oh, for heaven's sake,"
Charlie snapped. "You do not think I asked him to kiss me, do you?"
When Beth's anger wavered, she added, "He came out to see Radcliffe kissing me and"
"Radcliffe kissed you again?"
Charlie waved the question away impatiently. "Aye, and Tomas saw it, waited in the shadows until he left, then gave me a furious kiss of his own. And it was awful."
Beth straightened in offense at that. "Tomas is a very good kisser."
"I am sure he is. But not for me. I did not feel a thing when he kissed me.
What is more, it seemed pretty obvious that he was disappointed in the kiss as well."
Eyes widening, Beth turned and glanced back into the ballroom. "Oh, no,"
she gasped. "He is leaving."
She raced off to chase after him, leaving Charlie alone on the balcony to brood over Tom's lack of effect on her, and her all-too-heated response to Radcliffe.
Surely it was just a fluke? she thought hopefully. Surely Radcliffe was not the only one who could stir a response in her? Perhaps her lack of reaction to Tomas was merely because she'd thought of him as Beth's. Perhaps she already thought of him as a possible brother-in-law?
That possibility gave her great hope. She had quite enjoyed the passion Radcliffe had wrung from her with his kisses. The marital bed would be quite an enjoyable place if it contained anything like those kisses. But if Radcliffe were the only one who could raise those passions, she had a problem.
Charlie turned at that surprised greeting and forced a smile as Lord Norwich stepped out onto the terrace. "My lord."
"Whatever are you doing out here on your own?" he asked with concern.
"I was just thinking, my lord," she answered evasively, and found herself studying him curiously. He was a handsome man and he had raised some response from her earlier. Of course, he wasn't nearly as striking as Radcliffe, but-Scowling, she forced the other man's image from her mind. "Would you kiss me?"
If he was shocked at her question, it was no more so than Charlie herself.
The words popped out before she had even realized that the thought had occurred to her. She wanted to convince herself that Radcliffe was not the only one who could gain a response from her. And, that her lack of response to Tomas was because he was Beth's love interest and therefore almost a brother-in-law.
To that end, it did seem she needed to kiss at least one more man.
Hopefully, Norwich would be able to soothe her fears.
A moment of silence passed as he contemplated her, and quite suddenly Charlie was embarrassed by her forward behavior. Shifting uncomfortably, she cleared her throat. "I am sorry. Please forget that I"
Her words died in her throat as he caught her arm and swept her against his chest in an embrace. Then his lips were on hers, firm and forceful, pressing her head back. Clutching at his shoulders, Charlie gasped in surprise and he took immediate advantage of that, his tongue sweeping in to conquer. He was most masterful, and Charlie felt relief slide over her as she felt the first faint stirrings of a response awaken within her.
It was a short-lived relief. The faint stirring was as much as he could muster from her, and Charlie's heart sank slowly as the embrace continued. Even his caresses did not help. They were pleasant, but did little more than capture her attention. They raised no fire. Fanned no flames. Left her lukewarm, not feverish. It was most distressing. Not that Norwich seemed to notice.
While her response was tepid, his was more heated. She could feel how affected he was by the bulge pressing against her stomach.
Norwich released her so abruptly that Charlie stumbled a step or two before regaining her balance and turning in resignation to face the owner of that voice. It figured that Radcliffe would show up again at another inconvenient moment. Really, the man had to work on his timing.
Charlie watched Radcliffe pace the floor with growing irritation. After snapping her name on the balcony, there had been a tense moment as everyone had merely stared at each other; then Radcliffe had snarled that it was time to leave.
Embarrassed at being caughtonce againin a man's embrace, Charlie had rushed silently back into the ballroom. Radcliffe had whirled to follow, then taken her arm in hand and steered her firmly out of the ballroom, the house, andinto his carriage, then had sat in contemptuous silence all the way back to the townhouse. It was that contempt that had slowly worn away Charlie's embarrassment and guilt and begun to awaken a responding anger in herself. An anger that had only grown as hehad marched her tight-lipped into the townhouse, straight to the library where he had slammed the door shut, left her standing before his desk, and begun to pace irately before her.
He had been pacing for a good ten minutes, and aside from being angry Charlie was impatient now as well. It was partially his fault, after all. If he had not kissed her, she never would have realized how important that part of marriage could be. She would not haveHer thoughts died as he suddenly stopped pacing and whirled to face her.
"I do not know what has come over you. Twice tonight I caught you kissing men out on the balcony."
"And once you kissed me yourself," she snapped back, her face flushing with embarrassment despite her anger.
"Aye. Did you think then that meant you could run about kissing everyoue?"
"I hardly did that!" Charlie fought the guilty flush that wanted to color her cheeks. "I did not even kiss Tomas. He kissed me. It was unexpected, and if it makes you any happier, I did not enjoy it in the least."