Phillip walked to her side, absurdly pleased that she seemed truly curious. Most people just feigned interest, or didn’t even bother to pretend and made a quick escape. “It’s an experiment I’ve been working on,” he said, “with peas.”
“The kind we eat?”
“Yes. I’m trying to develop a strain that will grow fatter in the pod.”
She peered down at the pots. Nothing was sprouting yet; he’d only planted the seeds a week ago. “How curious,” she murmured. “I had no idea one could do that.”
“I have no idea if one can,” he admitted. “I’ve been trying for a year.”
“With no success? How very frustrating.”
“I’ve had some success,” he admitted, “just not as much as I’d like.”
“I tried to grow roses one year,” she told him. “They all died.”
“Roses are more difficult than most people think,” he said.
Her lips twisted slightly. “I noticed you have them in abundance.”
“I have a gardener.”
“A botanist with a gardener?”
He’d heard that question before, many times. “It’s no different than a dressmaker with a seamstress.”
She considered that for a moment, then moved farther into the greenhouse, stopping to peer at various plants and scold him for not keeping up with her with the lantern.
“You’re a bit bossy this evening,” he said.
She turned, caught that he was smiling—half-smiling, at least—and offered him a wicked grin. “I prefer to be called ‘managing.’ “
“A managing sort of female, eh?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t deduce as much from my letters.”
“Why do you think I invited you?” he countered.
“You want someone to manage your life?” she asked, tossing the words over her shoulder as she moved flirtatiously away from him.
He wanted someone to manage his children, but now didn’t seem like the best time to bring them up. Not when she was looking at him as if . . .
As if she wanted to be kissed.
Phillip had taken two slow, predatory steps in her direction before he even realized what he was doing.
“What is this?” she asked, pointing to something.
“I know it’s a plant,” she said with a laugh. “If I’d—” But then she looked up, caught the gleam in his eyes, and quieted.
“May I kiss you?” he asked. He would have stopped if she’d said no, he supposed, but he didn’t allow her much opportunity, closing the distance between them before she could reply.
“May I?” he repeated, so close that his words were whispered across her lips.
She nodded, the motion tiny but sure, and brushed his mouth against hers, gently, softly, as one was supposed to kiss a woman one thought one might marry.
But then her hands stole around and touched his neck, and God help him, but he wanted more.
He deepened the kiss, ignoring her gasp of surprise as he parted her lips with his tongue. But even that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to feel her, her warmth, her vitality, up and down the length of him, around him, through him, infusing him.
He slid his hands around her, settling one against her upper back, even as another daringly found the lush curve of her bottom. He pressed her against him, hard, not caring that she would feel the evidence of his desire. It had been so long. So damned long, and she was so soft and sweet in his arms.
He wanted her.
He wanted all of her, but even his passion-hazed mind knew that that was impossible this evening, and so he was determined to have the next best thing, which was just the feel of her, the sensation of her in his arms, the heat of her running along the entire length of his body.
And she was responding. Hesitantly, at first, as if she wasn’t quite sure what she was doing, but then with greater ardor, making innocently seductive little sounds from the back of her throat.
It drove him wild. She drove him wild.
“Eloise, Eloise,” he murmured, his voice hoarse and raspy with need. He sank one hand into her hair, tugging at it until her coiffure loosened and one thick chestnut lock slid out to form a seductive curlicue on her breastbone. His lips moved to her neck, tasting her skin, exulting when she arched back and offered him greater access. And then, just when he’d started to sink down, his knees bending as his lips trailed over her collarbone, she wrenched herself away.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out, her hands flying up to the neckline of her dress even though it wasn’t the least bit out of place.
“I’m not,” he said baldly.
Her eyes widened at his bluntness. He didn’t care. He’d never been particularly fancy with words, and it was probably best that she learned that now, before they did anything permanent.
And then she surprised him.
“It was a figure of speech,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said I was sorry. I wasn’t, really. It was a figure of speech.”
She sounded remarkably composed and almost schoolteacherish, for a woman who had just been so soundly kissed.
“People say things like that all the time,” she continued, “just to fill the silence.”
Phillip was coming to realize that she wasn’t the sort of woman who liked silence.
“It’s rather like when one—”
He kissed her again.
“Sometimes,” he said with a satisfied smile, “silence is a good thing.”