“Never,” she whispered. “I will never stop.”
“I need you,” he replied. “I need this. I don’t know how I will live without it.”
“Never. You will never have to,” she whispered. “I love you.”
He kissed her again, and she realized that he’d stolen more than her heart. More than her breath. He’d taken away her shame.
She was his. And in that knowledge, she found herself. She found her strength.
And it was glorious.
They careened toward pleasure together, hard and fast and finally, finally there, like heaven had opened up and spilled down upon them, pleasure coursing through them, their names on each other’s lips, the ground falling away.
No. Not the ground.
One thin leg had collapsed beneath their combined weight, beneath the force of their pleasure, and the whole thing tipped, sending them sliding off, Lily letting out a little shriek as Alec turned to bear the brunt of the fall, clutching her to him as he landed, hard on the floor, with a deep grunt.
A moment passed while Lily attempted to take stock of the situation—one moment, on the bed in the most magnificent experience of her life and the next, spread across Alec’s chest on the floor of the bedchamber.
Just as she came to terms with the event, a crack sounded and Alec cursed, immediately turning them, putting her back to the floor and covering her with his body as the canopy came down with a mighty crash atop them, a large piece of wood striking him across the shoulders and knocking the nearby table, from which a porcelain squirrel, complete with teacup, smashed to the ground.
Remarkably, it was only then that the dogs barked.
Lily began to laugh. She had never in her life been so happy as she was in that cacophonous disaster of a room, where she finally, finally felt whole. Naked and cold and on the floor . . . in the protective embrace of the man she loved. Not ashamed. Not used.
Not at all lonely, for the first time in forever.
Relief and joy and emotion drove the laughter for long minutes, until Alec moved off her, lifting the canopy from where it had fallen and sitting up, and she realized that she was alone in her amusement. That Alec, instead, was stone-faced.
She stopped laughing and sat up, immediately. “Alec?”
“This was a mistake.”
Cold dread threaded through her, but she did her best to ignore it. To pretend it was something else. “Well, it might be best if we stock sturdier furniture, if we are to have such lovely—”
“Not the bed.”
She did not pretend to misunderstand. She shook her head. “It wasn’t a mistake.”
It could not have been. Nothing that felt so perfect, so right, could be a mistake.
He was not a mistake.
But she . . .
Doubt whispered as he turned away, putting his wide, muscled back to her. He did not look back when he said, “I assure you, it was.”
He stood, magnificent and muscled like a Greek god, and she recalled the story he’d told, suddenly understanding why Endymion might choose endless dreams of his love over the possibility of losing her for even a moment. If given the choice, Lily would sleep now, forever, if it meant having a taste of him.
“We shall have to marry.”
The words came so softly that she nearly didn’t hear them. Or, rather, nearly didn’t believe he’d said them. There had never been words she had wished to hear more. And yet, they destroyed her; the emotion in them—keen, clear regret—was undeniable.
Shall have to.
As though it would be a trial. As though he did not wish it. Of course he wouldn’t wish it.
She was a public scandal. And he, a duke.
She reached for the plaid she’d been wearing, extracting it from beneath the fallen canopy. Wrapping herself in it, wanting to shield herself from the truth.
He cursed, his gaze trailing over the tartan and the bed, destroyed with their lovemaking. “What have I done?” he whispered.
She stood at the shaming, stinging words, refusing to allow them to slay her.
“There is no need for you to marry me,” she said, trying for calm. For cool. Trying to show strength even as the words made her weak.
His brows knit together, the angles of his face sharp in the shadows, and for the first time since he’d broken down her door, she saw the beast in him, wild and frustrated. He replied, but it seemed as though she had not spoken. “We marry. It is the only choice.”
In her dreams, she had imagined this moment. Alec proposing marriage. But in those dreams, he proposed from passion. From love. Never from duty. And certainly never with regret.
Marriage to Alec Stuart, Duke of Warnick, might have been Lily’s greatest desire . . . but she did not want it like this.
She had given him all she had—her love. And it was not enough for him. And so she gave him the only other thing she could.
“You forget, Your Grace, that you cannot force me into marriage.”
His eyes went wide with recognition as she invoked the most important clause in her guardianship agreement. “Lily,” he said, warning in the word.
She turned toward the door, unable to meet his gaze any longer. “I shan’t marry a man who regrets me. I may not deserve better, but I owe myself that.”
She did not expect him to reply. And she certainly did not expect him to reply with such anger. “Goddammit, Lily,” he thundered, deep and low and thick with brogue. She turned back to find the muscles of his broad, bare chest rippling with barely contained fury. “You think I would be the one who regrets? You think it would be me who was shamed?”
“I do,” she said, the words coming on a wave of confusion. “Of course it would be. Marrying Lovely Lily? The ruined Miss Muse? What worse a choice for a duke?”
He came toward her, and she thought he might take her in hand before he stopped short, crossing his arms across his magnificent broad chest. “Lily,” he said, the words no longer angry. Now, exhausted. Resigned. “I promise you. I would not regret you for a moment. You, on the other hand . . . you would regret every minute we’ve ever shared.”
“I would never regret it.” She stopped. “Alec. What I said—I love you.”
He turned away from her, reaching for his coat. “I shall take you home.”
This is my home. Wherever you are is home.
Tears threatened, and she resisted the words. Instead, settling on a single question. “Why?”
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