Authors Note: This is an alternate POV scene from Chapter 8 and features the FIRST KISS (!!!) but from Miles’s POV. I hope you enjoy!

With a deep breath for courage, I entered the ballroom and scanned the space for the duchess. My attention was singularly focused and I didn’t allow more than a brief nod or tight smile at acquaintances as I passed. I hadn’t even greeted the Duke and Duchess of Kendrick upon my arrival. I could apologize later.

I spotted Patricia Henney on the far side of the space. Her fair hair and brilliant gown peeked between ladies and gentleman in the crowd. With a focused and fierce expression, she remained unaccompanied—a feat in and of itself. So I took my chance and made my way to her side with determination lengthening my eager stride.

Skirting the edge of the ballroom, I breezed by wallflowers and gossiping matrons before slowing my steps and taking in a bracing breath.

I could do this. I could do more beyond the simple missive expressing my regrets.

Approaching from the side, I leaned in close and whispered, “Could we speak for a moment? Alone.”

Patricia turned to face me, her gaze a blend of confused and surprised, and if the optimistic feeling in my chest was to be believed, something like hope.

“Come with me,” came her simple reply. And for a moment I could not believe that she was capitulating so easily. There had been no demands for my intentions, no challenge for my whispered request. She’d simply agreed to speak with me.

The optimistic feeling in my chest expanded and turned warm at the realization.

Patricia pivoted and strode toward an interior hallway before leading me to a moderately sized receiving room on the floor above.

I could hear the strike of the match as the duchess lit candles somewhere behind me. I took a moment to collect myself as I closed the door carefully. The quiet chill of the room had the words I’d prepared to say reaching a sudden barrier. I swallowed and turned, allowing another one of those bracing breaths in the hopes I could speak the emotions that had to be written plainly across my face.

But before sound could emerge, Patty stepped quickly in my direction and blurted, “I want to apologize for my behavior—the other day. I should not have lost control of my emotions in such a way. I unloaded all of my frustrations of the day onto you and that was not well done of me.”

Even in the dimness of the room, I could see the embarrassed heat and frustration light her features.

I moved forward, in an effort to object. She did not owe me—nor anyone else—an apology. And she didn’t deserve to feel this obvious discomfort. I was tired of instigating feelings of frustration in her. I wanted desperately for our encounters to move beyond the snipping and bickering.

She looked away before continuing her speech, “I’m not, however, sorry for the truth now between us. I meant every word I said. It’s probably better that you know my mind anyhow.”

I realized suddenly that this was a painful admission. She seemed overwrought, her fingers clenched together and working the seams of her fine gloves.

How could she think I’d want anything less than to know her true self? This woman held so many layers. Being privy—like everyone else—to the bare minimum would never be enough.

With a gentleness I didn’t realize I possessed, I reached for her hands and interrupted their anxious movements before cradling them gently within my own. Her breath stuttered at my touch but she still refused to meet my gaze.

“Why do you say that as if it were a bad thing?” I asked. “As if your truth makes you somehow deficient. How could I possibly hope to know you without getting at the very heart of you?”

Incredulous blue eyes rose then. Oh, yes, I had her attention now. And she needed to realize my intent, my determination. So I waited with calm patience and fought the racing of my knowing, ridiculous heart.

Her gaze searched mine. “I’m still sorry that I lost my temper and ordered you from my home.”

“And I accept your apology, although it is not required.”

“I shocked you with my outburst.”

I smiled gently. “You did. And that is quite the feat.”

“I punished you when what I really wanted was to punish them.”

Them. The users and the fortune hunters. The ones who made her life in London a living hell. She’d counted me among their ranks on the first night we’d met. I’d put distance between myself and those men for weeks and then bloody ruined it all by showing up unannounced in her drawing room with insensitive quips perched on my impertinent tongue.

“And you thought me one of them,” I confirmed, still holding her small hands.

She laced our fingers together and spoke quietly, “I’m figuring out that you are not, in fact, like the rest of them.”

The warmth—the hope—in my chest flared anew, crackling like a flame from dying embers.

“Good,” I breathed. And then with all the patience I could muster, I gently nudged her chin up so she could read the intent in my eyes. I needed to give her time to refuse, if needed. Because I was learning more and more that choice was something this duchess had long been denied.

Her defiant chin rose a fraction of her own volition, and I fought a grin that longed to break free before cupping her jaw and pressing my mouth lightly to hers.

She didn’t respond but neither did she pull away, so I placed loving kisses and teasing nips all across her soft lips. A tug to her full bottom lip had her shifting forward, chasing my retreat and pressing herself more fully to me. Patricia’s hands smoothed along the fabric of my chest and then—Christ—she darted her curious tongue out to meet my own.

I pressed my hand to her slender waist and relished the feel of her in my arms. It wasn’t to dominate her or to control her—it was necessity. I needed her this way—close enough to feel, her heart a thumping beat against my own.

Suddenly Patricia shifted nearer and my growing erection grazed her middle. I fought a groan as she pulled back.

“I apologize. I should not have taken such liberties,” I managed between ragged breaths.

She made a sound of stifled amusement. “I think we’ve been rather free with one another since the very beginning.”

Her easy acceptance of the situation—and the kissing—caught me a bit off guard, but I enjoyed her teasing. “I suppose you are correct.”

“What was that?” came her exaggerated question, and I realized my mistake straight away. “Can you repeat that last part? A little louder, if you please.”

I didn’t fight my smile any longer, but as was our way, refused to give her the upper hand. “I don’t think so. I wouldn’t want you to become unmanageable.” A pointed silence, then, “Well, more unmanageable.”

Her imperious duchess brow rose, and I laughed aloud.

The lightness of the moment and the joy from our secret affections filled me near to bursting.

It felt like a door had been opened and the Duchess of Cawthorn waited on the other side—every part of her. Not simply the frosty aristocrat she presented to the rest of the world. She was still cautious and stubborn, but she’d taken the step and unlocked the door for me. And one day, I hoped to hold the key.

***

Thank you for reading! The Bartholomew series continues with Genevieve and Julian in Third Degree Yearn!

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