The press of people was becoming almost a solid wall. Jostling bodies and sharp elbows were all around, and Brinton tried to steer a course that would protect Miss Kentwell from the brunt of the chaos. He could feel his breathing beginning to grow labored, and then came the familiar stabbing pain in the right side of his chest. He stopped and waited.
“Lord Brinton, you are looking terribly pale,” Gillian said, her concern evident in her voice.
To answer he would have had to speak, something that he could not manage at that moment. He hoped the spasm would pass, and they could continue toward the tearoom. Instead, he clutched his chest and bent as the coughing seized him. He felt someone pushing him, and opening his eyes, he saw it was Miss Kentwell.
“We must find a clear space where you can sit down,” she was saying. She pushed him toward a small anteroom. Blessedly, it was empty when they reached it. Brinton collapsed gratefully onto a velvet sofa and Gillian sat down beside him. She had kept hold of his hand.
“How can I help you?” she asked softly.
He shook his head, drawing ragged breaths. The warm sympathy in her blue-green eyes would have made him weak if he had not already felt that way. He knew he should remove his hand from hers; he knew they should not be alone together. But he did nothing. When he had regained his breath, he answered her.
“There is nothing you, or anyone, can do. It is a reminder I live with.” You could help me by not looking at me that way. You could help me by not being here, so close and warm and desirable. As he returned her gaze, he felt as though everything around them fell away, leaving just the two of them floating in an empty space together. As his body recovered from the spasm, his discomfort was replaced by other budding sensations he did not want to acknowledge.
“You said when this happened before that you are not ill. What is it, then? What causes it?”
He wished she would not talk. Talking called his attention to her lips, which looked full and soft and inviting. The urge to kiss them was growing stronger in him every moment. He knew he must not give in. With supreme effort he replied, his voice low and rough.
“It is a souvenir of Waterloo. It helps me remember how fragile and fleeting our lives can be. The details are not pleasant or fit for a young lady to hear.”
“I know that war is ugly,” she insisted. “I will not be shocked. It does not distress me to talk about the human body.”
I don’t want to talk about the human body, Brinton thought. I want to feel one, yours, pressed close against mine. The girl’s scent was making him light-headed. For a moment he feared he would either throw himself upon her, or pass out. Surely it was a reaction to her, and not an after-effect of the coughing spell. He tipped his head back, fighting for control. When he straightened and looked at her again, her head was down, her eyes on his hand she still held in her lap. She began to stroke his gloved fingers absently, apparently lost in thought.
“You are very brave, to bear with it so well,” she said. “Many people would feel sorry for themselves, instead of looking upon it as you do.”
She abruptly lifted her eyes to his again, and he groaned inwardly. Had she any idea what she was doing to him? Was she deliberately trying to seduce him? If she was, did that even matter to him anymore?
“That dress brings out the green in your eyes,” he said softly, as if in a trance. It was not what he had meant to say.
“That is not all it brings out.” Gillian giggled. The she blushed crimson and put one hand to her mouth. “Oh, dear, I should not have said that! I think I keep company with my brother altogether too much.”
Brinton chuckled, and as he did, something inside him snapped. Hadn’t he said life was fleeting and fragile? Shouldn’t pleasure be seized when the opportunity came? Even as he struggled with his conscience, he felt his body subtly repositioning itself and his head beginning to lower toward Miss Kentwell. Whether she knew it or not, he was going to kiss her, deeply and thoroughly. “You are an Original, Miss Kentwell –beautiful, intelligent, humorous –”
The door opened. Brinton froze instantly.