“Don’t go honorable and protective on me, Charles. I know what I want,” she sputtered, grabbing his lapels and snuggling her nose into his shoulder.
“That fills me with more joy than I can explain, Zambak,” he said. He stood, pulling her with him, and turned her outward to face the shore while he put his arms around her waist to hold her loosely from behind. “You aren’t so naïve that you can’t tell how badly I want you,” he whispered in her ear.
Smug and filled with triumph, she spoke without thinking. “I know. I fear I’ve tumbled entirely in love with you, Charles. It is new and precious and—” She sank her head back against him. She felt safe in his arms, yet frustrated. When she wriggled free to face him, he held her at arms length, one hand on each arm.
“You don’t understand what you’re suggesting,” he said.
“Perhaps not entirely, but I’m eager to find out. We can manage this thing between us. I know we can. For now—”
“For now, nothing. Listen to me, dear one.”
Dear one.She felt her smile fill her down to her toes. She sank back on her heels and studied his face, grave in the moonlight.
“You’ve told me over and over again you do not wish to marry,” he reminded her.
“Maybe I was wrong. I don’t wish marriage as dictated by rank and land and the rest. Or maybe I don’t need marriage. There’s Julia in any case and—and I’m jumping ahead.”
He smiled then and loosed his grip, taking a step away. “You certainly are, and I’m making a mull of it.” He reached out a hand to cup her cheek. “Lady Zambak Hayden, I find that I have also tumbled into this maelstrom. I love your brilliant mind and unbounded courage. Your lovely body drives me mad, as you will have noticed. But—”
She growled deep in her throat. Always a “but.”She put a finger to his lips, but he shook his head, and removed his hand from her face.
“Listen to me. You may not believe in marriage, but you deserve no less than my total commitment. I am a married man, who can’t make his addresses with any honor.”
“I thought you and Julia had an agreement,” she reminded him.
“We do. But Julia’s word is always questionable, making any agreement equally questionable. Divorce is tedious and difficult at best, ugly and scandal-ridden at worst. When it’s done, she will have shredded my good name.”
“I know you. I know better. I don’t care.” She didn’t. She couldn’t believe he’d think otherwise.
His smile held infinite sadness. “Your father will care, and your mother wants more for you than a man eleven years your senior with an ugly past.”
“Piffle. Even if that is true—and I doubt it, because they know you. They know what you’re made of—I am of age. They will have to accept it, because I will defy whatever they might do to stop me.”
“Yes, you would,” he replied with a sigh. “You defy them in many things, and it seems to fall to me to keep you out of trouble.”
He reached over and took her right hand between both of his. “Very well, Lady Zambak Hayden, will you—”
She tried to throw herself into his arms, but he held her back. “Wait. Listen to what I’m asking. Will you wait for me to be free? Will you wait as long as it takes to extricate myself from my joke of a marriage so I can come to you honorably and make my offer?”
She sank back, subdued. “I don’t want to wait.” Stony features looked implacably back for a long moment until she gave in. “But I will if you give me no choice, because I promise you this, Charles: there is no other man but you and never will be. I love you.”
His eyes bore into hers. “I won’t hold you to it, Zambak, but I love you for saying it.” He kissed her then—a fierce caress that battered her soul with the enormity of his feelings—stepped away and bowed. “Now I will join the crew on the quarterdeck for both our sakes, since you will not go below.”
He left her in the moonlight, cold and alone, but with hope firmly set in her heart.