“Can I hold your hand now?”

My eyes snap to him. “Do you want to hold my hand?”

“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t, Lenora.”

His grin is seductive and secret, like there’s an undercurrent of dirty thoughts constantly running through his head.

Or perhaps that’s just me projecting—because he’s the most alluring man I’ve ever met.

I hold out my hand and he cradles it gently in both of his—with reverence—like it’s something precious. Fragile. Then, with the tip of his finger he traces the delicate bones that run along the back, stroking up each finger. He turns my hand over and skims each line of my palm, slow and deliberate, like he’s memorizing it.

And warm liquid heat spreads up my legs, filling my stomach, trailing up my spine, until my limbs feel languid and my breasts feel heavy, tingling.

“You have very pretty hands.” His voice is deep and melodic. “I bet you’re pretty everywhere.”

Edward aligns our palms, like two hands in prayer, and then he folds them together and rests them on top of his thigh. And for a time we sit, side by side, hand in hand, enjoying the calm and the company.

“Tell me something?” I ask.

“What kind of something do you want me to tell?”

“Something about your life out there. Where is the first place you went when you left?”

He nods as he recalls it.

“The Philippines. There’s a village of fishermen—the Bajau—their children learn to swim and dive before they learn to walk. They’re the best divers in the world, they can hold their breath longer than any other man—they’ve taught themselves, trained their bodies over years and years. The livelihood of their families and their village depends on it.”

I watch him, listening to the steady pull of his voice, like the best kind of bedtime-storyteller.

“I stayed with them for . . . five months.”

“That’s longer than you stayed anywhere.”

“That’s right, it was. They taught me how to dive. Turned out . . . I had a talent for it. And I have this to remember it by.”

Edward reaches into his front shirt pocket and pulls something out. Then he turns my hand over and drops a pearl into my palm. A perfect, pretty, translucent little pearl.

“It’s beautiful.” I hold it up to the sunlight, admiringly. “And you carry this around with you all the time? Aren’t you worried you’ll lose it?”

“I don’t have many belongings that are important to me—this is one of them. I don’t lose things that are precious to me,” he says meaningfully.

And I shiver a bit—because I think it would feel amazing, to be precious to Edward.

AFTER THE FOOD IS DEPLETED and the wine bottle is empty, I stand, brushing off my trousers, and hold out my hand to Lenora.

“Come on, then. Let’s go.”

I glimpsed her today—the girl my brother wrote me about. During our race, Lenora’s eyes sparkled like two shooting stars and her cheeks were flushed and her laughter rang out in the air—so wild and free and beautiful she made my chest ache.

And I’m hell-bent on seeing that girl again.

Lenora stands and mounts her horse, and after I stuff the blanket back in its sack, I walk over and swing up behind her.

“What are you doing?” she asks, surprised.

I reach around, taking the reins from her hands, and turn the horse.

“I want you to do it again,” I say close to her ear.

“Do what again?”

“Close your eyes, stretch out your arms and try to catch the wind. Like that day in the woods. Be that girl again.”

For a moment her eyes are unguarded. Innocent and wanting. Yearning to trust someone . . . to trust me.

“I think I learned my lesson the last time,” she says.

A fierce, savage protectiveness rises up inside me.

“But I’m here now.” I wrap my arm around her waist, tight enough so she’ll feel it. “I won’t let you fall.”

“I’M LEAVING,” he says.

I look up to Edward, standing beautiful and straight in front of my desk, his face serious and somber. And my heart plummets. Because Edward is hardly ever serious or somber.

“Pardon?”

He pushes a hand through his thick hair, tugging a bit.

“I have a prior commitment I have to see to. From before.”

Before he came home. Before Thomas died . . . before me. From the life he loved, when he could go wherever he wanted, do whatever he wanted, and there were no cameras or interviews or public or press.

“A man I’ve worked with—Ian Kincaid—he’s the best bloke. I thought he could replace me, but he can’t. He can’t do it without me, Lenora. And . . . I gave my word.”

Edward’s word is very important to him. He plays at being a carefree wanderer and in many ways he is—but the core of him, his character, the part of a man that says what he means and does what he says—that runs deep. And is unshakable.

I swallow. “Where . . . are you going?”

“Indonesia.”

“Indonesia?” I repeat like a silly parrot.

“There’s a gold mine . . .”

“A gold mine in Indonesia?”

The corner of his mouth quirks.

“Not all treasure comes in a chest, Lenny.”

I nod. “No, no, of course not.”

I could put my foot down. Demand he not go—command him to honor his commitments to the Crown before any other. But I won’t do that to him. I won’t trap or chain him—he’ll be chained enough after the wedding.

Some part of your husband will always resent you.

I won’t do that to myself either.

I straighten the papers on my desk and the high steel walls go up and up all around me. Closing me in, sealing me off. I feel the mask come down over my features. Indifference and disinterest. The nonreaction. The appearance of feeling nothing at all. It’s my weapon, my costume . . . if only it were true.

“Well . . .” I stand. “Have a nice trip, then.”

Sometimes I think Edward can see behind the mask.

“Come with me, Lenora.”

“Come—what?”

He leans his hands on my desk, his eyes and voice intense and determined. And perfectly serious.

“I’ll show you everything. How to explore the jungle, how to mine gold—it’s dirty work, but I bet you’d have a knack for it. It’ll be an adventure. Our adventure.”

The idea of it calls to me with an almost painful sweetness. To imagine going with Edward, leaving everything behind and exploring the world while holding his hand.

It’s a lovely fantasy. An exciting thought.

And completely infeasible.

“Edward . . . that’s not possible for me. At all.”

His jaw tightens, and he looks out toward the window and nods. Because he knows I’m right. And it’s as if a hand is wrapped around my heart, squeezing and squeezing.

“There aren’t phones at the site,” he says. “I won’t be able to call.”

I just nod.

“My secretary has adjusted my schedule. I’ll be gone a few weeks . . . but I’ll be back in plenty of time for the wedding. And for the events that lead up to it.”

My voice is soft, ashen. “That’s good. The people would be very disappointed if you weren’t here for all that.”

He strides around my desk until he’s standing so close, I have to tilt my head to look in his eyes.


Tags: Emma Chase Royally Erotic
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