If Rory could name a point in the evening where everything changed between him and Grace, it would be when they passed the coat check and she turned her back to him so he could take her wrap. She had her hair over one shoulder, a sleek cascade of sable shimmering with silver from the lights above them, and as he took the wrap and slid it off her shoulders it gradually exposed her bare upper back, bare middle back… bare lower back…
He only remembered what they were supposed to be doing when a gentleman cleared his throat, prompting Rory with a polite get out of the way grunt.
As he handed Grace’s wrap to the coat check girl, his date for the evening turned and looked at him over her shoulder with those honey eyes, smiling a hesitant smile that immediately set him on edge.
When he guided her out of that line and off to the side of the receiving line where they would be told where to sit, he leaned down and spoke into ear, “You didn’t tell me about that,” knowing she would know exactly what he was talking about.
He wanted to puzzle out her reaction to him seeing it, and he figured it out as soon as she looked up at him again, smile wide but eyes alight with concern.
“Are you upset?”
Yes. No. He had no right to be. Grace was not his, as much as he wanted her to be. But his body said otherwise, and when she stepped close and he slid a hand around her back to palm the curve of her spine, open to the air until where her natural waist started to flare at the curve of her bottom, he leaned down as though to speak into her ear. But he also used the opportunity to close his eyes for a second and try to regain control of his breathing, for the onslaught of emotions that were coursing through his veins.
“I don’t want any other man seeing you like this, Grace,” he admitted, his teeth clenched, opening his eyes to see her face turned towards his, lips parted.
God , he wanted to kiss her so badly. He curled his fingertips, brushing them over the soft skin of her spine and she gasped lightly, curling her lower lip into her mouth.
“You never asked to see the back,” she replied breathlessly, resting a hand on his chest as people moved around them where they were pressed against the wall.
Rory’s blood was raging hotly, with the doe-eyed look she was giving him, the concern for his opinion of the dress, the way her hand rested so delicately over his tie in the center of his chest. And her skin--it burned his palms, both the hand on her back and the other that cupped her close by the elbow.
“Nay,” he admitted. “I didn’t.” Standing taller he looked around, seeing that they were being ignored by everyone around them.
“Do you want to leave?”
Her question surprised him, and he looked back down at her--at her face and her lips, down to the completely covered swells of her breasts knowing there was no bra beneath the dress and how easy it would be to slip those thin straps off her shoulders for access.
Rory shook his head, baffled at how easily she could have him bound to her without trying as he replied, “Aye, I want to leave.”
Grace’s face fell, and so did her eyes, down to his neck as he watched her swallow and nod. The disappointment pulled at him, and he tucked a knuckle beneath her chin to bring her face back up to his.
He bent to whisper into her ear, “But only because that dress is going to drive me insane for the rest of the evening. I’ll not be able to keep my hands off ye.”
His voice was rough, his accent thick as he let his lips brush the shell of her ear, and when a shocked shiver raced through her and made her tremble, Rory groaned next to her face before pulling away.
Wide eyes looked up at him as she replied, “That was not my intent.”
“I know it, lass,” he said quietly, turning her towards the receiving line so they could find their table. “I fucking know it.”
Her skin was magnetic, his hands powerless against finding her back over and over as the evening wore on. He guided her through the throng of people milling about, everyone searching for tables reserved with their names. Even when the crowd was thicker and Rory stepped out in front, he kept his arm around her waist so she was just about cradled beneath his arm, his hand pressed firmly to her lower back. He didn’t mind at all when they had to stop and wait for the crowd in front of them to dissipate before they could continue, sine she would face him and clasp his upper arm, placing her other hand on his chest. She would wait patiently for him to direct them through the crowd, while he forced his hand to not slip below the edge of the dress and down to her butt.
But it was right there , and the urge was strong.
When they sat at their table they both edged their chairs closer together, which wasn’t lost on him. She seemed at ease with him, but anxious about the throng of people whenever her eyes weren’t on him. So he endeavored to have them on him as much as possible, drawing her into conversations about previous events he had attended, the charity for which this gala was being held, and the donation he would make--that he was expected to make--for being invited to attend despite having to pay for the tickets.
All the while he kept his hands on her--his arm on the back of her chair so he could cup her shoulder, sliding his hand beneath her hair where it fell down her back so he could rub the back of her neck with his thumb. And his other hand held hers on his leg, which was aided in feeling completely neutral but the way she looked around and paid his familiar touches no mind.
But her hand on his leg was doing devilish things to him, as was just about everything about her tonight.
The contact between them was only halted when dinner was served, and when they had finished their meals and Grace was sipping at a second glass of champagne, they listened to the keynote speaker while Rory held her hand, tracing light circles in her palm and caressing the soft skin on the back of her hand.
But of course he couldn’t keep his mind off her back, and it invaded his thoughts so much that at the end of the evening he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone what the speaker had said if he’d been asked. All he could see in his mind was the wide expanse of exposed skin, the paleness of it and the softness, and how surprisingly feral he felt when he thought of other men looking at her.
The evening was winding down when the speaker finished, but the host returned to the stage to announce the live music would continue and the dance floor opened for entertainment. Rory wasn’t sure he wanted to dance, even in the dark room, but what he did want is the opportunity to put his hands on Grace. So he finished off his champagne and leaned in close to her, watching as she leaned towards him to meet him halfway.
“Would you care to dance?” he asked quietly, hoping he could keep his eyes from straying from her face. He barely restrained from devouring her with his gaze when she looked up at him surprised, but nodding.
None of the music was fast, so it looked perfectly normal for the two of them to slowly sway together on the dance floor amidst the other couples. Rory held her hand in his and slid his palm up to the middle of her back, hidden by her hair as he felt the warmth of her body flowing into his skin.
Grace, for her part, kept her hand politely on his upper arm, maintaining a space between them that was polite in the company they were in. At one point to their left was a couple who appeared to be in their early twenties, while on their right was a man and woman who both appeared to be in their eighties. This was neither the time nor the place for close dancing, although Rory enjoyed it all the same.
He caught sideways glances from men towards Grace and was glad of his height, his glares sending the other men’s eyes skittering away once they saw the menacing look from Rory. At one point Grace laughed, and he looked down to see her watching him, her lips drawn tight into a wide smile.
“What are you doing?” she asked without preamble. She raised one eyebrow and waited for his reply.
It took him a moment to form one, and when he did it made her smile wider.
“You are like a rabbit in a den of wolves, Grace. I’m warning off the competition.”
Her light laughter drifted to his ears and he couldn’t help but smile down at her. She looked so happy, so carefree, he wanted to remember this moment forever.
“And that would make you what? The alpha?”
He huffed a laugh, although she wasn’t wrong.
“Aye, that’s what I feel like.”
“So that would make me…”
She was reaching but still smiling, and Rory wasn’t sure he wanted to indulge in this conversation. She was accurate in her description of him feeling like the alpha, especially in this room full of horny man dogs who all wanted a bite of her. He could see women glancing in her direction, and men watching the way she swayed her hips to the flow of the music.
“Entirely too seductive for your own good,” he finished, sliding his palm up her spine to the back of her neck, his long fingers conforming to the curve of her nape beneath her hair.
“Well, I’m not trying to be,” she said defensively after shivering at his touch, and Rory looked down at her to laugh again.
“Nay, you don’t have to try. You merely have to breathe and you’re the most beautiful woman in this room.”
Her good humor was gone now, replaced by an emotion that seemed to be vexation as she looked away from him, turning her head so she wouldn’t have to stare at his chest. It was a while before she spoke, another song at least in which he moved his hand back down to that dipping curve of her spine.
“What are we doing, Rory,” she murmured. It wasn’t a question, but he didn’t have an answer.
“I don’t know, but I know what we’re not doing and…” he paused, leaning down to guarantee only she could hear his next words. “It’s driving me insane, Grace. Seeing you like this, seeing that damned dress--and Christ, that red dress--you turn my brain to mush.”
She glanced at him then, her sad smile almost regretful that things were this way between them.
They danced for a while longer, but he could see Grace’s heart had left for the evening, and she was ready to go. After stopping by the information table to pick up a packet for his donation, he led her back out to the coat check and notified a doorman he wanted their limo sent around.
Then he wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and watched her pull her hair out and let it fall down her back. He would never tire of the sight of her hair.
The ride back to the yacht was quiet, although this time Grace held his hand the entire way. She didn’t say a word, and he suspected she might need the time to think about everything that had happened between them, everything that was happening, and what she wanted out of their immediate future.
The problem was, Rory was certain now that what he wanted was her. And this wasn’t to say he wanted to continue as they had been for the last four months, getting to know each other and living together in a platonic relationship. No, he wanted her--all of her--her time, her heart, her body, her life. He wanted her in his life, a permanent fixture, on his boat as his woman and not his housekeeper. He wanted it all, and yet he still could not have her.
But maybe… Maybe for a time, she could be his. Despite it feeling like he was going to do his best to commandeer her time while she was willing to be with him, only to have the whole thing come down crashing and burning around him in the end, to have her for such a short, sweet time might be better than never having had her at all.
They walked from the limo to the docks, where he reached down and scooped her up into his arms, amidst her protestations.
“Put me down, Rory,” she said, but she was also laughing, her arms scrambling to go around his neck as he cradled her high on his chest. She was so light and perfect and fit in his arms like she belonged there.
“Nay, you might trip,” was his reply, though they both knew she was obviously capable of traversing the dock without doing that.
She was smiling, though, and he only put her down once she was able to cross over to the yacht. But there, in the small space just inside the yacht’s edge, he stopped her from maneuvering around the steering column to the hatch door with a hand to her arm.
“Dance with me,” he said softly, and her good humored smile faded to something more serious--something vastly more aware and wary, curious but cautious.
Rory didn’t do anything but stand there, feeling the chill of the night even through his jacket. He knew she must be cold and he also knew of a solution for that, but first she had to agree to his request.
Grace stood with one hand gripping her shawl together, one hand sliding down to grasp Rory’s hand, but she didn’t come closer. She dropped her clutch to the bench beside her and turned back to regard him with interest, the lights of the harbor illuminating her face and making her light golden eyes appear liquid in the dim light.
She was beautiful--had been the entire evening, but here it was different. Here her beauty was just for him. Her presence, the fragrance of her, the way she could look like a high society princess and still harbor impish delight in her eyes and the scent of oranges in her hair, left him completely mesmerized. It was at that moment that he knew for a fact that he had lost his heart to her, and the awareness dawned over him that he had just less than one month to convince her they belonged together--one month of doing everything within his power that did not include touching her, since he had promised her three months ago to avoid doing just that.
He knew the moment she gave in, because her hand slipped out of his and she stepped into him, her heels bringing her head within easy resting distance of his downturned chin. With her cheek pressed against his chest and his arms wrapped around her, warding off the chilly breeze coming in from the ocean, he began to sway.
It was sweet and perfect, just like everything about her. There was nothing more he wanted to do in that moment than to hold her just so, to feel her breasts crushed against him, to know that beneath the sequined, twinkling fabric of her shawl was that sexy expanse of bare back.
Only one thing could make the moment more perfect, and he voiced it, heedless to how it may have sounded when it came out.
“Sing for me, Grace,” he bid her, and he felt her tense for just a moment before she relaxed into him and shifted her face, rubbing her cheek against the soft satin of his tie.
It was a long moment before she did, and he almost didn’t pick up on the sound coming from beneath him as being her voice. It was a low, sultry hum, the introduction to a song he didn’t recognize.
Then she began to sing, and they both adjusted their swaying to match the beat of the song.
I am not the only traveler
Who has not repaid his debt
I've been searching for a trail to follow again
Take me back to the night we met
She sang softly at first, her voice carrying away on the breeze but somehow surrounding them, the soft vibrato with which she ended her lines causing shivers to run up his spine. In response he felt her hands move, stroking his lower back before her arms tightened around him, squeezing him about his middle.
She raised her voice slightly as she continued singing.
And then I can tell myself
What it is that I'm supposed to do
And then I can tell myself
Not to ride along with you
He realized the song was slow but also sad, tugging at his heart as he realized she had chosen a song that quite possibly shone with her feelings about the two of them. Rory found his own arms tightening, one hand coming up to stroke from the crown of her head down her back, along the silky smoothness of her hair and then returning to repeat the process.
I had all and then most of you
Some and now none of you
Take me back to the night we met
I don't know what I'm supposed to do
Haunted by the ghost of you
Oh, take me back to the night we met
She paused briefly between verses, humming along after clearing her throat and he realized she was overcome with emotion. Still he swayed, still he stroked, still she squeezed, but he felt as though she was singing a song with the intent of breaking both their hearts. The lyrics made him want to drop to his knees, to grasp her by the shoulders and shake her, to tell her, “This is not how it has to be!”
But she started singing again, and he turned to rest his cheek against her crown.
When the night was full of terrors
And your eyes were filled with tears
When you had not touched me yet
Oh, take me back to the night we met
She sniffed, and Rory felt helpless. He knew what she was singing of, knew she referred to the night they had made love. He felt her arms tighten yet again, knew the unspoken words in that action were telling him she was going to miss him, and that she didn’t want to feel as though she needed to regret all the things they had done together. She didn’t want to regret the feelings that had developed between them.
One more time she sang the chorus, and he wanted to tell her, “You do have all of me, you do know what you’re supposed to do--I am not a ghost, Grace.”
But outwardly he was aware there were no words he could use to convince her.
Declarations of his love would fall on deaf ears. Promises of a future would mean nothing if she didn’t feel the same. Pledging his troth to her for better or worse--the idea hadn’t even occurred to him before, but it did now.
Grace was a strong, independent woman. If those thoughts didn’t come from her, he knew with certainty that she would reject all overtures of forever .
He remained firm in his resolve to not alienate her, so when she pulled her face back to look up at him he simply watched her--eyes dipping to his mouth, her tongue wetting her lip, her shaky indrawn breath accompanied by a tear slipping out of those shadowed eyes. In those depths he could see sadness and resignation.
When she reached up to pull his mouth down to hers, he took the permission she granted and released the floodgates of his passion, holding nothing back.