Unedited beta version
She could no more break free of his embrace than she could cease to breathe. The rules of familiarity no longer applied. In the arms of this stranger, mystery ruled the night.
Their eyes remained locked, a battle of wills and desire. Each step intensified the craving to know what lay behind masks and manners, reduced now to the basic truths of touch and want and need.
Elizabeth inhaled his scent and yielded, embracing the unknown bliss and consequences that lay ahead. The music and spectacle surrounding them receded into insignificance. Her senses were filled with him alone—his touch, his scent, the sound of his breath mingling with her own. Fascination and uncertainty warred within her breast; never had she felt so desired, or so willing to abandon reason in favor of darker impulse.
“You dance well, my lady.” His words were a warm caress against her ear, his voice resonating through her.
She searched her memory, desperate to place that intoxicating voice. Had she heard it before in passing at some ball or musicale? No, she was certain she would have remembered its timbre and cadence, the faint accent that hinted at foreign travels.
This was no familiar London dandy or eager youth of her social circle. This man was an enigma, outside their rules and expectations. The mystery only deepened her craving to see the face behind the mask, to put features and expression to that hypnotic voice.
Elizabeth gazed up at him, startled by her own teasing reply. “As do you, sir. One might suspect you of practice.”
A smile tugged at his lips. “One can never be too proficient in skills that please.” The double meaning was apparent; heat flooded her cheeks even as she longed to proceed down that perilous path.
His gloved fingertips skimmed her cheek in a feather-light caress. “What other talents might you possess, I wonder?”
She stilled in his arms, gazing into eyes bright with secrets. His fingers trailed down the sensitive skin of her neck, leaving fire in their wake.
As they moved together with the music, their bodies came closer, tighter, until she was all but embracing him. Each point of contact shot sparks through her veins. She leaned into his shoulder to catch a hint of his profile, a glimpse to unravel this secret. His face remained shrouded but she could make out a strong jaw, the edge of a smile that might be ironic or predatory or both.
Who was this stranger who had whisked her into his arms and stolen her wits and will? She had agreed to a dance on a whim, restless in a sea of familiarity, never dreaming it would lead to this moment of intrigue. The music was drawing to a close, time running out too soon. She clung to him, drunk on the thrill of the unknown, not yet ready to return to earth and daylight and life as she knew it. For these fleeting minutes, he had transported her to a place where rules were madness and only passion reigned.
“And you, sir?” Her words emerged breathless, fragile. “What skills do you yet keep hidden?”
His gaze locked with hers, lingering on her lips. “Would you care to discover them?”
Elizabeth smiled slowly in answer.
The Netherfield ball was in full swing, the lively tempo of the musicians’ violins echoing the pounding of hearts under starched cravats and corsets. As Elizabeth Bennet glided into the poised stance for yet another cotillion, her slippered toes fairly floated across the polished parquet floor, anticipation bubbling up within her breast.
Yet when she turned to face her newest partner, all rational thought evaporated like morning dew under the blaze of the rising sun.
His obsidian eyes smoldered with unchecked longing as his leather-gloved hand clasped her slender fingers. His touch reverberated through her entire being, igniting hidden desires that smoldered beneath every ladylike gesture and modest lowering of eyelashes.
They moved together as if in a dream, perfectly in step and yet stumbling over the familiar, complicated figures. Her silk-gloved hands tingled where they touched his broad shoulders; the firm grasp of his hands on her waist made her feel as insubstantial as thistledown, anchored only by the fire in his gaze.
With each spin and turn, she felt herself falling further under his spell, as reason gave way to the pounding of her heart and shallow breaths that betrayed her yearning. His eyes devoured her silently, dropping to her lips with unveiled wanting. She gazed up at him through a haze of longing, wondering at her own abandon in return.
The steps of the dance were forgotten; they moved as one, joined hands and racing pulses transporting them to a secret world inhabited only by two souls recognizing their perfect match at long last. Subtle caresses and heated looks were their only discourse; words had no place in this primal dance of desire and discovery. She was lost, lost to all but his embrace and the promise burning in his eyes.
Propriety and familiarity had no hold over her now; there was only this stranger who felt more like her destiny, and a future as yet unwritten but burnished with hope.
The music reached a crescendo. He spun her through one final turn before drawing her into his arms once more. Their momentum brought her flush against the hard length of him; she inhaled sharply at the contact, startled by the rush of warmth it evoked within her.
She clung to him, anchoring herself against the onslaught of sensation. Breathless, they broke apart at last. She gazed up at him, stunned at her own abandon, to find his eyes gleaming with secrets in the firelight. His fingers traced the curve of her cheek as though to commit each plane to memory; she saw in his eyes the knowledge that this was only the beginning.
He gazed down at her, reluctance etched into the sensuous lines of his mouth. The dance was at an end; the world intruded once more, but the night was still ripe with possibility. She could only stare up at him, stunned by her own abandon and the passions unleashed. His fingers traced her cheek, a feather-light caress filled with unspoken promise.
They stepped apart adrift once more in a familiar world that could not contain what had passed between them. He bowed before her with all courtesy, even as his eyes gleamed with secrets meant for her alone.
Elizabeth watched him disappear into the crowd, her heart pounding with equal parts uncertainty and delight. She touched trembling fingers to lips still tingling from the heat of his kiss; reason told her to flee into the safety of anonymity, lest this affair of the heart and flesh lead to her undoing.
And yet she longed for his arms around her once more, yearned to pick up where they had left off and throw caution to the wind. She smiled at her own foolishness, giddy as a girl with her first taste of passion.
In need of diversion, Elizabeth drifted to the refreshment table, hoping to calm her riotous thoughts with a glass of punch. Her dear friend Charlotte Lucas joined her, surveying Elizabeth with her usual keen and assessing gaze.
Charlotte chose her words with care, mindful of her friend’s sensitive state and the potential for others to overhear. “You seem a bit overwrought this evening, Lizzy. I hope the excitement of the ball has not proven too taxing.” Her eyes glinted with understanding. “Perhaps a turn on the balcony would do you good.”
Grateful for Charlotte’s tact, Elizabeth murmured her agreement. Once they were alone under the starry night sky, Elizabeth grasped the balustrade, drawing a deep breath of the cool night air.
“Now, out with it, Lizzy. I can see you are fit to burst, and I’ll not have you keep me in suspense a moment longer.”
Elizabeth turned to her friend, eyes shining. “Oh Charlotte, I can scarcely fathom it myself. When he first approached me to dance, I thought it mere courtesy. But once we began, it was as if the rest of the world fell away. The way he looked at me – it was as if I were the only woman in the room.”
Charlotte’s eyes widened but she said nothing, patting Elizabeth’s hand for her to continue.
“With every step and turn, I lost myself a little more. We scarce spoke but a few words, and yet I felt as though I knew his every thought. And when the music ended, I wished for it to never stop, so we might stay locked together if only a moment longer.”
Elizabeth sighed. “Oh Charlotte, I am torn asunder! My heart knows its desire, but my head bids me take care. I feel I could drown in the depths of his eyes, and yet what future lies in such passions? They are as ephemeral as the notes of that waltz, ringing still in my memory though the dance is done.”
She turned beseeching eyes on her friend. “What would you have me do? My heart is no longer my own, yet I fear to love where I cannot be loved in return.”
Charlotte gazed at her pensively, choosing her response with care. “I can see why your feelings would be in such a state of confusion. But you must consider what is sensible and pragmatic in the long term. For all you felt in those moments, a dance is but a temporary flight of fancy. You do not even know this man. Truly, he is a stranger to you.”
Elizabeth nodded, wishing not for the first time that her friend’s wisdom did not ring so true.
Charlotte continued gently, “I do not say this to cause you pain. But these types of passions, however seductive, often burn themselves out and leave desolation in their wake. Think carefully on what will sustain you when beauty and novelty fade, as they always must. Think of your future security and happiness.”
She held Elizabeth’s gaze, her own soft with sympathy. “I wish you every joy that this life may hold, my dearest friend. Just promise me you will look before you leap.”
Elizabeth embraced her then, deeply grateful for such prudent counsel. “I promise,” she whispered.
They re-entered the ballroom, Elizabeth drifted through the crowd, senses straining for any glimpse of her mysterious stranger. Curiosity lingered as to his identity, and whether fate might grant them another meeting before the unmasking at midnight.
She spied him at last across the ballroom, his stare intense upon her even from afar. He stood apart in solitude, a dark and brooding figure amidst the riotous frivolity. As their eyes met, a secret smile curved his sensuous lips. Her heart fluttered like a trapped bird behind her silken bodice.
Unable to resist, she watched as he slipped from the ballroom and disappeared down an adjacent corridor. Glancing around to ensure none marked her departure, she gathered her skirts and followed.
The hallway was dim and deserted, holding its secrets until her eyes adjusted. There he waited, just a few feet away yet feeling like the width of the world. They stared at one another in weighted silence, the air trembling with the thrill of forbidden connection.
He held out one gloved hand to her in invitation. She placed her hand in his without thought or reason, reacting on pure instinct alone.
His fingers traced a heated path across her bare skin, eyes gleaming in the half-light. “You ought not have followed me. You are too tempting.” His words were stern yet his hand remained clasped in hers, betraying his true desire to keep her near.
Elizabeth peered up at him, defiance and longing commingled in her eyes. “You left in full view of the whole of the ballroom. One might think, sir, that you wished for me to find you.”
He stared at her in silence, gripped by indecision. His sense of duty warred with the passions she alone seemed to stir in him. At last he spoke, his voice low and rough with emotion. “You try me sorely, madam. I am not prone to idle dalliance or seduction.”
And yet his fingers caressed the delicate skin of her wrist, hinting at a deep and devoted tenderness beneath the austere facade he showed the world. “You must leave, before we both regret this night’s work.” He gazed down at her, eyes gleaming with unspoken sentiments. “Though the memory may haunt me ’til my dying day.”
Elizabeth’s smile was tremulous but brave. She placed one hand against his cheek, wonder in her eyes as he leaned into her gentle touch. The demands of the familiar world seemed very distant; for these stolen moments, they inhabited a dream that as yet had no ending.
“Then do not send me away just yet,” she whispered.
His eyes drifted closed at her words and tender caress; his shoulders sagged with surrender to her request. When at last he looked at her again, the depth of emotion in his eyes stole her very breath.
They stood a breath apart, joined only by hands and racing pulses. The midnight unmasking seemed very far away; the demands of familiarity and duty had no place here in this veil of shadows and secrets. She smiled up at him, inviting his kiss with her eyes alone.
His mouth descended upon hers in a heated caress, firm yet yearning. She leaned into his embrace, abandon guiding her hands to slide around his neck and draw him down to deepen the kiss. And in the space of a single heartbeat, the remaining world fell away; there was only this, and the thrill of the unknown unfolding before them.
Elizabeth sighed into his kiss, losing herself to the dizzying sensation of his lips claiming hers at last. His hands slipped around her waist, strong and sure, holding her captive against the solid strength of him. She clung to his shoulders, her knees gone weak as water, gratitude and wonder surging through her veins in a intoxicating thrill.
Each tender invasion of his tongue, each subtle play of his lips against hers, fanned the flames building between them from a smoldering ember into an all-consuming blaze. There was an urgency behind each caress that stole her very breath, a ravenous hunger as if he had thirsted for her touch alone through barren and lonely years. She answered his ardent passion in kind, pouring out her zeal and longing denied for so long.
They stole kisses as if each might be their last, madness descending in a velvet curtain of desire and discovery. His hands roamed her sides, sliding upward in a feather-light caress that made her tremble; she tangled eager fingers into his hair, nails raking against his scalp in a bid to draw him nearer still. Closer, always closer – it would never be close enough, this first intoxicating taste of heaven found in each other’s embrace.
An eternity passed in fleeting moments, measured by the beat of merging hearts and soft cries muffled against seeking lips. At long last they broke apart, breathless with lips swollen from eager kisses.
He pressed his forehead to hers, a faint smile curving his mouth as he gazed down into her eyes. She read her own wonder and delight mirrored in their sable depths, tinged with a poignant joy that this perfect meeting of souls should be so brief. His fingers traced the curve of her cheek with exquisite tenderness.
Her lashes drifted down as she leaned into his touch, stunned anew that this was not, after all, some fevered dream bound to fade with the dawn. memorizing each sensation against her skin.
Without a word he led her from the light and laughter, down winding halls into seclusion where none wandered this late hour. They came to rest in an alcove obscured by velvet drapes, the music now a distant hum.
His mouth seized hers again with bruising fervor, obliterating thought. She clung to him and gave herself up to sensation, embracing the dream and final pleasures this night held in store before the unmasking.