"Take it off."
"What?" The word was a question and an expression of disbelief. What did he want?
"The wig. Take it off."
He stopped a bare six inches away from her. She dared not disobey. Faced with this absolute determination, she knew he would rip it off rather than allow her to leave. Bending her head she took out the long, black-headed pins with shaking fingers. She didn't know what to do with them, so she kept them in her hand. Lifting her head she met his hard gaze and lifted the offending article away from her head. She tilted her chin.
Something else entered his eyes. Appreciation. She had seen it too often before to deny it. "Why did you do this?"
Violetta decided suddenly she would go the whole hog. She removed her spectacles and met his gaze fearlessly. They stared at each other for a fraught minute. Violetta let him look. "Would you have employed me looking like this? How could I be sure? And once employed, how would I prevent men laying hands on me?" She trembled with anger and the frustration that she hadn't seen this coming.
He swallowed, his throat moving soundlessly before he spoke. "Is that the only reason?"
She looked away, unable to lie to him at such close quarters. She felt ashamed of her actions. He had trusted her with his only sister, and she had entered his house under false pretences. She knew she was at fault.
He put his hand under her chin and turned her face back to his. The action was gentle, despite his agitation. "Tell me."
There was no escape. At the end of the day she might find herself out, back at her mother's house but this time with her reputation in shreds, but she had to tell him. She had come to like Lord Blyth and his sister, and hoped the service she was doing Lady Perdita was enough to make amends for her deception. It was not. She didn't flinch, but met his gaze. It was too close, too potent, but she could bear it. For now. After this he would turn away from her disgusted. Who would want her once they knew who she was, what she came from? "It's my mother. She's notorious, in her field."
The two words almost struck Violetta dumb. She found a small breath, enough to say, "How could you know that?"
He reached out a hand, touched her hair, fastened in tight braids close to her head. "There is only one woman in London with hair and eyes like that, or so I thought. Only one woman with eyes so deep a violet that a man could drown in them, hair so black and glossy it reflects the sun. Now there's you. Where else could you have come from?" He put his hand over her hair, smoothed, and then dropped it back by his side as though the touch burned him.
Violetta dropped her glance. She couldn't meet that searing gaze any longer. She had wronged him. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause any harm or anxiety."
"Then why in God's name do it?"
Tears came to her eyes. She blinked them away. She couldn't tell him of her mother's friendship with his mother. It would break the trust between Aunt Virginia and her family. "I wanted to be of some use to somebody."
His hand was still under her chin. He pushed it up when she would have turned away and he gazed at her. "What's your name? Your real name?"
"Violetta." He repeated the name, breathing it gently. She felt the hot breath on her face. The finger supporting her chin urged her closer. She felt herself dropping into a void, out of which she had no way of climbing. His lips met hers, and she let herself go.
Just once. Just this once.
When she swayed she felt his arms sweep around her in support, firm against her back. She didn't fight him; she doubted she could. When she opened her mouth under the gentle pressure of his, his tongue tasted her lips, and then surged inside, taking possession with an urgency that made her tingle.
It felt right. It felt as though this was what should happen, this was the natural conclusion to everything she had done so far. Letting herself go, just this once, she felt bliss, joy she would never allow herself to feel again, but it didn't matter, because at the end of this day she would be back in her mother's house. Back where she started.
He didn't try to move his hands, held them still, supporting her while he plundered her mouth, took her soul. This was Violetta's first real kiss, the first she had let herself feel. Men had tried before, but either she had endured or had got away. This time she responded, lifting one arm to rest her hand at his waist, heavy with his plain cloth coat.
He took his time, once she made it clear she wouldn't fight him off. Drawing her closer so her head rested on his shoulder, he continued his exploration. Violetta felt herself drowning in his spell, sinking into sensuality. He lifted his head only to drop a series of small kisses on her face and return to her mouth. She submitted, and responded as he seemed to wish, touching her tongue to his, eventually accepting his invitation and entering his mouth, to explore it in her turn.
It seemed forever before he lifted away and regarded her through lids slumberous with desire. "Is this what you wanted? Is this all an attempt to trap me?"
The jolt in the vicinity of her heart was almost painful. Violetta wrenched herself away from his arms, strode to the door then turned back, her face set in a blank mask. She would leave this room with some dignity. She bent to pick up the hated wig. Only to meet his hand, also on the offending article. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"In answer to your question, sir," she spat out the last word, making it an insult. "No, it isn't what I wanted. No, it's not an attempt to trap you. I have no need of that."
Swiftly he moved to bar her exit, standing before the door. "Then why?"
"Perhaps I saw someone who needed help."
"You came here from Thompsons. You didn't know where you were going before you came here."
She stood before him, patently demanding to be let out, but he would not let her. "I knew. If Mrs. Thompson had offered me any other position I would have refused it."
"I want you."
"Why? Because you think I'm available?"
He shook his head. "When you came through that door on the first day I felt something. I was worried, considering how you looked that day. The padding, the wig, the spectacles. I believed them all, but something told me it wasn't right, it wasn't you. I was right, wasn't I? You're lovely, Violetta, every man's dream." He reached out a hand, then dropped it back to his side.
"Which is why I wear the disguise," she pointed out, not impressed by his compliments. She'd heard too many of the same in her mother's salon to have her head turned that way. "I have chosen my path, and I intend to take it."
"Governess companion? When you could have so much more?"
Her ire rose within her like a living thing. "Are you offering?"
His smile was slow and sensuous. "I would love to. Would you accept?"
Yes, she wanted to say. Yes, anything.