The Wood Nymph(77)

By: Mary Balogh

“No,” she said. And she laughed nervously and felt her face crumple up at the same time. “William,” she said, and she reached out blindly for him, “I really do not have any courage at all. I have been terrified and I have secretly dreamed that you would come along and sling me over your shoulder and carry me off by force to the nearest preacher. You won’t let me go or change your mind, will you?”

He hugged her to him and hid his face against her hair. “I have just had an idea,” he said. “If you refuse to marry me of your own free will, I am going to sling you over my shoulder and carry you off by force to the nearest preacher. What do you think of that?”

She laughed and hiccuped at the same moment. “William,” she said into the capes of his greatcoat, “I do love you, you know. That has never changed. I am not marrying you because I feel I should.”

“I know,” he said, and he framed her face with his hands and looked down into her eyes. “I know, Nell. You are wrong, you see. You have a great deal of courage. I know very well that you would not marry me if you felt there was any doubt that either of us loved the other. You will marry me, then?”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Oh, yes.”

He lowered his head and kissed her. And then his hands moved away from her head so that he could hold her to him again, and her mouth opened beneath his seeking tongue. Somehow she had unclasped the buttons of his greatcoat and burrowed her way inside its heavy folds. Her hands found their way inside his coat and his waistcoat to the silk shirt at his shoulders. Heat flared between them.

“Enough, sweetheart, enough,” he said at last, his lips at her temples and on her closed eyes. “This time I want to treat you properly. We will be wed as soon as may be, and then I shall take you to a warm and clean bed and make love to you for the whole of one night— and for all of the following day, very like. But not on the grass in clandestine manner again. Not until after we are married anyway,” he added with a smile.

“Will we stay in London?” she asked. “It is going to be obvious very soon that we did not wait for our wedding.”

“No,” he said, drawing her face against his neckcloth. “Neither of us belongs in London now, Nell. We shall leave for Scotland, shall we, and stay there until after our confinement. You will like Scotland, I think. It was made for wood nymphs. And there we need not care what society says about us. I never have cared much anyway, but I still would not wish to see you wounded by gossip.”

Helen sighed with contentment. “How lovely it is,” she said, “ to have someone to plan for me. Will you always do so, William? I have always thought I wished for total independence, but now I realize that I have been merely waiting for a man to whom I should be happy to surrender control.”

“ That sounds dangerously meek, Nell,” he said. “I do not for one moment believe you, you know.”

She smiled impishly up at him. “ I am most awfully hungry, you know,” she said. “ I forgot all about luncheon. It must have been hours ago, was it?”

He smiled back and leaned down to kiss her on the nose. “ Come on,” he said. “ We might as well go back and face the embarrassment of meeting Elizabeth and Robert. I can just see the I-told-you-so expressions on their faces. I shall carry your things.”

“William,” she said, twining her arms around his waist just when he would have moved away. Her face was alight, he saw when he looked down at her with a questioning smile. “ I felt the baby move for the first time yesterday. He really is there.”

He hugged her to him once more and kissed her hard on the lips. “ I should hope so, you absurd little wood nymph!” he said.