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TEMPTING
by Hope Tarr

Genre: Victorian Period, England, Historical Romance

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Left alone, Simon and Christine faced each other. “Will you sit, sar?” Christine asked, her gaze fixed on some spot beyond him, her slender hands folded in front of her.

“No thank you. I mean, not just yet. But please, if you’d care to…”

He started to draw out a chair for her, but she shook her head, sending a toffee-colored strand slipping free of its pins. The silky thread brushed the side of her face, touching just below her chin, and Simon had the almost irrepressible urge to coil the tendril about his finger.

But touching her, the new her, would be an enormous mistake. He wrapped his right hand about his left wrist and blundered on, “Miss Ashcroft informs me you’ve become quite the pianist.”

“I play…a little,” she conceded, and Simon was torn between tenderness and relief at the familiar little lost look her lovely face suddenly wore.

“A little?” he repeated, hard-pressed not to smile. “Play something for me now and we shall see just what a little constitutes.”

She shook her head, and another soft strand slid free. “Oh no, I mustn’t. I’m not nearly good enough.”

“Allow me to be the judge of that.” Before she could refuse again, he took light hold of her elbow and steered her over to the piano.

He dropped his hand from her arm with reluctance and stepped back to make room for her at the keyboard. Gathering in her skirts, she couldn’t help brushing against him. She smelled nice, delicious even, though he didn’t think she wore perfume, just the milled soap she’d used to bath.

“What is it you fancy?” she asked, not looking at him.

You, he wanted to say but of course that would never do.

Instead, he said, “Play whatever it is you play for the other gentlemen who call. Mr. St. John, does he have a particular favorite?”

Was it his wishful thinking or did she shudder? “I wouldn’t know, sar,” she answered at length. “I’ve only played for him once.” She reached for the thick volume of musical scores and began to page through, her fragile-looking fingers with their bitten down nails lifting each vellum leaf with reverent care.

Gaze riveted on the lovely line of her long neck, he leaned closer and poked a finger toward the open book. “Play whatever score it is you turn to next,” he said when she still couldn’t seem to decide.

The gods must be laughing at him indeed, for his selection proved to be the plaintive folk song, Lady Maisry. Listening to Christine’s sweet, quavering voice singing of the heroine’s illicit liaison with an English nobleman, Simon felt his resolve firm. He’d see her in a convent before he’d hand her over to some spoiled aristocrat who couldn’t begin to value her.

The idea, the solution came to him in a blinding rush, so brash, so impetuous, so far removed from his normal mode of thinking that contemplating it made him dizzy. He needed to return to the country to court his constituency. Christine, whether she realized it or not, needed to get away from London—and that lascivious lout, St. John—as soon as possible. Why not take her with him? The few London servants he’d bring along already knew her as his cousin and, once in the country, no one beyond his immediate household need even know she was there.

His gaze rested on Christine’s slender hands, the fingernails chewed to the quick, the cuticles and surrounding flesh as raw as freshly butchered beef. Imagining those small, endearingly battered digits stroking St. John, Simon felt his temperature flare—and his decision sharpen.

When she came to the part where the English lord bent to kiss his ladylove’s lifeless “red ruby lips,” Simon could endure it no longer. “That will serve,” he snapped, swiping a hand across his damp brow.

She shot to her feet and stepped free of the bench, her body quivering like a bowstring. “I said you wouldn’t like it, that I wasn’t ready to play.” Beneath its fine dusting of powder, her face flushed, and he could make out the scar on her cheek.

The sight softened him. “Not above pride, I see, but it was the piece I didn’t care for, not your playing. And your voice is very sweet, too sweet to be wasted.” I won’t let anyone waste you!

Hands fisted on her hips, Christine shook her head. “I don’t understand you.” Her brown eyes, bright with welling tears, scoured his face.

Determined to land the blow as kindly as he could, he continued, “It is evident your tenure here has done you considerable good, and for that I applaud both your diligence and Miss Ashcroft’s capabilities. Be that as it may, I am no longer convinced that London is the best environment for shaping your mind—or your morals.”