The viscount urged her on, and opening the door, led her into a summer world. Portia was entranced. It smelled wonderful, redolent of wet earth, green exhalations of leaf and vine, and the sweet unseasonable smell of flowers. There was a narrow path between the ranks of vegetation which eventually opened to a small seating area warmed by braziers and lit with lanterns.
Intoxicated with the delight of summer within the winter, Portia smiled at Stadbroke. "It's wonderful! What a joy, and what a delightful thing for the girls to enjoy."
"They seem to like it very much. But they like your school better." He stood before her, at ease and far too attractive for her peace of mind. "Portia, you have been a true inspiration to my daughters. You have been their friend and an ally when they could not depend on me--or thought they could not."
She sidled away from him, and was disturbed when he followed.
"I wanted to thank you, for your understanding. And for helping me to better understand them."
He gathered up her hands, and when she would have withdrawn them he held them more tightly.
"You do so much for everyone, and so little for yourself. You have every confidence in your abilities, and none at all in your personal attractions. Portia, you are a handsome woman, perhaps not beautiful in the manner you believe you should be, but you have more lasting qualities than simple prettiness."
Portia was horrified by the turn of the conversation. He seemed to know too well her insecurities and her concerns. She tried again to pull away and he responded by drawing her into his arms.
"Portia, be still, and be told. You are an attractive woman. Why my compeers don't appreciate that, I will never understand. They look for superficialities I suppose. You offer true gold," he bent his head, and coaxing her with a questing finger under her chin, pressed his lips to hers.
Portia had been kissed once or twice, and assumed she had been found wanting as the experiments had never been repeated. She had tried so hard. This time she did not try at all, but followed her senses in appreciating his hard, yet tender mouth, and all the sensations it conjured within her.
When he ended the kiss, his breath came quickly, and Portia stared at him, overcome by a wash of desire and a surge of love. No, surely not love... Lust perhaps. She had known so little of these emotions, how could she tell one from the other? She closed her eyes to will away her confusion. "I should like to return to the drawing room, my lord."
"I should not," he said. "I should like to remain here and explore the interesting possibilities we have just discovered."
That brought Portia to her senses and a quick flare of annoyance. "It was a kiss, my lord. Nothing more or less, not a possibility at all."
"That's better. If we return to the drawing room with you all dreamy-eyed and bruise-mouthed, everyone will know what we have been doing. The spark in those wide eyes will convince them we have been at odds discussing gardening, nothing more."
To her horror, Portia began to laugh helplessly and continued to laugh as he led back into the beguiling library and up the broad stairs.
"You are utterly without judgement and conscience, my lord," she accused when at last she could command her voice to calm and quiet. She did not really believe her harsh words. "You take your pleasures wherever you wish."
"And you take yours not at all," he said, ushering her with a flourish back into the drawing room and into the conversations burgeoning there.