Mr. Moorish waved his free hand as he poured tea. “Of course. Just like you, I am the second son of an earl.” Serving up a scone to each of them, he sat back down in his chair. “I participated in all the delights that London offers men of our station, including the ones that polite society likes to pretend don’t exist.”
Luke tightened his jaw to keep his mouth from falling open as he looked at the man across from him. Mr. Moorish was a jovial-looking fellow, with happy eyes and smiling lines about his face. He held a bit more weight than a younger man, which only added to his kind appearance. He was the very picture of naïve happiness. “Surely you don’t mean that you—”
Mr. Moorish pulled off his spectacles and began to clean the lenses. His face had hardened in ways that Luke had never imagined. “I drank, gambled, caroused, and enjoyed the company of ladies who were not part of society.”
Luke gripped the arm of his chair touching neither the tea nor the scone. “You? The lover of Shakespeare, the man with five daughters, was a London rake?”
Mr. Moorish frowned. “I’m afraid so.” He placed the glasses back on his face. “It’s not a life I’m proud of. My father called me back to Seabridge Gate out of worry. That was when I met my wife, Annabelle. Most beautiful woman I had ever seen.” He lifted his teacup though he didn’t take a drink. “Adrianna is her spitting image. It’s uncanny how much she looks like my late wife.”
Luke’s stomach dipped. “Is that difficult?”
Mr. Moorish nodded. “At times. But also wonderful. Each of my daughters carries a piece of her. And each reminds me of how blessed I was with great love, a happy life, and a wonderful home. When I think of what my life could have been had I stayed in the city…” Mr. Moorish shivered. “Life here can change you for the better if you let it.” He leaned forward. “A good woman can really aid in that change if you allow her in.”
Luke’s insides flipped about again. “I’m not certain I’m capable of that sort of change any longer. I’ve been living in the dark for so long.”
Mr. Moorish took another sip of tea, giving the other man a sidelong glance. “Of course you are. Now, I don’t know if you knew this, but I am keeper of the Seabridge Gate bridge and I’ve assembled a crew of men to work on the broken crosspieces today so that we can reopen the road north. Would you mind joining the crew? Honest work always gives a man good time to think and plenty of perspective.”
Luke also picked up his tea and took a generous sip. If he stayed the day, he might as well put it to use. Working seemed preferable to allowing his thoughts to spin wildly until tonight. “I’d be happy to.”
And he needed time to consider Mr. Moorish’s words. Deep in that place he used to call a heart, he wanted to believe that Seabridge Gate could save him too. That Arianna might be the answer he’d sought for so long.
Mr. Moorish’s wide smile returned. “Good. Head over to the inn and have a filling breakfast. The toll master will find you from there.”
Luke took a healthy bite of his scone, the buttery pastry melting in his mouth. “These are excellent.”
Mr. Moorish gave him a wink. “Good old-fashioned country cooking. I’ll see you tonight, young man.”
Adrianna woke with the sun, despite having gone to bed so late. Her dreams had been plagued with memories of the night before. In them Luke had held her tight and pushed her away.
She shuddered as she crossed to her balcony that overlooked the ocean. After opening the doors, she stepped into the cool morning, breathing in the fresh air. The vague worry that had plagued her the night before was crystal clear in the morning sun. He’d never actually proposed. Nor had he admitted to any feelings for her.
She nibbled on her lip. Had she unwittingly succumbed to a rake’s charms? The irony wasn’t lost on her. She’d attempted to pit herself against him in particular and rakes in general. If he’d wanted to show her that he could best her, he’d done an admirable job. It was just that somewhere along the way, her feelings had gotten tangled like fish in a net.
She wrapped her arms about herself. He also hadn’t taken any pleasure for himself, only given to her. Although in that way, she’d given a great deal too. Though a virgin still, there was some measure of innocence she’d handed to him, willingly, of course, but still. Where did that leave her?
Wiser, she supposed. She understood far more about seduction and if she were honest, as Adrianna had replayed his words, his touch had been like a lesson, peppered with advice. But why would he want to teach her how to seduce? Was she to use those lessons on him? Coerce him into marriage?
He was a rake. Perhaps he just didn’t want her for more than physical pleasure. Her thoughts circled back to that conclusion, then went round again to why he hadn’t taken any for himself. She’d been a willing participant in his arms—he could have easily had his way with her.
And why had she allowed him such liberties? She’d appointed herself protector of her sisters. Sworn to fight off the potential rakes and she’d succumbed to the first one who’d held her in his arms. What was wrong with her?
Unless his intentions were pure? Was that how rakes got upstanding women to succumb to their charms?
Adrianna sighed. There was nothing to do but ask him. She dressed, then she made her way down to breakfast and ate alone before heading to the village.
Luke wasn’t at the cottage, nor the inn. Passing by her father’s office, she stopped, looking in. Mr. Burton waved.
She stepped inside, twisting her hands together. “Hello, Mr. Burton. Good to see you.”
“You as well.” He gave her a friendly smile. “You’re up early.”
“I am.” She looked down at her hands. “Is Papa here?”
“He is.” Mr. Burton waved toward the back. “You’re just in time to catch him before he starts his rounds.”
She nodded, stepping into the back room where her father sat hunched over a stack of ledgers.
“Papa,” she asked, not sure what she planned to say.