Marie drew her skirt together at the knees, hands gripping the cloth. "Sir, I don't know what you mean."
Mr. Alderson tilted his head and the corner of his mouth twitched ever so slightly. "Why, Miss Owen, you seem quite vexed with troubles. Won't you allow me to share your burden, even only a tiny bit?" His thumb and forefinger almost touched.
The fire from the liquor seemed to be spreading from Marie's stomach to her limbs. She brought a finger to her lips to bite the nail, then thought better of it, and dropped her hand back into her lap. "You are a stranger, sir. How odd that you wish to be my confidant."
The man drew back a trifle, pressed his lips together, then blurted out, "I beg your pardon for moving beyond my place, Miss Owen. Your beauty overwhelms me." He sucked in a breath through pursed lips, and hung his head. His voice sounded hollow as he said, "I do beg your pardon, very humbly, Miss. Please forgive me."
Marie felt in a forgiving mood as the skin of her hands felt soft enough to run off her fingers like melted butter. "I..." she began, but her voice faded. "It's not... Usually I would not..." She shook her head gently, feeling as though her brains would collide with the bones of her skull if she exerted herself overmuch. "You are forgiven, Mr. Alderson," she said in a rush, before her voice failed her again. "Forgiven," she repeated for emphasis. The consonants ran together.
Mr. Alderson raised his head and stared into her eyes. "You are quite...magnificent," he said slowly. "Magnificent and magnanimous, together in one generous soul. I feel as though I were in the presence of a royal personage. Such grace. Such charm." He took her hand in both of his, and lifted it toward his lips. He stopped midway, and murmured, "I am quite overcome with feelings, Miss Owen. Will you permit...?" and he kissed the inside of her wrist.
Looking at the man's bent head, Marie wondered that his moustache did not tickle her skin. Instead, it felt stiff, yet flexible and yielding at the same time, and his warm lips spread the heat from the alcohol up her arm. She knew she must remove her hand from his grasp, but her strength failed her just as her voice had, and the lethargy caused her head to rest on her shoulder.
He made circles on her wrist with the back of one finger, his nail smooth, not catching her skin with jagged edges or nicks, but sliding over her skin like it rode on a film of sweet oil.
"Sir," she protested, her voice little more than an echo, as he began to place kisses as gentle as the touch of a moth's wing on the heel of her hand, then moved gradually down onto the sensitive flesh of her palm. Such gentle kisses, stirring her blood and driving her inhibitions far away, far up the mountain and into the depths of a dark pool of water where she had sat once in time, a man bending over her, offering a cup of cool water. Who had that been? Her head swam as memory eluded her, and she swallowed, no longer fighting the wild pulse of blood that throbbed in her temples.
She raised her head with an effort. The fire had gone to embers, no longer lighting the table before her. The man beside her murmured, "So lovely," and placed his hand on her knee.
An internal alarm roused her senses. This is wrong. I did not tolerate Tom's hands on me. This man is a stranger. He has less right. She shifted her body so that her limbs slid out from under the man's hand. "I...must go," she said, grateful that her voice seemed steady. She pushed herself to her feet against the man's protests. "You must forebear, sir," she added, tugging her hand free. "Goodnight."
Steering herself toward the light of the distant lantern hanging from the door post of her father's house, Marie splashed through the creek and felt the shock of the cold water bring her wits into sharper focus. She grimaced against the headache starting behind her eyes, but made it through the front door and into the loft before anyone greeted her or made note of her wet shoes and hem.
I'm shameless, she told herself. A shameless spinster, acting like a brazen hussy. And yet, some of the warmth from the man's moth-like kisses had not faded from her body, and she wrapped herself in that warmth as she fell asleep.