Copyright © DOROTHY MCFALLS, 2007

Lady Iona licked her lips. "I have less than an hour before I am missed. I hope that will not be a problem."

"This first lesson in debauchery shouldn't take very long at all, my lady," Lord Nathan replied. She could have sworn she heard a soft laugh hiding under his curiously formal tone.

She gripped his arm tightly as he led her in silence through the Bath streets. He kept them cloaked in the darkest shadows near the buildings as they hurried past several familiar faces. She hadn't realized how many people promenaded the streets after dark. She lowered her head and touched her hand to the brim of the hood. Her heart thundered in her chest.

This was madness. She would be caught. Her father would glower in silence. Her mother would shriek. And she would forever lose her status as their dear, obedient daughter.

Cecile, her older sister, was the lucky one, happily married and producing heirs for her husband. Lillian, her younger sister, was the beauty of the family. Stuck in the middle, Iona had forever been relegated to playing the part of the good child, the quiet child and later, the pliable young lady.

Lord Nathan pressed a finger to his lips as he led her past Abbey Street and toward the King's Bath. Light reflected from the streetlamps sparkled in his eyes like stars. A smile tugged on the corner of his lips.

"In a moment we shall test your mettle," he whispered. He clamped his warm, gloved hand over hers.

They came upon a man with a tweed cap atop his greasy head slumped at the King's Bath entrance. He perked up at their approach. Without a word Lord Nathan slid a handful of coins into the man's outstretched palm.

"I 'ad the place opened up, just as you requested, my lord," the stranger drawled.

Lord Nathan gave the man a friendly pound on the back as he passed into the front room of the King's Bath. His grip on Iona's hand tightened. He led her into a dimly lit passageway.

"Have you ever taken a dip in the waters?" he asked.

"Not in a public bath." She had once dipped her toes in Bath's sulfuric waters when keeping her mother company at one of the private bathing facilities.

The King's Bath, however, was open to all who could pay the fee and the bathers were on display for anyone strolling on the terrace or visiting the Pump Room.

He guided her down a few steps and opened a door. Moonlight poured into the corridor. The fine mist rising off the green waters appeared to glow.

"You don't expect me to actually step into the water?" Panic fluttered in her belly. "I-I would be dripping when you returned me to my family at the Assembly Rooms. And I would ruin my evening gown."

He chuckled and then removed the cloak from her shoulders. "I don't expect you to wear your gown in the water, my lady."

A scorching blush pricked her cheeks.

"You-you expect me to strip in front of you?"

"It is what any rogue would do." He proved his words by shrugging out of his evening coat and pulling off his cravat. When he started to unbutton his shirt, she whirled around.

"This isn't proper." Her legs suddenly turned watery.

"No, it isn't," he agreed. He lightly touched her arm. "Teaching you to be more like me is more than improper, Lady Iona. It is wrong."

She drew an unsteady breath. Her gaze latched onto the dark waters. Was her freedom waiting for her in the bath's shadowy depths? Tossing off her dress and diving into the steaming puddle wasn't something she'd ever dreamed of doing. Perhaps that was the problem in her life.

"Very well," she said.

He breathed a deep sigh. "I will escort you back to the Assembly Rooms, then."

She spun back around. "No." She grabbed his hand before he could button up his shirt. Her gloved fingers brushed against the hard plain of his broad chest. Touching him so intimately nearly unraveled her resolve.

"I will do as you instruct."

"You're not serious." He peeled her fingers from his hand. "You fail to understand what you seek to learn." His nimble fingers worked the buttons on his shirt.

She blinked. Had he chosen this task knowing she'd be too shocked to try it? Did he truly believe she lacked the spirit to…to…?

Jumping in the King's Bath in the middle of the night was foolhardy. Her heart pounded as if it was about to burst from her chest. She closed her eyes. Drew a deep breath. Then peeled off her gloves. And with several quick twists and turns, managed to untie her pink ribbons, kick off her slippers and wiggle out of her gown and corset.

"Iona, wait!" he shouted a moment before she charged down the steps into the bath wearing nothing more than a thin linen chemise that hung no lower than her knees and a pair of pink stockings.

The blistering water stung every inch of her body.

She couldn't remember ever feeling more alive.

Copyright 2009
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