“Do you trust me?”
The words hung heavily in the air between them. Perhaps it was the darkness of night that gave them a sinister quality. Ella glimpsed one of her bodyguards at a distance, trying unsuccessfully to blend into the shadows of a tree. Someone was only a cry away if the situation got out of hand. She looked into Joseph’s eyes, shadowed by the mask that surrounded them, and nodded.
“Yes, I trust you.”
He glanced at the guard then back at her and smiled. “Maybe not completely, but that’s all right.”
For a moment they stayed locked together with his hands on her shoulders, their gazes meshed. He stared at her mouth, and Ella’s lips trembled with the need to be kissed. Slowly he inclined his head. She rose up on her toes and leaned into him. His warm breath touched her face. It smelled like mint and chocolate. Would his tongue taste the same?
His face filled her vision, and she closed her eyes as his mouth descended toward hers. Then he kissed her cheek, a light brush of his warm lips near the corner of her mouth before he pulled away.
Ella’s eyes flew open. She stared at him with her eyebrows raised.
“I won’t kiss your mouth, Marie. Kissing is for those in love. We’re only temporary lovers.”
“Oh.” Her disappointment was keen, but she’d agreed to play the game his way, to let him direct the course of their evening. She could hardly complain because he didn’t intend to kiss her.
Joseph let go of her shoulders and took her by the hand. “Come.”
Ella walked quickly to keep up with his longer strides. He led her from the gardens near the ballroom, away from the light spilling through the windows and the sweet sorrow of violin music that floated behind them.
“Where are we—”
“No questions,” he commanded. “Blind obedience tonight. I promise I won’t do anything you don’t enjoy.”
They’d crossed the lawn and were approaching the tall hedge of the walking maze, so Ella’s question about destination was answered. But what Joseph would do to her in the dark avenues and blind alleys of the labyrinth remained to be answered.
He stopped before the entrance of the maze and drew a handkerchief from his trouser pocket. He dangled it before her, and Ella understood he was about to blindfold her.
“You don’t know me, but this game won’t be enjoyable unless you trust me. So I ask again—do you trust me?”
He was right, she didn’t know him, and how foolish was she to trust a complete stranger with her body? And yet, despite the fact that his face, physique and voice were foreign to her, there was a quality of familiarity about Joseph. On some deeply elemental level she did trust him. Completely.
Ella took off her violet-colored mask, glad to feel her face uncovered for the first time all evening. She turned her back to him, indicating her readiness to be blindfolded.
A moment later, her eyes were enveloped in darkness as Joseph tied the handkerchief around them. He stood behind her, gripping her shoulders again, and spoke softly near her ear. “I want you to be aware of all your senses. Listen to the night sounds. Breathe in the scents all around you. Feel the air on your skin or the scratch of the hedge against your arm as you pass. I want you to experience everything more deeply than you ever have before, and when we reach the center of the maze…”
He stopped, and Ella held her breath, waiting for him to tell her what would happen there. Instead, his heavy hands left her shoulders as he stepped away from her. She was floating in darkness, alone, without an anchor.
What did he want her to do, fumble along blindly through the maze? Or was she supposed to wait for his direction? She held very still, listening for his breathing. She couldn’t hear it, but did hear the steady chirp of a cricket, the trill of a chorus of frogs and the soft soughing of the breeze through the dense branches of the hedge shrubbery.
But even though she couldn’t hear Joseph, she sensed him nearby and knew he was watching her. The knowledge was incredibly erotic. She wanted to be naked as he gazed on her—naked, blindfolded and vulnerable. Her nipples poked hard against the bodice of her blouse and her skin felt too sensitive against her clothing.
“Walk straight forward.” A low, commanding voice moved her feet. She took a few careful steps, testing the ground, feeling for something that might trip her.
“Take small steps, but take them with confidence,” he ordered.
Ella resisted the urge to put up her hands and feel for obstacles in front of her as she walked several paces forward. Even though her arms didn’t brush against it, she felt the hedge rise on either side of her as she entered the maze. She became aware of how much farther her body’s perceptions extended without sight to identify the world around her.
Walking blind, she turned sharply and continued forward again. She thought she was walking straight, but soon felt twigs and leaves scratching her left arm. Remembering that the maze was circular, she adjusted her course from a straight line to a slightly curved one.
The voice came from immediately behind her. “Good. Stop. Turn right then immediately left.”
She felt his warm presence heating her backside even though he didn’t touch her, and she obeyed his directions, moving farther into the maze. The narrow pathways were shadowed and mysterious during the day so it must be pitch black tonight even for Joseph, who was not wearing a blindfold. Yet he gave one command after the other as if he knew the maze intimately. She didn’t feel like they were becoming hopelessly lost.
Although it was a cool evening, in the shelter of the yew hedges Ella’s flesh began to heat from exertion and in anticipation of what would happen next. The sounds of their footsteps on the grass, the snap of an occasional twig, the distant, mournful hooting of an owl, were all magnified by the darkness. The pungent smell of the yews filled her nose, and her body felt more aware, more alive, than it had in a long time.
She continued to walk as Joseph directed her to. His tone wasn’t overbearing, but calmly assertive, and she found the deep rumble of his voice unbearably attractive.
“Stop!” he ordered at last.
Ella felt a wider space around her. She could no longer sense the shrub walls closing in, and to check she extended her arms, feeling for the thicket. Joseph’s footsteps approached. His hot body was right behind hers again. Her heart pounded and she swallowed past the dryness in her throat.
When his hand touched her head, she started, but relaxed as he stroked the length of her hair, which she’d left down and undressed for her role as a milkmaid. She tensed again when he slipped his hands around her neck, but he only caressed her throat before slipping one hand down to the scooped neckline of her blouse. The heat of his palm felt imprinted on her chest.
Joseph reached for the hem of her blouse and lifted it. Ella raised her arms, and he pulled it off her. She was left wearing only a camisole, having rejected a corset for this evening. His mouth touched her bare shoulder and she shivered. The tiny hairs on her forearms rose as he pressed soft, damp kisses down the length of her arm. As he’d promised, every touch felt more intense with the blindfold on. Ella held as still as a doll and let him do what he would with her.