Chapter Nine. Mysteries of Love

Georgiana’s soft knock upon the door was answered with a rushing swing before her knuckles finished rapping. In less than a heartbeat she was gathered into Kitty’s arms.

“I tarried, but you are dressed for bed and have completed your toilette, I see.” Georgiana laughed, pulling away although still affectionately clasping Kitty’s shoulders.

“Faster than you, Miss Darcy. If I was not so anxious to gossip and be a silly girl for one night I may have snuck out to see my handsome fianc?!”

“In your bedclothes? How utterly shocking and improper, Miss Bennet. Fortunate that he is out with the men presently so you could not act upon your scandalous inclinations.”

If only you knew, Kitty thought, laughing gaily at Georgiana’s tease. The two linked arms and walked to the sofa before the fire. “It was only a momentary thought. I am not so shameless as to risk Mr. Darcy’s censure or my fianc?’s displeasure,” she said nonchalantly.

“I rather doubt your fianc? would be displeased to see his beloved in her bedclothes. Quite the opposite sentiment is more likely the case.”

“My! Listen to who speaks of intimate sentiments!”

“It is the natural way of such things. Although hopefully your trousseau consists of nightwear a bit more stylish than that,” she indicated Kitty’s robe of thickly quilted velvet with a high collared and plain cotton gown worn underneath.

“Oh my, yes! Mama nearly fainted when seeing the pretty, lacy slips Lizzy gifted me. I daresay I never would have braved purchasing such garments. Yes indeed, even I blushed and demurred!” Kitty asserted at the unbelieving expression on Georgiana’s face.

“It might, therefore, be wise to don the nightgowns for a few nights before your honeymoon so you will not be too uncomfortable with your new husband.”

“I have taken your wise advice ere you rendered it, dear Georgiana. I too pray that prior application will benefit. And as to being uncomfortable in regards to new husbands, my experienced sister has been preparing me. Her advice is far better than Mama has given, I am relieved to say.”

“Well, this is profitable information. I will know who to ask when time to acquire my wedding trousseau and prepare for a wedding night.”

“Oh really? So tell me, Georgie, who is he?”

“Who is who?” Georgiana calmly bent to pour tea into two cups, only the faintest smile and rosy cheeks belying her aloofness.

“Some gorgeous Italian, I imagine,” Kitty went on dreamily. “Or perhaps a Frenchman with dark eyes and a poetic accent. I shall divine the truth in time!”

“You are ridiculous, but I have missed you terribly despite your penchant for over dramatics. I can assure there is not a single Italian or Frenchman to tell you of.” She handed the cup to Kitty with a sincere smile. “Two spoons of sugar and a spot of cream as you like it.”

“Oh, Georgiana! It has been far too long! We have so much to catch up on and so little time before I shall be parted from you.”

“And so happily parted that you will undoubtedly not think upon me for weeks. Or at least I would hope your mind consumed with pleasanter thoughts.” Again that impish lilt that had Kitty searching her friend’s face in wonder, but Georgiana continued before Kitty could inquire. “That is why I invited you to stay with me here at Netherfield. Not for clandestine engagements with fianc?s, no matter how handsome. I shall be watching you, Miss Bennet, so control your impulses!” She sternly shook her finger at Kitty, who pretended to bite the digit, bringing on a fresh case of giggles. “You must share all that I missed. Letters, even those as diligent and comprehensive as yours, do not tell all.”

“My letters must have been painfully dull compared to your adventures, more than half of which I am sure you never enlightened me of.”

“Absolutely not! Letters from home staved off my homesickness, which did threaten to overwhelm at times no matter what adventures I was having.”

“Ah, to see such exotic places as Paris and Rome.” Kitty sighed.

“You will travel far and wide in due time, Kitty. Major General Artois is a man of the world and financially prosperous. He will delight in squiring his beautiful bride to military galas at every capitol of the world.”

“When he is not engaged in armed battle or getting himself wounded, you mean.”

Georgiana clasped her friend’s hand, squeezing to comfort. “Was it so horrible? When he was injured and beyond your reach and knowledge? I knew you kept it light for my sake, which you should not have, but I could discern your distress within the lines and words.”

Kitty shook her head, smiling slightly to offset the threatening tears. “He made light of it so I endeavored to do the same. And of course he is now as hale as can be.” Then she released a short laugh, meeting Georgiana’s gaze and speaking with her typical humor. “Is it not the height of irony that after years of swooning and dreaming of soldiers in their smart red coats, imagining the life as an officer’s wife one of honor and dazzle, that I never thought about what a military man actually does for a living? And now I have secured an officer, much to my mother’s endless verbal delight, and I am terrified amid the exalting happiness!”

“Life definitely has a way of surprising us, I will concur.”

“There it is again! That inflection of something more behind your careful words. Georgiana Darcy, you must spill all!”

“Well, if all is on the agenda for tonight perhaps we should call for more tea and cakes and get started posthaste!” Georgiana laughed giddily, every trace of reserve erased. “Very well, you have gleaned my hidden secret thoroughly for one who has not seen me in months. I had no idea I was so transparent! Although Lizzy was peering at me strangely, so I must conclude that love is indeed visible upon the skin as the poets declare.”

“Aha! I knew it! Who is he? Where is he now? And does he have a most marvelous accent and speak phrases of love in mellifluous French?”

“Stop! One question at a time! Our discussions must have order or we will merely be talking one upon the other. My story of romance needs to wait until Lizzy arrives. No sense repeating it all twice. You tell me more of your courtship with the dashing Major General.”

“But that is unfair! You know of my romance and yet I am to die of curiosity waiting for Lizzy?”

“Patience is a virtue,” Georgiana piously intoned. “However, I would not wish for my dear friend to die. That would be most discourteous of me. So here, I shall give you a name and you must content yourself with that.” She paused, dramatic flair always a subtle Darcy trait, then spoke with the rich tones of one violently in love, “Mr. Sebastian Butler.”

Kitty gasped. “The composer! Truly? But I thought he was merely a friend? You were so specific. Oh my! This is a tale indeed! How did you…?”

“A hint only, I promised, to prevent your perishing!” She laughed, clasping onto Kitty’s hand, her smile radiant. “It is a fabulous tale, Kitty, and I shall do it justice. But first, you. We must somehow manage to cover the past months apart before dawn. Major General Artois would be most vexed with me if his bride approached the altar with purple circles under her eyes from lack of sufficient sleep!”

“If I must sit in suspense I shall, Miss Darcy. But so you know, it is torturing me!”

“Your pain will diminish as you wax eloquent about your true love. Go on. When I left for Europe you were deeply in love, we all knew it, except for you, foolish girl. Tell me of his letters. I wish for details!”

And with a great deal of giggling and exclamations, Kitty told of her strange reluctance to trust a man who, by all outward appearances, was wonderful. She read a few of his letters aloud, having brought them to Netherfield for just this purpose. She told of how her heart gradually opened while he was away, finally admitting to the fullness of her love when the message arrived saying he had been wounded. The agony of waiting, of not knowing, was terrible, but it had served to strengthen her resolve and secure her heart.

“What a difference just a year makes,” she said introspectively. “When Mr. Falke abandoned me I thought the pain more than possible for a heart to bear. My affections for Mr. Falke were real, I know that. I may be fickle to a degree, but not so nonsensical as to fabricate emotions where none exist. Certainly I never experienced an attachment to a man before him. Yet I can now comprehend the variance in my emotions between the two. The heartache and vision of Mr. Falke’s face are detached, whereas my Randall is firmly entrenched.”

“My dearest Kitty, dare I say how altered you are from the girl I met three years ago without offending?” Georgiana spoke with tones of warmth and pride, Kitty blushing at the recollection of how frivolously she once approached life. Lydia’s influence greatly attributed to her shallow attitude, as the stabilizing influence of Georgiana Darcy had positively aided her comportment. Nevertheless, traumas of life and passage of time were the main contributions to forming the woman who was days away from being a wife.

“No offense, Georgiana. It is simply the truth. Dare I say that we have both altered over these years of our friendship? Tribulations of the heart proficiently temper one, do they not?”

“Indeed. Oh yes, Kitty, I know precisely what you mean.”

“Oh! Of course you do! And how thoughtless of me to forget! Foolish, scattered Kitty yet rears her vapid head! Please accept my apologies, my friend. I speak of past affairs that are sure to revive thoughts of Mr. Wickham, even though I know you have asserted no lingering affliction, and compound the insult by brainlessly forgetting to inform you of a matter that personally affects you!”

“Kitty, you must calm yourself. I assure you once again that Mr. Wickham’s name and memory afflict me not in the least. Surely you must know this? After all, if you can so readily distance your emotions after a year, how much easier must it be for me after five?” Georgiana laughed, shaking her head at her distraught friend. “Besides, I was not referring to Mr. Wickham. In fact, that man did not enter my mind! You are silly at times, my dear. Yes, still quite ridiculous!”

“If not Mr. Wickham then I am doubly curious to hear of your romantic entanglements. I shall accede your label of silly and ridiculous gladly in hopes that it will not distress you too greatly when I report that my sister Lydia and her husband will be arriving any day now. The family was informed not two days ago that they planned to attend my wedding. Frankly, most of us wish it were not to be, although it will be nice to see Lydia after so long a separation. Are you distressed overly, my dear?”

Kitty’s inquiry was met with slightly raised brows but no other sign of agitation. “No, I am not distressed. I am sure it will be moderately uncomfortable, but then again I rather doubt it requisite for me to interact with either of them, is it?”

“I see no reason, other than simple politeness if encountered in the crowd. They will be dwelling at Longbourn and the plan is to keep mingling to a minimum.”

“Then you see? All is well. I refuse to allot Mr. Wickham the power to unbalance me. I, like you, have grown stronger and now have a relationship worthy of prideful boasting and happiness. Agreed?”

“Oh, yes, Georgiana! The depths are so different! With Randall everything is different and vastly superior. His touch and kiss, even his eyes upon me are intense as never dreamed or experienced. Dare I say he is perfect without having you laugh at me?”

“No, because I understand that you do not mean he is ‘perfect’ in that his character possesses no faults, as we all have faults. Rather you mean that he is perfect for you. Your match, I suppose. Once again, I know precisely what you mean.”

“Again an allusion to your romance. I am bursting with intrigue!”

“Do not burst as yet, please! Finish your tale, or rather bring it to the present as the story has no end.”

“Being with Randall is a joy unlike anything ever felt, to be sure. That alone convinces me of my love. But the true test was his constancy. I gave so little in the way of a promise, and yet he persevered. Always patient and not demanding. He told me later, after our engagement, that he was certain of his affections and our future after a month!” She shook her head. “I still have difficulty believing that. I was downright rude at times! I was so sure that he would disappoint and wound that I… well, I suppose I was testing him. Or attempting to guard my heart by pushing him away before he burrowed in too deep, only then to have him reject me.”

They were silent for a spell, each dwelling upon their romances with the bizarre twists and chaotic emotions that accompany falling in love.

“Love is a wonderful emotion and state of being,” Georgiana said, breaking the silence, “but hazards are found within.”

“Indeed. I would not wish for anyone other than my Randall, and to have discovered the secret of loving someone and knowing they love you is indescribable. It is well worth the risks from vulnerability!”

At Georgiana’s urging, Kitty completed her romantic tale, replete with detailed information. Laughter was constant, questions frequent, and teasing interspersed. Kitty reached the point of repeating herself and lapsing into saccharine reiterations of Major General Artois’s attributes when another knock on the door announced the arrival of Lizzy.

“My youngest son would choose this night to resist slumber and suffer a bellyache. Have I missed all the romantic disclosures?” Lizzy also wore comfortable sleeping attire, plopping onto a plush chair and pouring a cup of tea before curling her legs and settling in for a lengthy session of girl talk.

“Not all,” Kitty answered her sister. “I related my story in the fullest, all of which you know, Lizzy. I fear I was on the brink of lapsing into maudlin verse and embarrassing namby-pambyisms since Miss Darcy refused to reveal her romance until you arrived.”

“As I suspected!” Lizzy leaned forward, gazing intently at Georgiana, who was blushing profusely. “Indeed, we must hear all. Yet before we embark into what will undoubtedly be a delightful topic with abundant joy and laughter, I regret I must insert an element of disturbance. It is best to have it over and done with, unless, of course, Kitty has already spoken of Mr. Wickham?”

“She did,” Georgiana answered with a nod, “and I assured her, as I shall assure you, that I am not unduly disturbed. Rather I am pleased for the Bennets, who surely have missed Mrs. Wickham all these years. It shall be strange to see Mr. Wickham, uncomfortable, I am certain, and I am glad of the warning, but I refuse to allow that man to discompose me.”

“Well spoken,” Lizzy declared. “We are united in our resolve to bear it bravely and delight in Kitty’s happiness.”

“How did Mr. Darcy accept the news?”

“He was told by Papa, already assimilating the fact prior to my speaking of it. He was calm as typical of his character, but expressed distrust of Wickham’s motives.” Lizzy shrugged. “I fear William cannot ever be indifferent where Wickham is concerned. He will be watchful and prudent. I intend to avoid him utterly, even if William had not ordered me to do so.”

Georgiana laughed at that; the expression on Lizzy’s face at being “ordered” to do anything, even something she agreed to be perfectly logical, was priceless. Still, Georgiana knew that her brother’s animosity toward his once childhood playmate was intense and a result of more than her foolish near-elopement with Wickham, so she did not flippantly disregard his response to the news.

She never had solved the puzzle of their strained relationship, having no idea there was an unpleasant history until after the events at Ramsgate. Her childhood memories of Wickham were pleasant; hence she was so easily duped by the scoundrel. Darcy’s protection of his sister included not shattering her happy thoughts of a charming young man who treated her with wit and humor and kindness. In retrospect that decision was unwise, but chosen with her serenity in mind, Darcy never suspecting that Wickham would have an opportunity to hurt Georgiana. The ugly confrontation between Darcy and Wickham at Ramsgate left no doubt of their past involving serious incidents, but her brother refused to enlighten her.

“If William feels that strongly after the passing of several years, I can only bow to his wise counsel.” Georgiana smiled at a frowning Kitty, squeezing her friend’s hand. “Besides, I am sure he will behave with William and Richard glowering at him! Surely he is merely acquiescing to Mrs. Wickham’s desire to visit her family. And it is a wedding, after all! Love and rejoicing to high degrees shall erase ill will.”

“Indeed you are correct, Georgiana,” Lizzy firmly declared, her voice cheery and light. “And, speaking of love, it is time for you to enlighten us as to when you fell in love with the eminently worthy and supremely handsome Mr. Butler!”

Georgiana gaped at her sister. “How did you figure that out?”

“When Madeline mentioned Lady Warrow and Mr. Butler traveling across the Channel and into London as part of your group, you nearly jumped out of your skin. Then you reddened and glanced at William. So, Mr. Butler it is? He is the fortunate man to steal your heart?”

Lizzy and Kitty were grinning, Georgiana flushing further at their attention. Or perhaps it was the mention of Mr. Butler that caused her heart to flutter and heat to rise. Whatever the direct inducement, she was concerned about one point. “Lizzy, do you think William suspects anything?”

Lizzy blinked in surprise then harrumphed. “William? Are you serious? Your brother is unskilled in the subtle indicators of romantic sentiment, bless his adorable heart. He may catch on in a few weeks if you persist in growing dreamy-eyed whenever Mr. Butler’s name is mentioned. Or perhaps if Mr. Butler were here bestowing hand caresses and adoring gazes he might draw a conclusion!”

“Oh, Lizzy! You are too harsh!” Kitty exclaimed amid the laughter.

“Of course I am teasing and exaggerating. But Georgie knows the truth of it. But why the secrecy?”

Georgiana shook her head emphatically. “No secrecy, I assure you. Aunt and Uncle, Richard and Simone as well, know of our affections and wishes. Uncle and Richard, as temporary guardians, have given blessings and consent for Mr. Butler to court. It was Sebastian—Mr. Butler, I should say—who requested he properly speak with my brother and formalize our desires.”

“Why did he not accompany you here and speak to Mr. Darcy now?”

“It is your wedding, Kitty. He did not feel it was appropriate. And as much as I miss him and wish for our future to be secured, I have to admit I craved time devoted to my family. I have missed all of you so very much, especially my brother and you, Lizzy.”

“William has missed you as well, dear. I agree it is judicious to focus on one romance at a time! However, surely you do not fear your brother’s displeasure at your choice?”

“No! Oh, how could he? Mr. Butler is a wonderful choice, even if I did not love him fiercely. Nevertheless, I can foresee William being a tiny bit dismayed to have his ‘baby’ sister return after months away with a fianc? in tow!”

They all three laughed at that truth, Lizzy breathlessly responding, “He will merely be surprised. Not dismayed in the least. He was impressed with Mr. Butler’s manner and talent when we met at the ball last year. What I am curious of is when your heart was captured. You never hinted of an attraction beyond friendship in any of your letters, deceptive girl! Nor do I recall a particular interest when he played for us, other than enthusiasm for his music. So my curiosity is piqued most high.”

“Yes indeed, it is time! Your story now, Georgiana!”

Georgiana’s dramatic tale of convoluted misconceptions, blossoming love, a classic lover’s triangle, and triumphant mutual accord entertained for a long while. Fresh tea was requested, the sugared cakes devoured, and the fire stirred twice as they laughed and conversed. The night passed the chiming of midnight ere they exhausted the subjects of love and future affinity enough for one sitting.

1

Major General Randall Artois was determined to get rip-roaring drunk. So drunk that he would need to be carried into the house and poured onto his bed. Inebriated to the point of complete unconsciousness so that even if the house caught on fire he would be unaware. Since reaching such a state of utter intoxication was a task accomplished numerous times in the past, there was every reason to think it could happen again.

So why was it he barely sipped his way through two brandies?

When that plan failed, he thought maybe he could pick a fight with someone. A rousing brawl would either, one, get him knocked unconscious, or two, land him in jail for the night. No better place to cool simmering lust than in jail. He knew that from past experience as well.

But damned if every last man in the pub was so bloody nice that insulting one of them or hauling off and punching for no reason was not an option. And if a small voice inside his head reminded him that those issues had never bothered him before when he felt the urge for a friendly tussle, he told it to bugger off!

Then he prayed that their return to Netherfield would be a quiet one. Everyone would be asleep at one in the morning—everyone, right? They could tiptoe up the stairs to their designated rooms with no one the wiser. Of course, none of the other men had any problem with getting rip-roaring drunk. Not even Mr. Daniels! No amount of shushing stopped the off-key singing and heavy steps, no amount of leading kept them from bumping into every last hall obstacle. It was bedlam and several of the ladies emerged to assist in pouring the drunken menfolk into their beds. He apologized profusely, stating over and over that he had tried to keep them quiet, but the fact that his heart fell when Miss Bennet was not one of the ladies exiting her bedchamber, in her nightwear, revealed his hypocrisy.

An hour later he paced in his room. He had tried to sleep, for about five minutes. He downed another brandy, not that three would have any effect on his level of consciousness. His feet veered toward the door more times than he could count, but whether that was with the intent to lock it—which he had not done—or exit it to skulk down the hall he was not sure.

Oh, who are you fooling, Artois? The only reason you have not gone to her is because you do not know where her room is!

Maybe she does not know where your room is.

And that thought brought him to an abrupt halt. He stared into space, admitting in that moment that he wanted her to come. Had counted on it. And now he felt bereft. Another week did seem an eternity of yearning for her while in her presence and going mad with desire.

“God you are pathetic,” he muttered, “and you are not a gentleman.”

“Yes, you are. A gentleman that is.”

He whirled around, his heart skipping several beats but only partially from fright. It was relief, a dizzying relief that overwhelmed until he thought he would collapse right there on the floor at her feet.

She stood near the door, it shut and locked behind her, wearing a long robe of blue that covered her from neck to toes, yet she was so beautiful he could not breathe. He had never seen her hair down and that alone was enough to fan the flames of his ardor to levels never attained before. For a brief second he wondered if he could survive this night. Sex was one thing, something he had done countless times. Making love was a new experience and he prayed—seriously this time—that he was capable of pleasing her while attending to keeping his heart beating during the ecstasy he was now beginning to suspect would supplant anything previously known.

And just as it dawned on him that not once had he honestly contemplated not being with her tonight, before they were legally wed, and the guilt flickered into existence, she stepped closer to him.

She was smiling. She was calm. She was beautiful beyond words to describe. And before she spoke he knew she was his, just as he was already hers, and that today or a week hence their hearts would feel no different.

“You did not lock the door.”

“My door will never be locked to my wife.”

Kitty smiled wider, dazing him with the glory of her, and started to loosen the thick belt holding the robe together.

“Wait!” She glanced up, and he could tell she was prepared to argue, but he crossed the distance, taking her hands into his and bringing them to his lips. He held her eyes, slowly lowering her hands to dangle at her sides and reached to the belt. “Let me.”

A moment later, the robe heaped forgotten at her feet, Randall was again assailed with doubts as to how he would ever make it through this night. His heart beat erratically, although how that was possible when surely every ounce of blood in his body was pooled below his waist he did not know.

She wore a gown of sheer white satin edged with lace and ribbons gathered at all the correct places to accent her lush figure, her golden-brown hair a cloud of curls falling as a veil over her shoulders and back. She smelled of peaches, the scent rising from her creamy skin enticingly so that despite his paralysis and longing to simply examine her figure, the hunger to discover if she tasted like peaches overruled.

And she did. His lips and tongue skimmed over her neck, dining on the succulence that was her bare skin. She was the sweetest ambrosia imaginable. He ran his hands over her arms, pulling her closer as he nibbled across her delicate collarbone.

She inhaled sharply, trembling with the sensations educed and sagging into his arms. “Do not worry, I have you. Hold on to me,” he whispered, and she obeyed, snaking her arms over his shoulders to lock behind his neck. Pleasure shot like a bolt of electricity through his body, but he could not discern if it was the feel her arms and hands caressing his bare neck or the softness of her bosom under his mouth. Probably both.

Savage desire gripped him. With a hoarse groan he crushed her to his body, initiating an uncontrollable kiss that bordered on feral. Amazingly, she did not flinch, returning the embrace and kiss with the same ferociousness, a muted growl communicating she reciprocated. His shirt was yanked out of his waistband, her hands plunging underneath to stroke up his back, Randall gasping at the flames streaking across his skin and into the marrow of his bones. Each touch of her hands was exquisite to a degree that defied logic. Pleasure, desire, bliss, lust, and more were felt to a level unprecedented, and they had barely done more than kiss!

With herculean effort he tore away from her lips, respirations ragged and hands rough on her elbows to still the caressing that was about to shatter his remaining wits. He fought for control, or a semblance thereof, eyes closed and forehead resting on hers.

“I need a moment,” he croaked, “or I will toss you onto that bed and ravage you like a beast. God, Kitty! What you do to me!”

“I am sorry.”

“No, no! Please do not be sorry.” He opened his eyes. “It is my problem to deal with, not yours. I should be the one in control, leading you gently and not rushing in like a bull in his first rut! Yet this is new to me, how I want you and how much I love you. I have never done this before.”

“Oh! I did not… That is, I thought you had, well, experience.” She blushed to her toes—he knew because he was looking at them and thinking that even her toes excited him—and tried to step away.

He stayed her retreat, clasping his hands around her face, smiling and chuckling. “This is new to me,” he repeated, brushing a kiss to her lips. “Being with the woman I love. Being with my wife. Kitty, I know now that I have never made love before this, before you, and it terrifies me and fills me with awe and joy at the same time. I confess to feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed by my emotions.”

“Then we are on equal footing, except that I have no fear of you or our emotions and passion.” And before he realized what she was doing, the satin gown slithered down her body to join the robe, rendering him speechless and transfixed.

“You are beautiful,” he finally managed, his fingertips lightly sliding from her shoulder blades down to the outer swell of her breasts, circling. “Perfect, absolutely perfect.” He cupped each breast, their fullness heavenly, filling his large hands and spilling over. He brushed his thumbs over her nipples, her gasp and instant hardening deeply satisfying. “Yes, perfect. I bet they taste like peaches.” And he bent his head, taking one into his mouth while continuing to rub the other.

She was wondrously receptive, her ardor affected by every touch and kiss. To his amazement he suddenly did not feel so rushed. He craved exploring her body, inch by glorious inch. He reveled in witnessing her awakening to passion.

For the first time he experienced rapture from nuzzling a woman’s breast, ecstasy from stroking the velvet skin over a curved hip, and jubilation from lithe legs squeezing his waist. Her hands on his chest was unparalleled euphoria, her mouth on his nipple delirious, her nails grazing his buttocks unimaginable bliss, and his name panted into his ear an angelic chorus.

And when he finally entered her, making her his wife, the words to describe how he felt did not exist. It was new. Everything about making love with his Kitty was unique. She was paradise on earth, holding him tightly and riding the wave with him at every point.

Kitty stayed with him until well after the sun rose. It was risky, they knew, but the pain of separating was not something they looked forward to. They did not sleep. They cuddled and talked, explored each other’s bodies, and made love again.

“I hope I have not hurt you too much?” he asked, eyes scanning the figure now illuminated by the rising sun and revealed as more glorious than in soft candlelight.

“I may be a bit stiff, but nothing a hot bath will not cure. You were very gentle,” she assured, kissing the frown away, “not that you always have to be.”

“Keep talking like that and I will never let you leave my bed.”

“Oh please, not that!”

He laughed, nuzzling her neck. “Once we are married and I do not have to let you go I won’t.”

“Part of your devious plan, is it?”

“It is. And now that I know how incredible it is to love you, I look forward to it even more. This night only whets my appetite, Kitty. I shall never, ever get enough of you!”

“I can tell.” She slid her hand between their bodies, encircling the evidence of just how strong his appetite, Randall groaning loudly.

“Lord, woman! Have mercy! You need to leave before the house rouses, and I do not want to cause you pain with my uncontrollable lust.”

“My only pain is in saying good-bye. Do not ask me to do that yet, please?”

How could a man passionately in love resist that? He did not, responding to her tug and rolling onto her body with a contented sigh that rapidly turned to muffled moans followed by stifled shouts sometime later.

Before he opened the door to check the hallway, he carefully inspected her for any overt signs of their tryst just in case she was caught outside her room. “Do not worry,” she whispered, “I am not stamped with a sign that says, ‘She has been making love all night long.’”

“I am not so sure. You do look properly ravished.” He pinned her against the door with an arm on either side of her body, leaning close but not touching. “I would doubt my abilities if you did not look properly ravished. But you should be safe enough, at least I hope.” He caressed over her cheek. “No regrets, Kitty? Even if caught?”

“No regrets. And if I am caught then we can get married today, which would suit me just fine since then I would not have to leave you again tomorrow morning.”

She lifted to kiss him, but he pulled away. “Are you sure that is wise? God knows I want you to come. Lord, I do not want you to leave now! By tonight I will be in a frenzy to hold you. But I can wait rather than risk…”

She interrupted with a kiss and then slipped under his arm, opening the door a crack to peer outside. “All clear. See you soon. I love you, Randall.”

“I love you, my Kitty.” But she was gone.

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