Chapter 5

When she saw the dark figure atop the pawing roan waiting under the tree the next morning, Amanda knew a moment of abject relief. That much, at least, she could count on. Trotting up, she smiled sunnily. “Good morning.”

It was damp, cold and grey, a light drizzle turning all about them fuzzy, indistinct. His expression impassive, Dexter inclined his head and turned his horse toward the distant track.

She’d half-expected a grunt. Falling in beside him, she set the mare pacing alongside the roan.

How to prod him into arranging for the rest of her adventures? Into spending more time with her, alone.

She glanced at him, waited to catch his eye.

He didn’t look her way. He rode straight to the start of the tan, then, with barely a glance at her, sprang the roan.

Jaw setting, she went with him. That he was determined to be difficult could not have been clearer. Through the thunder and rush of the ride, it occurred to her that he knew perfectly well what she wanted to ask.

It irked her that she felt too wary to demand openly, as she would with any other man. Dexter was hard enough, untamed enough, simply to refuse. And then where would she be? Dealing with him was like a game of snakes and ladders-one foot wrong and she’d be back at the start.

The end of the track neared; they slowed, then turned aside onto the turf. He drew rein and halted; she did the same. They were both breathing hard, the exhilaration of the ride still streaking through their veins. She lifted her head, looked into his face. Fell into his moss-agatey eyes.

Green, gold flecked, they held her gaze; in the cool of the morning, she again felt the heat, the rush of sweet warmth she’d experienced in his arms. The fire still burned, embers now, perhaps, but the heat and the promise of flame were still there.

Still exerted their tug, a powerful fascination that made her want to go to him, to plunge into the heart of the fire, bathe in the flames.

Give herself up to them and burn.

She blinked, refocused. What he had read in her face she had no idea, but he looked away over the park.

“You said you wished to attend a party at Vauxhall, one hosted by someone your parents don’t know. I plan to host a private party at the Gardens two nights from now. Will you be able to attend?”

She forced herself to wait, to pretend to consider before inclining her head. “Yes.” He was untamed, ruthless, difficult to manage; she was determined to snare him.

His gaze returned to her face; she met it, cool challenge in her eyes.

“Very well. My carriage will be waiting as before, at nine o’clock at the comer.” He hesitated, then added, “Wear a cloak with a hood.”

As before, the black carriage was waiting; as before, his hand reached for hers and he helped her in. Amanda suppressed a shiver of anticipation as the carriage rumbled off, wending south through the streets to the river and Vauxhall Gardens.

He traveled in silence; she could feel his gaze on her face, on her figure, concealed by her long velvet cloak, the hood up to cover her hair. She’d spent hours deciding what to wear beneath the cloak-whether to dazzle or entice. She’d settled on enticement; he was too experienced to dazzle.

The horses’ hooves clopped hollowly as they turned onto the bridge. Ahead, the lights of the pleasure gardens bobbed through the trees, their reflections dancing on the water.

“How many others are in your party?” A question that had intrigued her ever since his invitation.

She glanced his way. Shrouded in shadows, he studied her, then said, “You’ll see in a few moments.”

She doubted she’d misjudged him. Nevertheless, the knowledge that she’d placed herself and her reputation in his hands set an edge to nerves already taut, further heightened senses set alive simply by his nearness.

Confirming her judgment, the carriage halted, not at the main entrance, but at an exclusive side entrance. Infinitely more discreet. Dexter descended, looked briefly around before handing her down, his gaze passing approvingly over her hood, pulled forward, shadowing her face. Thus attired, unless someone came close and peered at her face, she was unidentifiable.

An attendant greeted them, bowing low as Dexter ushered her through the gate. “Your booth is prepared, my lord.”

Dexter nodded. The attendant turned and led them down a heavily shaded path.

She’d been to Vauxhall often, yet had never ventured into this part of the gardens. The rotunda, well lit, the source of plentiful music, lay some way ahead, screened by trees. The path curved under spreading branches, the thick shrubs bordering it interrupted now and then by the square shape of a booth. Each booth was well spaced from its neighbors, shuttered and private. Stopping before one such dark outline, the attendant opened a door, spilling soft candlelight onto the path; he bowed them in.

Amanda stepped over the threshold, uncertain what she would find-eager to see. The booth was smaller than those in the public part of the gardens, but was furnished in considerably better style. A rug covered the floor; the table was set with a damask cloth, sparkling glasses, white dishes and cutlery for two. Two upholstered chairs stood ready. A single candle burned in a holder at the table’s center; a two-armed candelabra shed light from a sidetable set beside a comfortable chaise. By the table, an ornate stand supported an ice-bucket containing a bottle of champagne.

The answer to her question was none. Reassured, she set back her hood.

“You may bring our meal.” Martin closed the door on the attendant. He hesitated, then strolled to where temptation stood. He lifted the cloak from her shoulders as she slid the strings free; she glanced back, smiled her thanks.

He used the moment taken in laying her cloak on the chaise, in adding his to it, to steel himself. Then he turned back to her.

And saw her clearly for the first time that evening, knowing she was here, alone with him in a completely private setting.

Limned by the candlelight, she was half turned his way, the fingers of one hand resting on the back of the nearer chair. The weak light deepened the gold of her hair but did nothing to conceal its luster, to hide her flawless complexion or the intensely feminine curves of breast, hip and thigh, all draped in cornflower silk the exact shade of her eyes.

The gown made the most of her charms. Severely simple, it led the eye to see, showcased the bounty it concealed.

All that, he’d foreseen. What he hadn’t expected was the aura of anticipation, blatantly sensual, that filled the space between them, that invested her expression, widened her eyes, lingered in the curve of her lips.

The effect was worse-far worse-than he’d expected.

He couldn’t recall taking the steps, but he was suddenly beside her. She’d lifted her head to keep her eyes on his; raising one hand, he trailed the backs of his fingers up the exposed line of her throat, then turned his hand, cupped her jaw and bent his head to hers.

Her lips met his confidently. Not overeagerly, but she was ready and willing to follow wherever he led.

It was her control that gave him his, gave him the strength to raise his head without taking the caress any further. Hearing a sound outside the door, he reached around her and drew out her chair. Her eyes met his briefly, then she turned and sat, settling her skirts as the attendant entered pushing the trolley carrying their meal.

Once the trolley was positioned and the dishes displayed, Martin dismissed the man and took his seat. Amanda helped herself to the various delicacies; he reached for the bottle and filled her glass, then his.

“You’ve been here before.”

Across the table, her eyes quizzed him.

“On occasion.” He had no intention of letting her imagine he was any less dangerous than society had painted him.

Her lips curved; a dimple winked. She raised her glass. Obligingly, he lifted his and clinked the edge to hers.

“To my adventures,” she declared, and drank.

To sanity. He took a fortifying swallow.

“Can we go out and about the gardens?”

He took another gulp. “After we’ve eaten.”

She applied herself to the food with unfeigned appreciation. However, other than commenting on the culinary skills of the unknown cook, she did not speak. Prattle. Fill his ears with the usual babble, as women were wont to do.

He found her reticence disconcerting. Disorienting.

As he tended to keep silent, having long ago discovered the advantage that conferred, the ladies he escorted usually felt obliged to fill the vacuum. Consequently, he was never consumed by any wish to know what was going on in their heads; if they were talking, they weren’t thinking.

Now, however, Amanda’s silence focused his attention as no feminine discourse ever would. What was going on under her golden locks? What plot was she hatching? And why?

That last nagging question rang warning bells. Why did he want to know? He mentally shrugged the quibble aside-he definitely wanted to know why she’d selected him as her partner in adventure.

On a sigh of pleasant repletion, she laid down her knife and fork. He drained the last of the champagne into his glass and sat back, sipping.

Across the table, she met his gaze. “It’s odd-although we’re in the gardens, you can’t hear the crowd.”

“The bushes absorb the sound.” Including any sound from the isolated booths. Pushing back his chair, he stood. “Come. Let’s take the air.”

Amanda was very ready to do so; the strain of not giving way to nervous babble was wearing her down. Outside among the crowd there would be plenty of distraction, and ease for her overstretched nerves. Sharing an enclosed space with a large, intensely predatory male, one who looked like sin personified, was not a calming experience; she knew she was safe, yet her senses insisted on screaming she was not.

In her cloak with the hood up, shielding her face, she left the booth on Dexter’s arm. They retraced the path, then took another turning. It opened into one of the main walks. Immediately, they were surrounded by couples and groups all flown with good cheer. As they walked toward the rotunda, the center of the garden’s entertainments, the crowd steadily increased.

It was not a Gala Night, so when they reached the area where couples were waltzing, there was space enough for Dexter to draw her into his arms and steer them into the swirling throng.

She glanced at his face; he was watching her. He studied her eyes, her expression, then had to look up as they turned. The lanterns bobbing overhead sent light, then shadow, dancing across his features. Illuminating the strong patrician lines, then veiling them.

Following his lead without thought, she let her mind drift, allowed her senses to appreciate as they would. She was aware of his strength, of the ease with which he steered her, of the sudden tensing of his arm, drawing her protectively closer when more couples joined in and limited their space.

Those about them were of all walks, all types, including others of their ilk, ladies and gentlemen enjoying an evening in the gardens, others even more like them with the lady cloaked and in some cases veiled. A frisson of daring tickled her spine; for the first time in her life, she was flirting with the illicit.

Dexter’s gaze returned to her face. She met it boldly, her lips curved, awareness naked in her eyes. They continued to twirl, neither willing to look away, to risk missing the next moment. Breathing became a secondary concern; absorption in the moment was all.

Magic shimmered in the shifting light, touching them fleetingly, teasing their senses. It was as mesmerizing an experience as she’d hoped for, twirling through the shadows with him. They were surrounded, but they might as well have been alone, so intent on each other were they.

The music ended and they slowed; she broke the contact, mentally reaffirmed her plan. She’d lured him this far; now she had to tempt him to take the next step.

Martin noted the faint crease between her brows. “Would you care for some punch?” What was she plotting?

“Please.” She flashed him a brilliant smile, banishing the frown. “I haven’t been here for years.”

“I doubt the punch has changed.” He took two cups from a passing waiter, handed her one, watched her sip. Watched red liquid stain her lips, watched her tongue slide across the lower.

He raised his cup and drained it in one gulp.

“Dexter!”

Martin turned and saw Leopold Korsinsky pushing through the crowd. Mentally cursing, he tossed his empty cup to a passing attendant and reached for Amanda’s hand. “Careful,” was all he had time to growl before Leopold reached them, a cloaked lady on his arm.

Barely nodding to Martin, Leopold bowed elaborately before Amanda. “Madame-have we met?”

Using the cup to shield her lower face, Amanda looked out from the shadow of her hood, noting the sharpness of the Corsican’s gaze as he scanned all he could see. She lowered her voice to a deeper key. “I believe we have met, sir, although you might not recall.”

Dexter squeezed her fingers. Amanda grinned behind the cup.

Korsinsky’s eyes narrowed. “My memory is often at fault, yet were I so remiss as to forget such an attractive party, I would be a lost cause indeed.”

The other lady was eyeing Dexter as if he were a meal.

Keeping her voice low, Amanda laughed. “How do you know I’m attractive, covered as I am?”

Leopold shot a glance at Dexter and she had her answer.

“I would not suppose it otherwise, ma belle,” Leopold returned. “But perhaps I can persuade you-“

“Leopold.”

Just one word, loaded with warning; Leopold looked at Dexter, brows rising. “But mon ami, there is plenty of distraction for you here. Agnes, she is attending. She will be delighted to know you are present.”

“I daresay. However, Madame is keen to see the gardens. If you and your lady will excuse us?” With a bow for the lady, a brusque nod for Leopold, Martin gripped Amanda’s hand and stepped back. He barely gave her time to nod in farewell before he led her away.

Into the gardens, down the long, shadowed walks; Amanda saw no reason to remonstrate. “Who was the lady?”

“Not one of your circle.” He took her empty glass and handed it to an attendant. Then he stopped, contemplated the poorly lit walk before them, then turned and led the way back to a cross path. “The fireworks will start soon.”

They headed toward the grassy area where the fireworks would be set, meeting more and more people similarly inclined. When they stepped onto the lawn, there was a gaggle of couples milling and shifting. Dexter scanned the field. He grasped her elbow. “Up there.”

“There” was a small hill affording a good view of the display. The slope was crowded, but he found them a place near the top.

“Stand in front of me.” He wasn’t the sort of man people crowded; he positioned her before him, protected by his body from the crowd behind and to some extent from the sides as well.

Almost immediately, the first rocket streaked upward and exploded. Accompanied by rapt “ooohs” and “aaahs,” the exhibition progressed, a man-made tapestry of white fire hung against the ink-black sky.

The crowd was transfixed by a depiction of a horse, when

Amanda sensed movement behind her, then heard, “Martin? I thought it was you.”

Luc Ashford!

She felt the loss of Dexter’s protective presence, the loss of his heat down her back, felt suddenly vulnerable, exposed. He’d stepped back to avoid any suggestion of a connection between them. Luc was sharp-eyed and sharp-witted. Neither she nor Dexter wanted to direct Luc’s gaze her way.

“Luc. Are you here for the ambiance, or are you with a party?”

After an instant’s hesitation, Luc responded, “I’m with friends. They’re down there, but I thought I glimpsed you through the crowd.”

“Ah.”

“And what of you? According to the gossips, you avoid social gatherings like the plague.”

“One should never listen to gossips. I found little else of interest tonight, so thought to take the air here.” After a pause, Dexter added, “I’d forgotten what it was like.”

Another pause; Luc’s voice was softer when he said, “Do you remember the first time we came? A girl each, a cheap booth and we thought we were kings.”

“That”-Dexter spoke quietly but his tone was hard-“was a long time ago.”

Luc shifted. “Indeed.” After an instant’s awkward silence, he said, “I’ll leave you to enjoy the night, then.”

Amanda could imagine their stiff nods; they were alike in more ways than the purely physical.

Minutes ticked past; she didn’t move-had stopped seeing the fireworks long before. Then Martin stepped nearer; through her cloak, his fingers closed about her elbow. “Come with me.”

The words were a whisper drifting past her ear. Without hesitation, she turned and let him lead her down the hill, into the empty walks.

Behind them, white fire lit the sky. A breeze stirred the leaves, setting the shadows shifting, sighing through the boughs like some watchful ghost. They turned from the main cross walk into an even darker avenue. Martin slowed, Amanda looked about and recognized where they were.

The Dark Walk.

The one Walk no young lady was ever supposed to let herself be lured into. She’d never heard of any verified drama associated with breaking that rule, but she’d never known any young lady who’d travelled the Dark Walk.

Especially with a man like Martin Fulbridge at her side.

She shot him a glance; he was waiting to capture it. Shadowed, unreadable, his eyes held hers. “I assumed a promenade down the Dark Walk would feature in your scheme for excitement.”

“Indeed.” In her scheme for excitement, and more; she knew opportunity when she saw it, when fate offered it to her on a plate. Tucking her hand in Martin’s arm, she moved nearer. “Can we walk the whole way?”

He hesitated, then replied, “That was my intention.”

It was a narrow, winding walk. The bushes that bordered it were dense, crowding in, rendering it secretive and gothic. Dotted along its length, tucked around bends, were benches and structures designed for dalliance. With the crowd distracted by the fireworks, the Dark Walk was deserted.

Save for them.

Amanda considered each bench, each gazebo as it appeared; none was quite right for her purpose. Then she saw what she needed-a small Grecian temple set back a little way from the walk and hemmed in by thick shrubs.

“Look!” She towed Dexter toward it. “Can we go in?”

She felt his sharp glance, but he took her hand and led her up the steps.

Inside was a tiny circular room; in the dark, with the bushes so close, it seemed enclosed. In the center stood a pedestal supporting the bust of some god; she couldn’t tell which. There was nothing else-just empty darkness.

In which she stood with her own particular god.

He was looking at the bust. She’d slipped her fingers from his when they’d entered; now she joined him, slippers silent on the marble floor.

Martin’s senses alerted him to her nearness-too late. He’d been distracted by the bust-Apollo, the gods’ messenger. He’d been wondering what message there was in this for him. Now he knew.

He was too late to stop her from pressing close, from laying her hand on his chest. From leaning into him, reaching up and drawing his face to hers.

Too late to stop his body from reacting, to stop himself from bending his head, meeting her lips, taking what she offered. He tried-for one instant fought against her spell. But she’d captured him; despite all his logical arguments, there was too much of him that simply wanted her.

And it was only a kiss. That was what he told himself as he sank into her mouth, let his arms slide around her and gathered her to him.

One kiss. What harm could one kiss do? It wasn’t as if he wasn’t in control, of himself as well as her.

The kiss lengthened, deepened. She wound her arms about his neck and stretched upward against him.

He let her. Gloried in the feel of her lithe body pressed to his, the feminine curves, the tempting contrast of softness and resilience that beckoned, promised and teased.

She wanted more; he knew it. All sense of time, of place, of safety, fled from his reckoning. He knew nothing beyond her innocent hunger, and the powerful need to be the one to slake it.

Innocent though she was, Amanda recognized that need. She tasted it in his kiss, felt it in the arms that caged her, cradled her. Coveted it, wanted it-wanted him.

Wanted him to be hers, linked to her and her alone with a chain strong enough to withstand whatever pressures life brought to bear.

Knew in her heart what she would give to forge that chain.

Realized it would have to be created link by link. Episode by episode; interlude by interlude. Kiss by kiss.

Desire was a drug, its addiction potent. He stole her breath, held her mind and senses captive. His slow, achingly thorough exploration, the lazy, compelling conquest left her mentally reeling, emotionally bound.

She’d been right-this was what she wanted, what she needed to be all she’d been created to be.

If she told him, she’d lose him. If her actions became overt, he’d pull back, leave her and slide back into the shadows. The occasional sharp glance he’d thrown her were warnings; she had to walk a line between naive encouragement and deliberate sensual beckoning without a single stumble. She had to tempt him further while keeping her intentions veiled so he couldn’t be sure she was luring him on. The ultimate game given his experience, given his steadfast reticence.

She kissed him back boldly but briefly, enough to evoke a reaction, to tug him an iota deeper into the game. Desire flared, heated and sultry, contained behind the wall of his will. Crack by crack, she would demolish that wall. She let her lips soften, tempted his to harden, tempted him to take just a fraction more. Clung, fingers sinking in reaction when he did. He was sensuality incarnate, each languid caress an invocation of pleasure. Her fingers threaded through his silky hair as inside she felt herself melt.

His hands tensed, flexed on her back; she sensed the war he waged to keep them from wandering. She considered trying to tip the scales-realized her inexperience would give her game away.

He won his inner battle too easily for her liking. Time to try another tack.

She drew away, gently broke the kiss-hid her triumph at the brief instant that passed before his arms eased and let her do so. As her senses returned, she heard voices outside. They both turned, listening, then she stepped back, out of his arms.

She cast about for some quip to cover her retreat, to disguise her hope that it would evoke his desire for something denied.

“Excitement enough?”

The deep words and their underlying challenge had her lifting her head. He was no more than a shadow looming close in the dark. She let her lips curve with a haughty confidence she hoped he could see. “The night’s young.”

Her tone struck the perfect note, low, warm yet even.

It was the tilt of her head that ruffled Martin’s surface, an elementally feminine gesture of defiance that sparked an instantaneous reaction. One he ruthlessly quelled.

She looked toward the Walk. “Shall we return to the booth?”

He reached for her hand. “We won’t be returning.” When she glanced at him, surprised, he murmured, “The night’s young.”

And he’d been a fool for thinking that cramming two of her adventures into one night would be a good idea. More of her “excitement” was not going to be easy to withstand. Yet he would. Leading her down the temple steps, he glanced at her. “You said you wished to see the stars in the Thames.”

The anticipation that lit her face was a joy to behold. “A boat? From here?”

It had been a long time since he’d been with a woman who could conjure such innocent delight. His lips curved in a genuine, entirely spontaneous smile. “The Water Gate’s this way.”

He led her further up the Dark Walk, then across to the gate opening onto the riverbank, steadfastly refusing to dwell on the difficulties that doubtless lay before him. During his years in India, he’d survived his fair share of life-and-death encounters; one hour floating down the Thames with Amanda Cynster could hardly be that dangerous.

From the Water Gate to the stone quays where a plethora of river craft waited was but a few steps. The pleasure craft he’d hired waited, bobbing gently, a pair of brawny oarsmen slumped over the oars, the owner standing by the tiller. The latter spotted him, straightened and saluted. The oarsmen stirred, nodding respectfully as Martin stepped down to the deck. He held out a hand to Amanda; eyes huge, she eagerly descended.

“M’lady.” The owner bowed low.

Amanda inclined her head, then glanced at Dexter. He gestured to the curtain cutting off the front two-thirds of the deck. The owner hurried to lift one side. She walked through. And stopped. Looked around. Offered mute thanks to fate for her assistance.

Dexter ducked through the curtain behind her; the heavy material fell closed, shutting them off from the watermen, leaving them in a private world.

A world composed of a narrow path leading around the railings. Fixed in the prow, a wickerwork basket held a platter of fruit, a bowl of nuts, two glasses and an open bottle of wine. The rest of the space was taken up by a thick pallet on a wooden base, covered by a plain black cloth. Piled atop was a mound of cushions encased in brightly colored Indian silk.

The deck of the pleasure craft looked exactly as she’d always imagined such a notorious venue would look-a setting for seduction. Lowering her hood, she glanced back at Dexter.

He looked down at her face, studied her eyes. The deck rocked as the vessel pushed off from the quay; his fingers closed about her elbow. “Come. Sit down.”

He handed her to the couch; she sat and found it as comfortable as it looked. He sat beside her, angling against the cushions. “Does it live up to expectations?”

She smiled. “Thus far.” Sliding back, she let herself sink against the silk-sheathed mound. She looked up at the stars. And said nothing more.

She kept her eyes on the heavens, on the pinpricks of light bright against the darkness, aware that Dexter’s gaze never shifted, never left her.

The boat swung into the current, then the oarsmen rested and the craft drifted south with the tide.

Martin eventually stirred, then rose and crossed to the basket. Ignoring the wine, he plucked a grape from the platter, tasted it, then picked up the platter and returned to offer it to her.

Smiling, she chose a sprig of grapes and murmured her thanks. He hesitated, then sat once again beside her, placing the platter between them.

Amanda eyed it, then lifted her gaze to his face, to his profile as he looked out over the water. Popping a grape into her mouth, she looked in the same direction. “You spent many years in India.”

His gaze touched her face briefly. “Yes.”

She waited, then prompted, “In one place, or”-she gestured with a grape-“all over?”

He hesitated, then replied, “All over.”

Pulling teeth would be easier. She looked directly at him, and inquired, sweetly determined, “All over where?” He met her gaze; she sensed the frown in his eyes. Frowned back. “Your travels can hardly be state secrets.”

Unexpectedly, his lips kicked up at the ends. “Actually”-he leaned back against the cushions-“some of them were.”

Shifting, she faced him. “You worked for the government?”

“And the Company.”

“The East India Company?”

He nodded; after a fractional pause he answered the question forming in her mind, “There were precious few Etonites in Delhi, and the maharajahs preferred to deal with those they considered their peers.”

“So where did you go?”

“Mostly along the trade routes through the north, occasionally south to Bangalore, Calcutta or Madras.”

“What was it like? Tell me.”

It was the light in her eyes, Martin later told himself, that and the genuine interest in her face that had him complying-and, of course, the knowledge that while she was listening wide-eyed to his tales, she wasn’t plotting his downfall. She peppered him with questions; he found himself telling her things, recounting the years as he had to no one else. No one else had asked.

The end of her questions coincided with the last of the grapes. With a satisfied sigh, she picked up the platter and rose.

He watched as she crossed the few steps to the basket and set the platter in its niche. She stood in the prow, looking out over the black waters, presumably studying the reflections of the stars. She’d flipped her hood up; from where he sat she appeared the very essence of mysterious-a cloaked and silent female, mind and body shielded, hidden from his knowledge.

The urge to know, in every way, completely, waxed strong; he quelled it, restlessly shook aside the impulse to go to her, take her in his arms… he looked away, to the shore, indistinct in the dark. Between them and the banks, other craft slid through the waters, some, like theirs, idling, others pressing on.

Recollection of their unexpected meeting with Luc had him glancing at Amanda. “Sit down.” Another craft was coming up swiftly on their right. Leaning forward, he grasped her wrist. “Someone might recognize you.”

She turned at the same instant he tugged, the same instant the swell from the other vessel lifted the deck. She lost her balance. Before she could fall, he yanked-she fell across him.

Wriggled and ended up alongside him, breathless, tangled in her cloak, laughing up at him, her free hand trailing down his chest.

He couldn’t breathe.

Their gazes met-she stopped breathing, too. The laughter faded from her eyes; awakening desire replaced it. Her gaze lowered from his eyes to his lips. Her lips parted, softened; the tip of her tongue skated over the lower. When he didn’t move, she lifted her gaze to his eyes. Studied them. Then, with a deliberation he could feel, she slid her hand up, around his nape and drew his lips to hers.

No, no, no, no… despite the clarion warning in his mind, he permitted it, let her draw him down so he could feast on her lips, sink into the warm haven of her mouth and devour. She welcomed him in, offered herself up to him, and he knew very well what she did.

Knew she was trying to snare him, knew he would be wise to refuse her lures. Simply couldn’t.

Especially not when his logical mind pointed out her inexperience; she could have no weapon, no plan he had not already escaped, that women more experienced had not already used to try to capture him. She was no threat to him. So there was no reason he couldn’t savor her, and give her a taste of the excitement she craved. She was safe with him, and, logically, he was safe from her.

He kissed her again, took her breath, drew her to him. He sensed her inner gasp, felt her yearning rise. Her hand drifted to his cheek, touched, stroked, a featherlight caress. Tantalizing. Taunting. He deepened the kiss and she shivered. He felt it to his marrow.

Before he knew it, he’d shifted, angling over her to take the kiss further, the better to touch her-

No. Caution caught his reins. Mentally hauled him back. He wasn’t that foolish. She lay beside him, cocooned in her cloak, her svelte form shielded from him-temptation under velvet wraps.

Infinitely safer than temptation under his hands, no matter how his palms itched. But the impulse wouldn’t leave him. He pressed his palms to the silk cushions in a vain attempt to ease their burning.

Amanda knew all about that burgeoning heat; she was far too hot swathed in her cloak. Each kiss, slow, deep and languorous, poured liquid fire down her veins, yet focusing her mind enough to free herself… every time she tried, he stole her wits, caught her senses with some shifting nuance in the steadily deepening intimacy of their kiss.

A shared delight-she didn’t need experience to tell her he enjoyed the heated exchange as much as she. She was a novice, he an expert, yet his every exploration spoke of desire, each invasion of building passion.

Passion severely restrained. The fact gradually dawned. Despite the tale told by his lips and tongue, by the tension thrumming through the large body so tantalizingly close to hers, iron will kept his muscles locked, kept his chest fixed two inches from hers.

The realization gave her strength-stubborness enough-to focus her wayward wits. She wanted him to touch her, caress her-to lay hands on her. At the thought, her breasts ached, and kept aching.

He’d set wards, limits, boundaries-the challenge was: how to break them. How to make him break them; even if she grabbed and yanked, she doubted she could move him. How-how?

With every minute that passed, her inner ache intensified. She managed to raise her hands to her throat and tug the ties of her cloak loose, managed to push back her hood. Instantly, he shifted, spearing the fingers of one hand through her curls, gripping, holding her head steady as he plundered, deeper, hotter, stronger-She’d been burning before-now she was aflame. On a gasp, she pulled back, tipping her head back against the cushions, desperate for air. For ease. His head dipped, lips tracing the line of her jaw, then skating down her taut throat to press heat to the pulse point at its base.

Her body reacted, her spine arched. The need to be closer, much closer to him flooded her. “Please.” She couldn’t think, couldn’t form a thought, but she knew what she wanted.”Touch me. I hurt. So much. Just… touch me.”

The fractured plea fell into silence. His voice gravelly, he replied, “You’ll hurt even more if I do.”

She forced her lids up. From beneath her lashes, she looked into his face, into his mossy green eyes. “I’ll risk it.” But would he? Should he? Martin fought to distance himself from her, to hold his clamorous impulses at bay.

Her gaze dropped to his lips; lifting one hand, she traced his cheek. “Please.”

The fleeting touch even more than the whispered word shattered his good intentions. He drank the last syllable from her lips, then took her mouth again. Sliding his fingers from her golden locks, feeling them fall like silk from his skin, he reached for the edge of her cloak.

Slipped his hand beneath. Told himself that if he left her fully covered, fully clothed, all would be well-Knew the instant he touched her he’d been wrong. His fingers skated over silk, then he cupped her breast. And something shattered. Whether in him or in her he couldn’t tell. Her walls or his-one at least had cracked. She clung to their kiss as did he, but their attention had shifted, coalesced, focused completely on his fingers, on the firm flesh, hot and swollen, about which they curved, then gently kneaded.

The tension in her spine transmuted, eased by his touch, appeased by each caress. He continued to fondle and she moaned softly; without thought, his fingers shifted, circled her tightly budded nipple, then firmed, squeezed.

Until she gasped with pleasure. He drank the exhalation from her lips, continued to stroke, to fondle, to ease her hurt, to soothe her with pleasure.

Lifting his head, he watched her face, and wished he could draw back from her fire. Knew he couldn’t. He couldn’t recall when a woman’s neediness had had the power to so arouse him. Worse, to arouse him to such a painful state. Worse yet, a state for which there would be no relief. Regardless… he flipped back her cloak, pushed the folds from her shoulders. Bent his head to pay homage to the alabaster skin sheathing her collarbone, trailing kisses along every curve. Her neckline was cut low; easy enough to hook a thumb beneath and ease gown and chemise down enough to free one rosy nipple so he could taste. Amanda thought she would die when he did. The touch of his lips there was excruciatingly right-exactly what she needed, wanted, even though she hadn’t known, not until the instant when the hot wetness of his mouth had so briefly engulfed her sensitive flesh. Her gasp shivered in the night; her fingers threaded through his hair and clenched, holding him to her. He licked, lapped, then took the peak of her breast into his mouth again.

Oh, yes! The words whispered through her mind, escaped on her sigh.

He continued to caress her, lifting his head every now and then to press brief appeasing kisses to her hungry lips. Desire rose, spread about them, lapping gently, lazily, until she felt afloat on its gentle tide, quite unlike the rushing, pummeling, compelling stream she’d expected. It was as if their desire, strong and forceful though it was, had been diverted into a wider landscape so its power was dissipated in the vastness.

So she could know and enjoy without losing her mind, while in full possession of her senses.

The tide slowly ebbed, little by little, touch by touch. She made no demur, made no effort to encourage him further; in truth, she doubted she could. Throughout, his resistance had stood firm as a fortress wall, but she’d managed one crack, and with that she was content.

With that and the knowledge she’d gained, the sensations she’d felt-the experience. She felt a little shocked by how unshocked she was as she watched him ease her gown back into place.

She gazed at his face, at the harsh planes so set, so rigid. At the evidence of desire ruthlessly controlled. She wasn’t ignorant of his state; she could feel his erection against her thigh. While she might wish to experience a great deal more, the time was not right-she was too wise to press him further.

Too wise to challenge his control overtly.

When he flicked her cloak back over her arms, she stayed him. Lifted one hand to his cheek, drawing his dark eyes to hers. Coming up on her elbow, she lifted her face and pressed her lips to his in a long, lingering, simple kiss, as sweet as she could make it.

“Thank you.” She murmured the words as their lips parted. Lifting her gaze, she looked into his eyes, no more than two inches from hers. Let him search her eyes, let her sincerity show.

His gaze drifted from hers; he hesitated, then bent his head and touched his lips, not to her mouth but to the corner of her lips.

“It was entirely my pleasure.”

When he stalked into his house two hours later, Martin recalled those words with a certain savage irony. He’d succumbed to her plea with the sole intention of pleasuring her, of easing the ache his kisses had caused.

He’d ended lost, fascinated, enthralled to his bones by the simple act of touching her. Caressing her. Savoring the different textures, the incredibly fine skin of her breasts, her tightly niched nipples, the silken fall of her hair.

He’d enjoyed her far too much. He’d wanted to enjoy her a great deal more. And that way lay madness.

More specifically, that way led beyond the narrow confines of the world in which he’d chosen to live.

She’d already made him want, made him start to yearn for things he couldn’t have. The longer he let her remain in his life, the more she’d undermine his defenses.

Slumping onto the daybed in the library, he took a long sip of brandy and stared into the fire. Her presence lingered, imprinted on his hands, on his senses; her taste was addictive, remembered and desired.

He directed his mind to the problem of how-how to sever all contact.

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