Chapter 13

Madeline’s birthday fell two days later. She awoke to sunshine, and stretched luxuriously in the comfort of her bed, a smile curving her lips as she wondered what the day would hold.

Her brothers had been so busy over the last two days, she’d had to be careful not to stumble into any of their whispered conferences-with each other, with Muriel, and even with Milsom and other members of the staff. They had something planned, that much was obvious, but as to what…they’d succeeded in hiding that from her, no mean feat.

Rising to wash and dress, she was conscious of welling anticipation.

Family tradition decreed that gifts were presented at the breakfast table; she reached the parlor to discover two packages, one on either side of her plate.

“Happy birthday!” her brothers chorused.

Muriel’s gentler “Happy birthday, dear” followed.

Smiling and thanking them, Madeline sat in the chair Milsom held for her. He bowed. “The very best wishes of the staff on your birthday, miss.”

“Thank you, Milsom.” Settling, Madeline looked from one package to the other. The larger and flatter showed evidence of multiple attempts to get the tissue paper to lie straight; its bow was lopsided. The smaller but thicker one was much neater-Muriel’s. She picked that one up first, and stripped away the wrappings.

“New riding gloves.” In butter-soft black leather, beautifully stitched, the gloves hadn’t come from the festival. She smiled at Muriel. “Thank you. My current pair is driving me crazy-the buttons keep catching.”

“I’ve noticed.” Muriel nodded to her gift. “Those ones are cut to be more fitting about the wrist-they don’t have buttons.”

“Excellent.” Trying them on, Madeline confirmed they fitted perfectly. She held out both hands, admiring the new gloves-pretending not to notice her brothers’ fidgeting, the impatient glances they threw each other.

Not bothering to hide her fond smile, she looked down at the other package. “Now what, I wonder, could this be?”

A scarf was her first thought as she felt its softness, but as she lifted the package to rest it across her plate, she felt the weight of some heavier object in its center. “Hmm…a mystery gift.” She stripped off the gloves and laid them aside, then untied the bow and ceremoniously unwrapped the gift, playing to the boys’ anticipation.

She lifted the last leaf of tissue free… Peering at what she’d uncovered, she blinked. Twice. “Good heavens.” She heard the awe in her voice, was distantly aware of the swift, satisfied glances the boys shared.

Slowly, a trifle stunned, she lifted the large oval brooch-a cloak brooch from the days when cloaks were the norm. Holding it up, she let her senses drink it in-from its weight and color, it had to be gold, by the way the light fractured and blazed in the stones, the smaller surrounding ones had to be diamonds, while the large rectangular stone in the center, a little paler than forest green, had to be an emerald.

The piece was formed to represent a knot of oak leaves surrounding and supporting the central stone, with tiny acorns formed from the diamonds and a smattering of beautiful pale gold pearls.

Where did you get this? were the words that leapt to her tongue. But she glanced at her brothers, at their eager, expectant faces, and substituted, “It’s beautiful.” Her reverent tone underscored her sincerity.

They relaxed and grinned widely.

Then she could draw in a breath and inquire, “Where did you get it?”

“We found it,” Ben said. “At the festival.”

“On one of the antiquities stalls,” Edmond offered. “The old peddler who sells bits of metal he’s dug up from all around-nails, stirrups, all sorts of bits and pieces.”

“It didn’t look like that when we bought it,” Harry said. “We’ve spent the past two days cleaning and polishing it. It had hard-packed earth stuck all over and was grimy and dirty. You can see where the surface of the pearls got pitted-we rubbed and rubbed to bring back the sheen.”

Madeline peered more closely. “Yes, I see.” She glanced down the table at Harry, at the other end, then at Edmond and Ben-at their happy, pleased, open faces. “Well-what an amazing find!”

“Of course we had to give it to you,” Ben said.

She smiled. “Thank you-all three of you.”

Laying the brooch aside, she finally turned to what else their package contained. Using both hands, she lifted out a delicate gossamer and lace fichu. Again it was no effort to smile delightedly; she’d seen it on one of the festival stalls. “This is perfect, too-I’ll wear it tonight with my new gown.” She glanced at the brooch. “And as my new gown is green, I can anchor the fichu with the brooch.”

The boys looked doubly pleased, exchanging yet more of their triumphant glances. Madeline wondered what else they’d organized; she expected to spend her day much as usual, capped by a quiet celebratory dinner with the family and their closest neighbors and friends. Assuming the boys were anticipating their neighbors admiring their gifts shown off against her new gown, she gave her attention to her breakfast, recommending they do the same if they wanted to ride out with her to check on their furthest-flung fields.

Her day progressed more or less as she’d planned. All three boys remained with her, as they usually did on her birthday, sharing her day. This year, however, their interaction had altered, with Harry asking many more questions, and being much more involved with the duties that heretofore had been solely hers. That required an adjustment on her part, but she found it easier than she’d thought; Harry was sincerely interested now, not simply asking because he felt he ought.

They returned to the house rather later than she’d planned. After luncheon, they spent the afternoon in the office, she and Harry going over accounts and orders, then discussing projections and plans for the harvest.

She was surprised to hear the clocks strike five. “Already?” She glanced at the sunshine outside, then shrugged. Pushing back from the desk, she rose. “Come along. I have to bathe and dress, and so do you.”

Herding the boys upstairs, she sent them down the corridor to their rooms. “The guests will be arriving at half past six-I’ll expect to see you clean and neat in the drawing room by then.”

They mock-grumbled, but she saw the excited glances they darted at each other. Confident they’d be ready in time, she left them to their ablutions, and went to tend to hers.

A nice soak in a relaxing bath left her feeling pampered. Tying her silk wrapper over her chemise, she sat before her dressing table and applied herself to brushing out, then restraining her flyaway mane, twisting it into a tight knot she anchored on top of her head.

Adding extra inches to her already exceptional height, but it washer birthday, and the only gentleman whose opinion she might court would still be taller than she.

Rising from the stool, she took extra care donning her new silk gown, then arranging the delicate fichu about her throat and tucking the ends in the deep valley between her breasts. She’d been right; the fichu set off the plain neckline of the deep green gown to perfection. Standing before her cheval glass, she contemplated the irony that by screening her ample breasts, the translucent fichu drew attention to them, rather than deflecting it.

Picking up the brooch, she turned it over in her hands, admiring the play of light on the gems, then releasing the pin, she fiddled until she had it positioned perfectly just below her d?colletage, fixing the ends of the fichu beneath the fabric of her gown. Clipping it in place, she studied the effect. She rarely wore much jewelry, primarily because very few pieces were designed for a woman of her stature. But the cloak brooch was the perfect size-indeed, the perfect piece-to complement her charms, large enough not to look lost yet not so large as to overpower.

Unusually pleased with her appearance-unusually aware of it, if truth be told-she picked up her Norwich silk shawl, draped it loosely over her elbows, then headed for the door and the stairs.

It wanted but a few minutes to half past six o’clock, yet somewhat to her surprise she reached the front hall without seeing anyone-neither staff nor Muriel, who usually came down early. Walking into the drawing room, she discovered her brothers, too, had yet to make an appearance.

Gervase, however, was waiting for her.

Standing before the hearth, he looked devastatingly handsome in a dark evening coat and trousers. Yet… She glanced around. “Where is everyone?”

“They’ll be here shortly.” Strolling to meet her, he took her hand, kissed her fingers, smiled into her eyes. “I came early.”

“But it’s nearly-” She glanced at the mantelpiece clock and broke off. Frowned. “I could have sworn it was nearly time.” The clock, which she’d never known to be wrong, said it was not yet six o’clock.

Gervase glanced at it. “That seems right.”

Frowns weren’t good for the complexion; she willed hers away. “Well…” She glanced around, intending to invite him to sit.

“It’s a lovely evening. Let’s stroll in the garden.” He’d retained his hold on her hand; twining her arm with his, he turned to the French doors left open to the terrace. “Perhaps we can find a suitable place in which I can give you my gift.”

She laughed and allowed him to sweep her out into the fresh air. As it was early, there was nothing she needed to do, not until more guests arrived.

They strolled across the lawns, taking unvoiced pleasure in each other’s company, in each other’s nearness. Then he asked, “How’s Harry’s interest in the estate developing?”

“Astonishingly well.” They spent some minutes chatting about her brothers. “They gave me this brooch.”

They’d reached the arbor under which, weeks before, she’d boldly kissed him. The roses rambling over the structure were now in full and heavy bloom, scenting the evening air with their heady perfume. Remembering her reasons for kissing him then, thinking of all that had passed between them since, she smiled; swinging her skirts about, she sat on one of the benches lining the two closed sides of the arbor, and tapped her finger to the brooch.

Gervase sat beside her, tilting his head the better to study it. He frowned. “That appears to be a very fine piece.”

She grimaced. “At first I thought the stones must be paste, but paste doesn’t catch the light like that.”

“Nor does it have inclusions”-he, too, tapped the central stone-“but real emeralds almost always do. Just like that.”

“The pearls look real, too.” She sighed. “They told me they’d found it on one of the peddlers’ stalls at the festival. There’s one old man who comes every year-he’s known as Old Joe, but no one knows much about him. But he does have old, dirt-encrusted oddities, things he’s dug up at some of the old Iron Age or Roman sites, so it’s possible they did find it among the lumps on his stall, or one of the similar stalls. There were three.”

He waited until she looked up, caught her eyes, searched them. “Are you worried that they finally stumbled on some wreckers’ treasure?”

She wrinkled her nose. “That’s possible, I suppose, but rational thought suggests that if they didn’t find it at the festival-and other than an instinct that they weren’t precisely telling me the truth, there’s no reason to suppose they didn’t-then they might have found it buried among our grandmother’s things. There are boxes and boxes in the attics, with all sorts of bits and pieces, and they often go fossicking up there. While I would hope there was nothing of this value still up there, it’s entirely possible our grandmother misplaced this piece. She had a huge wardrobe and a jewel collection to match.”

He smiled. “Unlike you.”

She shrugged. “I’m not really one for jewelry. So little seems to suit.”

Reaching into his coat pocket, he returned, “That’s because you’re unique, and so it needs to be made specially for you.” He laid a tissue-wrapped package in her lap. “Like these.”

Madeline frowned at the package. “However did you get time to have anything made?”

“I have my ways, my contacts.”

“Hmm.” She unraveled the ribbon and unwrapped the contents-spilling an ivory fan with rose-gold filigree sticks, beautifully wrought, and what she took to be a rather strange wide bangle in two pieces into her lap.

She picked up the fan, flicked it open, marveled. “I’ve never owned anything half so beautiful.” She met his eyes. “Thank you.”

He smiled and she looked down, set aside the fan and picked up the odd bangle, trying to figure out how…

“Here-let me.”

She surrendered the two pieces, linked by some sort of mechanism. He fiddled for a moment, then turned to her, and lifted his arms above her head… Her eyes widened. “They’re hair ornaments!”

“Indeed. Specially designed to aid in controlling your wayward locks.” Gervase slipped the two halves over and around her still-reasonably-neat knot, then wound the little screws to tighten the vise. “There.”

He sat back, studied the effect, and smiled, well pleased. He’d had the piece made in the same rose-gold filigree as the fan; the warm sheen of the gold only emphasized the rich luster of her hair, the vibrant brown shot through with copper and red. He met her eyes. “Perfect.”

She studied his eyes, then lifting one hand, framed his jaw and leaned in to press a gentle, slow kiss on his lips. “Thank you,” she murmured when she eventually drew back. She looked again at the fan, then flicked it open; they rose and started back to the house. “Everyone has given me such useful, thoughtful gifts.”

“What did Muriel give you?”

“Riding gloves without buttons.”

He laughed.

She was defending her ability to manage buttoned gloves when they strolled back onto the terrace and into the drawing room-

“Oh! Here she is!”

“Happy birthday, Madeline, dear!”

Halting, Madeline blinked as the chorus rang in her ears.

“And many more to come, heh?”

She stared in surprise at an entire roomful of guests. She’d had a moment’s warning as they’d approached the French doors and the level of conversation-surely too great for the few guests they’d invited-had registered. But Gervase had had a firm hold on her elbow; he’d swept her over the threshold-into this.

She was instantly surrounded, immediately immersed in the business of accepting everyone’s good wishes and thanking them. Eventually she came upon Muriel, smiling smugly, in the crowd. She spread her hands in amazement. “How did this come about?”

Muriel grinned. “Your brothers decided it was high time you had a proper party for your birthday. It was their idea. The rest of us”-Muriel’s gaze rested on Gervase, still beside Madeline but currently distracted by Mr. Caterham-“just helped them make it happen.”

Madeline glanced at Gervase, remembered…“How did they manage to get me down early…?” She glanced across the room at Harry, chatting with Belinda and Annabel. “The clocks?”

“Indeed. Quite ingenious of them. They had Milsom and the maids set every clock in the house forward half an hour while you were out riding, then they changed them all back again-all except the one in your bedchamber-while you were bathing.”

Madeline shook her head, but she was smiling.

What her brothers had decided constituted a “proper party” began with a banquet for sixty. Madeline couldn’t recall the last time the long dining table had had every leaf added, and every chair in use.

Harry, seated opposite her at the head of the table, proposed a toast to which everyone responded with a cheer. And then the food arrived, served on the huge silver platters that so rarely saw service, with crystal glasses and gleaming cutlery. The noise of conversations enveloped the table. Bemused and deeply touched, she smiled and chatted, then simply relaxed and enjoyed herself.

But there was more enjoyment to come. Somewhat to her surprise, the question of the gentlemen passing the decanters never even arose; at her signal, intended for the ladies, the company rose as one, and followed her and Gervase-not back to the drawing room but into the ballroom.

Which had been opened up for the event.

Looking around, twirling to take it all in, she let her amazement show. “How on earth did they manage all this without my noticing?”

Gervase grinned. “It seems they planned well.”

She thought-remembered how all three of her brothers had remained in the office, how all had asked questions, kept her occupied through the afternoon. “The office is on the other side of the house, in the other wing. They kept me there all afternoon.”

“They held you prisoner?”

She smiled affectionately. “After a fashion.”

Their plans had included musicians and dancing. The next hours winged by in untrammeled pleasure; she waltzed with Gervase twice, then later gave in, to herself as well as him, and danced the last waltz with him as well.

The French doors to the terrace stood open throughout the evening, letting the balmy night air wash over the gathering. The room was more than large enough to accommodate their number without crowding, allowing everyone to move freely, talking with this one, then that. The musicians seemed inspired by the gay atmosphere and happily kept playing into the night.

Everyone had an excellent time, as they assured Madeline when, hours later, one by one, they took their leave. Gervase had remained by her side throughout the evening; that everyone in the neighborhood was expecting to hear an announcement of their engagement any day he no longer had the slightest doubt. But, of course, with him standing by her side, no one had been so gauche as to mention it, or even hint at it, for which he was grateful.

He’d accompanied her into the front hall. He stood a little behind and to her side as with Muriel she farewelled the guests; when he wished he could fade into the background, at least to some degree.

But then he saw Harry hanging back by the wall nearby, his eyes locked on him. Harry caught his eye, then tipped his head down the hall to where the shadows hung more heavily.

Turning to Madeline, Gervase chose his moment to touch her arm and whisper, “I’ll be back.” Then he drifted to where Harry was waiting.

Harry nodded in thanks, his gaze passing beyond Gervase to rest on Madeline. “It’s about that brooch. We just wanted to check.” He met Gervase’s eyes. “We found it on the beach below the tide line. That makes it ours, doesn’t it?”

Gervase nodded. “Which beach?”

“The one north of Lowland Point, immediately beyond the headland.”

Gervase let a moment go by while he considered the possibilities. “The brooch is yours in law, and you’re entitled to gift it to Madeline. It’s not wreckers’ treasure-there’s been no wrecks listed so far this summer and I have it on good authority that the wreckers aren’t working the Manacles.”

“So there’s no reason we shouldn’t look for more?”

He paused, then met Harry’s eyes. “Hold your brothers back from searching further for the moment. Let me check again in Falmouth if any registered ship has been listed as overdue. If none has, then it’s possible there has been a recent wreck on the Manacles, but of a smuggler’s vessel.”

“So the brooch might have been…whose?”

“If it was coming in on a smuggler’s ship, there’s no way to tell, but frankly I can’t imagine why smugglers would be dealing in such goods.”

They both looked at Madeline, thinking of the brooch.

Harry frowned. “It doesn’t seem likely, does it?”

Gervase shook his head. “The other possibility is that it’s an item from some long-ago wreck that for some reason happened to wash up now. I’ve heard that the Manacles can hold wrecks for decades, if not centuries.”

“I’ve heard that if a ship gets wrecked out there, there’s often nothing ever found-no debris or even bodies.”

Gervase nodded. “So just because there’s no evidence of any wreck doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.”

The last guests were chatting with Madeline; Sybil and his sisters had left long ago. He shifted. “I’ll check in Falmouth and let you know. Until then, stay away from the cliffs and coves.”

Harry nodded. “We’ll wait to hear from you.”

They parted and Gervase returned to Madeline’s side. He was the last to bow over her hand. “I hope your day was memorable.”

She smiled. “It was, and the evening even more so.” Suddenly reminded, she put up a hand to her hair, feeling for the wispy strands that usually slipped loose-and finding none. “It worked!” Her smile turned radiant.

He smiled in return. “Indeed. I thought it might.”

He bowed again, then to Muriel, standing beside Madeline. At the last he met her eyes. “I’ll see you anon, no doubt.”

With that he left her, and strolled out into the night to where the grooms had his curricle waiting.

He didn’t drive home.

Madeline had wondered about his “anon”-then had wondered if her unvoiced wish that he would come to her that night, making a magical end to what had been a perfect day, was too wanton. Yet when she glimpsed him crossing the lawn heading for the morning room doors, her heart leapt.

Earlier she’d removed her new brooch and fichu, laid them carefully aside, then climbed out of her gown, but rather than don her nightgown, she’d wrapped a silk robe over her chemise and sat before her dressing table mirror so nimble-fingered Ada could unclasp the golden circlet locked about her topknot.

“Absolutely beautiful,” Ada had breathed, setting the circlet next to the fan. “Fancy him thinking of such a thing.”

“Hmm.” Picking up her brush, Madeline had dismissed Ada, then had sat brushing out her hair.

And wondering…which activity had made her rise and, still brushing, go to stand by the window and look out.

She watched Gervase until he disappeared from sight. She stood for a moment, imagining him opening the French doors and coming inside, then crossing the morning room to the hall. Pushing away from the window, she went to the dressing table, laid down her brush, and headed for the door.

The instant he turned down the long corridor to her room, Gervase saw her, limned in golden candlelight, framed in the open doorway at the end, waiting for him to join her. A soft, subtle smile played about her lips; she’d never looked more like a seductive Valkyrie.

He couldn’t stop a smile curving his lips in response, was aware of anticipation rising. Didn’t think to stop it coloring his expression.

Her smile deepening as he approached, she stepped back, aside, to let him enter. He halted just inside the room and waited while she shut the door.

Then she turned. Before she could speak, he stepped closer. Raising both hands, he framed her face. Felt the delicate bones, the silken skin beneath his palms. Gloried again that with her, he didn’t have to tip her face far to meet her eyes, to study the peridot depths, a more intense, mysterious green in the candlelight. To read in them her expectation of pleasure and delight…at his hands, with him.

He closed the distance and covered her lips with his, gently, without any sense of rush, without any of the reined hunger that between them usually ruled. He kissed her slowly, savored the sweet taste of her as she met him…with the same sense of unhurried ease, as if she, too, recognized that this was a time to follow a different drum, to indulge their passions in a different way.

A way that spun them out, that stretched and extended each moment until it felt as fine as crystal, as fragile as spun glass, until sensation was stripped raw, left naked and exposed for them both to see, to know and appreciate every tiny touch, every scintilla of delight, to feel each as clearly, as acutely, as ice on heated skin.

As usual, he’d come to her with no detailed plan, no plotted approach, yet with one definite, absolute aim-to give her this night, and make it something special. Something better, magical, a night in which passion, desire, and intimacy reached new heights, breached new horizons.

And so they lingered, immersed in the kiss, sharing breaths, and each caress…letting the simple communion stretch until the thrum of passion was a third, more urgent heartbeat.

One they shared, one both acknowledged.

Yet when he drew back, glanced down and reached for her robe’s sash, she placed her hands over his, stopping him.

“No.” She waited until he looked up and met her eyes. “My birthday-I get to choose the games.”

There was a light in her eyes, soft, glowing, one he hadn’t seen before; more powerful than any cage, it held him immobile as, her lips lifting in a madonnalike smile-one of secret knowing-she pressed his hands back, down, then reached for his coat.

The candle on her dressing table bathed them in golden light as, slowly, she undressed him, and he let her. The slow steady beat they’d set with the kiss had become a tattoo, one they continued to move to, one that orchestrated each movement as with infinite patience she divested him of waistcoat, cravat, shirt. As she circled him, small hands trailing, leaving fires flickering under his skin.

She took his hand and led him to her bed, had him stand beside it so she could kneel at his feet and remove his shoes, his stockings, then his trousers, letting the discarded garment fall from her fingers to one side.

Naked, he stood before her, watched her sit back on her heels and slowly, studying-savoring-every inch, lift her gaze from his thighs to his groin, to his waist, to his chest, to his shoulders, ultimately to his face.

Her eyes locked with his. She placed one hand on his thigh, steadying herself as she slowly wrapped her other hand about his erection.

His lungs locked. He felt his jaw set, clench, sensed the heat rise within him as she tightened her grip, then looked down. And swept her thumb slowly over, then around the sensitive head.

He closed his eyes on a smothered groan, let his head fall back, felt his chest seize as she boldly caressed. Clenching his fists, he felt his senses reel, reminded himself that this was her choice-her wish, her want, the gift she’d chosen to claim.

The thought made his head swim, fragmented what little rational thought remained.

He sensed her lean nearer, felt the sweep of her silken hair against his naked skin, over his thighs, his groin. The wash of her breath over the head of his erection made his lungs tighten, the touch of her lips made him shudder.

Then she took him into her mouth, into slick heat, into scalding wetness, and he lost touch with the world, was swept into some other where time was suspended and sensation ruled, and there was no reality to which to cling.

Only this-the slow, long-drawn torture. Only her and her wishes, her caresses, her ministrations.

His head reeled; he felt giddy, enough to sink his hands in her rippling mane and anchor…himself and her. Holding her to him, reveling in the slow, steady suction of her mouth, the different pressure of her lips as she experimented. The lighter touch of her fingers on his sack as she played.

And searched for the ways to pleasure him.

Found them, used them. Lavished pleasure and more upon him.

That last slowly penetrated the fog of sensation wreathing his mind. She was pleasuring him…but he’d intended this night to be for her.

The inexorable rise of the tide she was increasingly expertly evoking, the inevitable that loomed nearer with every harsh breath, shook him to panicked awareness. “Enough.” His voice was weak, hoarse; he had no idea if she understood.

Forcing his hands from her skull, he reached for her chin, easing her mouth open, getting her to release him.

She did, then rocked back on her heels. Both hands on his thighs, she looked up into his face. “Didn’t you like it?”

Her voice was a sultry siren’s, reaching through the night.

He stared down at her face, confirmed she was in earnest. “Too much.”

The growled words seemed to satisfy; her madonna’s smile reappeared.

“Come here.” He reached for her shoulders. “It’s your birthday-it’s you-your senses-I should be delighting.”

She allowed him to draw her up, but her smile had deepened. Her chuckle as she let him draw her into his arms was beyond erotic. “Oh, you are.”

He wasn’t up to deciphering what she meant; taking a firm hold on his will, he wrapped her in his arms and kissed her. Took her mouth in a long-drawn engagement, a claiming undisguised, a campaign of conquest that had only one possible end.

She allowed it-more, she encouraged him, her hands gripping, urgency building, yet still held at bay.

He waltzed her, still adhering to that slow, compulsive beat, into the familiar landscape of their passions, heightened, made broader, more intense, more vivid by their mutual refusal to rush, their determination to dally until every possible sensation had been wrung from each stage.

She let him tug the sash of her robe free, let him slide the garment from her shoulders and strip away her chemise, on a gasp rode out the keen edge of sensual shock when their bodies finally met, heated skin to skin, long limbs pressing, hands seeking, gripping, arms banding. Her surrender still hovered on her lips when he covered them anew, when he drank in the passion surging through her.

He gorged on it, on the feel of her naked in his arms, so responsive, so ardent-and all his.

His to pleasure, now and forever; his to lavish all his expertise upon. She was the reason for his past; she was his future.

His hands spread, caressed, boldly possessed; trapped within his embrace, she fed him her delight, the elixir of the pleasure he gave her, and flagrantly urged him on.

Until he lifted her and tumbled them both onto her bed, where the pillows lay plumped and waiting, where the covers were drawn down the better for them to give passion and pleasure free rein.

They jostled, and she laughed, the sound one of sheer delight. He heard it, felt it kick beneath his heart. A shaft of pleasure finding its mark.

He rolled to put her beneath him, but she attacked him; his lips curved under hers as she tried to bear him back. For long moments they wrestled, no quarter yielded, no thought given to the inevitable effects of their bodies tangling, pressing, sliding, nudging…until abruptly they reached that fraught point where passion and desire were honed to an edge, and culmination could no longer be denied.

They both knew it, felt it, sensed it; both stilled.

Then he pressed her back, reached for her leg, lifting to curl it over his hip.

“No-wait.” Head pressed back into the pillows, Madeline got the words out, breathless, weak, but he heard. Her hand splayed on his chest, she never would have been able to hold him back, but he halted, stopped.

Met her eyes.

The undisguised desire she saw burning in his made her smile, made her determination to have her own way stronger, more acute. More necessary.

Lifting her hand, she framed his jaw-sensed them both battling to hold back the welling tide. Their breaths mingled, ragged, harsh, close to desperate. Their lips, separated by mere inches, throbbed. “Let me.”

She said the words, saw them register, saw confusion cloud his eyes.

“But tonight-”

“Is my night.” She held his gaze. “And this”-with her body she pushed against him to roll him back-“is what I want.”

For an instant he didn’t move, didn’t budge despite her weight, but then he gave way, surrendered, and rolled onto his back.

She smiled and followed.

He met her eyes as he settled back, head on the pillows, large heavy body stretched out on her white sheets half beneath her.

She held his gaze, and knew he understood.

What followed was the gift she chose, that above all others she had wanted. It was she who was in charge, she who set the pace, he who consigned the reins into her keeping and let her do as she willed. As she wished.

Let her caress him, let her fill her senses, her mind, her soul with him.

Let her hands roam his chest, his ridged abdomen, his hips, spreading fire beneath skin already scorching.

Let her move upon and around and over him, hands, fingers, mouth, tongue, silken limbs, her silky hair, all part of her symphony of sensation.

All part of her devotion, her claiming.

In this, she had no measure-no yardstick, no plan. She moved to the beat of that different drum, her heart, her senses, her soul in tune. She gave herself over to it, gave herself up to him, and stinted nothing in the giving.

She gave him all, surrendered all, until she held them, his awareness and hers, in the palm of her hand.

They caught their breath. Held it.

Then together forged on, let her stretch the moments out until they were both frantic, until desperation gripped him as powerfully as it seized her. Until passion was a sharp-clawed beast howling through them both-until she rose up and took him in.

Until she straddled him and sheathed his hard length in her scalding softness, sinking down slowly, lids falling, breath bated, taking him inside her deep, then deeper, until she had him all.

Until she possessed him all.

Then she rode him.

Through the night slowly, through the moonlit shadows, clinging, both of them, to the very edge of control.

Walking a knife edge.

Riding a path at the very edge of their cliff, so close to oblivion each moment was dizzying, lungs locked so tight they could barely breathe. Pausing, when it all became too fraught, too intense, too much, to kiss, to, fingers linked, tightly clasping, catch their breath…until they could ride on.

Higher.

And higher.

Thought had been eradicated long ago; for both there was only sensation. That, and a oneness, a sharing, bone-deep.

A connection that flowered, fully and completely, as their breathing grew more labored, as at the last their lids fell as they took the final teetering steps up to the peak…

Glory burst upon them, taking her, then him. A bright sun of sensation imploding within, sending shards of delight lancing through their veins, sending pleasure beyond reckoning coursing through them, swamping and sweeping all consciousness away.

Sundering them from the world, whirling them beyond the stars, a single brilliant moment of unutterable bliss, stretching, holding…until the void, that place beyond feeling, gently closed around them, hiding them away, enfolding them in peace.

They drifted back to earth.

Slowly.

Like water dripping into a bowl, consciousness returned, the ability to think only gradually restored.

Gervase lay on his back, eyes closed. Nothing-no previous encounter-in his life had prepared him for this.

For complete and utter satiation.

It lay heavy in his veins, had sunk deep into his muscles.

Had touched something within him, some element inside him, that had never before been involved.

Frightening, exciting, thrilling…addictive. All that, and more.

Madeline lay slumped, beyond boneless, over him. His arms lay protectively across her back; he didn’t intend to ever let her go.

But she’d surprised him.

The strength she possessed, the determination, too, but it was her Valkyrie will-a feminine strength-that had held and fascinated and conquered him.

He smiled ironically, inside; his facial muscles were still too relaxed to manage any expression.

The strength she’d wielded to conquer him hadn’t been hers alone. At least half had come from him, from his willingness to cede to her, to surrender…not to her, herself, but to the power that between them, together naked in the night, rose up and bound them. Controlled them. Drove them.

Ruled them.

The power that, through her, commanded him.

A scarifying notion in some ways.

Before he could think further, she stirred. She lifted from him, then sank back into his arms, leaving their legs entwined. Her hair was a gilded mass hiding her face, but he felt her press her cheek to his chest, then touch her lips to his skin.

“Thank you.” Madeline let the words whisper past her lips, an intimate confession in the dark. “That, more than anything else, was what I wanted for my birthday. I wanted you. Just you.”

For me. For my own. For one night out of time.

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