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“If by ‘help’ you mean marriage, my lord,” Pandora said, her voice muffled against his shoulder, “I would rather not. I have reasons you don’t know about.”

Lord St. Vincent studied her half-hidden face. “I’ll be interested to hear them.” Lightly he fingered a tendril of hair at her temple, and smoothed it into place with his fingertips. “Let’s use first names from now on,” he suggested. “We have a great deal to talk about in a short amount of time. The more honest and direct we are with each other, the better. No secrets, no evasions. Will you agree to that?”

Reluctantly lifting her head, Pandora gave him a doubtful glance. “I don’t want this to be a one-sided arrangement,” she said, “in which I tell all my secrets while you withhold yours.”

A smile edged his lips. “I promise full disclosure.”

“And everything we say will be confidential?”

“God, I hope so,” he said. “My secrets are far more shocking than yours.”

Pandora didn’t doubt it. He was a seasoned, self-assured man, well acquainted with the world and all its vices. There was an almost preternatural maturity about him, a sense of authority that couldn’t have been more unlike her father and brother, with their hair-trigger tempers.

This was the first time she’d truly been able to relax after days of anguish and guilt. He was so large and substantial that she felt like a small wild creature who’d just found refuge. She let out a quivering sigh of relief, a regrettably childish sound, and he began to stroke her again. “Poor mite,” he murmured. “You’ve had a time of it, haven’t you? Relax. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”

Pandora didn’t believe that, of course, but it felt so lovely to be treated like this, soothed and coddled into a good humor. She tried to absorb every sensation, every detail, so she could remember it later.

His skin was smooth everywhere except for the texture of beard-grain where he’d shaved. There was an intriguing triangular hollow at the base of his throat, near his collarbone. His bare neck was very strong-looking except for that one shadowed place, vulnerable amid the tough construction of muscle and bone.

An absurd thought occurred to her. What would it be like to kiss him there?

It would feel like satin against her lips. His skin would taste as nice as he smelled.

The insides of her cheeks watered.

The temptation grew with every passing second, impossible to ignore. It was the feeling that sometimes came over her when an impulse was so overpowering that she had to obey it or die. That lightly shadowed hollow had its own gravity. It was pulling her closer. Blinking, Pandora felt her body camber forward.

Oh no. The urge was too much to resist. Helplessly she leaned forward and closed her eyes and just did it, kissed him right there, and it was even more satisfying than she’d thought it would be, her mouth finding tender warmth, a vibrant pulse.

Gabriel’s breath caught hard, and his body jolted. His fingers sank into her coiffure and he eased her head back, his wide, wondering eyes staring down into hers. His lips parted as he struggled for words.

Pandora’s face was scorched with shame. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, I . . .” He sounded nearly as breathless as she was. “I don’t mind. I was just . . . surprised.”

“I can’t control my impulses,” she said hastily. “I’m not responsible for what just happened. I have a nervous condition.”

“A nervous condition,” Gabriel repeated, his white teeth catching at his lower lip in the prelude to a grin. For a moment, he looked heart-stoppingly boyish. “Was that an official diagnosis?”

“No, but according to a book I once read, Phenomena Produced By Diseases Of The Nervous System, it’s very likely that I have hyperesthesia or periodic mania, or both.” Pandora paused with a frown. “Why are you smiling? It’s not nice to laugh at other people’s diseases.”

“I was remembering the night we met, when you told me about your unwholesome reading material.” One of his palms came to rest low on her spine. His other hand slid around the back of her neck, closing tenderly around the small muscles. “Have you ever been kissed, love?”

Pandora’s stomach suddenly went very light, as if she were falling. She stared up at him mutely. Her entire vocabulary had collapsed. Her head was nothing but a box of loose moveable type.

Gabriel smiled slightly at her dumbstruck silence. “I’ll assume that means no.” His lashes lowered as his gaze fell to her mouth. “Take a breath, or you might faint from lack of oxygen and miss the whole thing.”

Pandora obeyed jerkily.

Fact #15 she would write in her book later. Today I found out why chaperones were invented.

Hearing the wheeze of her anxious breath, Gabriel gently massaged her neck muscles. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t kiss you now, if you don’t want it.”

Pandora managed to find her voice. “No, I . . . if it’s going to happen, I would rather you went ahead and did it now. Then we’ll have it out of the way and I won’t dread it.” Realizing how that sounded, she said apologetically, “Not that I should dread it, because I’m sure your kissing is well above average, and many ladies would be delighted by the prospect.”

She felt a tremor of laughter run through him. “My kisses are above average,” he conceded, “but I wouldn’t say well above average. That might be overstating my abilities, and I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed.”

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