And as for this need—the one that was raking his gut and firing his pulse—well, he was a man, after all, and she was a woman, and she was here, and she was really quite beautiful, in his opinion at least, and when she smiled it did strange things to his—

"Damn it all," he muttered, "I'm going to have to kiss you."

Chapter 13

Elizabeth had time to catch one short breath before his arms closed around her. His mouth met hers with a stunning mix of power and tenderness, and she melted—positively melted—into his embrace.

In fact, her last rational thought was that the word "melted" seemed to be popping up in her mind with increasing regularity. Something about this man did that to her. One of those heavy-lidded stares—the kind that hinted of things dark and dangerous, things she knew nothing about—and she was lost.

His tongue darted between her lips, and she felt her mouth opening under his. He explored her fully, caressed her deeply, made her breath his own.

"Elizabeth," he rasped. "Tell me you need this. Tell me."

But she was beyond words. Her heart was racing, her knees shaking, and some dim part of her knew that if she said the words, there could be no turning back. So she took the coward's way out, and arched her neck for another kiss, silently inviting him to continue his sensual exploration.

His mouth moved to the line of her jaw, then teased her ear, then moved to the tender skin of her neck, and all the while his hands were moving. One slid down to the curve of her buttocks, cupping it with exquisite tenderness as he gently pressed her hips against his arousal. And the other was moving up, over her rib cage, toward ...

Elizabeth stopped breathing. Every nerve in her body was quivering with anticipation, aching with a clawing need she had never even imagined existed.

When his hand closed over her breast, it didn't matter that there were two layers of fabric between her skin and his. She felt burned, branded, and she knew that no matter what happened, part of her soul would belong to this man forever.

James was murmuring things, words of love and need, but she comprehended nothing other than the stark desire in his voice. And then she felt herself slowly falling. His hand at her back supported her, but she was descending to the soft carpet of the library floor.

He moaned something—it sounded like her name— and it was more of a plea than anything else. And then she was on her back, and he was covering her. The weight of him was thrilling, his heat breathtaking. But then he arched his hips forward and she felt the true extent of his desire for her, and her sensual trance was broken.

"James, no," she whispered. "I can't." If she didn't stop this now, it wouldn't stop. She didn't know how she knew this, but it was as true as her name.

His lips stilled, but his breathing was ragged, and he didn't move off of her.

"James, I can't. I wish—" She caught herself at the last second. God above, had she nearly told him that she wished she could? Elizabeth colored with shame. What sort of woman was she? This man was not her husband and he never would be.

"Just one moment," he said hoarsely. "I need a moment."

They both waited while his breathing steadied. After a few seconds, he lifted himself to his feet and, always the gentleman (even under the most trying of circumstances), held out his hand.

"I'm sorry," she said, allowing him to help her up, "but if I'm to marry—my husband will expect—"

"Don't say it," he snarled. "Don't say a damned word." He let her hand drop and turned forcefully away. Christ. He'd had her on the floor. He'd been within an inch of making love to her, of taking her innocence forever. He'd known it was wrong, known it was beyond wrong, but he hadn't been able to stop himself. He'd always prided himself on being able to control his passions, but now—

Now it was different.

"James?" Her voice came from behind him, soft and hesitant.

He said nothing, not trusting himself to speak. He felt her indecision; even though his back was to her, he could feel her trying to decide whether or not to say anything further.

But God help him, if she mentioned the word “husband" one more time ...

"I hope you're not angry with me," she said with quiet dignity. “But if I must marry a man for his money, the least I can do in return is come to him as an innocent." A short burst of laughter welled in her throat; it was a bitter sound. "It makes all this a bit less sordid, don't you think?"

His voice was low and as steady as he could make it when he said, "I will find you a husband."

"Maybe that isn't the best idea. You—"

He whirled around and snapped, "I said I'd find you a damned husband!"

Elizabeth took a few steps backward to the door. Her mother had always said that there was no reasoning with a man in a temper, and come to think of it, she rather thought Mrs. Seeton had written the very same thing. "I'll just speak with you later on the subject," she said quietly.

He let out a long, shaky exhale. "Please accept my apologies. I didn't mean to—"

"It's all right," she said quickly. "Truly. Although perhaps we ought to cancel our lessons for the day, considering ..."

He shot her a glance when she let her words trail off. "Considering what?"

Blast the man, he was going to make her say it. Her cheeks turned warm as she replied, "Considering that I've done all the kissing that could possibly be appropriate prior to marriage." When he didn't make a comment, she muttered, "Probably more."

He gave her a curt nod. "Have you the list of guests arriving tomorrow?"

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