He waited for her to say something, and when she didn't, his voice grew more impatient. "You know me," he repeated, "and I think you know me well enough to know that I would never do anything to hurt or humiliate you." His hands landed heavily on her shoulders, and he fought the urge to shake her until she agreed. “Because if you don't, then there is no hope for us."

Her lips parted in surprise, and James caught a glimpse of the beguiling tip of her tongue. And somehow, as he stared at the face that had haunted him for weeks, he knew exactly what he needed to do.

Before she had a chance to react, he reached out and took her hand in his. "Do you feel this?" he whispered, placing it against his heart. "It beats for you."

"Do you feel these?" he echoed, raising her hand to his lips. "They breathe for you.

"And my eyes—they see for you. My legs walk for you. My voice speaks for you, and my arms—''

"Stop," she choked out, overcome. "Stop."

"My arms ..." he said, his voice grown hoarse with emotion. "They ache to hold you."

She took a step forward—just an inch or two—and he could see that she was close, her heart was so close to admitting the inevitable.

"I love you," he whispered. "I love you. I see your face when I wake up in the morning, and you're all I dream about at night. Everything 1 am, and everything I want to be—"

She rushed into his arms, burying her face in the warm haven of his chest. "You never said it," she said, her voice nearly strangled by the sobs she'd been holding in for days. "You never said it before."

"I don't know why," he said into her hair. "I meant to, but I was waiting for the time to be right, and then it was never right, and—"

She put a finger to his mouth. "Shhhh. Just kiss me."

For a split second he was frozen, his muscles unable to move in the face of such supreme relief. Then, overcome with the irrational fear that she might disappear in his arms, he crushed her to him, his mouth devouring hers with a mix of love and longing.

"Stop," he murmured, pulling slightly away from her. And then, while she looked at him with confusion, he reached for her hair and pulled out a pin. "I've never seen it down," he said. "I've seen it mussed, but never undone, shining over your shoulders."

One by one, he pulled the pins loose, each lost pin freeing a long lock of pale golden hair. Finally, when it cascaded freely down her back, he held her at arm's length and turned her slowly around. "You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," he breathed.

She blushed. "Don't be silly," she mumbled. "I—"

"The most beautiful thing," he repeated. Then he drew her back to him, lifting a fragrant lock and running it over his mouth. "Pure silk," he murmured. "I want to feel this when I go to bed at night."

Elizabeth had thought her skin had felt warm before, but that comment sent her right over the edge. Her cheeks burned, and she would have used her hair to shield her blush had not James touched the underside of her chin and tilted her head up so that he could look into her eyes.

He leaned forward and kissed the corner of her mouth. "Soon you won't blush anymore." He kissed the other. "Or maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll keep you blushing every night."

"I love you," she blurted out, not sure why she was saying it now, only sure that she had to say it.

His smile spread and his eyes burned with pride. But instead of saying anything in response, he cupped her face and brought her to him for another kiss, this one deeper and more intimate than any before.

Elizabeth melted into him, and his heat seeped into her body, fueling a fire that already threatened to rage out of control. Her body was tingling with excitement and need, and when he swooped her up into his arms and carried her toward the bedroom, she made no murmur of protest.

Seconds later they tumbled onto the bed. She felt her clothing slipping away, piece by piece, until she was clad only in her thin cotton shift. The only sound was that of their breathing until James rasped, "Elizabeth ... I won't... I can't..."

She looked up at him, asking all her questions with her eyes.

"If you want me to stop," he managed, "tell me now."

She reached up and touched his face.

"It has to be now," he said hoarsely, "because in a minute I won't be able to—"

She kissed him.

"Oh, God," he moaned. "Oh, Elizabeth."

She should have made him stop, she knew. She should have raced out of the room and not allowed him within twenty feet of her until she stood next to him in a church as husband and wife. But love, she was discovering, was a powerful emotion, and passion ran a very close second. And nothing, not propriety, not a wedding band, not even eternal damage to her reputation and good name, could stop her from reaching for this man right now and encouraging him to make her his.

With trembling fingers she reached for the buttons of his shirt. She had never before taken such an active role in their lovemaking, but heaven help her, she wanted to touch the hot skin of his chest. She wanted to skim her fingers over his powerful muscles and feel his heart pounding with desire.

Her hands trailed down to his abdomen and lingered there for a moment before gently pulling his linen shirt from the waistband of his breeches. With a shiver of pride, she watched as his muscles bunched and clenched under her gentle touch, and she knew that his desire was something too great for him to contain.

That this man, who had chased criminals across Europe, and, according to Caroline Ravenscroft, been chased by countless women, could be so undone by her touch—Elizabeth was thrilled to the core. She felt so ... so womanly as she watched her small hand trace circles and hearts on the smooth planes of his chest and stomach.

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