“Nothing,” Beatrix said, seeing him through a shimmer of tears. “Absolutely nothing. It’s just . . . I spent so many hours in this place, dreaming of being with you someday. But I never dared to believe it could really happen.”

“You had to believe, just a little,” Christopher whispered. “Otherwise it wouldn’t have come true.” Pulling her between his spread thighs, he wrapped her in a comforting hug. After a long time, he spoke quietly into her hair. “Beatrix. One of the reasons I haven’t made love to you since that afternoon is that I didn’t want to take advantage of you again.”

“You didn’t,” she protested. “I gave myself to you freely.”

“Yes, I know.” Christopher kissed her head. “You were generous, and beautiful, and so passionate that you’ve ruined me for any other woman. But it wasn’t what I had intended for your first time. Tonight I’m going to make amends.”

Beatrix shivered at the sensual promise of his tone. “There’s no need. But if you insist . . .”

“I do insist.” He smoothed his hand over her back and continued to hold her, making her feel safe. And then he began to kiss his way along the side of her neck, his mouth hot and deliberate, and she began to feel not entirely safe. She drew in a quick breath as he lingered at a sensitive place.

Feeling the ripple of her convulsive swallow, he lifted his head and smiled down at her. “Shall we have supper first?” Standing in an easy movement, he pulled her up with him.

“After that enormous wedding breakfast,” Beatrix replied, “I’ll never be hungry again. However . . .”—she gave him a brilliant grin—“I wouldn’t mind a glass of champagne.”

Taking her face in his hands, Christopher kissed her swiftly. “For that smile, you can have the entire bottle.”

She pressed her cheek into his palm. “Would you unfasten my dress first?”

Turning her away from him, he began on the row of concealed hooks that held the back of her dress together.

It felt like a husbandly act, this unfastening of her dress, both comforting and pleasant. As he bared her nape, he pressed his lips to the delicate skin, and strung more lingering kisses to the top of her spine.

“Shall I do the corset as well?” he asked, his voice close to her ear.

Beatrix was privately amazed that her legs were still supporting her. “No, thank you, I can manage that by myself.” She fled to the privacy of the dressing screen, and tugged her trunk behind it. Opening the lid, Beatrix found her neatly folded clothes and a drawstring muslin bag containing a brush and a rack of hairpins, and other small necessities. There was also a package wrapped in pale blue paper and tied with a matching ribbon. Picking up a small folded note that had been tucked under the ribbon, Beatrix read:

A gift for your wedding night, darling Bea. This gown was made by the most fashionable modiste in London. It is rather different from the ones you usually wear, but it will be very pleasing to a bridegroom. Trust me about this.

—Poppy

Holding the nightgown up, Beatrix saw that it was made of black gossamer and fastened with tiny jet buttons. Since the only nightgowns she had ever worn had been of modest white cambric or muslin, this was rather shocking. However, if it was what husbands liked . . .

After removing her corset and her other underpinnings, Beatrix drew the gown over her head and let it slither over her body in a cool, silky drift. The thin fabric draped closely over her shoulders and torso and buttoned at the waist before flowing to the ground in transparent panels. A side slit went up to her hip, exposing her leg when she moved. And her back was shockingly exposed, the gown dipping low against her spine. Pulling the pins and combs from her hair, she dropped them into the muslin bag in the trunk.

Tentatively she emerged from behind the screen.

Christopher had just finished pouring two glasses of champagne. He turned toward her and froze, except for his gaze, which traveled over her in a burning sweep. “My God,” he muttered, and drained his champagne. Setting the empty glass aside, he gripped the other as if he were afraid it might slip through his fingers.

“Do you like my nightgown?” Beatrix asked.

Christopher nodded, not taking his gaze from her. “Where’s the rest of it?”

“This was all I could find.” Unable to resist teasing him, Beatrix twisted and tried to see the back view. “I wonder if I put it on backward . . .”

“Let me see.” As she turned to reveal the na*ed line of her back, Christopher drew in a harsh breath.

Although Beatrix heard him mumble a curse, she didn’t take offense, deducing that Poppy had been right about the nightgown. And when he drained the second glass of champagne, forgetting that it was hers, Beatrix sternly repressed a grin. She went to the bed and climbed onto the mattress, relishing the billowy softness of the quilts and linens. Reclining on her side, she made no attempt to cover her exposed leg as the gossamer fabric fell open to her hip.

Christopher came to her, stripping off his shirt along the way. The sight of him, all that flexing muscle and sun-glazed skin, was breathtaking. He was a beautiful man, a scarred Apollo, a dream lover. And he was hers.

She reached for him, a breath catching in her throat as her hand flattened on his chest. She let her fingertips trail through the crisp, glinting fur. He bent over her, his eyes heavy lidded, his mouth firming in the way it did when he was aroused.

Overwhelmed by a mingling of love and desire, she said breathlessly, “Christopher—”

He touched her lips with a single finger, stroking the tremulous curves, using the tip of his thumb to part them. He kissed her, fitting his mouth to hers at varying angles. Each kiss delivered a deep, sweet shock to her nerves, spreading fire inside her, making it impossible to think clearly. His hands swept over her with a sensitive lightness that promised rather than satisfied. She was being seduced, quite skillfully.

She felt herself being pressed to her back, one of his legs pushing between hers. His fingers smoothed over her breast, finding the aching point of a nipple veiled in silk. His thumb prodded the bud, swirled lightly, stroked with a softness that made her writhe in agitation. Taking the tip of her breast in his thumb and forefinger, he squeezed gently through the gossamer, sending a bolt of desire through her. She moaned against his lips and broke their kiss as she struggled to draw in more air.

Christopher bent to her chest, the mist of his breath penetrating the shimmering fabric and heating the skin beneath. His tongue touched the taut peak, flickered wetly over the silk, the gauzy stimulation affording both frustration and pleasure. Beatrix reached with shaking hands to push the nightgown out of the way.

“Slowly,” he whispered, trailing his tongue across her skin, not quite reaching the place where she most wanted it.

Her fingers went to his cheeks and jaw, the abrasion of his shaven bristle like raw velvet against her palms. She tried to guide his mouth, and he laughed quietly, resisting. “Slowly,” he repeated, brushing kisses in the soft space between her breasts.

“Why?” she asked between agitated breaths.

“It’s better for both of us.” He cupped beneath her breast and shaped it in gentle fingers. “Especially you. It makes the pleasure deeper . . . sweeter . . . let me show you, love . . .”

Her head tossed restlessly as his tongue played on her flesh. “Christopher . . .” Her voice was trembling. “I wish . . .”

“Yes?”

It was so terribly selfish, and yet she couldn’t help from blurting out, “I wish there had been no other women before me.”

He looked down at her in a way that made her feel as if she were dissolving in honey. His mouth descended, caressing hers with tender, urgent warmth. “My heart belongs only to you,” he whispered. “It was never lovemaking before. This is a first for me, too.”

She puzzled over that, staring into his bright, lambent eyes. “Then it’s different, when one is in love?”

“Beatrix, dearest love, it’s beyond anything I’ve ever known. Beyond dreams.” His hand glided over her hip, fingers gently tugging the black gossamer aside to reach her skin. Her stomach tightened at the temptation and knowledge in his touch. “You’re the reason I live. If it weren’t for you, I never would have come back.”

“Don’t say that.” It was unbearable, the thought of anything happening to him.

“ ‘It’s all come down to the hope of being with you,’ . . . Do you remember when I wrote that?”

Beatrix nodded and bit her lip as his hand slid farther beneath the transparent silk panels.

“I meant every word,” he murmured. “I would have written much more, but I didn’t want to frighten you.”

“I wanted to write more, too,” she said shakily. “I wanted to share every thought with you, every—” She broke off with a gasp as he found the vulnerable place between her thighs.

“You’re so warm here,” he whispered, stroking her intimately. “So soft. Oh, Beatrix . . . I fell in love with you by words alone . . . but I have to admit . . . I prefer this way of communicating.”

She could barely speak, her mind dazzled by sensation. “It’s still a love letter,” she said, sliding her hand over the golden slope of his shoulder. “Only in bed.”

He smiled. “Then I’ll try to use proper punctuation.”

“And no dangling participles,” she added, making him laugh.

But she lost all reason for amusement as he stroked and cradled and tormented her. Too many sensations, coming from different directions. She twisted in the gathering heat. Christopher tried to ease her as the rapture rose too high, too fast, his hands gentle on her quivering limbs.

“Please,” she said, perspiration gathering on her skin and at the roots of her hair. “I need you now.”

“No, love. Wait just a little longer.” He caressed her thighs, his thumbs stroking up to the humid folds of her sex.

She discovered that the most impossible thing in the world was to hold cl**ax at bay, that the more he told her not to, the more powerfully it surged toward her. And he knew it, the devil, a teasing light in his eyes as he whispered to her . . . “Not yet. It’s too soon.” And all the while, his fingers stroked idly between her thighs, and his mouth grazed over her breast. Every part of her body was filled with desperate craving. “Don’t give in to it,” he said against her twitching skin. “Wait . . .”

Beatrix panted and stiffened, trying to hold back the rush of sensation. But his lips opened over her nipple, and he began to tug gently, and she was lost. Crying out, she hitched upward against his mouth and hands, and let the wrenching delight overtake her. She jerked and moaned as the voluptuous spasms went through her, while tears of chagrin filled her eyes.

Looking down at her, Christopher murmured sympathetically. His hands moved over her body in soothing strokes, and he kissed away an escaping tear. “Don’t be upset,” he whispered.

“I couldn’t stop it from happening,” she said in a plaintive voice.

“You weren’t supposed to,” he said tenderly. “I was playing with you. Teasing you.”

“But I wanted it to last longer. It’s our wedding night, and it’s already over.” Pausing, Beatrix added glumly, “At least my part of it is.”

Christopher averted his face, but she could see that he was struggling to contain a laugh. When he had mastered himself, he looked down at her with a slight smile and smoothed her hair back from her face. “I can make you ready again.”

Beatrix was quiet for a moment as she evaluated her spent nerves and limp body. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I feel like a wrung-out kitchen mop.”

“I promise to make you ready again,” he said, his voice threaded with amusement.

“It will take a long time,” Beatrix said, still frowning.

Gathering her into his arms, Christopher crushed his mouth over hers. “I can only hope so.”

After undressing them both, Christopher kissed her sated body everywhere, tasting her leisurely. She stretched and arched, her breath quickening. He followed the subtle signs of her response, coaxing out heat as if he were nurturing a flame set to kindling. Compulsively her hands wandered over the masculine textures of him, the rough hair and hard satiny muscles, the scars that were slowly becoming familiar.

Turning Beatrix to her side, he pulled her top knee upward. She felt him enter her from behind, the pressure of him opening her, stretching her impossibly tight. Too much, and yet she wanted more. She dropped her head to his supportive arm, and sobbed as he bent to kiss her neck. He surrounded her, filled her . . . she felt her flesh swelling with heat and sensation, her body adjusting instinctively to his.

He whispered in her ear, words of lust and praise and adoration, telling her all the ways he wanted to pleasure her. Very gently he pushed her onto her stomach, and kneed her thighs wider. She groaned as she felt one of his hands slide beneath her hips. He cupped her sex, stroking in counterpoint as he began a deep, insistent rhythm. Faster than before, deliberate . . . ruthless. She moaned and gripped the quilt in handfuls as the sensation blazed.

When she was at the verge of another peak, he stopped and turned her over. She couldn’t look away from the molten silver of his eyes, storms stirred by lightning.

“I love you,” he whispered, and she jolted as he entered her again. Wrapping her arms and legs around him, she kissed and bit the thick, enticing muscle of his shoulder. He made a low sound, almost a growl, and cupped her bottom to lift her more tightly into his thrusts. Every time he lunged forward, his body rubbed intimately against hers, stroking her sex over and over, sending her into a cl**ax that shimmered through every cell and nerve.

Christopher buried himself and held, letting the convulsions of her body pull at him wetly, severely, the mutual release exacting groans from them both. And yet the need didn’t stop. The physical release opened into a craving for even more intimacy. Rolling them both to their sides, Christopher cradled her with their bodies locked together. Even now, he wasn’t close enough to her, he wanted more of her.

They emerged from the bed some time later to feast on the delectable cold supper that had been left for them, slices of game pie, salads, ripe black plums, cake soaked in elderflower cordial. They washed it all down with champagne, and took the last two glasses to bed, where Christopher made any number of lascivious toasts. And Beatrix made a project of applying her champagne-chilled mouth to various parts of his body. They played, and made each other laugh, and then they were silent for a while, watching the candles burn down.

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