Pangs of excited apprehension went through her stomach as he joined her on the bed. “Simon,” she said, breathing fast as he took her into his arms, “my mother didn’t tell me if…if tonight there was something that I should do for you…”

His hand began to play in her hair, his fingers drifting over her scalp in a way that sent hot tingles down her spine. “You don’t have to do anything tonight. Just let me hold you…touch you…discover some of the things that please you…”

His hand found the placket of mother-of-pearl buttons at the back of her gown. Annabelle closed her eyes as she felt the frothy mass of ruffled lace loosening over her shoulders. “Do you remember that night in the music room?” she whispered, gasping as she felt him ease the gown from her breasts. “When you kissed me in the alcove?”

“Every blistering second,” he whispered back, pulling her arms from the billowing sleeves. “Why do you mention it?”

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she confessed. She wriggled to help him strip the gown away from her body, a blush covering every inch of exposed skin.

“Neither could I,” he admitted. His hand slid over her breast, cupping the cool roundness until the peak was rosy and hard in his palm. “We seem to be a flammable combination—even more so than I had expected.”

“It’s not always like this, then?” she asked, letting her fingers explore the deep groove of his spine and the tough-knit muscle on either side of it.

Her touch, simple as it was, disrupted the rhythm of his breath as he leaned over her. “No,” he murmured, resting one long leg against the seam of her tightly cinched thighs. “Hardly ever.”

“Why—” she began to question him, but stopped with a faint moan as he traced the satiny undercurve of her breast with the edge of his thumb. Containing her narrow rib cage in his hands, he bent over her chest. His lips were hot and light as they opened gently over a tightly budded nipple. She let out a gasping cry at the tender tugs of his mouth, his tongue flicking her sensitive flesh until she could no longer remain still beneath him. Her legs parted involuntarily, and immediately he filled the space with his own hair-roughened thigh. As his hands and mouth wandered slowly over her body, Annabelle lifted her hands to his head, letting the thick waves slip through her fingers as she had so often longed to do. He kissed the fragile skin of her wrists, and the insides of her elbows, and the shallow depressions between her ribs, leaving no part of her unexplored. She let him do as he wished, quivering as she felt the prickle of his night beard contrasting with the silky wet heat of his mouth. But when he reached her navel, and she felt the slick point of his tongue enter the little hollow, she rolled away from him with a shocked inhalation. “No…Simon, I…please…”

Immediately he levered upward to gather her in his arms, smiling into her scarlet face. “Too much?” he asked huskily. “I’m sorry—for a moment I forgot that it’s new to you. Here, let me hold you. You’re not frightened, are you?”

Before she could answer, his mouth had settled on hers, dragging gently back and forth. The hair on his chest abraded her br**sts like coarse velvet, her ni**les rubbing against him with each breath she took. Her throat vibrated with low sounds, evincing the pleasure that had escaped her crumbling restraint. She gasped sharply as his fingers drifted over her stomach and his knee intruded more deeply between hers. Widening the angle between her thighs, he slipped his fingers into the soft feminine curls, exploring her swollen flesh. He parted her, found the silken peak that throbbed at his touch, and stroked just above it with sweet, dancing lightness.

She gasped against his mouth, her flesh heating into melting pliancy. A passion-blush covered her skin, dappling the paleness with rosy stains. Simon sought the opening of her body, his gentle fingertip insinuating carefully into the fluid-drenched suppleness. Her heart pounded, and all her limbs stiffened against the heightening pleasure. Rolling away from him with a muffled exclamation, she stared at Simon with wide eyes.

He lay on his side, raised on one elbow, his dark hair disheveled and his gaze bright with passion and subtle amusement. It seemed as if he understood what had begun to happen inside her and was fascinated by her innocent consternation. “Don’t go anywhere,” he murmured, smiling. “You don’t want to miss the best part.” Slowly, he pulled her back beneath him, arranging her body with caressing hands. “Sweetheart, I won’t hurt you,” he whispered against her cheek. “Let me pleasure you…let me inside you…”

He continued to murmur to her, while he kissed and caressed his way stealthily down her body. By the time his dark head reached the shadowy ingress between her thighs, Annabelle was moaning repeatedly. His mouth found her, nuzzling past delicately crinkled hair and tiny silken ruffles of pink flesh, his tongue gliding over her in curling strokes. She shrank from him bashfully, but he gripped her h*ps in his hands and explored her mercilessly, the tip of his tongue gliding over every tender fold and crevice. The sight of his dark head between her thighs was a visceral jolt to her senses. The room around them blurred, and she felt as if she was floating amid layers of shadow and candlelight, conscious of nothing but exquisite, twisting rapture. She could hide nothing from him, could do nothing except surrender to the demanding mouth that solicited unholy delight from her awakening flesh. He centered on the peak of her sex, licking softly, steadily, until it finally became too much to endure, and she felt her h*ps rise of their own accord, quivering against his mouth, heat jetting through her pleasure-racked limbs.

Giving her sated flesh a last savoring lick, Simon worked his way back up her body. Her thighs were limp as he pushed them wide apart, the head of his shaft nudging against her. Looking down into her dazed face, Simon smoothed her hair back from her forehead.

Her lips curved in a wobbly smile as she glanced up at him. “I forgot all about my bank account,” she said, and he laughed softly.

His thumb brushed over the edge of her forehead, where fine skin blended into flossy hair. “Poor Annabelle…” The pressure between her legs increased, delivering the first intimation of pain. “I’m afraid the next part won’t be nearly as enjoyable. For you, at any rate.”

“I don’t mind…I…I’m just so glad that it’s you.”

No doubt it was an odd thing for a bride to say on her wedding night, but it brought a smile to his lips. He lowered his head and began to whisper in her ear, even as he tightened his h*ps to breach her untried flesh. She forced herself to hold still despite the instinct to writhe away from the intrusion. “Sweetheart…” His breath became ragged, and as he paused inside her, he seemed to struggle for self-control. “Yes, that’s it…just a little more…” He moved in another careful advance, and hesitated again. “A little more…” He deepened his entry in lingering degrees, carefully courting her body into accepting him. “More…”

“How much more?” she gasped. He was too hard, the pressure too intense, and she wondered anxiously how this could ever be anything but uncomfortable.

Simon gritted his teeth at the effort it took to hold still. “I’m about halfway there,” he finally managed, an apologetic note in his voice.

“Half—” Annabelle began to protest with a shaky laugh, and winced as he pushed again. “Oh, this is impossible, I can’t, I can’t—”

But he kept impelling himself deeper, trying to soothe her pain with his mouth and hands. Gradually it became easier, the pain fading into a mild, prolonged burn. A long sigh escaped her as she felt her body yielding, her virginal flesh conceding to the inevitability of his possession. Simon’s back was a mass of tightly cobbled muscle, his belly as hard as carved rosewood. Holding himself deep inside her, he groaned, while a shiver ran across his shoulders. “You’re so tight,” he said hoarsely.

“I-I’m sorry—”

“No, no,” he managed. “Don’t be sorry. My God.” His voice was slurred, as if he was drunk on pleasure.

They studied each other, one gaze sated, the other brilliant with yearning. A sense of wonder crept over Annabelle as she realized how thoroughly he had controverted her expectations. She had been so certain that Simon would use this opportunity to prove himself her master…and instead he had come to her with infinite patience. Filled with gratitude, she wrapped her arms around his neck. She kissed him and let her tongue enter his mouth, and she drew her hands down his back, until her palms reached the hard contours of his buttocks. She stroked him in shy encouragement, urging him to sink deeper inside her. The caress seemed to eradicate the remainder of his self-control. With a growl of hunger, he pushed rhythmically inside her, shaking with the effort to be gentle. The force of his release caused him to shiver hard, his teeth gritting as sensation culminated in blinding rapture. Burying his face in the filtering strands of her hair, he soaked in her honey-slick warmth. A long time passed before the iron-hard tension left his muscles, and he let out a slow breath. As he withdrew carefully from Annabelle’s body, she winced at the intimate soreness. Perceiving her discomfort, he caressed her hip in gentle consolation.

“I may never leave this bed again,” he muttered, cuddling her in the crook of his arm.

“Oh, yes you will,” Annabelle said, half-drowsing. “You’re going to take me to Paris tomorrow. I won’t be deprived of the honeymoon you promised.”

Nuzzling into her tangled curls, Simon replied with the trace of a smile in his voice. “No, sweet wife…you won’t be deprived in any way.”

CHAPTER 21

During the two weeks of their honeymoon, Annabelle discovered that she was not nearly as worldly as she had considered herself to be. With a mixture of na?vete and British arrogance, she had always thought of London as the center of all culture and knowledge, but Paris was a revelation. The city was astonishingly modern, making London look like a dowdy country cousin. And yet for all its intellectual and social advancements, the streets of Paris were nearly medieval in appearance; dark, narrow and crooked as they twined through arrondissements of artfully shaped buildings. It was a messy, delightful assault to the senses, with architecture that ranged from the gothic spires of ancient churches to the solid grandeur of the Arc de Triomphe.

Their hotel, the Coeur de Paris, was located on the left bank of the Seine, between a dazzling array of shops on rue de Montparnasse and the covered markets of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, where exotic produce and fabrics and laces and art and perfume were displayed in bewildering varieties. The Coeur de Paris was a palace, with suites of rooms that had been designed for sensual pleasure. The bathing room, for example—the salle de bain, it was called—had been fitted with a rosy marble floor and Italian tiled walls, and a gilded rococco settee where the bather rested after the exertions of washing. There was not one but two porcelain tubs, each with its own boiler and cold water tank. The tubs were surmounted with a painted oval landscape on the ceiling, designed to entertain the bather as he or she relaxed. Having been brought up with the British view of a bath as a matter of hygiene to be conducted with expediency, Annabelle was amused by the notion that the act of bathing should be a decadent entertainment.

To Annabelle’s delight, a man and a woman could share a table in a public restaurant without having to request a private dining room. She had never had such delicious food…tender cockerel that had been simmered with tiny onions in red wine…duck confit expertly roasted until it was melting-soft beneath crisp oiled skin…rascasse fish served in thick truffled sauce…then, of course, there were the desserts…thick slices of cake soaked in liqueur and heaped with meringue, and puddings layered with nuts and glaceed fruit. As Simon witnessed Annabelle’s agonized choice of what to order for dessert each night, he assured her gravely that generals had gone to war with far less deliberation than she gave to the choice between the pear tart or the vanilla souffle.

One night Simon took her to a ballet with scandalously underdressed dancers, and the next, a comedy with lewd jokes that needed no translation. They also attended balls and soirees given by acquaintances of Simon’s. Some were French citizens, while others were tourists and emigres from Britain, America, and Italy. A few were stockholders or board members of companies that he had part ownership in, while others had been involved with his shipping or railway enterprises. “How do you know so many people?” Annabelle had asked Simon in bewilderment, when he was hailed by several strangers at the first party they attended.

Simon had laughed and gently mocked that one would think that she had never realized that there was a world outside of the British aristocracy. And the truth was, she hadn’t. She had never thought to look outside the narrow confines of that rarefied society until now. These men, like Simon, were elite in a purely economic sense, actively engaged in building fortunes, many of them literally owning entire towns that had been built around rapidly expanding industries. They possessed mines, plantations, mills, warehouses, stores, and factories; and it seemed that their interests were seldom confined to just one country. While their wives shopped and had gowns made by Parisian dressmakers, the men lounged in cafes or private salons for endless discussions of business and politics. Many of them smoked tobacco in tiny paper tubes called cigarettes, a fashion that had started among Egyptian soldiers and had spread rapidly across the Continent. At dinner, they spoke of things that had never been mentioned in front of Annabelle before, events that she had never heard of and had surely not been reported in the papers.

Annabelle realized that when her husband spoke, the other men paid keen attention to his opinions and sought his advice on a variety of matters. Perhaps Simon was someone of little consequence in the view of the British aristocracy, but it was clear that he wielded considerable influence outside of it. Now she understood why Lord Westcliff held him in such high esteem. The fact was, Simon was a powerful man in his own right. Seeing the respect that others paid him, and noticing the coquettish excitement that he inspired in other women, Annabelle began to see her husband in an altered light. She even began to feel somewhat possessive of him—of Simon!—and found herself beginning to simmer with jealousy when a woman seated next to him at supper tried to monopolize his attention, or when another lady declared flirtatiously that Simon was obligated to partner her for a waltz.

At the first ball they attended, Annabelle stood in an anterior parlor with a group of sophisticated young matrons, one of them the wife of an American munitions maker, the other two Frenchwomen whose husbands were art dealers. Awkwardly fielding their questions about Simon and reluctant to admit how little she still knew about her husband, Annabelle was somewhat relieved when the subject of their conversation appeared to claim her for a dance. Impeccably dressed in a black evening suit, Simon exchanged polite greetings with the laughing, blushing women, and turned to Annabelle. Their gazes locked, while a lovely melody began to play from the nearby ballroom. Annabelle recognized the music…a popular waltz in London, which was so haunting and sweet that the wallflowers had agreed that it was literally torture to sit still in a chair while it was being played.

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