Enjoying her excitement, Simon caught her slender body against his. “I’m not about to go away,” he informed her. “This is my opportunity to reap the benefits of your gratitude.”

Enthusiastically, Annabelle tugged his head down and crushed her mouth against his. “And so you shall.” She pressed another ardent kiss to his lips. “Now.”

He chuckled at her full-bodied assault. “No doubt I should say that seeing your enjoyment is repayment enough. On the other hand, if you insist—”

“I do! I do insist.” Striding away from him, Annabelle went to the bed, clambered onto the mattress, and dramatically flung herself backward until she landed spread-eagle on the counterpane. Simon followed her into the room, fascinated by her antics. This was an Annabelle he had not seen before, droll and enchantingly capricious. As he approached the bed, she lifted her head and encouraged, “I’m all yours. Start reaping your rewards.”

Deftly he stripped off his jacket and removed his necktie, more than ready to oblige her. Annabelle hoisted herself to a sitting position to watch him. Her legs remained spread beneath the veil of her nightgown, her hair falling in a silky tumble over her shoulders. “Simon…you should know that I would go to bed with you even without this ring.”

“You’re too kind,” he replied dryly, stepping from his trousers. “A husband always likes to hear that he is valued for more than his financial merit.”

Her gaze slid along his lean body. “Of all your merits, Simon, the financial one is probably the least.”

“Probably?” Walking to the edge of the bed, Simon picked up one of her bare feet and pressed his mouth to her tender instep. “Don’t you mean ‘definitely’?”

She fell back, gasping at the warm stroke of his tongue, while the hem of her gown slid to the tops of her thighs. “Oh…yes, definitely. Most definitely…”

Her body was damp and sweet from her recent bath, retaining the crisp scent of soap and the heady influence of rose oil. Aroused by the sight of her pink, fragrant skin, Simon kissed and nibbled his way to her ankle, then to her knee. At first Annabelle giggled and writhed beneath the ministrations of his mouth, but when he moved to her other leg, she quieted, her breath coming in slow, deep surges. He knelt between her parted thighs, inching her gown upward and kissing every newly exposed inch of flesh, until he had reached the thatch of glinting curls. After letting his chin barely graze the springy softness, he continued his journey upward, while she made a feeble sound of protest. Intoxicated by the velvety texture of her skin, he kissed her waist and each tender projection of her ribs, making his way to the place on her chest where her heart pounded beneath his lips.

Annabelle made a pleading sound and took hold of his hand, trying to bring it between her thighs. Resisting with a quiet laugh, Simon pinned both of her wrists over her head and settled his mouth on hers. He sensed her surprise at being restrained, and the response that followed, her eyes closing and her breath striking his cheek in a faster rhythm. Maintaining the secure grip on her wrists with one hand, he slid his free hand along the front of her body, his fingertips circling the peaks of her breasts. His own body was hard and hot with arousal, his muscles tight with coiling need. In all his experience with lovemaking, he had never known such feverish absorption, all connection to the world outside completely severed so that he was occupied only with Annabelle…her delight fueling his…her quivering responses intensifying his own desire. Her mouth opened beneath his in trembling welcome, moans slipping from her throat as his penetrating kisses became more aggressively penetrating. He touched the crevice between her legs, loving the silky moisture of her flesh. Her body undulated upward, her h*ps tilting toward his hand, while her imprisoned wrists flexed in his grasp. Every writhing movement communicated her need to be taken and filled, and his body hardened to an exquisite degree as primitive hunger rushed through him.

Slowly he entered her with one finger, and she moaned against his mouth. Perceiving the increased pliancy of her flesh, he added another finger, caressing gently until she was swollen with arousal. As soon as he freed her mouth, she begged incoherently, “Simon, please…please, I need you…” She trembled all over as he withdrew his fingers. “No, Simon—”

“Shhh…” He grasped her knees and carefully pulled her across the bed. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “I’ll take care of you…let me love you this way…” Bringing her h*ps to the edge of the mattress, he eased her over, until her pale buttocks were turned upward. He stood on the floor, positioning himself between her thighs, the rigid head of his c**k slipping easily into the slick entrance of her body. Grasping her h*ps firmly, he entered her in a long glide, not stopping until he was fully embedded. A flare of heat covered his entire body, as if he had stepped before an open furnace, and his groin tightened with an ache of lust that was nearly too acute to bear. He breathed in sharp pants, fighting to control the intensity of his desire before he unraveled completely. Annabelle lay passive and still on the mattress except for the clenching of her fingers against the counterpane. Afraid that he was causing her pain, Simon somehow managed to restrain his savage need long enough to bend over, and murmur hoarsely, “Sweetheart…am I hurting you?” The movement impelled him even deeper inside her, and she whimpered. “Tell me, and I’ll stop.”

She was slow to respond, as if it took her several seconds to comprehend the question, and when she replied, her voice was thick with pleasure. “No, don’t stop.”

He remained hunched over her, moving in deepseated nudges that caused her inner muscles to flex greedily around his hardness. His hands covered hers, fingers wrapping around her fists…a position that overpowered her completely, and yet he was not forcing his own rhythm on her. Rather, he was moving in response to the demands of her body, thrusting in complement to the pulsing grasp of her flesh…each time she tightened helplessly, he pushed farther, using himself to stroke and caress the depths of her. She hovered on the edge of a nerve-shattering release, and yet she couldn’t quite reach it, her breath coming in long gasps, her bottom pressing hard against his loins. “Simon…”

He reached beneath her, easily finding the place where she was stretched to accommodate him, and the tender hood above. Using his fingertip, he spread the warm moisture of her body over the engorged nub and manipulated it delicately, circling and stroking, varying his rhythms until he found one that made her cry out as she clamped tightly around him. She groaned as he thrust and stroked in tireless counterpoint, her back arched in ecstasy. The lush twisting and gripping of her body became too much for his overstimulated senses…he gasped with his own cl**ax, tunneling inside the sweetness of her flesh as relief roared through him in uncontrollable bursts.

The worst moment of their honeymoon came on the morning that Annabelle cheerfully told Simon that she thought the old saying was true—that marriage was the highest state of friendship. She had meant to please him, but Simon had reacted with bewildering hostility. Recognizing the well-known quote from Samuel Richardson, Simon had commented tersely that he hoped her literary taste improved, so as to spare him having to hear cheap philosophy garnered from novels. Stung, Annabelle had reacted with cold silence, unable to understand why her comment had provoked him so.

Simon stayed away for the entire morning and part of the afternoon, returning to find Annabelle playing cards with some other matrons in one of the hotel salons. Approaching the back of her chair, he rested his fingertips on the curve of her shoulder. She felt his touch through the corded silk of her dress, the sensation wrapping delicately around her nerves. Strongly tempted to prolong her wounded resentment, Annabelle thought briefly of shrugging off his hand. Instead, she told herself that it would cost her nothing to show him a little tolerance. Summoning a smile, Annabelle glanced up at him over her shoulder. “Good afternoon, Mr. Hunt,” she murmured, referring to him in the formal way that most married couples adopted in public. “I hope that you enjoyed your outing.” Impishly she showed him her cards. “Look at the hand I’ve been dealt. Do you have any helpful advice?”

Sliding his hands along the sides of her chair, Simon bent his dark head to murmur in her ear. “Yes—finish your game quickly.”

Conscious of the other women’s interested gazes, Annabelle kept her face expressionless, even though she felt warmth creeping up from her neckline. “Why?” she asked, while his mouth remained near her ear.

“Because I’m going to make love to you in precisely five minutes,” he whispered back. “Wherever we happen to be…here…in our suite…or on the stairs. So if you would like some privacy, I suggest that you lose the game with all expediency.”

He wouldn’t, Annabelle thought, her heartbeat quickening with alarm. On the other hand, knowing Simon, there was a possibility…

With that thought in mind, Annabelle laid out a card with trembling fingers. The next player took a torturously long time to play one of her cards, and the next woman paused for a humorous exchange with her own husband, who had just come to the table. Aware of an accumulating mist of sweat on her bosom and brow, Annabelle considered ways to bow out of the game. The voice of reason calmed her, as she reflected that no matter how audacious Simon was, he wouldn’t actually ravish his wife on the hotel staircase. However, the voice of reason was abruptly strangled as Simon leisurely consulted his watch.

“You have three minutes,” came his soft murmur in her ear.

Somewhere in the midst of her agitation, Annabelle felt a shameful throb of sensation between her thighs, her body keenly attuned to the smoky promise in his voice. Pressing her legs together tightly, she waited with forced composure for her turn, even as her heart pounded in frantic drives. The players conversed lazily, fanning themselves and sending a waiter for another pitcher of iced lemonade. At last it was Annabelle’s turn, and she threw out her highest face card and drew another. Relief stabbed through her as she saw that her new card was worthless, and she cast down her hand. “I’m afraid I’m out,” she said, making an effort to keep from sounding breathless. “What a lovely game it was—thank you, I must go—”

“Do stay for the next round,” one of the ladies urged, and the others added their own entreaties.

“Yes, do!”

“At least have a glass of wine while we finish this hand—”

“Thank you, but—” Annabelle stood and gasped slightly as she felt the gentle pressure of Simon’s hand on her back. Her ni**les tightened inside her gown. “I’m simply exhausted from all the dancing last night,” she improvised. “I must have some rest before we attend the theater this evening.”

Followed by a chorus of farewells, and a few knowing glances, Annabelle attempted a dignified exit from the salon. As soon as they reached the winding staircase that led to the upper floors, Annabelle heaved a sigh of relief, and cast her husband a reproving glance. “If you were trying to embarrass me, you succeeded quite—what are you doing?” Her gown had become loose across her shoulders, and she realized with a little shock of amazement that he had unfastened some of her buttons. “Simon,” she hissed, “don’t you dare! No, stop that!” She hurried away from him, but he kept pace with her easily.

“You have one minute left.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said shortly. “We can’t possibly reach the suite in less than a minute, and you wouldn’t—” She broke off with a squeak as she felt him pluck at another button, and turned to swat at his marauding hands. Her gaze caught his, and she realized incredulously that he had every intention of carrying out his threat. “Simon, no.”

“Yes.” His eyes were filled with tigerish playfulness, and the look on his face was one that she had become entirely familiar with by now.

Hiking up her skirts, Annabelle turned to rush up the stairs, her breath coming in pants of panicked laughter. “You’re impossible! Leave me alone. You’re—oh, if anyone sees us like this, I’ll never forgive you!”

Simon followed without apparent hurry—but then, he didn’t have masses of skirts and binding underclothes to hamper him. She reached the top landing and rounded the corner, her knees aching as her legs pumped in a desperate ascent, stair after stair. Her skirts felt weighted, and her lungs were close to bursting. Oh, damn him for doing this to her—and damn herself for the airless giggles that kept slipping from her throat.

“Thirty seconds,” she heard behind her, and she wheezed as she arrived at the top of the second flight. Three long hallways before she reached their suite— and not nearly enough time. Clutching at the sagging front of her dress, she looked up and down the hallways that extended from the landing. She rushed toward the first door she could find, which opened into a small, unlit closet. The scent of starched linen billowed outward, and shelves of neatly stacked bed linens and toweling were just visible in the light from the hallway.

“Keep going,” Simon murmured, crowding her into the closet and closing the door.

Annabelle was immediately engulfed in darkness. Laughter swelled in her chest, and she shoved ineffectually at the hands that reached for her. It seemed that her husband had suddenly developed more arms than an octopus, unfastening her clothes and peeling them away much faster than she could move to defend herself. “What if you’ve locked us in here?” she asked, as her dress dropped to the floor.

“I’ll break the door down,” he replied, tugging at the tapes of her drawers. “Afterward.”

“If one of the maids finds us, we’ll be thrown out of the hotel.”

“Believe me, the maids have seen far worse than this.” Her dress was crushed beneath Simon’s feet as he shoved Annabelle’s drawers to her ankles.

She made a few more halfhearted protests, until Simon reached between her thighs and discovered the evidence of her arousal, after which further remonstrations seemed rather pointless. Her mouth opened to his kiss, eagerly returning the rough, stroking pressure of his lips. The plush entrance of her body stretched easily to take him, and a whimper slipped from her throat as she felt his fingers there, spreading her so that every rolling thrust of his h*ps gently abraded the sensitive peak of her sex.

They struggled to press closer, their bodies flexing, fusing, each kiss a searching invasion that aroused her further. Her corset was too tight, but there was unexpected delight in the constriction, as if extra sensation had been detoured to the lower half of her body and trapped in pleasure-swollen tissues. Her fingers clawed uselessly at his clothes as her desire escalated to near madness. Simon invaded her in deep lunges, his rhythm insistent, until rapture shot and echoed through both of them, and their lungs pulled in drafts of air laden with the scent of clean, pressed linen, and their entwined limbs tightened as if to trap the sensation between them.

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