Page 36

Author: Anne Stuart


She held on to the bed as she tried her bad ankle. It was tightly taped, with a rod of wood to give her further support, and she managed relatively well once she got her balance. She let go of the bed and limped toward the chair and her discarded cloak.


He was frowning at her. “You’ll catch your death.” In a few quick strides he’d crossed the room. Before she realized what he intended he scooped her up in his arms and deposited her back on the bed, pulling the covers up around her before she had time to react. “Stay there while I build up the fire,” he ordered.


She started to push the covers away again, but he simply caught her shoulders and shoved her back onto the bed. “The next time you try to get out of the bed you’ll most likely regret it,” he said in a lowered voice. “At least, at first.”


The threat in his voice was sexual—she wasn’t so untried that she didn’t recognize it. Then again, everything about Benedick Rohan seemed that way. His words were cold and clipped, the expression in his dark green eyes was threatening, but the fingers on her shoulders were absently caressing, the thumbs rubbing against the tight muscles, unconsciously soothing her.


And then he released her, turning his back, and headed toward the fire. She watched with astonishment as he built it up with the expertise of a man accustomed to such menial tasks when most men would be helpless to accomplish anything so practical. The heat began to pour from the coal fire, and she realized she’d been shivering, holding her body tightly against the cool night air and her own fears.


Her fears hadn’t abated, but the room was filling with warmth, and he sat back on his heels, watching the flames with satisfaction. They threw his face into strange shadows, making him look half-satanic in the flickering firelight. He looked up at her then, a meditative expression on his face. “What in heaven’s name made you choose that nightdress for your first attempt at seduction?” he inquired lazily. “And your hair…”


“What’s wrong with my hair?” she said, offended. “This is what I wear to bed. This is how my maid does my hair so that it doesn’t get tangled when I sleep. I do realize that demimondaines wear filmy clothing, but I don’t really have any, and this is how most women dress for bed.”


“It is not, however, the way a woman dresses for her lover. If that’s what you wore with Wilfred then it’s little wonder he was a sad disappointment.”


She flinched. Of course she’d considered that possibility—that her lack of real beauty and feminine wiles had been responsible for the failure that was Wilfred. While she hadn’t communicated her uncertainties to Emma and the gaggle, they had made it quite clear that all a man really needed to enjoy himself was a naked, willing female, and she’d definitely been that. Well, not particularly naked, but most definitely willing, and she’d let him do what he wanted.


Which was disgusting. For some reason the same base acts didn’t seem nearly as foul when she thought of Rohan practicing them. And that had been her downfall. For the first time she’d considered sexual congress with a man and not felt ill, and she’d decided to act on that relative enthusiasm. Only to be summarily rejected.


“I’m certain the unpleasant nature of my time with Wilfred was entirely my fault,” she said in a cool voice as she drew the shattered bits of her self-esteem back around her like the cloak she longed for. “And you’ve made it very clear that you have no interest in me, but I’ve been too besotted to listen.” Damn, where did that word come from? She quickly went on, hoping he wouldn’t notice her slip. “You have made me see the error of my ways, and I promise I won’t suggest anything so untoward again. Now if you’d hand me my cloak I will cease to bother you.”


He rose, with that casual, lazy grace that caught her eyes every time, and he drew his neckcloth out and tossed it on the foot of the bed. “I am afraid, my pet, that you are doomed to bother me. And you’re going to have to convince me that you’ve changed your mind before I let you go.”


It should have frightened her. Outraged her, terrified her, disgusted her. Instead, as he started toward her with his lazy, sinuous grace, she felt that sudden clenching in her stomach, the tingling in her skin, and she knew if he touched her she’d be lost.


She wanted to be lost, didn’t she? At least, that’s what she’d thought several hours ago when she’d come up with this absurd scheme. Now, of course, she wasn’t so sure.


“I don’t think…” she began, when he picked up the end of one of her plaits and untied the ribbon, slowly pulling her hair free. She looked down at it, mesmerized, the tawny gold against his strong hand, the way he let if drift through his fingers. Hair had no feeling, and yet she could feel the caress in every inch of her body. He spread it out against her shoulder and then took the other braid, repeating the act, running the strands through this thumb and forefinger like fine silk.


“You really do have the most glorious hair,” he murmured in that cool, detached voice. “It’s a crime to hide it in those dreadful bonnets.”


She couldn’t move. She wanted to lift her hands, to push him away, but she was frozen, if heat could freeze, staring up at him. He sat on the bed, and the mattress sank a little beneath his weight, and she started to roll toward him. She put her hands down to hold herself still, and he laughed softly. He leaned down and feathered his lips against hers, and unwillingly she responded, her body rising into the touch of his mouth, and she wanted to cry. She closed her eyes, so he wouldn’t be able to see the hurt and longing in her gaze. Let it be over soon, she thought dazedly. Let me just get through the next half hour and it will teach me that I wasn’t made for this sort of thing. I can survive anything.


He kissed her closed eyelids, so gently, then her trembling upper lips, the arch of her brow, finally the lobe of her ear. And then he sank his teeth into it, biting her hard, and an electric shock went through her body as her eyes flew open in outrage and something else that she didn’t want to examine.


He sat back, an expression of bemused satisfaction on his face. “Besotted, are you? That should make my job a great deal easier.” He rose, and she felt a momentary panic. He was going to let her go. He’d made his point—she was really terrified of doing this no matter what she said. Now he would send her away and she would go, defeated and humbled, and she’d never be fool enough to…


He had shrugged out of his jacket, no mean feat given the perfect fit of the garment. He unfastened the shirt studs and set them on the table beside him, slowly exposing his sun-darkened skin to the candlelight, and she took a swift breath. Wilfred had been very pale and thin, almost scrawny. Thomas had been covered with grizzled gray hair.


She’d thought Rohan was thin as well, but she’d been wrong. He was all sleek muscle and tanned skin as he stripped his shirt off, and she stared at him, conflicting emotions roiling through her.


She cleared her throat, searching for some kind of normalcy in the charged air. “Well, it’s no wonder I’m drawn to you,” she said in what she hoped was a pragmatic tone. “You’re ridiculously beautiful, and you know it.”


He was amused. “Do I?”


“Of course you do.” Now she could be acerbic with no effort. “You carry yourself that way, like a man who knows his own worth and recognizes his value. You stroll and swagger and move like a pirate surveying his prey.”


He let out a hoot of laughter as the snowy white shirt fell onto the floor. “And just how many pirates are numbered among your acquaintance?” he asked politely.


She wanted to come up with a clever response, but the sight of all that bare flesh momentarily silenced her. Until he reached for the fastenings of his breeches, and she let out a strangled cry. “Don’t!”


A look of irritation crossed his face. “Sweet Charity, if I wait much longer to shuck my breeches I’ll have a damned hard time getting them off. It’s not as if you’re a virgin. You’ve seen a man naked before.”


“No, I haven’t.”


He paused, then shook his head in disbelief. “It’s little wonder you have no idea what you want. Your initiation has been criminally botched.”


“My husband was elderly,” she said, trying for dignity. “And ill, besides.”


“Then why did you marry him?”


“He was my only choice.”


He looked even more incredulous. “I don’t believe you,” he said flatly. “The men of London aren’t all such blind idiots.”


He couldn’t have said anything more certain to soothe her ravaged pride. “I don’t think my aunt would have lied to me. I didn’t have any money, I was far too serious and I didn’t take. I was lucky to get Sir Thomas.”


“Sir Thomas had thirty thousand pounds a year, and he would have made a generous settlement on your cousin as well as yourself. If anyone less plump in the purse came along I expect she would have sent them about their business.”


“She wouldn’t have!” Melisande gasped.


Benedick sat in a chair by the fire and proceeded to pull off his shoes and stockings. “You are still astonishingly naive,” he said, leaning back in the chair. “Next thing you’ll be insisting that I don’t want you.”


That was enough to bring her head up. “I am fully aware that you feel a certain physical response to my proximity,” she began. “But I also know that anyone can arouse that reaction in a male—it means nothing.”


His smile was grim. “I’m not that easy, my precious. I prefer my bed partners adventurous and experienced. You’re going to be hard work and nothing but trouble.”


“Then why don’t you unlock the door?” she snapped.


“Because you’ll be worth it.” His voice was soft then, and he rose, pinched out the candle by the chair and approached the bed.


“I don’t…”


“Stop talking, Melisande,” he said, sliding his hands behind her neck and cupping her chin with his thumbs. “We’ve already wasted too much time.” He put his mouth against hers, and this was no sweet salute, no soft seduction. With the pressure of his thumbs he pushed her mouth open beneath his, and she felt his tongue against her, tasted him, dark and hot and sweet.

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