And then it loosened its hold, and she fell back on the bed, panting, weeping, taken and destroyed. He collapsed on top of her, his chest heaving, and she could still feel him inside her; she still shivered around him in her fading response.
He released her then, rolling to his side, and she was suddenly so cold. Covered in ice, she thought dizzily, knowing she had to get away. She’d been wrong, he’d been right. This was a terrible idea. Because she’d needed him too much, and the having, and the letting go, were too painful.
She wondered if her legs would support her if she tried to get out of bed. Men fell asleep afterward, didn’t they? How long could she safely wait?
And then, to her surprise, he pulled her into his arms, tucking her close against him. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said sleepily. “We’ve only just begun.”
She didn’t question him. She would stay there as long as he’d have her. Lie in his arms to the break of day and beyond. Anything he wanted.
And while she waited for him to fall asleep, she drifted off herself, lost in exhausted oblivion.
Benedick lay on his back in the slowly gathering dawn. His body felt so richly sated that any move on his part would require superhuman effort, and he had no intention of attempting it. He felt…he could think of no adequate word for it. Confused was inadequate, shattered too emotional when he was a man who eschewed emotions. He lay in his own bed, the bed he’d never shared with anyone, and listened to her breathe, deep in sleep. He’d worn her out, as he’d planned to. He’d taken her to places she had no idea existed, again and again. He’d taken her hard, he’d taken her fast. He’d made love to her with heartbreaking tenderness. She was the one who was supposed to be shattered.
Instead she slept, and he lay beside her, his mind in turmoil.
Damn her. He should have simply shagged her the first chance he had, and those occasions had been numerous. He’d recognized the sensuous nature beneath her practical exterior, and it would have taken very little effort to have her and then dismiss her. He had no interest in a long-term mistress, and there was no reason why he should be hard again after last night, wanting her, unaccountably furious with her for sleeping so soundly.
He forced himself to move, slipping from the bed and heading into his dressing room. The dim light from the early dawn gave just enough light for him to see her discarded clothes on the slipper chair, and he gathered them up once he’d pulled on his thick wool banyan. He came back into the now-chilly bedroom and looked down at her.
She looked like a child, an innocent, sweetly sleeping, though he knew for a fact that she had to be at least thirty years of age. Even if he were insane enough to consider marrying she would be the last person he would choose. She was too old to be of prime childbearing age, and since she’d spent ten years of married life without conceiving she was most likely barren. His only reason for considering marriage was to provide an heir, and Melisande Carstairs wasn’t the way to do it.
He was better off with her as far away as possible. There was no earthly reason for the sex to have been as disturbing as it was. She had no skills, no experience; he’d had to coax her and please her when he was used to being the one who needed to be pleased. She was simply wrong; he’d always known it, and the impossible hours they’d just passed simply proved it.
And the longer he stared down at her, the harder he became.
He dumped the clothes on top of her, and she awoke with a start, momentarily disoriented. She sat up, realized she was naked and quickly pulled her discarded clothes against her body, covering herself. Her eyes narrowed as she saw him, and a rich color rose to her cheeks, suffusing them, and he could see her mouth, soft, tremulous, uncertain.
“I would suggest you dress and return home before it’s full light,” he said, his voice clipped and distant.
Damn the woman! Didn’t she know a dismissal when she heard one? He needed her dressed and out of there, before he changed his mind and threw away everything he’d planned so carefully.
“I wouldn’t want the gaggle to jump to any conclusions.”
“What kind of conclusions might they jump to?”
He wanted to strangle her. He wanted to wrap his hands around her neck and hold her still while he kissed her. “That this was anything more than a momentary lapse on your part and a mistake on mine. I’ve done my duty, aided in your education, and now you’re free to apply that knowledge in a more suitable direction.”
She was very still. No expression crossed her face, but then, she was good at hiding her reactions. He wondered if that was pain in her dark blue eyes. If so, that was a good thing. It would make the lesson stick.
“Indeed,” she said finally. “Have you already taught me everything you know?”
It was a worthy comeback, and he fought his admiration. “All that you’re capable of assimilating. I believe I made myself clear. If there was a chance in hell I’d ever find myself harboring any kind of feelings for you I wouldn’t have succumbed to the very ripe temptation you offered. Awkwardness and enthusiasm is an interesting change now and then, and I won’t deny I enjoyed myself, but in general I prefer a more sophisticated pleasure. Go find some earnest young man who’ll share your charitable activities and leave me alone.”
She blinked. Such a small reaction to his deliberately brutal words, and he wanted more. He wanted to lash out at her, to cause her the same consternation that she’d caused him. But she simply looked at him for a long moment, and he had the odd feeling that she was taking his cruel words and translating them in her brain, as if from a foreign language.
“I see,” she said after a moment. “Perhaps you would be so good as to summon your carriage to drive me home? Or would you prefer I take a hackney?”
He refused to flush. “My carriage will be at your disposal, madam.”
“And would you also allow me to dress in private? I find I have no interest in displaying my body in front of you.”
“Trust me, it would have no effect on me,” he said, ignoring his damned erection. In truth, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to continue with this if he saw her naked once more. The curve of her pale breasts; the soft, perfumed skin; the tawny curls between her legs…the very thought made him break out in a cold sweat.
“And what about the Heavenly Host?”
He had already turned toward the door. “You may trust me to take care of the situation.”
“But I don’t,” she said softly. “I don’t trust you.”
He remembered her words from the night before. She’d told him she’d chosen him because she trusted him. He’d managed to do an effective job of smashing that trust. “Very wise. But I give you my word—there will be no murders on the night of the full moon.”
She didn’t respond. She merely looked at him, seemingly calm and unmoved, and yet he remembered her body clenching his, remembered the shuddering climax that had shaken them both. He could see the mark his mouth had made at the top of one breast, and knew there would be others on her sensitive skin. He remembered when she had sunk her teeth into his shoulder rather than cry out, and the spur that tiny bit of pain had forced.
“Goodbye, my lord.”
Even then he wanted to change his mind. Wanted to cross the room in two swift strides, pull her back into his arms and kiss her senseless. Wanted to bury his aching cock in her sweet, welcoming body, drinking in the richness of her response.
He gave her a nod, and left the room, before he made an even bigger disaster of his life than he already had.
She pushed the covers back, looking down at her body. She was damp and sticky between her legs—the last time he’d been too tired to do anything more than collapse on top of her, and they’d slept. Or so she thought. He’d washed her the other times, gently ministering to her, and she’d let him. Foolish, foolish woman.
The room was cold, the fire out, and she looked down to see her nipples puckered against the icy air. There was a red mark on her breast, another on her thigh, and she closed her eyes for a moment, remembering.
She was made of sterner stuff than that, she reminded herself, opening them again. This was all working out for the best. She’d chosen Benedick Rohan for one reason and one reason alone. He was purportedly a brilliant lover. If the previous night was any judge of his skills, he’d been sadly underestimated. He was astonishing. So good that even with his cruel words echoing in her ears she’d still lie down for him if he wanted her.
So now she knew. The pleasures of the flesh were, in fact, desirable, and how much more delightful they’d be with someone she loved. She could now search out a good, decent man to marry and, perhaps with a miracle, bear children. She wanted to be a mother. She now had enough information to ensure that the next man she fell in love with would be able to bring her pleasure, as well. She needed to get home swiftly, to make notes as to what had been most pleasurable so she wouldn’t forget, and then she would instruct her future husband….
There was a strange, choking noise in the room, and she looked around her, appalled, then realized the sound came from her own throat. She swallowed, convulsively, shoving the pain back. She was being ridiculous.
She washed swiftly with the now-icy bowl of water before dressing. She was shaking from the cold, and perhaps something else, but she wasn’t going to consider that possibility. When she finally rose to her feet, her ankle almost gave way beneath her, and she welcomed the pain, a distraction from what she refused to consider.
Her cloak lay across the chair by the dead coals, and she wrapped it around her shoulders, pulling the hood up over her face. She found the walking stick she used to help her perambulate, then opened the door, half afraid she’d see him again. She wasn’t quite sure she’d manage to keep her icy calm much longer if she had to look at him again. Into his dark green eyes, cool and assessing, at his beautiful, distant face.
Someone was waiting for her, and she almost jumped when she recognized Rohan’s majordomo. “Your ladyship,” he said, his voice soft and inexpressibly kind. “Your carriage is waiting. I’ve had it brought to the side portico—there’s less of a distance for you to walk on your bad ankle.”
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