His frown deepened. "That's not the only thing I'll strain if you don't go back to your room."

Ignoring the command, she closed the door and approached the bed in cautious steps. "I'm not sleepy."

Grant sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, the muscles of his stomach rippling as he kept the book over his loins. "You would lose consciousness in less than a minute if you went to bed and closed your eyes." But his gaze swept over her white muslin premise, lingering on the row of tiny buttons that fastened it, and she heard the change in his breathing. Encouraged, she stepped closer to him. "I mean it, Victoria," he warned. "Not tonight."

"Don't you want to be with me?"

"I want what's best for you."

"You'rewhat's best for me." Staring into his intent green eyes, she reached for the top button of her premise and fumbled with it. Her nervousness made her clumsy, and it was difficult to pull the pearl button through the tiny silk loop. Grant was silent, continuing to watch her without blinking. Blushing in sudden embarrassment, she wrenched the fastening, and the tiny button popped free, bouncing to the carpet. In rising frustration, Victoria realized there were more than a dozen buttons remaining. At this rate it would take all night just to remove her premise. Abandoning the hopeless task, she looked at Grant and made a wry face. "I'm not a very accomplished seductress, am I?"

All at once the book went sailing halfway across the room, landing on the floor with a muffled thud. Victoria gasped as she was abruptly lifted in the air and deposited on the bed. Grant leaned over her, his broad shoulders blocking the fire from her vision. "Considering the fact that I'm as hard as an iron pike," he said huskily, "I'd say you're doing something right."

She was clasped against more than six feet of solid, aroused male, his sex protruding against her abdomen, one of his muscular thighs pressing between hers. Tentatively she slid her arms around his midriff, her hands coming to rest on his hard back. She was startled by the heat of his body, burning with almost feverish intensity. "Your skin is so hot," she whispered, her cool fingers wandering across the flexing plane of his back.

His breath filtered through his teeth as if he were in pain, and she froze in uncertainty. "Did I do something wrong?" "No, no..." Grant buried his face in the loose locks of her hair, rubbing his cheek against the scarlet silk. "When you touch me, I'm not sure if I'm in heaven or hell."

"Is that good?"

"That's good," he said, his voice muffled in her hair.

She smiled against his ear and locked her arms around his back, holding on with all her strength. Grant murmured love words against her throat, her cheeks, pressing unhurried kisses over her skin as his fingers worked at the buttons of her premise. He unfastened them without any haste, taking his time as he freed each pearl from its confining loop.

"Kiss me," Victoria said breathlessly, wanting something more than the light, tantalizing brushes of his mouth. His lips hovered over hers, teasing her with his restraint, and she slid her arms around his neck to tug his head closer. She couldn't repress a moan as he gave the openmouthed kiss she wanted, his tongue exploring her with luscious, softly gauging strokes.

Realizing that her premise was spread open, Victoria struggled to rid herself of the garment. He soothed her with more kisses and fitted his solid arm beneath her neck, helping to tug the premise away from her body. Now all that separated their skin was the gossamer layer of her night rail. He fondled her through the thin muslin, finding the shape of her breast and cupping it in his warm hand, squeezing gently until her nipple tightened against his palm.

Trembling with excitement, Victoria touched him with growing boldness, her fingertips dipping into the valley of his spine, the hard inward curve ridged with thick muscle on both sides. And lower, to the dense flesh of his buttocks, her hands delighting in the solid masculine curvature. His body moved as she touched him there, his h*ps pushing urgently at hers, the sturdy shape of his arousal nudging into the pocket of muslin that draped between her thighs. She started at his involuntary thrust, remembering when he had taken her the first time, the intimate sundering of her body and the pain it had caused.

Clearly sensing her uneasiness, Grant went still over her, resting his weight on his elbows to keep from crushing her. "Don't be afraid," he said hoarsely.

"I'm not," she lied, forcing her fists to unclench. She spread her hands on the backs of his shoulders. "You said it wouldn't hurt if I was prepared for it."

"That's right." He kissed her, his mouth indescribably delicious as it ground gently over hers. She opened completely to his kiss, her body pliant and trusting beneath his. She did not tense again, even when he paused to strip away her night rail completely. He shaped and lifted her br**sts in both hands, kissing one rosy peak and then the other. His lips parted over a sensitive nipple, and she felt the sliding caress of his tongue. The softly tickling touch caused her to arch higher against his mouth. His hand clasped her knee and wandered upward, not stopping until he reached the thatch of hair that protected her tender feminine flesh. His fingertips played lightly among the spicy red curls, sliding and teasing until she groaned and pushed the small mound directly into his hand.

Grant shuddered from the effort not to take her then. He knew she was ready for him, he felt the moisture seeping through the cinnamon silk...but not yet. Not until she begged him for it. Whispering his love to her, he caressed her intimately, his fingertip stroking through her softness until he found the entrance to her body. He relished the catch of her breath, her sudden quiver as he slid his finger forward, stroking the hot inner sleekness. She held his shoulders as if she couldn't decide whether to pull him closer or push him away. He watched her face as he pushed his finger as deep as it would go, and her eyes closed, the fine russet brows knitting together. Bending over her chest, he caught one pink nipple in his mouth and tugged rhythmically.

"Please," she finally gasped, unconsciously drawing her knees up and spreading her thighs. "Please...it's too much, I..."

"Do you want me now?" he asked.

"Please," she entreated again, her face flushed and damp.

His heart thundered with desire as he mounted her, positioned himself, and exerted steady pressure against her vulnerable opening. Suddenly her eyes flew open, and she brought her hands between them. Her palms pushed against the taut muscles of his chest, and she writhed and struggled to accommodate him. "Oh, I can't--" she said unsteadily.

"You'll take it for me," he whispered. "You'll take it, Victoria. Let me inside you." He increased the pressure and felt her body ease, turning slick and welcoming as he began to enter. Groaning with relief, he penetrated her in a slow thrust, not pausing until he was buried deep in the succulent warmth of her body. She whimpered and wrapped her arms around him, enclosing him in a secure embrace. Sensation and emotion swirled together inside him, flooding him with bliss.

Part of his brain went dark and quiet, all thought extinguished as physical awareness ruled supreme. He moved in deep nudging strokes, angling himself to press against the peak of her sex. Awkwardly she pushed upward into the thrusts, struggling to get closer to him. He grunted with satisfaction, and his huge hands slid beneath her buttocks, guiding her rhythm so that it corresponded with his.

Victoria wrapped her arms around his back, while her h*ps surged upward with a force that nearly lifted his heavy weight. It seemed her entire existence had been distilled to this writhing quest for pleasure. She stared at the dark face above hers, his features hard and sweat-misted, and then everything blurred as she felt an exquisite contraction in her loins. Grant gasped and drove harder, sinking his teeth into the delicate place where her neck joined her shoulder. Arching, cresting, Victoria felt rings of ecstasy spread outward until her entire body was inundated with sensation.

Somewhere amid the cataclysm she felt Grant cl**ax as well, his rhythm breaking with a few final thrusts, his throat filled with a violent groan. He remained inside her for a minute or two, then relieved her of his weight and relaxed beside her. She nestled in the crook of his arm, hot and exhausted and satiated, and felt his mouth touch her temple and the rim of her ear.

"I love you," she whispered, and heard him say it at exactly the same time. Smiling sleepily, she let the flood of weariness overtake her and fell into a dreamless sleep while the scent and feel of him surrounded her.

CHAPTER 18

Victoria awakened as she felt Grant leaving the bed, and she protested with a sleepy sound. She heard his quiet laugh, and he returned to her arms for just a moment, kissing her throat gently. The early morning bristle of his jaw brushed against her skin, making her shiver pleasantly.

"Go back to sleep," came his low murmur. "I have to leave for Bow Street." She curled her arms around his neck. "Is it morning already?"

"I'm afraid so." He nuzzled the wild cascade of her hair.

Victoria stroked his powerfully muscled back. The feel of him was deliciously masculine, the weight of his body, the scrape of his unshaven cheek...and the insinuation of one long, hairy leg between hers. "Stay with me," she entreated, wriggling in pleasure as his warm hand cupped her breast.

Grant responded with a laughing groan, finding it difficult to resist temptation. "I can't, sweet love. Cannon is waiting for me, and there is much to be done today. But I'll return soon enough." He kissed the soft white skin of her breast. "I plan never to spend more than a few hours away from your arms."

Victoria stroked his short black hair and stared into his face with undisguised longing. "I wish that could be true."

His green eyes surveyed her intently, and his hand moved over her front in a slow caress that caused her to shiver. "Why can't it, my love?"

"I suppose because..." She found it difficult to think clearly as his hand came to rest low on her abdomen, his thumb brushing the tiny rim of her navel. "Well, there are dreams," she managed to say, "and then there is reality."

"I've had enough reality for ten lifetimes so far," Grant informed her. "I'd like to try a dream or two."

"Such as?"

"Marrying you, to start with."

The straightforward statement dazed Victoria. Of all things she had expected upon waking this morning, receiving a proposal of marriage had not been one of them. Making an effort to gather her wits, she replied hesitantly. "I...I know that any woman in the world would be honored by such an offer."

"And you?" he asked softly.

"I'm afraid that you--" Victoria stopped and regarded him uncertainly, and eased herself away from his warm body. Gathering the bedclothes around herself, she regarded Grant with a mute plea that made him frown.

"Victoria," he said, reaching out to gather her hair into a glowing red river that streamed over her shoulder. He touched her with great care, his fingertips barely grazing her fragile skin. "I shouldn't have started this conversation now. You're still exhausted, and I'm pressed for time. But there is no way in hell I'm leaving until you tell me what you're afraid of."

Victoria kept her gaze on the gleaming blue silk counterpane as she replied. "I think you might desire me only because I'm an imitation of my sister." There was no sound from Grant, and after pausing a few seconds, she forced herself to continue stiffly. "Vivien is the one you first wanted...and I could never blame you for that. She's sophisticated and exciting, and all the men desire her. I could never match her in that regard. And I wouldn't be able to bear seeing the eventual disappointment in your eyes when you awaken next to me one morning."

Stunned, Grant wondered where this unexpected well of insecurity had come from. How was it that Victoria could feel so lost in her sister's shadow? Good Lord, the few bedroom tricks that Vivien knew could never give her a fraction of the appeal Victoria held for him. For any man. Victoria was warm, intelligent, giving...and ideal companion in bed and out.

"You sweet...beautiful...lunatic," he heard himself mutter. "How in the hell can you think I would prefer her to you? How could you doubt my feelings? Believe me, I understand the differences between you, and I'm more than capable of deciding what I want."

Annoyed by her doubts of her own worth, he jerked the bedclothes away from her, ignoring her startled exclamation. Easily he caught her wrist and brought her hand down between his thighs. At the feel of her cool little hand pressed against him, he felt an instant throb of desire, and his flesh swiftly burgeoned and rose to full readiness. "Feel this," he said hoarsely, levering himself above her, staring hard into her face as her cheeks pinkened. "Feelme, and look into my eyes, and tell me if you see disappointment."

"You're only proposing to me because I was a virgin," she said, "and you're trying to be a gentleman and do the right thing--"

Grant covered her mouth with his in an ardent kiss, stopping only when he heard a moan of desire caught in her throat."That much of a gentleman, I'm not," he said huskily.

Victoria's doubtful gaze locked with his. "You once told me you weren't the marrying kind."

"I am when it comes to you."

"You don't have to," she said earnestly, pulling her hand away and clenching it by her side. "I want you to understand...you're under no obligation because of what happened. We can part as friends, very dear ones--"

"I don't want a friend. I wantyou. Every day and night. Every minute for the rest of my life." Grant held her tightly and stared into her small, flushed face. What he saw there gave him cause to ask huskily, "Isn't that what you want?"

Her cheeks burned even brighter, and she managed a bobbing nod and a soundlessyes.

"Thank God," he said, smoothing her hair back from her face. "Because I couldn't live without you. Now, is there anything else standing in our way?"

"Your work..." Her voice cracked with painful honesty. "It would be difficult for me to know that you were in danger so much of the time...that each morning you left me, you might not come back. Perhaps if I loved you less, I could bear it...but I don't think I could live like that."

His arms tightened around her. "I've already decided to leave the Bow Street force," he said. "I've spent too many years of my life on the streets. There are other choices open for me now...I'll find something else to occupy myself with."

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