"Thank God," her twin said in a heartfelt tone. "I daresay even Father would say you've done penance for long enough. And while we're on the subject, I'm going to tell you something I've always wanted to say...Loving a man doesn't make you a 'bad woman,' as you always believed Mama and I were."

"No, I never thought--"

"Yes, you did. I have a fairly good idea of the things Father said about me and Mama behind our backs. And some of them were probably well deserved." Her voice turned self-mocking. "I admit, I may be rather too free with my favors. But I know one thing for certain--giving yourself to a man when you love him, as you have with Morgan, is not wrong. Moldering here in Forest Crest, on the other hand, is a crime. Therefore, I'm leaving this godforsaken village as soon as I can arrange it, and I'd advise you to do the same. By all means, marry Grant Morgan--I daresay you could do much worse."

"Somehow," Victoria said wryly, "I had the impression you and he did not like each other. What has happened to change that?"

"Oh, I still don't like him," Vivien assured her with a quick laugh. "Not really. Except...well, it's obvious that he loves you, otherwise he wouldn't have made that ridiculous apology you had required of him."

"He did?" Victoria asked in wondering delight. "He truly brought himself to tell you he was sorry?"

"Yes, he confessed everything and asked for my forgiveness." A catlike smile appeared on Vivien's face. "I'll admit, there was something rather sweet about watching him gag on that apology, simply because you asked it of him. So if I were you, I would marry the man, if you desire to keep from breaking his heart. Or..." She paused as another idea seemed to inspire her. "Or you could come with me! We could go to Venice or Paris...Do you realize the kind of attention that two sisters with our looks would attract? I'll teach you everything I know about men, and...Good Lord, we would make a king's ransom!"

Victoria looked up at her sister's animated face and shook her head decisively. "Ick."

"It's a good idea," Vivien said defensively. "Pity you haven't got just a bit more imagination and fewer scruples."

A stew of potatoes, kidney beans, and chopped greens and onions simmered atop the small cast-iron range. The appetizing scent filled the cottage and drifted out the open windows. Remembering the many times she had made the dish for her father, Victoria smiled wistfully. Her father had never been a great lover of food, regarding it solely as a necessity for the body rather than something to be enjoyed. On the rare occasions when Victoria had made plum pudding, or brought currant buns from the bakery, he had nibbled at the treats and quickly lost interest. The only times she had ever seen him eat heartily, and with obvious enjoyment, was when she had made vegetable stew.

"Father," she murmured fondly, pausing in the task of folding clothes and packing them in an ancient leather truck, "I hope you won't mind that I want to marry a man so unlike you." Grant was a physical man with a strong appetite for life. He would never choose to hide away from the world as she and her father had done. Instead, he wrestled with dangerous, complex, often sordid problems. He saw the worst of humanity, whereas the Devanes had preferred to contemplate only the best of it. And yet...she thought her father might have liked Grant after all, if only to admire his utter fearlessness when it came to dealing with the realities of life.

Humming tunelessly, Victoria went to stir the stew and add a pinch of salt to the pot. Returning to her packing, she began to fold an old knitted shawl when she heard a demanding knock at the door. The entire cottage seemed to vibrate from the force of the blows.

Perplexed, a bit uneasy, she went to answer the door. She stepped back with a slight gasp as she saw Grant standing there. He was breathtakingly handsome, dressed in a striking black coat, black stock, silver-gray waistcoat, and charcoal breeches. The clothes were simple but perfectly tailored to fit his broad shoulders and lean torso. The vibrant force of his personality struck her anew...He looked large, dangerous, and even a bit irate. However, as Victoria stared into his smoldering green eyes, she felt no fear, only an instinctive desire to kiss his hard mouth and make it soften against her own.

"Hello," she said, self-consciously smoothing her hair, which hung in a disheveled braid down her back. His resplendent appearance made her conscious that she was wearing an old, worn gown, a faded flower-print muslin that was suitable only for chores in the house and garden. She smiled into his dark face, prolonging the delicious moment before she threw herself into his arms. "What are you doing here?"

"You took too long," he muttered with a scowl. The statement brought a surprised laugh from her. "We agreed I would stay here a week."

"It's been a week."

"It's been precisely two and a half days," she informed him. "It seemed like a bloody year."

Victoria shivered in pleasure as she felt him reach for her waist and pull her body against his. "I missed you, too," she confessed with a smile. His hand lifted to the side of her face, gently cradling her cheek, his palm hot on her skin.

"Where is Vivien?" he asked.

"She has already left for London. She's had enough of country life. And so have I." Victoria gestured toward the half-filled trunk and the pile of folded clothes beside it. "I was coming back early," she admitted. "I found I didn't have as much to sort through as I thought."

"And our engagement?" he asked with a set face. "Do you have an answer for me?"

"Yes," she said, her voice suddenly catching with emotion. "Yes, I'll marry you...if you still want me."

"Only for a lifetime," Grant said thickly, staring into her small, radiant face.

Her eyes closed as he lowered his mouth to hers, not with the urgency she had expected, but with a slow, searing tenderness that pulled a pleasured respiration from her chest. His lips caressed hers so lightly, playfully, imparting intimate heat and moisture until she pushed herself up at him in a search for something deeper. And he gave it to her, sealing his mouth over hers and using his tongue to reach inside her. She moaned and responded eagerly, unable to get close enough to his hard masculine body, unable to hold him tightly enough.

Suddenly Grant pulled his mouth away and laughed breathlessly, his green eyes filled with tender warmth. "I'll have to teach you patience someday," he murmured, his warm hands sliding up and down her sides.

"Why?"

For some reason the question made him laugh again. "It's much better when you don't go charging into it at full tilt."

"But I like it that way," she said in a provocative tone.

Smiling, Grant kissed her again, her mouth and chin and throat, and murmured his love to her as his hands worked on the fastenings at the back of her threadbare muslin gown. One elbow-length sleeve drooped away from her shoulder, and then the other, and his mouth traveled to the freshly exposed skin.

"If I had know you were coming," Victoria said, "I would have worn a pretty gown and ribbons in my hair--"

"I prefer you to wear nothing at all."

Which was soon to be the case, she realized, as he pushed the gown over her h*ps and let it fall to the floor. Her chemise followed as he eased the straps down her arms and tugged it downward until it, too, was discarded. She stood before him in only her drawers, stockings, and shoes, her bare br**sts trembling as she shivered in the slight breeze that came in through the window. The heat of his hands was startling as they gently cupped the pale mounds, her ni**les contracting tightly in his palms. Her breath quickened, and she leaned back against the cool plaster wall behind her. He kissed her mouth, her parted lips, with deep, stroking kisses that somehow soothed and excited her at the same time. She whimpered as she felt him take the peaks of her br**sts in his fingertips, pulling, softly pinching. Sliding his fingers beneath her breasts, he lifted the warm, silken weights and opened his lips over one aching nipple. He drew her deep inside his mouth, suckling the taut peak, tickling with his tongue, and she writhed as a delicious throbbing began low in her body.

"Touch me," she begged, gasping as he turned his attention to her other breast, and her h*ps jerked forward involuntarily.

"Where?" he asked softly, and as she felt him smile against her breast, she knew he was teasing. Impatiently she fumbled with the tapes to her drawers, longing to be rid of the garment. To her frustration, she discovered the tapes had somehow become knotted, and her efforts to free them only made the tangle worse.

Grant pushed her hands away from the tightening knots and kissed her bare midriff. "Don't move," he murmured.

"Why? What are you--" She broke off and squeaked in alarm as she saw the flash of a long spearpoint knife. Before she could move, the blade had sliced through the knotted tapes and the legs of the drawers, and the thin linen fell in shreds at her feet.

"Grant," she said, her voice slightly higher-pitched than usual, "that th-thing makes me nervous."

He grinned as he slid the knife back into his boot. "It's proven to be useful on a number of occasions."

"Yes, but I don't--"

"Here, lift your foot." Sinking to his knees before her, he removed one shoe, then the other, and began to reach for the tops of her stockings. He paused, however, his hands sliding to the sides of her hips. "I think we'll leave these on," he murmured. "I like the way they frame your--"

"Grant," Victoria protested, blushing all over as he continued to stare at her. She had never felt so vulnerable, standing before him virtually naked, whereas he was still fully dressed.

The pads of his thumbs passed gently over the tender, almost transparent skin at the tops of her thighs, where a faint lavender tracery of veins was visible. "I'm going to buy you stockings of silk and lace," he said softly. "Black ones. And jeweled garters with ribbons."

Victoria could barely speak. "Let's go into the bedroom," she said faintly.

"Not yet." His fingertips combed gently through the tangle of spicy hair, separating the glinting curls. "How lovely you are."

Victoria quivered, grateful for the support of the wall behind her back as she stood between Grant's spread knees. He leaned forward, kissing her stomach, exploring the delicate edge of her navel with the tip of his tongue. His own breath was coming fast and hard, fanning over her skin in steamy pulses. She must have made some small sound, for he glanced up into her face with hot green eyes.

"Do you want me to kiss you, Victoria?"

She nodded, her wild blush deepening. Though his face was taut with passion, she saw the barest hint of a smile touch his lips. "Where?"

Ican't, she thought in mortified excitement, clenching her hands into fists at her sides. Grant was still, staring at her with a provoking mixture of amusement and desire, clearly waiting for her to make the next move. The tension increased until the very air seemed to spark with heat, and Victoria burned with scarlet color. Unable to stop herself, she reached out with shaking hands and slid her fingers beneath the thick dark locks of his hair, and guided his head to the place she most wanted it. She felt the blazing heat of his mouth cover her, his tongue searching the tender flesh, arrowing to the sensitive bud where her desire centered. Her knees weakened, and she would have collapsed had his hands not cupped beneath her buttocks, gripping and steadying her. Moaning, she strained against the sliding, tormenting delight of his tongue, until she began to stiffen at the imminent approach of cl**ax.

With a suddenness that shocked her, he withdrew his mouth and stood to face her, his burning gaze sweeping over her flushed body.

"Please, Grant..."

He responded with a quiet murmur, fumbling at the fastenings of his trousers. To her astonishment, he did not bear her to the floor, but lifted her in his arms instead, so that her legs wrapped around his waist. He held her weight easily, bracing her against the wall for balance, one arm protecting her from the roughness of the plaster. Her eyes widened as she felt the hard, blunt shape of his sex nudging, probing, sliding easily inside her. She was filled, impaled, her body open and helpless against the heavy intrusion. Gasping in pleasure, she clutched at the backs of his shoulders, her fingers digging into the soft wool of his coat. It felt strangely erotic to be clasped against his fully clothed body, her bare skin tingling from the abrasion of fabric. Hungering for a taste of his skin, she tugged at his black stock and buried her mouth against the damp side of his neck.

"Do you love me?" he muttered, deliberately allowing her weight to press downward, forcing her even harder onto his stiff erection.

"Yes...oh, Grant..." She arched and cried out as pleasure crested inside her, spreading through her in deep, rolling waves.

"Tell me," he said harshly, moving in deeper, slower thrusts that drove straight into the core of her body. She writhed, her legs flexing as she felt the ebbing sensation build again.

"I love you," she gasped. "Love you...love you..."

The words sent him over the dizzying edge of rapture, and he drove inside her with a groan, all his senses dissolving in blissful release. His legs locked, and he stood there holding her tightly, reluctant to release the bounty of silken female flesh from his arms. "Victoria," he breathed, pressing a fervent kiss to her lips, while she struggled to catch her breath.

"Now we'll takeyour clothes off," she said, busily unwinding the black cravat from his throat.

Grant laughed and loosened his arms, allowing her feet to touch the floor. "And then?"

Victoria dropped the cravat to the floor and ducked her face against his throat, breathing in his salty masculine scent. "And then I'll show you again how much I love you." Drawing back, she looked up at him with a hopeful smile. "If you're able." He grinned and crushed a warm kiss on her lips. "I'm not a man to back down from a challenge."

"Yes, I know." And she laughed exultantly as he lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bedroom.

Epilogue

Although Victoria had thought she knew her husband well, she made many discoveries about him in the first six months of marriage. Agreeing with the general opinion that Grant was not the kind of man to take easily to domesticity, she had vowed to give him as much freedom as he required. She had decided never to render an opinion about his companionship. If he chose to stay out all hours of the night socializing, drinking, and cavorting, so be it. And if he allowed himself to be drawn into dangerous situations, she would try to restrain her criticism. After all, he had been a remarkably independent man until he had met her, and he would resent her efforts to rein him in. And Victoria had no desire to eventually be regarded as a millstone around his neck.

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