Page 33

"It's late." I remarked casually as he helped me out of the car.

"Tired11"

We walked to the front door. The night air was cool and sweet, clouds brooding across the moon in transparent layers.

I nodded to indicate yes, I was tired, although it wasn't true. I was nervous. Now that we were back in familiar territory, I found it difficult not to slip into my old cautions. We stopped by the door, and I turned to face him. My balance was uncertain in the high heels. I must have swayed a little, because he reached out and took my waist in his hands, fingers resting on the upper slope of my hips. My closed hands formed a small barricade between us. Words tumbled from my lips—I thanked him for dinner, tried to express how much I'd enjoyed it...

My voice faded as Gage pulled me close and pressed his lips to my forehead.

"I'm in no hurry, Liberty. I can be patient."

He held me carefully, as if I were fragile and in need of shelter. Tentatively I relaxed against him, nestling, my hands inching up his shoulders. Everywhere we pressed, I felt the pure physical promise of how good it could be, was going to be, and something began to uncoil in all the vulnerable places of my body.

His wide, firm mouth moved to my cheek, touched it in a gentle brand. "I'll see you in the morning."

And then he pulled away.

Dazed, I watched him start down the steps. "Wait," I said lamely. "Gage..."

He turned back, his brows lifting in a silent question.

Embarrassed, I mumbled, "Aren't you going to kiss me good night?"

His quiet laugh curled through the air. Slowly he came back to me, bracing one hand on the door. "Liberty, darlin'..." His accent was heavier than usual. "I can be patient, but I'm not a saint. One kiss is about all I can handle tonight."

"Okay," I whispered.

My heartbeat turned unruly as his head bent over mine. He touched me with nothing but his mouth, tasting lightly until my lips parted. There was the same elusive flavor that had haunted me for the past two nights, it was in his breath, on his tongue, something sweet and drugging. I tried to draw as much of it in as possible, wrapping my amis around his neck to keep him there. A soft, dark sound came from his throat. His lungs moved in an uneven surge, and he clamped an arm low on my h*ps and caught me against him.

He kissed me longer, harder, until we were leaning against the door. One of his hands slid upward from my waist, hovered at my breast and snatched back. I put my hand on his and clumsily urged it to where I wanted it. until his fingers were cupped beneath the round weight. His thumb circled, rubbed slowly, until the flesh tightened into an aching bud. He took it in his fingertips, tugged with exquisite gentleness. I wanted his mouth on me, his hands, all his skin against mine. I needed so much, too much, and the way he touched me, kissed me, made me crave impossible things. "Gage..."

He wrapped his arms around me in an effort to still my helpless writhing. His mouth was buried in my hair. "Yes?"

"Please.. .walk me up to my room."

Understanding what I was offering, Gage took his time about replying.

"I can wait."

"No..." I wrapped my amis around him as if I were drowning. "I don't want to wait."

CHAPTER 21

Somewhere between the front door and the bedroom, the heat of passion was banked by misgivings. Not that I was going to back out at this point—I wanted Gage too badly. And even if we managed to put it off, I was certain we'd end up in bed eventually. But my mind kept circling around my inadequacies in bed and how to make up for them. I tried to figure out what Gage would want, the things that might please him. By the time we were in my room, my mind was filled with what looked like pages from a football playbook, arrows leading to diagrams of passing routes, blocking strategies, hole assignments, and offensive formations.

As I watched Gage's hand on the doorknob and heard the click of the lock, I felt my stomach swoop. I turned the bedside lamp on low. sending a varnish of yellow light across the floor.

Gage's face softened as he glanced at me. "Hey..." He gestured for me to come to him.

"You're allowed to have second thoughts."

I felt his arms go around me. and I huddled against him. "No, no second thoughts." My cheek pressed into the soft black cashmere of his sweater. "But..."

"But what?" His hand coasted up and down my spine. I argued with myself for a few seconds—if I was going to trust a man enough to go to bed with him, I should trust him enough to say whatever I wanted.

"The thing is..." I said with difficulty. No matter how deep a breath I drew. I only seemed to be getting half the air I needed. Gage's hand continued its slow, reassuring motion. "There's something you should know.

"Yes?"

"Well, you see..." I closed my eyes and made myself say it. "The thing is, I'm bad in bed."

His hand stopped. He pried my head away from his shoulder and subjected me to a quizzical glance. "No you're not."

"Yes, yes, I'm bad in bed." It was such a relief to admit it, the words tripped over each other as I continued. "I'm not experienced at all. It's so embarrassing at my age. There have only been two—and the last one, oh, it was so mediocre. Every time. I have no skills. No focus. I take forever to get in the mood and then I can't hold on to it and I have to fake it. I'm a faker, and I'm not even good at that. I'm—"

"Wait. Hold on. Liberty..." Gage hauled me close, stifling the outpouring. I felt a

tremor of laughter run through him. I stiffened, and he gripped me more tightly. "No." he said, his voice thick with amusement. "I'm not laughing at you. sweetheart. I just...no. I'm taking you seriously. I am."

"You don't sound like it."

"Sweetheart." He smoothed my hair back, nuzzled my temple. "There's nothing mediocre about you. The only problem you've got is that you've led the life of a single working mother since you were...what, eighteen, nineteen? I already knew you weren't experienced because.. .to be honest, you throw out all kinds of mixed signals."

"I do11"

"Yes. Which is why I'm fine with taking it slow. Better that than to do something you're not ready for."

"I'm ready," I said earnestly. "I just want to make sure you've lowered your expectations."

Gage looked away from me. and I got the impression he was fighting back another laugh. "Okay. They're low."

"You're just saying that."

He said nothing, his eyes glinting with amusement.

We studied each other, and I wondered if the next move was mine or his. I approached the bed on ramshackle legs, sat on the edge, kicked off the slides. My toes flexed against the pleasant ache of no longer having to endure the forward pitch of my own weight.

Gage watched me. the movement of my bare feet, and his eyes lost their splintered brilliance, looking smoke-hazed, almost drowsy. Encouraged. I reached for the hem of my dress.

"Wait/' Gage murmured, sitting beside me on the mattress. "A couple of ground rules."

I nodded, watching the way the fabric of his pants stretched over his thighs, noticing that his feet reached the floor while my legs dangled. I felt one of his hands touch the edge of my jaw, and he turned my face up to his. "First, no faking. You have to be honest with me."

That made me regret having mentioned the faking. I've always hated being the kind of person who says too much out of nervousness. "All right, but just so you know. I usually take too long—"

"I don't care if it takes all damn night. It's not an audition."

"What if I can't manage to..." For the first time I realized how much harder it is to talk about sex than actually doing it.

"We'll work at it," Gage said. "Believe me, I'll have no problem helping you practice."

I dared to touch his thigh, which felt like concrete beneath my palm. "What's the other rule?"

"I'm in charge."

I blinked, wondering what he meant. Gage's hand closed on my nape in a light squeeze that sent an erotic shock down my spine. "Just for tonight." he continued evenly. "Trust me to decide when and where and how long. You don't have to do anything except relax. Let go. Let me take care of you." His mouth lowered to my ear. and he whispered. "Can you do that for me, darlin'?"

My toes curled. No one had ever asked me such a thing. I wasn't sure I could. But I nodded, my stomach leaping as his mouth wandered across my cheek to the corner of my lips. He kissed me, searching slow and deep until I was weak and my entire body was draped across his lap. Gage took off his shoes and lay across the bed with me, both of us fully clothed. He pressed a thigh into the folds of the red dress, securing me flat against the mattress. His mouth possessed mine with long kisses, bites and nibbles of kisses, until steam collected between my skin and the wool knit fabric. I slid my fingers into his thick hair, cool on the surface, warm near the scalp, trying to capture him.

Gage resisted my anxious urging, pulling back. In one easy move he sat up and straddled my hips. I took a shaky breath as I felt the intimate pressure of him, rock-hard and rearing. Deftly he tugged off the black sweater and tossed it aside, revealing a torso more powerful than I had imagined, sleek and hard-quilted, his chest lightly covered with dark hair. I wanted to feel his chest against my na*ed breasts. I wanted to kiss him, explore him, not for his pleasure but my own, he was so damn arousing, so intensely masculine.

Lowering over me, Gage sought my mouth again, and I was smoldering, desperate to be free of my dress, which had begun to prickle and cling like a medieval hair shirt. I reached for the hem. tugging the tormenting fabric upward.

But Gage's mouth left mine abruptly, his hand closing over my wrist. I looked up at him in confusion.

"Liberty." His tone was chiding, his eyes wicked. "Only two rules...and you've already broken one."

It took me a moment to understand. With effort, I forced myself to let go of the dress. I tried to lie still, although my h*ps hitched in a pleading motion. Gage pulled the dress back down to my knees, the sadist, and he spent an eternity fondling me through the layer of wool. I pressed against him harder, closer, gasping at the feel of his aroused body.

The heat climbed until Gage finally peeled the dress upward, away from skin so flushed and sensitive that the waft of air from the overhead fan made me shiver. He unhooked the front clasp of my bra, releasing my br**sts from the underwire cups. The teasing brush of his fingers was so exquisite, I could hardly bear it.

"Liberty...you're beautiful...so beautiful..." I felt his ragged murmurs against my throat, my chest, telling me how much he wanted me, how hard I made him, how sweet the taste of my skin was. His lips dragged gently over the cushiony slope of my breast, opened over the peak, pulled it inside the wet fire of his mouth. My h*ps caught a high arch as he slipped his fingers beneath the top edge of my cotton panties. The place between my thighs was aching, but he didn't seem to understand where I needed him to touch me, he stroked all around without ever quite reaching it. I pushed upward in mute rhythmic pleading, / want.. .1 want.. .1 want.. .and he still didn't respond, and then I realized he was doing it on

purpose.

My eyes flew open: my lips parted...but Gage stared down into my face with a sort of amused challenge, daring me to complain. Somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut.

"Good girl." he murmured, stripping off my panties.

He settled me firmly into the mattress. I lay exactly as he arranged me, my body heavy as if sensation had acquired the weight of salt water. I was brimming and helpless. He moved over me, around me, until I was wild from stimulation and heat and teasing friction.

He slid lower. I couldn't even lift my head, it had become so heavy. His mouth strayed in a blind search, without design, crossing the small harbor between my thighs. I writhed as I felt his tongue in melting licks that separated and probed until my flesh was open, drenched. He gripped my hips, holding me secure for his mouth, for eager kisses, for slow marauding. My muscles contracted as it all began rolling up to me. I was about to come, I was almost crying in relief, when he pulled away.

Shivering, I begged don't stop but Gage said not yet and lowered his body over mine. He slipped two fingers inside me, kept them there while he kissed me. Passion had made his features severe in the lamp glow. My body tightened around the gentle thrust of his fingers, I arched to keep them, needing any part of him inside any part of me. His name rose to my lips again and again, I had no way to tell him I would have done anything for him, he was all I wanted, he was too much to be endured.

Gage reached for the nightstand, fumbled with his wallet. I snatched at the flashing foil

packet, so frantic to help that I ended up hindering his efforts, and I heard his smothered laugh. I didn't see the humor in anything, I was in a fever, I had been teased into madness.

I felt the temperature of Gage's body, cooler, harder, heavier than mine, rising to match my own internal blaze. He responded to every shiver and sound, his lips stealing secrets from my flesh, his hands gently trespassing until there was no part of me he hadn't claimed. He pushed my legs open and entered me in a deep-rooted thrust, taking my sobs into his mouth, whispering that's right sweet baby quiet quiet, and I took all of him, the pleasure thick and sweet, and with every nudge the wet silken hardness guided me closer to the edge. Oh God there yes please, I needed it faster but his discipline was absolute, he worked farther into me without altering the terrible slowness of his rhythm. His face nuzzled into the curve of my neck, and the scrape of his bristle was so good, I moaned as if in pain.

Blindly I reached over his flexing back, down to his backside, my fingers clamping over the taut muscle. Without pausing in his measured pace, he pulled my wrists up, one after the other, and deliberately pinned them to the mattress, and covered my mouth with his.

Only one rational thought flickered at the edge of my consciousness—there was something not right about the surrender he demanded—but the relief of it was unspeakable. And so I submitted, and my mind went dark and quiet. The moment I let go, the pleasure rushes started, each one more relentless than the last. My h*ps nearly lifted him from the bed. He countered with heavier drives, pushing me back down, letting the voluptuous clenching of my flesh draw out his own release. I came, and came, and came. It seemed impossible a person could survive it.

Usually when sex was over, the uncoupling was complete in every sense. Men rolled over and went to sleep, women dashed into the bathroom to freshen up and dispose of the evidence. But Gage held me for a long time, playing with my hair, whispering, brushing kisses on my face and breasts. He washed me with a warm damp cloth. I should have felt drained, but instead I was like a live wire, a circuit of energy running through my body. I stayed in bed as long as I could, and then I jumped up and put my robe on.

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