Had Gemma displayed a dramatic reaction of horror or sympathy, Nick would have bolted. However, she only regarded him thoughtfully. In a graceful movement, she swung her long legs over the bed and slid to the floor. Standing before him, she began to unbutton his waistcoat. Nick stiffened but did not move away. "You must have fantasies," Gemma said. "Images and thoughts that excite you."
Nick's breath turned shallow and quick as he shrugged off his waistcoat. Remnants of volatile dreams swirled through his head...lewd thoughts that had left his body charged and aching in the empty darkness. Yes, he'd had fantasies, visions of women bound and moaning beneath him, their legs spread wide open as he worked himself between them. He could not possibly confess such shameful things. But Gemma Bradshaw's brown eyes contained an invitation that was nearly irresistible. "I'll tell you mine first," she offered. "Would you like that?"
He nodded cautiously, heat spreading through his groin.
"I fantasize about being na*ed before an audience of men." Gemma's voice was low and molten as she continued. "I choose one that captures my fancy. He joins me on the stage, and performs any sexual act I wish. After that, I select another, and another, until I am completely satisfied."
She tugged the hem of his shirt from his trousers. Nick lifted it over his head and dropped the damp garment to the floor. His c**k throbbed painfully as Gemma stared at his bare torso. She touched the heavy pelt of hair on his chest, much darker than the brown hair on his head. An appreciative sound came from Gemma's throat. "You're quite muscular. I like that." Her fingertips ventured through the matted curls and stroked the hot skin beneath, and Nick took an instinctive backward step. Lazily Gemma gestured for him to come back. "If you want to make love, my dear, I'm afraid you can't avoid being touched. Stand still." She reached for the top button of his trousers. "Now tell me your fantasy."
Nick stared at the ceiling, the wall, the velvet-draped windows, anything to avoid the sight of her hands at his crotch. "I...want to be in control," he said hoarsely. "I imagine tying a woman to a bed. She can't move or touch me...she can't stop me from doing anything I want."
"Many men have that fantasy." The backs of Gemma's fingers brushed the stiff underside of his c**k as she attended to the last buttons. Suddenly Nick forgot to breathe. The madam leaned closer, her breath whisking through the curls on his chest. "And what do you do to the woman, after she is tied?" she murmured.
His face darkened with a flush of mingled arousal and embarrassment. "I touch her everywhere. I use my mouth and fingers...I make her beg me to take her. I make her scream." He set his jaw and groaned in his throat as her long, cool fingers encircled his shaft and freed it from the trousers. "God-"
"Well," she purred, her clever fingers tracing him down to the hilt and back up to the tightly swollen head. "You are a most generously endowed young man."
Nick closed his eyes, reeling from a powerful onslaught of sensation. "Does that please a woman?" he asked unsteadily.
Gemma continued to stroke him as she replied. "Not all women. Some cannot comfortably accommodate a man your size. But that can be managed." She released him gently and went to a large mahogany box on the bedside table, lifting the lid and searching through its contents. "Remove the rest of your clothes," she said without looking at him.
Fear and lust clashed violently inside him. Eventually the lust won out. He shed his clothes, feeling vulnerable and painfully impassioned. Gemma located what she was looking for, turned, and tossed something lightly to him.
Reflexively Nick caught the object in his fist. It was a rope made of claret-colored velvet.
Perplexed, he watched as Gemma untied her dressing gown and let it fall to her feet. Every inch of her strong, supple body was exposed, including the wealth of vibrant hair at her groin. With a provocative smile, she climbed onto the bed, revealing her generously rounded backside in the process. Leaning back on her elbows, she nodded toward the length of velvet clenched in his fist. "I believe you know what to do next," she said.
Nick was amazed and bewildered that she would make herself so completely defenseless to a stranger. "You trust me enough to let me do that?"
Her voice was very soft. "This will require trust on both our parts, won't it?"
Nick joined her on the bed, his hands trembling as he tied her wrists together and anchored them to the headboard. Her sleek body was completely at his mercy. Climbing over her, he bent his head and kissed her mouth. "How can I please you?" he whispered.
"Please yourself this time." Her tongue touched his lower lip in a light, silken stroke. "You can attend to my needs later."
Nick explored her slowly, his apprehensions dissolving in a flood of heat. Lust roared through him as he found places that made her writhe...the hollow of her throat, the insides of her elbows, the tender undersides of her breasts. He stroked, tasted, nibbled at her skin, becoming drunk on her smoothness, her female fragrance. Finally, when his passion built to an unbearable height, he lowered himself between her thighs and pushed into the wet, warm depths he craved so badly. To his eternal humiliation, he cl**axed with only one thrust, before he had satisfied her. His body shook with unbearable pleasure, and he buried his face in the mass of her flaming hair as he groaned harshly.
Gasping in the aftermath, he fumbled at Gemma's tethered wrists. When she was freed, he rolled to his side, away from her, and stared blindly at the shadows on the wall. He was dizzy with relief. For some unfathomable reason, the corners of his eyes stung, and he closed his eyes tightly against the hideous threat of tears.
Gemma moved behind him, her hand settling lightly on his na*ed hip. Nick flinched at her touch but did not move away. Her mouth pressed against the top of his spine, a sensation that shot down to his groin. "You have promise," she murmured. "It would be a shame for your abilities to go undeveloped. I am going to extend a rare invitation to you, Nick. Come visit me from time to time, and I will share my knowledge with you. I have a great deal to teach. No payment will be necessary...only bring me a gift now and then." When he did not move, she bit gently at his nape. "After I'm through with you, no woman in the world will be able to resist you. What do you say to that?"
Nick rolled over and pinned her to the mattress, staring down at her smiling face. "I'm ready for the first lesson," he said, and covered her mouth with his own.
Three Years Later As was his long-standing habit, Nick entered Gemma's private suite without knocking. It was Sunday afternoon, the time they met almost every week. By now the familiar scent of the place-leather, liquor, the hint of fresh flowers-was all it took to begin the low hum of arousal in his body. His desire was unusually strong today, as his work had kept him away from Gemma for a fortnight.
Since the first night they had met, Nick had followed Gemma's rules without question. There had been no other choice, if he wanted to continue seeing her. They were friends, of a sort, but their interactions were strictly physical. Gemma had evinced no interest in what was in his heart, or even whether he had one. She was a kind woman, and yet on the rare occasions when Nick had tentatively spoken of matters other than the superficial, he'd been gently dismissed. It was just as well, he had realized. He had no wish to expose her to the ugliness of his past or the complex tangle of emotions he kept locked inside.
And so once a week they joined each other in bed with their secrets safely intact...the instructor and her ardent student. In the luxurious cocoon of Gemma's gold-papered bedroom Nick had learned more about lovemaking than he had ever thought possible. He'd gained an appreciation of female sexuality that few men acquired...the intricacy of a woman's pleasure, the ways to excite her mind as well as her body. He learned to employ his fingers, his tongue, teeth, lips, and c**k with both delicacy and strength. Most of all he learned about discipline, and how patience and creativity could make even the experienced Mrs. Bradshaw cry out until she was hoarse. He knew ways to keep a woman balanced on the edge of ecstasy for hours at a time. He also knew how to make a woman cl**ax with nothing more than his mouth on her nipple, or with the lightest brush of his fingertip.
The last time they had met, Gemma had challenged him to bring her to orgasm without touching her at all. He had whispered in her ear for ten minutes, painting sexual images that became ever more exquisitely lurid until she had flushed and shivered beside him.
Thinking of her lush body, Nick turned warm with anticipation, and he strode into her parlor. He stopped short as he saw a young blond man seated on the velvet-upholstered chaise, dressed only in a wine silk robe. It was, Nick noted dazedly, the same robe that he made use of whenever he came to visit Gemma.
She had made no promises of fidelity to him, and he had no illusion that he had been her only lover for the past three years. Still, Nick was startled by the sight of another man in her receiving room and the unmistakable tang of sex in the air.
Seeing him, the stranger flushed and sat up from his relaxed position. He was a stocky, fair-skinned youth, with enough innocence remaining to be embarrassed by the situation.
Gemma walked out of her bedroom, wearing a transparent green negligee that barely covered the crests of her rose-brown nipples. She smiled as she saw Nick, seeming not at all perturbed by his unexpected arrival. "Oh, hello, dear," she murmured, as relaxed and friendly as always. Perhaps she had not planned for him to discover her newcher ami in precisely this manner, but neither was she distressed about it.
Turning toward the blond man, she spoke to him softly. "Wait for me in the bedroom."
He threw her a glance of heated adulation as he obeyed.
As Nick watched the man disappear into the next room, he was reminded of himself as he had been three years earlier, callow and burning and dazzled by Gemma's sensual arts.
Gemma lifted a graceful hand to stroke Nick's dark hair. "I didn't expect you to return from your investigation so quickly," she said without a trace of chagrin. "As you can see, I am entertaining my new protege."
"And my replacement," Nick said rather than asked, while a cold feeling of abandonment crept over him.
"Yes," Gemma said softly. "You have no more need of my instruction. Now that you have learned all I can teach you, it is only a matter of time before our friendship becomes stale. I would prefer to end it while it is still enjoyable."
It was surprisingly difficult for him to speak. "I still want you."
"Only because I am safe, and familiar." Smiling affectionately, Gemma leaned over to kiss his cheek. "Don't be a coward, dear. It is time for you to find someone else."
"No one could follow you," he said gruffly.
That earned a tender laugh and another kiss. "That shows you still have much to learn." A wicked smile gleamed in her clear brown eyes. "Go find a woman who is deserving of your talents. Take her to bed. Make her fall in love with you. A love affair is something everyone should experience at least once."
Nick gave her a sullen glance. "That is thelast damn thing I need," he informed her, making her laugh.
Drawing back, Gemma casually unfastened her hair and shook it free. "No good-byes," she said, depositing the hairpins onto the table by the chaise. "I much preferau revoir . Now if you'll excuse me, my pupil is waiting. Have a drink before you leave, if you like."
Stunned, Nick stood immobile as she drifted into the bedroom and closed it with a firm click. "Jesus," he muttered. An incredulous laugh escaped him at having been so lightly dispensed with after all they had done together. Yet he couldn't summon any anger. Gemma had been too generous, too kind, for him to feel anything but gratitude.
Go find another woman, he thought numbly. It seemed an impossible task. Oh, there were women everywhere, cultured, common, plump, lean, dark, fair, tall, short, and he found something to appreciate in all of them. But Gemma had been the only one with whom he had ever dared to unleash his sexuality. He could not imagine how it would be with someone else.
Make someone love him? Nick smiled bitterly, thinking for the first time that Gemma didn't know what the hell she was talking about. No woman could love him...and if one ever did, she would be the greatest fool alive.
She was here. He was certain of it.
Nick surveyed the party guests intently as they milled in the gardens behind Stony Cross Park. His hand slid into the pocket of his coat, finding the miniature case that contained Charlotte Howard's portrait. Slowly his thumb caressed the glossy enameled side of the case while he continued to gaze at the crowd.
His two-month search for Charlotte had led him to Hampshire, a place of heather-carpeted hills, ancient hunting forests, and treacherous valley bogs. The western county was prosperous, its twenty market towns abundantly filled with wool, timber, dairy products, honey, and bacon. Among the Hampshire's renowned estates, Stony Cross Park was considered to be the finest. The manor house and private lake were situated in the fertile Itchen River valley. Not a bad place to hide, Nick thought wryly. If his suspicions proved to be correct, Charlotte had found employment in the earl of Westcliff's household, serving as a companion to his mother.
In his pursuit of Charlotte, Nick had learned everything he could about her, trying to understand how she thought and felt, how others perceived her. Interestingly, the accounts of Charlotte had been so contradictory that Nick had wondered if her friends and family were describing the same girl.
To her parents, Charlotte had been an obedient daughter, eager to please, fearful of disapproval. Her disappearance had been a staggering surprise, as they had believed that she was resigned to the fate of becoming Lord Radnor's bride. Charlotte had known since early childhood that the well-being of her family depended on it. The Howards had made a bargain with the devil, trading their daughter's future for the financial benefits Radnor could provide. They had enjoyed his patronage for over a decade. But just as it had come time to give the devil his due, Charlotte had fled. The Howards had made it clear to Nick that they wanted Charlotte found and given to Radnor without delay. They did not understand what had prompted her to run, as they believed she would be well served as Lady Radnor.
Apparently Charlotte had not shared their views. Her friends at Maidstone's, the upper-crust boarding school Charlotte had attended, most of them now married, had reluctantly described a girl who had become increasingly resentful of the way Radnor supervised every aspect of her existence. Apparently the school staff, desirous of the generous financial endowments Radnor provided, had been happy to enforce his wishes. Charlotte's curriculum had differed from everyone else's; Radnor had chosen the subjects for her to study. He had mandated that she was to retire to bed an hour earlier than the other students. He had even determined how much food she should be allotted, after observing during one of her visits home that she had gained weight and needed slimming.
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