“And you weren’t afraid, when I said I’d have you flogged?” Her voice was queerly hoarse, but he kept still, eyes closed.
“No,” he said. “I am not much afraid of things, anymore.” In fact, he was beginning to be afraid that he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her, or to handle her with the necessary gentleness, when the time came. His balls ached with need, and he could feel his heartbeat, pounding in his temples.
She got off the bed, and stood in front of him. He rose suddenly, startling her so that she stepped back a pace, but he reached out and rested his hands on her shoulders.
“May I touch you, my lady?” The words were teasing, but the touch was not. She nodded, too breathless to speak, and his arms came around her.
He held her against his chest, not moving until her breathing slowed. He was conscious of an extraordinary mixture of feelings. He had never in his life taken a woman in his arms without some feeling of love, but there was nothing of love in this encounter, nor could there be, for her own sake. There was some tenderness for her youth, and pity at her situation. Rage at her manipulation of him, and fear at the magnitude of the crime he was about to commit. But overall there was a terrible lust, a need that clawed at his vitals and made him ashamed of his own manhood, even as he acknowledged its power. Hating himself, he lowered his head and cupped her face between his hands.
He kissed her softly, briefly, then a bit longer. She was trembling against him as his hands undid the tie of her gown and slid it back off her shoulders. He lifted her and laid her on the bed.
He lay beside her, cradling her in one arm as the other hand caressed her br**sts, one and then the other, cupping each so she felt the weight and the warmth of them, even as he did.
“A man should pay tribute to your body,” he said softly, raising each nipple with small, circling touches. “For you are beautiful, and that is your right.”
She let out her breath in a small gasp, then relaxed under his touch. He took his time, moving as slowly as he could make himself do it, stroking and kissing, touching her lightly all over. He didn’t like the girl, didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to be doing this, but—it had been more than three years since he’d touched a woman’s body.
He tried to gauge when she might be readiest, but how in hell could he tell? She was flushed and panting, but she simply lay there, like a piece of porcelain on display. Curse the girl, could she not even give him a clue?
He rubbed a trembling hand through his hair, trying to quell the surge of confused emotion that pulsed through him with each heartbeat. He was angry, scared, and most mightily roused, most of which feelings were of no great use to him now. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, striving for calm, seeking for gentleness.
No, of course she couldn’t show him. She’d never touched a man before. Having forced him here, she was, with a damnable, unwanted, unwarrantable trust, leaving the conduct of the whole affair up to him!
He touched the girl, gently, stroking her between the thighs. She didn’t part them for him, but didn’t resist. She was faintly moist there. Perhaps it would be all right now?
“All right,” he murmured to her. “Be still, mo chridhe.” Murmuring what he hoped sounded like reassurances, he eased himself on top of her, and used his knee to spread her legs. He felt her slight start at the heat of his body covering her, at the touch of his cock, and he wrapped his hands in her hair to steady her, still muttering things in soft Gaelic.
He thought dimly that it was a good thing he was speaking Gaelic, as he was no longer paying any attention at all to what he was saying. Her small, hard br**sts poked against his chest.
“Mo nighean,” he murmured.
“Wait a minute,” said Geneva. “I think perhaps…”
The effort of control made him dizzy, but he did it slowly, only easing himself the barest inch within.
“Ooh!” said Geneva. Her eyes flew wide.
“Uh,” he said, and pushed a bit farther.
“Stop it! It’s too big! Take it out!” Panicked, Geneva thrashed beneath him. Pressed beneath his chest, her br**sts wobbled and rubbed, so that his own ni**les leapt erect in pinpoints of abrupt sensation.
Her struggles were accomplishing by force what he had tried to do with gentleness. Half-dazed, he fought to keep her under him, while groping madly for something to say to calm her.
“But—” he said.
“Take it out!” she screamed.
He clapped one hand over her mouth and said the only coherent thing he could think of.
“No,” he said definitely, and shoved.
What might have been a scream emerged through his fingers as a strangled “Eep!” Geneva’s eyes were huge and round, but dry.
In for a penny, in for a pound. The saying drifted absurdly through his head, leaving nothing in its wake but a jumble of incoherent alarms and a marked feeling of terrible urgency down beween them. There was precisely one thing he was capable of doing at this point, and he did it, his body ruthlessly usurping control as it moved into the rhythm of its inexorable pagan joy.
It took no more than a few thrusts before the wave came down upon him, churning down the length of his spine and erupting like a breaker striking rocks, sweeping away the last shreds of conscious thought that clung, barnacle-like, to the remnants of his mind.
He came to himself a moment later, lying on his side with the sound of his own heartbeat loud and slow in his ears. He cracked one eyelid, and saw the shimmer of pink skin in lamplight. He must see if he’d hurt her much, but God, not just this minute. He shut his eye again and merely breathed.
“What…what are you thinking?” The voice sounded hesitant, and a little shaken, but not hysterical.
Too shaken himself to notice the absurdity of the question, he answered it with the truth.
“I was wondering why in God’s name men want to bed virgins.”
There was a long moment of silence, and then a tremulous intake of breath.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a small voice. “I didn’t know it would hurt you too.”
His eyes popped open in astonishment, and he raised himself on one elbow to find her looking at him like a startled fawn. Her face was pale, and she licked dry lips.
“Hurt me?” he said, in blank astonishment. “It didna hurt me.”
“But”—she frowned as her eyes traveled slowly down the length of his body—“I thought it must. You made the most terrible face, as though it hurt awfully, and you…you groaned like a—”
“Aye, well,” he interrupted hastily, before she could reveal any more unflattering observations of his behavior. “I didna mean…I mean…that’s just how men act, when they…do that,” he ended lamely.
Her shock was fading into curiosity. “Do all men act like that when they’re…doing that?”
“How should I—?” he began irritably, then stopped himself with a shudder, realizing that he did in fact know the answer to that.
“Aye, they do,” he said shortly. He pushed himself up to a sitting position, and brushed the hair back from his forehead. “Men are disgusting horrible beasts, just as your nurse told you. Have I hurt ye badly?”
“I don’t think so,” she said doubtfully. She moved her legs experimentally. “It did hurt, just for a moment, like you said it would, but it isn’t so bad now.”
He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw that while she had bled, the stain on the towel was slight, and she seemed not to be in pain. She reached tentatively between her thighs and made a face of disgust.
“Ooh!” she said. “It’s all nasty and sticky!”
The blood rose to his face in mingled outrage and embarrassment.
“Here,” he muttered, and reached for a washcloth from the stand. She didn’t take it, but opened her legs and arched her back slightly, obviously expecting him to attend to the mess. He had a strong urge to stuff the rag down her throat instead, but a glance at the stand where his letter lay stopped him. It was a bargain, after all, and she’d kept her part.
Grimly, he wet the cloth and began to sponge her, but he found the trust with which she presented herself to him oddly moving. He carried out his ministrations quite gently, and found himself, at the end, planting a light kiss on the smooth slope of her belly.
“Thank you,” she said. She moved her hips tentatively, and reached out a hand to touch him. He didn’t move, letting her fingers trail down his chest and toy with the deep indentation of his navel. The light touch hesitantly descended.
“You said…it would be better next time,” she whispered.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was a long time until the dawn.
“I expect it will,” he said, and stretched himself once more beside her.
He felt as though he had been drugged, and it was an effort to answer her. “My lady?”
Her arms came around his neck and she nestled her head in the curve of his shoulder, breath warm against his chest.
“I love you, Alex.”
With difficulty, he roused himself enough to put her away from him, holding her by the shoulders and looking down into the gray eyes, soft as a doe’s.
“No,” he said, but gently, shaking his head. “That’s the third rule. You may have no more than the one night. You may not call me by my first name. And you may not love me.”
The gray eyes moistened a bit. “But if I can’t help it?”
“It isna love you feel now.” He hoped he was right, for his sake as well as her own. “It’s only the feeling I’ve roused in your body. It’s strong, and it’s good, but it isna the same thing as love.”
“What’s the difference?”
He rubbed his hands hard over his face. She would be a philosopher, he thought wryly. He took a deep breath and blew it out before answering her.
“Well, love’s for only one person. This, what you feel from me—ye can have that with any man, it’s not particular.”
Only one person. He pushed the thought of Claire firmly away, and wearily bent again to his work.
He landed heavily in the earth of the flowerbed, not caring that he crushed several small and tender plants. He shivered. This hour before dawn was not only the darkest, but the coldest, as well, and his body strongly protested being required to rise from a warm, soft nest and venture into the chilly blackness, shielded from the icy air by no more than a thin shirt and breeks.
He remembered the heated, rosy curve of the cheek he had bent to kiss before leaving. The shapes of her lingered, warm in his hands, curving his fingers in memory, even as he groped in the dark for the darker line of the stableyard’s stone wall. Drained as he was, it was a dreadful effort to haul himself up and climb over, but he couldn’t risk the creak of the gate awakening Hughes, the head groom.
He felt his way across the inner yard, crowded with wagons and packed bales, ready for the journey of the Lady Geneva to the home of her new lord, following the wedding on Thursday next. At last he pushed open the stable door and found his way up the ladder to his loft. He lay down in the icy straw and pulled the single blanket over him, feeling empty of everything.