“Just a bit.” She had walked too much that evening—her right knee was threatening to stiffen beneath the tightening scar tissue. “Then we’ll stop for a moment.” He drew her to the side of the path, where a massive oak tree spread, and they stood in a cleft of its roots. The forest seemed to sigh as it enfolded them in rustling, mossy dampness. As Aline leaned back against the tree trunk, McKenna loomed over her, his breath stirring the wisps of hair that fell on her forehead. “McKenna…” she said, trying to sound casual, “I want to ask you something…” His fingertips touched the side of her neck, brushing against the sensitive nerves. “Yes?” “Tell me about the women you’ve known. The ones you…” Aline paused as she considered the appropriate word. McKenna drew back a few inches. “What do you want to know?” “If you loved any of them.” At McKenna’s silence, Aline looked up to find him staring at her with an intensity that sent hot and cold chills through her body. “I don’t believe in love,” he said. “It’s a sugar-coated pill—the first taste is tolerable enough, but you quickly reach the bitter layers beneath.” She had been the only one, then. Aline knew that she should regret the fact that after her, his interactions with women had been purely physical. But as always, she was selfish where McKenna was concerned. She couldn’t help but be glad that his words of long-ago had proven true…“You’ll have my heart always…you’ve ruined me for life…” “What about Sandridge?” McKenna asked. “Do you love him?” “Yes,” Aline whispered. She loved Adam dearly—just not in the way he meant. “And yet you’re here with me,” he murmured. “Adam—” She stopped and cleared her throat. “Whatever I choose to do…he doesn’t mind. This has nothing to do with him…you and I…” “No, it doesn’t,” he said with sudden anger. “My God, he should be trying to tear my throat out, instead of letting you go somewhere alone with me. He should be willing to do anything short of murder—hell, I wouldn’t even stop at that—to keep other men away from you.” Disgust thickened his voice. “You’re lying to yourself, if you think that you’ll ever be satisfied with the kind of bloodless arrangement your parents had. You need a man who will match your will, own you, occupy every part of your body and every corner of your soul. In the eyes of the world, Sandridge is your equal—but you and I know better. He’s as different from you as ice from fire.” He leaned over her, his body forming a hard, living cage around her. “I’m your equal,” he said harshly, “though my blood is red instead of blue, though I was condemned by my very birth never to have you…inside, we’re the same. And I would break every law of God and man if—” McKenna stopped suddenly, biting back the words as he realized that he was revealing too much, allowing his rampaging emotions to get the better of him. Aline longed to tell him that she had never thought of him as anything but an equal. Instead she reached for the buttons of his waistcoat and began to unfasten them. “Let me,” she whispered. Even through the layers of fabric, she could feel the hardness of his stomach, the rigid layers of muscle. McKenna was unmoving, the knuckles of his clenched fists digging into the oak bark. She worked carefully at the row of buttons, then began on his shirt. He did not try to help her, only stood still beneath her ministrations. Trembling with excitement, she finally unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it free of his trousers. The garment was crumpled and hot where it had been tucked in at his waist. Slipping her hands inside McKenna’s open clothes, Aline inhaled swiftly. His skin was fever-hot, salt-scented, tantalizing. Her palms traveled slowly across his hair-covered chest. She was fascinated by the textures of his body, so much more varied than her own. Determined and ardent, Aline found his nipple with her fingertip. She leaned forward to touch the satiny circle with her tongue, while the crisp curls of his chest brushed against her cheek. McKenna drew in a quick breath and shoved his hands behind her, tugging at the fastenings behind her gown. His mouth came to her throat, nuzzling and kissing, while he pulled hard at the back of her bodice. Her dress fell around her waist, revealing a corset that pushed her br**sts high beneath a thin cotton chemise. Suddenly a sense of unreality made Aline fearless. Sliding the straps of her chemise down her shoulders, she pulled her arms free and peeled the garment down over the top of her corset. Her br**sts spilled out, the shadowy tips contracting in the open air. McKenna’s fingers slid beneath the pale curve of one breast, and his head bent over her chest. She jumped a little as the wet warmth of his mouth closed over her. His tongue traced the edge of the taut aureole, then stroked over the tip, tickling the sensitive flesh. She squirmed and gasped, while desire thumped through every part of her body. Releasing the nipple, McKenna drew back to caress her aching flesh with the humid waft of his breath. His tongue flicked her, the feathery laps causing her to twist and moan. He took the throbbing peak between his teeth, nibbling with a delicate pressure that caused darts of sensation all the way down to her toes. Aline was so mesmerized by the pleasure of his mouth that she didn’t notice him pulling her dress down until it fell to the ground in a heap, leaving her in her underclothes. Dismayed, she bent automatically to retrieve her gown, but McKenna pushed her back against the tree and seized her mouth in a pillaging kiss. His fingers went to the tapes of her drawers, loosening them until they dropped to her knees. Awkwardly she reached for the tops of her stockings, checking to make certain that her garters hadn’t slipped. Her heart gave a sickening jerk as she felt one of his hands cover hers. “I’ll do it,” McKenna muttered, evidently thinking that she wanted to untie the garter. “No.” Hastily she seized his hand and tugged it to her breast. To her relief, McKenna was instantly distracted by the maneuver, his thumb brushing over the bud of her nipple. Aline lifted her face for his kiss, her lips parting eagerly beneath his. She felt the shape of arousal against her thigh, the hardness straining behind a row of trouser buttons. Hungrily Aline reached for him, working at the buttons, the backs of her knuckles dipping behind the skin-warmed fabric. They both gasped as she finally freed him, his stiff flesh springing from the confines of thick broadcloth. Shivering in anticipation, Aline curved her fingers around him in a delicate, hot grip. Growling quietly, McKenna pulled her wrists up over her head and anchored them to the tree. He kissed her mouth, his tongue searching her while his free hand drifted over her stomach. He sifted through the dark curls between her thighs, while one of his feet pushed at her instep, forcing her stance to widen. Aline experienced a thrill of primal pleasure at being so utterly mastered. Having unleashed McKenna’s passion, she now had to accept the consequences…and she was more than ready to give him what they had both wanted for so long. His fingers traced the swollen folds of her cleft, then parted her with utter gentleness. Pulling helplessly at her imprisoned wrists, Aline stiffened at the feel of his fingertip sliding against the opening of her body. McKenna’s fingertip played in the moisture, skimming over the tender threshold of her sex until beseeching hums rose in her throat. Releasing her hands, McKenna slid a supportive arm around her corseted back. His mouth fed on hers, while he found the aroused peak hidden beneath the soft hood of her sex. The kiss was barbaric, wet, violent, contrasting sharply with the skillful delicacy of his fingers. He tormented the little peak with soft, slippery nudges, tickling and prodding until she canted her h*ps tightly. Closer…closer…her flesh throbbing, sizzling with sensation. She writhed on his fingers, hovering at the precipice of a release so acute that she couldn’t think or breathe. Then he brought her over the edge, and she was suspended in wrenching pleasure, her body spasming, her throat dilating with a deep gasp of air. After what seemed an eternity, the pleasure eased into exquisite ripples, and she whimpered against his lips. McKenna bent to lift the twisted hem of her chemise. The rough silk of his tongue stroked the place on her abdomen where the structure of her corset compressed her pale flesh. Leaning weakly against the tree, Aline stared at the top of his dark head. “McKenna,” she said, flooded with riotous heat as he knelt to inhale the scent of her body. Remembering the scars, she reached down to tug her garters upward, then pushed at him helplessly. “Wait…” But his mouth was already on her, nuzzling into the wet cleft, his tongue sliding past the thick curls. Aline’s legs trembled violently. If not for the support of the oak behind her, she would have melted to the ground. Her shaking hands went to his head, her fingers tangling in the close-cropped locks. “McKenna,” she moaned, unable to believe what he was doing to her. He licked deeper into the furrow of her sex, his tongue invading the melting tenderness until she fell silent, her labored breaths puncturing the air. Tension gathered once more, coiling with every tug of his mouth. “I can’t bear it,” she gasped. “Please, McKenna…please…” Apparently those words were what he had been waiting for. Standing, he gathered her against his body and lifted her with incredible ease. One of his arms shielded her back from the scrape of the tree trunk, while the other hooked neatly beneath her buttocks. She was completely helpless, unable to move or even squirm. Her scars pulled, and she shifted her knee upward to ease the tension. McKenna kissed her, his hot breath filling her mouth. She felt the blunt pressure of his sex, the hardness pushing into the vulnerable cove of her body. Her flesh resisted, tightening against the threat of pain. The tip of his shaft entered her, and as McKenna felt the hot, snug clasp of her, his urgency seemed to magnify a hundred times. He pushed upward, while at the same time allowing Aline’s own weight to impel her onto his engorged length. A broken gasp came from Aline’s throat as her body gave way to the unrelenting invasion. Suddenly he was inside her, rending and filling and stretching the soft tissues. Aline arched in shock, her hands fisted against his back. McKenna froze as the signs of her pain registered in his lust-clouded brain. Realizing what the peculiar resistance of her body had meant, he let out an astonished breath. “My God. You’re not a virgin. You can’t be.” “It doesn’t matter,” she gasped. “Don’t stop. It’s all right. Don’t stop.” But he remained still, staring at her in the secret darkness, his arms clamping around her until she could barely breathe. He was part of her, finally, in this ultimate and necessary act that her entire life had led to. She held on to him with every part of herself, drawing him deep, binding him in the light, secure grasp of her arms. Feeling the rhythmic squeeze of her inner muscles, McKenna bent to kiss her fiercely, his tongue stroking the edge of her teeth and probing the dark sweetness beyond. Aline clenched her stockinged legs around his waist, while he began to thrust in slow, tireless movements. The stinging eased, though it did not fade completely—and Aline didn’t care. All that mattered was possessing him, containing his rising flesh, her body and soul changed forever by his passionate invasion. Groaning between his clenched teeth, McKenna braced his feet and pumped harder, burrowed deeper, sweating with pleasure and exertion. He spurted inside her, his cl**ax primitive, fierce, endless. Aline wrapped herself around him, dragging her open mouth over his face and neck, licking greedily at the trails of sweat. McKenna panted and shivered and held himself inside her for a long time. Slowly the tension drained from Aline’s body, leaving her exhausted. As McKenna withdrew from her, she felt hot liquid seeping between her thighs. Realizing that her stockings had slipped, she wriggled in sudden anxiety. “Please let me down.” Lowering her carefully to the ground, McKenna steadied her with his hands, while she fumbled to yank her stockings upward, and pull the straps of her chemise back over her shoulders. When she was safely covered, she reached for the bedraggled heap of her gown. Oh, how she wanted to lie with him somewhere, and sleep nestled against his body, and awaken to the sight of him in the morning sunlight. If only that were possible. Clumsily jerking on the rest of her clothes, Aline stood with her face averted, and let McKenna fasten the back of her gown. Something had happened to one of her shoes…she had kicked it off during their encounter, and it took a minute of dedicated searching before McKenna finally located it behind a tree root. Aline’s lips twitched with reluctant humor as he brought the shoe to her. “Thank you.” McKenna did not smile, however. His features were as hard as stone, his eyes gleaming dangerously. “How the hell is it possible,” he asked in controlled fury, “that you were a virgin?” “It’s not important,” she muttered. “It is to me.” His fingers grasped her chin none too gently, forcing her to stare at him. “Why have you never let any man bed you before tonight?” Aline licked her dry lips as she tried to come up with a satisfactory explanation. “I…I decided to wait until I married.” “And in the five years of knowing Sandridge, you’ve never let him touch you?” “You needn’t sound as if that’s a crime,” she said defensively. “It was a matter of respect, and mutual choice, and—” “It is a crime!” he exploded. “It’s unnatural, damn you, and you’re going to tell me why! And then you’re going to explain why you let me take your virginity!” Aline fumbled for a lie to divert him…anything to conceal the truth. “I…suppose I felt I owed it to you, after the way I sent you from Stony Cross all those years ago.” McKenna seized her shoulders. “And you think the debt has been paid now?” he asked incredulously. “Oh no, my lady. Let us be clear on that point…you haven’t begun to make amends for that. You’re going to reimburse me in more ways than you can imagine—with interest.” Aline turned cold with alarm. “I’m afraid this is all I can offer, McKenna,” she said. “One night, with no promises and no regrets. I’m sorry if you want more than that. It just isn’t possible.” “The hell it isn’t,” he muttered. “My lady, you’re about to receive an education in how to conduct an affair. Because for the duration of my stay at Stony Cross, you’re going to work off your debt to me…on your back, your knees, or any other position I desire you in.” He pulled her away from the huge oak, her gown bedraggled, and her hair mussed and littered with flecks of bark. Jerking her forward, he covered her mouth with his, kissing her not with the intent to please, but to demonstrate his ownership. Although Aline knew it would be to her advantage to keep from responding, his kiss was too compelling for her to resist. She did not have the strength to break free of his inexorable grasp, nor could she avoid his compelling mouth, and before long she melted against him with a shaken moan, her lips feverishly answering his.