McKenna’s shoulders twitched in the barest hint of a shrug. “I doubt that sleeping was her intention.” Her heart was spurred into a violent cadence as she realized that this had not been the first time that such a thing had happened to McKenna. She had never allowed herself to dwell fully on McKenna’s sexual experience—the prospect was too disturbing to contemplate. He was hers, and it was unbearable to think of him turning to someone else for needs that she longed to fulfill. If only, if only… Smothering beneath the weight of jealousy, Aline fixed her gaze on McKenna’s big, callused hand. Some other woman knew more of McKenna than she did, than she ever would. Someone had taken his body over hers, inside hers, and had known the warm sweetness of his mouth, and the glide of his hand on her skin. Carefully she pushed back a lock of hair that had blown across her eyes. “When…when was the first time you—” She was forced to stop as the words stuck in her throat. It was the first time she had ever asked about his sexual pursuits—a subject that he had always taken scrupulous care to avoid. McKenna did not reply. Glancing up at him, Aline saw that he appeared to be lost in deep contemplation of a beetle as it climbed up a long blade of grass. “I don’t think we should talk about that,” he said eventually, his voice very soft. “I don’t blame you for sleeping with other girls. I expected it, actually…I just…” Aline shook her head slightly, pained and bemused as she forced herself to admit the truth. “I just wish that it could be me,” she managed, while the lump in her throat expanded. McKenna’s head bent, the sunlight slipping over his dark hair. He sighed and reached out to her face, stroking back the lock of hair as it fell over her cheek once more. The tip of his thumb brushed the beauty mark near her mouth, the little black fleck that had always seemed to fascinate him so. “It can’t ever be you,” he murmured. Aline nodded, while raw emotion made her mouth pucker and her eyes squint against the threat of tears. “McKenna—” “Don’t,” he warned roughly, snatching his hand back, his fingers closing tightly around a pocket of empty air. “Don’t say it, Aline.” “It doesn’t change anything, whether I say it or not. I need you. I need to be with you.” “No—” “Imagine how you would feel if I slept with some other man,” she said in reckless misery, “knowing he was giving me the pleasure that you can’t, that he was holding me in his arms at night and—” McKenna made a growling sound and rolled over her swiftly, spreading her beneath him on the hard ground. His body was heavy and powerful, settling deeper as Aline’s legs opened instinctively beneath her skirts. “I would kill him,” McKenna said harshly. “I couldn’t bear it.” He glared into her tear-blotched face, and then his gaze moved to her flushed throat and the rapid movements of her uplifted breasts. An odd mixture of triumph and alarm filled Aline as she saw the sexual heat in his gaze, and felt the aggressive male energy of his body. He was aroused—she could feel the hard, insistent prodding between her thighs. McKenna closed his eyes, struggling to control himself. “I have to let go of you,” he said tightly. “Not yet,” Aline whispered. She wriggled a little, her h*ps lifting against his, and the movement caused a ripple of sensation deep in her abdomen. McKenna groaned, hanging over her, while his fingers dug into the dense layer of moss that covered the ground. “Don’t.” His voice was ragged with anger and strain and…something else…something that sounded like excitement. Aline moved again, flooded with a peculiar feeling of urgency, wanting things she couldn’t find words for. Wanting his mouth…hands…body…wanting to possess him and be possessed. Her body felt swollen, the tender place between her legs aching deliciously with each slow rub against the ridge of his arousal. “I love you,” she said, fumbling for a way to convince him of the enormity of her need. “I’ll love you until the day I die. You’re the only man I’ll ever want, McKenna, the only—” Her words were smothered as he seized her mouth in a soft, open kiss. She moaned in satisfaction, welcoming the tender exploration, the tip of his tongue searching the delicate insides of her lips. He kissed her as if he were stealing secrets from her mouth, ravaging her with exquisite gentleness. Hungrily she slid her hands under his shirt and over his back, savoring the feel of flexing muscle and the sleekness of his skin. His body was so hard, sculpted muscle overlaying steel—a body so faultless and hale that she was awed by him. His tongue entered her mouth more deeply, causing her to whimper at the subtle gradations of ever-increasing pleasure. His arms curved around her protectively, and he shifted his weight to keep from crushing her, even as he continued to devour her with sweet, soul-stealing kisses. His breath was unsettled and much too fast, as if he had run for miles without stopping. Aline pressed her lips against his throat, discovering that the driving pace of his heart matched her own. He knew, as she did, that every moment of forbidden intimacy came with a price that neither of them could afford. Inflamed beyond the point of caution, McKenna reached for the buttons at the front of her gown, then hesitated as he struggled once more with his conscience. “Go on,” Aline said thickly, her heart thundering in her chest. She kissed the hard line of his jaw, his cheeks, every part of his face that she could reach. Finding a sensitive spot on the side of his neck, she concentrated on the vulnerable place until his entire body quivered. “Don’t stop,” she whispered feverishly. “Don’t stop yet. No one can see. McKenna, please love me…love me…” The words seemed to erode his will to resist, and he made a rough sound as his fingers worked quickly at the row of buttons. She wore no corset, nothing but a thin lawn chemise that clung to the round curves of her breasts. After spreading her bodice open, McKenna tugged the chemise down, exposing the soft pink tips of her nipples. Aline stared up into his tense face, relishing his absorbed expression, the way his eyes had narrowed in passion. He touched her breast, his fingers curving beneath the pale weight, his thumb passing delicately over the peak until it contracted. He bent over her, circled the aroused nipple with lazy strokes of his tongue. Aline gasped in pleasure, her thoughts catching fire and burning to ashes as he drew her fully into his mouth. He tugged and licked steadily, until heat gathered in every part of her, and the place between her thighs had begun to throb in fervid demand. Letting out a shivering breath, McKenna pressed his cheek against the na*ed curve of her breast. Unable to stop herself, Aline slipped her fingers into the waist of his trousers, past the fasteners of his braces. The surface of his stomach was tightly muscled, the skin satin-smooth except for the sprinkling of coarse hair beneath the hollow of his navel. Her hand shook as she searched for the first button of the trousers. “I want to touch you,” she whispered. “I want to feel you there—” “Hell, no,” McKenna muttered, catching her wrists in his hands and dragging them over her head. His turquoise eyes were brilliant as his hot gaze traveled from her mouth to her breasts. “For God’s sake, I can barely control myself as it is. If you touch me, I won’t be able to stop myself from finishing this.” She writhed helplessly beneath him. “I want you to.” “I know that,” McKenna muttered, bending to blot his gleaming forehead on his sleeve, while maintaining his careful hold on her wrists. “But I’m not going to. You have to stay a virgin.” Aline tugged almost angrily at her imprisoned arms. “I’ll do as I please, and be damned to everyone!” “Brave words,” he mocked gently. “But I’d like to hear what you’d tell your husband on your wedding night, when he discovered your maidenhood had already been taken.” The quaint sound of the word “maidenhood” made Aline smile grimly despite her misery. Virginity…the only thing the world seemed to expect of her. Relaxing beneath him, she let her wrists go lax in his grip. She stared into his eyes, feeling as if the entire world was covered in shadow, and he was the only source of light. “I’ll marry no one but you, McKenna,” she whispered. “And if you ever leave me, I’ll be alone for the rest of my life.” His dark head lowered over hers. “Aline,” he said in the hushed voice that he might have used in prayer. “I would never leave unless you told me to go.” His mouth descended to her bare breasts. Aline pushed upward impulsively, offering herself without reservation, crying out as he took a hard, budded nipple into his mouth. He wet the rosy flesh with his tongue, swirling and flicking until she moaned in frustration. “McKenna,” she said fitfully, tugging in vain at her trapped arms, “I need you…please do something, I’m aching so…” He shifted his long body so that he could pull up the front of her skirts. The thickness of his erection strained behind his trousers as it pressed against her hip. Aline longed to touch him, to explore his body with the same tenderness he showed her, but he wouldn’t let her. He reached beneath the layers of muslin and lace-trimmed lawn, and found the waist of her drawers. Deftly he untied the tapes that fastened the garment, then paused to stare into her half-closed eyes. “I should stop.” His warm hand settled on her stomach, over the drawers. “This is too dangerous, Aline.” He pressed his forehead to hers, until their perspiration mingled and their breath filled each other’s mouths in warm, tender puffs. “Oh God, how I love you,” he said huskily. The weight of his hand made her shiver. Instinctively she spread her thighs and nudged upward strongly, trying to bring his fingers where she needed them most. With great care he reached beneath the veil of thin cotton, touching between her wide-open legs. He fondled the patch of springy curls, his fingertips tenderly burrowing to find the plump mound beneath. Aline gasped against his mouth as he parted her swollen flesh, spreading the soft folds to find the opening of her body. She burned with equal parts of embarrassment and excitement, turning her face to the side as his gentle exploration continued. He was familiar with the intricacies of a woman’s flesh, knowing exactly where she was most sensitive, his fingertips skating over the aching peak of her sex with incredible lightness. His calluses rasped the wet skin, the sensation so sweet and delicately maddening that she let out another shaking cry. “Hush,” McKenna murmured, caressing all around the aroused bud, while his head lifted as he surveyed the meadow beyond the tall grasses. “Someone might hear.” Aline bit her lip as she fought to obey, though small whimpers kept slipping from her throat. McKenna continued to watch for uninvited company, his alert gaze skimming the estate grounds at the edge of the meadow. His middle finger found the barrier of her virginity and kneaded the fragile impediment until it softened. Aline closed her eyes against the glare of sunlight, offering no resistance as McKenna used his knees to push her legs wider, until the insides of her thighs were stretched and taut. He entered her with his finger, pausing as he felt her jerk with surprise. His mouth touched her forehead, and he whispered against her damp silken skin. “Sweetheart…I won’t hurt you.” “I know, it’s just…” She forced herself to lie passively beneath him as she felt his finger glide further inside. Her voice caught with a low throb. “It feels so str-strange…” McKenna pushed it all the way to the second knuckle, and stroked the sleek inner walls, while her body automatically grasped and clung to the gentle invasion. Groaning as he felt the frantic throbbing of her flesh, McKenna fitted the heel of his hand against the tingling peak of her sex. He began a slow, rocking motion, his finger thrusting deeper, his hand nudging her rhythmically. “Oh…” Aline couldn’t stop from hitching upward in slavish obedience to the provocations of his hand. “Oh, McKenna…” He slid his free arm beneath her back, lifting her br**sts as he kissed her br**sts again, his tongue playing over the stiff tips. A swell of sensation rose, then retreated to leave her moaning with excitement. McKenna didn’t falter, caressing her steadily, his teeth catching at her ni**les until they turned redder, harder. Aline concentrated on the deep slide of his finger, the coiling, clenching pleasure that went through her loins and spine, until she lost awareness of everything but his hands, his mouth, his heavy body poised over hers. She imagined his sex plunging into her, rending and stretching and filling her…and suddenly she couldn’t move as voluptuous spasms began to roll through her…waves of relief so intense that she wailed from it, while his mouth hastily covered hers to muffle all sound. Shuddering and sobbing, she rode the pleasure to its dizzying summit, then drifted downward while his slick fingers eased her into tranquillity. Murmuring quietly, McKenna held and stroked her until she went limp beneath him, her limbs turning heavy and warm. His hand began to withdraw from her drenched sex, but she reached down and covered his fingers with her own. “Come inside me,” she whispered. “I want you so, McKenna. Come in me, come—” “No,” he said through clenched teeth. He rolled away with a groan, his fingers biting into the damp earth and dislodging great fistfuls of moss. “Cover yourself. I can’t touch you anymore, or I won’t be able to stop myself from—” He broke off with a shuddering sound that betrayed how very close he was to taking her. “Pull down your skirts. Please.” “I want you,” she said breathlessly. “Now. I mean it, Aline.” She didn’t dare disobey, not when she could hear that biting note in his voice. Heaving a sigh, she struggled to restore her clothing. After a while McKenna rested on his side to watch her. He seemed to have regained control over himself, though his eyes were still bright with unspent passion. Aline shook her head with a wistful smile. “No one will ever look at me the way you do. As if you love me with every part of yourself.” Slowly he reached out and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “That’s how you look at me too.” She caught at his hand and kissed the rough surface of his knuckles. “Promise me that we’ll be together always.” But he remained silent, for they both knew it was a promise that he couldn’t make. Aline knew that the safest thing would be to pretend those passion-filled minutes by the river had never existed. It was impossible, however. Whenever McKenna was nearby, she felt her entire body thrilling to his presence. Emotions seemed to spill from her, charging the atmosphere until she was certain that anyone could sense them. She didn’t dare meet McKenna’s gaze in front of others, afraid that her expression might give her away. McKenna did far better than she in maintaining an impassive facade, but some of the servants, including Mrs. Faircloth, remarked on how unusually quiet he had been for the past week. It was clear to those who knew him well that something was troubling him.