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Page 25

Cradling her head in his hands, he bent to kiss her gently, with hot, shallow laps into her mouth, and as she responded he went deeper, demanding more. The kiss went on and on, making her gasp and strain, her own small tongue darting greedily past the edges of his teeth. She was so absorbed in tasting him, so dazed by the current of arousal humming through her, that it took her a little while to realize she was lying back on the bed with him, her bound hands flung over her head.

His lips slid to her throat, savoring her with slow, open kisses.

"Wh-where are we?" she managed to ask, shivering as his mouth found a particularly sensitive place.

"Gamekeeper's cottage." He lingered on that vulnerable spot until she writhed.

"Where is the gamekeeper?"

Kev's voice was passion-thickened. "We don't have one yet."

Win rubbed her cheek and chin against the heavy locks of his hair, relishing the feel of him. "How is it that I've never seen this place?"

His head lifted. "It's far in the woods," he whispered, "away from noise." He toyed with her breast, softly thumbing the tip. "A gamekeeper needs peace and quiet to care for the birds."

Win was feeling anything but peace and quiet inside, her nerves strung tight, her wrists pulling at the silk bonds. She was dying to touch him, to hold him. "Kev, untie my arms."

He shook his head. The leisurely pass of his hand along her front caused her to arch.

"Oh, please," she gasped. "Kev-"

"Hush," he murmured. "Not yet." His mouth passed hungrily over hers. "I've wanted you for too long. I need you too much." His teeth caught at her lower lip with arousing delicacy. "One touch of your hands and I wouldn't last a second."

"But I want to hold you," she said plaintively.

The look on his face sent a thrill through her. "Before we're through, love, you're going to hold me with every part of your body." He covered her wild heartbeat with a gentle palm. Lowering his head, he kissed her hot cheek and whispered, "Do you understand what I'm going to do, Win?"

She took a fitful breath. "I think so. Amelia told me a few things in the past. And of course, everyone sees the sheep and cattle in spring."

That drew a rare grin from him. "If that's the standard I'm being held to, we'll have no trouble at all."

She captured him with her looped arms and struggled upward to reach his mouth. He kissed her, pushing her back down, sliding one of his knees carefully between her thighs. Gently farther, and farther, until she felt an intimate pressure against the part of her that had begun to ache. The subtle rhythmic friction made her writhe, a sort of squirmy, shivery delight surging from every slow prod. Dazed, Win wondered if doing this with a man she had known so well for so long wasn't somehow far more embarrassing than doing it with a complete stranger.

Night was dissolving into day, the silvery morning slanting into the room, the wood awakening with chirps and rustlings… redstarts, swallows. She thought briefly of everyone back at Ramsay House… Soon they would discover that she was gone. A chill went through her as she wondered if they would look for her. If she returned as a virgin, any future with Merripen would be very much in peril.

"Kev," she whispered in agitation, "perhaps you should hurry."

"Why?" he asked against her throat.

"I'm afraid someone will stop us."

His head lifted. "No one will stop us. An entire army could surround the cottage. Explosions. Lightning strikes. It's still going to happen."

"I still think you should go a bit faster."

"Do you?" Merripen smiled in a way that made her heart stop. When he was relaxed and happy, she thought, he was the handsomest man who had ever lived.

He courted her mouth skillfully, distracting her with deep, fervid kisses. At the same time, he took the front of her nightgown in his hands and pulled, tearing the garment in half as if it were no more substantial than paper lace. Win gave a discomfited gasp but held still.

Merripen levered himself upward. Grasping her wrists, he pulled them over her head once more, exposing her body completely and causing her br**sts to lift. He stared at her pale pink nipples. The soft growl that came from his throat caused her to quiver. He bent and opened his mouth over the tip of her right breast, and held it against his tongue… so hot… she flinched as if the contact had scalded her. When he lifted his head, the nipple was redder and tighter than it had ever been before.

His eyes were passion-drowsed as he kissed her other breast. His tongue provoked the soft peak into a stinging bud, soothing it with warm strokes. She pressed upward into the wetness, her breath mixed with low sobs. He drew her nipple between his teeth, clamped it carefully, flicked it. Win moaned as his strong hands traced over her body, lingering in places of unbearable sensation.

Reaching her thighs, he tried to part them, but Win held them bashfully closed. Her eagerness to proceed had been obliterated by the dawning awareness of lavish moisture, there, which she had never expected or been told about.

"I thought you said to hurry?" Merripen whispered near her ear. His lips wandered over her crimson face.

"Undo my hands," she begged, perturbed. "I need to… well, to tidy up."

"Tidy up?" Giving her a quizzical glance, Merripen unwound the length of silk from around her wrists. "You mean the room?"

"No, my… myself."

Perplexity worked a notch between his dark brows. He stroked the seam of her clamped-together thighs, and she tightened them reflexively. Perceiving the problem, he smiled slightly, while utter tenderness rushed through him. "Is this what worries you?" He pried her legs apart, finding the slick of moisture with gentle fingers. "That you're wet here?"

She closed her eyes and nodded with a choked sound.

"No," he soothed, "this is good; this is how it's supposed to be. It helps me to go inside you, and…" His breathing roughened. "Oh, Win, you're so lovely, let me touch you; let me have you…"

In an agony of modesty, Win let him push her thighs open farther. She tried to stay quiet and still, but her h*ps jerked as he stroked the place that had become almost painfully sensitive. He murmured softly, passionately absorbed in the soft female flesh. More wetness, more heat, his touch skimming around and over her, tenderly nudging until one finger slid inside. She stiffened and gasped, and the touch was immediately withdrawn.

"Did I hurt you?"

Her lashes lifted. "No," she said in wonder. "In fact, I didn't feel any pain." She strained to look between them. "Is there blood? Perhaps I should-"

"No. Win…" There was a near-comical expression of dismay on his face. "What I just did isn't going to cause pain or blood." A brief pause. "When I do it with my cock, however, it's probably going to hurt like hell."

"Oh." She pondered that for a moment. "Is that the word men use for their private parts?"

"One of the words gadjos use."

"What do Romas say?"

"They call it a kori."

"What does that mean?"

" 'Thorn.'"

Win slid a bashful glance at the heavy protrusion straining behind his trousers. "Rather too substantial for a thorn. I should have thought they would use a more fitting word. But I suppose-" She inhaled sharply as his hand moved downward. "I suppose if one wants roses, one must"-his finger had slipped inside her again-"bear the occasional thorn."

"Very philosophical." He gently stroked and teased the clenching interior of her body.

Her toes curled into the quilt as wicked tension coiled low in her belly. "Kev, what should I do?"

"Nothing. Only let me please you."

All her life, she had hungered for this without quite knowing what it was, this slow, astonishing merging with him, this sweet dissolution of self. This mutual surrender. There was no doubt that he was in control, and yet he browsed over her with absolute wonder. She felt herself soaking up sensation, her body infused with color and heat.

Merripen wouldn't let her hide any part of herself from him… He took what he wanted, turning and lifting her body, rolling her this way and that, always with care, and yet with passionate insistence. He kissed beneath her arms and along her sides and all over her, running his tongue along every curve and humid crease. Gradually the accumulating pleasure shaped into something dark and raw, and she moaned from the pain of acute need.

The drive of her heartbeat reverberated everywhere, in her br**sts and limbs and stomach, even at the tips of her fingers and toes. It was too much, this wildness he had aroused. She begged him for a moment's respite.

"Not yet," he told her between ragged breaths, his tone rough with a triumph she didn't yet understand. "Please, Kev-"

"You're so close, I can feel it. Oh God-" He took her head in his hands, kissed her ravenously, and said against her lips, "You don't want me to stop yet. Let me show you why."

A whimper escaped her as he slid low between her thighs, his head bending to the swollen place he had been tormenting with his fingers. He put his mouth on her, licking along the delicate salty strait, spreading her with his thumbs. She tried to sit bolt-upright, but fell back against the pillows as he found what he wanted, his tongue strong and wet.

She was spread beneath him like a pagan sacrifice, illuminated by the daylight that now flooded the room. Merripen worshipped her with hot, glassy licks, savoring the taste of her pleasured flesh. Moaning, she closed her legs around his head, and he turned deliberately to nibble and lick at one pale inner thigh, then the other. Feasting on her. Wanting everything.

Win curled her fingers desperately in his hair, lost to shame as she guided him back, her body arching wordlessly… here, please, more, more, now… and she groaned as he fastened his mouth over her with a fast, flicking rhythm. Pleasure seized her, wrenching an astonished cry from her, holding her stiff and paralyzed for excruciating seconds. Every movement and measure and pulse of the universe had distilled to the compelling, slippery heat, riveted there on that crucial place, and then it all released, the feeling and tension shattering exquisitely, and she was racked with hard, blissful shudders.

Win relaxed helplessly as the spasms faded. She was filled with glowing weariness, a sense of peace too pervasive to allow movement. Merripen let go of her just long enough to undress completely. Naked and aroused, he came back to her. He gathered her up with brute masculine need, settling over her.

She lifted her arms to him with a drowsy murmur. His back was tough and sleek beneath her fingers, the muscles twitching eagerly at her touch. His head descended, his shaven cheek rasping against hers. She met his power with utter surrender, flexing her knees and tilting her h*ps to cradle him.

He pushed gently at first. The innocent flesh resisted, smarting at the intrusion. He thrust more strongly, and Win caught her breath at the burning pain of his entrance. Too much of him, too hard, too deep. She writhed in reaction, and he buried himself heavily and pinned her down, gasping for her to be still, telling her to wait, he wouldn't move, it would be better. They both stilled, breathing hard.

"Should I stop?" Merripen whispered raggedly, his face taut.

Even now in this flash point of need, he was concerned for her. Understanding what it had cost him to ask, how much he needed her, Win was overwhelmed with love. "Don't even think of stopping now," she whispered back. Reaching down to his lean flanks, she stroked him in shy encouragement. He groaned and began to move, his entire body trembling as he pressed within her.

Although every thrust caused a sharp burn where they were joined, Win tried to pull him even deeper. The feeling of having him inside her went far beyond pain or pleasure. It was necessary.

Merripen stared down at her, his eyes brilliant in his flushed face. He looked fierce and ravenous and even a bit disoriented, as if he were experiencing something beyond the scope of ordinary men. Only now did Win grasp the enormity of his passion for her, the years it had accumulated despite all his efforts to smother it. How hard he had fought against their fate, for reasons she still didn't fully understand. But now he possessed her body with a reverence and intensity that eclipsed all other feeling.

And yet he loved her as a woman, not some ethereal creature. His feelings for her were full-blooded, lusty, elemental. Exactly as she had wanted.

She took him, and took him, wrapping him in her slender legs, burying her face in his throat and shoulder. She loved the sounds he made, the soft grunts and growls, the harsh flow of his breath. And the power of him around her and inside her. Tenderly she stroked his back and sides and pressed kisses on his neck. He seemed electrified by her attentions, his movements quickening, his eyes closing tightly. And then he thrust upward and held, and shook all over as if he were dying.

"Win," he groaned, burying his face against her. "Win." The single syllable contained the faith and passion of a thousand prayers.

Minutes passed before either of them spoke. They stayed wrapped together, fused and damp and unwilling to part.

Win smiled as she felt Merripen's lips drift over her face. When he reached her chin, he gave it a little nip. "Not a pedestal," he said gruffly.

"Hmmn?" She stirred, raising her hand to the shaven bristle of his cheek. "What do you mean?"

"You said I put you on a pedestal… remember?"

"Yes."

"It was never that. I've always carried you in my heart. Always. I thought that would have to be enough."

Moved, Win kissed him gently. "What happened, Kev? Why did you change your mind?"

Chapter Eighteen

Kev didn't intend to answer that until he had taken care of her. He left the bed and went to the small kitchen, which had been fitted with a cookstove with a brass water reservoir and pipes leading through the firebox to provide hot water instantly. Filling a hot-water can, he brought it to the bedroom along with a clean tea towel.

He paused at the sight of Win lying on her side, the flowing curves draped in white linen, her hair spilling over her shoulders in rivers of silvery gold. And best of all, the sated softness of her face and the swollen rosi-ness of lips he had kissed and kissed. It was an image from his deepest dreams, seeing her in bed like that. Waiting for him.

He dampened the toweling with hot water and peeled back the sheet, enchanted by her beauty. He would have wanted her no matter what, virgin or no… but he privately acknowledged his satisfaction in having been her first lover. No one but he would touch her, pleasure her, see her… except…

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