sailboat in marinaA sailboat skimmed across the glassy water at the Careenage, the marina in Barbados’s capital city of Bridgetown. Its skipper, looking cool and professional at the wheel of the gleaming white craft, waved casually to two small boys fishing off the end of a jetty that jutted out into the bay like a rocky black finger. The boat pivoted smoothly toward its waiting slip—and crashed into the end of the dock, despite the warning shouts of the deckhand lunging for the bowline.

“That happened to a colleague of ours when he took a group of us sailing on the Chesapeake,”1 Madeline said with a snicker. “I don’t know what happens to the average man when he gets behind the wheel of a big, expensive boat, but I can tell you, it isn’t pretty. Joe was insufferable, telling tales of his daring exploits at sea and barking orders at everyone. Edward started muttering, ‘Call me Ishmael’ under his breath.”

Elizabeth giggled, nearly choking on the mouthful of iced tea she’d just gulped.

Madeline continued. “Anyway, we stopped for an afternoon drink in Rock Hall and rammed the town dock on the way in. A bunch of college kids partying at a dockside bar gave us a standing ovation. Thank heaven the boat wasn’t badly damaged, but I can’t say the same for Joe’s ego. He was much quieter on the trip back.”

Careenage restaurant patio The waiter arrived with their lunches. After a morning spent exploring the town, Elizabeth and her aunt had been grateful to relax at a small wrought iron table along the water while sipping tall glasses of iced tea garnished with lime.

Elizabeth speared a chunk of chicken from her curried chicken salad. She’d been waiting until they had their food to raise an important topic. “Aunt Maddie? I need to talk to you about something.”

Madeline glanced up as she cut a piece of a fish cake. “’Something’ being an insanely attractive concert pianist, I assume.”

Elizabeth grinned. “I suppose you’ve gathered that we’ve resolved our differences.”

“I’ve gathered a bit more than that.” Madeline waved away a tiny bird attempting to land on their table. “I know you spent last night with him.”

Elizabeth felt her face flush, and not from the tropical heat. “Did you hear me come in this morning?”

“Edward and I saw you in the lobby when we were on our way to breakfast. Even if you were the sort to go for an early-morning walk, you wouldn’t have been wearing your dress from last night.”

Elizabeth winced. “So much for my stealth tactics. You should have seen me tiptoeing around, hoping you wouldn’t hear me.”

Madeline patted Elizabeth’s arm. “Don’t be embarrassed. I only told you what I saw so you wouldn’t feel compelled to beat around the bush. It’s your business and William’s what happens between the two of you, and it couldn’t be more obvious how happy you are.”

Elizabeth beamed at her aunt. “Even with all the walking we’ve done today, I don’t think my feet have touched the ground.”

“Well, good. You deserve it.” Madeline sipped her iced tea. “And you know, you could have cancelled this morning and stayed with him. I would have understood.”

“I thought about it,” Elizabeth said, wrinkling her nose, “but you invited me on this trip to keep you company during Uncle Edward’s conference, not to run off on my own.”

“But let’s not carry it to extremes. You don’t need to babysit me.”

“It’s not babysitting. I enjoy being with you.”

“And you know it’s mutual. But you and William have just gotten over a rough patch, so of course you need time alone together. Edward’s done with his conference tomorrow afternoon, and between now and then I’ll be fine.”

“How about this for a compromise? William is coming to the hotel this afternoon. I thought he could hang out at the pool with us. And Uncle Edward wanted his advice about dive operators, so maybe the four of us could have a drink together before dinner.”

“That sounds lovely, but if you two would rather be alone, it’s fine.”

“We’ll have lots of time to ourselves. I want you and Uncle Edward to get to know him.” Elizabeth set down her fork. “I love him so much, Aunt Maddie.”

Madeline’s warm, wise smile spread over Elizabeth like a benediction. “I know you do. And I like the idea of cocktails this evening. We should get to know him better, since he’s so important to you.”

“And if I were to vanish from the hotel after that, you’d understand?”

“Of course. I assume he’s asked you to spend the rest of the week at his house?” Madeline took a bite of her fish cake.

Elizabeth nodded. “I told him I would, as long as you and Uncle Edward don’t mind.” She didn’t doubt her aunt’s support. The request was a formality, one she felt she owed the Gardiners in her status as their guest.

“Of course we don’t. Now, mind you, Edward was a little taken aback when he saw you arriving home this morning. But don’t worry about that. I can handle your uncle. I just need to convince him that you’re not sixteen anymore.”

Elizabeth smiled in spite of the knot in her stomach. Edward had raised three daughters, all of whom had chafed at their father’s loving but razor-sharp protective instinct.

palm frond cowboy hat The conversation moved on to other topics, like the man who entered the café carrying a cruise ship tote bag and wearing a cowboy hat woven from pale green palm fronds. His appearance answered the question that had puzzled Madeline and Elizabeth ever since seeing the hats at a straw market: “Who on earth buys those things?”

Elizabeth reached under her chair to make sure her own purchases were still in their place. She might gather the courage to wear one of them this afternoon … maybe.

 

William squinted, the glare fierce even through his sunglasses, and scanned the dozens of lounge chairs infesting the pool area. He wondered why he had agreed to spend an afternoon on the hotel’s bustling pool deck instead of basking in idyllic seclusion at Pemberley. He hated this carnival of blatantly trendy people trying to impress one another, the air scented with chlorine, cocoa butter, and self-importance. But Elizabeth had invited him, and he would brave almost anything in return for her company.

hotel pool He scowled as he wandered among the chairs, half expecting to hear sizzling noises rising from the rows of glistening flesh soaking up the sun’s blistering heat. At last he saw Elizabeth sit up, shade her eyes, and wave at him from a quieter nook far from the pool. She stood as he approached, and his mouth watered at the sight of her legs emerging from the gauzy shirt she wore over her bathing suit.

“Hi, there, Sleeping Beauty,” she said softly, for his ears only. She parked her sunglasses on top of her head, her eyes sparkling with delight. He planted a soft kiss on her smiling lips, his annoyance swept away by the warmth of her greeting.

He took a breath, preparing to protest her unauthorized vanishing act that morning, when he noticed Madeline Gardiner reclining on a neighboring lounge chair. She returned William’s greeting with a smile and a friendly nod. “We appreciate you coming over here to keep us company,” she said, adjusting the broad-brimmed hat shading her face.

“Have a seat.” Elizabeth indicated a lounge chair beside hers, empty except for a folded yellow towel of the sort he’d seen other sunbathers using. “I assume you brought your swim trunks?”

“I’m wearing them.” William had worn his swim trunks beneath more appropriate attire for the hotel lobby. He dropped the gym bag slung over his shoulder, pushed it under the lounge chair, and then unbuttoned his shirt, draping it neatly over the back of the chair. When he reached for his belt buckle, the hungry gleam in Elizabeth’s eyes froze him momentarily in place, but he stripped down to his swim trunks and settled onto the lounge chair.

“Did you enjoy your morning?” he asked Madeline, fighting the urge to toss Elizabeth over his shoulder and commandeer one of the poolside cabanas for a passionate tryst.

“Yes, we did. There’s not much to see in town, but we did some shopping and had a nice lunch. Lizzy, you ought to show him what you bought.”

“Not right now,” Elizabeth said, a brittle edge in her voice. What it meant, he couldn’t guess. Madeline smirked as she opened the travel guidebook in her lap.

Elizabeth’s eyes resumed their inspection of his body. “You got a tan in Australia,” she said softly.

He nodded. “I spent most of my days outdoors, sometimes at the beach.”

“You look … bigger, too.”

He lifted an eyebrow, his mind rushing to the most suggestive interpretation of her remark. Madeline made a noise that could have been either a cough or a snicker, but a sidelong glance in her direction showed her eyes fixed studiously on her book.

Elizabeth winced. “I meant that you look different through the shoulders and chest. Not like you’ve gained weight, but … stronger, somehow.” She inspected her fingernails. “Bigger.”

“I had a lot of free time in Australia, so I stepped up my workout regimen.” He instinctively squared his shoulders and thrust out his chest.

“Well, it shows,” she said, smiling. “I noticed it yesterday, but—” She glanced at Madeline, whose eyes remained riveted on her book.

“Would you like to take a walk on the beach, and maybe go for a swim?” he asked. Anything for a bit of privacy.

She nodded with alacrity. “Great idea. Do you want to come, Aunt Maddie?”

William nearly groaned aloud, but Madeline glanced up and shook her head. “Thank you, but I’m quite comfortable here with my book. You two go on along and I’ll guard our chairs.”

He jumped to his feet and extended a hand, pulling Elizabeth up from the low lounge chair. After a moment’s hesitation she unbuttoned her thin white shirt and slipped it off her shoulders, all the while avoiding eye contact.

Every water molecule in William’s body vaporized at the sight of the blue bikini molding her lush curves to perfection. He could only stare, slack-jawed and outwardly inert, his insides a whirling mass of pride, possessive jealousy, and above all, roiling lust. At last he regained enough control to close his mouth with an audible click.

“I bought it this morning,” she said. “Aunt Maddie talked me into it. It’s the first time I’ve worn a two-piece bathing suit, or anything else that could be sewn from a few leftover scraps of fabric, since I was a little girl.” She glanced down at herself and crossed her arms over her bare stomach. “I think bikinis were meant for women who are thinner than I am.”

“No,” he croaked. “It looks … absolutely perfect on you.”

She raised her eyes to his and, with a tremulous smile, drew her shoulders back and dropped her arms to her sides. Again he cast a furtive glance at the cabanas lining the pool area.

It seemed to William that every male head swiveled in their direction as they wandered along the path to the beach. His eyes fired a continual barrage of warning shots and he kept her hand tightly clasped in his, but his annoyance was tempered by pride. They could only look; she belonged to him.

“Do you see all the women looking at you?” she murmured. “Not that I blame them.”

“Your opinion is the only one I care about.”

“Ah, the ego needs feeding, does it? Okay, just this once. You look fantastic. Catnip in human form.” She glanced up at him with a coquettish smile.

They stepped onto the beach, the talcum-powder sand like hot coals under their bare feet as they picked their way gingerly toward an open area where they could spread their towels. William shaded his eyes against the relentless sun, regretting his decision to leave his sunglasses in his shirt pocket.

hotel beach Padded lounge chairs stretched in an orderly queue down the beach, most of them occupied by bodies liberally basted in suntan oil. Two waiters clad in shorts and Hawaiian shirts passed from chair to chair bearing trays of colorful drinks garnished with wedges of pineapple. A dozen or more heads bobbed about in the shimmering expanse of clear turquoise water stretching to the horizon. A solitary beachcomber strolled along the water’s edge, gentle waves flowing over his feet. Even the shorebirds seemed sedate, gliding lazily in the cloudless sky. It could scarcely have differed more from the windy, boulder-strewn beach below Pemberley, with its wild surf and churning seas.

William heaved a discontented sigh, wishing that he and Elizabeth were alone on that other beach. “Let’s go for a swim,” he said. Cold water might tame his rebellious body, and if not, it would at least offer camouflage.

“Okay.” She reached up to refasten her ponytail. The innocent gesture displayed her body to maximum benefit, catapulting him into fresh agonies of desire. In desperation he plunged his overheated body into the ocean. By the time she caught up they were far from the shore, the waterline lapping at his upper chest and her shoulders.

“You were in a hurry to get out here,” she said. “Too hot for you on the beach?”

He grunted in response. It had indeed been much too hot.

“Isn’t the water temperature perfect?” She ducked down, immersing herself to her chin. “Warm enough that it’s comfortable right away, but still refreshing.”

He bit his lip and nodded. A cooler temperature would have suited his purposes better. He’d boil the ocean away if he continued on his present course.

“And I can’t get over the color of the water. I’ve never seen anything like it, so blue and so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom.”

His eyes dropped to her cleavage, visible beneath the surface of the water, and he emitted a soft groan.

“Are you okay?” She stepped closer, her body almost touching his.

He gripped her shoulders, his frustration nearing the boiling point. “No, I’m not,” he growled. “Do you have any idea how sexy you are in that bikini? Or what it’s doing to me?”

She frowned. “Are you mad at me for wearing it?”

“Of course not. But …” He paused and shook his head, trying to clear his desire-fogged brain. It was a hopeless enterprise. “I haven’t thought about anything but you all morning. You’re looking at a starving man.”

“I know,” she sighed, reaching up to brush his damp curls off his forehead. “I’ve been thinking about you constantly. It seemed like it took forever for you to get here this afternoon.”

“I wanted to make love to you again and again this morning, maybe even talk you into canceling your plans with your aunt. But when I woke up you were gone.” He traced a finger in the waterlogged hollow between her breasts. “Why didn’t you wake me?”

A wave rippled past, and she grabbed his waist to steady herself. “I explained in my note. You were exhausted, and you needed to sleep.”

“No. I needed to be inside you.”

Her eyes flared at his bold statement and she licked her lips. His hand slid across her bikini top, his thumb flicking a turgid nipple through the thin fabric.

“William, not here,” she whispered, shivering.

“Nobody can see,” he murmured, continuing to caress her. “Not as long as the water is covering us. They can’t even see if I do this.” He slipped the narrow blue straps off her shoulders, pushed down the bikini top, and cupped her bare breasts, pale and cool and deliciously firm in his hands. He thought of the other men by the pool and the way their covetous eyes had followed her, mentally undressing her, wanting her. But she was his, and his alone, to savor. His desire surged to new levels, his body aching with ferocious need.

“William,” she sighed. “We shouldn’t—” But he stopped her protest with his mouth and she surrendered almost at once, her lips parting under his as she leaned against him.

He groaned against her mouth. “I want you, Lizzy, now. I can’t wait till tonight.” Images flashed through his mind, electric visions in which he ripped off her bikini bottoms, shoved his trunks out of the way, and took her right there in the water. Inflamed by this prospect, he glanced around, checking for nearby swimmers. But then he remembered a flaw in his plan: yet again, he wanted her desperately but didn’t have a condom.

A deep sigh shuddered through his body as he thudded back to reality. With returning sanity came the realization that he couldn’t take her in the water, not with the crowds on the beach and other swimmers nearby. That he, with his mania for privacy, had even considered such a reckless act horrified him. His desires had escaped his control, and he needed to calm down for both their sakes. He opened a few inches between their bodies and lowered his head to kiss her, gently this time, tasting salt water on her lips.

But apparently his tender kiss hadn’t communicated his calming-down strategy. “I want you too,” she whispered in his ear before nibbling the lobe, the feel of her breasts brushing his chest raising a whole gaggle of goose bumps. Her hands slipped beneath the elastic waist of his swim trunks, curving around his bare buttocks, and he sucked in a sharp breath. Caution and control forsaken in an instant, he reached down to guide her hand to his throbbing groin. Her touch would only worsen his predicament, but he was past caring.

Voices sounded behind them. They sprang apart and Elizabeth yanked up her bikini top, her eyes darting around. An elderly couple floated past them a short distance away, conversing in soft voices. Elizabeth spoke in an urgent whisper. “Let’s go to my room.”

“You read my mind,” he said, kissing her, an exultant glitter in his eyes. For some reason it mattered to William that she had made the offer instead of waiting for him to make the obvious suggestion.

They paddled back toward the shore side by side. “There’s just one problem,” he said, his forehead wrinkling. “I seem to be developing a bad habit; I’m unprepared again.” He had tucked a condom into the pocket of his shorts, hoping the afternoon would present an opportunity to use it. But he recoiled from the crude image of sauntering back to retrieve it, his drenched swim trunks flaunting his painfully aroused state before Madeline Gardiner’s shrewd gaze.

He stepped on a spiny shell drifting along with the tide and stumbled, grimacing. Elizabeth grabbed his arm to steady him. “Lucky for us I’m a former Girl Scout,” she said with a smug smile.

“Meaning?”

“Their motto, silly. ‘Be prepared.’ I have what we need up in my room.”

“Thank goodness.” The water was shallow now, and he grasped her waist to stop her from advancing further. “I’m going to need to stay close behind you till we get to our towels.”

“Why?”

His eyes flicked downward. “Why do you think?”

“Oh.” She pressed her lips together. “Right. Okay, then, left foot first. Do we need to count off to stay in step?”

He nearly pulled her into his arms to kiss the impudent smile off her lips. But they were far more conspicuous now, close to the shore and standing in knee-deep water, so he satisfied himself with brushing his knuckles gently over her cheek. Then they set off, marching out of the ocean and across the beach in tandem.

A crooked grin twisted William’s mouth as he recalled his naked excursion through Pemberley’s hallways last night. He wondered how he had managed to lose every shred of dignity he possessed—not that he would have changed a thing.

 

Elizabeth seemed to be taking forever fumbling with the key card to her room. William shivered, his wet towel a poor defense against the aggressive air conditioning in the hotel corridor. He suspected he was slowing her progress by embracing her from behind and compulsively kissing her neck and shoulders, but he couldn’t stop himself.

Finally the electronic lock blinked green and she pushed the door open. The instant it closed behind them they were in each other’s arms, their mouths pressed together with reckless abandon, countering the residual chill from the hallway with a flood of passionate heat.

They flung off their clammy swimsuits, groaning in ecstatic unison once they were naked and entwined together. Their skin was cool and damp, and their wet hair leaked droplets of water, but William didn’t intend to wait till they were dry. “Where are the condoms?” he muttered in her ear, one hand exploring her breasts while the other crushed her hips against him.

“In the bathroom,” she gasped, writhing against him.

Then she froze in his arms and pressed two fingers to his lips, her eyes huge. “Shhh.” She gripped his arm, staring in wide-eyed alarm at the door connecting her room to the Gardiners’ suite. He watched her, his heart racing, until he heard the muffled male voices in the living room of the suite.

“I completely forgot,” she whispered, her breathing as rapid as his. “Uncle Edward is using his suite for meetings from time to time.” Her forehead fell against William’s chest. “I’m sorry, but we can’t do this, not while he’s in the living room. It’s just on the other side of this wall.”

“We can be quiet.” He nudged her backward toward the bed. Stopping wasn’t on his list of approved options.

“No, really,” she murmured, squirming away as he dipped his head to her breast. “Even if we didn’t make a sound, the bed might squeak. And I’d be distracted, worrying that he might hear us.”

He sighed. “I don’t want you to be distracted.”

bathroom of suite “Besides,” she continued, her shoulders stiff beneath his hands, “I can’t risk humiliating Uncle Edward that way. Imagine how he’d feel if he ended up treating his colleagues to the soundtrack of his niece frolicking in bed with her man.”

cattleya orchidWilliam couldn’t argue with that, but he quickly devised a Plan B. “Come with me,” he whispered, leading her by the hand to her gleaming white bathroom, the only splash of color supplied by a lavender cattleya orchid on the counter.

“In here?” she asked, glancing around as though taking inventory of the horizontal surfaces.

“In here.” He crossed to the shower compartment and turned on the water. “Haven’t you ever made love in the shower?” He grimaced as soon as the words escaped his lips. Of course she hadn’t, and she didn’t need reminders of his past encounters with other women.

But she didn’t seem to notice the implications of his remark, too busy staring at her reflection in the mirror. She bit her lip and her glance flew to the nearest towel rack, but he pulled her into the circle of his arms before she could reach for a towel.

She eyed him skeptically. “What makes you think they won’t hear us in here?”

“We’ll be quiet, and besides, your bathroom doesn’t share a wall with the living room.” He kissed her neck, feeling her body relax against his. “Now, does my plan meet with your approval?”

By way of an answer, she wriggled from his arms and retrieved a blue flowered canvas bag from a drawer beside the sink. She removed a small square packet from the bag and handed it to him with a flourish. “I believe you needed one of these?”

He nodded gravely. “Thank you. I have a new appreciation for Girl Scouts.”

Grinning, she pulled the ponytail holder out of her hair and shook out her long, wet curls. Then she checked the water temperature in the shower and stepped under the spray. He stared at the rivulets of water spilling over her body in a dozen tiny waterfalls, and again he thought of the men by the pool. Eat your hearts out.

He joined her in the shower and shut the etched glass door. The compartment was large enough for two as long as the occupants didn’t mind sharing close quarters, and he certainly didn’t. Shower nozzles sprayed from different heights, bathing him in warm water and rising steam. “Come here, cara,” he said softly.

She stepped eagerly into his arms and they pressed their bodies together, their mouths melding hungrily. Then he reached for the soap and lathered her body thoroughly, some parts more thoroughly than others. She didn’t seem to mind, judging from her soft sighs as his soapy hands encircled her breasts, slowly teasing her nipples to firm peaks, or her little gasp when his fingers drifted downward over her stomach to probe intimately between her legs.

Elizabeth took her turn with the soap as well, devoting such enthusiasm to the task that finally he had to stop her. “No more,” he gasped, drawing her hands away from his slick, aching flesh. “I’m not going to last long as it is.”

He rinsed himself and inhaled deeply, lost in a whirl of sensation: steam fogging the glass door, water pelting his skin from every angle, the scent of soap and of the jasmine shampoo he had used to wash her hair. But above all, Elizabeth filled his senses, with her smooth skin and soft curves, her hands worshipping his body, her eyes clouded with passion as they locked on his. He pulled her hips tightly against his and bent his head, his lips following one of the diminutive waterfalls down the slope of her breast. His mouth closed around the nipple and he savored its delicate sweetness. She let out a tiny moan, her fingers threading through his tangled hair.

It was his turn to moan when her hands closed around him, stroking the swollen appendage until again he had to stop her, shuddering as his body clamored for more of the sharp, sweet torture. He grabbed the small packet from the soap dish, quickly rolled on the condom, and turned back to her, his hand slipping between her legs. She whimpered as he caressed her, the soft warmth he found there only increasing his impatience to possess her, his body taut and trembling with the need for release.

Soon her hips began to writhe against his hand and she shuddered, her head buried against his shoulder. “William, please,” she whispered.

“Put your arms around my neck and hold tight.” She obeyed him, and he boosted her up, bracing her against the wall and encouraging her to wrap her legs around his hips. Heat streamed from her eyes as he sank home, emitting a soft groan of deep satisfaction at the warm welcome he found. He held himself deep inside her and kissed her, his tongue tracing the soft fullness of the lips that opened eagerly to him. Then he began to move, slowly at first but soon in a rhythm of joyful abandon punctuated by her sighs of encouragement.

William’s body felt like one of his sports cars, forced to run in low gear for hours but at last hurtling down the open highway at full throttle. Steam swirled around them, and they stifled their moans against each other’s necks. She clung to him fiercely until, sooner than he could have imagined, she stiffened and breathed his name against his neck. He felt her pulsing gently around him, and it was all the encouragement his overstimulated body needed. Mere seconds later he drove his hips forward and arched his back, groaning in delirious relief.

They sagged against each other, panting, hearts racing, too weak to stand alone but drawing strength from their embrace. Elizabeth’s legs slid to the floor, her arms still locked around his neck.

“I love you, Will.” Her voice was hoarse, little more than a breathy whisper.

“And I adore you.”

Her lips found his, and nothing more needed to be said.

 

Once they had the strength to move again, Elizabeth insisted that they don their damp bathing suits and return to the pool deck. As she pointed out to a disgruntled William, they had abandoned Madeline and owed it to her to return at least briefly. But they arrived downstairs to find Madeline on her feet, packing up her belongings.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “I’m heading back to my room, but I didn’t know if I should leave your things here or take them with me. I didn’t want you to come back from your swim and find everything gone.” The sly expression in her eyes suggested that she knew exactly where they’d been and what they’d been doing.

No more than a minute after Madeline’s departure, William and Elizabeth sprinted back to her room, pleased to hear nothing but silence coming from the living room. Evidently Edward’s meeting had adjourned during their brief trip to the pool. They shed their suits and swathed themselves in the plush white robes provided by the hotel. When Elizabeth emerged from the bathroom, a towel wrapped turban-style around her wet hair, William swooped her up in his arms and tossed her onto the bed, following her down to the accompaniment of her carefree laughter.

view onto patio from bedroomThey lounged together on the bed, exchanging fleeting caresses and talking of inconsequential things. A soft breeze ruffled the curtains framing the open doors to the terrace, and a shaft of slanting light from the late-afternoon sun painted a bright stripe on the tile floor. They heard the occasional scrape of heavy furniture dragged across concrete and the distant clinking of glasses as resort employees set dinner tables on a portion of the pool deck. A single tree frog chirped a lonesome refrain, attempting to awaken his compatriots for the evening’s performance. Despite the contentment flowing through her veins, Elizabeth felt a twinge of melancholy at the waning of one of the happiest days of her life.

“Wait a minute.” William tightened his arms around her waist. “I can’t believe I almost forgot. You called me Will earlier, didn’t you?”

Elizabeth snuggled back against his chest, shooting a curious glance over her shoulder. “Did I?”

“Don’t even try to deny it.” He slipped his hand inside her robe and caressed her in a lazy rhythm. “You called me Will when we were in the shower.”

“I was overcome with passion,” she retorted. “I didn’t know what I was saying.” Then she lifted his free hand from her waist and pressed it to her lips. “Seriously, I promised you once that I’d see how it felt to call you Will.”

“And how does it feel?”

She returned his hand to her lap, entwining her fingers with his. “I suppose I could get used to it. But ‘William’ suits you so well. Or I don’t suppose you’d let me call you Willie?”

champagne “Certainly not.” He stretched, groaning in obvious contentment, and reached behind his head to adjust the pillow propped against the headboard. “We should spend every afternoon this way.” He lifted his glass of champagne from the nightstand.

“It’s so decadent,” she sighed. “Champagne and strawberries from room service, and an incredibly sexy man in my bed. I could get used to this.” She extricated herself from his arms and knelt beside him. Her hands delved inside his robe to explore his chest, savoring the hard contours of his muscles and teasing the wiry hairs that roughened the surface of his skin.

She had told the truth earlier. He looked better than ever, with his lightly tanned skin and his chest and shoulders subtly broader and stronger, but still without the bulging silhouette that had repelled her ever since the traumatic night with Michael.

He reached up and tucked her hair behind her ear, his hand resting on her cheek. “There’s something we should talk about.”

“This sounds serious.”

He hesitated. “We need to talk about condoms and … other options.”

“Ah. I was expecting much worse.”

“I’m just not sure how you feel about the subject.”

She might have been embarrassed had she not already considered the question. “You’re trying to ask me to go on the pill.”

He returned his champagne glass to the nightstand. “If you’re willing. Condoms are inconvenient sometimes.”

“And I guess most men prefer not to use them. Including you?”

He lifted a lock of hair from her shoulder and drew it gently between his fingers, speaking softly. “I don’t really know. I’ve never had sex without a condom.”

She was both gratified and surprised at this news. “Not even when you were a randy teenager?”

He brushed her hair aside and nuzzled her neck until she wriggled away with a little squeal. “You make me a thousand times hotter than I ever was as a teenager,” he murmured, a wicked glint in his dark eyes. “But, no, not even then. Richard put the fear of God into me when it came to safe sex.”

“Good for him.”

“He used to say, ‘It isn’t just what you might catch. It’s who might catch you.’ And he was right. I’ve met plenty of women who would have loved to be ‘accidentally’ impregnated by the Darcy heir.”

The bitter edge in his voice made her heart ache. “So many people have used you to try to get what they wanted, haven’t they?”

He drew her into his arms and kissed her forehead. “Having you in my life makes up for all of that.”

“And you’re not afraid I’ll try to trick you into getting me pregnant?” she teased.

Tenderness shone in his eyes. “To be honest, I wouldn’t mind if you got pregnant. My only concern is for you.”

Elizabeth blushed, unsure how to respond. She wanted children eventually, but she was in no hurry and didn’t consider herself particularly maternal, not like Jane, anyway. Now wasn’t the time, but perhaps some day …

He was watching her closely. “Lizzy, I—” Then he stopped and shook his head. “Never mind. We were talking about contraception.”

She almost pressed him to finish his incomplete sentence, but she sensed his discomfort and decided to follow his lead, returning to their original topic. “I visited my doctor right after my birthday. In fact, I’ve got the pills at home.”

“Then why are we still using condoms?”

She took his hand in both of hers, admiring his long, slender fingers and neatly trimmed nails. “There’s a timing issue when you start taking them, and then things were such a mess between us, and …” She sighed. “Give it a little more time, and it’ll be taken care of.”

“Thank you.” He kissed her, his lips lingering softly against hers for a long, sweet moment.

“What about the other issue? They tested me when I went in to get the pills.” She grimaced, hating to turn lovemaking into a clinical subject, but unfortunately she had no choice. “I know you said you’ve always been careful, but …”

His understanding nod filled her with relief. “But it’s important to be sure. They ran all sorts of blood tests when I was in the hospital last summer, including an HIV test, and everything was fine. And since you’re the only woman I’ve been with in more than a year…” He smiled, tightening his arm around her shoulders.

“Good,” she said, relaxing against him, glad they could drop the subject. “Could you please pass me a strawberry?”

strawberries He insisted on feeding it to her, after which she reached across him, plucked a berry from the silver dish on the nightstand, and returned the favor. He swallowed it and then sucked her pink-stained fingers into his mouth and circled them with his tongue, a gesture charged with sensual heat that vibrated to every corner of her body. She pulled her fingers away and pressed her lips to his, exploring his strawberry-flavored mouth in a deep, slow kiss that coaxed a low groan from his throat. Then she pushed him onto his back, her hands fumbling with the belt on his robe.

She drew in a slow breath and stared down at him, mesmerized. His body was like an erotic theme park, virile and powerful and wonderfully male, and entirely hers to enjoy at her leisure. He gazed up at her calmly, a faint smile curving his lips as he offered himself up to her pleasure. Her hands lovingly skimmed over his body, his flesh warm and alive beneath her fingers.

“Are you trying to start something?” His question rumbled beneath her lips as she anointed his chest with moist kisses.

“And if I am?” she breathed, looking up into his dark, searing gaze.

“Good,” he groaned, reaching for her.

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1 Based on a true story.