Skinny-dipping had sounded enticing on a conceptual level, but when Elizabeth stepped onto the patio she became painfully aware of the practical issues involved. Her borrowed robe offered temporary coverage, but she would have to remove it soon, or look like an idiot trying to wear it into the pool.

Her fingers twisted around the terrycloth belt as she stood beside the pool, extending a cautious toe toward the water. She wished she could simply fling off the robe and stop being such a stick-in-the-mud. After all, the estate was deserted except for the two of them, and William had seen—and touched—everything the robe concealed.

Except we were in bed then. Undressing outdoors was a far more daunting prospect. Still, the near-darkness offered camouflage. And if she jumped into the pool before he arrived on the terrace—yes, that was the answer.

pool at Pemberley But before she had the chance to take action, lights twinkled to life all around the patio. Her hands froze and her heart bounced off her rib cage. The pool came alive as well, glowing with underwater light. She glanced sharply behind her and saw William emerging from the house, a champagne glass in each hand.

“Is everything all set for Thursday?” she asked, forcing a cheerful smile onto her face as she hugged the robe around her.

“Sonya’s going to call back to confirm, but she said the earliest non-stop to New York leaves at nine thirty. I told her to book it.”

“You shouldn’t have bothered her, while she’s still visiting her mother.”

“That was part of the deal. She’s spending two weeks there, but we’re only counting it as one week off because she’s doing some things for me while she’s there.” He handed her a glass. “I thought we ought to toast our evening alone together.”

“Will that flight get us back to New York in time?”

“I double-checked with Mrs. Reynolds. Gran told her to serve the turkey precisely at six. As long as the flight isn’t delayed, we’ll be there ” He clinked glasses with her and they sipped their champagne.

“So then everything is in place.” Elizabeth inspected the film of moisture clinging to her glass. The longer they drank champagne and discussed logistics for their trip to New York, the longer she could stay bundled in her robe.

“There’s one minor complication,” he said. “Mrs. Reynolds reminded me that the guest rooms are occupied for the weekend. After I told Gran you weren’t coming, she invited some friends to stay at the house. And I think it’s better this time if you don’t share my room.”

“That goes without saying.” It didn’t take a diploma from a finishing school to know what Rose Darcy would think of that idea. “Anyway, it’s just as well. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of descending on your family with so little notice. I mean, first I’m coming for Thanksgiving, and then I’m not, and now I am again. Their heads must be spinning.”

“Lizzy, you’re spending too much time worrying about my family.”

As far as Elizabeth was concerned, she was spending exactly the right amount of time. She smelled trouble and thought it best to be on her guard. “What did your grandmother say when you told her about our plans?”

“She wasn’t home, but I left a message with Mrs. Reynolds. I’ll call again tomorrow.”

“I hope she isn’t going to object to me basically inviting myself to dinner.”

“You’re not.” He set down his glass and seized her hand. “It’s my house too, and you’re my guest. Besides, once I explain everything she’ll be grateful to you for dragging me home.”

Elizabeth wished she could share his confidence. She sighed and forced herself to smile. “All right, then. I’ll call Sally in the morning and make sure her couch is still available.”

“You’ll do no such thing.” He fixed an imperious stare on her. “I told Sonya to book a room at the Four Seasons.”

“Oh, no, I don’t need anything that fancy.”

William lifted his chin, every inch the lord of the manor. “It’s not just for you. I’ll be staying there too, and it’s convenient to the townhouse.”

“But—”

He took the glass from her hand and set it on the table. Then he grasped her shoulders, drawing her toward him. “If you think I’m spending my nights alone when you’re just a few blocks away …” His lips brushed hers in a soft, seductive caress. “Think again.”

“Your grandmother won’t like it.”

“She’ll have to learn to live with it.”

“I’d love to be a fly on the wall when you explain that to her.”

“It doesn’t need to be a big issue,” he said mildly. “When I leave the house I’ll tell her I’m escorting you to the hotel.”

“And she won’t notice that it takes you all night to do that?”

“Depending on her schedule, she might not. As long as she doesn’t see me walk in the door, she won’t officially know where I slept, so she’ll have deniability. That’s the way we always handled it when—” He stopped abruptly, pressing his lips together.

“When you spent the night with other women.” She watched a large moth flit past, no doubt on a collision course with one of the patio lights.

“I’m sorry,” he said, sighing.

“Let’s not worry about the past.” She ran a teasing finger across the patch of bare chest revealed by his robe. “We’re together now, and that’s what matters.”

She could tell from the warmth kindling in his eyes that she was about to be kissed. And so she was, and thoroughly, her head cradled in his large, warm hands.

A sound filtered through the haze of desire enveloping her. She drew away from him and cocked her head to one side. Either his kiss had started bells pealing, or else— “Is that the phone?”

He wore a dazed frown for a moment, but then his eyes widened. “I’d better get that. It might be Sonya.” He strode off toward the house at a brisk pace.

She reclaimed her champagne glass and sipped it absently while she stared into the pool, watching tiny waves ripple across its surface. At last she realized that she had been gifted with another opportunity to take partial cover in the water. Her hands dropped to the belt on her robe.

“Lizzy?”

She whirled to face William as he crossed the patio, a phone in his hand. “It’s Sonya,” he said. “She needs to talk to you about your flight home on Sunday.”

“Oh, gosh, I’d forgotten about that.”

Elizabeth took the phone and spoke briefly with Sonya, making a choice from among the available flights from New York to San Francisco. “Thank you so much for handling this,” she said in closing.

“Just doing my job,” Sonya replied cheerfully. “Incidentally, that was a good call on your part, talking William into coming home for Thanksgiving dinner.”

“He told you that, did he?”

“I told him he was lucky to have a girlfriend with common sense, since apparently he’s running on empty in that department. Mrs. Darcy takes family holidays seriously. You know, ‘family’ with a capital F, in gigantic letters with curlicues shooting out at every angle.”

“I see.” Elizabeth ordered herself to relax, and stop casting William’s grandmother as a dragon of mythic proportions. Rose Darcy might be imperious and demanding, but she didn’t command the sun to rise, nor did she orchestrate the movement of the tides.

She forgot her fears when William, who had been watching her with growing impatience, slipped off his robe. She licked her lips involuntarily and watched him amble toward her with the grace of a jungle cat, a wicked glint in his eye. Then he stepped close behind her and massaged her shoulders. Drawing her hair aside, he pressed a line of kisses to her neck. “Ready for a swim?” he murmured in her ear, dragging the lobe gently between his teeth. She shivered, her hand clamping around the phone.

“Is there anything else you need?” Sonya asked.

“No.” Hard as Elizabeth tried to regulate her voice, the word came out as a breathy sigh.

“Then I won’t keep you any longer.” Sonya’s tone was brisk. “I hope everything goes well.”

Elizabeth summoned up her self-control and managed, just barely, to speak in a steady tone despite the gentle but insistent hands slipping inside her robe. “Thanks again, Sonya. Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Same to you, and tell the boss man he’d better not call me again till next week. As soon as I finish booking your flight I’m officially on Thanksgiving vacation.”

Elizabeth said goodbye and slipped the phone into the pocket of her robe. William, his breath hot on her neck, reached around from behind, untied the belt on her robe, and drew the garment open. “My beautiful Lizzy,” he whispered.

She leaned back against him, exhaling a shaky sigh as he cupped her breasts, his thumbs brushing her nipples. Then one hand drifted across her stomach and lower, and she arched her back, moaning softly.

She turned in his arms, heat rushing through her as his hands slid up to push the robe off her shoulders. She stiffened for a moment but allowed it to drift to the ground, where it pooled at her feet. Then his arms came around her and she forgot her hesitation, mesmerized by the intoxicating sensation of skin against skin, softness against strength.

“I like skinny-dipping so far,” he murmured in her ear, his head dropping to press kisses along her shoulder.

“Except I think it’s supposed to involve getting wet.” Her hands roved along his back, relishing the warmth of his smooth skin and the ripple of the toned muscles underneath. She rubbed against him like a cat in heat.

“I don’t know about that.” She felt him throbbing against her stomach, hard and thick and blazing with heat. “I might just carry you over to one of the chaise lounges and have my way with you.” With a theatrical grunt he hefted her into his arms, a challenge evident in the rakish tilt of one eyebrow.

She looped her arms around his neck and mirrored his expression. “You say that as though you expect me to object.”

His grin widened. “I love it when we agree.”

Despite his added burden, he moved toward the nearest lounge chair with impressive speed, depositing her gently on the cushioned surface. The soft fabric felt damp and cool against Elizabeth’s back and legs, the product of the humid night air.

He leaned over her, a peculiar light in his eyes as they traveled over her body, and she felt her cheeks grow warm. “What is it?” she asked, licking her lips.

Tenderness and lust mingled in his expression. “You take my breath away.”

She wished she had the confidence to enjoy his devouring gaze, but embarrassment tingled through her. Seeking to distract herself, she focused on his body, her gaze drawn to the flagrant evidence of his passion. Practical concerns flew into her mind. “I hate to sound like a broken record, but what about—”

He nodded ruefully. “Excuse me.” He fetched his robe and dug in the pocket. Then, with a grunt, he sat on the edge of her lounge chair, brandishing a small square packet. “For once, I planned ahead.”

She stretched her arms toward him in warm invitation. “Then let’s put your excellent planning to good use.”

He leaned over her, his mouth descending to hers. “At your service, ma’am.”

 

Ordinarily William felt mellow and sleepy after sex, but perhaps because of the piquancy of the outdoor setting, their tryst in the lounge chair had left him energized. Elizabeth was the one who seemed languid, her head lolling on his shoulder as she rested in his arms. They sat on the concrete steps leading into the pool, the water lapping just below their shoulders.

He brushed Elizabeth’s tangled wet hair off her forehead and pressed a kiss to her damp skin. She shifted in his arms, her lips caressing his neck. He glanced up at the riot of stars in the sky and marveled at the profound peace filling his soul. “I have to ask once more. Are you sure we have to leave here in thirty-six hours? I hate the thought of leaving.”

“I know,” she said, kissing his jaw. “But we still have tomorrow. And I hope we can come back here someday.”

“Depend on it.” He had already assessed the immediate possibilities. New Year’s would have been a perfect opportunity, but for another commitment. “Incidentally, I never had a chance to tell you. I’m performing in a benefit concert at the Kennedy Center on New Year’s Eve. They’re calling it the Concert for America. A patriotic theme: American musicians playing works by American composers.”

“That sounds like quite an honor. I suppose the President will be there?”

“Yes. In fact, there’s a White House luncheon to honor the participants.” He didn’t add that he’d been a guest at the White House a few years before, invited to perform a recital following a state dinner for the President of Italy. “I’ll be in Washington for two or three days, and I’d like you to go with me.”

Her eyes shone. “I’d love to.”

“Good.” He hadn’t doubted her assent, but it pleased him all the same. “Richard is coming along, and he said something about inviting Charlotte.”

“Oh, really?” She eyed him triumphantly. “See, I told you those two have something going on.”

“I bow before your superior powers of observation.” He brushed that issue aside, returning to his primary concern. “We can spend Christmas in New York, and then go on to Washington.”

She hesitated. “We need to figure out how to handle the holidays. I should spend at least part of the time with my family. In fact, even though I know you’d probably rather avoid it, I thought maybe you’d come with me.”

He had known he couldn’t avoid contact with her family indefinitely, but that didn’t make the reality any more palatable. “As you say, we’ll have to work something out.” Preferably something involving the minimum possible exposure to Mrs. Bennet.

“Are they televising the concert?”

“On PBS, some time in January. It’s going to be a gala affair with a white-tie reception afterwards.”

“I hope I have something grand enough to wear.” She frowned. “Maybe the dress I wore to the party at Rosings. It’s more appropriate for warm weather, but it would do in a pinch. I just hope it’s not too plain.”

He would never forget the way she had looked that night, the living embodiment of the dreams that had filled his long, lonely summer. But she deserved to feel like a queen. “While we’re in New York, let me buy you a new dress for the evening, something special. If you want it can be your Christmas present.”

“My Rosings dress was that bad?”

“Of course not.” He stroked her cheek. “But Georgie always seems to want new dresses for special occasions, and I thought you might feel the same. Besides, I did warn you that I intend to give you plenty of gifts.”

“So you did.” She sighed. “Well, I don’t want you to get in the habit of supplying my wardrobe, but maybe just this once…” A reluctant smile turned up the corners of her mouth and her eyes sparkled. “I have to admit, that sounds like a wonderful Christmas present. I’d love to be the belle of the ball.”

“You’d be that even if you showed up wrapped in burlap.” He thought it best not to mention that the dress would be only one of her Christmas gifts. Among other things, she would need jewelry to complement the gown.

“I assume we’ll be photographed together at some point?” She skimmed her hand along the surface of the water, creating eddies gilded with threads of light.

“Probably.”

“Then it’ll be our public debut as a couple, sort of.”

William hadn’t thought of that. Their relationship was a poorly-kept secret at the conservatory, but the news had traveled no further. That was about to change. “You may get some attention from the New York society columnists. Maybe not the first time they see us together, but eventually they’ll notice a pattern.”

She smiled. “‘Eligible bachelor snagged by West Coast nobody?’ That sort of thing?”

“I’m afraid so. The family is prominent enough that they keep tabs on us, which causes Gran and Aunt Eleanor no end of distress every time Page 6 covers one of Richard’s peccadilloes. And I’ve been mentioned in some articles about New York bachelors.”

Her eyebrows lifted briefly and she pressed her lips together, but she stayed silent.

“What? Am I about to hear some smart-aleck remark? That if they really knew me, they’d banish me from the ‘10 Most Eligible’ lists?”

She made a sound like a tiny cough, though her expression suggested it had been a stifled laugh. “No. It’s just, I used to have copies of a few of those magazine articles.”

“Is that so?” He couldn’t stop himself from smirking, not that he really tried. “Where do you keep them? I’d like to see your William Darcy collection some day.”

“I said I used to have them. That day in New York, when you brought me the flowers and I ripped you to shreds, I went home and did the same thing to the magazine articles. And then I mangled the programs I’d saved from your concerts and tore up an autographed photo I got at Interlochen when I was sixteen. I kept your CDs, but that was it.”

“Ah.” So much for feeling smug. “Yes, during my stint as a complete horse’s ass.”

“Not complete, but pretty close,” she teased, kissing his cheek. “Fortunately you turned out to have a few redeeming qualities.”

“But why did the CDs escape your wrath? Wouldn’t it have been satisfying to shatter at least one?”

She waved away a curious insect skating across the water. “I had big problems with William Darcy the man, but William Darcy the musician still held me spellbound. It would have been a sacrilege to destroy your music.”

In the warm silence that followed he scooped water into his hand and drizzled it over her shoulders, admiring the way her skin glistened in the dim light. The sounds of the night came into focus: the gentle sloshing of the water against the edges of the pool, the ocean churning in the distance, and the song of the tree frogs, serenading nearby females in the hopes of inciting their interest. He grinned. The things we males will do to attract a woman.

His thoughts drifted back to the upcoming trip to Washington. “It’s going to mean more to me than you can imagine, seeing you in the audience at the New Year’s Eve concert. That was the hardest thing about those concerts in San Francisco.”

She stared at him, biting her lip.

He continued. “I’d envisioned the whole thing, with you sitting in your seat down front, smiling up at me. And then, what it would be like to play for you. And at the end, the pride in your eyes when everyone applauded. But instead your seat was empty.” He could still feel the pain that had crushed his spirit that night.

I’m so sorry.” She rested her hand over his heart. “I never wanted to hurt you.”

“It haunted me, all those long nights in Australia. That empty seat, a symbol of my empty life. I still played for you that night. In my imagination you were standing behind me, your hand on my shoulder, but of course you couldn’t hear me.”

She hesitated, licking her lips. “Actually, I could. I mean, I did. I was in the auditorium.”

“But I knew exactly where your seat was. It was empty.”

“I sat in the back with one of my students.”

“You came to the concert after all?” His eyes widened. “But why—”

“Why didn’t I sit in my seat? I went there to talk to you, maybe to end things between us, I’m not sure; I hadn’t thought it all the way through. But I couldn’t mislead you by sitting there as your special guest. At first I thought I’d wait in the upstairs lobby till you finished playing and then intercept you outside the artists’ entrance. But angry as I was, I had to see you play. It’s like I said. William Darcy the musician can do no wrong in my book.”

“You were there.” He still couldn’t believe it.

“You were brilliant.” She stroked his jaw tenderly. “But I could hear the pain pouring out of you. It was like a cry for help, one I knew nobody else could hear. I wanted to rush up on stage and wrap myself around you.”

“Why didn’t you come and see me before I left the auditorium, the way you’d planned?”

“I cried most of the way through the concerto. Your music always affects me that way, but besides that your pain was so raw and I knew I’d caused it. I had to get away, to think. But evidently I have a masochistic streak, because I drove up into the Marin Headlands. I sat there, right where we’d been together, and cried till I couldn’t cry another drop. And when I got home you were there, waiting for me.”

William tightened his arms around her. “I wish we could go back in time and fix everything that went wrong,” he muttered, his throat tight.

“I know. But maybe we had to go through it to get where we are. And I wouldn’t trade being with you now for anything in the world.”

“Amen to that.” Their lips met for a warm, reassuring kiss. William’s hand slid down to envelop her breast, his fingers trailing over the rounded contours. His sudden chuckle interrupted their embrace.

“What’s so funny?”

He grinned. “It just occurred to me that I have a gorgeous naked woman on my lap, and instead of enjoying it I’ve been wallowing in melancholy.”

“Well, artistic geniuses are supposed to be tortured, right?” She withdrew from his arms and hopped off his lap, standing in the waist-deep water. His eyes locked on her gently swaying breasts, glistening with beads of moisture. “But I think we need to lighten up and take advantage of this swimming pool. I’ll race you to the other end!”

Before he could react she plunged into the water, her strokes long and sure. By the time he reached the opposite wall, she was treading water calmly, her face glowing with triumph. “I won.”

“You cheated,” he sputtered. “You were halfway here before I even started.”

“Aw, my big studly fellow can’t stand to get beaten by a girl. Okay, fine. That was just a warm-up lap. This time you can call the start.”

He did, and won easily.

“Best two out of three,” she sang. “Ready, set, go!”

His reaction was sluggish, and she touched the opposite wall a second ahead of him.

“I think we ought to make this last lap interesting,” he said, giving her an appraising glance. “A wager, perhaps.”

“And what stakes did you have in mind?”

“The winner decides how we spend the rest of the night.” He lifted one eyebrow, sifting through the many delicious possibilities.

She rubbed against him in a sinuous gesture that jolted him with heat. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see steam rising from the water. “And if I choose going into the house and finishing the piña colada cheesecake?” she asked with a mischievous grin.

He wrapped his arms around her. “I’m sure we could devise a creative way to eat it. But it’s a moot point, because I’m not going to lose.”

“We’ll see about that.” Her hands stroked their way down to his buttocks, squeezing them gently.

Her high spirits were infectious, and he couldn’t ever recall having this much fun in a swimming pool. But the pressure of her soft curves combined with the liquid heat of her touch sent a fresh wave of lust slamming through him. “All right, this race is for the gold medal. Let’s go.”

Swimming naked while aroused wasn’t easy, but he won the final heat through sheer grit. He stood preening at the shallow end of the pool, his chest thrown high and wide, and raked his hands through his waterlogged hair, all the while grinning sardonically at the appropriateness of the word “heat.”

“All hail the victor,” she said, running a finger down his torso and vaporizing the water droplets on his skin. “All right, I’m a woman of my word. Name your spoils.”

He reached for her, drawing her into intimate, incendiary contact from head to toe. “I want you to massage every inch of me.”

“Wow, talk about a punishment!” A wicked smile lit her face. “Especially considering that I can’t seem to keep my hands off you anyway. But is it okay if we go inside? I could probably do a better job on the bed.”

“Then inside it is. But we’re skinny-dipping again tomorrow night. I have plans for us that involve the whirlpool.”

Her admiring gaze slid over him as they stepped out of the pool. “Mmm, I like the sound of that.”

 

William lay with his eyes closed, his breathing slow and even. He saw himself floating on a placid turquoise sea, bobbing gently with the tide. The sun caressed his skin, its benevolent warmth lulling him to a peace he rarely found.

Soft jazz music began to play; Elizabeth had found his CD collection. He opened his eyes and watched her moving quietly around the room, placing candles on the dresser and on both night tables. She perched on the edge of the bed, her eyes lustrous in the dim golden light.

He fingered the sleeve of her robe. “Please, take this off. I want to see you.”

She untied the belt, but her smile was forced.

He sat up and captured her face in his hands. “You’re still not comfortable letting me look at you?” A voice he tried to ignore whispered that if she truly trusted him, her reticence would vanish.

“It’s not that. It’s just … it would have felt weird walking around the room with nothing on. I know you’re comfortable doing that, but I’m just not.” She glanced down, and his eyes involuntarily followed. The robe hung open around her shoulders, the curves of her breasts swelling between the lapels.

He forced his eyes back to her face. “You seemed fine when we were outside.”

“I really wasn’t, but when you took off your robe I pretty much forgot about myself.”

He chuckled, charmed by her sweet rueful smile. “Then you know how I feel every time I see you. You’re the most beautiful—” He clamped his mouth shut. Any comparison, even a favorable one, to other women from his past would be tactless.

Paradoxically, his faux pas seemed to relax her. “Thank you,” she said with a giggle, her eyes dancing. “Both for starting that sentence, and for stopping it.” She slipped her arms out of the robe and allowed it to fall to the bed.

“My beautiful girl,” he murmured, bending over to press his lips to the upper slope of each breast. Then he brushed a soft kiss over her mouth, her lips moving with his to prolong the feather-light contact.

She smoothed his hair. “Roll onto your stomach. I thought I’d massage your back first.”

She started with his head, her fingers combing through his damp hair and massaging his scalp. He melted into the bed with a deep sigh. The mattress undulated slightly as she straddled his thighs and leaned forward to sink her fingers into his shoulders.

“Oh, that feels good,” he groaned as she kneaded his muscles, her hands surprisingly strong. A former girlfriend who had claimed to be skilled at sensual massage had often ended their evenings this way. But her touch had felt cold and clinical compared to Elizabeth’s loving hands, especially when supplemented by soft kisses along his shoulders.

“You have the most wonderful back,” she breathed, bending forward to press a kiss to a particularly sensitive spot behind his ear. A bolt of energy sizzled through his body when her tongue darted out to taste him. “These nice broad shoulders, and these lovely strong muscles. I could just look at your back for hours.”

But she did more than look, stroking her way down to his waist, her lips following the trail blazed by her hands. He might have drifted to sleep under her affectionate ministrations had every touch not ignited tiny sparks that seemed, through unfailing radar, to zip instantly to his groin.

“Did I ever tell you that I noticed what a fabulous rear end you have the first time I saw you in San Francisco?”

“At the airport?” He circled his hips in response to a sudden erotic charge as she kneaded his buttocks.

“Uh huh,” she said softly. “You were wearing a nice, tight pair of jeans, and Jane and I followed you out of the airport. I thought you were a horse’s ass, but the view was exceptional.”

One hand slipped between his legs, gently exploring the sensitive flesh at their juncture. William sucked a harsh breath through clenched teeth as razor-sharp ecstasy whipped through him. She had been saying something, but her words had flown from his head.

She shifted position, kneeling beside him on the bed, and encircled one of his legs with both hands. “You have fantastic legs too. All that running really pays off.” She worked her way downward, massaging first his thighs and then his calves. He groaned in utter bliss, tension draining from the muscles under her fingers.

Skipping his foot, she moved to his other leg and repeated the pattern. Then she patted his buttocks lightly. “Okay, turn over.”

He complied eagerly. His erection leapt into the air, bobbing in ecstasy at its release from confinement. Her eyes widened and a tiny smile played around the corners of her mouth, but she didn’t comment. Instead she scooted down by his feet, taking one into her hand and running a gentle finger along the sole.

William’s hips lifted off the bed and he nearly cried out. It was as though the nerve endings in his feet were wired directly to his groin. Blood surged through the engorged shaft and he gritted his teeth. If she did it again—

She did it again, to the other foot, and rendered him unable to speak aside from the desperate groan that tore from his throat. It was pure, sweet torture. He doubted his ability to handle much more, but he would have willingly fallen to his knees to beg her to continue.

Next she stroked her way up the outsides of his legs, scrupulously avoiding both the sensitive insides of his thighs and the swollen organ jutting upward, screaming for her touch.

“And then there’s this gorgeous chest,” she murmured as her hands stroked the hair-roughened surface. “It’s absolutely perfect.”

“Except for the scar.” He noted, as though from a great distance, that he sounded hoarse.

She bent over and ran her lips along the evidence of his childhood surgery. “Including the scar. It’s a reminder that I need to take special care of my tender-hearted guy.”

Even in his lust-crazed condition, her words moved him. “I love you,” he murmured, his voice dissolving into a soft groan when she gently closed her teeth around his taut brown nipple.

Next she massaged his arms, kneading the muscles and caressing his skin. She exploited the erogenous zones on his palms with light, playful touches until his hands tingled. She discovered a sensitive spot on the inside of his elbow, using her hands and lips to awaken nerve endings he hadn’t known existed.

And then her downward progress continued, her hands sliding over his waist. He resolved not to beg, but when once again she bypassed his erection, now swollen to unprecedented size, lust overwhelmed self-control. “Please,” he moaned, glancing down.

With a smile of unbearable sweetness, she leaned over and kissed his lips, keeping the contact light despite his attempts to plunge his tongue into her mouth and devour her. Her hands settled on his inner thighs, the sensitive skin there prickling and his muscles twitching as she teased him with feather-light caresses. Then one finger trailed up his aching shaft and whispered across the damp, hot tip. He gasped and every muscle seized as he waited for her to touch him again.

He nearly wept when her hand instead retreated to his thighs. He fought an urge to grab her, roll her beneath him, and plunge into her with a single reckless stroke, heedless of the consequences. Then her hand encircled him lightly, massaging the engorged column of flesh. His back arched and he opened his mouth to plead with her not to stop, to explain that he wouldn’t survive much more of this delicious torture. But her mischievous smile revealed that she understood the havoc she wrought.

William groaned for at least the hundredth time when she bent over and brushed her lips to his thighs. Her mouth traveled upward inch after maddening inch, so near the center of the flames consuming him. Her hand continued its hypnotic massage, ecstasy surging through him on every upstroke. Again he pondered the ease with which he could tumble her back onto the bed and press inside her if he chose.

Then her lips brushed the tip of his erection and he nearly leapt from his skin.

He had nearly chosen this as his reward for winning the race but had refrained, unsure of her reaction and unwilling to risk spoiling the warm intimacy of the night. That she had volunteered this caress moved him deeply. He tried to tell her so, but he seemed to have lost the power of speech, save one word: her name, uttered in a husky voice he barely recognized as his.

He held his breath as she repeated the kiss, her tongue darting out for a tentative taste that started him groaning again. Her tongue returned, bolder this time, and traced a soft, wet path up the pulsing shaft. His body quaked with helpless need.

She continued to lap at him, her tongue swirling around the sensitive head as though it were the world’s most delectable ice cream cone. Her hand delved between his legs, cupping the tender sac huddled close against his body. She glanced up at him with a smile that seemed to request reassurance and he nodded drunkenly. He would die if she stopped, his body shaken apart by the tremors vibrating through him.

He watched glassy-eyed as she lowered her mouth onto him, drawing him between her lips in a languorous motion. His head fell back against the pillows and he sighed her name. The room, the candlelight, the soft bed cradling his body all vanished, his universe reduced to the nirvana of the warm, wet haven engulfing him.

He couldn’t stay still. His hips twitched with every burst of pleasure. One hand grabbed a fistful of the sheet while the other tangled in the riot of damp curls spilling over his abdomen. Neither could he take his eyes off the most erotic vision of his life: his beloved Elizabeth, the caretaker of his battered soul, loving him in this most intimate of ways.

Then he felt the beginnings of a volcanic release barreling up from his toes, and he found his voice. “Lizzy, I’m going to—” But the warning was too late. With a powerful upward thrust of his hips he erupted in long, rolling spasms that clenched every muscle in his body.

His head sagged against the pillows, his chest heaving. She remained crouched beside him, stroking his sweat-drenched torso. Powerful aftershocks burst inside him, every skin cell hypersensitive to the slightest friction. Even the air molecules in the room, stirred by the lazy ceiling fan, seemed to caress his over-stimulated body. Gradually the sensations dulled to tiny sparks that hovered over him like fireflies in the dim candlelight.

He closed his eyes, his mind and body bathed in a warm glow. The searing pleasure had been astonishing in its raw power, draining him of his strength. He was capable of only one conscious thought: that he would reciprocate as soon as he could move again  … if he could ever move again.

But all too soon, cold dread gripped his heart. How, even in the extremes of lust, could he have been so selfish? His eyes flew open, fearful of what he might find. But she sat calmly beside him, her eyes distant, her fingers teasing the hairs on his thighs.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, reaching for her with a trembling hand. Fortunately she came to his side eagerly, because he lacked the energy to pull her close.

“For what?” She gathered him into her arms. With a grateful sigh he pillowed his head against her breasts, his body molding itself to hers.

“I should have given you more warning that I was close to the end,” he murmured, his voice muffled.

“I could tell.” She sounded amused.

“But maybe you didn’t want to … to—” He was surprised to find himself stammering. “Maybe you’d rather have finished it some other way.”

She stroked his back in a slow, reassuring motion. “I admit, it was a different experience. But it’s fun to make you lose control.”

“How did you know I wanted you to do that?”

She laughed softly. “Isn’t that what all men want?”

“I suppose so,” he said, chuckling. “But where on earth did you learn how—” He paused, swallowing. “Sorry. Forget I asked.” Some things, he was better off not knowing.

“Char gave me a book for my birthday.”

“A book?” He tried to lift his head to look into her eyes, but it felt ten times its normal weight. Instead he fastened his lips to her soft pink nipple, so conveniently close to his mouth, and began to suckle gently.

“Oh, that’s nice,” she sighed. “Yes, a book. I read it four or five times, before our argument.” She sighed again, a tiny, blissful sound, and her fingers threaded through his hair. “I was embarrassed at first when she gave it to me, but I decided to surprise you the next time we were together.”

He interrupted his attentions to her breast to say, “Consider me surprised. Remind me to thank Charlotte.”

“Was it okay? I mean, I’m sure plenty of other women have done that to you. And it wasn’t their first time doing it.”

He roused his flagging strength and lifted his head, staring into her eyes. “Cara, no one has ever made me feel that way. It was almost more than I could bear.”

“Then I should really drive you crazy once I’ve had more practice.”

He gulped. “Well, at least if I don’t survive it, I’ll die a happy man.”

A shadow passed over her face, and he silently cursed himself. Although she rarely mentioned it, he knew that she continued to worry about his heart. Rather than try to reassure her, he set out to distract her, a far more enjoyable approach. He covered her breasts with a soft blanket of kisses, breathing in her feminine fragrance mixed with the tang of salt and a hint of chlorine from the pool. He caressed his way down her torso, stroking her satiny skin, and at last slipped a hand between her legs. He toyed with her, entranced by her softness and heat, by her soft whimpers, and by the way her hands gripped his shoulders as though seeking something to steady her tilting world.

William lingered over her with a patience and thoroughness that his passions rarely permitted. He memorized every soft curve and tender hollow of her breasts, neck, and shoulders and experimented with the caresses that wrung the strongest reactions from her. Soon she began to press her hips toward his hand, her breathing uneven. Her excitement stirred desire to life in him despite his recent climax. She was never more completely his than when she surrendered her body to pleasure.

He shifted lower, his lips worshipping her stomach with the same avid attention he had lavished on her breasts. Her muscles leapt when he extended his tongue for a quick taste of her skin. He dove lower still, nibbling his way down her abdomen and urging her thighs apart. Her soft body, her passionate moans, and her womanly scent excited him beyond measure, and he felt himself growing large and very hard.

When his mouth brushed her thighs, she grasped his shoulders. “William, no.”

“Please, cara.” He had attempted to please her in this way before, but she had always fended him off, embarrassment tightening her features.

“No. You don’t need to do this. I wasn’t expecting reciprocity.”

He glanced up into her troubled eyes. “I want to.”

She shifted away from him, pulling her legs tightly together. “I’m not ready for … that yet. It’s …” She shook her head and sighed. “Not yet.”

He gusted a sigh and rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling.

She leaned over him, stroking his chest. “I’m not rejecting you, Will. I just … not yet, okay?”

He sighed again. They had made immense strides in physical intimacy, and sooner or later they would demolish this barrier too.

“What I’d really like,” she whispered in his ear, pausing to nip the lobe, “is for you to make love to me.” She stretched out on top of him, her breasts flattened against his chest, her legs twining around his. “It’s your decision; you won the race. Please?”

It was long past time to stop sulking. He grasped her hips and pulled her tightly against him. “I have a better idea,” he answered with a wicked smile. “Why don’t you make love to me?”

Later, as she clung to him crying out in unbridled ecstasy, he decided it was one of the best ideas he’d ever had.