Straining against him, she searched blindly for his hot, teasing mouth, the silken stroke of his tongue. He gave it to her, his kiss gentle but sure. She curled her free arm around his neck to keep from falling, while he kept the other wrist pressed against the wall, their pulses throbbing hard together beneath the wrapping of white ribbon. Another deep kiss, somehow raw and soothing at the same time…he ate at her mouth, tasted and licked inside her…the pleasure of it threatened to blot out her consciousness. No wonder…she thought dizzily. No wonder so many women had succumbed to this man, had thrown away their reputations and their honor for him…had even, if rumor could be believed, threatened to kill themselves when he left them. He was sensuality incarnate.
As St. Vincent lifted his body away from hers, Evie was surprised that she didn’t crumple bonelessly to the ground. He was breathing as hard as she, harder, his chest rising and falling steadily. They were both silent as he reached to untie the ribbon, his ice-blue gaze focused completely on the task. His hands were shaking. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her face, though she could not fathom whether it was to keep from seeing her expression, or to prevent her from seeing his. After the length of white silk had fallen away, Evie felt as if they were still bound, her wrist retaining the sensation of being fastened against him.
Finally daring to glance at her, St. Vincent silently challenged her to protest. She held her tongue and took hold of his arm, and they walked the short distance to the inn. Her mind was spinning, and she barely heard Mr. Findley’s jovial congratulations as they entered the little building. Her legs felt heavy as she ascended a flight of dark, narrow steps.
Finally it had come to this, a teeth-gritting effort to put one foot in front of the other in the hopes that she wouldn’t drop in her tracks. They came to a small door in the upstairs hallway. Resting her drooping shoulders against the wall, Evie watched St. Vincent fumble with the lock. The key turned with a scraping sound, and she staggered toward the open doorway.
“Wait.” St. Vincent bent to lift her.
She inhaled quickly. “You don’t have to—”
“In deference to your superstitious nature,” he said, picking her up as easily as if she were a child, “I think we had better adhere to one last tradition.” Turning sideways, he carried her through the doorway. “It’s bad luck if the bride trips over the threshold. And I’ve seen men after a three-day bacchanal who were steadier on their feet than you are.”
“Thank you,” Evie murmured as he set her down.
“That will be a half crown,” St. Vincent replied. The sardonic reminder of the blacksmith’s fees brought a sudden smile to her face.
The smile faded, however, as she glanced around the tidy little room. The bed, large enough for two, looked soft and clean, the coverlet worn from countless launderings. The bedstead was made of brass and iron with ball-shaped finials. A rosy glow emanated from an oil lamp made of ruby glass that had been set on the bedside table. Muddy, cold, and numb, Evie stared mutely at the ancient wood-rimmed tin tub that had been placed before the small, flickering hearth.
St. Vincent latched the door and came to her, reaching for the fastening of her cloak. Something like pity flickered across his features as he saw that she was shaking with weariness. “Let me help you,” he said quietly, taking the cloak from her shoulders. He laid it over a chair near the hearth.
Evie swallowed hard and tried to stiffen her knees, which seemed inclined to buckle. Cold dread weighted her stomach as she glanced at the bed. “Are we going to…” she started to ask, her voice turning scratchy.
St. Vincent began on the front fastenings of her gown. “Are we going to…” he repeated, and followed her gaze to the bed. “Good God, no.” His fingers moved rapidly along her bodice, freeing the row of buttons. “Delectable as you are, my love, I’m too tired. I’ve never said this in my entire life—but at the moment I would much rather sleep than fuck.”
Overwhelmed with relief, Evie let out an unsteady sigh. She was forced to clutch at him for balance as he pushed the loosened gown down over her hips. “I don’t like that word,” she said in a muffled voice.
“Well, you had better get used to it,” came his caustic reply. “That word is said frequently at your father’s club. God knows how you managed to escape hearing it before.”
“I did,” she said indignantly, stepping out of the discarded gown. “I just didn’t know what it meant until now.”
St. Vincent bent to untie her shoes, his broad shoulders quivering. A curious gasping, choking noise came from him. At first Evie wondered anxiously if he had suddenly been taken ill, and then she realized that he was laughing. It was the first genuine laughter she had ever heard from him, and she had no idea what he found so funny. Standing over him in her chemise and drawers, she crossed her arms over her front and frowned.
Still snorting with quiet amusement, St. Vincent removed her shoes one at a time, tossing them aside. Her stockings were rolled down her legs with swift efficiency. “Take your bath, pet,” he finally managed to say. “You’re safe from me tonight. I may look, but I won’t touch. Go on.”
Having never undressed before a man in her life, Evie felt a prickling blush cover her body as she eased down the straps of her chemise. Tactfully St. Vincent turned his back and went to the washstand with a ewer of hot water that had been set by the hearth. While he proceeded to gather his shaving implements from his trunk, Evie clumsily stripped away her underclothes and climbed into the bath. The water was hot, wonderfully so, and as she sank into the tub her cold legs tingled as if they were being pricked with a thousand needles.
A jar of gelatinous brown soap had been set on a stool beside the tub. Scooping some of it in her fingers, Evie spread the acrid-smelling stuff over her chest and arms. Her hands felt clumsy…she couldn’t quite seem to make her fingers work properly. After dunking her head in the water, she reached for more of the soap, nearly dropping the jar in the process. She washed her hair, made a sound of discomfort as her eyes began to sting, and splashed handfuls of water on her face.
Quickly St. Vincent approached the tub with the ewer. She heard his voice through the splashing. “Tilt your head back.” He poured the remainder of the clear water over her soapy hair. Deftly he blotted her face with a length of clean but scratchy toweling and bade her to stand. Evie took his proffered hand and obeyed. She should have been mortified, standing na*ed in front of him, but she had finally reached an extremity of exhaustion that did not allow for modesty. Trembling and enervated, she let him help her from the tub. She even allowed him to dry her, as she was unable to do anything but stand listlessly, not caring or even noticing if he was looking at her.
St. Vincent was more efficient than any lady’s maid, dressing Evie swiftly in the white flannel nightgown he had found in her valise. He used the towel to wring the water from her hair, then guided her to the washstand. Evie registered incuriously that he had found her toothbrush in the valise and had sprinkled the bristles with tooth powder. Brushing and rinsing with jerky movements, she spit into the creamware washbowl. The toothbrush dropped from her nerveless fingers, clattering to the floor. “Where’s the bed?” she whispered, her eyes closed.
“Here, sweetheart. Take my hand.” St. Vincent led her to the bed, and she crawled onto the mattress like a wounded animal. The bed was dry and warm, the mattress soft, the weight of the sheets and wool blankets exquisite on her aching limbs. Burying her head in the pillow, she let out a sighing groan. There was a slight tugging at her scalp, and she comprehended that St. Vincent was combing the snarls from her damp hair. Passively accepting his ministrations, she let him turn her over to reach the other side. When the task was finished, St. Vincent left the bedside to attend to his own bath. Evie managed to stay awake just long enough to crack her swollen lids open for a view of his lean, gold-tinted body in the firelight. Her eyes closed as he stepped into the tub…and by the time he had sat down, she was fast asleep.
No dreams leavened her slumber. There was nothing but sweet, heavy darkness, and the soft bed, and the quietness of a Scottish village on a cold autumn night. The only time she stirred was at daybreak, when noises from outside filtered into the room…the cheerful cries of the muffin seller, a rag man, the sounds of animals pulling carts through the street. Her eyes slitted open, and in the diluted light that shone through the rough-woven fawn-colored curtains, she registered the surprising sight of another person in bed with her.
St. Vincent. Her husband. He was naked, or at least the upper half of him was. He slept on his stomach, his smoothly muscled arms curved around the pillow beneath his head. The broad lines of his shoulders and back were so perfect that they seemed to have been carved from pale Baltic amber and sanded to a glossy finish. His face was much softer in repose than it was in wakefulness…the calculating eyes were closed, and his mouth was relaxed into gentle, innocently sensuous lines.
Closing her own eyes, Evie dwelled on the thought that she was now a married woman, and would be able to see her father soon and stay with him for as long as she wished. And as it was likely that St. Vincent would care little about what she did or where she went, she would have some freedom. Despite the worries that lurked in the back of her mind, a feeling that resembled happiness crept through her, and she sighed and drifted to sleep once more.
This time, she dreamed. She was walking along a sun-drenched lane lined with purple asters and swaying spikes of goldenrod. It was a path in Hampshire that she had traversed many times before, past wet fields filled with yellow meadowsweet and tall late-summer grasses. She strolled alone in the sunken lane until she approached the wishing well where she and the other wallflowers had once tossed pins into the churning water and made wishes. Having learned of the local superstition about the well spirit who lived deep in the ground, Evie had been nervous about standing too close to the edge. According to legend, the spirit was waiting to capture an innocent maiden and pull her down with him into the well, to live as his consort. In her dream, however, Evie was fearless, even daring to remove her shoes and dip her toes into the sloshing water. To her surprise, it was not cool, but deliciously warm.
Lowering herself to the edge of the well, Evie dangled her bare legs in the soothing water and lifted her face to the sun. She felt a soft touch on her ankles. She held very still, feeling no fear even as she sensed something moving beneath the surface of the water. Another touch…a hand…long fingers smoothed over her feet and massaged tenderly, rubbing over the sore insteps until she sighed in pleasure. The big masculine hands slid higher, caressing her calves and knees, while a large, sleek body emerged from the depths of the well. The spirit had taken the form of a man to court her. His arms slipped around her, and the feel of him was strange but so lovely that she kept her eyes closed, fearing that if she tried to look at him, he might vanish. His skin was hot and silken, the muscles of his back rippling beneath her fingers.
Her dream lover whispered endearments as he embraced her, his mouth playing over her throat. Everywhere he touched, she felt a glow of sensation. “Shall I take you?” he whispered, carefully drawing away her clothes, baring her skin to the light and air and water. “Don’t be afraid, little love, don’t…” And as she shivered and held him blindly, he kissed her throat and breasts, and touched her ni**les with his tongue. His hands coasted over her front, slipping down to cradle her br**sts while his half-parted lips brushed over a budded peak. His tongue darted out to flick the sweetly aching flesh again and again, until a moan rose in her throat and she slid her fingers into his thick hair. Opening his mouth, he covered her nipple and drew on it with a gentle tug, then stroked with his tongue and pulled again…licking and suckling in a soft, clever rhythm. She arched and gasped, helplessly widening her thighs as he moved more tightly between them…and then…
Evie’s eyes flew open. Her mind reeled as she awoke in a tangle of confusion and desire, her lungs laboring wildly. The dream faded, and she comprehended that she was not in Hampshire but in the rented room at the Gretna inn, and the sounds of water were not from a wishing well but from a heavy rain outside. There was no sunlight, but instead the blaze of a newly lit fire in the hearth. And the body over hers was not that of a well spirit, but of a warm, living man…his head over her stomach, his mouth wandering lazily over her skin. Evie stiffened and whimpered in surprise at the realization that she was naked…that St. Vincent was making love to her and had been for some minutes.
St. Vincent glanced up at her. With the slight flush on the crests of his cheeks, his eyes seemed lighter and more startling than usual. The hint of a relaxed but devious smile touched the corners of his mouth. “You’re difficult to awaken,” he said huskily, and his head lowered again, while one of his hands coasted stealthily along her thigh. Shocked, she uttered a hoarse protest and shifted beneath him, but he soothed her with his hands, stroking her legs and hips, resettling her on the mattress. “Lie still. You don’t have to do anything, my love. Let me take care of you. Yes. You can touch me if you…mmm, yes…” He purred as he felt her trembling fingers touch his gleaming hair, the back of his neck, the hard slope of his shoulders.
He moved lower, his hair-roughened legs sliding along the insides of hers, and she realized that his face was just above the triangle of fiery red curls. Flooded with embarrassment, she automatically reached down to cover the private area with her hand.
St. Vincent’s erotic mouth lowered to her hip, and she felt him smile against her tender skin. “You shouldn’t do that,” he whispered. “When you hide something from me, I want it all the more. I’m afraid you’re filling my head with the most lascivious ideas…you’d better take your hand away, sweet, or I might do something really depraved.” As her shaking hand withdrew, he let one fingertip wander into the springy hair, delicately searching the cushiony softness. “That’s right…obey your husband,” he whispered wickedly, stroking farther, deeper, until he had separated the cluster of curls. “Especially in bed. How beautiful you are. Open your legs, my love. I’m going to touch inside you. No, don’t be afraid. Will it help if I kiss you here? Be still for me…”
Evie sobbed as his mouth searched through the triangle of brilliant red hair. His warm, ruthlessly patient tongue found the little peak half concealed beneath the vulnerable hood. His long, agile finger probed the entrance of her body, but he was momentarily dislodged as she jerked in surprise.