There was so much more to him than he was allowing anyone to see. Right now they were secluded from the Gramercys, the Spindle Cove gossips . . . from the rest of the living world. This might be her only chance to get at it.
“Give me something,” she pleaded. “Your father’s trade, or the names of your siblings. The house where you were raised. A friend, your favorite plaything. Anything.”
His face hardened as he rose to his feet.
“For goodness’ sake, Thorne. Do you realize, I don’t even know your Christian name? I’ve been stretching my brain to recall it. Surely someone in the village would have used it, at least once. It would be in Sally’s ledger of accounts in the shop, maybe. Or Lord Rycliff would have mentioned it sometime. Perhaps in church. But the more I think on it, the more I’m certain . . . no one else in Spindle Cove knows it, either.”
“It’s not important.”
“Of course it is.” She grabbed him by the sleeve. “You are important. And you need to let someone know you.”
His eyes bore into hers, nailing her in place. His voice sank to a low growl. “Stop pushing me.”
When a powerful, unpredictable man loomed over a girl and glared at her that way, her every instinct was to back down. He knew that, and he was using it against her.
“I won’t give up,” she said. “Not until you give me something.”
“Fine.” He spoke in a remote voice, utterly devoid of emotion, as if rattling off a list of drill commands or ordering up a list of dry goods. “I never knew my father. Never wanted to. He got my mother with child too young, out of wedlock, and then abandoned us both. She turned whore, found a place in a bawdy house. I could sleep in the attic, so long as I worked for my keep and stayed out of the customers’ sight. I never went to school. Never learned a trade. My mother came to like her gin, and she came to hate my face, the more I grew to resemble my father. Never missed a chance to tell me I was useless, stupid, ugly, or all three. If she had anything solid to hand, she’d beat the message in for good measure. I left when I had the chance, and I never once looked back.”
Kate couldn’t respond. Words failed her.
“There,” he said, taking the forgotten meat pie from her hand and tossing it to the waiting dog. “Charming story for the breakfast table.”
Her own silence mocked her. She’d asked for the truth. She’d pushed him for information, and now she was allowing him to push her away.
Kate willed her tongue to work. Say something nice. Anything.
“I . . .” She swallowed hard. “I find you unbearably handsome.”
He stared at her. “Miss Taylor . . .”
“I do. I find you unbearably, painfully handsome. I didn’t always.” The words spilled from her lips, unconsidered. “But ever since Hastings . . . it’s hard for me to even look at you sometimes. It can’t come as much surprise. You must be aware how many women are attracted to you.”
He made a derisive sound. “It’s not for my fine looks.”
Kate went silent, suddenly keenly aware of all his other attractions. His strong body, that air of command, the fiercely protective instincts. The talents that must fuel those “tales” Sally Bright mentioned in the All Things shop.
“I’m certain women are attracted to you for a host of reasons,” she said. “But I can only speak for myself. And I find you unbearably handsome.”
He frowned. “Why are you saying this? I don’t need this from you.”
“Perhaps you don’t.”
But I think you do.
She might not be able to comprehend the horrors he’d faced on a battlefield, but she knew how it felt to be an unwanted child. She understood how it felt to be deemed worthless and ugly by the very person charged with her care. She knew how each and every unkind remark worked on a child’s confidence for weeks, months, years. Bruises faded from the skin, but insults worked like weevils, burrowing into a person’s soul.
She knew it took dozens of kindnesses to counteract just one slight, and even then—she knew how she’d come to dodge compliments, even well into adulthood, dismissing them as mere pity or insincerity. Because how could they be true? The ugly words were still there, deep inside, and they outlasted everything. They were the bones in this churchyard. No matter how much soil was heaped atop them, no matter how many cheerful flowers were planted over the grave—they would always be there.
Those hateful words could outlive dirt.
She knew. And she couldn’t watch him hurting and not do something to counteract it.
“I find you unbearably handsome,” she said. “I know you’re modest and guarded and you don’t need to hear it. But I need to say it. So there it is.”
She touched her fingertips to his cheek. He flinched, and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat.
Reveling in the thrill of disobedience, she framed his face in her hands, letting the tips of her longest fingers graze the dark fringe of his hair. The icy chips of his eyes sent a shiver down her spine.
So she let her gaze fall to his lips, wondering—not for the first time—how that grim slash of a mouth could transform into something so passionate and warm when they kissed. She touched the pad of her thumb to the hollow of his cheek. Where a dimple might appear, if he could ever be coaxed to smile.
She very much wanted to see him smile. She wanted to make him laugh, long and loud.
“You’re handsome,” she said.
“If I am speaking absurdities, it must be your fault. This hard angle of your jaw”—she traced it with a fingertip—“quite scrambles my thoughts, and your eyes . . . There’s some puzzle in them I want to solve.”
“Don’t try. You don’t know me.” His voice was harsh, but his gaze was stark with hunger. Open, naked hunger.
Yes. Triumph surged through her veins. She was getting somewhere now.
“I know you took a melon for me.” She smiled. “That’s a start. And when you look at me the way you’re doing right now, I scarcely know myself. I feel womanly, to a degree I’ve never felt before. But then I feel girlish, too. I have to remind myself not to do something silly, like twirl my hair or bounce on my toes. I think that’s quite definite proof that you’re handsome, Thorne. At least, to one woman.”
And if she was right—and that small spark in his eyes was a deeply buried yearning . . .
Kate thought she could live with being beautiful to just one man.
He took her by the waist, pulling her close. She gasped at the suddenness and strength in the motion. She suspected her shock was his purpose.
“I don’t fear you,” she said.
“You should fear me.” He tightened his hold on her waist. In a matter of three paces he had her backed against the nearest wall. A lush green curtain of ferns and ivy framed her hair and face. “You should fear this. Every minute we’re in this churchyard together, you’re risking ruin. You could lose everything you’ve wanted most.”
She knew he spoke the truth. Just a few hundred yards away were four people who offered the human connection and family love she’d grown up dreaming of and hoping to find. The Gramercys represented her heart’s desire.
And yet she was here, with him. Sharing a highly improper embrace on sacred ground, with only the dead to chaperone. Had she lost her mind?
Or perhaps she’d found another heart’s desire.
Was there some limit on them? Couldn’t a girl have more than one?
The Gramercys made her feel accepted. But Thorne made her feel desired. Needed. In her youth, she never could have known to wish for this.
She murmured, “What have you done to me?”
“Not a fraction of what I’d like to do.”
She smiled. There it was again—a flash of that dry, disarming wit. Oh, she was in so much trouble. Wringing affection from this man would be like squeezing honey from a stone. But he’d brought her this close, and she couldn’t resist reaching for something more.
Don’t hide from me, she willed. Don’t pull away.
“Handsome,” she whispered, taking a chisel and hammer to the stone. Chipping away as best she knew how. “Fine-looking. Attractive. Striking. Noble. Body-thrilling. Swoon-inducing. Beauti—”
His kiss made a liar of her.
She’d blithely told him she didn’t fear him—but that was before his lips came crushing down on hers. Before his tongue invaded her mouth. Plunging deep, and then deeper still. Exploring, stroking, demanding. Stirring up emotions she didn’t know how to control.
A low growl rose from his chest. He moved forward, pressing his hard, masculine body to hers, and together they burrowed into the ivy covering the wall. The air was a dark, glossy green in her senses. Tiny, grasping tendrils pulled at her, scratched like small fingernails along her skin. They made her feel wild and part of something larger than herself, something elemental and natural and old as time.
As they kissed, his strong hands began to roam her body, shaping and claiming her in ways that must be wrong, but felt so necessary.
She wondered—if she were a woman with more experience, where would she be touching him? Stretching her arms about his waist, perhaps? Might she work her hand inside his coat, to feel the sculpted contours of his chest?
She wasn’t that daring. Instead, she touched her hand to his jaw, robustly formed and rough with new whiskers when the hour was barely noon. She slid her hand around the strong column of his neck, letting her fingertips graze the shorn hair at his nape. She stroked him there, softly. Tenderly. Because everyone deserved a bit of tenderness, and she was so very hungry for it herself.
What he gave her was something far more primal.
He clutched her tight, moaning into the kiss and holding her fast against him. The thrill of power was immediate. It shot through her, forking into every limb and electrifying her senses as he ravaged her mouth.
He muttered a curse as his lips slid to her neck, as though he kissed her unwillingly, against all morals and reason. She thrilled to that bit of blasphemy. It excited her to know that here, in this tiny, walled churchyard, she’d torn down his barriers. He’d lost all sense of duty or restraint, and she’d done this to him.
And then . . .
Then there was what he was doing to her.
His kisses worked lower along the left side of her throat, and his right hand worked higher from her waist, and the two seemed destined to meet at a specific point. That reddish, round, helpful point that now puckered and jutted against her garments, presenting itself as an eager target.
I should put a stop to this.
She watched the idea pass through her mind. It came, and it went, and she did nothing about it.
When his hand stroked over her fabric-cloaked breast, she nearly fainted with pleasure and relief. His palm ironed the modest globe flat, and then his thumb found the taut, straining peak of her nipple, chafing back and forth in a delicious manner. Her body throbbed with a deep, sweet ache. He kissed the sensitive skin over her pounding heart, then pushed her breast higher, nuzzling the overflowing scoop of warm feminine flesh in his palm.
Nuzzling. Who could have known this cold, ruthless man had it in him to nuzzle? At all?
“Katie.” He groaned. “I burn for you.”
Just a few husky words, but coming from a man so taciturn, she thought they must equal reams of poetry.
I burn for you.
So hot, those words. So dangerous. Their effect was incendiary.
The potent heat of his desire changed her everywhere. Her stockings itched. She wanted them off. Between her legs, she swelled and ached. Her breasts challenged the corset’s limits with her every fevered, panting breath. They rose impatient and quivering, begging for more of his skillful attention.