He hooked his finger beneath the fabric of her bodice and ran it up toward her shoulder, loosening her gown just enough to slide it over one shoulder and down. With his thumb, he eased her neckline lower, all the while kissing and sucking lightly at her neck.
He was going to touch her bare breast.
She was going to let him.
It would happen. Soon.
He kissed her lips, just as his fingers curled inside her bodice, cupping the slight handful of her breast. She tasted his dark, sensual moan. The pleasure was so intense, she arced off the ivy-covered wall, mindlessly thrusting her hips against him. Her belly met with the hard, pulsing ridge of his arousal.
Someone notify Lady Harriet. There was a monumental erection to be found in Wilmington, after all.
He growled against her lips as he kneaded and fondled her flesh, teasing her nipple with the pad of one finger. Rolling it under his touch, chasing round and round. Kate thought she would go out of her skin with pleasure.
“I must—” He broke the kiss, gasping. “Katie, I want to taste you. I have to taste you.”
“Yes,” she urged. “Yes.”
She worked a hand between them, reaching for the ribbon bow just at the top of her bodice. She hadn’t lied to him earlier—the bows on the gown were ornamental, sewn together.
All except this one.
She watched his eyes widen as she grasped the edge of the ribbon and teased the bow loose. It was like she’d given him a lifetime of Christmas and birthday gifts, all at once. And any self-consciousness she’d ever felt about her smallish breasts and dark nipples . . . it all disappeared in an instant when he pulled the fabric down, exposing her to the cool air and his hot, hungry gaze.
She might not be perfect, but he liked what he saw.
At least, she supposed that was what it meant when a man whispered, “Sweet God above.”
He shook his head, still staring rapt at her naked breast. “This can’t happen.”
“Oh, yes. It’s happening.” She hoped more would be happening rather soon.
“I don’t use women. Ever.”
“You’re not using me.”
“And I don’t take advantage of innocent girls. Ever.”
For goodness’ sake. He wasn’t taking advantage of her, and she wasn’t a girl. Would it help if she begged?
The longer he delayed, the tighter her nipple puckered. It looked like a raspberry now, jutting out from a scoop of blancmange. Ready to be devoured.
“Thorne.” She wriggled, pressing her breast into his hand. “I need . . . something.”
He looked up, pinning her gaze with his. “I know precisely what you need.” The deep richness of his voice melted and spread over her skin.
“Then please.” She tugged at his coat, trying to pull him closer. “Please.”
After a long hesitation he pulled her sleeve back up over her shoulder, then covered her breast.
“You need more than a moment’s stolen pleasure,” he said. “You need care and affection. Tenderness and love.”
With jerky motions, he retied the ribbon bow, then stepped away. “You need a different man. A better man than me.”
No sooner had Thorne stepped away, loins throbbing with unspent lust, than Lady Lark Gramercy came dashing into the churchyard.
He quickly moved behind a stone cross, which was conveniently waist high. There was no concealing his labored breathing, however. Nor Katie’s.
“Oh, there you two are,” Lark said, smiling. “For a moment, I worried you were having some sort of tryst. I should hate for anything to tempt Evan to a sixth duel.” The young woman laughed. “Five is impressive, but six . . . ? Six would just look predictable.”
Katie—Miss Taylor, he scolded himself—plucked a bit of ivy from her hair as she stepped away from the wall. Her cheeks and throat were washed with pink.
“We’ve had a time of it,” she said. “Badger dashed into the churchyard through a hole in the wall and we’ve been searching.”
Bloody hell. Thorne scanned the rows of graves. The pup was missing again.
What a blackguard he was. Not only had he been moments away from desecrating Miss Taylor’s virtue in a churchyard and ruining her future of wealth and comfort—he’d neglected the damn dog. He scrubbed a hand through his hair, furious with himself.
“Go on with Lady Lark,” he told Miss Taylor. “I’ll find him.”
He needed a few minutes to bring his lust into submission anyway.
Once the ladies had left, he whistled. The dog came running straightaway.
And then Thorne spent a quarter hour or so reading the inscription on every last monument in the churchyard, at his usual painfully slow rate. Might as well get acquainted with the people he’d given such a salacious show.
Four rows of dead Wilmingtonians later, his loins had calmed and he believed he might be able to think clearly again. As he left the churchyard, Badger at his heel, he ran both hands through his hair.
What the devil was he doing? Hadn’t he resolved there would be no more kisses? He knew how to withstand purely physical temptation, but her sweetness . . . this was a force unlike any he’d faced before.
If he hadn’t chosen that moment to stop . . . If Lady Lark had arrived just a few seconds earlier . . . Katie—Miss Taylor—would have been caught with her bosom hanging out of her dress. With him hulking and slavering over her like a randy youth getting his first flash of tit.
Thorne had meant what he’d told her. He didn’t use women. Growing up in a whorehouse had left him with contempt for any man who paid for pleasure. And an exchange of coin wasn’t the only way a woman could be used. He’d seen men wield power, privilege, circumstance, and physical violence to have their way.
Sometimes—many times—it all made him disgusted to be a man.
But he was a man. One like all the others, rank with dark cravings and base needs. So he took lovers—but only when he knew the relationship would be mutually satisfying, uncomplicated, and brief.
Nothing with Miss Taylor could be uncomplicated. As for brief . . . ? They had a connection spanning decades.
Today he’d been tempted to use her anyway. Oh, she would have argued that she was willing enough. But he knew what she truly wanted from life. And it sure as hell didn’t involve reclining against a churchyard wall and offering her breast to a crude, uneducated convict. If he’d given in to her pleadings and his own lust, he would have only been using her. To make himself feel stronger, more powerful.
You are important, she’d said. You need to let someone know you.
When it came to his emotions, no one could get past the stalwart defenses he had erected. No one, that was, until her. She’d been close to him long before all those fortifications were completed. And though she didn’t remember his face or his name, she seemed to recall her way through the network of tunnels. She was gaily skipping past all his Keep the Hell Out barricades, working her way to the center of his soul.
Where all the demons lurked.
He had to find some way to fence her out, before she got hurt. He’d said too much about the past already, and he could never let her know more.
It would ruin her life.
As the Gramercys’ ridiculous picnic pagoda came into view, he drew to a halt in the middle of the meadow and stared at the thing. It seemed that wherever these people went, they built a queer little kingdom of their own—and he was always outside its borders.
Badger sat at his heel, waiting on further direction.
Thorne tossed the pup a bit of dried beef from his pocket, rewarding his patience.
He’d been waiting a long time for a hound like this. While noblemen kept purebred greyhounds and such for their fancy fox hunts, the lurcher was a common man’s hunting dog—a coursing hound specially bred for speed, sight, and intelligence. A good lurcher could chase down rabbits, fowl. Even foxes and deer.
A dog like Badger would make a fine companion in the American wilderness. He was perfectly bred to be obedient, swift, and ruthless in pursuit of the kill.
Miss Taylor couldn’t care less about any of that. She wrung her hands at the idea of Badger catching a vole.
Yet she claimed to love the creature. And for what? The too-long nose, or unevenly patched fur? The pup’s propensity to chew her belongings to bits?
The longer he stared at the dog, the less sense it made.
“What the hell does she see in you?”
“Oh, Badger. What do we see in that man?”
As Kate curled up with the puppy that night, she found and plucked a hidden burr from his undercoat.
“You like him, too,” she said to the pup. “Don’t try to deny it. I can tell you do. Your eyes go all melty when he tosses you the smallest scrap of affection, and when he’s near, you have a tendency to pant.”
She sighed, cupping the puppy’s cone-shaped muzzle in her palm. “Do you want to know a secret? I’m afraid I have the same reaction, and it’s every bit as obvious.”
Badger pawed at a bit of loosened leather binding from a copy of Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom for Young Ladies.
“Go on, destroy it,” she urged. “There are several hundred more where it came from.”
Copies of the insipid, damaging etiquette book littered the village in scores—and very few of them remained anywhere else in England. As the original patroness of Spindle Cove, Susanna Finch—now Lady Rycliff—had made it her personal mission to remove every possible copy of Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom from circulation.
Badger was welcome to chew his way through them, one by one. Because right now, Kate had no use for proper, ladylike behavior. She flopped back on the mattress and stared up at the ceiling, giving in to the temptation to remember.
Her nipples peaked beneath her nightrail. With each rise and fall of her breath, the thin linen teased them harder still. She wanted his hands on them. His mouth on them. His body atop hers, heavy and strong.
She wanted that yearning look in his pale blue eyes, and the sweet, sweet taste of his kiss.
She lifted one hand to the valley between her breasts and lightly stroked up and down her sternum, dragging the muslin with her touch.
If only he hadn’t suffered that attack of conscience in the churchyard.
Well . . . she had to be honest. Considering the timing of Lark’s appearance, she was rather glad Thorne had stopped when he did.
But if he were here with her right now, he wouldn’t need to stop at all.
Kate slipped loose one button of her nightrail. Then two. She closed her eyes and summoned the green, earthy scent of moss and ferns, blended with a more masculine smell of leather and musk. She recalled the scrape of his whiskers against her palm.
She slipped her hand inside her nightrail, trying to relive the experience through his senses. How did she feel, to him?
Soft, she decided.
So soft. Like warm satin—or the well-worn palms of her oldest, dearest kid gloves. A little springy, like bread dough, in a way that tempted fingers to knead and squeeze. At the areola . . . amusingly wrinkled. A rosette of tightly ruched silk.
She rolled that pursed bud of her nipple beneath her fingertip, trying to recapture the excitement and pleasure of his touch. Imagining his mouth and his wicked, skillful tongue.
It felt good. Very good.
But nowhere near the same. If there was one thing she’d learned over the course of her life, it was that no amount of imagining could make her forget she was alone. If she wanted to recapture that intense, forbidden thrill, Thorne would have to be involved.
She sighed and brought her hand out from the nightrail, flinging her arm above her head.
In the next moment, she was seized by a paroxysm of torment. Badger had found something interesting to nose and lick on the underside of her arm.
“Stop.” Kate convulsed with helpless, ticklish laughter. “Stop, you little imp.”