Her heart swelled in her chest. “What do you mean?”
“The waltzing was only a part of it. I’ve spent the past several days in London, with Lord Payne. He’s arranged for me to have some instruction from his land stewards at Riverchase. I understand game and horses and the run of the earth, but I need to learn how to manage crops, handle tenants. I thought you might have some property come to you, and I—”
“Eight,” she said. “Evan told me just today. I have eight properties, scattered all over England. I’m terrified.”
He swallowed hard. “I suppose I’d better learn fast.”
“I think we both had better.” She tried to smile.
He pulled away, putting distance between them, and withdrew something from his pocket, wrapped in a bit of black velvet. As he unfolded the small square of fabric, his fingers were unsteady. Finally, his thumb and forefinger closed on a slender edge of metal and he shook his treasure loose from one last fold of velvet.
He held it out to her. “I didn’t know what to choose for you, but I didn’t want another man choosing for you, either. So I just looked through the trays until I saw one that looked fine enough for your finger.”
She looked down at the gold band in his hand, embedded with small round diamonds. In the center was mounted a square-cut, faceted stone in the palest shade of pink.
“Will it do?” he asked.
“Oh, Samuel. It’s too much. This must have cost a fortune.”
“Not a fortune.” His mouth pulled to the side in a self-effacing way. “Just most of what I had left to my name, after the commission and this.” He indicated his new coat and boots.
“A captaincy. Rycliff’s arranged for me to purchase one. He offered to pay for it himself, but I couldn’t accept that. Katie, I’ll give you everything I can—all that I am, and all I possess—but you must take me at my own worth.”
Kate found herself without words. His own worth? This man was priceless.
If she’d tried, she could not have written a more perfect ending to this evening. They would be married and stay in England. She would be able to live with Samuel and help her new family.
He went down on one knee before her. The ring glittered on his palm. His face was grim with uncertainty. “Will you wear it? Will you marry me?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” She tugged off her gloves. “Put it on for me, please. My fingers will tremble.”
His hands were none too steady, either. But he took her hand and slid the gold band over her finger.
“It fits perfectly,” she said.
“And it looks almost deserving of you.” He took her hand in both of his and stroked it gently. “I’ve only ever seen one proper wedding. What’s that word, in the vows . . . to cherish? I will cherish you, Katie. Every day of my life. You’re the most precious thing I’ve ever held.”
He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. “I will cherish every inch of you.”
With tender, careful brushes of his lips, he kissed each of her fingers. He turned her hand palm up and placed a warm, open-mouthed kiss to the center. His lips brushed the pulse at her wrist, then worked slowly higher. By the time he progressed halfway up her forearm, she was trembling with pleasure and a lifetime of need.
“Samuel? If you wanted to stop cherishing and start ravishing . . . I’d be most amenable.”
He froze, lips pressed to her skin. “After the wedding,” he told the inside of her elbow.
She reached for him, putting her fingers under his smooth-shaven jaw and pulling his gaze to hers. “I’d prefer now.”
She bent at the waist, catching his stunned, parted lips in a kiss. But she couldn’t get close enough this way. So she slid from the bench and joined him on the carpet, twining her fingers into his freshly clipped hair as she kissed him deep.
He moaned with pleasure, and she slid her hands beneath the lapels of his coat, running her palms over the cool silk of his waistcoat. She found the closures in front. Such tiny buttons for such a large, powerful man. How did he ever manage them?
But they were no trouble for her fingers. She dispatched them with all the ease of a nursery rhyme. One, two, three . . . four.
Then she divided the sides of his waistcoat and placed her hands flat on his shirtfront, rubbing the crisp linen between her palms and his hardened, muscled chest. His heartbeat thudded against her palm, and she pressed her hand there, holding it close.
When they’d been together the first time, there was something he’d held back. Tonight, she needed to know he could give her everything. That here, in this hall lined with suits of armor, he’d lain down all his own shields. She wanted . . . she wanted something that sounded pagan and savage. To hold his heart—his warm, beating, pure and good heart—in her hands.
He dropped his head, nuzzling her throat and slipping his tongue into the valley between her breasts.
“Don’t stop,” she begged.
It was the wrong thing to say. He stopped and lifted his head.
“We should go back.”
“No,” she insisted, pressing her body to his. “Not yet. Please.”
Kate’s own brazenness shocked even her. He’d given her such lovely words, but she needed to feel the strength and purpose behind them. “I want you so badly, Samuel. I want you to make love to me.”
After a thoughtful moment, he placed a hand to her cheek. He tilted her face to receive his kiss. “That I can do.”
He kissed her sweetly, once.
That was all the sweetness he had left. The second kiss was deep, demanding, thorough, and wild. Their tongues clashed and dueled as they fought to get closer.
While Thorne explored her mouth, he laid her back on the plush velvet carpeting and worked his hand under her skirts. They were on the floor, in the middle of Sir Lewis Finch’s medieval hall, while a ball went on mere steps away.
The wise man would have hurried, or put a stop to this entirely. But he meant to take his time. This wasn’t a hasty, scandalous tryst.
This was making love.
As he lifted her blue silk skirts, he took care to arrange the folds carefully so they wouldn’t wrinkle any more than necessary. He bunched the petticoats strategically, baring her legs.
Thank God. She wore no drawers.
He needn’t have removed her stockings, but he couldn’t resist. The garters taunted him with neat ribbon bows.
He undid them with his teeth. After easing one silk stocking down her smooth, taut thigh and shapely calf, he was filled with sorrow to reach her neatly turned toes. Then his spirits were buoyed when he realized he could immediately repeat the experience with her other leg.
Once he had the second bared, he placed a kiss to the tender arch of her foot. He worked his way upward, ignoring her little twitches and protestations when he licked the inside of her knee or the slope of her inner thigh. He had some tickling to repay.
By the time he reached the cleft of her sex, she was writhing, eager for his kiss. Her folds glistened in the dim light. He loved knowing anticipation worked just as well as application. He rewarded her patience with a single, lazy, savoring pass of his tongue. She whimpered, arching in a plea for more.
He sat back on his haunches, hurriedly unbuttoning his trouser falls while he drank in the view of her pale, sprawled legs and the dark triangle of curls guarding her sex. There was something unspeakably arousing about this perspective. From her waist up she was poised, elegant, perfect. A lady. From the waist down she was nothing but pure, natural woman.
And she belonged to him. All of her.
He freed his erection, already rock-hard and pulsing.
She bent one leg at the knee, opening herself in invitation.
He couldn’t refuse.
With care not to crush her skirts, he settled into the cradle of her thighs and positioned himself at her warm, wet entrance. He told himself to go slow, to not hurt her. But she tilted her hips, and he slid straight in.
She was tight, yes. But not guarded or clenching in pain. She was perfect, and he fitted himself deep, sinking in all the way to the root. The soft welcome he found made him want to never leave.
“Yes,” she sighed.
He began to thrust slowly, steadily—knowing that this was a race more easily won at a walk than a gallop. Drawing on all the self-control he possessed, he kept his pace unhurried, reveling in each easy glide, every silken inch.
Beneath him, she sighed and moaned, climbing closer and closer to release.
All too soon, Thorne felt himself approaching that dangerous edge. Slipping closer and closer to the unknown. If he fell over the brink, he wasn’t sure what he’d do.
Panic built in his chest. He should withdraw. He should protect her.
She seemed to sense his struggle. One of her warm, slender legs wrapped over his.
“Don’t leave me,” she said. “I want all of you. Everything you have to give.”
Her words spurred him faster. Soon his hips were bucking with force, slapping against her thighs. The edge was near, and he raced toward it—for good or ill, determined not to hold anything back.
She cried out and clung to his neck, arching her back in the throes of bliss. He felt the sharp bite against his nape. Not her fingernails, no. His ring, on her finger. A razor edge of bliss.
He couldn’t last long now. The climax built in his loins and the base of his spine. Pleasure surged through his veins as he pumped hard and fast. He was wild to get closer, deeper. So deep, where it would be safe.
He forced himself to keep his eyes open, focused on her face. She would be his anchor if he found himself flung somewhere else.
“God, Katie. Hold on to me. Tight.”
She held him, and the climax seized him, too. And he did find himself flung somewhere else. But it wasn’t a land of shadows and smoke and explosion. Instead, he found a landscape of luminous skin and perfect pink lips and eyes so wide and so deep, they were seas of love. Here, he was reasonably certain hearts had wings. He intended to make many return trips.
Above all, it was beautiful. It was so beautiful, he could have wept.
He wouldn’t have wept alone. As he slowed to a stop, a few tears glistened on her cheeks. He didn’t worry about them, just kissed them away.
“I love you, too,” she said.
He lifted his head, surprised. “Did I say it?”
She smiled. “Only several times.”
“Oh. Then good.” He kissed her again. “I felt it enough for a thousand.”
She stroked his hair, and he allowed himself a few moments’ rest, nestled close to her bosom. If he had to be a broken, fragmented man, liable to slip into strange territories from time to time and be unaware of his actions—he was glad to know he could do something good and loving on occasion.
“We should be getting back,” he said, withdrawing from her embrace. “I should speak with Drewe.”
“Kate?” The deep, masculine voice came from the corridor. “Kate, are you down here?”
Damn, damn, damn. Speak of the devil.
Thorne didn’t panic. He rose and pulled Katie to her feet, moments before Drewe entered the room. As she stood, her carefully draped skirts fell naturally to the floor. No one would have known what had just gone on beneath them.
“We’re in here, Drewe,” Thorne called, trying to make his voice nonchalant.
“We?” Drewe asked, striding into the room.
Thorne tried to be calm as he buttoned his falls. He knew the shadows would hide him for a few moments, as Drewe’s eyes adjusted to the candlelight.
Just one more closure . . .
Then the coat buttons. Drewe was halfway to them now.
One more button. There.
“Drewe.” Thorne bowed. “I was looking for you.”
The marquess eyed him warily. “Kate, what’s going on?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing.”