Miracles (Westmoreland Saga 4) - Page 6

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“That’s what I thought you said.” Grabbing her shoulders, he hauled her abruptly into his arms and surrendered to the uncontrollable impulse to smother his laughter against the soft lips that had caused it. He let her go as quickly as he’d grabbed her, uncertain whether her expression was one of shock or reproof. Deciding it was unnecessary and undesirable to discuss either one with someone who was going to share his bed in return for payment, he stepped back and turned away.

Despite that, he couldn’t stop himself from glancing at her several times in the dark to assess her reaction, and he relaxed when he saw the bemused smile touching her lips.

He was not completely certain he’d made all the right turns until they rounded the last corner and he found the secret exit that led around to the side of the house. Knowing in advance that they were going to be in plain view of the revelers for a few paces—albeit at a reasonably safe distance—Nicki carefully stationed himself on her left, between the house and her. “Why are we walking faster?” she asked.

“Because we happen to be in view of the guests from here,” he cautioned.

She peered around him to see for herself. “Let them eat cake too!” she announced cheerfully with another wave of her arm. Raising her voice, she called out, “All of you have my permission to eat cake!”

Nicki felt his shoulders shake with silent, horrified, helpless laughter, but he said nothing to encourage another outburst.

8

IN HIS BEDCHAMBER, JULIANNA SAT upon a small sofa upholstered in rich gold brocade, feeling as if she were in a dream, as she watched him slowly strip off his coat and loosen his snowy-white neckcloth. A thousand warning bells were clanging madly in her head, making her feel extremely dizzy. Or perhaps it was the memory of his mouth crushed to hers that made her head swim.

She lowered her gaze, because that seemed like the right thing to do, and then became preoccupied with what she saw.

Divested of his coat and neckcloth, Nicki loosened the top of his shirt and walked over to the polished table where a tray of glasses and decanters had been left. Pulling the stopper out of the brandy decanter, he glanced over his shoulder to ask if she wanted anything, but what he saw made him frown with concern and turn fully around. She was seated on the sofa, but bending as far forward at the waist as she could, looking at something on the floor. “What are you doing?” he asked.

She answered without looking up. “I don’t have any toes.”

“What do you mean?” Nicki demanded irritably as it began to occur to him that nearly everything she’d done and said in the maze that had seemed shocking or hilarious at the time, including her request to be ruined, could very likely be the result of intoxication or an unbalanced mind. His voice was intentionally sharp. “Can you stand up?” he snapped.

Julianna stiffened at his tone and slowly straightened. Transfixed by the change in him, she stood up as commanded, scarcely able to believe the forbidding man standing there was the same one who had joked with her and . . . and kissed her.

She looked completely dazed, Nicki realized. Dazed and disoriented. With an anger that was heightened by disappointment and self-disgust for his own naïveté, he said scathingly, “Are you capable of uttering anything at all that could convince me you are capable of intelligent thought at this moment?”

Julianna flinched from that all-too-familiar voice. It had the same clipped, authoritative tones, the same contemptuous superiority that had humiliated and antagonized her in the park. Tonight her reaction was slowed by brandy and shock, but when she did react it was just as instinctive and just as effective, although more restrained. She wanted this to be a night to remember, to cherish. “I think I am,” she said softly, lifting her chin, her voice trembling only slightly.

“Shall we begin with Greek philosophy?” Clasping her hands behind her back, she turned sideways, pretending to study the painting above the fireplace, as she continued: “Socrates had some interesting observations about knowledge and ethics. Plato was more profound. . . .”

Julianna paused, trying desperately to clear her head and remember what else she knew of philosophers, ancient or otherwise. “In modern times . . .” she tried again, “Voltaire is a particular favorite of mine. I enjoy his wit. But of all the modern . . .” Her voice trailed off as Julianna heard him coming up behind her, then she made herself go on: “Of all the modern philosophers, the one I am best acquainted with was a woman. Her name was Sarah.”

He stopped so near to her that she could actually feel him standing at her back. Shaking with uncertainty, Julianna said, “Shall I share Sarah’s favorite theory with you?”

“By all means,” he whispered contritely, his warm breath stirring the hair at her temple.

“Sarah’s theory was that females were once considered superior to males, but that males, in their deceitful arrogance, found a way to—”

Julianna’s entire body tensed as his hands curved around her shoulders, drawing her back against his full length. “Males found a way to convince us, and themselves, that women are actually birdwits and—”

His warm lips touched a sensitive place behind her ear, sending shivers racing down her entire body. “Go on,” he urged, his voice like velvet, his mouth against her ear. Julianna tried, but her breath came out in a shuddering sigh. She was losing control again, letting the brandy soothe her and convince her this was right. It was either this or Sir Francis Bellhaven: sweet, forbidden pleasures with memories to cherish . . . or life with a man who sickened her. Surely she was entitled to a few more moments, she decided.

Nicki felt her heart racing beneath his hand as he slid it over her midriff, taking his time before he let himself touch the full, tantalizing breasts that were within his reach. He slid a kiss over her smooth temple and trailed another down the silken skin of her cheek. She smelled like fresh air and flowers, and in his arms she felt like . . .

Wood.

She was breathing as if she were running, her heart was thundering from . . .

Fright.

Nicki lifted his head and wordlessly turned her around. In disbelief, he stared down at the hectic color on her cheeks and eyes, eyes that had darkened to violet pools, eyes that watched him in uncertainty. The color in her cheeks deepened with embarrassment as he inspected every feature of that elegant face, looking for something, anything, to indicate that this wasn’t new and terrifying for her. He wanted to discover one thing that indicated experience.

And all he could find was innocence.

This was her first time.

She had not done any of this before.

He wanted her despite that. No, he realized with disbelief, he wanted her three times more because of that. She was there for the taking, she had asked him to do this, had even volunteered to pay him to do this. And still he hesitated. Taking her chin between his thumb and forefinger, he forced her to meet his gaze. In a voice that was devoid of anything except reassuring neutrality, Nicki asked, “Are you absolutely certain you

want to be here . . . to do this?”

Julianna swallowed audibly and nodded slightly. “It’s something I have to do—to get it over and done with.”

“You’re completely certain?”

She nodded, and Nicki did what he’d been longing to do all along. Except that as he bent his head, he had the disquieting thought that he wasn’t merely despoiling a virgin, he was destroying an angel. He seized her mouth with violent tenderness, forcing her to respond and then pushing her harder until she was moaning in his arms and his hands were clamping her to him, then moving forward, sliding up to cup her trembling breasts.

“No!” She broke free with such suddenness that she caught Nicki off guard. “I can’t! I can’t! Not that!”

She shook her head wildly, and Nicki stared at her in frowning disbelief. One moment she’d been kissing him back, her arms twined sweetly behind his neck, her body molding instinctively to his. The next, she was running across the room, leaving him there, jerking the door open and racing. . . .

Straight into Valerie, and another woman who was raving about her daughter being abducted and demanding a search of the house for her. As if in a dream, a nightmare, he saw the woman who had accosted him in the park wrap her arms protectively around the girl who had been his a moment before.

Only the older woman was different now. She wasn’t groveling about what a pleasure it was to meet him, she was looking at him with triumphant hostility all over her face, saying, “After I have put my daughter to bed and summoned my husband, we will discuss this privately!”

9

JULIANNA?” HER MOTHER’S NORMAL SPEAKING voice sounded like a screech. Julianna’s head hurt so terribly that even her teeth seemed to ache in their sockets. In all the world, the only thing that wasn’t awful this morning was her mother. Her mother, who should have been livid, who Julianna had thought would disown her for less than what she’d done last night, was the soul of gentle understanding.


Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
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