He cut her off, pressing his lips to hers. Her hands clamped around his arms. He kissed her as if he could excise her doubts, as if he could sweep them away with tongue and teeth. If only he kissed her thoroughly enough…
She pulled away. “You don’t even know my full name.”
Before she could speak, he caught her face in his hands. “As it happens, I’ve never told you my real first name. Do you think that a little thing like an appellation matters between us? You are not some creature to be placed in a little box and labeled for a museum. I don’t fret, just because I haven’t acquired the proper label for you.”
“But my mother—”
“My mother was insane. That doesn’t change who I am.”
He looked at her. “Margaret, did you come here in the middle of the night, wearing nothing but a scrap of fabric, hoping that I would cast you aside because I didn’t know you? Truly?”
She paused, her lips pressing together. Her eyes seemed to glisten in the moonlight. And then she looked up at him, her gaze heated. “No,” she said. She took a deep breath and then nodded. “I suppose…I suppose I came here hoping for you. For all of you. But, Ash—”
“No more excuses.” His lips found hers. She was his, all his. And if she thought that he might shrink from anything she might tell him, nothing remained but to convince her that he would never leave. He leaned forwards, pulling her into his embrace. He could smell her skin against him, could taste her against his lips. He flicked out his tongue, to brush against her neck.
She let out a shaky exhale, and then her hands rose to clasp his shoulders in agreement.
“I know you,” he whispered against her. “Sweet as summer, and every bit as welcome.” He kissed her again and felt her body relax into his. This, they had done before. It should have been familiar. And yet the knowledge of what could yet come kept Ash on edge. It made even this simple embrace mysterious, and her kiss new all over again. He ran his finger, gently, down the smocked front of her shift. He could feel the fine needlework against his fingertips. Idly, he wondered if she had done that herself—those precise stitches.
It didn’t matter. Beneath those stitches lay the naked curve of her—her breast lay full in his hand, the taut nipple brushing against his palm. She shivered at that hint of a touch. And he could hold back no longer.
He leaned down and took that tip in his mouth. He tasted her through the fabric of her garment. He swirled his tongue around that tight bud. Her hands clutched him tighter. He heard himself growl in his throat, a happy sound of possession. It seemed a pale echo of the resonant thrum of his blood, pumping through him in insistent want.
“Ash,” she was panting, “Ash.” He could feel her breath against his scalp, her hands brushing down his bare back to find the waist of his loose trousers.
Oh, God. She fumbled with buttons—he couldn’t breathe—and then she pushed the fabric down. Her fingers brushed his bare hips. He felt the low scrape of her nails against his thighs. He drew breath in as her exploration continued. That first delicate touch of her fingers against his groin, the sensitive flesh of his member, nearly unmanned him. She drew breath in, and then her hands clasped around him, touching him, warming the hard length of him.
She was the one to lift her head. To raise one hand and push him towards the bed.
And as much as he wanted to sink inside her, he’d not intended to take matters quite that far. “I promised Mrs. Benedict I wouldn’t debauch you.”
“I made a promise, too.” Her voice shook. “But if this is how you must know me—then I want you to understand. Before I tell you. If you can’t debauch me, let me debauch you.”
Something was terribly wrong with that logic, something that would occur to him, if he gave it but a moment’s thought. Good thing Ash wasn’t a philosopher.
He needed no further encouragement; no sooner did he feel her hand on his chest, urging him backward, than he scooped her up and whirled her around in his arms, turning her about until they were both dizzy, and there was nothing to do but let her fall crazily on the feather tick of the mattress. She laughed up at him, her limbs splayed out, her breath wild. The moon caught the curve of her bare ankle.
Before he could move forwards, she pushed herself to sit up and reached for the hem of her shift. His erection pulsed insistently in response. His lungs burned. In one slow, deliberate motion, she peeled off that scrap of linen, revealing hips, high and curved; the dark triangle between her legs; navel, up past smooth ribs, to the perfect swell of her breast and the dark rose of her nipples. His mouth dried.
She crooked her finger at him and he drifted forwards to kneel on the floor in front of her.
“Ash, what are you doing?”
He grinned at her wickedly. “Making sure you aren’t bored.” He hooked his hands under her knees and pulled her forwards, settling between her legs. Then he leaned to kiss her calves, up her inner thighs. The folds of her sex parted under his exploration. He kissed her there, the inner center of her.
He took the ripple of her muscles as encouragement. Another kiss, this time with tongue, exploring the folds of her sex.
She was wet for him; he could taste her desire, sweet and reminiscent of some fine, complicated wine. He took her with his mouth, tasting her.
“This is what I want to know about you,” he whispered.
He tasted her there, and her hands squeezed his arms; there, and her hips thrust towards him. He circled his tongue, found the nub at the center of her pleasure, and she let out a helpless mewl.
“This is what I need. To understand the map of your body. To explore your every last secret.”
Biblically, the word for making love was to know. It had always seemed a hopelessly effete euphemism to Ash until now. Her taste on his lips was knowledge. He took her harder, pushing her, coaxing her with his tongue. The curve of her body around his, the tension in her muscles, the grip of her fingers—they were all knowledge, deeper and harder than anything he had ever understood before. Her body stiffened. He felt heat well up around her, felt the strength of her release against his lips.
And he knew her.
“Oh, God,” she said, her voice indistinct above him. “Oh, Ash. Ash. Ash.” Her hands clutched his shoulders, hard. He felt as if he were on a boat, rocked by an enormous swell of the ocean. He felt a little dazed. He could hear her breath, hard and thready.
He pushed himself up and leaned over her.
“Ash,” she said, looking into his eyes, “you are a magnificent creature.”
His blood rang in his ears. She sounded languid, satisfied, and he
felt a fierce sense of possessive pride. “You should enjoy this,” he growled out, “this and many others like it. I’m not done.”
He spread her knees wider. He felt, rather than heard, her exhale as he placed the head of his penis against her opening. Hot. Liquid. Everything real and desirable. His hands shook where they clenched the coverlet, with the effort of his restraint. He could almost taste her surprised gasp as he rubbed the head in her juices. Her body welcomed his; he could feel it from head to toe, from the way her breasts brushed against his chest to the small thrust of her hips. That tiny movement was enough to slip the very tip of him inside her.
God, it felt good when her flesh closed about him—better than anything he’d ever known. Fantastic. Excruciating.
He pulled back only to push forwards, farther. More. Better. She was tight around him, but not too tight. She opened her eyes and watched him, as if she were memorizing this moment. As if he might imprint on her bones.
And then she said the most ridiculous thing. “Don’t forget me, Ash. Not ever.” Her voice was a whisper against his skin.
He shut his eyes, letting the pure pleasure of their joining wash over him. “As if I could. You know I can’t. You know I won’t. You know me.”
She didn’t answer, not in words. But she drew him down.
He pushed all the way in, until he felt her pelvis against his, her legs coming to wrap around his. It was all he could do to hold back, to refrain from pounding the rising tide of want into her. She pulsed around him, quietly, rhythmically. He might have spent himself then.
He gritted his teeth and didn’t.
Instead, he began to stroke into her—slowly, gently, at first; then, as she met him, harder, faster, until he couldn’t tell where his pleasure left off and hers began. Until she gasped again, and he felt her clench about him, squeezing his cock as she came.
Then he, too, was following her over the edge, the wild, ragged pleasure overtaking him entirely.
Afterwards, it was better than ever—fiercer and stronger and more tender. He had her beneath him, after all, to kiss, to lightly run his hands along her sides. He disengaged from her but pulled her close, holding her body against his, stroking her skin until his lids drooped, until his thoughts drifted from satisfaction into the near incoherence of sleep.