“Jessica,” he said. Her hips sank to meet his; her body sparked above his. She could feel the tension in his arms, the tremble of his muscles as he held himself back.
It had never been like this before. His eyes met hers. He watched her intently, his gaze slitting as she rose up on him. His hands slid up her ribs to her breasts, touching her. Overriding her every thought. She wasn’t sure when she began to move, wasn’t sure when her need began to consume her, spiraling out from their joined bodies. Her hands clenched. Her toes curled. Every commingled movement sent an agony of pleasure through her, until she threw back her head and let out a little cry as ecstasy overtook her.
He grabbed her hips as she came, thrust hard into her. She could feel slick sweat on his shoulders, his entire body tensing beneath hers. He made a short, strangled sound in the back of his throat. His hips pounded into hers. He was hot, so hot, and yes, he was coming, too. He came to her without any lies between them.
He was still breathing heavily when his body stilled. His arms came around her, hard. His lips found hers in a long, drawn out kiss—the passion not the slightest dimmed by the act they’d just performed.
And Jessica still didn’t understand. She didn’t understand what had happened. Oh, she knew the mechanics of it. And she understood ecstasy. But this…this had been a new kind of pleasure. Something Jessica had never experienced before, something strange and inexplicable. She didn’t quite understand what it meant at first. Her fingers intertwined with his, her body wrapped around his. His forehead pressed against hers, and their mingled breaths waxed and waned in an intimate rhythm.
It took her a few moments to hit upon the difference. Normally, a man took, and she gave. He owned her, for those minutes. The pleasure was his. And if his desire provoked her physical response—well, that, too, belonged to him.
But this…this pleasure hadn’t been his. It hadn’t been hers, either.
No. It had been something that seemed both foreign and intimate all at the same time.
It had been theirs.
MARK TOOK HER to bed afterward.
There was nothing that quite compared to the glory of her bare skin.
In the tepid light of the candle, his fingers had to fill in what his eyes could not. The smooth curve of her shoulder. The silk of her hair, softer than he’d imagined.
He didn’t understand how men could flit from woman to woman. He had thought he was infatuated back in Shepton Mallet. That had been nothing compared to this—to the feel of her spine against his hands, each vertebra dear to him. Then there was the taste of her neck, subtly different than that of her collarbone. The flickering illumination showed bits of her in turn: pale skin and dark hair and pink lips, all enticing.
He wasn’t sure how long he spent afterward just touching her. Trying to memorize the feel of her. Long enough that the candle in the other room eventually guttered out. Long enough that wonder turned into lust once more, that he positioned himself over her, sliding into a heaven that he’d tried to imagine before and had utterly failed.
Her body. Her hands, grasping his. Every thrust he took, every gasp he wrung from her, was a precious gift. Her desire magnified his want. Instinct merged with intuition. He waited for the change of her breath, for the moan she tried to hold back. He waited until her body clenched around his, and he lost all sense of anything but her, her, her.
When sanity returned, he found himself collapsed atop her, chest to chest, her hands clasped around his lower back.
“Try as I might,” she said, “I can’t make you out.”
He caught her lips in his. “What’s to make out? I’m not so complicated.” He disengaged himself from her as best he could without relinquishing her. Now that he’d had her once—well, twice—he didn’t plan on letting go again.
She said nothing in response, simply waited.
“I suppose there are two things you really should know,” Mark said. “About the past. And about the future.”
At the word future, her breath sucked in. He could almost feel the tension steal into her limbs. But all she said was, “Hmm?”
“The near past,” he said. “You must know that I would never have risked making love with you, if there were any chance that you would be unprotected afterward. There are always risks, and even if I intend to make it right…well, I could have been struck by lightning. I wouldn’t risk the possibility that you might not have the funds to care for a child.” He could still remember that infant in Bristol and the woman who had walked away. He needed to know it wouldn’t be her. That it wouldn’t be his son there, one day.
“I—I had wondered about that.” Her hand found his face.
“Which is why this morning, I went to my solicitors and signed five thousand pounds over to you.”
She sat up abruptly, pulling the covers with her. “You did what?”
“I gave you five thousand pounds.” His words were calm, but his pulse beat wildly.
She curled in on herself. “I don’t need it. I don’t want it. I refuse.”
“Too bad. It’s already been done—the money’s signed into a trust. I couldn’t take it back, even if I wanted it.” He reached a tentative hand to touch her back.
She inched away. “I hope you don’t think you’re paying me for services rendered.”
“That would be ridiculous. You hadn’t rendered anything at that point, and by the time I touched you, you were already a wealthy woman.”
She huffed. “Your pardon. I…I don’t quite comprehend what you’ve done.”
He let the silence flow between them, unsure how to respond to that.
“I had some money,” she said stiffly. “I wouldn’t have needed it.”
He shrugged. “Now you have more.”
She let out a puff of laughter. “Oh, honestly. I can’t understand this. I just can’t understand what is happening. Yesterday, I was alone. And now…” She shook her head. “Things like this do not happen to women like me.”
And there were those words again. “Women like you?” he asked, forcing his voice to calm. “What kind of woman do you suppose you are?”
“Mark, I’m a woman who has been unchaste outside of marriage.”
“Jessica,” he parroted, “in case you failed to notice—I am a man who has been unchaste outside of marriage.”
She fell silent.
“Why do you think I came to you like this?” he continued. “I told you once—you are the point of chastity, not its enemy. What was the use holding on to principles that only served to make you feel as if you were beneath me? When I marry you, I want you to know you’re my equal.”
“Marry you? You can’t really want to marry me. You shouldn’t feel obligated, just because we were intimate.”
“I gave up twenty-eight years of chastity. It wasn’t on a whim. I’m not asking for your hand out of a fleeting sense of obligation or regret. I want you in my life. I want you to meet my brothers. I want you to bear my children.”
She took a shuddering breath. “You can’t convince me that you’ve dreamed of marrying a courtesan. And—oh, I’m trying to imagine it, but I just can’t.”
“Hmm.” He reached out a hand to her, found her fingers. “True. I never dreamed of this. But now that I’ve found you, anything else seems a nightmare. Dreams change with circumstances. Often for the better.”
“Not in my experience.” Her voice was still and flat, but she
let her fingers twine with his. “Two months ago, my dearest dream was to never sell my body again. A far cry from my childhood fantasies.”
“Am I so far from your childhood dreams, then?”
She shook her head. “I always believed I would be married. I was pretty. Everyone told me so. So I thought that one day, my perfect husband would find me. He’d ask me to marry him. We’d call the banns in my father’s church, and three weeks later, I would walk down the aisle.”
Her nails bit into his hand.
“That’s right.” Mark kept his tone carefully neutral. “Your father is a vicar.”