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"And since then?" she persisted, not quite sure why she needed him to answer, just knowing that she did.

In one swift moment he straddled her, then leaned down until the fabric of his waistcoat scraped her belly and breasts, until his nose touched hers and his hot breath swarmed across her skin.

"Since then," he growled, "I've thought of this moment a thousand times, pictured a hundred different pairs of breasts, an lovely and desirable and full and begging for my attention, but nothing, and let me repeat this in case you didn't quite hear me the first time, nothing comes close to reality."

"Oh." It was really all she could think to say.

He shrugged off his jacket and waistcoat until he was clad only in his fine linen shirt and breeches, then did nothing but stare at her, a wicked, wicked smile lifting one corner of his lips as she squirmed beneath him, growing hot and hungry under his relentless gaze.

And then, just when she was certain that she couldn't take it for one more second, he reached out and covered her with both his hands, squeezing lightly as he tested the weight and shape of her. He moaned raggedly, then sucked in his breath as he adjusted his fingers so that her nipples popped up between them.

"I want to see you sitting up," he groaned, "so I can see them full and lovely and large. And then I want to crawl behind you and cup you." His lips found her ear and his voice dropped to a whisper. "And I want to do it in front of a mirror."

"Now?" she squeaked.

He seemed to consider that for a moment, then shook his head. "Later," he said, and then repeated it in a rather resolute

tone. "Later."

Penelope opened her mouth to ask him something—she had no idea what—but before she could utter a word, he murmured, "First things first," and lowered his mouth to her breast, teasing her first with a soft rush of air, then closing his lips around her, chuckling softly as she yelped in surprise and bucked off the bed.

He continued this torture until she thought she might scream, then he moved to the other breast and repeated it all over again. But this time he'd freed up one of his hands, and it seemed to be everywhere—teasing, tempting, tickling. It was on her belly, then on her hip, then on her ankle, sliding up under her skirt.

"Colin," Penelope gasped, squirming beneath him as his fingers stroked the delicate skin behind her knee.

"Are you trying to get away or come closer?" he murmured, his lips never once leaving her breast.

"I don't know."

He lifted his head and smiled down at her wolfishly. "Good."

He climbed off of her and slowly removed the remainder of his clothing, first his fine linen shirt and then his boots and

breeches. And all the while, he never once allowed his eyes to stray from hers. When he was done, he nudged her dress, already pooling about her waist, around her hips, his fingers pressing lightly against her soft bottom as he lifted her up to slide the fabric under her.

She was left before him in nothing but her sheer, whisper-soft stockings. He paused then, and smiled, too much of a man not to enjoy the view, then eased them from her legs, letting them flitter to the floor after he'd slid them over her toes.

She was shivering in the night air, and so he lay beside her, pressing his body to hers, infusing her with his warmth as he savored the silky softness of her skin.

He needed her. It was humbling how much he needed her.

He was hard, hot, and so desperately wracked with desire it was a wonder he could still see straight. And yet even as his body screamed for release, he was possessed of a strange calm, an unexpected sense of control. Somewhere along the way this had ceased to be about him. It was about her—no, it was about them, about this wondrous joining and miraculous love that he was only now beginning to appreciate.

He wanted her—God above, he wanted her—but he wanted her to tremble beneath him, to scream with desire, to thrash

her head from side to side as he teased her toward completion.

He wanted her to love this, to love him, and to know, when they were lying in each other's arms, sweaty and spent, that she belonged to him.

Because he already knew that he belonged to her.

'Tell me if I do anything you don't like," he said, surprised by the way his voice was shaking over his words.

"You couldn't," she whispered, touching his cheek.

She didn't understand. It almost made him smile, probably would have made him smile if he weren't so concerned with

making this, her first experience, a good one. But her whispered words—you couldn't—could mean only one thing—that she had no idea what it meant to make love with a man.

"Penelope," he said softly, covering her hand with his own, "I need to explain something to you. I could hurt you. I would never mean to, but I could, and—"

She shook her head. "You couldn't," she said again. "I know you. Sometimes I think I know you better than I know myself. And you would never do anything that would hurt me."

He gritted his teeth and tried not to groan. "Not on purpose," he said, the barest hint of exasperation tinging his voice,

"but I could, and—"

"Let me be the judge," she said, taking his hand and bringing it to her mouth for a single, heartfelt kiss. "And as for the other..."

"What other?"

She smiled, and Colin had to brink, because he could swear she almost looked as if she were amused by him. "You told me to tell you if you did anything I didn't like," she said.

He watched her face closely, suddenly mesmerized by the way her lips were forming words.

"I promise you," she vowed, "I will like it all."

A strange bubble of joy began to rise within him. He didn't know what benevolent god had chosen to bestow her upon him, but he was thinking mat he needed to be a bit more attentive next time he went to church.

"I will like it all," she said again, "because I'm with you."

He took her face in his hands, gazing down at her as if she were the most wondrous creature ever to walk the earth.

"I love you," she whispered. "I've loved you for years."

"I know," he said, surprising himself with his words. He had known, he supposed, but he'd thrust it from his mind because her love made him uncomfortable. It was hard to be loved by someone decent and good when you didn't return the emotion. He couldn't dismiss her, because he liked her and he'd not have been able to forgive himself if he'd trampled on her emotions. And he couldn't flirt with her, for much the same reasons.

And so he had told himself that what she felt wasn't really love. It had been easier to try to convince himself that she was merely infatuated with him, that she didn't understand what true love was (as if he did!), and that eventually she would find someone else and settle down into a happy and contented life.

Now that thought—that she might have married another— nearly left him paralyzed with fear.

They were side by side, and she was staring at him with her heart in her eyes, her entire face alive with happiness and contentment, as if she finally felt free now that she had spoken the words. And he realized that her expression held not one trace of expectation. She hadn't told him she loved him simply to hear his reply. She wasn't even waiting for his answer.

She had told him she loved him simply because she wanted to. Because that was what she felt.

"I love you, too," he whispered, pressing an intense kiss against her lips before moving away so that he could see her reaction.

Penelope gazed at him for a very long while before responding. Finally, with an odd, convulsive swallow, she said, "You don't have to say that just because I did."

"I know," he replied, smiling.

She just looked at him, her widening eyes the only movement on her face.

"And you know that, too," he said softly. "You said you know me better than you know yourself. And you know I would never say the words if I didn't mean them."

And as she lay there, naked in his bed, cradled in his embrace, Penelope realized that she did know. Coli

n didn't lie, not

about anything important, and she couldn't imagine anything more important than the moment they were sharing.

He loved her. It wasn't anything she'd expected, nor anything she'd even allowed herself to hope for, and yet here it was, like a bright and shining miracle in her heart.

"Are you sure?" she whispered.

He nodded, his arms drawing her closer. "I realized it this evening. When I asked you to stay."

"How..." But she didn't finish the question. Because she wasn't even really sure what the question was. How did he know he loved her? How had it happened? How did it make him feel?

But somehow he must have known what she could not verbalize, because he answered, "I don't know. I don't know when, I don't know how, and to be honest, I don't care. But I know this much is true: I love you, and I hate myself for not seeing the real you all these years."

"Colin, don't," she pleaded. "No recriminations. No regrets. Not tonight."

But he just smiled, placing a single finger on her lips to silence her plea. "I don't think you changed," he said. "At least not very much. But then one day I realized I was seeing something different when I looked at you." He shrugged. "Maybe I changed. Maybe I grew up."

She placed her finger on his lips, quieting him in the same manner he'd done to her. "Maybe I grew up, too."

"I love you," he said, leaning forward to kiss her. And this time she couldn't reply, because his mouth remained on hers,

hungry, demanding, and very, very seductive.

He seemed to know exactly what to do. Each flick of his tongue, each nibble of his teeth sent shivers to the very core of her being, and she gave herself over to the pure joy of the moment, to the white-hot flame of desire. His hands were everywhere, and she felt him everywhere, his fingers on her skin, his leg nudging its way between hers.

He was pulling her closer, rolling her on top of him as he slid onto his back. His hands were on her bottom, pulling her so tightly against him that the proof of his desire seared itself into her skin.

Penelope gasped at the astounding intimacy of it all, but her breath was caught by his lips, still kissing her with fierce tenderness. And then she was on her back, and he was on top of her, and the weight of him was pressing her into the mattress, squeezing the air from her lungs. His mouth moved to her ear, then to her throat, and Penelope felt herself arching beneath him, as if she could somehow curve her body closer to his.

She didn't know what she was supposed to do, but she knew she had to move. Her mother had already conducted her "little talk," as she'd put it, and she'd told Penelope that she must lie still beneath her husband and allow him his pleasures.

But there was no way she could have remained motionless, no way she could have stopped her hips from pressing up against him, nor her legs from wrapping around his. And she didn't want to allow him his pleasures—she wanted to encourage them, to share them.

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