“I followed you.”
She blinked. “How did you know?”
“I watched your abigail leave you. When I entered your rooms in her stead, you were not there. It was easy to deduce how you made your egress since I’d had the door in sight. A quick glance from your balcony revealed your direction.”
Maria halted so quickly, she stirred up the gravel. “You entered my rooms? Half dressed?”
He faced her, his gaze moving over her slowly and with rapidly building heat. As if nothing untoward had happened, he withdrew a kerchief from his pocket and rubbed the blood from his hands. “Oddly, I am more aroused by your masculine attire then I was when I pictured you naked in bed.”
When their eyes met, she saw a darkness within that even the questionable light of the moon could not hide. There was a betraying tightening to his lips and fierceness to his stance that made her shiver. Her nostrils flared and her heart rate picked up once again as her sense of preservation asserted itself. Her instincts urged her to flee from the predator that stood before her.
Run. He hunts you.
“I told you I was unavailable,” she said, her hand curling around the hilt of her weapon. “I am not known for tolerating those who meddle in my affairs.”
“Do you refer to your unfortunate spouses?”
Maria moved on, walking with quick strides toward the manse.
“You should not have been out alone, Maria, and you should not have scheduled such a meeting here.”
“And you should not seek to chastise me.”
He caught her arm and pulled her to him. His hand stayed hers when she moved to withdraw her sword, catching it and settling it over his heart. It beat as fast as hers, and the gesture was telling, revealing that he was not made of stone as most believed him to be. Her other arm was rendered harmless, held to the small of her back by his grip around her wrist.
The result was highly intimate, her chest pressed to his, her nose in his throat. She briefly considered struggling, and then decided she would not give him the satisfaction. Besides, it was wonderful to be held after the events of only moments ago. A tiny bit of comfort she never allowed herself to seek.
“I intend to kiss you,” he murmured. “Restraining you was necessary since you are once again armed and I’ve no wish to be run through. The weapons you carry grow larger with every encounter.”
“If you think the only weapons I have are ones I carry upon my person,” she countered, her voice soft, “you are sadly mistaken.”
“Fight me,” he urged in a husky whisper, staring down into her upturned face with tangible, unadulterated aggression. “Make me take you kicking and scratching.”
Christopher St. John was ruthless, determined. She could feel the simmering hunger and need within him. It encircled her as surely as his arms did.
He had killed a man for her.
And it obviously brought out the devil in him to have done so.
She stared up into his hard, savagely beautiful face and realized what was happening. He had fought for her, therefore she was his prize. A shiver moved through her and his mouth curved in a purely sexual smile.
Heat flared across her skin and then sank into her blood. Blood that had been chilled from the moment her mother had taken her last breath.
Was she mad to want him for having killed on her behalf? Had Welton made her some aberration that she would find his protection arousing?
Christopher wrapped his much larger body around hers, surrounding her in the rich, spicy scent of his skin. “Private use,” he warned again, then he took her mouth. Hard and deep. Blatantly possessive and demanding. Forcing her head back so that she had no balance, no way to refuse.
Save for one.
She bit his lower lip. He growled, then cursed into her mouth. “I would not have thought,” he rumbled, “that I would find a woman so skilled in masculine pursuits so bloody desirable, but it is undeniable that I want you more than any other female in my recent memory.”
“You cannot have me tonight. I am not in a mood to indulge you.”
“I can put you in the mood.”
Christopher swiveled his hips against her, making the rigid length of his impressive erection abundantly clear. The tightening of her sex deepened into an almost unbearable ache.
“Do it,” she challenged, knowing he would not force her even if he could make her enjoy it, which she had no doubt he could. The need in him was for her capitulation, her surrender. She knew this as only an intuitive woman would. Or perhaps only a woman who thought like him would.
His jaw clenched tight. Then he altered his hold, pulling the hand set over his heart to join its sister behind her back, freeing one of his hands to yank the scarf from her head and then pull on her hair.
She gasped at the pain, and he took advantage, pushing into her mouth with a sensual grace he had not bothered with a moment ago. Long, deep licks. Not thrusting, stroking. Rhythmically. Mimicking the sexual act, fucking her mouth with his tongue. Her knees weakened, making her sag into him until only his strength supported her. He urged her against him in strong nudges, rubbing his hard cock into the soft give of her belly. She grew damp between her legs, and then slick. Ready.
She whimpered, finding it impossible to stand firm against both his skill and his uncommon handsomeness.
He reacted to the sound in a way she did not expect, hitching her up, lengthening her legs to a standing position, so he could drag her back to the trellis. He left her there with an angry snort.
Maria bent over, hands on her knees, breathing hard. Her eyes squeezed shut as she collected herself. Every part of her body hummed with sensual energy, a vibrating coil of longing and loneliness that urged her to cast aside her pride and go after him. There were a multitude of reasons why she wanted him, not the least of which was Welton’s edict, but she also knew that sometimes denying a man what he wanted was more effective than giving it to him outright.
Blowing out her breath, she climbed the trellis and jumped to the balcony as quietly as possible. She began to disrobe, her thoughts leaping from why she should not accept St. John to why she should. A knock came to the door and she tensed until she realized it did not originate from the gallery.
She called out, and her abigail entered with her customary efficiency, collecting the discarded garments. Dayton had engaged the maid’s services, and Sarah had proven to be the soul of discretion, dealing with bloodstains as well as she dealt with wine stains.
“We leave for Dover in the morning,” Maria said, her thoughts turning to the journey ahead. Though St. John had told her little, she understood the message.
Sarah nodded, accustomed to hasty departures. She assisted Maria with the donning of her night rail, then she departed.
Moving toward the bed, Maria paused, staring at the turned-down sheets. In her mind’s eye, she pictured Simon as he would be at this moment-laughing, rolling about a bed in all his glorious nakedness, easily obtaining all the information he desired without his partner suspecting his perfidy.
She sighed, envying him that closeness. Though it was only physical, it was more than she’d had in over a year. The search for Amelia competed with the need to be available for Welton, leaving her no time to see to her own needs.
Welton. Damn him. He wished for her to do as Simon was doing, growing close to St. John, earning his trust, discovering his secrets. She had no notion how long she would be in Dover. No more than a sennight or Welton would grow suspicious. But with a man like St. John, a week apart might be too long. He might very well find his fancy caught by some other female, and she would have to wait for that to run its course. Even then, she knew from her own experience that once interest was lost, it was rarely regained. Somehow, she had to take him from raging desire to true bewitchment, and she had only hours in which to do it.
Assuring herself that it was only necessity that forced her hand, Maria opened the hall door, looked both ways, and moved stealthily down the gallery until she reached the suite of rooms she had previously ascertained were being used by St. John. She paused there on the threshold, dressed scandalously in only her gossamer-sheer night rail, her hand lifted to knock but arrested in the air. That damned sense of walking into a lion’s lair was back.
Suddenly the door swung open and she found herself confronted by a completely, wonderfully, sinfully nude pirate of infamy. Golden skin and hair were seductively backlit by candlelight, bringing the hard lengths of beautifully delineated muscle into splendid relief. He filled the doorway with his size and strength; he filled her senses with awe and pulsing desire.
He scowled. “I will fuck you in the hall, if you wish, but you will be more comfortable in my bed.”
Maria blinked, her gaze dropping and finding even more to covet. She struggled to find something witty to say, but her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. She wanted him, all of him, everything she could see and the backside as well.
Christopher raked her from head to toe in a similarly thorough perusal. His gaze heated, became dark, and a low rumble that sounded deliciously like a purr rose up from his powerful chest.
Before she could find her wits, he caught her hand still held in midair and yanked her in.
“Are you daft?” Christopher slammed the door closed, then glared down at the brazen temptress before him and bit out, “You cannot wander about dressed in that manner!”
The filmy feminine concoction presently touching the curves he desired was alarmingly transparent, revealing every bit of Maria’s abundant charms-long, lithe legs, full hips, trim waist, and ripe, lush breasts. The shadowed juncture between her thighs and the dark circles of her areolas were plain as day.
His jaw clenched until his teeth ground audibly. In the candlelight, her olive skin shone like silk and he would wager it was of similar softness. To think of her traversing the gallery where any of the many bedroom-hopping guests could have stumbled across her…
She gave an elegant shrug. “You should not open doors naked.”
“I am in my rooms.”
“I am in your rooms also,” she replied evenly.
“You were not a moment ago!”
“Are you going to hold my past against me? If so, I have far worse offenses.”
“Bloody hell, that was only a minute past!”
“Yes, and only a minute past you were standing naked in the hall.”
She arched a brow, her deportment every inch the Wintry Widow. He might have believed the façade if not for her eyes and bared body, both of which exuded sensual heat. Besides, she was here, ready for sex.
“I personally think your offense is greater,” she continued. “I, at least, have a garment on.”
Christopher growled. Catching her shoulders, he tugged her close and heard a rip. The sound only goaded his anger. Whatever she was wearing, it offered less protection from a man’s hands than it did from his eyes. “This is not a garment! This is a temptation, and what you are tempting with belongs to me.”
Her mouth fell open. “Beast! Tearing my clothes and handling me in this manner.”
She stepped back, shrugged off his hands, and slapped him. Across the face.
The action so startled him, Christopher could scarcely process it. No one dared to assault him. Even those who had a wish for death chose to find it in a more peaceful manner than by provoking him-
He faltered, unsure of how he felt about her actions. The near-painful throbbing of his cock answered that question, and before his mouth could ruin it for him again, he lunged after her retreating form with such force they both tumbled to the ground. It was only by the grace of God that he managed to jerk himself to the side before crushing her.
“What are you-”
“Oompf!” The impact of hitting the floor with only the rug to soften the blow jarred every bone in his body.
“By God!” Maria cried shrilly, turning her head to gaze at him with wide eyes. “You, sir, are certifiable!”
Her prone body wiggled delightfully beneath the arm and leg he pinned her with. She was as soft and lush as he had imagined she would be. She also smelled delightful, that sweet smell of things both fruity and floral that teased with its promise of innocence, a promise her appearance could never deliver upon.
Part of him knew that he should say something, apologize for her torn gown or some such platitude that would soothe her, but damned if he could do more than grunt and try to push up her hem with his knee.
When her elbow connected with one of his ribs, a low, warning rumble rose up from his chest. It was a sound that struck terror in most. In Maria, it inspired rage.
“Do not growl at me!” she snapped, struggling with such strength he doubted his ability to restrain her without hurting her.
It was then he gave up his attempt to be gentle, knowing it was hopeless, understanding that he had regressed to some primitive frame of thought that cared only about how desperately aroused she made him.
Catching both of her wrists in one of his hands, Christopher slid over her, then forced her legs apart by settling between them.
Maria paused for a moment, collecting his intent. Then she fought him as he had urged her to do earlier-like a feral cat. She struggled, attempting to crawl across the English rug to the sitting room door but not budging an inch. “Oh no! You will not have me!”
He snorted, then tore her night rail in his impatience to bare the beautifully rounded curve of her derrière. This time he managed a sound that resembled something vaguely apologetic.
She was not impressed. “I would sooner share the bed of Lord Farsham than I would yours.”
That comment earned her a slap to the ass, which made her yelp. Farsham had two score years, at least, and was said to be impotent, neither fact mitigating Christopher’s rising agitation at the thought of any other man seeing her thusly.
In retaliation, Maria sank sharp teeth into his forearm with vicious fervor. He roared in pain and felt a trickle of moisture slide down the crown of his cock. He thrust his hand between her legs and found her cunt slick, hot, and ready. Studying her features, he noted her state of arousal reflected in her passion-dazed eyes and the flush of her skin.
Thank God. He was nigh undone, his seed leaking in its eagerness to flood her with his lust.
Maria stilled for a moment, her gasp the only sound in the room, his own breath trapped in his lungs at the feel of her beneath his touch. He stroked through the lips of her sex with trembling fingers and closed his eyes. Without forethought, his head dipped, his lips pressing against the curve of her shoulder.
His hand moved, leaving her, aiming his aching erection at her creamy opening.
“Maria.” Finally. A word. Squeezed out of his clenched throat by the fisted grip of her cunt around the flared head of his cock.
She whimpered and arched her hips upward as much as his weight would allow her, altering the angle with which he pressed into her. He slipped a fraction deeper.