His breathing became short and shallow as his gaze took a leisurely sojourn from the top of her head to her wiggling toes.
“You’re so beautiful.” His voice was scratchy and rough, his eyes heated, his craggy features now so familiar and yet tonight so different, as though each part of her somehow managed to reshape him.
“We should put away the pearls lest they break,” she told him.
“No, leave them. They somehow suit this moment.”
She was surprised that he ceased to touch her. “I won’t break,” she assured him as she tugged on his neckcloth.
“My hands are callused.”
“I like the way they feel,” she said, taking one and bringing it to her lips. She circled her tongue around its center and he released a low strangled groan.
“You torment me,” he rasped.
To her surprise, she released a short burst of laughter. “Me? I’m not the one still wearing clothes.”
He rewarded her with one of his rare, sensual smiles as his jacket was added to her pile of clothes. His waistcoat and shirt followed, then everything else, until all that remained were his trousers. He was magnificent. Sculpted stone could not have contained or revealed more perfection.
Running her hands up his chest, she felt his muscles bunch and relax as she journeyed over them. For his size, he was all lean muscle and flesh. Stepping closer to him, she brushed her breasts against his chest.
“Christ!” he growled as he took her mouth with an urgency that surprised her. Swindler had waited as long as possible to actually touch her, knowing that once he did so, this slow waltz would end. He would no longer be able to restrain himself. He wanted her too badly.
Her arms came around his sides, caressed his back, the touch so light, but fleeting. He would feel her touch and then he wouldn’t. It was a strange sensation of touch, then absence. He’d never let any other woman glide her hands over his back. He always distracted them one way or another, often simply holding their hands away from his body. But with her, he wanted to experience everything, was willing to risk losing it all, because he didn’t want her in half measures. He couldn’t explain it, but he wanted to know everything about her, down to her tiniest secret and her smallest imperfection. For some reason, it was important that she know his. Stiffening, she broke away from the kiss, her face set into a frown. “What’s happened here?”
He didn’t stop her when she peered around him.
“Oh, dear God.” Looking at the crisscross of scars on his back, she felt the tears well in her eyes. “Who did this to you?”
Straightening back up, she studied him, truly looked at him, past the handsome exterior to the wounded man.
“I wasn’t very skilled at thievery,” he explained. “Usually I got the whip rather than time in prison.”
“How old were you?” she whispered, not certain why that particular fact was important. What he’d endured shouldn’t have been inflicted on anyone.
“Eight the first time, nine the second. Feagan warned me that if I got caught once more, I’d see myself on a ship bound for New Zealand.”
“Transported.” She’d never before given any thought to the punishment criminals received. Oh, she’d heard about it, but it was like listening to someone explaining the plot in a story that she had no interest in reading. It was simply words, without soul, without heart. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. They don’t hurt. The thickest of them don’t feel anything anymore.” He touched her cheek. “I’ve never shared them with anyone else. I’ve never let any woman touch them. You’re different. What I feel for you is different. I don’t want any secrets between us.”
She almost wept from the sincerity in his voice. If he hadn’t pulled her into his arms and kissed her, she might have told him everything about Elisabeth, but she knew if she did that, the kiss would cease, and she wanted it more than she wanted to draw in breath, more than she wanted revenge.
They tumbled onto the bed, a tangle of arms and legs, the action breaking them apart, ending the kiss.
“You still have your trousers on,” she told him, as though he wasn’t aware of the fact that she was completely unclothed and bared to him while he still retained a modicum of modesty.
“I fear if I remove my trousers that any control I’m presently exhibiting will go with them.”
She pressed her hands to either side of his face, her thumbs against his lips. “Remove them.”
“Eleanor…” He gave her a sardonic twist of his lips. “I’m not sure you know exactly what it is I’m controlling.”
“You want to make love to me desperately, and without your trousers there’s nothing to stop you.”
“I want to make love to you desperately as well. Remove them.”
Before she’d finished taking her next breath they were gone, leaving her to worry if she’d ever be able to breathe again. He was large in all things, her James. His bare body covered hers as he slid between her thighs, and she thought she’d never felt anything as wonderful. His skin was slick and velvety in places, coarse and hairy in others, but she adored every inch, every texture.
Once more he joined his mouth to hers. She thought she’d never tire of his kisses. Each one was different, yet the same. Each one caused desire to build inside her. His weight bore down on her, but there was no discomfort. In spite of their sizes, her delicacy and his large muscled body, it was as though they fit together perfectly. With his touches, he was much more daring than she. He trailed his mouth down her body until he reached her breast. He kissed the inside of one and then the other. Her body reacted strongly, straining for more. He lathed his tongue around her nipple, teasing, teasing, teasing…