“Marks,” he said in exasperation. “I’ll chase you through the parsley if you insist, but we may as well stop and have it out right here.”
She whirled to face him, bright flags of color high on her cheeks. “There’s nothing to discuss. You’ve hardly said a word to me in days, and then you make offensive personal remarks—”
“I didn’t mean to be offensive. I merely said—”
“I am not scrawny, you despicable oaf! Am I less than a person to you, that you dare to treat me with such contempt? You are the most—”
Catherine fell silent, her breath coming hard.
“I shouldn’t have spoken to you that way,” Leo said gruffly. “And you are not less than a person to me, you’re a person whose well-being I care about. I would be angry with anyone who didn’t treat you well—which in this case happens to be you. You’re not taking care of yourself.”
“Neither are you.”
Leo parted his lips to reply, but he couldn’t think of an effective rebuttal. He opened and closed his mouth again.
“Every day you work yourself into exhaustion,” Catherine said. “You’ve dropped half a stone, at least.”
“The new farms need irrigation systems. I’m the one best suited to design and implement them.”
“You don’t have to dig trenches and move rocks.”
“Yes, I do.”
Leo stared at her, considering whether or not to tell her the truth. He decided to be blunt. “Because working to the point of exhaustion is the only way I can keep from coming to you at night and seducing you.”
Catherine gave him a round-eyed glance. Her mouth opened and closed in the same way his had just a moment earlier.
Leo stared back at her with a mixture of wary amusement and growing heat. He could no longer deny that he found nothing in the world more entertaining than talking to her. Or just being near her. Cantankerous, stubborn, fascinating creature … completely unlike his past lovers. And at times like this, she had all the cuddlesome appeal of a feral hedgehog.
But she challenged him, met him as an equal, in a way that no other woman ever had. He wanted her beyond reason.
“You couldn’t seduce me,” Catherine said testily.
They were both motionless, their gazes locked.
“You deny the attraction between us?” Leo’s voice was pitched deeper than usual. He saw a shiver run through her before she set her jaw in determination.
“I deny that one’s rational will can be undermined by physical sensation,” she said. “One’s brain is always in charge.”
Leo couldn’t prevent the mocking smile that rose to his lips. “Good God, Marks. Obviously you’ve never participated in the act, or you would know that the major organ in charge is not the brain. In fact, the brain ceases working altogether.”
“I find it easy to believe that a man’s would.”
“A woman’s brain is no less primitive than a man’s, especially when it comes to physical distraction.”
“I’m sure you’d like to think so.”
“Shall I prove it to you?”
Catherine’s delicate mouth twisted skeptically. But then, as if she couldn’t resist, she asked, “How?”
Taking her arm, Leo drew her to a more secluded area of the kitchen garden, behind a pair of pergolas covered with scarlet runner beans. They stood next to a glass forcing house, which was used to compel plants into flower before they might have otherwise. A forcing house allowed a gardener to grow plants and flowers irrespective of the prevailing weather.
Leo glanced at their surroundings to make certain they were not being observed. “Here’s a challenge for your higher brain function. First, I’ll kiss you. Directly afterward, I’ll ask you a simple question. If you answer correctly, I’ll concede the argument.”
Catherine frowned and looked away from him. “This is ridiculous,” she said to no one in particular.
“You certainly have the right to refuse,” Leo told her. “Of course, I’ll take that as a forfeiture.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Catherine gazed at him with narrowed eyes. “One kiss?”
Leo spread his hands palm up, as if to demonstrate that he had nothing to hide. His gaze never left her. “One kiss, one question.”
Slowly her arms loosened and lowered. She stood before him uncertainly.
Leo hadn’t actually expected her to agree to the challenge. He felt his heart begin to beat in concentrated thumps. As he stepped closer to her, anticipation tightened his insides into knots.
“May I?” he asked, reaching for her spectacles, easing them from her face.
She blinked but didn’t resist.
Leo folded the spectacles and tucked them in his coat pocket. Very gently he tilted her face upward with both hands. He had made her nervous. Good, he thought darkly.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
She nodded within the careful bracket of his palms, her lips trembling.
Leo brought his mouth lightly to hers, kissing her with careful, undemanding pressure. Her lips were cool and sweet. Teasing them apart, he deepened the kiss. His arms slid around her, bringing her fully against him. She was slender but compact, her body as supple as a cat’s. He felt her begin to mold against him, a slow and helpless relaxing. Concentrating on her mouth, he explored her with tender fire, searching with his tongue until he felt the vibration of her soft moan between their lips.