"As I recall," he said in the lazy, sensual drawl that always made her heart melt, "the last time I waited for you we were planning a wedding."

"I know and I can explain," she said. "I—"


"I didn't come up here for conversation," he interrupted. "Downstairs, I had the distinct impression you were offering me a great deal more than talk. Or did I mistake the matter?"

"No," she whispered.

Stephen looked at her in impassive silence, noting with the eye of a connoisseur, not the besotted fool that he'd been, that she was every bit as enticing and exotic as he'd recalled… except for the severe style of her hair. He didn't like that look, especially not when he was letting lust and revenge drive him to consort with this scheming, ambitious slut who looked more like a prim virgin at the moment. "Take the pins out of your hair," he instructed with curt impatience.

Startled by the request and his tone of command, Sheridan obeyed, reaching up and pulling out the dozen or so pins it took to hold the heavy mass securely in its coil. She turned to drop them on the bureau, and when she turned back, he was standing, slowly unbuttoning his shirt.

"What are you doing?" she gasped.

What was he doing? Stephen wondered savagely. What the hell was he doing up here, invited or otherwise, dallying with the same woman who'd left him without a word on their wedding day? In answer to her question, he reached for his neckcloth. "What I am doing is leaving," he clipped, already stalking the three steps to the door.

"No!" The word burst out of her. "Don't leave!"

Stephen turned, intending to give her the scathing reply she deserved, but she flung herself against his chest, all soft, entreating woman, drugging his senses with the sudden familiar scent and feel of her. "Please don't go." She was crying, her nails biting into his shoulders, and still he kept his hands at his sides, but he was losing the battle, and he knew it. "Just let me explain… I love you…"

He grabbed her face between his hands to silence her, his eyes already on her parted lips. "Understand this. There is nothing you could say that I would believe. Nothing!"

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"Then I'll show you," Sheridan said fiercely, clutching his neck as she crushed herself against him and kissed him with that strange combination of naive inexpertise and instinctive sensuality that used to drive him wild.

And still did. Shoving his hands hard into the soft hair at her nape, Stephen kissed her back, forcing her to show him the sensual desire she was making him feel. With the last thread of rationality he possessed, he lifted his mouth an inch from hers, and gave her one last chance to call a halt. "Are you sure?"

"I know what I'm doing."

He took what she was offering, took what he had wanted from the first moment he'd touched her. He took it mindlessly, driven by a violent compulsion to have her, he took with a determination and urgency and hunger that stunned and aroused him. A wild, primitive mating for him and yet one he wanted—needed—to know was as exciting for her. Pride drove him to make certain she wanted him with a desperation that matched his, and he used all his sexual experience to battle down the defenses of an inexperienced girl who hadn't any idea how to withstand it. He shoved his finger deep into her wet warmth, drawing hard on her taut nipple until she was arching and crying and clutching him tightly. Then and only then did he take her, parting her thighs with both hands and driving into her with just enough restraint to keep from shoving her into the headboard, and he felt her body jerk with pain and her nails bite into his back, heard her muffled cry of shock and pain, and he froze. "I know what I'm doing."

With dread and confusion he forced his eyes open. Hers were damp with tears, devoid of either accusation or triumph for having gotten him to do this for whatever reason she could have had. Her choked, whispered words reinforced the drugging expression in her eyes as she curved her hands over his taut shoulders. "Hold me," she whispered magically. A gentle benediction. "Please…"

Stephen complied, letting the mindless pleasure overtake him again. Wrapping his arms around her, he took her mouth in a stormy demanding kiss and felt her hands shifting softly over his shoulders, gentling him at the same time her melting body was welcoming him, sheathing him, offering them both release… offering and offering and offering…

Every nerve in his body was screaming for release and still he held himself back, driving deeply into her, while the muscles in his arms strained with the rest of his body, refusing to deprive her of the same pleasure she was going to give him any second now. She was whimpering, eyes closed tightly, desperate for something she didn't understand, afraid to have it. Afraid not to. Sobbing with desire, needing reassurance. He gave it to her in a hoarse whisper. "… Any second now…"

She went up in flames before he finished the sentence, her body clenching his, and Stephen heard himself groan with the extravagant splendor she was somehow making him feel. And then he gave himself over to it, driving toward it… and then past it, climaxing, his body jerking as he poured himself into her.

Whatever thoughts of revenge and wounded pride had driven him to bed her, they were forgotten as he wrapped his arms around her back and hips and pulled her with him onto his side. She was too magnificent to be used for vengeance, too exquisitely soft in his arms to be anywhere else. From the first moment his mouth touched hers, he'd known they were an oddly combustible combination, but what had just passed had been the most wildly erotic, satisfying sexual encounter of his life. Lying there while she slept in his arms, he marvelled at the heady, primitive sensuality of her. Whatever she'd felt during their coupling had been real—that was one of the few things about her he did not doubt. That at least was real and uncontrived. No woman on earth could have feigned those responses, not without a great deal of practice, and as he now knew, she'd had no practice at all.

Sheridan awoke alone in her bed, which seemed normal enough and yet… not. Her eyes snapped open, she saw him sitting in the chair beside the bed, and sweet relief flooded through her. He was dressed already, his shirt open at the front, his handsome face unreadable. Self-consciously, she drew the sheets up to her breasts and sat up against the pillows, wondering a little desperately how he could look so utterly casual after the things they had just done. Somewhere at the edges of her mind, she was beginning to realize they were shameful things, but she shut the thought out. His eyes dipped to the sheet she was clutching to her breasts, then slowly lifted to her face, telling her as clearly as if he had spoken that he was amused by her modesty. Sheridan couldn't blame him for that, but she wished he didn't look quite so nonchalant or quite so amused or quite so distant… not when she was struggling to look even a little normal in the aftermath of the things they had done with each other. On the other hand, she realized, he no longer looked cold or cynical or angry, and that struck her as a wondrous change. Tucking the sheet tightly under her arms, she drew up her knees and linked her fingers around them. "Can we talk now?" she began.