After a moment, she began again, "I used to lie in bed at night, afraid of what was in the closet. And then, when I couldn't endure it any longer, I would run across the room and snatch the door open and make myself look inside."

Clayton smiled inwardly. It was like her to grow weary of cowering under the blankets and confront the darkness- monsters or no monsters. When she spoke again, her voice was so low that he had to strain to hear it.


"The closet was always empty. No monsters . . . nothing to fear." She drew a shuddering breath. "Clayton, I don't want to spend our wedding night lying alone in your bed, afraid of what is in the shadows."

Clayton's hand froze in mid-air, then he made himself continue the soothing motion, giving her time to reconsider. "You're certain?" he asked quietly.

Whitney nodded and whispered, "Yes."

Leaning down, he swung her up into his arms and carried her to the big four-poster where he had taught her how degrading the act could be, promising himself, every step of the way, that this time would be so perfect for her that the other time would be banished from her memory. He slipped his hand from beneath her knees, and the gliding feel of her legs sliding down his thighs made his hands tremble as he untied the ribbons at her breasts and tenderly shoved the lacy gown aside.

Her ivory shoulders and full, rosy-tipped breasts gleamed in the light from the fire across the room. "My God, you are beautiful," he breathed, and felt her body quiver sharply when his hands slid down her arms, sending the fragile lace gown spilling onto the floor. He took her dewy lips in a long, sweet kiss, then swept the satin coverlet back and lifted her gently, laying her on the cool sheets.

She closed her eyes and turned her head away, and Clayton saw the flush that swept up her long shapely legs, her slender curves, staining the glowing ivory skin right up to her hairline. Out of consideration for her obvious embarrassment, he reluctantly extinguished the candles burning on the bedside table. Afraid to leave her alone with the memories she was ready to confront, he undressed there beside the bed, then stretched out alongside her and carefully pulled her into his arms. Whitney stiffened. He ran his hand soothingly over her naked back, and she stiffened even more. Clayton stopped caressing her and lay back against the pillows with her head on his chest.

In the next few moments her breathing went from slow and shallow, to rapid and shallow, and he was not even touching her. Christ, how he hated himself for what he had done to her that night! She was so tense, so taut in every fiber of her body that, unless he could help her relax, he would hurt her no matter how gentle he was.

So that she wouldn't be overly conscious of their nakedness, Clayton reached down and drew the sheet over them. "I want to talk awhile first," he explained. Relief flooded her features and he chuckled because she looked as if she'd just been granted a last-minute reprieve from the guillotine. "If yon possibly can, I would like you to try to put out of your mind what happened before. I'd also like you to forget whatever yon may have heard about what happens between a husband and wife in bed, and simply listen to me."

"Yes," she whispered.

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"Expressions such as 'submitting to him' or 'taking her' should never have been applied to lovemaking, yet I know this is the way you must think of it. The first implies a duty, performed reluctantly. The second is rape. I am not going to take' you, and you are not going to 'submit' to me. Nor are you going to feel any pain." With a tender smile at her upturned face, he said, "I promise you that you are not malformed. You are perfectly and exquisitely made."

He ran a forefinger over her lovely cheek. "What is about to take place between us is a sharing, born of my desire to be as close to you as I can be, to actually become a part of you. Little one, when I am inside of you I am not taking, I am giving. I am giving my body to you as I gave you my love before, and my ring today. When I am inside of you, I will put the seed of my own life into you and leave it there for you to keep and shelter within you-a symbol of my love and need for you, like your betrothal ring."

In the flickering orange glow from the fireplace across the room, Clayton saw her hesitate, and then imperceptibly tilt her face up, offering her lips for his kiss. Very slowly and gently, Clayton leaned over and began to kiss his wife. He kissed her long and lingeringly, with all the aching tenderness in his heart and she, after a few moments of tense passivity, laid her slender fingers against his cheek and began to kiss him back with all the shy, trembling love Clayton knew she felt.

Her soft lips parted with only the slightest urging from his probing tongue, and her arms went around his neck as she drew his tongue into her mouth, then gave him hers. He teased her, tormented her, offered himself to her by thrusting deep with his tongue, then slowly retreating and thrusting again and again, until Whitney was clinging to him, her mouth moving back and forth over his in passionate surrender to the wildly erotic kiss.

He stroked her hair and slid his hand down over her throat to her breasts, circling the pink crests with his thumb until they stood up proudly. Whitney shivered with delight and started to fit herself to his hardened length-then jerked away as if she had been scorched. Clayton immediately knew what had terrified her and although she resisted, he moved his arm to hold her hips against his. "No," he said gently as she tried to pull her lower body away from his rigid manhood. "Nothing is going to hurt you."

Her long lashes swept up and she gave him such a doubtful, accusing look, that he nearly smiled. "Put your hand on my chest," he instructed gently. "Only on my chest," he assured her when she lifted her hand to obey and then hesitated. The instant she moved her fingers over his warm skin, his muscles leapt reflexively. "See how my body responds to your touch?" he told her quietly. "The part of me that you are afraid of is only responding to your nearness, reaching for you." He gathered her closer against his thighs and hips, but she remained stiff and tensed. "You aren't still afraid that I am going to hurt you, after I've promised I won't?"

Whitney swallowed convulsively and shook her bead against the pillow. If Clayton said this wasn't going to be painful, she would believe him. Tentatively she moved her fingers over the furring of dark hair on his chest and felt the slight increase in the steady thudding of his heart, the rippling of his powerful chest muscles when she slid her hand a little lower.

Clayton felt it as a flame racing uncontrollably through his veins. "Oh darling," he half laughed, half groaned, "please feel pride in what you can do to me. It humbles me to know you can make my body respond to your slightest touch, even if I will against it. It humbles me more to tell you so. But I tell you anyway, because if you can take pride in having such power over me, I can find a reason for joy in it, as well. But if it frightens you or makes you ashamed, then our love must be a timid thing, a thing of shame."