She really ought to thank him. But how? What to say? To Richard of all men.
And there was the rub. Richard. The man she loved. The man she would always love. So deeply that he seemed a part of herself. Even if he never knew it. She shut her eyes against the prickling heat. He must never know it.
But somehow she must thank him for what he had taught her. For what he had forced her to see. Here, still high above the world, she could see that she had known deep down for weeks. The day he had swung her out of the path of the gig, holding her afterwards as if he would never release her; the night he had come to her during her nightmare and comforted her; his protective fury when he rescued her from Dunhaven; the day he had swung her around in joy at the news of Verity's safe delivery. Above all, he had accepted her as she was; he had stood by her. He had not judged. Oh, yes; she had been in love with him for weeks, yet, held prisoner in the darkness of her own fears, she had been too cowardly to acknowledge it.
But now in the sunlight, she knew: with Richard there would have been nothing to fear. The world misted and she blinked furiously. It was impossible. She had made her choice - and yet . . .
The woods were thinning. Soon the house would be in sight and this was the sort of thing that she would much prefer to say very privately indeed.
'The other day - when you asked me to marry you -' She hesitated, struggling to give words to her thoughts. 'Even though I can't possibly marry you - I wanted to thank you, for . . . for believing me, and even before that . . . for not judging me.'
His smile tore her heart from her breast, deepened, reaching places within her that she had thought lost. Dazed she realised that he had taken her hands, that he was bending towards her, that he was going to . . .
His lips brushed across hers in the gentlest of feather light caresses. Her whole being leapt and surged unbidden as he straightened and drew back. She felt as though a flame leapt and burned within her, dancing in joy.
He had kissed her. Just.
And her whole being yearned for him to kiss her again. Properly.
He said in an odd, tight sort of voice, 'We had better keep moving.'
Automatically she followed him, shockingly aware that her lips felt bereft, incomplete, that she was like a moth dancing around a lamp. Certain to be singed, but dancing all the same and yearning for the touch of flame on its wings just once more.
Would he mind? Just to show her? It would be utterly shameless of course, but what did she have to lose? Her virtue?
'Yes?' Very curt.
Perhaps he would mind. Nevertheless Thea took a deep breath and asked huskily, 'Would you kiss me again?'
He stopped dead in his tracks.
'I beg your pardon?'
Stubbornly she met his disbelieving gaze. 'Please . . . if you wouldn't mind . . . would you kiss me again. P . . . p . . . properly this time.'
He was having difficulty just breathing, but he managed to say, 'I think I might just about be able to cope.' Dear God in heaven - what the hell did she mean by properly? Unfortunately, the way - all the ways - he wanted to kiss Thea Winslow came under the heading Improper. Extremely improper. Now was probably not the right moment to point out that he'd been wanting to kiss her properly for sometime. And it certainly wasn't the right moment to lose all control. She had refused even to listen to his last offer of marriage. So why in Hades did she want him to kiss her?
'Here?' he suggested, keeping his voice very neutral. At least his voice was under control. It was about the only part of him that was. Apparently the shreds of his control had been used up keeping that last kiss within the bounds of propriety.
She looked about. 'Y . . . yes. Here would be nice.'
Nice? Richard took a shuddering breath. Here would be perfect. He suspected that here, in the sun-dappled green of the beech woods, was about to become the most wonderful place on earth. Slowly, he raised a hand and brushed his fingers along the elegant line of her throat and jaw. So soft. So silky. He couldn't remember any woman's skin ever being that soft. He couldn't remember any other woman at all for that matter. She, and only she, filled his memories, his heart, his soul. And she had asked him to kiss her. Just kiss her. If anyone had ever offered him anything sweeter, he didn't remember that, either. Carefully he cradled her jaw, smoothing his thumb over her lips. They parted on a soft gasp and heat shot through him.
Just a kiss, he reminded himself.
Thea waited, shivering in wonder at his touch, her mind reeling with shock, that she had actually done something so outrageous as to ask a gentleman to kiss her. Properly. Only . . . having asked him to kiss her, she now had absolutely no idea what the next move should be. She didn't even know what properly involved. Fortunately it was obvious that Richard did know.
His fingers, light and caressing, drew tingling magic from deep within her, melting her shyness in the warmth of his tenderness. Gentle, feather light kisses caressed her temples, her closed eyes. Controlled strength drew her closer, nestling her against his body as that teasing mouth brushed fire along the line of her jaw, until, in sudden frustration, she turned, clumsily capturing his lips with her own.
A moment's stillness as their mouths met, then his lips moved in a heart shaking entreaty, the silky heat of his tongue tasting, teasing her own lips open. So different, a melding this, and she responded to the heat spreading within her, parting her lips, opening her mouth in acceptance.
His tongue slid deep, stroking, and heat burst inside her as she felt the aching pulse deep within, echoing the possessive surge and retreat of his tongue.
He took, but he also gave. And she could sense his restraint. In the taut strength of his arms, cradling her so tenderly. In the low groan deep in his throat as she tentatively returned his kiss, tasting, probing with her own tongue.
Her bones melted. Every fibre softened in delight and she clung, pressing against him, closer than sunlight, feeling joy and love pour through her, illuminating every dark corner, flinging back the shadows.
Finally, far too soon, he drew back, releasing her mouth and settling her cheek against his chest. She could hear his heart hammering. Beating to the same wild, burning rhythm as her own. His hand stroked her hair, soothing, gentle.
His voice came, utterly calm. 'Was that what you meant by properly?'
I'm thrilled to be a finalist again in Australia's only Romance genre award. The other finalists in this category are Karina Bliss, Anna Campbell and Anne Gracie.
A COMPROMISED LADY
Harlequin Mills & Boon Historical
SOMETHING HAD WROUGHT A CHANGE IN THEA WINSLOW
As a girl she had been bubbling over with mischief. As a woman she seemed half lost in shadow. But Richard Blakehurst couldn’t miss the flash of connection between them when his hand touched hers. It was as if he had awakened something deep inside her.
Seeing Richard again brought back the taunting memory of their dance at her come-out ball. She must tame her wayward thoughts, because Thea doubted even her considerable fortune could buy Richard’s good opinion of her if ever he learnt the truth...
Summoned back to London in order to marry, Thea is relieved to be staying with her godmother, Lady Arnsworth, rather than under her father’s roof, and convinces herself that she can control the situation. Until she discovers that she is not Lady Arnsworth’s only house guest, and that her godmother has turned matchmaker. . .