James couldn’t help noticing the woman’s shapely figure as the gathered skirt flared at her hips and the bodice was filled with bosom. She stood, staring at him on the threshold of Shilo Manor. A black band held her blonde hair away from her forehead, and the purple cardigan she wore clashed dramatically with the lemonade yellow sundress beneath it. She twisted her fingers together calling attention to her bleach-clean nails.
It must be important. Most fail to remember why they came this way—thanks to the charm cast to protect them from the curious—and wander back home. To appear on their doorstep proved her determination.
She blinked her teary blue eyes. A soft breeze blew across the porch, and she opened her lush mouth. He upped his brow in expectation. She closed it again.
James lifted his hand in question. “Is there something you wanted, ma’am?”
She blinked with a start and then laughed a breath. “I was just—I mean…wow. Elaina was right.”
She waved a sleeve-covered hand. “I thought Vince was something but look at you. All three of you must just be—magic made flesh.”
What? He unconsciously stepped back, gazing over her cocked grin, full nose, heavy lidded eyes, and then her rounded chin. Shaking himself mentally, he forced a cool demeanor. “And you are?”
“Oh, I’m Linda. Elaina’s sister.”
Heat rushed up his neck. Another blow of unexpected information. Then, he recalled… Vincent had mentioned a sister from out of town attended the family’s gathering. Why hadn’t he included her when they presented the family with promise bands? What were the odds Elaina had spoken of things with her sibling around? Mighty high considering the comments the woman had just made.
James forced a congenial smile. “You didn’t join your family when they accepted our invitation the other day.”
“Yeah, well, I tried to talk my husband into it.” She glanced to the side. “It’s kind of why I’m here to see her.”
“Your husband?” Dear, Gods. More possible repercussions. James opened the door further, urgency gripping his nerves. “Please, come in.”
As she crossed the threshold, he headed for the parlor. “Elaina’s upstairs. I’ll get her while you wait in the parlor.”
He glanced back and motioned toward the room. She quickened her steps, wiping her face with her elongated sleeves, and then pulled the band from her hair. She fluffed her locks. “Thank you. You have a lovely place here.”
Opening the parlor door, he paused as the bar came to view. Under normal circumstances, he’d offer a lady a drink. But as it was, all he wanted to do was call on Vincent and his betrothed. Heaving a breath to calm his nerves, he decided on chivalry. He smiled at her as she settled into the sofa. “May I offer you a drink?”
“Yes, thank you.”
How much had Elaina shared of their nature? Had Linda spoken to her husband of the news? Had he spread it further? As the amber liquid poured, he had to glance at her.
Pink tinged her cheeks, and she lowered her gaze.
He replaced the flask.
“You know, I thought you’d look more like Vince. But…”
Caught once again by her words, James turned and looked at her. She upped her brows, and her shoulders lifted. He glanced down at his appearance, momentarily distracted from his concerns. No stains on his vested chest. Plenty of room in his sleeves for his bulky arms. Cuffs were a bit tight, but styled for the season. Trousers sufficiently creased, and he was sure his hair was kempt.
He gazed at her and had to ask. “But?”
She breathed a laugh. “You’re just…” she motioned an encompassing circle. “Bigger. I mean, larger. Oh, good Gryffin.” She covered her eyes with a hand that didn’t hide the deep rosy color that bloomed on her face. “I’m so sorry! You’re gorgeous.”
Heat swept across his cheeks, and he handed her the cordial. “Well, thank you. I’ll go get Elaina.”
“Yes.” She accepted the glass and shook her head, looking away. “That’s a good idea.”
As he left the room, her whisper carried through the air. “For the love of Gryffin, Linda. Could you have made a worse impression?”
James tilted his head and trotted up the stairs. Reason hoped for a simple fix, but his gut told him otherwise.
~ * ~
Cole flexed his fingers around the crystal vase as he headed down the hall. Excitement bubbled at the threshold of a blossoming relationship with Anna more than with any woman he’d pursued since Mianna. Even though logic told him her true identity would be hidden, he couldn’t harness his anticipation. Instincts revealed a shadow of her personality and that was enough to start. Whoever she’d grown to be since that sweet daughter of the Arylin colony would be the flower of his soul.
Noonday sunrays poured through the window and filled her guestroom with warmth. His heart wrapped around the serene scene, and he smiled. Setting the roses on the corner table, he glanced around. The room was empty. “Anna?”
He cautiously stepped to the bathroom and peered inside the open door. Her gaze locked on him, and he flushed. Her gown lay at her feet, and she held a folded towel on her lap as she sat on the bench in front of the vanity. “Are you okay?”
Cole glanced to the side, trying to remember the name. Ah, Dressen’s assigned aide. He looked back at her and consciously tried to keep his gaze from wandering her unveiled body. “Clair’s not here.”
She looked at the marble tub. “Clair told me not to run a bath. She’s supposed to help me.”
“I see.” Stepping into the small room, he pulled the curtain to the bathing area aside. “You can take a shower. It won’t flood the room.”
He turned the faucet on and selected a comfortable temperature. “Just—take a shower instead—of a bath. Er, just don’t stop the drain as for a bath.”
He cringed at his poorly executed statement, but his nerves danced at her exposure.
She stood and set the towel on the vanity. He averted his gaze, but his peripheral vision betrayed his chivalrous intent. Heat flushed his skin. Muscles tightened. He swallowed his breath to control the affects.
He hadn’t expected this. Perhaps a sleepy awakening, a presenting of flowers, mild conversation, but not this…
She gingerly stepped inside, and Cole pulled the curtain home behind her.
Heaving a sigh, he closed his eyes. Gods! His attraction to her was too strong to begin their acquaintance in the nude. Just leave, Cole. It’s best just to…
She pulled the curtain aside, and his gaze snapped to the unexpected action. Water streamed from her drenched hair, sending floods to veer from her breasts, flow within the cleavage, and down her slender belly.
His flush deepened, and he forced his gaze upward. Sprinkles of water sparkled on her cheeks and beaded on her lashes. A crackle interrupted his voice. “I—is something wrong?”
“If Clair isn’t here to help me bathe, are you?”
His stomach knotted. “You want me to help you bathe?”
“She said I did it wrong.”
A quick breath passed his lips as the urge to join her flew through him. Calm down. Think rationally.
Chivalry reminded him it could lead to something he would regret, but desire goaded him. He caved, allowing his gaze to float down her petite form.
Wrong thing to do. Anticipation pooled in his stomach and lower.
Glancing away, he considered the options. It’s only a few minutes in a shower, he reasoned, to aide in a bath. Nothing more.
The weight of her gaze, innocent, unyielding, pressed him to decide.
Don’t look down. Agreeing with his thoughts, he anchored his gaze on her cherubic face.
Again, wrong thing to do. The pull that had called to him in the alley nearly overpowered him. He wanted to kiss those bow-tie lips, relive the blissful moment, answer her soul’s call.
Clenching his teeth, he focused on the waterfall above her head. He inched the lever to lighten the flow and smiled. “Better?”
As she turned, her shoulder brushed his chest, dampening his shirt with warmth. A spark flew from her touch to his core. Temptation reared, and his gaze succumbed, lowering to view her bare back: The gentle slope of her waist, the slight V at the crown of her buttocks.
Cole’s mind reeled. His manhood throbbed. Knees weakened, and he grasped the shower curtain just because it was there. He wanted to take every part of her, regardless of the consequences.
What was wrong with him? He’d controlled himself under more pressing circumstances, turned away temptation with little thought.
You have got to temper these feelings!
He could do this—hold to his conviction to keep her safe. All he had to do was remember the possible harm. No joining, and he wouldn’t allow her to complete the spell.
He grimaced at the thought. Mianna had handled it fine. But in Anna’s state, he wondered. What would it do to her if she performed it on a Meridian, anyway? She wouldn’t be prepared for the experience. The shock could be traumatic, even harmful.
What was he thinking? It would not go that far. He set his mind. No, it will not come to that.
She turned back to him, and it nearly destroyed his conviction. Her full breasts gleamed with moisture, nipples puckered as the water trickled over them. She looked at him, a question in her gaze.
He cleared his throat and stepped in, fully clothed.
“Um, Anna?” Mere inches separated them. The heady ignition of lust hit him as he couldn’t keep his gaze from following the water down her body. His heart hammered. Blood pooled deep in his groin.
Clearing his throat again, he decided to forgo words. He couldn’t make intelligent conversation if he had to.
He reached for the soap and then slid it up her arm with silky ease. It left a glistening trail as he led it over her collar bone. Pinching his lips between his teeth, he guided the suds around the curve of her bosom.
“We don’t need to rush this.” His whisper came before he realized he’d spoken.
She closed her eyes and leaned her head back as her body relaxed beneath his touch.
Her open acceptance flowed through him. Her awakening emotions welcomed his attention, beckoned him to her.
His throat went dry, and he held his breath as the sweet lavender soap slipped from his hand. It clunked on the marble floor as suds washed from her skin and then slid toward the silver drain together.
One touch. Gently cupping her breast, he lifted it to torture his thirst. Only a taste…to sedate the craving.
His lips parted.
Restraint fled, and he grabbed her waist, pulling her to him. Slick skin pressed against a thread barrier and the fact that the barricade forbade their joining made it that much more enticing.
His conscience offered weak rebuke. Too much.
He paid no heed, lost in the pleasure of having her. All the years he’d dreamed of their love, their hunger, condensed into that instant. Intoxicated by the moment, he brushed his lips along her cheek to meet her with an eager kiss. A sweet squeak accompanied a hitch in her breath. Her tongue glided along his in perfect harmony.
Water cascaded through their hair, drumming a mesmerizing rhythm. Easing her against the shower wall, he lowered his body and relished the friction as it brushed along hers.
As she pressed into his movement, a warning flashed across his mind; Wrong thing to do!
His tongue swirled the water from the dip of her neck, and he savored the nectar with a growl of defiance.
She cried with delectation and tilted her head, dainty breaths pressing her bosoms tighter against his chest.
His voice followed her soft tone, raspy and led by hunger. “Gods, I want you.”
As her knee rose to meet his hip, control drowned. Need raged, and he slipped his hand down her hip and around to her inner thigh.
I can stop it before the spell takes effect. I can break the symbol when it’s formed. I can…
Anna’s leg tightened around him, pressing her hips hard against his groin. Her hands flew to his back, fingers and thumbs forming a triad.
Stop now! The symbol is formed.
Cole struggled to withhold his advance but his hunger, unquenched, turned ravenous. A roar ripped from his chest.
Air rushed into her lungs as she arched her back.
You must stop it now!
“Unsigh,” cried Anna and inhaled another exclamatory breath.
The spell charged deep into his heart as it began its course to his soul. Tiny spangles of purity delivered reverberations of the ecstasy she rode. It threw him to a time long ago, to their union and consummation.
No, Cole. Don’t do this to her, his conscience cried. As soon as she calls the second part of the spell, your emotions will be added to the experience. If you love her, you’ll stop it now!
In a fit of forced severing, he pushed himself away and broke the triadic symbol. He fell against the back wall of the shower and shuddered as he grasped for the ledge of the tub.
Her cry filled the little room. “Colhart!”
Clenching his jaw to repel his intense craving, he hissed through his teeth. “Gods, Anna.”
Waves of euphoria echoed from her as she slowly slid to the bottom of the tub.
Cole grunted to vent his arrest. He wiped his hand down his face and then looked at her rapturous countenance.
Elaina would have to take his place next time. This couldn’t happen again.