The scent of him was clean but salted with sweat, a touch of bay rum cologne sharpened with body warmth. His face was right above hers, a few locks of dark hair tumbling on his forehead. Grinning at her efforts to dislodge him, he braced his forearms on either side of her head.
She’d never played with a man like this, and it was incredibly entertaining and fun, and the tiniest bit scary in a way that excited her. Her giggles collapsed slowly, like champagne froth, and she wriggled as if to twist away from him even though she had no intention of doing so. He countered by settling more heavily into the cradle of her hips, pressing her into the cushions. Even through the mass of her skirts, she felt the unfamiliar pressure of his arousal. The thick ridge fit perfectly against the juncture of her thighs, aligning intimately with her in a way that was both embarrassing and stirring.
A stab of desire went through her as she realized this was how it would be … the anchoring weight of him, all hard muscle and heat … his eyes heavy-lidded and hot as he stared down at her.
Dazedly she reached up and pulled his head to hers. A whimper of pleasure escaped her as he kissed her thoroughly, wringing sensation from her softness, licking deep. Her body welcomed him instinctively, legs spreading wider beneath her skirts. The pit of her stomach clenched as she felt his hips adjust reflexively, the hard ridge finding the mound of her sex again, nudging and settling.
A series of rapid knocks at the doorjamb broke through the sensuous haze. Jarred by the interruption, Cassandra gasped and blinked as she looked toward the threshold.
It was Kathleen, wearing a profoundly apologetic expression, her gaze carefully averted. “Pardon. I’m so sorry. Cassandra, dear … the maids are coming to roll in the tea carts. You’ll want to put yourself to rights, and … I’ll give you a few minutes.” She fled.
Cassandra could barely think. Her entire body throbbed with a frustration she’d never known. She clawed a little at the satiny back of Tom’s sleeveless waistcoat, then let her arms flop weakly down to her sides.
“This,” Tom said with a vehement glance at the doorway, “is why we need a honeymoon.”
“I DIDN’T SAY NEVER. I said it’s unlikely.” Tom stood with one hand braced on the hearth mantel, staring down into the lively blaze. “It’s not really important, is it? You’re going to share a life with me, not my family.”
“Yes, but never to meet them?” Cassandra asked in bewilderment, pacing around the library.
“My mother has refused to see me for years—she’ll have no interest in meeting my wife.” He paused. “I could arrange to introduce you to my sisters at some point in the future.”
“I don’t even know their names.”
“Dorothy, Emily, and Mary. I communicate with them rarely, and when I do, they don’t tell my mother for fear of upsetting her. My youngest sister’s husband is an accountant at my engineering firm—I speak with him now and then. He seems to be a decent fellow.” After pushing away from the fireplace, Tom went to half sit, half lean against the table. “You’re never to contact anyone in my family without my knowledge—I want that in the contract. I know your intentions would be good. But the terrain is sown with land mines.”
“I understand. But won’t you tell me what caused such a rift?” At his long hesitation, she said, “Whatever it is, I’ll take your side.”
“What if you don’t? What if you decide I was in the wrong?”
“Then I’ll forgive you.”
“What if I did something unforgivable?”
“Tell me, and we’ll find out.”
Silence. Tom had gone to the window, bracing his hands on either side of the frame.
Just as Cassandra thought he really wasn’t going to tell her, he spoke in a near monotone, without pause, as if the information needed to be delivered as efficiently as possible. “My father came to my offices five years ago. I hadn’t seen or heard from him since the day he left me at the train station. He said he wanted to find my mother. I’d moved her to a new house, far from the rented rooms we’d once lived in. He said all the things one would expect—he was sorry for having abandoned the family, wanted another chance, and so on.
“There were crocodile tears, of course, and much wringing of hands. He begged me to give him another chance. I felt nothing except a crawling sensation at the back of my neck. I offered him a choice: He could have my mother’s address, or I’d pay him a generous sum to disappear, and never approach her or my sisters.”
“He chose the money,” Cassandra guessed quietly.
“Yes. He didn’t even stop to think about it. Later, I told my mother about it. I thought she’d agree we were well rid of him. Instead, she fell apart. She was like a madwoman. The doctor had to come and sedate her. Since then, she’s regarded me as the source of all evil. My sisters were angry with me about what they saw as a betrayal, but they softened over time. Where my mother is concerned, however, there’s no forgiveness. There never will be.”
Cassandra went to him and touched his rigid back with a gentle hand. He wouldn’t turn to face her. “She blamed you for offering the bribe, but not him for taking it?” she asked.
“She knew I could have arranged for him to go back to her. She knew I could have supported both of them.”
“It wouldn’t have made her happy. She would have always known deep down that he was only there to take advantage of her, and of you.”
“She wanted him back regardless,” Tom said flatly. “I could have made that happen, but I chose not to.”
Cassandra slid her arms around his lean midriff and rested her head against his back. “You chose to protect her from someone who’d hurt her in the past, and would undoubtedly have hurt her again. I don’t call that a betrayal.” When he didn’t react, she said even more softly, “You mustn’t blame yourself for sending him away. Honoring one’s parents doesn’t mean you have to let them tear you apart over and over. You can honor them from a distance, by trying to be ‘a light unto the world.’”
“I haven’t done that either,” she heard him say bitterly.
“Now you’re being contrary,” she chided. “You’ve done much good for other people so far, and there’s more to do, and so you will.”
He put a hand over hers, pressing it to the center of his chest, where his heart thumped powerfully. She felt some of the ferocious tension leave his muscles.
“Are the negotiations almost finished?” he asked in a husky voice. “Are there any important questions left? I’ve already spent too many days of my life without you, Cassandra.”
“One last question.” She pressed her cheek against the smooth, satiny back of his waistcoat. “What is your position on a Christmas wedding?”
Tom went very still, then inhaled deeply and let out a sigh of relief. Keeping possession of her hand, he reached into the front welt pocket of his vest. Her eyes widened as she felt him slide something on the ring finger of her left hand, a smooth, cool weight.
Tugging her hand free of his, Cassandra looked down at an astonishing multicolored gem set in a platinum filigree of tiny diamonds. She stared at it in wonder, tilting her hand in the light. The breathtaking stone contained flashes of every imaginable color, almost as if tiny flowers had been embedded beneath the surface. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Is it an opal?”