Desire pounded through his veins. He was seized by the urge to tumble her into the grass, right then and there, and strip her of every scrap of clothing. She wanted to be touched. He wanted to touch her. There was nothing holding them back.
Nothing, that was, save for a dozen giggling, foolish handmaidens who wanted to sprinkle them with wild-rose petals.
How did one get rid of these girls? They were like fanned-away horseflies. They just kept coming back.
He raised his voice. "Handmaidens, gather round."
Once they'd assembled in a loose, giggling circle, he clapped his hands. "Let's have a game, shall we? We'll call it 'Rescue the Maiden.' Miss Goodnight will count to one hundred. All of you, go run and hide-and wait for your dashing Ulric to save you. No cheating, now. You mustn't peek."
The handmaidens disappeared before he could have counted three, laughing and tripping over their hems as they darted through archways and ducked around hedges.
Izzy shook her head. "Very well. You win this point. I will concede, these particular girls may be just a little bit stupid."
Ransom wasn't interested in scoring points on silly girls. The moment all the handmaidens were gone, he caught Izzy in his arms and dragged her inside the ruined folly.
"We have until one hundred. Start counting."
"One. Two. Thr-"
He drew her close and claimed her mouth with his. He gave her no chance to demur but boldly swept his tongue between her lips, stealing her breath. He tilted his head, pushing deeper.
And once again, she kissed him back. If he'd been standing, his knees would have buckled.
She was so instinctively passionate. So unbearably sweet.
This was madness. He knew it. She knew it, too. If he gave her a moment to reply, she would likely tell him so.
But nothing needed to make rational sense. There were no minds in this, only bodies and heat. This was something both of them wanted. Hell, it was something he needed. To touch, to tease, to taste. To explore her with his mouth and hands. Kiss her breathless. Feel powerful and alive.
Because there'd been a time, not so long ago, when he thought he'd never get back to this place: A woman's body soft and yielding against his, and the warm summer sun beating down on them both.
This was life.
Bright, brilliant life amid the ruins.
This was some kind of miracle.
Here they were, in this ruined folly, where so many couples before them must have kissed and embraced. She was surrounded by true romantic legacy-and for once, Izzy wasn't left out of it.
She relaxed, letting her weight rest against the mossy stones as Ransom trailed hot kisses along her neck.
He drew his hand along her body, sweeping a possessive touch over her waist and hip before settling his palm over her breast.
He paused there, as though he expected her to flinch or pull away.
She wasn't about to do either. His touch awakened all her senses to anticipation, possibility.
Around them, birds whistled and chirped. All sorts of mosses, ferns, and ivies had sunk their green teeth into the stones, sprouting life from the smallest, most inhospitable places. Flowers poured their perfume into the air.
Izzy seemed to be blossoming, too. Her whole body felt flushed and pink. Ripe for his touch.
This was her summer, after years and years of spring.
She went on counting in a fevered, insensate whisper. "Sixteen, seventeen, eightee-"
When he kissed her again, she tilted her head and slid her tongue forward to toy with his.
He moaned. And his fingers curled around her breast, gently kneading her softness through the fabric.
As he touched her, Izzy did some touching of her own. She explored the muscled contours of his forearm, all roped strength and corded sinew. She slid her hand higher, feeling the massive biceps beneath his coat sleeve. He flexed the muscle on instinct. Or on purpose. Who could tell with this man? Either way, Izzy found it ridiculously thrilling. All that power in his body, and the way he could use it to explore and pleasure her.
A soft, surprised laugh escaped her. "I'd given up on this."
"Given up on what?"
"This. All of this. Surprise benefactors, mysterious castles, romantic ruins, forbidden kisses."
He kissed her neck. "What else have you given up on, Izzy Goodnight? This?" He flicked her earlobe with his tongue. "Maybe this?" He nipped with his teeth. "Make a list, and we'll go through it line by line."
She let her head fall to the side, offering him more of her neck to kiss. "What haven't I given up on? Marriage, children, lasting love, manageable hair. Being truly understood by anyone."
Oh, the poor man. He recoiled, his face ashen.
Izzy was utterly convinced. Never mind Arabian horses, African cheetahs. No creature in the world could bolt so quickly as a rake confronted with the word "marriage." They ought to shout it out at footraces rather than using starting pistols.
Ready, steady . . . matrimony!
"I was joking," she assured him.
"I knew that."
"I don't intend to ever marry. I certainly wouldn't think you'd ever-" Gads, now she was making him sound unlovable. "Not with me."
"Right. Exactly. And I don't know a damned thing about ladies' hair." He cleared his throat. "Goodnight, this isn't . . ."
"It's only . . ."
"This. It's only this. I know." She put her arms around his neck. "No expectations. Just go back to touching me?"
He exhaled with relief. "That I can do."
Yes. That he could do very well indeed.
His thumb found her nipple, and he teased it through the muslin, drawing the peak to a taut, aching nub. The sensations coursing through Izzy's body were unlike anything she'd ever known. How was it possible, that his thumb could idly slide back and forth across that one tiny part of her, and she could feel it in the roots of her hair and the backs of her knees?
When his thumb abandoned the peak, and she wanted to weep
But then he slid his touch to the other side, and the sweet torture began all over again. She was afraid her knees would buckle with it, so she clung tight to his neck, weaving her fingers into his hair.
He was driving all thoughts from her head, leaving her with the intellect of a pudding. She was just a quivering mound of sensation, capped by that red, ripe berry of a nipple that he rolled beneath his thumb. Again and again and again.
Just when she thought she'd dissolve into a puddle at his boots, his hands slid to her waist. With a low, thrilling growl, he pressed her against the stone wall, pinning her there with his body.
Izzy was breathless. Trapped. This should have made her wild to get free. But she loved the feeling, bracketed by such intoxicating strength. The stones at her back had stood in place for centuries, and the man before her had survived unknown trials. She could melt with fear or bliss, and they would hold her together-this wall, this man.
He groaned, clutching her hips. A hard, heated something pressed against her middle.
Her eyes flew open. Her knowledge of lovemaking was rather like a sieve. She caught the general idea, even if detail and nuance slipped through. Still, she understood this much. That a man's organ grew . . . emboldened . . . when he wished to make love.
This firm, long ridge of heat against her belly . . .
It meant he wanted her. Magnificently.
He pushed her shawl from her shoulders. It fell to the ground. He slid his fingers along her collarbone, dipping under the edge of her sleeve and slipping it down her bare shoulder.
"You stopped counting," he whispered.
"How can I count when you're-" She gasped as he scooped her breast straight out of her stays. Cool air rushed over her exposed nipple. "How can I count when you're doing that?"
"It's easy. I'll help." He bent his head, trailing kisses down her chest until he reached her bared breast. His tongue flickered over her nipple. "Thirty-one." Another lick. "Thirty-two." Lick. "Thirty-three."
The alternating heat of his mouth and the coolness of the air . . . She must have gooseflesh everywhere, including the soles of her feet. If he'd continued on in such a manner, Izzy might have incinerated before she reached the count of forty-five.
But he didn't continue. Instead, he drew her nipple into his mouth and suckled hard.
After that, numbers had no meaning.
How many counts were in forever? That's how long she wanted this to last. His tongue made lazy, delicious circles around her nipple, driving her mindless with pleasure. Oh, he was good at this. Very good indeed.
Then he sank to his knees, sending one hand to delve under her skirts.
When he grasped her leg, Izzy panicked.
She clutched at his shoulders, holding him off. "Ninety-nine, one hundred."
He paused, one hand frozen in the act of rucking up her petticoats and the other encircling her ankle.
"You said everywhere," he reminded her, in a low, wicked voice.
"I did say everywhere."
Her heart thundered in her chest. He was giving her the chance to refuse, and everything in her upbringing screamed at her to take it.
But she only had this one life. And so far, in this one life, she had only had this one man show the least bit of interest in tossing her petticoats to her waist.
This could be her one and only chance.
It was just a bit of touching, she told herself. Harmless. It wasn't as though he could deflower her here, with a dozen handmaidens hiding nearby.
"Have you changed your mind?" he asked.
Oh Lord oh Lord oh Lord. "No."
He muttered something that sounded like, "Thank God." He gathered her skirts in one hand and hiked them to her waist with a single, expert motion.
Izzy reclined against the wall and stretched her arms overhead, feeling wanton and daring. As he ran his hands over her stockinged calf and up her thigh, she let her legs fall just slightly apart.
"Yes," he groaned. "Open for me. Just like that. Lovely, lovely."
That's what Izzy would have thought about this entire scene just a fortnight ago. She felt like a pagan goddess in an ancient temple. Reclining against the ivy-covered wall of a ruined folly, being ravished in full morning light by a scarred, sensual duke.
This was beyond anything she'd ever dreamed. And Izzy had a vivid imagination. She reeled from the sheer joy of his touch and the exquisite wickedess of . . . of everything.
A new, throbbing pulse started to thrum between her legs. Hurry, it beat. Hurry, hurry.
His hand slid up her thigh, skipping over the garter and proceeding on to the smooth slope of her inner thigh.
"So soft." He kissed her just above the knee. "Like satin."
As his touch swept closer to her sex, the building crescendo of pleasure was unbearable.
Higher . . . higher . . . and a little higher still.
Until his thumb grazed her there.
A rocket of bliss shot through her, racking her from toes to scalp. She clenched her fists, tugging on the ivy branches for support lest her quivering thighs give away.
A dusting of white grit showered down on them both.
Ransom looked up. "What was that?"
"Oh, dear. I think a bit of the wall is crumbling." She released her grip on the ivy, but another few pebbles shook loose.
"Then come away from there." He rose to his feet, letting her skirts fall back to the ground, and tucked her close to his chest.
Thunk. An apple-sized chunk of wall tumbled loose and hit him square on the head.
"Oh, goodness! Ransom!"
He cursed and recoiled, pressing the heel of his hand to the wound as he staggered backward to sit in the grass. Magnus circled him, whining.