Authors: Tatiana March
“Father!” There was pain in her outburst.
“Why did you become a thief?” Andrew Sinclair demanded. “Easy money? The thrill of breaking the law? Envy of men who have earned the money to buy their own land?” When Declan said nothing, his voice rose to a roar. “Answer me, you blue-eyed son of a bitch!”
Victoria winced. It had been a terrible idea to bring them together in the cemetery where her father’s turbulent emotions always sprang to the surface anyway. She saw the two of them staring at each other, features shadowed with hate, hands fisted, shoulders hunched, ready to launch into attack. She had to say something to stop the fight before it could get started.
“Father,” she blurted out, a trace of desperation in her voice. “That’s a stupid thing to say. I have blue eyes too, and so did mother. That’s another thing I got from her.”
Startled, her father gaped at her. “What did you say?”
She nodded toward Declan. “You called him a blue-eyed son of a bitch.”
“Watch you language, girl. I didn’t spend a fortune to hear you cussing.”
“I’m only following your example.”
Her father’s temper, quick to flare, was equally quick to settle. He batted his hat against his thigh and muttered, “Didn’t you have a better place to stir up trouble than your mother’s grave?” Not waiting for her to come up with a reply, or even to move out of the way, he reached down for the clay jug, lifted it high and upended it over the rose bush. The water sent a thick spray of compost splashing up to her knees.
“God,” she muttered, sniffing at the air. “Now I smell like a dung heap.”
Her father tossed a rueful look at her and walked out of the iron gate. As he passed Declan, he turned back to look at her and said, “What was the point of saving him from the noose if you’re going to strangle him with a shirt?”
And with that parting comment, he left them in the thickening dusk.
Victoria peered at Declan from beneath her brows. “Sorry,” she said.
Declan shrugged. “He is right. To a cattleman, a rustler is vermin.”
“I meant the shirt.” She dug in her burlap bag and tossed Mrs. Flynn’s shirt to him. “Here. Believe me or not, I didn’t do it on purpose. That shirt was a genuine effort.”
“I know.” Declan caught the plaid blue shirt in the air.
Victoria watched her father’s tall figure striding down the hillside. There had already been too much turmoil for her to cope with in the last two days. She couldn’t take any more emotional upheaval. Not tonight. Not even with the soft evening light falling over the landscape and cicadas singing and fresh scents in the air. She sniffed at her soaking wet knees. And perhaps smells not so fresh.
“You go on ahead,” she told Declan. “I’ll stay a while.”
His brows lifted. “Will you be all right?”
“Can you shoot?”
“I mean, shoot straight.”
He took out one of the big revolvers, pushed out the cylinder to check the ammunition and then handed the gun to her. “Here. In case there’s a snake. It’s on an empty chamber for safety. You can give it back to me tomorrow.”
“Thank you.” She balanced the heavy weapon in her hand. Sterling qualities, she thought as she watched Declan make his way back down the path, the plaid shirt slung over his shoulder, the empty bucket dangling in his hand. She had sought proof of his worth as a man, as a husband, and everything he did had offered it to her.
Declan kept up his resolve for two days and two and a half nights. He didn’t eat. He didn’t sleep. He spent endless hours in an agonized struggle with his conscience.
He told himself it was right—evil right—to make his marriage real. What better way to crush Andrew Sinclair than to take his daughter away from him?
He told himself it was right—true right—to make his marriage real. When Andrew Sinclair lost his ranch, he could take care of Victoria. He could get a job as a ranch foreman somewhere north. Montana. Wyoming. He could provide for her.
Then he told himself it was
all right in any way at all. She needed to be able to marry one of those affluent men her father had talked about. And that was the thought that got him out of bed. The thought of her married to someone else.
Right or wrong, he didn’t know. But he knew he had to do it.
He got up in the faint glow of moonlight and took his yellow shirt from the bedpost where he’d slung it. He shoved his arms into the sleeves, tearing another seam. His bare feet were soundless on the floor as he padded out of the room.
Around him, the house slept. A clock somewhere had chimed midnight long ago. Taking the stairs on tiptoe, he counted doors in the upstairs corridor until he found the one that matched Victoria’s bedroom window. Last night, he had sat on horseback on the other side of the stable yard, watching her light go out.
He tried the brass knob. It turned without a sound.
When he entered, he found the room bathed in soft moonlight. A cool night breeze flowed in through the open windows. Victoria was sitting up in bed, the plain white covers gathered like snowdrifts about her feet. She wore a nightgown of fine cotton, with a high neck and long sleeves, and lace at the collar. Her hair cascaded in a dark curtain past her shoulders. He could see a blue silk ribbon twined into the glossy tresses.
“Have you been waiting for me?” he asked.
She didn’t speak, merely dipped her head in a silent nod.
“Five years.” She pursed her mouth. “And nine days.”
Five years of waiting. Nine days of resisting. It seemed crazy now that he had thought he could keep away from her. He wanted her, could no longer remember a time when he hadn’t wanted her. He’d been captured, had almost died, because after hearing that she’d returned home from boarding school he had taken foolish risks, ridding too close to the house, hungry for a glimpse of her.
He crossed the room, sat down on the edge of the bed. Slowly, giving her plenty of time to object, he lifted his hand to the row of tiny buttons at her throat. He sprang the first button open. And the second. And the third. Through it all, his gaze never left hers. When he had enough buttons freed from their moorings, he slipped one hand inside the nightgown and stroked her smooth skin, leaving no doubt about his intentions.
“When you dreamed about me, did you dream of this?” he asked.
His fingertips stilled as they found the upper slope of her breast. He leaned down and covered her mouth with his. The kiss was different now from before. Slow and thorough. The leisurely kiss of a man who knew he had no need to hurry because he planned to take all night.
He pulled away a fraction, his lips brushing hers as he spoke. “After tonight, there’ll be no going back. You understand that, don’t you, Victoria? You’ll belong to me. Your future will be tied to mine, whatever it may bring.”
She made not reply, merely leaned forward for another kiss. He pulled back and repeated his question, his brows furrowed. “You understand, don’t you, Victoria?”
In the moonlight, he could see into her eyes. They were large and luminous, the blue in them darker and more vivid than his. They held uncertainty and excitement. But more than anything, they blazed with an awakening passion that he knew would brush all reason aside.
“So be it,” Declan said, as solemn as a priest.
He took the kiss deeper, slanting his mouth across hers. He let his hand slide lower inside her nightgown, until it could curl around the rounded shape of a breast. Victoria made a breathless sound, something between a murmur and a sigh. Her palms crept up to his chest and clung tight against him, her fingers fisting into his shirt.
Declan broke the kiss and raised his head, rolling one shoulder against the tug of her hold. Victoria gave a little shaky laugh, full of tension. “You didn’t need to keep wearing this horrible thing. It’s far too small. I didn’t write down the measurements but trusted my memory. I must have gotten them mixed up.”
He didn’t reply at first, merely gave her a faint smile. How could he explain? When the shirt chafed against his skin, it felt to him as if her inexpert fingers that had struggled with the thread and needle were touching him, caressing him.
“I wanted to see how long it will take for it to fall apart,” he said finally.
“Oh,” she replied, animated now. “Not long, I guess.” She tugged with her fisted hands against the fabric. Then tugged a little harder. The side seam that had already been unraveling made a rasping sound and ripped open all the way down.
With a tiny whoop of triumph, Victoria pushed her hand through the opening. Her palm flattened against the sleek muscles on his back. The feel of her questing fingers on his bare skin wiped the last remaining doubts from Declan’s mind. All that agony of wrestling with his conscience seemed pointless against the dark tide of desire that rose within him.
Leaning back, so he could see what he was doing, he used both hands to open the rest of the tiny pearl buttons on the bodice of her nightgown, moving slowly down the row. When he had bared her breasts, he let his gaze drop down to the pink, puckered nipples he’d imagined so many times. With the tip of his index finger, he circled each peak.
“Did you dream of this?” he asked.
“What else did you dream of?”
“You,” she replied. “Like this.” She locked her fingers into his hair and guided his mouth to her breast. He tasted her, tugged gently with his teeth. The soft whimpering sounds she made sent waves of passion crashing over him. Beneath his caressing mouth, he could feel the rise and fall of her chest as her breathing accelerated.
Straightening, he curled his hands beneath her arms and rose to his feet, lifting her with him. He carried her to the open window, where the long gauze curtains fluttered in the night breeze and the moon lit up the white of her nightgown.
“Take it off,” he told her, and stepped aside to watch.
Tipping her head back, the way he’d seen her do when she’d been riding through a desert storm, raindrops pelting down on her, her long dark hair streaming in the wind behind her, she lifted the garment over her head and let it fall to the floor. Bold, without hesitation, she stood before him, her skin pale in the faint glow of the moon.
His heart pounded in his chest. Not moving at all, Declan waited for the need to feel her naked body against his to grow until it filled the room, until filled the vast plateau outside and the starry sky above, and only then did he quickly strip out of his own clothes. Standing bare before Victoria, he drew her into his arms, molding the pliant curves of her body against the hard planes of his own.
He spoke softly into her ear. “You owe me a wedding night.”
“It’s you who owes
one,” she replied.
Declan heard the calm confidence in her voice, and the last kernel of doubt inside him eased. When it was all over, he’d find a way to hold on to her, to take her with him, provide for her. For an instant, his mood grew dark at the thought of what he had to do. She’d probably hate him for a while, would regret not letting him hang at the end of a rope, but if she truly loved him, she would understand and learn to forgive.
With a sharp shake of his head, Declan pushed the future aside. Only now. Touching, Feeling. Hot mouth on soft skin, eager hands roaming and touching, as two bodies prepared to join in the intimate act that made a woman belong to a man.
Victoria stood in Declan’s arms and buried her face in the crook of his neck, breathing in his scent, a combination of leather and dust and man. Tonight would change her life. Tonight would close the doors on her future, perhaps drive a wedge between her and her father. Right now, she didn’t care. Her hands, eager and restless, roamed Declan’s back, savoring the feel of his bare skin beneath her palms.
Her husband. Declan Beaulieu.
All those years she’d dreamed of him, she hadn’t even known his name.
Declan made a small grunting sound. His arms loosened around her.
“Easy,” he murmured. “My ribs...”
“I forgot.” She looked up to his face. “Do they still hurt a lot?”
“You’ll help them heal.” He dipped his head and brought his mouth back to hers, a bold, demanding kiss, tongue slipping between her teeth. For a moment, Victoria embraced the sensations that consumed her. Then she flattened her palms against the solid wall of his chest and pushed. A sound of protest vibrated in her throat.
Instantly, Declan pulled back. “What’s wrong?”
“I want to look at you.” She stepped back and ran her gaze down his body—sleek chest dusted with a coating of hair, ridged muscles on his abdomen. In the moonlight, she picked out the fading bruises on his torso. The biggest mark was on the right, at the lower end of his ribcage. Gently, she explored the area, applying pressure with the pads of her fingers.
“Does this hurt?” she asked.
“Not...at...all,” he replied on a breathless growl.
A small chuckle escaped her. The flash of humor blossomed inside her, making everything seem right, as it should be. The fear of ruining her future, of deceiving her father, it all seemed unimportant against the certainty that she wanted Declan Beaulieu, and this would be the wedding night they owed each other.
With more daring than she’d known she possessed, Victoria looked down again. Girls at school had speculated, some had even claimed to know what a naked, aroused man looked like. She brought her hand close to the rigid shaft that jutted up from a patch of curls at his groin and let her fingers hover there, almost touching. Close enough to feel the heat of him, but not quite bold enough to make contact.
“Show me,” she whispered. “Show me how a woman loves a man.”
“I’ll show you how a man loves a woman.” He bent at the waist and scooped her up into his arms. She heard him choke back a grunt of pain as he straightened and carried her across the room to the bed.
“Let me down,” she said. “You’re hurting.”
“No.” The corners of his eyes crinkled with a smile that was rueful, and yet full of tenderness. “I don’t care. A man values pleasures for which he has to suffer more than those that come to him too easily.”
His smile lingered as he lowered her to the bed. Then he straightened, and for an endless moment he stood still, watching her. Victoria trembled as he drank in the sight of her, his gaze sliding along her reclining form, from the dark hair that fanned over the pillow, to the tips of her toes that curled into the bedding, and then back again to her face.
“So beautiful,” he said. “And mine. All mine. Tonight and forever.”
“Tonight and forever.” She whispered back the words.
He eased down beside her, and repeated the same survey, but now with his touch. The rasp of his callused palms drew fire on her skin as they traveled her length. It crossed her mind that they had forgotten to lock the door. She didn’t care. It didn’t matter if people found out. She’d be happy to cling to the weathervane on the rooftop and shout out that she belonged to Declan Beaulieu, outlaw and cattle thief.
Endlessly, he touched and stroked her. The slender length of her arm, the dip of her waist, the taut curve of her buttocks, the supple groove of her spine. He found secret places on her body and brought them alive with his hands, with his mouth.
Finally, when she became restless, driven by an impatient tug that knotted low in her belly and thrummed somewhere lower still, Declan settled on top of her, his powerful body caging her against the mattress.
“It will hurt, but not for long,” he warned her.
“It will be all right,” she replied, even though she had no way of knowing.
Slowly, Declan joined his body with hers. She gasped at the sting, the tearing burn, the sense of invasion. He paused, his weight braced up on his elbows, his blue eyes dark as he studied her fraught expression.