Authors: Helen Brooks
‘You’re as white as a sheet and far from fine,’ he said roughly. ‘What’s wrong? Have I said something?’
‘It’s nothing to do with you—with tonight, I mean.’ She took a deep breath; she was saying this all wrong. ‘What I mean is, I’ve enjoyed tonight. I thought the four of us got on great.’
‘Something reminded you of him again, didn’t it?’ It was as though he could read her mind at times. ‘Something I did? Is that it? Tell me so I don’t make the same mistake again.’
‘No. Yes. Oh—’ she shook her head, stepping away from him and beginning to walk to the car in a corner of the car park ‘—can we forget it?’ She didn’t want to do the Piers thing again.
He opened the car door for her and helped her in, shutting the door and walking round the bonnet with a grim face. Once he was seated, he turned to her. The muted lighting in the car park was enough for her to see he wasn’t going to let the matter drop. ‘Tell me,’ he said very quietly. ‘Please.’
‘There’s nothing to tell.’ She felt hemmed in, trapped.
‘Little fling or not, you
tell me, Willow, if we have to sit here all night.’ He wasn’t angry and his voice was soft.
So he had heard. Woodenly, she said, ‘Piers used to put his arm round me like that when we said goodbye to family or friends, that’s all.’
He swore softly before he said, ‘And?’
‘And?’ she prevaricated, not wanting to say more.
‘From the little you’ve told me about this cowboy there is definitely an and.’ He reached out and lifted her chin so
she was forced to meet his eyes. ‘Tell me,’ he said again, but this time with such tenderness she found she had to clench every muscle in her body against the urge to cry. ‘I don’t want to make any more mistakes that can put that look on your face.’
‘I told you, it wasn’t you.’ She lowered her head again, smoothing her dress over her knees with small jerky movements. ‘Piers was a control freak,’ she whispered after a moment or two. ‘I suppose the signs were there before we got married but I was too inexperienced to recognise them. Maybe we’d never have married if my parents hadn’t died, I don’t know.’ She shrugged wearily. ‘But we did marry and within a little while he’d turned into someone else. He—he built himself up by knocking me down. Not physically, at least not until the end, but he’d make me feel stupid, worthless, ugly.’
Morgan’s hand covered one of hers. She could feel his anger.
‘We’d stand like we stood tonight and all the time he’d keep up a litany of what I’d done wrong, how embarrassing I was, how people felt sorry for him because he was with me. It—it was just now and again at first and he said he was pointing out things for my own good, because he loved me so much. Then it got more and more—’ She stopped abruptly. ‘But to everyone else, even Beth, he appeared the loving husband. After I left him she said she’d known something was wrong but she thought I was still grieving for Mum and Dad.’
‘You didn’t confide in her?’ he asked quietly. ‘Not even Beth?’
She shook her head. ‘I can’t believe I didn’t now, but at
the time…’ She shook her head again. ‘He made me believe I was in the wrong. He—he was very clever.’
‘I can think of a better word to describe him.’ He reached out and smoothed a strand of hair from her cheek. ‘What made you finally break his control?’
She looked at him. Yes, that was exactly what she had done, she thought with an element of surprise. At the time she’d looked on her leaving him as an escape, a feral, self-preservation thing, but it was more than that. The night she had fought back with everything she had—spirit, soul and body—something
been broken. She might have been left emotionally and physically battered, but it had been her who had won. She had become herself again that night, albeit an older, wiser self.
‘He went too far,’ she said flatly. ‘Much too far.’
‘Don’t tell me if you don’t want to.’
She thought for a moment. Did she want to? There was an unsettling blend of tenderness and anger in the tough male face and she knew the anger wasn’t directed against her. Something melted. ‘He threw his dinner on the floor. It wasn’t the first time but that night something in me snapped…’
She told him it all, even the fact that towards the end of their fight she’d known he intended to violate her, which had brought a strength she hadn’t known she was capable of. She wasn’t aware she was trembling until he leaned across and pulled her into him, one arm holding her close as he rested his chin on the silk of her hair. ‘I would give all I own for five minutes alone with this man. He’d never touch another woman again.’
His voice had been soft but of a quality that brought her
head up as her eyes sought his. What she saw in his face made her say quickly, ‘It’s all right.
all right. I am, really.’
‘Are you?’ The blue eyes were piercingly direct and she found she couldn’t break their hold.
She had to swallow hard before she said, ‘Of course.’
‘For something like this there is no “of course”.’
A long pause ensued but their gazes didn’t unlock. She wondered why it was that this man, a man she hadn’t known until a short while ago, seemed to understand how deeply she had been affected by Piers’ cruelty when most of her friends had expected her to bounce back within weeks or certainly a few months. Hesitantly, she whispered, ‘I’m getting there but—’
‘What?’ His gaze didn’t waver. ‘What’s the but?’
‘I never want to give the control of my life over to someone else again,’ she said with total honesty.
For a moment he continued to stare at her, then a slight twist of a smile touched his lips. ‘It scares the hell out of me too,’ he admitted huskily, his mouth falling on hers. His lips were warm and firm and as hers opened instinctively beneath them his tongue probed the corner or her mouth, teasing her, coaxing a response she was powerless to resist. The kiss changed to one of infinite hunger and she heard him groan, a half-irritated groan at the limitations within the car as he tried to move closer and was restricted by the controls.
He raised his head, faint amusement in his voice as he murmured, ‘I haven’t done this for years and now I remember why. You need to be a contortionist.’
Aiming to match his tone, she said, ‘You haven’t kissed a girl?’
His laugh was a deep rumble. ‘Made out in a car. The
idea’s good but the reality is less than practical.’ The blue eyes held hers. ‘Coffee at your place?’
Aware that something vital had changed in the last minutes she felt a yearning that cut through all her carefully thought-out guidelines for the future. ‘Yes,’ she whispered. Crazy, madness even, but yes.
said very little on the drive back from the hotel. Morgan was aware he was driving on automatic, every part of himself tuned into the woman sitting so calm and still beside him. She appeared poised and composed, dispassionate even.
The calmness was a façade. He knew it as surely as drawing in the next breath. Willow had said she didn’t want a permanent relationship. Well, neither did he. Not a relationship that came with a whole load of conditions at least. So why did her honesty grate so much? And it did. Hell, it did.
She was as tense as a coiled spring behind that composed exterior.
He knew it.
He took a bend much too fast and as the tyres squealed warned himself to concentrate. The anger he felt towards the ex-husband who’d left her so painfully damaged was growing, not diminishing. He wanted to make things right for her, to convince her she was a beautiful, sexy, gorgeous woman whom any man would count himself lucky to have in his arms. That was what he wanted. Because it was true.
Oh, yeah? His conscience wouldn’t let him get away
with it. So this had nothing to do with the fact he’d wanted to make love to her from the first time he’d seen her tending that damn silly bonfire, all smudged and tousled and deliciously bewildered? The gnawing hunger for her body had been with him for night after torturous night, that was the truth of it. She’d stormed into his dreams every time he’d laid his head on the pillow and resolutely stayed there no matter how many cold showers he’d taken. And he had taken plenty.
OK, OK. He made mental acknowledgement to his desire. But a good healthy sex life between a man and a woman couldn’t be anything but satisfying for both of them, could it? Damn it, it was what made the world go round, after all.
And what about all his protestations of friendship and letting matters develop at their own pace? Did he genuinely think she was ready for this? Emotionally, where it counted with a woman?
His thoughts went round and round in his head and when he reached the lane leading to his house and Willow’s cottage he had to admit he had no clear recollection of the journey from the hotel. He parked on the grass verge outside her garden gate, walking round the bonnet and helping her out of the car without saying a word. She looked slender and delicate, vulnerable.
‘You’re beautiful.’ As he took her in his arms in the dark shadows the tenseness in her shoulders became apparent. He drew her closer, dropping little kisses on her hair and forehead until she slowly relaxed against him with a breath of a sigh. Her hands had been small fists against his chest but now her fingers uncurled and crept down to his waist as her body curved closer into his.
He let his mouth caress her cheeks, her nose, her ears with the same small kisses, making no demands. ‘You’re beautiful,’ he murmured again before taking her mouth in a deeper kiss, his hands falling to her hips as he brought her softness against the hard evidence of his arousal. ‘So very beautiful…’
He could feel her slowly relaxing minute by minute and for some time he contented himself with exploring the sweetness of her mouth, bringing all his control to bear to prevent himself crushing her against him. If he hadn’t known she had been married he would have thought he was dealing with a virgin by the nervousness he was sensing; it was further proof of just how badly her ex-husband had hurt her.
The night was cool but not cold and the darkness was scented with the faint aroma of hedgerows and woodsmoke. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted but Morgan’s world had shrunk down to the woman in his arms. He wanted her, he thought with an ache in his loins that was painful, but he wanted more than her body. He could hardly remember this feeling; it had been a long time since Stephanie when he’d thought he’d been in love and wanted to know every little thing about a woman.
Women abounded in London, beautiful and intelligent women who were self-confident without being egotistical and who knew their way round their own needs and what they wanted from a man. They were single by choice and intended to remain that way and he had found that suited him just fine. But somehow Willow was different and he couldn’t figure out why.
Then she kissed him back with an unmistakable hunger that threatened his slow and easy approach. He tugged her
more securely into the cradle of his hips as her arms wound around his neck, her hands sliding into the thickness of his hair. He covered her lips with his in a kiss that held nothing back, probing, sipping, tasting as a deep hunger and explosive warmth enveloped them both. His hips ground against hers as one hand positioned itself in the small of her back, the other cupping the fullness of one breast through the soft fabric of her dress.
He heard her catch her breath as she arched against him and the evidence of her pleasure intensified his, the knowledge that she wanted him as badly as he wanted her electrifying.
This time his kiss was so demanding it was almost a kind of consummation, as though she were accepting the thrust of him inside her body and he didn’t try to soften his claim. Slowly, erotically, his fingertips began a sensual rhythm on her breast until she was trembling against him, little moans escaping her throat. She felt fluid, like warm raw silk.
He could take her inside right now and do anything he wanted to her; she was his for the taking. The usual thrill of conquest was there but there was a strange feeling of something being missing. Or wrong. Yes, definitely wrong.
He lifted his head, inhaling deeply and audibly as he tried to focus on what his mind was telling him rather than the savagely strong, primal urge of his body.
If he took her to bed now he would be as guilty of manipulating her as that sick so-and-so she’d married.
He looked down at her in his arms. She was breathing raggedly, her eyes still closed and her delicious mouth half open, her swollen lips bearing evidence of their lovemaking. Desire sliced through him as viciously as the blade of
a knife and he tensed against the bittersweet potency of it, even as the intensity of what he was feeling provided its own sobering check on his libido.
He was a man, not an animal. He had mastery over his physical needs, not the other way round. After what Willow had gone through she needed to be sure of what she was doing when she opened up her mind and her body to intimacy again, and he knew full well he had used his sexual experience to sweep away her defences tonight.
She was too beautiful, too special, to hurt.
The few seconds when she kept her eyes shut enabled him to compose his features even though he felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach by the strength of that last thought. He’d been right all along—he should have listened to the small, still voice of sanity, which had told him getting involved with this woman would be a gigantic mistake. Looking back, he’d known deep inside he was falling in love with her even then. And now it was too late. He totally and irrevocably loved her.
There was bewilderment as well as desire in the green eyes when he met her gaze, and he held her close for a moment more before straightening and steadying her as he stepped back a pace. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said softly. ‘That wasn’t part of the deal, was it?’ Nor had been falling in love with her.
She blinked before shaking her head, whether in affirmation of what he’d said or confusion he wasn’t sure.
He stared at her, knowing he had to make one thing perfectly clear after what her ex-husband had put her through. ‘I want to make love to you, Willow,’ he said quietly, ‘more than I’ve ever wanted before with anyone else. I eat, sleep,
breathe you half the time and the other half I’ m taking cold showers. Nothing works. I feel you’re in my blood and my bones, let alone my head.’
He watched her assimilate what he’d said, her eyes searching his face as though to verify the truth of it.
‘But tonight isn’t the night, is it?’ he continued huskily. ‘It’s too soon. Tomorrow you wouldn’t be able to handle what’d happened and you’d be hard on yourself.’
She hooked a strand of hair behind her ear and gave a nervous half-laugh. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘I think you do.’ He reached out and lightly touched her forehead as he said, ‘What goes on in here is different to what your body is crying out for. The two have to agree.’
She was holding herself very straight now, her features tight as though she dared not let any expression show. ‘You’re very sure of yourself, aren’t you?’ she said, but her voice shook. ‘Very sure you know what’s right and wrong for me.’
‘I have to be.’ He kept his voice even and low. ‘For your sake and mine too. I’ve never taken a woman who wasn’t one hundred per cent sure she wanted it as much as I did, and I don’t intend to start with you.’
Especially with you.
‘I don’t want to hurt you, Willow. Intentionally or unintentionally, I don’t want that.’
She turned her head away as though she couldn’t bear to look at him. ‘I’m not a child, Morgan,’ she said tightly.
‘Believe me, of that I am well aware.’
‘And I wouldn’t allow myself to be hurt by anyone again.’
He was silent until she raised her head and met his eyes again. ‘That one sentence says it all,’ he said softly. ‘If you’d have said you are prepared to take the risk of being hurt again, that life is all about taking chances, that you
were at a stage where you understood you didn’t want to be standing on the touchline looking at life but entering in, I’d have felt you were ready. As it is, those barriers are still ten feet high, aren’t they?’
This time the silence stretched longer. ‘Who are you to talk?’ she said after a full ten seconds had ticked by. ‘You told me yourself you got your fingers burnt years ago and from then on decided no long-term commitment but just a series of affairs would do. You said you didn’t want more than that.’
He nodded. ‘Yes, I did. And the pleasure of a beautiful woman’s body in bed and a mind that is stimulating and intelligent has been enough for me.’ Until now. ‘But you aren’t like that, Willow.
that. So I come back to where I started and it’s that you have to be sure in your head as well as your body what you want. No one can make that happen but you.’
Even in the darkness he could see her cheeks were warm. ‘So why did you…?’
Her voice trailed away but the question was clear. Morgan thought about prevaricating, even lying. He didn’t want to sound the final death knell on this relationship that wasn’t a relationship, but having come this far…‘I wanted to sleep with you tonight because wanting you the way I do is sweet torture,’ he said evenly. ‘But in the final analysis I knew I couldn’t look myself in the eyes when I shave tomorrow morning if I’d seduced you. You said you’re not a child and you’re absolutely right. You’re a woman, and one who needs to know her own mind when, and if, you take that decision. If I’d continued we both know I would have been taking that away from you. Once it was over you
would have regretted sleeping with me tonight. Am I right?’ He stared into the green eyes steadily.
She stared back, an unreadable expression in her gaze. ‘I don’t know if this is a clever ploy to convince me I can trust you,’ she said at last.
Anger bit. His jaw clenched and he forced himself to relax and keep his tone steady. ‘That’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself.’ He stepped backwards and away from the temptation of her. ‘Kitty’s expecting you for Sunday lunch. Do I tell her you’re coming?’ he added flatly.
A pause. She still continued to look at him, unmoving.
His heart thumped like a gong in his chest and he couldn’t seem to regulate his breathing. He had no idea how she’d react.
‘As friends?’ she asked quietly after what seemed like a lifetime. ‘We’re still talking friends here?’
He looked her straight in the eyes. ‘What else?’
She smiled wanly. ‘If you still want me to after tonight.’
The need to take her in his arms again was fierce, but this time the desire was to comfort and protect. Softly, he said, ‘Willow, I’ve been honest with you. I want you, you know that, but if we continue as friends and that’s all there is, so be it.’
Her mouth trembled for just a second; then she turned away. ‘That will be all there is,’ she said with an air of finality. ‘So do you still want me to come for lunch?’
He felt his temper starting to come alive again but something deep inside told him it was imperative he didn’t let it show. But he wasn’t going to beg. ‘Like I said, that’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself.’
She had reached her front door and he watched her
insert the key in the lock before she turned to face him again. Before she could speak, he said, ‘Goodnight, Willow. Sleep well,’ and turned from the sight of her.
He was actually half in the car when she shouted, ‘What time is lunch?’
Over his shoulder, he called casually, ‘One or thereabouts. And bring boots and a waterproof coat; we’ll be walking the dogs in the afternoon.’ And without waiting for a reply he shut the car door and started the engine. By the time he had done a three-point turn there was no sign of her.
He stopped the car just before the turn into his drive and sat in the darkness, trying to get his head round what had just happened. His emotions were in turmoil and for the life of him he didn’t know if he had just made the best or the worst decision of his life. One thing he did know. He loved her. And loving her he had to let her go to either love him back one day or walk away from him.
He continued to sit for a long time and when he finally started the car again, his face was damp.