The Present Page 11

"What headache?"

She smiled at that answer. "Any regrets, Christoph?"

He chuckled and moved his h*ps against her. "You must be joking."

She rolled her eyes. "I mean beyond what we are about to do. I know I can make you happy. I just wonder if you regret what fate has dealt you. I certainly do not."

He reached up to caress her cheek. "I don't think you realize how much you have already done for me. You were more accurate than I care to admit, in what you saw in me. I had become a dead shell. You've brought me back to life."

Her smile became brilliant. "We will be good for each other." She braced her hands on the bed at his shoulders to lean over him and whisper against his lips, "Very good."

He groaned, his arms going around her, pulling her down to feel all of her against him. And her lips, he captured those, too, his mouth closing with a voracious demand on hers. He felt her tense. It was too much passion all at once, yet he couldn't seem to slow down. It was as if he'd waited years and years for this one moment, this one woman, and there was no stopping him now that both were his.

But she stopped him. She forced herself out of his hold, and in his momentary surprise, she cupped his cheeks and ordered sharply, "Listen to me, Christoph. I will not let you hurt me because you are so intoxicated with passion that you are not thinking about what you are doing. Do you forget this is my first time with a man? Some other time we can do this swiftly, if that is your wish, but not this time. This time you will have a care for what you must break. I am prepared for the pain, but only you can lessen its impact. Or does it not matter to you if I suffer more?"

"Of course it matters," he said automatically.

Yet he was still reeling over her words. Good God, how could she be a virgin and be as bold as she'd been? Yet the truth would be discovered within moments, so this couldn't be a pretense on her part.

"You are awful brazen for a virgin," he pointed out, rather tactlessly, he realized too late.

But she laughed, rather than taking offense. "We are going to spend the rest of our lives together. For what reason would I conceal anything from you? I am yours, Christoph. It would be silly for me to hide myself from you, would it not?"

I am yours. Strangely enough, hearing her say that filled him with tenderness. He rolled them over, so that he was the one leaning over her. He kissed her, gently this time. There was much to be said for savoring the moment.

She tasted heavenly. Her lips parted easily for him, pulled on his tongue as he sent it exploring. His hand moved over her firm breast. She arched upward, filling his hand completely. He nearly laughed in delight. A wanton virgin, what more could a man ask for?

"You will tell me, then, when you are ready?" he asked huskily.

"I think . . . you will know," she gasped out.

So he would. He smiled, continuing his exploration. Her skin was silken smooth, warm. He found himself caressing her reverently, marveling at her perfect shape, her softness, her reactions to his touch. He was hard, aching to be inside her, yet he was so fascinated by her that it was the sweetest bliss, watching her experience lovemaking for the first time. She shivered, she groaned, she thrust against his touch. She made him feel as if he were experiencing lovemaking for the first time as well.

And he did indeed know when she was ready. He was careful of his weight when he moved over her to settle between her thighs, and even more careful in entering her. The barrier was there as she'd claimed, and he did more teeth-gritting than she as he sundered it open. Her gasp was loud, but no more than a gasp. His kiss soothed her further. He gave her a few moments to recover from the discomfort, didn't continue until she began returning his kiss. Her passion reignited, he slid the rest of the way into her depths, slowly, exquisitely, until at last she fit all of him. It was nearly more than he could bear without losing control, such tight heat gripping him, so much pleasure, yet he managed to hold off the final bliss, to withdraw and begin a gentle thrusting that she could tolerate. Yet it was soon apparent that she was beyond the need for moderation, and one deep thrust sent them both on that glorious ride to fruition.

Christopher had never realized just how pleasant it could be, to simply hold a woman close to him and savor the feel of her warm body. He supposed he'd never really taken the time before to find out, always impatient to either sleep or be off about his business, once he finished satisfying his needs. Then, too, he'd never "kept" a mistress before, or brought one into his own bed.

Not that he hadn't had many mistresses over the years, but they'd had their own abodes, their own agendas separate from his, and the typical arrangement with these types of mistresses was that they'd merely agree to accommodate each other exclusively for a time. They'd cost him no more than the occasional expensive trinket.

Anastasia, now, would be completely "kept." He'd be supplying her with a home where he could visit her, servants to see to her comfort, clothes, food, as well as the expensive trinkets. She was going to be costly. She was most definitely worth it.

"You sound famished," she said when they'd both heard his belly rumble for the third time.

"Perhaps because I am," he replied lazily, still in no hurry to get up. "Come to think of it, don't recall having dinner last night—bloody hell, it's no wonder that rum went right to my head. Any idea what time it is?"

"Quite late, midmoming at least."

He chuckled. "You call that late?"

"When you're used to rising with the dawn, yes, that's very late."

He smiled. "There'll be no reason for you to rise that early anymore."

"I happen to like the dawn, to watch the sunrise. Don't you?"

"Hmmm, never thought about it—actually, don't recall seeing too many sunrises. Sunsets are more in line with my habits."

"I think you'll enjoy the dawn with me, Christoph," she predicted.

"I know you'll enjoy sunsets with me," he countered.

"And why can't we enjoy both?"

He sat up to look down at her. "You aren't thinking of changing my habits, are you? And why do you persist in calling me Christoph? Didn't I tell you last night that my name was Christopher?"

"You did. Kit, too, you said your friends call you. But I happen to like Christoph much better. It sounds more lyrical to my ears. Consider it an endearment."

"Must I?"

She chuckled and rolled to the side of the bed, then headed for her clothes. "I think we must feed you immediately. Empty bellies lead to grouchiness."

He blinked, then grinned to himself. She was right, of course. There was nothing wrong with her having a pet name for him. And besides, when she sashayed about the room na**d like that, he simply couldn't find anything really worth complaining about.

He got up to dress as well. When he finished and glanced at her again, it was to find that she was wearing that flashy dancing costume from last night, which would draw more attention to her than he would like.

"Have you nothing else to wear?" he asked.

"You didn't exactly give me the opportunity to pack last night, Christoph. All I have is my satchel, which my grandmother tossed up to me just before you sent that mad stallion of yours galloping out of the camp."

He grimaced with the reminder that he'd been less than gentlemanly last night. "I'll take you back today to collect your things—-and perhaps to town to buy something more . . . normal looking."

She raised a brow at his choice of words. "You think my clothes are not normal?"

"Well, certainly they are." His tone turned conciliatory. "It is just, they are . . . well . . ."

He couldn't come up with an appropriate word that

wouldn't insult her. She supplied some for him, and it wasn't difficult to see that she was insulted.

"Common perhaps? Peasantlike? Suitable only for Gypsy vagabonds?"

"There is no need for you to take offense, Anastasia. Your clothes were perfectly fine for the life you were living on the road. But you'll be living differently from now on. It's as simple as that."

She was frowning now, not at all placated. "Are you going to have trouble, Christoph, dealing with what I am?"

"What you are?"

"That I'm a Gypsy?"

"Half Gypsy, or so you've claimed."

She waved that aside. "I was raised as a Gypsy, not as a Russian. I may not think or do exactly as most Gypsies, but I am still one of them."

He came over to her and put his arms around her. ''We are not having our first light."

"We aren't?"

"No, we aren't. I forbid it."

She leaned back to stare into his eyes. "I will make some allowances to accommodate you. You must do the same for me. In such a way we can come to agree on everything in the end. Fair enough?"

"You have a unique way of looking at things that I think I can get quite used to. For right now, shall we agree to raid the kitchen?"

"If that is what it takes to obtain some breakfast, certainly." She waved her arm toward the door with a flourish and a bow. "After you—Lord Englishman."

He rolled his eyes and pushed her in front of him so he could swat her backside playfully. "No more of that. Christoph will most definitely do."

She giggled. "If you insist."

It was too much to hope, really, that they would continue to get along perfectly, yet a few days or weeks wouldn't have been too much to expect—rather than the time it took them to walk downstairs that morning.

Thinking back on it, Christopher allowed that he could have been more tactful. But guarding his words was simply not his habit, especially among his friends. Who else, after all, would he feel like bragging to about his splendid acquisition than his closest friends?

Walter and David were that, but he could have wished they hadn't appeared in the hallway below just as he was coming down the stairs, Anastasia's hand in his, though she was a few steps behind him. And both men couldn't help but notice them, of course, when that flashy gold skirt of hers was like a beacon in the dark.

"What's this?" David asked, eyeing Anastasia, though his question was for Christopher. "So that's where you went off to last night?"

"Taking her back to her camp?" Walter surmised, then with a grin, "We'll come along."

"Not exactly," Christopher corrected. "I'll take her later to collect her belongings, but she'll be staying with me from now on. She's agreed to let me keep her."

"Oh, I say, d'you think that's wise, Kit?" David asked. "She's not exactly typical mistress material."

Anastasia yanked her hand out of Christopher's at that point, but with David's remark in his mind, he barely noticed. "What has typical got to do with it?" he asked. "I've had 'typical,' David, and lose interest in it in a matter of days, same as you do. Which certainly won't be the case with my Anna here. Besides, I didn't ask her to be my mistress to introduce her to society, so it hardly matters whether she's typical or unique, now does it?"

"Er, not to be the bearer of dire tidings, old chum," Walter remarked. "But I'd say your Anna is about to take your head off—metaphorically speaking."

Christopher spun around just in time to receive a resounding slap across his cheek and watch Anastasia hike her skirt and run back up the stairs. "What the devil was that for?" he called after her.

But she didn't stop, and a moment later he heard the door slam shut to his room. The entire house likely heard it, actually.

"Bloody hell," he muttered.

Behind him, David was tactfully coughing into his hand, but Walter was outright chuckling. "No, indeed, nothing typical about that a'tall. Though it might help you to know, Kit, that she began frowning as soon as David introduced the subject of mistresses."

"Sure, blame it on me," David grumbled.

Christopher ignored his friends and marched back to his room. The door wasn't locked against him. He found Anastasia stuffing a few things that had been left out of her satchel back into it.

He closed the door behind him and leaned back against it. He wasn't angry, but he was certainly annoyed, and not just a little confused. A mistress had no conceivable reason to get upset at being called a mistress.

"Just what do you think you're doing?" he demanded. "And why the devil did you hit me?"

She paused long enough to glare at him. "I did not take you for a fool, Christopher Malory. Do not pretend to be one now."

"I beg your pardon?" he replied stiffly.

"As well you should," she snapped. "But you are not forgiven!"

"I wasn't asking to be. If I said anything wrong, I'm bloody well damned if I know what it was. So why don't you tell me what you objected to, then perhaps—perhaps, mind you—I will apologize."

Her face flushed furiously. "I take it back, Gap, you are a fool." She marched toward him. "Get out of my way. I am going home."

He didn't move away from the door. He did grab her shoulders to keep her in front of him, though he refrained, just barely, from shaking her.

"You aren't going anywhere until you at least explain yourself. You owe me that much."

Her lovely cobalt eyes flared. "I owe you nothing after what you just did!"

"What did I do?"

"You not only let those men insult me, but you stood there and did exactly the same thing. How could you speak of me like that? How could you?!"

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