Conspiring With A Rogue by Julie Johnstone by Julie Johnstone - Read Online

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Conspiring With A Rogue - Julie Johnstone

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AUTHOR

One

York, England

The Year of Our Lord 1817

They were saying she had killed her mother.

Of course, they were right but that was not the point. She did not want the swirling gossip about her to ruin her sister’s engagement ball. They had no proof, merely hints and innuendoes whispered from her aunt’s upstairs maid perhaps, or even the butler who had been present the night the secret had been revealed, but it hardly signified who had done the telling. Someone had. She would be ruined, but she fervently hoped her sister would be long gone on her honeymoon trip before the downfall came.

Gripping the lilac silk of her gown, Lady Whitney Rutherford pulled it close around her legs to avoid a swishing sound as she tiptoed behind the two ladies chattering about what they had heard and musing that they had always known something was not quite right about her.

When the women suddenly stopped, Whitney ducked behind a row of bright pink azaleas. Her right slipper dug hard into the stones of the garden path and caused a few pebbles to fly into the air and clank back to the ground. The gray-haired gossipmongers paused at the marble steps that led from the garden to the terrace and turned toward each other. The orange setting sun and the burgeoning shadows thrown over them by the tall bushes that lined the footpath they had strolled down softened their wrinkled faces. Whitney’s lungs ceased to work as she waited for them to notice her.

The taller matron, Lady Trinity, turned to the shorter, much rounder one. Whether it’s true or not, she is tainted now. I’ll not let my darling grandson Frederick court her.

Gracious, no. I would think not. Nor my dear grandson, William. I’ll inform his mother straight away.

The women clicked their tongues as if confirming their agreement and separating from their huddled state. Each gripped the black iron railing that lined the stairway on either side as they ascended the terrace steps toward the candlelit, chandeliered house towering at the top of the winding stairs.

With trembling legs, Whitney stood and took a deep breath of warm summer air. Her stomach twisted with unease. Noise assaulted her from all around. Water trickled behind her in the distance from the fountain. Lively notes of the country dance, mingled with chattering voices and merry laughter from the ballroom, out the open terrace door and drifted on the slight breeze down the stairs to surround her. She pressed her palms to her ears, but it was no use. The blood rushed in deafening tunes just as it had done a month ago when she had discovered that as a child she had killed her mother.

Though she wanted to run away and hide, she forced her rubbery legs to carry her up the stairs, cursing her bad luck. She had come outside to get her mind off the fact that Drake Sutherland had not appeared for her sister’s engagement ball, but now she felt even worse. The sensible part of her had suspected he might not come, given the situation. It was only natural that he might not be inclined to attend this party. Her sister Gillian had flirted with him for months, but when he’d asked her to marry him, she’d told him she had fallen in love with his shipping company partner, Lord Lionhurst and was going to marry him instead.

Still, Whitney had foolishly held out hope Mr. Sutherland might have felt the same attraction to her that she did for him, but had not acted upon it because of her sister. She could have sworn the time they had danced at her aunt’s ball he had held her closer than necessary. Or there was the time he had taken Whitney and her aunt in the rowboat and had held her hand much longer than needed, claiming he wanted to make sure she had her balance. Maybe she had imagined it.

Whitney sighed. She knew Lord Lionhurst and Gillian had invited Mr. Sutherland to the party tonight, but clearly he was nursing a broken heart for her sister after all, even though Gillian and Lord Lionhurst had both said Mr. Sutherland was not crestfallen over their impending marriage.

Huffing out a breath, Whitney stopped at the top of the stairs and smoothed her skirts. She had more concerning things to fret about than whether the man she was interested in had any sort of affection for her. Besides, even if he had held a burgeoning tendre, she doubted he would act on it after the ton labeled her a murderess. Her stomach turned at the thought of facing accusing eyes. The stares would not kill her. She had to act normal so Gillian would not suspect anything was amiss. Knowing her sister, Gillian would sacrifice her honeymoon trip to stay and see Whitney through the worst of the rumors, but Gillian had sacrificed enough of her life trying to protect her from the secrets of her past. It was Whitney’s time to shield Gillian. She straightened her shoulders, drew herself to her full height, and stepped into the ballroom. The noise that had previously assaulted her amplified tenfold.

Her palms itched once again to plant themselves over her ringing ears. Instead, she clasped her hands in front of her and searched the crowded ballroom for her sister. She did not think those spiteful women would be bold enough to mention the rumor near Gillian tonight, but she was not going to take any chances. She would stick close to her sister and head the women off if the need arose. She spotted Gillian, swathed in a gown of ice-blue silk that shimmered under the twinkling chandelier because of the diamonds sewn into her bodice.

Whitney’s heart swelled. Her sister would make a beautiful bride. Making her way around the edge of the dance floor, she waved to various people as she weaved through the crush, and then came to stand in front of Gillian.

I saw about a dozen ladies cast daggers of envy at you when Father announced you will be marrying Lord Lionhurst next week, Whitney said.

Gillian grinned, her emerald eyes flashing. Soon looks of envy will be cast at you, when Father stands at the top of the stairs and announces your engagement to Mr. Sutherland. But do take it slow, as I want to be back from my wedding trip before you marry. I love and hate that we will be gone so long. A year. My goodness! Who plans a trip away for a year?

Your soon-to-be husband does. Whitney patted her sister’s hand. Quit frowning. I hardly think you have to worry about missing my engagement announcement to Mr. Sutherland. He would first need to show an interest in me, and since he did not even attend the fete tonight, I believe it is safe to assume he is nursing a broken heart for you and has absolutely no awareness of me.

You are wrong, Gillian said with a smirk.

A streak of irritation curled through Whitney’s belly. For once I wish I were, but I am afraid I’m right. The ball is almost over and Mr. Sutherland is not here. The evidence is clearly irrefutable.

What evidence is that? A deep-timbered voice with a distinctly American accent spoke behind her.

Her gaze flew to her sister’s for confirmation. Gillian’s smirk grew, and she gave a barely perceptible nod of her head. Mr. Sutherland, I’m so glad you could make it. Alex will be thrilled to learn that you tore yourself away from the shipping docks to help us celebrate tonight.

Whitney’s palms grew moist in her gloves as her nerves raced ahead. She turned slowly toward Mr. Sutherland, and glancing up, her breath caught. His golden brown gaze held hers. For once, she was completely tongue-tied. He gave her a conspiratorial wink that warmed her from her head all the way to her toes before he focused on her sister.

Lionhurst knew I was coming.

Gillian frowned. That’s odd. I wonder why he didn’t say anything.

I asked him not to, Mr. Sutherland said in an offhanded manner. I had to make sure I could tie up all the loose ends at the docks to allow me to come to York for awhile, and until I was certain I could come and stay for a bit, I wanted to keep it to myself.

That makes sense, Gillian said with a nod. Whitney couldn’t have cared less if he had babbled nonsense. All that mattered was that he was here, but she nodded her head in agreement. Tell me, Gillian continued, is there some special reason you want to stay here for a bit?

Whitney wanted to throttle her sister for being so obvious until Mr. Sutherland locked his gaze on her once again. She held his probing stare, though doing so made her cheeks and neck flame. He smiled; and two dimples appeared in his cheeks, lending boyish charm that contrasted with the manly aura his dark shadow of a beard conveyed. I hope there is a special reason, but it may take me some time to figure it out, so I have cleared my schedule to allow me ample time.

Whitney tensed, almost afraid to believe he was talking about her. After recently learning she had repressed her childhood memory of accidentally pushing her mother into the river to her death, toppled with discovering Gillian and Father’s lives had almost been ruined to keep Whitney’s secret from the terrible people who knew it, Whitney felt she had no right to wish for her own happiness, as if perhaps being unhappy was her due penance for her mother and everything that had happened to her family because of that night.

Mr. Sutherland held his hand out to her. I believe that is the waltz, and if you have the dance free, I promise not to step on your toes.

I’m free, Whitney murmured, lost in the deep pools of his eyes. And I don’t give a whit about my toes.

Excellent, he said in a voice as smooth as silk. Then we shall get along rather nicely, though I am not too bad of a dancer, for an American.

He was teasing her. They had danced that once, very briefly at her Aunt Millicent’s party, but he danced with the ease of man who had taken years of lessons. Perhaps he had. She knew so little about him really, only that when he was near her, her body trembled and her heart would not quiet. When she took his hand and his strong fingers clasped hers gently, a thrill shot up her arm and made its way bit by tingly bit across every inch of her skin.

Silently, they weaved their way to the dance floor. He slid one hand around her back low enough to be tantalizing yet high enough to be decent, and then he drew their intertwined hands in the air. She followed his lead, placing her hand on his well-muscled shoulder. The light cast down from the chandelier smoldered in his gold-flecked gaze. When he glanced slowly down her body and then back up to her face, she burned in a way she had never felt before. Not like the sticky heat of her skin on a hot summer day, but an intense hotness building and growing on the inside and pushing its way to the surface of her skin.

A playful smile tugged at his lips. Did you know when you blush like you are doing now your eyes lighten several shades?

She shook her head as the music started, and he pulled her closer so his heat invaded her, but the invasion was a welcome one. As they began to glide around the dance floor, she did not know which felt lighter, her head or her feet. His fingers tightened on hers, and he pulled her a bit snugger. She took a deep, steadying breath to quell the butterflies in her stomach and the scent of earth and leather filled her nose.

The color of your eyes, he said, his breath raking across her neck as he spoke, reminds me of a miniature bronze ship I bought when the shipping company made its first bit of significant money. Up until then, I had not allowed myself to purchase anything but the most basic necessities.

They swirled around the outer edge of the ballroom, and she leaned back a bit to get a good look at his face. Why ever not? she asked.

A sardonic smile twisted his lips. I grew up on the streets. Never two coins to rub together, and when we did get some coin my old man blew it on liquor and women. I vowed if I ever made any money I would be very careful and responsible. It’s hard for me to spend any of the money I have made. Every day I wake up sure it’s going to disappear and that makes a razor sharp hole open up in my belly. But despite that fear, I had to have that ship. It was unique and unlike any other model I have ever seen. I have the same pull to you as I did that ship.

Her heart soared, but a single doubt hung over her, and, curse it all, she had to ask the question on her mind. What of my sister? Did you not feel a certain draw to her? You did, after all, ask her to marry you.

I did. That’s true. I wanted a beautiful wife to take back to America who came from a noble family, so she could help me rise in American society. Even though I’m gaining wealth, I will always be that poor boy from the streets.

And my sister fit your needs.

She did. Especially since she seemed determined to marry me. She made it easy. I did not have to risk anything of myself to capture her.

Whitney frowned. His words made her feel reassured that he had not truly cared for Gillian, yet she was confused as well. She cast a look at his strong profile. Was he willing to risk something of himself for her? The music ended and Mr. Sutherland drew them off the dance floor and near the grand mahogany stairs. Off to the other side of the wide, sweeping staircase, Gillian and Lord Lionhurst stood with her Aunt Millicent and her aunt’s dearest friend, who was known to prattle on relentlessly. By the false smile pasted on her sister’s face, Whitney knew Lady Johnson must have been chattering for quite some time. Suppressing her laughter, she faced Mr. Sutherland and tried to think of a delicate way to ask the question that was bothering her. Everything about the dance had been perfect until the end.

Are you averse to risking yourself, Mr. Sutherland?

He stared down at her unblinking and inhaled a deep breath that made his chest rise. I was, but you make me want to take a chance.

I do? The question was breathy, but it was the best she could manage.

His mouth pulled into a smile as intimate as a kiss. You do.

Even though I only meet half the requirements of what you desire in a wife?

His eyebrows pulled together in a frown. Which half do you think you don’t meet?

She shrugged. I’m not beautiful, but I do come from a good family.

I’ll be damned.

Whitney gaped at him.

Sorry. He scrubbed a hand over his face. I sometimes revert back to my street manners and forget to refrain from cursing in the company of ladies.

That’s quite all right. I actually like the fact that you feel comfortable enough around me to forget yourself.

He grinned. And I like the fact that you are not conceited like so many other beautiful women.

When she realized her mouth was hanging open, she clamped her jaw shut. You think me beautiful?

A seductive smile spread across his face. You take my breath. And I’m afraid you will take more than that in the end, which scares the hell out of me, but I have recently come to realize I don’t want to marry a woman simply because she is beautiful and comes from a noble family. I want a woman who has given me her heart.

Whitney’s heart thumped wildly. What will you give in return to this woman?

Everything. All that you see on the outside and in here. He touched his heart.

She swallowed hard at his confession. Every word he spoke drew her deeper into longing. You scare me too, Mr. Sutherland.

Call me Drake, he commanded in a firm but gentle tone. How do I scare you?

I like to be in control of myself, and I suspect you could rob me of that control.

He chuckled. "I suspect you could do the same to me. I suggest we start by really getting to know each other. If you’re willing, and you can forget the fact that I almost married your sister for convenience sake."

I can forget a lot of things, Whitney murmured.

Drake surprised her by taking her hand, peeling off her glove and pressing his lips to her skin. The warmth of his touch sent shivers racing across her body. She glanced around, but no one seemed to take heed. Here in England, what you just did is quite scandalous.

Is it? he said with a deep chuckle.

You knew? she said, her voice catching on the last word.

He nodded. I did, but I also realize if anyone saw me they would credit my actions to those of an ignorant American. I had to kiss you, though where I really want to kiss you is your lips. Are you outraged?

She knew very well she should tell him yes, but her lips formed one word. No.

The smile he gave her this time held the promise of thousands more seductively sweet kisses to come.

May I call on you tomorrow and take you for a carriage ride?

Yes, please do. But call on me precisely at one.

He quirked an eyebrow. May I ask why I should call at precisely one? Is this a custom I don’t know about in your country?

Whitney nearly burst into laughter. Being sneaky was certainly not a custom in her country, but she was not about to say that. She wanted to see Drake alone, and it was highly inappropriate and frowned upon in England, and likely in America, for an unmarried lady to be alone with a man, other than a close relative. But if no one saw them alone, and no one knew they had been unaccompanied by a chaperone as they strolled and talked, what harm would come of it? She was certainly not going to tell a soul. My father is hunting with Lord Lionhurst at my aunt’s estate tomorrow, and Gillian will be at my aunt’s house at one to go over details of her wedding, so I will be quite by myself.

His eyes widened, and then a smile, one that could be described as nothing but predatory, lit his eyes. I will be most pleased to be there precisely at one.

Whitney waggled her finger at him. For a stroll and a chat. Nothing more, Drake.

Certainly not, he admonished in an obviously joking tone. What sort of gentleman do you take me for?

An honorable one, I hope.

He offered her a perfect English bow, which made her smile. She knew it was not the custom in his country.

I am nothing if not honorable, so you may trust in me.

She felt she wanted to give him all her trust, which was frightening and thrilling at once.

Two

Drake had no idea what he had done to deserve the chance to be alone with a lady like Whitney, but he was not about to question it. If she said not to be at her home before one, then he was not going to arrive even one second early. Though he was a grown man and no longer that little boy who had once stood homeless peering through a fancy window into a family’s Christmas Eve feast, he had never been able to shake the feeling of not being good enough and not belonging at that table.

Whitney’s family surely had a grand table, but every time he was near her, she made him feel like he belonged there, beside her, silver fork and all. He had tried to deny it, since he had been on the verge of marrying her sister, but thank God, that had worked out for the best, and they had not both made the biggest mistake of their lives.

Drake checked his watch and grinned. One o’clock precisely. He maneuvered his phaeton down the road and turned onto the long drive that led to Whitney’s home. Within moments, he was ascending her stairs while clutching the picnic basket he had gone to great pains to have prepared for them. He hoped to God she was willing to eat with him and not the sort of lady who claimed that two bites made her full.

With a quick knock on the door, he straightened to his full height, expecting to be greeted by the butler, but when the door opened, Whitney stood there, achingly breathtaking in a light pink gown, adorned with darker pink embroidery that matched the pink rose nestled behind her right ear. What he wouldn’t give to be that flower, caressing her bare skin, at this particular moment. He smiled. I was not expecting you.

No? She cocked her head, her brown eyes twinkling with laughter. Who were you supposing you’d see?

Your footman or perhaps the butler.

She grinned, the light of it piercing his heart and making it ache.

They are gone. She waved an airy hand. I sent them both on errands I made up so I could slip away with you without prying eyes, but if you prefer we wait for them to return…

Her words trailed off as her gaze held his. With a chuckle, he grasped her hand and pulled her over the threshold toward him. He’d not meant to tug so hard, but when her soft chest crushed against his he couldn’t say he minded the inviting feel of her pressed against him one bit. Her lush womanly curves beckoned to a part of him he’d allowed to lie unanswered for quite some time. This past year of growing his shipping company had not granted him any spare time to concern himself with his baser needs, and he had not minded or even noticed until now. His body hardened with longing so quickly that he gently set her away so she would not feel his desire.

Clearing his throat, he said, Do you have a plan for where to go today?

I do. She gently closed the door and then faced him. He proffered his arm and when she slipped her hand into the space between his elbow and hip, the rightness of holding her near settled in his chest in a flood of warmth. Years begging on the street for his next meal had taught him not to hope for anything more than his day-to-day survival, and though his shipping company with Lionhurst was starting to take off, he had not previously been able to shake the feeling that people like him, a former street gutter, did not deserve happiness.

And maybe he didn’t. Perhaps she was too good for him. But he wanted her anyway. He’d not craved anything as much as he did her since he had obtained his first full meal at ten and gotten a taste of what a satisfied belly felt like. It was bliss. And he suspected she, unassuming and unpretentious, was like that meal. She would fill him up in a way nothing else could.

With as casual an air as he could muster, considering his heart beat like a rapid drum, he held out his hand to her, and she slipped her small fingers into his as he helped her up into the phaeton. She settled onto her seat, and he forced himself to allow enough space between them that she would not feel threatened by him in any way.

When he sat, she scooted nearer. I did not go to all the trouble to get you alone only for you to leave a great aching space between us.

He grinned. Are you always so forward?

She wrinkled her nose. No. But it’s only fair to tell you that you are my first real suitor. So I may be this forward and just did not realize it.

He laughed at the delectable way her brow creased. You’ve never been alone with a man before?

She shook her head.

Don’t tell me no one has ever tried to get you alone? The idea that she had been overlooked by other men filled him with anger. He tightened his hold on the horses and snapped the leash harder than he had intended to get them to move. They responded with a toss of their heads accompanied by shooting off so quickly that Whitney’s hand found his arm and gripped it, until her knuckles turned white.

He blew out a breath of frustration with himself. I’m sorry.

Don’t be, she replied, her voice a caress in his ear. You’re mad on my behalf, aren’t you?

It was on the tip of his tongue to deny it, until he glanced at her and saw the admiration shining in her eyes. The guard he held so carefully in place to keep others from seeing the rough man behind the smooth exterior cracked open. For once in his life he wanted to invite someone to know the real him. Not just the man he was trying to make himself into, but the dark past that lay behind the expensive clothing.

I am. he said. "You are the loveliest creature I have ever seen and frankly, the most honest woman I’ve ever had the good fortune of meeting. It’s unbelievable to me that the men of the ton, who mostly pretend they are far superior to all others, would not try to court you because of an accident that happened years ago."

She tensed beside him, and he cursed himself for having spoken so bluntly. I’m sorry. I should not have brought it up.

No. She shook her head. I appreciate the fact that you will. Since the whispers started about me most people cut me directly. If they do take the time to acknowledge me, it’s with veiled whispers and usually odd looks or faces of outright disdain. I think you hold a minority opinion that I should not be considered a murderess. Well, except my family and my only true friends Sally and Lillian Lancaster. I had to clamp my hand over Lillian’s mouth in town so she would not flay a woman who tsked at me.

Lillian the Loyal, he murmured. She is right to want to defend you.

I suppose, Whitney said, but the tone of her voice told him even she thought herself rightfully judged. He pulled up on the horses’ reins and faced her.

Accidentally pushing your mother into the river when you were a child does not make you a murderess, Whitney. Her drowning was awful, but it was an accident.

"Try convincing the ton of that."

"You forget that I’m American. I don’t give a damn what the ton thinks about me or you. All I care about is what you think. Impulsively, he grasped her hand in his. What do you think?"

She cast her eyes down, her long sooty lashes veiling her gaze for a moment, hiding her thoughts, but her fingers curled tighter around his, making his gut clench with happiness.

I think you are too good to be true, she said.

He grinned. I am. Or at least who you think I am is not reality. I’ve never considered telling a soul about my history, but for some reason, I want to tell you.

And I want you to.

The only other person who knows all about me is Lionhurst. He investigated me when we were considering becoming partners, and then I told him all the details because he had a right to know. I don’t hide it, mind you, but I don’t shout it from a tree either.

She shrugged nonchalantly, as if what he said did not bother her in the least. What I do know is that you are a self-made man. And that is honorable.

You don’t know the half of it.

She gripped his hand, her gaze locking with his. Then tell me all of it. I want to hear all about you. It seems fair, since you know the worst about me. Tell me every detail.

No one had ever requested such a thing in his life. Usually people only wanted to hear all about how far he had come, not the grime and disgustingness of where he had clawed himself out of. As he urged the horses back into a trot, he spoke slowly. I’m no golden boy. I was not born into pedigreed lineage.

I guessed that. Self made and such. I want to learn what has made you into the man you are.

Why? So you can decide if you want me to court you or not? If I’m worthy?

Don’t be crass, she chided. You would not be sitting here if I had not already decided you are worthy.

His heart lurched as he glanced at her. She twined a long strand of her blond hair around her fingers as she gazed ahead toward the purple wild flower field.

Blowing out a slow breath, she said, I know you’re more than worthy. My fear is that I’m not good enough for you. Not that you want me.

He pulled his gaze to her face once more. A rosy blush stained her cheeks.

I don’t mean want in that way, she mumbled, her blush growing a deep red.

Trust me, he said, his body rigid with desire. I want you.

Her lips parted, and her chest lifted with her breath. Slowly, she smiled. Pull up under the tree near the water so we can have shade and a breeze as we picnic.

He did as instructed and once they had the blanket spread and the food set out, he took off his coat, rolled it up and placed it behind her. For you.

Whatever for?

He reclined and propped his head into the cradle of his hands. Keeping his gaze on the blue, mostly cloudless, sky, he prayed she would join him in the moment. I would feel so much better divulging my soul if I was not looking directly at you.

Without a word, she lay back, resting her head on the roll of his coat. He chanced a glance at her and found her gazing, not at the sky, but at him. Her warm, welcoming gaze enfolded him, and he found he did not want to look away. I was born in a shack with a dirt floor and a tin roof. By five I was begging on the street for handouts for food. By eight I was helping my father con people out of money. He rushed through his words, afraid if he slowed down that he would not tell her everything. Only if she knew it all and still looked at him with desire-filled eyes would he believe she really felt he was good enough for her.

It had never mattered before her. Not with her sister. Not with any woman. The money and success he brought to the relationship had seemed enough to make him equal to whatever woman he had turned his attention to, even if he didn’t feel equal. But with Whitney it was different because she was so different. Vulnerable and wounded, yet strong and prideful. He wanted to show her that side of him existed, too.

My father was a drunkard who cared for nothing but how he was going to get the next drink. He was a worthless, dishonest beggar, and by sixteen, I had a belly full of people looking at me with pity. One night a man we had fleeced beat my father near to death, and when he was finished the man spit on me. Drake flinched as much at Whitney’s gasp as the memory. He told me I was not worth beating. That I did not deserve anger but pity for the sorry man I was going to turn out to be. He told me I might as well kill myself because I would never be able to make myself into a better man than my father, because I was just like my father. That night, I ran away from home and I set out to prove that man wrong.

The tears shining in her eyes made his throat suddenly ache. She leaned her body near his, until he could see the flecks of gold in her eyes. "I don’t know your father, Drake, but in the short time I have known you, I can see you are honorable and good. I would be proud to let you court me, if you wish to and if you do not mind courting a lady who is going to be whispered about in the ton. I cannot change my past, but I plan to change my future."

How do you plan to change your future? Her determined tone fascinated him and the fact that she had not so much as blinked when he had spilled his past filled him with hope.

By changing myself, she said, rolling onto her side and propping her head onto one hand. I am taking charge of my life from here on out and the first order of business is to find a husband that is perfect for me who will make me grotesquely happy.

He could not help the grin that spread across his face. Do you have any candidates in mind?

I do, but I cannot be certain of any man until we have shared a kiss.

How will a kiss make you certain?

If my toes curl and my heart thunders then I’ll know I have found a good match for me. Do you care to see if you can accomplish those things?

He laughed. Her words were bold but her pulse beat a rapid tempo at the lovely hollow space between her collarbones, belying her confident statement.

I’ll give it my best shot, he growled, reaching out and pulling her roughly to him.

When Drake’s lips brushed across hers, tingles spread from the point of contact and raced across her body in a deliciously dizzying fashion. Warmth pooled in her belly as she clutched his broad shoulders and inhaled his crisp scent of soap mingled with the tang of fresh grass. She’d laid in her bed many nights imagining the day a man would finally kiss her, but her imagination had not done justice to the reality of Drake’s kiss.

His fingers threaded through her hair and cupped the base of her head as he tipped it back. For one brief moment, his brandy gaze held hers and a fleeting smile graced his lips before he closed the distance once again and ever so gently traced her upper then lower lip with the tip of his tongue. Whitney was helpless to stop the shudder that coursed through her body. She wiggled closer to him, drawn by his intense heat and her own desire to feel every rippling muscle she knew his coat hid.

His lips closed over hers, massaging and guiding her into a murky depth of unknown pleasure. The rhythm of her heart increased with every swirl of his tongue around hers, and as she parted his coat and explored the hard planes of his chest with trembling fingers, the strong beat of his heart pounded against the sensitive tips of her flesh. She pressed her palm to his heart as his kiss went from softly exploring to wildly demanding.

He sucked her lips between his, pulling away gently and swooping back in to ravage her mouth once more. Intense yearning sprang to life in the pit of her belly and lower still between her thighs as she answered his desire with her own. His hands splayed across her back, and then lower toward her bottom, stopping just above the curve where his fingers traced back and forth, making gooseflesh rise across