"I like it better the other way."
Sara jumped a foot, then whirled around. She found Nathan lounging against the edge of the desk, smiling at her.
He didn't wait for her question but simply pointed up to the trapdoor. "I usually come in through the top," he explained in a soft whisper. "It's quicker."
She might have nodded, but she couldn't be sure. She leaned back against the trunk and stared at him. Oh, God, now what was she going to do?
His bride couldn't seem to find her voice. Nathan decided to give her a little more time to calm down before he pressed her. The color was completely gone from her face, and there was the real possibility that she might swoon on him again.
"I assume you were trying to change the room around?"
His voice had been pleasant, soothing. She wanted to scream. "Yes," she blurted out instead. "I like it better this way."
He shook his head. "It won't do."
"You might not have noticed, but the trunk and the chair are actually blocking the door. Besides, I don't think either one of us will want to sit… up there."
His remarks were ridiculous, of course. They both knew why the door was blocked. Sara pretended to give the matter her full attention, however, in an attempt to save her pride. "Yes, I do believe you're right," she announced. "The furniture is blocking the door. I only just noticed. Thank you so much for pointing out that fact to me." She didn't pause for breath when she added, "Why is the table nailed to the floor?"
"You tried to move that, too?"
She ignored the laughter in his voice. "I thought it would look much nicer in front of the trunk. The desk, too," she added. "But I couldn't move either one."
He stood up and took a step toward her. She immediately backed away. "When the pitch of the sea gets rough, the furniture moves," he explained. He took another step toward her. "That's the reason."
She felt as though she was being stalked. Nathan's long hair swayed about his shoulders when he moved. The muscles in his shoulders seemed to roll with his pantherlike swagger. She wanted to run away from him, and yet in the back of her mind was the honest admission that she wanted him to catch her. She thoroughly liked the way he kissed her… but that was all she was going to like.
From the look on Nathan's face she knew he would like a lot more from her. His intimidating tactics were making her daft. She frowned at him for confusing her.
He smiled back.
She'd made a half circle of the cabin but trapped herself at the head of his bed. Nathan stopped when he saw the fear in her eyes. He let out a long sigh.
She thought he might be having second thoughts, yet before she could grasp the joy in that possibility his big hands were on her shoulders, and he was pulling her toward him.
He tilted her chin up, forcing her to look into his eyes. His voice was actually very gentle when he said, "Sara, I know this is difficult for you. If there was more time, perhaps we could wait until you knew me a little better. I won't lie to you and tell you I could or would court you, though, for in truth I don't have the patience or the experience for such a chore. Still, I don't want you to be afraid of me." He paused to shrug, then smiled at her. "It shouldn't matter to me if you're afraid or not, but it does."
"There isn't time," he interrupted. "If you hadn't run away from me eight months ago, you'd be carrying my son now."
Her eyes widened over that announcement. Nathan thought she was reacting to his mention of a babe. She was such an innocent, and he knew she didn't have any experience in sexual matters. And Lord, that did please him.
"I didn't run away from you," she blurted out. "Whatever are you talking about?"
That denial surprised a frown out of him. "Don't you dare lie to me." He gave her shoulders a little squeeze to emphasize his words. "I will not abide it, Sara. You must always be completely honest with me."
She looked as furious as he'd sounded. "I'm not lying," she returned. "I never ran away from you, Viking. Never."
He believed her. She looked too sincere, and thoroughly outraged.
"Sara, I sent a letter to your parents informing them of my intent to come for you. I sent the messenger on a Friday. You were supposed to be ready the following Monday. I even gave the hour. You left for your aunt's island on Sunday morning, the day before. I simply put two and two together."
"I didn't know," she returned. "Nathan, my parents must not have received your letter. Neither one said a word to me. It was such a chaotic time. My mother was worried sick about my Aunt Nora, her sister. Nora always wrote at least one letter a month, but Mother hadn't received a missive in such a long time. She was making herself ill worrying about Nora. When she suggested I go to her sister and find out what was wrong, well, I immediately agreed, of course."
"Just when did your mother confide this worry in you?" he asked.
His cynicism irritated her. She knew what he was thinking and frowned in reaction. "A few days before I left," she admitted. "But she wouldn't have confided her concerns to me if I hadn't caught her crying. And she was most reluctant to burden me. Very reluctant," she added. "Do you know, now that I reflect upon it, I'm certain I was the one who suggested I go to Nora's island."
A sudden thought turned her attention. "How did you know my true destination? My family told everyone I had gone to the colonies to visit my older sister."
He didn't bother to explain that his men had been following her, and he didn't mention that she'd booked passage on one of his ships. He simply shrugged. "Why couldn't they have told the truth about the matter?"
"Because Nora was in disgrace," Sara said. "She married her groom and fled from England over fourteen years ago. I was certain everyone would have forgotten the scandal, but as it happens, no one did."
Nathan turned the topic back to the letters. "So you didn't know that Nora hadn't written to your mother until two days before you left?"
"Mother didn't want me to worry," Sara said. "I won't allow you to think that my mother had anything to do with trickery. My father or my sister might have tried to intercept your missive, Nathan, just to make you wait a little longer, but my mother would never have gone along with such deceit."
Nathan found her defense of her mother honorable. Illogical, but honorable all the same. For that reason he didn't force her to accept the truth. Her belief that her father was innocent, however, irritated the hell out of him.
And then it dawned on him that she hadn't tried to run away from him. He was so pleased over that revelation, he quit frowning.
Sara stared up at her husband while she tried to think of another way to convince him that her mother was completely innocent of any treachery. And then the truth of what he had just told her settled in her mind.
He hadn't forgotten her.
Her smile was captivating. He didn't know what to make of the sudden change in her. She threw herself against his chest, wrapped her arms around his waist, and hugged him. He grunted in reaction. He was more confused than ever by her bizarre behavior. Yet he found he liked the sudden show of affection she was showing him, liked it very much.
Sara let out a little sigh, then moved back from her husband.
"What was that all about?" he asked, grimacing inside over the hard edge in his voice.
She didn't seem to notice. She patted her hair back into place as she whispered, "You didn't forget me." She tossed a strand of curls back over her shoulder in a motion he found thoroughly feminine, then added, "Of course, I knew you hadn't. I was certain there was just a little misunderstanding of sorts, because I…"
When she didn't continue, he said, "Because you knew I wanted to be married to you?"
She gave him a disgruntled look, then said, "Nathan, when I couldn't find Nora I sent several notes to your residence asking for your assistance, and you never responded. I did wonder then…"
"Sara, I don't have a residence," Nathan announced.
"Of course you do," she argued. "You have the town-house. I saw it once when I was out for a ride in… why are you shaking your head at me?"
"My townhouse was burned to the ground last year."
"No one told me!"
"I should have sent the message to your country home, then," she said. "All right," she added in a mutter. "Now why are you shaking your head?"
"The country home was also destroyed by fire," he explained.
"Last year," he answered. "About a month before my townhouse was gutted."
She looked appalled. "You have had your share of mishaps, haven't you, Nathan?"
They weren't mishaps, but he didn't tell her that. The fires had been deliberately set by his enemies. They'd been looking for incriminating letters. Nathan had been working for his government, and at the end of the investigation the bastards had been dealt with, but he hadn't had time to right the damage to his estate just yet.
"You actually wrote to me asking my assistance in locating Nora?" he asked.
She nodded. "I didn't know who else to turn to," she admitted. "I think it was your Uncle Dunnford St. James who was behind this trickery," she added.
"Which trickery?" he asked.
"He probably intercepted the missive you sent to my parents."
He let her see his exasperation. "I think it was your father who was behind that scheme."
"And just why would you think that?"
"Because Attila the Hun's been dead for years," he said. "And your father is the only other man mean enough to come up with such a vile plan."
"I won't listen to such slander against my father. Besides, I'm just as certain it was Dunnford."
"Oh? And is he the one who beat your aunt?"
Her eyes immediately filled with tears. He regretted his question at once. She turned to stare at his chest before answering. "No," she whispered. "That was the work of my Uncle Henry. He's the one you saw inside the tavern the other night. And now you know the truth about me," she ended with a pitiful wail.
Nathan lifted her chin up with the crook of his finger. His thumb rubbed her smooth skin. "What truth?"
She stared into his eyes a long minute before answering. "I come from bad stock."
She'd hoped to gain a quick denial, even a bit of praise.
"Aye, you do."
The man didn't have a sympathetic bone in his body, she thought. "Well, so do you," she muttered. She pushed his hand away from her chin. "We really shouldn't have children."
"Because they could end up turning out like my Uncle Henry. Worse, they could behave like your side of the family. Even you have to admit that the St. James men are all mean-looking and just as mean-hearted. They're villains," she added with a nod. "Every last one of them."
He wouldn't admit to any such thing, of course, and he made his position known at once. "For all their rough behavior, they're damned honest. You know when you've got them riled. They're very straightforward."
"Oh, they're straightforward, all right," she countered.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
She knew she was getting him riled up again, but she didn't care. "Your Uncle Dunnford was straightforward when he shot his own brother, wasn't he?"
"So you heard about that, did you?" He tried hard not to smile. Sara looked so disapproving.
"Everyone heard about it. The incident took place on the steps of his townhouse in the middle of the morning, with witnesses strolling by."
Nathan shrugged. "Dunnford had good reason," he drawled.
"To shoot his brother?" She sounded incredulous.
"And what was his reason?" she asked.
"His brother woke him up."
She was waylaid by his sudden grin. He was back to looking handsome to her. She found herself smiling.
"Dunnford didn't kill his brother," Nathan explained. "He just made it a little inconvenient for him to sit for a couple of weeks. When you meet him, you'll—"
"I did meet him once," Sara interrupted. She was suddenly out of breath. The way he was staring at her made her feel so strange inside. "I met his wife, too."
She was still smiling at him. There was a mischievous glint in her eyes. He took heart. She wasn't acting at all afraid of him. He tried to think of a way to bring the topic around to the most important matter in his mind: bedding her.
He was gently rubbing her shoulders in an absentminded fashion. Sara didn't think he was even aware of what he was doing, for he had a faraway look in his eyes. She thought he might be thinking about his relatives.
She wanted him to rub away the sting at the base of her back, and since he was looking so preoccupied she decided to take advantage of his inattention. She moved his right hand to her spine. "Rub there, Nathan. My back aches from moving the furniture."
He didn't argue over her request. He simply did as she asked. He wasn't very gentle until she told him to ease his touch a little. Then she moved both his hands to the base of her spine. When he began to rub there she leaned against him and closed her eyes. It felt like heaven.
"Better?" he asked after a few minutes of listening to her sighs.
"Yes, better," she agreed.
He didn't stop rubbing her back, and she didn't want him to. "When did you meet Dunnford?" he asked. His chin dropped to rest on the top of her head. He inhaled her sweet, feminine scent.
"I met him at the gardens," she answered. "Both your uncle and your aunt were there. It was a frightening experience I shall never forget."
He chuckled. "Dunnford does look like a barbarian," he said. He slowly pulled her closer to him by pressing against her spine. She didn't resist. "My uncle's a big man, muscular. He's given to bulk in his shoulders. Yes, I suppose he could be a little frightening."
"So is his wife," Sara interjected with a smile. "I couldn't tell them apart."
He pinched her backside for being so insolent. "Dunnford has a mustache."