"So does she."
He pinched her again. "The St. James women aren't as fat as the Winchester women," he countered.
"The Winchester ladies are not fat," she argued. "They're just… fit."
It was high time they confronted the true issue here, she decided. She took a deep breath, then said, "Nathan?"
"I'm not going to take my clothes off."
That announcement got his full attention. "You're not?"
She moved back a fraction of an inch so she could see his expression. His smile was slow, easy. It gave her courage to set down the rest of her rules. "No, I'm not," she said. "If we must do this thing, I'm keeping my clothes on. Take it or leave it, Nathan."
She worried her lower lip while she waited for his reaction. Nathan thought she might be frightened again. That chafed him. "For God's sake, Sara, I'm not going to hurt you."
"Yes, you will," she whispered.
"And just how would you know?"
"Mother said it always hurts." Sara's cheeks turned scarlet.
"It doesn't always hurt," he snapped. "The first time might be a little… uncomfortable."
"You just contradicted yourself," she cried out.
"You don't have to act as though—"
"I'm not going to like it much either," she interrupted. "You might as well understand that right this minute. How long does it take? Minutes or hours?" she asked. "I would like to try to prepare myself."
He wasn't rubbing her backside now. He was gripping her. Hard. He looked a little startled by her question. Sara pushed her advantage. "I have only one little favor to ask of you. Couldn't you please wait until tonight to do this thing? Since you're so determined, couldn't you at least give me a few more hours to come to terms with my fate?"
Come to terms with her fate? Nathan felt like throttling her. She acted as though she was going to an execution. Hers. He frowned even as he gave in. "All right," he said. "We'll wait until tonight, but that is the only favor I'm willing to give you, Sara."
She leaned up on tiptoes and kissed him. Her lips rubbed against him for just a fleeting instant, and when she moved back she was looking damned pleased with herself.
"What the hell was that supposed to be?"
"No, Sara," he growled. "This is a kiss."
He hauled her up against his chest, tilted her face up, and slammed his mouth down on hers. He wasn't at all gentle, but in truth she didn't mind at all. She melted against him and let him have his way. After all, she thought to herself, she'd just gotten her victory, and she guessed he was entitled to one, too.
Odd, but it was the last thought she could hold. The kiss became one of blatant ownership. The intensity, the raw intimacy made her weak in the knees. She clung to her husband and let out a little whimper of sheer bliss when his tongue moved inside her mouth.
He squeezed her backside and lifted her up against his pelvis. Her h*ps instinctively cuddled his hardness. He pulled. She pushed.
The feeling was erotic, arousing. Nathan quit trying to subdue her when he realized he had her full cooperation. Lord, she was responsive. She was tugging on his hair even as she tried to get closer to him.
He pulled back quite suddenly, then had to hold her up until she recovered from the kiss. He was arrogantly happy over that telling fact.
And damn, he wanted her. He pushed Sara down the bed and turned to leave. He had to move the chest and chair before he could get to the door.
Sara had gathered her wits by the time he'd gotten the door open. "In future, Nathan," she began, grimacing over the shiver in her voice, "I would really appreciate it if you wouldn't come into our chamber by way of the chimney. I promise I won't bolt the door again," she added when he turned around and gave her an incredulous look.
"Come in through what?" he asked, thinking he surely hadn't heard her correctly.
"The chimney," she explained. "And you still didn't answer my question. Is this thing you're so determined to do going to take minutes or hours?"
Her question turned his attention, and he was no longer interested in explaining that the trapdoor wasn't a chimney. He'd explain that fact to the ignorant woman later. "How the hell would I know how long it's going to take?" he muttered.
"Do you mean you've never done it before?"
Nathan closed his eyes. The conversation had gotten out of hand.
"Well, have you?"
"Yes." He sounded disgusted. "I've just never timed it before," he snapped.
He was pulling the door shut behind him when he suddenly turned back and smiled at her.
She was amazed by the quick change in him. "Sara?" he asked.
"You aren't going to hate it."
The door closed on that promise.
Sara didn't see Nathan for the remainder of the day. She kept busy by righting the cabin and sorting through the rest of her possessions. Since she didn't have a lady's maid, she made the bed herself, dusted the furniture, and even borrowed a broom to sweep the dust from the floor. She remembered the parasol she'd left up on the deck, but when she went to fetch it she couldn't find it anywhere.
By sundown her nerves were at the breaking point. She hadn't been able to come up with any suitable plan to gain another reprieve. Sara was a little ashamed of her own cowardice. She knew that the bedding would have to happen sometime, knew that she would continue to dread it until it was over and done with, but those realizations didn't ease her fear.
When the knock sounded at her door she almost screamed. She quickly regained her composure when she realized that Nathan certainly wouldn't knock. No, he'd barge right in. The cabin belonged to him, after all, and she supposed he had the right to come in unannounced.
Matthew was waiting outside her door. She curtsied to the seaman and invited him inside. He declined her offer with a shake of his head. "Your Aunt Nora's waiting to have a visit with you now," he announced. "While you're in her cabin I'll have Frost bring in the tub. The captain thought you might be wanting a bath, so he ordered us to bring fresh water. It's a treat you won't be getting too often," he added. "You'd best enjoy it."
"That was very thoughtful of Nathan," Sara returned.
"I'll be sure to tell him you thought so," Matthew replied for lack of anything better to say. He walked by Sara's side, feeling both awkward and ridiculously shy. He blamed his condition on the fact that he wasn't used to being treated like an equal except by Nathan. He'd never had a lady curtsy to him either. There was also her enchanting smile, he admitted. His shoulders slumped forward a little. Lord, he was falling under the pretty's spell just like that ox Jimbo had.
When they reached Nora's door Matthew forced himself out of his stupor and muttered, "Don't you tire her out, all right?"
Sara nodded, then waited for Matthew to open the door for her. He was a bit slow to catch on until she motioned to show what she wanted. She thanked him after he'd thrown the door wide, then walked inside. Matthew pulled the door closed behind her.
"Matthew had the most bewildered look on his face," Nora called out.
"I didn't notice," Sara admitted. She smiled at her aunt as she hurried over to the side of the bed to kiss her. Nora was propped up by a mound of fat pillows.
"I did notice what a worrier he is, though, and all on your behalf, Aunt," Sara announced. She pulled up a chair, sat down, and brushed the crinkles out of her gown. "I believe he's become your champion."
"He's a handsome man, isn't he, Sara? He has a kind heart, too. His nature is very like my late husband's, though the two men are nothing alike in appearance."
Sara held her smile. "You're a little smitten with Matthew, aren't you, Nora?"
"Nonsense, child. I'm too old to be smitten."
Sara let the subject go. "Are you feeling better today?"
"Yes, dear," Nora answered. "And how are you feeling?"
"Fine, thank you."
Nora shook her head. "You don't look fine to me," she announced. "Sara, you're sitting on the edge of that chair, looking like you'll bolt at the first provocation. Is it Nathan worrying you?"
Sara slowly nodded. "I was also worried about you, of course," she confessed. "But now that I see you, I realize you're going to be fine."
"Don't change the topic," Nora ordered. "I want to talk about Nathan."
"We're going to all the same," Nora countered. The cheer in her tone took the sting out of her remark. "How are you and your husband getting along?"
Sara lifted her shoulders in a dainty shrug. "As well as can be expected, given his disposition."
Nora smiled. "Has he kissed you yet?"
"Nora, you shouldn't be asking me that question."
"Answer me. Has he?"
Sara looked at her lap when she answered. "Yes, he did kiss me."
"If you say so."
"Now, Sara, I know Nathan isn't exactly what you imagined he would be, but if you'll only look below the gruff exterior, I believe you'll find yourself a good man."
Sara was determined to keep the conversation light. "Oh?" she teased. "And how would you know what I imagined him to be?"
"In your wildest dreams you couldn't possibly have imagined yourself married to Nathan. He's a bit overwhelming at first sight, isn't he?"
"Oh, I don't know," Sara whispered.
"Of course you do," Nora returned. "You fainted when you saw him that first time, didn't you?"
"I was exhausted," Sara argued. "Nora, he wants to… sleep with me," she suddenly blurted out.
Nora didn't seem to be at all surprised by that announcement. Sara was acutely relieved that her aunt wasn't embarrassed. She desperately needed her advice.
"That would be his natural inclination," Nora announced. "Are you afraid, Sara?"
"A little," Sara answered. "I know what my duty is, but I don't know him very well, and I did want a courtship."
"What is it you're worried about?"
"Do you think he's going to hurt you?"
Sara shook her head. "It's the most peculiar thing, Aunt. Nathan's such a ferocious-looking man when he's frowning at me, which is most of the time, but in my heart I know he won't hurt me. He even told me he didn't want me to be afraid of him."
"But he won't wait until I get used to the idea," Sara explained.
Nora smiled. "I would expect that he wouldn't want to wait, Sara. You are his wife, and I could see the way he watched you that first night. He wants you."
Sara could feel herself blushing. "What if I disappoint him?"
"I don't believe you will," Nora soothed. "He'll see to it that you don't."
"We have to have a child if Nathan is going to get the second half of the treasury set aside by the king, and since he was forced to wait to come for me… did you know he thought I had run away from him?" Sara explained what she'd learned, and when she'd finished Nora was frowning.
"Aren't you pleased Nathan tried to come for me?"
"Of course. I'm frowning because I believe your parents have deceived you yet again."
"Nora, you can't believe—"
"As I told you before," Nora interrupted, "I never quit writing to your mother. I will even allow for the possibility that one or two of my letters got lost, but certainly not all six of them. No, it was all a lie, Sara, to get you out of England."
"Mother wouldn't agree to such a lie."
"Of course she would," Nora muttered. "My poor sister is afraid of her husband. She always was, and she always will be. We both know it, Sara, and it's pointless to pretend to each other. Get your head out of the clouds, child. If Winston told her to lie to you, she would. Now enough about your sorry parents," she rushed on when Sara looked as if she was about to interrupt. "I want to ask you a question."
"What is it?"
"Do you want to be married to Nathan?"
"It doesn't matter what I want."
"Do you or not?"
"I've never thought about being with anyone else," Sara answered hesitantly. "I don't really know how I feel, Nora. I dislike the notion of any other woman having him, though. Do you know I didn't realize that until he mentioned the word 'mistress' to me? I reacted most vehemently to that proposal. It's all very confusing."
"Yes, love is always confusing."
"I'm not talking about love," Sara countered. "It's just that I've been trained to think of Nathan as my husband all these years."
Nora let out an inelegant snort. "You were trained to hate the man. They thought they'd raised another one just like your sister Belinda, but they couldn't do it, could they? You don't hate Nathan at all."
"No, I don't hate anyone."
"All these years you've protected him in your heart, Sara, just as you've protected your mother whenever you had a chance. You listened to their lies about Nathan, and then you discarded them."
"They think I hate him," Sara confessed. "I pretended to agree with everything my relatives told me about him so they would leave me alone. Uncle Henry was the worse. Now he knows the truth. When I confronted him in the tavern, when I saw your band on his fat little finger, well, I lost my temper. I boasted that Nathan would retaliate and added to that lie by telling him that Nathan and I had been on the best of terms for a long while."
"Perhaps it wasn't all a lie," Nora said. "I do believe Nathan would retaliate on my behalf in future, Sara. And do you know why?"
"Because he realizes what a dear, sweet lady you are," Sara answered.
Nora rolled her eyes heavenward. "No, dear, I don't believe he realizes that just yet. He'll watch out for me because he knows how much you love me. Nathan is the kind of man who takes care of the people close to him."