dress shirt was unbuttoned at the neck. The long sleeves were rolled up mid-
She clenched and unclenched her hands around the stemware as something close to panic settled into every inch of her body. She raised her chin in an effort to appear nonchalant as she crossed the room and entered the kitchen. Before she could make her hands relinquish their death grip on the glass, Alec was behind her. He gently took it from her hands and set it on the counter.
“I like your friends,” he murmured, near her ear. His breath was hot against her skin.
She tried to remain calm. “They are good people.”
He slowly slid his arms around her waist. She could feel his face rubbing against her hair. In such close proximity, his deep voice caused tingling sensations to dance over her skin. Shea clung to the edge of the counter for support.
“It was good of them to come on such short notice.”
“Yes. Leona...called most of them.”
Shea sensed, rather than saw, Alec smile. “She knows this isn’t your…usual marriage, doesn't she?”
Alec stepped away from her to the kitchen table and a canister containing a partially consumed bottle of champagne. He pulled it from the ice and holding two crystal flutes easily in one hand, poured the champagne with the other.
“To what shall we toast?” he asked as he handed her one of the glasses. “A long and satisfying marriage?”
She eyed him coolly. “How about to integrity?”
He pursed his lips as if to contain a devilish grin, then tipped his head and touched his fluted glass to hers. Shea downed the full contents, desperately needing its calming effect. She rarely drank alcohol, never champagne, and she wasn’t prepared for the burning sensation. Her eyes clouded with tears and she couldn’t stop the choking cough.
Still, the night that lay ahead made her hold the empty glass out to Alec. She ignored the knowing smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he obligingly refilled it to the brim.
If it were within her power to disappear in a puff of smoke, she’d have done it. For one fleeting second, the land didn’t seem that important. Then the moment passed and she knew she’d see this thing through.
“It's been a long day,” he said when she set her empty glass on the table.
“Yes.” She readily agreed, some hope suddenly flaring in her chest.
“I suggest you show me our room.”
Alec ignored any traces of panic that must have been apparent in her face and without waiting for an answer, reached for her hand. His was large and warm, his grip firm and solid as he led her out of the kitchen and toward the stairs, turning off the lights as he went.
Lifting the long skirt of the gown with her free hand to ensure she didn’t step on the hem, she followed him up the stairs. At the top of the staircase, he paused, silently indicating she should precede him into a bedroom. She walked down the hall, her head held high.
At the door to her room, she stopped. I can't do this. She felt light-
Reaching around her, Alec turned the knob and effortlessly pushed open the door. She hesitated, swallowing back the vile taste of fear that rose in her throat. She could feel the warmth of his body against her back and the soft caress of his breath on her ear seconds before he kissed the sensitive area just below. Wild sensations tore through her. She spun around to face him, her hands braced against the muscled wall of his chest as she tried to keep him at arm's length.
“What's the matter?” he asked, tilting his head in mock innocence. “Wedding night jitters?”
“No.” She shook her head. “No. It's just that...well, we ah...we don't know each other. I mean—” She took a step back from him, placing her just inside the bedroom.
“I think I know a way we can remedy that problem.” He began to unbutton his shirt. With his other hand, he reached out and flipped off the bedroom light leaving only the soft beams of moonlight streaming through the window to challenge the darkness that now surrounded them. Through the dim glow, he watched her, his eyes focused on her lips.
Shea slowly backed away but Alec advanced toward her, matching step for step. With the last button released, his shirt fell open to reveal the muscular wall of his chest. She hadn’t realized he was so powerfully built; so solid. Definitely not the body of a man who sat behind a desk every day.
“You surprise me, Mrs. Morreston. I had expected you to come down the stairs wearing boots and jeans. Instead, you walked into the room in that gown.” The deep, velvety texture of his voice reached her through the dim radiance in the room. “If that was for my benefit, to ensure I knew what a beautiful and desirable woman I was about to marry, you can rest assured, it worked.”
“No. I mean...it...it was my mother's.”
“It's very nice. Very elegant.” He continued to advance toward her. “But now it's time to take it off.”
“No?” he mocked her. “Why Mrs. Morreston, are you saying you intend to deny your husband on your wedding night?”
“I...I just think we need time to—”
“Don't worry, sweetheart,” he cut in. “We have all night, and I certainly intend to take my time.”
“No? Might I remind you, Mrs. Morreston, I paid a very high price for the...pleasure...of your company. You’re now a very wealthy woman. Why don’t you show me if the goods are worth the cost.”
“Ah...there's that word again.” Alec didn't even bother concealing his devious smile. “Are you saying you want to have our marriage annulled and give up so soon? I honestly believed your resolve to keep this place, no matter what, would last longer than the wedding night.”
“And I hoped, as a gentleman, you would afford me an opportunity to get to know you before...before...”
“Who said I was a gentleman?” Shea could see the faint white of his teeth as he smiled in the darkness. “I've held up my end of this bargain, Mrs. Morreston. Now, I believe, it's your turn.”
“Stop calling me that!” she snapped through gritted teeth as her inner turmoil exploded to the surface. This only succeeded in causing a bigger grin to spread across his features.
“But that's who you are, Mrs. Morreston.” His fingers reached out and touched the tiny pearl buttons at the neckline of her dress. “It was your decision, remember?”
“Only to prevent you from taking my ranch.”
“It was your decision.”
Shea swallowed back the alarm that threatened to engulf her. He was right. He had warned her. And she had freely agreed.
Reaching for one of her hands, he began to unbutton the seam that ran from her wrist to her elbow, letting the satiny material fall away from her arm. Then, without a word, he moved to the other sleeve.
That completed, in a gentle but firm action, he turned her around and began to unfasten the back of the satin and lace gown. His hands moved slowly, methodically down the dress, releasing button by tiny button.
She caught their reflection in the mirror on the closet door. The moonlight
highlighted the silver-
Standing practically nude before a strange man was not an experience she'd ever anticipated. The gown provided a frail armor, a subtle safeguard. In a few precious minutes, her lace panties and the white legging hosiery would be the only pieces of armor that remained.
Their eyes met in the mirrored reflection for countless seconds before he bent his head and placed his lips against the sensitive area beneath her ear. Her heart kicked into double time as Alec emitted a low growl, which sent electric sensations racing down her spine.
She spun around in an effort to break the contact. Rather than reach for her again, he removed his shirt, tossed it aside, and began unbuckling his belt. The muscles of his shoulders and arms rippled under the moon’s glow, the significant pectorals making him seem even bigger than he’d looked with his clothes on.
Taking another step back from him, her legs bumped against the bed. Her pulse tripled. Frantically her eyes searched the room, hoping to detect any means of escape from this reprehensible situation.
Before she could voice any more objections or seize on a reason to try to postpone the inevitable, Alec reached out to her. His hands cupped her face, compelling her to meet his gaze as he took the final step, closing the short distance between them.
Shea clenched her hands into tight fists at her sides, determined to resist this forceful male. In the pale light, she saw his eyes focus on her lips seconds before his mouth came down over hers, hard, masterfully firm in its possession. His heavy arms encircled her body like bands of steel. His sheer strength and size, coupled with the passion of the embrace, rocked her senses and snatched the very breath from her lungs. She was way out of her depth. A feeling of near hysteria enveloped her mind. With a small cry, she tore her mouth from his. He allowed her to pull back but kept her close, his large hands resting on her shoulders.
“I can't...I can't do this.” Her fingers gripped his. “I know you said...I know I agreed that...but I...please...don’t—”
“Shhhh.” A frown drew his dark brows together. He had to see the frantic, almost terrified expression that must be on her face, mirroring the fear churning inside. “It's all right, Shea. I’m not going to hurt you,” he murmured as his thumbs caressed the side of her face. “Just kiss me. That's all you have to do.”
Shea scarcely had time to nod her agreement before his mouth once again claimed hers. This time he moved slowly, sensuously, against the trembling warmth of her own with an easy gentleness that immediately began to tear down the walls of her resistance. His tongue licked and teased her lips, moistening them, as if readying her for a more intense joining.
With consummate skill, he encouraged her mouth to open. His tongue slid deep into the cavern of her mouth, intensifying the embrace, sending her heart plummeting all the way to her knees. The kiss was frankly intimate, shamefully enticing, and custom designed to evoke a matching response from her. He tasted of champagne and his own uniquely delicious male flavor. The bittersweet essence of his cologne silently affirmed the raw masculinity of the man who wore it.
His hands rubbed her back, working down her spine, slowly massaging away the last remnants of her inner turmoil. Sensual warmth began to spread though her lower region while a thread of confusion wove its way into her mind.
What am I doing? But the question was too fleeting to receive an answer.
Slowly, but steadily, her fear began to change form, turning, instead, into a fundamental need that refused to be ignored. A fragment of her mind insisted this wasn't right. Her body screamed that it was.
Alec pushed the creamy fabric of the gown from her shoulders. It fell to the floor with a quiet rustle. She should have been shocked, but the realization weighed no heavier than the soft evening breeze entering the room through the open windows, lightly touching her skin. For a few moments in time, she forgot the reality of her situation, of her pledged hatred of this man. Of their own accord, her arms slid up over the muscled wall of his chest to rest on his broad, powerful shoulders, letting her fingers play in the thick, silky texture of his hair. Alec’s hands moved lower in their rotation until, reaching the fullness of her hips, he pulled her firmly up and against him. The hard, male ridge of his arousal pressed against the sensitive juncture between her legs and a jolt of pure sexual hunger shot through her. Her body jerked forward, uncontrollably, bringing a deep growl from Alec.
He began to alternately kiss and nibble the delicate contours of her neck and shoulder, and eyes closed, she tilted her head to allow him greater access. His hands moved to her breasts, kneading the firmness, making them swell under his touch. Then his mouth returned to hers in a deep, drugging kiss that brought a small whimper, an automatic response, conveying the end of her struggle against the inevitable.
Experience told Alec that sound signified her acceptance of what was to come. He knew, at this moment in time, she was his, completely and totally. Raising his head, he looked at Shea’s face through the soft radiance of moonlight. Her eyes closed, her lips parted, as if waiting for his mouth to return. As if beckoning his lips to return.
Heat coursed through his body, centering in his loins, making him throb against the restricting barrier of his slacks. A slight tremor reminded him he was about to cross the line. This was not the plan. Seducing her wouldn’t accomplish anything except add to the problems he already faced and enormously complicate the entire situation.
He gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and fought for restraint. But even when he couldn’t see, her fragrance assailed him, called to him, and tempted him almost beyond his control. He knew her body craved fulfillment and her need only served to bring him closer to that moment of ultimate possession, a moment that should never happen. He ached with wanting. His libido screamed take her.
Damn the land. Damn this situation. With a groan of defeat, he scooped her into his arms, laid her gently on the bed, and followed her down, his mouth again finding hers.
She tasted of sweet wild nectar, and like a starving man, he fed. She was a heady aphrodisiac that had every cell in his body clamoring for more.
Then, almost unnoticeable yet detectable, hesitant, but determined, the persistent sound of drumming broke into the moment, bringing with it a cold veracity that refused to leave.
Frowning, Alec raised his head, reluctantly separating his lips from hers. He inhaled deeply, fighting to regain cognizant thought. It sounded like someone was knocking on a door. Silence. Then it started again. Another hard series of raps caused him to look questioningly at Shea while he fought to latch onto some thread of reality.
“Are you expecting anyone?” His voice sounded rough, even to his own ears.
She mutely looked into his face. Alec drew a deep breath then blew it out, pausing to regain what little mind he had left. Finally, he rolled off the bed and stood up. Taking another deep breath, he walked out into the hallway and down the stairs as the persistent knocking continued. He knew a sudden surge of fury as he reached the kitchen door.
Hank Minton, the ranch Foreman, stood on the doorstep. His hat in his hands, a worried look pinched the strained features of his face. Alec remembered meeting him earlier. He wouldn’t look Alec in the eye and instead, watched the bugs fluttering around the porch light, studied the doorbell, and finally, appeared to give significant attention to his old, worn boots.
“Hank.” Alec greeted, suspicion sending a flashing red light to his
“I’m sorry to bother you all with this,” the old cowboy said. “Real sorry. Specially knowing it’s your weddin’ night and all. But we got a horse down, and I think Shea’s gonna need to take a look at him.”
“I see,” Alec replied. And he did.
There was no question in his mind that Shea had solicited Hank’s help for this perfectly timed interruption. Alec was torn between a desire to toss the old man off the step or hug his neck and thank him for doing what he’d, apparently, not had the strength to do.
Hank had just provided a plausible excuse for Alec to stop before he’d taken her, which was exactly what he should have done in the first place. Annoyance surged through him for his weakness and for letting his desire overcome his common sense.
He definitely should be grateful to Hank. Why, then, did he have the urge to break the old man’s neck?
“Come in. I’ll get her.”
The old cowboy nodded and stepped just inside the kitchen, glancing at the sink, the overhead light, the chairs and finally, back to his boots.
Shea sat on the edge of the bed in the darkened room as reality came
creeping back. Willing her pulse to steady, she took a deep breath in a desperate
attempt to clear her head. Still giddy and a bit light-
He hadn’t made love to her. Technically. She should be monumentally happy. Why, then, did she feel ridiculously disappointed?
She stood from the bed, feeling her way to the closet, not bothering to turn on a light. Her legs were strangely weak. She quickly shucked her hosiery, pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt then descended the stairs. She couldn't help but grimace as full reality settled over her.
She'd almost had sex with Alec Morreston.
Even worse, he hadn't forced her. He hadn't held her down or tied her to the bedposts. He'd kissed her. That's all. Apparently, that had been enough. She knew it. And worse, so did he. Shea clung to the stair railing for support as the full impact of that realization flooded her mind. Alec Morreston was here to take away her ranch, her home, everything she held dear. She would do well to remember that. He was, inarguably, a very potent package with obvious experience to back that up. She had to be strong.
“It's Dancer, Shea.” Hank's voice carried to her from the doorway. “He's down. Me, and Jason, we've been working with him almost an hour, but we can't keep him on his feet. I think its colic.” The old cowboy threaded the brim of his hat through his hands in a nervous gesture as he stared at his boots. “I'm real sorry about this. Real sorry.”
“That's okay, Hank.” Shea glanced at Alec. “I'm sure Mr. Morreston understands.” The look Alec gave her clearly said he understood far more than just the claimed need for Shea's presence in the barn. “Give me a second to put on some shoes. Is he in the main barn?”
“Yes, Ma'am. I'll go on back out there.” He put his hat firmly on his head and turned toward the door. “I'm real sorry 'bout this. Real sorry.” Hank closed the door behind him.
Shea ran up the stairs and into the bedroom wasting no time as she pulled on socks and boots. Just as she stood and reached for her jacket, Alec walked into the room.
“Need any help?”
“No. Thanks anyway.”
As she walked past him, he gently caught her arm, stopping her in mid-
“I'll let you go. This time. Consider it...a wedding gift. Go and see about your horse. We wouldn't want all of Hank's efforts to be for nothing. But, take fair warning, next time there will be no interruptions. You can accept that or you can prepare to leave here.” There was a gleam of promise in his eyes.
His insolence was like a splash of cold water in the face. A scant few minutes ago, she'd been on the verge of giving herself to this man. Now her only inclination was to put her fist firmly against his nose with the highest velocity she could muster. Her anger soared as the combined emotions of frustration and humiliation propelled it quickly to the surface.
Pushing past him, she almost ran down the stairs. For the first time,
doubts flooded her mind that she could pull this off and force him to leave her ranch. It
had seemed like an easy thing to do-
As Shea closed the front door behind the last of the departing guests, for a few crazy minutes she’d actually forgotten about Alec. Reaching over to pick up a wineglass left on a nearby table, she took several steps toward the kitchen before she noticed him. Leaning against the newel post at the foot of the stairs with his arms crossed in front of him, he had discarded his tie and the white
Terms of a Texas Marriage