She should say something, she thought dazedly when Hart finally lifted his head from hers.
Something sophisticated and brittle and dismissive. Something that would prove to him that she
could play these games as well as he. That was what this was about, was it not? she thought.
A lesson for the na´ve American? That had been what he had meant in saying this was dangerous...
But for the life of her she could not say a word. She was entirely lost in the sensations he
aroused. Helplessly, she blinked up into his aquamarine eyes; cool, unplumbed. He stared down
at her, his face an unreadable mask, only his flushed throat any clue that he had been affected at
all by their kiss.
She opened her mouth to speak. On the small movement his gaze fell like a predators She heard the
slight catch of his breath, saw the flare of his
bold nostrils, felt a shiver tighten the chest muscles beneath her hand.
"God," he breathed, and then he was kissing her again, his mouth warm and demanding, his arms pulling
her ever closer.
She was naíve, she thought, twining her hands around his neck and clinging there weakly. For those
few kisses stolen from shy cowboys had never anticipated such...hunger. His ardor frightened
her, but more, it excited her, it inspired in her an answering appetite.
With each caress of his restless hands over her breasts and belly, she learned the power of her own
desire. She was entirely lost to the wanting he awoke, and when his mouth opened over hers, coherent
She did not refuse him, he thought in dim amazement. And whether she clung to him because he had left
her nothing else to cling to, or because she wanted this, he was grateful. For with each moment he
pressed her closer and kissed the sweet, plush velvet lips, she caught fire from his heat, meeting his
entreaty with her own, arching herself into him, cupping the back of his head in her hands and holding
his mouth to hers.
Her lips parted and his own passionate response to such munificence made him dizzy. He swung his leg
over the saddle and, clamping her tightly to him, slipped with her to the ground. And still, he tried
to bring her closer, arching possessively over the sweet body straining up into his, discovering the
only way to do so was to invade her warm, moist mouth with his tongue. So sweet, so passionate--
Tentatively, her tongue brushed his. He delved hungrily, begging more with tongue and lip and hands.
She moaned softly. It was a tiny sound, but one of abandonment, and it awoke his fast-fleeing
conscience as nothing else could have done. He drew his head back, staring down at her flushed face,
the crescent of lashes feathering her cool pink cheeks.
She had given herself entirely to him, trusting him. No matter what surcease passion offered, he
would not take more than what she should offer, regardless of what he needed. Abruptly, he set her
on her feet.
She blinked, disoriented and lip-swollen, her hair streaming down her back, undone by the hands that
trembled at his sides and itched to be buried once more in that cool satin. He forced himself to stand
acquiescent. He would not embrace her again.
"Oh, my," she whispered.
"Indeed," he answered, amazed he'd been so carried away by what was really no more than a simple kiss,
a few-less-than chaste embraces; uncertain of how she would interpret the clipped sound of that single
"So, you've proven your point," she said, her eyes averted, her cheeks blooming with bright crimson
roses. "You were right."
"What do you mean?"
"I am as common as God can make a maid, and a maid I am, it would seem, only because of a lack of
opportunity." His demonstration of how easily he could effect her abandonment hurt, and she wanted
to return the favor. Her words found their mark. He paled visibly. "Your point is well taken, sir."
"And what point is that?" he demanded in a rough voice.
"That I am unfit to be my own guardian. That I, most especially, must guard myself as I am at the
mercy of unladylike impulses. Because, as you have very skillfully demonstrated, I am no lady."
"Unladylike?" He sounded genuinely confused.
"Yes. I am sure"--she bit back a sob--"I am sure that your sisters never reacted so to a man's kiss."
"I wouldn't have any idea," he answered, bewildered.
"Well, I do. They wouldn't even feel the things I did when kissing you. They aren't the things a
nice woman feels."
"Are you sure your horse didn't upend you on your head?"
"Don't mock me! I have read many books on deportment and--and other feminine concerns and they all
agree; a nice woman does not feel excited by a man's...physical displays." And now her eyes did
fill with tears. Angrily, she dashed them away, facing him with as much dignity as she could muster,
seeing how she could not ignore the shape of his mouth or forget the texture of it.
He shook his head. There was a touch of bitter sadness in his pale eyes, a hint of despair and yearning.
How had she ever thought his face expressionless? Subtle emotions played constantly across his features.
One merely had to attend.
He reached over, spanning the short distance between them, and she thought he meant to take her in his
arms again. She would have gone; indeed, she swayed forward to meet the anticipated embrace. But he
only tipped her chin up with a single finger.
"You are wholly lovely and uncontrived," he said, finally understanding. She'd thought he'd kissed
her to teach her a lesson, to illustrate her vulnerability, and that she'd revealed instead a defect
in herself, a baseness. He could not allow her to be so misled. "Any sane man would be ecstatic to
know he was able to kindle in you more than curiosity with his kiss. Being a lady does not mean being
dead to pleasure, Mercy, no matter what fantasies are being perpetuated by society's scribblers."
When she did not reply, he dropped his hand and stepped back, casting a glance in the direction of the
house. He did not have time to convince her and he could see from the flush still staining her cheeks
that she was unconvinced, clinging stubbornly to some mistaken notion that equated passionlessness with
Frustrated, he tugged on the bridle, forcing the gelding closer. Soon someone would look out his
window and see them and he would have ruined
Mercy in truth. For whatever his assurances as to the naturalness of her response, he knew too well
that society was unnatural and it was according to society's rules that Mercy had chosen to live--for
whatever time. They had to hurry.
"You have nothing to upbraid yourself for. I am entirely at fault here, Mercy," he said. "Whatever
has happened, I have precipitated. I have taken complete advantage of a situation in which you should
have been able to rely on me to act the gentleman. I beg your forgiveness."
She looked at him in surprise. "You're accepting all the responsibility for our...for my--"
"My kissing you, yes," he said tersely as a light blinked on in one of the upper windows of the Actons'
"Very noble," she said scowling. "And what of my part in our kiss? I was the"--she searched for a word
and found one and it did not appear to make her very happy--"the unwitting victim?"
His chest tightened. "If that is how you perceive it," he answered gravely.
"It is not!" she exclaimed. "I am many things, Hart, but I am not unwitting! I kissed you back, in
case you hadn't noticed."
He stared at her, an incautious joy awakening within. "Why, yes, I believe I did."
"Good." She colored as soon as she'd said the word and he badly wanted to sweep her back into his
arms. "I am an equal partner in what transpired here--ill advised as you assured me it was. I never
said I wanted to be a lady, you know." She made a great show of straightening her skirts. "Now," she
sniffed, "I suggest we forget about trying to determine who was more culpable."
He nodded, smiling. "Agreed. We'd best be back to the house before our absence is noted." He swung
into the saddle and turned, offering her his hand, and when she'd given hers into his care, he lifted
her in front of him.
She was a cheat, she thought, and as common as she'd always suspected she was and Hart had just tried
to convince her she was not. Because she knew full well that except for these next few minutes, Hart
Montrose would never hold her again. And she wanted to hoard whatever sensations she could from these
brief moments, because she had never felt so much, so intensely, before and she did not expect she ever
So she lay back against the hard wall of his chest, burrowing between the open flaps of his coat, and,
sighing softly, turned her head. The warmth of his body toasted her cheek through his thin cambric
shirt. His heart beat strongly beneath her ear. She snuggled closer still, and his arm closed more
securely about her.
"As soon as we're back we'll forget it happened, shall we?" she asked.
"Oh," he replied quietly, "I don't think I can promise that."
Mercy Coltrane tells of her fateful meeting with a gunslinger.
"There, while lost in a moment of divine reverie, I was set upon by a loathsome brigand"
Reverie Hart's jaw muscle started to work reflexively. The bold-faced little liar. She'd sneaked off to
smoke a cigar she'd stolen from her daddy's office.
"The Lord alone knows what he might have done had I not been able to fight him," she said in low tones.
"Several times I nearly made it to my stalwart little pony. But each time the monster managed to take
hold of my person and haul me back."
"My strength was waning, but not my will. Whether I would have prevailed, I am not sure, though I
venture to say that a woman's reverence for her chastity is a mighty impetus."
"Hear, hear!" bellowed Sotbey. Mercy smiled at him modestly.
"Our struggle was intense, we were locked in mortal combat, time was suspended. And then," —her voice
dropped even lower— "the gunslinger appeared!"
"The outlaw pulled me in front of him, fearful of the great multi-notched revolver in the gunslinger's
Mercy gravely nodded her head. "One notch for every man he'd killed."
"And this gunslinger had many notches?" the Duchess asked.
"The handle was ready to drop off, the thing was so scored with notches."
"Jesus!" Hart muttered. She was incorrigible! To his astonishment he found himself suddenly hard pressed
not to laugh. He hadn't heard such a heap of rubbish in years, and that it was being spoon-fed to this
sophisticated company by a brat from Texas...! His lips twitched.
Mercy's glance darted to meet his. There was an unholy amusement in her green eyes. Unholy and
horrible… and horribly inviting.
"Exactly," she said piously. "I prayed, too, Mr. Perth. I had to, because I knew the gunslinger had no
conscience. Like a dog set on a scent, he was single-minded in his course. He wanted only one thing.
Blood. And I wasn't at all sure he cared whose blood it was."
He closed his eyes. If he listened to much more of this he would either laugh or swear.
"I know, Perth, it is horrible," she said, her eyes dancing. "It gets even worse."
His eyes snapped open. She'd called him 'Perth'—without mockery or sarcasm. His name on her lips was
"Oh, no!" gasped the Dowager.
"Yes." Mercy's attention turned back to the others. "The monster who held me started backing out of
the cabin, holding me in front of him, using me as a shield. I could tell he was afraid. And well he
should have been. I have never seen a more frightening sight than that gunslinger's eyes as he looked
at us." Abruptly, her voice lost its theatrical tone, trailing off.
She had been frightened, thought Hart, feeling the old familiar chill creep back into his heart. And
she was reliving that fright now. No amount of playacting could bleed the color from her cheeks like
Had she really thought he would have killed her just to ensure he would collect a bounty? The thought
ate at him. He fought the impulse to stand up and deny it.
"What was it like?"
"Like he found us ... interesting," Mercy said in a soft, pensive monotone. "That's why it was so
frightening. He did not look angry or fierce. He looked like he was trying to work out the pieces of
a riddle and was not overly concerned whether he found an answer."
What a prime fool he'd been the other night, thinking she'd sought him out because of his reputed
dispassion. His manner frightened her, disgusted her. And yet for her brother's sake she'd still
sought an interview.
"And then?" someone asked.
"And then?" Mercy echoed. Her lips had parted a bit. She looked pensive, as though staring into the
past. "He shot me."