The bland amusement in his tone finally made her suspect he was treating this as some sort of diverting game or perhaps a challenge, and she looked at him in shock. "Is this a-a contest?"
"Do you want to make it into line?"
Elizabeth shook her head and abruptly surrendered her secret memories of tenderness and stormy passion. Like all her other former illusions about him, that too had evidently been false. With a mixture of exasperation and sadness, she looked at him and said, "I don't think so."
"You're playing a game," she told him honestly, mentally throwing her hands up in weary despair, "and I don't understand the rules."
"They haven't changed," he informed her. "It's the same game we played before I kiss you, and," he emphasized meaningfully, "you kiss me."
His blunt criticism of her lack of participation left her caught between acute embarrassment and the urge to kick him in the shin, but his arm was tightening around her waist while his other hand was sliding slowly up her back, sensuously stroking her nape.
"How do you remember it?" he teased as his lips came closer. "Show me." He brushed his lips over hers, rubbing lightly, and despite his humorous tone, this time there was a demand as well as a challenge in the stroking touch; Elizabeth answered it slowly, leaning into his arms, her hand sliding softly up his silk shirt, feeling his muscles tauten, the reflexive tightening of his arm at her back. His mouth opened on hers, and Elizabeth felt her heart begin to beat in painful lurches. His tongue flicked against her lips, teasing, inviting, and Elizabeth lost control and retaliated in the only way she could. Sliding her hands around his shoulders, she kissed him back with fierce shyness, letting him part her lips and, when his tongue probed, she welcomed the invasion.
She felt his sharp intake of breath at the same time Ian felt desire begin to beat in his veins. He told himself to let her go, and he tried, but her hands were sliding into the hair at his nape, her mouth was yielding with tormenting sweetness to his intimate kiss. With an effort he jerked his head up, unable to move more than an inch from that romantic mouth of hers. "Dammit!" he whispered, but his arms were already dragging her fully against his hardening body.
Her heart hammering like a wild, captive bird, Elizabeth gazed into those smoldering eyes, while his hand plunged into her hair, holding her head captive as he abruptly bent his head. His mouth opened over hers with fiery demand, slanting fiercely, and Elizabeth's body responded helplessly to the intimate sensuality of it; her arms stole around his neck, and she leaned into him, kissing him back. With cruel pressure he parted her lips, his tongue probing, daring her to protest. But Elizabeth didn't protest; she drew his tongue into her mouth, her fingers sliding over his jaw and temple in an innocent, feather-light caress. Lust roared through Ian in tidal waves, and he splayed his hand across her spine, forcing her into vibrant contact with his rigid arousal, burying his mouth in hers, kissing her with a demanding savagery he couldn't control. His hands slid caressingly over her, then clenched convulsively when she fitted her body tighter to his, unaware of-or unconcerned with-the bold evidence of his desire thrusting insistently against her.
Automatically, his hands lifted toward her breasts, then he realized what he was doing, and he tore his mouth from hers, staring blindly over her head, as he debated whether to kiss her again or try to pass the entire matter off as some sort of joke. No woman he'd known had ever ignited this uncontrollable surge of pure lust with just a few kisses.
"It was the same as I remembered it," she whispered, sounding defeated and puzzled and shattered.
It was better than he remembered. Stronger, wilder. . . And the only reason she didn't know it was because he hadn't succumbed to temptation yet and kissed her once more. He had just rejected that idea as complete insanity when a male voice suddenly erupted behind them:
"Good God! What's going on here!"
Elizabeth jerked free in mindless panic, her gaze to a middle-aged elderly man wearing a clerical collar who was dashing across the yard. Ian put a steadying hand on her waist, and she stood there rigid with shock.
"I heard shooting-" The gray-haired man gasped, sagging against a nearby tree, his hand over his heart, his chest heaving. "I heard it all the way up the valley, and I thought-"
He broke off, his alert gaze moving from Elizabeth's Bushed face and tousled hair to Ian's hand at her waist.
"You thought what?" Ian asked in a voice that struck Elizabeth as being amazingly calm, considering they'd just been caught in a lustful embrace by nothing less daunting than a Scottish vicar.
The thought had scarcely crossed her battered mind when the man's expression hardened with understanding. "I thought," he said ironically, straightening from the tree and coming forward, brushing pieces of bark from his black. sleeve, "that you were trying to kill each other. Which," he continued more mildly as he stopped in front of Elizabeth, "Miss Throckmorton-Jones seemed to think was a distinct possibility when she dispatched me here."
"Lucinda?" Elizabeth gasped, feeling as if the world was turning upside down. "Lucinda sent you here?"
"Indeed," said the vicar, bending a reproachful glance on Ian's hand, which was resting on Elizabeth's waist. Mortified to the very depths of her being by the realization she'd remained standing in this near-embrace, Elizabeth hastily shoved Ian's hand away and stepped sideways. She braced herself for a richly deserved, thundering tirade on the sinfulness of their behavior, but the vicar continued to regard Ian with his bushy gray eyebrows lifted, waiting. Feeling as if she were going to break from the strain of the silence, Elizabeth cast a pleading look at Ian and found him regarding the vicar not with shame or apology, but with irritated amusement.
"Well?" demanded the vicar at last, looking at Ian. "What do you have to say to me?"
"Good afternoon?" Ian suggested drolly. And then he added, "I didn't expect to see you until tomorrow, Uncle."
"Obviously," retorted the vicar with unconcealed irony. "Uncle!" blurted Elizabeth, gaping incredulously at Ian Thornton, who'd been flagrantly defying rules of morality with his passionate kisses and seeking hands from the first night she met him.
As if the vicar read her thoughts, he looked at her, his brown eyes amused. "Amazing, is it not, my dear? It quite convinces me that God has a sense of humor."
A hysterical giggle welled up in Elizabeth as she saw Ian's impervious expression begin to waver when the vicar promptly launched into a recitation of his tribulations as Ian's uncle: "You cannot imagine how trying it used to be when I was forced to console weeping young ladies who'd cast out lures in hopes Ian would come up to scratch," he told Elizabeth. "And that's nothing to how I felt when he raced his horse and one of my parishioners thought I would be the ideal person to keep track of the bets!" Elizabeth's burst of laughter rang like music through the hills, and the vicar, ignoring Ian's look of annoyance, continued blithely, "I have flat knees from the hours, the weeks, the months I've spent praying for his immortal soul-"