He closed the net just above the wriggling fish and shook it at her. “Care to do the honors?”

“I don’t like taking out the hook,” she said, turning a little green. “Too much blood.”

“Sorry,” he said, setting his pole down and taking the net from her. “I’ll take care of our dinner.” He unhooked the fish and placed it in the cooler, which was filled with water and the three he’d caught earlier, before closing the lid and washing off his hands.

Bella patted the ground beside her. “Come sit with me.” She set her pole down.

He propped his against the tree and joined her, taking off his shoes and socks, then rolling up his trousers. Sticking his feet into the brook, he exhaled.

“I take back what I said about the fish. You’re not normal.”

“It’s nearly September, Bella. The water feels bloody good.”

“Bloody good, my butt,” she muttered, and he had to smile at her saying something so vulgar.

“You do realize what bloody means?”

Her brows rose, and then lowered. “No, and I don’t want to know.”

He held up his hands. “Fine. But I’ll advise you not to say it in front of company.”

“Tell me more about your grandfather,” she said suddenly. “About what you were like as a kid.”

He ran a hand through his hair. “He was exactly as you’d picture a Scotsman. Gruff, proud, fiercely independent, and loyal. He was also extremely strict.”

“And you didn’t like that?” she asked.

“Nay.” He picked a blade of grass and slid his fingers along the length. “But I wanted to please him. So I studied, change my ways, and became the man you see before you.”

Bella picked up a smooth rock, turned it over in her hands, and then tossed it in, causing the water to ripple. “What about your mother?”

“She was out of her element.

“So am I,” she said. “But I have you to help me.”

“My father didn’t care about helping us.” He let the blade of grass fall to the ground. “He cared more about his friends, his pub, and his lifestyle, without us. I’m still not sure why he married my mother.”

She looked at him, without judgment. “Maybe he loved her?”

The image of his mother’s face whenever his dad walked through the front door came to mind. As a child, he couldn’t understand why she didn’t throw herself into his arms, but as he grew older and now as a man looking back, he recognized the wariness. He recognized the longing and utter desolation when she realized he was only staying long enough to soothe his own conscience.

He never wanted a woman to look at him like that.

“Perhaps.” He flexed his feet. “But doubtful.”

“Then why did he marry her?”

“Because he needed an heir, or my grandfather was going to cut him off. My mother conveniently became pregnant, and he continued to get his allowance,” Liam replied without thinking.

Bella looked away, and then down at her hands. “Oh.”

“It’s not the same,” he said, covering her small hands with his. They were cold. He frowned, thinking that he needed to make a fire or head back.

“I didn’t say it was.”

At a loss, Liam turned their conversation to where they always agreed. “I haven’t kissed you today.”

That got her attention. She jerked her head up to stare at him. Her golden eyes were wide. “I haven’t kissed you either.”

“Maybe we could meet in the middle?” he asked, already leaning towards her.

She nodded. “The middle is good. I like the middle. The middle is the best part of Oreos and brownies.”

“You’ve a gorgeous mouth, Bella. Makes me think of so many wicked things you could be doing with it, besides eating sweets.”

“I’m out of practice. You’ll have to show me how again,” she said, and his blood began to heat.

“Still the only one to teach you?” he asked, although he already knew the answer.

She licked her lips. “You know you are.”

“Still liked to hear it confirmed.” He winked.

“I would think a duke would be above all that,” she said, inching ever closer to his mouth.

“A duke needs his duchess to properly compliment him.”

“This duchess needs her duke to stop talking so dang much and kiss me,” she grumbled.

He took her face between his hands and, ever so lightly, he kissed her lips. Then pulled back. “Satisfied?”

“No,” she said, grabbing his shoulders. “I want more.”

This time when their mouths met, it was all consuming. She took and she gave, she teased and she explored. He threaded his fingers in her hair, deepening their kiss. She made a little satisfied noise in her throat, and he couldn’t stop his smile.

“Are you laughing at me?” she asked between kisses.

He kissed his way along her jaw. “Never,” he said, biting down on the lobe of her ear.

Giggling, her shoulder came up. “That tickles.”

“Now who’s laughing?” He worried the delicate shell, and her head tilted down.

“Stop, stop,” she said, laughing harder. “I can’t take it.”

He nuzzled her neck. “Does this tickle?”

“No.” The word was barely audible.

“What about,” he let his mouth travel lower and licked the tops of her breasts, “this? Does this make you want to laugh?” He cupped her, rubbing his thumbs across her hard nipples. “You’re not laughing, Bella.”

Her eyes, dazed with lust, became heavy-lidded. “Do you want me to laugh at you?”

“What do you think?” He kept his eyes on her face as he lowered his mouth to her delicate skin. He was hard, his skin drawn tight over his muscles, and he was tormenting himself by playing with her like this.

But he couldn’t seem to stop. She tasted to good, responded so sweetly, and—

“I think we should st-stop,” she said, pushing at his shoulders. “I’m not ready to make love to you again. Not yet.”

Curbing his rampant desire for her, he let go of her breasts and sat up. “Kissing doesn’t have to lead to sex.”

She let out a shaky breath. “With us, everything leads to sex.”

He canted his head side to side, considering her words. “You make an excellent point.”

“You’re not upset?”

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