“Yes,” she said, slightly surprised. “I do.”
“Will you let me kiss you?”
“Probably not. But I will share my soup with you, since you’re in my kitchen and I’m starved. You seem to be comfortable with rudeness, but I can’t let go of my manners and eat in front of you while you stare at me with your iceberg eyes.”
“Glacial. The bowls are behind you.”
Celino rose. The wall was dotted with standard hidden shelf covers. He tapped the closest one. A shelf slid out of the wall, offering a row of neatly placed bowls. He plucked two and pushed the shelf back into the wall.
She ladled the soup into the bowls. “Would you like to eat in the garden?”
She led him through the house into the garden. Flowers greeted him in every shade and shape imaginable. Dahlias. In his youth, he had spent countless evenings on the balcony of Carvanna house, sitting in a chair, puzzling over a financial riddle, and when he would look up to clear his head, the riot of dahlias blooming in the garden greeted him just like this.
“Take a chair,” she offered.
He sat and drank his soup from the bowl. It was delicious, spicy and tart, with an undercurrent of fiery peppers that nipped on his tongue.
They sat together, saying nothing even when they both finished their meal. A feeling of profound calm descended upon Celino. He let the peculiar refreshing serenity sweep through him, bringing him a deeply rooted happiness at simply being alive.
The audio piece piped into his ear for the third time. He was catastrophically late. He rose, bowed to her, and left without a word.
And there it was, Meli reflected. He found her. Less than twenty-four hours. She expected nothing less from Celino Carvanna.
He fantasized about dripping honey on her br**sts. A small, satisfied smile curved her lips. It took almost eighteen years, from the skinny ten-year-old girl to the twenty-eight-year-old woman, but Mother proved right. She hit him like a brick.
And she managed to hide that a single glance from him made her entire body hum like a tightly wound string under the hand of a virtuoso guitar player. Celino Carvanna was honeyed poison in her wine. The same delicious fear she had experienced in his presence as an adolescent returned full force, only she was no longer an inexperienced child. She used this fear now, turning it into seductive tension, letting him sense just enough to spur him into open pursuit. Celino was a predator and every predator responded to prey who seemed to run. And when she finally let him catch her, their battle would drive him out of his mind.
She supposed she should be ashamed for still wanting him. Her father would certainly be ashamed if he knew. But her mother would not.
Love was a rebellious emotion, Meli decided. It defied constraints of reason. She no longer cared about the twenty-two year old who, in his rush to freedom, trampled her. She discarded him long ago, except as fuel for revenge. His temple lay in ruin, his statue shattered, his hymnals burned. She would never again worship him or any other.
But the man he had become stirred a deep longing in her. He was darkness. His eyes were ice. He didn’t walk, he prowled, confident, powerful, dangerous. He had learned patience and achieved his dreams. And yet, hidden beneath the layers of menace and terrifying competence he remained deeply alone. Just like she did.
He was seductive and it was beyond her not to respond.
A small calculating part of her was glad of it. Celino would sense any insincerity. Luckily for her, when she finally kissed him, she would be perfectly honest in her want. There would be nothing false in her, not in the way she would shiver under the touch of his hands, not in the way she would part her legs for him, letting him drive himself inside her. She would revel in him, drink him in, and every moment of her pleasure would be genuine.
And when he belonged to her, she would finally repay a decade worth of pain in a single brutal dose of reality.
Celino lasted two days.
Shrouded in the comfortable gloom of the evening, her reader on the pillow before her, Meli sensed him at her doorstep before his hand touched the handle and shivered in anticipation. “Lamp,” she whispered and a small light ignited in the corner, diluting twilight with soft yellow glow.
A moment later he pushed her door open and loomed in the doorway, a shadow woven of night.
“Don’t you ever lock your door?”
“If I did, how would you get in?”
She had no idea how fast he could move. Before the door had a chance to swing shut, slapped by his powerful hand, he knelt before her in the pile of her floor pillows. She raised her hand and drew her fingertips down his cheek. The warmth of his skin sent a tingling pulse into her hand. It fanned the hungry fire in the depth of her. Her insides tightened. She imagined him claiming her, sliding into her, hard and hot, and she kissed him.
The taste of his mouth intoxicated her. He sealed her lips with his. His tongue slid into her mouth, stroking hers in the liquid rapid rhythm. The fire within her burst into inferno. Her head swam. He released her, and she slid her arms about his neck, molding herself against his iron chest. “Just like that,” she whispered into his ear. “Take me just like that.”
She licked the corner of his jaw and saw that the ice in his eyes had melted into radiant hungry heat. His hands grasped her tunic and effortlessly ripped the tear-proof fabric. Her soft br**sts swung free. She rose to her knees and arched herself against him. His mouth trailed a path of heat from her neck, over her clavicle and down. His hand cupped her right breast, stroking it, squeezing, guiding her erect swollen nipple up. His mouth closed over it. He licked her, painting searing heat across her nipple. She dug her fingers into his back. “More. More.”
He licked her again and she purred for him. She was wet and hot and pliant, dying a little with each stroke of his tongue. His hands slid down her back inside her light pants and the thin shimmer of her underwear to cup her butt. He squeezed her and pushed her back gently onto the pillows. She fell for him.
Celino growled like a hungry animal and pulled her clothes off her. She lay before him, in the cushions, her chest rising, her thighs spread. He stared, as if unable to believe that all of her was his.
She lifted herself up enough to grasp his black shirt. “Off,” she breathed. “Every last thread.”
He pulled off his shirt. His chest was carved by a savage sculptor, each line hardened to perfection by years of martial practice. His skin was bare of hair and in the soft light his torso was golden like a block of amber, and just as amber, when she drew her hand across it, it sent a spark through her. She kissed the shield of ridged muscles on his stomach, reached for his trousers, unfastened them, and slid her hand inside, down the hard shaft of his erection. He growled, thrusting, and she dipped her head and drew her tongue across the top of him, sucking gently.