Grace slipped into the room. She froze just inside, allowing the door to close behind her. As soon as she saw him standing next to naked at the washbasin, color flared in her cheeks and she turned to face the door.
“I beg pardon, Gabriel. I thought you would still be abed.”
“Aye, I would be, but I’ve grown tired of lying about. Derrick gave me nothin’ but more gruel to break my fast. I have a hankering for lumpy oats and eggs boiled to bouncing.”
Grace’s eyes flashed with laughter when she glanced over her shoulder. “I can fetch you some.”
He studied her expression. She had kept her distance since he called her his love. Instead of being pleased, she had shrunk far within herself, just as Derrick had described. His Grace was trying to shield her soft heart, even from him. And he was at fault.
Her recent coolness would pass and she would warm to him again. He had to believe that. But would it be a good thing? Would it not be kinder to encourage the distance? The pain the thought triggered nearly brought him to his knees. He was not strong enough to encourage her to turn away from him. He had to hold onto the hope the Earl of Moray would accept Lord Alexander’s plea.
“Will you fetch my shirt, lass? ’Tis there on the bed.” His voice sounded raspy around the knot in his throat.
“Aye.” She scooped up the garment and rushed to his side, eyes lowered.
He could not don the shirt and hold the towel in place too.
Grace’s cheeks flared with color, but she bundled the fabric and lifted on tiptoe to slip it over his head. She helped him guide the injured arm into the sleeve. He released the towel and slid the other into place. Since the fabric fell to mid thigh, he was covered enough for his Grace’s delicate sense of modesty.
Slipping in close beneath his arm, she put her own around his waist. She seemed so small next to his bulk, he hung back, leaning against the table. If he fell with her, she might be hurt. He straightened his shoulders and gathered his strength, determined not to fall.
Her hand resting against his chest triggered a sharp need for more of her touch. He tightened his arm around her shoulders, and they wove a path to the bed. When he lowered himself to the straw mattress, he gripped her hips and pulled her down with him. With her body stretched atop his scantily-covered frame, nature took its course, and he grew hard against her.
He’d been stiff as a pike for her for weeks, but had refused to act on it. She wanted to be wed before tasting the sweetness of the marriage bed, and he wanted to prove to her she was worthy of the wait.
He dearly regretted both their decisions. He found the tender spot on her neck he knew was sensitive, kissed it, and was rewarded by her shiver.
Her eyes had never looked so dark as when she pushed up to look down at him then said, “Show me what t’ do, Gabriel.”
All the blood seemed to drain from his head to pool in his groin, despite the weakness of his illness, his need grew rampant. “Grace…”
“I want to be with you as a wife is with her husband.”
“We are na’ wed.”
He wanted to be the honorable man she loved, wanted to treat her honorably. If he took her now, and it was discovered, they would both pay dearly. God help him, as desperately as he wanted her, it would be worth it. But he wouldn’t allow Grace to be hurt or shamed. And what of the child they might make together?
She straddled his hips and spread the fabric of her kirtle and surcoat out of the way. Her garters brushed his bare thighs and his breath caught in his throat. The warm, intimate heart of her body was so close. It would only take a tug to bare himself and push inside her. The temptation was torture, and he pushed himself up to lean back against the headboard and bunched the tail of his long shirt over his lap, hiding his display of manly desire for fear of bringing her innocence to a startling end.
The harsh beat of his heart thundered in his ears when she crawled up to touch her smooth lips to his. He smelled the apple mead upon her breath and, with a swipe of his tongue, tasted it. He bit back a groan of frustration and need.
It was fear and defiance he read in her eyes when she broke the kiss. “If you take my virginity, mayhap they winna want me, Gabriel.”
It was the possibility of their being parted driving her to recklessness. “Any man would have to be a dead stump not t’ want ye, Grace.”
“We both ken that isna true.”
“Lord Alexander’s guardianship made the men cautious. You have the grace and manners of a lady, and you can read and write. It pricks a man’s pride when his wife is more learned than he.”
“I am not more learned, just versed in a different kind of knowledge. It doesna bother you that I can do those things. Does it?”
“Nay, lass. I take value and pride in your abilities.” And he could read a bit and write his name as well as any noble, though he rarely had need of those skills.
She rested her cheek upon his shoulder, and brushed her lips over his neck, then skimmed his jaw.
He swallowed with difficulty. He could not set her aside and risk making her feel as though he had rejected her affection.
They must not consummate their betrothal…but he could give her pleasure and perhaps soothe her panic.
With that in mind, Gabriel pulled the ribbon between her breasts, loosening the top of her kirtle. The lily-white skin of her shoulders beckoned, and he tasted the slope of one with his lips and nipped it gently. Grace’s quickly drawn breath made him smile. She was so innocent, yet primed for more. In the past weeks he’d dreamt of a hundred ways he wanted to take her.
When he folded back her kirtle, her surcoat pushed her small, perfectly shaped breasts upward, the peaks showing just over the edge of her shift. It wasn’t weakness from his illness that set his hands, his body, to trembling, but the promise of feeling her warm skin beneath his touch.