Against the rules, p.7
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       Against the Rules, p.7

           Linda Howard
 
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  She could have died content in that moment, delirious with the pleasure of his kisses, but soon the contentment was gone and kisses weren’t enough. She twisted restlessly in his arms, seeking more. Again he knew; he sensed the exact moment when she was ready for increased intimacy. His hand went to the neckline of her gown and she went still with anticipation, hardly daring to breathe as she felt his lean fingers deftly slipping open its buttoned top. Her breasts began to throb, and she arched, seeking his touch. He satisfied her need immediately, his hand sliding in to cup and fondle the rich, sensitive mounds, his rough palm seeming to delight in the softness of her.

  The groan that followed was his, an inarticulate sound of hunger. His hands pulled at the nightgown with rough urgency and moved it from her shoulders, baring her breasts to the moonlight. His mouth left hers and slid down her body; then his tongue snaked out to capture a taut nipple and draw it into the searing moistness of his mouth. Cathryn gave a strangled cry at the wildfire that leaped along her nerves; then she arched herself into his powerful body, her hands clenching on his shoulders.

  He reached down to her ankles and slid his fingers beneath the hem of the gown, then made a reverse journey, a journey that took the hem upward. There was no protest. She was burning, aching, ready for him. She lifted her hips to aid him and he bunched the cloth about her waist, but that was as far as it got. With a hoarse, shaking sound he covered her, kneeing her thighs apart, and Cathryn went still, waiting.

  “Look at me,” he demanded hoarsely.

  Unable to do otherwise, she obeyed him, her eyes locked with his. His face was taut with primitive hunger, releasing the answering hunger in her body that she had tried—and failed—for so many years to conquer. The probing of his maleness found her moist and yielding, and he took her easily, sliding his hands beneath her bottom to lift her into his possessive thrust. Electric pleasure shuddered through her and she gave a faint, gasping cry. This was wilder, hotter than anything she had experienced before. Her eyes began to slide shut and he shook her insistently, whispering from between his clenched teeth, “Look at me!”

  Helplessly she did so, her body his as he began to move. Nothing she had known had prepared her for this, for the wildly surging pleasure that didn’t wait but almost immediately swept away her control, carrying her swiftly to the peak. He held her tightly to his chest until she was limp beneath him; then he gently lowered her to the pillow. “Greedy,” he said in a low, tender drawl. “I know just how you feel. It’s been too long, and I can’t hold back either.”

  Still stunned by the force of her ecstasy, she was totally overwhelmed by his passion and need. Nothing made any sense; nothing mattered but the strength of his driving body. She clung to him with the frail tenacity of a slender vine wrapped around a sturdy oak, cradling him within her silky embrace until he too surrendered to pleasure and cried out hoarsely.

  Long minutes later he stirred, lifting his heavy weight onto the support of his elbows. He kissed her mouth and eyes, feathering kisses along her lids until they lifted and darkness met darkness, hers soft and vulnerable, his sharp with undisguised triumph. “That took the edge off,” he growled, his voice rough and low and vibrant. “But that was a long way from the end of it.”

  He proved it, making love to her this time with patience and an absorbing tenderness that was even more devastating than his rampaging lust. There was no way she could resist him, no way she even wanted to try. This too had a sense of homecoming, a completion that she had lacked, a satisfaction that she had longed for and tried to deny. Tomorrow she would regret this, but for tonight she had the wild joy of being in his arms.

  CHAPTER 4

  When the sensual storm had passed he didn’t leave her, didn’t roll away to fall into isolated sleep; he kept her a willing captive beneath him, his long fingers threaded into her hair on each side of her head as he began a siege of kisses. He didn’t speak. His lips feathered kisses over her entire face, slowly, lightly, feeling the contours of her features with his mouth. His tongue teased at her skin, stealing tastes. She made no protest; she didn’t even try to resist the erotic appeal of his exploring mouth. She let herself be absorbed in his sexual magic, in the tremors that started anew, feeling them grow stronger as she tightened her hold on him. They were both prisoners, she of his confining, muscled weight, he of the strong, silky bonds of her arms and legs.

  When he freed a long, muscular arm and stretched it out to snap on the bedside lamp, she murmured an inarticulate protest at the intrusion of light. The silvery moon magic had wrapped them in a comforting aura of unreality, but the soft glow of the lamp created new shadows, illuminated things that had previously been hidden, and concealed expressions that had been brought out by the stark colorless light of the moon. One thing that couldn’t be concealed was the hard male triumph written on the dark face above her. Cathryn became aware of a blooming regret as she began to admit the folly of the night’s actions. There were a lot of things she didn’t understand, and Rule himself was the largest enigma, a complicated man turned in on himself, but she did know that the hot sensuality between them had only made their situation more complex.

  He trapped her face between his hands, his thumbs under her delicate chin as he gently forced her to look at him. “Well?” he growled, his raspy voice sinking into a rumble. He was so close that his warm breath touched her lips, and automatically she parted them in an effort to recapture his heady taste. A shudder of reaction rolled through her, eliciting an answering ripple in the strong body that pressed over her.

  She swallowed, trying to gather her thoughts into some sort of coherency, not certain what he was asking, or why. She wanted to give him a controlled, bland response, but there was no control to be found, only raw, unvarnished emotions and uncertainties. Her throat was tight with anxiety as she blurted, “Is this an effort to keep your job as ranch manager?”

  His shadowy eyes narrowed until only gleaming slits remained; he didn’t reply. His thumbs exerted just enough pressure to raise her chin and he settled more heavily against her, fitting his mouth to hers with sensual precision. Hot tingles twitched into life beneath her skin and she joined the kiss, meeting him with teeth and tongue and lips. Why not? she reasoned fuzzily. It was too late to even try to stifle her responses to him. Rule was an exciting lover on such a basic, primary level that responding to him was as compelling a need as breathing.

  At last he lifted his mouth enough to let an answer whisper between them. “This doesn’t concern the ranch,” he murmured, his lips so close to hers that they brushed hers lightly when he spoke. “This is between us, and nothing else even begins to matter.” Suddenly his voice thickened and he said harshly, “Damn you, Cat, when you married David Ashe I was so mad I could have torn him apart. But I knew it wasn’t over between us, so I let you go for then, and I waited. He died, and I waited. You’ve finally come home, and this time I won’t let you get away. This time you won’t run away to some other man.”

  Under the lashing fury in his voice she instantly retaliated, digging her fingers into the thick strands of his hair and holding him as he held her. “You make it sound as if there was a commitment between us!” she snapped. “There was nothing besides a stupid, hot-tempered teenager and a man who couldn’t control himself. Nothing else!”

  “And now?” he mocked. “What excuse do you have for now?”

  “Do I need an excuse?”

  “Maybe you do, for yourself. Maybe you’re still not able to admit that, like it or not, we’re a pair. Do you think that hiding your head in the sand will change anything?”

  Cathryn shook her head blindly. He was asking for more than she was ready to give. She couldn’t say that she loved Rule; she could only admit to herself that the strength of the physical attraction she felt for him was undeniable. To admit to more was to give herself up to his influence, and too many questions and uncertainties remained for her to allow that to happen.

  His eyes glinted down at her; then he smil
ed slowly, a dangerous smile that alarmed her. “Let’s see if you feel the same way in the morning,” he drawled, and began moving against her in a compelling caress.

  Hours later only the barest graying of the horizon signaled the approach of dawn, the room darker than ever because clouds had moved in to cover the moon. A light rain began to spatter against the window with a metallic rhythm. Cathryn stirred in the warm cocoon created by the sheet and Rule’s radiant body heat, aware that he had lifted his head and was listening to the rain. With a sigh he dropped his head back onto the pillow.

  “It’s morning,” he muttered, his dark voice flowing over her. The arm beneath her head tensed and he became a darker shadow against the blackness of the room, leaning over her, drawing her beneath him. His hips pressed against hers, his desire for her obviously aroused, and his powerful legs parted hers to allow the intimate contact.

  Her breath caught at this renewed evidence of his virility. “Again?” she whispered into the warm hollow of his throat. They had gotten very little sleep during the night and her body ached from the demands he had made on her, though he had been nothing but tender. Surprisingly, she was more relaxed and physically content than she had thought possible. During the long hours of the night it had been impossible to keep even a mental distance. They had been as one, moved together as one, explored and stroked and experimented with the other’s responses, until now she knew his body as well as she knew her own. She gasped helplessly as he took her, and his low chuckle fanned the hair at her temple.

  “Yes,” he rasped, the words so low she could barely hear them. “Again.”

  Afterward she fell into a heavy sleep, undisturbed by his departure from the bed. He bent over her to tuck the sheet about her bare shoulders; then he smoothed the tangle of dark red hair away from her face. She didn’t stir. He pulled on his jeans, then gathered the rest of his clothing and left to return to his own room to shower and dress for a day of wet, muddy work.

  Cathryn slept on, and though Lorna was curious as the hours wore away, she didn’t wake Cathryn. At almost noon Monica came down and disappeared without a word, taking the station wagon and leaving in a spray of water. Ricky sulked for a while, then brightened when one of the hands got into the pickup. Ricky dashed across the muddy yard and climbed into the cab of the truck with him. It didn’t matter to her where she went.

  The steady rain continued, a welcome rain, but one that was still a mess to work in. Rule returned for a late lunch, his weariness evident only in the tautness of the skin over his cheekbones. Lorna saw and understood the faint smile of satisfaction that curved his hard mouth when she casually mentioned that Cathryn was still asleep. He cast a speculative look at the ceiling, then rejected temptation and ate his lunch before returning to his chores.

  The rain had the effect of a sedative on Cathryn, soothing her into long, deep sleep. She woke feeling marvelously rested, stretching lazily and becoming aware of the soreness of her body. She lay drowsily for a moment, remembering when Rule had turned her over on her stomach during the night and straddled her legs, firmly massaging her thighs and buttocks, whispering to her teasingly that if she had let him do that from the beginning, she wouldn’t have gotten nearly so sore.

  Other remembrances drifted over her and a tiny smile of contentment touched her lips as she felt the caress of the sheets on her bare body. Her sensations were heightened, her skin more than usually sensitive. She was still smiling as she sat up cautiously; then her eyes fell on the bedside clock and the smile faded abruptly. Two-thirty? But her flight back to Chicago was at three!

  She scrambled out of bed, ignoring the protests of her muscles. Her feet tangled in the nightgown that Rule had finally tossed aside during the night and she kicked it impatiently out of the way. After jerking on her terry robe and tying it about her, she left her room and ran down the stairs, erupting into the kitchen so swiftly that Lorna dropped the spoon she was using. “Lorna! Where’s Rule?”

  Lorna took a deep breath and retrieved her spoon from the bowl of cake batter. “There’s no telling. He could be anywhere.”

  “But my flight is in half an hour!”

  “No way you can make it now,” said Lorna calmly. “The best thing you can do is to call the airline and see if you can get on a later flight.”

  That was so sensible, and her predicament was so unalterable, that Cathryn sighed and relaxed. “Why didn’t I think of that instead of running wild?” she asked ruefully, then went to the study to carry out Lorna’s suggestion.

  The study had once been her father’s domain, but Rule had long since taken it over, to the extent that his masculine scent seemed to linger in the room. The papers on the desk were in his handwriting; the letters were addressed to him. Cathryn sat down in the leather chair and had the uneasy sensation of sitting on his lap. She pushed the thought away and reached for the phone.

  It was as she had expected. The later flight that day was booked, but there was plenty of space on the red-eye flight. Knowing that she had no choice, she booked a reservation and resigned herself to a sleepless night. At least sleeping as late as she had would help, she thought; then she remembered why she had slept so late and her mouth tightened.

  She couldn’t place all the blame on Rule. She had responded to him so strongly that she could deny it neither to herself nor to him. She had never been a woman inclined to casual affairs, which was one reason why she had been so upset years ago when he had first made love to her, one reason why she had avoided him for so long. Knowing David, loving him and being his wife, being with him as he slipped into death had given her maturity and inner strength. She had thought that she would be able to keep Rule at a distance now, but last night had proven to her once and for all that she had no resistance to him. If she stayed she would be in his bed—or he in hers—whenever he had the urge. It was a clear-cut situation: If she wanted to maintain her moral standards, she would have to stay away from Rule Jackson. Returning to Chicago was her only option, regardless of her halfhearted promise to stay.

  Her stomach was growling hungrily, but she disregarded it in her haste to leave the ranch. She went upstairs to shower, then put on full battle makeup and subdued her dark red hair by pulling it back with a tortoiseshell clasp. She dressed in sensible dark brown linen slacks and a white cotton blouse, slipped her feet into comfortable cork-soled shoes, and swiftly packed her suitcase and tote bag. Taking them downstairs, she entered the kitchen and told Lorna, “I managed to get on the red-eye flight. Now I have to find Rule and talk him into flying me to Houston.”

  “If you can’t find him,” said Lorna placidly, “maybe Lewis can take you. He has a pilot’s license, too.”

  That was the most welcome news Cathryn had heard all day. She donned a too-large slicker and jammed the matching yellow cap over her head, taking them from the assortment that hung in the small utility room just off the kitchen. The rain wasn’t heavy, but it was steady, and the ground seemed like one big puddle as she picked her way down to the stables. The ranch hand she found there wasn’t full of good news. A group of cattle had broken through the fencing in the far western pasture, and both Rule and Lewis Stovall were there helping to round up the cattle and repair the fencing, which looked like a long job. Cathryn sighed; she wanted to leave now. Specifically, she wanted to leave before she had to face Rule again. He didn’t want her to go, and she doubted her ability to resist him if he got the opportunity to argue with her face to face. There was also the possibility that Rule would flatly refuse to take her to Houston. Lewis Stovall might help her, unless Rule ordered him not to, so she wanted to ask him when Rule wasn’t around. Now it seemed that she wouldn’t have the chance.

  She didn’t relish the thought of a long drive, but it seemed her only alternative now. She looked at the ranch hand. “I have to get to Houston,” she said firmly. “Can you drive me?”

  The man looked startled, and he pushed his hat back on his head while he thought. “I’d be glad to,” he finally said,
“but there’s no way right now. Mrs. Donahue is gone in the wagon, and Rule has the keys to his pickup in his pocket. He doesn’t leave them in the ignition.”

  Cathryn knew he was referring to the dark blue pickup that she had noticed before, and she hadn’t even considered using it. Her heart sank at the news that Monica had taken the station wagon. “What about the other truck?” she prodded. It was aging and not very comfortable, but it was transportation.

  The man shook his head. “Rule sent Foster into town to pick up more fencing. We’ll have to wait until he gets back and gets the fencing unloaded.”

  Cathryn nodded her understanding and left the man to his work, but she wanted to scream in frustration as she made her way back to the house. By the time Monica returned it would probably be too late to make the drive, and the same thing went for the pickup. Not only that, by then Rule would probably be back.

  Her last supposition was right on the money. Several hours later, as the last light was falling, helped by the clouds and light rain that lingered on, Rule came in the back door. Cathryn was sitting at the kitchen table with Lorna, feeling safer in company, and she watched as he removed his slicker and hung it up, then brushed the excess water from his dripping hat. His movements as he leaned down to remove his muddy boots were slow with fatigue. An odd pang hit her as she realized that he hadn’t had the benefit of sleeping late. For the past two nights he had managed to get very little sleep and the strain was telling on him.

  “Give me half an hour,” he muttered to Lorna as he passed her in his stockinged feet. He cast a searing look at Cathryn, all the more effective for the fatigue that lined his face. “Come with me,” he ordered shortly.

  Bracing herself, Cathryn got to her feet and followed him. As they passed her luggage where it sat in the hallway, Rule leaned down and scooped it up, taking it with him on his way up the stairs. Behind him Cathryn said softly, “You’re wasting your time. The bags go right back down.”

 
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