In the end, wholly, completely, without reserve. The wave reared, then crashed, and swept them both away.
They clung, held tight to the moment, to sensation, to each other.
The wave receded and left them, for a moment adrift on a sea of their own making, then they sank back to earth, to the earthly comfort of her bed.
Wrapped in each other’s arms, they slept.
She woke in the deep watches of the night with no idea what had roused her.
She lay still, and listened…realized as she registered her breathing and his that she hadn’t, not even in that fleeting moment of first awareness, felt surprised to find Charles beside her, to feel his arm lying over her waist.
The moon was now high; silvery light streamed through the open curtains, the bright shaft striking the floor beside the bed, throwing enough light for her night-adjusted eyes to see clearly.
No ripple of the unexpected disturbed the stillness about them.
All seemed peaceful. Comforting. Right.
As it should be.
She shifted just enough to look at him. He was slumped facedown in the bed beside her, deeply asleep. Even so, one arm lay flung over her, long fingers relaxed against her side; she wouldn’t give much for her chances of sliding from the bed. Of leaving him.
That odd look she’d seen and even more sensed in his eyes returned to haunt her. Frowning, she tried to fathom what it meant. In that moment, she was perfectly sure neither he nor she could have pretended anything. He’d sworn he was no longer capable of pretense, not in that sphere; she now understood enough of his past to believe him.
Sinking into the soft mattress, she thought back over the night…smiled at the success of her strategy.
That strange look floated once again across her mind.
She shook it aside. She knew what they were doing this time; it was a physical engagement, an affair with no emotional strings on either side. That was the mistake she’d made last time, imagining something that hadn’t been, not understanding how he saw it. He hadn’t felt for her as she’d thought—not as she’d felt for him—and that’s how he’d always see her. They were close friends indisputably, lovers in the physical sense, but nothing more.
This time she accepted that that was how it would be; she’d gone into this with her eyes open. They would share and indulge in physical pleasure as they would, until they grew tired of it; she had no doubt that whatever transpired they would remain forever friends. He would go off and do whatever he would do, and she would continue as she had been, but with a wealth of memories to warm her, to reassure her that she was as female, as feminine, as desirable as any of her sex.
She knew, this time, what she wanted from him; this time that matched what she could expect to receive. This time, she hadn’t put her heart on the table and expected to receive his in return.
Her gaze drifted to his face, the section she could see. His dark hair lay in heavy locks over his forehead; his beard was starting to shadow his jaw.
Again, that odd, lingering, wanting look of his filled her mind…
He’d spoken of a jigsaw with pieces that didn’t fit; this seemed more like one thread too many for the tapestry she’d thought they’d been weaving. That look was evidence of an extra strand, something she hadn’t expected, something that didn’t fit with the picture of them she’d assembled in her mind.
But that look had been real, not imagined, not something concocted for her distraction. It had been raw, undisguised, unshielded.
Which was why it wouldn’t leave her mind.
Charles came awake in the instant the tumblers of the lock on Penny’s door clunked. He sat up, looked across the room, aware she was awake, too.
The latch lifted, the door swung noiselessly open—all the way open.
The moonlight streaming in was bright; the unlit corridor was pitch-black in contrast. All he could see was the vague outline of a man.
He swore and leapt from the bed.
The man ran.
Grabbing up his breeches, he yanked them on, stomped into his boots. Penny had sat up, covers clutched to her chest, staring at the open door. The sound of running footsteps receding along the corridor reached them.
“Stay there!” He was at the door on the words; he paused only long enough to grab the key from the inside lock, fit it to the outside, then he slammed the door, locked it, and pocketed the key. And raced after the shadowy figure he glimpsed at the head of the stairs.
The man pelted down the stairs, leaping, swinging from the banister. Charles reached the top, and flung himself after him. The man was making for the front door. The bolts would slow him.