Copyright © 2012 Jess Michaels
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“Mariah, I want to admit to you that I have desired you greatly,” he said as he set his cup down.
Mariah had just taken a sip of her own tea and began to choke on the contents with surprise at his admission. Once she had regained her breath, she stared at him.
“I beg your pardon?”
He nodded. “From the first moment I saw you, I wanted you. It was the night of the Nethercourt gathering three years ago. You wore a green gown and your eyes seemed to be alive with color. You entered the room and I had to have you… I would have had you, except that Owen told me you were his new mistress.”
Mariah blinked in increasing disbelief at the detail John could recount of the night of their first meeting. “I—I had no idea of your feelings.”
“Of course not.” John frowned. “I made certain you did not, nor did Owen. I would not have betrayed him in such a manner. But my desire for you never decreased. Although I suppose that fact is rather clear since I have taken you not once, but twice in recent days. And without much finesse either time, for which I apologize.”
Mariah set her cup away and leaned back in the chair to stare at him. “You act as though I received no pleasure from those encounters. I assure you, I did. A great deal, both times.”
He smiled, almost in relief. “Good. I would hate to think I have left a poor impression.”
Even though she wanted to smile at his teasing, she hesitated. They could flirt with each other about the pleasure of their coupling all day, but there was a deeper topic to be addressed and she shifted back to it.
“I admit, while there was always an attraction between us, I had no idea you truly desired me. Until you…claimed me at Vivien’s party last week.”
“And do you desire me, as well?” he pressed.
She cocked her head. “You must be in jest asking that question. Clearly, I want you. In fact, there is no other—”
She stopped. Was it wise to tell this man that thus far he was the only one she desired? That she could picture herself in no other man’s bed?
His eyes widened at her truncated statement, but he did not press her further.
“Good,” he said slowly. “At least this madness affects us both.”
She nodded. He had said madness twice and that was as good a way to put these feelings as any. It certainly seemed like madness when he touched her and she lost control like some untried virgin who had only just discovered pleasure and wanted to explore it in every way possible. When it was only the fact that Owen was gone, a fact that hurt them both so desperately, that gave them the power to pursue their desire.
“But again, I ask you what to do about it?” she pressed as she got to her feet and paced the room restlessly. “We want each other, we have each admitted as much, but that does not solve my problem, nor does it make you want to take the role of protector for me.”
He nodded. “I understand. But since you do not yet have a protector…and since my desire for you continues despite my vow never to have the same woman two times in a row…perhaps what we should share is an affair.”
Mariah blinked. “An…affair?” she repeated slowly.
“Yes. Something that is just for us, just for you.”
He pushed to his feet and moved a step toward her. There was something almost desperate in his eyes as he stared at her. Like he needed this, just as she needed it.
“Mariah, you will soon enter into a new relationship and I’m sure you will be well taken care of, but would you not like to also have a few weeks where you just experience pleasure? I would give that to you. If you would allow me to do so.”
Mariah shivered. John had proven himself a powerful lover already. She knew there was more waiting for her if she accepted his offer. And perhaps, in some small way, being with him would help her open the doors so that she would be ready for a new lover, a new protector.
“I admit, it is tempting,” she said, glancing at him from the corner of her eye. “You are tempting, though I’m certain you know that better than anyone.”
His quick flash of a grin did not dissipate her feelings on the subject, but she pressed on.
“But, John, you must understand, my current situation is quite dire. Yes, there is a small bit of money, but in six months I shall lose my home—” She stopped with a blush. “I shall lose the home Owen provided for me during our arrangement. I would very much like to be in a new situation before that happens. Before I must beg off the kindness of my friends. Before I become truly desperate. I cannot simply call off my search for a protector…even if we are sharing passion and pleasure.”
For a moment, John hesitated.
“I admit, I don’t like the idea that you would continue to seek out a lover even while coming to my bed,” he began slowly. “But I am aware of the untenable position Owen left you in. I realize what you are facing.”
Mariah bit her lip. “Yes, there is that fact. That you knew what Owen intended and did not share it with me.”
He frowned and for the first time since their first meeting, he actually looked chagrined. “I suppose I hoped he would change his mind.”
“Wh-why didn’t Owen make arrangements for my comfort?” she whispered. In her heart she knew why. He had not loved her, all his promises had been empty, a way to make her surrender fully, to cease her worries so that she would only focus on him. But she wanted to hear it said out loud.
“Heathcote was selfish. He had never experienced any kind of fear or loss financially, so he could not empathize with the idea of such a thing.” John shrugged. “I’m certain he would have settled you well if he had left you instead of died. But he could not picture a time when he would be gone…and if he had…he was too conceited to plan for anyone else’s comfort. Hell, he probably thought the world would end with him.”
Mariah shook her head. The words themselves were a harsh assessment of a man she had loved. But they were accurate. Owen’s sense of his own importance, his sense of his worth to others, had never been a secret. That confidence had once been an attraction. She had expected him to change his stripes, perhaps that had been to her detriment.
“I must be more careful with my next lover,” she said, raising her gaze to meet his. “And choose a protector wisely, as well.”
He nodded after a brief hesitation. “I would not ask you to endanger yourself for my pleasure. It would be unfair.”
Mariah drew back. She hadn’t expected him to understand, yet he did. “Thank you.”
He looked at her evenly. “Does that mean we have come to terms?”
Mariah jolted. “Is that what we have been doing? Negotiating?” He nodded and she couldn’t help but laugh. “I should have had a representative here, I think.”
“Trust me, I have your best interest at heart.” He smiled. “Or at least your best interest is paramount to some part of my body.”
She smiled. Here she was, in an untenable position, and yet John somehow made light of it. Made her laugh when she hadn’t even felt like smiling for weeks. That, at least, was worth pursuing.
“Then I suppose we have come to terms,” she said and stepped forward to take his hand. “I must say, I most look forward to fulfilling them.”
He grinned as he looked down at her. “As do I.”