“My use of the doorways.” Jaice repositioned their hands so hers nested within his, giving her opportunity to trace the lines of his palm. He tipped his head back, eyes closed, and made a visible effort to continue. “My skills are unhoned…I was noticed.”
She recognized, by now, the moments when he worked around those things he was forbidden to discuss.
More than forbidden. Controlled.
The reminder that any single individual had the strength and ability to control a man as strong as this one, as vital—
It turned her serious, her hand stilling against his. “But you’re here.”
“These evenings are ours.” He sifted his fingers down the length of her hair. “The thinnest days. She has her own concerns, and the doorways require little effort when you sing them through.”
She couldn’t help but smile, and gestured up the slope. “Just in case…for solstice, I’ve been bringing a picnic basket. Nothing fancy—summer sausage and cheese, some strawberries, a local wine.”
“A picnic basket.” He followed her gesture to the glimpse of a basket under her singing tree. “Provisions?”
“Provisions,” she agreed. “And a blanket to sit on.”
He directed his gaze down the wash where soft green grass grew in the shade of the tangled trees across the arroyo bottom. “Then let us eat. And then, if you will…”
She raised her brow in a silent invitation to continue.
“Let me touch you.”
Arlie closed her eyes, bit her lip. Allowed herself the frisson of anticipation. “As long as it goes both ways.”
They didn’t eat much. And they didn’t talk much. Although Arlie was still brimming with questions, she found herself disinclined to ask them.
Instead she watched the play of muscle in his forearms when the flowing sleeves fell back as he brought food to his mouth; she watched the clean line of his neck and the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. She watched, with a certain fascination, how he handled the food—offering her morsels palm up, with the cheese or sausage sitting midway down his closed fingers—a thing done with such reliability that she knew it meant something to him, if not what.
But he smiled when she reciprocated.
When she poured the wine, he gently pulled the second glass from her hand and put it aside, sharing the first with the same precise attention to detail—how he set it down exactly between them, how he brought it to his lips exactly opposite the imprint her lip balm had made on the rim.
It slowed time, that attention to detail. It stretched out the moments with a wonderfully torturous intent, making her aware of his every breath and his every movement, giving her far too much time to wonder if he would touch her with such care.
When Jaice eventually set the wine glass aside and held out his hand in invitation, Arlie knew without a doubt that he must be able to hear the pound of her heart, even to feel the thrum of her anticipation.
This man would touch her. And she would touch him back.
But when she accepted his offer, he guided her to sit against his chest, cradling her between his legs. She made a noise of protest. He laughed, and she knew that dry humor came at his own expense. “Let me grow used to this, first.”
Maybe it would be overwhelming to experience touching and being touched at the same time, after all.
He breathed in her hair and it sent shivers down her spine. He unbuttoned her blouse and she caught her breath, waiting for the brush of his hand against her breast and then shuddering with it.
While she still had her wits about her, she discovered that his loose trousers were snugged at the ankle with a simple tie, and she worked one loose to caress the strong bone of his ankle, the dusting of crisp hair up his shin. That he had to stop and draw breath told her enough about just how long it had been since he’d felt the pleasures of even the faintest touch.
And about just how much he felt now.
She had little time to think about it. He opened her blouse and followed every inch of her torso, from the dip of her belly button to the curve of her ribs, just enough pressure to make her shiver. He hesitated at her front-clasp bra—but only long enough to figure it out, after which he undid it with the same gentle precision he did everything else.
Arlie said, “Are you sure—”
He said, “Wait.”
Wait, indeed. Wait while his fingers learned her, teased her, cupped her and stroked her, clever hands pausing for permission at each new threshold. Wait while he figured out the zipper on her jeans, and squirm as eased them down over her hips. Wait for the feel of his skin against hers as she gasped, as his fingers played her, ever more intimate.
While at first she sought him, aware of his response to her purring groans, soon enough it was all she could do to brace herself on his thighs, fingers pressing tight as every part of her spiraled from early pleasure to hot intensity and beyond to ragged cries of completion.
Right there in the sweet, long evening light of a desert solstice.
And through the aftershocks, as she slowly recovered enough to hear his ragged breathing and feel the tension beneath her fingers, rock-hard muscle tight unto trembling. She’d have been perfectly happy to lay in his arms until the clear cerulean sky darkened through indigo to moonlit infinity—but she was even happier to turn in his arms, knowing she was mussed and blushed and heavy-lidded with satiation.
“Touching,” she said, kneeling between his legs, “Goes both ways.”
Arlie was surprised to see the true uncertainty flash over his features. They weren’t quite familiar, those features—not of any single culture on earth. Striking Asian cheek and jaw, almond eyes with lashes thick enough to look lined, a sensuously full lower lip with a quirky upper lip that perfectly matched his self-aware smile. His hair was drawn back low at the back of his head, unruly locks only marginally tamed.
She could lose herself in the details of him just as easily as in his touch. But that’s not what this moment was for—not when his expression made it so clear how long it had been since he’d felt his own pleasure.
She reached for the sash, tugging it free of its flat, precision knot to open his robe. The shirt beneath was a deeper green than the mottled colors of his robe, a material finer than anything she had ever seen.
He held his arms up for her and it slipped off over his head without any resistance at all.
She should have expected the scars. On second thought, the only surprise was how neatly they’d healed from obviously profound wounds—from the still shiny skin over his ribs to older hurts scribed in thin white lines across his chest, his abdomen, across the line of his hip to disappear beneath the waistband of pants he should really no longer be wearing. His chest bore only a smattering of hair over the flat planes of his pectorals, the hint of a central trail arrowing down.
She drew a finger down that line, finding the ties to his pants—and stopped when his hand landed over hers—already shaking with restraint, like the rest of him.
“Years,” he said. “It has been years.”
She didn’t want to know how many. She dropped her hand lower to find the hard evidence of both his restraint and his deprivation.
His eyes closed and his head dropped back, the muscles of his neck corded tight.
“Now, then?” Arlie suggested.
She took his strangled noise for agreement.
Introducing him to a condom was the work of moments—and the work of an instant to see that the tightly stretched latex wasn’t enough of a barrier to impede sensation.
Not that she had to ask. His expression said enough. And still he stopped her. “In my culture,” he said, his voice strained, “this is an acceptable thing for us.”
Arlie looked down at herself—shirt hanging off her shoulders, bra open at the front, pants and panties somewhere else altogether. “In this world—this place, this time—I choose.” She corrected herself. “I have chosen.”
“Then if you would—” He drew a ragged breath, closing his eyes with fierce need. “Touch me.”