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The waiting was abruptly over. Her nervousness, underneath her outward genteel repose, was palpable. Forcefully Michael tamped down the intense sexuality that had made him a fortune in two countries. Her solicitor had said the contract was not binding until he satisfactorily passed the test of this first meeting. She might yet bolt. If she did, he would pursue her. He did not want to take her by force. He wanted her to want him. He needed her to want him so badly that he shook with it.

Michael spoke calmly, lightly, as if it had not been five years since he had last sat across a table from a woman. As if it had not been five years since a woman unflinchingly met his gaze. Her name was Anne Aimes. Her age was thirty-six. She was a plain spinster with pale blue eyes and silver-kissed hair that was neither blond nor brown. There was nobody who would question her whereabouts. Nobody who would miss her. Nobody wanted her, save for himself. Thank you.

Immediately a liveried man wearing a tailored black dress coat and a crimson waistcoat appeared. He held aloft a tray bearing two glasses and a bottle of champagne in a silver ice bucket.

Michael wondered if she realized that the waiter was available for sex as well as table service. He wondered if she would be that stiff and polite between silk sheets. He wondered how far she would continue this charade before revulsion sent her screaming into the night. Brief, bitter amusement lit up his eyes. Grasping the slender neck of the bottle in his right hand, he cupped a crystal glass in his left, purposely holding both hands in full view, knowing what she would see: what he saw every day of his life.

If she could not bear the sight of his marked hands—of the puckered masses of red and white welts that ran from his fingertips to just above his wrists—she would not be able to accept their touch. Her gaze followed his movements, flowing back and forth between his fingertips to the glimpse of white cuffs underneath the sleeves of his black dress coat.

The memories of his defeated cries of agony blended with those of the woman he had brought to ecstasy. He was vaguely surprised at the steadiness of his hands as he poured the champagne. Chest tight, he offered her the glass of bubbling wine, waiting, waiting For a miracle to obliterate the never-ending terror.

For this woman to take him, as he would take her, endlessly, tirelessly. Sensation bolted down his spine. He almost dropped the glass at the silky contact of her gloved fingers. It had been five years since a woman had touched his hand. Whores stuffed his manhood inside them rather than risk his scarred flesh touching theirs.

She seemed impervious to the phenomenon that had just occurred. Tilting her head, she sipped champagne—the golden liquid sparkled underneath the shadow of her hood—before firmly setting the glass down on the white silk tablecloth. It had been so long since he had been Michel.

Some women liked blunt, sexual talk. Others preferred sensual euphemisms. He did not understand this spinster woman. She carefully translated his words, as if she had not spoken French outside of finishing school. Thrusting the bottle deep into the ice—as if it were his phallus and the bucket her sheath—he snared her gaze.


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