“I dare you…”  Tapping her cheek with her fan, Cynthia looked about the ballroom.  One would think there would be more opportunities in a crowd such as this, but alas, a dare of worth was sadly lacking amongst the members of society.

“I dare you…”

There was, of course, the obvious.  Elizabeth Montalie, currently surrounded by her swarm of fawning suitors, deserved such an action.  The girl had been the bane of Cynthia’s existence during their years at the finishing school they had both attended, inciting her band of sycophants to haze Cynthia daily.  However, they were adults now.  Such actions should be left in childhood where they belonged.  Even if she really did wish to enact revenge.

No.  She was an adult.

“Hurry up.”  Ah, Nate.  Always in such a rush.

“Don’t be impatient.  You can’t hasten perfection.”  Eyes locked on the ballroom before her, she bit her lip to conceal her mirth.

He actually snorted in response. 

Just to be annoying, Cynthia surveyed the crowded room, almost grinning at Nate’s irritated exhalation.  Those who had chosen to dance whirled by, enacting each step with precision and flair.  Even, darn it all, Elizabeth Montalie.  The clamour of a hundred conversations spoken all at once surrounded them, the din almost impossible to penetrate with a normal tone. 

Before them, the spectacle of The Ball of The Season played out, though its majesty was severely undermined by the crush of attendees.  Too many people in too small a place.  Still, one had to be seen, and seen in society such as this, if only to show with flash of colour and jewel who had the most impressive personage, the most magnificent consequence. 

Lady Featherdale looked to have outdone herself in that regard.  Weighed down by silks and satins, she had what was sure to be a fortune in diamonds and emeralds strung about her neck, while her fingers drowned in a ton of precious metal and stone.  Her hair coiled around an impossibly high tiara, and even her dress contained chips of jewel and thread of gold.  Lady Featherdale glittered and flashed and would no doubt jealously guard every jewel on her body. 

Cynthia smiled.

“You’ve found something.  Finally.” 

Turning her attention from Lady Featherdale, she gave Nate a look that could only be described as arch.  He, of course, cretin that he was, did not do her the courtesy of reacting.  Lounging against the wall, he somehow appeared indolent, even though she knew he was anything but.  Boundless energy, that was her Nate, for all that he liked to pretend otherwise. 

Possessed of a long, lanky frame that seemed to require little maintenance, he exuded both enticement and threat, a blend Cynthia had long since become accustomed to.  Lord knew, she’d seen females swarm around him like bees for years now, attracted by that strange combination of sweetness and danger.

And, of course, he was as handsome as the devil.

Though aqua eyes trained steadily upon her, he looked vaguely apprehensive.  “Your expression has become positively Machiavellian.”

“Now, now, Nathaniel, you know it is your turn. Take your lumps and like it, my good man.”  Cynthia couldn’t contain her grin this time.  Oh Lord, this would be fun.

Nate raised one dark brow. “Dear God.  It must be particularly bad.”

She could only smirk, positively overflowing with glee.

Brow still raised, Nate ran his gaze over her, noting her new gown, the complicated arrangement of hair that had taken over an hour to complete.  “Why are you dressed so well?”

“I…” Her mind went blank.  Why had she dressed so well?  There were none to impress but Nate, and she didn’t need to impress him.

“I’ve always said such a green is bad for your complexion.  Blondes should never wear insipid colours.”

Next time, she would wear the blue.  She should have worn it in the first place, but the dressmaker had been insistent this shade of green was all the rage.  In any event, blue was Nate’s favourite colour.

Crossing his arms over his chest, he scowled.  “By the bye, where is the rest of that dress?  Did Madame Giselle run out of fabric?”

“She didn’t run out of…”  Damnation, he’d managed to distract her.  “Don’t try to change the subject.  It won’t help, you know.”  Where was Lady…oh there she was.  Fanning herself, Lady Featherdale’s rings flashed with every move. 

A slow smile crept across Cynthia’s face.  It was moments such as these she lived for.  “Nate.  Nathanial.  My friend, my comrade…I dare you to go to Lady Featherdale and ask her to dance.”

“That’s it?”  Incredulity made his tone sharp.

This was better than chocolate.  And pudding.  And fantasies about watching Elizabeth Montalie squirm.  “Oh no. There’s more. While dancing with her, you have to take her necklace.”  A pause for dramatic effect.  Really, she should take the stage.  “And one of her rings.”

This time he couldn’t contain himself.  A slight stumble, quickly disguised, but still noticeable.  “And how, pray tell, am I supposed to do that?”

Was it wrong to take joy in the fact that was his problem, not hers?  “You also have to keep her from noticing for at least an hour…before putting it back, of course.”

He barred his teeth in a parody of a smile. “Of course.”

“Come now, Nate, buck up.  This should be of the utmost simplicity for you.  Did you not claim robbery and mayhem during your numerous youthful indiscretions?  Every time you were home from Eton, it was nothing but tales.  I distinctly remember the liberation of a master’s snuff box…from his pocket…while he was teaching.  How, pray tell, is this any different?”

“Because, my love, that was over twelve years ago.  I am out of practice.” 

Lady Featherdale chose that moment to laugh, the sound of her mirth reaching them even through the din of the crowd. 

Nate stared, patent disbelief painted on his features.  “And what am I to say to her? She will see through any excuse. Not everyone is as trusting as you.”

“Nonsense.”  Trusting?  She was not trusting…Well, she did tend to fall for any trick he chose to bestow, but that was only because he was so darn earnest.  Even as she knew he lied with alarming regularity, still she believed his false sincerity.  However, he was the only one who affected her so.  With others, she was downright suspicious. 

But to the matter at hand.  “You are reputed to be charming. Charm her.”

“Reputed?  Oh, such a blow.  You wound me, love.” 

A slight frown creased her brow.  There had been something in his comment, behind the light tone…Disappointment?  Resignation?  She couldn’t tell.

However, it disappeared between one moment and the next.  His gaze still on Lady Featherdale, he pulled his lip.  “Bloody hell, Cyn, how am I to do this?”  Turning to her, he raised a brow.  “And do you ever think this is a childish thing for two people approaching their thirtieth year to participate in?”

“No.”  Short.  Succinct.  It would drive him insane.

Indeed, he scowled.  “You’re an evil woman.”

Giving him a winning smile, she shrugged.  “Did I mention there was a time limit?”

Languidly sketching a bow, Nate caught her hand in his.  “Never let it be said I disappointed a lady.”  His mouth whispered over her knuckles, his thumb rubbing her palm. 

A shudder ran over her, prickling her skin, bringing her stomach to dance.  Eyes wide, she watched him bent over her hand and she found herself frozen, every sense trained upon him.  Upon his mouth and her skin.

Panic flooded her.  With strange frenzy, she tugged on her hand, desperate to escape his touch.

For a moment, he wouldn’t let go.  Her fingers caught by his, panic and desperation both running rampant, she tugged again but he only tightened his grip, raising his gaze to hers.  Aqua became her world, the din of society fading under the lure of his eyes. It was only they two, he and her in this world together, his hand on hers, heat and strange exaltation lancing through her…

She blinked.  The ballroom returned in a rush, noise and colour and distraction.  A flush burning her skin, she tugged her hand again.  A slight, almost rueful smile twisted his lips as he returned her hand to her. 

With the return of the world, so returned their dare. 

“Tick, tock, Nate.”  There.  Hardly a shudder at all.

With a final smile, a smile that was somehow sad, he bowed again and left her side, making his way to Lady Featherdale.

Cynthia watched as he lazily strode across the ballroom.  What on earth had just happened?  It was…she didn’t know what it was.  And if she didn’t know, well, she certainly wasn’t going to examine it. 

Returning her thoughts to that which made her comfortable, she contemplated Nate’s task.  This time, she was certain he would fail.  There was no way he could remove both necklace and ring from Lady Featherdale without alerting her to his actions.  He would have to forfeit…and how very sweet that would be. 

This was much better than the last dare she’d set him.  She blamed the sun for her lack of creativity.  The picnic should have offered a myriad of opportunities, and yet the only dare she could concoct was for Nate to use the word ‘cauliflower’ a minimum of six times when in conversation with Viscount Amerbley. 

Of course, it didn’t help that Nate’s attention had been clearly elsewhere.  Felicity Montrose had attended the picnic, and Nate had spent a disproportionate amount of time hovering by her side.  There had been some talk he planned on offering for Felicity, and the depth of his attention to her seemed to support such a notion.  Surely it was incorrect information, though.  He would tell her if he were planning to wed…wouldn’t he?

A strange sickness rolled her stomach.

Nate had reached Lady Featherdale and, with a smile that could not be termed anything other than charming, raised her hand to his lips.  For all that she said otherwise, Cynthia knew he possessed charm in spades.  If pressed, she would even concede that it was fully understandable why Nate led the pack of unattached men at the ball, desired by many a matchmaking mama for her newly debuted daughter.  If she were pressed.

Lady Featherdale’s fan fluttered wildly at the attention, a coy smile flirting over her lips as she preened before Nate.  He said something and she laughed, a flush pinkening her cheeks as she rapped him with her fan.

Cynthia frowned.  Could it be that Nate might succeed?  Darn it all, but it appeared she was losing her touch.  First the picnic fiasco and now this.  The score on their dares was fairly even and she was loath to think that she may be two down at the conclusion of the evening. 

Nate had suffered no difficulty with devising an appropriate dare, though, to be fair, the task Nate had set her had been next to impossible.  She was to ‘surprise Nate’.  Surprise him.  How on earth was she to do that? 

The whole thing was decidedly unfair, controlled as it was wholly by him.  How can you surprise someone who was aware that you were to surprise them?  Each possibility she had ventured he’d discovered, well before the completion of the plan.  She’d even resorted to jumping out of doorways in the hope that a fright would fulfil the terms.  The laughter she’d caused instead had been almost humiliating. 

The genesis of their compulsion to dare each other had began so long ago, she couldn’t remember when or why it had started.  Growing up on neighbouring estates, they had spent all their childhood in each other’s pockets.  Now that they were grown, they still spent a great deal of time together.  Neither of them had any family to speak of, so it was more than like inevitable they gravitated to one another.  Nate was like brother and friend all rolled into one.

A sour taste filled Cynthia’s mouth as Lady Featherdale hit Nate with her fan again.

Strange that neither of them had yet married.  Well, maybe not so strange for Nate but it was for her.  They’d turned twenty seven the previous year and still she was unwed.  Once she’d thought to marry, a charming scamp of a man.  He’d been handsome, with dark hair and green eyes possessed of a devilish twinkle in their depths, and he’d almost been as easy to be with as Nate.  Nate hadn’t seemed to like him, but then he didn’t seem to like any of her suitors. 

Nate, unfortunately, had been proven right when Stamford had been caught in a compromising situation…with someone other than her.  Looking back, it was somewhat strange she’d not been devastated.  She’d been angry, yes, but she had recovered surprisingly quickly.  Indeed, when Nate had offered to end her erstwhile suitor, an unaccustomed edge to his tone, she had only been tempted a moment before refusing.

After the disaster of her engagement, she’d not looked for another serious match.  Her parents had left her comfortably well off, so much so that she had no need to marry if she’d not the desire.  Besides which, she quite enjoyed playing with her inheritance. 

The comfortable trust her parents had bequeathed had turned to a staggeringly large sum under her guidance.  Having reached her majority at twenty-one, she’d taken little time before tentatively requesting Nate place a few trades on the London Exchange on her behalf.  After she’d reaped a nice profit, she’d done it again, and then again…and now she spent a portion of each day investing in stocks and options and all those other lovely derivatives. 

If she married, all that would end.  Control of her funds would be ceded to her husband and she was certain no man would allow her to play on the ’Change.  With Stamford, she’d taken a risk that he would allow her to continue her investing after their marriage, but, well, it was all moot now, wasn’t it?

She knew it was strange for a woman to enjoy such a thing.  Occasionally, even Nate would object, trying to curtail her financial dealings when he was sure she’d gone too far.  However, she was inevitably proven right, and he had no recourse but to bow to her superior knowledge.

Humour found expression in a grin.  Well, maybe he cursed her luck and swore one day she would rue her reckless investments, but the rant always ended with him shaking his head and handing her a thousand of his own pounds for investment.

The only advantage to marrying she could see was to experience what occurred behind the bedroom door.  Whether from husband or from lover, society would not frown upon her for indulging her curiosity.  However, it all seemed a bit of bother.  And if she was really curious, she could always experiment with Nate.

Shock at her own thought froze her.  Nate?  Nate? That was…it was…well, she just would not even entertain the notion.  Ridiculous.  Purely ridiculous.

And yet she couldn’t rid the memory of his lips against her skin.

Nate led Lady Featherdale onto the dance floor, an easy smile on his face as he brought her into his embrace.  The next set was to be a waltz and Nate looked to be taking advantage, his hand nestled in the small of the woman’s back.  Leaning down, he whispered in her ear and Lady Featherdale giggled and blushed, her expression inappropriately intimate for a turn on the dance floor.  Nate smiled and started the dance, his focus solely on Lady Featherdale.

Cynthia knew what it was to be the focus of that attention.  He trained those eyes upon you and you were convinced you were the only interesting person in the room, that there was no place he’d rather be than by your side.  It was seductive, that attention…and stirred emotions that should never be entertained in relation to Nate. 

Most often he’d employed the trick when he wanted to weasel his way out of some trouble he’d caused her.  He would fix her with those eyes and between one breath and the next she’d forget why she was angry with him in the first place. 

Of course, she retaliated in her own way.  For a man who was such a proficient liar, he fell to pieces whenever she threatened even a hint of tears.  He’d not yet figured that she could cry at will.  God willing, he never would.

 “Miss Boyd?”

Irritated that her perusal of Nate had been broken, she disguised her glare before glancing at the man beside her.  Viscount Amerbley smiled urbanely.  “May I have the pleasure of this dance?”

“I’m afraid I’m sitting this one out, my lord.”  Inevitably, her gaze was drawn back to the dance floor.  What on earth was Nate doing?  He was much too close to Lady Featherdale.

“Indeed.”  The viscount followed her gaze.  “Ah, Kenleigh.  Of course.  One of your dares, I suppose.  I’d wondered why this opportunity had presented itself.  What is it this time?  Cauliflowers again?”

“No, of course not.  We’d never repeat ourselves.”  Nate’s hand had risen on the woman’s back.  Was he pushing her into him?  This was not to be- She looked sharply at the viscount.  “What do you mean, the opportunity presented itself?”

“Tis not often you can be approached, Miss Boyd.  Kenleigh glowers at any who dare.  It is disheartening for most.”  He smiled, as if intimating he were made of sterner stuff.

“I beg your pardon?”  Nate, glowering?  Nate never glowered.  Nate was all that was polite and amiable.  At least, he was with others.  Anyway, he would never do such a thing.  Viscount Amerbley was obviously touched in the head.

“Hardly any will approach you when Kenleigh is near.  He has a way of looking at one…  Add that to the threat that he will cut off the balloc-”  A slight ruddiness appeared on Amerbley’s cheeks. “That is to say, he has told all of the consequences of toying with your affections, Miss Boyd.”

Cynthia tried to reconcile what the viscount said with what she knew of Nate.  Never would she have thought Nate would act so.  He was the least possessive, the least protective man she knew.  In fact, he hardly batted an eyelid when she suggested some of her wilder notions, her more dangerous ideas, and she knew for a fact that he was never possessive of his mistresses.  Oh yes, she knew all about those women, the ones who received his attention.  Received his touch.  His kiss…

She cleared her throat.  “Really, my lord, I think you must be mistaken.  Kenleigh would never be so gauche as to do such a thing.”

“Really?  Tell that to Stamford.”

“Stamford?  What does Stamford have to do with anything?”

Amerbley raised a brow, as if in disbelief and a small smile played over his mouth.  “You don’t know,” he said softly.

“Know what?”  Heavens above, she was at a complete loss. What on earth could Nate have done to Stamford?  And, by all that was holy, why?

“Kenleigh took umbrage to Stamford’s…how did he put it? Ah, that’s right, Stamford’s mistreatment of you.  By all accounts, Stamford is still hiding on the Continent.”

Nate.  Abuse Stamford.  So much that Stamford had not returned to England once these three years past. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she finally said. “Nate would have told me of such a thing.  If, indeed, it ever happened.”

“Of course he would.”

“He would have.”  What did Amerbley know anyway?  He had no notion what was between Nate and herself, and even less call to comment on it.  “He would have no reason to keep it from me.” 

“None,” Amerbley agreed.

Cynthia barely heard this last, her attention captured by the man in question.  Amerbley, realising he’d lost her attention, drifted away. 

Nate whispered again in Lady Featherdale’s ear, his hand flirting with the bare skin above the low back of her gown.  Bloody hell, was he using seduction?  He bloody was.  First, this revelation of his over-protectiveness and then, to top it off, he was cheating

Annoyance began a slow burn.   How decidedly unfair.  He knew she couldn’t do the same.  Damn society and its rules.  Nate would probably touch the woman, and kiss her, just like his mistresses, and…the sickness returned.

Nate chose that moment to look over.  Seeing her attention was upon him, he grinned and winked.

That grin, his wink, struck her.  Hard.

She’d always known he was handsome.  Always.  Women flocked to him, so always she had known that he must be.  But now, before her, dancing with Lady Featherdale…he was…he was…so much more than handsome.  He was…he was…Nate.

His grin faded.  Of a sudden, it again seemed they two were alone, that all who flooded the ballroom had disappeared.  A glint entered his eyes, one she’d never before seen, and the smile that replaced the other, this new smile he directed at her…that tilt of his mouth…never had it been directed at her.

In a rush, the ballroom returned.  Heart racing, she looked away, panic flooding her veins. 

Nate.  It was only Nate. Good, old, reliable Nate.

Regaining control once more, she looked back.  Nate still stared at her. 

Raising a brow, she mouthed a phrase.  Tick, tock.

A frown drew his brows together, and what she could only term frustration crossed his face.  Crossing her arms, she stared at him.  Nothing had occurred that was different to any other occasion.  Nothing.

His brow cleared, and he raised his own brow, as if mocking her.  Lifting her chin, she kept her expression neutral, determined he wouldn’t see her uncertainty, the panic she’d not managed to dispel. 

With a sardonic grin, he inclined his head.  She had the strangest notion he was not fooled at all.  Bending to Lady Featherdale, he whispered in her ear.

Wearing her own frown, Cynthia watched as they whispered, her fingers tapping against her forearm.  Discussion concluded, Lady Featherdale smiled at Nate, wholly inappropriately if one were to ask Cynthia, and she departed, trailing her fan over Nate’s shoulder as she did so.

Well.  How shocking.  The woman might as well have propositioned him outright.

Nate watched her go.  Once the woman could no longer be seen, he turned to Cynthia.  She almost recoiled at the challenge in his eyes.  With one final, sardonic smile, he followed Lady Featherdale from the ballroom.

Cynthia stood staring after them.  Her fingers still tapped against her arm.  What was he about?  What was he about?  He knew he couldn’t use seduction.  He knew it. 

A dull burn began in her chest.  Now he was with that woman.  Touching her.  Kissing her.  And all for a bloody dare.

In an explosion of action, Cynthia fairly strode from the room, all thoughts of ladylike decorum forgotten in the need to find Nate.  To tell him he couldn’t cheat.

There were two options – the garden or an antechamber.  The night was too cold for outdoor seduction, so she turned to the hall, hurrying along in the wake of Nate and his trollop. 

And now another dilemma.  Which room?  She couldn’t very well try all the doors, sure as it was that she would walk in on someone else’s rendezvous.  She had no desire to know which members of society were sporting with each other. 

Staring at the doors lining the hallway, her shoulders slumped.  Darn it all.  There was nothing for it. She would just have to pick a door and hope she wasn’t wrong.

Three tries and several embarrassed apologies later, she stumbled across the right room. Opening the door, she walked in as loud as you please, as she had the three before it. 

“Kenleigh?”  A hard little grin twisted her lips.  There. Let’s see if he could salvage such a bold intrusion.

“Ah. The dulcet tones of my beloved.  Cyn.  Come to rescue me, have you, love?”

Relief flooded her.  Finally.

The room shrouded in darkness, the gas lamps unlit, it was anyone’s guess who else occupied the room. “You are alone?”

“As alone as one can be.”  A rustle, the sound of boots hitting the floor, and she knew he stood.  Darn it all, she still couldn’t see him.  “And I’ve completed your dare.”

A snort escaped her.  Heavens, she was as bad as he.  “As if I’d take your word for it. You could be lying for all I – ”

Light flooded the room.  Blinking, she adjusted to the sudden illumination and, just like that, he was before her, aqua eyes on hers as he dangled Lady Featherdale’s necklace from his finger.  The finger that also wore a ring. 

“You got it.”  Strange disappointment curled through her.  No, not disappointment. Hurt.  Hurt? 

Forcing herself to look from the necklace, she crossed her arms.  As if she were unaffected.  Which she was.  “It doesn’t count. You cheated.”

A faint smile twisting his mouth, Nate raised his brows.  “And how did I do that, love?”

“You seduced her. You can’t use seduction. Unfair advantage.”

“Unfair is it?  And why would that be?”  Almost as if he mocked her, Nate toyed with the necklace, the jewels flashing coldly.  

He was so much taller than she.  Why had she never noticed before?  “It is unfair because I can not use seduction when I am completing my dares. Ergo, you cheated.”

“Why can’t you use seduction?”  Nate caught the necklace, the entirety of it contained in his fist.  His hands were so strong.  The fingers long, well-formed.  His thumb was rubbing the centre diamond, over and over and over…

Cynthia cleared her throat.  Heavens.  His hands.  Next, she would be staring at his mouth.  “Nate, don’t be silly. You know I can’t…my reputation…”

Suddenly, anger burned in his eyes.  Almost she took a step back, so strong was his reaction.  “So, that is all that is preventing you, is it?”

“Nate, what– ”

“You would use seduction.  On someone else.  You would flirt with him.  Tempt him.  Touch…You would– ” Abruptly, the anger faded.  “Ah, love, but I’m confusing you, aren’t I?” 

Panic had returned.  Heart pounding erratically, Cynthia laughed, in no way nervous.  “Well, you’ve won.  Excellent.  Well done, Nate.  Shall we return to the ballroom?  You know, before anyone misses us?”  Stop babbling.  It’s just Nate.  Good old Nate. The boy you grew up with. The man who is your friend. Your best friend.

“But now it’s my turn.” When had he gotten so close? 

Capturing a curl of her hair, he twirled it through his fingers.

“Your turn?”  Her voice barely audible, she watched, wide-eyed, as he loomed closer.

“To give you a dare.”  The back of his fingers trailed over her cheek.  “I dare you…”

Her chest felt too tight.  Struggling to take a breath, the scent of him wound about her.  The starch in his cravat.  The faint tang of his cologne.  The musk of warm skin.

Lips whispered over her cheekbone.  “I dare you…”

“What?”  Her voice cracked.

“I dare you…to put your hand here.”  Fingers slid into hers, raising her nerveless hand to place it on his shoulder.

The crisp fabric of his evening jacket was warm from his body.  She wet her lips.

“And here.”  Her other hand he brought to his heart, holding it in place with his own. Gently, he raised her gaze to his.

There, in his eyes, naked emotion beckoned.  No masks, no dissembling, no pretending that they were friends, and only that. 

He looked…he looked as if he loved her.

“I dare you… I dare you to kiss me.”


He said nothing, waiting. Uncertain.

Her gaze dropped to his lips. The lower fuller, softer.  The upper, intriguing with its dip, the one she wanted to trace with her tongue.  That she’d always wanted to trace with her tongue…that she’d always wanted to taste.  How could she not know that?  How could she have denied this?  Denied him?

Hesitantly, she stood on her toes, her hand curling about the back of his neck.  His hair was crisp against her fingers, his chest firm under her palm.  She could feel him breathing, feel his gaze upon her.  Unfamiliar excitement ran through her, more than with any other man she’d kissed, more than anything she’d felt before.

And then, Cynthia placed her mouth against Nate’s.

Even when her mouth was moving against his, when his tongue gently parted her lips, when his hands was gripping the back of her head and she was clinging to his biceps, she couldn’t believe this was Nate.

She was kissing Nate.

His lips trailed along her cheek, whispered over her eyes.  Pulling him back to her, she opened her mouth beneath his, his tongue sweeping in to claim hers.  Somehow, his dress coat was gone and her hands were pulling at his shirt until she encountered bare flesh.  Hands clenched in the small of her back, pulling her closer to him, so close she could tell exactly how this was affecting him. His lips left hers again to trail kisses once more across her cheekbone, to nuzzle the curve of her neck.

Nate.  Heavens, she was kissing Nate. 

“Nate.”  His name a whisper, she tried again. “Nate.” Good, a little stronger.


Oh, to all that was merciful, he was doing such magical things to the skin beneath her ear.  What was she going to say?  Oh yes. “Nate, what are we doing?”

“I should think that would be obvious.”  He swept his tongue over her throat. 

“Well, yes, but…”

Raising his head, Nate paused at the look on her face.  Cupping her cheek, he rubbed his thumb against the bone.  “What is it?”

“I don’t know, I just…don’t you find it all a little sudden?”

“No.”  Aqua eyes all but drowned her. “It’s not sudden at all.”

And then, it wasn’t.  A hundred things suddenly made sense. Her confused feelings over his apparent courtship of Felicity Montrose.  His treatment of her fiancée.  The lack of suitors over the years.

She hadn’t wanted anyone else. And neither had he.

Happiness burst inside her.  She felt giddy.  Light-headed.  In love.  “It took us long enough, didn’t it?”

A brilliant smile lit his face.  She couldn’t help but to smile in return, and he kissed her lightly, gently, his thumb rubbing against her cheek.

“I thought you would never notice me.”  Eyes trained on her mouth, he rubbed her cheek, his hand cupping her shoulder.  “I thought we’d forever be friends, that I’d have to watch as you married someone else, loved someone else.”

How could she have been so blind?  She was an utter fool.  “Uh…surprise?”

A laugh burst from him.  “Claiming it as a win, are you?”

What did he…oh.  His dare.  Well, she couldn’t let such an opportunity pass.  “You know what…”  Tangling her fingers in his hair, she pulled him close, her lips whispering over his.  “I think we both won.”

The shape of his smile she traced with her tongue before placing small kisses against his jaw, a string of them, and she breathed him in.  Nate. 

“I didn’t seduce her.”

Startled, she pulled back from him.  “What?”

“I didn’t seduce Lady Featherdale.”  He gave a rueful grin.  “I couldn’t do that, not with you…not when you had finally noticed me.  So I brought her here, told her of our dare, and she handed the necklace over.  Pedestrian, but there you go.”

“I knew you cheated!” she said, hitting his shoulder.

Laughing, he grabbed her hand.  “Of course.”  He leaned closer, his mouth a whisper above hers. “You know I am not to be trusted.”

And he kissed her.

Several pleasurable minutes later, he lifted his head and she sighed blissfully, burrowing into his chest.  Hand stroking her hair, he rested his chin on her head, his arm tightening about her.

A grin played over her mouth.  “I have a dare for you.”

“Do you?”  She could hear his smile in his voice.

“I do.  And it’s a good one.”

“A good one, eh?”  A finger under her chin tipped her gaze to his.  He looked…he looked so happy.  Lord.  She had made him look thus…and she’d no doubt that expression was replicated on her own features.  “And what is it, love?”

One hand resting over his heart, excitement bubbling uncontrollably within her, she raised a brow.  As if she wasn’t ridiculously happy.  “I dare you to marry me.”

“Is that all?  I thought you said it was going to be good.” Smothering her splutters with his mouth, she felt the shape of his smile beneath her lips.  “I have a better one for you.”

“I don’t want to hear it.” 

“I think you will.”

She sighed explosively, as if he were a trial she was forced to endue.  “Fine.”  He grinned, seeing right through her, and she fought to contain her own. “What is it?”

“I dare you not to make love with me.”

Incredulity stole her voice and she stared at him, speechless.

Raising a brow, he was losing the fight to contain his own grin. “I dare you to ensure our wedding night is our first time.”

“That is your dare?  That?”  She snorted.  “That’s easy.”

“But Cyn, my love…”  A devastatingly seductive smile spread across his face. “I shall do my best to ensure you lose.”

“What do you…ohhhh.”  She closed her eyes.  Swallowed.  “Never let it be said, um…oh god, Nate, what are you doing?…uh, never let it be said that I…Nate, that’s…oh…what was I saying?”

“That you can’t resist a dare?”

“Exactly,” she said, pulling his head back to hers. 

©2009 Cassandra Dean