Elaine checked her watch. Two-ten in the morning. She caught movement and glanced up to see Mitch rise from the metal kitchen table and refill his coffee mug. "How can you drink that stuff at this hour?" she asked with a weary smile. "You won't sleep a wink."
He had never put his tux coat back on, and he'd discarded his tie and cummerbund. The top two buttons of his crisp, knife-pleated shirt were undone, giving him a sexy, casual elegance, somehow perfect for the middle of the night. He carried his mug back to the table. "I'm immune to sleep," he murmured. His expression serious, he took his seat opposite her.
She lay her fork aside and rested her chin on her knuckles, grinning at him. Why was it the more tormented he appeared by his acts of kindness, the more cuddly and irresistible he became? "If you're immune to sleep the same way you're immune to noble behavior, then you should sleep very well tonight."
He flicked her a dark look but didn't respond.
She watched him sip his coffee, his focus riveted on his plate. She sensed he was no more fascinated with the refrigerator pickings than she, his mind elsewhere. Why couldn't he look at her? Was he actually ashamed of giving in to his kinder, gentler self, helping the old man, accompanying her to the hospital and remaining with her? She shook her head, amazed for the thousandth time how unhappy he seemed to have her openly admire him. Why? What was it about him-or her-that made him so uneasy to know his recent acts made her feel a real and unanticipated fondness for him?
"You're a strange man," she said, drawing his narrowed gaze.
He frowned as he set his mug aside. "Don't try to analyze me," he muttered, taking up his fork. "I'm not that complicated."
"Wrong," she said softly. "You're extremely complicated. You're angry about something, so angry you fight any soft emotions you feel. That alone makes you worth figuring out. Why do you fight your gentle side? Why do you put on this hard, unfeeling front when you're not unfeeling at all?" she asked. "You feel deeply. Somewhere along the line you've been hurt so badly you can't bear being hurt that way again. So you've put on this tough-guy face. And it's fake. All fake!"
He lifted a forkful of salad, but with her claim that underneath the hard-hearted beast was a squishy teddy bear, he lowered the food to his plate. "You're seeing what you want to see, not who I am." Hostile eyes sniped at her. "I've warned you before. This is the last time. Don't admire me," he ground out. "You'll regret it."
It was late and she was tired, her emotions battered and buffeted for too many hours to count. Mitch's snarling didn't scare her. She was beyond intimidation. Grateful to him for his assistance and kind indulgences, and relieved her father-in-law's condition was not grave, she surrendered her defenses, freely and thoroughly.
Tonight, for some bizarre reason, the ache in her heart she'd lived with for so long vanished. She felt calm, and even with all her troubles, at peace. Most remarkably, she found herself openly admiring the man sitting across the table from her. Even as he warned her against it.
A mere two weeks ago, she'd loathed him-this Vulture who'd taken away everything she'd worked for and loved. But not today. Today she liked him, admired him. She didn't understand him, but she knew he held within him vast, deep wells of goodness and kindness. She experienced an involuntary tremor of euphoria, all at once knowing and accepting the thing she'd been hiding, even from herself.
She was in love with Mitchell Rath.
Not the Mitchell Rath he showed the world. She loved the man he was behind the mask he wore. She knew he could be a special human being, if he let go of the fear he carried like a battering ram. She wanted to help him do that, show him kindness was not a sin to be shunned.
All of a sudden Elaine was filled with a new depth of feeling. Her heart sang as she pushed up from the table and moved with conviction and purpose to his side. Taking his face in her hands, she bent and kissed him, giving herself freely to the emotions she felt-at last, allowing the truth to climb to the forefront of her consciousness.
Yes, it was true. She loved Mitchell Rath. As crazy and amazing and extreme as that fact might be, it was a truth she could no longer deny. A truth she no longer needed to deny, for her heart told her he was deserving of all the love she had bottled up inside her. Mitchell Rath was not a vulture. He was a man, a human being-fallible, imperfect, vulnerable-like the rest of humanity. And like the rest of humanity, he held within him a capacity for good. Great acts of loving kindness. And to this man, this Mitchell Rath brought into the light, Elaine vowed to give her all.
Half in exhilaration and half in dread, Mitchell sensed the great significance in Elaine's kiss. In the delicacy of her touch and the tremble in her hands as she lifted his face to hers. He knew the great gift she was bestowing on him, a gift he'd never even hoped to possess. He'd spent his nights tossing and turning, trying to banish sweaty, sexy visions that wouldn't leave him alone, wouldn't give him the good grace to let him rest.
Now, here it was, his fantasy come to life, but exquisitely sweet. The earnest sensuality in her kiss was more thrilling and poignant than anything he had ever experienced in real life, or conjured in his most erotic dreams. The touch of her lips, her hands, the brush of her breast against his shoulder, all became almost unendurable in their tenderness.
Blood thundered in his brain, leapt to his extremities. Though he fought it with every raging, aroused fiber of his being, at the end, Mitch Rath's ability to reason, his hard-fought moral struggle not to use her physically, sputtered and flickered out.
Somewhere around the edges of his consciousness, he was aware that he lifted her in his arms and, like some plundering warrior of old, carried her up the stairs to his bedroom. All the while he told himself she was a bonus, an added trophy of his imminent professional conquest.
Once cloistered inside his room, Elaine surprised him by taking the lead. She slid off his shirt and liberated him from his trousers, unaware she was a mere prize to him-the spoils of war. She smiled and sweetly tantalized, beguiling as she removed her clothes. She didn't behave like a captive, her only usefulness to briefly ease the lust of her conquering foe.
When she unveiled her loveliness to him he was all pounding blood and sensitized flesh, more primitive and feral than human. She took his hand and he followed, less conqueror than infatuated fool. She led him into the shower, turned on the water. It was cold at first, the shock made him smile. She smiled back and he could do nothing more than drink in her lovely face. The torrent stole her curls and turned her fiery hair dark auburn, twisting and swirling the stuff down her shoulders and across the soft, white flesh of her breasts.
He gasped with surprise and delight when she took up the soap and began to stroke his chest, smoothing, caressing, vanquishing the warrior but enlivening the lover she intended him to be. In her eyes he could see such trust, such faith, it made him shiver with feeling, longing to be everything she thought he was. Wanting to be the man she saw, the man she was giving herself to.
He felt the eager affection radiating from her, saw the intense, silent expectation on her lovely face, pinkened in a blush. His body ached for her, ached for sexual fulfillment and release. Her willingness, their intimate closeness, was like a drug, lulling him into a state of reckless euphoria.
He pulled her to him, muttering things even he didn't understand, things about love and commitment and how he would never betray her trust, her faith. Lies, all beautiful, crazy lies, but lies he wanted to be the truth, at least for now, for the next few threads in the tapestry of eternity. He wanted to be the man he saw in her eyes. He wanted to hold her, caress her, make wild, passionate, stormy love to her, to let her know that there was no other woman on earth but her, to show her in every lusty way he knew, the solemnity and truth of that statement.
Entwined in each other's arms, he gently rocked her back and forth, experiencing an electrifying surge of excitement when she brushed a soft kiss against the thudding hollow of his throat.
Her trembling limbs clung to him, and she pressed her body into his. The sensations were so exquisite he closed his eyes, seeing stars. He couldn't breath. He had a burning desire, an aching need for another kiss. A kiss would ease his labored breathing. This reasoning came from somewhere in the ruins of his brain. That it made no sense didn't matter.
He swooped to capture her mouth, shivering at the sweetness of her lips. It was a kiss for a weary, frozen soul to melt into. He lingered there, in the moment, savoring her willing warmth, replenishing his life force.
Enlivened now, he showered kisses around her lips and along her jaw, grazing her earlobe. "I need to make love to you," he whispered gruffly, never telling a more agonized truth in his life.
She answered with a series of slow, tingly kisses that nearly drove him mad. "I love you, Mitch," she said, almost too softly to be heard.
Her vow, though softly spoken, came through loud and clear as she sealed it with a scorching kiss.
I love you, Mitch.
He heard the words echoing in his head and told himself that was all they were. Words. Hadn't he just whispered words with similar promises? Hadn't he been first to vow fidelity and forever? Weren't they the same lies impetuous lovers whispered all over the world, every hour of the day, to make the one-night stands palatable?
A pain squeezed his heart and the euphoric glow began to fade. Of course they were only words-to him. But to people like her, the words 'I love you,' were a covenant, a pledge-sacred.
A flash of savage, unreasoning grief tore through him. Thinking became jagged and painful as his brain began the excruciating process of digging out from the wreckage of his rampaging lust.
What was he doing? What had he sworn among the first minutes after meeting her, so charmingly smudged with soot at her front door? He would use Elaine to get inside Paul Stuben's rarefied society haunts. But he would not go this far! He would not take her physically. How big an ass was he now that he was on the brink of doing just that?
She had talked herself into the insane notion he was different than he was. But her self-delusion was no excuse for turning into a total, amoral bastard. Leave her with something, Rath, he raged, fighting his need to know her fully, to take the most precious part of her, reduce her womanly favors, her most deeply felt act of giving, to a notch on his bedpost. After tomorrow's vote she'll know you for the double-dealing beast you are! Leave her with her self-respect!
His belly soured with guilt, yet even so, he couldn't help placing a kiss on her shoulder. A silent, regretful goodbye.
Sliding his hands to her upper arms, he roughly pressed her away. Sick and out of kilter, his misery so acute he was wracked with pain, he shouldered the shower door wide. "Go," he growled, releasing her, fearing what one more second of her touch would do to him. He might go haywire and lose his feeble grip on his good intention.
"What?" She stood there, staring, confused. The sight was impossible to deal with. Turning away, he shut off the water, taking the moment to get himself under control. He could hardly blame her for her stupefaction. He'd given her no reason to doubt the genuineness of his vows. He couldn't look at her, stark guilt cut into his soul. A soul so recently rejoicing in its apparent rebirth. In that, at least, he'd lied to himself. There was no rebirth in lies.
"I-I don't understand," she whispered, touching his hand.
With a guttural snarl he jerked away. "Tomorrow you will." He removed himself from the shower. His limbs were heavy and sluggish, but he needed space, distance from the dangerous temptation of her loveliness.
Snatching a towel off the rack, he held it out. "Cover yourself and go." He tried on a sneer of contempt, needing to drive her to a state of bitterness and hatred as quickly as possible. She would never know the act he was putting on now was the closest he would ever come to doing her a real kindness. "I said, go," he repeated, his sneer a painful fraud. "Your naiveté was amusing for awhile, but it's late and I have an early meeting."
When she only stood there, staring, her eyes glinting with humiliation and loss, he tossed the bath towel at her. "Get out before I teach you what happens to foolish little heart-on-her-sleeve females who try to tame the big bad wolf."
From the book THE TYCOON'S TEMPTATION, by Renee Roszel
Published by Harlequin books S.A. Copyright © 2002 by Renee Roszel
Publication Date (USA), May 2002 (June 2002), ISBN # (USA) 0-373-03705-8 (UK ISBN # 0-263-83006-3)
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