Reid Barclay wasnâ€™t a gentleman.
After putting on a pot of coffee for the cad who employed her, Ellie slipped into the pantry. The pitiful remains of her pie sat cooling on the sill, looking more like charred wood than dessert.
She bit her lower lip to still its telltale quivering. She wasnâ€™t one to bawl at the least provocation, but, dammit all, it hurt something fierce knowing her pa wanted to her fail–wanted Reid Barclay to dismiss her. It broke her heart that her own father didnâ€™t want to grasp this opportunity to spend Christmas with her.
Did he fear sheâ€™d say something and expose him for who and what he was? Or was he more interested in rustling than in spending time with his only daughter?
She shouldnâ€™t be surprised if both worried him. Though heâ€™d visited her at the holidays when she was little, she hadnâ€™t seen him or heard from him in the past five years. Sheâ€™d feared he was dead, and with his death went any chance heâ€™d redeem himself.
On her last birthday sheâ€™d shared her secret with Irwin, for she believed the man she was to marry should know about the past sheâ€™d kept hidden. Sheâ€™d never dreamed her confession would show her Irwinâ€™s true colors in all their garish glory.
Oh, yes, she understood betrayal well.
She dropped onto the short bench with her warm pie cradled in her lap. Clearly this bench was more of a stool, and the only comfortable way to sit on it was to extend her legs out and let her stockings show.
Not that she cared one whit what image she presented in this little corner of her temporary world. With Irwin she was relieved to know what kind of man he really was before the vows were spoken. My, but sheâ€™d gotten an eyeful of a very vindictive sort.
Despite what heâ€™d done–and that man had done plenty to ruin her reputation in his effort to shore up his own–sheâ€™d found the gumption to rally on. Yet now she felt as if time was conspiring against her.
Mr. Barclay expected her to cook a fine feast for his wedding. Her pa wanted her long gone. And all she wanted was the chance to spend what could be her last holiday with her ornery pa.
Men! She broke off a piece of burned crust and stuck a finger into the warm filling, scooping up a bit to taste. She would not think of Reid Barclay beyond the role of her employer. In fact she didnâ€™t want to think at all right now.
She scooped a bit of filling in her mouth like a lad whoâ€™d just filched a pie off a windowsill. As soon as the pungent tastes exploded in her mouth she moaned her pleasure.
Past the telltale charring, it was a cross between mincemeat and raisin. Far better than sheâ€™d hoped to achieve. Why, if sheâ€™d been able to add a meringue to it–and if it hadnâ€™t scorched–this pie would rival one of Grandma Kincaidâ€™s molasses pies.
â€œYou all right?â€ Reid asked, startling a gasp from her.
How could this man sneak up on her unawares? Not that it mattered. Now that she knew he was an armâ€™s length away her entire body began that unwanted tingling again.
There was no dignified way she could get to her feet, so she remained seated. â€œOther than smoking out your kitchen and burning dessert, Iâ€™m just dandy.â€
She poked two fingers into the pie again and stuffed the sticky filling into her mouth. Hopefully her uncouth manners would prompt Reid Barclay to leave her in peace. Or in this case, leave her to wallow in her personal misery.
â€œYouâ€™re doing that all wrong,â€ he said. â€œLet me show how to make short work of that pie.â€
Reid plopped down beside her on the small bench, his boot heels scraping the floor as he extended his long jean-clad legs the same direction as hers. Sheâ€™d expected his black boots to have fancy stitching, but they were plain and the leather looked supple, thanks to the shine evident of frequent polishing.
Like an exuberant kid, he poked his long fingers into the sticky filling and scooped a large finger-full to his mouth.
Though she was typically quick to instruct others on proper etiquette, she couldnâ€™t seem to get her mind and mouth to work together. Reid Barclay was to blame, for each time he stole another bite his broad shoulder brushed hers and sent energy jolting through her.
Energy of the most titillating kind.
Heavenly days, the fact he was her boss and affianced didnâ€™t penetrate her mind. Neither did the fact that her pa had recently rustled his prize stallion and was holed up right under Reidâ€™s nose, or that Reid would sooner see the old man hang.
Right now as he sat beside her helping himself to another taste of her charred molasses pie, he looked for all the world like a cowpoke. A very tempting cowboy.
Oh, this was dangerous sitting here in the pantry with this man. She started to get up just as he reached over to scoop up more filling, pressing the warm pan on her lap.
â€œPerhaps you should hold the pie plate,â€ she said and made to pass it to him.
She accidentally bumped his elbow just hard enough to jar loose the wad poised on his fingers. The filling slipped off his fingers and dropped onto his jeans.
â€œNow look what you did,â€ he said.
He didnâ€™t have to tell her to look. She couldnâ€™t drag her gaze away from the sticky brown mass resting close to his crotch. And were her eyes deceiving her or was that part of him shifting and lengthening?
Nope, she wasnâ€™t imagining things. Her heart pounded and the place between her legs began pulsing.
She tore her gaze away from his obvious erection and stared at the pie safe, forcing to mind one of Headmistress Halseyâ€™s dictums. A lady never glances at a gentlemanâ€™s private parts.
Yet here she was staring at Reid Barclayâ€™s crotch as if he were a randy cowpoke fresh off the range and she was a cow town Cyprian leaning over a brothel balcony, ready to welcome him to her bed. Even knowing she had behaved brazenly, she was tempted to take another peek.
And what did that say about her? It certainly wasnâ€™t the image sheâ€™d honed all these years, nor was it the one expected of her at the Falsmonte Ladies Academy in California.
She had been certain she could handle such a delicate situation because she knew the pitfalls that awaited an unsuspecting miss. If learning by example were a prerequisite, her experience with Irwin certainly made her the perfect teacher for the young ladies of quality–a position she was to start in less than a month. What would Headmistress Halsey think if she saw her now?
That depended on how Ellie handled this situation. A lady with her experience should be able to extract herself from such a touchy predicament without undo embarrassment to herself or the gentleman. As for doing so gracefully–
She gave up all hopes of that. Without a doubt, her cheeks must be as red as the handles on the sad irons stored on the shelf beside the ironing board.
â€œI was doing fine as long as you were holding,â€ he said, the warm pie pan pressing into her thighs and rubbing shockingly low on her belly as he filched another piece. â€œThis is a mighty fine pie, Miss Cade.â€
With effort, she found her voice. â€œThe crust has the consistency of charcoal.â€
His warm breath fanned her ear and she shivered. â€œNo fault of yours.â€
She cleared her throat and swallowed hard, thinking he was so close she could almost taste the hint of molasses on his breath. â€œI am relieved you believe that.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t at first,â€ he said.
Ellie spared him a quick glance only to find his gaze was fixed on her mouth. She tried for a smile and damned the way her lips trembled.
â€œWhat changed your mind?â€ she asked.
â€œSeeing you sitting in here looking forlorn,â€ he said. â€œIf youâ€™d burned this pie on purpose, you wouldnâ€™t do that.â€
Which meant either Hubert or her pa were guilty. She hoped Reid would tell her his thoughts, and what he intended to do about it. But he scooped up the last of the filling which told her he was more interested in eating than talking.
She expelled the breath sheâ€™d been holding. Thank God, heâ€™d about consumed all of the pie and this torment of sitting close to him would soon be over.
â€œHave the last bite,â€ he said as he lifted his hand to her mouth.
He couldnâ€™t mean for her to eat the filling off his fingers, yet they remained poised before her. She licked her lips more from nerves than hunger.
â€œThank you, but go on and enjoy it yourself,â€ she said, proud sheâ€™d kept her voice from quavering.
But she was helpless to keep her heart from thundering like a stampeded herd. His eyes glowed with a sultry light that set her insides blazing hotter than the overheated stove.
The inviting curve of his lips as they quirked into a knowing smile had hers parting of their own accord. And mercy, but her thighs ached to do the same.
â€œI insist you enjoy the last of it.â€ Something dark and deliciously wicked flared in his eyes.
â€œIt isnâ€™t proper,â€ she said, and this time her voice did treble to betray her calm.
His dark eyebrows wiggled. â€œFew pleasurable things are.â€
How well she knew. She gave a half-hearted effort to pull away, denying the longing that danced a hoedown within her. It was a struggle to keep her quivering thighs pressed together, but she managed to retain that much dignity.
â€œGo on,â€ he said, and this time she was sure his intentions were far from honorable as he pressed the morsel to her mouth, brushing the syrup over her lips. â€œYou know you want to.â€
Oh, she wanted that and more. She knew it was wrong, but sitting this close to his powerful body and staring into his eyes that glowed with wicked promises pushed all thoughts of propriety from her mind.
She took a cautious bite and shivered as her tongue grazed his fingertips. The arousing scent emanating off Reid Barclay overpowered the sweet molasses custard melting on her tongue.
She couldnâ€™t have formed a coherent thought if her life depended on it.
He poked what remained into his own mouth and licked his fingers clean, his tongue curling around the exact same spot where her tongue had touched. His eyes closed in exaggerated ecstasy and his moan was a song that serenaded her longing.
This had to be the most wickedly wonderful thing sheâ€™d ever done with a man, for though sheâ€™d shared an intimacy with Irwin, it was over and done with so quickly she scarce knew what had happened.
With Reid Barclay she felt things she didnâ€™t know it was possible to feel. Being with him, touching him, brought her body fully alive, as if sheâ€™d been sleeping all this time, waiting for him to come along.
Reid clearly exuded an animal prowess that beguiled her on an purely primitive level. She knew if she made love with him, sheâ€™d remember every second for as long as she lived.
At that moment, she realized she was stuck on an uncharted island. For all her knowledge of the goings on between a man and woman, she knew pitifully little about seduction.
But there was no doubt in her mind that Reid Barclay was trying his best to seduce her.
She focused on their disjointed conversation thus far, desperate to gain control of the situation. What had they been talking about? The pie. Dear God, yes.
â€œIf youâ€™re really that partial to molasses pie, Iâ€™ll bake you another one,â€ she said. â€œThe next time the crust will be nicely browned and Iâ€™ll add a fluff topping to it.â€
â€œWill you feed it to me, Miss Cade?â€
She opened her mouth, but all that came out was a squeak. That had to be the most indecent thing heâ€™d said yet.
Before she could rally her wits to tell him just that, his lips settled over hers. She was no stranger to kisses. Irwin had started out with frantic demanding ones, then dwindled to perfunctory pecks.
Sheâ€™d never realized there was something else to savor. And she certainly savored this lazy stroking of tongues and glide of lips she was experiencing with Reid Barclay.
He tasted of rich sugar and brandy and delicious temptation, reminding her again of how very little she knew about men. Why, sheâ€™d thought heâ€™d be demanding, taking what he desired without thought to her wants.
But he seemed in no hurry to do more than kiss and hold her. It was as if he knew what sheâ€™d hungered for all her life.
The gentle glide of his hands up her arms and down her sides, as if she was something rare and precious he was honoring. This unhurried melding of lips left her ravenous for more.
Their heated breaths mingled and chased off the chill of uncertainty.
Her spine, which had gone stiff with shock when their lips first touched, instinctively arched to put her closer to the heat radiating off him. He drew her closer, and she hadnâ€™t realized heâ€™d lifted her onto his lap until she felt the corded muscles in his legs bunch beneath her.
Against her hip, his erection reminded her of other delights they could share, successfully annihilating further resemblance of this necking to what sheâ€™d shared with Irwin.
For once in her life, she blocked out all thoughts of decorum and propriety and let herself enjoy this moment. Just once.
His mouth left hers to wander down her neck. She tipped her head back, giving him ample access, then realized that path led to danger.
â€œPlease, we must stop this,â€ she said, and was torn between relief and disappointment when he heaved a sigh.
â€œYour moral fiber is stronger than mine, Miss Cade,â€ he said and rested his forehead against hers, his breath sawing hard and fast.
â€œThen Iâ€™m sorry for your fiancÃ©e.â€ She pulled away from him to break the contact that kept her mind muddled.
â€œSo am I.â€