shirt was loose, of course, but with the candles shining through it, at last he could see her shape. As he'd suspected, she
was as slim as a wand. Her bottom demanded cupping, her shoulders a reverent sigh. She looked an athlete: a young Greek girl maybe, and very nearly a young Greek boy. She had breasts, though, small and unbound and perched so high on her ribs he doubted they'd hold his lightest paintbrush in their lee. She wore no corset.
Indeed, it would have been a crime against nature if she had. If ever a body defied the need for
crushing, it was hers.
"Beautiful," he breathed, and she blushed to the roots of her marvelous red-gold hair.
He had to chuckle at her expression.
"Ah, Mary," he said, "you'll believe me before we're through."
* * *
Merry wriggled in her unfamiliar bed, unable to push the image of the shirtless painter from her mind. She'd been flushed the whole time she posed—and not with embarrassment. Nic was an eyeful: his
tightly muscled chest, his long, sinewy arms, the sloping curve at the small of his back where his
trousers hung on his narrow hips. He made her mouth water and her hands itch to touch.
Dangerous or not, Nicolas Craven left her stunned.
Naturally, she knew the cure for her condition. Merry's parents had never succeeded in sheltering her, hadn't even tried too hard with three rowdy boys to worry about. She knew the functions of the human body as well as, or better than, many matrons. The infamous Dr. Acton would never convince her women did not feel desire, or that easing it would harm her. She'd heard too many strapping stable boys brag of their addiction to the "solitary vice" to believe it diminished one's vigor in any way.
But to touch herself tonight seemed ill-advised.
She would think of him if she did, would dream she held that long, bare back and gazed into those
smoky eyes. She could not afford the fantasy, not if she wished to emerge from this enterprise intact.
Merry wanted more than to be a notch on someone's bedpost.
With a groan of frustration, she rolled onto her back. Though the narrow mattress was piled with
covers, her nose and toes were chips of ice. A steady gray sleet spit against the single window and a
draft whistled heartlessly through its chinks. She'd tried to start the fire before retiring but her only
reward had been a sickly puff of smoke.
Never having been further from assistance than the nearest bellpull, these discomforts were outside her experience. Up till now, she hadn't realized how spoiled she was.
This, she told herself, was the stupidest prank she'd ever pulled.
Loneliness ached inside her like the fading clang of Sunday bells. She missed her motherly old maid and her brothers and her horses and the sweet smell of herbs that scented all her sheets. Lord, what her
father would say if he could see her now! Tears welled in her eyes but almost before she'd pressed her arm across them, she threw the self-pity off.
Merry Vance was not a quitter.
Just because her plan proved difficult didn't mean she ought to give it up.
"I won't give up," she muttered, forcing herself to leave her nest of blankets. She nearly crawled straight back. Her chemise and drawers were no match for the icy air. Goose-bumps sprang up along her skin, marching from ankle to neck and back again. Her breath was misting in the moonlight. Something suspiciously like a whimper left her throat.
Pretending she hadn't heard it, she stomped determinedly to the grate and knelt before it. This fire was going to catch whether it wanted to or not. Just as she'd seen the housemaids do, she twisted screws of paper between the coals. Match after match was sacrificed to her vow to see them light. When the coals began to smoke, she simply coughed and waved her arm.
She didn't realize how thick the air had gotten until the door banged open behind her.
"Jesus," said Nic, his candle