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15

Eve knew without turning around that Reno had followed her to the pool where water danced and whispered. She had sensed him behind her every step of the way from camp.

Her hands hesitated as she began to peel off the shirt. Beneath it she wore only underclothes whose sheer cotton provided scant protection from Renos eyes.

Its a little late for maidenly modesty, Eve told herself mockingly. Very much like locking the barn door after the horse is long gone.

With quick, edgy motions, Eve stripped off the big shirt and threw it aside.

Renos breath came in with a sharp sound as he saw the bright scarlet stain on Eves pantalets that had been hidden by the long tails of her borrowed shirt.

Eve, he said in a raw voice. I didnt mean to hurt you.

She said nothing. Nor did she look over her shoulder at Reno.

Soundlessly he came up behind Eve and put his hands on her shoulders.

Do you think me such an animal that I get my pleasure hurting women? he asked harshly.

Eve wanted to lie, but saw nothing except more hurt in it for her. Reno was relentless when it came to the subject of truth and saloon girls.

No, she said flatly.

The rush of his expelled breath stirred the hair at the nape of Eves neck. Gooseflesh rippled down her arms.

The treacherous response of her own body infuriated her.

Thank God for that much, Reno muttered.

God had little to do with it, gunfighter. More like the devil.

You begged for me.

How kind of you to remind me, Eve said. It wont happen again.

Her whole body was rigid beneath Renos hands. He cursed his quick tongue and the savage anger that came when Eve reminded him of how little she had enjoyed being his lover.

Yet for him, it had been a pleasure both sweet and violently intense, right up to the instant when he realized he had taken a virgin. Then there had been a fury as deep as his passion.

Itwillhappen again, he said, but it wont be a mistake. Youll like it this time. Ill be certain of it.

A no-account gunfighter once told me Id like it so much, Id scream with pleasure. Eves shrug was a parody of her usual grace. He was half-right. I screamed.

Reno said something brutal under his breath before he managed to rein in his anger. Keeping his temper had never been so difficult. Eve had a way of getting underneath his control that would have frightened him if she had been coldly manipulative. But she wasnt. She was the most passionate woman he had ever had the joy of touching.

Unfortunately, at the moment, she fairly radiated outrage andfrustration.

Reno took in a long breath and let it out in a soundless sigh as understanding came to him. He hadnt meant to tease her and leave her raw and knotted with hunger, yet he had done just that. He could hardly blame her if she wanted a few strips of his hide to nail to the nearest tree.

Calmly Reno turned Eve around so that she faced him. He slid his hands beneath the camisole, preparing to lift it over her head.

What do you think youre doing? she demanded.

Undressing you.

Eve said something that normally would never have crossed her mind, much less her lips.

Reno barely hid his smile beneath his mustache. His hands paused underneath the camisole on either side of her breasts. He could see the change in her nipples as they tightened in passionate reflex to his presence.

Weve both agreed that youre the kind of girl who keeps her word, he said. And weve both agreed that you gave me your word I could touch you.

Barely veiled mutiny glittered in Eves eyes. Never had she looked more like a cat than she did now, watching him without blinking, her lips thinned as though ready to draw back in a spitting snarl.

Youre going to keep your word, arent you? Reno asked.

Eve didnt answer.

I thought so, he said.

Slowly he slid his hands from beneath the partially laced camisole.

But the undressing can wait, he continued. Hand over the soap and washrag.

She had forgotten the piece of lilac-scented soap and cloth she had brought to the pool. With difficulty, she forced herself to unclench her hands.

Reno took the ragged square of flour sack and the pale lump of soap from her.

The deep marks left by Eves nails on the soap and on her other palm gave silent proof of the effort she had made not to lose what little control she had over herself.

The evidence of her own uncertain temper appalled Eve. She had never thought of herself as a particularly passionate or violent person. The orphanage had taught her never to lose control of herself, for if she did, she would be at the mercy of others.

Just as she had been at Renos mercy, reaching for love and getting nothing in return but pain.

Pity I had to learn the lesson all over again.

Reno looked at the crescents Eves nails had cut in the soap and in her own skin. Then he looked at her eyes. There was nothing of laughter or passion or curiosity in them now. Her eyes were as bleak as a winter sunset.

Eve, he whispered.

She simply watched him out of yellow cats eyes.

Im sorry I hurt you, he said. But Im not sorry about having you. You were silk and fire.

Renos voice died. Eves innocent passion had been a revelation that his mind still had trouble accepting.

His body had no such problem. Though he had just had her, he wanted her again. She wanted him, too. He was certain of it. Her body was crying out its hunger and frustration.

But Eve was too innocent to understand the source of her anger. Reno knew better than to try to convince her with words. She was in no mood to listen to him on any subject, least of all the subject of her own needs as a woman.

Besides, there were better ways than words to teach an innocent like Eve, more pleasurable ways. For both of them. All he had to do was convince her to trust him with her passion again.

A difficult task, but not an impossible one. Her body was already on his side.

Since youre feeling shy, I wont undress you, he said calmly.

Surprise widened Eves eyes. She hadnt expected Reno to allow her any slack at all.

His smile told her that he knew very well the source of her surprise. He tucked the washrag into the waist of his pants and shoved the soap into a pocket.

Into the pool, Reno said.

What?

Come on. Youll feel better after a bath.

Eve said nothing. She just waded until the waterfalls cool silver braids twisted down less than a foot away from her. Water lapped to midthigh and swirled around her legs in patterns of rainbow bubbles.

To Eves surprise, Reno walked into the pool right behind her. He didnt undress, as she had feared he would. He looked just as he had when he had rolled off her half-buttoned shirt, bare feet, and dark pants.

At least his pants were fastened now.

Heat climbed Eves cheeks as she remembered how Reno had looked before, his pants undone, the evidence of her virginal stupidity gleaming scarlet in the daylight for everyone to see.

Your hair is as clean as sunshine, Reno said, but Ill wash it if you like.

Eve shook her head tightly.

Then Ill tuck it up out of the way.

No, she said instantly, not wanting to be touched. Ill do it.

Hurriedly Eve caught up her long hair and twisted it into a knot on top of her head. A few tendrils slithered back down. She ignored them. The look on Renos face as she lifted her arms and dealt with her hair told her that he liked watching her breasts shift and sway with each movement of her body.

And if the look on his face werent enough, there was the frank bulge in his pants to give away his thoughts. Hastily she glanced away.

Ready? Reno asked.

For what?

He bent and scooped up water in his cupped hands.

To get wet, he said simply. You can hardly take a bath when youre dry, can you?

Renos reasonable tone of voice was at odds with the smoldering sensuality of his eyes.

I dont need any help getting wet, Eve muttered.

He laughed softly and let water from his hands trickle down the front of her camisole.

Some things are better when theyre shared, Reno said in a husky voice.

Baths? she asked sarcastically.

I dont know. Ive never shared one.

Eve looked surprised.

Its true, he said.

I believe you.

Do you?

Yes.

She shivered as water that was neither warm nor cold trickled down between her breasts.

Why? he asked, curious.

You wouldnt bother to lie to a slut.

Reno closed his eyes and grappled with the rage that stabbed him like black lightning, threatening to rip away his control.

I suggest, he said distinctly, that you never use that word again in my hearing.

Why not? Youre so damned fond of the truth.

He opened his eyes. Baiting me wont make you feel better. I can guarantee it.

Eve made an involuntary sound and looked away. The grim shadows and raw fury she saw in his glance reminded her too much of her own seething turmoil. In any case, Reno was right. Baiting him hadnt made Eve feel better. It had made her feel worse, on the breaking edge of her own control. She felt like biting and clawing and screaming. The depth of her own wildness was frightening.

And thats all youre doing, Reno added. Baiting me. We both know youre not a slut.

Eve said nothing.

The temptation to push Eve until she agreed with him nearly overwhelmed Reno, but he managed to keep his silence. Barely. He scooped up more water, letting it fall in sparkling liquid necklaces over Eve until her camisole and pantalets were drenched.

Eve closed her eyes and pretended that she was washing herself beneath one of the barrel showers Don Lyon had rigged before his hands became too crippled for such things.

The cool glide of the water down her body made her shiver, but not with cold. The day was too hot for that, and the suns heat was both absorbed and reflected by the high rock walls.

Eve flinched at the first touch of Renos hands on her shoulders. He whispered her name unhappily. Through a screen of thick bronze eyelashes, she saw the painful line of Renos mouth.

I wont hurt you, he said with aching control. I would never have hurt you the first time, if I had known.

Eves breath came out in a long, ragged sigh. She nodded, believing him, for it was the simple truth. She had sensed that about Reno the instant he sat down at her table in Canyon City; despite his size, despite his strength, despite his lethal speed, he wasnt the kind of man who enjoyed cruelty.

I know, she said in a low voice. Its why I dealt cards to you. You werent what Slater and Raleigh King were.

Reno let out breath that he wasnt aware of having held. He brushed his lips over Eves forehead in a soft caress that ended before she could be sure she had felt it at all.

Let me bathe you, he said.

She hesitated, then reached up to remove her camisole. Hands sleek with lather closed over her wrists, holding her gently.

Let me, Reno said.

She hesitated again.

I wont take you, he said. Not unless you ask me to. I just want to make youhurt less.

Unable to bear the intensity of Renos eyes, Eve closed her own and nodded. For several moments she waited in an agony of suspense, but when Reno touched her, it was only to wash her face as gently as he had his nephews.

Yet Eve didnt feel like a baby. Renos touch made an almost painful pleasure course through her. She hadnt known how sensitive her face was. The ritual of soaping and washing and rinsing made frissons of pleasure ripple over her.

Was that so bad? Reno asked.

Eve shook her head. A long tendril of hair floated free. Reno tucked it behind one ear.

How about this? he asked.

He bent and began tracing every clean curve of Eves ear with his tongue and then his teeth, biting with exquisite care, enjoying the ragged intake and breaking of her breath. When the tip of his tongue probed and tested, spiraling down, retreating, returning, caressing, she made an odd sound in her throat and clung to his arms for balance.

Reno lifted his head and looked down into Eves wide, surprised eyes.

Is something wrong? he whispered.

I She swallowed. I never know what to expect from you.

Your boyfriends must have been, er, unimaginative.

I never had one, imaginative or otherwise.

No boyfriend? Reno asked. Not even for a few stolen kisses out by the barn?

Eve shook her head. I never wanted a male near me. Until you.

My God.

The realization of just how innocent Eve had been went through Reno in a shock wave of pleasure and surprise. So innocent, yet she had been a passionate spring welling up at his touch, his word, his lightest caress.

So innocentso passionate. The possibilities for mutual pleasure were enough to make him light-headed. He hardly knew where to begin.

Renos glittering green glance swept over Eve. Her underwear was nearly transparent, clinging to every curve and valley of her body. The taut crowns of her breasts stood out clearly, as did the luxuriant triangle of bronze hair that both shielded and outlined her essential femininity.

My God, he said again, reverently. No man has ever touched you at all, has he?

Not quite, she whispered.

Who? he demanded.

Youve touched me, she said simply. Only you.

In a hush that seethed with the small songs of water, Reno washed Eve to the waist. He tried not to linger over her breasts, but it was impossible. The velvet hardness of her nipples lured him irresistibly. He returned to them again and again, until they stood out urgently against the camisole, drawn taut by more than the cool water.

Saying nothing, Reno pulled Eve under the gentle waterfall, rinsing her. When he was finished, he slowly pulled off her camisole and tucked it into the waistband of his pants. Then he bent and tasted the freshness of her skin until she made small noises and clung to him.

I shouldnt let you do this, Eve said huskily.

Am I hurting you?

No. Notyet.

Not ever, Reno said, nuzzling her breast. Not ever again.

Eve couldnt answer. The sight of Renos mouth so close to the rosy peak of her breast took away the ability to speak. The tip of his tongue circled her, stabbing softly. He sheathed his teeth with his lips and bit down.

The ragged sound Eve made owed nothing to pain and everything to a sudden, bright pleasure. Before she could become used to it, the caress changed. Heat surged through her, making it hard to hang on to her anger, for her body sensed a different outlet for the emotions churning beneath her control.

Eve didnt know whether to be relieved or unhappy when Reno finally, slowly, lifted his head and resumed washing her.

I should have taken the time to tell you how beautiful you are, Reno said. You have the kind of skin poets write sonnets to. But Im not a poet. I never wanted to be, until now.

Reno bent and brushed his lips over first one breast, then the other. I dont know the words to describe you.

Long fingers smoothed soap over Eves pantalets, waist and hips and thighs. When his palm rubbed against the lush delta, she made a frightened sound.

Easy, he murmured. That doesnt hurt you, does it?

Her lips were trembling. She shook her head.

Move your legs a bit, Reno said, pressing gently. Let me wash all of you, especially there, where I hurt you.

He waited, watching her face, wanting her to give so that he wouldnt have to take.

Slowly Eve shifted position, giving Reno the freedom that he wanted. In a silence seething with memory and possibility, he bathed away every last trace of the virgin she had been and would never be again.

If I could take back the hurt, I would, he whispered. But I wouldnt take back the rest of it. Ive dreamed all my life of finding a passion like yours.

Eve shivered and bit back a throaty sound as Renos fingers unfastened her pantalets and eased them down her legs until he was kneeling in the pool at her feet.

Brace yourself against my shoulders, he said huskily.

He felt the trembling of her hands as they settled on his naked shoulders, and wondered if passion or fear moved her.

Lift your right foot, Reno said.

The pressure of her hands on his shoulders increased. He slipped one leg of the pantalets free.

Now the other.

She moved, only to stop, frozen by the touch of his fingertips. When he traced the delicate skin, sweet lightning rippled through her. She closed her eyes and held on to his shoulders so hard that her fingers pressed deeply into muscle.

Does that hurt? Reno asked, looking up.

No, she whispered through trembling lips.

Does it please you?

It s-shouldnt.

But it does?

Yes, she whispered on a rush of air. Dear God, yes.

Reno leaned his forehead against Eve and let out a long breath of relief. Only then did he admit how afraid he had been that he had irrevocably driven her away. That was why he had followed her to the pool. Fear, not passion.

Such tight petals, Reno whispered, touching Eve delicately, yet so full. Like a bud in spring. And I was expecting a flower full-blown by a hundred suns.

Eve didnt answer. She couldnt. Heat was sweeping through her body, making her forget everything but the rushing instant and the man who caressed her so tenderly.

Turning his head from side to side, Reno stroked her belly and thighs with his cheeks and the thick silk of his mustache.

So smooth, he whispered. So warm. Open for me, sweet Eve. Let me show you what it should have been for you. No hurt, no bleeding, just the kind of pleasure youll die remembering.

Eyes closed, Eve responded to the gentle pressure between her legs, allowing Reno greater freedom. A warm, lightly probing caress was her reward. Its silky heat astonished her, loosening her knees. She made a ragged sound of pleasure and tried to catch her balance.

Thats it, Reno said, smiling, urging her legs farther apart as he bent to her. Hold on to me.

Only when Eve felt the heat of Renos breath did she understand why the caress had been so sleek and hot.

Reno.

His answer was a tender movement of his tongue that dragged another husky cry from her.

Dont fight me, Reno breathed. You gave me what you had given no other man. Let me give you what Ive given no other woman.

My God, Eve whispered as his caresses turned her very bones to honey.

Reno made a husky sound of discovery and pleasure in one as he found the satin knot rising from her softness.

The bud swells, he whispered. This time you will flower, too.

Eve couldnt answer. She had no voice, no thoughts, nothing but the sensual lightning licking up through her body, taking it from her control, giving it to the man who both cherished and consumed her in fiery silence.

Reno sensed the storm that was claiming Eve, convulsing her secretly. The scent of her was an elemental perfume singing to him of dark fires and wild release, luring him unbearably.

When the sensual storm broke, her taste was that of a desert rain, sultry and mysterious, bringing life to everything it touched. And after the storm passed, she was the earth itself, flushed with the miracle of rain, all contrasts heightened, radiant in completion.

Reluctantly Reno released the sweet, captive flesh and stood up, holding Eve, for she was barely able to stand. He tucked her head against his chest and rocked her slowly while she came back to herself.

After a long time Eve gave a shivering sigh and looked up at Reno with dazed golden eyes.

Thats what its all about between men and women, Reno said, kissing Eve gently. The kind of pleasure you would kill or die for. Not a childish notion of love.

A painful shudder went through Eve.

Youre saying Id feel that with any man? she asked, her voice strained.

The violent denial that leaped to Renos lips made him uneasy. He had never been a possessive kind of man, yet even the thought of Eve allowing another man the freedom of her silky body enraged Reno.

Reno? Eve asked, her lips trembling and her eyes steady.

Some people are better together than others, he said finally. You make me hotter than any woman ever has. I make you hotter than any man ever has.

Reno looked down into Eves clear golden eyes. Thats why you gave yourself to me. Not the poker bet. Not love. Just passion, pure and simple and hot as hell.

Thats why men and women marry? Eve persisted. Passion, pure and simple?

Again, Reno hesitated.

Its why men marry, he said after a moment. Damn few women have enough passion in them to burn.

But

Otherwise they wouldnt be able to hold out long enough to get a man to the preacher, Reno continued, ignoring Eves interruption. But the little dears do somehow manage, dont they?

Reno saw the pain in Eves expression, and winced. He hadnt meant to hurt her with his blunt declarations about the nature of men and women and the illusion called love. But he had hurt her.

Again.

Sugar child, he said, kissing her temple softly. Would you feel better if I told you sweet lies about love?

Yes.

Then Eve laughed sadly and shook her head.

No, she amended. Because Id want to believe you so much, Id do it, and then Id wake up one day and find you saddled up and ready to leave, and Id know the words for the lies they were.

Im not saddling any horses.

We havent found the mine yet, have we?

Gently Eve pushed away and looked up at Reno with steady eyes and a smile that threatened to turn upside down. She stood on tiptoe to brush her lips over his.

Thanks for the teaching, sugar man. Now maybe we better get to work finding that mine. Ive had about all the learning I can bear in one day.


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