Virtue's Reward

Virtue's Reward
by Jean R. Ewing

(Originally published by Zebra Books  ISBN 0-8217-4847-5)

Nominated: Romantic Times Best Regency Romance of the Year

Finalist: HOLT Medallion Best Regency 

E-book available now from

"A brilliant star. Her unique plot is loaded with intrigue, mystery, adventure and romance. Superbly crafted characters ... a most satisfying read." - 4½ Stars - Affaire de Coeur

"The chemistry between Richard and Helena is right on target, keeping the reader thoroughly engaged." - Library Journal

"There's no mincing about at Almack's in this book. It's full of action and excitement from the beginning with a mystery that is not solved until the final chapter... This is a strong, well-plotted book with very human and likable principals, certain to please a wide circle of readers." - Rendezvous

"In only her second book, Jean Ewing proves herself a force to be reckoned with in the exclusive halls of Regency excellence... Ms. Ewing exquisitely explores a myriad, intensely-charged emotions as she takes us on a journey of shattering intimacy through the hearts and minds of her immensely appealing lovers. Regency connoisseurs will now have another superstar to cherish!" - 4½ Stars - Rave Review - Romantic Times

Virtue's Reward

In Chapter One we meet Captain Richard Acton and learn why he's riding straight to Cornwall after returning to England from the Peninsula. Here's Chapter Two, followed by a short excerpt from a little later in the book:


Helena walked rapidly up through the home wood, the now empty basket she carried swinging against her black skirts. As she turned the last corner and caught sight of Trethaerin House, it was inevitable that she should stop for a moment to catch her breath. The basket slipped from her hand to thump onto the path.

A tangle of roses, phlox, and wallflowers scented the afternoon air. Three stories above the flower garden, dormer windows framed by curlicues of carved stone capped an otherwise simple façade of gray granite. The small, old-fashioned mullioned windows reflected a multitude of twinkles of blue from the sky. By listening hard above the lazy hum of honeybees and the occasional trill of a bird from the woods, she could hear the sea, pounding and pounding on the rocks of Trethaerin Cove below.

Damnation! It was no use at all to get weepy about a house. She picked up her basket and stepped out onto the driveway. A lone horseman was trotting toward her on a big bay. As he drew level, he halted his horse and touched his hat.

"Miss Helena Trethaerin?"

"I am she, sir."

The rider swung from his horse and bowed. He was very tall. Hair like sun-touched silk caressed his collar. A man of lithe strength and lovely bones—

"Captain Richard Acton, at your service, ma’am."

Helena unwittingly took a step backward and put a hand to her heart. Instantly she stopped and forced herself to curtsy instead.

"I am sorry, Captain Acton, you startled me. I didn’t anticipate . . . Oh, goodness! You must come to the house for some refreshment."

"You weren’t expecting me, surely?" His brows came together, causing a deep vertical line to appear between them. His gaze was very dark.

"Oh, no! Of course not! But I do know who you are. Edward mentioned you in letters. Though he didn’t exactly write often and his letters took anywhere from one to six months to arrive here. You were friends, weren’t you? I’m so sorry."

The midnight eyes opened in astonishment. "Sorry?"

"About Edward’s death. It must have been a blow to lose a comrade."

"But it is I who came to offer my condolences to you, ma’am."

"Thank you. It’s very kind of you. Now, please, won’t you come up to the house? You must have ridden a long way."

Richard fell into step beside her, leading his charger by the bridle. This encounter was not going at all as he had imagined. Firstly, Miss Helena Trethaerin looked nothing like Edward. Why he had expected that she should, he had no idea. Edward Blake had been a dark thickset Cornishman with black eyes and a shock of inky hair. The tendrils escaping beneath Miss Trethaerin’s bonnet were as blond as his own, and her skin was very white against the black fabric of her dress. It made her gray eyes look enormous.

And then she had offered her sympathy to him!

"Poor fellow," Helena said suddenly.

Richard stopped short. "What?"

"Your horse." She smiled and ran her hand down the animal’s neck. "He was your cheval de bataille, wasn’t he?"

Richard swallowed his astonishment and forced himself to reply casually. "Though that expression translates literally as ‘war-horse,’ it is generally used to mean anything one primarily relies on. Yes, I suppose he was, on both counts."

"And he has faithfully served you through it all. How can a creature like him possibly understand the dreadful things he is asked to witness? Cavalry chargers do their duty all the same, yet they must spend much of their life in a state of terror."

Without thinking, he replied, "And so do their masters, Miss Trethaerin."

He had never admitted it before. Not to his fellow officers, not to himself. But it was true, of course. Bravery in battle did not mean lack of fear; it meant carrying on even when the fear was overwhelming. How could this frail-looking woman know that?

A groom ran forward from the house and took the horse. Miss Helena Trethaerin led Richard inside, and they handed their hats and gloves to a footman. Her hair shone almost silver in the dim light.

"Now," she said once they were comfortably seated in the withdrawing room. "Won’t you tell me why you have really come?"

"Edward asked it," Richard replied simply. "I don’t really know why, except that he was thinking of you when he died."

"Oh, Lord! You were there?"

"We were cutting around a field together to direct a new flank attack and he was shot. He died almost instantly."

"It’s a horrible waste, isn’t it?"

Richard looked at her in shock. Didn’t she care? You might say as much about a tree that fell in a storm. The idea that he would be obliged to make up a heroic tale for her fell into instant ruins.

"Yes, it is," he said. And suddenly it was his own feelings that threatened to overwhelm him. A wave of anger at the sheer wastefulness of war—all those young lives!

He leaped to his feet and crossed to the window.

"I’ll make this as short and simple as possible, Miss Trethaerin. Edward died of a major wound to the chest. He couldn’t say much, but he wanted you to be safe. He also wanted, I think, that you should have his brandy flask."

He strode back to her and held out the battered leather-clad bottle.

She took it and turned it over. "I can’t imagine why," she said slowly.

"You were to be married, weren’t you? He had nothing else to send you."

"Oh, dear! Please, Captain Acton, forgive me! It’s more than kind of you to come. But, please, take it back! I think that you should keep it."

She thrust the flask toward him.

Richard could not do other than put it back in his own pocket. She was heartless. He knew suddenly quite clearly what he had expected to find: a woman as dark and passionate as Edward suffering an inconsolable grief, a woman who would have treasured with tremulous emotion any memento of her beloved.

Instead, this cool blonde was gazing at him perfectly calmly.

"Listen," she said. "Perhaps we should go for a walk."

"A walk?" Was she mad, perhaps?

"Yes, do you mind? It’s still a lovely afternoon, after all."

"As you say, ma’am."

"Then humor me, please."

She rose gracefully to her feet and they went back into the hallway to collect their hats. Fifteen minutes later, Helena Trethaerin was leading him up through the woods behind the house, until the trees thinned and they came out onto a gorse-covered headland. Salt-laden wind buffeted at her dark skirts.

They walked quickly up a narrow path through the golden shrubs, until they stood overlooking the black sand of a small beach. There was a sudden screeching of wheeling sea gulls.

"Trethaerin Cove," she said. "Edward and I played there together as children. We used to act out the Battle of Trafalgar, though he would always insist on being Admiral Lord Nelson. It wasn’t fair at all." She laughed and clutched at her black bonnet as the wind threatened to carry it away. "Come on!"

Richard followed her as she crossed the headland on the cliff path. She had lost her betrothed barely six months before, but could still laugh?

Suddenly they were looking down into fertile fields. A gracious whitewashed house nestled against a thick stand of oak and birch at the far side of a broad valley. Through the center ran a small stream, which eventually cut its channel across a long stretch of sand. The beach must have been a mile wide.

"That’s Friarswell, Edward’s home."

"I see smoke from the chimneys. Who lives there now?"

"His heir, Mr. Garthwood."

Of course, the cousin who had inherited from Edward and thus also from Helena’s father. Richard silently blessed Catherine Hunter for her information.

Helena went on quickly. "Friarswell has all the good productive valley land. My father coveted it for years. I’m afraid that Trethaerin has nothing but the cove, some moorland, and the tin that used to lie under it. When the mines began to fail, it was hard for my father to make ends meet, though we were comfortable enough. Papa refused to countenance smuggling, the mainstay of many a Cornish family. Of course, Friarswell and Trethaerin march together. Papa thought it was the perfect answer to everything that I should marry Edward and unite the two places."

"And what did you think about it?"

"Well, I hardly knew, to be honest."

"And you are always honest?"

She gave him a perfectly open look. "Of course. What on earth would be the use of pretending anything?"

Richard felt his hands clench. Her name had been on Edward’s dying breath!

"For God’s sake, didn’t you care for Blake at all?"

"Dear Captain Acton, I do apologize if I have upset you. But I hadn’t seen my cousin for more than a few hours in seven years. I was a child when we were last together. Each of us was sent away to school, then Edward went to the war. As adults we hardly knew each other. Of course I honor his memory, but if you think I should pretend to be going into a decline over him, then I cannot oblige you. Please don’t allow yourself to imagine any pitiful tragic romance."

"I could not imagine anything of the kind, madam," he snapped. "You have explained admirably. Shall we go back?"

They walked rapidly down to Trethaerin House in silence. As they entered the hallway once again, a gentleman stepped from the drawing room.

"Ah, Miss Trethaerin," he said softly. "You have a visitor?"

"Captain Acton was a friend of Sir Edward Blake’s, Mr. Garthwood."

"A pleasure, sir. Poor Cousin Edward! A sad loss."

"Not so sad for you, of course," Helena said calmly. "So there is no need to be unctuous. Captain Acton stopped by to pay his respects. He is just leaving."

"Then let me call for your horse, Captain. The rather fine bay I saw in the stable, I imagine?"

"Indeed, sir. Thank you."

Richard was used to sizing up men. Thank goodness he had never had anyone like Garthwood in his command! He felt an instinctive dislike: something about the way the man’s eyes seemed to be unable meet another’s, but slid away to focus on the wall or a window. Or the way his hands clutched and fondled at each other as he talked.

Ignoring his distaste for her cousin, Richard took up his hat and shook Helena by the hand. He was about to make her a polite farewell, when he heard himself speak instead to Garthwood.

"You will have no objection, sir, if I should stop by to say good-bye to Miss Trethaerin tomorrow before I leave Cornwall?"

Garthwood smiled. "None at all, of course."

Richard bowed and stepped back out of the house into the sunshine.

Now, why on earth had he promised to visit again? Obviously, he and Helena Trethaerin had nothing further to say to each other. In a foul mood, he swung up onto his charger and trotted away down the driveway without a backward glance.

The sunken lanes with their stunted hedgerows and bulky stone walls passed by unnoticed. Within an hour he had ridden into the yard of the Anchor Inn in the fishing village of Blacksands, and in another hour he was in a state that he had not experienced since his salad days. He was comfortably drunk.

* * *

Helena turned to face her nemesis. Bravery was indeed facing one’s fear and carrying on regardless, and she was determined to be brave.

"To what do I owe this visit, Mr. Garthwood?"

"May I not visit, dear Miss Trethaerin? This is my house, after all."

"The fact never leaves me, sir. Mr. Marble explained it all very well. Everything from Friarswell to Trethaerin is all rightfully yours. I am in your power. I don’t dispute it."

"Then I wish that you would not take provisions to the Coopers. They are wastrels. I fear for your safety."

"I have known Rob Cooper and his family all my life, Mr. Garthwood. Your concern is totally unnecessary."

"And you must recognize that you cannot stay on here alone like this, in my house and dependent on me for your very bread, a young, single—and, may I say, attractive—young woman. It breaks every rule of propriety. Yet you know I will not turn you out to beg your living. Have you considered my offer?"

"I should like a few more days, sir, if you would be so gracious."

"Please, my dear, you may have all the time you require. I should want you to give it all due consideration."

"Thank you, sir. I shall."

She had seen birds once at the market, beating frantically against the wicker bars of their cages. Had those creatures been any more trapped than she was? Why had her father been so stubborn about leaving Trethaerin to Edward? And why, oh, why, had poor Edward had to die?

* * *

Captain Acton woke the next morning with a pounding head and a foul taste in his mouth. Edward’s brandy flask sat on the small table beside the bed, but it was only indirectly the cause of his headache. Several empty bottles stood beside it, mute witness to his incredible behavior of the previous night. Why on earth had he decided to get drunk?

Devil take this whole place and especially Helena Trethaerin! If it had not been for what he had learned from Catherine Hunter at Stagshead about her situation, he would start out for London that instant and never see Cornwall again. But he had given his word to a dying comrade. He would see it through.

He flung back the covers and plunged his head into a basin of cold water, then he stripped and flung the rest of the water over his body. Rapidly drying himself on the inn’s threadbare towel, he pulled on a clean cambric shirt and buckskin breeches, then thrust his arms into the sleeves of a plain brown coat. He tied his cravat in a simple knot and finally plunged his feet into the loose-fitting tall boots made popular by the Iron Duke himself. Richard had no patience with a wardrobe that required the services of a valet in order to get dressed. It was simpler to travel alone and see to one’s own needs.

His head still felt as if it were encased in an iron band as he followed the winding lane to Trethaerin. His horse was feeling fresh and, prancing under his hand, was looking for any excuse to shy. Richard cursed. He was in no mood to put up with anyone’s high spirits, not even Bayard’s. Sensing his master’s impatience, the charger humped his back a little, but he knew better than to offer further disobedience. Richard’s hand tightened imperceptibly on the reins and the bay quietly trotted on.

* * *

Helena was in the garden, cutting the heads off the dying roses. She looked up as Captain Acton came striding down the path toward her. He looks so vital, she thought, like a free creature of the sky! How can he possibly justify that frown?

She laughed at herself. Anyone with an independence would seem as free as a seagull to her. And he could certainly frown if he felt like it. Everyone was entitled to his demons.

Well, she must send this man away with a kind word and face her own problems by herself.

"Good morning, Captain Acton. I trust you found comfortable accommodation in the village?"

"Comfortable enough, Miss Trethaerin."

"But you have the headache?"

He glanced at her with astonishment, but his pain was clear.

"Perhaps we should say our good-byes out of the sun?" she said calmly. "There’s a summerhouse under the willows."

She turned and walked quickly past the rose beds and across the lawn, knowing that he would be forced to follow. As always, the little gazebo was refreshingly cool and shady. They sat formally opposite each other in two wrought iron chairs and he set his hat on the table. A light wind ruffled the frill around her bonnet and lifted the hair a little off his forehead.

Helena said nothing as he leaned back and closed his eyes.

His face smoothed. The breeze caressed, chasing playful shadows across his high cheekbones. He was more than handsome, this splendid officer who had been Edward’s idol throughout so many years of war. And no doubt he was kind and brave and brilliant, just as Edward had written.

Yet now she knew that he was also lithe and lean and strong. Really, he seemed faultless. And with such lovely hands . . .

Something stirred in her heart, piercing. She swallowed hard.

The silence stretched, ruffled only by the murmur of moving grasses and the odd buzz of a passing insect.

Captain Acton rubbed one hand over his eyes, then opened them and smiled at her. "My apologies, ma’am. You wished to say—?"

"I fear I was a little abrupt yesterday, sir," she began gently. "If you would like to talk about Edward, I should be perfectly willing."

He jerked upright. "Edward? I came here this morning, ma’am, to talk about you."

"Me? But what possible concern am I to you, sir?"

"I know how you are situated, Miss Trethaerin. I met a Miss Hunter in Fernbridge and she told me. You were at school together in Exeter?"

"Catherine? Yes, we were friends. But why should she tell you about me?"

"Because I asked her. You had written to her recently?"

Helena leaped to her feet and began to pace across the stone floor of the summerhouse.

"How dare she! What earthly business is it of yours? I wrote to her in confidence. I cannot think that Catherine Hunter, of all people, would have so little honor."

He gazed at her steadily. "You are completely disinherited by the terms of your father’s will. Though you led me to believe by your manner yesterday that Trethaerin House is still yours, in fact it has become the property of Mr. Nigel Garthwood, who inherited it from Edward. You said, ma’am, that you believed in honesty, but you were not entirely honest with me."

Her heart pounded wildly. Her skin felt hot and flushed. "Because I did not launch into a pitiful tale of my situation? I remember nothing that I said that would have led you to believe that I was mistress of Trethaerin. Nothing! If my manner said otherwise—for heaven’s sake, I was born and grew up here. Besides, it is not your concern, sir."

"I am making it my concern."

She whirled around, making her black skirts eddy around her legs, and forced a calm she did not feel into her voice.

"Captain Acton. It is very kind of you to come down here to tell me about Edward’s death. I am grateful. Perhaps I don’t display the overwrought grief that you seem to feel I should, but he was my childhood friend and I am glad that you were there, so that he didn’t die alone. But there is no need for you to concern yourself further. In fact, I think that you had better go."

"I can’t go."

"Why not?"

In a stride he was towering over her and had taken her by the elbows. "Because I promised Edward that I would see that you were not in want. What is your future here? You have nothing. What do you plan to do?"

Helena gazed frankly back up at him. The vertical line was incised deeply between his brows and his nostrils were flared like a carving.

"Mr. Garthwood has asked for my hand, sir."

His grip tightened on her arms. "Have you given him your answer?"

"Please, Captain Acton, are you intending to bruise me?"

He flushed and dropped his hands. "Forgive me, Miss Trethaerin. I am not usually so precipitate."

"No, you were Edward’s hero: a model of all that is most controlled, correct, and gentlemanly, while all the time striking fear into the hearts of the enemy with your prowess on the battlefield. When you were not so employed, I understand you could play a mean hand at any game of chance and keep the camp in an uproar of hilarity with your facility at indelicate nonsense rhymes. A very paragon of manly virtue, in fact."

"Good God!" He stepped away from her to spread his lean fingers on the rail of one of the iron chairs. He looked totally astonished. "I had no idea!" he said, then he bent his head forward onto his hands and began to laugh.

Helena watched his shoulders as they shook in quiet mirth. The breeze danced like a demon in his sun-bleached hair.

At last, he straightened. The laughter had still not entirely left his eyes.

"Miss Trethaerin, forgive me! Tell me truthfully that Mr. Garthwood has your heart and that you will marry him in gladness, and I shall be gone this instant. I promise you that I shall never think of you again—except to question your judgment."

Helena dropped back onto her chair. "Then you are not impressed with the new owner of Trethaerin and Friarswell?"

"I don’t believe I ever met a more odious creature."

"Nevertheless, I shall marry him."

"What? Do you have windmills in your head, Miss Trethaerin?"

Helena looked down at her kid boots. Her anger had melted like ice in the sun. Captain Richard Acton had been Edward’s anchor, and now his strength beckoned to her as surely as a light in a window calls to a traveler lost in a storm. She would not be so weak.

"I assure you I am quite sane, sir. So you needn’t be concerned anymore." She folded her hands so that he should not see them shake. "My mind is made up as of this instant. As Mrs. Garthwood my future will be perfectly secure. Your promise to Edward is fulfilled."

He spun the other chair and straddled it, his arms along the back. "You did not answer my question, ma’am."

"What question?" She was determined to avoid his gaze.

"Do you hold Mr. Garthwood in affection?"

"You have absolutely no right to ask such a thing."

"I have my answer. Obviously you do not."

"Captain Acton! I pray, do not continue this. I shall marry Mr. Garthwood and that’s an end of it."

"In fact, you are afraid of him."

Helena’s head flew up and she found herself gazing straight into his eyes. She felt as if she might drown in them, be swallowed up in their dark depths.

"You will not marry Nigel Garthwood," he said decisively.

"What else do you suggest that I do, sir?"

"You could marry me."

Helena leaped once again from her chair. "Is this a jest? How can you? I did not ask you to come here with your pity and your sorrow. We are strangers. I suggest that we both forget that you said such a thing. Good day, sir."

In a flurry of skirts Helena swept from the summerhouse and hurried away, before she should break down in front of this mad, magnificent gentleman and weep.

Yet Helena soon realizes she has no other choice but to accept him and they are married. Then, later in the story:

"This is your room," he said. "Do you like it?"

"How could I not? It’s lovely."

"Then I shall share it with you tonight."

Helena’s blood turned instantly to water. She felt her voice stick solidly in her throat, and gulped.

"I thought you preferred to sleep alone," she mumbled at last.

"Yes, but I don’t intend that we sleep, my dear. You’re my bride, remember? It’s time that I ravished you, don’t you think?"

She knew there was no color left in her face. In fact, she felt faint. She must not give way to the vapors!

Richard took her hand and sat her in a chair by the fire.

"We are married and this is what married people do. Without it there would be no babies and that would be a great shame, wouldn’t it?" Helena could feel her hand tremble in his, but he raised her fingers to his lips and gently kissed her palm. "The great secret is that there is nothing more wonderful in the world."

"Than babies?" Helena asked, deliberately misunderstanding.

Richard laughed. "Than what you are about to discover, which is why it’s called making love. Don’t be afraid, sweetheart. You will like it, and if you don’t, I’ll stop. It’s no worse, I assure you, than a cavalry charge."

She forced herself to be calm, but her voice shook. "Don’t tease me, Richard! I have never been in a cavalry charge."

"Yes, I know. But I have."

He went to the side table and poured her a glass of wine. It shone like a ruby in the firelight.

"Now drink this very slowly and think of nothing but the way it tastes. I’ll be back in a moment."

There was a door at the side of the room, and he stepped through it. Obviously, his bedchamber lay beyond.

The moment he was gone, Helena leaped to her feet and began to pace frantically back and forth. Every woman went through this, and usually on the wedding night, not several days later. Surely it couldn’t be so dreadful?

Yet she wanted to run out of the house into the dark garden and hide. Good God! She had made him solemn vows at the little church in Exeter. She couldn’t back out now. He was providing her with a home and protection, and this was part of the bargain, wasn’t it?

What did he expect of her? Should she undress and put on her nightgown? Take down her hair? She had no idea. Without thinking, she went back to the fireplace and gulped down the wine.

The door opened behind her and she whirled around.

"You have the look of a doe at bay, Helena, or the princess tied to a rock awaiting the dragon," Richard said softly. He was dressed in a long blue silk robe open at the neck. The lines of his throat were shadowed like a sculpture in the firelight, and his fair head shone like a halo. The faintest of smiles played at the corners of his mouth. "I thought you were made of nobler stuff."

"But I’m not of noble blood."

"Then mine will have to count for both of us, I suppose. You might try to see me as St. George rather than the monster, you know."

"Yes, but it’s the being tied to the rock as the tide comes in that’s so unnerving," Helena replied.

"There is really nothing to be afraid of," he said and he came up to her and took her head in his hands. "Trust me, sweet."

She gazed back up at him. His eyes were very dark.

"I don’t know what to do," she whispered.

"You’re not supposed to know," he replied. "Just relax."

Gently he touched her lips with his own. She stood as rigid as a poker in his grasp, but his kiss was as light and fleeting as the one he had given her after their wedding. She felt suddenly reassured. Perhaps she could trust him?

She closed her eyes as his fingertips gently smoothed over her lids.

"Do you know that you are beautiful?" he said softly in her ear. "Don’t think, just feel."

She was afraid to move or to speak, so she merely nodded her head a little. She could feel careful fingers pulling the pins out of her hair. As it fell around her shoulders, he smoothed it away from her face as if he were soothing a frightened horse.

"Your hair alone would be enticing enough to launch all the thousand ships," he whispered. "Helen of Troy would have been jealous."

His hands ran down the fall of her hair. The feeling was wonderful and she smiled tremulously up at him. She dared not open her eyes, so she had no idea what his expression was. And then his fingers began a strange and delicious stroking on the back of her neck, while one hand slid down her arm, lingering on the sensitive skin inside her elbow and wrist. He lifted her hand and she felt his tongue trail lightly across her palm before gently sucking at each fingertip.

Something very odd began to happen to her insides. His mouth touched her temple and the lobe of her ear before he moved to kiss the pulse at the base of her throat. She trembled like a reed in the wind at the delicious sensation. When his lips closed once again over hers, she could not keep herself from responding.

"There, you see," he whispered when he finally lifted his lips from hers. "That wasn’t so bad, was it?"

Her eyes flew open. She felt breathless and dizzy.

"No," she said honestly. "It was lovely."

"Then would you mind if I did it again?"

"I think I might even like it."

"And I think, truthful Helena, that I am glad that I married you."

His eyes were pools of darkness. If she looked into them for another moment, she might be lost forever, so she dropped her head and looked away.

Richard led her to the bed.

"When you were a child," he said casually, pulling her to his lap, "did you ever take off your dress and stockings and lie on the hot summer sand of Trethaerin Cove to let the sun wash over your skin like a wave?"

She smiled nervously. Richard’s body felt strong and warm. His silk robe caressed her arm. His fingers were slowly moving her hair until it lay in a sheer curtain across her breast.

"Of course I did, though I risked a beating if I were ever found out."

"But it was worth it, wasn’t it?"

He bent his head and took her lips again. He tasted as sweet as honey.

She barely noticed that his clever fingers had unbuttoned the row of fasteners at the back of her dress until it slithered to her waist and she was clothed in nothing but the fall of her hair over her thin chemise.

"Imagine the hot sun," he whispered softly as his hand moved up the bare skin of her back, "and the sound of the waves. There has never been a more beautiful summer day."