raised her face to his, and he slanted his mouth across hers, taking the sweet warmth she offered. Forgetting the odd expression on her face, forgetting his intuitive awareness that something was amiss, he was aware only of the hot tenderness of her mouth.
Slowly, steadily, the kiss deepened. As Bessie Jane wrapped her arms around his neck, Reed pulled her closer. He could no longer seem to think. Through the layers of clothing, he could feel the hard points of her nipples and couldn't resist the enticement. Rubbing his chest against them, he reveled in the fire that burst inside him.
Taking his hand in hers, Bessie Jane brought his eager fingers to her breast. "Touch me," she murmured. "Don't you want to touch me?"
"Bessie Jane!" he hissed. He freed his hand and set her a respectable distance from him. "Your parents are in the next room."
"Daddy's snoring. Can't you hear him? It's safe, Reed. Please touch me. Please love me."
"Sweetheart, we can't," he said, his voice hoarse, his breathing rough.
"We can. Please, we must," she said, and laid her hand in his lap, touching him intimately.
Reed jumped up as if he'd been shot from a gun. Turning away from her so that she wouldn't see the evidence of his desire, he strode across the room and shut the door. Leaning his forehead against it for a moment, he strove to catch his breath. When he was in control of his body once again, he faced her. "Bessie Jane, you must stop this constant assault on my better judgment." He spoke resolutely, like an irate father or a disapproving older brother.
She bowed her head, not willing to look at him.
"I am as eager to … to consummate this relationship as you are," he went on. "But there are proprieties—and dangers."
He ran a hand through his hair and began pacing in front of the settee. "I realize that if I'd practiced more self-control that evening in the barn, you would not be aware of your 'woman's needs.'" He stopped, disconcerted by the expression and its implication. "Without knowing how it is, waiting until we're wed would be easier for you." Halting directly in front of her, he gazed down at the pretty little princess in the frothy pink dress and felt infinitely older and wiser. "Truly, Bessie Jane, I do blame myself, but I cannot undo the past."
He seated himself on the settee at a respectable distance from her. "I'm trying to control my feelings for you," he explained, carefully avoiding words like lust and desire. "But you will also have to try to help me if we're to make it through the next several months." He leaned over and cupped her chin gently in his hand. "If you continue to lure me and tempt me at every opportunity, I will have no choice but to avoid being alone with you as much as possible."
Bessie Jane lowered her eyes in shame. Folding her hands primly in her lap, she whispered, "I'm sorry, Reed. I just want to make us closer. I want to show you I care for you."
Feeling like a heartless cad, Reed patted her hands gently. "I know, sweetheart. But there'll be plenty of time to love each other after we're legally wed."
She nodded, but wouldn't meet his eyes.
A silence fell between them, a silence that embarrassed them both.
* * *
Hattie shaded her eyes as she stared in surprise down the road. Trotting toward her was a large rather grim-looking Hampshire boar, his head held high as if he were the undisputed ruler of the universe. In his wake was Reed, urging him on with angry words, looks of exasperation, and a solid willow switch.
Reed had returned from Helena the previous morning with seed and equipment and so many plans, one head couldn't hold them all. Harm Leege had gone with him, and the two of them had sat at Hattie's table for nearly three hours last evening talking about everything they had seen and learned.
Hattie had never spoken more than a couple of words to young Leege before, but she'd been favorably impressed with the handsome man. He'd seemed as excited and hopeful about the rice as Reed,