"A Peasant's Winter Bath, In Summer" by ellijay

Summary: Merlin, newly arrived in Camelot, is left an anonymous gift of rosemary-scented soap. Its use has unexpected but not unpredictable results. Memories and the future ravel out from there. Starts after "Valiant" with flashbacks to before "The Dragon's Call," then jumps forward to after "The Lady of the Lake."

Author's notes: This is a real departure for me in terms of what I usually write. It rambles quite a bit in time and place and mood, and is actually rather smutty in places, so if you have a pure and innocent image of Merlin in your mind that you'd like to keep untarnished, this is probably not for you. Nothing too extreme or graphic, though – about what you'd expect to find in the average trashy romance novel. It's all Merlin's fault, really. I was working on another story where he was having a wash, and the cheeky young warlock started behaving rather naughtily. I sternly told him it wasn't that kind of story and he relented, but some things that are thought cannot be unthought, and thus this story began.

Chapter 1 – "Rosemary and Roslyn"

Merlin had been in Camelot hardly more than a fortnight, and everything was still so new to him. Even minor tasks had to be figured out and fit into his new world and routine. Things like bathing. Gaius had already scolded him once about not washing up, but he'd been haphazard about it even after that. Now someone had gone and left him a small package that turned out to be a cake of soap. Rosemary scented, no less, which made him think it probably wasn't Arthur being clever, unless he'd assigned the task to someone else and that person had either thought it would be funny or hadn't given any thought to how the soap smelled. Fortunately, Merlin rather liked rosemary.

He had found that mornings weren't the best time for washing up since he seemed to always be running to do something or other before it was time to wake Arthur, and evenings were no better due to the inevitable exhaustion after tagging after his royal high and mightiness most of the day and seeing to his every whim. Midday strangely turned out to be the best time for him to grab a moment to himself, after he'd taken Arthur his midday meal. The prince would usually do paperwork after that and tended to shoo Merlin away, lest he make too much noise and interrupt his concentration. Gaius was usually out seeing patients in the middle of the day, so Merlin thought he could probably have some real peace and quiet around that time. He was about to put it to the test.

He'd brought a bucket of fresh water back from the well last night and left it standing in his room where the morning sun would fall on it through the window and thus warm it up to a tolerable temperature. He felt rather smug with himself for thinking of that, even though it was born of laziness and a desire not to have to use cold water straight from the pump.

He went up to his room with the soap in hand, then closed and latched the door behind him. He didn't much fancy someone walking in on him scrubbing his bits. He put the basin Gaius had provided for him on top of the table under the window and filled it with water, then opened the chest at the foot of his bed and retrieved two small cloths, one for soaping and one for rinsing, and a larger one for drying. Once he had everything set out and ready, he stood there for a moment, oddly perplexed at how to proceed.

It wasn't that he'd never bathed from a basin, obviously, just that he'd never done it in summertime. Back in Ealdor, whenever the weather was warm, he'd simply shuck his clothes and have a bathe in the stream near the village, just as nearly everyone else did. More often than not, Will or some of the other boys were there, so splashing and dunking took precedence over actual cleaning. They usually stayed in the water long enough, though, that they emerged squeaky clean, no soap needed.

The basin would come out in the winter, when no sane person would jump into a running stream, even if there were open water among the ice. No one in the village owned a bathtub. Who would want to trudge back and forth through the freezing cold or summer heat to fill it up and end up either catching their death of cold or falling prostrate from heat exhaustion?

Even inside in the wintertime, with cold wind blowing through the cracks around the door and shutters, Merlin had no desire to strip himself bare just to get clean. He would simply run the flannel under his clothes, washing and drying one part at a time. Just the necessary bits: face, hands, feet, under the arms and down the front. His mother called it "the peasant's winter bath" and had instructed him on what it entailed when he was still far too young to be embarrassed by such things.

Now, though, he was faced with an odd situation – bathing from a basin, but it was warm enough that he didn't really have to shove a wet cloth inside his clothing. He shrugged his shoulders and took off his clothes, everything down to his bare skin. The window was open and there was a warm breeze blowing in. It felt quite nice to feel it fluttering through his hair and over his body. He stood there a moment enjoying it, having a good stretch and flexing his sore feet against the floor. Although he was well accustomed to having very little opportunity to sit down for most of the day, that had been on bare dirt or grass in Ealdor. The stone floors here were a nuisance.

He wet one of the flannels in the basin, then rubbed the soap into it. It smelled wonderful and made him think of summer fields and sunshine. He started with his face and worked his way down to just before his middle, reveling in the soft feeling of soap on his skin, followed by the fresh splash of clean water with the second flannel. A bit of a puddle was forming around his feet, but he figured he could mop that up later. Or just leave it for the air to dry. Probably the latter. Then he worked his way up from his feet until he reached the middle again. He'd had the habit at home of leaving his midsection until last in the wintertime because a cold cloth down the front of his trousers was not exactly a pleasant experience, and thus something to be put off as long as possible.

Now, though… The flannel was warm and slick with soap and felt incredibly, amazingly good. Too good, judging from the reaction it was causing. He looked around, slightly flustered, even though there was no one there to see. It was nearly automatic for him to look about because at home in the summertime, when he wanted to … relieve himself, it tended to happen out of doors, usually spying on the girls bathing in the stream, and he had to be careful lest someone sneak up on him. Not so bad if it was Will or one of the boys because he'd just get a teasing, and besides, they all did the same thing. Somewhat embarrassing but mostly rather amusing if one of the girls noticed because they usually screamed and ran away. He'd never been caught out by any of the older folk, or at least he didn't think he had. Maybe they simply had enough discretion to walk away quietly if they happened upon something untoward in the woods. They'd been young once, after all.

All of this thinking back to watching naked girls whilst hiding behind a tree with his hand down his trousers was not helping matters now. He wasn't sure if he should proceed with tending to his present state of agitation because, well, this was Gaius's home and he still felt like a guest here. Then again, surely he couldn't be expected to never… That was a horrible thought. And besides, Gaius wasn't here at the moment and he'd never know. Better to do it now than wait until he was in bed at night. Gaius might come up to fetch something at an inconvenient moment. The room had obviously been used for storage before Merlin arrived and still had quite a few things in it that Gaius needed from time to time, occasionally at night since he apparently tended not to go back to sleep if something woke him up. So now seemed as good a time as any. Merlin shrugged and went to work.

Why, why, why had he never discovered the joys of a soapy flannel before? Probably because the only times he'd ever used one before this was when his mother was on the other side of the curtain in their one-room house. That thought spoiled the mood. He shook his head to get rid of it, then closed his eyes and turned his mind to something else, that time he and Will had snuck off to Atherton for a little adventure...

Merlin had arrived at a rather awkward stage of his life. He was old enough to be considered an adult, but since he wasn't married and still living in his mother's home, he didn't quite feel like a grown man. He bemoaned the fact to Will one time, and Will told him he had an idea how to remedy the situation. He was vague about what it entailed, though. He only said it was something that couldn't be done in Ealdor without there being trouble later.

A few days later, Will dragged him off to the town of Atherton, nearly a day's walk away. Well, perhaps 'dragged' wasn't the proper word. Merlin was more than willing to go along. He'd rarely been far from Ealdor his entire life, and never to Atherton. He was excited at the prospect.

It was late summer, almost autumn. Harvest would begin in earnest soon, but for now there was a bit of time for idling. On Will's insistence, he didn't tell his mother where they were going, but he left a note to let her know he expected to return late the next day. He didn't want her to worry. That way she probably wouldn't be angry either. Although most in the village considered Will to be a troublemaker, and truthfully he and Merlin did get into quite a few scrapes together, no real harm ever came of it. Merlin suspected his mother mostly left them alone because Will knew his secret and had kept it, and he looked out for Merlin whenever he was able.

By the time they arrived in Atherton, the sun was nearly down, but it seemed towns were far more active and lively even after dark than villages like Ealdor. Amongst the homes and shops and stables were several taverns, full of light and life and the din of conversation, but Will passed them by and led him to the far outskirts of town. He seemed to know his way well. Merlin wondered when he'd been here or how often. Will had a habit of disappearing at odd times and never saying where he'd been when he came back. Without a mother or a father to rein him in, he could come and go as he pleased. Merlin sometimes envied him that.

He also often wondered why Will stayed in Ealdor at all, but it was probably because it was where he'd grown up. After his father's death, the family's house had passed to him, so at least he had a roof over his head. He was a hard worker, too, so he never went hungry. Merlin's mother sewed for him, but he always paid her for it with money he earned working at the mill every harvest.

They finally arrived at their destination, a ramshackle old building at the very edge of town. There was music and raucous laughter coming from inside, and as they entered the main door, Merlin paused to stare in fascination at a group of tables where there were dice and card games in progress. Taunts, challenges and cheers from both the players and spectators were accompanied by gold coins tossed onto the tables and swept away nearly as quickly. He'd heard about gambling but had never actually seen it.

Will steered him away from that part of the huge room and pulled him around and about tables where people were eating and drinking and talking loudly, making boasts and telling stories, some of them bawdy from what Merlin could make out. He heard more than a few words that would certainly earn him a smack from his mother if he ever dared to utter them in her presence.

Once they reached the serving counter along the far wall, Will ordered two tankards of mead and tossed a couple of coins on the counter in payment. He handed Merlin one of the tankards and leaned over to talk right into his ear, it was that noisy in the place. "I've been saving up, doing some extra work for the miller between harvests. You have no idea how heavy a millstone is. I've gotten rather handy with a chisel. Here, this is for you." He pressed a gold coin into Merlin's hand. "Just in case you see something you like."

Merlin frowned in confusion. He appreciated the gift – he didn't have very much money of his own, usually none at all – but he wasn't sure what Will was talking about. It wasn't as if they were in a market. Then Will nudged him hard and gestured with his tankard towards an area in the corner that had been cleared of tables for a band of musicians and space for dancing. There seemed to be a lot of young women there and far more bare shoulders and arms than Merlin was accustomed to seeing. More discomfiting than that, though, was the way some of the men and women were dancing so closely, hands wandering over all sorts of places that Merlin was fairly sure shouldn't be touched in public.

Suddenly, Merlin understood what Will meant. There were obviously things for sale here other than food and drink. This must've been his plan all along, his way of helping Merlin feel more like a man. Part of him wanted to slap Will and call him an idiot for thinking he'd be interested in doing this, but another, more primal part of him was keeping his feet rooted to the spot and his eyes fixed on nimble hands and pale skin and intriguing curves.

"They'll do just about anything for a price," Will said in a low voice, "and you can have your pick with that." He tapped the fist Merlin had closed around the coin.

Merlin could feel his cheeks growing warmer and the tips of his ears starting to tingle. And other things making their presence known. He ducked his head and took a hurried gulp of his mead as he shoved the coin into his pocket.

"Drink up," Will said as he quickly finished off his own tankard and set it back on the counter. "It'll give you courage."

"I don't need…" he started to say, but trailed off, suddenly confused as to what the rest of that sentence was going to be. He didn't need courage? Oh, he absolutely did if he was seriously considering doing what Will was suggesting. Did he need what was so flagrantly on display here? Depended on your definition of need, he supposed, and what part of his body was being asked.

There was probably no harm in finishing the mead, at least. It wasn't the best he'd ever tasted, not that he had much basis for comparison. It seemed he had very little experience with anything here. He took another sip from the tankard, but Will groaned and rolled his eyes and said, "Come on, Merlin, don't act like a prissy little girl. Drink it like a man."

He hated when Will taunted him like that. He usually tried very hard not to show his annoyance and would normally toss back an insult just as biting if not more so, although he usually went for clever instead of being so blunt. He was lost for words at the moment, though, and turned to action instead. He downed the mead in several long pulls, nearly choking himself on the last swallow. Will laughed at him and slapped him on the back, then pulled the tankard from his grip and put it on the counter. Before Merlin could even think what might happen next, Will had grabbed him by the arm and pulled him over to the dancers, right into the press of moving bodies.

"Oh! What have we here?" said a woman with a tumble of messy auburn hair, flushed cheeks and eyes that told of a good deal of drink. She pressed her body up against Merlin's and slid her hand up his neck, then trailed her fingers along the edge of his ear. "I do like unusual ears," she said huskily. "Means other things are likely to be more interesting as well."

His heart started to race and he probably would've turned and run if there hadn't been so many other people around him, hemming him in. Plus Will had his hand firmly planted between Merlin's shoulder blades, probably to keep him from scarpering.

"This is my friend Merlin," Will said, leaning over towards the woman so she could hear him clearly. "He's never been here before. It's his first time, if you take my meaning."

"Ahh!" the woman exclaimed, raking her eyes up and down Merlin's body as though she were considering some rare delicacy. He supposed he probably was just that, to someone like her. "I've got plenty of special offerings for new customers." Then she pressed her lips to his ear and whispered things that made him outright panic. "Any of those take your fancy?" she asked as she pulled back.

"Umm… I… Uh…" He looked around desperately for Will, but he'd disappeared into the mass of bodies while Merlin was having described to him in detail things he never would've imagined anyone doing. "I think I need to get another drink," he finally said, his voice unnaturally high-pitched as he pointed over his shoulder towards the counter.

"Suit yourself, dearie," the woman said with a bit of a pout. "I'll still be here later if you change your mind."

He nudged and pushed his way out of the crowd, trying to scoot away from or ignore the brash touches and flirtatious looks he was getting from the women. He was almost clear of them when someone actually grabbed his bottom and squeezed, hard. He yelped and scuttled away, heading back towards the counter. He looked around as he went, trying again to locate Will, and caught sight of him heading up the stairs to the upper level with his arm wrapped around a woman's waist. He was saying something into her ear, and she tilted her head back and laughed. It suddenly seemed like a very good idea to Merlin to wait outside.

He escaped into the relatively cooler night air and found a wooden bench along the wall of the building some distance away from the door. He collapsed there, breathing hard, the dark of the night wrapping around him. What on earth had Will been thinking, bringing him here? Well, he knew exactly what Will had been thinking. And now he couldn't help thinking about it himself and was thoroughly mortified that he had actually, for a few brief moments while they were standing there drinking their mead, seriously considered doing what Will intended. Part of him was still very interested in doing something like that, just not most of the things that woman had suggested.

He groaned and raked his fingers through his hair. He was not, not, not going back in there. He couldn't. But his body was trying to have a say, and it didn't agree.

"Hello," said a soft voice, startling him so much that he banged his head against the wall behind him.

"Ouch," he muttered, rubbing at the sore spot.

There was a light, playful laugh, and he looked over to see a young woman holding a metal lantern, the light of the candle it contained shining warmly through the horn panels set in its sides. She had dark, wavy hair and was wearing a simple frock, deep blue in color, long enough that he couldn't see her feet, and with sleeves that went nearly all the way to her wrists. She also had a pale yellow shawl embroidered with green leaves pulled around her shoulders.

"Are you all right?" she asked with a hint of amusement in her voice.

"Yes. Yes, I'm fine. Thanks for asking." He was rather embarrassed, both by having so clumsily hurt himself right in front of someone else, as well as being caught lurking outside of a place where most people were inside, quite heartily enjoying themselves. It made him feel like an outsider, a familiar experience for him, but not one that had ever been pleasant.

She walked over and sat on the bench next to him, resting the lantern on her knee, one small, graceful hand holding it secure by the ring on top. He could see her face a bit better now. She had smooth, pale skin and glittering, dark eyes. "You seem a bit lonely out here," she said. Her voice was smooth and rich, and the calming effect it had put him more at ease.

"Oh. I just … needed some fresh air."

"Ah. I see. You haven't been here before, then?"

"Noooo. Definitely not. My friend brought me here. It was his idea."

"And was it a good idea?" she asked with her head tilted to the side. The corners of her mouth were lifting with the beginnings of a smile. Her lips looked very soft and warm.

"I … haven't decided yet," he said slowly, staring at her a moment longer than was probably polite. She was very pretty. "Umm, I'm Merlin," he said awkwardly, shoving his hand out towards her.

She took his hand and shook it gently. "I'm Roslyn. Pleased to meet you, Merlin." She now had a full smile on her face, a bit of her teeth showing, and he couldn't help but return it with a grin of his own. "So are you going back inside?" she asked as she slipped her hand out of his. "You don't have to, you know."

At first he thought she was simply being friendly, or perhaps obliquely pointing out that he didn't have to do anything he didn't want to, but then he noticed she'd scooted closer to him and had tilted her head down a bit to look up at him through her lashes. He glanced down, suddenly not wanting to meet her eyes, but found himself looking at something even more unnerving. The shawl had slipped from her shoulders, revealing a neckline cut low enough that she really should have had a blouse underneath, but she didn't. What he could see wasn't truly indecent, just a bit of bare, swelling, curve and the rest covered by the bodice of her dress, but he hadn't been expecting it. She'd seemed so modest at first glance, but obviously she wasn't.

"Oh," he said faintly. He had to force himself to look back up. "You're one of them," he blurted out. She didn't deny it, but looked a bit offended at his abruptness. "I mean… That sounded rude. Sorry."

She gave half a shrug as she slid her arm under his, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow. "Don't worry about it, Merlin. You're probably one of the more polite men here tonight."

She tilted her head to rest her cheek on his shoulder. He was feeling edgy after realizing her intentions, but she seemed quite comfortable where she was and gave a contented little sigh. He found himself relaxing. This was quite nice, actually.

"So is there anything I can do for you, Merlin?" she murmured, breaking the silence. She pulled back and looked at him, one eyebrow raised. Speech completely deserted him. "It's all right to want, Merlin. To need," she said in a soft, low voice as she gently ran her hand along his jaw and swept her thumb over his lips. His mouth opened a little without his meaning to do so, and his breath caught in his throat. "And every now and then, it's good to have it. Here, come with me."

She took his hand, stood up and tugged. He got to his feet automatically and found himself following her even after she'd let go of him and had gone on a few steps ahead. He felt as if he'd lost the ability to think for himself and was giving in to pure, raw instinct.

She led him around the corner of the building and up the back stairs. The door at the top opened onto a dark corridor, a single candle in a wall bracket burning at the far end. There were quite a few … interesting … sounds coming from down that way, but Roslyn didn't take him there. She produced a key from what must've been a pocket in her skirts, unlocked a door just inside the entrance and went inside.

He stood in the doorway while she took the lantern and set it down on a table. There was a candle in a simple metal holder on the table and a small, shuttered window above. The only other furnishings in the room were a chair and a plain wooden chest to either side of the table, and on the opposite wall, a neatly made bed that was obviously meant for more than one person.

She pulled off her shawl and draped it over the back of the chair, then picked up the candle and opened the door in the side of the lantern to light it. She returned the candle to the tabletop and blew out the lantern before turning to him and gesturing for him to enter. When he didn't move, she smiled reassuringly and said, "Don't worry. I promise I won't do anything you don't want me to do."

He hesitantly entered the room, and she walked behind him to close and latch the door. Then she came back around to stand in front of him, looking at him appraisingly. "So, Merlin. What would you like?"

The things the other woman had whispered to him ran unbidden through his mind, and he felt a blush spreading across his cheeks. There was no way he could possibly repeat any of that. There was a lot of it that he most definitely did not want to do, but there were a couple of things… "Umm…" He ran the fingers of one hand through his hair and let out a nervous laugh. "I… I've never… Well, I've never done much of anything with a woman, much less asked for it."

She nodded, a bit of her smile still lingering on her lips. "Why don't you just let me figure it out, then?"

She moved closer to him and he retreated a few steps until his back was against the door. She stopped with a scant few inches between them and looked him deep in the eyes. It was a slightly uncomfortable but also tantalizing feeling, having her look at him like that.

"Oh!" he said, suddenly remembering the coin Will had given him. He pulled it out of his trouser pocket and held it up. "I suppose you'll be wanting this."

She flicked a glance sideways to see what it was, then returned her attention to his face. "Why don't you keep that until you decide whether or not you're satisfied with what you get?" Her voice was a sultry whisper full of unspoken promises. He fumbled the coin back into his pocket.

She moved a bit closer, and he felt her hands on his waist. He couldn't suppress the shudder that ran through him. Then one of her hands drifted over and downwards, to the front of his trousers, and oh, his body was most certainly begging for him to stop thinking. There was one final moment of resistance from his mind, then he leaned his head against the door, closed his eyes, and gave in to what the rest of him wanted.

There was a tugging at his waist. She was undoing the drawstring of his trousers and then pulling them down slowly. He shivered at the touch of the air, but then her hand was on him and he gasped. Of course he'd done that to himself lots of times before, but this was so, so different. Her hand was small and soft and warm and seemed to know what it was doing, and he was soon panting and trying hard not to make any noise. It probably didn't matter if he kept quiet in this place, but it was habit.

He vaguely noticed she was using her free hand to tuck the edge of his shirt up under his belt, out of the way. He wondered why she was bothering with that when everything seemed just fine – more than fine – the way it was, but then there was a rustling sound and warm breath feathering over his hip. He almost opened his eyes to see what she was doing, but then her mouth slid slowly over him and he couldn't keep himself from moaning.

His head fell back again and his hands scrabbled at the door a bit, his fingers shaking. His knees felt weak and his legs were trembling, but he somehow managed to stay upright. She did it slowly, gently, and he couldn't help but think that he was so very glad he hadn't gone with that first woman because he had no doubt that with her, it would have been fast and hard and rough.

This… This was exquisite, like nothing he'd ever felt before. He'd never even imagined how good something like this could feel. It felt entirely too good, in fact, and he knew it wasn't going to last long. He could feel the tension building in his body and tried to shift away from her, but she grabbed his hips and pushed him firmly back against the door. Her motions were a bit quicker now, but not urgent or frantic, which exactly was how he was feeling. She seemed certain and perfectly in control, which he found more than a bit exciting, and everything was still so soft and warm and wonderful.

And then fire went through him, spreading from the pit of his stomach to every part of his body. He cried out as his back arched away from the door and he couldn't speak from breathing so hard. He daren't move either. It was only because his knees were locked that he didn't crumple to the floor. When he finally regained some composure and opened his eyes, she was standing in front of him again. She wasn't looking at him, though, but at the air above and around him, a startled and awed look on her face.

There were tiny lights all around them, hundreds of them, golden and sparkling. He'd done that. He knew it instinctively. It hadn't even been conscious, but there it was, undeniable.

He quickly pulled his trousers up, his fingers tangling in the drawstring. He needed to get out of here, quickly, and run as fast and as far as he could. He turned and tried to undo the door latch, but her fingers closed around his wrist and she said, "No. Don't go. It's beautiful."

He'd never had anyone describe his magic that way before, and the hushed yearning in her voice made him stand very still. Then she was tugging at his arm, leading him away from the door and pulling him down to sit beside her on the bed. The lights followed them, and she was watching them the entire time, but as they faded, she turned and looked at him, an odd mixture of joy and sadness in her eyes.

"I don't suppose you could make them come back?" she asked shyly, but there was a hint of intimate suggestion in her voice as well.

"I'm not sure. That's never happened before. I don't think I even know where to begin."

"Oh, I do," she said, and now the innuendo was brimming through her voice. His breathing hadn't quite settled back to normal yet, and now it was speeding up again as she undid the belt cinched around his waist and tossed it to the side. His thoughts were still in a whirl as well, and he wondered what she was doing. Then she pulled his tunic up and over his head and off his arms in one swift movement.

"Wait. I don't… I can't…"

She paused and said gently, "Hush. I know. I won't do anything more than I've already done, but I think you might need a little encouragement to get there. You may be young, but no man's that … resilient." She slid her hand slowly down his bare chest, and he shivered. Just one touch was all it took for his hesitation to disappear as if it had never been. It was as if she had magic in her fingers, but not the kind that needed spells or a flash of golden light in the eyes.

He'd never had a woman touch his bare skin in a place normally covered by his clothing, except for his mother, of course, which didn't count, and Nialla, who was a shameless flirt and had pulled him behind a tree to kiss him, just to make Bowen jealous. She'd pressed her tongue between his lips and had slid her hand under his shirt, stroking the skin on his side just above his waist, but then she'd pulled away and run off laughing. She'd married Bowen the following month, and they'd moved to another village.

He watched entranced as Roslyn slid fluidly off the bed and knelt on the floor. She was still looking up at him, though, and he kept his gaze fixed on her, on her eyes so dark in the candlelight. He could easily get lost there and never want to leave again. Then he noticed she was starting to tug his boots off. He leaned over to try and help but she firmly pushed his hands away. "No. Let me."

Just the thought of having a woman undress him with intentions to do decadent things to him was enough to send his pulse racing again, and she was actually doing it. He had to remind himself to breathe or he very likely might've passed out.

Once she'd gotten his boots and socks off, she told him to stand up. He wasn't sure he could at first, his legs were shaking so badly, but he managed. She tugged his trousers down again, and this time he watched her do it. She'd been right about the encouragement because he wasn't quite ready to be doing anything again, but he was getting there, and quickly.

She leaned around him, her soft, silky hair brushing against the side of his thigh, and tugged the coverlet down the bed. Then she pulled back and gave him a little shove with a hand on either hipbone, making him sit down with a thump on the sheet. It was the roughest she'd been with him, but he rather enjoyed the thrill it gave him.

She finished pulling his trousers off, then stood to gather his clothing and deposit it all on the chair by the desk. After that she sauntered back over to him and looked him slowly up and down. "Lean back a bit," she said, and he did, putting his arms behind him to brace himself. He felt somewhat self-conscious at first – he knew he was quite a bit lankier than most women found attractive – but there was a seductive glimmer in her eyes that was doing all sort of things to him, cold and shivery, warm and glowing, both at the same time.

"You're beautiful," she whispered. First his magic, now him? He doubted he'd ever be able to hear that word again and not blush to the tops of his ears.

Then she sank down in front of him, ran her hands down his thighs and nudged his knees apart. Just that bit of commanding pressure was all he needed for arousal to flood completely through him again. She gave him a little smile and moved forward into the space between his legs, her hands on his thighs again. "You might want to lie down," she said with a quirked eyebrow. "I doubt you'll be able to keep yourself propped up like that for long."

He did as she suggested. She was probably right, judging from how weak-limbed and shaky he'd been before, but he felt awkward and vulnerable lying sideways across the bed with his feet still on the floor and not a stitch of clothing on his body.

"Close your eyes," she murmured, perhaps sensing his unease. "Just like before."

He did, and it helped immensely, allowing him to simply focus on the sensations. His hands fisted in the sheet underneath him at her first gentle touch, and when she slid her mouth over him again, he was lost. It was even better than before, long and slow and achingly sweet. She responded to every twitch of his muscles, every breath that he took, every moan that slipped out. It was as if she knew him better than he did himself, knew what he wanted, what he needed, and gave it to him tenfold.

When the climax came this time, all wildfire and rushing blood and hammering heart, his senses completely abandoned him for a moment. After awareness crept back into him, he opened his eyes to find the sweep of golden stars had returned. Roslyn had climbed onto the bed with him and was lying on her side, her arm across his stomach. "Beautiful…" she whispered.