Title of Story: Crooked

Word Count: 11,719

Type of Edward: Regency Edward

Category: Literotica

Story Summary: AH ExB In 1817, the matter of courting was more than a social game, it was a rite of passage, for all except one awkward, lonely, wealthy woman, Isabella Swan. As she crosses the sea from New York to London, she comes across the path of a man of means—one Edward Cullen. She has a singular goal in mind— end her spinsterhood immediately. And if he will not do the honors himself, then he can at least have the decency to help her find the right candidate. If he refuses to cooperate, he may find himself floating home. Rated M. Lemons.

Disclaimer: The author does not own any publicly recognizable entries herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

August 4, 1817

"That crooked girl over there," Edward pointed, "tell her I'll have my tea now."

"The brunette?" Jasper wrinkled his nose.

"Yes—the plain one who's bent over that book. Shouldn't she be busy tending to us?"

Jasper snickered and glanced at the girl then looked away.

"She is not a servant." Jasper leaned against the railing. "She's one of us."

"Surely you jest. Look at her—" Edward exhaled with a grating noise "—she's dressed in the drabbest clothes possible. She cannot possibly have money."

"She has more than you." Jasper grinned. "It is by choice she dresses this way."

"Good Lord in Heaven, why would she want to look like a beggar?" Edward squinted and bent over to look around his colleague. "You play tricks on me again?"

"I do nothing of the sort." Jasper snorted. "You know I despise artifice in all its forms and would never lower myself to do such a thing. Besides . . . you talk of her clothing when you have the audacity to go to England dressed in a French fly? It's indecent, man. No one wears those there."

Edward glanced down at the front of his breeches then adjusted his cravat. "It is anything but indecent. It's perfectly acceptable."

"Yes, you have expensive buckskin, but it is the cut of your waistcoat . . . Pffft! You cry out for attention from wanton women."

"Are there any other kind? They all come at me from every side, looking for a handout." Edward looked over the lady again. "There is some mistake, for she is nothing like us."

"'Tis true—she's of the fairer sex," Jasper teased then clapped him on the back and walked away in search of a winsome female batting lashes at him on the deck.

"I will discover this woman for myself. He is a lying knave," Edward told himself as he approached the woman, intent on devouring her book for it almost brushed the tip of her nose now.

"Excuse me, but I'll take my tea now," he said, pausing for her reaction.

"Good idea. I'll have some, too. Ring for it, would you?" She handed him a bell without even looking up at him.

He barked a laugh. "You think I am the servant here? I admit my footman dresses better than most, but I let him retire to his room since he's experiencing a queasy stomach from this rickety old boat."

She blinked, went stiff then finally let her head pull back so she could gaze on him. "No . . . You are right. You are much too handsome for a servant, and I've seen the one you are traveling with. I once had a peasant more hideous than me, serve my tea. It was a fright to try and swallow when he was nearby. It wasn't because of his gruesome visage though. It was because he was a brute. He killed a rat in my room and dangled it in front of my face as I had just swallowed. It ruined the rest of my day because I had already thought to let him take my virginity, but that ended it all." She took a deep breath and blew out with pursed lips, releasing her puffed cheeks.

He gasped. "Are you in earnest? Did you manage to share your most unseemly moment with me in a matter of seconds, when I am nothing more than a stranger on a private boat with you?" He failed to blink and his eyes were so wide they stung.

"I suppose you will do, though. I should like to be kissed after my tea. And I want to have relations in my personal lodgings, not yours, so you may leave when you are finished. I do not expect you to stay or say anything pleasant afterward since I am sure I will be awkward and less than titillating at this. But I refuse to go one more year as a spinster."

Edward grinned and his right brow popped up, curving his lip up more so on that side to match it. "Is that so? You're a spinster, are you?" He sat next to her and rang the bell.

"I am. At the age of twenty and seven, what else can I be? And I am fine to remain my own mistress, but I want to die without my maidenhead intact."

He snickered. "You think it a curse, do you?"

"Yes, I do."

"And why should I help take this cross from you?" He watched her carefully.

"Men like to give chase, and they revel in sport, so I cannot offer you that, but I do know my puss should feel like any other virgins since it would be new and possibly tight. At least I think it would be tight. I see no reason it should be anything other than satisfactory for your manhood." She blinked a few times like she was in deep thought.

"My word, but you are a straightforward little thing," he mused, looking over every inch of her.

She positively glowed when his eyes raked over her chest. "I have an adequate bosom, I should think."

"It is decent from this angle." He smirked. "But I still have no reason to take you in your bed. Why would I do that with a stranger?"

"Have you ever bedded a stranger before?" She colored slightly about the ears and swallowed like it was a difficult task, then went right back to staring at him with her big brown eyes. "You are Edward Cullen—a man of means. I am Isabella Swan—a woman of much greater means, so I have no reason to seek anything from you other than this. There is no ulterior motive; nothing amiss. There would be no attachment, and you would do me a great honor to help me with this so I do not have to find a servant to do it." Once more she blinked several times. Her brow furrowed and she exhaled while leaning forward a little.

Was she gaining a stitch in her side from talking so quickly? Was it winding her?

He shifted his weight into the balls of his feet to get a little closer without being obvious.

"Yes, you'll do nicely." She searched his face.

He threw his head back, chuckled and rapped his knuckles on the table.

A large burly servant approached them. "My lord, you rang?" He looked like he had an irritating splint shoved up his backside.

"Tea please, and she will take hers with cream, for the lady has an affinity for it." Edward licked his bottom lip and waited for her to protest, but she remained impassive.

She bowed her head to Edward and then gave the servant a look of interest.

A flare of heat tore through Edward's chest and for some damnable reason he grabbed her hand and kissed the back of it. "Should we discuss the particulars of our unusual agreement then?"

"We shall."

He shooed off the servant. "You are adorable when you ramble, even though I thought in the beginning you were plain and deceiving me. Why do you dress in this manner? I am certain that man was confused, thinking you of his station." He motioned his head toward the man's retreating form.

"Oh, Emmett knows who I am. He's seen me on this boat many times. I travel a great deal, and I've already asked him to end my torment, but he refused me."

"Then perhaps he knows something I do not." He gave her a questioning look.

"I am sure that is the case, since he is not interested in any women at all. He looks to men to warm his bed." She turned a lovely shade of pink from the top of her collar to her brows.

"I see . . ."

"If you do, then I desire you keep that to yourself. I do not care if you share his proclivities toward men. I just need this." She gripped his hand he had failed to let go of. "Please, just do this small favor for me, and if you wish, I will not exit my lodgings again. You will not be embarrassed by me and my awkward nature, my crooked body or failures to do anything other than repulse men."

"You are harsh on yourself, good woman." Though he couldn't really argue with all of her proclamation; she was a very strange girl.

"After this, I shall be a woman, and I can do what I like without worry or fear. I can go on with the knowledge I at least experienced this rite of passage."

"If we are to do this deed, then I take charge, not you. Thus far, you have controlled most of this conversation, and though I'm not averse to allowing a lady to have the final word, I do not enjoy an aggressive woman."

"Yes—whatever you say, Edward." She nodded with a placating smile affixed in place.

His eyes narrowed.

"You are to share with me this instant how you even know who I am." His voice was stern.

She cast her eyes down and yanked her hand away. "I studied the passenger list, and since there were only a dozen men aboard, I tried to learn of them so I could ascertain which might be the most likely to come to my aid without much fuss," she said, her voice going soft and breaking. She fought off what looked like a tremble of shame. "Men . . ." she looked away ". . . they do not want me. I understand why. I do not possess the womanly wiles that catch a man's appetites, and I am too verbose about my knowledge. They find it off-putting, so what am I to do apart from paying a man to be with me in this intimate fashion? But you must know—men are not the only ones with an ego. I cannot do it. I have tried. I cannot pay a man for this when I know it should be something special, and I already desecrate it by my . . . By my actions."

"There are many aspects and reasons a man might be attracted to a woman; her voice." She flushed a darker pink, so he continued, "Or her soft, pale skin." He ran his index finger up the back of her hand and dawdled at her wrist. "Or maybe he enjoys conversation with her."

"You see . . . Already I fail at all of these." Her eyes watered. What was she going on about? Her skin was a lovely pale shade and very soft to the touch. She sniffled and continued, "Please . . . I promise I will keep quiet, even when it's unpleasant and hurts me."

His head jerked back. "You think I'd tear right through you like that?"

"As you have pointed out—I am a stranger to you as you are to me. I only know you have a fortune—well-earned of course, but you may be a cad in bed." A tear leaked out of her right eye. "I am willing to submit to anything you like, only do this one thing for me."

He leaned forward, brushed a few stray hairs behind her ear. Then he kissed her forehead.

Her breath caught, and when he cupped her jaw and brushed his lips over hers she stopped breathing entirely. "How responsive you are. Some men like that."

"I care only about what you might like if it means you'll come with me to my room."

"Go then. Put on a pretty sheer night rail so when I arrive, you are ready and waiting. I want to see what I touch. No dark room for you, crooked lady."

"I like that you called me that just now," she said, smiling with soft eyes. The way she spoke so honestly and looked upon him as if she was honored to even breathe near him made his heart race.

"I will see you soon then?" she asked as she rose out of her chair.

"I will drink my tea first, and see to something, then, yes, I will be there for you."

She curtsied, gave a cute, shy smile then all but fled from him like she might come to her wits and change her mind.

He sighed and when that dreadful tea arrived, he simply dumped it over the side of the ship. They had no idea what tea was supposed to taste like.

Or women.

He was happy to be leaving his past behind and get far away from American women.

Although, this stirring creature was something else entirely. Not at all like the women who frequently fawned all over him and lied to get at his money.

Edward's heels clicked as he walked with purpose through the hallway and instead of asking how to get to her chambers, he went to his own.

He had done many criminal things before, but this one . . . This one he would not do. He would not take her innocence when that was the one thing he liked about her so much, other than her way of speaking so honestly without a thought of how she might be perceived.

Yes, this odd woman should stay just as she was. He would not change her.




At dinner over the next two nights, Isabella picked at her food.

In bed she cried.

No one ever came to her room.

Not Edward. Not Emmett, and most certainly not the other servant she fell upon—Michael.

They all treated her like she was the vermin aboard ship; unwelcome and unpleasant to deal with.

When it came time for breakfast the next morning, rather than languish at her table, filled with nothing but icy blue humiliation, she tore out the page in her book she'd been reading when Edward had approached her two days ago and wrote a small note at the bottom:

May your travels be swift, and your company divine. May your security bring you peace, for there is nothing grander than having lofty ideals.

She rang the bell pull for room service.

There was a knock a moment later and she opened it without delay.

"Will you see to it Mr. Edward Cullen gets this?" She passed him the folded up note.

"Yes, ma'am." He bowed and left.

She went back to her bed, flopped onto it and wept until the counterpane was damp in so many places there was no longer a dry area to rest on.

She got up and in a fit of temper, put on her most frilly, expensive gown, applied some rouge and plaited her hair.

Without another thought, she was out of her room and roaming on the deck, making a spectacle of herself.

So what if she was being unwise and looked like a trollop? It was her right to do so.

Wasn't that what she was, with how she was trying to whore herself out?

"I will never know a man," she muttered then stopped by the edge of the staircase, contemplating going to breakfast like this.

They might still be serving it. She could go get her goblet and find her usual spot in the dining area to wallow and nibble at her food.

Her stomach was making lewd noises with the way it moaned at her.

She sighed and released her own groan of frustration.

What was she doing, being out here in this frightful state?

And in heels that made her ankles ache no less.

She launched herself through the hall before someone saw her, and as she turned the corner, she tripped and crashed into something formidable and breathing.

"Ahhhh!" she screeched and then covered her mouth when she realized she was screaming in some man's ear.

Piercing green eyes bore into hers a moment later. He grabbed her by the arm and she cursed herself at this awful luck.

"I am unwell, please unhand me," she said, pulling away.

"Will you stay still so I can assess if you are okay to go on your way without my assistance?" His voice was tight, and his lips so thin she could swear they had lost all color.

"I am perfectly capable of crashing my way into my chamber without you."

"Hell is but a stone's throw away on this decrepit ship, so if I release you, there is a fairly good chance you might fall into its clutches." He grinned saucily at her.

Her gut about burst open, she was so nauseous at the thought of him teasing her since he was most assuredly referring to her seeking out men to add a new facet to her night life.

"Yes, well, I . . . I'm told there is a decent library there, so it might be a good place for me. I assume the Devil will afford me that small luxury." She trudged on ahead, but could hear him following.

She quickened her pace.

There was this clicking, breathy noise. Was he laughing at her?

Tears stung in her eyes and her nostrils flared.

She turned to him right before barreling her way into her room. "If you will excuse me. I won't bother you again. I'm so sorry you had to see me and my hideous face."

He lurched forward. She flinched.

"So skittish . . . I was only going to . . ." He wiped her tears away with his thumbs as his palms curled around her ears with his fingers tickling in her hair at the roots.

Her scalp tingled and must've caught fire since her head swam in heated thoughts.

She kept her eyes averted.

"Isabella . . . What was the meaning of this?" He pulled the note out and dangled it in front of her breasts, still keeping one hand in her hair, fisting it, loosening her plait.

She fought off a whimper. Her knees were losing rigidity and strength. "I only meant . . ." she trailed off, her voice going weaker than her knees.

"You meant to teach me a lesson, didn't you?"

"No. I wouldn't begin to entertain the thought of how to teach a worldly man like yourself anything at all. I am inexperienced, and I know this." She moistened her lips, and they pricked with the memory of his lips whispering over them.

"I didn't mean it as a slight by not coming to you the other night." He gripped her chin and tipped it up, but she looked over his shoulder. His voice went gruff. "I was respecting the most important gift you have to bestow. You are obvious about your dislike of me. Women have told me they detest being treated as a pair of nice breasts and comely legs to be spread on a whim. I am not all that keen to be used as a stick to put your French letter on as well, so for once, I understand what these women feel."

Her face was licked by flames, it was so hot. "How did you . . . ?"

"If you are searching for a temporary lover, and if you are as intelligent as you say, then you are prepared and ready to avoid an unwanted pregnancy and disease. I am sorry, Isabella . . ." He kissed the corner of her mouth. "I cannot be that man for you and wear your French letter on my cock, but maybe once we are in London, I can help you find a suitable prospect. I have some business associates—all honorable men. Would this be acceptable to you?"

She nodded and bit her bottom lip.

Her teeth slipped off when he released her chin. That simple act made her stomach flip. For some incomprehensible reason she wanted this man and no other. No one else had made her stomach dance with butterflies like he did. It felt like more than a business transaction she desired in the manner of taking him to her bed. She wanted to try and entice him, seduce him so he'd want her in return.

"Good. Now, I am to enter your chambers, situate you since you're unwell, and then you are to explain this note."

She nodded once more and her heart warmed.

Why was he being so nice? He couldn't possibly like her.

"Edward . . . ?"

"Yes?" He stared in her eyes.

"You are wrong about one thing—I like you very much." She smiled.

He smiled back with a softness in his eyes that she'd never seen from a man before while looking at her. Her! Isabella Swan—the creature that looked like a demon already. They all must've thought she'd escaped from Hell when Satan was busy with other matters.

He opened her door, waited for her to enter her chamber and then followed after her, closing the door behind him.

"Strip to your chemise," he said, his eyes lighting up for a moment. "And take your stockings off."

"Excuse me?" Her voice cracked and her eyebrows peaked up on her forehead.

"You heard me. And I know you are a smart one, so do it. You cannot pretend to be squeamish now after propositioning me. I'll put you back in bed so you can recover and then you can create a list tomorrow of the qualities you'd most like to see in a man you'll take to your bed to end your agony." He smirked.

"This is less than humorous. I am in dire need of becoming a woman." Her fists clenched into tight little balls, forcing her fingernails to indent her palms.

"A list," he repeated. "Make one."

"Oh, a list? Like I am truly shopping now? How droll . . ." She rolled her eyes. "I am not undressing with you here either. You may take your leave of me now, sir."

"I will not." He roamed around her, circling like she was nothing more than an item bought and in need of inspection. She sucked in a tight piece of air that felt like a knife shoving its way down her lungs. "I tire already of this conversation."

"You need my help, woman, and I intend to give it." He stepped up to her, gripped her upper arms and shook her a little. "If you insist on going down this path, you will at least do it safely, and I know how to get you there."

She sniffed and fought off tears. He smelled like a man, and she really wanted more of this. He was the first to be this close to her so she could get this kind of deep whiff. It made her nipples tingle and tighten as her breath caught for a moment. She emitted this squeaking noise when he hugged her.

Or at least that was what she thought he was doing until she felt him unraveling her dress. He pulled it off her shoulders and allowed it to puddle on the floor. In the next moment, his fingers were at her stays, loosening them.

"Stop. That!" she hissed.

He squeezed her tight, holding her immobile with his arms of steel bands, and yet his fingers kept busy, peeling her out of her corset.

How was he so dexterous?

Oh yes . . . He had been with women. He'd made that abundantly clear.

Tears spilled down her cheeks. She'd never be like those women.

"No one wants me," she whispered on a gust of air she expelled when he squished her tight to his chest. "Even my parents before their death . . ." She let that thought die. Must she forever be insignificant and ignored?

He heaved her up, then ripped her covers down. "Rest. You need it. That mind of yours never stops, and it's tiring to say the least to watch you spin yourself into a mass of confusion. It's a waste of a fine mind. I command you to stop for the day."

"Okay." She sighed when he set her in the bed, clad in nothing more than her undergarments. He removed her stockings in the next breath. She pretended her chest was doing something else, rather than this ridiculous clenching every few seconds.

It was hard to breathe when he kept touching her inadvertently while he went about seeing to her comfort.

He released her hair from the plait and fanned her tresses out around her.

When he put the linens over her, he grimaced. "This bed is wet."

"I was crying."

"Over me?"

"Over me and my horrendous life." She turned away, but he pulled her back. "I have no inkling of what I am doing wrong and how to fix it."

"Isabella—look at me."

She shook her head and closed her eyes. "Fine, you can be stubborn with your sight, but your ears will listen. There is nothing the matter with you. It is all about finding the right person."

"Like you did? Were none of them special enough to travel with or to keep as a constant companion? Don't you weary of always being on your own? Or maybe you were discerning but still . . . You are alone, like me." She opened her watery eyes and blinked away the tears.

"Why is this of such grave importance to you? You act as if you are about to expire. I have never seen a woman so focused and intent as you are on losing such a thing as this." He ran the backs of his right fingers down her hair on the pillow in front of her.

"My virginity really is not the issue at hand. It's that . . ." She took a shuddering breath and let a moment of clarity wash over her. "It's that I am about to take full control over my father's company. For centuries it has only been run by men in the family line. But there are no more men in the Swan lineage. I am all that is left. When my parents were killed, I inherited it all. If I am to take command of a giant, elite work force, men building ocean liners, how can I do it with confidence, knowing there is not a man around for miles that thinks me worthy of at least rutting in? If I am not good for that, how will I . . . I mean, I have the mind to deal with the numbers, but what of my appeal? Women command men based on their ability to flirt, to seduce. I have none of those wiles. But if I secretly know I was able to at least take one man to bed, I could do anything." Her cheeks were wet again. She picked up the counterpane and smeared the evidence away.

"Sexual congress is not about power for women. It's about love," he explained, his eyes gentle and steady.

"And I am not like other women, otherwise I would have found the proper bed fellow long ago. I am logical—I can see how sex is for benefit and pleasure. I do not wish to grow attached with sentimental feelings. They would only get in the way, and any man that ever shows me interest thinks to deceive me so they can attain my fortune. I will not be the simpering dolt of a woman that gave it away, thinking a man truly besotted with me. I do not fool myself to think anyone can love me. I'm too odd."

His eyes flashed over her arm.

"Ah, and homely, too." She straightened her arm. "This is my badge of honor for trying to save my parents. The thief broke my arm by stomping his foot over it, and he left me for dead in the street after shooting me with his poor aim." Her tight thready voice was giving out on her. She swallowed and shook her head. "The doctor couldn't set it right. He said it was shattered in several places, so this is my reward. A crooked arm for a crooked, deranged girl." Her eyes went over to her dress. "I see no need to dress up and parade about as if I am anything other than repulsive. I save my money, hoping to do good with it—to help others, rather than spend it on myself and put on airs."

He nodded with a soft smile. "Those are the all the wiles you need, Isabella. You go on being a good person." He patted her twisted arm. "You do well by yourself. I already see you are way too good for the likes of me, and now even more so I am pleased I did not take your virginity away like some villain in the night—akin to the man that shot you. You deserve better than a quick fucking and being left behind ravaged, and half-dead."

Her chest exploded in warmth. Did he actually care about her? "Will you stay with me until sleep renders me useless? Please?" Her eyes implored him as they went heavy. She was exhausted with all this chatter. It never was her gift to speak to anyone at all. She preferred reading and math over conversing with people. They never understood her.

"I will if it helps to sate you." He went to the corner and sat in the chair.

"If you would . . ." she dipped her head ". . . sit closer. If I can hear you breathing, then I'll know you did not abandon me in my time of need. I have dreadful dreams." She yawned and tucked the covers under her chin. "They haunt me sometimes, and especially when I travel alone without my abigail."

"Why did you leave your personal servant behind then?"

"She was with child, and she is already nauseous." That tingle and heat was still present in her chest, all because he was here with her, not turning her away. He spoke to her with kindness. Might he reconsider over the next few days and maybe take her to bed after all?

"You did not dismiss her when she abased herself thusly by allowing herself to conceive?" His eyes flew wide.

"Why would I? She needs steady employ now more than ever, and she's one of the few people I can tolerate to be around. She is quiet, studious, and she understands my need to have intermittent solitude." Her fingers flexed over the edge of the linens. "She's worth more than money can buy."

He chuckled. "So are you, my dear. So are you . . . Of that, I have no doubt." He gave her an affectionate smile.

"But I . . ." She tried to sit up, but he pushed her back down. "I do not even know how to kiss a man. How can I please someone as a lover?"

"How you do blurt your thoughts," he mused. "You should be more concerned about the fact you will need to be selective and find someone that can pleasure you."

"That's the least of my concerns."

He took her hand in his, cupped it and rubbed his thumb across the top. "Why is that?"

"Oh . . ." She stared at his moving finger. "That little movement—it creates tingles between my legs. Is that normal?"

"I should hope so." He pulled her knuckles up to his lips and slid a kiss across each one.

"And that . . . That there!" Her eyes grew wide and lit up like a wild fire. "It makes my stomach flip about like a fish brought on deck. Is that okay?"

"It is more than okay. You are very responsive, and men like to be told that they have an effect on a woman's desire." He blinked and his eyes went lazy with how heavy his lids were.

"That look. Is it what a man might give me if he wants me?" She stared into his eyes.

They were dark with the way they looked at her like she was his prey. Her stomach really danced now.

"They will, yes." He wet his lips then pursed for a moment.

"Will you kiss me? Can I practice a little? I promise I will only do what you want me to," she said so low he probably couldn't even hear her. She was shrinking down into the mattress at how crude she was being, but she couldn't help it. He was such a beautiful man with a tenderhearted soul.

"You would like to use me to your benefit?" He chuckled, and it was low and dark and a little unsettling because . . .

"Oh God, that laugh . . . Now I feel a little slippery between my thighs. What should I do about that? Will it embarrass a lover and make them think me wretched to be in this state from merely thinking about a kiss? If they are half as good looking as you, I might fall to pieces. You are the most handsome man I've ever seen." She could barely think with the way he was gazing on her. It was more intent and focused at this point.

"He will thank his maker for having such a woman as you who is easily aroused. Do you know how much work it can be to make a woman amorous and slippery with wet desire, ready to come so soon? Hmm . . . ?"

His purring, throaty sound made her insides clench. "Now you make my organs down below pulse with some fierceness I've never experienced before. If you kiss me, I do not know if I can take it without fainti—"

His lips crushed hers, cutting her off, and a loud, vibrating moan wafted out of her as she clung to his broad, hard shoulders.

In the next moment, he was lingering over her, then lowering his body weight atop her. It was suffocating, but she adored it in a way she never could've fathomed. She wanted more. She wanted to be buried into the mattress by him.

"Oh, more . . . Please! Do not stop. I need a lot more practice," she whimpered when the kiss broke.

He took a deep, whining-sounding breath and then went back for more. His tongue flicked out at the center of her lips, and her pursing mouth gaped for him.

When the wetness from him was introduced into her mouth, she moaned low and heavy and throbbed down below until it ached so bad she could do nothing but seek him out for some kind of relief.

"It hurts . . . It burns with need. What am I to do about it?" she asked between gasping breaths.

"You go to sleep before I do something stupid and hurt you, little girl." He pulled her claws off his shoulders, folded her arms over her stomach and took a seat.

"Sleep?" She swallowed the word down. How could she do anything now other than crawl out the door to find someone else to kiss and take her to bed since he clearly did not fancy doing that again with her? She had definitely misunderstood—thinking him warming to her when he was clearly only placating her.

"Yes, my crooked woman. You need your rest. Tomorrow you give me a list of what you want, and I shall help you find it."

She nodded and stretched for a moment then curled into the bed, turning away from him. It was difficult, but she hid the cracking and splintering of her heart along with her silent tears.

He hummed with a low, rumbling sound, and in no time at all, she was drifting off to the rhythm of his song and the cadence of his breath.

Her heart could finish breaking tomorrow when she had to face what she truly was—a monster, relegated to walk this life alone.




That night at dinner, Edward's chest was tight and his head hot. He had to do something to get her out of his mind.

"I tell you this, Jasper, she will never bore you. She is the perfect paramour for you."

Jasper scratched his chin. "This is not how I operate. You know I rarely take on a mistress," he said, giving Edward a hesitant look and then glanced past him at Isabella, picking at her food down the way. "She's such a tiny reed of a girl. I am used to women with more substantial curves than that."

"And what? A willing virgin with an engaging mind and discretion as her guide is not appealing to you? She needs someone steady. She will never leave you unsatisfied and bored. See this list she gave me? You fit her description of what she is looking for, and she is uninterested in anything permanent. Just a little dalliance to help her gain more self-esteem. That is all she needs. She won't be hard to please since she's never been a love interest before." Edward pulled out her list and handed it to his friend.

"What is this? A poem? Do you think I am here for your amusement so you can pull pranks?" Jasper flung it at him.

"What?" Edward grabbed it and gaped at the paper he'd accidentally handed over. "Oh, that." He laughed. "That little chit . . . When I would not bed her, she sent me this at dinner. It's Shakespeare's poem, Sweet and Twenty. I'm not sure exactly what she meant by it, but she is very witty. I meant to catch the meaning from her but got sidetracked by her." He grinned and shook his head over the fond memory of watching her sleep and listening to her prattle on while unconscious about how she had nice breasts, and why didn't men seem to notice them?

Jasper got up, and before Edward could stop him, he was chasing after his friend, now before the woman in question and bowing.

"May I take a seat at your side?" Jasper asked her.

"Certainly. I do not own this vessel. Only this one." She pointed at a silver goblet before her. "I never trust any cup that is not in my possession while traveling. One can never be too careful about the food and drink while aboard a ship."

Jasper smiled at her.

A frisson of crackling putrid feelings ripped through Edward as he took a seat next to Jasper, entirely too far away from her.

"Yes, I can see how a common goblet could be worrisome to someone of your stature," Jasper replied. "But what I do not comprehend, is why you care to be my paramour, yet you send a love note to my friend here. Can you explain this?" Jasper ripped the note out of Edward's hands and placed it before her.

Edward stood and grabbed it back. "Jasper—a word?"

"In a moment. She has yet to answer my query." Jasper held up a hand.

She dipped her head, paused then took a deep breath, her eyes held on her plate. "It was meant as a joke; I considered tearing out Shakespeare's poem, A Lover's Complaint, but since I am not a lover and therefore cannot complain, I thought it in poor taste and left it in my book. I am sorry if my sense of humor offends you, sir. Usually I am more inclined to keep my quirks to myself."

"Such as?" Jasper continued on.

"Well," she lifted her head enough to gaze at his chest, "I am wont to read the Twelfth Night each time I am aboard a ship. For some reason it helps me to feel more aloft. I can concentrate better if I think of the comedy in my situation. Floating adrift on the sea, where I have no real control, well, it's a bit upsetting to me. I like to know I can handle myself in all things, and a captain has the ultimate say, does he not?" Her lashes fluttered for a moment.

Good God, was she flirting? Actually trying to catch Jasper's attention? The thought sickened Edward.

Edward's chest tightened to an unbearable degree. This was not what he intended . . .

Yes, it is. You wanted this. You were just trying to convince him moments ago to take her on as his lover for the next six months while he's abroad in London with you.

"He certainly does have the ultimate say. And do you handpick your captains?" Jasper stared at her mouth.

Edward's teeth ground together and his fingers flexed.

"I do. I always sail on this boat because he's not averse to listening to my ramblings when I get uptight about silly things. He knows I will compensate him accordingly with generous amounts of money for his trouble." She bit her bottom lip and her cheeks flushed.

Good Lord, but she was stunning when she did that. Her eyes were like a stormy sky, hued with brown earth, whipped into the fray.

She reached for her a drink a moment later and took a dainty sip.

"And how do you intend to compensate me if I take you on as my mistress?" Jasper's breathing went heavy.

She sputtered on a cough. "Pardon? I thought you were in jest earlier. A lover? I never agreed to such a thing. I hardly know you." She wrinkled her nose in distaste.

Though it was shocking she was acting this way since Edward knew she was trying to find a man to spread her legs and take hold of her, he was pleased for some inexplicable reason that she was turning down Jasper.

"Precisely," Edward said, reaching for her. "This was a test, you see." He took her and shoved her behind him, far away from Jasper's reach.

"I knew you were playing tricks on me. Do you think I enjoy being toyed with in this manner?" Jasper stood and his chest barreled outward as he huffed.

"No. I meant only to protect this innocent creature behind me. She thinks she is ready for a life of bawdy sin, and I know differently. She is entirely too delicate to be treated callously." Edward rolled his shoulders back, expanding his chest to its full breadth.

"But you said she needs my connections for her shipping industry. I own the largest share of steel on the American continent," Jasper responded, his eyes pressed into slits.

"I don't need you for that," she said, gawking. "I have my own means, my own people I use for ship building." She grabbed Edward's shoulders from behind, and this primal need surged through him to protect her and hide her away in a cave where only he could have access to her.

"We can all come to some kind of agreement later. I'm sure there are areas of expansion needed on all fronts." Edward stepped backward, careful not to tread on her.

Jasper's face reddened. "Edward—if you think I'll do business with you after this, then you are—"

"What if I said I would increase you profit margin significantly? You know I am a fair man to do business with, and my sales will increase once I am in London where rapiers are in much higher demand than in America." Edward grabbed her hands and slid them down to his waist.

She gripped onto him tight. His heart enlarged. For some reason, his cock did, too. It swelled in his breaches and lengthened until he knew his friend would most likely notice how Edward was responding to this reed of a crooked woman behind him.

"Yes, you will most definitely increase my intake. You need my business more than ever. Do not cross me again, or you will cease to be the finest sword maker in all of England. Mark my words—I am not to be trifled with!" Jasper cast her a glowering look then marched off.

Edward took her by the hand without looking at her and brought them out onto the deck.

When Edward stopped and finally turned around to face her, she was covered in tears.

"I am so sorry, my poor, dear woman. I was only . . . I only meant to . . ."

She collapsed into him. "Another man who casts me aside!" She gripped onto his waist coat lapels and proceeded to weep into his chest. "I thought if I played hard-to-get, he might take the bait. But now it's ruined, and all because I cannot hold my stupid tongue."

"You are not at all to blame. Do you hear me? I am the one—me solely—responsible for what just transpired."

"Were you really trying to teach me a lesson?" Her sobs stopped, and out of nowhere, smaaaack!

Her hand connected with his cheek and she must've grown two inches taller because she was in his face snarling. "I do not need you or anyone else to teach me, help me find a mate, or show me why I am pathetic beyond compare!"

She took off running, and in that moment, the boat hit a wave and tilted.

Her unsteady feet went out from under her and a loud craaaack! echoed in the air.

Her head went lax and bent to the side. There was no sign of life.

She lay in a limp puddle on the ground.

"Isabella! My God!" He scrambled after her, lifted her in his arms and raced off the deck and down the hall to his room.

He pounded on the door until his footman opened it.

"Get out! You are done tidying my room for the day. Fetch a doctor immediately!" Edward gingerly sprawled her out on his bed while his servant retreated from the room. "For the love of God, please wake up." He patted her pale cheeks. "Please, you cannot do this! I like you. I earnestly like you, and I'll kiss you again."

Her lashes moved.

"I'll take you as my own, just don't . . ." He rested his cheek on her chest, listening for a heartbeat.

Her bosom wiggled. "Stop that. I'm ticklish," she said, giggling while her hands drifted through his hair.

His head popped up and he glared at her.

"You deserved to be taught a lesson as well." She smirked.

"You were conscious the entire time?" He set his palm over her heart.

"Well, not really. I blacked out for a few minutes, until I was being jostled about so. My head really hurts all due to you carrying me about like a sack of dirty laundry." She grinned. "I'll thank you to next time deposit me in my own room, unless you really do intend to take me for your own."

Oh that voice. It was thick as lush velvet desire, brushing across his thickened cock.

"You are sure you want this?" His right brow rose.

"Is there another man in this room with me that has kissed me and made my stomach feel on fire then melt into my loins?"

"I don't know. Is there?" Another pang of green bilious jealous rage lanced through his chest. He stood straight and crossed his arms over his chest. "And if so, who is he? I'd like to introduce him to my newest rapier, sharp enough to split hairs."

"The only hair splitting around here is yours. You're about to combust. Oh my . . ." Her hand flew over her mouth. "Is this . . . Are you being possessive over me?" She giggled, and it acted like some kind of stroking fist on his shaft for it impossibly doubled in size.

"Isabella, I think you know."

"Not I." She let her hand move to her chest, right above her left breast. Her nipple was tight and protruding through her dress. "I am unaware of such things. According to you, I am a delicate innocent creature, unready to be debauched and drenched in sin."

"What I meant to say was you were not ready to be passed on to some brute, using you for nothing more than a sheath for his own rapier." He wore a lopsided smile, crooked like her arm. That thought made his heart swell and his thighs tense as he moved closer to her.

"How do you know I am not ready? Maybe I like the idea of being a place for his blade to dwell? Otherwise, I am a sheath good for nothing, correct? And if you think—"

Once more, like the fiends he was trying to protect her from, his lips descended on hers, taking her vocabulary away.

She smelled divine like a lost tiny flower adrift in a fresh spring. Her cries of passion as he took hold of her arms was fueling on his desire for her.

"When you make that sound, you are lucky if I do not devour you whole like a wolf. You are truly delicious and those sounds . . ." he tipped his head back and his cock bobbed ". . . they make me want to rut like mad, with no thought of how it might feel to your pristine, intact flesh."

"Oh dear God and all his little angels—that makes me tingle so much, it's like my body contracts violently for you. I feel very open and moist. Tell me if you like to hear this."

He groaned and could feel the tendons in his neck cording as he fought against his baser instincts to tear into her. "I swear to God, Isabella . . . Strip down to your stays, and we'll deal with your tingling flesh momentarily." He stepped toward the door without looking at her. "My footman will be back in a moment. I need to tell him you are well and a doctor's presence is unnecessary."

She made this tiny gasping noise behind him, and he left before he lost the ability to do so.

His man returned a moment later looking forlorn. "Sir, there was nary a doctor to be found. Apparently there are a few passengers with food poisoning. They drank from the ship's cups that were somehow never washed thoroughly. He's attending to them and their illnesses. Should I demand he come hither?"

"No." Edward grinned, glad she had once more distracted him this morning, and kept him from imbibing of their less than palatable tea from their cups the ship provided. "She is well enough. Let him go where he's needed. And speaking of which." Edward motioned to the door across from him. "Your services are not required until tomorrow morn. I am retiring early. I don't feel so well myself."

"But, sir, I can fetch the doctor and be more persistent!" His voice flung at him like a parry being thrust his way.

Edward dodged it by saying, "It's not food poisoning I am afflicted with, but the more virulent stuff of love. A doctor cannot aid me with that." He shooed his servant off, and when he returned into his quarters, there stood the most luscious woman ever.

Yes, she was still average in height, plain brown hair and unremarkable eyes with an awkward angled arm, but she was radiant, glowing from head to toe and barely able to keep from jumping up and down, she was bursting with anticipation.

"Will you kiss me now? I think I am getting better at it. I know when you lick me, it is my cue to open. You liked that, did you not? To taste my mouth and enter it unbidden? It seems kind of wicked, but that's why I like it so much. It made me tremble in the knees, and my . . . Well, I was quaking between my legs and got really slick."

"Good Lord, you crazy woman, you tempt me too much. I may not last with words like that tumbling out of you." He yanked his cravat off, dropped it on the floor, flung his waist coat aside and went for the placket of his breeches. "I have a French letter, and I assume you are agreeable to my using one?"

"Yes. I would like that very much, only . . ." Her cheeks went cherry-colored on him. "Can I touch it first before it's bound? This might be my only opportunity, and I like seeing it straining in your trousers, but think it would be wise to feel it flesh-to-flesh before you penetrate me. Would that be all right?"

"Christ!" He lurched forward, had the rest of his clothes off as he kissed her with a fierceness he didn't even realize he possessed. "Want to eat your words as much as I want to eat your puss. Your lush, fresh puss, dripping with need for me. Is it wet? Tell me right now your desire is sliding down your legs." His fingers loosened her stays and when they were pulled away enough, he yanked the front down with one swift tug, popping her breasts free.

His tongue lapped at her right nipple.

"It is now, my lord. I think I . . . A puddle! Oh no!" She pushed him away. "I am creating a mess!"

"Oh fucking hell, that's . . . Get over here. Now!" He pointed. "Stand in this puddle and make a bigger mess. I demand you are drenched for me. I want your creamy white flesh glistening because you cannot abide another second of retaining your maidenhead."

"Will you . . . Can I watch you when you enter me? Or would that upset you?" Her cheeks went from cherry to a warm honeyed glow and it spread to her chest. She was burning to the touch and her eyes were wicked flames of lust. "I'd mostly like to see that and memorize how it looked going in." She tried to look at his cock, but he was standing too close.

He backed up a step. "Feel it, Isabella, and you tell me what it does to you to have my manly flesh in your petite, virgin hands. You tell me it excites you, and adds to your puddle and see what it spurs me on to do."

"I think you to be in a wicked frame of mind," she said, pursing her lips as she stared at his cock. "Do you get tingles when I look at you?" She gasped and her eyes widened. "It's moving." She extended her hand.

Fuck, yes, it was moving. His appendage was twitching as she gaped at it.

He moved closer, dangling his cock before her outstretched fingers. Would she be brave and touch him there like she was threatening to do?

"I get more than tingles when you gaze on me like that. I ache to the core to take you beneath me and have my way with you. I burn inside to be at your puss, stretching it and filling it up with me. I long to hear your cries of pleasure, and your vivid descriptions of how it makes you feel when I bring you to release." He inched forward.

Her hand wrapped around him in a greedy movement. "My word, I had no idea . . . I did not think . . ."

"What did you think it would feel like?" He smirked and angled his head back so he could take in the entirety of her reaction.

"I did not think it to be anything worthy of note to touch a man in the most primal of places, but this is . . ." Her eyes flung from his cock to his face. "Well, this is exquisite. I thought it would be mildly interesting to touch you there, but this makes me hurt inside, too, Edward. It makes me fall apart to know I made you this thick and long. It's to mate with me. Not some other beautiful woman, but me, Spinster Isabella. You want to be inside me, don't you?"

"More than anything. You have cast a spell on me, and I think you the most glorious creature ever. How have you entered my veins and taken hold of my heart? I am hostage to you. There is no other way to describe what you have done to me. I am captive to you. Do with me what you will. Explore my body and use it for your pleasure." He kissed her then pulled back. "I will not penetrate you and rip through your precious seal. Not I. You."

Her face fell.

He cupped her jaw. "I was not finished speaking, darling girl. I meant you will dictate. You will control the way this goes. I am changing our original deal we struck days ago where I said I would direct our sexual encounter. I want you to ride me, atop my thighs—climb on me when you are ready and impale yourself as slowly or as quickly as you desire. I will lie still so I do not harm you."

Her face lit up. "You would do that for me? Allow me to practice?"

He chuckled and ran his thumbs across her cheeks as his fingertips delved into her hair. "For you? I think I would allow you anything. And this is not practice. This is making love—the way it should be."

"Even the use of your rapier if the captain refuses to listen? You would allow me that?" she teased.

He released her and grabbed his French letter, setting it on the bed where it would be handy later.

"Yes, that, too." He moved back to her and swiped a kiss across her forehead. "Only promise me you will not stop until you've received your pleasure."

"But I do not know how to take pleasure for myself." She held his cock in her grip and squeezed it; not too tight, but it was still shocking nonetheless.

His breath hitched at her grasp.

"Then I shall teach you, and since I know you have a great aptitude for learning, you'll be a quick study in the art of lovemaking." He smiled and curled around her as he stole another kiss.

The moment his tongue peeked out, she opened with a delicious, wet, inviting moan.

She melted into his arms, one hand still wrapped around his cock. He tried to move in it, but her hand was fisted too tightly.

Instead, he thrust his tip into her lower belly.

She seemed to like it, because she was shifting around with impatience, rubbing her thighs together. Her lips parted open but instead of plunging his tongue deeper, he removed it.

"So wet you're unsure of what to do about it? Dripping and rolling down your porcelain thighs yet?" He swiped a finger up the inside of her closed legs. It was covered in her amorous agreement.

She nodded and bit her lip like she had before, turning on this switch inside him that burst his body into action.

"Make a puddle in my bed—I beg of you. My counterpane will be wetter than yours was when you were crying. And I will not change my linens. I will sleep in them, and so will you, covered in our come." He moved her over to the bed, spread her out on top of it and before he crawled over her, he took the time to appreciate her stunning understated beauty.

"You have stolen my innocence already," she sighed, "because I cannot think of anything other than having you inside me. Only a wanton woman feels that way."

He grinned and hauled his body up onto the bed in a predatory, graceful move that tucked her legs under him. "Only a woman that knows what she wants allows herself to be free and desired."

"I am never free." She frowned.

"You are now. Here with me—you are mine, and I have set you free. I want you to say whatever you like, make those sounds that play a riotous tune on my heart and make my tip bead with desire for you." He motioned down at the head of his cock.

"It's wet. Like me!" She gasped and looked about ready to cry with joy. "Men get wet, too? Can I feel it?"

"Oh, God, you'll kill me." He laughed. "Your sheer surprise and curiosity will be my undoing. I may not need a French letter, for I think you mean to make me spurt my seeds all over you before I have even entered your tight body."

He parted her legs, and her hands reached out. Both of them wrapped around him, and her palms caressed over his flaring tip multiple times, making him jerk at the feel of it.

"It's slippery," she observed, her tongue poking out over the dip of her bottom lip.

"Like you. We are not so different, you and I. You are wet, I am, too." He jerked his chin toward her arm. "You are bent there, and I am bent in your fingers." She jerked her hands. He groaned. "See how we fit?"

"All men have a crook there, do they not?"

"Isabella . . . I am not about to discuss other men's cocks with you. Just know I am crooked in other ways, so your arm being less than what you think it should be is nothing to me." He drifted his fingers over her pubic bone, toying with her curls.

Her hips bucked up and she released a whimpering groan. "That makes my channel clench with a spasm so tight, I think I may have gushed a little." When she looked at him it was with apprehensiveness. Was she searching for some sign of disgust? That would never happen. He adored her. "Is it truly okay to moisten your bed?"

"I demand it." He bent over her, scooted down and swiped his tongue across her wetness.

It was sweet like her, and a little musky, but the tanginess made his mouth water.

"Do I taste repugnant?" she asked. Her head was tipped up so she could see what he was doing.

"You taste better than any woman has a right to. I may never dine again on anything other than you. Lay back. I want you to feel rather than take notes this time." He pressed his hand to her upper belly.

She did as he asked.

Her back arched off the bed when he sucked her clit into his hot, awaiting mouth.

Those slender fingers of hers were either biting into his scalp as she pulled his hair or they were fisting the counterpane.

"Christ! I . . . I think I might explode. Everything is coiled, expanding and collapsing in rapid succession. I am done for! I will not survive this. Your tongue has done something to me," she said in a rapturous cry, and before she careened off the edge, falling toward her release, he rolled onto his back then placed her above him.

Her face went blank.

"You can sit there if you like but if you want completion, I suggest you stroke up and down my shaft, then take me in when you cannot wait any further." He reached over to his French letter and pulled it on. The snugness was frustrating when he wanted nothing more than to feel her wet flesh in contact with his own when she finally moved his length inside her.

"Oh Jesus . . . That sounds so forbidden," she breathed, raking her nails lightly over his chest.

"It is, love. It is. And it's all for you, because you turn me into a savage animal." He pushed himself up to sitting, cupped her ass and kissed her neck.

Her pulse pounded. He licked across it to incite her to urgency. He couldn't wait much longer though he'd promised her to remain still so she could go at a leisurely pace if she wished.

Her hips rocked and she definitely liked the way his rigid cock felt against her swollen lips and clit because she was breathing so hard, she was damn near grunting at the peak of each gasp for air.

"That's it . . . Sweet delightsome urges will tell you what to do. Feel how hungry you make me? Feel how I can barely keep from biting you."

"Uuuuunnnghhhahhh!" The sweetest tortured sounds came out of her, so he bit her—nibbled at her throat.

The louder she became, the harder his teeth dug in.

His right hand flew to her clit, and his left to her tit, tugging on her nipple, elongating it.

She rocked, she ground into him, and when he thought he couldn't take it any longer, she slipped onto him. Swiftly at first, then slowly as she edged past her stiff ring of flesh that had never been stretched or touched before.

"That's it . . . Take it slow. It'll tear, but it doesn't have to be a nasty, biting rip. Go easy." He found her scar from the bullet wound on her left ribs, under her breast and caressed it with his fingertips.

All at once, she plunged deep, ignoring his instructions. Her breath caught and she cried out for a moment, burying her face with her hands.

"Sweet girl, look at me. Is it too much?" He tried to pry her hands off, and panic flooded him when she refused to speak to him. "Did I hurt you beyond what you could endure? Please! God! Talk to me!" He kissed along her right shoulder, cradled her head in his hands and when he tried to retreat and pull his cock out of her, those muscles snapped down on him like a vice.

"No. No!" Her voice cracked. "Stay there. I want this. It's just . . ."

"Please, tell me." His fingers trembled as he caressed her back and stroked her long hair. "Please, I am dying to know what I did wrong. I want to fix this. Tell me."

"I . . ." She let her hands fall and her face was a mass of mixed emotions: pride, shame, fear, elation and maybe adoration? "I said there would be no feelings involved, but I . . ."

"Lied? Is that what you're thinking?"

"Yes." She nodded and bit her lip, her shoulders bouncing up.

"There was no way you could foresee this, darling girl. I had the notion you might be bad for me as well, and I tried to avoid taking you to bed since I am not looking for love." He tucked her up into his chest, rolled them over so she was under him, but kept his cock shoved deep inside. She might adjust. She might want more. He sure as hell did. "You see—I work. I work hard. And I am not available to woo and court you like you should be. I am not even a good lover because I do not take the time to discover what a woman might like, so I only see a woman a few times and then I am gone. There is too much guilt when she wants more."

"I won't. I promise. Just give me this. I will feel for you right now, but I will let it ebb away like the ocean when I leave it behind me. We will have this. We will have this moment as a part of our journey." She wrapped her arms around him. "Please, make love to me. I cannot express how warm and tight you make me feel inside. Everything is ablaze for you, and I do not think I will ever feel this again."

He wanted to say she was wrong. There would be other lovers in her future, but the words disintegrated in his mouth like gray ash. "You are wrong, dear girl. You will feel this over and over, because I can already tell I won't be able to let you go even if I want to."

"Oh," she gasped, and then she grabbed his ass cheeks and squeezed. "Then I . . . I think I will die, because you have me thrilling beneath you. I am all gooseflesh. I have chills coursing down my spine simply from the feel of your heady weight on me. I cannot have enough of this feeling, and if you do not move inside me soon, I think I may burst into a raging flame."

"Is that so?" He grinned then kissed her—first her lips with his, and then his cock with her hugging, tight walls.

They moved together in sync, and both had him grunting in ecstasy.

"You're close, aren't you? I can feel it. You are heavier inside me. I am ready, too. Just a little more. Can you go a little longer? I think I may need you to—"

His fingers went to her clit as he propped himself up with his other arm.

Immediately, she arched up into his touch, and her puss convulsed around his girth, squeezing it tight in rhythmic pulses.

"Oh, Christ, oh, fuck! That's it. That's fucking it! Puddle on my cock, drench it with your come, and I will lose my seed inside you, wicked girl that you are, unmanning me!" His voice was hoarse as he groaned.

"Edwaaaaard! I am doing it! I am . . . I have done it!" she cried out and exploded in a fit of jerking motions.

She slapped her hands onto his shoulders and stared at him as she came undone.

It was that look. That was what shook him loose as well, and he came harder than he ever thought possible.

This little virgin with the smart mouth and stubborn willfulness had cracked through his armor with not a rapier of her own—but with her sweet innocence, and desire to find herself as she let loose.

Her taut nipples brushed across his chest hairs several times as she heaved in and out, dragging in lungfuls of precious air.

He wrapped himself around her, held her tight and chuckled. "Nothing like a good captain to steer a ship and a crooked woman to set me straight. Thank you," he kissed her hair, "thank you," he kissed her ear, "thank you!" He kissed her moistened cheek and used the counterpane to dry it off. "I have a wet bed, I am sated, and now you sleep with me."

He tucked her into his chest and kept holding her.

"On one condition?"

"Yes, anything." He hummed.

"Tomorrow, you take my list, show it to your friend, and tell him that was you I was describing, but you were too twisted in your thinking to see it was you I was targeting, not some unnamable man I didn't care to know. He wore a severe look, and had a crooked nose. What would I do with a crooked man such as that?"

He laughed and kissed her again, but this time slow and deep. Yes, she was right in most respects, only he was the crooked one, the most bent one here, not Jasper or her and her mangled arm. It was all him; always had been. And he never felt better about who he was.