She stared in front of her, picked up the water bottle as if it held the secret of this mess. "I wanted to go to the south tower. I don't know why. My parents had always forbidden it. But I'd snuck up there once before when I was a child, following one of the maids. It was full of sharp things, the things I was never allowed to go near--scissors and needles, pins, spinning wheels. So many that they positively glittered. That time the maid turned and saw me and quickly slammed and locked the door again.
"The night of the ball, I was drawn to return. I was nineteen and soon to be married. I didn't want to be a child, so over-protected that I couldn't even look at a pin! And so I went up there, even knowing the door would be locked. It always was."
She looked at Joel, almost wondering at the effort of memory that seemed like yesterday and yet was hazy and confused. She couldn't properly explain the compulsion that had drawn her to the tower. He gazed back steadily, waiting.
"It wasn't. That's the funny thing. The door wasn't locked at all. When I pushed, it opened immediately and now all that was there was one solitary spinning wheel. It glittered too. In fact, it shone so brightly I just had to touch it, to find out what it felt like. So I walked over to it. Despite what my parents had always said ever since I could remember, I knew I was an adult now and nothing as trivial as a spinning wheel could possibly damage me. I reached out and touched the spindle."
"Then what?" Joel prompted when she fell silent.
"I pricked my finger on it." She lifted the finger, examining it. "Look."
He leaned over, taking her hand, and gazed down at the healed scab on her right forefinger. He smiled and lifted the finger to his lips, kissing it lightly, briefly.
"You look, Aurora. That's not a thousand-year-old scab. And I have to say, none of you looks a thousand years old. I think you fell up there and hurt your head. It's quite a vivid story you've concocted for yourself, but with a doctor's help, I'm sure your true memories will come back."
Stricken, she stared at him. "But I want these ones. They're all I have. Joel, I want my mother..."
Joel said something beneath his breath and put his arms around her, drawing her close into his arms. "We'll find her," he promised. "We'll find everyone you've lost, everyone you need."
Stunned by his familiarity, she held herself rigid, but then, suddenly terrified he would let her go, she relaxed into his solid comfort and let the tears come. Suddenly she didn't care if he was a peasant or some strange lord from a future time that terrified her. She clutched his arms, his shoulders, as if they were her one salvation, buried her face in his chest and wept.
He held her in a big, rocking hug, stroking her hair until the storm had passed. Even then, when she slowly, shame-facedly, lifted her head, he didn't let her go. His lips tugged upward and, in shy response, she let hers follow.
He bent his head and softly kissed her mouth.
At the first touch of his lips, something surged through her, vital and desperate. It was a brief kiss, less even than she had shared with Karl the night before the ball she'd never got to, and yet it changed everything. He drew back slightly, and she realized he meant it as no more than comfort. Comforting the child that she wasn't. She needed... She didn't know what she needed, except him.
So she reached up and fastened her mouth to his.
Stunned, Joel let the deranged girl's sweet, clinging lips move over his. He should never have kissed her in the first place. She'd just looked so wounded and vulnerable--and yes, so damned beautiful--that it had seemed the right thing to do. It had been impulse, instinct, with the purest intentions, but even as he did it, part of him was aware that if she'd been male, old or unattractive, he was unlikely to have chosen that particular form of comfort.
He put his hand up to her face, meaning to disengage with gentleness, to explain how he couldn't possibly take advantage of someone so emotionally upset right now, but as he moved his lips to speak, she took it as a sign of response and sank deeper with a sigh.
Joe's body acted without permission and from the worst of intentions. Fire seemed to curl from her lips through his entire body. His cock, already perked by her beauty, rose up like a rampant beast in his pants. She was all softness and passion. Her breasts pressed into his chest. His hands itched to touch, to caress and tweak. With some superhuman effort, he prevailed, but he wouldn't have been human at all if he'd been able to resist kissing her back.
Hell, it was only a kiss, and whatever the beast in his pants was demanding, he'd make damned sure it got to be no more than that. So he opened his mouth wider, taking hers with him and slid his tongue into her mouth.
She tasted of lemons and vanilla, at once sweet and tangy, and she smelled delicious too, some heady scent of roses and sunshine that made him long to bury himself inside her. Her tongue seemed shocked to encounter his, but after an instant, it slid along his, and let him suck hers into his own mouth.
She let out a little moan, twisting in his arms as if she needed to get closer. Her lips, her whole body seemed to burn up with a fever of passion, and everything in him leapt to meet it. His hand closed over the softness of her silk-covered breast at last, felt the nipple grow under his palm until he slid his hand downward and caressed it with his thumb. She moaned again, her breath hot and exciting in his mouth.
Hot. Fever. Illness. Confusion. For fuck's sake, Thorne, what are you doing?
He slid his hand back to her waist, drew his mouth free with as much gentleness as he could muster.
"Aurora," he said a little too harshly. "Slow down."
Confusion clouded the warm passion in her eyes. Then hurt overlaid them both, and he groaned aloud.
"You don't like me," she whispered.
"God, it isn't that..."
"It must be. You don't fear my rank, if you even believe in it. I'm not usually so...immodest, but I'm not stupid. Just say I disgust you."
"Disgust me? Aurora, this is how much you disgust me." He seized her hand and carried it to the rigid hardness of his cock to make his point. Perhaps that wasn't wise under the circumstances, but he didn't think best in the grip of sexual frustration.
Her eyes widened, but she didn't pull away in shock. Neither, fortunately, did she delve inside his pants. Her fingers moved uncertainly, feeling the outline of his shaft. He swallowed, maintaining his self-control with difficulty.
Her face burned. He lifted her hand off his cock and carried it to his lips for a quick kiss. "That's how much I want you, so don't tempt me anymore. When you're better, and if you still want to come, I'd love to take you out to dinner."
Even as he said the words, he laughed at himself. He sounded so pompous and grown up. Which was another matter. The girl was nineteen and clearly not as experienced as he'd expected. Yet another reason to back off.
And yet the sneaking thought entered his head that if Vee had ever felt half so good in his arms, he wouldn't be this tormented over the decision he needed to make concerning their possible future together. She was not yet his fiancee, not really even his girlfriend, more of a business partner if anything. He owed Vee nothing, at least not in emotional terms, and yet even thinking of her now felt like treachery. Though whether to her or Aurora he wasn't clear and didn't want to be.
Aurora's gaze fell. She shifted away from him, and perversely, he wanted her back in his arms.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I just feel so..."
"Needy," he said ruefully. "Me too, but with considerably less cause. Come on, eat up. It'll make you feel better."