His smile was warm. "You are now beyond reproach, it seems."
She liked his directness, would miss it in the coming months. "Yes, I'm highly respectable. Michael was a hero, you see, and I was received in military circles with open arms when I returned. But I didn't want the constant reminders, so I retreated. The men in uniform, the discussions of strategies and campaigns--I found it all very painful for a time."
He nodded again, in complete understanding. "And now?"
She smiled again. "Now I'm alive again. Michael wouldn't have wanted me to repine forever. I can meet his erstwhile colleagues without a qualm, and even listen to stories of him without wanting to cry." She wasn't speaking the complete truth. Michael would also have wanted her to remarry, but she couldn't bear to think of that.
"Poor Laura!" he said, entirely in sympathy with her. She let his familiar use of her Christian name pass without comment. "What you must have gone through!"
"Yes, but I had my family. A real strength, when I needed protecting. I owe them a great deal."
He looked at her without speaking for a few minutes. Then he said, "They must have been. I wish I'd been here!"
Her heart beat a little faster. "So do I, my friend."
One hand gripped the arm of his chair until the knuckles showed white. Abruptly, he stood up, went over to the window, then turned around.
His expression made her breath catch in her throat, though she told herself sternly, she couldn't imagine why. True, his gaze was warmer than she was accustomed to seeing in company. Laura suddenly felt the impropriety of their situation, alone, unchaperoned, and tension prickled her spine. She'd invited this intimate conversation by inviting him in. Had she gone too far? Did she want more?
Moving over to where she sat, he held out his hand, and without thinking, she placed her own in it. He drew her to her feet and gazed at her, warmth filling his light eyes until she felt herself flush.
Then he drew her closer and bent his head. Laura knew what was coming, but she didn't try to pull away. If this was all she would know of him, then it might warm her lonely bed in the time ahead. It could not be wrong.
He kissed her gently. She slid her hands around his waist to his back, feeling the soft cloth of his dark blue coat under her fingers, warmer and safer than she had felt in years.
In response his arms tightened around her and he deepened the kiss, sliding his tongue between her teeth and into her mouth, tasting her deeply before he withdrew. When he released her lips it was only to kiss her along her jaw, and down to her throat and then back to her mouth once more.
Laura responded as though in a dream. She had imagined an encounter like this, lying in her solitary bed at night, waiting for sleep, but this wasn't what her limited imagination had told her. Not this tingling of every nerve in her body, awareness of a beginning, not a flirtation, not a sweet interlude, but something else, something she wasn't sure she wanted to allow. But her treacherous body held her in place, in his arms.
His kisses reflected his knowledge of something more intimate, more demanding. They held more danger, and more promise than anything she'd known before. Her mouth parted under his, and he took advantage of it, softly entering her mouth, invading her.
Laura was shaking when she pushed him away. "No, my friend, we can't do this."
"Why not?" he asked, eyes half closed. He pulled her back and kissed her throat gently, his teeth just touching the sensitive skin.
Laura shuddered in response.
"Surely we know our own minds by now?" He sighed, and drew away from her, but kept his arms lightly around her waist. "Laura, I've fallen deeply in love with you. Will you marry me, my love?"