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After a complete and comfortably silent circuit of the corral, she said, "Actually, I came out to ask you a question. Now I'm not quite certain how to phrase it."
"Ask away. I'll answer if I know how."
"This isn't--" She cleared her throat. "This isn't about--"
A long silence, during which he felt the tenseness in her body.
"Mr. Bradley," she said at last, her voice no louder, but somehow sounding strained and thin, "would any woman have caused your ... ah, your physiological reaction this afternoon, or did you..."
He heard her swallow. And waited.
"Did you desire me?"
Well, shoot fire! Now what do I say? If he answered honestly, she'd not understand. And if he lied, she'd still not understand. Desperately Malachi sought the right words.
She turned away. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "That was a brazen question, wasn't it? Please, don't answer."
Malachi pulled her against him, laid his head against her hair. "It's a tough question," he admitted. "One of those that doesn't really have a right answer." Inhaling her scent, he regretted, more than he ever had before, the direction his life had taken. He wasn't fit company for a fine woman like Nellie Sanders, and if he was any kind of a man, he'd push her away before he just had to taste her again.
"I really should go to bed," she said, as she tried to pull free of his embrace. "It's very late."
The smart thing, the right thing would be to send her off to her tent, thinking him too craven to answer her question. Or to tell her that any woman would have brought him to aching readiness today.
Even as a little hellion, Malachi Breedlove hadn't pulled the wings off ofbutterflies or dipped little girls' pigtails into inkwells.
"There aren't many women in the kind of places I've been," he said, speaking quietly, "so when a man gets a chance to kiss a pretty woman, he naturally feels a need. I guess the answer to your question is both yes and no."
The wordless sound she made this time was more of a question than anything.
"Yes, I have to admit that just about any woman younger than a grandmother would probably have affected me like you did, sitting on my lap like you were."
If possible, she stiffened even more.
"No, I wouldn't have wanted just any woman. I wanted you, Miss Sanders."
Unable to help himself, Malachi leaned forward, burying his face in her silky hair. "There's wanting and there's wanting. I'm not sure I can explain the difference." He was careful to keep his embrace loose, so she wouldn't notice his painfully hard cock. She wasn't for him, not the only way he could have her. In a little while, he'd release her, send her back to her lonely bed. And when the kid came to relieve him at watch, he'd go to an equally empty, lonely one of his own.
A long silence, then she said, with a small tremble in her soft voice, "Can you try?"
Seeking the right words, he said, "A man's at the mercy of his body, sometimes. No matter what his head tells him, his body only feels the needs. Hunger. Thirst. Desire. It does its best to satisfy them."
"Like any animal," she agreed, nodding.
"That's right. I reckon it's no difference for a bull, or for that critter out there. Eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, ah..." He wasn't quite sure how to say it.
"Mate when aroused." She turned in his loose embrace. "Of course. I should have seen it. What happened was merely a physiological response to a stimulus."
Malachi heard disappointment in her words. He tipped her chin up so he could see that her eyes were wide open. "That was the first wanting. But it wasn't the important one," he told her, knowing he was making a mistake. "The other wanting, the one that came from my heart and my head, that was the important one.
"This afternoon, when you were sitting on my lap. I wanted you, Miss Sanders. Not just any woman. You!"