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By Mallory Rush
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"STOP THAT! Did you hear - Mark! Stop it, Mark, that - that tickles!" Her knees hitched over his shoulders, Chris used her heels to pound his back in time with her squeals of laughter. A playful shove at his head dislodged a fluffy red-and-white cap that skittered beneath the Christmas tree. With a firm clamp on the legs she'd squeezed shut, he spread them and nipped an interior thigh.
"Ho, ho, ho," her equally naked lover replied. "Quit squirming, Chris, and let me give you a hickey."
"No hickey! No hickey, please ..." Amid wiggles and giggles and pleas for mercy, Chris tumbled them off their secondhand couch. Rolling over the creaky wood floor, she reached for a long candy cane and smacked him with it.
"Ouch!" Sitting atop her hips, Mark rubbed his jaw.
"Did I hurt you?" Suddenly still beneath him, she touched his mouth - which curled into a suggestive half smile.
"I'm in agony." He bit softly into the heel of her palm, then leaned over her, all playfulness gone. Sifting through the tangle of her hair, he took a dark strand and teased it over her lips. "You love me."
"I love you too much," she answered truthfully. "Mark, I don't think I could live if I ever lost you."
"Then don't think it. You're stuck with me for life."
She drew his mouth to hers. They kissed with tender emotion until their lovemaking escalated and he impulsively pushed into her. Then quickly, he began to pull out.
"No, please no," she whispered, gripping him. "Please, Mark. I want a baby. Your baby, my baby. Ours."
"Chris." His gaze was steady, wise, patient. That was Mark, CPA, MBA, wing tips shiny and conservative suits Martinized clean. He was her rock. "We've only been married two years. We just signed our lives away on a mortgage and we'll be needing a new car before we can -"
"Start a college fund," she finished by rote. Mark was right, she knew. They were young, their future bright. That was logical, and the almost-frantic instinct to conceive that had been in her for the past year wasn't. But there it was.
"We can get by. So what if we can't afford formula, I want to nurse our babies anyway. As for clothes, I'd rather sew with remnants than have ready-made."
"Anyone ever tell you that you sound like a home-ec teacher?" He squeezed her hand, gentling the brewing storm. "A sexy home-ec teacher who's married to a guy with a cash register for a brain. At least, that's what you said the last time we got into this."
Turning her head to the side, Chris stared at the slim pile of presents under the scraggly pine they'd cut from her parents' yard in Dallas and hauled all the way to Lubbock. The tree hadn't cost a penny but had more meaning than a hundred-dollar flocked fir.
A baby would be like Christmas. A present to be unwrapped each day of the year, an ever-changing surprise of life and wonder.
"Money is fine and good," she said quietly. "But a baby doesn't care about anything but being wanted and cherished." She implored him with her eyes while seducing his agreement with the upward tilt of her hips. His gaze locked with hers and they shared a taut silence in this, their battlefield, a place where their allegiance was increasingly torn.
"All right, then. If we have to make a few sacrifices, it won't be at the expense of our marriage. A rift between us just isn't worth it." He took a deep breath and committed himself with a thrust. "You're my life, Chris. No man should ever love a woman as much as I do you."
Good and sure was the rock of his hips. She held tight to the arms anchoring her against the floor, desperate to never let him go. What they had together was too wonderful.
The feel of his body emptying inside her own was a bond they sealed with soul-deep kisses. "No regrets?" she asked, just to be sure.
"No regrets, hon, we'll do fine." They hugged each other with fierce affection. "Maybe next Christmas we'll have more than cookies in the oven."
"You'll still want me, even if I'm tipping the scales?"
"You betcha. At least then you can't outrun me if I want to give you a hickey." His grin got him a pinch on the butt.
"For a numbers kind of guy, you sure know how to make a woman feel like she's in the chips."
"Mmm. What do you say that we open our presents, then take another crack at investing in futures? Once my personal stock's on the rise, I'll put up the liquid assets."
"The bank's open and ready for your deposit, sir."
"Deposits. Much more to my liking than withdrawals are, any day." His hands stretched over hers. Their wedding bands fit snugly between the grooves of interlocked fingers. "Jingle bells, jingle bells. Kiss me and let's make them ring."
The scent of drying pine needles and woodsmoke mingled with their hushed, intimate laughter.
THE SCENT OF DRYING pine needles and woodsmoke mingled with the sound of family laughter.
Chris opened her eyes and smiled as six-year-old Audrey tore open another package from the mountainous pile of gifts. Most had Audrey's name on them. Chris thought it an awful lot for one little girl when so many other children went without. But Audrey went without in ways, too, and she wasn't overly spoiled. Besides, judging from the beaming faces of her own parents, Anna and Don, they were having as much fun as their only grandchild. And if Rick and Tammy, her brother and his wife, had gone overboard on the gifts, Chris knew their hearts were in the right places.
"Wow, neat! Look, Mama, look at what Uncle Rick and Aunt Tammy gafed me." Bounding from the floor, Audrey rushed to the couch and thrust her newest prized possession at her mother. "Isn't she pretty? She looks just like Aunt Tammy. "Cept Barbie doesn't have a baby in her tummy."
"That's because Ken's not a stud like me, right, Tammy?"
"Whoa, big boy, that's some real competition. A rubber doll who's not even anatomically correct."
Chris watched her brother pat Tammy's stomach as they shared a grin. They were an inspiration and one Chris needed, a reminder of how rich life could be. It seemed that her own heart's good fortune was spent, and she couldn't deny that poverty had taken its toll. Not bad on the outside for thirty-three, but where it counted, inside, she felt like a woman past her prime. Washed-up, hollowed out, hanging on to the fringes of other people's lives to fill up the gaps in her own. And smiling, always smiling until she thought her jaw would break from the effort. But for now, it was easy enough.
Excerpted from Off Limits by Mallory Rush Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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