Envy and Favor – Excerpt

"Damn it, Anna," Atol cursed. Hurrying to mount his horse, he flicked the reins on its rear and sped off after her.

As he closed the distance between them, he knew he was being a fool running after this woman yet again. He needed to stop dropping everything every time she beckoned him. He needed to, but he couldn't. Anna was everything he could ever want in a woman, and he would follow her to the ends of the earth should she ask him to.

His heart ached as he reminded himself how pointless such a sacrifice would be. Their fathers would never allow any kind of relationship to eventuate between them other than the friendship he had insisted they keep.

It wasn't just her friendship that he wanted though. He wanted… His fingers brushed against his lips, remembering her soft kiss moments before. It was one of only a few he had been blessed with since they'd moved to Rockhampton, but he treasured them all, fearing this was all he would ever be able to share with Anna.

Remembering how easily this most recent show of affection had come about, he again began to wonder if he shouldn't just defy their fathers and confess his true feelings to her. After all, a woman didn't give a man such affections unless she desired—

"Hurry up, Atol," she yelled to him from up ahead, interrupting his thoughts.

Looking in the direction of her voice, he saw her dismounting and tying her horse up before undressing down to her chemise and drawers. Captivated by the image she made, he slowed his horse to a walk and approached the swimming hole.

He dismounted and tied his horse near Anna's, then he slipped off his shoes and removed his shirt, throwing it over a branch of a nearby bottlebrush tree. Strolling toward the bank of the creek, he stalled and rolled up the legs of his jeans before entering the cool water.

"You took your time getting here," she chided him in a playful tone. "I was starting to think you'd changed your mind."

He waded toward her, suddenly forgetting the distance he usually insisted stay between them. "If a beautiful woman asks you to go for a swim, only a fool would refuse."

"Will Father really be mad when he finds out you didn't finish those papers?" she asked.

He shrugged, no longer caring about where he should be right now. All he cared about was this woman and how she was making him feel. "No doubt he will be furious, but I'm certain he'd be more furious to learn where I am with his daughter right now."

She held his gaze. "But we're just swimming. There's nothing wrong with that."

He studied her, unsure if she meant what she was saying. "Surely you know there's nothing so innocent about a man and woman sneaking away to swim. The assumption would be that any man left alone with a woman of your beauty would be unable to control himself."

"Yet you seem to have ample control." She waded toward him, stopping a breath away. "I've invited you to swim with me so many times and never once have you touched me inappropriately."

His hand cupped her cheek, his thumb brushing her lips. "Even you must know every man has their limits."

She leaned into him, her lips touching his briefly before breaking their embrace. "And have I pushed you to yours?"