Megan fought down a spark of—anger? Trepidation? How would the painted prostitute whom she was a substitute for respond to such a question? "No."
She suspected no man would pay for what she now offered.
His gaze remained colder than a starless night. Searching. Probing. Looking for a remnant of the youth she no longer possessed.
A cold sheen of anxiety broke over her.
How could she have been so naive as to believe that for lack of choice, this man would take her?
Megan jerkily offered, "I fully understand if you prefer someone who is young—"
"I am fifty-three years old, madam," he interrupted. His dark, chiseled features hardened. "I do not want to lie with a child; I want a woman. As you said, you are a woman. I will pay you one gold sovereign."
Relief coursed through her. It was followed by alarm. Desire. Surprise, that he would so generously compensate a woman for the use of her body.
A gold sovereign was equivalent to twenty shillings. The prostitute whom she had intercepted in the hallway had greedily snatched the double florin—equivalent to a respectable four shillings—which Megan had offered her. A sure indication that she had expected to receive considerably less from her waiting client.
Why would this man—this Arab—be willing to pay more than an Englishman?
Forcibly, she relaxed her fingers around the wool-padded key. "Thank you."
"You may call me Muhamed." His black gaze did not waver; something briefly flickered deep inside his eyes—indecision? Aversion? "What name are you known by?"
"Meg—" She paused.
Robert Burns' poem, "Whistle O'er the Lave O't," rose up from the depths of her conscience in a mocking litany: "Meg was meek, and Meg was mild / Sweet and harmless as a child."
But there was nothing meek, or mild, or harmless about her actions this night.
She was a woman, not a child.
"Megan," she said more forcefully.
He pushed away from the door.
She involuntarily shrank back.
A whirl of white robe and elusive spice swept by her; the tantalizing aroma seemed to emanate from the Arab's clothes.
Darkness abruptly cocooned her—he had doused the oil lamp.
A ridiculous pang of hurt ricocheted through Megan. Obviously, he had no desire to see the naked body of a forty-eight-year-old woman.
Fear chased feminine pique.
She remembered every rumor she had ever heard about Arab men: they were exotic; they were erotic; they purchased women as if they were chattel.
The rustle of cloth alerted her to movement.
"Men use you for their pleasure." His terse voice snaked down her spine—it came from behind her, near the bed. "Do you take pleasure in the men you service?"
Megan swirled around, blood pumping, heart pounding.
An endless white ribbon undulated in the darkness. She realized he was unwinding his turban.
Remembered passion clenched her stomach.
"Yes," she said.
It was not a lie. She had taken pleasure in her husband's arms.
The undulating white ribbon soundlessly floated to the floor. All at once, the man's white robe reared up over his head; it hovered there for a long second like a ghostly specter before it, too, silently drifted downward.
Megan did not doubt that he stood before her naked—just as she was naked underneath her dress. She strained to see an outline or a gleam of skin: she could not. It was as if he had been swallowed up by the night.
A soft creak shot through the darkness, bedsprings adjusting to sudden weight. It sharply recalled her to who she was, where she was at, and what she was doing.
She was Mrs. Meg Phillins, the virtuous widow of a vicar.
She was at Land's End, a place to which she had sworn never to return.
She was about to engage in carnal relations with a man whom prior to this day she had never seen, and whom she would never see again after the night.
Tension swirled about her.
He watched her.
She did not know how he could see her in the darkness, dressed all in black, but she knew that he did. Just as surely as she knew that if she bolted now, she would never again have an opportunity to experience a man's passion.
Megan peeled off her silk gloves and stuffed them into the pocket that contained the key to her solitary room and lonely virtue. Her ring finger on her left hand tingled, as if it called out to the gold wedding band she had abandoned for a night of sexual satiation.
The bedsprings creaked again; the penetrating noise was followed by a dual clank, as if metal rubbed metal, struck metal.
Her breath snagged in her chest.
There was no accompanying stir of air, no indication that the Arab had stood up.
She licked her lips; they felt drier than the desert sands he had been born to, but that she had never seen. Her hat weighted down her head, heavier than an anvil.
Megan did not need light to illuminate her actions.
His room was much like hers—no doubt like all the rooms at the small inn. The floor was bereft of rugs; the whitewashed walls bare of paintings. Beside the locked door stood a bureau topped with a pitcher of water and a basin. Opposite the foot of the bed, a cane-bottomed, ladder-back chair guarded a small iron fireplace.
She pictured his narrow sleigh bed with its turned down covers, the man who wore no clothes, and the nightstand that stood between them.
The click of her heels were overloud in the taut silence; the trail of her gown an audible drag; the distance to the nightstand impossibly long. . . .
Megan kicked hard wood. A lancing pain shot through her right toe. Simultaneously, the chimney of the extinguished hurricane lamp rattled, a discordant implosion. Lingering oil smoke stung her nose while embarrassment at her clumsiness burned her ears.
The Arab remained silent.
Or did he?
She could hear breathing, a soft, relentless cadence.
Underlying the primal rhythm was the distant wash of the tide—swelling, ebbing, the eternal pattern of desire.
Awkward as she had not been in many years—not since she had been eighteen and a simple Cornish girl—she reached up and slid the pin out of her hat. The accelerated rise and fall of her breasts matched the rhythmical soughing of air that filled the chamber.
Lowering her arms, she carefully slid the hat pin into the flat felt crown. Extending her left hand for guidance, she bent down, fingers splaying, arms reaching, and encountered. . . .
A small, shallow, rectangular-shaped metal box.
Megan frowned. It had not been there earlier.
Or had it?
Prior to this night, she had not known of her whorish tendencies.
Or had she?
Dropping the hat down over the tin, she straightened.
The carved bone buttons lining the front of her bodice were too large; they did not want to slide through the buttonholes. Hours passed, coaxing one button free, two, three . . . and all the while that unremitting breathing cautioned her, cajoled her, became her.
Did Arab men love differently than did Englishmen? she wondered, breath and pulses racing against one another.
Would he kiss her?
Would he caress her?
What would he feel like, this naked stranger, when his body strained against hers?
Would he penetrate her deeply . . . or shallowly?
Would he be rough . . . or gentle?
Would she please him?
Would he please her?
She shrugged out of her dress; heavy wool scurried down her back, over her hips, swooshed down her legs and collapsed about her feet. A trail of chill goose bumps followed in its wake.
All that prevented her from joining the man were her shoes.
She had prepared for this moment, too.
Using the rounded tip of her right shoe, she dislodged her left slipper. Using the bare toes of her left foot, she dislodged her right slipper.
Megan stepped out of the circle of her gown onto cold, unyielding wood.
The darkness throbbed with sexual heat.
She took one step forward. Her breasts lightly bounced.
Would he take pleasure in their fullness?
She took a second step forward. Her hips gently swayed.
Would he find them lacking?
She took a third step forward, thigh rubbing thigh, friction building, chest constricting.
The teasing aroma of exotic spice enveloped her. Out of the corners of her eyes she espied the faint, red glimmer of burning coals.
Why couldn't she see him?
A grain of dirt gritted beneath her left heel. Her right knee collided with ungiving bone and sinew—a naked leg, a muscled leg, a leg that was far smoother than her own. At the same time her foot came down on—a foot.
Moist air scorched her skin. "You smell of vinegar."
Megan froze, held immobile by the impact of his leg, the weight of her foot on his, the heat of his breath, and the jarring repercussion of his words.
Never had she imagined that a man would notice . . . or comment on . . . a prostitute's use of a prophylactic.
And perhaps an Englishman would not have noticed; or having done so, he would have courteously refrained from commenting.
"I . . . " She swallowed, acutely aware of his bare foot underneath hers and her breasts that jutted out from her chest, only inches away from his mouth "I have inside me a . . . a sponge that is soaked in vinegar."
"There is no need for that," he said brusquely. "I have prepared myself with a French letter."
The tin on the night stand—did it contain more French letters?
Did the prostitute whom Megan had replaced rely upon a man to protect her?
Did she use a solution that smelled more pleasing than vinegar?
Did she use a syringe after intimacy, rather than inserting a sponge before?
Exactly what did a man from Arabia expect from a woman that an Englishman would not?
"Nevertheless, this is the form of protection which I chose to use," Megan said with a calm certainty that she was far from feeling.
Chill awareness traveled up her ankles. He could yet reject her, this Arab who was as terse as any Cornishman.
Megan nervously shifted her right foot, cautiously lowered it. Her toes butted the tips of his. The wooden floor was icy; the heat emanating from his digits was scorching.
"I have never been with an Englishwoman," he said shortly.
Electricity crackled around them, as if a storm brewed outside.
It did not.
She realized that the ragged soughing of air came not from one pair of lungs, but two. They breathed in unison.
"I dare say women are much the same, regardless of their nationality," she said carefully.
But were men?
Her heartbeat clocked the passing seconds. It pulsated inside her breasts, her temples, her vagina, her toes that bridged his.
Why didn't he touch her, take her?
Surely the coupling between a man and a prostitute was no different than the coupling between a man and his wife. He would initiate contact; she would quietly submit.
"I have never been with a woman."
The harsh confession came out of nowhere, yet everywhere. Never been with a woman imprinted her chest.
Megan mentally reeled backward.
She had expected him to be experienced; he expected her to be experienced.
He had never been with a woman; she had only ever been with one man.
She was not prepared for this eventuality.
Dim light flashed in the darkness—the white of his eyes. "That is why I procured you."
Suddenly the black veil of obscurity lifted, and Megan could make out the bleached darkness that was the sheet, the ebony crown that was the Arab's hair, and the dusky silhouette that was his upturned face.
She felt as if she teetered on the edge of a precipice, afraid to move, afraid not to move.
Why would a fifty-three-year-old man—an Arab who lived in a country reputed to cloister women in harems for carnal convenience—be a virgin?
Why had he come to Land's End—on this, of all nights—to end his abstinence?
"You procured me to . . . to find physical satisfaction," she managed to say.
What did he want, if not sexual gratification?
Arabic men trafficked in beautiful, young women, not matrons who were well beyond middle-age.
Didn't they. . .?
For the first time Megan did not feel protected by the relative proximity of the inn's inhabitants.
"I am afraid I do not understand." She swallowed the fear rising in her throat; her toes touching his continued to throb and pulse. "Why would you procure a"—no, no, she could not call herself a whore, even if others would—"a woman, if not for satisfaction?"
"I want to know a woman's body," lashed the darkness; almond-scented breath blasted her face. "I want you to show me how to bring a woman to orgasm. I want you to show me how to bring you to orgasm."
A door slammed shut somewhere in the inn, more a shudder of wood than an echo of sound.
Megan could not have heard the Arab correctly.
"You want me to show you how to bring a woman . . . how to bring me . . . to orgasm?" she repeated slowly, heart thundering, toes throbbing.
"Yes." His voice was intractable. Heat licked her spine. "That is why I procured you."
"A woman takes satisfaction in a man's . . . a man's possession," she said shakily.
"You are a whore. You of all women should know that a man's member is not a woman's sole source of satisfaction."
But she wasn't a whore.
Dear God. He could not be inferring what she thought he inferred.
"A woman has many places on her body that when touched by a man give her pleasure," Megan countered.
"I have never touched a woman," he said stiffly.
"I have never tutored a man," she said compulsively.
Megan bit her lips—too late, the words were out of her mouth.
"No young boy has ever come to you seeking instruction?" he asked bluntly.
Megan suspected her husband had been a virgin. He had never discussed his sexual experience, or lack thereof.
The back of her neck tingled in warning. She should end her charade now, so that the Arab could find a woman to give him the knowledge he sought.
"Englishmen do not readily admit their inexperience," she heard herself say instead.
"Do you think that a man is less of a man, then, because he admits his inexperience?"
"I think . . . " Her heart slammed against her ribs. "I think it is not a man's inexperience that displeases a woman, but his arrogance in not asking what gives her pleasure."
"Do you think that a man is a man, then, because he asks a woman how to please her?"
The Arab's voice was a curious blend of harshness and vulnerability; his face a dark, unfathomable blur. Only the whites of his eyes were visible.
They gleamed in the darkness.
"I believe that it requires courage for a man to acknowledge a woman's needs, yes," she said more firmly.
"How do you judge a man, madam, if not by his sexual experience? Do you judge him by the number of orgasms he gives you? Do you judge him by the hardness of his male member? By the length of it? Do you judge him by his ability to spurt his seed?"
Pain streaked through Megan—hers, his.
It dawned on her that this man was afraid.
But of what?
"I cannot bear children," she impulsively offered. "If I judged a man for his inability to produce seed, then I must also judge myself for being unable to carry a man's seed."
Megan's jaws snapped shut. She could not possibly have admitted to this stranger what now echoed inside her ears.
That she was barren.
That she was alone.
That she had failed as a woman.
But she had.
The question took her by surprise. It sounded as if it had' been ripped from some place far deeper than the Arab's chest.
She did not pretend to misunderstand him.
Did Megan judge herself?
Why did it seem perfectly natural to discuss her personal feelings with this man?
Why had not her husband, in all their years of marriage, asked her what this Arab now asked her?
"No." Her throat tightened. "But others do."
Just as no doubt others judged him, an Arab traveling in a foreign country.
"You do not wonder, sometimes, if they are right in their judgment?" he asked hoarsely.
But those thoughts were for another time.
"I think . . . when a man and a woman come together—that the closeness they share—I think that is life's true miracle," Megan said shakily.
An ember sparked; red light flared, briefly revealing an ear, a jaw. Human flesh bled into dark shadow.
"You have loved a man," he said flatly.
The tightness constricting Megan's throat spread to her chest. "Yes."
"Yet you are a whore."
She should have expected his judgment; she had not.
Hot emotion erupted inside her, hearing the echo of another man's judgment.
"You think a woman is a whore because she has physical needs?" she flared, forgetting that he rightfully thought her a prostitute. Forgetting that she had come to him out of loneliness, not to debate women's morality. "You do not think that women are entitled to take comfort in a man's embrace?"
"I do not know." His grating honesty shattered her anger; his breath lapped at her breasts. "I do not know what either men or women are entitled to. All I know is what I want."
To know a woman's body.
To learn how to bring a woman to orgasm.
"Surely you must also wish to . . . to experience your own release," Megan said rashly. "Would you not like a woman to touch you?"
"I have no need of a woman's touch."
"We all need to be touched," she riposted.
Surely, all men and women needed the intimacy of touching, of holding, of being touched and held in return.
"There are worse things than physical frustration," he finally said, as if he begrudged her question.
"What?" she asked.
What could possibly be worse than sleeping alone, without even the companionable press of buttocks against buttocks to alleviate the ache of loneliness?
"Knowing that there is no release," he bit out, "is far worse than aching with need."
"But there is always release . . . " Her heart somersaulted at her near confession.
An Englishman was not interested in that part of a woman's body which society did not acknowledge.
An Englishwoman did not admit she possessed a place which brought her release that did not also culminate in a man's ejaculation.
"Do you pleasure yourself, madam?" he asked jarringly, a blatant reminder that he was not English, no matter how much he might sound it.
"Yes." Stinging heat flooded her cheeks, her ears, crawled down her throat. She stiffened her spine, refusing to lie. "Men . . . do they not . . . pleasure themselves?"
The silence was complete save for their breathing and the remote lap of ocean waves, teasing, promising, retreating, never fulfilling.
"There is a difference between a man's hand and a woman's body," he said tersely.
"But do you?" she insisted, suddenly wanting to know, no, she needed to know that men required the same release that women did.
"I have done so."
He was embarrassed—she could feel the heat of it against her breasts and in her toes, hear the roughness of it in his voice—but like her, he would not lie. Not tonight.
"What do you hope to gain from this encounter, Muhamed?"
His name slipped unbidden from between her lips.
It should sound awkward, an Arabic name spoken with an English tongue. It should be awkward, an Arabic man discussing with an Englishwoman what no man had dared say to her, and what, she suspected, he had never dared say to another, be they English or Arabic.
Why didn't it?
"I have told you what I want."
"No, you told me what you want to know," she said, gaining courage from the anonymity of the night, "not what you yourself want. "
For a long second she did not think he would answer.
"I want to know that I can give a woman pleasure."
His voice rebounded off of her breasts. Hot, moist air fanned her nipples.
"I want to know what other men know."
Megan was riveted.
By the raw intensity inside him.
By the passion emanating from him.
"I want to know that I am like other men."