The cry comes from deep in her gut—a fire feasting on the tinder of propriety, sanity, expectation—and in a momentary flash of reason she muffles that roar rising through her throat, sinking her teeth into the exposed shoulder beneath her mouth, the finest flesh available in Larkhall. Nikki’s startled gasp is pain and pleasure tangled together into magnificent incoherence.

One of the most intense orgasms she’s ever had, and without a stitch of clothing off. God help her if Nikki Wade ever gets her completely naked.

On her feet Helen is shakier than after a fifth of Armadale. There is no time for savoring an afterglow; for one thing, sheer panic sets in. She buttons her trousers. She rubs her mouth with the back of her hand to erase the memory of each and every kiss leading to this moment—and because of a phrase leaping bravely into consciousness with an absurd confidence, thinks of T.E. Lawrence: The citadel of my integrity had been irretrievably lost.

 

Lawrence wrote this in allusion to his brutal experiences in a Turkish prison. Of course, there is no real comparison. She did nothing against her will. If indeed her integrity is a lost cause, she can blame no one but herself. That—here she seeks oblivion in Nikki’s eyes, almost black in the thickening dusk—and she is not the prisoner here. “I’ve got to go.”

“Wait.” Nikki’s hand is on her arm, then on her face: Fingertips roughened from garden work, from too much hard water, too much cheap soap move across Helen’s cheekbone.

One more second, one more kiss, and she’ll be on her knees.

“Don’t.”

She almost forgets to lock the door, but after the cylinders click into place she flies down the corridor and the steps with the weight of the keys battering her thigh, running to the freedom beyond the gate.

She sits in the car, hands curled around the steering wheel, wetness between her thighs, wondering how free she really is when Jim Fenner, a ghostly, suspicious smile upon his lips, walks by.