Mason took Beth's hand and tucked it in the crook of his arm. "Let's take a stroll by the river."

She looked back at the chapel, knew she should help her mother, and weighed her mother's irritability against her own desire to walk with Mason. He put his hand over hers, and that contact swayed her. Instead of the comfort his touch used to arouse, currents of lightning shot through her.

Why would an engagement make a difference between her and a friend of more than twenty years?

All she knew was that since she'd proposed to Mason, her reaction to him had changed. His presence incited escalating odd sensations, and she had the most scandalous thoughts. She questioned whether he had the same thoughts, and the heat of a blush reached her cheeks.

There hadn't been time for proper courting. He'd called on her, but other than the day she proposed to him, they'd had no time alone. Her parents accompanied her to his home and that of his parents. When he called on her, one of her parents remained in the room. A hasty kiss on the cheek was all he'd given her, but his soulful looks let her know he wanted more.

Her breath hitched, and she struggled to keep her eyes averted for fear he might read her mind. Her mother said a lady never had thoughts of the flesh, yet Beth couldn't stop dwelling on it. Would he be scandalized? Right now she wondered how his lips tasted.

Mason guided her under the back edge of the building between two of the stone columns and pulled her into his arms. "Forgive me, Beth, I can't wait for this any longer."

Strawberry jam.

He tasted sweet as the jam she'd given him last week. She melted against him, and he deepened the kiss. His tongue traced the line of her lips, and she opened to his invasion. She gasped, but his tongue probed against hers and created a pool of warmth low in her abdomen. Her knees threatened to give way, and she clung to him.

Surprised at the giddiness his action evoked, she soon matched his thrusts with her own tongue. Dear heaven, the thoughts that aroused. A pulsing, aching heat built in her private place. Much more of this and she'd burst into flame.

One of his hands caressed her breast, and new tingles shot through her. He broke contact with her lips to murmur between kisses to her neck, "I can hardly wait to view these beauties tonight."

She looked up at him. "V-view them?" She whispered, "You mean see, um, see me without clothes on?"

He smiled. "Yes, that's what I mean. Not a stitch on either one of us, just like God made us."

"Is that proper?" Panic seized her. Right now she wanted to give Adam back his rib.

But then Mason moved his hand across her nipple, those tingles changed to jolts of pleasure, and she reconsidered. Maybe this man-woman thing wouldn't be too bad, in spite of what her mother said.

Mason's other hand cupped her bottom and tucked her into him. She sensed a hard bulge pressing against her as he resumed their kiss. It must be his man thing, and she worried at the size of it. How could that fit inside her?

Breathless, she broke the kiss. He pulled her to him and cradled her head against his chest. She slid her arms around his waist and savored his embrace. In spite of her worries about tonight, in his arms she knew peace.

He kissed her temple. "Can't tell you how much I've needed this. I've dreamed of us alone in our own home tonight."

That's when they'd come together. But Mason wouldn't do anything to hurt her. She trusted him.

"I look forward to it, too. We make a fine couple, and we'll have a good life together." She raised her head and asked the question that had worried her since she'd proposed to him.

"Mason, you're not sorry you said yes, are you?" She knew he'd never go back on a promise, but it worried her that he might regret that he'd agreed to wed her.

He brushed his lips against hers in a soft, sweet kiss. "I'm only sorry we've wasted years when we should have been together. We belong with one another."

"I'm relieved you feel that way." She sighed and nuzzled into him. "In spite of all the talk, I'm feeling very lucky right now."

"Not nearly as lucky as me. I've wanted this as long as I can remember."

Thunderstruck, she looked up at him. He wanted her? "Mason, you never said. Why didn't you tell me long ago?"

"I couldn't. You were so all-fired set on pleasing your folks by going to that fancy school up north. Then when you came back, well, I thought you were too fine a lady for the likes of me."

Did Mason think her a snob? The suggestion created a ball of worry hi her. "How could you think such a thing? If—if I gave you that idea from anything I said or did, then I apologize. There's no finer man anywhere than you, Mason."

He pulled her back to his chest, and she heard him exhale, a great whoosh of breath, as if he'd been holding in the air. "I thought you deserved a whole man, someone not hampered by a limp."

She pushed away from him with her hands rested on his chest. "Mason Whittaker, don't ever let me hear you say another word against yourself. I'm real sorry about your leg because I know it pains you, but that doesn't make you less of a man. In fact, you've achieved success in spite of being slowed by it, so that makes you twice the man of anyone else I know."

He pushed a stray curl from her face. "You always championed me. Guess that's one reason why I love you."

He loved her.

She didn't know what to say. Mason Whittaker actually said he loved her. She should answer him. But how? Instead, she clung to him, pressed herself against him, and held on. Dear Lord, and she'd asked him to marry her because of a bet. She should tell him, confess right now. But she knew his temper and his hard-shelled pride. If he found out, that pride of his would drive him away. She couldn't bear another cancelled wedding. More, she couldn't bear losing Mason as her best friend and their future together.

Now she was forced to face the question of whether she loved Mason as a man or just as a friend? She hadn't considered that. She'd been so determined to show her cousin Rachel and stop the laughter and humiliation that she hadn't stopped to consider the consequences for Mason.

How selfish she'd been. The knowledge made her ashamed of her hasty proposal. Then she remembered that when she decided to find her own groom, she hadn't considered anyone but Mason.

Did she love him?

Mrs. Pendleton's shrill voice saved Beth from answering Mason.

"Bethaneeeeee. Where are you?"

"Oh, no, we'd better go around by the wagons. Mother sounds upset with me." She loathed breaking contact with him, but stepped away. "Soon I'll be out of yelling distance, even for her." She laughed, wishing it were funny instead of sad.

Nothing she did would ever please her mother. Heaven knew she'd tried for twenty-eight years. She couldn't remember one time when her mother had a kind word for her, not even one.

Mason grabbed her hand. "Knowing my temper, I can't promise I'll never yell at you, but I give you my word I'll try not to."

"You haven't yelled at me yet And I'll try hard to be the best wife in the world, the kind you deserve."

Mason loved her.

Why hadn't she seen that? He'd always been so thoughtful of her every wish, listened to her secrets, took up for her against anyone who said hurtful things to her.

"One more." He swept her to him in a fervent embrace.

Beth slid her arms around his neck. Who would have dreamed kissing Mason would render her into a melting puddle? But it did, and she wanted to continue for a long time.

She wanted him to touch her breast again. Did that make her wanton? Her mother insisted only harlots enjoyed the things that went on between men and women.

Someone coughed. "Boss?"

Mason and Beth jumped. She knew her face reddened at being caught in Mason's arms.

Rowdy pretended to look away. "Mrs. Pendleton made me come fetch you two back up there right away. She seems all het up, and I reckon you'd better hurry along before she has a spell or something."

"Thanks, tell her we're on our way." Mason took Beth's hand and smiled. "In a few hours, no one can interrupt us."

His words gave Beth hope. They rounded the corner pillar and climbed the slope to the front of the chapel.

At the buckboard, Mason held her hand and looked into her eyes. "Guess Rowdy and me better get this straw spread. I'm expected at my folks later this morning."

Mrs. Pendleton tapped her foot. "Straw's not necessary, but if you've nothing better to do, I suppose it won't hurt."

Rowdy helped Mrs. Pendleton and Beulah climb onto the buckboard. Beulah took the reins, but smiled at Beth and Mason and waited patiently.

Mrs. Pendleton snapped open her parasol. "Bethany, we don't have time to dally all day."

Beth sighed, wishing as she had many times that her mother was a kinder, more patient person. No matter, soon she and Mason would answer only to each other. Mason still held her hand, and she squeezed his fingers before she pulled free. "I have to go."

Mason pecked her on the cheek. "Yeah, I know, but it won't be long until we're wed." He helped her up and stepped back. "See you later."

Beth waved. "In a few hours." She thought ahead to tonight when they'd come together and knew she blushed.

His eyes darkened. Plainly, his feelings matched hers. She recalled his words about seeing her naked and wondered how her body would look to him. Would she disappoint him?

Beth hoped not. All her life she'd disappointed her parents, though she tried hard to please them. She had no intention of disappointing her husband. Would being a good wife be as impossible as being a good daughter?