A Rose at Midnight by Anne Stuart

Chapter 1
April 1803
There were few places as still and silent as the kitchens of an English manor house after the servants had retired to their hall for the evening. Ghislaine sat alone in the darkness, watching the glow from the wall of ovens, her small, strong hands resting loosely in her lap. The huge chair dwarfed her slight frame, but the kitchen staff knew better than to suggest removing that chair. It was provided for her comfort, and the comfort of Lady Ell en Fitzwater's personal French chef was of the utmost importance. Never mind that the chef was a female, an unheard-of circumstance. Never mind that she was on far too friendly terms with her unconventional employer and yet kept a careful distance from everyone who dwelled be-lowstairs. The staff at Ainsley Hall understood rank better than they understood their Scripture, and Ghislaine was ruler absolute. It didn't matter that she didn't seem to possess a last name. The staff called her Mamzel e and kept their opinions of her antecedents to themselves. It didn't matter that she was probably no more than thirty years old, and looked a great deal younger, with her reed-slim, boyish frame, her huge, shadowed eyes, and the features that in some other woman would be called elfin beneath the tiedback mop of chestnut hair. No one could call Mamzel e elfin. Not when only the faintest of smiles ever touched her mobile mouth. Not when her dark brown eyes suggested tragedies the servants could only guess at. Not when the little joy and affection in her soul was reserved for the small black puppy that slept happily at her feet by the oversized chair. Ghislaine knew what they thought of her, and she was content with it, if with nothing else in her life. The servants were distrustful, wary, and jealous of her. But they wished her no ill, and that was enough. She leaned her head back in the chair, feeling the iron tension in her muscles, yet helpless to break its grip. During the past year she'd been as close to peace as she'd ever hoped to be. England was a haven, the kitchens of Ainsley Hall a safe kingdom where everything was ordered and preordained, sauces never curdled, roasts never burned, people were never tortured and butchered and… She shook her head, listening to the still ness around her. If only fate hadn't taken a hand once more. Surely she deserved her hard-won peace. And yet for years she had prayed for one thing, and one thing alone. Not happiness, not love, not comfort or friendship. She'd prayed for revenge. So who was she to complain when fate had finally answered her prayers? Ainsley Hall had twenty-seven bedrooms, a ball room, six withdrawing rooms of various sizes and formalities, four dining halls, three offices, twelve powder rooms with indoor amenities, and the kitchens. In one of those twenty-seven bedrooms lay the man she had vowed to kill. It would have been simple enough to find where he slept and take one of her butchering knives to him. She was adept at hacking apart mutton and sides of beef-the muscles in her slender arms attested to that. Surely a living, breathing male wouldn't be that much harder. A sliced jugular, and her life's ambition would be complete. But she didn't gossip with the servants, didn't join them in their hall for cards and flirtation and speculation on those above stairs. And with Ainsley Hall deserted of the gentry, all but the unwanted guest, she couldn't very well wander the hallways looking for him. There was always the possibility that he might recognize her after all those years. It was, however, unlikely. Doubtless she was just part of a distant memory, if that. Ruined lives would have little meaning for a man like her enemy. She was probably one in a long line of victims. She wondered what Ell en would think when she heard the news-that her ramshackle cousin had been slaughtered, and her chef was being held accountable. Most untidy, Ghislaine thought with

detachment, shaking her head. Perhaps she could find a neater way to handle the problem. If only she knew how long he was planning to stay. She didn't want to rush into something that was better savored. Lady Ell en Fitzwater had left Ainsley Hall the day he arrived, prey to those odd conventions the English put such great store by. Even with the protection of her half-deaf companion Miss Binnerston, Ell en couldn't reside in a huge house like Ainsley Hall with an unmarried male of no more than distant connection. Not when he had such a shocking reputation as Nicholas Blackthorne possessed. So she'd decamped, grumbling as she went, and Ghislaine had been entirely prepared to accompany her. Until she heard the man's name. "Damn my cousin!" Ell en had fumed, her soft blue eyes indignant. She loved to curse, and while she practiced as often as she could, the words never sounded quite right coming from her gentle mouth. She'd tried to get Ghislaine to instruct her in gutter French, but Ghislaine had steadfastly refused. "Why damn your cousin?" Ghislaine had inquired evenly moments before her illusion of safety shattered. "If you don't want him here, simply tell him he can't come." "He's already here. Besides, an unmarried female doesn't have much right to an opinion in such matters. Ainsley Hall might be my residence, but it does, in fact, belong to my brother, Car-michael, up until the time I may choose to marry. If I remain on the shelf it will be passed along to his offspring. If I marry, my husband will own it. In the meantime I'm lucky I'm allowed to reside here with Binnie. If the price I have to pay for that luxury is decamping every time some ramshackle half-relative shows up, then I'll pay that price willingly." "Not willingly," Ghislaine pointed out. "No, not willingly," Ell en admitted. "If only it were someone other than Nicholas Blackthorne! Why the blackest of all the black sheep, the one person likely to compromise every healthy female between six and sixty who even happens to be within the same county as he is! A decadent, dissolute, positively cynical wretch, and he's driving me from my… Are you quite all right, Gilly?" Her tone of voice changed to one of sudden concern. Ghislaine had sunk abruptly into a chair. "I'm fine," she said faintly. "Tell me about your cousin." "Heavens, most of his reputation is so shocking I don't know the half of it. He's the last of the mad Blackthornes, from the northern branch of the family, and a nasty bit of goodshe is. Cool and selfcentered and unbearably wicked. If only he weren't my cousin." Ghislaine managed to rouse herself to a semblance of polite conversation. "Because he embarrasses you?" "Heavens, no! Because he's such a notorious flirt, and so sinfully good-looking that I wouldn't have minded… well, I suppose I would have minded. It's all very well to say rakes are irresistible," Ell en announced, "but I don't really think they'd be quite comfortable to live with. Certainly Nicholas wouldn't. For all his handsome face there's something quite… unnerving about his eyes. Wouldn't you say so?" "I've never seen him," Ghislaine said faintly, her hands clenched beneath her enveloping white apron. Ell en would have no reason to know it was a lie. "Of course you haven't. And you won't this time. He came in a couple of hours ago, thoroughly foxed, and is snoring quite loudly in one of the bedrooms. We'll simply decamp and wait until word comes that he's gone to the continent." "Why is he going to the continent? He's a little old for a grand tour, isn't he?" "Gracious, yes. Nicky's been out of leading-strings for dozens of years," Ell en said blithely. "No, I gather he's involved in some wretched scandal again. Carmichael's note said something about a duel, and another man's wife. If the man lives, Nicky can go back to town if he so chooses. If he dies, Nicky's off to France." "France." "Nicky's always had a real affinity for France. At least for the time being we don't happen to be at war. Don't look like that, Gilly. I know you're sensitive, but you needn't look vaporish every time someone simply mentions the silly country. You'll never have to go back, I swear it to you. Let Nicky

go, and maybe he'll come to the bad end he so richly deserves. They're still using the guil otine, aren't they?" In her mind's eye Ghislaine could see the flash of the blade, hear the sudden roar of the crowd. Could feel her own faintness, as she fought, always fought, the terror. "As far as I know," she said, wishing in her heart that Nicholas Blackthorne's black-curled head would end in the same bloodstained basket that had held so many others. "Fortunately I haven't had much experience with drunkards. I have no idea when he'll come to and start demanding things. We'd best leave immediately. That odious manservant of his can see to his needs." Ell en rose, fluffing her yellow skirts around her, and Ghislaine watched her with emotionless abstraction, suddenly aware that this was the last time she would see her benefactress. She dressed poorly, ignoring Ghislaine's occasional tasteful suggestions. Her form was voluptuous and her taste ran toward the extreme in ornamentation. Two ribbons were always better than one, three ruffles better than two, bright colors better than the pastels that would suit her pink and white prettiness to perfection. It had been Ghislaine's unspoken goal to pass on her inborn Frenchwoman's sense of style. For the past year her efforts had fall en on deaf ears. And now it would be too late. "I'm not coming," she said. Ell en simply blinked her china-blue eyes. "Don't be absurd. Of course you are. I know you usually refuse to accompany me to house parties, but this is different. We're simply going to take refuge with Carmichael in Somerset while Nicky rearranges his life. A little rustication will do us both good. Besides, you promised to teach me how to cook." "Not this time," Ghislaine said in her cool, faintly accented French. When she was nine years old she'd had an impoverished English gentlewoman as her governess, and her English was impeccable. Except when she spoke with the servants. Neither woman thought it the slightest bit odd that the chef would refuse an order from her employer. "But why, Gilly?" Ell en wailed. "I'll be so lonely up there!" "You'll have Binnie for company." "Binnie's a fool. Why would you want to stay here? Nicky will probably spend all his time carousing, and your cooking will be wasted." Ell en's eyes filled with tears. "You promised me when I agreed to accompany you here that you would accept my terms," Ghislaine said softly. "I told you I couldn't be your friend, your confidante, your sister. If I accepted your offer to come to England it would be as your servant or I wouldn't come." "But Gilly…!" "I'm staying here, in the kitchen, where I belong," she said, rising and taking Ell en's soft hands in her smaller, harder ones. "I'm sure I'll be able to come up with something suitable for Nicholas Blackthorne." For all her emotions, Lady Ell en was not a stupid woman. Her voice was low when she spoke. "Will you tell me?" Ghislaine didn't pretend to misunderstand. She owed her that much. "Not in this lifetime," she said grimly. It had been less than eight hours since Ell en had left. Life at Ainsley Hall went on as usual, whether the mistress was in residence or not. The joint rulers of the staff, Wilkins the butler and Mrs. Rafferty the housekeeper, kept strict order. They'd negotiated a truce with Ghislaine shortly after she arrived, both of them recognizing an unassailable adversary when they met one. A meal had been served to Nicholas Black-thorne, one that was sent back untouched. Ghislaine had viewed the tray with no emotion whatsoever, but now, as she sat alone in the vast kitchens of the huge manor house, she felt a trace of something as mild as irritation. It was suddenly very clear. She wasn't going to butcher Nicholas Blackthorne in his bed, much as he deserved it. There were far too many complications, not the least of which was the deep, bitter knowledge that she might not have the stomach for it, for the revenge she'd sought for so long. She could only hope that the gentleman's appetite improved as he sobered up. Because she had every intention of poisoning him, and then standing over him and watching him die.

She heard the steady footsteps approaching through the east pantry, and she sat very still, panic slicing through her. She didn't recognize those footsteps. In learning to survive she'd had to cultivate many skills. Long ago she'd learned that to be safe, she needed to be aware of everything and everyone around her. She knew the sound of all sixty-three members of the indoor and outdoor staff of Ainsley Hall, including the members of Ell en's family when they occasionally came to visit. The man approaching her domain was someone new. Her puppy, Charbon, barked sharply when she jumped from the chair, startled by her sudden panic. The knife she favored for mutton was in her hand, her face and form in the shadow, when the man stepped into the room. Her hand felt numb, gripping the wooden handle so tightly. The silhouette in the doorway was shorter than she remembered, thicker. And the hair had thinned drastically. And then he spoke, and she realized her mistake. An English gentleman wouldn't enter the kitchen. He'd send his servant. "Dark in here," the man remarked. Ghislaine put the knife down very quietly, moving toward the cheap tall ow candles that were considered sufficient for kitchen use and lighting them, one by one, filling the cavernous room with a fitful light. She knew the man was watching her, and if she didn't sense outright hostility she at least could feel his reserve. This was the man she was going to have to circumvent, if Nicholas Blackthorne was to have the fate he so richly deserved. She turned back, once she'd allowed him to look his fill. "You must be Mamzel e," he said. He was a far cry from the usual valets who'd invaded her kitchen. He was street-tough, older, someone who looked as if he belonged in a tavern, not in a gentleman's employ. "Yes," Ghislaine said, not surprised. "My master's hungry." "Is he?" She thought of the untouched tray. Either he'd sobered up enough to have acquired an appetite, or drunk enough to be hungry again. It didn't matter. As long as he was ready to eat what she prepared for him, she was chillingly content. "A cold coll ation'll do. Meats, cheese, maybe an apple tart if you've got one handy. And where does Lady Ell en keep the brandy around here?" "She doesn't." "Horseshit," the man said. "Lady Ell en has a very fine wine cell ar, but no brandy, I'm afraid." "You cook with it, don't you?" "I do." "Send it up. Better yet, bring it yourself. My master says he doesn't believe Ell en has a female chef." Ghislaine was suddenly very cold. He won't remember, she told herself. It had been almost thirteen years since he set eyes on her. Thirteen years ago, when she was a fragile, skinny child and he was a young man out for his own pleasure and nothing else. He wouldn't remember. "You misunderstand," she said coolly. "I'm not a maidservant. We have no less than seven of them who will be more than happy to deliver your master's tray, Mr…?" "Just call me Taverner." the man replied. "And I don't believe my master is interested in maidservants at the moment, though I couldn't say about the future. He's interested in seeing Lady Ell en's female chef, and my duty is to satisfy his whims. Right now that whim is you, Mamzel e. So I'll wait." She opened her mouth to continue the argument, then shut it abruptly. She would be wasting her breath, and possibly arousing suspicion, if she continued. Instead, she dropped a mocking curtsy. "Yes, sir," she said, and the man flashed a startled look at her. "You ain't like any servant I've met," he announced. "That‟s because I'm not a servant. I'm a chef." "Chefs are men." "I'm not."

"So I noticed," the man said with a leer, and Ghislaine felt a trickle of cold panic in the pit of her stomach. If this rough manservant was any example of Nicholas Blackthorne's progress, then he'd simply gone from bad to worse. She began to busy herself with preparing a plate of cold meats and cheeses, keeping her hands working while her mind was abstracted. "You aren't much like the valets who come to Ainsley Hall." Taverner laughed. "You can bet I'm not. My master doesn't give a spit about how well he's turned out. He's not one of your fancy boys. He needs someone to stand at his back if need be, someone who knows how to dispense a little rough and ready. Someone who's not afraid of trouble." "Does he run into trouble very often?" she inquired coolly. There was no way she could slip a butcher knife into her full skirts, not if he expected her to carry the tray. Which doubtless he would. "You could say so," Taverner said with a grin that showed several discolored teeth. "And you get him out of it." She took her massive ring of keys and unlocked the door to the closet where she kept her spirits. She had two bottles in there-one of the finest French cognac ever made, the other of a rough cooking brandy. She took the latter and set it on the tray. "Hell, no. He can get himself out of most messes. I just like to make sure there's no backstabbing." "Sounds like a most productive life for a gentleman," she said. "I suppose you wish me to carry the tray?" "You suppose right. Come on, Mamzele. My master's not going to take a bite out of you." She hoisted the tray in her small, strong hands. "He wouldn't like the taste," she said. She followed Taverner as he made his way through the candlelit hallways, her soft shoes quiet on the carpeted floors. "You know, you don't sound very French to me," Taverner said suddenly, stopping in the hallway outside the tiny, fussy ladies' parlor. Ghislaine felt cold inside. Only the supreme force of her will kept the tray from trembling in her hands; only the supreme force of her will kept the panic from showing on her face. She glanced at Taverner, at the ferretlike face and stained teeth, and told him what she thought of him. In ripe, idiomatic, gutter French. The language she'd learned in the slums of Paris. Taverner looked impressed. "Yeah, that sounds French all right. Never could understand the lingo." He opened the door, and Ghislaine realized with horror that for some reason Nicholas Blackthorne had taken up residence in Ell en's parlor. She had no choice. She couldn't turn and run, not without receiving the attention she was so desperate to avoid. She would simply have to keep her head down, her tongue between her teeth, and hope he'd never remember. For a moment she thought the parlor was empty. The fire provided the only light, and even with the pale silk-covered walls, the room was plunged in shadows. "You ought to learn French, Tavvy," a voice said. "Then you might be even more impressed. She called you the son of a rutting ape, lacking several necessary pieces of male equipment, and she suggested you might be better off eating donkey feces." Ghislaine dropped the tray. Fortunately Taverner was in the act of taking it from her hands, clearly believing only he had the right to serve his master, and the tray didn't fall far. She was still in the doorway, not moving, knowing the light from behind her would cast her face into even deeper shadows, and Taverner moved around her with a disapproving grunt. He was lounging on Lady Ell en's pink petit-point chaise. His dusty black boots had already soiled the delicate material, and he clearly had no intention of removing them despite the stableyard debris and dust that clung to them. He had very long legs, but she couldn't have forgotten that. He'd been quite tall when he was twenty-two, and men didn't grow shorter as they matured. His breeches were also dusty, clinging to his long thighs, and at some point he'd dispensed with his coat. The white shirt was open at the neck and rolled up at the sleeves, and his long, curly black hair was mussed around his face. She took the inventory carefully, avoiding that face, those eyes. But she could avoid it no longer. Now that she knew there was no middle-aged paunch on that flat torso she could only hope age and evil had made their mark on his once-handsome face.

Age and evil had left their mark. They'd turned a young man of almost unearthly beauty into a satyr, a fall en angel, a man of such powerful attractions that Ghislaine was shocked. She would have staked her life on the certainty that she would never again find a man attractive. And certainly not this man, who'd murdered her family and ruined her life. The features that had been soft and pretty when he was in his early twenties were now sharply delineated. The high cheekbones, deep-set dark blue eyes, and strong blade of a nose were the same, and yet different. Lines fanned out from those still-mesmerizing eyes; lines of dissipation, not laughter. More lines bracketed his sensual mouth, and he hadn't bothered to shave in the past day or so. His long black hair was tangled, a far cry from the carefully arranged styles most of Ell en's male relatives cultivated, and his manner was indolent, insolent, and just the slightest bit dangerous. It had been a long time since Ghislaine had been around a dangerous man. She would have preferred it to be even longer. "Looked your fill, Mamzel e?" he drawled, a faint smile on that haughty, dissipated face. She wouldn't let him see how disturbed she was. "Yes, sir," she replied evenly, not moving from her spot in the shadowed doorway. "I, however, haven't had my chance to look at my second cousin Ell en's French chef. Step closer, girl." She kept her face impassive as chilling panic clamped a hand around her small, hard heart. Willing herself to be brave, she stepped forward, into the murky light, and let him stare. She wouldn't, couldn't meet his gaze. She kept her hands clasped loosely in front of her, her eyes on the fire, as she felt his eyes run over her slender body. With luck he wouldn't notice the faint trembling that she couldn't quite control. With luck he wouldn't see the defiance in her shoulders and the murderous hatred in her heart. "I wouldn't call her a diamond of the first water, would you, Tavvy?" he drawled, sounding blessedly bored. "No, sir," Taverner replied, busying himself with the tray of food. "I don't believe I'd heard that she was anything special. There's an upstairs maid name of Betsy that‟s quite a saucy piece…" "I don't think I'm interested." He sounded abstracted. "Still, there's something about the girl. Wouldn't you say so?" She gritted her teeth just slightly, unable to move, as the men discussed her. "I wouldn't know, sir. She's not to my taste. I like 'em with a little more meat on the bones. A warm cuddle on a cold night, and all that." "So do I," he said, and she could tell by the sound of his voice that he was rising from his lazy perch. Rising, and moving closer. "But there's something about this one…" He put his hand on her. His large, elegant hand under her chin, forcing her face around to his. And then he dropped his hand with a startled laugh, moving away. "Such anger, Mamzel e," he said softly, in French. "Such hatred. You quite astound me." She wouldn't speak French with him. She wouldn't look at him, wouldn't breathe the same air he breathed. If he touched her again she would take the knife from the tray that she'd carried and plunge it into his heart. "May I go, sir?" she requested quietly, eyes still downcast. "Certainly. I have no wish to bed an angry female. At least not tonight." That surprised her into looking at him, her mouth dropping open in shock. There was a speculative expression in his dark eyes, one that was almost more disturbing than his brief touch had been. "Monsieur is mistaken. I am the chef," she said. "Not a whore." She didn't wait for his reply, or her dismissal. She turned on her heel and left the room, closing the door very quietly behind her. The walk back down to the kitchens was a long one, and she moved steadily, silently, fighting the urge to run as if her life depended on it. I am not a whore, she'd told the man who'd made her become one. And she knew, before another day passed, that that day would be his last.

Chapter 2

Lady Ell en Fitzwater wasn't happy. She hadn't wanted to leave Gilly behind, but she'd learned, early on in her relationship with her chef and friend, that there was no one more stubborn than a Frenchwoman. They'd had their disagreements in the year since they'd met under decidedly bizarre circumstances, and doubtless they'd have more. And Lady Ell en Fitzwater, a woman of a certain age who considered herself strong-minded, had lost every single one of those battles. As she'd lost this one. She'd had no option but to withdraw. Not that she was afraid of a wrong 'un like Nicholas Blackthorne. Fortunately she wasn't the sort of woman to attract a man like Nicky. He wouldn't offer her a carte blanche, a slip on the shoulder, or any of the other myriad insults offered to an attractive lady of a certain age. Unfortunately the world didn't recognize that she was safe from Nicky's advances. Had she stayed under her own roof she would have been branded a fall en woman. Her brother, Carmichael, would have been forced to take a stand, and if she weren't careful she'd find herself married to someone as eminently unsuitable as Nicholas Blackthorne. Not that he didn't have his advantages. He was devilishly, wickedly attractive, even she recognized that. And he paid absolutely no attention to the rules of society, another salient point. She was already so bound by society's stupid rules that she was being run out of her own house because of them. It would be marvelous to snap her fingers at the prosing old gossips. However, there was a certain lack of harmony in Nicholas Blackthorne's nature. A distressing abundance of scandal, close calls, and a certain mocking nature made him a most uncomfortable candidate for marriage. Here he was at almost six and thirty, past time to be settling down and begetting an heir, and what was he doing? Running away from a duel, for heaven's sake! And if he killed his man, which was still not out of the question, then he'd be off to the continent again, for heaven knew how long. Not that an absentee husband might not be quite pleasant, Ell en mused. But even a day spent with someone as unsettling as Nicky would be more than her temperamentcould handle. It would be just as well for everyone if Jason Hargrove did cock up his toes. She'd only met him once, and she hadn't liked him a bit. A slimy piece of goods, he was the sort of man who stood far too close, whose hands lingered, whose mouth was always wet. And he cheated at cards, or so Carmichael said. It was no wonder that his wife turned to someone a little more prepossessing. It was just unfortunate that Jason Hargrove had happened to catch Nicky, in flagrante delicto it was rumored. A duel was unavoidable, but Nicky didn't have to make it a killing affair. Until Hargrove recovered or succumbed, all Nicky could do was bide his time in the country, out of reach of Bow Street Runners and the authorities. It wouldn't have been so bad if this were his first duel. In fact it was his seventh, and if his bad luck held, it would be his second fatality. Even his more sober family connections couldn't keep him from the consequences of his current misdeeds. She'd told him so, too. She'd gone into great detail about his lack of manners and judgment, complaining bitterly about being evicted from her pleasant home because of his imprudence. He'd simply opened one eye and stared up at her from his lazy perch on her chaise. "You never used to be such a prig, Ell en," he observed. "Did you have to mortally wound him, Nicky?" she responded with some asperity. "After all, you were in the wrong. Shouldn't you have deloped?" "And gotten my head blown off for the trouble? I'm not such a fool." "As a matter of fact, he did," Taverner announced. Ell en had jumped, startled. She could never get used to the fact that Nicky's valet seemed to consider himself an equal, joining into any conversation that suited his fancy. Not that she didn't try to treat Ghislaine the same way. But Gilly kept erecting walls as fast as Ell en tried to tear them down. "What do you mean, he did?" she demanded irritably. "He means I deloped, more fool me," Nicholas murmured. "Every now and then I have a noble moment. Jason Hargrove didn't choose to be amenable and accept the token apology. If I hadn't ducked we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"You needn't sound so surprised. I mean, you are supposed to be killing each other when you fight a duel, aren't you?" "Not necessarily. In Hargrove's case I assumed he'd be satisfied with my apology, or failing that, first blood. Instead the man tried to murder me." "Murder you?" she echoed, confused. "His first shot went wild," Taverner offered. "Blackthorne bowed and turned his back, assuming honor was satisfied and all that rubbish. And then he shot again." "At your back?" She was aghast. "At my back," Nicholas said. "Not only that, he had another pistol in his greatcoat, and was reaching for that. I had no choice. I was fortunate his bad timing and abysmal lack of skil had saved me twice. I couldn't count on that happening again." "So you killed him." 'That remains to be seen. Last I heard he was still clinging to life with remarkable stamina. Don't you know that only the good die young?" "That accounts for your advanced age," Ell en said with some asperity. "But what does it say about me?" "Only that you might not be such a starched-up prig after all." Nicholas was eyeing her with new, dangerous interest. "Maybe you should throw caution to the wind and stay here after all. You can't expect to experience life if you don't take a chance or two." "Don't even think it." Her voice was severe. "You've known me since I was in leading-strings, and you should have enough sense to realize that we shouldn't suit." He didn't pretend to misunderstand. "I wasn't suggesting marriage, Ell en. I have no intention of getting leg-shackled, ever. That doesn't mean that I can't introduce you to a few more… physical pleasures." "Put a damper on it," she replied, much pleased with herself. She wasn't tempted, not even for a moment. Though she almost wished she were. "I don't care what Carmichael says-I want you to leave as soon as possible. In the meantime, don't cause trouble for my servants. Don't harass the butler-he's too old for your tricks. Don't chase my chambermaids-they're hard to find. And leave my cook alone!" This was said with unbecoming ferocity, and the moment the words were out of her mouth she knew she'd made a mistake. "The famous female chef?" Nicholas Blackthorne suddenly looked a great deal less drunk than he had moments before. "I would have thought she'd travel with you." "She refuses to go. You keep away from her, Nicky, or I'll …" "The only cooks I've known have been mountainous creatures, walking advertisements for their skills. I hardly think I'm going to develop a taste for lumpish ladies at this point in my career." "She isn't…" Ell en had the sense to stop. "See that you don't change your mind," she said instead. But drunken Nicholas Blackthorne was far sharper than she had hoped. "I take it your cook isn't mountainous?" His voice was silky, dangerous. "Leave her alone, Nicky. For once in your life, do the decent thing." She was shocked by the expression on his face. A sudden bleakness washed over the charm and attraction. "I never do the decent thing, Ell en. It's part of my charm." "Nicky…" "Shal I recite to you my sins? Maybe then, in your so conventional goodness, you can absolve me. Shal I tell you about the tavern maid who drowned herself when she found she was pregnant by me? About my mother, who wasted away when my older brother died, knowing that in me she had nothing left to live for? About the de Lorgny family, who went to the guil otine because I refused to help them. You know the family history-madness and evil abound. I could tell you about the boy I killed in a duel ten years ago. A simple boy, innocent, who had just made the grave mistake of losing his fortune to me at the gaming table and then accusing me of cheating. He was green, not much more than a child, really, and his family's pride. And I snuffed out his life when I was too drunk to do more than notice. Shal I tell you more?" "No, Nicky," Ell en said faintly. The bleak expression left his face, and he suddenly looked years younger, and alarmingly attractive. "And don't think you can save me from my demons," he said casually. "Other women have made that mistake, only to be brought down with me. Run away, Ell en. Tell your cook to keep safe in her

kitchen, tell your chambermaids to hide in their attics, tell the fathers to lock up their daughters. The despoiler of virtue has arrived, and no one is safe." "Don't be absurd, Nicky." Ell en's voice was gentle. He looked at her then, and she realized the bleakness hadn't left after all. It had simply settled in his dark, unfathomable eyes. "Don't you be absurd, Ell en. Run away." She'd done just that. Run, without even bothering to pass along Nicky's warnings. In Ghislaine's case it would have done no good. Ghislaine never listened to warnings, never seemed to listen to a word Ell en said. It was a wonder they were friends. She also, however, kept her distance from men, and from the world abovestairs. She allowed her mistress to be her friend, but only on her terms. When visitors were around, Gilly remained in the kitchen. When Ell en was alone in the house with only the half-deaf Binnie for companionship, Ghislaine would join her. If only she didn't have this miserable sense of foreboding that leaving Gilly at Ainsley Hall had been tantamount to sealing her doom. It was ridiculous, of course. Of all the women Ell en had known in her life, no one was more able to take care of herself than Gilly. She had secrets, Ell en knew. Dark, terrible secrets, that put the shadows in her eyes and the little catch in her laughter. Those were secrets she wouldn't share, not with anyone, even a friend who wanted to lighten the burden. But those secrets would also protect her against the Nicholas Blackthornes of the world, and worse. Ghislaine had looked into the face of hell at one point in her life, and she hadn't flinched. She'd make mincemeat of anyone who tried to harm her. Besides, there was something to be said about an enforced stay at her brother Carmichael's seat in Somerset. She truly liked her sister-in-law, Lizzie; she doted on her nieces and nephews; and, best of all, Carmichael's best friend, Tony, was due for an unexpected visit. She adored the Honorable Sir Antony Wilton-Greening; there was no other word for it. Thank heavens he was too indolent to notice. Or if he had, too kind to make fun of her. She'd trailed around after him when she'd been an awestruck child of eight and he'd come home from the university with her older brother. She'd talked his ear off five years later when she was going through her horsemad period; Tony was an acknowledged whip and prime expert on all kinds of horseflesh. And she suffered through the agonizing, embarrassed she had nothing left to live for? About the de Lorgny family, who went to the guil otine because I refused to help them. You know the family historymadness and evil abound. I could tell you about the boy I killed in a duel ten years ago. A simple boy, innocent, who had just made the grave mistake of losing his fortune to me at the gaming table and then accusing me of cheating. He was green, not much more than a child, really, and his family's pride. And I snuffed out his life when I was too drunk to do more than notice. Shal I tell you more?" "No, Nicky," Ell en said faintly. The bleak expression left his face, and he suddenly looked years younger, and alarmingly attractive. "And don't think you can save me from my demons," he said casually. "Other women have made that mistake, only to be brought down with me. Run away, Ell en. Tell your cook to keep safe in her kitchen, tell your chambermaids to hide in their attics, tell the fathers to lock up their daughters. The despoiler of virtue has arrived, and no one is safe." "Don't be absurd, Nicky." Ell en's voice was gentle. He looked at her then, and she realized the bleakness hadn't left after all. It had simply settled in his dark, unfathomable eyes. "Don't you be absurd, Ell en. Run away." She'd done just that. Run, without even bothering to pass along Nicky's warnings. In Ghislaine's case it would have done no good. Ghislaine never listened to warnings, never seemed to listen to a word Ell en said. It was a wonder they were friends. She also, however, kept her distance from men, and from the world abovestairs. She allowed her mistress to be her friend, but only on her terms. When visitors were around, Gilly remained in the kitchen. When Ell en was alone in the house with only the half-deaf Binnie for companionship, Ghislaine would join her. If only she didn't have this miserable sense of foreboding that leaving Gilly at Ainsley Hall had been tantamount to sealing her doom. It was ridiculous, of course. Of all the women Ell en had known in

her life, no one was more able to take care of herself than Gilly. She had secrets, Ell en knew. Dark, terrible secrets, that put the shadows in her eyes and the little catch in her laughter. Those were secrets she wouldn't share, not with anyone, even a friend who wanted to lighten the burden. But those secrets would also protect her against the Nicholas Blackthornes of the world, and worse. Ghislaine had looked into the face of hell at one point in her life, and she hadn't flinched. She'd make mincemeat of anyone who tried to harm her. Besides, there was something to be said about an enforced stay at her brother Carmichael's seat in Somerset. She truly liked her sister-in-law, Lizzie; she doted on her nieces and nephews; and, best of all, Carmichael's best friend, Tony, was due for an unexpected visit. She adored the Honorable Sir Antony Wilton-Greening; there was no other word for it. Thank heavens he was too indolent to notice. Or if he had, too kind to make fun of her. She'd trailed around after him when she'd been an awestruck child of eight and he'd come home from the university with her older brother. She'd talked his ear off five years later when she was going through her horsemad period; Tony was an acknowledged whip and prime expert on all kinds of horseflesh. And she suffered through the agonizing, embarrassing pain of puppy love when she was seventeen and he danced with her at her first ball. For two years afterward their friendship had been strained. Not because of him. Tony knew how to charm even the most recalcitrant of females, and woo them out of their sulks. No, it was because back then she couldn't be around him without blushing scarlet and stammering, and those impediments were so embarrassing that she simply kept away. She had watched him from the windows when he came to visit Carmichael, she had peered at him from across crowded ball rooms, she had scurried out of his way whenever she could. But at night, when she was alone in her bedroom, she dreamed such wonderful, impossible dreams. Dreams that made her blush even deeper whenever he was around, dreams that made her stammer even more. Positively licentious dreams, where he loved her with a manly passion and not a trace of his indolent ease. She'd grown out of it, of course, as all adolescents, even the shyest ones, do. He'd helped, though she never knew whether he'd guessed her dark secret or not. But he'd continued to treat her with the same brotherly charm, teasing her gently, helping her through the trauma. The day his engagement to the gorgeous Miss Stanley was announced, she considered slashing her wrists. The next day she told herself she was well on her way to being cured. Still, the friendship remained. There were things she could tell him that she could tell no one else, not even her brother. And she never had to worry about the stilted rules of society, or flirtation, or male and female sill iness. Tony would never, ever want someone like her. Not when every single husband-hunting female of beauty and fortune had flung herself at his head for the last fifteen years. She could be at ease with him now without worrying what people would think. She was simply an honorary sister, and she refused to consider anything else. It was still a wonder to her that Miss Stanley had cried off. How anyone could have rejected Tony was beyond Ell en's comprehension, both then and now. But Tony had simply shrugged, smiled his charming smile, and said they wouldn't suit. "But why?" she'd been bold enough to push him, with the arrogance of her then nineteen years and her recent recovery from her passion for him. Fortunately no one had been around to chastise her for her boldness. "Because, dear Ell en, she told me I simply didn't love her enough. That if I had to choose between my horses and her, I'd choose the horses. Since she was absolutely right, I couldn't put up much of an argument. I'm a sad case, Ell en. I suppose I'll simply have to wait for you to grow up and marry me." She'd laughed, ignoring the very faintest remnant of a twinge. "I'm already old enough to get married, Tony. And I'm certainly not going to marry you." "Why not?" he demanded lazily, a mocking glint in his cool gray eyes. "Because," she said, "if I had to choose between my horses and you, I'd pick the horses." He'd shouted with laughter at that, and she'd had no compunctions about her flat-out lie. But she hadn't lied about one thing. Tony would be the last man she'd marry. Simply because he'd never ask her. One never got one's hopes and dreams handed to one on a silver platter.

She'd arrived at Meadowlands still feeling uneasy, but the word that Tony had decided to make a last-minute visit went a long way toward banishing her concerns. She hadn't seen him since Christmas, and she'd missed him. She always missed him, terribly, but she judged it wise to ration her time with him. If she indulged too much, she might develop a fatal taste for him, the way certain men develop an attraction for rum or gaming. Once accustomed to his presence, she might be far too unwilling to give it up. So she only allowed herself small doses, just enough to keep her spirits up. She needed her spirits lifted today. No matter how often she told herself that things would be fine at Ainsley Hall, that Gilly could take care of herself, she still had this dreadful sense of foreboding. Something quite devastating was going to happen. And her comfortable, peaceful life was never going to be the same again. "Such a to-do," Mrs. Rafferty clucked, heaving her massive bulk onto one of the small kitchen stools. In another place and time Ghislaine would have watched in amusement, wondering whether the stool would withstand the assault. But not today. "Indeed." Wilkins, the elderly butler, har-rumphed. "I don't know about such goings-on in a gentleman's house." Ghislaine managed to bestir herself. "Lady's house," she corrected faintly, because it was expected of her. 'This is Lady Ell en's house." The two other senior servants had invaded her kitchen, sending the junior staff about their business. It was late the next day, the staff had finished cleaning up after supper, and Ghislaine had the odd notion that the three of them were conspirators. They weren't, of course. She had acted alone. As always. "Even worse," Mrs. Rafferty said with a disapproving sniff. "For that wicked man to die in his bed here is somehow… indecent, thaf s what it is." Ghislaine held herself very still, the familiar coldness washing over her. "He's dead, then?" "No. Doctor Branford expects him to pull through, which is a mixed blessing as far as I'm concerned. Mr. Blackthorne's never been anything but a trial and disaster as far as his family is concerned. Even someone as distantly related as Lady Ell en is affected." Wilkins could look very dour, and he did so now. "It would do everyone a service if he were to quit this earth, but I'd rather he didn't do it in Lady Ell en's house. Think of the neighbors." "Such a mess, too," Mrs. Rafferty said with a sigh. "Casting up his accounts all over the place. Gastritis, the doctor called it. Seems like an unpleasant way to die." "I imagine it is," Ghislaine said. "Is he past all danger?" "The doctor thinks so," Wilkins said gloomily. "But he warned it might reoccur." For a moment Ghislaine could see Nicholas Blackthorne's face in front of her. The dark, bleak eyes; the sensual mouth; the dissolute beauty of him. It called to her, for one brief, mad moment. "I rather think it will," she said evenly. "This weren't no bleedin' gastritis," Taverner pronounced. Nicholas managed to raise his head. He had about as much strength as a newborn puppy, and God knew he didn't want to do anything to jar the temporary peace of his innards. If he were to start the dry heaves again, he might reach for the pistol that had likely seen the end of Jason Hargrove,and follow him into the great beyond. Or perhaps precede him. According to that fool of a doctor, he almost had. It had been two days since he'd taken sick, two days of the most wretched purging his body had ever endured. For not the first time in his life he'd wanted to die, anything to stop the feeling of having his innards ripped out. In the shaky aftermath, such cowardice astonished him. He'd survived gunshot wounds, knifings, and probably not more than his fair share of bearings, and he'd always snapped his fingers at pain. But the pain he'd endured during the last forty-eight hours was like nothing he'd ever imagined. And that damned doctor had warned him that it might return, that it might… Taverner's muttered words finally penetrated. "What did you say, Tavvy?" "I said it weren't no bleeding gastritis. I've seen gastritis. My Uncle George died of it. It doesn't work this way, not that sudden. And not with a young healthy cove like yourself."

Nicholas managed to pull himself up in bed, cursing the trembling weakness in his limbs. "What are you talking about?" he asked, his voice a flat demand. "Poison, Blackthorne. I think you've been poisoned." "Don't be ridiculous! Who would poison me? If Hargrove dies, I imagine Melissa will be nothing but grateful to me. No one else bears him any affection, and he has no family." "Begging your pardon, sir, but he's not your only enemy. You haven't lived a blameless life." Nicholas managed a ghost of a smile. "Truer words were never spoken, Tavvy. Not many people would mourn my passing. But there's a question of opportunity. I don't think Ell en would have sprinkled rat poison in the brandy before she left." "No more brandy for you," Tavvy announced decisively. "Don't be absurd, man!" "And I'm going to fix your meals myself. I never did trust the French." "Now you've really gone mad. Next thing I know you'll be telling me that ancient old Wilkins is avenging his despoiled daughter." "Did you despoil his daughter?" Taverner asked, momentarily distracted. "I have no idea if he even has a daughter. If he does, and she's pretty, and I was around, then I imagine I did just that." "Those are a lot of ifs. No, my money is on the Frenchie." Blackthorne considered this. "I admit she didn't like me much. I hardly think that constitutes a motive for murder." "I don't know what her motive was," Taverner declared. "All I know is she had a better chance than anyone. She's the one who cooked your meal, isn't she? And it ain't something as simple as not liking you. I saw her face. She hates you. Hates you something fierce." "Absurd," Nicholas said, closing his eyes and considering the notion nonetheless. "Maybe. But I'm keeping a close eye on her. And she don't put her foreign hands on anything you eat. No one does but me." "You sure you're not poisoning me, Tavvy?" he murmured, exhausted from the struggle his body had been through. "Nah," his servant replied. "I'd stab you in the back if I'd a mind to. Poison is a woman's game." "Perhaps," Nicholas said wearily. "But I suggest for once in your life you try to be subtle. If it was poison, and she was the one who did it, we need to catch her in the act." "I'd like to cut her throat." Nicholas waved an impatient hand. "Wait and see. Give me a couple of days to regain my strength. You insist on fixing all my food, and watch out for the ingredients she lets you use." "What do you think I am, a flat?" Taverner demanded, incensed. Nicholas ignored him. "Then, if the gastritis hasn't returned and I'm feeling better, we'll have her prepare me a splendid meal." "We will?" Nicholas smiled with haunting sweetness. "And we'll make her eat it first." Taverner nodded, chuckling. "You always were a bad 'un," he said. "I try, Tavvy. I do try." And closing his eyes, Nicholas Blackthorne fell into an exhausted sleep. Only to dream, inexplicably, of France.

Chapter 3
Nicholas was twenty-two when he first went to Burgundy. He was old for a grand tour, too old to have an impoverished cleric leading him around with a guidebook. Indeed, his main goal in his tour of the continent was to raise as much hell as he could get away with. He'd been sent down from Cambridge, of course. It had taken him the better part of three years to accomplish that, but in the end he did, wasting the expensive education his martinet of a father had provided for him.

It had been a close call. The problem was, he found he actually enjoyed scholarship. He'd been on the verge of some disastrous escapade, something guaranteed to blacken him in the eyes of all and sundry, when something would take his interest. And his interests were damnably wide. He studied the latest methods of agriculture, he studied the properties of electricity and the workings of the human body. He immersed himself in Greek and Latin, in the study of warfare, in the philosophies of Plato and Sophocles. He even allowed himself to be temporarily seduced by the workings of the legal systems, before his goal in life revived itself. That goal being to humiliate his father. The father who'd humiliated him, ignored him, turned from him in disgust when his elder son and beloved wife had died. Nothing Nicholas ever did was good enough for his father; no attempt at earning his love, or even his approval, succeeded. Eventually Nicholas had given up trying, deciding that if he was doomed to disapproval and dislike from his father, then he'd do his best to deserve it. Not that his father had lived a sober, blameless life. There was bad blood in the Blackthornes, the madness ran deep, and Jepthah Blackthorne, in his diligence to appear untouched by the family instability, had carried sedate behavior to an extreme. And Nicholas had rebelled, flinging the dark family history in his father's face on every occasion, until finally, when he was close to graduating with honors, he'd made his move. A drunken brawl, followed by a horrendous scene in the ancient and conventionally silent library, followed by an inebriated disruption of a solemn church service, and Nicholas Blackthorne was out on his ear, disgraced. He hadn't been nearly so drunk as he'd pretended. Just drunk enough to give himself the courage to do it. He'd remembered the shocked expressions on the faces of his peers, his second cousin Carmichael Fitzwater, for example, and that lazy fop, Antony Wilton-Greening. And he'd seen the horrified expression on his father's face as he'd screamed imprecations at him before coll apsing at his desk. He'd felt no triumph later that night as he'd stood by his father's bedside and watched him struggle for breath. A matter of time, the doctor said. The next apoplectic fit would carry him off, and unless his black-sheep son made himself scarce, that fit would come all too soon. Nicholas felt no guilt. None at all, he told himself, as he watched his father struggle. He would have been more than happy to stay and watch his father die, if it hadn't been for the implacable decision of his elderly Uncle Teasdale. His mother's older brother was a bachelor, one of high-living tastes and an amazing amount of tolerance. Nicholas had always wished Teasdale had been his father, instead of the rigid, miserable old man who'd made his life a torment. Maybe then the blackness wouldn't eat into his soul as it had. But then, blood will tell. And the tainted blood of the mad Blackthornes ran thick and blue in his veins. Even tolerant Teasdale drew the line at inadvertent patricide. He'd sent Nicholas off on his grand tour with more than enough funds from his own private account, and told him to come back a man. One ready to learn responsibility. And he might have done just that. He'd dall ied in the brothels of Paris, fall en in love with Venice, and been bewitched by Rome, moving through the political turmoil that was Europe with a singleminded absorption in his own pleasure. He was ready to return home, ready to make peace with a father who was, against all odds, recuperating. It was then he made one of the worst mistakes in a mistake-strewn life. Responsibility, his Uncle Teasdale had told him. One responsibility was to make a courtesy visit to his godparents in Burgundy, godparents he'd never even met. The Comte and Comtesse de Lorgny had been friends of his mother's, their position as his godparents only a formality. But those formalities begat more formalities, and there was no way he could go anywhere near Burgundy without spending several nights at their chateau. For once he was on his best behavior. The long absence from his father and the shadows of his childhood instilled in him the desire to be a new man, and he was doing his best to live up to that desire. He was polite and deferential to the old comte, charming to his little birdlike wife, brotherly to the young boy, Charles-Louis.

But it was the daughter who disturbed him. The one with the odd name, Ghislaine, and the huge, trusting eyes. The skinny boy's body with breasts just beginning to bud behind the tight silk bodices of her dresses. The quick, delicate gestures, the silvery magic of her laughter. The pure, innocent grace of her tore at his heart. And at his loins. He'd bedded a number of willing females during his sojourn on the continent. Barmaids and aristocrats, chambermaids and duchesses, he'd had his pick of any number of accommodating women. He had no delusions about his appeal. He knew he had a way about him, a certain combination of form and features, that women found attractive. And he discovered within himself a dangerous kind of charm that made that attraction even more volatile. But the women were all experienced. All older than he was, all buxom, sensual females with eager appetites and sophisticated practices. He'd learned a great deal from them, and enjoyed himself immensely. But he'd never been moved by someone little more than a child. Wanted someone trembling on the very edge of womanhood. His very longing for her disgusted him, but as each day passed, and the three-day visit stretched into weeks, that longing increased until it was an obsession. He assumed she didn't know. She was too young, too innocent to realize what was going on in his satyr's mind every time she took his hand, smiled up at him, kissed his cheek, and left a trail of delicate perfume behind. It could have gone on forever. Or at least until she was old enough, if fate hadn't conspired to change his life. To halt the right turn he'd made, sending him tumbling back into blackness and despair. Into evil. He'd known what the letter would contain the moment he'd recognized his Uncle Teasdale's handwriting. Teasdale would never write anything more tedious than a gaming IOU unless it was a matter of life and death. Indeed, it was the latter. Sir Jepthah Blackthorne had succumbed to another fit of apoplexy. Teasdale hadn't given any of the particulars, but Nicholas could well imagine them. He'd probably died lamenting the fact that his name and his estates could only descend to a worthless, ramshackle creature like his younger surviving son. He probably cursed him with his dying breath, never knowing that Nicholas had made his first tentative steps on the road toward redemption. He sat alone in the gardens of Sans Doute, the elegant country estate of his godparents, and crumpled the letter in his large hand. There was a curious burning in his eyes, one that must have been occasioned by the brightness of the overcast sun. A similar ache hovered somewhere midchest, and he ascribed that to a surfeit of port with his godfather the night before. He sat alone, dryeyed, and felt the first fiery tendrils of rage begin to rekindle inside him. It was there his godfather found him. Comte de Lorgny was a kindly man, but one not given to sensitivity or introspection. To give him his due, he had a great deal on his mind at the moment, chief of which was to ask a huge favor of his charming godson. "News from home?" he inquired, taking a seat on the marble bench next to Nicholas's tightly strung body. Nicholas shoved the letter into his pocket. "Nothing to signify," he replied with utmost casualness. "It seems I've got to return to England. Tomorrow." The comet's round face paled slightly. "Then perhaps now is as good a time as any for our little talk." It took a moment for Nicholas to rouse himself from his furious abstraction. "Little talk?" "About the future." "With due respect, sir, I wasn't aware that our futures were in any way connected." Comte de Lorgny cleared his throat and looked miserable. "Not as yet," he allowed. "Perhaps you'll allow me to explain a few things to you?" At that moment Nicholas wasn't interested in any explanations. His mind was preoccupied with how he was going to return to England as quickly as possible. And what he'd find when he got theje. He simply nodded, paying scant attention while the little old man rambled on about the unsettled social conditions in France, the uprisings of the peasants, the troubled situation in Paris.

"Not that I think it will come to anything," he added hurriedly. "France has stood for more than a thousand years-the rabble won't be allowed to destroy it. Nevertheless, I am troubled, deeply troubled." Nicholas made a noncommittal noise. He could hire passage on one of the merchant boats that plied their trade, both legal and ill egal, between Calais and Dover. He was more than adept at turning a blind eye to the occasional cask of brandy. Surely he'd be able to find passage… "So I'd like you to take Ghislaine," the old man was saying. "What?" Nicholas forgot about smuggling for the moment to stare at his godfather in shock. "I'd like you to take Ghislaine with you to England. I've worked out an escape route for Madeleine and Charles-Louis, if things ever come to that. But there is only room for three, not four. And we will not leave if we don't know Ghislaine is safe." Nicholas was having trouble making sense of the old man's ravings. "Safe? What the hell are you talking about?" The comte flinched. "The political situation," he said with a trace of asperity. "Haven't you been listening to a word I've said? It's extremely volatile. If things continue as they are, we'll be safer if we leave the country for a while." "Then leave the country." "Ifs not that simple. Certainly, if we left now, we could all be together. But I'm not prepared. I have investments, obligations…" "In other words, no cash." De Lorgny winced. "You put it bluntly. But yes. I will have to liquidate certain holdings in order to live with a modicum of comfort until this unfortunate situation improves. I am concerned that if we wait that long, we'll have to use the final escape route I've arranged, and that route doesn't allow room for a young woman. Therefore, I'm asking you as a gentleman and a friend to take Ghislaine with you." "No," Nicholas said flatly. De Lorgny was no longer pale. He was red with sudden anger. "No?" he echoed. "Just like that. You can't-" "I certainly can. You know as well as I do what taking her with me would mean. I would have to marry her." The words fell in silence on the golden autumn afternoon. "Perhaps I have been mistaken," Comte de Lorgny said carefully. "I had thought there might be a… tenderness of feeling in your heart toward my daughter. A certain-" "You are mistaken," he said flatly. "Any tenderness of feeling is on your daughter's side, not mine. She is a child. I am not in the habit of bedding children, or of marrying them. You will have to make other arrangements." His voice was cold, implacable, his heart a block of ice. Deliberately he shut out the image of Ghislaine, with her huge, mischievous eyes; her elfin face; the slender, boyish body that was far more enticing than he let her father know. He had no room in his heart for softness, kindness, or vulnerable little girls. "Even though you know you might be putting Ghislaine into mortal danger?" "It's not my responsibility, monsieur. It's yours." He rose, feeling distant, angry. "I think I'd better make arrangements to leave." De Lorgny didn't move for a moment. "I cannot change your mind?" "You cannot." "Then it would be best if you left. Now." Nicholas managed a civil nod, turning away from the bitter old man. It was then he saw her. She must have heard almost every word that had been spoken. Her father's request that he take her with him. His flat-out refusal and renunciation of her. She didn't look like a child at all. Her face was pale, with two bright red spots of emotion on her high cheekbones. Her eyes were very dark in her white face, and her wide, mobile mouth that could tilt so enchantingly was now ashen and trembling. She looked at him, and there was misery, love, and hatred in her eyes. He was going to turn his back on her, and never see her again. And he'd never wanted her more.

Ghislaine sat in her kitchen, the black dog curled peacefully beneath her chair, her small feet together, her strong hands clasped loosely in her lap. Sooner or later she would have another chance, and next time she couldn't make a mistake. It had been hard enough the first time. Her hands had trembled when she added the rat poison, her brow had been dripping sweat, and one of the scul ery maids had had the temerity to ask her if she was feeling well. She'd responded with her usual coolness, wiping her brow and hiding her trembling hands from the kitchen full of witnesses. She should have been feeling utterly glorious. The man who'd destroyed her family was going to die, at her hands. She would no longer be a victim. She would be a victor, someone who grabbed vengeance by the throat and shook it into submission. Those mesmerizing dark blue eyes would be shut forever, that handsome body would be still and cold. He would be dead, along with everyone else she'd cared about. He'd be where he belonged. Except that it hadn't worked out that way. For two days and nights he'd suffered, and then, blast him, he'd recovered. Weak, barely able to tolerate much more than the broth and toast that his evillooking valet prepared for him, he'd still managed to cheat death. This time. But her chance would come again-it was bound to. And next time she wouldn't make a mistake. She'd put enough in the food to kill a horse. Make it mercifully swift for him, though he didn't deserve mercy. And then she could either make her own meal of his poisoned food or accept the gall ows. She was wrong when she thought that everyone she cared about had died. She cared about Ell en, about the scandal that would follow. If there was some way to spare her, she'd take that way. But short of abandoning her plans for revenge, there was nothing. • Maybe, once she was certain he was dead, she'd run. Just disappear. There were plenty of ponds and lakes nearby, and the ocean was less than a day away, even on foot. Maybe she'd rather no one ever found her body. Just disappear. She'd decide when the time came. For now, all she could do was be patient, and determined. Her resolve couldn't waver. If it did, she would remember her parents, small, shriveled, pathetic. And very, very brave, as they climbed the steps to the scaffold for their final meeting with Madame La Guil otine. Or she would think of her little brother. Nicholas dreamed of her that first year. When daylight came, and his thoughts were his own, he banished her presence. But at night, in sleep, she'd return to haunt him. Her slender body, her rippling laughter, her delicate hands and merry smile. And he'd wonder whether he hadn't made a very grave mistake. The situation in France went from bad to worse, but he told himself Comte de Lorgny was too savvy a man to wait too long. He would get his family and his fortune safely out of France, and he'd marry his daughter off to some other wealthy foreigner. Besides, as he'd told the man, it wasn't his responsibility. It wasn't guilt he was feeling when word came that the king had been arrested when he tried to leave the country. That all of France was in turmoil. That the guil otine had started its dreadful work. His father had left a great deal less than Nicholas had expected. The estates were encumbered, falling into ruin, and there was no money to put them right. He did what any right-thinking gentleman would do, and turned to the gaming tables. Sometimes he lost, but more often he won. It was after a particularly lucrative night that his Uncle Teasdale had found him at his club, nursing a late-night brandy before returning to the slightly decrepit confines of his father's London house. He usually listened to the news of France with only half an ear, preferring to ignore the plight of that unhappy country and its inhabitants. Tonight, however, was fated to be a different matter. "Thought you might want to know," Teasdale had said, settling his impressive bulk in the chair opposite him and signaling for his own brandy. "I probably don't," Nicholas said lazily. "When people think I should know things it's usually something unpleasant. What do you think I should know?" "Your godparents-de Lorgny, wasn't that the name? Didn't you stay with them when your father died?" Nicholas was swirling the brandy in his snifter. He didn't pause, just kept swirling it, his eyes intent on the rich amber liquid. "I did. What about them?" he asked, though he already knew.

"They went to the guil otine. Entire family, from what I can make out; children too. Uncivilized bastards," he added. "Filthy rabble, making war on children." Nicholas kept swirling the brandy. 'There's no doubt?" he asked in a carefully idle tone of voice. "The children too?" "There's always doubt-you know what a mess things are over there. But my sources, damn them, are quite reliable. Too bad. You'd a fondness for them, hadn't you?" Nicholas raised his head and looked at his uncle's florid face and expanding waistcoat. He had grown quite used to that empty, hollow feeling. Grown used to hiding what he didn't want seen. "I scarcely remember them," he said. "So tell me, are you planning on attending the Chester-tons' rout? " Teasdale looked at him for a long moment, an odd expression on his face. As if he didn't believe what he was seeing. "Somehow I don't have the heart for it," he said heavily, draining his brandy and setting the snifter down with a tiny, decisive snap. "Didn't de Lorgny have a daughter?" Nicholas shrugged. "He may have. Come to think of it, I believe there was one. Just barely past adolescence. Named Gisel e, or something." His eyes met his uncle's and he realized the old man wasn't fooled. Teasdale knew him far better than Nicholas knew himself. "Ghislaine," he said, having known it all along. "Her name is Ghislaine." "Was," Teasdale corrected. And then he heaved his bulk from the chair. "I'm going to rusticate. This takes the heart out of a man. You're welcome to join me at Amberfields." Nicholas shook his head. "No, thank you, Uncle. I'm quite looking forward to the Chestertons." Teasdale stared at him for a moment longer, then shook his head. "As you wish, m'boy." And he walked away. Nicholas waited until he was gone. The night was dark outside the club window, dark and silent, and he found himself thinking that it would be a fortunate thing if the other members steered clear of him that night. They might regret tangling with him. The time passed. No one approached him-his temper was legendary, and Teasdale had warned them when he left. Finally, as dawn was streaking over the city street, Nicholas decided to return home. He looked down at his hand in remote wonder. The brandy snifter had been crushed, the shards of glass digging into his skin. Some of the blood had already dried on his long fingers, some had pooled on the floor beneath him. He stood up, brushing the slivers of glass from his skin, pausing long enough to pick out the larger pieces. And then, wrapping his silk handkerchief around his palm, he walked out into the earlymorning light. One week later he killed his first man in a duel. His Uncle Teasdale died within the year, but by that time even the inheritance of his estates didn't help Nicholas's financial situation. He sold what he could, let the rest molder, and returned to the gaming tables with a vengeance. It took a great deal longer to go to hell then he would have imagined, given the single-minded dedication he applied to the task. Even the bottle couldn't provide the oblivion he sought, and fleecing young men of their fortunes began to lose its charm. Particularly since he refused to cheat, and his victims were such abysmally rotten gamesters. He'd been half-hoping Jason Hargrove would put a merciful end to his existence. He hadn't really been attracted to his greedy, lust-filled little wife, but he seldom turned down an invitation to bed if the woman issuing the invitation was married, wealthy, and quite beautiful. When he'd deloped he'd known the man he was meeting wasn't the type to honor that implied apology. If only Hargrove hadn't been such a terrible shot. Nicholas Blackthorne certainly wanted to die, but he was damned if he was going to stand around in the early-morning chil while a backstabbing fool took potshots at him. He'd finally given up and ended the farce, probably ending Hargrove's life too. And then he'd decamped, his long-submerged survival instincts coming to the fore. And now here he was, with someone quite determined to kill him. Human nature was odd, he thought, disdaining Tavvy's help as he dressed with care. One might wish an unbearable life to come to an end, but it had to be on one's own terms. He certainly wasn't going to sit still while a petty poisoner finished him off.

The door to his bedroom opened. Tavvy of course, never bothering to knock. "You sure you're ready for this?" he asked, his swarthy face disapproving. "You still don't look quite steady on yer pins." Nicholas waved an airy hand at him. "I'm perfectly fit. At least, fit enough to deal with the cook, if indeed she is our Lucretia Borgia. I still can't imagine why she'd want to kill me." "Finding people who want to kill you isn't the problem, Blackthorne," Tavvy said. "Finding people who don't want to kill you will be a great deal more difficult." Nicholas found himself amused. "I haven't lived an exemplary life," he allowed. "As a matter of fact, I was more than ready to have it ended for me. Until this." Taverner snorted. "You sure you wouldn't want to just eat whatever gets put in front of you and take your chances?" "A week ago I would have done just that. Now I have a new interest in life. It's amazing how having someone try to murder you can give you a new lease on life." "It can that," his valet drawled, but even Nicholas couldn't miss the dark shadow of concern in Tavvy's flat black eyes. "I'll tell her to bring up the tray myself, shal I?" "Do that," Nicholas said, running a hand through his rumpled hair and smiling sweetly. "I'm ready to be entertained."

Chapter 4
“Penny for your thoughts," a gentle, mell ifluous voice broke through Ell en's abstraction as she sat with her brother in the Shakespeare garden at Meadowlands, and she looked up, straight into the warm gray eyes of Antony Wilton-Greening. "Tony!" she shrieked, maidenly decorum abandoned as she flung herself against his broad chest. "Honestly, Ell en, you'd think you were twelve years old instead of someone on the shelf," her brother, Carmichael, said irritably. "Stop pawing Tony and let the rest of us greet him." At her brother's sharp words, sudden self-consciousness flooded her, turning her pale face pink with embarrassment, and she tried to pull away in shame. But Tony, dear, sweet Tony, caught her hand and pulled her arm around his waist, keeping her snugly by his side. "I happen to like having Ell en paw me," he said lazily. "And unless you intend to kiss me, Carmichael, there's plenty of room left for you to greet me. I am rather large, you know." "A mountain." Carmichael, whose diminutive height was a sore point with him, sniffed, even as he pumped Tony's hand with enthusiasm. "It's good to see you, Tony." "Good to see you, Carmichael. And especially good to see Ell en," he said, reaching down his large hand and tucking it under Ell en's chin, tilting her face up to his. "How've you been, chickie? I haven't seen you in town these ages." "I've been rusticating, Tony. Town's no place for me nowadays. There are too many people still looking for husbands. I don't want to crowd the lists." "Lord, Ell en, next thing I know you'll be wearing little lace caps and sitting in the corner gossiping with all the old maids," he said, shaking his head. "Promise me you'll never go that far." "I promise," she said, smiling up at him. He was right, he was a mountain. A huge, loose-limbed giant of a man, he was taller than almost everyone on the London scene, with the possible exception of Harry de Quincy, and Harry didn't count because he was all fat. Tony hadn't a spare ounce of flesh on him, and every part of him was solid, implacable muscle. He needed no padding in his exquisitely tailored waistcoats, no sawdust in his clocked stockings. He was just a great deal of very solid, very handsome, very indolent male. His waist beneath her arms felt warm and hard, and she was suddenly self-conscious again. This time he let her go, with only a quizzical glance in her direction as she sat down on the garden bench again, pulling her shawl around her shoulders. His face was a fitting complement to his body. Handsome, somewhat lazy, with a defiant beak of a nose, strong chin, marked cheekbones, and curiously dark eyebrows at odds with his golden-blond hair. Since he almost always had a smile on his wide mouth, he seemed the gentlest of men. If Ell en had the thought that he could be anything but, she had nothing on which to base that suspicion. Just instinct, and an occasional intense expression in his otherwise limpid, smiling gray eyes.

He took a seat beside her. "So why have you come to visit Carmichael? Just an overwhelming longing for your dear brother's company?" Both Ell en and Carmichael snorted in unison. "I had no choice in the matter, Tony," she said, pleating her orchid-hued skirt. "Carmichael decided to let Nicholas Blackthorne stay at Ainsley Hall while he waited to see whether his latest duel was a killing affair. And he refused to let me stay. It's absurd, when a woman reaches a certain age, that she's still considered compromisable, but Carmichael decided to be stuffy." "Thank heavens for that," Tony said lazily. "You are still eminently compromisable, Ell en, and you probably will be when you're in your dotage. I hope you're not about to race off the moment I arrive. I've brought you presents." "Presents?" she demanded, her old childhood greed returning full force. When she was young her brother's friend Tony had never appeared without a box of French chocolatesand a pile of books for her. As she grew old the chocolates remained, but the books were now French novels, filled with slightly risque romances. "Gunter's best chocolates. This time I brought you two boxes. I missed your birthday." "At my advanced age birthdays should be missed. Besides, I think I'd do better without too many chocolates." She looked down disparagingly at her plump curves. "I'm always asking Gilly to cook something slimming, and she keeps serving me sauces that are so delicious I can't resist them." "Let us hope she continues to do so," Tony said, stretching his immensely long legs out in front of him. "You're perfect as you are, chickie. A plump, delicious little partridge. I'd hate to see you wasting away." 'That's not likely," Carmichael announced with brotherly tact. "What‟s the news from town? Any scandals? Any deaths? Any engagements?" "Sophia Parkinson is going to marry the Earl of Hampstead," Tony said, picking an imaginary piece of lint off his yellow satin waistcoat. Tony was a bit of a peacock, fond of rich colors and richer fabrics, and his clothes were impeccable. "You're not serious!" Ell en said. "I thought she was going to manage to bring you to heel. She certainly chased after you long enough." Tony shrugged. "Even the most determined young ladies eventually give up on me. They know my heart is already given." He grinned at her. "To you, sweeting." "Of course," Ell en scoffed. "What else?" He hesitated. "Good news for you, bad news for me, I'm afraid. We have both a scandal and a death." "Jason Hargrove succumbed?" Carmichael guessed. "Indeed. His widow is already proving herself a merry one indeed. I imagine Nicholas Blackthorne will be heading for $he continent the moment he receives the news." "And I can go home," Ell en said, as relief flooded her. "You can go home," Tony agreed. "Though I rather hope you won't." "Why not?" She glanced up at him in surprise. "Because I haven't seen you since Christmas, and on that occasion you trounced me twice at chess. Now, I consider myself a more than adequate chess player, and to be beaten twice by anyone, particularly by a snip of a girl, is a blow to my monumental self-esteem. You have to give me a chance to redeem my honor. I've been practicing." She was torn. Hours spent with Tony over a chessboard had to account for some of the most peaceful, happiest hours of her life, even though she suspected he let her win. Her worry over Ghislaine and Ainsley Hall, however, had been driving her sorely. "I really should get back," she said, hesitating. "But why? Nicholas Blackthorne will be long gone, and you have a very competent staff. There's no reason why you should hurry home." She considered it. Tony was absolutely right-it was Blackthorne's presence that worried her. Once he was gone, out of the country, she'd no longer have any cause for panic. If he had run off with the silver, or the footman's daughter, it would be too late to do anything about it. Besides, Tony was her

best, dearest friend. When he was around she no longer felt plump or shy or awkward. She blossomed, and every few months she needed the powerful sun of his personality. "I'll stay," she said. "Long enough to convince you that I really am the superior chess player." A secretive smile lit Tony's handsome face. "Ell en, my dear, prepare yourself for a long siege." This must be what it felt like, Ghislaine thought with a noticeable absence of emotion. To walk down the hallway at the prison in Paris, to climb into the tumbrel and be borne through the streets. This must be what it felt like, to walk to your doom, bravely, head held high, prepared for horror. Prepared for death. She gripped the tray tightly in her small hands, ignoring the valet following close behind her. She knew what lay beneath the silver covers. Solid, unexciting British fare, the sort to appeal to a man like Blackthorne. An egg custard, in deference to his compromised digestion. Hot scones, slathered with fresh butter, and a wedge of pork pie. A slice of apple tart. And a pot of hot herbal tea, made from chamomile for the stomach, comfrey for the blood, and arsenic for long overdue justice. She had the knife in one pocket of her capacious apron. It was not as large a one as she would have preferred, but the butcher knives were too big. The weasel-eyed Taverner would have noticed it clanging against her trembling knees. Nicholas Blackthorne might very well disdain something as bland as herbal tea. So she'd dosed the brandy bottle as well. Her slippered feet tripped on something, and the tray almost went flying. Taverner righted her in time, his ham-hand beneath her elbow, steadying her. "Wouldn't want this fine dinner to smash on the floor, would we, miss?" he said with an evil grin, showing his discolored teeth. "No," she said faintly. "We wouldn't." She didn't want to watch him die. She told herself it was simple common sense on her part. If she had any intention of escaping, of getting away with meting out her own rough justice, then she needed to be as far away from Nicholas Blackthorne when he met his maker as she could manage. Besides, she'd seen enough people die. Perhaps she ought to watch Blackthorne in the throes of agony, as recompense for the loss of her parents, the loss of her innocence. But she no longer wanted to. His death would be solace enough. He was still in Ell en's favorite pink salon. Dressed just as negligently as before, he lounged in one delicate satin chair, his white shirt open at the neck, his embroidered silk vest unfastened, his breeches almost indecently tight. He was in stockinged feet, and his curly black hair was disheveled. She allowed herself to meet his gaze. He was paler than when she'd last seen him, and his dark eyes were shadowed with a banked kind of rage, for all that he was smiling that damnable, seductive smile. "Don't be shy, Mamzel e," he said, his voice a silken thread, pulling her into the room. "I promise I'm no longer at death's door. I'm needful of some company, and the housemaids all giggle and stammer. I expect you, with that politely shielded hostility, will prove much more interesting." The door had closed behind her, Taverner had disappeared. It seemed that tonight he had no interest in serving his lord and master. It would be up to Ghislaine-with her own hands she'd have to hand him the cup of tea that would kill him. Her hands didn't tremble as she set the heavy tray down on the dainty gateleg table that usually held Ell en's embroidery silks. Ell en was an execrable needlewoman-disasters from her clumsy hands decorated the sitting room. Ghislaine tried to concentrate on one particularly ugly pillow, supposedly a representation of a heron that more closely resembled a donkey digesting itself, and it took all her concentration to pour the man a cup of herbal tea. She backed away, toward the door, when Blackthorne's eyes impaled her. "Don't leave yet, Mamzel e. Surely you want to see me enjoy this estimable repast?" "I… I have work to do…" She found her self-possession wasn't quite what she had hoped for. She pulled it back around her with steely strength. "I have my duties, sir," she said more firmly. "At this hour everyone must be fed. Besides, your first duty should be to your betters, not your fell ow servants, is that not true? Sit."

She flushed at the deliberately insulting tone of his voice, and the ice in his final command, but she couldn't bring herself to sit. The door opened behind her, one of Taverner's heavy hands clamped onto her shoulder and shoved her, with astonishing roughness, into the chair before handing Blackthorne a shaggy black bundle. It was a full moment later that she realized what that squirming black bundle was, and the horror of her situation came home to her. "A most charming dog," Nicholas said, holding the furry little creature up to his face, and for a moment his harsh features softened, gentled, and Ghislaine remembered a boy in his early twenties, a boy who still possessed a heart. "Taverner told me you had a pet in the kitchen. My father* wouldn't allow me to have a dog. Filthy creatures, he called them. I've always been rather fond of them myself. What's this fell ow's name?" "Please," she said, she who never begged, never asked; she who was indomitable. "His name?" Blackthorne repeated with utmost icy patience. "Charbon." His long fingers stroked Charbon's black curls. "A little piece of coal, eh? Your mistress loves you very much, young fell ow, doesn't she?" Ghislaine was no longer capable of saying a word. She heard the door close behind her, and knew that Taverner had left them alone once more. She watched, trying to pull herself into that safe, secret place inside, where nothing could reach her, as Blackthorne continued to murmur to her beloved pet. "Some people don't approve of feeding animals at the table," he murmured. "But then, this isn't really the table, is it, Charbon? We're much more casual than that, and I know a lively fell ow like you would appreciate your mistress's good cooking. What about a taste of this egg custard? Your mistress isn't saying a word, though she looks quite pale. Do you suppose she's jealous?" She tried to pull herself together. "I'd really rather you wouldn't feed him. He's too fat as he is." Blackthorne's midnight-blue eyes blazed into hers, full of cold, icy rage, as his mouth curved into a charming smile. "But I'm not interested in your wishes, haven't I made that clear?" He broke off a piece of the pastry and held it in front of Charbon's tiny black nose. The dog devoured it, wagging his tail in pleasure, and Ghislaine wanted to scream. "You liked that, did you?" Blackthorne murmured. "I'll have to try some myself, then," and he popped a piece in his mouth. "I'm probably being foolish. What agrees with a dog's constitution might not agree with mine. Would you like to try a piece of apple tart? Delicious, isn't it? Your mistress is a wonderful cook." She wanted to scream, but her throat had closed up entirely. She tried to find that safe, cold place, but it eluded her, leaving her raw, aching with pain. Surely revenge wouldn't require this sacrifice too? She'd lost too much. She couldn't lose the only creature who depended on her, trusted her, loved her without question. And who was this handsome, smiling monster who'd calmly sit there and poison a helpless, affectionate little puppy who'd never harmed him? A puppy foolish enough to wag his tail and lick Blackthorne's long fingers. He couldn't, wouldn't, feed a dog herbal tea or brandy, Ghislaine finally realized. Charbon was safe. She wasn't-there was no way Taverner would let her escape now that somehow, some way, Blackthorne knew. Charbon had finally devoured everything on Blackthorne's heavy silver tray. Everything but the tea and the brandy. Blackthorne's dark eyes moved from Charbon's wiggly little body to Ghislaine's pale, set, face. "It all seemed to agree with him," he murmured, setting the puppy down on the floor. Charbon immediately raced over to Ghislaine, dancing in pleasure. She wanted to reach down and pick him up, to pull him close to her body, but she felt stiff, frozen, awkward. Before she could catch him he danced back to the man who'd fed him so well and stroked him so nicely, clearly ready for more attention.

"A sweet dog," Blackthorne murmured. "You need something to drink. Now I know you don't fancy tea much," he said as he poured some of the richly scented mixture into a saucer, "but if I add a great deal of milk I expect you'll find it palatable. You're…" This time she could move. She jumped up, knocking against the table, and her hand caught the Limoges teapot, sending it flying, with the saucer full of hot tea following suit, smashing on the floor. "Dear me," Blackthorne said faintly, his eyes dark with unfathomable emotion. "Milk doesn't agree with him," Ghislaine said, not moving. The hot tea had soaked into her dress, scorching her skin, but she made no move to mop it up. "A shame. And all the dishes have been smashed. I'm afraid your mistress might very well take that out of your wages. Except that your mistress is Ell en, and she's a ridiculously soft touch." He glanced over at the mess on the floor. "There's no tea left." Ghislaine reached down and scooped up Char-bon's body before he could investigate the stain on the thick Aubusson carpet, squeezing him so tightly he yelped in protest. "You'll have to make do with brandy," she said, and turned to leave. Taverner was at the door, barring her way. There was an evil smile on his swarthy face, and he reached out and took the puppy from her. She had no choice. She let Charbon go. She could see that Taverner's hands were gentle on the puppy's black coat, and she knew she was past the point where she could protect him. He closed the door in her face, and she stood there, her back to her nemesis, as she pulled the last, fraying remnants of her self-control back around her like a magic cloak. She turned and looked at him, her face composed. Not even the sight of the brandy bottle and the half-full glass could overset her. Fate had taken a hand, and she could no longer fight it. "You look pale, Mamzel e," Blackthorne murmured, rising and walking over to her. She'd forgotten how tall he was, towering over her own diminutive frame. He walked with a certain menacing grace, avoiding the shattered crockery, and the brandy was in one strong hand. "I think you need this brandy more than I do." So be it. With any luck it would take long enough to work that he too would partake of it, convinced it was harmless. If he didn't, she still had her knife. "Perhaps I do," she said, taking the glass from his hand and bringing it to her lips before she could regret her decision. He moved as swiftly as a snake, dashing the glass out of her hand, so that the poisoned brandy drenched the front of her dress. "Do you think I'm going to let you take the easy way out?" he demanded, catching her wrist in a hard, bruising grip. "I want answers. I want to know why you're intent on killing me. What have I ever done to harm you?" It was the final piece of dry kindling on the conflagration of her rage. That he didn't even remember her, that he'd destroyed her life and her family without even feeling a pang of guilt, made her fury boil over. She jerked away from him, reaching inside her apron pocket for the knife, determined to plunge it into his heart. It was gone. "Taverner used to be a pickpocket," he said, his face distant and unreadable. "He relieved you of that nasty little knife when you were too busy to notice. Who are you, Mamzel e? What do you want of me?" She couldn't break away. His long fingers on her wrist were close to crushing the fragile bones. Not that it mattered. They could hang her with a broken wrist as easily as not. "I thought it would be obvious." She spat the words. "I want you dead." His honest confusion was all the more infuriating. "But why?" "Because you murdered my parents!" There was no change in his expression. Just a faint shadowing of his dark eyes, a tightening of his thin lips. "Ghislaine," he said, his voice flat. "I should have known my sins would come back to haunt me." "I don't understand why you're determined to leave," Tony drawled. He was lounging in the east parlor, a glass of particularly fine claret in one large, well-shaped hand, the lace from his cuffs

drifting around his fingers. "Blackthorne must have left for the continent by now if he has any brains at all, and I must say I've always found him to be annoyingly intelligent. So there's no need to rush back to your house like a frightened rabbit." Ell en shook her head. "I can't help it, Tony. I feel uneasy. That happens to me sometimes, an odd sense of something being terribly wrong. It happened just before my parents were killed, it happened when Carmichael and Lizzie's first baby died. I need to get back to Ainsley Hall." "No one is going to die, Ell en. Besides, you have to beat me at chess before you leave. I've trounced you solidly these last three days. You need your revenge." Tm too distracted to concentrate. Besides, I expect I win when you're in the mood to let me win." "Are you accusing me of cheating? I could call you out for that if you were a man," he murmured, stretching his long, long legs in front of him and admiring his lavender hose. Carmichael had taken one look at those lavender silk stockings and roared with laughter, but as usual Tony was unruffled by Carmichael's amusement. He'd simply informed his friend that they were all the crack, and Carmichael was too much of a country bumpkin to recognize fashion. Ell en herself had her doubts about the lavender hose, but she had to admit Tony had superb legs. She forced herself to concentrate. "But I'm not a man," she pointed out. "I've noticed," he said dryly, an odd expression on his face. "And besides, you only cheat to lose. That's hardly a grave insult." "Any irregularity in matters of gaming is deemed worthy of a duel." "But you don't fight duels." "There's always a first. Do you want me to vanquish Nicholas Blackthorne if he's still in residence? I could call him out, put a bullet in his black heart, and finish the business there and then." She felt an odd little start of panic. "Don't be absurd, Tony. He'd be much more likely to kill you." "I didn't know you cared." "Who would bring me chocolates?" she demanded with a mischievous smile. "Or naughty French novels? Very well, I'll keep myself safe. I cannot talk you into remaining a few more days?" "You cannot," she said, stifling the pang inside. "Then at least let me escort you back to Ainsley Hall. The roads are dangerous nowadays, with highwaymen and the like. And if Nicholas hasn't departed I can at least speed him on the way." "I won't be able to offer you any hospitality," she warned him, much pleased by his offer. Tony waved an airy hand. "I wouldn't expect it. Does that mean I'm considered as great a threat as Blackthorne? What a compliment." "Any man is considered a threat. And if s entirely ridiculous. Are you certain you want to accompany me, Tony? After all, you'd be curtailing your own visit as well. I thought you planned on staying a fortnight." Tony smiled at her with particular sweetness. "I find my reason for being here to have disappeared. When you leave I'll be more than ready to leave too." He didn't mean what she thought he did. She was wise enough to realize that. Nevertheless, she was too cowardly to ask exactly what he did mean. On this rare occasion, ignorance was indeed bliss. "When would you care to leave?" Tony continued, obviously unaware of the troubled direction her thoughts had taken. "As soon as possible. Tomorrow morning, at first light. I simply can't rid myself of the feeling that something quite terrible has happened." Tony drained his claret. "And I'll be more than happy to prove to you that nothing at all is amiss. Your wonderful French chef can provide me with a splendid meal, and I'll spend the night at the local tavern. Does that sound acceptable to you?" "Perfect," she said. "As long as…" She let her voice trail off in confusion. She was about to say as long as Gilly was still there. But there'd be no reason for her to have left. She certainly wasn't going to fall prey to Nicholas Blackthorne's wiles. "As long as what?" She managed a bright smile. "As long as you let me beat you at chess again."

"Done," he said, a curious warmth in his very gray eyes. "You have only to ask and I'm your obedient servant." She was used to polite phrases from gentlemen who never meant them. Tony was being just as glib. It was only her fault that she half-believed he meant them. Nicholas Blackthorne leaned back in the chair, a cool cloth held against his face. He was winded, damnably weak, and cursing. Not cursing as much as the female now lying facedown on the bed in the next room, neatly trussed and tied by Tavvy and him when the fight finally ran out of her. She'd managed to inflict a fair amount of damage. He'd only said her name and she went wild, obviously wanting to kill him with those small, hard, painful hands since he'd deprived her of any weapon. He wouldn't have thought such a tiny creature could be quite so dangerous, but it took all his compromised strength to subdue her. He ended up sitting on her in the middle of the room, hoping she wasn't being cut by the shards of crockery she'd smashed earlier. It was absurd to be concerned. She was determined to kill him-why he should worry about her wellbeing was beyond nonsensical. If he had a decent bone in his body he'd simply decamp, leaving her in her ignominious position until one of the other servants found her. He'd overstayed his welcome, and since he'd had no word on Jason Hargrove he could pretty much assume the old dog was going to recover. He and Tavvy should head back to London and the opprobrium of their friends, head back to the gaming tables and the fine claret and the unpoisoned brandy. But he wasn't going to do that. If he simply left, Mademoisel e Ghislaine de Lorgny might very well count her blessings and behave herself. But he didn't think so. He'd never seen hatred so intense before. She would follow him, and he'd end up with a knife between his shoulder blades when he least expected it. No, he would leave Ainsley Hall, all right. But he wasn't going to London and his warm, comfortable rooms. He was going to Scotland, to the tumbled-down hunting lodge that was part of his entailed inheritance, a place he hadn't seen since he was ten years old. A place he'd once loved. And he and Tavvy weren't going alone. The Road

Chapter 5
Ghislaine was cold. Miserably, achingly cold, her entire body trembling with it. She must have gotten soft in the last year, living in the fat English comfort of Ainsley Hall. She'd prided herself on being impervious to minor discomforts like the weather, and here she was, shivering. Fear had nothing to do with it, she told herself, squirming around on the too-soft bed. She was afraid of nothing on this earth. She'd faced the worst, and survived, whether she'd wanted to or not. Fate couldn't send her any more cruel blows. He'd tied her wrists too tightly, but then she already knew he was a conscienceless bully. She'd been stronger than he was, a fact which gave her no small pleasure. She'd worked hard for a living, and her muscles were strong, while Nicholas Blackthorne was nothing more than an indolent fop, intent on dissipated pleasures. It was no wonder he was nearly bested by a woman half his size and weight. His recent bout with rat poison might have something to do with his weakness, she admitted reluctantly. If he hadn't spent the last two days near death, he could have defeated her a great deal more handily. It had been a long time since she'd had to use her limited strength to protect herself, and she'd gotten out of the habit. She was soft, dangerously soft. She rolled over on her side, grimacing in the darkness. She could hear their voices drifting in from the other room, and she wondered with a kind of emotionless curiosity just what they had planned for her. Whether she was about to be handed over to the local magistrate, or whether Blackthorne had a more immediate, personal revenge in mind. The local authorities wouldn't take kindly to her-for one thing, she was a foreigner, and she'd learned all too well the insular English distrust for foreigners. For another, she'd tried to kill a gentleman, an undisputed member of the upper classes.

To be sure, he was the blackest, most disreputable gentleman ever to set foot on British soil, and he deserved to die a lingering, painful death, but she doubted the magistrate would agree. She felt cold and sticky. The brandy had dried and stiffened on the front of her dress, and her clothes had been torn during her furious assault. Her hair hung around her face, and she must have looked like all the furies combined. It hadn't even daunted Blackthorne. He'd laughed at her, laughed at her rage. For that alone she wanted him dead. But she'd lost. She'd half-expected to, from the moment she knew he'd arrived at Ainsley Hall. Her course had been set in motion, and she'd had no choice but to follow it, even knowing it was doomed to failure. Her only regret was that she hadn't been able to bring him down with her. She ached all over. Her head throbbed, and she remembered his hand crashing into her as she'd tried to scratch his eyes out. He didn't have any gentlemanly scruples, at least she could grant him that. If he had, he might not be alive now. She rolled onto her back, staring up at the ceiling, struggling to catch her breath against the tightness of her bonds. The shadows from the firelight flickered against the ceiling, casting ominous shapes overhead, and she wondered how long she had to regain her strength, her determination. How long before she had to fight again. The door opened wider, and she held herself very still, already prepared for a renewal of the battle. And then she heard the familiar scrabble of paws on the parquetry floor and an anxious yip as Charbon hurtled himself at the bed. It took him a number of attempts to breach it, and then he was pouncing all over her, licking her anxiously with his rough little tongue, making a soft whining noise in the back of his throat. They hadn't gagged her. There was no need- who would have paid the slightest bit of attention if she called for help? "Poor baby," she whispered, her voice a soft caress. "I'm all right, I promise you." Her voice sounded rough, even to her own ears, and the dog wasn't placated. He whimpered again, placing his cold wet nose against her cheek, licking anxiously. "You can't imagine how it gratifies me to hear that," a hateful voice drifted to her ears from the open door. She didn't turn her head to look at him, didn't give him any indication that she'd heard him. She hadn't many defenses left-she intended to cherish each one. She kept her gaze concentrated on the shadowed ceiling as he strolled into the room. A moment later Charbon was scooped off her chest, and she braced herself to hear a canine yelp of pain. She'd underestimated Blackthorne. "Your mistress isn't in the mood for doggy kisses," he said to the puppy in a soothing voice. "And we don't want you licking the brandy off herclothes, now do we? Get along with you." He set the dog on the floor and gave him a gentle nudge. Charbon bounced back onto the bed with an indignant yip, and Ghislaine had no choice but to look at the puppy, ignoring the tall, dark figure that loomed above her. "You're just as determined as your mistress, aren't you?" Blackthorne said, and there was a trace of cool amusement in his voice. "Tavvy?" he called over his shoulder. "Dispose of this creature, will you?" She couldn't help her instinctive protest as he once more scooped Charbon's wiggling body off her. Taverner appeared beside the bed, taking the puppy in patient hands. "What do you want me to do with him?" Blackthorne was watching her very carefully, gauging her reaction, and she concentrated all her limited energies on keeping her face blank. "You could always drown him," he said in a dreamy voice. "Or break his neck." "No!" The voice was torn out of her. Shame filled her at her weakness, but she couldn't let him die without a protest. "No?" Blackthorne echoed, leaning over her. "Are you asking me to save your little dog?" She wanted to spit in his face. She stared up at him, into his dark, merciless eyes, and wished she could curse him. "Yes," she said, forcing the words.

He smiled then, a small, cool smile of triumph. "Take the dog to the housekeeper and tell her to watch over him until Ell en returns, Tavvy. I'm sure my cousin will take him to her bosom." It was the best she could hope for, and part of her despised accepting even that much mercy from the man. She bit her lips together, determined not to show any gratitude, but he was wise enough to expect none. "What do you want me to tell the old lady?" Taverner asked, pausing in the doorway. "What we'd planned on," Nicholas said, staring down at her, unmoved by the hatred in her eyes. "That Mamzel e has decided a life of drudgery can't compare with that of an English gentleman's mistress." "No!" she protested, but he simply smiled, his hand reaching out to stroke the side of her face gently. She jerked away furiously, but he caught her, his hand hard. "I didn't say I was actually going to bed you, darling," he murmured. "I merely think it would be politic for the servants of Ainsley Hall to think you prefer my bed to the kitchens. I gather you haven't told Ell en about your past. Most unwise on your part. If she knew, she'd raise heaven and earth trying to stop me. As it is, she'll simply have to assume her eccentric chef was vulnerable to the lures of sex and money, like most of her countrywomen." "Stop you from doing what?" she asked in a rough voice. For a moment his eyes lit up with a mocking humor. "Why, I'm not sure yet. I'll make it up as I go along. Are you going to walk with me out to the carriage in a nice, biddable fashion, or am I going to have to use brute force?" "I'd prefer you take me to the magistrate." "I'm certain you would, ma petite, but I consider that option much too boring. I find I really dislike being poisoned, and some small, ignoble part of me is longing for revenge. You should understand that much, shouldn't you, Ghislaine? For whatever crimes you imagine I committed against you and yours, you decided you'd murder me. Perhaps I'll return the favor." "Do it now," she said fiercely. He simply shook his head, the faint, damnable smile on his face. "Anticipation is half the pleasure," he said. "I won't come willingly." "Subduing defiance is the other half," he said, and for the first time she noticed the snowy-white neckcloth in his hands. A moment later the gag was in place, tied behind her head, and she stopped struggling, knowing that the more she struggled, the longer his hands would touch her. And she found the touch of his hands unnerving. He hauled her into a sitting position, and a sudden wave of dizziness washed over her. She'd hit her head during her struggles, and the pain was just beginning to reassert itself. She refused to let herself sway, sitting very still, waiting. He was fully dressed-an ominous sign. He was a symphony in chiaroscuro, from his shiny black boots, carelessly tied cravat, silver-trimmed black coat, and dark, black breeches. He looked like the devil himself, and she wondered whether he was planning to go straight to hell. And whether he was planning on taking her too. He draped the bright green silk cape around her, and she didn't bother protesting. He knew full well it was Ell en's, and he'd chosen it anyway. He fastened it beneath her chin, his long fingers cool against her skin, and pulled the hood up over her head. "Not that the servants will be under any illusions," he murmured, surveying her with a thoughtful air. "I just don't happen to want them to realize you're not quite willing. They're not overly fond of you; Tavvy discovered that much in the servants' hall. They think you're insufferably proud and above yourself. They'll be absolutely delighted to think you lifted your skirts for the likes of me." She lunged at him, forgetting her ankles were bound together, and he caught her as she fell against him. "So eager, ma petite?" he murmured. "You're right-we've overstayed our welcome." And he scooped her up in his arms, the enveloping cape wrapped around her bound arms and legs, the hood hiding her face. "Very romantic," he said in a dry voice. "I suggest you don't waste your time trying to struggle. I'll be able to subdue you quite efficiently, but I'd have to hurt you. I'm not ready to

do that. And the servants aren't likely to come to your rescue, even if they thought you were being taken against your will. Don't fight it, Ghislaine. You have no escape." She'd prided herself on accepting the inevitable, and she recognized the truth in his words. For now, for the next few hours, at least, she was entirely at his mercy. She needed to conserve her strength, her energy. Because sooner or later, her chance would come. And Nicholas Blackthorne would learn firsthand about the fires of hell. The Honorable Sir Antony Wilton-Greening glanced out the carriage window into the storm-clouded countryside. If he'd had any choice in the matter he would have stayed at Meadowlands until the weather cleared. But Ell en had been determined to leave, and he'd been just as determined, in his own deceptively indolent fashion, to accompany her. Besides, if the weather had been clear he would have had very little excuse to ride in the excellently sprung carriage belonging to his old school chum Carmichael. Ell en knew he had a new gelding, and while he never liked to exert himself unnecessarily, he also detested enclosed spaces like carriages. He would have been hard put convincing her he actually wanted to be immured in a carriage with her for almost ten hours. Not without telling her the truth. She smiled at him, pushing her golden-blond hair back from her pale face, and he smiled back. She was one of the few women who wouldn't be intimidated by his oversized frame. Carmichael called him The Mountain, and his most recent mistress, a deftly inventive opera singer whose talented mouth knew no limits, had used other, even franker terms for him. He would miss Carlotta, he thought with a sigh. Miss her bawdy ripeness, her screaming tantrums, and her enthusiasm in bed. He couldn't hope to find that same unabashed enthusiasm in a woman of quality. He'd resigned himself to the fact that his marriage bed would be a staid, polite affair, conducted in darkness beneath layers of covers. At least he had every intention of enjoying the time outside the bed with someone compatible. Ell en Fitzwater was more than compatible. She was charming, innocent, alarmingly clever, and possessed of boundless affection for him, rather like a well-trained spaniel. And like any true Englishman, he loved his dogs. She was also quite lovely, with her soft curves and English-rose complexion. It was some time after the incredibly proper Miss Stanley had broken their engagement that he'd first realized Ell en would suit him admirably. Part of that decision had been helped by the knowledge that he wouldn't have to do anything about it for several years. He was a man of strong opinions, likes and dislikes, but prided himself on being a tolerant man. Things tended to fall into place for him-he'd been blessed with a respectable fortune, a minor title, loving parents, a form that women tended to find pleasing, and an ability in matters of gaming and sport that made him universally appreciated. If occasionally he saw things a little too clearly, he usually managed to maintain a polite veneer. He suffered fools, not gladly, but often. He was usually just too eventempered to do otherwise. Ell en had almost disrupted his well-laid plans. He'd had enough town bronze to know that she wouldn't make a splash during her first season. He'd kept an eye on her progress, ready to step in if some enterprising young man came up with an offer, but as he'd expected, the young men of London didn't have the supreme good taste to appreciate a subtle beauty like Ell en. Tony was a firm believer in monogamy, and he was too fond of Ell en to offer her anything less than a dutiful husband. His close call with Miss Stanley had given him a proper appreciation for the joys of bachelorhood, and he simply hadn't been in any hurry to dispense with its pleasures in exchange for monogamy and duty. The Reverend Alvin Purser had crept up behind his back when he wasn't looking. Just when he'd thought he had plenty of time, with Ell en safely ensconced at Ainsley Hall, Carmichael had announced his sister's engagement. Tony had considered declaring himself at that point, then thought better of it. He prided himself on being a decent man, and Carmichael assured him that Ell en was head over heels in love. If he'd had any notion that she wasn't quite so enamored of her little minister, he might have done something about it. But he took his friend's word for it and decided to look elsewhere for a bride. Unfortunately no one had even come close to Ell en's qualifications.

And when the idiotic reverend had jilted her, she'd taken off for the continent before he had a chance to make his move a few dangerous weeks into the already dubious Peace of Amiens. When she returned she had her friend, the mysterious female chef, in tow, and a new, wary air to her. He'd worked damned hard at getting her to relax once more around him. The reverend had done more damage than Tony would have thought possible, and it would take time getting Ell en to come to heel once more. He had more than enough time, and so did she. While she was safely on the shelf, she was still only in her mid-twenties, time and enough to provide him with a suitable brood of children, including an heir. If he had any sense at all he'd give it another year or two. The problem was, he'd lately been growing impatient. Been wondering whether cohabiting with a good woman might not be quite as boring as he anticipated, given that the good woman was Ell en. He'd been very wary at Christmas, afraid the sentiment of the season and his own restlessness might push him into doing something uncharacteristically impulsive. He'd kept away since then, trying to take his time. But he'd been unable to keep away any longer. Maybe it was past time to become just the slightest bit impulsive. He shifted in his seat again, and Ell en glanced at him. "You hate this," she said. "You shouldn't have insisted on accompanying me, Tony. I'm more than capable of traveling the distance between my brother's house and mine without you. Binnie keeps me very good company, and Carmichael employs only the most reliable of coachmen." Tony glanced over at the admirable Miss Binnerston, now snoring softly as her becapped head drooped over her nonexistent bosom. "I would hope my company would be slightly more enlivening," he drawled. A faint, attractive flush darkened her soft cheeks. "Of course you are, Tony. But I didn't want to drag you all over the countryside in this miserable weather. I just wanted to get home. I know my fears are ridiculous, but I'm not going to rest easy until I know that… that things are all right." "That your little chef is all right. Ghislaine-isn't that her name? Why didn't she accompany you in the first place? I'm sure Carmichael's staff would have made her welcome." "Actually the servants don't tend to care much for her. She's too foreign, too self-contained for them. She's not a servant, Tony. She's my friend." "I hate to sound repressive, sweetheart, but you can't make friends of your servants. For one thing, they don't like it above half. Servants have the strongest class sense of any group I know, and it goes against their dignity to be treated like a friend." "I've told you, she's not like other people. I owe her a very great deal, and it's not something I can easily explain." "You don't have to. I'll simply take your word for it." She looked across at him, quite startled, and he wondered how long it had been since someone simply took what she said without questioning. "Thank you, Tony." She'd make an estimable wife and mother, he thought absently, watching her. Sweet, docile, wellbred. But he couldn't help wondering whether beneath that gentle, faintly worried expression lurked any capability for passion. "Everything will be fine," he said, ignoring his own wayward thoughts. "Nicholas will have decamped, the servants will probably have gotten into the port, and your… friend will be wishing she'd had the good sense to accompany you." A sudden, decidedly unpleasant thought struck him, as he remembered certain proclivities, ones he'd never thought sweet Ell en would share. "She is simply a friend, isn't she?" he found himself asking. Clearly Ell en didn't have the faintest notion what he meant. "What else would she be?" she asked. "We're not related, if that's what you're asking." "That's not what I was asking." One thing he found slightly disturbing about Ell en was her tenacity. She wasn't a sweet, silky-coated spaniel, she was a terrier gnawing away at a bone. "I still haven't the faintest notion what you're

saying, Tony, and I wish you'd be more specific. If it involves Ghislaine I want to know. I'm worried enough as it is. Explain yourself, please." Curse his tongue. He didn't usually make the mistake of letting it flap at both ends. "It doesn't concern either of you," he began, hoping she'd let it rest at that. The mutinous expression on her face told him otherwise. He sighed. If he was going to marry the woman, beget his heirs on her, then he might as well begin her sexual education here and now. "Occasionally women develop a relationship that is… shal we say, a bit too intense." She still didn't appear to understand. "You'll have to be more specific, Tony. Ghislaine and I have a very close relationship. What, pray tell, is the matter with that?" Oh, Lord, he thought. "Occasionally women prefer other women," he said flatly. "What's the problem with that? I much prefer the company of most women I know to the men I've met. We have more in common, we don't have to discuss ridiculous things like hunting and boxing and politics-" "I thought you liked politics," he said, affronted. "Well, I do. But not to the exclusion of everything else," she said frankly. "So explain, Tony. What are you trying to tell me?" In for a penny, in for a pound, he thought, wishing Miss Binnerston would wake up and put a period to this discussion. The damned woman continued to snore, and there was no way out of it. "Certain women prefer not just the company of other women, dearest," he said. "They prefer the bodies of other women." She sat very still, as the notion sank in. If her cheeks had been flushed with pale color before, they were now flaming crimson. "You mean they…?" He nodded, finally beginning to enjoy himself. "Indeed," he said. "But how… No, don't answer that," she begged. He found himself smiling in the dimly lit carriage. "It would be difficult to explain," he said, "since you probably don't even understand what goes on between men and women in the first place. Most gently bred English girls don't." "I do," she said, surprising him. "Gilly told me." He didn't waste his time asking how Gilly knew. "That sounds like a most improper conversation to be having with one's cook," he observed. "Gilly and I aren't proper, we're honest. You're right, most gently bred English girls don't understand what goes on between men and women. I wanted to know, so I asked Gilly." "You could have asked me." She looked up at him then, surprise stripping her face of its color, but before she could speak Miss Binnerston chose that miserable moment to awaken. „'Dear me," Binnie said, pushing her bonnet and her wig back on her head. "I must have dozed off. Have I missed anything interesting?" Calm, even-tempered Tony wanted to snarl. Instead he leaned back, letting his eyelids droop sleepily. "Not a thing, Miss Binnerston. Lady Ell en and I were just discussing the weather." Miss Binnerston had her virtues, which included neither sensitivity nor silence. She proceeded to launch into a rambling discourse about the chilly spring weather, and Tony closed his eyes. He found he couldn't look at Ell en or at her shocked expression, for another instant. If he did, he might startle all of them by leaning over and kissing her on her astonished mouth. And it was much too soon to bestir himself. Ghislaine felt dizzy, floating, as Nicholas Blackthorne carried her down the long sweeping stairs at Ainsley Hall. She'd underestimated his strength. After their abortive battle he seemed to have no difficulty at all carrying her out to the carriage, the enveloping cape shielding her from the curious servants. He was right; struggling would avail her nothing. None of the people there would come to her aid, even if they knew she was being taken against her will. And while she might break her neck, and quite possibly his, if she managed to wrench herself out of his grip, the chances were just as likely that she'd simply break her leg. Thereby ruining any future chance for escape. For the moment she remained docile. There was a cold rain falling when he stepped out into the early-morning air, and the bright silk cape was no protection at all. She refused to shiver in his arms.

She refused to do anything as he dumped her in the corner of the carriage, throwing himself down opposite her. The hood obscured her vision, and for that much she could be glad. She'd found an unexpected measure of peace at Ainsley Hall, and she knew full well she'd never see it again. She didn't want to risk any sentimental weakness by watching it disappear. That's what had brought her to this sorry pass, sentiment and weakness. If she'd simply taken the butcher knife in the first place and dispatched Blackthorne, she could have made good her escape before anyone found his body. Failing that, her fatal weakness had been Charbon. She hadn't owned a pet since she was fifteen years old, hadn't allowed herself to care for even the lowliest of God's creatures. But when Ell en had presented her with the sweet black puppy, she'd been unable to resist. And that puppy had been her downfall. If she could have stood idly by and watched Charbon drink poison, then Nicholas would have followed suit. It was a lesson she thought she had learned long ago. Never allow your heart to soften, even for a moment. The most innocent of creatures could engineer your downfall. The carriage started with a jerk, and she realized that the omnipresent Taverner was nowhere to be seen. She shook her head, knocking the hood clear, and stared at Nicholas in the murky morning light. He looked both elegant and dissipated, his legs stretched out in front of him, his neckcloth slightly awry, and he was watching her with a certain dangerous interest. "We're on our way," he said, and the unnecessary announcement filled her with foreboding. "I don't know how long we'll be on the road this first day, but I imagine we'll have a great deal of time to kill. Let's see how interesting we can make it, shal we?" And he leaned forward and began to unfasten her gag.

Chapter 6
“She can't be gone!" Ell en said flatly, staring at her smugly correct majordomo. Wilkins had never liked Gilly, had always disapproved of her position in the household, and there was a faint gleam of triumph in his flat brown eyes. "Mr. Blackthorne personally informed me, Lady Ell en, that Mamzel e would be accompanying him on his trip to Scotland. That she had grown tired of working for a living, and decided there were easier ways to earn her keep." Wilkins's pinched expression made it clear that one could expect no less from a French upstart. "Scotland," Tony said behind her. "Then he mustn't have gotten the word about Jason Hargrove's unfortunate demise. Otherwise he'd be headed in the opposite direction." "There's been no communication from outside Ainsley Hall," Mrs. Rafferty spoke up, her mouth pursed in disapproval. "Just a creased, dirty letter for Mamzel e, and that arrived after they took off. I've left it in your room, Lady Ell en. But then, Mr. Blackthorne wasn't in any shape to receive messages." "Drunk, was he?" Tony murmured in unsympathetic tones, coming up beside Ell en and putting a supportive hand on her arm. "No, sir. Sick as a dog. It was a near thing for a while, and I was quite unsure how to handle it. It wouldn't have done for Mr. Blackthorne to have died under your roof. What would people have said? " "They would have said Nicholas Blackthorne was thoughtless to the end," Tony said. "Tony, they're insisting Gilly took off with Nicholas. That she… she's going to be his mistress. That is what you were implying, isn't it?" Ell en turned back to Wilkins with a fierce demand. Wilkins had the good sense to realize his own triumph wasn't sitting well with his mistress. He wiped the smug expression off his face, once again the impassive butler. "That's what his lordship and that evil-eyed man of his said." "But she can't… she wouldn't… not without a word…" To her abysmal shame, Ell en could feel the sudden stinging warmth of tears as they began to slide helplessly down her cheeks.

The three watched her in miserable silence, Rafferty and Wilkins's smug pleasure long since vanished at the sight of their beloved mistress's misery. Tony was the one who took matters in hand, putting his arm around her unhappy figure and leading her toward her pink withdrawing room with unerring instinct and memory. He settled her down on the chaise, refusing to let her say a word until Wilkins arrived with the sherry, and then stood over her until she downed half the glass and her silent tears had abated slightly. "That's a great deal better," he said, taking his own sherry and sitting opposite her, looking handsome and calm and glorious in her fussy little room. "Now suppose you tell me what's gotten you into such a pucker? You've had a long, tiring journey, and I know you were passing fond of the woman, but surely you're becoming much too overwrought." "Tony, I'm more than passing fond. I owe Gilly my life, and I can't turn my back on her when she's in trouble." For a moment Tony didn't move. "What makes you think she's in trouble?" he asked finally. "I hate to sound condescending, but what would be insupportable for a lady of quality might be quite comfortable for someone less fortunately situated." "Like your mistress," Ell en said with a sniffle. Tony didn't bat an eye. "I don't have a mistress." "There's no need to lie to me. I know all about the Divine Carlotta. Carmichael told me about her, and I must say, she sounds very exciting." She couldn't disguise the mournful tone in her voice. Tony looked more than a little annoyed. "He had no business doing so. As a matter of fact, that connection has been severed." "I thought you might have had a falling out," Ell en said, momentarily distracted. "Did you? I can't imagine why you should have troubled yourself with such speculation, or what might have made you come to that conclusion." He sounded definitely disgruntled and almost embarrassed, a fact which would have amused Ell en in happier times. "Why, the fact- that you were spending so much time with me. I fancied you were angry with your mistress, and giving both of you time to cool off." "You spend far too much time with your fancies," he said. "Including your latest about Ghislaine that is the wretched woman's name, isn't it?" "She's not a wretched woman. She's my friend, and I can't turn my back on her when she's in trouble." "What makes you think she's in trouble? Why can't you accept the fact that she simply decided there were easier ways to earn her living?" "Because she knew perfectly well that she had no need to earn her living. I wanted her as my companion, my friend. She was the one who insisted she live belowstairs, that she serve as my chef instead of enjoying life as my dearest friend. I would have denied her nothing." Tony considered the information for a moment. "Perhaps it was a case of love at first sight? Blackthorne is rather a dashing figure. She might have overcome her dislike of the male gender." "Perhaps," she said doubtfully. "You're right about Nicholas-he is quite wickedly attractive. I suppose Gilly might have fall en in love with him." For some reason her agreement didn't seem to please Tony. "I can assure you, far wiser women have fall en under his spell. His amours are neither discreet nor honorable. And I'm afraid that love never has much to do with these arrangements." "Gilly would never have run off if she weren't in love. And since they said Nicholas was hovering at death's door for most of the time he was here, that didn't give them much time to fall in love." "Dear Ell en, even if the estimable Ghislaine happened to imagine herself in love with Blackthorne, I'm certain he was suffering from no such romantic delusions." Ell en shook her head, clutching her half-finished sherry in her hand. "I don't believe it, Tony. I suppose I'm being foolish. I should simply accept the fact-after all, she could hardly have been abducted in broad daylight. But why would she fail to leave me a message, a word of farewell?" For the moment neither of them heard the scratching on the door. Then Tony's eyes met hers. "Rats, Ell en?" he inquired smoothly.

The door was pushed open, and Ghislaine's tiny black dog bounded into the room with an indignant yip, followed closely by a plump under-housemaid. She leaped for the puppy, but the dog was too fast for her, hurling himself onto Ell en's silk-covered lap with a plaintive howl. The housemaid turned bright red, managing an awkward bob. "Begging your pardon, your ladyship," she stammered, and Ell en knew with sudden sympathy that the poor girl was totally unused to conversing with anyone more exalted than the first chambermaid. "The little doggot away from me, and I swore to Mrs. Rafferty I'd watch over it. I'll take him right away…" She reached out her plump, work-worn hands for him, but the ungrateful wretch growled low in his throat. "What's your name?" Ell en asked, using her most soothing tone of voice to put the girl at her ease. "Gladys, your ladyship. I didn't mean to cause no harm, and Mrs. Rafferty'll have my head if she knew I was here, talking to you, but the little dog got away from me, and besides, Mamzel e was kind to me, and I don't think it's right that they should just let that man take her away from here when maybe she didn't want to go at all, and why would she leave Charbon behind if he was going to set her up all nice and fancy, that's what I wants to know." Her words tumbled to an embarrassed halt as she realized the enormity of what she'd said. That sick, burning feeling in the pit of Ell en's stomach exploded, and for a moment she was afraid she might throw up the sherry Tony had forced her to drink. "Are you telling me she didn't go willingly? " she asked in a deceptively calm voice. Gladys was still terrified by the seething emotions in the room. "I don't know, your ladyship. All I know is that when Mamzel e took Mr. Blackthorne his dinner tray she didn't reappear, but I heard the sounds of a fight. And while he was wandering around the house later, I was told I wasn't to go into the room to clear away the dishes. And when I did go in, the next morning, the dishes were shattered all over the floor, and the bed was torn up something fierce." "I hate to say it," Tony drawled from across the room, "but there's a very obvious explanation for that." "A surfeit of passion?" Ell en shot him a furious glance. "I don't think so. What else, Gladys?" "I saw them when they left. He was carrying her, miss." "And was she struggling?" Tony demanded in a practical voice. "Not so's I could notice," Gladys admitted reluctantly. "And what was she doing in Mr. Blackthorne's arms?" He pursued it relentlessly. "I couldn't see all that clearly. She was wrapped head to foot in her ladyship's green silk cape. It looked like she had her head on his shoulder." "There you have it," Tony said. "She was curled up in her lover's arms, dressed in your pilfered cape. Off on love's young dream, leaving her dog and you behind without a second thought. Trust the French. Any race of people who'd butcher each other so bloodily would have no compunctions at all." "There are times, Tony, when I don't think I care for you very much," Ell en said severely. "It's not that I don't appreciate your accompanying me home in this dismal weather, and your efforts to make me dismiss Gilly's disappearance as a Gall ic freak, but why don't you continue on to the inn? I'm currently unable to provide you with a decent meal, since my chef seems to have decamped, and I'm not in the mood for socializing." Tony rose, looming very large in the small, feminine room. "Take the dog back to the kitchens," he said pleasantly enough, and Gladys scampered to do his bidding. She paused at the door, clutching the indignant dog to her bosom. "Perhaps I ought to give you this, your ladyship," she said, shoving one hand in her apron pocket and coming up with a crumpled piece of paper. "Mrs. Rafferty asked me to bring it to her, but since it's from your room it must be meant for you." Ell en took the letter in her hand. "Citizeness Ghislaine de Lorgny," she read. "Odd, I didn't think they referred to each other as citizen anymore. And I thought Ghislaine's last name was Sahut. But it's addressed properly." "De Lorgny," Tony said in a meditative voice. "I know that name. Why don't you read it?"

"Certainly not!" Ell en said sharply. "That would be dishonorable." She gave Gladys her warmest smile. "Thank you very much, Gladys. You've been very helpful." She closed the door behind the maid's stout little figure, putting the crumpled letter in her own pocket before she turned to face Tony. She knew she'd have a hard time resisting his force of will and his devastating charm, but she was determined to do so. "And now, Ell en," he said, advancing on her, "you will tell me what‟s going on in that far too devious brain of yours." She held her ground, but just barely. "Nothing at all, Tony. You've pointed out that Gilly must simply have taken off for a life of rampant sensuality, and I have decided I see the wisdom of your words. I will miss her, but there's nothing I can do about it." She managed to give him a demure smile. Tony didn't even blink. "Liar," he said flatly. "I've known you since you were in leading-strings, Ell ie. You can't hope to bamboozle me. You're more convinced than ever that she was abducted." She abandoned all attempts at lying to him. Tony knew her far too well. "It's the cape," she said earnestly. "Gilly hated that cape. It was a certain unfortunate shade of yellow-green, with puce trim, and she often told me it should be burned. She was always trying to improve my taste in clothing." Her voice faltered on the last. "She's not dead, Ell en," Tony said in a kind voice. "Even if you'd be wiser to think of her as such." "I can't, Tony. She would never have taken that cape of her own accord, never would have worn it on a romantic assignation. She would have wanted to look her best if she were going off with her lover, not like a… a… sall ow pea-goose." "All right," Tony said. "For the sake of argument, suppose Nicholas did abduct her? Why? Your majordomo said he'd been terribly ill while he was here. Do you suppose it might have overset his mind? The Blackthornes are notoriously unstable as it is. Do you think he's gone mad?" "I have no idea," she said stubbornly. "All I know is that-Gilly didn't go with him willingly." Tony didn't move, didn't even blink. And then he reached out his large hands and dropped them lightly on her shoulders. "And I don't suppose there's any chance at all that you'd let the matter rest there?" "None at all. Gilly saved my life. I'm not going to abandon her when she's in trouble." "What do you mean, she saved your life?" he demanded, suddenly tense. "When were you ever in danger…?" Ell en shook her head. "It's too complicated to explain. Suffice it to say that Gilly means a great deal to me. I'm not going to turn my back on her." "When I get to London I can put out inquiries," he suggested. "They've been gone at least two days now-your friend has already been compromised, if you think it's a simple question of rape. But I could see what I can come up with. There'll be a hue and cry for Blackthome as it is-what with Hargrove meeting his demise at Nicholas's hands. Sooner or later he'll be bound to turn up, and Gilly can be returned to you." She did her very best to put a grateful expression on her face. "That would be very kind of you," she murmured in a neutral tone of voice. "The hell with my kindness. You won't be here waiting for word, will you?" he said with a wry smile. "You're going after them." She considered denying it. It would be no use- Tony was right. He knew her very well indeed, and knew that she wouldn't simply wait for word. "I'm sorry, Tony," she said with real honesty. "I simply have to. You can tell Carmichael you tried to stop me." "I have no intention of telling Carmichael a thing," he said. "You don't?" "I won't be anywhere near him to impart that information." He sounded resigned. "I'll be off haring after the fugitives." She flung herself upon him, her arms hugging him tightly. "Bless you, Tony, I knew I could count on you!" she cried. To her astonishment his arms came around her, holding her against him for a long, breathless moment. "Don't forget it," he said, looking down at her, and she had the oddest notion that he wanted to kiss her.

Absurd, she thought, as a second later he released her. "I don't suppose there's any chance you might be willing to stay behind while I go after them?" he continued in a negligent tone. "Not a chance in the world. And don't worry about my reputation being compromised. We'll take Binnie, and your valet, and no one need ever know what we were up to. We'll catch up with them in no time-Nicholas would have no idea we'd come after her. He probably thought poor Gilly hadn't a friend in the world." "You might find that it's almost impossible to hide something from an interested society," Tony pointed out. Sudden doubts assailed her. "Oh, Tony, I couldn't do that to you," she said. "If you think we'll be discovered, perhaps I ought to go alone. I couldn't bear it if… well, if things transpired that you… that I…" Gentleman that he was, Tony calmly overrode her embarrassed stammering. "Don't give it a thought, infant. I have matters well in hand. Not a soul will hear about this that I don't want to." She smiled up at him, her eyes shining with grateful tears. She could think of no greater disaster than Tony being forced to marry her. But she believed him when he said no one need ever know of their indiscretion. She believed Tony capable of just about anything. "In the meantime," he continued, "I'd best take myself off to the Crown and Boar and bespeak a room for the night. I'll present myself first thing tomorrow morning, after you've had a decent rest, and we'll take off after our fugitives." "Bless you, Tony," she said. "I knew I could count on you." She watched him leave, her eyes still misting with tears. It would take her at least an hour to put together a portmanteau of sturdy, serviceable clothes. Another hour to talk Binnie into their adventure. In that time she could only hope the rain would have abated. She had a strong dislike of riding in a freezing downpour, and Binnie would prove downright obstinate. But they had no choice. If she went meekly to bed, Tony, true to his word, would go after Ghislaine and her ramshackle half-cousin. Leaving Ell en behind to molder and wait. Which she had no intention of doing. She was going to be waiting for him when he descended the stairs at the Crown and Boar, and if they didn't find Gilly by sunset, at least she'd have Binnie beside her to satisfy the dictates of propriety. And she'd have the undeniably treacherous delight of Tony's company for at least another twentyfour hours. She could almost be wicked enough to rejoice in Gilly's abduction. Ghislaine expected they were heading north. Not that her nemesis bothered to converse with her. His valet-cum-bodyguard also served as coachman, so she couldn't even glean information from their casual conversations. But she could see it in the changing landscape even though she'd never been much beyond the insular comforts of Ainsley Hall before, and she could feel it in the increasing chil of the spring air. Spring! The cold-blooded English had little experience with the season. The icy winds and cold rain continued even into the height of summer, and early April might as well be December to Ghislaine's chilled body. In Paris the trees would be blossoming. The air would be soft and warm. And the streets would still be stained with the blood of too many deaths. She didn't believe the so-called Peace of Amiens, the dubious tranquility that had settled over Europe since last March. She didn't believe the French were ready to rebuild their lives into something more orderly. She didn't believe Bonaparte's promises; she didn't believe in anything more than the moment, the hour, the day. She was better off where she was, even imprisoned by the man she hated most in this world. His very presence was a tonic. Her hatred for him kept her alive, furious at life and at him. As long as he was in her reach, revenge was still possible. And as long as revenge was possible, life was worth living. She hadn't been too sure of that when she'd first been immured in that hell-bound carriage with her dissolute nemesis. The early-morning light had barely penetrated into the shadowy interior of the slightly threadbare coach, and his hands against the skin of her cheek were hard, heated, as they untied the neckcloth that had gagged her.

She'd wanted to fight him. Obviously he expected that much from her, and he hadn't moved back, leaning across the carriage, giving her plenty of space to attack him. "What about my hands?" she said in a small, bitter voice. "What about them?" "Are you going to untie them?" He appeared to consider it. "What guarantee have I that you won't attack me again if I'm fool enough to do so? Your word of honor?" "I wouldn't give it." He nodded, and there was a faint gleam of amusement in his dark eyes. "I didn't expect you would. Since I'm not in the mood for another boxing match I think I'll leave you just as you are. Unless you've decided to try to charm me out of my plans." "What are your plans?" "I would think you of all people would understand, ma petite. You nearly killed me, not once but twice. The first time with that poisonous brew, and I owe you for two days of the worst misery I've ever endured in a fairly miserable life. The second when you tried to kill me with your bare hands. I swear, I bear the bruises." "A miserable life?" she countered, trying to control her almost frightening rage. If she gave in to it, all would be lost. "And how, pray tell, has your life been so miserable? Have you starved? Have you been beaten? Have you lost your parents to a bloodthirsty crowd? Have you…?" "Have you been starved?" he countered. "Beaten? How did you manage to escape Madame La Guil otine's insatiable thirst for blood?" He sounded no more than casually interested. "I was informed that your entire family perished on the block. I was charmed"-he accompanied his bald-faced he with a faint, supercilious smile-"to discover you had escaped. How did you manage it, Ghislaine? Where have you spent the last ten years of your life?" "In a convent," she said flatly. He took her at her word, a faint trace of derision on his too-handsome face. "It doesn't appear as if you benefited from the example of Christian piety set before you. Didn't Jesus teach about turning the other cheek? Your thirst for revenge seems exceedingly Old Testament to me. What is it you imagine I've done to merit such a bloody desire on your part? I wasn't part of the mob, or the Reign of Terror. If I'd been anywhere inside the borders of France, they probably would have hauled me up there too, as a perfect example of how degenerate and profligate the upper classes really are." "If you've forgotten your culpability, then I won't waste your time reminding you," she said, turning her head away to face the verdant countryside. He caught her chin in one hard, merciless hand, turning her to look at him. "Refresh my memory," he said softly, the steel in his voice a match for the steel in his hand. She found she had the most absurd weakness, not wanting to remember those awful moments in the garden at Sans Doute. Not wanting to remember her shame, when her innocent adoration had been flung in the mud. To remind him would be to remind herself of her own vulnerability, and to remember might be to relive it. "You'll find," she said in a soft voice, "that I am quite impervious to pain. If you think you'll find out what you want by hurting me, you'll only be wasting your time. Unless you are one of those who receive a certain perverse pleasure in inflicting pain." For a moment he didn't move. His hand on her face didn't gentle-it still maintained its painful grip. And then his eyelids lowered as he surveyed her. "I have other perverse pleasures," he said softly. "allow me to demonstrate." And to her shock and horror he leaned across the carriage and kissed her. She could have withstood a brutal assault, his mouth grinding against her. She could have withstood a rough rape of her mouth, and she was fully prepared to disappear into that quiet place in her mind where no one could reach her. But she was unprepared for the softness of his lips against hers. The damnable gentleness as he brushed his mouth against hers, feathering it lightly, so lightly that it was a caress. And she hadn't been caressed in more than a decade.

If her hands had been free she would have killed him. As it was she had no choice but to submit. His fingers were painful on her face, holding her still for the devastating sweetness of his kiss. And then he pulled back, releasing her, leaning against the leather squabs of his faintly shabby carriage, and his eyes were speculative beneath his half-closed lids. "They didn't teach you much in the convent," he murmured. "I'll have to see about improving your education." And without another word he leaned back into the corner and fell asleep. Leaving her to watch him in the gradually increasing light of the carriage, her hands and feet still tied, her mouth damp from his, her body shivering with rage and something she couldn't even begin to fathom. Until she finally drifted off into a nightmare-plagued sleep, only to wake and begin the battle again.

Chapter 7
Ghislaine was used to hardship. To cold so deep, so penetrating that you could barely walk for the chilblains on your feet, cold that ate into your bones and shook you from the inside out. She'd lived through horror and the stench of death all around, through starvation and brutality. Being tossed around in an ill-sprung carriage was surely far from the worst she'd ever endured, and even with her wrists and ankles bound so that she couldn't brace herself against the rocking and swaying of the equipage, she told herself she'd survived far worse ordeals than this dismal discomfort. She told herself that, but she didn't quite believe it. Particularly since those more horrific times had at least been blissfully free of Nicholas Blackthorne's odious presence. He slept, oblivious to the bumpings and jarrings of the coach, oblivious to the bone-numbing chill, oblivious to his hostage's misery. He slept so soundly that Ghislaine allowed herself to hope that some errant trace of poison had surfaced to put a period to his existence. Until he started snoring. She kicked him then, swinging her shackled feet across the separating foot of space to knock his ankle. He didn't awake, but the snoring stopped, at least for a while, as he shifted and grumbled in his sleep. She needed to concentrate on something, anything, to keep her mind off the rapidly increasing discomfort of her body. She stared at her nemesis, telling herself it was a wonder that even at fifteen she'd been so hopelessly besotted. And knowing, even as her hatred simmered, that it was no wonder at all. At twenty-two Nicholas Blackthorne had been beautiful. Pale gold skin, black hair, the midnight-blue eyes of an angel. Twelve, almost thirteen years later he no longer looked like an angel. Deep lines scored his once-beautiful face, lines of dissipation and cynicism. His eyes were hooded, weary, his mouth an ironic twist, the lips thinned and mocking. His hair was still long, still very black, though one streak of silver attested to the passage of time. Women doubtless found him appealing. His body was still lean and strong, his teeth white, his voice a lazy seduction. It would be an easy matter to fashion daydreams about a man of his dangerous attractions. She'd given up daydreams a decade ago. She stared at him across the way, wondering which was more important. Escape? Or killing him? "Looked your fill?" he inquired in a pleasant enough voice, not bothering to open his eyes. Which was just as well, since she couldn't control her instinctive recoil. She said nothing, hunching her body back against the seat, waiting. His eyes opened, and they were very dark, almost black. "Next time you kick me," he murmured, "I'll kick you back." She turned her face away from him, staring out the window. It was early afternoon, they'd been on the road since dawn, and it was taking all her concentration to keep her body rigidly upright. She felt uncomfortably dizzy, and that weakness infuriated her. He leaned forward, too close to her, and she wished she had the energy to spit into that handsome, dissipated face. "Any requests?" he asked, his soft voice taunting. "Anything I can do to make your journey more comfortable?" She turned to look at him, not bothering to disguise the hatred in her eyes. "You can jump out of the carriage."

He smiled then, and it wasn't a pleasant sight. "Don't you want to ask me to stop the carriage? I'd think that after so many hours you might wish to use the necessary." She ignored him. If she gave in on one issue, she'd give in on others. She'd sit there, jostled about in the carriage, until she exploded, before she'd ask a favor of him. He leaned back, watching her. "I suppose I can be generous in this matter. Sooner or later you'll be on your knees in front of me, begging me. I can wait." He leaned forward, past her immobile body, and rapped twice on the roof of the coach. She wanted to flinch away from his nearness, but she held herself as still as the jostling carriage would allow. "Of course," he continued in a dreamy voice, "there are other, more interesting acts you could perform on your knees. I might find I prefer that." She kept her face impassive, willing herself not to launch her body at him in rage. She could do little damage, trussed up as she was. She kept very still, hoping her anger would abate. "But then a convent-bred miss like you would have no idea what I'm talking about," Nicholas murmured. "Which is just as well. I'm going to enjoy teaching you." The coach jerked to a rough stop, and Ghislaine's trussed hands couldn't keep her from hurtling forward across the carriage, falling against him. He caught her, and his arms were strong and not ungentle. "Such eagerness, ma bell e," he said softly. "At least wait until we get into the inn." She jerked herself away from him, coll apsing on the seat opposite him. "We're going to an inn?" she asked, somewhat breathlessly. "Won't it look a little strange if I'm tied up?" "You won't be," he said carelessly. "I'm counting on your good behavior." "And why should you? I wasn't aware that I had anything left to lose. If I scream for help perhaps someone will stand up to you…" "I doubt it," he said lazily. "But by all means feel free to try. You'll find you have two very distinct disadvantages. One, despite your perfect diction, you're obviously French, and the English will always take the side of an Englishman over a foreigner. Particularly a member of a race who butchered its ruling class and waged war against us for close to a decade. Secondly, you're dressed as a servant, and I'm a gentleman. We've a class-ridden society. No one would raise a hand against a gentleman to help a peasant." "Peasant?" Ghislaine echoed, seething. "Peasant," Nicholas repeated firmly. "So I leave it up to you. My advice, not that you'll be inclined to take it, would be to wait until a more opportune moment. If you raise a fuss themoment we stop, who knows when you'll get to use the privy. And surely if you're patient enough you could still find an opportunity to murder me." It was just as well her hands were bound. She would have slapped his smug, faintly bored face. "You're wrong," she said, her voice low and careful. "About what?" "I intend to follow your very excellent advice. If I begged for help, the best I could hope for would be to get away from you. I'd much rather kill you first." "How delightfully bloodthirsty," he murmured. "I knew I could count on you. Hold out your wrists." "Why?" He sighed, obviously tired of her questions. "Can't you feel the carriage slowing? We're nearing the inn. I would think you'd want to be able to get inside as swiftly as possible, and I'm being gentlemanly enough to untie your hands first so that you can unfasten your ankles. Trust me, I'd greatly enjoy delving beneath your skirts, but I doubt I'd stop below the knees, and I don't think you'd appreciate that." Without a word she held out her arms, noting absently that they trembled with fatigue. There was nothing she could do about it. She hated to show weakness in front of her enemy, but her body failed her. She would simply have to conserve her strength. Grow stronger still, if she were to have any chance of vanquishing him. He said nothing about the trembling in her arms. At least he hadn't tied her tightly. Still, the enforced immobility of her arms made them exquisitely painful once they were free, and she muffled a tiny cry of pain as she flexed them.

She reached down for the rope around her ankles, but her fingers were numb, clumsy, and her long skirts kept getting in the way. She could feel Nicholas's eyes on her,watching her, with amusement, no doubt, as she fumbled with the knots. She managed to keep her balance as the coach pulled to a stop, but just barely, and the knots were no closer to being untied. Nicholas leaned down, pushed her hands away, and unfastened the ropes with brisk, competent hands. "You may be in no particular hurry," he drawled, "but I've been too damned long in this carriage as it is." Taverner had already appeared at the door, letting down the steps. Nicholas bounded down with restless energy, then reached up a hand to help her, a parody of polite concern on his face. She had no intention of taking his hand. She had no intention of accepting his help. However, the moment she attempted to climb out of the carriage her legs collapsed underneath her, and she clung to the nearest thing at hand. Nicholas Blackthorne. He scooped her up in his arms, effortlessly enough. "M'wife's ill," he said pleasantly as he shouldered his way into the small, shabby inn. "Her time of month, y'know." She used her elbow, jabbing him beneath his ribs, and he gave a satisfying grunt of pain. His hold on her slipped for a moment, and she wondered if she was going to be dropped on the hard wood floor, when his arms tightened again, and she realized he'd been in no danger of dropping her at all. They followed the short, round publican through the dark inn, up a winding flight of stairs to a private parlor. Nicholas dumped her in a chair, hard enough to jar her bones, and she gave him a sweet smile. "Thank you, darling," she murmured in dulcet tones. The innkeeper beamed at them. "If s not often we have the quality staying with us," he said. "We'll do our best by you, that we will, your worship. The best of food-a boiled mutton tender enough even for the little lady, and a good English pudding, swimming in butter and clotted cream." Ghislaine's false smile faded at the thought. She had a certain affection for her recently adopted land, the lush green of the countryside, the straightforward stubbornness of its people who disapproved of her so strongly. She even had a grudging tolerance for the cold weather and incessant rain. But she despised English cooking. Nicholas's own smile widened, and she had the uneasy notion he could read her mind. "My wife is famished," he announced. "In the meantime, perhaps we'll leave her a bit of privacy, shal we, while you mix me up a nice rum punch. Er… there's no back way out of this place, is there?" The innkeeper was still so bemused by the advent of the upper classes that he didn't find the question the slightest bit odd. "No, sir. Not from up here. Just the one staircase, I'm afraid. We're a small hostelry, not used to catering to the quality, and I'm afraid…" Nicholas put his arm around the little man's shoulders, steering him from the room adroitly. "Never mind, my good man. I just don't want my wife to lose her way if she chooses to leave the quiet of our rooms. I'll be certain to sit where I might command a good view of the stairs." "You can see the stairs from any seat in the common room," the innkeeper said earnestly. Nicholas looked back over his shoulder, and his smile was mocking. "Good," he said. "Enjoy your privacy, my dear." She waited until the door closed behind them before she attempted to walk. Her first steps met with bitter defeat: she sank to her knees on the faded carpet. It took all her strength to pull herself upright, another five minutes before she could reconnoiter enough to find the necessary creature comforts. Once she'd attended to her more pressing needs she felt a great deal more human. Until she looked at her reflection in the mirror. Ell en's hideous green cape was still draped around her shoulders. Her dress was stiff and sticky with the brandy that had been spilled down her front, her hair was a witch's tangle around her pale face, and her eyes shone bright with fury. The proper servants at Ainsley Hall wouldn't recognize the quiet, reserved Mamzel e if they could see her now. She splashed some water on her face, tried to push her hair into some semblance of order. Not that it should matter. What mattered was getting away from Nicholas Blackthorne before it was too late.

Too late for what? she asked herself. It was already too late for her family, for her mother and father, for her baby brother. It was too late for her, for the innocent she once was. She'd had very little-an uneasy peace and a solid friendship. With Blackthorne's fateful arrival at Ainsley Hall she'd lost both, left with the one dark treasure she'd hoarded for years. Vengeance. She had no intention of making her escape without first sending Nicholas to his reward, but she surveyed her surroundings like a general planning a strategic retreat. The casement windows were loose in their frames, the wind rattling them noisily. There were no shed roofs beneath them-if she chose to leave by the window, the fall would likely break her leg. The parlor was small, drafty; the fire fitful and smoky. The chairs were uncomfortable; the table none too clean; the floor covered with a faded carpet. The adjoining bedroom somehow failed to add to her peace of mind. Perhaps it was the fact that there was only one bed. A large one, draped with quilts that were quite likely flea-infested. She wondered how his lordship would look covered with flea bites. He'd probably never even seen a flea. She had. She'd made her acquaintance with all sorts of vermin, from fleas and lice to maggots and rats and the most despicable of all creatures, man. She was afraid of nothing and no one. Except her own weakness. The maid who entered the front parlor was ripe, buxom, and cheerful, and the tray she carried reeked of grease and mutton. Ghislaine had to stop herself from sending it away. If she were to prevail she needed to keep up her strength. She ^ hadn't eaten in what seemed like days-ever since Nicholas had arrived at Ainsley Hall, her meager appetite had fled in the face of more devouring concerns. "Yer husband said as how I was to bring you up a tray, missus," she said, her eyes bright with curiosity. "He said you were particularly fond of mutton." Yes, Nicholas had read her queasiness at the very word. Ghislaine managed a faint smile. "Particularly," she said, sitting down at the table. "I'm Gert," the girl said, bustling around. "You're to call me if you need any help. They'll be bringing yer trunks up in a moment, and then I could bring you some fresh water…" "I don't suppose I could have a bath?" she asked, schooling herself to expect disappointment. Gert scratched her head, not a propitious sign in the possibly lice-infested inn. "I don't see why not." "And fresh bedding?" If she was afraid she'd offended Gert, she needn't have worried. The girl simply looked impressed. "I've heard quality's different than the rest of us," she said, scratching her head again. "Or then, maybe it's because you're a Frenchy. They like things extra clean." The dirt under Gert's fingernails looked as if it had been there at least a fortnight. "We're silly that way," Ghislaine said faintly. "Well, then, that's all right. I'll just take care of things, tidy up a bit, and heat the water for you. I don't think there's much of a need to hurry if you're wanting yer privacy. Yer husband seems settled in the taproom for a good long time. Mr. Hoskins makes the best rum punch in this county, he does, and yer husband looks like a man what appreciates a good rum punch." "I'm sure he does," Ghislaine said faintly, staring down at the congealed grease on her plate. "He's a handsome man, yer husband is. Been married long?" Gert might be a cheerful slattern, but she knew where a wedding ring ought to reside, and Ghislaine's long, bare fingers were in plain sight. "Not long," she said, picking up the fork. "Just my luck. We finally have a good-looking rich man come to the inn and he's already taken," Gert said with a sigh. Ghislaine looked up, and her eyes met Gert's with the age-old knowledge of women. "Feel free to distract him," she said evenly. "I'd appreciate a night alone." Gert didn't find the suggestion more than slightly surprising. "He's a good-looking man," she said again with a lusty sigh. "Pretty is as pretty does," Ghislaine murmured. And she applied herself to the fat-encased mutton with stalwart determination.

The bath was no more than lukewarm, the water cloudy, the soap a rough lye concoction that turned her skin raw and red. The towels were rough, the fire continued to smoke, and Ghislaine knew her first moments of real happiness in longer than she could remember. It took desperation to make one appreciate life, she thought. The finest meal she'd ever had was a thin, tasteless stew, days old, and a cup of rancid coffee on an ice-coated street in Paris. She hadn't eaten in more than a week at the time, and she'd devoured the stew without pausing to consider the origin of the meat or the length of time it had been sitting in the kettle; eaten it so quickly she'd thrown it all up minutes later. And then she'd wept hot, bitter tears for wasting the first bite of solid food she'd seen in ages. She'd been seventeen years old at the time. That was the day she'd agreed to sell her body on the streets of Paris. And that was the last day she'd cried. Draping the reasonably clean blanket around her, she opened the valise Gert had carried up, staring at the jumbled interior in dismay. She knew those colors. The puce, the purple, the lime-green and the startling canary-yellow. Her own wardrobe had consisted of somber blacks and browns and grays, as befitted an upper servant. The totally unsuitable clothes belonged to Ell en, whose taste ran to the flamboyant. The colors were entirely unsuited to Ell en's pale pink English loveliness, and they'd probably make Ghislaine look like a parrot. Even worse was the fact that Ell en was tall and robust, a sturdy English flower. Ghislaine was tiny, half a foot shorter. She'd swim in Ell en's clothes. It was hardly her problem, unless the excessive length of her skirts hampered her getaway. Since Nicholas was unlikely to let her escape easily, she'd have more than enough time to cobble up the hems. The only problem was she couldn't sew. She could bake anything, from brioches to croissants to the most succulent boeuf en daube. But she couldn't manage to set a straight stitch. She could remember her mother's mock despair as she surveyed her daughter's needlework… She slammed the door down on the memory, shocked at the freshness of the pain, the rawness of a decade-old loss. Damn Nicholas Blackthorne! As if she didn't owe him enough, his presence had set things in motion, memories and feelings that she thought she'd managed to bury long ago. If she hadn't wanted to kill him before, she wanted to now. There were no nightgowns in the valise. She could always consider it a simple oversight, but she knew she was being optimistic. Whoever had packed the bag, whether it was the evil-eyed Taverner or Nicholas himself, hadn't thought she needed to be troubled by a night rail. Nicholas's valise had made an appearance as well. Feeling no compunctions whatsoever, she opened it, pulling out one of his beautiful cambric shirts and putting it on, letting the blanket drop to the floor. It hung to her knees; the sleeves dangled well below her fingertips; and it was the softest, most elegant thing she'd worn in years. She was half-tempted to rip it off her body, but her choices were not appealing. Ell en's clothes were fancy, scratchy, hardly fit for sleeping. Her own dress was sticky and stiff from the spilled brandy, and she couldn't stand the thought of putting it back on. And Ell en's fine lawn undergarments were too revealing. No, Nicholas's shirt would have to do. If she was going to end the night in a battle, it would provide as much protection as anything she had with her. The hours passed; long, empty hours. Gert returned and had the hip bath removed, took the tray with its half-eaten meal, and wished her a good evening. Ghislaine almost wished her good hunting in return. If only Nicholas were drunk enough to fall for Gert's abundant, obvious charms, she could have a decent night's sleep to gather her strength back around her. She wasn't in any condition to fight him off. And she had no doubt whatsoever that that was what Nicholas had in mind. She could always submit. In the end, it was probably what she'd have to do. She'd learned the trick of closing her mind and ears, and letting her dreams soar out into the clouds, while some man hunched and panted and sweated over her body. She'd distanced herself and survived. But a small, nagging little part of her wondered whether she could be just as efficient distancing herself from the devil incarnate who'd abducted her. The man who looked like an angel from hell. Nicholas was getting very drunk. He considered stopping. The landlord's punch was a fine one, redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg and rum, but he'd never been excessively fond of rum punch. The serving girl was well-rounded and obviously willing, brushing her quite impressive breasts against

him every chance she got. Tavvy had already closed his eyes and sunk back against the settee, and would probably awake six hours from now stiff and sore and blessed with a colossal headache. The landlord would provide an alternate bed that he could share with the girl, if he gave any sign that he was interested. Indeed, he was mad not to be. The creature upstairs was a murderous harridan, doubtless a virgin, blessed with a skinny body and a wasp's tongue. Besides which, she wanted to kill him. That sort of thing had never done wonders for his ardor, and he'd be much better off sampling the serving girl's more obvious wares. But he couldn't keep his mind off the woman upstairs. He had to force himself to remember that she was a woman, not a girl. She reminded him of that innocent child he'd half-fall en in love with so long ago, and yet she was different enough that he knew there was absolutely no danger of his succumbing once more to that unexpected weakness. She'd had no idea, of course. All she remembered was his flat rejection of her, convinced that that rejection had cost her her family. She didn't know the yearning that had burned behind his dismissal of her, the cynical denial that had eaten away at his soul. All the rum punch in the world couldn't make him forget her. It never had, over the long intervening years, though it and claret and brandy had come close. He'd gone days, weeks, even months without thinking about her, so that she'd finally become a distant memory, a faded dream that somehow no longer seemed quite real. Until she returned to his life like a flaming fury, ready to take her revenge for his transgressions, both real and imagined. He supposed he ought to be understanding enough to allow her her illusions. It was easier to hate a person than a system of government, a bloodthirsty mob, a smug old man who was so busy trying to take his fortune with him that he waited until it was too late. If he were nobler he'd shoulder that burden of guilt, let her hate him and despise him and blame him if it made her feel better. He drew the line at letting her murder him, however. He could always go upstairs and bed her. Then she'd have no doubts at all about what an unregenerate monster he was. He'd tied her up, abducted her, taunted her. Surely there was no need to stop there. He'd never hesitated in the single-minded pursuit of his sensual pleasures before. But he'd never taken a woman by force either, and he had no doubts at all that with Ghislaine it would be force. For some oddly quixotic reason he didn't want to brutalize her. At least, he told himself coolly, not tonight. And for some equally absurd reason he didn't want to avail himself of the serving girl either. She smelled of the mutton she'd served, and while he had no doubts at all that he'd enjoy her enthusiasm, he simply didn't want her. An unsettling state of affairs, and one he could thank Ghislaine de Lorgny for. He rose on surprisingly steady feet, picking up the half-empty brandy bottle. "Time to join m'wife," he announced. The girl pouted. "She's probably asleep by now," she said boldly. "And didn't you say it was her time of the month?" Had he really been crass enough to announce that? Probably. He smiled with sweet drunkenness. "We don't let such things bother us," he confided. "She's French, you know." That seemed to say enough. The serving girl disappeared into the kitchen with a sull en set to her plump shoulders, but he'd be surprised if she didn't decide to wake Tavvy up for a bit of fun. The stairs were too damned dark and narrow, but he managed to make it up there without spilling a drop of his precious brandy. The fire in the front room had burned down low, and there was no sign of Ghislaine. She had to be in the bedroom beyond. Was she waiting for him, lying in the bed, nude and ready? Was she standing behind the door with a knife, prepared to unman him? He pushed open the door cautiously. The firelight ill uminated her pale face, and he had no doubt whatsoever that she was sound asleep. She looked no more than fifteen years old, lying in the middle of that big bed, the covers drawn up to her chin. He'd felt like a satyr then; he felt like a rutting stag now.

He backed out of the room, leaving the door open, and went to sit by the fire. From his vantage point he could still see her, lying in the bed, and he told himself he had to keep an eye on her in case she woke up and decided to push him into the fireplace or something equally nasty. He drank out of the bottle, letting the fiery stuff burn its way down his throat. And he knew he was lying. He wanted to watch her as she slept. Because he wanted to pretend it was thirteen years ago, before the world had gone mad. Before he had lost his soul completely.

Chapter 8
Sir Antony Wilton-Greening didn't sleep well. The Crown and Boar provided a decent enough repast, the beds were clean and well-aired, the cell ar tolerable. Normally he would sleep like the dead, waking up at his customary eleven o'clock to start his day. He knew he didn't possess that luxury. He needed to be off by dawn if he was going to escape without Ell en joining him. Not that there weren't decided advantages to having her along. For one thing, he had no guarantee that the mysterious Ghislaine would prefer his protection to that of an attractive bad 'un like Nicholas Blackthorne. Even assuming she had gone unwillingly, and he was by no means convinced of that, she might have come to terms with her abductor. Particularly since Nicholas would probably attempt to keep her in a style to which she could easily grow accustomed, and Tony had no interest in her dubious charms at all. He found he had no taste for French gamines-he preferred English roses. He'd been completely truthful when he'd told Ell en that no one would find out if she accompanied him if he didn't want them to know. If he had been forced to take her with him, he would have made sure exactly those people necessary had found out-those people necessary to enforce a speedy marriage. It would cut through a great deal of bother. Ell en, for all her matter-of-fact good nature, was a dreamy romantic at heart. If he wanted to marry her, and he most definitely did, he'd be forced to go through some ridiculous sham of a courtship, and he simply didn't have the energy for it. He wanted his nice, comfortable life, with an affectionate, undemanding spouse like Ell en to make sure his home was run properly, his estates were crawling with heirs, and his marital duty wasn't impossibly onerous. It had taken him a while to come to the decision that Ell en would suit him, but once that decision had been taken, there was no swaying him from his purpose. He just didn't want to have to exert himself more than necessary. No, a forced marriage had definite advantages, not the least of which would be Ell en's feelings of guilt and gratitude. It would keep her from making impossible demands if she felt she'd forced him into it. On the other hand, he was fond enough of her not to wish her the burden of guilt and gratitude. And there was always the outside chance that he might just enjoy her impossible demands. No, better to do it in a straightforward manner. Go after the miscreants, fetch Ghislaine back, and come up with a reasonable offer for Ell en's hand. If she demanded it, he supposed he could even manage to court her a bit. After all, she did have the most melting smile. His man woke him at the ungodly hour of five in the morning with a mug of warm porter, a platter of ham, and fresh bread that almost made such an indecent hour acceptable. He accomplished his toilet in record time, tying the most basic of cravats, allowing his man to shave him between sips of the beer, and surveying his brightly polished hessians with a weary sigh. The rain had abated, but even in the slowly lightening morning sky he could see the clouds hovering, ready to descend once more. He was not in the mood for a jaunt to Scotland. Unfortunately, that was where Nicholas had chosen to take his absconded female. Not that he had much choice. Assuming Blackthorne still thought Jason Hargrove would recover, he knew he'd be persona non grata in town. People tolerated a great deal from someone of Nicky's dubious charms, but this time he'd gone a bit too far, and the man had the sense to lie low. Unfortunately the Blackthorne estates were mostly gone, sold to pay gaming debts. His Uncle Teasdale's country seat, Amberfields, had been the last to go, which left only a small manor house in the Lake District and a hunting lodge over the border in Scotland.

According to the servants at Ainsley Hall, Scotland had been their eventual destination. It could be damned cold there this time of year, and absolutely dead of company. Tony had every intention of getting up there as fast as he possibly could, fetching Ghislaine, willing or not, and haring back to Ainsley Hall. Of course, there was always the decidedly unpleasant possibility that Blackthorne might challenge him to a duel. Blackthorne had certainly fought enough of them to have developed a taste for them. Tony only trusted that he wasn't likely to want to kill an opponent twice within a month. The carriage was waiting out front, Carmichael's carriage, his horses well-fed and rested, his man and the driver perched on top, awaiting Tony's arrival. He didn't like the thought of being immured in that carriage for another few days, particularly without Ell en's company, but he accepted his fate with a sigh. If this was the way to win the proper wife, then he could make the sacrifice. Hastings was about to dismount and open the door for him when Tony waved him back to his perch. "I can manage," he said, climbing into the carriage and settling back heavily, pulling the door closed after him. It was dark in the interior, the predawn light filtering in, but there was no question that he was far from alone. He looked across, directly into Ell en's innocent blue eyes. "I thought I'd save you the trouble of having to fetch me," she said. For a moment he was too dumbfounded to say a word. Miss Binnerston sat beside Ell en, asleep as usual, and even his intended bride looked a bit weary. "Very thoughtful of you," he said finally, as the coach started smoothly. "How long have you been waiting?" Ell en yawned, too tired to make any pretense at covering it. "Awhile," she admitted. "I just wanted to make sure you didn't forget your promise." "My promise?" "To take us with you. We won't be any trouble, Tony, I promise you." She leaned forward, suddenly intent, and he could smell the sweet, flowery scent she favored. An innocent perfume, free of musk, it reminded him of spring afternoons. And Ell en. "Please don't take us back." It was exactly what he'd intended. It was the pleading in her eyes and the scent of her perfume that changed his mind. "I promised, did I?" he murmured. "Then I can't very well break my word. You'll behave yourself, Ell ie? Do exactly as I tell you?" "Of course," she said eagerly. He wondered what she'd say if he ordered her to put her arms around him and kiss him. He wouldn't, of course. He'd accepted his responsibility, and in doing so, made it impossible for him even to suggest something improper. So he simply smiled at her, keeping his hands at his side. "I'll take you at your word." "We'll find her, won't we, Tony?" Ell en asked, her pale face creased with worry. "Nicholas won't really hurt her, will he?" "I can't imagine why he would. Any more than I can imagine why he'd abduct her in the first place. Are you absolutely certain…?" "Certain," Ell en said firmly. "She never would have gone with him willingly. I have great faith in you, Tony. We should have her safe by nightfall." "Considering they have a two days' head start, I fear you're being slightly optimistic," Tony drawled. "But we'll find them as soon as we can." "I know you will. You know, Tony," she said, her fine blue eyes sparkling in the murky light, "we're going on a splendid adventure." Tony thought longingly of his comfortable bed in London, his sybaritic pleasures, compared to life on the road with a pair of females. "Splendid," he echoed faintly. And he wondered how long it would take him to get rid of Ell en's chaperon. She could smell the fire. Hear the flames licking through the old wood structure, the screams of the servants still trapped inside. The roar of the angry mob, demanding vengeance, taking it on innocent people as they hauled her parents away. Ghislaine had stood on the edge of the forest, Charles-Louis's hand clasped in hers, too numb to worry about whether they would be seen or not, as Sans Doute, the home of the de Lorgnys for three hundred years, burned to the ground.

Her mother's clothes were ripped half off her body as she was shoved and mocked. Her father was bleeding from a gash in the side of his head as he stumbled after his wife, helpless to protect her. And in the background, the screams from the servants trapped inside Sans Doute, the smell of the fire, the stench of burning flesh, the horror that left the two children rooted to the ground, until sanity finally prevailed and Ghislaine tugged her brother into the woods, away from the horrific sight. At least her parents weren't dead. They hadn't been butchered, or left inside the burning chateau to die a hideous death. She'd heard the crowd shouting something about Paris. If her parents survived that long, they would be taken and tried. There was little doubt as to their eventual fate. Madame La Guil otine had already begun her foul work. But as long as they were alive there was still hope. And Ghislaine was young enough then to nourish that hope, for her young brother's sake as well as her own. The trip to Paris was an endless nightmare. Her satin embroidered slippers, made for nothing more strenuous than dancing on parquet floors, were shredded by the second day, Charles-Louis was sull en and weeping, unwilling to understand the catastrophe that had overtaken their lives, instead demanding his nursemaid Jeanne-Marie and his tutor. Mr. Coteaux had been trapped inside the burning chateau-Ghislaine had seen him ill uminated in a flame-filled window. And sweet, maternal Jeanne-Marie had walked behind their mother, shoving her into the dirt when she stumbled. She traded their silk clothes for rough peasant garb and some stale bread and cheese on the morning of the second day. Charles-Louis complained that the rough cloth hurt his skin, the wooden shoes hurt his feet, and his stomach was empty. Ghislaine controlled her sisterly temper and promised him bonbons when they reached their uncle's house in Paris, iced cakes if he was silent when they hid from the roving bands of angry peasants, new silk clothes if he could just walk another few steps. It took them a week to reach Paris, a seventeen-year-old and a twelve-year-old, and two greater innocents had never been on the streets. By the time they reached their uncle's elegant town house, his body hung from the lamppost outside. Ghislaine shuddered, trying to block the memory from her sleep-drugged mind. She hated the nightmares, hated reliving the past. Why couldn't she remember the happy times, the years at Sans Doute, her parents smiling at her, her little brother innocent and warm and loving? Why did she always remember death and despair? "Bad dreams, ma bell e?" a familiar voice drifted in from the front room. For a moment Ghislaine was disoriented, knowing that voice, for a brief, mad instant welcoming it. And then she remembered where she was, and who held her prisoner. She sat up in the lumpy bed, breathing a quiet sigh of thanks that she had slept alone. It was morning-a sull en light filtered in the windows, presaging another gray, rainy day. "It is my present existence that is the nightmare," she said. She should have known better than to goad him. She could see him by the fire, sprawled in the chair, an empty decanter beside him. She watched as he rose, graceful, lethal, and came toward the open door. She wanted to pull the covers up to her shoulders, but she resisted the impulse. If she gave him any sign that he unnerved her, he would use that knowledge. He already had most of the weapons in their unholy battle-she wasn't going to put another in his long, elegant hands. He stopped at the doorway, lounging negligently. He needed a shave and fresh clothes, he needed a decent night's sleep and abstinence from the brandy decanter. She watched him, keeping her face completely blank, and wondered how long this was going to keep on. "What do you want from me?" she asked abruptly, aware of the fact that this was hardly the best time to confront him. Not while she sat in bed dressed in nothing more than one of his fine cambric shirts. Nicholas simply smiled a small, cool smile. "What do you think I want?" he countered. She forced her hands to remain still on the coverlet. "I won't make the mistake of thinking you want me," she said calmly. "You certainly don't have to abduct women if you're desirous of a tumble, and I'm certain a willing female would be greatly preferable."

"Usually," he agreed, not moving from his spot in the doorway. "So that leaves revenge. But it would have been much simpler to turn me over to the local magistrate. If it were your word against mine, they would of course have taken your word." "Perhaps. Unfortunately my reputation is not unknown around Ainsley Hall. They might just possibly have believed you after all. Not that there was much you could have said. You did try to feed me poison, didn't you?" He sounded no more than casually interested. "I did." She half-expected him to react with rage. Instead the narrow smile reached his hypnotic eyes. "I rather thought you'd admit it," he said. "And I suppose that would have been the honorable thing to do. Hand you over to the local authorities and go on about my merry way. The problem is, the local authorities might very well have decided that anyone who tried to kill me probably had just cause." "If they had any sense," Ghislaine said flatly. "And I couldn't have that, now could I? Because if they chose to let you go, even treated you as a heroine as certain outraged fathers might, then you'd turn up again, wouldn't you? You're not going to simply accept defeat and promise never to come near me again. You're not going to rest until you manage to stick a knife between my ribs." "Oh, I don't know. I could always shoot you," she said. "That would require a certain knowledge of firearms, which I doubt you possess." Ghislaine said nothing. Her knowledge of weapons was not extensive, but she had no doubt whatsoever that she could manage to blow his head off at twenty paces, given half the chance. "Or there's always poison," she added. "Indeed," he said, moving into the room with that graceful indolence. "So I intend to keep you by my side until I figure out a way to render you harmless." "The answer is obvious," she said, watching him carefully. "You could kill me. Then I wouldn't trouble you again." He sat down on the foot of the bed, lifting his legs to stretch them out beside her. She didn't squirm away, much as she longed to, and she could feel the heat of his leg against her body. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?" he said lazily. "I don't believe they hang the upper classes, but in my case they'd probably be willing to make an exception." "You might get away with it." He looked at her, and while a smile hovered on his thin, sensual mouth, there was cold bleakness in his midnight-blue eyes. "And then I'd have your ghost to haunt me. No, thank you. I have enough ghosts, enough regrets in my life to last me several centuries. I prefer you alive and brimming with hatred. I prefer watching my back to peace of mind. Particularly since I wouldn't recognize peace of mind if I were ever so blessed as to receive it." He leaned forward across the bed, and his long fingers touched her tangled hair. "Besides, ma bell e, you don't really want to die, do you?" Ghislaine stared at him, feeling the warmth of his fingers so close to her face. It had been ten years since she stood alone on the small bridge in the heart of the city, ready to hurl herself into the icy, murky depths of the Seine. Ten years since she had turned her back on death, and chosen life instead. Chosen the pain of going on over the sweet oblivion that had beckoned. She glanced down at his hand. There would be a certain satisfaction in meeting death at those white, elegant hands. Hands that had been responsible-from a safe, clean distance-for the death of her family, the death of her innocence. It was only right that he learn to bear the final responsibility. His hand moved up to her exposed throat, and there was steely strength in his fingers. "I could, of course, change my mind," he murmured. "It wouldn't take much to snap your neck. Such a small, frail neck. One that managed to avoid the guil otine, unlike the rest of your family. Tell me, is that your problem? Do you hate me because you somehow managed to survive, and you feel guilty that you didn't perish with your family? You can't blame yourself, so you blame me." She didn't blink, didn't move as his finger tightened. "Do it," she said in a fierce voice, waiting for death. "I rather think I will," he said. And he put his mouth on hers, kissing her with a quick brutality that left her stunned and bruised.

And alone. Before she could gather her scattered wits he was strolling out of the room. Her lips stung, her throat felt raw and painful, and her soul felt lost, shaken. He closed the door behind him, and she sat without moving. As she realized the pain in her throat came from the tightness of unshed tears, not from the strength of his fingers. He rode outside the carriage that day, and the next. The bedroom he bespoke was for her alone-he didn't even share her meals. She should have been grateful for the reprieve. Instead, her anger grew. He was simply torturing her, putting off the inevitable reckoning. And since she wasn't sure what that reckoning would be, her nerves were stretched to the limit. By the third morning of the journey, she knew she could bear no more. She was tired of waiting for the axe to fall, tired of sitting alone in an ill-sprung carriage, in a shabby inn, staring into the fire, with no company but her memories. She was determined to have it out with him. She dressed quickly in the early morning light, in Ell en's oversized cambric chemise and drawers, in the least offensive of the day gowns Taverner had packed, tucking the loose waist inside itself to shorten it to a manageable length. And she went off in search of her jailer. The common room was deserted at that hour. No one was in sight, neither the landlord nor his portly wife, the boots nor the maid nor Black-thorne's miserable servant. She moved silently through the darkened room, into the kitchen, where at last she found signs of life. "Begging your pardon, miss." The young scul ery maid turned from the stove, her face red from exertion. "Would you be wanting something? I can make you breakfast if you'd like-we've a ham and a side of beef, fresh biscuits and porter and…" "I don't suppose you have any coffee?" she asked wistfully, putting her more desperate needs aside for the moment. English establishments were still wary of the continental taste for coffee, and she hadn't had a taste of it since Nicholas Blackthorne had hauled her away from Ainsley Hall. "No, miss. Nice hot tea, I could make you." Gilly shuddered. "Nothing for the moment. I'm looking for…" Her voice trailed off as she wondered what in the world she could call the man who'd absconded with her. She knew for a fact that he'd given a false name at the first inn they stopped at, though she couldn't imagine why. He couldn't be afraid someone would come in search of her. No one, apart from an essentially powerless Ell en, would care. "Your brother?" the girl filled in helpfully. "My brother," Gilly agreed, secretly aghast at the thought. Though she and Blackthorne were both dark, there all resemblance ended, either physical or spiritual. Nicholas Blackthorne was an amoral, murdering devil. She was an avenging angel. Well, perhaps angel was going a bit far, she thought with the first trace of humor she'd felt in days. She managed a wry smile. "Where is he?" The girl's face reddened further, and this time it was from embarrassment as well as from the heat of the fire. "I really can't say, miss. I can get him for you…" "I can find him myself," she said firmly. "If you'll tell me where he is." "I can't…" she said again. Ghislaine crossed the small kitchen. She was small, shorter than the buxom serving girl, dressed in ridiculously baggy clothes, but her will was ten times stronger. "Where is he?" she said again, and there was no denying her. "He's in the bedroom down the hall. Second door, miss. But he's not alone." "I didn't imagine he was," she said dryly, following the girl's directions. She didn't bother knocking on the door. She opened it, fully prepared to discomfit Blackthorne as he romped with one of the serving girls, fully prepared to launch into her well-rehearsed speech. Instead she stood there, shocked into silence, as a thousand unexpected emotions washed over her. He was asleep, the serving girl awake, staring at her with a mixture of wariness and defiance. Nicholas lay with his dark head cradled on the girl's full, milky breast, and the rose damask cover that must have been borrowed from one of the rooms upstairs barely covered him. She stood in silence, surveying the line of his back, the curve of his flat buttocks, the length of his legs wrapped around the girl's short, stocky ones.

His hands were entwined in the wench's hair, his long fingers threaded through the coarse dark stuff. The room smelled like a bordel o: it smelled like cheap perfume and sweat and sex. Ghislaine stood there for a moment longer, remembering those smells, and then she turned on her heel and left, closing the door silently behind her. She had no idea where the privy was. Instead she dashed outside, into the chilly morning air, ending on her knees in the kitchen garden, losing what little she had in her stomach. It was an eternity later when she finally sat back, still and shaken, both by her bout of nausea and by her shame. She hadn't expected to be vulnerable, ever again. But the smell of the room, the sight of Nicholas Blackthome's beautiful back, the pile of gold coins on the rough table beside the bed, had come together to undo her completely. It brought back a past she thought she'd managed to bury. Other rooms. A pile of coins. But it had never been Nicholas Blackthome's body beside hers, his long fingers entwined in her hair. So distraught was she that she didn't hear the noise in the inn yard. The sounds of voices, the stamp of horses, the jingle of the bridles and the calls to make haste. It wasn't until she stumbled back into the suddenly lively kitchen that she realized the inn was awake, awash with new customers. She moved through the kitchen, half-afraid Blackthorne would suddenly appear, but clearly he slept on, oblivious to his unhappy witness. The common room was filled with half a dozen weary travelers, doing their best to cram in a hearty breakfast before the public coach continued northward. Ghislaine paused in the door of the common room as the first tendrils of hope washed over her. At the blackest moment of her life, there was suddenly a chance of rescue. It was arranged in a matter of moments. There was room in the coach heading north to Newcastle-if miss were set to travel and if she came equipped with the ready. She knew real terror as she raced upstairs to her room, half-expecting to find Blackthorne waiting for her. There was no sign of him. No sign of any money either. She threw a few of the least offensive clothes in a valise, then headed back downstairs and out into the inn yard. She couldn't very well go back to the maid's room and rifle through Blackthorne's discarded breeches for the requisite shillings. Therefore, Taverner was her obvious answer. He was asleep in the carriage, an old blanket pulled up around his thick neck. For a moment she hoped he slept soundly, dulled by whiskey and porter, but when she opened the carriage door he was awake, staring at her in sleepy surprise. She took advantage of his momentary disorientation. "It's half past nine," she said sternly. "His lordship's ready to leave." Taverner stumbled forward, out of the carriage, before he had time to realize that it was much too dark for half-past nine, and that Ghislaine would hardly be passing messages. By the time he turned, realizing his mistake, she'd brought the empty wooden bucket down over his head, shattering it into pieces on the ground. Taverner lay in a heap, and she wondered briefly whether she'd managed to kill him. She hoped not. For all that he was her enemy, he was merely doing his master's bidding. Her hatred and murderous intent were still reserved for Blackthorne. Ten minutes later she was tucked into the middle seat on the overful coach. They started with a jerk, taking off into the early-morning light, and Gilly held her breath, listening for the cries of rage when someone discovered Taverner's body hidden behind a clump of bushes, or when Blackthorne roused himself from the woman's bed. But there was nothing but the sound of the carriage, the jingle of the reins, the pounding of the hooves, as she was carried away from her last hope of vengeance. And leaning back, she closed her eyes, wishing she had a god to pray to for her deliverance. But the god of her childhood had been long silent, outlawed by the revolutionary government of France. As always, she had only herself to rely on. Only herself to pray to. She could only hope it was enough.

Chapter 9

Nicholas Blackthorne had always prided himself on his truly ugly temper. He had no compunctions about inflicting it on anyone when the rages came upon him, and he gained a certain measure of satisfaction at seeing strong men flinch and move back a step or two. He didn't even mind frightening women, which just went to prove how far from being a gentleman he really was, he thought, lying in the servant's bed and watching the animal wariness in her somewhat vacant eyes. She was probably used to being struck, but the fact was, he had no intention of hitting her. He might be foultempered, but he was seldom a bully, at least not physically. He merely stared at the woman whose bed he'd been drunk enough and frustrated enough to share last night, and she slunk from the room, no longer even considering a renewal of their strenuous nighttime activities. The door closed behind her. He glanced over at her bedside table. She'd managed to palm the coins he'd dumped there, and he'd probably find his breeches considerably lighter as well. He sat up in bed, disdaining the rose coverlet, and tried to ignore the pounding in his head, a sure sign of overindulgence and guilt. Though why he should feel guilty was a complete mystery. Just as mysterious was his sudden hatred for the buxom serving girl who'd entertained him so enthusiastically the night before. Nicholas was a man who despised introspection, but he despised stupidity even more. And he knew perfectly well it wasn't the woman he hated, but himself. The washbasin and pitcher were of a higher quality than was usually found in a serving girl's bedroom, just as the damask coverlet was. Clearly she'd been expecting his company. At least he was able to wash the traces of last night from his body with the cool water and rose-scented soap. He wished he could cleanse his mind as easily. The kitchens were in an uproar when he strolled through, the servants cleaning up the remnants of a large breakfast, but the common room was blissfully deserted. He sank down in front of the fire, accepting the mug of porter from the landlord's hands and staring into the bright flames. "Er… chilly morning, yer lordship," the landlord announced uneasily. Nicholas ignored him. The man probably wanted something for the serving girl's favors, but Nicholas wasn't in the mood to pay for it twice. Particularly since he regretted indulging in the first place. "The mail coach just came through," the little man continued, undaunted, and Nicholas took a meditative sip of the warm brew, wishing it were coffee. He'd have to have the resourceful Taverner make him some if he had any hope of surviving the next few hours. "It weren't full this time of year," the landlord pushed doggedly onward, and finally Nicholas turned to stare at him out of hooded, unnerving eyes. Why did all landlords seem the same, no matter what the size of their inn, the class of their clientele, the area of the country? He'd met the same nervous, obsequious little man a dozen times over during the last few years. It made it damned hard to remember where he was. "How fascinating," Nicholas finally responded in withering tones. "Is there a reason behind this discourse?" If the man had been wearing a hat he would have snatched it off his head and crushed it beneath his small, nervous hands. As it was, he had to make do with simply wringing those none-too-clean appendages. "Yes, my lord." Nicholas waited. He was too tired, too angry, and still a bit cupshot to make the obvious mental leap. And then it was more than clear. "The mail coach," he said blankly. "Yes, my lord. It was full when it left here, about half an hour ago." He surged upward, knocking the half-finished mug of porter into the fireplace with a roar of fury. He took the steps three at a time, but there was no doubt that he'd find an empty room. He stood in the middle of the room, cursing viciously. He heard the unsteady footsteps mount the stairs, and a distant part of his mind decided that his current innkeeper must be a different breed of man, to have so little regard for his own safety. Nicholas Blackthorne was a very dangerous man at that moment. "She got away, did she?" Instead it was Tavvy's voice intruding on his bloody-minded rage. Nicholas turned to lash into him, and then stopped, as a reluctant trace ofamusement lightened his fury.

"I never thought I'd live to see the day that a woman got the better of you," he said, surveying his valet's bruised and bleeding head and disheveled appearance. "Me neither," Tavvy said grimly. "She's no ordinary woman. She bashed me on the head with something, then must have dragged me into the bushes. I don't know how long I lay there. She's strong for such a little bit of a thing." Nicholas remembered their full-blown battle in Ell en's salon, just after he'd begun to recover from the effects of the poison she'd administered to him. He still bore the bruises. "She is, indeed. She's got a half-hour head start on us, Tavvy. Have you put the horses to?" "They're ready and waiting," he said grimly. "Then pay off our incompetent innkeeper and gather up our luggage. I'll handle the ribbons. The day won't come when I can't catch up with a mail coach." He glanced once more at the deserted bedchamber. "Damn her eyes," he said. "And damn the rest of her, as well." "You aren't going to be sick, are you?" the large, red-faced woman smelling of goose-fat inquired in a distinctly unsympathetic tone of voice. Gilly considered informing the woman that if she had at least a passing acquaintance with soap and water, the air in the enclosed coach might be a deal more bearable, but she decided against it. The situation would also be improved if someone opened a window to let the fresh, cool air in, or if she could trade seats and not ride backward, something that had never agreed with her. But she simply said, "No," in a voice that encouraged no further questions. She knew what an odd sight she made. A small, dark woman in oversized, overbright clothes, traveling alone on a public coach, was remarkable enough. One with a discernible French accent was a dangerous anomaly. She'd done her best to strip her voice of any Gall ic tendencies, but a faint trace still remained. Particularly when she was nervous. And there was no denying that she was very nervous indeed. She didn't know how much of a head start she had on Blackthorne. She had no doubt he'd come after her. He wasn't a man who liked to be bested, and even if he'd tired of his game of cat and mouse with her, he wouldn't be likely to allow her to escape. A reasonable man would see it as the best possible outcome of an impossible situation. But Nicholas wasn't a reasonable man. The next stop was Newcastle. She'd never been there, but surely it was a large enough city that she could disappear into it. She was more than adept at fading into the filth and turmoil of a crowded population, and Newcastle had the added advantage of being a port city. She could always find passage off this island, well out of reach of Nicholas Blackthorne's revenge. England was no longer home to her, a fact she accepted with bittersweet regret. Her short-lived haven had vanished. Nicholas would be quite out of her reach, also. It was just as well. The longer she was with him, the less certain she was of her ability to extract that revenge she'd dreamed of for so long. It wasn't any weakness of feeling for the man. He was a conscienceless bastard, a smiling, damnable vill ain, and her feelings toward him hadn't softened in the slightest. They were still a solid mass of hatred. But in other ways she'd weakened. She'd slept too many nights in warm, clean beds, with abundant food and warmth, even a friend to talk with. Those things brought back civilization to her battered soul. A civilization that might very well keep her from cold-blooded murder, no matter how much she longed to administer the justice he deserved. She was better off admitting defeat. Her own defeat, at her own hands, not his. Only a few more hours until they reached their next stop, and she'd be out of his reach forever. She closed her eyes, longing for the merciful oblivion of sleep. Her stomach was roiling, with her tension and the upsets of the transportation. If she could only pass the next few hours in sleep… "What are we speeding up for?" a disgruntled fell ow traveler demanded. "The coach is traveling too quickly as it is. Here you…" He opened the window, letting in a blessed blast of fresh air, and shouted at the driver. "Slow down, fell ow!" "Some flash cove is trying to overtake us," the goose-fat lady announced, opening her own window to peer behind them. "He's driving fit to beat the devil. He'll run us off the road at this rate, that he will, and we'll all be killed!"

Panic erupted in the carriage, all the passengers shrieking and talking at once, but it was nothing compared to the silent panic in Ghislaine's heart. She knew who was coming up fast on the mail coach, driving like a madman. And for one brief second she had her own moment of madness, wondering, if she flung herself from the carriage while it was moving at such a rapid pace, whether she might cheat Nicholas of his triumph after all. But she was crammed in the middle of four burly passengers, far from the door. And if she hadn't ended her life ten years ago, she wouldn't let Nicholas Blackthorne drive her to it now. She clenched her fists in her lap, the swaying of the coach knocking her back and forth between the other passengers. Their driver seemed to show no inclination to be overtaken, and there was always the outside chance that he might outrun Nicholas. That Blackthorne might overturn his own carriage in his haste to catch up with them. Miracles could happen. They just didn't happen to her. "He's gaining on us," the goose-fat lady announced, turning to cast an accusing gaze at Ghislaine. "And we can all guess who he's after. You'll bring us all to our death, that you will, young lady, with your hoity-toity airs." "I don't know what you're talking about," she protested faintly, trying to keep her voice flat. To no avail. "She's a Frenchy!" Goose-fat screeched. "Probably a spy! Stop the carriage, before we're all killed!" In the end it was a moot point. Blackthorne's shabby traveling coach was built for speed, despite its decrepit appearance, and it pulled even with the more cumbersome mail coach just as they were nearing a bend in the road. The driver miscalculated, shouting a curse at Blackthorne, and then the coach jerked, veering off the road and overturning. Ghislaine caught sight of him a moment before the coach left the road, and it was a fitting vision to take to her death. He looked like the devil incarnate, his black hair streaming behind him, his handsome face dark with rage and daring as he pushed his horses beyond endurance. And then he was lost from sight as the coach crashed with a horrendous shuddering noise, passengers flying through the air, and Ghislaine had a moment to consider that perhaps the choice was being taken from her, after all, and there might indeed be a merciful god. It didn't take her long to revise that notion. The world was dark, heavy, and odorous, filled with noisy groans and angry weeping. Ghislaine struggled for breath, unable to move, and she knew with bitter despair that the goose-fat lady had landed directly on top of her. And then she was blinded, assaulted, by light and air, as the weight was lifted from her, accompanied by an outraged shriek. Blackthorne paid no attention to the cries of her fell ow passengers. He paid no attention to her uncontrollable shrinking away from him, as he simply hauled her out of the upturned carriage, his hands rough, his face cold and bitter. He shoved her into his carriage, climbing in after her and slamming the door behind him. Taverner started the coach immediately, and moments later they were traveling once more, the only slightly more sedate pace the result of the valet at the reins. She'd had time to notice the white bandage on his weaselly face, and told herself she wished she'd hit him harder. Then she might have had time to reach Newcastle. The overturned coach was rapidly disappearing from sight, the bedraggled passengers shaking angry fists after them. "Aren't you going to do anything to assist them?" she asked faintly. "Someone might be hurt…" 'They're lucky they're not all dead," he snarled, his voice vibrating with rage. He stared at her, his eyes like chips of ice. "You're lucky you're not dead." She met his gaze levelly. Her entire body ached, she could still smell the goose fat, and her one chance of escape had been shattered. He wouldn't give her a second chance. "Perhaps I'm lucky," she said. "Perhaps not." "Apparently I've been too lenient with you," he said. "Don't think I'll make that mistake again. I don't like being made a fool of. And I'm rather fond of Taverner-his head is sorely bruised. I'm 138 Anne Stuart only surprised you didn't go in search of me to exact your vengeance." "I did," she said, before she could judge the wisdom of that particular confession.

For a moment the dark rage lifted, and he simply stared at her. "I must have been sleeping quite soundly. Either that, or I was… distracted." She could feel her face redden, a fact which amazed her. How could she be missish, after all she had been through? "You were asleep," she said flatly. "If you were feeling left out," he mused, "you could always have joined us." It was a small enough thing, to be the final straw, but something inside Ghislaine snapped. She launched herself across the swaying carriage, all conscious thought vanishing in her need to hurt him. A moment later she was flat on her back on the opposite seat, his body pressing down on top of hers, his hands a manacle around her wrists, his long legs subduing her flailing ones. She was breathless, panting. He only looked amused, the madness fading from his midnight-blue eyes. And for one crazy moment she accepted the fact that his weight was far sweeter than that of the goosefat lady. "You've recovered your strength," she observed in a low, bitter voice. "Were you really fool enough to think you could overpower me?" he said. "The last time you went for me I'd spent the previous two days spewing my guts out. That tends to weaken a man, at least temporarily." "I wish I'd killed you." "Don't be tiresome. Of course you wish you'd killed me-we both know that. The fact remains that you didn't. The fact also remains that I'm the one in command now. You can't escape me, no matter how hard you try." "Get off me," she said, her voice a tight, furious knot. He was very still, considering it. And then he shifted, pressing his hips more tightly against her, pressing his groin against hers, and she realized with shock that he was aroused. Definitely, massively aroused. Panic swept over her, and for a moment she struggled. It was useless, of course-he was very strong. She forced herself to be still, knowing it was fruitless. "Haven't you had enough today?" she asked instead. "You certainly appeared sated as you lolled in that girl's bed." He rocked against her, just slightly, and a shiver of reaction swept over her. A reaction she couldn't, wouldn't put a name to. "You'd be surprised at how insatiable I can be," he said in a ruthless voice. And he put his mouth against hers. She'd been kissed like that before. Not often. His mouth ground against hers, painfully, until her lips parted beneath his assault. He thrust his tongue inside, a rough intruder, and she lay as still as she could, passive, searching for that dark, inner place that nestled between her breasts, the black, angry heart of her, where she could hide from him until he finished with her. It was a place she knew well, a place of velvet comfort, of total blackness, of lively despair. It was her haven, her only protection. She couldn't reach it. He'd caught her face in his hands, and the lace cuffs spilled over her cheeks, as his mouth moved against hers, hard with anger, burning with a desire that lit an answering spark within her, so that for a brief, wild moment she closed her eyes and surrendered to the unleashed power of his angry passion. Her breasts felt hot, tender, pressed against the fine cambric shirt; her hands, trapped beneath his body, wanted to reach out and touch him, to stroke him, to hold him as she hadn't held anyone in such an impossibly long time. And then awareness of her own madness washed over her, and she began to struggle anew, kicking at him, squirming underneath his pinioning weight, her rage all the more intense since so much of it was directed at herself. He lifted his head, staring down at her, his eyes glittering in the shadowy carriage, his breath coming in rapid gusts. "I thought you were beginning to like it," he said. "Don't flatter yourself," she replied. Her mouth was wet from his kiss and she wanted to wipe the dampness, the feel of his mouth, away from hers, but her hands were still trapped between them. "You disgust me." She struggled again, squirming beneath him. "If you don't stop moving like that," he said mildly, "I'm likely to increase your disgust."

She immediately stilled. She wanted to scream at him, but her screams had done little good. She wanted to fight him, but he'd already proven she was no match for him in a physical battle. She wanted to kill him, and she would, the next possible chance she had, she swore it to herself. She wanted to cry. It had been so very long since she'd actually shed tears, she had thought she would never be able to again. It wasn't as if she didn't long to. For the first few years she was glad that particular feminine weakness had left her. There was no room in her life for regrets, for tears, for bemoaning her fate. But later, when things got better, she'd sometimes longed for the release tears could have brought her. But nothing summoned them forth. Not reliving the horror of seeing her parents on the block. Not the memory of Charles-Louis when she'd last seen him, his face gaunt with hunger, his eyes dark and haunted, his body no more than skin and bones. Not the nights she'd sold herself to feed her brother. Not the first and only man she'd killed, Malviver, the scum of the earth, but a human being nonetheless. But lying here, trapped beneath a man who could have had her soul if he'd wished it, she suddenly wanted to cry the tears of a shattered fifteen-year-old virgin. Wanted to so much that she could almost feel the stinging heat in the back of her eyes. Suddenly he rolled away, sitting up and crossing to the other side of the carriage. He made a great business of straightening his coat, rearranging his disarranged neckcloth with casual expertise as if there were nothing more pressing to do. As indeed, there might not be. Ghislaine scrambled into the corner, as far away from him as she could manage. She felt like a cornered animal, and yet he seemed to have lost all interest in her. And then he glanced up, his eyes staring into hers, and she realized he hadn't dismissed her at all. "I missed my breakfast," he said. "Not to mention my morning shave. And there is always the distinct possibility that I would have enjoyed an additional hour spent in the pursuit of my other bodily pleasures as well, if you hadn't taken off. You've deprived me of my creature comforts, Ghislaine. You're going to have to supply them yourself." "I'd be more than happy to shave you," she said in a deceptively sweet tone of voice. He smiled wryly. "I'm certain you would be. I think it might be wiser to reserve that task for Tavvy. I'd prefer to emerge with my throat intact." He leaned back, stretching his long legs out in front of him, and she couldn't help her instinctive recoil, pulling her own feet up underneath the voluminous skirt. He didn't miss her move, of course, and his thin smile widened. "And while sharing my bed might prove a novel experience for us both, that‟s not where your talents lie, is it?" She controlled her initial start of revulsion. "What do you want of me?" '‟To cook me breakfast. We'll stop at the next posting house, and you can provide me with something to put me in a better frame of mind. An omelet, perhaps, with fresh ham and mushrooms. Without the rat poison." "But as a flavoring it's essential," she replied, unwilling to be cowed. "You'll be my official taster. And trust me, even your hatred of me wouldn't be worth going through the unpleasantness of poisoning. I know from recent experience." He stroked his rough, stubbled cheek with his long fingers, surveying her thoughtfully. He leaned across the carriage, and despite her efforts to flinch away he touched her face. "I've marked you," he said, his voice dreamy. "I promise to shave before I kiss you again." She jerked her head away from him. "Promise not to kiss me again," she said, "and I might forgo the rat poison." "Certainly," he said easily, leaning back, and she released her pent-up breath. She couldn't quite believe her good luck. "You promise?" she asked, astonished. "Of course." His smile held a rueful sweetness. "The problem is, I always break my promises." It shocked her. "Have you no honor?" "Not a trace." He sounded astonishingly matter-of-fact about it. "I would have thought you knew that by now. An honorable man wouldn't have left a fifteen-year-old girl behind in a dangerous country, particularly when that girl was most charmingly in love with him. An honorable man wouldn't cuckold a man and then half-kill him in a duel. And an honorable man wouldn't have absconded with his half-

cousin's female chef simply because she had the bad manners to try to kill him." He shrugged. "It‟s easier without honor, ma petite. You should try it." "You disgust me." "Don't be tiresome, ma bell e. I know you detest me, you don't need to inform me of it constantly. As long as you make me a decent omelet and brew me some coffee, you can hate me all you want." "Coffee?" She couldn't keep the faint trace of hope out of her voice. Nicholas was too discerning a man to miss even that tiny glimmering. "I always have Taverner carry my favorite beans. The inns I can afford to frequent are unreliable, and a day without coffee isn't worth living." He gave her an amiable smile. "If you're very nice to me, I might even let you have a cup." "My price is a great deal higher than a cup of coffee," she said sharply. "Oh, I don't know. I think I might have just found your breaking point. Coffee, Ghislaine, and your promise not to run away again." She would have traded her body for a cup of coffee. But not what remained of her soul. "No," she said, her voice flat with fresh despair. "Put out your hands then." He sounded bored. "What?" "I said put out your hands. Unless you want me to come over there and…" She put out her hands. The neckcloth was soft, silken, and very strong. He bound her wrists tightly, his fingers deft and cool, then dropped them back in her lap. '‟I‟ll leave your ankles free," he said, leaning back again. "At this point Tavvy would probably shoot you in the back if you decided to run. He's not in charity with you this morning." She said nothing, fuming. She wouldn't use her unbound feet to run. She'd use them to kick him. "And if you smile at me," he continued in a lazy voice, "I might still let you have some of my coffee." Ghislaine growled, low in her throat. "Close enough, ma bell e," Nicholas murmured. And crossing his arms across his chest, he gave her a mocking smile as the carriage lumbered northward.

Chapter 10
She was a most surprising female, Nicholas thought, a day and a night later, as his decrepit carriage continued its journey. No matter what he did to her, no matter what hardships she had to endure, she neither complained nor begged, bargained nor pleaded. They'd been traveling since the previous morning, when he'd plucked her from that damned tangle of passengers in the overturned mail coach. When he'd seen the mountainous creature who'd landed on top of her, he'd had very real doubts about her chances of survival. But she'd emerged, furious, unscathed, not even her formidable temper and determination squashed. They'd stopped a number of times, to change horses, to eat, to relieve their bodies, and each time he'd kept her hands tied, allowing her only the briefest illusion of privacy. She'd sat huddled in the corner, knocked around by the ramshackle carriage, and she'd never said a word of complaint. He knew for a fact how uncomfortable she must be-every bone in his own body ached, and his muscles felt as if they'd been pulled in every direction. She had to be feeling worse, without even the dubious cushion of her hands to brace herself every time they hit a particularly onerous pothole. But she'd said nothing, except to cast an occasional glare in his direction. She'd slept fitfully through the long night, the jostling of the carriage knocking her into wakefulness, and when he'd helped her down the next morning she'd almost collapsed in his arms. But she'd managed to right herself almost immediately, swaying slightly in her determination, and he had to admire her. Not enough to unfasten one of his best neckcloths from around those dangerous wrists of hers, but enough to charge Tavvy to make more stops than he would have considered strictly necessary.

It was dark once more, and from the tension around her mouth, the paleness of her skin, he thought she'd probably inured herself to the notion of spending another night on the road. She wouldn't know that they'd crossed the border into Scotland hours ago, and that they weren't far from his hunting lodge. Not far from a fire, and a bed, and an end to this incessantly rocking carriage. He had no intention of telling her either. To tell her would be to give her hope, give her more reason to keep fighting, and she already had too much fight in her. He'd done what he could to demoralize her, but she'd refused to be cowed. Once they reached the hunting lodge he'd finish the job, thoroughly, efficiently, but part of him was loath to do so. He didn't really want to see her shattered, abased. He wasn't sure why not. It couldn't be any tender emotion such as pity or mercy. He didn't possess either. Actually, he couldn't even imagine her humbled. But he knew that was nonsense on his part. There wasn't a man alive he couldn't break, if he put his mind to it, and a woman, even one as fierce and determined as Ghislaine de Lorgny, would be child's play. As soon as he rid himself of any lingering, foolish scruples. He'd take her to bed, of course. She'd probably fight like a wildcat-she did every time he touched her. But she also purred. He'd seen that look in the back of her magnificent dark brown eyes, halfaroused, half-startled, and he knew he could take her. And knew in the end that the fight would leave her, panting and breathless in his arms. He liked the idea, liked it very much. He hadn't been so interested in a woman, so interested in anything, even the fall of the cards, in longer than he cared to remember. His murderous little Ghislaine was arousing his temper, his interest, his body, in a truly memorable fashion. He almost regretted that he was going to turn her into one more forgettable female. Almost was the operative word. For thirteen years she'd haunted him; her fate, his guilt. With one illadvised act of revenge she'd manage to wipe out his guilt. Once he finished with her, she'd be gone from his consciousness, for the first time in those long years. He wondered if he'd miss her. It was about twenty-five years since he'd ventured to Scotland-not since he was a young boy, still possessed of dreams for the future. He'd kept away since then-there was no room in his life for country sojourns or fishing trips. But during the endless, uncomfortable trip north he found he was looking forward to being in Scotland again, even in such an unpredictable season as spring. Rustication was good for anyone-his Uncle Teasdale used to swear by it at regular intervals. Maybe he'd settle in, take his time with the rebel ious Ghislaine, not return to the city until autumn. He used to like the country around his father's seat in the Lake District. The glory of the apple blossoms, the taste of fresh cream and honey, the green of the hills, and the clear blue of the lakes. He'd fish this time-didn't people come to Scotland to fish? He hadn't indulged in the sport since his last trip there, but he could still remember the thril of catching a five-pound salmon. And how good that salmon had tasted, cooked over an open fire, just him and old Ben, the hostler who'd been his bodyguard, his keeper, his boon companion until a fever had carried him off. "How are you at cooking salmon? Have you ever cooked it before?" he asked abruptly. She lifted her head, surprise lighting the darkness in her eyes. "Of course. I can cook anything." It wasn't a boast-she was too weary and miserable to boast. It was a simple statement of fact. "I'll catch a salmon for us in the morning," he said. "If you promise not to poison it. It would be too great a crime, to poison a Scots salmon." "The morning?" she echoed wearily. The carriage was slowing in the twilight, and Nicholas glanced out the window at the familiar countryside. He could see the hunting lodge up ahead, and even in the shadows he could see that it hadn't fared well in the intervening years. Part of the roof had caved in, and he had little doubt that various forms of wildlife had taken up residence in the derelict old building. He only hoped that they were edible forms. Tavvy was an excellent trapper, and he was famished. "In case you hadn't noticed, ma bell e," he murmured, "we're here. The journey is over." He expected some sign of enthusiasm. He got none, only increased wariness. Probably with some justification, he admitted to himself. She had to know that his plans for her were not of the noble sort.

"What next?" she asked, her voice flat and emotionless, and he wondered what had happened to her during those lost years, when she said she'd been in a convent. What had taught her to bury her feelings, her reactions, to face the world with blind, accepting eyes. "Next?" he echoed. "Next, ma mie, you cook dinner for me. Something sumptuous-I'm absolutely starving." "What about your cook?" "Peer out the window at our destination, Ghislaine. You will find that my hunting lodge doesn't come equipped with an intact roof, much less a retinue of servants. If we're to eat tonight, you're going to have to concoct something. I think I'd probably even prefer poison to Tavvy's culinary attempts. At least your food doesn't taste as if it would kill you, even if it's more immediately effective." She did look out the window at the derelict building as Taverner pulled the hired horses to a weary halt, but if she felt dismay she managed to hide it. As she managed to hide most things. "And how am I supposed to come up with dinner?" she asked sharply, and he knew with sudden relief that she'd actually do it. "We have a few basics with us. Sugar, flour, coffee, and brandy. Tavvy can probably forage something fresh. I'm counting on you to do the rest-you French are endlessly resourceful." "Aren't we, though?" she replied, eyeing his throat with a fondness that he knew signified dangerous intentions. He didn't wait for Tavvy, leaping down from the carriage with an exhausted sigh. The air was damp and cold-he could see the icy vapor of his breath in front of him, and he realized absently that he'd been chilled for the last few hours. He hadn't even noticed. He turned to Ghislaine. She stood in the doorway of the carriage, her hands still bound in front of her, and she looked past him at the tumbled-down building. "Just what I would have expected you to live in," she said sharply. He'd hoped she'd stumble when she climbed down, but she didn't. He knew he could put his hands on her anyway-there was no one to stop him except himself. But he wanted to wait. To savor the anticipation. The lodge had belonged to his father, the last remnant of a squandered inheritance. None of the Blackthornes had been particularly fond of Scotland, with Nicholas being the sole exception, and for a moment he felt real grief at the state of the beloved old building. And then he banished it. Tavvy could make it habitable-Tavvy could make any squalid hole habitable. The inside of the lodge was even worse than the exterior had led him to expect. The main hall was roofless-filled with debris from the forest surrounding them, and he could see that a fire had been partially responsible for its swift decay. The back of the building was in better shape, with two rooms untouched by the fire, though there was no guarantee what condition the huge fireplace would be in. One room had been used for storage, the other was a bedroom. Tavvy and Ghislaine stood on either side of him, surveying the disarray. "Looks like we've got our work cut out for us," Nicholas announced briskly. "First things first. Tavvy, you find us something to eat. Rabbit, quail, anything that'll fill our empty bell ies. There's a farm just over the next rise-you might be able to find some eggs, milk, even butter. There's no telling what Ghislaine could do with such wonders." "I'm gone," Tavvy said with a nod. "Once I unload the coach. You'll be wanting your things in this room?" "It looks the most promising," Nicholas said, glancing around him at the sagging bed frame, the littered fireplace. "And Mamzel e's?" Nicholas gave him a bland smile. "In here as well." If his reply disturbed Ghislaine she refused to show it. "If you'd untie my hands," she said evenly, "I'll see what I can find of the kitchens." "The kitchens were on the west side of the house, and they've caved in completely. You'll have to make do with this fireplace. Assuming it's not stuffed with birds' nests or the like." "Very well," she said, holding out her wrists with utmost patience.

Tavvy had already quit the room, leaving the two of them there in the murky light. "Now why do I think untying you might be a very dangerous thing to do?" he mused, making no move to release her. "I can't be your servant with my hands bound," she said, tension creeping into her voice. "But you can't stab me in the back either," he pointed out. She growled, low in her throat. "Very well," she said, dropping her arms against her long skirts. He caught them, glad of the excuse to touch her, glad of the excuse to feel her jerk nervously at the feel of his hands on her, knowing it wasn't as simple as fear or hatred. "I suppose it would be a waste of time to ask you for your word of honor." "It depends on what you ask." "That you not try to murder me tonight? A small request, surely. Even a bloodthirsty creature like yourself must long for dinner and a decent night's sleep." "Am I going to be allowed a decent night's sleep?" she asked, glancing pointedly at the single bed. "Of course," he said, not hesitating. She would sleep, all right. He would tire her out so much she would sleep for days. She didn't believe him, of course, but she nodded. "Very well, then. I give you my word." He was still holding her bound wrists. Her hands were like ice against his, but they remained motionless in his grip. "Why should I believe you?" he said, not wanting to release her. "Because, unlike you, I have a sense of honor. If I give my word, I do not break it." He believed her. Most women of his acquaintance had scant appreciation for honor or truthfulness, but he already knew that Ghislaine had little in common with the dashing widows and muslim company he spent his time with. Even at fifteen, she'd been something quite out of the ordinary. He should have guessed she'd turn out to be astonishing. He unfastened the rumpled neckcloth, tucking it in his pocket for further use. "See what you can find for us to eat," he said, "and I'll start a fire." Her expression was frankly disbelieving. She turned from him, and he had to admire her unconscious grace, hampered as she was by his cousin Ell en's oversized clothes. She would probably be a great deal more graceful without them, he thought for a brief, dreamy moment. He had every intention of finding out. He'd put off that particular pleasure for too long as it was, and the wench at the last inn hadn't sated his appetite, merely increased it. In the meantime, he needed to concentrate on getting some warmth in the room. If he was going to divest Ghislaine de Lorgny of her clothes, and he planned to do just that, he wanted it to be warm enough for her to enjoy it. And for him to enjoy her. The heat of the fire managed to penetrate to the center of the large room, but not much beyond that. It had astonished Ghislaine that a dissolute wastrel like Nicholas Blackthorne could accomplish something as profoundly practical as starting a fire, but accomplish it he had, including removing the old bird's nest that had clogged the chimney and sent Bill ows of smoke out into the room. He'd also dragged the bed closer to the center of the room, disturbing a nest of field mice from the aging mattress. There were no linens, but he'd brought in the lap robes from the carriage and spread them across the ticking. He'd used all the lap robes, she noticed, leaving only one bed equipped. And she wondered again who was going to sleep where. Surely he didn't intend the three of them to bundle together on that sagging mattress. Though it might be the warmest, safest alternative. Or perhaps not, she thought belatedly, remembering things she'd been told by the more experienced women she'd met in Paris. It had taken all her considerable self-control not to bolt when he'd left her alone in the room, surrounded by the most depressing assortment of foodstuffs. But she'd given her word, and even if he didn't expect honor from her, she expected it from herself. Even more so now that she knew how devoid he was of that particular trait. Blackthorne had even managed to unearth a broom from some part of the ruined house, but when he took to stirring the dust up into swirling

clouds that settled in the food she was trying to assemble, she took it from him with wifely hands and banished him to sit by the fire. The act gave her a belated feeling of despair. How easy it was to give in, to fall into pleasant ways, forgetting her determination, forgetting his vill ainy. Taverner was better than she would have thought, returning with butter, eggs, thick cream, and a slab of sharp aged cheese. While the two men busied themselves in the other room she managed wonders-a sweet custard spiced with a few withered apples from last fall 's harvest, a hearty peasant omelet with potatoes and the last of an aging slab of bacon, and coffee, wonderful coffee. If it were up to her she would have coffee with every meal. It had become the one pure pleasures left to her, and she savored the scent and flavor of it as it brewed over her makeshift cooking fire. The table had only three working legs-she'd had to prop it against a wall. She filled the plates evenly, filled the mugs with coffee, and sat down, waiting. She didn't expect praise, and she didn't receive it. Nicholas threw himself down in a chair that was far too decrepit to make such behavior wise, reached over, and took her plate, exchanging it with his. "You have no objections, I assume?" he asked with false politeness. "None at all," she murmured. Taverner watched this byplay from his shifty eyes. "Maybe you'd better take mine," he said, reaching across the table and exchanging plates with his master. "She's a downy one, the Mamzel e is." "If you like, I'll eat everyone's dinner," Ghislaine offered with false sweetness. "I'm famished,and the food is getting cold while you two argue. Choose your plate and let me eat in peace." Nicholas leaned back in the chair. "Now there's a challenge if ever I've heard one. Can't let the girl think we're cowards, Tavvy. We've at least a one in three chance of surviving. Unless she's decided to put a period to all three of us at once, like some damned Shakespeare tragedy." "Trust me," she said, "I'm no longer willing to die in order for you to meet your just reward." He and Tavvy had been depleting the bottle of brandy in the back room, and now he took it and tipped a generous amount into Ghislaine's mug of coffee. "No martyr, is that it? Just as well. Martyrdom is unbelievably tiresome." "I gather you speak from experience," she said. "Only from having to suffer from exposure to them. Saints are very tedious, my pet. I much prefer sinners." "I imagine you do." The omelet was delicious, even though she mourned the absence of any herbs. It was just as well, though. Blackthorne would have probably decided thyme was an arcane form of arsenic, and consigned her lovely omelet to the fire. Once he decided to risk it he ate well, more than she'd seen him eat in their days together. There was an odd light to his eyes, one that made her uneasy. As if he'd been biding his time since he'd taken her away from Ainsley Hall, but now that time of waiting was over. She didn't now whether she was frightened or relieved. His next words proved her right. "I'll want you to go into town, Tavvy," he said casually, leaning back with his own mug of brandy. He'd finished the coffee, following it with straight liquor, and he looked calm, relaxed, and very dangerous. "There was an inn we passed not more than five miles away where you can bespeak a room. See if they've any word from London. I imagine Jason Hargrove is well on his way to good health, otherwise we would have heard. See if you can find some laborers to do something about the roof. Perhaps you might see if there are any young ladies closer in size to Mamzel e. She must be tired of dressing in a giant‟s clothes." "Ell en's not a giant," she said indignantly, attack in this unexpected quarter slicing through her defenses. "So there is someone or something you care about," Nicholas said. "I thought your emotions had vanished. Don't think there's anything Ell en can do to save you. She might be equally fond of you, but she can hardly come haring after us all over the country. You've seen the last of her, my pet. Accept it." "I accepted it three days ago, when you dragged me away from Ainsley Hall." "It was four days ago, ma mie. I'm glad to know the time has flown for you. I know I've been unspeakably cruel, when all you wanted to do was murder me. I do tend to lose my temper in the

face of such minor inconveniences-it's one of my besetting sins." He took another sip. Tavvy had risen, moving toward the door. "When do you want me back?" he asked, and for the first time Ghislaine noticed that Tavvy seldom referred to his employer by a title or a name. Nicholas didn't bother to glance at him-his dreamy, contemplative smile was all for Ghis-laine's wary figure. "Late tomorrow," he said. "Take your time." That solved the question of sleeping arrangements, she thought, not moving, not letting her face betray her. She rose slowly, clearing the table, as she let her mind run riot. There was no need for panic, she reminded herself. She had survived far worse than the man lounging negligently at the table, watching her. She had survived, stronger and more determined than ever. She would survive Nicholas Blackthorne. The weeks after she and Charles-Louis had arrived in Paris had been a horrific blur. The days they spent hiding-because even rough clothes and dirt couldn't disguise their patrician origins from a bloodthirsty mob. The nights they spent foraging for food and fighting off the creatures that ruled the night. Creatures that at times had more interest in her beautiful, innocent young brother than in her. She knew the day it had happened, far too well. Twenty-three thermidor on the new French calendar. They'd been two days without eating, and Charles-Louis had been crying incessantly, the rivulets of tears washing the filth from his face. She'd left him in the all eyway behind the wine shop, a safe enough place, while she'd gone to find a scrap of food. She'd found far more than she'd bargained for. Jean-Luc Malviver. She could still see him, his ferretlike face with its long, ugly blade of a nose, his thin lips and dark, stained teeth. He'd been young that night, she realized, though to her seventeen years he'd seemed very grown-up. He probably wasn't much more than thirty, but his face was ageless. Evil, though she hadn't known it then. He'd found her on her knees next to a man who'd just left the wine shop. The man had been too drunk to stagger more than a few paces before he'd collapsed on the pavement, passed out. She'd been watching him from her corner of the shadows, and she'd moved quickly, kneeling to relieve the corpulent bourgeoisie of his purse, when a cruel hand had clamped down on her shoulder and hauled her upright. He swore when the light caught her face. "There are better ways to make a living, my beauty," he said, pushing her hair from her face with a filthy hand. She was equally filthy from her weeks of living on the street, but she recoiled anyway. "What's your name, hein?" he demanded. "You mustn't have been in town long, to still be making ends meet. I can take you someplace where you'll have pretty clothes, a bath if you so desire, and good food. Lots and lots of food." She stared at him, mute, defiant. She was still innocent enough, despite their weeks in Paris, not to understand what he was talking about, but she knew if she spoke he'd recognize the difference in their voices, in their accents. And she'd been an unwilling witness to too much violence against anyone with pretensions to gentility. She tried to pull away from him, but it was useless. She considered calling out for help, but she knew with crushing certainty that she would be trading one devil for the next. She had no choice but to stumble after him as he dragged her along the streets, her puny struggles making no inroad on his determination. "You'll like Madame Claude's," Malviver had said. "All you have to do is be agreeable, and you'll have a better life than most of your sort. Be glad you were lucky enough to be born with a pretty face. It's better than the streets, my girl." The house had been too warm, filled with girls with young faces and old eyes, clean hands and soiled bodies. When she'd fought they'd hurt her; when she'd refused to cooperate they'd forced her. Madame Claude had surveyed her, satisfaction on her grim face as she offered Malviver a handful of coins. Her satisfaction had increased when the rough brute of a woman who'd bathed Ghislaine and clothed her and poked her unmercifully announced that she was the last living virgin in the decadent city of Paris.

"She'll be worth a fortune," Madame Claude had chortled gleefully. "I might find it in my heart to give Malviver an extra sou for the treasure he brought me." That was the first time she'd heard his name, the man who'd sold her into whoredom for a handful of coins. It had taken time, endless time, but she'd killed him for what he'd done to her. Just as she would kill Nicholas Blackthorne. Tavvy had brought her water before he took himself off. While she had no desire to act as Blackthorne's scul ery maid, washing the dishes at least delayed the reckoning she knew was coming. And with his dark, fathomless eyes watching her from beyond the fire, Ghislaine suddenly experienced the first strains of cowardice she'd felt in many, many years. She scrubbed. As a Frenchwoman, she knew how to scrub, and the three-legged table was spotless. Nicholas simply sat there, his legs stretched out in front of him, his neckcloth long since discarded, and watched her as she bustled around the room. "Are you ready to alight, ma mie?" he inquired lazily, when she was trying to decide whether she could get away with washing the floor. "Or are you still planning to put off the inevitable?" She stood very still, watching him. She wasn't going to fight him-he'd already proven it would do no good. There was no knife within reach- Taverner had seen to that-and there was nothing else she could do, nothing short of trying to shove him into the fire. It was inevitable. "I am hardly going to assist at my own rape," she said flatly. "If you want me, you'll have to make me." He smiled then, and his decadent beauty was remarkable in the flickering firelight. She wondered stonily how she could resist him. And realized with sudden dawning horror that she was not sure if she could. "I'm very good at making people do what I want," he said softly, rising from his seat. The fitful light cast a large shadow behind him, so that he looked even taller than his formidable height, and quite dangerous. It wasn't an illusion, Ghislaine told herself. He was the greatest danger she had ever known. And for reasons she didn't want to contemplate. He moved slowly across the room, graceful, lethal. She remained still, awaiting him, telling herself to hold still when he touched her, telling herself to close her eyes and retreat inside herself and it would soon be over. Telling herself that fighting him would only make it worse. But when he reached out and touched her shoulder, something inside her snapped, and she slapped him across his elegant, beautiful face, as hard as she could.

Chapter 11
Nicholas's head whipped back from the force of her blow, but his fingers neither tightened nor released her shoulder. "That was unwise of you, Ghislaine," he murmured, but there was no disguising the tight thread of anger beneath his indolent tone. "Don't you know what they say about me?" "Get your hands off me." She tried to squirm away, and this time his hands did tighten, painfully. "They say I'm half-mad. A bad 'un, through and through, with no sense of decency or honor. They say to cross me is to put one's life at risk. Most people steer clear of me and my hot temper." His voice was as thin and mocking as his smile. "Are you?" "Am I what?" "Half-mad." He stared at her for a long, meditative moment, and there was no discerning the expression behind his dark, fathomless eyes. "Surely I must be," he said. "To still want you." And he pulled her up against him, his mouth coming down on hers, hard. She struggled, but it was useless. He was far too big, too strong, his arms holding her tight against his aroused body as his mouth plundered hers. She tried to push, but her hands were trapped between their bodies. She tried to jerk her mouth away, but while one of his strong arms held her immobile, his other hand was free to hold her chin still for his marauding mouth. He tasted of the

brandy he'd drunk with abandon; he tasted of the coffee she'd made him. He tasted of anger and determination and sex. She only wished he tasted of poison. She stopped her struggles, for a brief, deceptive moment. And brought her knee up, hard, between his legs. He was too fast for her. He moved, just in time, spinning her around and falling onto the bed with her beneath him, his mouth never leaving hers, and she wanted to scream. It would do no good. There would be no one to hear her. She'd survived rape before; she could do so again. She closed her eyes, closed away the sight of him, and withdrew, curling up in that small, dark place inside, away from him, away from everyone. She was barely aware of the moment when his mouth left hers. She lay very still, waiting for him to rip the dress off her. Perhaps he intended to be more frugal, simply tossing her skirts over her head and pulling them back down when he was finished. It didn't matter. She couldn't feel a thing. His hands slid across her cheeks, his fingers entwining in her long, tangled hair, and she felt the fall of lace against her bruised mouth. She waited, waited for the violence that would help her descent into forgetfulness, but nothing came. Nothing but silence, broken by the crackle of the fire, the harsh, gradually slowing sound of his breathing. Finally, unwillingly, when the silence had grown so that it filled the room, she opened her eyes. He was straddling her body, looking down at her, an odd expression on his face. "You're back," he said. She braced herself, waiting for the assault to begin once more. But he made no move, his hands still cupping her face, his eyes intent. "Back?" she managed to echo, her voice a rough whisper. It sounded as if she'd been screaming for hours. Perhaps she had. "From that little world where you go," he said, his thumbs brushing, caressing, her soft mouth. Long ago, one of the older women at the inn where she used to cook tried to explain to her the joys of married sex. It wasn't the act, so much, the old woman had said. A messy, overrated thing, as far as she was concerned. It was the holding, before and after, that mattered. Sex was simply the tradeoff wives had to make. Ghislaine had scoffed at the notion. No amount of tenderness before or after could make the act bearable. To be sure, a younger matron, one with a brood of six hopeful children, had differed with old Mag, informing Ghislaine that with the right man, sex wasn't the price she had to pay; it was the reward. That notion struck her as even more absurd. Still, lying beneath Nicholas Blackthorne, his hands in her hair, she could begin to understand the sweetness of a soft touch. And sympathize with those women who were willing to pay the price. It took all her formidable will to resist the seduction of his warm hands on her face, but she managed. "If you're going to do it," she said in a hard little voice, "then I wish you'd get on with it. I'd like some sleep." If she expected to goad him she failed. Instead, a mocking smile twisted his mouth. "You know, my pet, it's damned hard to rape a woman who doesn't fight. And it's just as difficult to make love to a woman who simply lies there in a trance." "My apologies," she snapped. "I don't suppose there's any chance I could convince you to show a little more enthusiasm for this project? No? Then maybe we should both concentrate on getting some sleep." To her astonishment he released her, climbing off her body and sinking down on the pall et beside her. The moment he moved away she tried to bolt off the bed, but his hand shot out and caught her wrist, hauling her back against him, her skirts covering his long legs. "That doesn't mean I'm about to let you go," he said, levering himself up on his elbow. "I need my sleep as much as you do, and I'm frankly more concerned with my well-being than with yours. The only way I expect to be able to sleep well is if you're taken care of. I'd hoped to seduce you into a nice little puddle of acquiescence, but since that seems unworth the effort, we're simply going to have to resort to bondage." "Bondage?" she said, her eyes widening in the fitful light. "Bondage," he said, pushing himself off the bed.

She tried to bolt once more, but he simply caught her around the waist and threw her back down on the bed, none too gently. "I wouldn't do that again if I were you," he said calmly. "Next time I have to throw you down on the bed, I might not mind your passivity. Stay put, and count your blessings." "Merci," she said, her voice rich with sarcasm. "You never let up, do you?" he said, sitting down beside her, taking her wrists in his. He'd become adept with his neckcloth, only the jerky deftness of his hands betraying his tension as he bound her hands behind her back. "That's one of the things that I admire about you, Ghislaine." Leaning forward, he flipped up her skirts, exposing her legs, and she jumped. "You promised…" she began, as she tried to squirm away from him. "I promised nothing." He sounded completely impersonal. "I'll take you when and where I want to. And how. For the moment, I'm simply going to tie your ankles. I don't want to have to worry about you creeping around looking for a weapon while I manage to catch up on my sleep." He was as good as his word, tying her ankles and pulling her skirts back down around her. He stared at her, then sighed. "I have the feeling, my pet, that it might be a very long night." He stretched out beside her, and she did her best to move away from him. The bed, however, was concave, and she simply rolled back, up against him. He stared down at her with unholy amusement. "The question that remains, ma mie, is what do we do with that mouth of yours." She glared at him. "Apart from gagging me, there's not a damned thing you can do." "But that's where you're wrong." He slid down beside her, cupped her face with his long fingers, and brushed his mouth against hers, very gently. "Don't," she said, trying to pull her head away. "Grant me this much," he said, and it wasn't a request. "Since I'm being such a good boy tonight." He kissed her again, just as gently, his lips clinging to hers for a long, breathless minute. She couldn't fight him. Not with her limbs tied, not with his hands holding her face still, not with his mouth so impossibly soft and gentle that it brought tears to her heart. He nudged her lips apart with his own, using his tongue this time, not as invader but to stroke her, seduce her, tasting her lips, the sweet inside of her mouth and tongue, as he wrapped his long, lean body around hers. She shut her eyes, wondering if she could escape from this, the most devastating assault of all. She could feel him through the thickness of her skirts, and she knew he was thoroughly aroused, even though he seemed to have decided against raping her. Perhaps he thought he could seduce her. She would simply have to show him it was a lost cause. But he was demanding nothing from her, content to hold her in his arms and kiss her, lingeringly, every inch of her trembling mouth, before traveling up her face, to press his lips against her fluttering eyelids, then moving down to the unbearably sensitive lobe of her ear. Something was burning inside her, something she told herself was disgust. She closed her eyes, trying to shut him out, trying to calm the pounding of her heart, trying to still the racing of her pulses, but when his mouth finally touched hers again, starting at one corner and nibbling on her lower Up, she couldn't keep from moving her own lips, to catch his, to keep him there, to kiss him, and his quiet little sound of pleasure brought an answering rush to her own heart until she suddenly realized what she was doing… A cry of anguish was torn from her as she tried to pull away from him. But for all the gentleness of his mouth, his hands were still inexorable, holding her still for his merciless gaze. "What's the matter, Ghislaine?" he murmured. "Afraid you might like it?" 'There was a trace of blood on his mouth, blood that must have come from her own mouth, bruised from his earlier harsh kiss. She stared up at him, shocked to realize she wanted to kiss the blood from his thin, mocking mouth. She wanted to kiss him, again and again and again. It was like a drug, one that wiped away common sense and safety, honor and revenge, the past and the future. All that mattered was the damp sweetness of his mouth against hers. "If you kiss me again, I will kill you," she said fiercely.

He shook his head. "Tell me something new, my angel. You're already planning to gut-stick me the first chance you get. I might as well enjoy myself in the meantime." "By raping a bound woman?" "No, love. By seducing a woman who is not quite certain whether she hates me more than anyone she's ever known, or is still torn by an adolescent passion she never had a chance to outgrow." Then, even as the words struck a death knel in her heart, he released her, kissing her once more, a brief, hard kiss on her bruised mouth, before sinking back beside her. She could feel his body pressing along hers, the heat and hardness of him. Once more she tried to edge away. Once more she slid back. "I wouldn't do that if I were you." He sounded almost meditative in the darkness. "You're keeping your chastity by only a thread. If you keep bumping against me I might regret my first act of nobility in at least twenty years." Ghislaine held still. The thought of her chastity was a joke, a sour one, one she was tempted to share. Except that it would give him license to touch her again, and she didn't think she could bear it. Her heart was inured to cruelty, to harshness and brutality, even to rape. It was pathetically vulnerable to gentleness. Nicholas had already ascertained that fact. He was an intelligent man-he knew all he needed to do was be gentle with her and she'd have no defenses at all. She couldn't help but wonder why he had stopped, knowing the sure way to have her. Perhaps, blessed be, he didn't really want her all that much. This game of cat and mouse might have nothing to do with real desire, and everything to do with anger and revenge. And then she remembered the unmistakable feel of his body pressed against hers, and knew without doubt that the desire was very real. On his part, at least. She wanted to cry. No, she didn't, she reminded herself. It was a blessing she couldn't. If she were to cry, he would know it. If she were to cry, he would comfort her. And she knew with chilling certainty just what form that comfort would take. She wouldn't move, wouldn't breathe, wouldn't let her heart pound. Wouldn't betray her confusion, her agitation, any more than she had to. Not when he guessed the cause already. He wasn't the beautiful young man she'd fall en in love with when she was young and innocent. He wasn't the handsome English boy with the face of an angel, who smiled at her with a sweetness just for her, who took her small hand in his large, strong one, who looked at her with such intensity that it had frightened her as much as it called to her. That boy had never existed. He was the monster who mocked and repudiated her to her father, who left her family to face disaster and tragedy. He was a gamester, a drunkard, a womanizer, and a murderer. He was responsible for all that had gone wrong in her life, and if she simply killed him, then everything would be fixed. Foolish, foolish conceit on her part. Killing Nicholas Blackthome wouldn't bring her parents back from the guil otine, or return her safe, bucolic life. It wouldn't bring Charles-Louis back from whatever horrifying fate had befal en him. It wouldn't return to her all the things she had lost. And it wouldn't fill the black hole in her heart that she had wanted to fill with revenge. She would let it go. Let him go. She should have known her thirst for justice would only rebound on her own narrow shoulders. Even at his worst, Nicholas Blackthome was no match for the pure evil of Jean-Luc Malviver. And the sight of Malviver after she'd killed him, was a vision that would haunt her till her own grave. And perhaps beyond. She heard a soft, guttural noise, one she didn't recognize. Until she realized with a shock that the enemy beside her was asleep, her torment and troubles casually dismissed. She wanted to kick him. She wanted to roll from the bed and make her escape, even if her bound feet forced her to hop all the way to the border. She told herself she dared not risk it. He'd already warned her of the consequences if she woke him, and those were consequences she dare not pay. She would have to lie there, pressed up against the fiery warmth of his body, and endure. She closed her eyes. Only for a moment, she told herself. There was no pillow on the makeshift bed. No place to rest her weary head but on his shoulder.

In his sleep he moved, tucking her head against him, smoothing her hair away from her face as she snuggled up against him. He would never remember, she told herself, drifting off. He must be so used to sleeping with anonymous females that his gestures were instinctive. Still, it seemed to her sleep-fogged mind that a smile might have curved his mouth as he stroked her. And for the first time, that smile was completely devoid of mockery. Things were going surprisingly well, the Honorable Sir Antony Wilton-Greening decided. In two days on the road they'd made remarkable progress, so that now they were only a day or so behind Nicky Blackthorne and his supposed hostage. They'd managed to find decent inns along the way, and respectable horseflesh when they'd been forced to relieve the horses. Miss Binnerston proved herself estimable as always by sleeping like a cat, at least twenty hours a day. His own valet, Higgins, was his usual unobtrusive self, and it hadn't taken long to put Ell en at her ease. By the end of the first day she was chattering to him with unselfconscious charm, rather as she had when she was an awkward adolescent, before the pangs of ill-advised puppy love had intruded on their comfortable relationship. He wondered if he should have handled that differently. She had been all of seventeen when she suddenly started blushing and stammering and staring at him quite fixedly when she thought he wouldn't notice. She'd really been quite luscious back then, with her soft curves and her shy smile, and he'd been sorely tempted to sample that youthful admiration and see whether he might develop a taste for it. But she'd been his best friend's baby sister, not the sort one could trifle with. Any move on his part would have been taken very seriously indeed, and he simply hadn't been ready to settle down. There were too many women in London, too many horses, too many games of chance. He certainly would have had a much more comfortable life if he had shaken off his customary indolence and given Ell en Fitzwater what she'd been unconsciously asking for. They'd have been married these last eight years, doubtless with at least a couple of little ones to enliven the more stifling aspects of married life. They wouldn't be haring off to Scotland in the middle of the wettest spring people could remember, encumbered by her companion and his valet, so that every night he retired to a solitary bed and thought of her; alone, dependent on him, just a few doors away. He wondered whether Carmichael would have gotten his missive yet, and what he planned to do about it. Tony had been arrogant enough about the matter, simply stating that he planned to marry Carmichael's sister, and it was up to him to insert the notice in the Times whenever he saw fit. With Tony's current string of ill luck, Carmichael was probably chasing after them with as much diligence as they were chasing after Nicholas Blackthorne. Lord, what a tangle! As they were getting closer and closer to achieving their goal, he was slipping further and further back. Ell en was treating him with the cheerful, sisterly camaraderie she'd felt before she'd developed that crush on him. And he found himself longing for just a trace of that romantic awareness. He was beginning to have the decidedly uncomfortable suspicion that she saw him in the light of an aging uncle. He was only ten years older than she was, for heaven's sake! Hardly in his dotage. If they were in London she might see him differently-he was considered a vastly eligible parti, with his unencumbered, reasonably comfortable fortune; his lack of bad habits, and his not inconsiderable physical charms. What he couldn't understand was how a girl could be so besotted one year and so immune the next? He stared at the mug of mulled wine in front of him. She was already safely tucked up in bed, her dragon of a companion sleeping with her. Lucky dragon. He wondered what Ell en wore to sleep at night. She had a fondness for overbright colors- chances were she eschewed the normal virginal white lawn in her night rail and went in for pinks and peaches. He shifted uneasily in his seat at the thought of Ell en's own pink and peach body draped in her nightclothes. Lord, if anyone was becoming besotted, he was. He had been too long without a woman. Since first coming to town he'd availed himself of all the genteel forms of gentlemanly sport, and he'd seldom been long without a ladybird living under his protection. It had all been very polite, mutually enjoyable, and he'd been generous when the relationships had ended.

He'd never been at the mercy of his urges before. But somehow, being cooped up in that carriage with Ell en was having the most alarming effect on him. He even dreamed about her, for heaven's sake. He couldn't remember when he'd last dreamed about a woman. If they continued to make the progress they had in tracking down Blackthorne, this little interlude would come to an end a bit sooner than he would want it to. Instead of bringing him closer to Ell en, it seemed to be settling them into an uncomfortably comfortable relationship. He'd come to count on her adoration. The withdrawal of it, replaced by friendliness completely devoid of romantic awareness, was more disturbing than he ever would have guessed. He was going to have to exert himself, there was no doubt about that. He was conceited enough to think it wouldn't require that much effort, but he'd already been discovering his earlier conceit had been sadly misplaced. If he didn't watch it, someone would snatch her away from him before he had time to give her an alternative. The time had come for just a trace of ruthlessness. The chaperons would have to go. Ell en lay awake in the warm, soft bed while Binnie snored gently beside her. She still couldn't quite understand Binnie's insistence on clinging to her, night and day, up to and including sharing a bed. It wasn't as if there was any real threat to her reputation, or, heaven forfend, her chastity. More's the pity. She prided herself on handling things extremely well with Tony. Not for a moment had she given in to romantic longings. She'd been brisk, friendly, no-nonsense, all that he could have asked for in a forced companionship. Not once had she exhibited any of the quite shameful longings that had grown stronger than ever with each passing hour. She'd been so certain she'd outgrown him. Outgrown that silly, girlhood crush, so that now she could take simple pleasure in his company, without blushing, without stammering, without weaving all sorts of impossible fantasies. If only he'd married the inestimable Miss Stanley. They would have dealt so well together, she with her starchy, elegant manners, he with his indolent, negligent charm. He'd have grown smug and portly; he might very well have named her godmother to one of his children, and there'd be no more question of any romantical nonsense. But as long as he wasn't married, as long as he was still ostensibly available, then there was always the remote, impossible possibility that he might turn to her. Every morning she gave herself a stern talking-to, berating herself for foolish daydreams that bordered on the shocking. Every night she thought of him, just a few doors away, and her body grew hot. Once, just once, she'd like to share a bed with someone who did more than snore. They would catch up with Nicholas Blackthorne in less than two days, according to Tony. She hadn't thought any further than that, only knowing she had to rescue Ghislaine. But what if Tony was right? What if Gilly had gone willingly? Heaven knew, Nicholas Blackthorne was enough to tempt even the most determined spinster from her lace caps. Perhaps he'd been able to seduce Gilly from her hatred of men and her affection for Ell en. But she didn't think so. She had no doubt at all that Gilly would come with them. The one question that had begun to plague her, one that she had considered far too late, was what if Nicholas didn't choose to let her go? Tony hadn't taken her belated concern in good stead. He'd seemed affronted that she could even consider the possibility that Nicholas could best him in a duel. But indeed, it was only common sense. As far as she knew, Tony had never fought a duel in his life. Nicholas had killed his man at least twice. When had things gotten so complicated? If only Nicholas Blackthorne had never shown up at Ainsley Hall! Ell en had grown accustomed to her quiet life, the long, empty future stretched ahead of her, husbandless, childless, but rich with the friendship of people like Gilly and Tony. And now, suddenly, friendship wasn't enough. She longed for Tony in the most indecent, unladylike ways. And the more she tried to repress it, to act as if he were her favorite aging uncle, the more the longing increased.

She wanted this sojourn to end. She wanted the safety of Ainsley Hall, the comfort of her ordinary life. She wanted the sojourn to last forever. Tony's company was addictive, and as painful as her foolish daydreams might be, she had to cling to them, to him, for the short period that had been granted her. Binnie snuffled loudly, flopping over in the bed and settling down into a quieter snoring. Did Tony snore? What did he sleep in? What was he like when he was around the Divine Carlotta or one of his other inamoratas? Did he treat them with the same indolent charm? She would never know. And if she had her wish, Tony would never discover that she'd never quite outgrown that childish longing she had for him. Except that it wasn't quite childish anymore. She didn't want to dance with him at the local assembly, to flirt with him over charades, to marry him with all pomp and glory in St. Paul's with her family proud of her at last. She wanted to lie naked with him. To have his children. To kiss him on his mouth. She wanted him to look at her with heat and longing in his gray eyes, with the heat and longing she felt every time she looked at him. Daydreams. Foolish fancies. She needed to get back to Ainsley Hall, to her lace caps and her gardening. She needed Gilly's common sense to set her straight. But, Lord, don't let it happen too soon. Just a little while more, please. Before she became good Aunt Ell en once more.

Chapter 12
Ghislaine felt warm, and safe, and cherished. She knew she was back at Sans Doute, still a child, her baby brother asleep in the nursery, her parents in their sumptuous apartments. She could be no more than fifteen-at fifteen her life had taken a dark, painful turn, and she'd never felt that safe and loved again. Perhaps it had all been a dream. An endless, hideous nightmare, full of death and despair, but a dream nonetheless. If she opened her eyes she'd see the pale mauve walls, lined in silk. She'd see the bright blue sky and hear the birds singing. The sky was always blue at Sans Doute. The birds always sang. Except for the day they took her parents away, and she and Charles-Louis followed in their wake. It must still be dark outside-there was no teasing light beyond her closed eyelids. The silk coverlets were heavier than usual, the pillow beneath her head more solid, more like bone and muscle than feathers. But they had to be feathers beneath her head. If they weren't, then she wouldn't be at Sans Doute, and her nightmare would be real. There would be no comfort or safety, only danger. His arms were around her waist, pulling her close against him. One leg lay between hers, a possessive intruder, and his hand was tangled in her hair. She could picture it, the long, white fingers entwined in her chestnut curls, could remember the same image from the ramshackle inn. Would she find a pile of coins beside the bed? But she hadn't earned those coins. Wouldn't earn those coins. He couldn't buy her. He could kidnap her, keep her hostage, take her by force if he had a mind to. Even kill her. But he couldn't buy her acquiescence. A man's shoulder shouldn't be comfortable. Especially a man as lean and muscular as Nicholas Blackthorne. But it was. His chin rested on her forehead, and she told herself she didn't dare move. If she did, he might awake and finish what he'd started the night before. It was a risk she didn't want to take. Her only alternative was to remain utterly still, trapped in his arms, pinioned against his strong, hot body. She would simply have to endure. He'd untied her arms and legs sometime during the night, and she hadn't even been aware of it. Her own arms were around him, clinging to him like a weak, helpless female. Like someone who wanted to be in his arms. Absurd.

His chest was smooth and warm, his cambric shirt having come unfastened during the night. Since she had nothing else to concentrate on, she decided to stare at his chest, looking for signs of sagging muscles, the flab of a wasted life. Curse him, there was no sign at all. His skin was smooth, taut, a white gold in the murky dawn, his nipples flat and hard amid the faint -tracing of dark hair. She surveyed him, telling herself that it was disgust burning a hole in her stomach, disgust and the strong coffee of the night before. But she couldn't help wondering how he would taste. She knew suddenly that he was awake. That he'd been awake for some time now, and her circumspect behavior had been a waste of time. "Let me up," she said in a small, angry voice. His hold on her didn't tighten, but she didn't make the mistake of thinking she had any chance of escape. Not until he was ready to release her. And he wasn't the slightest bit ready. His hand slid over her jaw, smoothly, delicately, a caress that made her shiver in reaction as he tipped her face up. "You survived the night, Ghislaine," he murmured, "your chastity intact. Don't you think I deserve a reward for my forbearance?" Before she could tell him what he deserved, his mouth dropped down on hers, lightly, kissing her with brief thoroughness before she could pull her wits together to protest. Just when she was about to raise her hands and shove him, he rolled away from her, sitting up on the sagging bed and running a hand through his long, rumpled dark hair. A moment later he glanced back at her, and there was a quizzical expression in his dark eyes. "My friends wouldn't believe it," he said. "You have friends? That astonishes me." He smiled, his usual mocking grin. "still fighting? Maybe I should have taken you after all. You wouldn't be feeling quite so cocky. And I'd be feeling more so." He surged off the bed, stretching his arms over his head, and for a moment she watched him, mesmerized. He was tall, endlessly tall, with long legs and arms and torso, leanand well-muscled, lithe and graceful. It was a crime for such a demon to be so attractive, she thought. It made everything so much harder. "Dreaming of poisons, ma mie?" he murmured. "You'll have to wait. For now I think a period of rustication is in order. We'll be charmingly bucolic-you can cook for me, I'll fish and shoot and be the perfect country gentleman. At night we'll sit around the fire and hold hands and talk about our happy life." "Shoot?" She belatedly noticed her skirts were hiked up to her knees. She pulled them down to her ankles, but he didn't appear to notice. "Did I mention shooting? Foolish me. Now that you know I have a gun, I'll probably have to tie you up again. I don't fancy a bullet in my back." "I could always shoot you in the front," she said. "A charming offer, but I can just imagine what portion of my anatomy you would choose as your target. I think I'd prefer the back." He stood over her, looking down. "Are you going to loll about in bed all day, or are you going to fix me some breakfast?" Something within her balked. "I'm your hostage, not your servant," she snapped. "If you prefer to stay in bed, then I could always be persuaded to join you. I have other appetites you could fill." She got out of bed, edging away from him. "Much better," he murmured. "I'm certain you'd welcome coffee just as much as I would. And if last night s dinner was anything to go by, you've a rare talent when it comes to eggs. I've a powerful hunger, wench." He was simply trying to goad her. Unfortunately, it was working. If she'd had anything handy she would have thrown it at him. He seemed curiously lighthearted in that dark, ramshackle room, the glowing embers from the fire warring with the early-morning light. As if he'd shed a cloak of anger and cynicism during the night, and she had the sudden frightening thought that if he smiled at her, truly smiled at her, she might find him as charming as she had so long ago. He must have known that it would demoralize her. He crossed the room with a swift determination that left her no time to run. He didn't touch her, which in itself was a surprise. He was always

touching her, running his hand against her cheek, holding her arm, reminding her of her captivity. And of her strange vulnerability toward him. He was standing too close; he hadn't buttoned his shirt, and she wasn't sure which was the least dangerous place to rest her gaze: on his cynical, alarmingly attractive face, or on his smooth bare chest. Or lower still. She decided his left shoulder was the safest place to focus her eyes. It was uncomfortably close to his mocking mouth, but far away from other, more seductive dangers. "Why don't we call a temporary truce, Ghislaine?" he said, and he sounded deceptively reasonable. "It will do you no good to fight me-if you push me too far, I'll simply tie you to the bed. You wouldn't like that, even if I found it reasonably entertaining. Why don't we have one day of peace, before the battle starts again?" She wondered whether it would do any good to beg him to release her. She doubted it. He wasn't a man given to acts of charity or forgiveness, and her indomitable pride was the only weapon she had left to her. If she abased herself, she would be truly defenseless. "What do you want with me?" she asked again, unwilling to compromise. He shrugged. "I really don't know, ma mie. Maybe I'll let you go. Maybe I won't. I haven't decided." "And you expect me to be a good little girl until you make up your mind to kill me." "You needn't sound so incensed about the whole thing. You're the one who first introduced the notion of murder in our charming relationship." "We don't have a relationship!" she shot back. "Oh, there I disagree. We most definitely do have a relationship. I'm just not sure what kind it is. So what's your decision, Ghislaine? Are we to have a day of peace, or a day of war?" She knew that to give in, even on such a small issue, was the first step to ignominious defeat. But she was also mortally tired of fighting. Her body still felt treacherously warm and rested, and she knew it was simply the closeness of another human being that had wiped out her defenses. Any body would have had the same effect, she told herself. Not just his. "One day," she said. "On one condition." He sighed, running a hand through his long hair. "Trust you to have a condition. What is it?" "That you don't touch me." His mouth twisted in a cynical grin. "Not at all?" "Not at all. I don't like being pawed. Spare me for one day, and I'll forgo the pleasure of sticking a knife between your ribs." "You don't have a knife." "If you expect me to get your meals, I'll need one." "Point well taken. I suppose I can control my animal lusts for one day," he said, surveying her from beneath hooded eyes, making the very act seem both bored and insulting. "Any woman can lie on her back and lift her skirts. Few of them can cook." She simply stared at him stonily. "You promise?" "I promise." He took another step closer to her, so close that she could feel the heat emanating from his body. Close enough to threaten her tenuous self-control, yet he didn't even brush against her. It was a very effective way of showing her that he didn't need to lay hands on her to touch her. "What interests me, my pet, is how you manage to withstand my deliberate crudeness without an excess of maidenly blushes. I would have thought your years in a convent would have made you even more prudish than my cousin Ell en." "I've never been in a convent in my life." She'd hoped to shock him, to anger him, to startle him into moving away. Instead he simply smiled that small, dangerous smile of his. "I know." And then he turned away, and she would have gladly given the rest of her life to have a knife in her hand. It took a moment, and the memory of her promise, for calm to reach her again. One day. Twenty-four hours. She could last that long, re-gather her strength and determination. Twenty-four hours to lull him into trusting her. And then either she'd be gone or he'd be dead.

Lord,' what a quixotic fool he was, Nicholas thought hours later. He must have been half-shot when he'd decided to cart Ghislaine de Lorgny away with him. No, it wasn't alcohol he'd been indulging init was the aftereffects of rat poison lingering in his system that had blown his common sense to hell and back again. Not, of course, that common sense had much to do with the way he usually conducted his life. Jason Hargrove and his bitch of a wife were a good case in point. He should have kept away from Melissa from the very beginning, knowing she possessed both a brutalizing bully of a husband and a perverse taste for inciting him. Instead he'd given in to the desire of the moment, and he'd been paying the consequences ever since. Carting his murderous little captive off with him had been another major mistake, just as coming to Scotland had been, and for the same reasons. He found both of them too damned seductive. Oh, not in the usual sense. He'd been truthful when he told Ghislaine that any woman could provide his body the ease it needed-he wasn't particular whom he took to his bed, as long as she was free of disease and possessed of minimal beauty. Ghislaine drew his body as any beauty would. But her fierceness, her courage, her indomitable nature drew his soul. It made him care about her, and he made it a basic tenet of his life never to care about anyone other than himself. Scotland was just as bad. He'd forgotten he loved the country, the smell of damp earth and fresh air and sunshine, away from the stinks of London, the smells of overcrowded salons, filled with people who used heavy perfume to cover the odor of underwashed bodies. He'd grown inured to the heat and smells of the place; it had fit well enough with his dark, cynical view of life and society. But Scotland was reminding him of light. Reminding him of a childhood not completely devoid of pleasure. And it made him yearn for it again, for the long-lost innocence that he could never regain. For the ability to breathe freely, to smile, to be happy. And his damned common sense told him those things were long gone in the dark turns his life had taken. There was no light, no happiness for the last of the mad Blackthornes. He couldn't even count on Ghislaine for distraction. He'd found it interesting that she'd extracted that promise from him. Not that he had any intention of keeping it. He'd already informed her he broke his promises. He simply wanted to wait long enough to lull her suspicions, so that when he touched her her reaction would be all the more powerful. She was extremely vulnerable to his touch, he knew that. Just as he'd come to the conclusion that of all the places she'd been during the intervening years, a convent wasn't one of them. It was too hard to shock her. She'd trotted out that information in hopes of goading him, and had failed miserably. That wouldn't keep her from trying. She didn't realize she was outmatched-no matter what weapons she used, he'd always master her. And one of the surest ways to do so was to touch her. She didn't even recognize her own reaction. When he touched her small, perfect breasts, her nipples hardened in instinctive response. When he took her mouth, she wanted to kiss him back, even as she fought it and him. Her heart thudded, her skin grew flushed, her pulses raced. He'd bedded enough women to be intimately aware of the signs of arousal, but he'd never had a woman so oblivious to her own responses. Or maybe she wasn't oblivious. Maybe she was simply fighting them. As she was busy fighting him. Perhaps that would be the revenge he'd take. Mastery of her body. He was adept at making love. He knew how to pleasure a woman-it was one of his many skills. He could apply those skills to fierce little Ghislaine de Lorgny, strip her of her virginity, her defenses, her ferocious pride as he stripped her of her clothes. The thought was beguiling. There was just one troublesome thought, one that didn't usually disturb his self-destructive absorption. What would he do with her when he finished? He wouldn't think about that. Wouldn't consider the fact that he'd abandoned her once, and her life had been destroyed. He was responsible for no one but himself, and even that responsibility he took far too lightly.

The sun had risen, warming the land, and the incessant rain had finally let up. Odd, that. People tended to think of Scotland as a cold, rain-bound land, yet the weather was sweeter, warmer than it had been in England for as long as he could remember. Taverner had been wise enough to hide the shotgun, but, unfortunately, Nicholas couldn't find out where. There'd be no brace of quail or fat rabbits for the pot tonight, a fact which rather pleased him. For some obscure reason he wasn't in the mood for killing. Trout were another matter. Obviously Tavvy had decided Ghislaine couldn't do much harm with a fish hook, were she to get hold of his fishing tackle. He took himself off in the late morning, heading in the direction of the fast-moving stream he'd first discovered when he was ten years old. And Ghislaine watched him go. She looked absurd, with those canary-bright, oversized clothes belted around her small body. He hadn't considered the difference in size between the women when he had had Tavvy pack some of Ell en's clothes. He simply hadn't wanted to see his little captive dressed in her drab cook's clothes. She had to roll the sleeves up over her arms, belt the trailing skirts around her narrow waist. At least the colors suited her better than they did his cousin. Perhaps he might take Ghislaine to London with him, dress her as she ought to be dressed. In rich silks that skimmed her narrow, boyish body. And in jewels. She was a woman made for diamonds, he thought, tramping through the thick growth. Unfortunately, he wasn't a man to provide them. Even if he had the money, he wouldn't spend it on a woman. But that might be the answer to her future. He could initiate her in the delights of the flesh, take her to London, and then pass her on to someone willing and able to keep her in a more luxurious style. All in all, it seemed like an eminently practical solution to the problem, one that would assuage what passed for his conscience. Of course, leading the only daughter of the Comte de Lorgny into the life of a demimonde might not be considered quite the thing in most quarters. But her father was dead, the family estates long since eaten up by the hydra-headed monster of the revolution, and it surely would be a better life than that of a cook. At least she wouldn't have to remain belowstairs. He found he didn't want to think about it. Didn't even want to think about whether she'd keep her word and be waiting at the derelict remains of the old hunting lodge. There were too many concomitant emotions, guilt and regret among them, to distract him from the beauty of the day. And he wasn't a man to waste his time on guilt and regret. Right now the trout and salmon were a great deal more important than the future of one murderous little Frenchwoman. He'd deal with her, present or absent, when he returned. The land around the small river had grown up in the twenty-some years since he'd gone fishing there. It took him a while to find just the right spot, and even then he wasn't certain. Mastering the intricacies of the old equipment Tavvy had found was another challenge, one he met, and in no time at all he was stretched beneath a tree, the sun beating down, warming his citified bones, his line in the water, awaiting the first tug. For now all he had to do was empty his mind and concentrate on the fish. The rest would come in time. He dozed in the bright sunlight. It was several hours later when she came to him. She wasn't particularly silent in her approach. He heard her from far off, moving stealthily through the thick undergrowth, and he allowed himself a wry smile. Doubtless she thought she was being extremely circumspect. He didn't move, stretched out lazily in the sunlight as he considered the options. Had she decided to ignore their truce? He'd never known a woman with a sense of honor before; it would be unlikely that one harboring such murderous tendencies would be the first. Besides, he'd informed her point-blank that he didn't honor his own promises. Why should she consider herself honor-bound when he didn't? He'd left her with a knife. A dull one, to be sure, but she'd had enough time to sharpen it. He'd been gone several hours at least, and his empty stomach told him it was getting past time to eat. Or maybe she'd had more luck in searching for the firearms than he had. That thought gave him pause. He had no doubt about his ability to fend off a knife-wielding gamine.

He was more than a foot taller and a great deal heavier, as she'd already learned in their previous encounters. A gun was a different matter. She could blow his head off at twenty paces if she found his old shotgun. The thought was only slightly unnerving. She would be unlikely to be able to master the intricacies of loading and preparing a gun. If she managed that, she would still be unlikely to hit even as large a target as he. And then again, he had the advantage of hearing her approach. With the most lethal intentions in the world, she would still have a hard time finding her intended victim easy to kill. She was panting slightly from exertion-he could hear the soft little sounds of her breathing over the rustle of the grass. Which meant she must be carrying something fairly heavy. It was rough going to the edge of the river, but he'd already trod the path down, and she was a strong, resilient young woman. Maybe she'd found the rifle after all. She was closer than he'd realized, moving in his direction with a kind of reckless determination. He'd been a fool to leave such a well-marked path, he thought lazily, not bothering to open his eyes. He'd been a fool to think he could even begin to trust her. His incipient demise was just as much the fault of his own stupidity as of her murderous intentions. She was too close for him to hide, and somehow he didn't fancy scurrying into the bushes to get away from her. It wasn't that he particularly valued his dignity, he thought, sighing. He just didn't think his life was worth the bother. The brightness of the sun beyond his eyelids darkened, and he knew she was standing over him. He could feel her presence, smell the faint trace of flowers and lye soap. He didn't move, waiting for the shotgun blast. "Nicholas," she said, after a long pause. He opened his eyes, expecting to confront the barrel of a gun. Instead he saw Ghislaine, standing there like a shepherdess, a heavy basket in her hand, no weapon in sight. He sat up, staring at her. She'd managed a bath. Her chestnut hair was wet and spiky around her face, just beginning to curl as it dried, and she'd done something about her clothes. She was wearing one of the day dresses they'd brought along, but she'd shortened the sleeves and hem with what he could only assume was the knife he'd left behind. The top two buttons were open at her throat, and those few inches of damp, pink skin had to be the most erotic thing he'd seen in his life. "You try my resolve, my pet," he said slowly. "If I'm not allowed to touch you, you might at least make an effort not to look so delectable." She blushed. It astonished him. He wouldn't have thought her capable of such a thing. The color faded as quickly as it appeared, and once more she had a stern expression that subdued the piquant beauty of her face. "I brought you some luncheon." "Did you, indeed? How very thoughtful. What summoned up this excess of Christian charity in your bleak little soul?" He reached out his hand for the basket. She made no move to give it to him. "I wouldn't be passing judgment on the state of my soul if I were you. Your own isn't in any too spotless a condition." "True enough. You've never actually killed anyone, much as you'd like to, while I managed to accomplish that act. At least this time my victim appears to have recovered." He gave up waiting for her to pass the basket to him, pulling it from her hand and delving through it. "This is a lot of food for one man. Would I be too brashly optimistic to hope you might be planning to share it with me?" She looked uncomfortable. "I didn't know I had any choice in the matter. Would you trust my cooking?" "Not in the slightest," he said. "Are you going to continue to loom over me, or are you going to sit?" She sat. She probably assumed she was out of his reach, and he forbore to inform her that she would never be out of his reach for long. He could move faster than she could, if he so desired. He was merely biding his time. "I didn't have much to work with," she said defensively, as he pulled out warm bread and butter and cheese. She'd included one of the bottles of wine from the case Tavvy had packed, and he wondered whether she hoped to get him drunk. It would take more than one bottle to put him under the table.

She'd brought the knife, and he was right; it was a great deal sharper than when she'd first taken possession of it. They ate in silence for a while, listening to the sounds of the rushing river, slightly swol en after the rains, the faint breeze in the leaves overhead. It was an odd silence, Nicholas thought, watching her out of hooded eyes as he lazily consumed the best meal he'd eaten in twenty years. Considering they were mortal enemies, considering that she feared and hated him, it was surprisingly peaceful sitting by the bank of the river with her. And then he broke that peace, not will fully but effectively nonetheless. "Why don't you tell me how you came to be with my cousin Ell en, working belowstairs?" he said. "Since you've admitted a convent had no part in your life, I'd be interested in how you survived the years since the Terror." Her faced turned white. He'd never seen that happen, though he'd certainly heard about the phenomenon. Ghislaine had porcelain-fair skin anyway, with a faint touch of rose in her high cheekbones. Now she looked ashen. "A day's truce does not mean I'll provide you with entertainment," she managed to say in a tight little voice. She was going to provide him with more than entertainment, but he wasn't in the mood to point that out to her. "Do you want any wine?" he asked instead. "You forgot to bring mugs, so you'll have to share the bottle." He took a long drink. Sacrilege to treat a fine claret so, but it still tasted better than any served in Irish crystal in a London drawing room. "No, thank you…" She started to rise, but he caught her wrist, holding her still. "Have some wine," he said in a deceptively gentle voice. She didn't move. "You promised you wouldn't touch me." "Do as I ask, and I'll release you." She glared at him, her huge eyes burning with tightly suppressed rage. The irises were small in the bright sunlight, and one could drown in the turbulent dark brown depths, if one was feeling fanciful. He wasn't the fanciful type. "One drink, Ghislaine, and I'll release you." She took the bottle in her free hand, brought it to her mouth, and took an impressively healthy gulp. He watched with mixed feelings. He'd half-hoped she would continue to defy him, enable him to prolong the confrontation. He released her wrist, when he wanted nothing more than to pull her down against him, and his smile was cool and bland. "That wasn't so difficult, was it? Life is a great deal simpler when you choose to cooperate." She scrambled to her feet, knocking over the wine. He watched the dark liquid disappear into the ground with only a trace of regret. "I will never cooperate," she said. "I will never compromise." "What do you call our truce?" She was out of reach, at least temporarily, and he chose to let her go. She smiled then, and her icy determination would have quelled a lesser man. "Lulling my victim," she snapped. She turned and walked away, without another word. Leaving him to stare after her in silent admiration. If all the French had her determination, it was a lucky thing Napoleon had agreed to a peace at Amiens. Otherwise England would be in a great deal of trouble.

Chapter 13
Ghislaine's hands were shaking as she moved through the thick growth, away from the river. Away from her smug, dangerous captor. It astonished her, his ability to enrage and disturb her. She'd had other enemies in her life; cruel, evil, implacable enemies. She'd learned the trick of turning inward, of silencing her emotions and reactions, of facing those enemies with cool determination. So why did Nicholas Blackthorne destroy her self-control? The woods were ancient and beautiful, with the sunlight shining down through the leaves, dappling the forest. It reminded her of the woods near Sans Doute, with its ancient oaks and chestnut trees, the smell of the damp, spring-renewed earth, the lazy sound of baby birds demanding a meal. If only she could go back to that peaceful time and place. If only she had cherished it, instead of taking it for granted with the self-absorption of youth.

The woods thinned out into a clearing, and the grass was spring-green and soft. She sank to her knees, then lay down, facefirst, absorbing the smell and the warmth of it into her bones. She hadn't been that close to the earth since the Terror She rolled over on her back, staring up into the bright sunlight of a perfect day. If only she could empty her mind, empty her soul, simply drink in the glory of nature. But instead the memories returned, the memories she'd pushed away so assiduously during the intervening years. They attacked only at night, in her dreams, when her defenses had vanished. In daylight she was too strong to give in to them, too strong to relive the panic and grief and despair. But today was different. Today, lying on the soft grass with the sweet-smelling woods all around her, she would let the memories return. Because if she didn't, she might forget. Her resolution would fail. And when Nicholas put his hands on her, his mouth on her, she might make the foolish mistake of wanting it. And then there'd be no help for her at all. There was probably a simple enough explanation for her current weakness. Life had grown comparatively easy during the last few years. The time she had spent at the Red Hen, learning to cook, had had its own timeless tranquility, a kind of numbness that had made nine years pass almost without her noticing. The shabby inn had become a home of sorts, even within the hated confines of Paris. Much as she wanted to, she would never forget the terrible night she had first stumbled in there, bone-weary, the last tears drained from her body, the last ounce of hope gone. She had been standing on the bridge for hours in the pouring rain, staring down into the muddy, fast-moving depths of the Seine, waiting. Waiting for the final burst of energy that would have sent her over, tumbling to her death in the water. The rain had washed the blood from her hands, Malviver's blood. It had soaked her clothes and run down her back in icy rivulets. She had gone as far as she could go, and now there was no hope. She had become one of them. And that knowledge had been the death knel for her soul. There had been so many nights. So many horrible nights. The night she and Charles-Louis had finally arrived in Paris, only to find the bloated corpse of their uncle swinging gently above the streets. The night Malviver had sold her to Madame Claude. Who in turn had auctioned her off to the highest bidder, a raddled old British nobleman with a corpulent body and a taste for cruelty. At first she'd been drugged into submission, and she'd watched it all from a distance, almost as if it were happening to someone else. At the time she'd been grateful, absurdly grateful that she had that buffer. Until she'd seen him. They were leading her upstairs, to await the high bidder's eager visit, when she glanced blankly into one of the side rooms. Two of the younger girls were there, with a fully dressed man, and they were laughing, the three of them, looking curiously young and carefree. The sound of their laughter had broken through her stupor and she'd made a strangled sound of protest. They must have heard her. The man turned to look, and he wasn't a man, he was a boy, one of almost angelic beauty. Nicholas Blackthorne. He was drunk, and he stared at her without recognition as they hauled her away, but beneath the rough hands that gagged her she'd screamed his name. And then he'd turned back to the two girls, and the laughter had sounded again. The dissolute British nobleman not only had a taste for virgins, he also preferred that they fight him. She lay tied to the bed, awaiting him, until the drug wore off. She lay long enough to still hear the laughter, and the sounds that followed that laughter, the groans and thumps and rhythmic sounds that were foreign to her, and the pain in her heart solidified into a knot of hatred so intense it burned through her. It wasn't the fat, foul-breathed monster who took her maidenhead a few hours later who earned that hatred. Instead she focused on Nicholas Blackthorne, who disported in a Paris brothel while she was being debauched. If she hadn't forgotten him, at least she'd kept herself from thinking of him during the intervening years. His betrayal had run deep, but her need to care for Charles-Louis, to try to find her parents, had been too overwhelming for her to indulge in her own heartbroken anger. She no longer had that luxury. As she lay in that soft bed, bleeding and defiled, she had no one to think of but herself. And no one to blame but Nicholas Blackthorne. Madame Claude had underestimated her. "The earl was most pleased with you last night, cherie,"

she crooned as she unfastened her wrists. "Even though your maidenhead is gone, he still considers you a valuable commodity. He can be very generous to us both, cherie. You will find this life much more to your fancy than you ever imagined." Ghislaine hadn't said a word; she'd simply stared at the old harridan with dark hatred in her eyes. Madame Claude was unimpressed. "Of course, you mustn't be too enthusiastic about the comforts. One of the things the earl found most appealing about you was the way you struggled against him. I doubt he'd appreciate compliance. Unless, of course, he was able to properly train you into it. And you needn't fear that the rest of your working life will involve only people like the earl. To be sure, they make up the bulk of our guests, but we entertain all ages, all sexes. If you prefer women, I know the wife of a high-ranking government official who would find you absolutely delightful. And the young man last night was asking about you." The comment roused her from her tight, controlled rage. "What young man?" Her voice came out raw and almost unrecognizable, the first coherent words she had spoken since Malviver had dragged her into the house. Madame Claude halted in her efforts to untie Ghislaine's ankles, staring at her in frank curiosity. "You speak like an aristo," she said. "Had I known, I could have held out for a higher price." She sounded patently disgruntled. "But then, the price you fetched was good enough. And you needn't worry your pretty little head about what young man. You're to be kept for the earl's exclusive use for as long as he wishes. He grows bored easily-chances are you'll be able to accommodate other patrons within several weeks, but by then the young Englishman will have left Paris. He was easily distracted when I said you were otherwise engaged. Don't worry-there will be other handsome young men to compensate you for the ones like the earl." The one brief flare of hope had died, smashed inside her. He'd seen her. He hadn't recognized her, she knew that, but something about her had caught his eye. It hadn't been a latent memory. It hadn't been sudden concern for a helpless victim. It had been a passing wave of lust, easily diverted. She sat up in the bed, her mind moving at a rapid pace. First and foremost, she had to get away from this place, back to Charles-Louis. And to do so would require every ounce of her intelligence and cunning. "I imagine," she said slowly, "that I would find the experience more pleasant with a handsome young man." She coarsened her voice just slightly. Too much so would have been unbelievable. Instinct was taking over, telling her that subtlety could be her greatest ally. Madame Claude beamed at her. "I knew you were a smart one. You'll do well at this life if you can come to terms with it, and there's no better life for a woman. You get paid for what men would take from you for free, and you learn how to master them. How to make the men do what you want. You learn to take your pleasure where you can find it, and you can live a comfortable life of leisure. A few hours of work on your back every night is better than slaving all day in a dress shop." "I can't sew." "You see. You've made a wise choice, my dear. You'll go far in this business, see if I'm not right." Ghislaine never said a word. Made the right choice, had she? Choice had never come into play since she'd been dragged into this wicked place. But she would choose-never again would she be a helpless victim. It took her two days to escape. Two days of enduring the earl's return visits, two days of enduring the vicious cruelties with which he assaulted her body. Two days of listening to his fulsome compliments, his moans of pleasure. Two days of pain and degradation disguised as an act of love. He'd smiled blearily at her as he'd rolled away. "Demme if I don't take you back to England with me," he said. "You've quite won my heart, gel." He reached over and pinched her breast, and it took all her self-control not to flinch. "I have friends who'd appreciate a fine little thing like you. And I've always enjoyed watching." He sat up, his back to her as he panted slightly. She lay there, watching his soft, white skin, puffy and unmarred. She glanced down at her own body, degraded by his, and her resolve strengthened. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?" he wheezed, reaching down for his clothes. "You're still a bit reluctant, but I've always liked that in a wench. I'm very good at teaching obedience. I don't know when I've been quite so enamored of a slut."

The huge vase was made of heavy, cheap porcelain. Had she used one of the delicate Chinese vases that had decorated Sans Doute, it would have hardly slowed him down. The hideous cracking sound as she brought it down on his head sounded like a skull splitting, and he slid onto the floor without a sound. She wondered if she'd killed him. She scrambled off the bed to stare at him, but despite an expression of faint surprise on his face, he seemed to be sound asleep. A shame, that. She wanted to kill him. If she'd had a knife, she would have done much worse than that. As it was, she had no choice but to leave him, slumped naked on the floor. She paused only long enough to dump the contents of the chamber pot in his lap. She had no clothes but the white night rail he delighted in ripping off her. She took his clothes instead, the baggy pants and Bill owing shirt dwarfing her small body. She climbed out the window, she who was deathly afraid of heights, not even noticing that she had to drop two flights to the filthy all eyway below. She twisted her ankle when she landed, but she made no sound. Moments later she was hobbling off into the darkness, searching for her brother. During their weeks on the street, she and Charles-Louis had kept to themselves, wisely trusting no one. The one exception had been a ragpicker known by one and all as Old Bones. He plied his way through the streets, pulling a cart behind him, trading and selling odd pieces of refuse. The man was ageless. Word had it that he was one of that despised race, a Hebrew, and his rheumy old eyes could see farther than most. He'd been kind to Charles-Louis, giving the fretful boy a crust of bread when he could have used it himself, warning Ghislaine when a group of marauding citizens had stumbled drunkenly through the streets nearby, looking for anyone worth butchering. In return, she'd brought Old Bones bits and pieces of things that he could find a buyer for, asking nothing in return. A strange friendship had grown up between them. If anyone knew where CharlesLouis was, he would. It took her another day and a half to find them. And in the end, she found them in the worst place of all. She'd avoided the Place de la Revolution assiduously during the weeks in Paris. Every day she heard the names of people who'd been beheaded. She'd wept the day the king had died, wept when the silly little queen had followed. But on this day she couldn't keep away. This was the day her parents were among those scheduled to die. She wasn't sure what drew her to that blood-drenched place. Perhaps her parents would have preferred to go to their inevitable deaths thinking she was safe, far away from the horror that was Paris. But she had no choice. For her own sake she had to be there. To be with them, in love and sorrow. She couldn't let them die surrounded by a vengeful mob, with no one to weep for them. They didn't see her as they rode in the tumbrel, amid the jeers of the blood-crazed onlookers. They didn't see her as they climbed the scaffold, and for that she was glad. She held her breath as the blade fell, but there were no tears. Her tears were gone. She heard the scream, a short, shril one, ending in sudden silence. And across the crowded square she saw the figure of her brother, struggling as Old Bones tried to restrain him. Another victim mounted the scaffold, and the crowd paid no attention to the disruption in the square. It took her a long time to reach him, but by the time she caught Charles-Louis in her arms he was silent. She never heard him speak again. Between the two of them, she and Old Bones kept him fed and warm. He responded to nothing, having vanished into a childlike world where he could barely take care of his bodily functions. She'd even managed to find a few sou for a doctor, but the man had simply shaken his head, helpless to aid Charles-Louis. Shock, he'd said, could do that to a mind. The boy had retreated someplace safe, where no one could harm him. And only God knew whether he'd ever emerge from that self-imposed cocoon. She'd done her best to protect him, watching over him, with barely enough to eat as winter closed in around them. Until Old Bones came to her with a gentle suggestion.

"There is no food," he'd said. Ghislaine had laughed bitterly. "Tell me something new. There's been no food for days." "There have been scraps. Crumbs, most of which you've fed your brother. It's November now. Your brother will freeze to death on the streets. Most days he doesn't even remember to put on his cloak. He needs shoes, he needs a blanket, he needs decent food. As do you." She had held herself very still, knowing in her heart what was coming next. She hadn't told Old Bones where she had been during those lost two days in July, but he was old and wise as time, and he had to have known. And that it hadn't been her choice. She'd grown hard, cold in the last few months. The only love she had in her heart was for CharlesLouis. Even Old Bones she barely tolerated, and only if he didn't touch her. As he was a man who didn't care much for other human beings either, they managed well enough. "You are not telling me anything I don't already know," she said quietly. "Do you have any suggestions?" "The obvious one. You have something you could sell. In the streets of Paris few people are fortunate enough not to sell whatever they can." "Be quiet," she snapped, casting a worried glance at Charles-Louis. Despite the hard life and lack of nourishment, he'd grown. His clothes were ragged, torn, and too small for his adolescent body. He was thirteen years old, and there was nothing but childlike blankness in his eyes. "It doesn't matter, Ghislaine. His ears may hear, but his mind cannot. He won't know if you decide to sell your body on the streets to feed and clothe him." It was said, out in the open. Suddenly she could feel the Englishman, panting and sweating on top of her, his breath fetid in her face, his hands hurting, hurting… "No!" she cried, the protest torn from her. Old Bones had merely shrugged. "I forgot. An aristo has standards." "I would kill," she said, her voice flat and full of despair. "I would stab people and steal their purses. I would rob the corpses of my family. But I cannot sell myself on the streets. I would go mad." "Murdering pickpockets seldom make enough to feed themselves, much less three people," Old Bones pointed out. A bizarre sense of humor surfaced. "You expect to live off the rewards of my whoredom?" "It's logical. I can find the customers, make certain you're safe." "You can protect me?" Her laugh was cold as ice. "No one can protect you. No one can protect any of us. But I can help. You survived once- don't bother to deny it. I've lived on the streets of Paris for too long not to have an idea of what happened to you when you disappeared this summer. You survived, but you failed to prosper. You can do it again, this time for a good cause." "Damn you, I can't…" Her cry of protest was interrupted by Charles-Louis's sudden hacking cough. "He needs a blanket," Old Bones said, his cracked voice pitiless. "He needs warm soup and medicine. He'll die, sooner or later. And he'll die before you do-he's much weaker. Do you want to watch that?" She shivered. It was cold, so very cold. She thought back to Madame Claude, with her smug face and fine sheets, and she thought of her customers. Of the raddled old earl with his taste for pain. Of Nicholas Blackthorne, glancing at her and dismissing her as a faceless prostitute. "I won't go back there," she said fiercely. "You don't have to go anywhere. M. Porcin at the butcher shop asked me whether you might be amenable to earning a little money. You would go to his house, and he would pay you." If he had been sympathetic or kind, she would have refused. As it was, he was only matter-of-fact. "An hour or less, Ghislaine. Lying on your back, thinking about all the ways you could spend a few extra francs. How can you say no?" She wondered. And then she knew that she wouldn't, couldn't say no. If she had survived being bound and raped, she could survive M. Porcin's gruff pleasures. He was not a cruel man-he occasionally gave her a scrap or two of meat for her brother, and his eyes were sad, not evil. She could take his money, and survive.

In the end, she did it three times. Twice with M. Porcin, when the hunger grew too bad and CharlesLouis's bones began to show through his pale, dirt-streaked skin. She had cause to bless the childlike silence that had descended upon him. He didn't know what she was doing for him. He need never know the shame his sister had chosen. The third time was the final one, and she was never certain if it counted with the sins engraved on her soul or not, since the act wasn't completed. It hardly mattered. She'd lost her soul long ago. She'd lost her God shortly thereafter. "I won't," she told Old Bones, when he'd informed her someone else had demanded her services. "M. Porcin is one thing. He's a kind man, and he finishes quickly. He expects nothing of me. I won't go to a stranger…" "Porcin was taken today," Old Bones said wearily, too inured to show sorrow or dismay. "He was denounced by a member of the neighborhood committee. They don't waste their time with people like Porcin. More fodder for Madame La Guil otine." Ghislaine accepted his fate with nothing more than a shrug, dismissing a man who, in his way, had tried to be kind. "So you have already found a replacement," she said. Old Bones shook his head. "Not exactly. The man who denounced Porcin. He had his reasons." Ghislaine felt the first tiny trickles of fear penetrate her defenses. "They were?" "Porcin's shop is a thriving business. The man wanted it. He also wanted you." She didn't flinch. "I imagine the prosperous shop was a greater enticement," she said flatly. "I refuse to take responsibility…" "Stupid aristo!" Old Bones spat. "This isn't a game. The man is dangerous. He's asked for you. You cannot say no." "I can! I can choose." "He'll find you. He's a powerful man, growing more powerful every day. He's one of the leaders of the new society, adept at stabbing a neighbor in the back, at finding a weakness. He's already risen far in the revolutionary government. There'll be no stopping him." "I won't…" "You will. You will go to his house, and you will do anything he asks of you. If you don't, CharlesLouis will die." "How could he even know of us? Of me, of Charles-Louis…?" "You're a distinctive sight, Ghislaine. For all that you stay in the shadows, the people know of the aristo and her brother, hiding in the night. You're far too pretty, even in your rags, to escape notice. And the man makes it his business to know everything. Don't think you can protect Charles-Louis either. You can protect no one from this man. The best you can hope for is to appease him." Once more she glanced at Charles-Louis. His eyes were closed, his matted hair obscuring his filthy face as he leaned against the wall, his thin chest rising and falling with the effort of breathing. Every word would have reached his ears. She hoped and prayed that Old Bones was right, that none of it reached his mind. "When?" she asked, knowing she had no choice. "Where?" "Porcin's old house. He's already taken possession. Tonight. You don't know the man, but don't be fooled if he pretends to be pleasant. He's a wolf who'd tear your throat out for pleasure. Watch yourself." "And who is this wolf?" she asked wearily. "His name," said Old Bones, "is Jean-Luc Malviver." It took Ghislaine a moment to realize where she was. Lying on her back in a Scottish meadow, the sun bright overhead, the sweet smell of spring flowers teasing her senses. The ground was hard beneath her, but no harder than the streets of Paris. The sun was warm, blessedly so, and the sky was very blue. The dark, stinking city streets were long gone. She would never have to set foot in France again. For the first time she welcomed the truce Nicholas had called. If she had no sense of honor she could be well on her way, out of his reach, and for some reason she was loath to go. She knew enough about hiding from an implacable, rapacious enemy to get away from him. But she'd given

her word, and she intended to abide by it. Besides, this day of peace, of warmth and sunshine and nature, was giving her back something she'd lost long ago. She sat up, staring around her with simple pleasure. She'd never thought much about the future-life was something to be gotten through, one day at a time, and to repine would be just as deadly as to hope. But if the winds of fate were kind, she would like to live in the country. Someplace devoid of city stinks and people, a place with trees and flowers and birds, with the smell of fresh earth and swiftflowing water. She liked this place. The purple-blue mountains in the distance, the ancient trees, the rocky soil. It was unlike any place she'd ever been-both lonely and peaceful. She could be happy in a place like this. She had no idea whether it was the season for berries, but she rose unhurriedly to her feet. Her hair had dried in a tangle down her back, and she considered hacking it off with the now-sharp knife Nicholas had given her. She couldn't do it. The victims of Madame La Guil otine had their long hair cropped, so as not to interfere with the blade. Every time she thought of chopping off her own locks she could feel the cold steel against her vulnerable neck. There were no berries, but there were flowers. She knelt down, bringing her face close to inhale the fragrance, loath to end its short sweet life by plucking it, when she heard a familiar, infuriating drawl. "How charmingly bucolic, Ghislaine," Blackthorne said. "Rather like Marie Antoinette playing milkmaid. If I knew you were longing for rural pleasures, we could have stopped sooner." She didn't move, unwilling to give him that satisfaction, but the scent of the flower sharpened, growing acrid. She rose, slowly, looking at him across the short expanse of clearing. "Did you catch anything?" It was a polite question, but he merely shook his head, advancing on her, and her wariness exploded into sudden panic. "Not until this moment," he said. She stumbled backward when he reached her, desperate to avoid him. "You gave me your word you wouldn't touch me," she said, not caring that her voice showed her fear much too clearly. His smile was narrow and very dangerous. "What can I say, ma mie? As usual, I lied."

Chapter 14
Ghislaine looked like a frightened fawn, staring at him out of huge, dark eyes. She seldom showed fear, but this moment was different. Her defenses had momentarily fled, and Nicholas told himself he was glad. The small trace of compunction he felt was easily ignored. "I'm only going to kiss you, ma bell e," he murmured, his voice low and soothing, the voice he used for calming restive horses and nervous women. He was very good at using that voice; few women could resist its seductive purr. Ghislaine was made of sterner stuff, of course. He expected no less of her. She continued to back away from him, as if he were the fiend incarnate, something he'd expect of a weaker soul. She wasn't a woman who was easily cowed-anyone who used poison so effectively was hardly a shrinking violet. But there was something about him that shook her. That knowledge pleased him immensely. "You promised," she said again, still backing away. "I have no honor, I warned you of that," he said, advancing steadily. "Besides, it's a beautiful afternoon, there's a soft breeze and a lovely woman nearby. It's too much for even the saintliest soul to resist." "And you're hardly the-" She tripped as she moved backward, and he caught her as she fell, pulling her up against him with only the lightest of clasps. She struggled, but he knew a token struggle when he felt one. She was capable of much more force. "Just a kiss, love," he said, putting his fingers under her chin and tilting her head up to meet his mouth. She held very still as his lips tasted hers, but he could feel the faint tremor that ran through her small, strong body, and he wondered idly what caused it. Hatred? Or desire? He lifted his head to look down at her. Her eyes were closed, and her face looked white, strained.

"Open your mouth," he murmured. "The sooner you give in, the sooner it will be over. It's nothing more than a simple kiss." It required only the slightest pressure of his fingers to make her open her mouth, and he kissed her slowly, leisurely, with all the expertise he had at his command. She stood in his arms, if not acquiescent, at least not fighting him. Her body was stiff at first, and then slowly grew more pliant, her hips tilting up against his with the light encouragement of his hand at the small of her back, her perfect breasts through the thin layers of clothing pressing against his chest. He could hear the lazy buzz of bees in the background, the distant song of birds, and the wind rustled through the leaves overhead as he kissed her, until she was shaking, until he was shaking, until he wanted to push her down in the sweet-smelling grass and tear away her clothes and his, until he wanted to find comfort in the sweet danger of her body. He was never quite certain what stopped him. Surely not a lack of desire-he was as randy as a young boy, ready to burst if she even touched him. Maybe it was the way her hands tightened on his shoulders in helpless pleading. Maybe it was the softness of her body and the ferocity of her soul. Maybe for once in his life he wanted to do a decent thing. He released her slowly, breaking the kiss first, trailing his mouth across her cheek until he knew she could stand without falling. Until he knew he could stand without falling. And then he stepped back. "You see," he said in a voice that sounded completely unmoved. "Nothing but a simple kiss." Her eyes fluttered open, and she stared up at him in shock and dismay. An odd reaction, to be sure, to something as commonplace as a kiss, he thought. "If that was a simple kiss," she said, "I can't imagine what a complicated one would be like." "I could always show you," he said, reaching for her, but she was quick this time, dancing out of his reach. "Where are you going?" "Back to the house. If you've failed to provide us with fish for dinner, I'm going to have to do something about it myself. That ancient chicken Taverner brought back will take hours before it's edible." "I suppose you'll want me to wring its neck," he said in a long-suffering tone. Her smile was just slightly unsettling. "Not at all. I'm very good at killing… chickens." He couldn't help it, he let out a shout of laughter, one free of the darkness that usually hovered around him. "Just so long as you don't poison the poor creature." She was staring at him as if she'd never seen him before, her huge brown eyes wide and wary, her delectable mouth open in surprise. She looked as if she'd seen a ghost. "Why are you looking so stricken?" he asked, still uncharacteristically good-humored. "Did I discover your foul plan? If you'll pardon the pun." He couldn't coax an answering smile from her at his dreadful joke. She simply stared at him, ashenfaced. And then she turned and ran. He was half-tempted to chase after her, but he kept still as she raced across the meadow, her skirts and chestnut hair flying behind her. She looked like a wood sprite; innocent, delectable, and he knew if he chased her he'd catch her all too easily. He wasn't ready to do that, as he felt his light mood darken once more. He'd left his fishing tackle down by the river when he'd given in to temptation and come in search of her. He'd go back and fetch it. For one brief moment she'd come surprisingly close to kissing him back. Perhaps he'd be able to coax an even more enthusiastic response from her as the shadows lengthened. He wasn't quite sure if he wanted her enthusiasm. It was the most obvious revenge of all, seducing the hate-filled Ghislaine, stripping her clothes, her anger, her defenses away, until she was lying entwined with him, panting, breathless, sated and disarmed. It would be far too easy. He knew how to make a woman respond to him-he was adept at it, and even someone as murderously vengeful as Ghislaine wouldn't be able to withstand him for long. He smiled mirthlessly. As a talent, seduction ranked somewhere above skil with cards and a step below fine horsemanship. He possessed those two talents as well. Why wasn't the world his to command?

His earlier, equable mood had vanished with daylight as he made his way back to the decrepit hovel that had once been a gentleman's elegant hunting lodge. Smoke was issuing from the chimney, the ripe smell of wood smoke teasing the air, and he realized it had grown chilly once more. He paused, staring at the ruined house, and wondered whether, if things had been different, he could have saved it. And then he shrugged. The damage had been done long ago, decades of neglect taking their toll and the fire being the final straw. His martinet of a father had been uninterested in frivolous pleasures such as hunting, and the mad Blackthornes weren't noted for the care they gave their property. Though given the extent of the ruination, it was probably his grandfather who had first let the place disintegrate. That grandfather had been murdered in his married mistress's bed. One uncle had been killed in a duel, another by his own hand. It was no wonder the place in Scotland had fall en to rack and ruin. The Blackthornes were too busy destroying themselves to pay heed to a simple country house. What would it take to put the place in good heart again? More than he possessed, that was certain. He wasn't sure why he'd held on to the place-it was patently absurd when you considered the five hundred acres of prime hunting and fishing land that surrounded the building. He could have sold it time and again to pay a portion of his monumental debts, to stake himself to a new round of gaming. But he hadn't, and he could only blame an errant sentimental streak. There was no room in his life for sentiment, for warmth or weakness. The beauty of the countryside had almost tricked him into thinking otherwise. By now he should have learned that the only thing he could count on was himself. One thing was for certain; he wasn't going to spend another chaste night in bed with Ghislaine. He was going to seduce her out of her murderous intent and then abandon her. His earlier fancy of taking her back to London was discarded. She was having a demoralizing effect on him. He was starting to care about her. And he had no intention of caring about anyone. He noticed no sign of Tavvy, a fact which both pleased and disturbed him. He knew only a moment's discomfort when he saw the remains of the chicken Ghislaine had butchered and gutted. There wasn't a chef in the world who could stay squeamish. The chicken might have been old and tough, but it certainly smelled wonderful when he stepped into their makeshift room. Ghislaine was at the far end, eyeing him warily, and he noticed with passing regret that she'd bundled her silky chestnut hair behind her. He was tired of waiting. She was there, at his mercy, and he wanted her. Why in God's name should he hesitate? He'd always prided himself on a total lack of decency-urges and desires were to satisfy, and to hell with the cost. He couldn't afford to weaken now. If he showed Ghislaine any pity, he'd end up with a knife in his throat or a belly full of poison. He might very well end up that way despite his best efforts. It only made sense to enjoy what his hopeful executioner had to offer. Even reluctant, her mouth was very sweet. And the enthusiastic serving maid at the inn a few nights back had only managed to whet his appetite. No substitute would do. It was Ghislaine he wanted writhing beneath him, taking him into her tight, fierce little body. It was Ghislaine he would have. *** Ghislaine knew that her time had run out. She accepted that fact with determined fatalism. So he would take her body. It was only to be expected. If she had any sense at all she'd be glad of it, joyful that he was giving her even more cause for her bitter hatred of him. At a time when that hatred was faltering, she needed all the fury she could muster. If only he hadn't smiled. Today had been a disaster from start to finish, an assault on her determination and her defenses. The dark satyr had disappeared, replaced by a world-weary country gentleman with a dangerous sense of humor and a smile that would melt the heart of a gorgon. While she had done her best to harden her own heart, a part of it was still ominously vulnerable, and his smile had been sunshine to her winter soul. But there was no smile on his face now, no lightness. If she hadn't known otherwise, she would have thought he'd spent the last hours closeted with a brandy bottle. The warmth of the afternoon, the innocence of a country meadow had vanished into something dark and twisted. And she told herself she welcomed the darkness. There would be no danger of succumbing.

"I'm tired of waiting, ma bell e," he said, and there was faint contempt behind the casual endearment. Ghislaine held herself very still. The water surrounding the chicken carcass was too far from boiling to do any lasting damage, and she wasn't certain of the extent of her strength. How far could she hurl the cast iron? To be sure, if she managed to bring it down over his head, she might very well kill him, but he was a great deal taller than she was, and she didn't think she could reach that high. And she couldn't very well ask him to bend down and present a better target, could she? There was the butcher knife she'd used on the hapless bird. Despite her bloodthirsty stance, she'd never been overfond of butchering, not even something as stupid and mean and dirty as a chicken. She was still feeling slightly sickened by the feel and smell of the knife slicing into live flesh-she sincerely doubted her ability to perform that act again in the near future. Even on the man staring at her with an infuriating combination of mockery and lust. She was not defenseless, she thought. No, she was never defenseless. As long as she had her wits and her tongue, she could still fight him off. "No," she said. "Don't come any closer." The sheer reasonableness of her statement startled him in the midst of his dangerous progress. If she could just stal him until the water boiled she might have a fighting chance. "No?" he echoed. "I don't think you have any say in the matter." "Is rape one of your many hobbies? I knew you were despicable, but I assumed even you might have some standards." His smile wasn't reassuring. "I've never raped anyone in my life," he said, advancing slowly. "I decided it was time for a new experience. If it comes to that. I don't think it will." She wanted to explode with fury. "You think I'll give in willingly? You think I'm fool enough to be besotted with you, so that all you have to do is touch me and I'll melt?" "No. I think you're an eminently practical Frenchwoman who knows I'm a great deal stronger than she is. Fighting would be a waste of time. Particularly when I'm coming to the conclusion that your maidenhead isn't at stake here." She found she could match his mockery. "You mean you doubt my innocence? Lud, sir, how insulting!" "You couldn't have survived in Paris for long without losing your virginity. It's of no importance to me." "I'm so glad you still find me worthy of your attentions," she said, her tongue like acid. A stray shimmer was forming in the water in the pot. A few more minutes and it would be a full, rolling boil. "If you're expecting an array of erotic talents, I fear you'll be sadly disappointed." "I don't," he said, and he was too close. "Obviously your experiences haven't left you with any particular affection for the sport. You fight your own responses every time I touch you." "I fight you!" He shrugged, his smile dark and mocking. "If you insist. You can tell yourself anything that will make you happy. That the soft little sounds you will make are sounds of protest. That the way your body will clench around mine is in revulsion. That you only kiss me because you must. It matters not to me." Almost boiling. She edged closer to the stove, hoping the move seemed natural, a concerned cook checking on the dinner. "If you touch me, I'll fight you," she said fiercely, testing the weight of the pot with a surreptitious movement. It was so damnably heavy! "If I touch you, you'll succumb. Shal I demonstrate?" He'd reached her. The bed was just behind him, and she knew he could drag her over there quite easily and take her with all the finesse and speed of the butcher in Paris. "Touch me and I'll kill you." She could at least tip the pot, splashing the boiling water against his legs. Against hers as well, but the pain would be worth it, and she'd be poised to run while he took the brunt of the boiling stew. "So you have said, innumerable times," he said patiently. "But you know, my sweet murderess, it might just be worth it."

She moved with lightning speed, tipping the heavy pot forward. It barely moved, her wrist caught in a bone-crushing grip as he hauled her away from her only weapon. "I'm on to you, love," he said. "It will be rape," she said in a wild fury. "No," he said. "It won't." She survived the fierce possession of his kiss. She survived his overpowering strength, as he pulled her to the bed, pushing her down and covering her flailing limbs with his strong body. She survived the touch of his hands on her breasts, the feel of his arousal against her stomach. But she couldn't survive the sudden gentleness, the slow start of heat in her belly, the warmth in her breasts, the damnable yearning that blossomed in her heart. He lifted his head and looked down at her, and his eyes glittered in the dim light. "You see, Ghislaine? No rape at all." He leaned forward to kiss her again, and she knew that if his lips touched hers one more time, she would be lost. She jerked her head away from him, wondering at the unexpected tightness in her throat, the burning at the back of her eyes. "If you do this," she said, "I won't worry about killing you." His smile was infuriatingly smug. "I thought not." "I will kill myself." It stopped him, at least for a moment. Her statement was brief, implacable; and at the moment she meant every word of it. He was wise enough to know that. "Don't be melodramatic," he said, his voice stripped of passion. "We've already ascertained this won't be the first time. What would your Catholic God say?" "My Catholic God died on the guil otine. I'm a true child of the revolution-I have no faith. If there is an afterlife, it has to be better than this one. If you continue what you're doing, I'll find out." "I can stop you." Slowly she shook her head. "You might be able to stop me from killing you. It would be a great deal harder to stop me from killing myself. There are cliffs, rivers, oceans. I could jump out of a fastmoving carriage. I could kill myself with a knife faster than you could imagine. There are parts of the body where one bleeds freely and quickly, bringing a swift end. You couldn't stop me." still he didn't move. His hands rested against her breasts but they weren't caressing, and his expression was bleak. "What makes you think I would care?" She'd won, and she knew it. She smiled bitterly. "You wouldn't. But you might have a care for your own limited conscience. Late at night, I would haunt you. I would drive you mad." "My sweet Ghislaine," he said wearily, "that would be nothing you haven't already done to me." He moved his hands from her breasts, running them up her body to cradle her stubborn face. "And I'm not sure that it wouldn't be worth it." He put his mouth on hers then, damp, wet, and open, and kissed her, slowly, carefully, using his tongue, and she wanted to cry out in agony and grief. She raised her hands to push at his shoulders, knowing it would be fruitless against his heartless determination. But instead her hands slid around his neck, pulling him closer, and for the first time in her life, she kissed him back. It was a wonder. She felt as if she were floating, lost in the feel of his lips on hers, the shocking intimacy of his tongue in her mouth, more intimate than anything she'd endured during her enforced couplings. She wanted to dissolve, to lose herself in the seductive wonder of his mouth possessing hers. She wanted it never to stop, to last forever in a Bill owing cloud of passion without end. "Ahem!" Taverner's familiar cockney tones broke through the dreamlike haze that surrounded her. "Blackthorne…" "Get the hell out here, Tavvy!" Nicholas said in a vicious voice, not bothering to look at his intrusive servant. "Now!" "Begging yer pardon, but that's something I'm not prepared to do. We've got trouble, and there's no time for dall ying." For a moment Nicholas dropped his head beside hers, burying his face in her hair, and she could hear his labored breathing as he struggled to bring himself back under control. And then he bounded from the bed, abandoning her swiftly, and she wanted to curl up in a tiny ball of shame and misery. "This had better be damned good!" he snarled, and from her vantage point on the bed Gilly recognized the fury that had possessed him when he'd come after her.

Taverner was unimpressed. "It's damned bad!" he said frankly. "Jason Hargrove died a little over a week ago. Bad enough, considering, but apparently his lady wife has felt the public disgrace to be a little more than she fancies, and she's been telling a story wherein you figure mightily as a vill ain." Ghislaine sat up, reaching to pull her clothes back around her, when she realized with shock that they were still decently fastened. She'd only felt naked in his arms. "Nicholas Blackthorne a vill ain?" she said, managing to make her voice light and mocking. "Who could ever believe such a thing?" He spared her a glance. "You recover quickly, ma bell e," he murmured, and she wondered if she regretted her rashness. "She's saying you raped her," Taverner continued, undaunted. "And that instead of fighting a fair duel, you shot her husband in the back." "I've never raped a woman in my life," Nicholas drawled, unmoved by this catalogue of his crimes. "Yet." He spared a meaningful glance at Ghislaine as she slid off the bed and moved over to the fire. "You and I both know the truth of my encounter with her husband, not to mention our seconds. I don't suppose anyone has bothered to speak in my defense?" "Not that I know of. They're after you, and that‟s a fact. Word's been put out, and the local magistrate is just waiting for a chance to make himself a hero. And that's not all." Nicholas sighed. "It was too much to hope for." "Her mistress is after you." He jerked his head in Ghislaine's direction. "Ell en?" Gilly murmured, horrified. "I don't believe you!" Nicholas said. "My prim cousin would hardly go haring off after a servant. But then, Mamzel e is more than a servant, isn't she? Still, I can't imagine her brother would sit still for that." "I doubt her brother knows. She's not alone. She's traveling with someone by the name of WiltonGreening, and they're probably less than a day away from us." "God help us," Nicholas said faintly, reaching for the bottle of brandy. Ghislaine watched in fascination as he tipped a generous portion down his throat. "How'd you find this out?" "Apparently this gent sent word ahead to bespeak rooms at the inn. And the stuff with the merry widow is the latest on-dit." The French term sat oddly on Taverner's rough accent. "I've taken the liberty of seeing to transport." "I knew I could count on you," Nicholas said, moving toward the fire. Ghislaine scuttled back, out of his reach, and his reaction was to shoot her a wry, knowing smile. "What have you got?" "Two ships, leaving from Dunster. One for France, with decent accommodations. The second for Holl and. That one's an older ship, a harder crossing, and why should you want to go to Holl and? I bespoke passage on the French ship." "For the three of us, I trust?" Nicholas said in a silken voice. "Aye." Taverner's word of assent was drowned out by Ghislaine's cry of horror. "No!" she cried. Nicholas glanced at her. "You don't like ocean voyages, my pet? You suffer from mall de mer, perhaps? Don't worry, I'll hold your head." "I won't go back to France." "Holl and is owned by France at the moment. I can't see why it should make any difference to you." "I can't," she said, hearing the desperation in her voice and hating it. "Please. Anything is preferable to France." "Please, Ghislaine? Do I hear you begging? You've threatened, you've asked, but I haven't heard you beg yet," he murmured. "Let me savor the experience." "The French ship's a better choice," Taverner said in a neutral voice. "She's newer, the route's more direct, and she leaves a day earlier. That gives you one less day to risk getting caught by those who are after your blood." Nicholas glanced at her, almost casually. She'd given him incontestable power over her, and there was no way she could pretend otherwise. Now that he knew what most terrified her, he would have his revenge, at his leisure, and there was nothing she could do about it. "We'll take the later ship," he said, turning away. He was in no particular hurry to humble her, now that he had the key to her greatest fears. These things were better savored. "I've a longing to see

Holl and. You know what a passion I have for… cheese. Besides, I fancy we might travel down to Venice. I don't imagine Ghislaine has ever seen the Grand Canal. Have you, my pet?" She felt weak with relief. All she could do was shake her head as she turned to stare down at the stew. Her eyes were hot, stinging, and she knew it had to be because of the steam. "As you wish," Taverner said. "If I were you I wouldn't plan on spending any more time here. People know you own this place-it's the logical spot to look for you if someone has a mind to find you." "Obviously Tony Wilton-Greening does," Nicholas murmured. "Though it's difficult to imagine him bestirring himself to do anything quite so energetic. He must be in love with my shy cousin Ell en." His face darkened for a moment. "Or is he in love with you, ma bell e? Has Tony been trifling belowstairs? " "Don't be disgusting," she roused herself to say, anger burning away that strange, achy feeling. Nicholas's smile was faint and dangerous. "I wouldn't blame him. But for everyone's sake I agree with Taverner. As soon as we eat Ghislaine's no-doubt delectable dinner, we'll get back on the road again. I don't fancy having to kill someone else, and if Tony hasn't changed since I knew him at Cambridge, I imagine he won't take no for an answer. Besides, I don't want to risk losing my prize." "It'll take us the better part of a day to reach Dunster as it is," Taverner agreed. "That carriage doesn't have the speed of a single horse." "Don't look so distraught," Nicholas said, his long fingers lightly caressing Ghislaine's cheek before she jerked away. "We'll find a bed soon enough." She'd been granted a reprieve. Somewhere between this deserted place and boarding the ship for Holl and, she'd find a way to escape. All she had to do was slip away and hide, waiting for Ell en to come. If she could hide from all the marauding evil in Paris, she could hide from one determined man, even one who knew her far too well. She might almost have thought he'd taken pity on her when he'd told Tavvy they'd take the ship to Holl and. She shouldn't have betrayed her panic. He could go to France if he wished, because there was no chance in hell she'd be on that ship. Even if he managed to drag her on board, she wouldn't last long enough to reach France. She would never set foot on French soil again. She had sworn it, a fierce promise to herself that overruled everything, including her vow to avenge herself. But it had simply been a quixotic gesture on his part. Her fear of France would only have increased his determination to take her there. Why did she keep forgetting he was the enemy, the agent of her past tragedies, the instrument of her destruction? God help her, why had she kissed him back?

Chapter 15
Sir Antony Wilton-Greening had never thought of himself as being particularly ruthless. To be sure, he usually knew what he wanted, and he managed to get it with the minimum of fuss. He hadn't thought of himself as the sort to simply ride roughshod over obstacles in his path. Therefore, his plan to incapacitate the estimable Miss Binnerston both surprised and amused him. She didn't trust him around her helpless little lamb. Not that Ell en was the slightest bit helpless-in the three days on the road, he'd come to the conclusion that she was far more capable and determined than he had ever guessed. But Miss Binnerston knew her livelihood depended on Ell en being both on the shelf and biddable, and she was doing her best to ensure that unhappy state continued, up to and including sharing Ell en's bed when there was absolutely no need of it. He should be flattered that Binnie considered him enough of a dishonorable, marauding male that he might breach the fastness of Ell en's virginal bedchamber, but instead he was profoundly irritated. Who did she think he was, Nicholas Blackthorne? Antony Wilton-Greening had never done a shabby, dishonorable thing in his life. Until today. "Where's Binnie?" Ell en asked as he climbed up into the carriage late that morning.

He schooled his features in a look of deep concern. "Gone," he said succinctly, thinking of the woman he'd left locked upstairs, pounding on the door of the bedchamber and shrieking like a harpy. "Don't be ridiculous, Tony," Ell en said in a comfortable voice. "I just saw her." "I told her I'd tell you the dreadful news." He kept his voice solemn, wondering at his sudden acting ability. "She's had word that her sister is deathly ill." "Sister? Binnie's never mentioned a sister. I thought she was an only child." "Half-sister," Tony said promptly. "But she never mentioned-" "On the wrong side of the blanket," he continued, the tale growing more colorful. "They've been estranged, due to her mother's moral outrage over the entire affair, but now her sister may be on her deathbed, and Binnie has no choice but to rush to her side. I left her the wherewithal for a private coach, and Higgins will accompany her." "This is unbelievable!" Ell en said. "Tragic," Tony said. "And you left your valet behind as well?" "Higgins insisted. It grieved Binnie terribly to abandon you in your hour of need, but blood is thicker than water and all that. And it was a matter of life and death." He managed to look suitably solemn. Ell en shook her head. "Unbelievable," she murmured again. "At least she decided she could trust you." Tony wasn't sure how to take that, but since the coachman had already started on the final leg of the journey toward Scotland, he was prepared to investigate. "Was there ever any question?" "Not in my mind, of course," Ell en said with artless candor. She was wearing a gown of a not-tooflattering shade of yellow, and Binnie had contrived to dress her hair in a severe knot before Higgins had waylaid her. She still managed to look undeniably luscious. "I know as well as you do that my reputation stands in no danger from you," she continued, unaware of the lustful direction his thoughts were taking. "What do you mean?" He wondered how tightly she was laced under that too-fussy dress. He wondered what she'd look like in something simpler, with flowing lines to complement her wonderfully rounded figure. He wondered what she'd look like in absolutely nothing at all. "All of society knows that Sir Antony Wilton-Greening is above reproach. No one would ever think you might do something dishonorable. Why, you're like an uncle to me." He simply stared at her, outrage rendering him momentarily silent. "An uncle?" he said finally, his voice coming out in an undignified squeak. She smiled. "Well, an older brother," she temporized. "I don't think it in your nature even to contemplate doing something less than honorable. You simply don't have it in you to be a rake." Every man secretly considered himself something of a rake. At hearing his pretensions dashed so rudely by his intended, Tony felt a surge of quite dishonorable intent burgeon within him. "I'm not Nicholas Blackthorne, that's for certain," he said in a silken voice, fuming. Ell en laughed. "You certainly aren't! That's one thing I like about you, Tony, you're so comfortable. We don't need to stand on ceremony with each other. Whereas Nicholas is decidedly… unsettling. Even to a lowly distant cousin." Tony ground his teeth. He wanted to be the one to unsettle her. As she was unsettling him. "Maybe I should cultivate some of Blackthorne's eccentricities. I wouldn't want to be considered impossibly staid and predictable." He waited for her to protest. "Comfortably staid and predictable," Ell en said with a soft laugh that grated on his nerves. "I confess, I'm not sorry Binnie had to go to her sister, though of course I regret the reason." This was sounding slightly more promising. "Why aren't you sorry?" "She'd grown ridiculously overprotective. On the one hand, I sympathize. She knows that to ensure her future she needs to keep me properly dependent on her. She kept warning me about you. I suppose she was afraid you were male enough to let your base nature overcome you and offer me an insult. Isn't that the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard?" "Ridiculous," Tony growled.

"She's not been around men much, of course, and she assumes they're all ravening beasts who only need to look at a female to be consumed by animal intent. I tried to explain to her that you were perfectly harmless, but she wouldn't listen." "Perfectly harmless," Tony echoed. Ell en's beautiful forehead creased in sudden dismay. "Are you feeling all right, Tony? You sound a little… disturbed." Deranged, he thought, keeping his face blank. Ravening, lustful, infuriated, and frustrated. He wondered what his sweet Ell en would do if he pulled her into his arms and proceeded to demonstrate just how far from harmless he actually was. And then his sense of humor, badly shaken, surfaced, and he gave her an ironic smile. "I must confess, Ell en, my angel, that even the most phlegmatic of men don't like to consider themselves staid, predictable, and perfectly harmless." She snuggled deeper into the seat, and the smile she shot him was absolutely enchanting. "But, Tony, surely you wouldn't want me to harbor any romantical feelings for you? Think how inconvenient they would be." He thought about it. Thought about how he'd felt the same thing, a few short days ago. He'd wanted a dutiful, affectionate wife, one who came to the marriage bed with a sweet, compliant nature and no high-flown, emotional demands. And now, perversely, he wanted demands. He wanted Ell en to sigh and blush and tremble. He wanted that single-minded adoration he'd taken for granted when she was seventeen. To hell with comfort. He leaned back, stretching his long legs out in front of him, and managed a tight smile. "Definitely inconvenient," he agreed. "Given our unconventional circumstances." "And you are the most conventional of men." That was almost the last straw. He was about to surge off the seat and grab her when his hapless coachman drove over one of the potholes that littered the king's highways, tossing him off-balance, back onto his own seat. By the time he finished his muttered cursing, he had his temper back under a semblance of control. "Completely conventional," he agreed, thinking of the waylaid Miss Binnerston. He decided to change the subject before he throttled her. "We're drawing near the border," he said. "If our luck holds, we should catch up with them by tonight. You'll become each other's chaperons, and there won't be any hint of impropriety." "I've told you…" "Please don't tell me again," he begged. "It unmans me to hear how harmless I am. allow me some illusions. We'll drive straight to Blackthorne's hunting lodge, fetch your cook, and drive on to a small inn a few miles distant where I've already bespoken rooms. It will be a long day, but it will be worth it in the end." "What if he won't let her come?" Ell en asked in a quiet voice. "What if she doesn't want to come?" he countered. "I told you, she hates men." "Nicholas can be very persuasive. In the five days they've been gone he might have taught her to like them very much indeed." "I can't imagine it," she said frankly. He smiled then, suddenly feeling more self-assured. It was amazing what Ell en's devastating candor could do to his masculine vanity. He would take great pleasure in dispelling her notion that he was harmless. And in teaching her just how beguiling physical love could be. "We'll deal with that problem when it arises," he said instead. "I'm not about to let Nicholas Blackthorne hold an unwilling female prisoner. Besides, he clearly doesn't know that he's being sought for killing Jason Hargrove. I imagine once he discovers that fact he'll be a great deal more interested in reaching the continent than in matters of the flesh." "I hope so," Ell en said doubtfully. "I don't want you hurt, Tony." Tony ground his teeth. "I can acquit myself well enough in a duel, sweeting." "But Nicholas can be quite ruthless."

He watched the delectable rise and fall of her breasts beneath the bright yellow dress. "So," he said blandly, "can I." Lady Ell en Fitzwater was torn. Not an unusual occurrence in the tenor of her life, of course. She'd always admired Gilly's decisiveness. She herself had a lamentable tendency to consider all sides of an issue, afraid to act for fear of making the wrong move. When she did do something impulsively, ignoring the consequences, the results were often disastrous. For instance, when she'd accepted the most Reverend Alvin Purser's condescending proposal, she'd done so instantly, out of sheer gratitude and the undeniable longing for children. She'd known Tony was forever beyond her touch, and she'd decided to be practical, to take whatever happiness she could find. Even though she hadn't liked to admit it, there was a certain comfort in the knowledge that she would be marrying beneath her. Alvin was of decent enough stock, a younger son with no expectations outside the church. A marriage to the daughter of the aristocracy was a practical move on his part, and her own unacknowledged superiority in the match helped her pride. Only to have it dashed all the more effectively when he summarily jilted her. If she hadn't felt silently, pathetically superior to the match, its dissolution wouldn't have hit so hard. She wouldn't have felt quite so shamed, that even a pedantic, unprepossessing, prosy cleric judged her and found her wanting. The blow to her pride, the one possession she had, was almost unbearable. The pitying glances, the condescending comments, the utter degradation of it all were overwhelming, and she'd simply taken the first escape she could find. She'd run away to Paris a few short weeks after peace had been declared, hoping to hide from everyone who knew her. For a week she'd been relatively content, almost able to convince herself that people would forget. That the appearance and disappearance of the Reverend Alvin Purser in her life was nothing more than a momentary aberration. Until she'd chanced to run into a malicious acquaintance, one of Tony's ex-flirts, who made it more than clear that Ell en was the laughingstock of London society. And that dear Tony was horrified. The need to put a period to her existence seemed painfully obvious in that city of doomed love and extreme emotions. Ell en hadn't thought of herself as the melodramatic type, but the prospect of returning to London and facing the contempt of society was more than she could contemplate. She'd abandoned the ever-loyal Miss Binnerston and walked the streets of Paris blindly, oblivious to any danger she might run, trying to work up the courage to do what she had to do. She ended alone on a bridge in one of the shabbiest parts of the city, staring down into the swift-flowing, murky waters of the Seine, and wondering how long it would take to drown herself. She'd just begun to climb up on the stone railing when a voice came to her out of the foggy night, and for a moment she thought it was an angel. Except for the rudeness of the words. 'There is nothing more stupid," the voice said, in precise, French-accented English, "than to kill yourself over a man." Ell en had paused, perched incongruously on the stone railing of the bridge, wondering if it was the voice of her conscience. And then through the swirling fog a small, cloaked figure appeared, advancing on her with a stern expression. "Cease this foolishness at once," she had snapped, but Ell en still didn't move, staring down at the small woman with the innocent, piquant face and the ancient brown eyes. She was dressed plainly, in the clothes of the serving classes, but her voice, and her knowledge of English, betrayed her. "I don't see what business it is of yours," Ell en managed to say in a starchy voice. "You look ridiculous up there, halfway up, halfway down. Trust the English to botch things. If you want to die, do so where people don't have to watch." "I didn't know anyone was around." "The streets of Paris are never empty, even at four-thirty in the morning." She'd managed to startle Ell en even more. "It isn't four-thirty in the morning, is it?" she'd asked naively.

For a moment her confronter's face softened with a sympathy that for some reason wasn't offensive. "Pauvre petite," she said. "How long have you been wandering around in misery? It's only ten o'clock. Long past your bedtime. Climb down from there, cherie, and come with me. I am Ghislaine." Ell en cast a last, longing look at the swift-flowing river. It smelled terrible. For some reason that decided her. She didn't want her death to be a smelly affair. She wanted romance; her pale, tragic corpse draped in white, surrounded by roses, with everyone feeling very, very sorry they'd treated her so shabbily. The muddy promise of the Seine was far too rank. "Much better," the woman who called herself Ghislaine said when she climbed back down onto the cobblestone street. "No man is worth it." She came up to her, and Ell en noticed absently that she was tiny, much shorter than her own admittedly statuesque height, and her hands were small, wellshaped, and very clean. She reached up and pulled Ell en's fur-trimmed cape around her. "You're lucky someone didn't take the decision out of your hands," she said frankly. "To walk around the streets of Paris, dressed in a cloak that would feed a family for half a year, is not a clever thing to do. When did you last eat?" "I… I don't know," she stammered. "I will take you to the inn where I work. I'm a cook, a very good cook. You won't be able to resist my ragout. I will feed you, I will listen to your woes, and I will give you a talking-to such as your own mother should have done." "My mother is dead." Ghislaine had shrugged. "So is mine. That doesn't mean you need to make any haste to join her. Come with me, mademoisel e, and I will put strength in you." And the miraculous thing was, she had. With a combination of stew, fresh bread, bull ying, and sympathy, Ghislaine had helped Ell en move from paralyzing self-pity to a new determination. It was close to five in the morning when she'd sent Ell en home in a hired carriage, and she was absolutely right. Even then the streets of Paris were far from deserted. Ell en had gone back, of course, surprising Ghislaine, surprising herself. She'd gone back for beef ragout and baguettes, for common sense and a friendship such as she'd never experienced. And when it was time for her to return to England, she'd begged and pleaded for Gilly to accompany her. It was a joyful surprise when she'd accepted. A disappointment when she insisted on coming as a servant only. During the past year she'd tried to keep those barriers in place, but Gilly talked to her as no one else ever had; frankly, honestly, forcing her to see things as they were. She owed her her life. The very thought that she'd been ready to destroy herself over someone as insignificant as Alvin Purser, for something as shallow as pride, was an embarrassment. Never again would she allow her emotions to overset her. Finally she was being given a chance to repay her monumental debt. She had no idea why Nicholas would have absconded with Gilly, but she knew full well that it was against her will. Gilly had been constant in her distrust and dislike of the male sex-even a dangerously attractive rake such as Nicholas Blackthorne wouldn't be able to break through her defenses. It was icing on the cake that repaying her debt included spending time with Tony. These last few days had been heaven, sheer heaven, and its own kind of torment. Sooner or later Tony would find some pretty, delicate miss, fresh from the schoolroom, and marry her. And she would attend the wedding with Carmichael and Lizzie, and she would smile. She would do it, of course, never betraying that her heart was broken. Just as she had survived the past few days with her armor intact. Not by any lingering glance, or sigh, or wayward thought would she betray the vastly distressing truth she'd just discovered. That she still loved him as much as she always had. And that brought her to her present predicament. To be sure, day after day of being tossed around in her brother's well-sprung carriage made her bones ache, her teeth rattle, and her temper become sadly disarranged. But that was more than balanced by the fact that she was with Tony. Once she left the carriage she'd be leaving him, and this brief, mad period would never come again. She was astonished that she'd gotten away with it so far. Even more astonished that God had seen fit to

remove Binnie's stultifying presence. For now, for today, Tony was all hers. And she had every intention of enjoying him to the fullest. Odd, though, he'd looked very disgruntled when she'd reassured him about her lack of romantic notions. She would have thought he'd be glad to hear her well-crafted reassurances, which were, of course, arrant lies. Instead, he'd seemed almost offended. He didn't want her-surely he wasn't arrogant enough to expect her to long for him when he didn't reciprocate? Gilly had warned her most men would. She'd always thought Tony to be above that sort of thing. Now she wondered. Because there was only one other explanation for his patently disgruntled reaction when she'd set out so tactfully to reassure him. And that explanation was fraught with its own emotional impact. Surely he couldn't really want her after all, could he? She dismissed that notion as quickly as it entered her brain. He was lounging in the seat opposite her, staring out the window as they moved as swiftly as the wretched highways allowed. Their silences, as always, were companionable, and the long time they'd spent in each other's company since they'd first left Carmichael's home hadn't changed that. He was still Tony. Tall, loose-limbed, elegant, and a little proper. He could have anyone he wanted. All he had to do was smile his sleepy smile, look at a woman from his beautiful gray eyes, and she'd be lost forever. As Ell en herself had been for the past ten years. "Tony," she said, her voice shy and hesitant. "Yes, love," he said, more alert than she would have guessed. "I've enjoyed myself tremendously these last few days." She had to say it, before she was too cowardly to do so, before she lost her only chance. His wide, mobile mouth curved in a gentle smile, and she wondered, for one brief, self-indulgent moment, what that mouth would feel like, pressed against hers. The mouth of Alvin Purser had been soft and dry and flabby, his kisses few and chaste and respectful. She'd never been kissed with any ardor. She would go to her grave without being kissed with ardor. "How can you say so?" he protested. "Thrown around in a coach for days on end, a succession of only mediocre posting inns, with the sleepy Miss Binnerston and your humble servant for company? I wonder you aren't ready to scream from boredom." A sudden worry struck her. "Have you been bored, Tony?" she asked naively. "Never for a moment." She believed him. Foolish on her part, wishful thinking, but she wanted him to enjoy being with her. As long as they were friends, at least she'd retain that portion of his life, to keep close to her heart and cherish. "How will you survive without your valet?" she asked. "I believe I'm more than capable of dressing and shaving myself," he drawled, accepting her change of subject. "How will you do without Miss Binnerston to serve as your abigail? Assuming we fail to retrieve Ghislaine before nightfall." "Is there any doubt?" "This entire enterprise is fraught with doubt. When you deal with someone like Nicholas Blackthorne, there are no certainties whatsoever. I'm hoping we'll settle things by tonight, but there's no guarantee." She accepted that, simply because she had no choice but to do so. "I'm sure I can prevail upon one of the maids at the inn to assist me." "Or I can assist you," said Tony blandly. She darted a look at him, wishing she could read what lay behind that smooth expression, those clear gray eyes. He might have been suggesting canary instead of claret for dinner, so innocent did he seem. And if he truly did see her in the light of a sister, his suggestion probably wasn't as shocking as it first appeared to be. Was it? "Thank you, but I think I can manage by myself," she said, keeping her voice even. He shrugged, and his smile was slight. "As you wish. If you change your mind, I've had a certain amount of experience helping ladies out of their clothes." He leaned back again, looking lazy and dangerous. "Close your mouth, Ell en."

Ell en closed her mouth. The rain began by late afternoon, a steady, heavy downpour that turned the late spring highways into a sea of mud. Even Carmichael's excellent equipage had a hard time navigating the road, and Tony watched his carefully laid plans dissolve in the downpour. He viewed this with a fair amount of equanimity. His own coachman was a talented whip-there was no question but they'd be safe if the heavens opened completely. The slow progress was a necessary evil. Ell en had drifted to sleep, lulled by the steady beat of the rain on the roof of the carriage, and he'd tucked a lap robe around her, controlling his completely dishonorable and totally overwhelming urge to smooth it over her rounded breasts. The hour would be much advanced by the time they reached Blackthorne's estate. While he had no very great faith in Blackthorne's being reasonable, he also knew that the man was a rakehell, a care-for-nothing, and if by any chance he had absconded with Ghislaine against her will, it wouldn't take much for him to relinquish her. More likely he'd simply managed to entice her. Women had informed Tony, Ell en included, that Nicholas was a very enticing fell ow, that a streak of madness and danger only added to his all ure. By this time he'd doubtless grown tired of her-he wasn't known for his long-term affairs. The news that Hargrove had succumbed ought to put all other considerations out of his mind. Probably Ell en would insist that Ghislaine share her room that night. Probably Nicholas would put up a protest. Things were drawing to a rapid close, and it was past time for Tony to make his move. If anyone was going to share Ell en's bedroom tonight, it was going to be he. Tony could picture it now-the paneled bedroom, a warm fire blazing, a huge bed with clean white sheets. Thank God Blackthorne had his own house up here. Tony had gotten heartily sick of inns. He glanced over at Ell en. Her tightly bound hair had begun to come loose from its pins, the golden strands framing her soft, pale face. The time for circumspection was past. By this time tomorrow they'd probably be heading back toward London. He needed to make certain she knew she was coming with him. Clearly she'd forgotten the shy, tender feelings she used to hold for him in her heart. Clearly he needed to remind her. Gentle flirtatiousness had availed him nothing. It was time to raise the stakes.

Chapter 16
Tony had long lost track of the time. It had been dark for hours, the rain still coming down at a dismal rate, when the coach lurched to a sudden, abrupt stop. He couldn't quite be sorry for it, since it sent Ell en hurtling across the carriage to land against him in a delightful, sweet-smelling heap. He caught her instinctively, holding her tight against him, telling himself he needed to protect her in case the carriage overturned. But the feel of her heart pounding through their various layers of clothes, the soft delight of her breasts against his chest, were decidedly distracting. She looked up at him out of startled, vulnerable eyes, her lips parted in breathless wonder, and he began to consider whether she actually saw him in the light of an uncle after all. It would be a simple enough matter to find out. Simply drop his mouth the few inches to hers and see how she responded. If she didn't shy away in horror, he might even consider using his tongue. She was watching him, mesmerized, as he slowly closed the distance between their lips, when the carriage door was yanked open, effectively destroying the moment. His coachman, Danvers, was the most discreet of men, and if he noticed that Lady Ell en Fitzwater was lying on top of his master, about to be thoroughly kissed, he made no mention of the fact. Nor would he ever. "We've got a problem, Sir Antony," he announced. Tony released Ell en without the faintest show of reluctance. "So I gathered," he said in his pleasant voice. "What's the difficulty?" "Left leader strained his hock. It's too dark to tell how bad it is, but he's not going any farther tonight, that I can tell you. We passed a farmhouse a ways back. I can see if they've got a spare horse, though I'm doubting they'll have one trained to work in a foursome. At least they could offer us hospitality, or a ride to Blackthorne's place. By my reckoning it's not more than a mile away, perhaps less."

"Just our luck," Tony said grimly, staring past his coachman as he stood framed in the door. The rain was coming down in torrents, making the night impenetrable. "We'll await your return. See if you can bring some warm blankets for her ladyship when we convey her back to the farmhouse." Danvers nodded and shut the door behind him, but not before Ell en said in a very calm, very determined voice, "I'm not going to the farmhouse." "I beg your pardon?" "You heard what your coachman said. Ghislaine is less than a mile away. If you think I'm going to spend the night at a farmhouse, knowing she's in reach, suffering…" "We haven't ascertained that she's suffering in the slightest. As a matter of fact, our arrival at this time of night might be decidedly de trop. We'd be much better off availing ourselves of the hospitality of the farm we just passed, and move on to Blackthorne in the morning, when we're rested, and when this damnable rain has stopped." Frustration was making him less than discreet with his tongue, but he decided he'd been around Ell en enough that he didn't have to worry about an occasional damn here and there. "No, Tony," she said, pulling her cape more closely around her and lifting the hood over her head. For a moment he was too astonished to do anything but watch as she reached for the door handle, but then his wits returned, along with his reflexes, and he caught her slender wrist and yanked her back with little regard paid to gentlemanly behavior. "You're not going wandering off in a downpour alone, dressed like that," he said, his voice growing sharp in the dark and damp. "You'd end up in a bog, or something equally distasteful." "I'm going after her, Tony." Her voice brooked no arguments. "Tonight." "And how do you intend to find her?" "follow the road. I presume it will lead to Nicholas's lodge eventually." "That, or to a bog. Listen to reason, Ell en." "I'm going." He cursed again. Not a polite damn or hell, but something vivid enough to bring bright color to her cheeks. Without a word he shrugged into his greatcoat, wrapped his mufflerabout his head, and kicked the door open, knocking the steps down into the rainy night. He sprang down, shuddering as the icy rain descended on his head, and held out his hand for Ell en. "Let‟s go," he said, having to raise his voice over the din of rain and wind. She stepped down, eschewing his hand, and the storm hit her full force, knocking her backward slightly. He made no move to assist her, merely watching as she immediately became as wet as he was. "I'm not going to the farmhouse," she warned. He considered picking her up and tossing her over his shoulder. He could do it-she was a big woman, but he was a much bigger man, and he could handle her. In effect he had two choices. He could walk half a mile in a downpour, a large, angry woman struggling on his shoulder, or he could walk a mile with a determined young lady walking beside him. Since the bed and the meal that awaited him at Blackthorne's estate would doubtless be far superior to the simple farmhouse fare, he decided he might as well give in with good grace. Besides, if he carted Ell en to the farmhouse, she was more than capable of taking off through a window and continuing her quest. Leaving him to follow in her wake. "Danvers," he said in a long-suffering voice, "you'd best take the horses back to the farmhouse and seek shelter for yourself. Her ladyship and I will continue on to Blackthorne's." He glared up at Ell en. "You're a dangerous woman, you know that?" he said, doing his best to ignore the rain that trickled down the collar of his greatcoat. "Your cook had best be all she's cracked up to be. I expect to be well fed when we get there." He held out his arm, waiting for her to take it. She did no such thing. She flung herself against him, her arms around his neck, and kissed him solidly, awkwardly, enthusiastically on his mouth. "Bless you, Tony. I knew I could count on you." She released him before he could respond. Before he could discover whether they might generate a little body heat on this cold, wet night. "I'm an absolute saint," he grumbled, taking her arm in his. And together they set off into the waterlogged darkness.

It was more than a mile. Not that Ell en was terrifically good at judging distances, but surely the endless misery of trudging through the icy rain, the mud soaking her boots and pulling at her, the wind whipping through her clothing until she thought her very bones might rattle together, surely that had to have lasted the length of a dozen hours. Tony's arm was strong and sure beneath hers, steadying her when she wavered, hauling her upright when she tripped, half-supporting, halfdragging her through the icy hell. Why hadn't Nicholas stolen Gilly away to Cornwall, where the sun always seemed to shine? Why hadn't he carried her off to Portugal, to anyplace warm and summery? She sneezed once, then again, but Tony didn't slow his steady pace, and it was all she could do to keep up with him, her shorter legs moving at a swifter pace to match his long strides. Hot chocolate, she thought wistfully. Or coffee, thick and sweet and black, the way only Ghislaine could make it. If she really had become Nicholas's light-o'-love, she probably wouldn't be cooking. That possibility didn't bear thinking of, in terms of either Ell en's stomach or Ghislaine's soul. "We should be there," Tony muttered under his breath. "Where the hell could it be?" Ell en cast a nervous glance up at him. His hat was pulled low over his head, obscuring his face, but she could well imagine the truly terrifying glower on his usually affable, handsome countenance. He hated her, she knew he did. And in faith, she didn't blame him. "Do you suppose we took a wrong turn somewhere?" she suggested nervously, her voice barely audible. "I have an excellent sense of direction," Tony said flatly. "And according to my directions, we should be there. But there's nothing here but an overgrown drive and a few abandoned buildings. There's no sign of life anywhere." Elen sneezed again. "I don't know about you, Tony, but I need to get out of this rain. If any of these buildings possess a roof, I intend to get under it." She waited for him to remind her that it had been her own stupid idea that they come in search of the hunting lodge. He hesitated for a moment, and she steeled herself. "Come on, then," he said instead, and within moments they were out of the rain, inside a tumble-down building that in the dark seemed scarcely more than a hovel. She couldn't see a thing, but fortunately Tony seemed blessed with better night vision, or at least unerring instinct. He took her cold, wet hand in his and led her through a maze of rooms, with gaping window frames letting in the storm, damaged roofs pouring rain down on their heads, until they finally found a measure of comfort and still ness in a small dark room at the back of the structure. "Sit down," he ordered her, his voice unnaturally loud in the sudden quiet. The sound of the storm was distant, muffled, and this section of roof held no leaks. "Where?" she had the temerity to ask, rubbing her chilled hands together. "There's a bed behind you. Sit there, and wrap yourself in the covers while I see what I can do about a fire." "The chimney's probably blocked," she said, perching gingerly on the edge of the mattress she'd found by reaching around in the darkness. "I doubt it. There are still coals." "You mean someone's been here?" "I'm afraid so. I don't think our luck has held tonight, Ell en." His voice sounded matter-of-fact in the darkness, and in a few moments a blaze of light Bill owed forth from the fireplace, dispelling some of the gloom. "Nice of them to have left some wood," he muttered, dropping a few dry pieces onto the blaze before standing up. He looked at the mantelpiece and shook his head. "Our luck has definitely taken a turn for the worse," he said, stripping off his hat and waterlogged greatcoat. She was shivering, despite the quick burst of heat emanating from the fire. "What do you mean?" "I mean, my dear, that this is the hunting lodge of the Blackthornes. There are no warm cozy rooms, no clean beds, no hot meals, and worst of all, no Nicholas Blackthorne or his hostage." "Are you certain?" She didn't really doubt him, but the thought was almost too devastating to bear. All this way for nothing. "Look at the coat of arms over the mantel. Do you read Latin? The motto of the Blackthornes is very simple: Prospero. 1 prosper.' Not that Nicholas or his recent kin live up to that one, though I suppose it's astonishing enough he's lived this long."

She wouldn't cry. It didn't matter that she was soaked to the bone, starving to death, and so cold she thought she might break apart. She'd dragged Tony out here; she certainly wouldn't compound her crimes by crying. He crossed the room and squatted down beside her, taking her numb hands in his. "Don't look so distraught, lamb," he said in his kindest voice. "We'll find them. They can't have been gone long." "You mean they were here?" She hadn't even considered that possibility. "I assume so. Who else would have been here recently enough to have left coals? Let me see if I can find any candle stubs around. Who knows, they might even have left us something to eat. In the meantime, why don't you take off your cape and drape it near the fire? You're going to want to dry it out before you wear it again." For a moment she didn't move. Her hands were swallowed up in his large, warm ones, and his eyes were too kind. She wanted to fling herself against him, to absorb some of his warmth, some of his comfort. Instead she managed a shaky smile. "If you find something to eat," she said in a soft voice, "I'll be your slave for life." His eyes crinkled in a smile. "I'll remember that promise." He disappeared into the next room while Ell en stripped off her cape, all the while taking stock of her surroundings. It was far from reassuring. The room was unprepossessing, with only a three-legged table, a couple of chairs, and a sagging rope bed for furnishings. There was an old carriage robe on the rough mattress, for which she thanked God. She didn't care if it were infested with fleas, or even something worse. At least she'd find a semblance of warmth. "We're in luck," Tony said as he came back in the room, his large frame throwing an even larger shadow against the wall. "There's some stew in the bottom of a kettle, and a hunk of cheese. Best of all, I found this." He held up a flask. "Wine?" she asked in a rall ying voice. "Better still. Brandy. Take off your wet boots, Ell en. We're not going anywhere for the next few hours." He dropped down on the chair that held his steaming greatcoat and began removing his own muddy top boots. "You don't suggest we spend the night here?" she questioned, both aghast and not a little excited at the sheer impropriety of the notion. "I certainly don't suggest we go back out into the storm and retrace our footsteps, then travel an extra half-mile in this hell ish weather. It's cozy enough for the moment. We'll take things as they come." "Tony, there's only one bed," she felt forced to point out. "That's all right, love," he said cheerfully. "I trust you." She had to laugh. "At least no one is going to know about this," she said, unfastening her damp boots and kicking them toward the fire. "Even if they did, they wouldn't believe it of two sober creatures like ourselves." He glanced over at her. "I don't know that you're at all sober, Ell en Fitzwater. As a matter of fact, I think you've had a sadly debilitating effect on my sober nature. Too much time spent in your company and I'm becoming quite alarmingly madcap. Have some brandy." She glanced at the silver flask he held out to her, too bemused by his bantering tone to quite remember that drinking brandy was definitely not the thing. She'd had some once before, with Gilly, and she'd gotten so silly that her friend had informed her with some severity that she had no head for spirits and should avoid them at all costs. She reached for the flask. "I shouldn't be drinking this," she said, still hesitating. "There's nothing better for a chill," he said. "Don't worry-if you drink too much you'll simply fall asleep. Nothing shocking in that." It seemed to her that her previous excursion into the world of spirits had involved a great deal of giggling, a fair amount of dizziness, and even a surfeit of tears. At least she hadn't cast up her accounts. If she was spared that ignominious complication, then she could certainly take just a sip or two with equanimity. After all, Tony had heard her giggle before. It burned all the way down her throat, forming a nice warm pool in her stomach, spreading out her limbs and then back up into her brain. "It's very nice," she said politely, tipping back the flask to take

another solid gulp. She cast a surreptitious glance at Tony, wondering if he was going to warn her about the dangers of imbibing excessive brandy. He didn't make a move, merely watched her from his seat nearby, an unreadable expression on his handsome face. So be it, she thought, taking a third gulp. "Are you certain you don't want any?" she asked politely. "Were you planning on drinking it all?" he countered lazily. "I was considering it." She said it with some dignity. It seemed to her that dignity was called for. She was sitting on a bed out in the middle of nowhere, her stockinged feet curled up underneath her, her hair tumbling down around her shoulders, and no respectable person in sight, except, of course, for the very respectable Sir Antony Wilton-Greening. She told him so. "I can't imagine why you keep informing me how staid and respectable I am," he murmured, not the slightest bit incensed by the thought. "You've gone out of your way to mention it to me on several occasions. Why?" Ell en was feeling very warm indeed. Her bright silk gown was a demure enough affair, with tiny buttons reaching up to her neck. She unfastened the first two, stretching her long legs out on the bed. "Don't you think you're respectable?" "Not particularly. A trifle set in my ways, but they are my ways, not society's. I do what I please." He leaned back in his chair, watching her out of faintly hooded eyes. "I wish I could," she said mournfully, taking another sip of the delightful brandy before reaching for her hair. Since it was already escaping its pins, she might as well let it down completely. After all, she had no witness but Tony, and he certainly wouldn't care. "Would you?" "Would I what?" "Care if I let my hair down." She was already intent on doing so, an intricate enough affair to manage with one hand, while the other held on to the flask. Binnie had used an inordinate amount of pins that morning, causing Ell en to suffer the headache through most of the day. One more pin, and her hair was free, falling over her shoulders in a silken wave. "Not at all," Tony said politely. "Where did you put the hairpins?" "In the bed." "I was afraid of that. I imagine Miss Binnerston has put a curse on them. If I forget myself in my sleep and offer you an insult, they'll probably come to life and attack me." Ell en giggled. "I doubt it." "Doubt what?" "Either. That you'll offer me an insult or that they'll come to life. I'm completely safe with you," she said happily, sliding down into the sagging bed, the flask of brandy still clutched in one hand. He rose then, crossing the room to look down at her, and his face was in shadows, unreadable. She could imagine his expression. Benign, tolerant, parental. "I think you've had enough of this," he said, plucking the brandy bottle from her hand. "I have never seen anyone get quite so drunk quite so fast." Ell en giggled. "Shameful." "I disagree," he murmured, kneeling down by the bed, and his face swam into her vision. "You're quite, quite shameless." It must have been the brandy, she decided. He didn't look the slightest bit benign, or parental for that matter. He looked down at her with an odd, possessive light in his eyes, and for such a respectable gentleman he looked very dangerous indeed. "I'm going to go to sleep now," she announced placidly, her voice softly slurred. "Don't wake me when you come to bed." Tony stared down at her. She was instantly asleep, her breathing noisy, her lips parted, her eyelids closed. She had quite magnificent eyelashes, fanning out against the whiteness of her cheeks, and he knew those eyelashes, unlike the ones belonging to the Divine Carlotta, owed nothing to a paint pot. She was drunk, was his Ell en, passed out, her hand curled underneath her will full chin, oblivious to the danger she might run from the staid and respectable male kneeling by the bed.

He wondered just how drunk she was. He rose, finishing the brandy with one swallow, not regretting that it had gone to a better use. He wanted Ell en cupshot and complacent. He wanted just a taste, of her, not the brandy. He took his time, savoring the anticipation. He built the fire into a respectable blaze, flooding the room with heat. He stripped off his coat, not without difficulty, and untied his neckcloth. When he slid into the bed beside Ell en she barely moved. He lay on his side, watching her, feeling like a starving man at a feast, unsure of what delight to sample first. He decided the silken fall of hair would be a good place to begin. He picked up a strand, running it through his fingers, and it was soft and luxurious. He brought one thick lock to his face, inhaling the flowery fragrance of it, and ran it against his cheek. She probably had no idea how beautiful her hair was. If she did, she wouldn't keep it bundled behind her. He let the hair slide out of his fingers, reaching forward to touch her parted lips. They were warm against his skin, the ebb and flow of her breath stirring something deep inside him. He wanted to drink in her breath, her sweetness. He wanted to pull her into his arms and into his heart. He wanted to join with her in every sense of the word. He brushed his lips against hers, very lightly. She sighed then, a soft, seductive sound, and edged closer to him in the shadowy room. He kissed her again, his lips clinging to hers for a moment longer, and when he drew away she made a soft, sleepy sound of protest. For a moment he didn't move. A man had certain standards, a code of honor he upheld all his life. Right now his code of honor seemed to have vanished. It must be Nicholas Blackthorne's pernicious influence, he decided. He would have sported on this very bed with Ell en's friend, and the atmosphere must reek of ill icit sex. And yet he knew very well the raging desire he felt had absolutely nothing to do with Nicholas Blackthorne's shoddy example, and everything to do with his sudden, irrational weakness for the woman lying next to him. For some reason she'd come to matter to him more than anyone in the world. And while part of that caring involved a sheer animal lust that positively shook his bones, another part involved his most protective instincts. He could strip off her clothes and be inside her before she even realized that staid old Tony was compromising her. While that would solve a great many problems, it would create its own set of difficulties. One more kiss, just to see whether he could do it. One touch, one stroke, to see if he'd survive. He put his mouth on her, pressing hers open, as his hand cupped her breast. This time he was the one who moaned. Her breast fit perfectly in his hand, soft and round, the nipple hardening against his gently questing fingers. Her mouth opened beneath his, sweetly acquiescent, and he used his tongue, stroking and tasting her to the fullest, kissing her as he'd never kissed a woman of quality, kissing her as he'd never kissed anyone before. When he broke the kiss this time he was panting, his body shaking with the desperate need to control himself. Her eyes flew open, staring up at him with dazed surprise. And then she smiled, a slow, sexy, slightly drunken smile, and her hand reached out to touch his mouth, still damp from hers. And then it dropped back to the pall et, her eyes closed, and she began to snore. He laughed then, at his unromantic beloved, at his dishonorable self, at the mess they'd gotten into. If they found Ghislaine tomorrow, as he certainly expected them to, then they'd have no choice but to head back to Ainsley Hall the next day. And he'd been shockingly slow at getting Ell en to see him in a romantic light. He sank down on the mattress beside her, staring at the ceiling, trying to will his unruly body to behave itself. He'd handled this all wrong, but then, it hadn't been entirely his fault. If it had been up to him, he would have left Ell en behind at Ainsley Hall, applied to Carmichael in the accepted manner, and set about wooing Ell en in a restrained, polite courtship. He could have taught her about passion later. The problem was, she was teaching him about passion. Teaching him things he'd never known, all by her irresistible presence. One thing was for certain: if he didn't get her wed within the shortest time possible, his recently shaky sense of honor was going to collapse entirely.

He turned his head to watch her. Her long blond hair had drifted over his arm, and he wanted to bury his face in it. Sleeping next to her without making love to her was going to be its own form of hell. Not sleeping next to her would be even worse. She came easily, gracefully at his gentle tug, settling in his arms with a weary sigh. She felt warm, solid, and utterly delectable. He stroked her arm with the lightest of touches, controlling his desperate need to pull her hard against him. It was going to be a very long night. The Continent

Chapter 17
She'd lied to him. Ghislaine hadn't realized it until later, much later, when she'd had time to think about it. She'd lied to herself as well, and believed it. There was no way she could have killed herself, much as she might have wanted to. His hands on her body stripped her mind of sanity, stripped her soul of hope, and yet she couldn't do it. Even the fantasy of it was denied her. She couldn't contemplate throwing herself from the fast-moving carriage; she couldn't dream about jumping from the ship as it crossed the North Sea. Even if it took her to the most dreaded place of all, back to France, she simply couldn't do it. She'd confronted the specter of taking her own life that night so long ago, with Malviver's blood on her hands. She'd turned back from it. Now that calming, serene release was forever denied her. Thinking about suicide had always been her ultimate revenge. She'd lost that, and never noticed the loss until things grew untenable once more. Absurd, that she should consider her current situation to be as bad as the dark abyss her soul had slipped into some ten years ago. She'd gone to meet Malviver. Gone to meet the architect of her destruction, gone to meet him with the ostensible purpose of giving her body to him in return for money to feed her brother, for safety from the ever-powerful neighborhood committee. She'd done it before and survived. The trick was simple, turned her mind and her emotions inward, to the dark place where her heart once beat, and everything else ceased to exist. But she'd overestimated her powers. Underestimated the emotions she thought she'd killed. Rage. Hatred. Revenge. This was no gentle, clumsy butcher, looking for twenty minutes' release. It wasn't even a drunken, dissolute British nobleman with a taste for pain and virgins. This man was sober, powerful, and beyond cruel. He was waiting for her at the butcher's shop, but already there was little sign of M. Porcin's presence. The rancid meats had been cleared, and the furnishings were not those of the working class. Malviver was already well-paid by those in power. He'd sat in the dimly lit room, awaiting her, a bottle of Porcin's wine beside him. "Close the door behind you," he'd ordered in the coarse, guttural voice she remembered from her nightmares. She did so, stepping into the darkness, the light from the fire barely reaching her. She wondered whether he remembered her. Or whether selling young girls into prostitution was a frequent occurrence in his rise to power. His next words dispelled the notion. "You prefer being on the streets to Madame Claude's establishment? I thought you had better sense. Come closer." She still said nothing, obeying bis orders, her feet leaden. "Into the light," he said. "Thars right. You're still pretty enough. If you didn't have someone like Old Bones to watch out for you you'd have been dead by now. I've thought about you often since last summer. I regretted letting a fat English aristo have you first, but money was a consideration. It always is. Besides, I knew my time would come." Her hand closed in a fist around the knife in her pocket, the knife she always carried with her. The feel of the cool wooden handle soothed her for a moment. The more he talked, the tighter her hand clenched. It had been hard enough with Porcin. It would be impossible with this monster, if he continued to bait her. "I need to get back," she said, keeping her voice cool and bored. "Could we get this over with?"

"Such eagerness!" Malviver mocked. "And that lovely little aristo voice. I've never heard it, of course, but people have told me about it. The Duchess of the Streets, they call you. I want you to talk to me while I do you. I want to listen to that elegant voice when I come." Ghislaine shivered. She took an instinctive step backward in recoil, but he made no move to come after her. "Besides," he said, "you have nothing to go back to." She stopped her retreat, waiting. "I am desolate to inform you, my dear, that your brother has gone. Apparently the poor little simpleton realized you were whoring yourself for him. I expect the shame was too much for him. No one knows for certain, but I imagine he threw himself in the Seine." "You're lying," she said, her voice shaking with sudden uncertainty. "I left him less than an hour ago." "My men work fast. Your brother is gone, Duchess, never to return. And you will stay with me, and do exactly as I tell you, or you will follow him. Let me see, how shal we begin?" He sat back in the chair, an evil smile on his swarthy face. "Why don't you get down on your knees in front of me? We can go from there." She didn't move. "On your knees, bitch!" Malviver roared suddenly. She never remembered how it happened. The knife was in her hand, there was blood everywhere, and he was screaming, a shrill, high-pitched sound, like a butchered pig. And then all was silent, and she was running through the streets, running, running. He hadn't lied to her. He brother was gone. Old Bones lay in the dirt-crusted snow, and she was beyond caring whether he was still alive. Her one reason for living had been taken from her, and nothing else mattered. Still, it took countless hours for the last few traces of hope to die. Hours during which she stumbled through the winter-chil streets of Paris, calling for Charles-Louis, no longer caring if her gently bred voice signaled a hated aristo. No longer caring that peasant children weren't named Charles-Louis. No one touched her, no one answered her desperate cries. People shuttled out of her way as she careened down the all eyways, some making the sign of the devil, some just burrowing deeper in their rags. The poor of Paris had no emotions to spare for another lost soul. She ended on the bridge, looking down into the swirling muddy depths of the Seine. "Charles-Louis," she'd whispered for the last time, her voice cracked and broken. She never knew what had stopped her from jumping. It hadn't been hope-her last trace of it had been wiped out with her brother's disappearance. It wasn't a voice from the fog, the merciful act she'd performed later when she found Ell en Fitzwater ready to do the very same thing. It wasn't any belated religious conviction or fear of hell. The closest she could come to understanding what had stopped her that endless night was the sudden, burning conviction that they shouldn't win. That the forces of evil that seemed to conspire to destroy her shouldn't triumph. They'd killed her parents and stolen her brother. Those forces had taken every ounce of comfort and security, starting with Nicholas Blackthorne and her childish infatuation and trampling that in the mud, through hunger and bitter cold and loneliness and despair, ending with the worst ignominy of all. She had sold her body for money, and there would be no retrieving the innocence that was lost. She could die now, one more lost soul trampled by a vicious fate. Or she could rise, phoenixlike, from the ashes of a lost life. She could fight, and continue to fight, and never give in. The small, seedy inn had been nearby, its fitful light piercing the foggy darkness. She'd stumbled in, oblivious of her bloody clothes, and for the first time luck was with her. The Red Hen was run by a husband and wife, but the husband was mercifully free from lustful urges, and Marthe was as kind as she was stout. Ghislaine was given a warm pall et and a bowl of soup, and in the morning she'd started work in the kitchens. She saw Old Bones twice, once when she went to retrieve her few shabby possessions. He didn't ask what happened with Malviver, and she didn't tell him. One more death in Paris would be noticed by no one. She'd left him without a word, their shared grief over Charles-Louis needing no comment. The years that had followed were relatively peaceful. Eventually the madness that infected Paris faded, along with the Reign of Terror. Along with Napoleon's ascent, there'd been a certain cautious optimism. And the Red Hen had prospered.

Marthe had gradually passed on all the kitchen duties to her willing disciple. The men who frequented the inn knew to steer clear of the cook- she was far too ready with a knife if anyone was importunate enough even to speak to her. Until she'd come across a pale English rose, bent on selfdestruction on the very same bridge where Ghislaine had almost jumped, her life had been a quiet cocoon of existence. She'd known, when she'd seen the young woman poised on the edge of the bridge. She'd known what was going through her mind. And she'd known that if she stopped her, she would be taking on a life, making one slow, painful move back into the land of the living. For a moment she'd hesitated. She didn't want the responsibility for another person's soul. But in the end she'd had no choice. The humanity she thought she'd buried surfaced, an unpleasant reminder that life could still hurt, and she'd called out. And in pulling Lady Ell en Fitzwater back from the brink of death, she'd pulled herself back into life as well. She saw Old Bones one last time just before they left for England. The intervening years hadn't touched him-he was still ancient, malodorous, and abrupt. The name of Charles-Louis wasn't spoken, nor that of Malviver. But when she left him, pressing half of her meager savings into his gnarled old hand, she did something she had never done before. She kissed him good-bye. And now there was no retreat. No going back to that lonely bridge near the Red Hen, no return to comforting dreams of a pillowy darkness where all troubles ceased. Her parents were there, along with Charles-Louis. She was doomed to keep fighting. And keep fighting she would. The trip to the coastal Scottish town of Dunster was made in speed and silence. Ghislaine watched, more desperate than ever to escape, but between Nicholas's seeming indolence and Taverner's dark suspicions, there had been no chance. Someone was always at her elbow when they stopped, and even her use of the necessary was shadowed by one of her captors. She couldn't even be certain that the boat they'd boarded under cover of darkness was the ship bound for Holl and, not France. It was beyond her control. She'd stared longingly at the dark waters of the harbor, but her guards had stayed distressingly close. She didn't know whether Nicholas had believed her threat of suicide. While his face betrayed nothing but boredom, his taut body stayed always within reach. They'd set sail on the morning tide. She'd watched from the railing as the mist-shrouded land disappeared from view, and if she were still capable of tears, she would have wept then. She turned, dry-eyed, to the man standing beside her. He was watching her out of his dark, hooded eyes, ignoring the disappearing coastline, and the wind ruffled his long black hair, blowing it against his haughty, handsome face. "You've won," she said abruptly. "Have I?" "You're safe. You escaped England before they could haul you back for murdering that woman's husband. Even Ell en and her friend didn't catch up with us. You've triumphed." "You think so?" Nicholas murmured, his eyes traveling over her rumpled clothes. "I wouldn't go so far as to say that. Not yet." And there was just the faintest expression in his eyes, nothing as obvious as a leer, that warned her. "Are you still planning to jump overboard, ma mie?" She should have known he'd taunt her. See through her threats and call her bluff. The harbor had already vanished into the mist, and the waters were black and deep around the swiftly moving ship. "What are my choices?" He smiled, a faint curling of his thin lips. "There's a cabin below. Quite a spacious one, with a large, comfortable berth. The trip might take all of three days-we could get to know each other once more with no interruptions." She kept her face expressionless, turning to look at the sea. She didn't want to die, damn it. And she didn't want him to put those hard, white hands on her again. "Which is it to be, Mamzel e?" he murmured. "Death or dishonor?" She could no longer think straight. The rise and fall of the ship was having its customary unsettling effect on her stomach, and if she were to suffer seasickness as she had less than a year ago when she accompanied Ell en to England, she might truly prefer death.

The railing in front of her was broad. She put her hands on it, and Nicholas made no move to stop her. "I would prefer the embrace of the sea," she said. "Would you?" He sounded unconcerned. "Then feel free to accept it. Would you like a hand up?" The railing was high, and she was lamentably short. She cast a brief, irritated glare at Nicholas's bland expression. "I can do it myself," she said. "I'm just waiting for the ship to steady a bit." "I doubt that it will. The North Sea is famous for its roughness. I expect we'll be pitching and rolling all the way to Holl and." She blanched, clutching the railing. "We're going to Holl and, then?" "Didn't I say so?" "You'll forgive me if I don't put much trust in your word." "Forgiven," he said with an elegant bow. She wanted to slap the smirk off his face. "Are you ready to adjourn to the cabin yet?" "To suffer your indignities? Never." "No, love. To cast up your accounts. You've turned the most becoming shade of green I've ever seen, and I thought you might prefer some privacy. However, if you wish to spew all over the deck, feel free to." She glared at him. Had it been in her power, she would have made him the recipient of the nausea that was now building to unmanageable levels. But at that point, even revenge paled beside the need for a bed and a basin. "The cabin," she said in a strangled voice. She took a few tottering steps away from the railing. He scooped her up in his arms, adding to her dizziness and almost wiping out her last trace of control. "Pauvre petite," he murmured with a truly heartless smile. "Once more you are saved from the wicked wolf." "I'm not certain," she said weakly. "I might even prefer you to seasickness." The light of dawn disappeared as he angled her down a narrow stair. He laughed with the heartlessness of those not afflicted with seasickness. "My dear, such compliments threaten to unman me. Continue in this vein and I'll be all puffed up with conceit." She was concentrating too hard on keeping her breakfast down to pay the slightest bit of attention to the cabin. All she knew was that the bed was soft beneath her, the light mercifully dim, the pitch and sway of the ship even more pronounced, and Blackthorne was looking down at her with a truly diabolical smile. "If you don't want your elegant clothes destroyed," Ghislaine said in faint accents, "you will be wise enough to leave me. I am most definitely going to be unwell." "Sound advice, my love. But first, a token of my esteem." She was half-afraid he was going to make the very grave mistake of trying to kiss her. Blackthorne was too clever for that. Instead he simply thrust a basin into her weak hands and departed. Just in time. "Where's Mamzel e?" Tavvy appeared at the door of the smaller cabin, the one Nicholas resignedly assumed he'd end up sharing with his valet. "In her cabin. I doubt we'll hear more than a moan or two before we reach the continent," he said negligently, pouring himself a glass of the brandy he'd brought aboard with him. Being of a democratic nature, he held the bottle out to Taverner, who shook his head. "What I want to know is this," Tavvy said, sitting down heavily opposite him. "What in God's name were you thinking of, to carry her with us?" An unpleasant smile curved Nicholas's mouth. "I would think the answer to that must be obvious." "No, sir, it's not," Tavvy said flatly. "You had more than enough time to take your fill of her while I was off scouting the situation. It's not as if she's any great beauty, nor is she particularly versed in the art of love, if you take my meaning. That much is obvious." "Delicately put," Nicholas agreed. "So then, why? Why have we dragged her with us, all over England and Scotland? Why did we take this leaky old boat to Holl and instead of the newer one to France? Why didn't you leave her behind in Dunster? Your cousin and her man would have caught up with her and taken her back to England, and everything would be right and tight. It don't make sense, that it don't."

Nicholas sighed. "I'm not sure, Tavvy, that I owe you an explanation." "She's not a tart, that's clear. Sure and she tried to kill you, but knowing you, you're not likely to hold that against her. Any number of women, and men as well, would like to kill you, and most of them with good cause. So why don't you let the poor little mite go?" Nicholas smiled at the man opposite him, and a lesser mortal than Tavvy would have quailed. Tavvy simply stared back. "Poor little mite?" he echoed. "I hadn't realized she'd made quite such an impression on you, Tavvy. You realize we're talking about the woman who knocked you over the head with a bucket and dumped you behind the shrubbery?" "She's a game little thing, there's no denying that. I just don't like to see the cards stacked against her." Nicholas set his glass down very carefully. "How long have you known me, Tavvy?" "More'n ten years, sir." "Cut the 'sir' blather, Tavvy. You're asking questions no servant would ask-we might as well face each other as equals. Why do you think I should let her go? Why this sudden rush of pity for your fell ow man? Or woman, in this case?" "I do feel sorry for her," Tavvy said stoutly. "No matter what you do she keeps on fighting. Part of me would hate to see her beaten." "You're a romantic, Tavvy. I never knew that about you," he murmured. "As a matter of fact, I feel the same. illogical, isn't it?" Tavvy nodded. "And it's not just her I'm worried about. It's you." Nicholas's eyes flew open; he was no longer indolent. "You interest me enormously, Tavvy. You know me better than anyone ever has, including my own parents. Why are you worried about me?" "She'll destroy you." "Don't be ridiculous! A tiny little snip of a thing like her? It would take a great deal more than one recalcitrant Frenchwoman to destroy me. I've put all my efforts into the task for some fifteen years, and I haven't gotten nearly far enough." His smile was cold. "So why should I worry that Ghislaine de Lorgny will succeed where I and others have failed?" "She weakens you," Tavvy said. "I've seen you looking at her sometimes, when the room is dark and she's busy with something. You look like a moonling, and that's the truth with no bark on it." Nicholas simply laughed. "So you think I'm a lovesick fool, Tavvy? Forget the mad Blackthornes. It's your sanity I'm worried about now." "I wouldn't go that far. But you've been… not yourself. You haven't even bedded the wench yet, have you?" "Damn your impudence, Tavvy," he said mildly. 'That's none of your business. What if she simply doesn't attract me?" "There was a time when nothing female failed to attract you," Tavvy shot back. "You want her, you've had her at your command for close to a week now, and you haven't been beneath her skirt yet. You drag her to the continent with us, you leave her alone in her cabin, and you wonder why I'm worried." "She's seasick, Tavvy. allow me a little fastidiousness. If it will make you feel any better, I'll rape her as soon as we reach dry land. You can watch, if you like." "I've watched before. Somehow I don't think you're going to want an audience for this one." It was taking more and more for Nicholas to control his temper. "Do you fancy her yourself, is that it, Tavvy? She's nothing but a cook, after all. Not that high above the touch of a valet. Maybe you've a sudden urge to settle down, raise a passel of brats, perhaps become a butler." Tavvy shook his head, refusing to be baited. "She's not for the likes of me. I can tell quality, whether it's French or English, and she's no ordinary servant. I can tell something else, too." "I suspect you're going to inform me of your observations whether I care to hear them or not," Nicholas said with a deliberate sigh. "That I am. She's for you. She knows it, and she's fighting it like crazy. You know it, and if you had any sense at all you'd throw her overboard. She'll bring you down, Blackthome. She'll destroy you and me if you don't get rid of her." "God, don't be so melodramatic! How is one small French girl going to manage that?" he demanded.

"You'll fall in love with her." Tavvy's voice was flat, expressionless. "She'll know it, she'll use it, and she'll leave you. They all leave in the end, you know that. And the next time there's a duel, you'll be a little careless. Or maybe a horse race. You'll go too far over the edge, and that'll be the end of you." "Tavvy," Nicholas said with great patience, "I'm already damned careless when it comes to duels and horse racing. I've been courting death for more than a decade. If consorting with Ghislaine de Lorgny brings it faster, then I'm all for it. Have a drink, man. You need it." "No, thank you," Tavvy said with great dignity, rising to his full, somewhat meager height. "But you think about what I've been saying. If you're too squeamish to bed her, maybe the safest thing to do would be to leave her, once we get to Holl and." "My dear Tavvy," Nicholas murmured. "When have I ever been concerned with safety?" Tavvy departed, muttering under his breath. Nicholas watched him go, a frown creasing his brow. Damn the man, but there was an uncomfortable element of truth in his dire warnings. He'd allowed Ghislaine to get under his skin, to get closer to him than any female had in his entire self-absorbed existence. Except for a certain innocent French girl he'd known half a lifetime ago. He could have taken her any number of times. When he first had her, tied up on his bed back at Ainsley Hall. At any one of the inns they'd stopped at. In the narrow bed at the ruins of the hunting lodge. And each time something had stopped him. He had a different name for it. Once it was laziness, once compassion, once the urge to prolong her torment. Lack of desire had never been an issue. He'd tried to relieve that desire on the chambermaid, but their energetic efforts had only left him hungry for more. Tavvy had been right to warn him, damn his eyes! He'd grown far too sentimental where his captive was concerned. It was past time to make their relationship clear. She belonged on her back, and that was where he planned to keep her, once they reached the continent. By the time he tired of her, he would have vented the overwhelming lust that had been consuming him. Except if it were as obvious and straightforward as simple lust he would have done something about it by now. Not listened to his conscience. Not hesitated, even for a moment. And certainly not gone to another woman in her place. He wasn't the slightest bit disturbed by the thought of his own destruction, at her or anyone else's hands. The thought of his own weakness was, however, unbearable. He needed to do whatever was necessary to wipe that weakness out of his system. There was no room in his life for mercy or tenderness. Scotland had been a mistake from the very beginning. He knew there was no haven for the likes of him, and the sweet promise of spring in the country had aroused an ill usory hope. There was no grace, no beauty, and those who promised it to his weary soul were liars. Scotland was a lie, a land of rocky soil, harsh climates, and eternal loneliness. Ghislaine was a lie, with her wounded eyes and murderous soul. He couldn't weaken. All he had was his chilly, bitter core, which kept him from caring about anyone or anything except his own selfish desires. If he were to weaken, to let even an ounce of compassion, of feeling, break through the armor he'd built around his heart, then everything could enter. All the guilt and regret that he'd denied for so many years. And he would be destroyed. He couldn't, wouldn't let it happen. He'd learned early on that he was the only one he could count on. Ghislaine must have learned that same harsh lesson. She'd expect no mercy from him. He could feel the darkness close around him once more. The mad Blackthornes. He was more than living up to their reputation. He rose, setting his brandy down on the table, and headed for her cabin. She'd certainly been the most amazing shade of green and white, but it was always possible she'd recovered quickly. His booted feet were sure on the rolling deck, unencumbered by the brandy he'd drunk or the movement of the ship, and he didn't bother to knock before opening the door. She'd definitely been ill. He removed the basin, leaving it in the hall, then returned to stand over her, staring. Her pale face was beaded with a cold sweat, her eyes were closed, and there were purple shadows below them.

She'd slipped into French just before he'd left her in the cabin. He'd avoided that language during the time they spent together, avoided it deliberately. It reminded him too much of the past. The English accent she'd perfected was exactly right, with just a trace of the lower classes to fool the less observant. But her French was the beautiful, impeccable language of the aristocracy. It reminded him of days gone by, of a youth lost forever, of a way of life destroyed by a class's greed and a peasantry's rage. He smoothed her tangled chestnut hair away from her face, but she didn't stir, exhausted by the ill ness and her own emotions. Leaning down, he murmured in her ear, gentle words, love words, in liquid, tender French. Somewhere in her dreams she heard, for a faint, innocent smile curved her mouth, and he shook with the longing to take her, there and then. He backed away from her, swiftly, before the temptation grew to be too much, and it wasn't until late that night, well into a bottle of brandy, Tavvy this time drinking with him, that he realized what he'd said to her, the French endearments instinctive and automatic. He'd told her she was beautiful, his precious child, his angel in a dark night. He'd told her she was his soul, his life and breath, and the heat of his desire. And, God help him, he'd told her the worst thing of all. He'd told her that he loved her. And even now, he wasn't quite sure if he'd lied.

Chapter 18
The boat was no longer moving. Ghislaine lay facedown in the bunk, scarcely daring to breathe, as she waited for her stomach to settle. She didn't dare try to sit up. When she had, a few hours earlier, the room had swum in circles around her, and she'd ended in a heap on the floor. That was bad enough. She would have managed to crawl back into the bunk sooner or later, but he'd come in, picked her up in his arms, and placed her back on the bed, murmuring things to her in the language of her youth. She'd almost forgotten the sound of it-Parisian gutter French was very different from the softer, more elegant sounds of the vanished aristocracy. She let herself drift as Blackthorne talked to her, as he tucked the light blanket over her weak, shivering body. She let herself pretend she was fifteen again, and anything was possible. She didn't want to open her eyes. If she did, she'd see the pitch and fall of the cabin, and there was absolutely nothing left in her stomach to lose. She had no idea how long she'd been in this torture chamber, but surely they couldn't have reached the continent already. It was then that she realized she wasn't alone in the cabin. Her dulled senses told her that, and as they sharpened, she realized it wasn't her nemesis. She opened one eye, carefully, and saw the swarthy profile of Nicholas's valet-cum-henchman sitting in the corner. "You're awake, then," he said. "Time's a-wasting. If you're coming with us, you'd best get up." Ghislaine didn't move. "Is there a choice?" "No. His lordship's not about to let you go." There was something in Taverner's voice that broke through her dulled misery. She struggled into a sitting position, and while the cabin spun for a moment, it quickly righted itself. "And you think he should," she said softly. Taverner nodded. "Aye, I do. You're nothing but trouble to him, but he's too blind pigheaded stubborn to realize it. He doesn't even know what he wants with you, but he's not reasonable enough to let you go." "You could help me." Taverner looked at her stonily. "Why would I do that?" "Because you're right. I'm nothing but trouble. He's got the authorities after him for murdering that man…" "What do you know about it?" Tavvy scoffed. "I was there, Mamzel e. It was a fair fight, not that the late Jason Hargrove wanted it to be. Tried to kill Blackthorne, that he did, after my master deloped. Even so, Blackthorne did his best just to wound him. But the stupid bugger wouldn't let things be." "Very noble of Blackthorne," Ghislaine said faintly. "Besides which, we've reached the continent. No one's going to come after him here."

"Already! How long have we been at sea?" "You mean how long have you been puking your guts out? Three days. Kind of rough justice, if you know what I mean. Lasted just about as long as Blackthorne's late indisposition from gastritis." "What about his cousin? I thought she was coming after us." Ghislaine struggled for one tiny straw of hope. "You think he's afraid of someone like Lady Ell en?" Taverner scoffed. "Not bloody likely. And it doesn't matter how many gents she has with her. They won't catch up with Blackthorne, not if he don't want them to." "Then why do you think he should let me go?" Her brain was too weak to make sense of all this. "If I knew that, maybe I'd see my way clear to helping you," Tavvy said in an aggrieved voice. "I just think you're trouble, and he'd be better off without you. It doesn't make any sense. I know he hasn't bedded you, so it can't have anything to do with that. You're not his type anyway-he likes 'em buxom and blond and silly. And things that don't make sense worry me." She had to be insane. Or suffering the aftereffects of seasickness, to feel stricken at the thought of Blackthorne preferring large blond ninnies. She should be thanking God that he hadn't been attracted enough to take her. "You'd travel a lot lighter without me," she managed to say in a reasonable voice. "He's probably just being stubborn. If I simply disappeared on the docks, he might end up being grateful that the decision was taken out of his hands." "But if s not going to be taken out of my hands, my pet," Blackthorne's cool, elegant voice responded from the doorway. She hadn't even realized it was ajar, and Blackthorne had a quiet step. "It's sweet of you to be concerned, but I find I A Rose at Midnight 279 don't mind the extra bother of taking you with me. For the present, at least." She glanced at him warily. The man who had come to her during the endless ocean voyage, the one who'd put cool cloths on her brow and murmured French endearments, the man who'd gone so far as to hold the basin for her with a singular lack of disgust, had disappeared. In his place was the dark man who could frighten her if she let him. The cool, implacable nemesis who would not listen to reason or pleading. Whatever merciful, gentle traits he might possess had vanished. And right now she was too weak to fight. Taverner was still slouched in the corner, looking singularly unworried that his master might have overheard his disloyalty, but then, Blackthorne and his valet had an unusual relationship. She wouldn't give up hope. If Tavvy disapproved of her presence, he might see fit to overlook some aspect of her captivity. All she would need was another moment of inattention, and she'd be gone. And this time he wouldn't be able to track her down. "Come along, Ghislaine," Blackthorne said, moving into the cabin, dwarfing it with his size and elegance, and she felt even shabbier and smaller. But not helpless. Certainly never helpless. He held out a hand; well-shaped, strong. She wasn't about to take it. He waited patiently, like a spider. "Come along," he said again. "Dry land awaits you." She would have followed the devil himself off the boat. She tried to climb off the bed, ignoring his hand, but Blackthorne wasn't a man to be ignored. He simply caught her arm in his, pulling her from the bed, and, in truth, she needed his strength as she tried to steady her trembling legs. Only for the moment, she reminded herself. Only until they got off this monstrous boat. She needed to wash her face and hands, to comb her hair, to try to find something decent to wear among Ell en's oversized gowns. She even needed to put something in her stomach, though the very thought made her shudder. Then she could see about making her escape. And this time it would be for good. The low roads of Holl and were in better shape than those in England. The hired carriage was a step above Blackthorne's ramshackle affair, decently sprung with modestly comfortable cushions. There was more room, too, so that Blackthorne's large, masculine body shouldn't have been so overwhelming in the less than cramped space. It still was. He watched her. His eyes never left her face as they crossed the miles. His attitude was lazy, his long legs extended, his arms crossed, the lace cuffs dripping over his hands. His eyes were half-

closed, and the faint smile on his narrow mouth was disturbing. It was all Ghislaine could do not to reveal how disturbed she was. Something had changed. Something had shifted between them, and that change didn't bode well for her. It seemed as if Blackthorne had come to a decision, and whatever that decision was, it wouldn't be to her benefit. She watched him, more covertly than he watched her, and considered the possibilities. She watched, and waited, dreading the moment when the coach would stop for the day. Even the torture of the endless travel was preferable to the uncertainty of what the night would bring. The hour was much advanced when they finally halted. The inn was a cut above the seedy hostelries they'd frequented in England, and if Ghislaine had been less anxious she would have wondered whether lodging was cheaper on the continent, or whether Blackthorne was no longer worried about the specter of pursuit. It was probably a combinationof the two, but as she sat alone in the private chamber, warmer and more spacious than its dark, dank English counterparts, she had other things to worry about. She paced the room, her arms hugged tightly around her, kicking her overlong skirts out of her way. There was no reason that tonight was going to be different from the other nights they'd spent since Blackthorne had carried her off. As Taverner had pointed out, she was hardly his type of female. There'd been a number of that sort, buxom, blond, and giggly, serving in the taproom-she'd spied two before Taverner had whisked her upstairs. It stood to reason that Blackthorne would find succor in their soft arms. It stood to reason, but she didn't believe it. He was coming for her tonight, she knew it. And he knew she knew. The tray of dinner, missing such a rudimentary utensil as a knife, bespoke it. She'd barely touched a thing. She'd left the glass of wine alone, needing all her wits. She'd kept him away this long. Surely she could dissuade or distract him one more time. The hours passed. The fire burned low in the hearth, and in the distance she could hear the sound of laughter from the taproom, the giggles floating upward through the thick timbers of the old inn. Her panic had all been for nothing. She kicked off Ell en's oversized slippers and climbed up onto the high bed. It was soft, freshsmelling, with fine linen sheets that would have done justice to Ainsley Hall. The bed was big, and it would be hers alone. She lay back, fully clothed, staring at the shadows on the wall. It wasn't disappointment she was feeling. Yes, it was, she admitted, determined to be honest with herself. Not disappointment that he wasn't going to make her the recipient of his disgusting attentions. But disappointment that the battle, so long in lingering, was still waiting to be joined. Sooner or later the simmering tension between them was going to explode. She'd been prepared for it, prepared to fight. To be left alone was anticlimactic. Of course it was a disappointment. She heard a shriek of laughter from belowstairs, and her small hands clenched into fists. Thank heaven for willing barmaids, she told herself devoutly, her nails digging into her palms. Thank heaven for one more night of reprieve. Thank heaven for… The sound of the door to her chamber stopped all notions of enforced thankfulness. Blackthorne strolled in, casual, elegant in the candlelight, and the shadows that played around his face made him look predatory. It was no illusion. Ghislaine sat up quickly, cursing her timing. If she'd simply held out another ten minutes she would have been ready to face him. Not lying in bed, vulnerable. He smiled at her. It wasn't reassuring. That smile was simply a small, mocking curve to his thin lips, and it didn't reach his eyes. "You don't mind if I lock the door, do you?" he murmured, doing so without waiting for her assent. "I don't want us to be disturbed tonight. Not that anyone would be fool enough to do so. I have a certain reputation, even in the back of beyond. Most people would think twice about crossing me." She edged back against the head of the bed. There was no light in his face, no tenderness or mercy. He was going to have her, and nothing she could say or do would stop him.

She had to give it one last try. "You don't really want me," she said, watching as he stripped off his elegant jacket. "You know you don't. If you want sex, why don't you avail yourself of the women downstairs? I'm sure they're much more willing and experienced." "I'm not interested in willing," Nicholas said, removing his neckcloth with long, patient fingers. "I want you." He sat down in the chair by the fire and proceeded to pull off his boots, no easy trick, considering their custom fit. She watched in fascination, knowing there was no place she could run to. He unfastened his shirt as he approached her, and he was very big in the darkness. This was no raddled old earl, no clumsy, plump butcher. This was her worst enemy, a man of dangerous beauty and lethal charm. A man who wanted to hurt her, to punish her. A man who would do so by giving her pleasure, if he could. Her only defense was to make certain there was no pleasure. She eyed him stonily. "Don't do this." His smile was gently mocking. "You knew it would come to this, sooner or later." He reached out and touched a strand of her long chestnut hair. "Didn't you?" She refused to answer, and he tugged, a sharp little jerk. "Didn't you?" he said again, his voice deceptively soft. "I can't stop you." He shook his head in agreement. "You can threaten to kill me, you can threaten to kill yourself, you can kick and scream and fight me if you've a mind to. But you can't stop me." "All right then." He stared at her, momentarily startled, and dropped the lock of hair. "All right then?" he echoed. "I can't stop you. I've no fancy for being forced. Go ahead." She pushed herself back down on the bed, arms stiff at her sides, staring at the ceiling, and waited. She'd hoped to call his bluff. It was useless. She felt his fingers at the buttons that traveled down the front of Ell en's oversized day dress, felt the coolness of the night air as he undid the fastenings one by one. "You don't need to do this," she said through clenched teeth. "All that's necessary is to lift my skirts." The soft sound of laughter didn't warm her. "Had some experience, have you? I don't want just what's between your legs, ma mie. I want your entire body." He pulled her to a sitting position, pushing the dress off her shoulders. "My body is at your disposal, monsieur," she said politely, not aiding him as he undressed her. The chemise was made of fine lawn. It reached her knees, and she found herself hoping he'd have the decency to leave her that much. He didn't. He rolled down the white silk stockings and tossed them away, then stripped the chemise from her body, until she lay there naked, forcing herself not to move as he watched her out of those dangerous, hooded eyes. "You're very small, my pet," he murmured, not touching her, his eyes drifting down over her small, rounded breasts, her flat stomach. "One might almost think you were still fifteen. I can remember it as if it were yesterday…" He couldn't have picked words more suited to enrage her. "Bastard!" she hissed, lunging for some covering. "I'll never be fifteen again. I hate you, I hate you…" He hauled her back, covering her body with his, pressing her down into the soft mattress, and where his shirt was open she could feel his hot flesh against her skin, and she shivered in the shadows. "You'll never be fifteen again," he agreed, staring at her, his eyes glittering. The weight of him, resting against her, was doing strange and terrifying things to her insides. She could feel his arousal pressed against her, and the reality of it was suddenly more than she could stand. "For the love of God, Nicholas," she whispered. "Don't do this to me. For pity's sake, leave me alone." For a moment he didn't move, and she allowed herself a brief flare of hope that one last time she'd found the words to deflect him. That hope vanished as he slowly shook his head. "Whatever gave you the notion that I had any pity in me? Any love of God, any decency? I'm a wicked man, Ghislaine.

And I'm about to prove to you how truly wicked I am." He dropped his head down, blotting out the fitful light, and put his mouth against hers. She bucked against him in one last attempt to throw him off, but he ignored her, his mouth open against hers, kissing her deeply, his tongue invading her mouth, his hands holding her head still even as her fists flailed against him. It was a losing battle, and she knew it. Not because he was too strong, not because he could overpower her. If she kept fighting him it might still be enough to stop him. Despite his assertion that he was truly wicked, she didn't really believe he would rape her. It was a losing battle simply because she knew she couldn't fight him. His mouth was too sweet on hers, calling forth a response that had stayed buried deep inside. The more she struggled, the freer her emotions were. The more she fought against his kiss, the more she wanted it. Somehow her arms had become entwined around his neck. Somehow she'd slanted her mouth beneath his, accepting his kiss, her body softening against his hard one, ready to accept that too. His hands slid down and cupped her small breasts, and she heard her instinctive moan of pleasure from a distance. Heard it with mounting horror. •She forced herself to drop her arms to the bed beside her body. Forced herself to slow her breathing, to lie still beneath him. He lifted his head to stare down at her, his eyes glittering with anger and frustration, and she met his gaze with stony impassivity. "Is this your final defense?" he asked, his voice roughened in the darkness. "You're going to lie there and ignore me while I have my wicked way with you? It won't work." She controlled her start of shock that he'd seen through her so easily. "Do whatever you like," she said, her own voice a husky betrayal. "I can't stop you." "You can't fool me either," he said. "There are some ways you can't control your body." And he put his mouth on her breast. She jerked, her fingers clenching the sheets beneath her, trying to force herself to keep still as inevitable streaks of desire raced through her. Desperately she tried to bring the dark, safe place back, but it was elusive. There was no place to escape to; there was just the darkness and Nicholas's strong body pressing against hers, his mouth on her breasts, his long fingers running down over her stomach, between her legs, so that she jerked again, forcing herself not to fight him. He lifted his head, and her breast was cold and damp in the night air. He slid his long fingers into her, and she dug her heels into the mattress as well, biting down hard on her lip. "Another way your body can't lie," he whispered, leaning forward and touching her tight lips with his tongue. She couldn't, wouldn't ask him to stop. He was doing things to her no man had ever done, touching her in ways that astonished and frightened her, his fingers sliding deep in her damp, fiery heat, his thumb rubbing against her, sending irresistible tendrils of longing threading through her. And then he was looming over her, between her legs, and he'd unfastened his breeches. She wouldn't watch him in the darkness as he took his revenge, took her. She closed her eyes, and tried to call for that cocoon of safety that had always been there. She reached for it, and it vanished, like mist, as he pressed against her, pushing between her legs, filling her with a sure deep thrust that shoved her back against the bed. For a moment he lay still, covering her with his larger body, his open shirt around them both, and she shivered. This wasn't what she'd remembered. This invasion was more devastating, more overwhelming. This time there was no escape, as he began to move, pulling away from her and then thrusting in, deep, so that her hips arched up against him with age-old instinct. She told herself to pretend he was Porcin, hunched and sweating over her. She told herself he was the old earl, stinking of garlic. She couldn't convince herself. Not when his hands stroked her breasts, his mouth danced against hers. Not when she could feel the betrayal of her own longing building deep inside her, where their bodies joined. She told herself to fight it, but when she squirmed against him it simply brought him in deeper, harder; and her treasonous body reacted in mindless joy. Her self-control was shattering, and she wanted him, needed him, needed his body, needed his mouth against hers, needed his hands on her breasts, needed something, and she couldn't begin to know what it was.

She wouldn't give in to it. Her one revenge was her remoteness, and he was stripping it away from her. She shook her head, in negation of his power over her, but he was, as he said, merciless. "Don't fight it, my angel," he whispered, his voice a mockery. "I'm not going to finish with you until you come." She whimpered then, and hated herself for doing so. He covered her mouth with his, and like a fool she kissed him back, as his hair fell around them both, curtaining them in darkness. He reached down and caught her hips, pulling her up against him, and then his body went rigid in her arms, and she felt the flooding of a great warmth, one that for the first time was answered with her own warmth. And she wanted to cry, for the final innocence that was truly lost. She lay still beneath him, hating him, hating herself. Her face was wet with sweat and something she told herself could never be tears, as she tried to calm her pounding heart, tried to slow her racing breath. He lay atop her, still partially clothed, and she could feel the shudder that ran through his body. And then he pulled himself away from her, climbing from the bed, not bothering to fasten his clothing as he stared down at her. She couldn't look at him. Couldn't face him, or her own foolish betrayal. She curled up in a ball, shoving her fist in her mouth to stop her moan of anguish, and shut her eyes. The soft linen sheet settled over her, tossed by impatient hands. A moment later she heard the lock in the door, heard it slam behind him. And listened as the key turned once more, sealing her in there. At least he hadn't stayed with her. At least he'd left her, to mourn her defeat at his hands. He'd won. He'd had his revenge, and it was more powerful than she could have imagined. He'd stripped away the illusion that her flesh was invulnerable. Even worse, he'd stripped away the illusion that her heart was stone. God, she hated him! Hated his arrogance, his coldness, his devastating efficiency with her body. But most of all she hated the expression she'd seen on his face, a brief, fleeting emotion that vanished as soon as it appeared, vanished before she'd closed her eyes and turned away from him. It had been remorse. Bleak, black remorse. And in that brief moment of feeling he'd destroyed whatever vengeance she might have planned. She hated him, with all her heart and soul. But because of him, she found she still had a heart and soul. And they belonged to him. He wouldn't come back that night, she knew it. He might even head on to Venice, leaving her behind. It would be the best thing for both of them. She could only lie in bed, her body still damp and tingling, and hope that for once God would show her some mercy. That she might be abandoned by the man she was fool enough still to love, and never see him again. The taproom was deserted when Nicholas walked in, silent in his stockinged feet. He'd pulled his clothes together, but just barely, refastening his breeches and pulling his shirt about him. Tavvy must have availed himself of one or both of the maids, their host was abed, and he was alone in the darkness. He dropped down before the banked fire. The Dutch were ever a clean race, he thought with a weary grimace. Everything spotless, tidied away for the night, including his bottle of brandy. It didn't matter. All the brandy in the world wouldn't wash away the memory of Ghislaine curled up in that bed, trembling with misery. All the brandy in the world wouldn't wash away his self-loathing. She'd won, of course. He hadn't been able to make her come-his own raging needs had taken him over the edge, for the first time in his memory. And the damnable thing about it was that she didn't realize she'd won. The pleasure he'd given her had been far more than she'd ever wanted to accept from him, even if she hadn't reached her peak. He'd still managed to show her how helpless she truly was when she was up against him. He ought to be proud of himself, he thought with a sour smile. If he had a spark of decency left he'd leave her behind tomorrow. Settle as much of his dwindling pocket money as he could with the landlord, and never have to face her again. But he knew perfectly well that any spark of decency was long gone. He was going to keep her with him; he was going to keep her in his bed. He was going to make love to her every time he could, until he was able to ride her out of his system. And ride him out of hers.

Because otherwise they might just end up destroying each other. And while he had no fears for his own worthless hide, he'd just been reprieved from believing her murdered during the Terror. He wasn't about to let her be destroyed now. Particularly by his own hands.

Chapter 19
“But, Tony," Ell en said in a plaintive voice, struggling to keep up with him as he moved with inexorable speed through the elegant halls of Vienna's best hotel. "Why did you tell them we were married?" Tony halted his headlong pace, and Ell en barreled past him, coming to an abrupt halt. "Because, dear one," he said with great patience, "Vienna is not devoid of English society at the moment. We need to do our best to preserve your reputation." "I would think it was long gone, Tony," she said with great frankness. "We've been alone, unchaperoned, for more than two weeks now. We've traveled across Scotland, sailed to the continent, and made it all the way to Austria without either my maid or your valet. I think," she said cheerfully, "I'm ruined." "Oblige me by not announcing it to the world," he said under his breath, taking her arm in his and hurrying her past the curious guests. "We might still manage the ruse if we're very circumspect." "I can be discreet," Ell en said in a hurt tone of voice. "Dearest, you are the most transparent female I have ever known. Subtlety and deceit are beyond your capabilities. You'll simply have to trust me to keep gossips away from you. I'm going to want you to stay in the hotel, in your room, while I go out and see what I can discover. I can't imagine why Nicholas would have brought Ghislaine to Vienna, but since those people we questioned in the inn overheard them discussing it, and since it was our only lead, we had no choice but to take it. If you'd only agreed to return home…" "But I couldn't, Tony!" Ell en wailed as Tony unlocked the gilt and white door to the hotel suite. "After we'd come so far, I simply couldn't just give up on them. I would have come on alone…" "I know you would have," he said in a long-suffering voice, closing the door behind them. "Which is why I'm here with you. It's bad enough I've aided in the destruction of your reputation. I'm not going to abandon you besides." "Dear Tony," she said. "You take these things too seriously." She glanced around her at the elegantly appointed drawing room. "This is lovely," she said, moving over to inhale the fragrance of the roses in the crystal vase. "Do you realize I've never been in a hotel before?" "What about Paris?" he inquired, stripping off his gloves and hat. "You visited for a while, after…" "After I was jilted?" she supplied with surprising equanimity. For some reason the old pain had vanished, melted away. One more shameful reminder that it had simply been her pride, not her heart, that was wounded. "I did. But I stayed with one of Lizzie's cousins. Tell me, is it very noisy in a hotel?" "Not any worse than a country inn, Ell en. Just a little grander." "You know, Tony, I like it," she said naively. "Do you suppose we might stay a few days once we retrieve Ghislaine? She'll provide an admirable chaperon, and we won't need to worry about gossips." "Let's worry about that after I locate the missing couple," Tony said repressively, moving past her and glancing into the bedroom beyond. Whatever he saw displeased him, for he turned back to her with a fearsome scowl on his face. "I'm going out to see what I can discover. I don't want you to leave this room." "You sound like my father," she grumbled, making a face. "And it's a tragedy you never learned to obey him," he shot back. "Now that's where you're dead wrong. I've been a meek, obedient female most of my life. A dutiful daughter, a helpful sister, a dependable friend. And I'm going to end my days a meek, kindly aunt to all my hopeful nieces and nephews. Surely one brief fling of madness will be overlooked in such an otherwise respectable life," she said. His scowl lifted for a moment as he stared at her for a long moment. "Is that how you see your life?"

he asked softly. She didn't want to look at him. These last few days her longing for him had grown to unmanageable proportions, longing for his comfort, his humor, his tenderness. Longing for something more, something she didn't dare put a name to, something that was set off by too long a perusal of his tall, muscular form, his handsome face, his sleepy eyes and lazy smile. She turned and walked to the large window, staring out at the elegant park surrounding the hotel. "That's the lot of most women," she said. "We do as we're told, we abide by other people's decisions, we're tossed back and forth with no choice of our own. We listen to our parents, our brothers, our husbands, and then our children. We do what's expected of us." "You don't have a husband." She turned and glanced at him then, but his expression was bland, unreadable. "No, I don't." "It was a lucky escape. Purser wouldn't have done for you, you know. He was a prosy little bore, a bully, with little wit or grace. He would have immured you in some parsonage with a half a dozen brats and spent your inheritance. You could have done far better." "I had no better offers," she said, unable to keep a mournful note out of her voice. "Besides, I like children." "So do I." She stared at him, uncomprehending. Before she could ask him what he meant, he sketched a bow. "I'm not certain when I'll return. You will stay indoors, won't you?" She cast a longing look at the bright sunshine beyond the window. "If you insist," she said reluctantly. "I insist." She remained at the window, half her mind registering the sound of the closing door. There were people outside, well-dressed, happy-looking people, including children. All in all, this adventure hadn't been nearly as dangerous as she had expected it to be. To be sure, Tony's company was far from peaceful. Being cooped up in his presence for day after day had proved dangerously exhilarating. But the pleasure of Tony's presence carried its own form of frustration. Trapped with her in the carriage, then on shipboard, he'd been punctiliously correct, and all her efforts at teasing him had gotten her nowhere. She could trace it back to that night in Scotland,the night they'd shared a bed. She wasn't sure what else they'd shared, and she'd been too shy to inquire. When she woke the next morning, her head was pounding, her mouth was tender, and her heart was aching. She was alone in the decrepit little hovel, with Tony's coat thrown over her for warmth. And she almost thought she could remember the feel of his hands on her; gentle, deft, arousing. She'd found him outside, in conversation with Danvers, who'd arrived with a fresh team of horses and a cold breakfast. Tony hadn't met her eyes at first, and when he did, he'd been cool and proper, friendly but distant. The perfect family friend. Not during the endless travel across the sea to Germany, or the long miles down to Vienna, had he ever alluded to that night. And something had kept her own unruly tongue silent, for fear she wouldn't like what she'd discover. She wasn't afraid to find that he'd despoiled her while she'd been in her cups. She was more afraid he hadn't been interested. She'd teased him about being staid and respectable, more to remind herself that his interest in her was brotherly than from an actual belief in his stuffiness, but ever since Scotland he'd lived up to her teasing. He'd been quiet, sober, almost repressive, watching her with an odd expression in his calm gray eyes. He didn't tease her, didn't flirt with her, barely touched her in the polite manner most gentleman used to assist a lady. In all, he treated her as if she were poison, and she couldn't blame him. After all, she'd trapped him into this dilemma. He must know perfectly well that society would hold him responsible for her ruined reputation. He must also know that society and her brother, his best friend, would dictate only one remedy. She wouldn't do it to him. She wouldn't marry him, no matter how many people insisted that she should. She'd rather live in retirement, in ignominy, than to do that to the man she loved.

He needed a pretty little child, one just out of the schoolroom, to adore him without question, to present him with a large family. He didn't need her. She wasn't convinced it would come to that. They had met no one during their travels, and since she already lived a great deal retired, it was unlikely that society would note her disappearance. Sir Antony was a different matter, but men's actions weren't questioned as closely. And Lizzie would cover for her, even if Carmichael was in a rage over the affair. Lizzie was placid, affectionate, and knew how to manage even the most domineering of males, which her brother, Carmichael, certainly was not. Carmichael might fret and fume, but Lizzie would see that everything was covered up neatly. All she had to do, Ell en thought mournfully, was stay put. Stay cooped up in this admittedly spacious hotel suite on a bright sunny day, when she longed to feel the warmth of the sun, the fresh spring breeze blowing through her hair. Surely Tony would never know if she made just a brief foray out into the afternoon warmth. She glanced around the suite, looking at the room beyond, and remembered Tony's scowl. What had displeased him so greatly? She pushed open the door and stood staring, perplexed. There was nothing but a bedroom, an elegant, tasteful bedroom, with an extremely large bed, piled high with silk pillows. It looked more than comfortable. So why had Tony scowled? Her clothes had already been unpacked by the efficient staff of the hotel. She moved to the cupboard, seeking a light shawl, and then jumped back in shock. Her small valise had been unpacked, her clothing stored neatly on the shelves. Side by side with Tony's fresh linen. She slammed the door shut. It had to have been a mistake. And yet she knew, deep inside, that it wasn't. Tony had registered them as Mr. and Mrs. Smythe-Jones of London. He'd frowned at the bed. He was going to share this suite with her. Lord knew, the poor man probably thought he would be forced to share the bed with her as well. She'd set his mind at ease. Knowing Tony, she was sure his decision to share her suite would be unshakable and quite sound. A large cosmopolitan city such as Vienna was not the place for a woman to be without protection, even in as elegant a place as this hotel. He would only be thinking of her. She'd insist he take the bed, and she'd make do on the sofa in the salon. She was a large female, but he was a much larger male, and he'd need that oversized bed. He'd argue, of course, but this time she wouldn't give in. Dear Tony, she thought, feeling a sudden stinging in her eyes. So determined to do the best thing, forced to bestir himself when he would be much happier in London, living his pleasant life of clubs and horses and balls. In trying to rescue Gilly, she'd brought Tony to the edge of disaster as well. It was going to be a close thing, extricating all of them from the morass Nicholas Blackthorne had tossed them into. She almost hoped Tony would kill him in a duel. No, she didn't. For one thing, Nicholas might very well kill Tony-he had already been proven to be both deadly and unscrupulous. For another, Tony was not the killing sort. If he did put a period to Nicholas's wretched, troublemaking existence, it would cause an unavoidable scandal. If luck was finally with them, Tony would manage to spirit Gilly back to her. She and Gilly could share the bedroom, Tony could take an adjoining room, propriety would be satisfied; and while Carmichael might fret and fume, there would be no need for noble sacrifices on Tony's part. And as the long, empty years stretched out in front of her, she'd remember her adventure, and the way Tony sometimes seemed to look at her, as if she weren't just an aunt or a sister or a daughter, but a woman. The one thing she wasn't going to do was spend the entire day immured in the hotel suite. They'd been cooped up in a carriage since early morning, and for days before that. She intended a short, decorous stroll in the sunshine. If anyone accosted her, she would simply give them the cut direct, freeze them from speaking to her. And Tony need never know. It was cooler outside than she'd imagined, and for a moment she wished she'd brought her shawl.

She'd been unable to open that damning cupboard again, too unsettled by the sight of their snowy linen side by side, and she wrapped her arms around her as the wind whipped her skirts back against her legs. For a moment she was tempted to turn around and retreat, but the thought of those long years stretching out in front of her stopped her. She'd come halfway across Europe to rescue her best friend. Surely she wasn't going to be intimidated by a little fresh air and company. She set off resolutely, determined to make good use of her time, when a voice broke through her abstraction. A familiar, British voice. One that filled her with dread. "I say, it's Lady Ell en, isn't it?" The arch tones floated over to her. She'd made the mistake of halting at the first sound of a genteel "yoo-hoo," and she couldn't very well pretend not to hear. "Lady Ell en Fitzwater?" Ell en turned, and her heart sank to her slippered feet. Of all the people to have run into, endless miles from home, Augusta Arbuthnot was the absolute worst. She plastered a correct smile on her face as she advanced to the woman seated on a marble bench, wrapped in layers and layers of clothing. "Lady Arbuthnot," she murmured, taking the clawlike hand in her own shamefully ungloved one. "What a pleasure to see you. I had no idea you were in Vienna." "My husband was posted here last year," she said with an airy little wave of her plump hand. "It's a lucky thing for me our house is being painted. I can't stand the fumes, so Burris and I are spending the week at the hotel. If we hadn't been, I might not have run into you. My daughter will be so pleased to see you." Lady Arbuthnot was one of the most malicious gossips ever to frequent London. The daughter of a duke, she took great pleasure in making certain that those who were honored by her company lived up to her very strict standards. Those who failed to do so were given the cut direct. Ell en had always basked in her approval until she'd made the unprecedented move of retiring on her own to the country, but Lady Arbuthnot appeared to overlook such shocking behavior in her pleasure at discovering a fell ow countrywoman, one who might be possessed of the latest gossip from England. "How is Cordelia?" Ell en asked desperately, shivering in the bright sunlight, hoping and praying there might be a chance she could squeak through this encounter. It was a vain hope. Lady Arbuthnof s eyes had narrowed as she took in Ell en's ungloved hand. "Where is your maid, my dear?" she inquired in a steely voice. "And who has accompanied you this far away from your home? Am I to have the pleasure of seeing your sister-in-law Fitzwater this afternoon?" "Lizzie's in England. She's about to have another-" Lady Arbuthnot's face grew positively icy as Ell en almost committed the unforgivable breach of mentioning pregnancy in polite society. "Then who has accompanied you?" she asked flatly. Ell en's mind was an absolute blank as she searched for real or fictional relatives who could be cast on the altar of Lady Arbuthnot's curiosity. "I… er… that is…" she stammered, feeling her face flush. "I see," Lady Arbuthnot said, rising to her full height, many inches lower than Ell en's miserable form, staring past her, her narrow eyes dark with outrage. "I am horrified." She turned and stalked away, just as her daughter Cordelia came toward them, a welcoming smile wreathing her pretty face. Her mother caught her as she was about to reach Ell en, yanking her back with a few hissed words. The smile vanished from Cordelia's face, and a moment later she was whisked away from her old friend's contaminating presence. "Didn't I warn you to stay in your room?" Tony's voice came from behind her, sounding infinitely weary. Ell en blinked the tears away from her eyes before turning to face him. "You did. And now I've ruined everything. You have every right to be furious, Tony," she said unhappily. "But I couldn't…" "I'm not furious, sweetheart," he said gently, reaching up and brushing a stray tear from her cheek. "But don't you think we ought to go back to the room while I inform you of the latest twist? I'm afraid my news isn't promising." She sighed, managing a brave smile, knowing her foolish action had sunk them both. "All in all if s a miserable day," she said, taking his arm as he led her back into the hotel.

Tony glanced at the setting sun. "The day's not over yet," he murmured with a wry smile. "We might still be able to salvage something." He waited until they were back in the room, waited until she composed herself sufficiently, so that her blue eyes were only faintly shiny from tears. He wanted to strangle that odious bitch Arbuthnot. He wanted to pull Ell en into his arms, carry her into that damnable bedroom, and make love to her until her tears were forgotten. He vibrated with frustration and impatience, and it took all his selfcontrol to keep from touching her, to move to the chair and sit, seemingly at ease, as she paced agitatedly around the room. "They're in Venice," he said without preamble. "Not Vienna." "Oh, no, Tony!" she cried. "They can't be!" "They can. I stopped in at an old friend's house, one who can be counted on for the latest gossip. Apparently they've just arrived in Italy. He's been seen squiring her around on his arm, and Carstairs informs me he's heard they're very cozy. I don't think our rescue is needed or wanted." She didn't move. Her face grew very still, and tears began to fall; silent, heartbreaking tears. He'd always thought he hated women who cried. Carlotta, his erstwhile mistress, had used her tears judiciously, to entice a new trinket from him. His sisters had used tears to get him into trouble, his mother to make him feel guilty. He stared at Ell en's tears, entranced. "Oh, Tony," she said with a wail, "I don't believe it. I don't know what he's done to her, to make her submit to him." "I can imagine," Tony said dryly. "But I've ruined you. Lady Arbuthnot's the worst gossip in the world, and she's accepted everywhere. Everyone will hear about this, and we haven't even been able to rescue Gilly…" He interrupted this torrent of misery, rising from his seat and crossing to her. He still didn't touch her, afraid if he offered her comfort it would all too soon turn into something a bit more mutual, and he wasn't sure she was ready for that. Even though he'd been achingly, desperately ready for what seemed like centuries. "We leave for Venice in the morning," he said calmly. She stopped her lamentation. "We do?" "You're not going to rest easy until you see her yourself, are you? And I don't know that Vienna is the best place to stay, considering your recent encounter. We'll disappear, deny we've ever been here, and perhaps they'll think Lady Arbuthnot is a liar." "Tony." She shook her head. "That will never work. I'm well and truly in the soup. If I'd just stayed out of sight, as you told me to, this wouldn't have happened. No one would have even noticed I wasn't at Ainsley Hall for the last few weeks, and no one pays attention to what a bachelor may do. I don't mind so much for myself, but I hate to embroil you in something tawdry." "There's nothing tawdry about it." The time had come, and he knew it. For the first time in his life it wasn't indolence that kept him from exerting himself; it was plain, old-fashioned panic, such as he hadn't felt in years. What if she said no? "The thing is, Ell en," he said, his voice sounding curiously rough, and he put his hands on her arms and turned her unresisting body to face him, "that I…" His declaration was halted by the sound of an imperious knock on the door. He released her, stepping back. "You what, Tony?" she asked, not moving, suddenly intent. "I'd best answer the door," he said, moving away from her. "Finish what you were going to say." She came after him, crossing the room with swift grace. "I'd rather do so when we're unlikely to be interrupted," he said wryly, opening the gilt and white door. He almost slammed it shut again. Lady Arbuthnot was standing there, staring at the two of them, her beady little eyes glittering with excitement. "My dear!" she crooned, pushing the door open, slamming it against Tony's nose as she embraced the shocked Ell en against her massive bosom. "Why didn't you explain? I just received last week's Times, and I feel like a perfect harridan, jumping to such a noxious conclusion. But my dear, a simple word would have set my mind at ease."

Ell en stood helplessly in her embrace, at a loss for words, backing away when the old harpy released her. Milady advanced on Tony, a copy of the paper in her hand, which she used to bat him with arch coyness. "And you, dear boy. Very naughty of you. I understand, of course. I was young once myself, I know how romance can be. Fortunate for you I'm discreet, for of course I hadn't mentioned my shocking suspicions, and never would have," she said piously. "But I'm so pleased to find out the truth. I couldn't be happier!" she said with a mendacious sigh. Tony, having been the recipient of her matchmaking attentions for her older daughter, managed a tight smile. "You're very kind." "Cordelia will love to see you," she sailed on, turning back to the bemused Ell en. "Perhaps for lunch tomorrow?" "We're heading on to Venice tomorrow," Tony said smoothly. "I'm sure they can spend some time together when we get back to London." Lady Arbuthnot's smile hardened for a moment. "That would be so delightful." Once more she swooped down on Ell en, dragging her into her embrace. "All my felicitations, dear girl. I know you'll be very happy." And then she was gone, leaving the week-old edition of the London Times in Tony's hand. He shut the door behind her very quietly, turning the key so that there would be no further interruptions. His neckcloth felt too tight, the room was stifling hot, and Ell en was staring at him in complete astonishment, her mouth slightly open. He wanted to kiss that mouth, feel it open further beneath his. "I… I don't understand," she said faintly. "I imagine I do." He handed her the paper, then strolled over to the window, waiting for her reaction. There was a long silence. "It says here we're married," she said in a dull voice. "Carmichael sent in the notice." "Yes," he agreed in a noncommittal voice. "Oh, God, Tony," she said miserably, "I'm so sorry! How could Carmichael do such a thing! To railroad you into this… I'll deny everything, of course. Say it was a hoax, make Carmichael retract it…" "I asked Carmichael to do it." "We can-what?" She stopped in the middle of her tirade. "You what?" "I asked him to do it." "No, Tony!" He looked at her. She looked quite miserable, his Ell en did, her eyes red with tears, her mouth trembling slightly. "Yes, Ell en. From the moment we left Ainsley Hall it was the obvious solution. There was no way you could spend even one night with an unmarried man without your reputation being ruined." "You told me no one would have to know! You said-" "I said no one would know that I didn't want to know. The fact that you informed your brother was sufficient. He knows me well enough to know I would do the right thing. There might be a bit of gossip when we arrive back in London, but nothing that two respectable souls like us can't sail through." "I won't do it." He stared at her for a moment. "Won't do what, my dear?" "I won't marry you." She looked stubborn, and very, very angry. This was going to be even more difficult than he had imagined. "Certainly you will," he said calmly, controlling his own temper. "You have no choice." "That7s exactly why I won't marry you. I won't have you forced by society into a miserable marriage of convenience when your heart lies elsewhere." A wry smiled curved his mouth. "And just where are you imagining my heart lies?" She looked confused for a moment. "Well, I guess it's not with Carlotta," she said, considering it. "I suppose you simply haven't given it yet. But sooner or later you'll find someone…" "I already have," he said, very gently.

She simply stared at him. "You can't wish to marry me," she said. "I've ruined myself, destroyed my reputation past repairing…" "Since I helped destroy it, I should rightfully reap some of the benefits." He was moving toward her, carefully, so as not to startle her into flight. This was proving a bit more tricky than he'd imagined. "I won't marry you," she said miserably, staring at the floor, unaware of his approach. "I won't…" He reached her, pulling her into his arms. "You certainly will. I've been doing my level best to court you for the last year and a half, and you've been ignoring all my overtures. You didn't maneuver me into this-quite the opposite. I knew the moment we set off in search of Ghislaine that the outcome would be marriage, and I expected it would save me a great deal of bother. I was wrong," he added with a wry smile. "I'm afraid you're going to be a great deal of bother indeed." She looked up at him, her eyes awash in misery. "No, Tony. I won't trap you into marriage, and I won't marry you because mean old harpies like Lady Arbuthnot jump to indecent conclusions. You haven't offered me the slightest insult, I've been as safe and protected as if I were with my uncle, and you're just trying to flatter me because you've got an overwhelming sense of duty, but it won't work! We've done nothing wrong, and there's no reason for us to marry." He stared at her in mute frustration. "There are any number of reasons for us to marry," he began, but she overrode him. "I won't be married because society jumps to false conclusions," she said firmly, obviously quite pleased with her reasoning, "Very well," he said after a long considering moment. And he scooped her up in his arms, heading through the double doors to the bedroom'

Chapter 20
She was no featherweight, but shock kept Ell en from struggling too much. "What are you doing?" she demanded as he set her down on the high, wide bed that had been tormenting him since he first set eyes on it. "If you won't marry me because you haven't been truly ruined, then I have no choice but to ruin you." He shrugged out of his coat and sent it sailing across the room. "And I'm damned sick and tired of being compared to some mythical uncle of yours, when my feelings have never been the faintest bit avuncular. I'm a man, Ell en. A man who wants you, and intends to have you." "Tony!" she said in astonishment, staring up at him. Her golden-blond hair had come loose from its pins, and it was hanging down her back in the most delectable manner. He wanted to bury his face in that hair, and the thought that he was now about to do so made his fingers clumsy as they yanked and tore at his neckcloth. She didn't scramble away from him as he sat down on the bed and began to remove his boots. "You're being ridiculous, Tony," she said, getting to her knees beside him. One boot hit the floor. "You know you don't want to marry me. You think of me as a sister." The other boot landed with a thump, and he turned to her. "You really have no idea, do you?" he said. "No idea of what?" "What effect you have on me. Come here, Ell en." This time she did attempt to move out of his reach, crawling back, but he caught her quite easily, grasping her wrist and hauling her across the bed. She fell against him, and they landed back on the mattress, her delectable breasts pressing against his chest. "Tony, you don't…" she said breathlessly. "Ell en, I do," he said ruthlessly. And then his mouth silenced hers, as he kissed her as he'd longed to do, full and hard and deep, half-hoping to shock her into believing him. He shocked her, all right. She lay beneath him, very still, as he used his tongue, his teeth, his lips, teasing and toying with her, until her arms slid around his neck and she was kissing him back, with all the innocent enthusiasm he'd known she was capable of.

It took him a damnably long time to dispense with her clothes, and then his own. Her panic kept erupting at unfortunate intervals, when he slid her stockings off her long legs, when he put his mouth on her plump, rounded breast, when his hand moved between her thighs to toy with her tight curls. But each time he managed to soothe her, to seduce her past the next hurdle, until she was lying in his arms, her breath coming rapidly, her nipples peaks of desire in the hot room, her eyes closed as he knelt between her beautiful white thighs, pressing against her, his dampness and hers making her ready, more than ready. "I don't want to hurt you, love," he murmured in her ear, trying to slow his inexorable invasion. He was covered with sweat; his muscles were shaking with the incredible control he was exerting. Her eyes flew open as she realized what he was doing. "Tony!" she whispered. And then her voice rose to a tiny shriek as he broke past her maidenhead and sank all the way into her velvet tightness. "Tony!" "Hold still," he gasped in her ear, pressing her against the bed. "Don't move." She did as he ordered, stopping her unhappy squirming and lying very still beneath him. Even without moving, the feel of her, the smell of her, were almost enough to send him over the edge. He gripped the sheets in his hands, determined not to ruin this for her. Slowly he felt a faint trace of control return. "I'm not sure I like this," Ell en announced in a quiet, practical voice. "If this is the way you're going to talk me into marrying you, I don't think it's going to work." He lifted his head to look down at her. She appeared aggrieved, and utterly delectable, the haze of desire fading from her eyes. He was about to put it back. "Ell en," he said pleasantly, "shut up." He arched into her, and she let out a faint cry. He hoped it wasn't all pain, but he couldn't retreat at this moment. Not for his sake, and not for hers. He moved again, a rhythmic thrusting, and his hands clutched the bed more tightly as he struggled to control himself. The bed, the large, expensive bed, in the best hotel in Vienna, squeaked beneath them. Her arms came up around his neck, her hips arched up to meet his, and he could feel the beginnings of a response from her, the faint tremors, and he knew he couldn't let her lose it. He reached down between their bodies and touched her, deftly, and received the reaction he'd longed for. She convulsed around him, her nails digging into his back, her body arching off the bed, and he had to still the cry that came from her mouth with his. A moment later he joined her, no longer able to hold back, pouring himself into her, body and soul. He collapsed against her, knowing he was too big a man to make her support his full weight, too exhausted to be gentlemanly. When he recovered enough to try to pull away, she simply clung more tightly, her tear-damp face hidden against his shoulder. "Don't leave," she whispered in a very shy voice. He never would have thought his Ell en would be shy. He tried to take some of the weight off her, but she was big woman, made for a man like him. He lifted his head to look at her, and she tried to turn her head, obviously embarrassed. "We can't have this," he murmured softly, and began kissing her eyelid, her cheekbone, her nose, the tear streaks that marked her pale skin. He kissed the side of her mouth, gently, teasingly, until she had no choice but to turn her head and kiss him back, fully, her arms tight around him. This time when he lifted his head to look down at her, she didn't look away. 'That's better," he murmured, threading his fingers through her hair. "Have I convinced you?" "Convinced me of what?" Her voice sounded weak, shy, and tremulous, and he wondered how long he'd have to wait before he could have her again. "That you have to marry me." She was a fighter, he had to give her that. A frown creased her brow beneath the tangled blond hair. "Just because…" "Among other reasons. I've just given you my best demonstration of one major reason why I want to marry you, and if it wasn't sufficient, I'd be more than happy to show you again." "Again?" she asked weakly. "I'm not sure if I could stand it."

"We'll give you time to recover," he said, dropping a light kiss on her sweat-damp shoulder. "Don't be silly, Ell en. If you don't marry me, Carmichael will have to call me out, and I don't fancy fighting a duel with my best friend." "Is that why you want to marry me?" she asked naively. "Along with"-she made a weak, shy gesture toward the bed they still shared-"that?" "That, my pet, is called making love. There are a great many other terms for it, some not so nice, some quite stimulating, but when you and I do it, it's indisputably making love. And that's why we're getting married. Not because Carmichael will cut my liver out. Not because the Lady Arbuthnots of this world will blacken our reputations. And not because what we do in bed is incredibly delightful. We're not getting married because I just deflowered you, or because you graciously bestowed your favors on me." He'd managed to coax a smile from her. "Then why are we getting married?" He wanted to shout his triumph to the sky at her first admission that that was what they'd be doing. "Because I'm in love with you, my sweet. Have been since before you were idiotic enough to get yourself engaged to that prosy little bore. It just takes me a little while to get to the point." "I should kill you," she said flatly, not at all overjoyed by his declaration. "Do you know how much trouble you would have saved if you'd said something sooner?" "True," he admitted. "But once I bestir myself, you'll have to admit I'm exceedingly efficient." She smiled then, a slow, sweet smile that was the most erotic thing he'd ever seen in his life. He groaned, climbing off her, and it was with great reluctance that she released him. "I've made tentative arrangements for an English cleric to marry us," he said, gathering his clothes. "I'm sorry we couldn't wait for St. Paul's, with your brother in attendance, but I'm afraid once we took off on our own, that was out of the question." She sat up, wrapping the cover around her body, watching him with unabashed curiosity, and he knew a sudden, unprecedented moment of doubt. He turned back to her. "You will marry me, won't you? You haven't really recovered from your infatuation eight years ago, have you?" "Of course I have," she said, and he knew a sudden sinking feeling. "My schoolgirl crush matured into a full-blown, unrequited passion." He grinned at her, then crossed back and leaned over the bed to kiss her; a brief, possessive kiss. "Not unrequited," he said. "Do you want me to see if I can get Miss Binnerston back?" "But she's with her sister." "Not exactly. I… er… had my man detain her. I'd hoped to contrive a sprained ankle for her, but I decided she might end up breaking her neck, so I had Higgins lock her in the room when we took off." "You had my companion kidnapped?" she said. "I'm afraid so," he admitted, wondering whether he was calling down her wrath upon his head. "I think you really do love me," she said in a wondering tone, reaching out to touch his face. It was her first caress, and he almost flattened her back against the bed there and then. The cleric, he reminded himself. "We'll recompense her," he said gruffly, controlling himself. "You really are a wicked man," she said in a pleased tone of voice. "Obviously you'll have to reform me," he said, eyes meekly downcast. '‟I‟ll take it as my life's work," she murmured, sliding down in the bed. "Find the cleric." Venice. A city built on poles in the midst of a lagoon, and the only way to reach it was by boat. Ghislaine would have almost preferred the remembered horrors of Paris to another bout of seasickness. This journey was mercifully short, the waters blessedly still, and when they disembarked at a wide square she managed to keep her riotous stomach under control. She glanced up at the tall man beside her. The trip across the continent, down to Italy, had been comparatively swift as they traveled through Hanover, Bavaria, and the Austrian Empire, assiduously avoiding France. They'd never traveled at a decorous speed, but in the last week or so he'd ordered a pace that was downright murderous. It was a wonder the coach hadn't overturned a dozen times. He'd come to her room the next night, in the darkness. She lay in the bed, still, silent, awaiting him, dreading him, longing for him.

She knew what she would do. She would master her body. If she couldn't escape into the darkness of her heart, she could at least hide her responses from him. She could lie still beneath him, force her breathing to stay even, keep her heart from racing, clench her hands to keep from pulling him more closely against her. She could turn her head away from his mouth, and he wouldn't force her. She could fool him into thinking she was untouched by what he did to her body. She could almost fool herself. He'd stared at her in the dimly lit room, his face dark and haunted. "A charming virgin sacrifice," he said, his voice cool and mocking. "You don't look as if you were longing for my return to your bed. Trust me, I can bring you much greater pleasure than I offered you last night." She kept her face still. The thought of pleasure at his hands was perhaps the most terrifying threat of all. "You have nothing to say, my love?" he taunted, moving to the side of the bed and touching her chin, tilting her face up to his. He leaned down and brushed his lips against hers, softly, tenderly, and Ghislaine could feel her heart twist inside her. Twist and shatter. He drew back, and his eyes were dark and tormented. 'It's up to you, Ghislaine. All you have to do is tell me to go." Her mouth was damp from his. Her skin felt hot, unbearably sensitive; her heart was pounding; and she wanted to reach up, thread her fingers through his long dark hair, and pull him down to her. "Go," she said, her voice clear and calm. And he turned and left, without another word. She sat motionless in the bed, shock and despair fighting with her relief. He was a man without honor. Why did he suddenly abide by his word? He didn't come to her room again. Didn't touch her. But there was no truce this time. It was an armed battle, ready to explode into passion at any moment. And Ghislaine didn't know if she dreaded that moment or longed for it. Nicholas strode ahead of her on the cobblestone walkway of Venice, glancing about him with weary disdain. She remained by the baggage, determined not to race after him, and he turned back to glance at her with a cool disinterest that was almost convincing. "You desire to stay outside all day, Mamzel e?" he inquired in that icy, mocking voice. "I would think you were weary of traveling." The very thought of staying put, even for a day, was too seductive for Ghislaine to fight. "Aren't you going to call a hack?" she asked faintly. His smile was mocking. "There are no horses in Venice, ma mie. No wheeled vehicles. If you wish to be transported to the Palazzo Verdi, then it will have to be by boat." "No boat," she gasped as her stomach rioted once more. "You mean that is the only form of transportation in this city?" "By water, my love. Or by foot." "I will need new shoes." "You will learn to ride the canals without casting up your accounts." "There are some things, my lord, that are beyond even your control," she said smartly. "What is the Palazzo Verdi?" "The palace of a friend of mine whose pockets are sufficiently empty to let that he'll trust my dubious credit." "A palace?" She gasped. "Venetian palaces are a great deal more seedy than the English or French sort," he said negligently. "Anyway, I'm an English gentleman. I needs must keep up appearances." Tavvy came up behind them, snorting. "You're going to need to come up with a bit more blunt," he said. "This racketing across Europe hasn't been any too kind to our pockets. Better we'd headed straight to Paris." As usual Nicholas didn't seem offended by his valet s plain speaking. "The lady preferred not to." Tavvy cast an odd glance in her direction. Since their first night on the continent, when Nicholas had come to her room, Tavvy's attitude had changed. He didn't look at her, speak to her unless absolutely necessary, or allow himself to be anywhere near her. She wasn't sure why. Either he was jealous-an odd thought to be sure, but she knew servants could be possessive-or he felt guilty.

The guilt was Nicholas's, even if that word was not part of his vocabulary. She glanced up at him in the brightness of the Italian sunshine, at his beautiful, decadent face; his thin, mocking mouth; his undeniably powerful body. And she wondered how much more she could bear. He was right, the Palazzo Verdi was most definitely seedy. And damp, and decaying, and in far worse shape than the servants' quarters at Ainsley Hall, or even the bourgeoisie comfort of the Red Hen. There were a handful of servants, speaking only Italian, ill-dressed and slovenly, and the filth of the place was unbearable. Ghislaine hadn't been surrounded by such squalor since she'd lived on the streets in Paris. She followed Nicholas into the salon, where he stood staring about him at the dust and clutter with a bland expression. "Apparently de Bruny doesn't keep a tidy household," he said unnecessarily. He turned to Ghislaine. "I'm going out." She was shocked enough that he would volunteer that information to counter with a surprising question of her own. "Will you be back tonight?" "Dare I honor myself with the hope that you might have changed your mind about sharing my bed?" he asked with an ironic smile. "No," she said calmly. His smile was chillingly correct. "I imagine I'll be otherwise occupied tonight. I've a need to replenish our dwindling supply of money, as Tavvy has pointed out, and the surest way to do that is to visit the gaming houses." "What if you lose?" "My dear, I never lose." "Do you cheat?" She asked it deliberately hoping to goad him into a fury. His eyes narrowed, but he didn't give her the satisfaction of showing any emotion. “No," he said calmly. "I'm just very, very good." He glanced around the room in patent disgust. "Do what you need to make yourself comfortable. Tavvy will see to your needs, since these servants seem unable to understand rudimentary English directions." He crossed the room to her, taking her will full chin in one strong hand. "And don't even think of leaving, ma mie. I'm not quite ready to let you go." It came as an unpleasant surprise to her that she actually hadn't been busy planning her escape. She told herself it only made sense to lull his suspicions. Here in Venice, with a myriad of entertainments at hand, he would probably keep away from her. She would have time to plan her escape so carefully he would never be able to capture her. Assuming he still wanted to. "I'll be here when you return," she said calmly, wishing he'd release her. Wishing he'd put his hard, mocking mouth against hers. He hadn't touched her, kissed her since she'd sent him away. To be sure, she'd told him to go. But Nicholas Blackthorne was not a man who let someone else dictate his behavior. If he'd wanted to kiss her, he would have. For a moment it seemed as if his long fingers caressed her chin. For a moment it seemed as if regret and an unfathomable longing gleamed in his dark eyes. And then he released her, and was gone. She stood alone in the room, trying to pull together her shaken sense of control. The place smelled of mildew and old fish, and she would not live like that again. Stiffening her shoulders, she walked back out into the hallway in time to see Tavvy shouting at the servants. "Clean," he said in a loud, slow voice. "You must clean." "They're neither slow-witted nor deaf," Ghis-laine said with commendable calm, surveying the three women and two men who made up de 61x01/8 staff. They were ill-dressed; slovenly; resentful of the foreign intrusion, no doubt; and frankly contemptuous of Tavvy's attempts to communicate. "They simply don't speak English." "Damned foreigners," Tavvy fumed. "I rather think we're the foreigners here," Ghislaine said. She turned to the oldest woman, obviously some sort of housekeeper, judging from her bearing and apparel. "You there," she said in the calm, clear Italian her governess had taught her. "This house is a disgrace to all of you, and to the Venetian people. Do you want his lordship to return to England saying that the city is populated by pigs who wall ow in their own filth?"

One of the men started forward, dark eyes glinting in fury, but the woman held him back with nothing but a gesture. "Why should we clean for the likes of you?" she asked, her Italian different from Ghislaine's, with a more liquid, sliding tone. Prettier, Ghislaine thought. "For your own sense of pride, if nothing else," she said firmly. "Even if your master does not care, we do. If you cannot make this house respectable, then we will find servants who can." "You cannot put us out on the streets," the young man said hotly. "I can put you out in the canal if I've a mind to," Ghislaine said grimly, having accustomed herself to dealing with hostile underlings. "It is your choice to make. I would like you to start with the salon, scrubbing it down, carting away the rubbish. Next the kitchen, and we'll need"-her pause was almost imperceptible-"three bedrooms. One for Mr. Taverner, one for Mr. Blackthorne, and one for me. All this must be accomplished by this evening. Is that understood?" "Three bedrooms, signora?" The housekeeper's black eyes stared into hers with contempt. "Would the two be adjoining?" If she'd hoped to make Ghislaine blush, she had no idea with whom she was dealing. "I imagine Mr. Blackthorne can find me if he so desires," she said flatly. "Perhaps we'll start in the kitchens after all. I find I'm famished, but I certainly wouldn't trust a meal prepared in a house that looks like this. Lead me to them." She began rolling up the loose sleeves of her borrowed gown. She'd managed to shock the housekeeper out of her countenance. "We'll start…?" she echoed. "Perhaps I didn't understand…" "You understood. We will work together. I am no stranger to labor, and I despise filth. To the kitchens, signora." "I am called Luisa, signora," the woman said, still obviously rattled. "This way, if you please." Ghislaine started after Luisa, the other servants falling in behind, moving past the astonished figure of Taverner. "Close your mouth, Tavvy," she suggested sweetly. "There's no telling what diseases you might pick up in this noxious air. Go find a market and bring us back some food." A Rose at Midnight 321 "But I haven't got any Italian, Mamzel e," he said, still obviously amazed that she did. "You have money, do you not? That should suffice." And she continued on, down into the bowels of the damp old house that laughingly styled itself a palace. At one o'clock the next morning she smiled for the first time since they'd landed on the continent, since Nicholas Blackthorne had put his hands on her in earnest. While the house wasn't clean from top to bottom, at least the main salon and the bedrooms were respectable. The kitchen had proven to be in decent shape, a fact which came as no surprise to Ghislaine. She had guessed that the decaying filth had been more of a protest against a foreign master than any real affection for squalor on the part of the servants. She'd worked hard, nonetheless, side by side with the servants, scrubbing, cleaning, scouring, and when Tavvy returned with two baskets full of bread, fruit, rice, and fish, she'd set him to work as well, ignoring his loud complaints. She was exhausted. Her body ached from the hard work; her soul rejoiced in it. They'd eaten a simple meal, all of them around a single scrubbed table, a meal that Luisa and Ghislaine had cooked together. By the time the previously hostile young manservant, Guido, had carried buckets of steaming water up for her bath, and one of the maids had shyly offered clean bedclothes, Ghislaine had commanded their devotion. If it came to a battle between her and the foreigner who was paying their salaries, she had a good idea which side they would choose. The original state of the house was more than indicative of their contempt for those who held the purse strings. The bath had been deep and blissfully hot. She'd scrubbed herself, many times over; she'd even scrubbed her hair. The white night rail was made of heavy cotton, soft after many washings, and it covered her from her fingertips to her toes. As she climbed into the narrow bed in the small room they'd cleaned at the front of the house, she found herself smiling in peaceful pleasure. The master bedroom had been prepared for Nicholas. His clothes were laundered and put away, the damp hangings on the huge bed shaken and aired in the evening air, the floors swept and scrubbed.

Even spotlessly clean, the palace reeked of decay and dissolution. A fitting enough habitat for a decadent British rake. Exhausted as she was, it was still a long time before she slept. Her body was weary, sated by the hard work and the steaming bath, yet she was restless, longing for something to ease her. It wasn't until she was almost asleep that she realized with horror what she was missing. Nicholas. The light in her room was murky, greenish when she awoke. She had no clock, could only guess that it was sometime past dawn. And that she was no longer alone in the tiny room she'd chosen for her own. She opened her eyes. Nicholas was lounging in the one chair the room possessed, his legs stretched out in front of him, seemingly at ease. He was clothed entirely in black, and his features were in shadow, his hair falling long and disheveled about his face. She expected no words of praise for her transformation of the house, and thankfully received none. He simply watched her for a moment, and the tension in the room grew. "No," he said finally, his voice soft and dangerous, and she didn't bother to misunderstand him. He rose, crossing the room, and reached out a hand to touch the prim white night rail. "Where did you get this?" "One of the servants lent it to me." "You have no need to wear servants' castoffs anymore. A modiste is coming by later this morning with several things that should be easily altered for you." "I won't accept clothes from you…" He leaned forward, a dangerous presence, and her words trailed off before his banked, incomprehensible rage. "You will accept what I choose to give you. Clothing, food, jewels if I so desire. Just as you accepted my body." "You gave me no choice." "Exactly. Remember that, if you will." He straightened, moving away, and she might have imagined that moment of raw emotion. "We will be going out tonight. We've an invitation to the Marquise de Brumley's rout, and we will attend." "You'll take your prisoner?" she shot back, not ready to concede defeat. His smile was cool in the morning light. "I'll take my willing mistress. Suitably bedecked in fine clothes and jewels. I had a very successful night at the tables." She watched him leave. She didn't want his fine clothes. She didn't want his jewels. She didn't want to be his whore. But there was something she did want, something he couldn't give away, because he no longer possessed it. His ability to love. And she was seven times a fool to long for it.

Chapter 21
Ghislaine hadn't worn a dress of such quality in more than ten years. She had stood very still as Signora Bagnoli had measured her, pinned and tucked and murmured beneath her breath. She had made no demur when Nicholas sat sprawled in a chair and watched the proceedings. She neither knew nor cared what the dressmaker thought of a gentleman surveying the procedure. Most likely she was used to such things. She would have noticed no wedding ring on Ghislaine's white fingers, and would have drawn her own conclusions. And she would have been right. She glanced at herself in the mirror, holding very still. The servants had cleared the dressing room that adjoined the master bedroom, and Ghislaine had dressed in there, not willing to battle Nicholas. The dress was made of a deep rose silk, cut low across her bosom, accentuating what curves she possessed. There was nothing of a courtesan to the dress-it was suited to a dashing young matron. Her chestnut hair she arranged herself, finding her hands surprisingly, instinctively skil ful. She wore the finest silk stockings on her legs and the most elegant lace undergarments, and the slippers on her feet were sewn with jewels. She stared at her reflection, at the quiet, beautiful young woman who stared back, and she wanted to weep.

It was a lie, all a lie. Where was the girl who'd sold her body to feed her brother? Where was the girl who'd killed the man who had brought her to such disgrace, who'd done her best to kill the other man she held responsible? Where was the woman who worked side by side with the bourgeoisie of Paris, the cook in the great English house? Where was Ell en's friend? Where was the woman who'd lain silent and still beneath Nicholas Blackthorne? There were all there; they were all vanished. The woman who stared back had a gentle mouth, soft eyes, and a yearning heart, and she didn't know how much longer she could disguise that fact. Only the knowledge that he wouldn't care enough to look too closely protected her. She descended the stairs slowly, gracefully, knowing he was watching her out of unreadable eyes. His thin mouth curved in something close to a smirk, and he bent low over her hand, a mocking courtesy. "You quite astonish me, Mamzel e," he murmured. "You only want some jewels to make the toilette perfect." She snatched her hand back. "I won't wear your jewels." "You will do anything I tell you to do," he said pleasantly, catching her wrist in his and pulling her back. She had no choice but to go, to stand perfectly still as he fastened a collar of brilliant diamonds around her slender neck. Her father had told her once that she should always wear diamonds. Apparently Nicholas shared the same taste. She wanted to scream. "Now the effect is perfect, ma mie," he murmured. "I'm afraid we shal have to travel by water to Lady Brumley's palazzo. Oblige me by not being sick all over your lovely dress." He was trying to goad her into anger. But indeed, her anger had vanished, leaving only despair in its place. When she made no reply, he simply took her arm, leading her out into the cool night air with a deceptive solicitude. The noise, the heat of the party overwhelmed her. The short gondola trip had done little to restore her equilibrium, and the sheer shock of having so many brightly clothed creatures chattering around her, a great many of them speaking in French, was almost more than she could bear. Her fingers dug into the dark-clothed arm of her escort, without her realizing it, and if he glanced her way with patent curiosity, she was too distraught to notice. She moved through the crowds in a daze, politely responding to Nicholas's murmured introductions with a regal nod that somehow came as second nature, and it wasn't until several hours had passed that she loosened her grip on his arm, took a deep breath, and decided she might very well survive. And then she turned, at Blackthorne's prompting, and looked straight into the eyes of a man she'd hoped never to see again. She didn't know his name, other than that he was an English earl. He'd aged in the years since she'd seen him, and she'd only seen him by candlelight, through the haze of her own rage and terror. When she'd viewed him last he'd been lying on the floor of Madame Claude's, knocked unconscious, the contents of a chamber pot adorning his lap. She had hoped she'd killed him. He looked the same. The same wet, thick lips; pendulous cheeks; red-veined, bulbous nose. Even his eyes were the same; milky, pale, set in pouched skin. And they were as avid, as knowing as ever. "This your little ladybird, Blackthorne?" the man murmured, coming close enough so that Ghislaine could smell his perfumed, overheated flesh. If she hadn't been so distraught she would have realized Nicholas had no use for the man. "Mademoisel e de Lorgny," he said in a bored, correct voice, "may I present the Earl of Wrexham?" "We've met," Wrexham said cheerfully, licking his thick pink lips. She struggled for calm. "Monsieur must be mistaken," she said, her voice raw and pained, giving her away, to Nicholas if to no one else. "Nonsense, I never forget a face. Or a body, for that matter," he said jovially. "I'm not one to hold a grudge, however. I've thought about you every now and then during the last few years. Wondered what happened to you. Madame Claude was fit to be tied, of course. Made it up to me, don't you know. But there was no one to compare with you. It's not often one gets a virgin." Nicholas was saying something to him, in his soft, cutting voice, but Ghislaine was too distraught to take it in. She turned away blindly, but Nicholas caught her arm, holding it tightly, moving her slowly across the room.

"You aren't going to turn and run, ma mie?" he murmured under his breath. "I wouldn't think you'd wish to give the gossips that much ammunition." There was nothing she could say to him, no response she could make. She moved with him, barely conscious of her surroundings, as he escorted her from the crowded room, pausing with him as he took his leave of his hostess, waiting with numb patience as he did all that was proper. The gondola moved in silence through the dark waters of the canal. He sat across from her, saying nothing, and for the first time the sickness of her soul overcame her seasickness. Her mind had stopped, unable to race ahead to the next few minutes, even the next few days. She tried to consider whether this revelation about her might force him to release her, but she found no pleasure in the notion, no despair. Everything was a blank. The servants had retired for the night. There was no sign of Taverner when they entered the hallway, no sign of anyone. "Go upstairs," he said, the first words he'd spoken to her since they left the party. "I'll follow in a moment." She wanted to turn and throw herself at his feet, begging him to forgive her for what was not her fault, for what had been his fault. She realized with shock that that was how far her foolish love had taken her. She moved away from him without a word, her back stiff and straight, and began ascending the stairs. Nicholas watched her go. Watched her narrow back, so straight, so delectable in the soft swirl of the rose silk gown. He walked into the darkened salon, moving to the far end of the room to stare out at the moon-silvered canal. He had to be very careful. Fury beat so strongly in his veins that he felt as if he might shatter. He wanted to kill. He needed a moment to clear the red-hot blindness from his eyes before he touched her. She was sitting in a chair in the candlelit bedroom when he entered, her slippered feet neatly together, her hands folded in her lap. She didn't look up, simply kept her gaze at her lap, until he pressed the glass of brandy in her icy-cold hand. He'd already removed his boots and coat. He moved to the window, knowing that his nearness only increased her agitation, and leaned against the wall, watching her. "Madame Claude's?" he said softly. She shuddered. He could see the tremor sweep over her body, and he wanted to cross the room, take her in his arms and hold her, hold her until the trembling ceased. He didn't move, afraid to touch her, afraid that if she said no, this time he wouldn't listen. "I saw you there," she said, her voice distant, almost otherwordly. "The night that man… raped me. They were taking me upstairs. I was drugged, but I heard your voice. You were there." "I might have been." His voice was cool and calm. "I didn't see you." "Yes, you did. You asked Madame Claude whether I'd be available later." He didn't flinch. "How did you get there?" "A man took me. He found me on the streets, picking a drunkard's pockets, and he took me there and sold me to that evil woman." A cold smile twisted her face. "They drugged me first, and then they auctioned me off to the highest bidder. I believe you introduced him as the Earl of Wrexham." "He has an unsavory reputation." "He likes virgins. And he likes to hurt." "How long were you there?" She glared at him. "Long enough." "How long?" "You want to know how debauched I was? Whether I enjoyed it? Whether I learned any tricks that I might display for you?" Her voice was rising in hysteria. "No," he said in a deliberately bored voice. "I wanted to know how much I was going to make him suffer before I killed him." Her laugh was bitter. "Revenge will get you nowhere. Don't you think I haven't learned that by now? Why should you want to kill him? Surely you wouldn't want to kill all the men I sold my body to." He took a meditative sip of his brandy. "I might," he said in a reflective voice. "If I have the time. How many were there?"

She rose then, moving across the room toward him. "I sold myself on the streets of Paris," she said softly, her voice a challenge. "An old Hebrew pimped for me." He looked her up and down and just managed a convincing yawn. "Very tragic, I'm sure." And then his voice hardened. "You survived, Ghislaine. You did what you had to do. It's a waste of time to wail and moan and pity yourself. I don't give a damn how many men you serviced in the back all eys of Paris. If it would make you feel any better I would kill them all, but I doubt I could track them down. I don't really care. All that matters is that you care. You despise yourself for surviving, and I still don't understand why." "Because Charles-Louis didn't!" she cried. He didn't move. "Your brother," he said flatly. "You did it for him, didn't you?" "It doesn't matter why I did it." "Certainly it does. If you did it for someone you loved, you've an even greater fool than I thought, to continue to berate yourself for it." "I am a fool," she said in quiet misery, turning away from him. "To think that there could be any peace for me, to trust in another human being, to fall …" The words trailed away in a choked gasp. All indolence left him as he seized her arm and whirled her around to face him. "You didn't finish your sentence, mademoisel e," he said coolly. "To fall …?" She tried to jerk away from him, but he was too strong for her, pulling her against his body, subduing her flailing arms with no difficulty whatsoever, tight against him. He held her wrists with one hand, using the other to tilt her furious, defiant A Rose at Midnight 331 face up to his. "Finish your sentence," he said again, his voice harsh. "You're the one I want to kill," she cried in mindless fury. "You're the one who brought me to this…" "Oh, give it a rest, Ghislaine," he snapped. "Your father's greed brought disaster to your family. I was a stupid, selfish boy, I admit. But I didn't sell you into prostitution, and I didn't rape and deflower you." He thrust her away from him roughly, having finally been pushed too far. "If you're so intent on killing me, stop talking about it and just do it." She was beyond rational thought, her breath coming in rapid gusts, her eyes dark and desperate. "If I could…" He took the knife he'd tucked in the back of his breeches and pressed it into her hand. It was a large knife, very sharp, its steel blade glinting in the candlelight. "You want to kill me?" he said, ripping open his snowy-white shirt and exposing his chest for her thrust. "Then do it." She stared at the knife in her hand, then back at him in horror. "Do it!" he thundered, grabbing her wrist and forcing her to plunge the knife at him. She screamed, fighting against him, and the knife glanced off his flesh at the last minute, slicing across his shoulder. He barely felt the pain, only the wetness of blood as it welled up against the shallow cut. He released Ghislaine's wrist, staring at her as she backed away from him, the bloodstained knife still clutched in her hand. "Can't do it, can you?" he taunted, advancing on her. "You have two choices, Ghislaine. You must either kill me or love me. Make your decision." He watched her grip tighten on the knife, and he wondered whether this time she would do it. He reached her, standing in front of her, his torn, bloodstained shirt barely covering his chest, and waited. "Oh, my God," she said in a broken voice. And she dropped the knife with a noisy clatter, and flung herself into his arms. He caught her, and triumph surged through his veins. The silk gown ripped beneath his desperate fingers. The room was dark as he pushed her down on the bed, following her down, yanking at his own clothes. It had been so long since he'd allowed himself to touch her, he felt demented. When he covered her mouth with his, she kissed him back, and he could taste the tears on her cheeks. He wanted to bury himself in her body, feel her hot sweet flesh around him. He wanted it fast and hard; he wanted it slow and languorous. Her breasts were small, round, delicious beneath his mouth. Her small hands threaded through his hair, pulling him against her. He kissed her breasts, her belly; he kissed her between her legs, with all the expertise he'd gained through the years, through the

countless, faceless women, all those encounters simply leading to this moment, this woman, this pleasure that he wanted to give her. His blood was streaked on her pale body, and there was a savage satisfaction in that. She'd marked him; he'd marked her. Together they were bonded, joined forever. Her fingers tightened in his hair, and he could hear her gasping cries as she sought her release. And suddenly he didn't want her to come that way. He was selfish enough to need to be inside her, and he moved up, kneeling between her legs, taking her hands in his and pressing them down against the mattress as he filled her; slowly, inexorably, deeply. He'd planned to give her a moment to accommodate herself to his size, he'd planned to go slowly, but the moment he sank all the way in she convulsed around him, her body tightening, milking him, and he had no choice but to follow her, his control vanishing, as he drank in her choked cry of completion. He released her hands, wrapping his arms around her head, cradling her, his lips drinking in her tears as she sobbed beneath him. She tore at the heart he didn't know he still possessed, but not for anything would he regret the last hour, the last day, the last weeks. If it was weakness, damnable, destructive weakness, then he no longer cared. The moment she regained a tiny bit of control she tried to turn away from him, even as she lay beneath him, their bodies still joined. "Let me be, Nicholas," she begged brokenly. "Don't torment me, don't humiliate me further. Let me go away, I beg of you." "I thought I explained this to you," he said with great patience, kissing her eyelids. "You are not going away from me, ever again." He smoothed the tear-damp hair away from her face with surpassing gentleness. "Don't do this to me," she cried. "Now of all times, don't be kind. You know what I am, what I had to become." "I know what you are," he agreed, his voice low. "A very dangerous woman. Fierce, and brave, and terrifying. If I could let you leave I would, my love. But I can't." "Nicholas…" "Hush," he said, releasing her body, moving to one side and gathering her in his arms. "Hush, now. All this weeping and lamentation is a waste of time. You can't change the past, and all your thirst for revenge won't help matters." "Don't be kind," she whispered. "For God's sake, Nicholas, don't be kind!" "I'm never kind," he said. "You should know that by now. I'm selfish and dishonorable, dissolute and wicked." He smoothed her tangled hair away from her tear-damp face. "You should know that better than anyone." "Nicholas…" "And to prove it to you, I'm about to make love to you again. Ignoring your righteous dismay, ignoring any wishes you might have in the matter, I'm going to start all over again and discover whatever it was you learned from all those hundreds and thousands of men you lay with on the streets of Paris." His voice was gently mocking. "Don't joke about it," she said, trying to hide her face. Since she chose his shoulder to hide against, he found such a move entirely acceptable. "There were three," she said in a very small voice. "Three hundred?" His deft fingers began working the taut muscles of her smooth, narrow back, kneading, stroking, feeling the skin grow warm and alive as one tension left and another began. "Three men. Or rather, two and a half." He paused for a moment, careful to keep his voice free of laughter. "How did you manage to service two and a half men? I can't quite comprehend the logistics. Not that you need explain. I've told you, it doesn't matter how many men. I'm just curious." His hands moved down to her small, rounded buttocks, pulling her closer to him. "There was the earl," she muttered. "And M. Porcin, the butcher. But when Malviver wanted me to…" Her voice broke, and the tears stopped as she looked up at him. "I killed him." "You always were a bloodthirsty wench," he said amiably, pulling her legs up around his aroused body with deft grace. "Why did you kill this… Malviver, did you call him?" "He was the man who took me to Madame Claude's," she said flatly.

"Well, it certainly seems as if he deserved it more than me," he said, pulling her closer still, until he rested against her, newly aroused and needing her. "Did you use poison?" "I don't understand you," she cried, catching his shoulders. "How can you sound so amused by it all?" "Haven't you learned by now, my angel, that you must either laugh or weep?" He brushed her stilldamp face. "I think you have wept enough for one night." And he sank into her, turning on his back as he went, pulling her astride him. She was astonished, hesitant at first, and tried to scramble away. It was obvious to him that her scarlet past had included very little, and he briefly considered all the things he would teach her. "Nicholas!" she said in shock. He schooled his powerful response enough to smile at her. "I believe if s all a lie. You did spend the last decade in a convent. Be brave, ma mie. You might find you like it." His long fingers tightened on her thighs, as she still tried to pull away. "Please," he said. He'd never said please to a woman in his life. Somehow she knew that. She closed her eyes briefly, and her fingers tightened on his shoulders, but she made no more move to escape. She was an apt pupil. She caught the rhythm in no time, and the shyness vanished, leaving her glistening with sweat, trembling, taut with passion, learning to take her pleasure, and his. And when she came this time her cry echoed out over the still waters of the canal, mingling with his. She collapsed on top of him in an untidy little heap of satisfied female flesh. He tucked her against him, smiling as he felt the boneless exhaustion of sleep. The scrape on his chest stung, but he made no move to do anything about it. It was a small enough price to pay for Ghislaine. If need be, he would have let her hack off his arm in return for the hours they'd just shared. She was so small, so fierce, so strong, so vulnerable. He had never known a woman like her. He needed her, he who'd never needed a living soul. There was no way he was going to let anyone wound her again. He was bound to bring her enough pain as it was. It was in his blood. The least he could do was keep her safe from others who might choose to hurt her. He waited until he was certain her sleep was so deep that nothing might awaken her. He wanted to sleep too, wrapped in her arms, drinking in her scent, the scent of their lovemaking filling the room. But he had a more important task to perform. One that damned well wasn't going to wait. Venice was like every cosmopolitan city. Gaming houses stayed open till daylight, parties lasted till breakfast. It took him three stops, but he finally found the Earl of Wrexham at one of the better gaming houses, deep in a game of faro. He must have felt Blackthorne's shadow loom over him. He glanced up, and Nicholas noted he wasn't cupshot. Not that it would have mattered. Drunk or sober, Wrexham was going to die. A duel with Nicholas Blackthorne would be onesided, no matter what condition his lordship was in. It would simply make society happier if he was sober. "That you, Blackthorne?" he asked, looking up, his eyes bright with malice. "Hoping to see you again. I've an interest in your little ladybird. Unfinished business, don't you know? What say we play for her favors? A hand of piquet? We could play for a night, for a week? Winner take all." "I'm going to kill you, Wrexham," Nicholas said in his smooth, pleasant voice. "Don't be ridiculous, old chap. People don't kill each other over sluts. Had a feeling you weren't best pleased when I recognized the gel, but I've always had a good memory. Come on, old man, let's share a drink…" He held a crystal wineglass toward him, but there was a faint shade of anxiety in his faded eyes. Nicholas took the glass in one strong white hand. "You're absolutely right. Gentlemen don't fight over doxies. But since the lady in question happens to be my intended bride, I think we might agree that the issue differs." Wrexham looked frankly appalled. "By all means, old boy. Must have been mistaken. My apologies…" "Not good enough," Nicholas said, and flung the contents of his glass in Wrexham's florid face. The room went still. Wrexham pulled a heavily laced handkerchief from his sleeve and mopped his dripping face. The color had faded, with good reason. He couldn't apologize again, not after so great

an insult, one witnessed by a gossipy group of his peers. He looked up into Nicholas's face, and knew he was going to die. "I await your pleasure," he said, his voice quavering only slightly. Nicholas had planned to finish the business quickly, savagely, returning to Ghislaine's arms before she even knew he was gone. He'd done his best to exhaust her, her own tormented emotions had contributed their share, and he had little doubt she'd sleep late into the day. He'd lost count of the duels he'd fought, some of them for trifling reasons. He disliked a man's coat, he disliked another man's voice. He'd killed, of course, the late Jason Hargrove being one of those. None of the men he'd fought, none of the men he'd killed, had deserved to die as much as my lord of Wrexham. And therein lay the problem. Hatred blinded him. Rage weakened him. Savagery overwhelmed him. Venice was more relaxed about such affairs. If two English gentlemen wished to settle their affair of honor then and there, the tables were pushed out of the way, seconds were chosen, and the business commenced. There was no satisfaction in the one-sided nature of the battle. Even half-mad with rage, Nicholas suffered not even the slightest scratch. He fought like a man possessed, and his skil with the sword, always estimable, took on a new power. But Wrexham didn't die well. It took too damned long, there was blood everywhere, and the damned coward wept at the end, his tears horrifying everyone. "Damned bad ton," Hopton, an acquaintance of Blackthorne's who'd offered to serve as his second, had murmured when it was finally over. "He was bad 'un, we all knew it. Never thought you'd be the noble avenger though, Blackthorne." "Amusing, isn't it?" he said in a hollow voice, staring at the blood on his hands. His friend glanced back at Wrexham's body and shuddered. "Not terribly," he said. "Death, even a deserved one, never amuses." Nicholas followed his gaze. "No," he said. "It never does." And he moved out into the Venetian dawn, with bloodstained hands, and bloodstained soul, to find absolution.

Chapter 22
The room was murky when Ghislaine awoke, a greenish-blue pattern of light dancing on the ceiling. She lay still in the bed, absorbing the warmth and softness of the mattress, absorbing the unimaginable feeling of well-being that washed over her. She was alone in the bed; a sorrow, but one that couldn't overtake her sheer animal pleasure. She rolled over on her back, wincing at the unexpected discomfort between her legs, and stared at the pattern on the ceiling. The reflection of the canals outside, mixed with the light of dawn, made the room a shadowy, magic place. Except that it was the glow of twilight, not dawn, she realized when she pulled the heavy linen sheet around her body and walked to the window. She'd slept the day away. It wasn't until she was sinking into a hot, scented bath that she looked down at her body. The dried streak of blood. The marks of his possession. She looked at her body, and she grew hot all over again. And she wondered where he was. The servants had been busy. More rooms had been made habitable, including a formal dining room, now scrubbed and gleaming. She dressed simply, in an ivory day dress that clung to her body and moved with grace. It was odd, she thought, curling up on a settee in the main salon. She ought to be wearing crimson. After the most erotic night of her life, she suddenly felt almost virginal again, as she hadn't felt in more than ten years. Where was he? She wouldn't, couldn't believe he'd abandoned her, finally released her, after all her pleading. It would be vengeance indeed, to finally break through her defenses, only to cast her aside. He'd told her he'd never let her go, and she found she believed him. Even though he insisted he was without honor, she believed him. She would be with him forever. Or she would die.

Taverner was worried. He insisted he had no knowledge of Nicholas's whereabouts, but there was no disguising the anxiety in his swarthy, pinched face. That anxiety traveled straight to Ghislaine's heart. The servants retired for the night. Taverner went out in search of him, though he insisted he was simply going for a stroll. Ghislaine wandered through the palazzo like a lost soul, waiting. It was past midnight when she went upstairs. The house was still and silent as she passed the door to her tiny room and headed straight for the master bedroom. The taper she carried cast little ill umination, and she set it down on a table inside the door, reaching blindly for the candelabrum she knew provided most of the light. "Leave it." Nicholas's voice came out of the darkness. She wanted to weep in relief. She trembled for a moment, closing the door behind her and leaning against it. The one taper barely penetrated the shadows, and she could just see him, standing by the window, staring out into the starry night. "Have you been here long?" she asked. He turned and rested his back against the wall, and she could see the cool, mocking smile on his mouth, something she'd hoped never to see again. "Not long. He's dead." For a moment she had no idea what he was talking about. He was dressed in dusty black, his dark hair was tangled, and his face was pale with exhaustion and something far worse. "Who is?" "Wrexham," he said. "I've avenged your honor, my dear. Now who will avenge the harm I've done you?" "You killed him?" "Could you doubt it?" He made an abrupt, airy gesture. "I'm a man who knows how to kill. I seem to be outdoing myself though-two men in less than a season. Don't look so distraught. It was in a duel. Plenty of witnesses to attest to the fairness of the situation. We won't be hounded out of Venice." She could hear the despair in his voice, a despair she couldn't quite understand. She moved across the room on silent graceful feet. And then she knew. Her wicked, heartless, half-mad Nicholas was human after all. She came to him, reached up, and took his face in her hands. "Nicholas," she whispered, "I am so sorry." He tried to jerk away from her gentle touch. "Sorry? Why should you be sorry? One more death, more or less, doesn't make a whit of difference, and if anyone deserved to die, Wrexham was the man. His reputation was legion-you were neither the first nor the last of his victims, and hardly the most damaged. He deserved it. He deserved to die badly, to lie in his own blood and squeal for mercy, even as his life was draining away…" "Oh, God," she whispered, sliding her arms around his neck. "Nicholas…" He pushed her away from him. "I find I'm not in the mood," he said with a brittle laugh. "I'm not very good company right now. I kept away for as long as I could, but the amusements of Venice are not to my taste. I'll relieve you of my presence…" She caught his wrist, halting him. "Nicholas," she said. "I love you." "Don't," he snapped at her, but he didn't break free. "Don't you understand? Haven't I proved it, time and time again? I'm a monster, not worthy of love, not worthy of anything at all …" "I love you," she said again, catching his other hand, pulling his arms around her, pulling his tall, tension-racked body tight against hers. "I love you." He made a strange, choking noise, and dropped his head on hers. She felt the tremors shiver through him, and she held him, gently, as she would hold a wounded child, as she would have held her long-lost brother. And then the holding changed, and she moved her head up, and touched his mouth with hers. He let her kiss him. He started to kiss her back, but she restrained him, unfastening the bone buttons on his dark shirt and pushing it from his shoulders. She found the tear she'd inflicted in his flesh, and she ran her lips down the length of the long scratch. She kissed his shoulder, his flat male nipples; she ran her mouth down the corded strength of his belly, and then she pressed her mouth against the fierce swell of flesh beneath his breeches.

He caught her shoulders, pulling her up close against him, and this time he kissed her, hard and deep, a kiss she answered. Her dress ripped as he tore it off her; his breeches ripped as she tore them open. She touched him, felt the silken strength of him, and he groaned, deep in his throat, pushing against her hands. His skin was smooth, hot, and she wanted him, needed him in ways only instinct told her. Before he could realize her intent she sank to her knees on the pile of scattered clothes and took him in her mouth. His hands dug into her shoulders, and he groaned again. "No, Ghislaine. God, yes… yes…" he said, unable to control himself, thrusting into her sweetly questing mouth. And then he caught her, pulling her up, up, into his arms, moving back against the wall, positioning her there before he filled her, shoving himself in deeply. She held on, her eyes tightly closed, absorbing his fevered thrusts, unable to do more than shiver in pleasure. He turned and leaned back, supporting himself against the paneled wall as he held her, her legs wrapped around his back, and lifted her, up and down, faster now, faster and faster, deeper and stronger, and his lips were pulled back against his strong white teeth, and sweat covered their bodies, and suddenly she exploded, her body shattering into a million pieces. She heard his cry, and she kissed him, drinking it in, as her body drank his essence. He managed to carry her over to the bed, coll apsing with her on it, careful to support her weight as they fell. She wouldn't, couldn't let go of him. She felt lost, frightened, more moved than she had been in her entire life. It was as if he drained everything from her, will and power and anger and strength. She existed only for him. She cradled him in her arms, smoothing his long tangled hair, and she cried for him. And she could feel his own tears against her skin. *** It was a dream, an idyl, soon shattered. They spent days in bed, learning each other's bodies, making love, having sex; with heat and passion, with sweetness and tenderness. They used the bed, the floor, the table, the hip bath. They did it standing up, sitting down, frontward, backward, sideways. He couldn't get enough of her, drowning himself in her body. And she couldn't get enough of him. Ghislaine knew it would come to an end. Knew it with the beat of her heart, the throb of her blood, the salt of her tears that had finally returned to her. Sooner or later her past would catch up with her-through her drugged fog at Madame Claude's she had seen a roomful of men bidding for the prize of deflowering her. Wrexham had won, but there would be others who remembered. And Nicholas would have to kill them. She couldn't live with that. The destruction of a group of dissolute noblemen bothered her not one whit. But the destruction of one particular dissolute gentleman would kill her. She'd thought he was so strong, so cold, so impervious to emotions other than his own rages. She'd imbued him with superhuman qualities, the better to keep her distance. Instead she found herself caught in ways far more permanent than her recent captivity. The beautiful young man she'd once loved was still there, but so was the tormenter. The rake, the betrayer, the lost soul, the sulky little boy who needed her love so badly he didn't even recognize his need. She wanted to give him that love, to cradle his head against her breasts and comfort the dark torments of his soul. She wanted to be his lover, his mother, his partner, and his child. But her presence in his life would be his final destruction, the one he'd courted and avoided for so long. He'd changed since Wrexham's death. Opened to her, in ways she wouldn't have believed possible. The moments were small, unimportant, and therefore even more precious. The morning they lay in bed, the sunlight sending dappled shadows over their bodies as he tried to teach her piquet, only to have her beat him soundly once she'd mastered the intricacies of the game. The afternoon he coaxed her into a gondola, teasing her unmercifully as her complexion turned from white to green and back again before he finally made the gondolier pull over to the side of the canal. He'd carried her home then, through the streets, and if his gall ant gesture made her even more seasick, she hadn't told him.

There was the evening they ate cold chicken beneath the stars, and danced in darkness, Nicholas humming beneath his breath an old English country tune, as she relearned the waltz. And there was the night she held him in her arms as he lay, sleepless, tormented, as the ghosts and guilts of a lifetime visited him once more. She heard about it all without flinching. His boyhood pranks that grew steadily more serious, his father's rejection and death, the young man he'd killed in a drunken duel. She heard about the women he'd ruined, the fortunes he'd won and lost, the heedless, soul ess pursuit of pleasure and forgetfulness. And one of the things he'd most wanted to forget was a fifteenyear-old French girl with her heart in her eyes. She heard it all. And she loved him. Knowing it was not enough. She'd been brought up in the church she'd abandoned to believe that confession was good for the soul. It truly seemed so for Nicholas. Once he'd told her every dark, hideous thing he'd done, a weight seemed to lift from him. He could look at her and smile, without a trace of mockery. He could even laugh. Which made her decision all the more devastating. She would have to leave him. She had no choice, none whatsoever. When she left, he would rage once more. But there was a chance, just a chance, that he might find someone else, someone more worthy to love. And his own darkness would pass forever. With her he stood no chance at all. She'd been around the last of the mad Blackthornes for too long-it was making her crazy as well. He'd never told her he loved her, never suggested that there was anything beyond the passion of the moment for the two of them. But she knew, better than he did. She knew, with a wisdom that came from her heart, that it was love between them. A love that would haunt them both for the rest of their days. She had no idea where she could go. She didn't even know when she'd be strong enough to make the break, to turn her back on her only hope of joy. After the numb, dark years that had followed her parents' death, she'd come to life again, and the pain and despair that had taken hold of her had begun to heal. But that pain and despair were waiting, lurking, ready to return and destroy her. She'd learned the hard way that there were no happy endings in this life. The happier she was, the more devastating the fall. And she was determined to escape before she brought Nicholas down with her as well. She had to leave, even though it would break her heart, a heart she'd thought broken long ago. It was the one gift she could give him. The palazzo had a small, enclosed garden to the right of the canal. It was overgrown, tangled, and utterly charming. Luisa had banished Ghislaine from the kitchen, threatened by her fancy French ideas, but the garden was no one's domain, the gardener having long since found other employment. Ghislaine spent the sunny hours there, working in the dirt, trying to ignore the future. She was never certain where Nicholas might spend the day. He slept later than she did, a lifetime of indolence at war with her hard-earned sense of duty. He usually managed to entice her back under the covers when she attempted to roust him, to their mutual pleasure, but she couldn't rid herself of the belief that they were living on borrowed time. Disaster was at hand. And sooner than even she expected. Nicholas came to stand over her as she grubbed in the dirt, and she sat on her heels, unabashed. "We're heading back to England tomorrow," he said, his voice oddly diffident. "Don't worry, I promise we won't go near French soil, and we'll travel across land as much as possible. It never ceases to amaze me that someone with your fierceness would be possessed of such a weak stomach." She couldn't bring herself to smile. "I don't want to go back to England. And how can you return? Aren't you still in trouble…?" "That can be sorted out if I make the effort. I still have a few friends with influence. Tavvy will help you pack…" "Leave me behind." All expression left his face. For the first time in days he looked cold and distant. "Don't be absurd." "Be sensible, Nicholas. You don't need me…"

He moved so swiftly her words faltered as he pulled her to her feet, cupping her face with his hands. He was so tall, so strong, and yet oddly vulnerable. "I need you," he said in a tight, angry voice. "I thought I made it clear to you, my love. I'm not about to let you go. Ever." He kissed her, hard, and she flung her arms around his waist, unable to deny him. Knowing that she was simply falling more deeply in love with him with each passing moment. And knowing it would be harder than ever to give him up. The damnable thing was, she couldn't even tell him good-bye. He'd stop her, she knew he would. So she simply looked up at him, hoping he wouldn't notice the forced brightness of her smile, the lingering hold of her hands as she kissed him good-bye. She stood without moving, watching him leave. He'd be making arrangements for their journey, and her time was coming to an end. She ought to make her own plans, but for the moment she couldn't. She stayed in the garden, her mind feverish, watching her tears splash hotly on her hands, and she despised them. For ten years she hadn't cried. Now she couldn't seem to stop. She heard the commotion from a distance, but she stayed where she was, on her knees in the garden, wiping away the dampness from her eyes. And then she heard a voice she had never thought to hear again. "Gilly!" She turned, to stare in shock at Ell en Fitzwater's tall form in the garden doorway, shadowed by an even larger form behind her. She couldn't help it, her instincts took over. She rose, ran across the stretch of garden, and flung herself in Ell en's welcoming arms, sobbing loudly. "My poor angel," Ell en said, holding her tightly. "It must have been awful for you. We're here now; Tony won't let him hurt you ever again, he's promised me." Ghislaine couldn't say a word. The sobs were choking her throat as Ell en drew her into the cool interior of the salon. "It's not…" She hiccupped. "I can't…" "Hush, now. Tony, see if you can find someone to bring us some tea. Gilly needs a good strong cup before she can calm down." Ghislaine heard a muffled assent as Ell en drew her down on the settee, and she managed a watery chuckle. "You English," she said. "You think tea is the answer for everything." "And so it is. That's why we're such a staid, respectable race," she said comfortably, pushing Ghislaine's hair away from her face. "Staid and respectable like Nicholas Black-thorne?" Her voice cracked. "What has he done to you, Gilly? Has it been very awful? Has he hurt you terribly? It must have been dreadful, to be carried off like that. Do you hate him very much?" Ghislaine's laugh bordered on hysteria. "You have to get me away from him, Ell en." "Don't worry, my pet, we will. Tony and I will protect you. If you don't want Nicholas near you I promise you he won't touch you ever again. Tony will see to it." "Tony will see to it," Ghislaine echoed, for a moment distracted from her own misery. She looked down at the hands clasping hers, at the diamond and sapphire wedding ring, and she managed a smile. "I see." Ell en flushed to the roots of her hair. "I've always loved him, you know. And oh, Gilly, I'm so happy! You can't imagine what it's like." "Yes," she said softly. "I can imagine." "Oh, no, Gilly," Ell en breathed. "I thought you hated Nicholas. You aren't… you couldn't be…" "I'm in love with him." "Oh, Lord. Why him, of all people? The most selfish, wretched, disreputable, care-for-nothing in the world. I could kill him, I could absolutely kill him." "He does tend to bring out that desire in people," Ghislaine said with a hollow laugh. "I have to get away from here. Now, before he returns. I have no idea where he's gone, but he could come back at any time." "We'll get you away, never fear. Though if you love him, perhaps he could be made to marry you…" "No!" Ghislaine shrieked. "That would only make things worse."

Sir Antony Wilton-Greening had returned, compassion on his handsome face. "We'll do what we can to assist you." Guilt swamped her. "I'm not certain you'll want to." "Of course we will," Ell en protested. "We've chased over half a continent to do just that." "You may regret that you did. I am not at all respectable." "Don't be absurd. You've always been secretive about your past, but I'm no fool. I assumed your family was lost in the Terror. You must come from decent stock-blood always tells." "My father was the Comte de Lorgny. Nicholas Blackthorne's godfather." Ell en took in a shocked breath. "Well, I hadn't guessed that high," she admitted. "When my parents were killed, my brother and I lived on the streets of Paris." She paused, and the words burned in her heart. "I earned our bread the only way I could." Ell en, for all that she had a wedding ring on her finger, simply looked blank. It was Sir Antony who comprehended instantly, and he moved between the two of them. Doubtless to protect Ell en from her contaminating presence, Ghislaine thought. Instead he knelt down and took Ghislaine's hands in his huge one. 'Those were bad times, mademoisel e. No one will blame you for what you had to do to survive." She managed a pale smile. "It's funny. That's what Nicholas said." "What did Nicholas say?" A cool, malicious drawl interrupted them. Sir Antony released her hand slowly, and turned to face Nicholas Blackthorne. He stood in the doorway, his eyes narrowed, his face still and pale. "Good afternoon, Blackthorne," he greeted him politely enough. "And my little cousin besides," Nicholas said, strolling into the room, his body tight with suppressed rage. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?" "We're taking Gilly away from you!" Ell en shot up. "No, you're not," Nicholas said with deceptive gentleness. "She's staying with me." "Don't be ridiculous, Blackthorne," Sir Antony said. "Haven't you done enough harm as it is? She doesn't deserve to be used this way…" "Fancy her yourself, do you?" he inquired pleasantly. "If you put your hands on her again, I will cut your heart out." Ghislaine had seen that look in his face before. When he'd come back from killing the Earl of Wrexham. And she knew, with certainty, that he might kill again. That one thing had terrified her, for his sake alone. If he forced a duel on Sir Antony, he would either leave her best friend a newly made widow or die himself. "Stop it," she cried. "Sir Antony is married to your cousin. He has no interest in me…" "A man would have to be dead not to have interest in you, my pet," Nicholas said. "Perhaps that's what Sir Antony should be." "You could always try," Sir Antony said politely. "I would think you'd be rather tired of killing people, but perhaps it's a habit that grows on one." "You might find you can develop a taste for it," Nicholas said in a dangerous voice. "I'd be more than happy to indulge you if you'd care to try." Ell en rose to her full height, towering over Ghislaine, and took her icy hand. "Come with me, Gilly," she said imperiously, tugging her away. "Let them settle it." "No!" Ghislaine shrieked, tugging at her arm. "They'll kill each other." "You can't stop me," Nicholas snarled. "Go to your room and wait for me." "That sounds like an excellent idea," Ell en said, pulling her. "Come along." "You don't understand," Ghislaine babbled as she found herself being hauled up the long winding stairs. "He'll kill him. He'll kill your husband, and it will destroy him…" "You don't know Tony very well. He's more than capable of dealing with Nicholas. Granted, my cousin is very dangerous indeed, but I have developed infinite faith in Tony's ingenuity. We'll go up to your room and get you packed, and by the time they finish their little argument we'll be halfway to our hotel." "Ell en…!" They reached the top landing. "Come along,

A Rose at Midnight 353 Gilly. Unless you find you'd rather stay. I think he cares about you. Not that I would have thought it was possible for someone like Nicholas, but there might just be hope for the future, if you love him. I've never seen him so possessive about a female before." "Don't you understand? I can't stay!" Ell en shook her head. "The French are crazy," she said flatly. "But then, I always suspected as much. Which reminds me. A letter came for you. I've carried it halfway across the continent with me. From the floor below they could hear the sudden, dangerous snick of steel on steel. "They're fighting," Ghislaine said, numb terror washing over her. "Tony can defend himself without killing Nicholas," Ell en said calmly. "Have faith." "I have no faith." "It's past time to develop some. Show me to your room, and I'll pack for you while you read your letter." Ghislaine wanted to run back downstairs, to put herself between the two men. But Ell en was taller, stronger, and more determined. She gestured toward the door to the bedroom and drew her in, pushing her into a chair and handing her a wrinkled, worn piece of paper. Ghislaine stared down at the unknown hand in blank incomprehension, part of her mind still straining for the sound of death and disaster from belowstairs. Ell en had hauled out a valise and was busy filling it with clothing. "How did anyone know where I was?" she asked, sudden dread swamping her. The letter was addressed to Citizeness Ghislaine de Lorgny, an ominous enough phrase. Who had known where she'd disappeared to-she'd even lied to fat Marthe at the Red Hen. She tore the wrinkled missive open, her hands shaking. Old Bones could neither read nor write, but he knew where to find a cleric willing to earn a few sou. Of course he would know where she'd gone; Old Bones knew everything. Including something she never thought to hear. She lifted her head, tears streaming down her face. "My brother is alive," she said in a broken voice. "He's been found." Ell en stopped in the midst of her packing. "You have a brother?" "He's in a small French village up in the mountains. I have to go to him, Ell en. I must." She leaped from her chair, dashing the tears from her face. Ell en didn't even hesitate. "To be sure," she said briskly. She glanced down at the valise she'd packed so carefully. "I wonder if we'll have room to take this." Ghislaine stared at her in shock. "What do you mean?" "I'm coming with you, of course. I've become very adept at traveling since Tony and I have been following you, and I'm certainly not about to let you go alone. I know how terrified you are of ever returning to France. At least with me by your side you'll have someone to turn to." Ghislaine managed a watery smile. Ell en's innocence would never be a match for the dark forces that threatened her in France-compared to Ghislaine she was a babe in arms. But Ghislaine loved her for her determination. "No," she said firmly. "Your new husband would never stand for it." "You wouldn't consider letting him come with us?" Ell en asked wistfully. "Absolutely not. I have to go alone." Indeed, Old Bones's letter had made it more than clear that she needed to arrive at the tiny mountain village of Lantes without an escort. Otherwise her chances of seeing her brother would be mysteriously nil. Ell en shrugged, smiling brightly. "They do say absence makes the heart grow fonder," she said. "Tony will forgive me." "You're not coming with me." "If you don't let me accompany you, I'll run downstairs right now and tell Nicholas what you're planning. Do you think you'll get anywhere once he knows?" Ghislaine stared at her in mute frustration. "You've gotten very strong-willed, Ell en," she muttered. Ell en smiled brightly. "True love does wonders for a soul." "Then how can you leave him…?" "He knows I owe you a debt I can never repay. He'll understand," she said stubbornly. Ghislaine racked her brain for one more argument, one more excuse. In the end, she gave up.

Whether she liked it or not, the truth was she wanted Ell en's company. Not just for the trauma of reentering the country she swore she'd never set foot in again. But for the trauma of leaving Nicholas behind. She hesitated no longer. "Dump out half that valise," she ordered. "If you're coming with me, you'll have to be prepared to travel fast and light." Ell en beamed at her. "I knew you'd see it my way." Nicholas collapsed in a corner, winded, his sword arm bleeding slightly, as he glared at Sir Antony Wilton-Greening. Tony wasn't in any better shape. He'd collapsed in his own corner, and if the slice on his right hand went a little deeper, it would repair itself in no time. "You're better than I would have expected," Nicholas managed to choke out in a grudging fashion. "Well, as to that, you didn't really want to kill me, did you, Blackthorne?" He wheezed cheerfully. 'The girl's in love with you, I'm devoted to your cousin, and all this violence is completely misdirected. Why don't you marry the girl and save everyone a great deal of trouble?" "I doubt that she'd have me," Nicholas muttered, leaning his dark head against the wall and taking a deep breath, struggling to control his gasps. "She thinks I destroyed her life, and she's not halfwrong. If she were fool enough to marry me, I'd probably end up ruining whatever chance of happiness she has left. The curse of the mad Blackthornes, you know." "I'm sick to death of the mad Blackthornes," Tony said flatly. "There's no denying you have a rum bunch of ancestors, no denying you've done everything you can to live up to your reputation. But that doesn't mean you can't change. If you want to." "Why should I want to?" "I would think it's obvious. Why don't you tell her?" "Tell her what?" "That you love her, man. It's obvious to me, who's only seen the two of you together for a few brief, distraught moments. You'd think she'd know it too, but I'm willing to bet you've never told her." "It's none of your damned business." "It is when you decide to run me through in a fit of pique," Tony drawled. "If you really want to marry the girl, tell her you love her. Trust me, it's a great deal less painful than you might imagine." Nicholas's long-lost sense of the ridiculous surfaced at that point. "Is this in the nature of fatherly advice? We should have had this conversation before I tried to kill you." "Pay it no mind, dear fell ow. I would have expected no less from you," Tony said with an airy wave of his hand. "But if you're willing to listen to a bit of advice, if I were you I'd get on with the business. Go upstairs and tell her the truth." Nicholas's eyes narrowed in renewed suspicion. "You're certain you have no personal interest in all this?" "I have a very great personal interest. If Ghislaine doesn't choose to stay with you, I'll be honorbound to take her with us. In which case she'll become a third party to a very cozy honeymoon, and you'll probably try to run me through again. And I'm not sure I can fend you off as well the next time." Nicholas pushed himself to his feet, leaning against the wall as he forced his breathing back under control. "She's not going anywhere," he said flatly. Tony sighed. "You might say please," he suggested mildly enough. Nicholas started toward the door, only to be caught up short by Taverner's brooding appearance. "You're not going to like this, Blackthorne," he said. "The both of them have gone." France

Chapter 23
It took the two women a little more than a week to reach their destination. The small mountain town of Lantes was a two-day ride past the border of France, and Ghislaine told herself that for her brother's sake she could endure any amount of time on French soil. The trip across Italy had been made in relative comfort-they rode on horseback and traveled swiftly.

France was a different matter. The moment they reached the border, Ghislaine took charge. They dressed in rough clothes, trading in their horses for a deceptively rude-looking farm cart. They slept in barns, in ditches; they ate bread and cheese and drank sharp red wind; and if any man was fool enough to approach them, Ghislaine sent him scurrying away with a few well-chosen words. The flame of determination burned strongly within her, enough to scare away any man foolish enough to think two peasant women alone on the road would be easy prey. She had lost Charles-Louis once. She had given up Nicholas, the one man she would ever love, for motives that were both noble and stupid. To find her brother again would give her at least some hope in a cruel world. She wouldn't let anything get in the way of her salvaging at least someone on whom she could expend all the love that Nicholas had freed from her dark, imprisoned heart. "Whatever you do, don't say a word," Ghislaine muttered beneath her breath when they stopped outside the crude inn that seemed to be the only hostelry the poor mountain town of Lantes could boast. "You're my idiot cousin from Dieppe. You can't understand or speak a word." "But why?" Ell en demanded in a plaintive tone. "I speak French perfectly well." "You speak the French of the aristos. There's a world of difference between the people's French and yours. Besides, no matter how good you think your accent is, it still has that atrocious English tone to it." She turned to look at her friend and managed a wry smile. "You were the one who insisted on coming with me." "I've discovered a talent for that," Ell en said modestly. "I couldn't let you go alone. You need me. You may think you are self-sufficient, but I know otherwise. You need people." "Yes," Ghislaine agreed, staring up at the inn that would hold the answers. "I need people." She thought of Nicholas. A sulky boy, a furious man, a tender lover, a soul as lost as her own. She longed for him with every breath, with every beat of her heart. She expected that she always would. "Are we going in that tavern?" Ell en whispered, obviously trying to keep the trace of nervousness from her voice. Ghislaine cast her an amused glance. "We've been in worse. Don't worry, you look perfect. The toosmall clothes add to the air of witlessness. If only you could manage to smell as bad as you look. We could take some manure…" "I'm glad you think this is funny," Ell en said. 'Till just make sure no one comes close enough to smell me." "Of course if s funny," Ghislaine said. "Someone once told me you must either laugh or weep. And I've wept enough." Something in her tone of voice must have betrayed her. "What about Nicholas?" "What about him?" she said, pulling her briskness about her like a warm cloak. "By now he's realized he's well rid of me. He no longer needs to feel responsible for me-he can go on with his life." "You think Nicholas is troubled by a sense of responsibility?" Ell en asked in frank amazement. "Gilly, you just spent a long period of time alone with the man. Surely you know him better than that by now. The man cares about you." "I know him better than he knows himself. And it's up to me to save him from himself." "You're good at that," Ell en said. "You saved me, you tried to save your brother. Perhaps you might put those energies to better use." Ghislaine managed a wry smile. "To save myself, you mean? I hardly think I'm worth it." She threw her shoulders back. It was a chilly spring afternoon in the mountains, and their rough peasant clothes were no proof against the cold. A warm fire, a soft pall et, something warm to eat would be heaven. But not yet. Not until she found Old Bones. "Come along, Agnes," she said. Ell en wrinkled her nose. "I wish you'd chosen a better name for me. Even pronounced the French way it sounds frumpy." "You're a deal safer being frumpy, Agnes. Now be quiet. Someone might hear." There was one good thing to be said for the rough inn when the two women stepped inside. Their lack of body odor would scarcely be noticed in such a malodorous common room. "Remember to

shamble," Ghislaine whispered to Ell en, who promptly ducked her head and stumbled on the coarse wood planking. "And look stupid." Ghislaine could feel her palms sweating. The past week had been a horror for her, thrust back in a nightmare she'd thought to escape. The nameless inn was not much worse than the Red Hen, a place she'd called home for so many years. There was no reason for the clawing sense of panic, of looming disaster. She immediately picked out the landlord, a shifty-eyed sort with a leer, and steered Ell en toward him. "We have no work," he grumbled at them, before she had a chance to speak. "Best to check up at the monastery-they occasionally take on day workers. Unless you've a mind to earn a few sou on your back. In which case the monastery won't do you much good," he said with a cackle. "We don't need a job," she said, slipping into the gutter French of Paris. It was subtly different from the mountain French of the villagers, but still close enough in class distinction to be acceptable. "I'm looking for a man." "There are any number of them, cherie," he said, waving a burly arm at the sull en assemblage. 'Take your pick." "A ragpicker. Come from Paris." "Paris. That's where your accent is from. You must mean Old Bones. We don't let him in here- he's a filthy Jew. What would you be wanting with him?" She'd worked this out carefully ahead of time, the long trip from Venice giving her more than enough time to plan. "He owes me something." "You think to get money from a Jew? You must be as witless as your companion," the innkeeper said with a harsh laugh. "Besides, he has no money. He sleeps in the all eyways and barely has enough to eat." "He has something that belongs to me," Ghislaine said firmly. "It's not of value to anyone else. My poor sister and I have traveled a long ways to retrieve it. Do you know where he is?" "Sometimes he begs for food at the monastery. Ever since he showed up here about a month ago he's been haunting their doorstep. You'll probably find him up there. Go to the top of the street, follow the path, and you'll find it. Not that they'll answer the door to women. The good brothers lead a contemplative life-they'll think the devil sent two pretty ones like you." His dark eyes were speculative as they ran over Ell en's tall, stooped figure. "You might like to leave your sister behind. She's not bad-looking, and she could earn a good meal and a place for the night." "No," Ghislaine said, hoping Ell en wouldn't understand the man's mountain dialect. "She's a poor creature, she doesn't understand things." "All the better." "No," Ghislaine said again, clutching Ell en's limp arm. "She stays with me." "Suit yourself." The innkeeper shrugged. "If you change your mind I may still be able to do something for you." Ell en was trembling, her head bowed, as Ghislaine drew her out of the dark, smoky inn. She took in great cleansing gulps of air, and her voice trembled. "That was horrible," she whispered. "I was hoping you wouldn't understand," Ghislaine said, pulling her along the deserted streets. "And those men, watching us. Particularly the one in the corner. Did you see him? I've never seen such dark, evil eyes." "I wasn't paying any attention," Ghislaine said. "They were all of a type. Harmless, if you stand up to them." "The one in the corner didn't look harmless. Or like the others. He was better dressed, for one thing. And he was staring at us with such intensity. It made me quite ill." Ghislaine paused in her headlong pace, controlling her own impatience. "I can't stop now, Ell en," she said quietly. "I'm too close to my brother. I have to find Old Bones-only he knows where CharlesLouis is. If you want, we'll find a place for you to stay while I search him out…" "I'm going with you," Ell en said, pulling herself together. "You don't suppose your brother was in the inn…"

"Charles-Louis had golden-blond hair. All the men in the room were dark," Ghislaine said flatly. "It was the first thing I noticed." "Why didn't you ask the innkeeper about your brother?" Ghislaine shook her head. "Old habits die hard-I learned long ago not to trust, not to take things at face value. I don't know if Charles-Louis is in danger, but I don't want to do anything to jeopardize his safety. Come along, Ell en, if you're coming. I can wait no more." The path to the monastery was narrow and steep. When they reached the gates they were locked, against intruders, against the world, and the bell Ghislaine rang echoed with a ghostly, mournful sound. "No one will answer," a cracked voice muttered from the nearby bushes. A moment later the familiar, disreputable figure of Old Bones shambled into the gathering shadows. "Well met, Ghislaine. It took you long enough to get here." For a moment she didn't move. And then she A Rose at Midnight 367 crossed the narrow clearing and put her arms around his ragged figure, holding him tightly. "It took a long time for your letter to reach me, old friend." "Who's the girl?" He'd noticed Ell en right away, of course. Old Bones never missed a thing. "A friend of mine. She's the one who brought the letter to me. Where is he, Old Bones? Is he still in Lantes? Is he well? Does he want to see me?" "He's here," the old man said, sitting down heavily on a rock, his ragged cloak fluttering around his scarecrow-thin body. "He's well enough, I suppose. He's waiting for you right now." "But where is he?" "Where do you think, Ghislaine?" He jerked his head toward the dark, fortressed monastery. "He's in there. Has been for the past ten years." The innkeeper kept his face impassive as the dark stranger arose from the corner of the common room and advanced on him. "I did as you asked, monseigneur," he said, controlling his urge to pull his forelock. Lord, these new aristos of the government were even worse than the old ones. The old ones were generous with the tips and the smiles. This man, this official of the Paris government, gave him the chills. Never an extra sou, never a word, and his soft voice always carried a threat. "I told them to go up to the monastery. They'll find the Jew there, sure enough." "You didn't say I'd been waiting for the girl, did you?" That soft, harsh voice made his blood run cold. "Of course not," he said with righteous indignation. "I've done just as your worship told me. If s been a long wait…" "Too long," the man said. "Over at last. Have my carriage readied to leave." "If s getting dark, monsieur." "I've already spent too many weeks in this stinking hole," the man replied gently. "You'll be taking the women with you?" "Just the smaller one. You may keep the idiot as payment for your troubles. Though you may find she's not quite as simple as she might appear." This time he did pull his forelock. "We've been honored by your presence, monsieur. Might I be permitted to know your name?" "I don't know what it signifies," the man said. "But I am called Malviver." The innkeeper bowed low enough to scrape the filth-encrusted floor. "We've been honored, monseigneur," he said again. "Everything will be as you requested." Malviver's smile was small and terrifying in his dark, scarred face. "I never doubted it." There was no gate to the service entrance at St. Anselm's. Old Bones led the way through the twilight with the surefootedness of a mountain goat, leaving Ghislaine and Ell en to stumble after him. He halted within a careful distance of the pool of light that flooded the early evening, putting out a restraining arm, one that Ell en deftly managed to avoid. "We'll wait for you below," he said. "There's something that's not right about all this. I don't know why I finally got word about your brother, when I'd been asking for years. Someone must have wanted me, and therefore you, to know. But I cannot guess for what reason. Be very careful, little one. Watch your back. You have your knife?"

"Charles-Louis won't want to hurt me." "Not him," Old Bones agreed with a rusty laugh. "But there are others, who wait and watch. When you come back I will tell you what I have learned. You've changed, little one. You no longer court death. It seems to my old eyes that you've found a reason to live. Be very careful. It is still foolish to trust anyone in France. We'll go down and keep watch." She drew his frail old body into her arms, hugging him tightly. "How can I ever thank you for this?" she whispered. The old reprobate shrugged, hiding his embarrassment. "I worried about you. It seemed something I could do. Don't expect too much of him, ma bell e. You'll find he's much changed." "After ten years in that place, I would think so. Will he leave with me?" "You'll have to ask him. Come with me, ma-dame," he said to the wary Ell en. "We'll make sure no one disturbs this happy reunion." Ghislaine watched as they disappeared through the thick undergrowth, the fastidious Ell en careful to keep her peasant skirts away from Old Bones's ragged apparel. Obviously her old mentor was more than aware of Ell en's discomfort, for his wheezy voice echoed back… "Have you ever thought of working the streets, madame? I could fetch quite a nice price for a girl of your size." Ghislaine smiled in the darkness, fighting the tension that seized her heart. She glanced toward the kitchen, afraid, mortally afraid. What if Charles-Louis was changed beyond recognition? Could he speak? Had he recovered from the horror of that time on the streets of Paris, or did he still possess the mind of a child? Did he know what she'd done? Would he hate her for it? What if it wasn't really he? The door opened beneath her shaking fingers. There was only one lone monk in the kitchen. He was leaning over a large pot on the stove, stirring it, his face serene and totally absorbed. It was a handsome, patrician face, oddly familiar. The body beneath the rough hemp robe was of medium height and formed with a certain elegance; the tonsured hair was bright gold. And then he turned, sensing her presence, and she was looking straight into Charles-Louis's beautiful brown eyes, full of lively intelligence. "Ghislaine," he said, his voice deeper, his smile gentler. She ran to him, flinging herself against him with noisy sobs, clutching at him, determined to prove to herself he was real, he was alive. "It's you," she sobbed. "It really is you." "Of course it is," he said, holding her tightly. "I've been here, and safe, for years." She pushed him away, suddenly furious. "Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you send word? I was half-crazy with grief and despair! How could you let me believe you were dead? You were all I had." "No, Ghislaine," he said gently. "You had yourself. The strongest person I have ever known. I know what you did for me. Sooner or later you would have destroyed yourself for me. There was only one way for the two of us to survive, and that was without having to worry about each other." He touched her face, his hand gentle. "I escaped from Malviver and his men and wandered the city streets until the good brothers found me and took me away. It was a long time before I even remembered who and what I was. By the time I did, and I was able to speak again, I'd been here for more than a year. There was no way I could find you, and I decided it was better this way. You needed to get on with your life, without a little brother holding you back." A Rose at Midnight 371 "Damn you, Charles-Louis," she said. "That should have been for me to decide." "Always the bossy older sister," he said with a wry smile. "You wouldn't have made the right decision. I made it for you. I've found a peace I never would have thought possible. And you…?" She shook her head, managing a smile despite the brightness of tears filling her eyes. "I've done very well," she said, ignoring the tear in her heart where Nicholas Blackthorne lived. "Why did you finally decide to tell me where you were?" "I didn't. As far as I was concerned, it was better that you believed me dead. The Charles-Louis you knew is gone forever. I'm Frere Martin. Cook extraordinaire," he said with a wry grin, gesturing toward the kitchen. "I gather we share a talent in that area. Wouldn't Maman have been horrified?" Ghislaine found she could smile too, thinking of her proper Maman's insistence on class structure. "Then why am I here?"

He shook his head, and if the calm that settled in his brown eyes didn't leave him, it faded somewhat. "That's what disturbs me, and Old Bones as well. When he showed up here I was astonished to see him. He'd been unable to trace how he got word-a friend told a friend who told an acquaintance. He's a suspicious old heretic, you know that as well as I do. He thinks there's something afoot." The sense of dread had been riding Ghislaine's back since she'd left Venice, but she'd ascribed it to her despair over Nicholas. Now she found herself wondering if she had more concrete reasons to worry. "What do you think?" she asked. "I think you should leave. Take your friend and leave Lantes, leave France, as swiftly and as quietly as possible. I have a bad feeling about this, ma soeur. And my bad feelings are usually right." "But what about you?" "What about me? I'm happy here, happier than I ever dreamed of being. No one can reach me herenowadays even the church has some protection from the state. Don't worry about me. You need to see to your own safety. You're not invulnerable, you know. You need to take care of yourself." For a moment she didn't move. "I will never see you again, will I?" she asked quietly. He shook his head. "It's better this way. The past is behind us. I have my life, a strong good one. You need to find yours." She'd found it. And given it up, for a whim of nobility. She wanted to cry and scream, beg and plead. She'd lost him once, she didn't want to lose him again. She'd lost Nicholas, she couldn't lose everything. She didn't dare touch him, to hug him goodbye. "I'll miss you, little brother," she said. "I'm bigger than you now," he pointed out. "Go with God." She wanted to scream at him that she didn't believe in his God. But something had given him a peace she couldn't even begin to imagine, and for that she thanked Him. Instead she leaned over and dipped her finger in the stew that was bubbling away quite cheerfully, bringing it to her mouth. "Needs more salt, Frere Martin," she said evenly. "God be with you." She ran from the kitchen, into the gathering dusk, before her tears would betray her. She ran into the woods, away from her last glimpse of her baby brother, lost and found and lost again, and the tears blinded her, deafened her, so that she stormed down the pathway, heedless of the noise she made, heedless of the danger. *** "Is she happy, madame?" Old Bones's voice came to her softly across the cool air. Ell en had taken a seat on a rock near the gates to the monastery, as far removed from the old man as she could politely_manage. He made her uneasy, with his old, far-seeing eyes, his tattered clothes, his race that she'd been taught to view with distrust. Together in the shadows, in the midst of a foreign country with danger all around, she wished she could overcome her childish prejudices and move a little closer. She needed some comfort. Some courage. But old habits died hard. And besides, there was no reason to suppose there was danger all around. Only an odd sort of prickling sensation at the back of her neck. "Happy?" she echoed, considering. "She could be." Old Bones sighed. "still fighting, is she? Always a fierce little creature, she was. She has friends to watch out for her. You, who must be crazy to have followed her into France, a well-bred English lady like yourself." "I thought you said I could earn a decent living on the streets?" she countered with belated amusement. The old man smiled. "So you could. You'd fetch an even prettier price in a drawing room. Are you a good friend to her?" "I am. My husband too. And my cousin Nicholas…" Her voice trailed off. "The cousin. That must be the man she loves." "What makes you think she's in love?" Old Bones shook his head. "I know her very well indeed. I can only hope she is not too stubborn to take that love. She-" His voice came to an abrupt halt. "Someone's coming." Ell en slid down from the rock. "But who…?"

"Do as I tell you." The age-quavered voice was nevertheless firm. "I want you to hide. No matter what happens, stay hidden. You may need to run for help. If this is the kind of trouble I expect it is, you will do no one any service by getting yourself killed as well." "As well? Who's going to get killed?" Ell en demanded in a nervous whisper, matching his tone of voice. "If we're lucky, no one. But I sense that luck has just run out. Hide, you stupid English girl. Wait and listen. If you hope to be of any use at all, for pity's sake, hide." She dove into the undergrowth, scrambling for cover. Thorns tore at her face and hands, ripped at her clothing. She sank down on her belly in the dirt, breathing in the dampness of the wet spring earth, holding herself as still as the stone she'd been sitting on. Holding herself as still as Old Bones, as he stood alone in the clearing, waiting. She saw the man, and it was no surprise that it was the dark man from the inn/the man who'd frightened her. She could barely hear the quiet conversation, and she strained, trying to translate the gutter French that was so very different from the polite phrases her governess Miss Plimpson had taught her. At the memory of the so-correct Miss Plimpson, a hysterical laugh bubbled forth in her throat, and she had to bite her hand to stifle it. "Wait, and listen," the old man had told her. It was all she could do. "Where are they, old man?" "Gone," said Old Bones, not wavering. "I should have known it was you, Malviver. When I heard about the dark stranger from Paris, I should have known. You took care to keep out of my sight." A Rose at Midnight 375 "An easy enough task. You aren't allowed in decent company." "And you consider yourself decent company? Why can't you let my Ghislaine be?" "She has a debt she owes me, one I intend to see that she pays. In full, with her body and her blood. You played along very well, old man. I'm surprised you didn't guess sooner who was behind it." "I'm getting old," the man said sadly. "Too old to live." "I agree," said the dark man, moving forward. A moment later Old Bones crumpled to the ground in a heap of rage. Ell en bit down on her wrist to stifle her scream. She tasted her own blood, and dirt, and she lay there and shook, horror washing over her, certain it could get no worse. She was wrong. The dark man moved to the rock she'd recently vacated and sat down, spreading his fine brown cape around him, and waited. It didn't take long. Within minutes Ghislaine came crashing through the bushes, with a complete disregard for the trap awaiting her. She stopped dead still at the edge of the clearing and took in the scene before her. Old Bones's body lay huddled and seemingly lifeless on the ground in a pool of darkness. The man who sat behind it was hidden in shadows. She took a tentative, disbelieving step forward. "Malviver?" she said in a hoarse voice. "The very same. You thought you'd killed me, didn't you? You underestimate the lower classes, citizeness. We are very hard to kill." Ignoring him, she sank down next to Old Bones, her hands touching him with great gentleness. "Apparently not." "He'd served his purpose. Where is your little English friend? We wouldn't want her left behind. She might raise all sorts of unpleasant questions. I've risen high in the government during the past years in my own quiet way. My power is almost unlimited, if I'm careful. This little sojourn of mine is in the nature of a personal matter. I wouldn't want word to get back to my superiors. A thirst for vengeance denotes a weakness, and Malviver is known to be a man without weakness." "She's gone," Ghislaine said flatly. "Don't be absurd. Where could a well-bred Englishwoman have gotten to in this mountain hamlet?" "Someplace where you can't find her. You've been behind this all, haven't you?" "Of course. It's taken me a long time to find you. I'd just about given up-the old Jew was a stubborn soul, and not even the most refined of questioning devices could get the information out of him. I

knew he must know where you were. The fat woman at the inn had no idea. I'm sure she would have told me before she died." "You killed Marthe?" "A traitor to her class." Malviver dismissed her. "I'd just about given up hope when I remembered your little brother. He was easier to find. And then setting this little trap was surprisingly simple. It took you longer than I expected to show up, but I have learned to be patient." "Are you going to kill me?" To Ell en's listening ears Ghislaine sounded no more than distantly interested in her fate. "Certainly not. I am taking you back to Paris." "You will have to kill me," she said flatly. "Oh, it may come to that. Or I could see to it that you stand trial for various crimes against the republic. You and that saintly brother of yours. Madame La Guil otine has been far too lazy of late. I could always see her put to good use again." "You will leave him alone!" Ghislaine said, her voice cold and fierce. "still trying to protect him? It's a simple enough matter. My carriage awaits at the bottom of the hill. Raise no fuss, and I will see to it that your brother will live out his days in blissful peace. I have no interest in him-I've left him alone for the past decade." "And me?" "As for you," Malviver said in his harsh voice. "I intend to make certain you regret ever having crossed me." She had no choice. It was all Ell en could do to keep from leaping up from her spot in the undergrowth. But Old Bones had warned her. There was nothing she could do, for now at least. If she revealed herself, she'd simply wipe out their only advantage. She could just manage to see Ghislaine's small, determined figure. She bowed, graceful and aristocratic in her agreement. "May I take my valise with me?" she inquired in a diffident tone of voice. "If it holds more clothes like the rags you are wearing, then you'll have no need of it," he replied, sounding smug. "The mistress of Malviver will have to dress the part. At least in public. I have a certain quiet reputation." "It holds very little of value," Ghislaine said with deceptive sweetness. "Merely a few pieces of clothing and some of my cooking herbs." "I should have come for you when I heard you were at the Red Hen," he mused. "I was too busy for you then, making my way. Your cooking talents will be a side benefit. I haven't had a decent meal since I came to this god-forsaken place." Ghislaine's smile was cool and ghastly in the moonlight. "I can prepare you the very thing," she murmured. And Ell en felt the chil all the way to her bones.

Chapter 24
Ell en lay in the bushes, unable to move, her body frozen with horror and despair. She lost track of time-the night grew dark, the moon scudded by overhead, and the wind picked up, tossing last year's leaves around her body. still she remained, motionless, rigid in shock. Until she heard a strange, choking noise. "You… still there… girl…?" She flew from her hiding spot, racing to the huddled body, kneeling beside him and taking his skeletal arm in hers. "You're alive," she sobbed. "I thought he'd killed you…" "Just barely," he said. His voice was only a thread of sound, and his eyes were milky and glazed over. "You have to get help." "I'll get bandages…" "Not for me, you stupid twit. I'm done for, and past time." He coughed, and dark blood came from his mouth. "You need to get help for Ghislaine. I thought I had time to warn her he still lived. I should have known Malviver would be behind this. He never forgets. He came after me to find where she

was, years ago, and I told him she was dead. I thought I'd convinced him. Never underestimate your enemy-that's a good lesson to learn." "Yes, sir," Ell en sobbed, stroking his arm. "Come now. You don't call a dying ragpicker sir, especially if he's a Hebrew." Old Bones wheezed. "Go for help. Not at the inn-they're a bunch of thieves and scoundrels. There's nothing you can do for me-the wound's mortal, and it won't take long. I don't even feel it now. If s just so damned cold. Go on with you." "No," Ell en said, stripping off the ragged shawl she'd tied around her shoulders and draping it over his pitiful frame. "Don't be a fool," he gasped. 'There's nothing you can do for me. I'll be dead in no time. Your duty is to Ghislaine." Ell en didn't hesitate. She took his clawlike hand in hers, and indeed, it was icy cold. She held it firmly in her lap, sitting back on her heels. "No one deserves to die alone," she said. "Ghislaine would want me to stay." "You're as stubborn as she is. God protect me from stupid Christian women and their sense of duty." He choked again, and his limp body shuddered in the darkness. "Stay then, damn you," he whispered finally. "In all, I'd be glad of it." They found her there, kneeling by the old man, his lifeless hand clasped in hers, as she wept for him. She heard their approach, but it was too late to run and hide. And indeed, she hadn't the strength. "Ell en!" It was Tony, strong, wonderful Tony, leaping off his horse, sweeping her into his arms, tight against him. "I could strangle you!" he said, covering her tear-streaked face with kisses, holding her so tightly she thought he might break her ribs. "If you ever pull such a trick again I'll beat you, I swear that I will. We've had the devil's own time finding you. Damn it, Ell en…" He silenced his own tirade by kissing her, hard on her mouth. "This is all very touching," a familiar, cynical voice said, but there was no missing the edge beneath the icy tone. "But whose body were you mourning over so affectingly? And where is Ghislaine?" "Oh, my God, Tony, he's taken her," she cried, breaking free from the comfort of his embrace. "Who's taken her?" Nicholas demanded harshly. "Some man… he killed Old Bones…" she babbled, glancing back at the old man lying in the dirt. "Make sense, woman!" Nicholas said furiously. "What man? When did he take her?" "His name was Malviver. I don't know how long ago they left, maybe a couple of hours ago, I'm not sure. He had a coach, he said. I hid in the woods, and I couldn't hear everything…" "Malviver," Nicholas said, his soft voice truly terrifying. "She thought he was dead." "Obviously he was not," Tony said, still clasping Ell en tightly against him. "No," Nicholas said, and his smile was white and savage in the moonlight. "That pleasure has been reserved for me. And who says there isn't a just God? Where were they headed? For Paris?" "I don't know. I assume so. We have to do something about Old Bones," Ell en said with a shudder. "We can't just leave him here." Nicholas turned his horse without a word, thundering back down the narrow footpath with a complete disregard for safety. "Blackthorne, wait!" Tony called after him, but Nicholas had already disappeared, riding like the very devil. Tony turned back to his wife. "We'll have to leave his body to the good brothers," he said. "They'll find him in the morning and do what‟s proper. Come along, darling. We have to make sure that fool doesn't let his fury override his talent with a sword. If he dies rescuing Ghislaine, I doubt she'll care whether she lives or not." There was no way they could catch the carriage, Nicholas thought in fury. Their horses were winded from the breakneck pace they'd been keeping, and Tony's large roan had the added disadvantage of Ell en's weight. Nicholas made no gentlemanly offer to take her, or to slow the pace. In fact, he barely noticed their presence behind him as he pushed onward, determined to catch up with Malviver's coach. The Frenchman showed no inclination to stop for the night, an act which would have sealed his fate.

They continued on after him through the darkness, the horses winded and blown, kept going until Nicholas's driven mount collapsed underneath him, sending his rider tumbling into the roadway. "Have some sense, man," Tony said. "You won't help anyone if you break your neck." "Give me your horse," Nicholas said, his voice dangerous. "And leave us stranded? Don't be ridiculous." "Give me your horse, damn it, or I'll run you through," he cried. "Listen to me, Blackthorne, my horse isn't in any more fit state than yours. We need to get to the nearest town where we can secure fresh mounts. My horse won't be able to go much further, no matter how determined you are. As long as they're in the carriage she's safe from him…" Nicholas's laugh was mirthless. "You should know better than that." "Then you'll simply have to kill him. You're good at that, aren't you," Tony said coolly. "Stop having a tantrum and be reasonable. We'll walk our mounts to the next town. The longer we stand about arguing, the longer it will be till we catch up with them." "Damn you," Nicholas said, yanking his horse's reins and hauling it down the road toward the dimly lit village. His rage was blinding, mixed with panic. The thought of Ghislaine, his fierce, magnificent Ghislaine, at the mercy of the monster who'd sold her into prostitution, made him shake with impotent fury. He wanted, needed to kill him. But first he needed to make sure she was safe. And then he'd beat her within an inch of her life for running away from him. Just one tiny piece of luck, it was all he needed. Not a lame horse, not two people holding him back. Not a vill ain driving breakneck with no stops, not a rage so all-encompassing that he made a fatal mistake. For the first time his life had started to mean something. He wanted to live; he wanted to live with Ghislaine. He wanted to marry her, make her pregnant, watch her grow old and wrinkled. He wanted the dubious peace that life with her would bring. If he couldn't have that, he wanted nothing at all. The next village was larger, boasting two inns. When they arrived at the nearer of them, sometime after midnight, Nicholas didn't even notice the discreet black carriage parked in the yard until Ell en's soft voice arrested him, just as he was about to demand a fresh horse. "I think thaf s the carriage." Nicholas paused, the fiery rage in his veins turning to ice. "Why?" "I saw one very like it in Lantes. I might be mistaken…" "I doubt it," he said. "This will be the one. I'll need your help, Tony." "You have it." "If s simple enough. Make sure Malviver's men don't interfere. I have no idea whether he comes with an armed guard or something as simple as a coachman. I don't want them anywhere near me." "You're going to rescue Gilly?" Ell en breathed, sliding down from Tony's mount into his waiting arms. "I'm going to rescue her, cousin. And then I'm going to skewer Malviver." "Good. I hope you make him suffer," Ell en said flatly. A last, desperate trace of humor flashed over his face. "It must be proximity to Ghislaine," he remarked. "She seems to make everyone bloodthirsty. Don't worry, cousin. He shal suffer exceedingly." It was simple enough to find them. The inn boasted only one private parlor, and that was already bespoke by a high government official and his cloaked companion, the innkeeper informed them, wringing his hands. If monsieur would care to enter the taproom… Monsieur had no intention of doing any such thing. He simply shoved the innkeeper into Tony's waiting arms and took the steps two at a time, sword drawn. The two occupants of the room looked up when he flung the door open, and for a moment rage blinded him. She looked cozy enough, a half-drunk glass of claret in her hand, sitting across from the man who'd taken her, and for a moment he wondered if he'd been mistaken in her. And then she turned to him, and there was such despair and joy in her eyes that he felt his heart twist inside. Malviver rose, shoving the table away from him, and Nicholas took the time to school his runaway emotions. If he let himself hate too much, it would weaken his defense. The man standing too near Ghislaine was a dangerous one-only a fool would miss that. He was almost as tall as Nicholas, and

more broadly built, with large, hamlike hands that might be clumsy with a rapier. Then again, they might not. "I wouldn't drink that wine if I were you," Nicholas drawled, lounging against the doorway. "She's adept at poison, and she's already had a fair amount of practice on me. I assure you, it's not a pleasant way to die. You'd prefer my sword." Malviver looked down at his glass of wine, then at Ghislaine's still expression. He threw the glass away, smashing it against the fireplace. "I'm not going to fight you," he sneered. "I'm not one of your fancy gentlemen, with time to play with swords. If you want her, you'll have to fight like a man." The blood sang through Nicholas's veins, and he smiled. "How would you define fighting like a man, monsieur?" "With knives," Malviver said flatly. "No!" Ghislaine gasped. "Your lady doesn't seem to have much faith in you," Malviver sneered. "I can be generous. Go away, leave us, and I won't have you arrested." Nicholas sheathed his sword. "You can provide the knives, I presume?" "Nicholas, don't," Ghislaine whispered. "He'll kill you." "Not likely." He caught the wicked-looking knife Malviver tossed at him. "Tony?" "I'm here," Tony replied from the doorway. "Make sure no one interferes." "Afraid you might lose, monsieur?" Malviver mocked him. "Afraid you might cheat, Malviver." He stripped off his jacket, watching his opponent with great care. The bastard had chosen wisely. No ordinary English gentleman was adept at fighting with knives. But then, Nicholas was no ordinary English gentleman. It was an ugly fight, with none of the grace of a swordfight, none of the skil of pistols. Not even the dubious elegance of fisticuffs. It was a bloody, dirty, sweaty affair, shocking in its savagery, and when Nicholas finally had Malviver pinned, his knife at Malviver's throat, blood was dripping from a gash on Nicholas's cheek, his breath was gone, and his arm was numb. "Give me one good reason to spare your life, you bastard," he said in a hoarse voice. 'Just one." Malviver's eyes were narrow slits of rage. "Because if you don't, you'll be hounded, you'll be hunted down like dogs, and you'll end on the guil otine, where all your kind should be. If you let me live I can guarantee you safe passage. You know as well as I do the peace is coll apsing. It was nothing but a farce from the beginning, as anyone but the stupid English would have realized. You'll never make it out of France without my help." Nicholas sat back, hauling Malviver upright. "It might be worth it," he spat. Then he released him, dropping him back on the hard floor. "Watch him, Tony," he ordered, and, rising, he turned to Ghislaine. "You don't want me to kill him, do you?" he said softly. "I give him his life, as a wedding present to you. But you'll have to promise to marry me." She smiled then, a pale, lost smile. And her eyes fluttered closed, and she slumped to the floor in a gentle, graceful slide. "Wouldn't have thought a proposal would make her faint," Tony drawled, but Nicholas was already by her side, pulling her limp body into his arms. "She didn't faint, damn it”, he said grimly. "She's taken the poison herself." Her eyes opened for a moment, and she managed a weak smile. "Sorry," she whispered. "I didn't think you'd get here in time." He pulled her body against him, howling in rage. "Get a doctor, damn it!" he thundered. "She's dying!" Ell en appeared in the doorway, her face white with shock. "What's happened? Gilly…?" The words were cut off as Malviver leaped for her, a burly arm around her white throat. Nicholas couldn't, wouldn't move from his spot on the floor where he cradled Ghislaine's limp body. "And now, messieurs, I think I will choose this moment to depart," Malviver said in a rasping voice. "This one can serve as a hostage. I will release her in Paris, and perhaps she'll find her own way back to England. Assuming we aren't at war by then." "Let her go, you bastard," Tony said, his voice shaking with suppressed rage.

Ell en's eyes were wide with shock as she stood pressed against the Frenchman. "Tony?" she whispered beseechingly. It was over so quickly. With an inhuman roar the indolent, Honorable Sir Antony Wilton-Greening leaped for Malviver, ripping him away from Ell en. She fell against the door, watching with a bloodthirsty fascination as Tony grappled with Malviver, rolling on the floor, one evil-looking knife between the two of them. And then Tony rose, his huge height towering over Malviver's limp body. He looked down at the man, and spat, then held out his arms to Ell en. She ran to him, clinging tightly for a moment, then turned to look at Nicholas. He was still kneeling on the floor, uncaring of Malviver's fate, and his hands were tight on Ghislaine's shoulders. "Don't you dare die, Ghislaine!" he shouted. "You can't die. You can't leave me. I love you, damn it. If you die, I'll kill you. For God's sake, don't die!" Ghislaine was so cold, so weary. It seemed as if once more she'd find that dark, safe place, deep inside, where no one could reach her. That empty place that had once held her hopes, her dreams, her innocence. Her heart. But it was no longer empty. It was full to overflowing, bursting with love and hope and a thousand possibilities. There was no place to escape from the insistent voice that was threatening, cajoling, dragging her back. I love you, the voice said, a voice that had never said those words before. Come back to me. And she had no choice. She opened her eyes, very carefully. Her eyelids ached. Every part of her body ached. She remembered being sick, horribly sick, for endless hours, worse even than seasickness. She remembered the hands, holding her, walking her up and down, never letting her rest. She remembered the voice. There was a dim gray light coming in the window, but whether it was dawn or dusk she had no idea. She lay on a bed, and the cover was heavy on her body, painfully so. She turned her head, to see Nicholas, a stubble of beard on his beautiful, dissolute face, his hair long and tangled. Somehow it seemed more streaked with gray than when she'd first encountered him. Had she done that to him? He looked exhausted. She wanted to touch him. Using all her strength she lifted her hand to brush it lightly against his rough cheek. His eyes flew open, and he was staring at her in wonder. "So you decided to live after all," he said, his voice not much more than a croak, ruining the cynical effect of his words. Her mouth felt dry, horrible; her head pounded; and her skin hurt. She found she could smile. "I believe you told me you'd kill me if I didn't," she whispered. He cursed then, pulling her into his arms, holding her tightly, so tightly that she could feel the trembling in his body, a trembling that matched her own. "And so I would. You'll marry me as well." She lay very still in his arms. "I don't blame you anymore, Nicholas," she said. "I no longer have any need for revenge." "But I do. I'm going to marry you, woman, and keep you with me for the rest of your life. I'll make your life a living hell, chained to the last of the mad Blackthornes. If that‟s not revenge I don't know what is." She found she could smile against the wrinkled whiteness of his shirt. "Didn't you tell me something else last night?" "I told you a great many things last night, most of which you wouldn't have heard. If you're by any chance referring to what I said to you before you passed out from the poison, that was two days ago." She pushed away from him. "Two days? I've been sick that long?" "You've been hovering between life and death, damn it. It's about time you made up your mind." "What about Malviver? Are we safe here?".she asked anxiously. "Your friend Malviver is no longer among the living." "Oh, no," she said, searching his face for the bleakness she expected to see. Instead he looked both exhausted and curiously joyous. "Did you kill him?"

"You seem troubled by his demise, considering you were doing your best to poison him," he pointed out. "But I didn't want you to kill him," she said. "You have too much blood on your hands." "As a matter of fact, Tony did the honors. Your friend Malviver made the very dire mistake of thinking he could use Ell en as a hostage. It was very tidy. I'm quite respectful of Sir Antony's talent. I didn't know he had it in him." "But how will we get out of France?" "As fast as we can. Do you think you're up to riding in a carriage?" "Oh, God," she moaned. "It seems I've spent half my life in a carriage." "Don't worry, my love. Once we return to England we can stay put. Tony's promised to speak for me, and he's such a respectable gentleman I have no doubt my name will be cleared. At least in the matter of the late Mr. Hargrove. If you wish, we can live a comfortable enough life." He seemed almost diffident, and she knew the sudden, shocking truth. The dear man was actually afraid that she wouldn't want him. She reached up and stroked his stubbled skin. "What else did you say when I collapsed?" she whispered. "Besides threatening to beat me?" Her fierce demon lover actually looked abashed. "It doesn't bear repeating." "It does if you expect me to marry you. I love you too much to let you throw your life away on me." "My life isn't worth anything." "It is to me." He stared at her in mute frustration. "All right, I love you, damn it," he snapped. "Does that satisfy you?" She considered it. "It's a start. But you'll definitely need more practice. You haven't learned the proper intonation. You need-" He silenced her, efficiently and swiftly, his mouth covering hers. When he lifted his head they were both breathless. "I love you," he said again, this time a little more softly. She smiled up at him. "Much better," she whispered. "I accept."

The smell of fresh wood mixed with the rich scent of herbal tea. Ghislaine sat at the well-scrubbed table and inhaled the aroma, looking about her with simple pleasure. Charbon lay at her feet, sleeping soundly. It was autumn in Scotland, and the ruined hunting lodge of the mad Blackthornes was slowly being put in good heart once more. She'd insisted on the kitchen first. Nicholas had held out for the bedroom, but she'd been firm. They could sleep and make love anywhere, and had proven that to their own mutual satisfaction. Cooking was more of a challenge. The new roof was complete, the west wing almost closed in, and if the laborers thought it odd that Blackthorne worked side by side with them in the brisk autumn air, they ascribed it to the oddities of the gentry. They were even more taken aback when Tony and Ell en visited for a week in August, and the honorable Sir Antony Wilton-Greening had carted lumber and bricks, but Ghislaine decided it was all for the best. She'd suffered through some of the worst the revolution in France had to offer. She could manage to glean the best too, and she was determined to be very democratic. Nicholas was too self-absorbed to care one way or the other. She spooned honey into her tea and thought about the upcoming winter. The house would be snug by then. She would cook, and Nicholas would continue with his plans to make the place selfsufficient. Sheep, he'd decided, and longhaired cattle, and his enthusiasm was boyish and heartbreakingly wonderful. "What are you doing, ma mie?" She looked up. He stood in the doorway, his rough shirt open to the waist, his shoulders broader from the hard labor, his skin tanned by the weather. She loved him so much, from the top of his gray-streaked black hair to his work-roughened hands that were so deftly erotic.

"Having tea." He strolled into the room, sniffing. "Looks lethal to me," he murmured, picking up her cup. "You haven't decided to poison anyone, have you?" "Not at the moment," she replied in a tranquil voice. "Just stay on my good side." "I wouldn't think of doing otherwise. I just wondered what you were doing, drinking tea instead of your beloved coffee? You can't be turning English on me?" "Not likely." "And I don't believe I've seen you sitting still in the middle of the day before," he added, a frown creasing his face. "Are you feeling all right? I've always said you have the weakest stomach imaginable." "I'm feeling fine. I have something to tell you." The wariness darkened his midnight-blue eyes, and she knew she shouldn't tease him. She couldn't resist. "Tell me what?" "You're no longer going to have the romantic cachet of considering yourself the last of the mad Blackthornes." He simply stared at her for a moment, before her meaning sank in. "You're going to have a baby?" "By late spring. Not long after Ell en gives birth, I expect." She tried to control her sudden knot of anxiety. He was staring at her, his face absolutely expressionless with shock. And then he reached down and hauled her into his arms, holding her so tightly she thought her bones might break. He was shaking, she was shaking, and all she could do was cling to him, as close as he was holding her. He lifted his head, reaching down and catching her chin, tilting it up to his face, and there was a wicked gleam in his suspiciously bright eyes. "Does this mean you're going to have morning sickness for nine months?" "Most likely," she said, smiling up at him. "Bloody hell," he said cheerfully. And then he kissed her, hard. And they both began to laugh.

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