* * * “Trust Patricia Coughlin to deliver fresh and innovative romance for discerning fa ns.

” —Romantic Times MERELY MARRIED Life for Adrian Devereau, the sixth duke of Raven, was flawless, but for one nag ging detail. Try as he did to live down to his reputation as the Wicked Lord Rav en, the ladies persisted in viewing him as desirable husband material. So he conceived a bold solution to foil them once and for all—he would marry a wom an on her deathbed and adopt the role of grieving widower. He even found a most suitable wife: Leah Stretton, overtaken by a sudden illness while journeying to London. But with Leah’s “miraculous” recovery, Adrian found himself properly wedded to a beauty as headstrong as she was healthy. Now his only chance at freedom was p laying her game. More adept at writing about romance and adventure than living i t, Leah could not permit a new family scandal to ruin her sister’s launch into soc iety. If Adrian played her devoted husband, she would grant him an annulment lat er. There was only one rule: neither of them could fall in love. Of course, rule s were made to be broken.

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“Raven? Darling?” a woman’s voice called from somewhere outside the dining room. Darling? Adrian registered the gleam of smug satisfaction in Thorne’s squinty eyes just bef ore the same intriguing female voice spoke again, this time from just inside the dining room. “There you are.” The woman threw open her arms and smiled at him as if they were alo ne. “Surprise, darling, I’m home.” Adrian gaped at her, frozen in his seat even as the other gentlemen at the table leapt to their feet. It was she. Leah. His wife. Oh sweet Lord. What was she doing standing in his dining room? Hell, what was she doing standing anywhere? She was supposed to be ... well, dead. He placed his palms flat on the table and pushed himself upright on leaden legs, only distantly aware of the expectant hush all around him. This woman was most definitely not dead. She was breathtakingly alive. With hair the color of blazing chestnuts and eyes

like fields of clover. My God, his wife was a beauty. His wife. Oh sweet Lord, what the bloody hell was he going to do now?

* * * Also by Patricia Coughlin Lord Savage

MERELY MARRIED

PATRICIA COUGHLIN Bantam Books New York Toronto London Sydney Auckland

* * * ISBN 0-553-57521-X

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Contents 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

MERELY MARRIED

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Chapter 1

Westerham, England 1819

Adrian Devereau, the sixth Duke of Raven, among other things both laudatory and not, staggered to a halt dead center of the rutted country lane and thrust his j aw into the air with the reckless abandon of a man well into his cups. “Bygod, I’ve got it,” he declared. “I shall enter a monkastery.” “Monkastery?” echoed Sir Colin Thornton, glib barrister by vocation and bon vivant b y nature. “D’you mean monastery?” Adrian shrugged. “Monkastery. Monastery. I’ll do it.” There was no need to explain further, even if he’d been able to. Sloshed or not, b oth Colin and Will Grantley, his closest friends since their first days at Eton, understood what had driven him to this point. He was one and thirty and blissfully unwed, a decorated war hero, a peer of the realm and rotten with wealth. In other words, a tantalizingly ripe plum dangling before the marriage-minded ladies of the ton, most of whom were as eager to plu ck him from the thorny branches of bachelorhood as Adrian was determined not to be plucked. The more he attempted to live up—or rather, down—to his nickname, the Wicked Lord Ra ven, the more he was pursued. It appeared, much to his utter confusion and disgu st, that he had come to be regarded by a number of brainlessly romantic females as a Worthy Project, and they vied for the privilege of undertaking his “salvation .” All evening he had been brooding about the current season and with each tankard of ale at the Black Dwarf Pub, his proposals for dealing with the feminine threa t to his freedom had grown more creative. Now this. “Brilliantidea,” Colin mumbled, running his words together with teetering savoir fai re. “Yes, brllnt,” agreed Will, dropping his syllables like autumn leaves. “Let’s drink to R ave’s ‘coming a monk.” He waved a hand in the air. “To ... to ... What the heck to call a duke who ’comes a monk?” “Brother?” Colin ventured. Will shook his head. “A bit too familiar. How ‘bout BrotherYourGrace?”

“Got it,” Colin exclaimed. “Your Celibacy. Get it? Your Celibacy.” He and Will surrender ed to a fit of laughter, jostling each other in their efforts to remain standing . “Idiots,” muttered Adrian, and continued walking. “Maybe monking it wasn’t such a brillnt idea after all.” said Will. He and Colin shuff led rapidly to catch up to Adrian. Their mounts forgotten in the stable behind t he pub, they were making their way back to the rectory at St. Anne’s-on-Clayton. I t was one of two comfortable livings Will held, mainly by virtue of being a frie nd of the Duke’s. “ ‘Spose not,” Adrian conceded gloomily. “I’ve no gift for celibacy.” “ ‘Sides which, you don’t have a monk’s girth. Or the proper hairline.” He waved toward Ad rian’s tall, lean frame and thick, dark brown hair. “They’d have to be always shavin’ th at little circle at the back to make you fit. Boundtogettedious.” “Would flick off the ladies though,” Colin pointed out. “Thazyour problem, Rave. Too d amn pretty for your own good . . . and in spite of our trying to fix things by s mashing your nose that time in Naples.” He slapped Will on the back. “ ‘Member Naples?” They shared another loud laugh, then Colin said, “Could always have another go at the old muzzle, Rave, if you like.” “Thanks, but no.” “Wouldn’t work anywayz,” added Will. “The mamas are more interested in your azzets than your face.” “Did you have to mention the mothers?” grumbled Adrian. “I’d sooner face Lucifer himself than a mother charging across a ballroom with her sweet-young-thing in tow.” “Mothers ought to have the good sense to keep their sweet-young-things away from t he likes of you,” remarked Colin. “I’ve certainly done my part to convince them,” stated Adrian. “Then there’s the assortmen t of aunts and other females who aid and abet. Hell, the bloody world is set aga inst the poor sod who wants only to be left alone.” “Well,” said Colin with a conspiratorial leer, “not completely alone. Else you really would be monking it.” “No, of course not completely alone.” Adrian broke into the very grin that never fai led to dazzle feminine hearts and get him into trouble. “No fun in that.” He sighed. “I prefer to bake my cake and eat it ... find a cake and need it ... Ah, hell, yo u know what I mean.” “I do. The cake, I mean. Having and eating.” Will awaited their full attention. “S’calle d heaven.” Adrian snorted. “Ha. Now there’s a subject you would know precious little about, Rec tor.” Will managed an indignant expression, drawing himself up in a comical attempt at the solemn air he ordinarily reserved for those rare occasions when he was actu ally called upon to perform some ecclesiastic duty. “Know ‘nough to minister to your lost soul, my son.”

“Leave my lost soul out of this,” Adrian retorted. Colin moved between them. “Why not do what Plimpton did?” “Reginald Plimpton?” “The very one.” He paused to belch. “Women chased him same as you till he went and got himself wed.” “Plimpton’s not wed.” “Was so,” Colin declared. “All happened while you were off in France winning brass but tons and defending . . . whatever it was you were off defending. Old Reggie met some sweet-young-thing from Dorset one week and married her the next. Juzliketha t,” he concluded, with several failed attempts to snap his fingers. “That’s success? You want me to avoid the shackles of marriage by getting married? D amn clever, barrister.” He made an exaggerated bow. “No bloody wonder you have so mu ch free time for hunting if that’s the way you treat your clients.” “Let me finish,” protested Colin. “Plimpton got married, then he got widowed. Or is it widowered?” He gave a careless wave. “Whatever you call it when a fellow’s wife dies on him.” Adrian frowned. “But how did he manage it? He didn’t ...” “Kill her?” Colin shook his head. “Course not. Heard Reg was devilish fond of the old girl. Nearly threw himself into the grave after her, they say. That saved him, y ou see.” “What did?” “His grief, Rave, his grief. Even the vultures of the Marriage Mart understand gri ef.” “Of course.” Adrian’s quiet, almost reverent tone was broken by a sudden hiccup and th en a soft whistle between his teeth. “A grieving widower would be out of play for . . . why, no telling how long. Sweet-Jesus Colin, that is clever.”

It was a long walk home from the pub and the cool night air cleared the men’s head s slightly. Though not enough to prevent them from joining voices in a spirited rendition of a favorite drinking song as they approached the rectory, a pretty t hree-story stone dwelling surrounded by beech trees and dogwoods just starting t o bloom. The window above the front door opened and Mrs. O’Hara, the housekeeper, leaned ou t. “Shush, shush, the lot of you, coming home at this hour, screaming like boiled cat s . . . Why, ‘tis enough to wake the poor souls sleeping ’cross the way.” She waved to ward the adjacent parish cemetery. “Mrs. O’Hara, ‘tis a sight for sore eyes you are,” Will called to her in an abysmal atte mpt at a brogue. “Would you believe I forgot me door? I mean I doored me key. I me an,” he said, squaring his shoulders and grinning, “I forgot—” “You’d forget your head if the good Lord hadn’t attached it so well.” Mrs. O’Hara shook he r own gray head in exasperation. “I’ll be down straight away. And mind you, no more

singing.” The door opened and the three men crowded into the narrow hallway. She looked fr om one to the next with disdain. “Now what have you to say for yourselves?” “I say you are an angel,” declared Adrian, reaching for her plump, work-roughened ha nd and bringing it to his lips as deferentially as if she were a queen. “Truly a r are gem of womanhood and—” “And you, your reekin‘ Grace, are a disgrace. Don’t you be laughing at me behind your mustache, Sir Colin.” She swung her gaze his way. “Fancy barrister like yourself, co ming in smelling like a common sod. And you,” she went on, focusing on Will next, “a man of God. And needed here so desperately. I vow if you hadn’t come soon I was g oing to send the cook’s boy over to the pub to fetch you. How would that have look ed, I ask you?” “Needed for what?” asked Will. “To do the work God called you to do, that’s what. We’ve a sick woman here.” She lowered her voice and waved a hand toward the heavy oak staircase behind her. “A real lad y. Leah Stretton, her name is. She was traveling to London when she took sudden ill and her driver brought her here. This was the first place they passed, and a lucky thing it was. At least here she’ll have someone to see to her passing from this world to the next.” Will paled. “You don’t mean to say she’s . . .” Mrs. O’Hara nodded. “That young fellow who helps out when Dr. Wellstone is away says it’s a rupture inside her somewhere and she likely won’t last the night. The laudan um he gave her has the poor thing drifting in and out, so she don’t even know wher e she is most of the time. I just thank the good Lord she’ll have someone to tend her in her hour of need.” “You don’t mean me?” blurted Will. Mrs. O’Hara glared at him. “Now who else would I be meaning?” “Brindley. Why didn’t you have Brindley handle it?” he asked, referring to Cole Brindl ey, the curate who oversaw the actual running of the parish while Will was off d oing other things. “Because Mr. Brindley is away visiting home, same as he always does whenever you d ecide to favor us with a stay.” Will grimaced. “Yes, yes, of course, I forgot.” “That’s what a pickled brain will do for you,” sniped the housekeeper. “I’ll put on a kett le for tea. Strong tea,” she added, raking all three of them with her gaze. “Now go along with you,” she urged Will. “You’ll find her in the room just to the right of the stairs.” “Is she alone?” asked a very nervous Will. “Yes. Her lady’s maid sat with her most of the night, but I finally persuaded the po or thing to get some rest herself. See you don’t go tripping over your own feet an d waking her.” Will nodded and started up the stairs, with Adrian and Colin trailing. The crisi s had left all three men, while not quite sober, at least somber, and slightly i ll at ease.

” “Stop groaning. . ? “I know. do you?” “I’d rather wake the maid than hear this. Baptism. “There. Her being here tonight is an omen . “He can do anything any other minister c an do. but—” “Of course he can do it. I want to be married.” “Oh no. does that prayer book also contain the marriage ceremony?” “Probably.” Will faced the closed bedroom door and took a deep breath.” After appropriating a prayer book from the curate’s room. I’m sure of it. Oh no. and I don’t want to be saved. Now where . “What this is. is an omen . riffling the pages. Will. . “I mean. Isn’t that right. .” Colin persisted. Ah. mumbling to himself. “What are you thinking. Just the sort of lunacy you’re forever thinking up at night and regretting in the morni ng. “By any chance. Now will you perform the ceremony?” “No.” Adrian interjected. here it is. Will?” asked a dubious Colin. “Hold on. can’t you. I can do it” Will grasped the newel post at the top of the stairs for ba lance before pacing along the hallway.“You can do it. Will started back down t he hall. Rave? Not what I think you’re thinking. Will?” “Of course. but why would I need .. aren’t I?” “That’s no answer. He gulped hard.” . and it is your solemn ecclesiastical duty to act on it if I so r equest. and please don’t start that infernal groaning again. “All I need is a Book of Prayers. “Maybe not precisely this sort. then stared at his best f riend. closing it.” Adrian whispered. He glanced inside.” Will hissed. “Let’s see. . Please not th at.” Adrian said impulsively.” “I won’t thank you.” “To a woman you’ve never so much as set eyes on?” Adrian reached past him to open the door a crack. exorcism. Final Rite s. you’ll thank me tomorrow for saving you. .” he said.. “I’ve set eyes on her. where the . Cole’s room.” Will blinked rapidly.” “I’m thinking of the Plimpton Solution. have you ever actually done an y ministering of this sort before?” Will’s eyes were a little too wide and too bright to inspire confidence.” His eyes gleamed with reckless determination.” “I wouldn’t dream of it. Believe me. You know I don’t believe in love at first or any other sight. Which I do. “I’m an ordained minister. He’s sure to have an extra lying around. hell. “It’s madness is what it is. Blessings. And don’t try telling me it’s a case of love at first sight either. . “You don’t want to wake her maid.

final arrangements.” Will pondered that. as a friend.” Will sputtered. “I never pull rank. Rave. a woman traveling to London. “What was that again?” Adrian looked back at Will. This is an emergen cy.” His expression turned mulish.” “And as a friend I’m telling you that I am honor bound to do the right thing for thi s poor woman. as he stood over the bed and stared at the . imploring you. alone. O’Hara claims. Will.” Adrian broke in. Rave. That would n’t be right. waving him to silence. “I’ll relinquish whatever you like. “We’ll worry about that later.. unchaperoned but for her maid. no.” Adrian continued. “There’s a bumble in your logic somewhere. So. forced to seek refug e with strangers.” he said finally. but since the question gave Will pause. Wouldn’t that be a blessing for the poor family she leaves behind?” “B-but you’ve no license. “I know there is. Isn’t that so. calling on a natural gift for persuasio n. no..” “Did you even bother to consider that this might be the right thing for her?” Adrian was just sober enough to know he was being absurd.” Adrian agreed. fet ch the parish register for the signatures. Easier said than done.” I’ll bring the bride. would it. so it doesn’t appear—” “Yes.“Oh. “Don’t go pulling rank on me. C olin?” “Right away. Colin?” Adrian frowned with indignation. but I cannot help but think her situation is not the rosiest. She may well be a lady. but cursed if I can pick it out with my head pounding this way. obviously struggling to keep up. then blinked. . “Colin. Will. and relinquishing a husband’s claim to whatev er she might possess. In the meantime. as wel l as settle any debts. “Never. a sure sign of confusion. Colin?” He nudged the man propped against the wall beside him. “I’m simply asking you.” said Colin. .” Will shook his head forcefully. and I’ll bring the bride.” “The church it is then. “As the lady’s husband I would handle all of her .” “So you’ll do it?” “I’ll do it . he instinctively jumped in with both feet. “Think of it. but not here. eyes at half-mast. as Mrs. “You ought to sign a letter stating your intentions toward her. Do I. yes. Adrian swept that objection aside. see to the necessary papers. “I could change all that. “You said lawfully married and that means the vows have to be spoken inside the church. it would appear that the future of this unfortunate woman rests in you r hands.” Will’s forehead puckered. Will.” he blurted. he discovered. Colin can draw up some sort of legal papers.

” he said. when his bride moved restlessly in his arms. to l . the longest interval being when Will dropped the prayer book and lost his place. O’Hara was right. “You must finish dressing.” Will snapped. m arring an otherwise flawless complexion. She looked pale and fragile and a less impulsive.” “Very well. . wishing he knew who the hell Christiana w as. O’Hara in on what was happening. as thy wife. After reading the opening prayer. . “Hello.” He hurried downstairs to find his friends waiting by the front door. “Wilt thou.” he said. just so .” Mrs. “we all know who he is. peering at the woman cradled in Adrian’s arms. “Wilt thou take this lady. growing agitated. perfect . everything . I promise you. Duke of Raven. . gathering the heavy layers of bedclothes and lifting her against his chest. “It would appear so. . bu t—” “Christiana. “Shhh. Adrian felt a quite improper urge to sm ooth it away with his thumb. . . The burnished mahogany of her long hair against the pillow was the only color visible. The woman had no clear idea of where she was or with whom.” added Colin. The dresses must be right . her hea d resting with a disconcertingly trustful air against his chest. . the ribbons .” he assured her.” But then. Earl of—” “Skip the titles. “That’s her then?” queried Colin. . “But Christiana—” “Christiana will be fine. “Everything will be fine. Leah Stretton..” she said again.woman lying there. Marquis of Haverill. A small V formed between her dark brows. . to allow for the bride’s state of semiconsciousness.. he had also been sure the last time he set out for a church to be marr ied. Adrian Devereau. “You don’t know me. feeling suddenly like an absolute idiot. “I can’t skip—” “We’ll be here all bloody night if you don’t. Adrian?” asked Will. Not that it mattered all that much since mos t of it was improvised. He would prefer not to let the righteous Mrs . tossing her head.” Adrian whispered.” she said. your hair .” Adrian ordered. more sober man would no doubt have had second thoughts. He bent and slid his arms under her.” She twisted anxiously. madam. Will turned to Adrian. “Christiana. And look how that had turned out. The ceremony was mercifully brief. . Then she opened her eyes an d he was assailed by a gaze the green of a summer hillside. “Really sure? Because it’s not too late to—” “I’m sure.” “Besides. “Would you mind getting the door?” “You’re sure about this. “You have no need to worry.

that’s right. Duke of Raven et cetera. Say yes.” “But she didn’t say anything. .” Once his wife was safely back in bed and all the legalities attended to. “We’re married?” “Reasonably so. Squaring his shoulders. Christiana and the dresses. “I will. in the holy estate of marriage?” “Not yet. Leah. You do want the dress to be right. .. Go on.. “All right. the carriage . At last Will said the words Adrian had thought never to hear. And growing utterly. to be your husband—” “She does. yes—” “There.ive together after God’s ordinance.” “Yes. “I heard her. It was so big on her . sponging her forehea d with a cool cloth. . irrevocably sober..” muttered Will. soothing her when she became restless and holding her hand until she drifted into sleep once more. Go on. “You heard her that time.” “That’s it?” Adrian asked. “But .” “I heard. “By the power invested in me et cetera..” Adrian exclaimed triumphantly. et cetera. and forsaking all others keep thee only to her as long as ye both shall live?” Adrian nodded. Leah. he continued. et cetera. Adrian had to hold it in place and he felt a funny rustling in the pit of his stomach when her slender fingers curled around his in turn. comfort and keep her in sickness . I now pronounce ye man and wife . do you hear me? You mus t say yes if you do.” Adrian noted the stubborn set of his friend’s chin and gave up. take this man. Wilt thou love her. .” “Christiana? The dresses .” “She did.” Will replied. blessing Adrian’s sign et ring and instructing him to slip it on his bride’s finger.” “I have to hear her.” He pa used to give Adrian a pointed look. honor her. at least not with anything resembling joy. “And in health. d on’t you?” “Christiana . drat you. Certainly there was no reason for him to spend w hat was left of the night sitting by Leah Stretton’s bedside.” He bent his head and spoke gently. . I want to get her back and tucked into bed before she freezes to—” He caught himself and the three men exchanged uneasy glances. Adrian Devereau.” maintained Will. “Before she gets an y colder.” insisted Adrian.” “Do you. . “Leah. . Let’s go. “Thank God. I wager. there w as naught holding Adrian there. Listen.

He couldn’t help himself. he told himself.” said Olivia. In fact.” added the feather duster from its hook near the door. for as surely as Princess Oli via grew more beautiful. she decided to steal away from the castle and go in search of th e most handsome. and he’d given death more than one go at him on the battle field. however. he already kn ew that. Th e few who had made it past the drawbridge all had long. abruptly dropping the dr back onto the stand. . she grew more restless. he drew it out and glanced at the handwritten pages inside. mostly beca use he never worried about consequences. Olivia wasn’t entirely certain she wanted a prince in the first place.” . then amusement as he read. “Perhaps. She was not the sort of princes s to sit in her tower and wait for some prince to scale the walls. Curious. courageous. He’d forfeited his heart years ago and sa id good riddance to it. Fashioned in what he knew to be the latest style. H e owed her that much. even as he realized he was going to do exactly t hat. Adrian absently trailed his fingers along the silver handle of her hairbrush and examined the dove-gray dress she must have been wearing when she took ill. He couldn’t put a name the fragrance. He shouldn’t look.” warned the teakettle as Olivia tiptoed through the pala ce kitchen early one summer morning. All in all. “Humph. but since she had no desire to wed a frog. As he turned away. The ver to ess dress held the same warm. He didn’t have o ne. The lady’s belongings had been neatly arranged atop the bureau and on the dressing stand beside it. Several times his lips twitched and when he reached the final page he chuckled s oftly. But then. He wanted more to take away with him than a memory of a few barely coherent syllables and an unconscious woman. recalling the feel of her in his arms. honest and true prince in all the world. he paced the small room. Nor did he care to. he mused. . the narrow waist and full bodice suggested it had been fitted for a woman who was slender. for in Faraway even teakettles have an opin ion. It wasn’t merely morbid curiosity. without breaking stride. he thought. his gaze fell on the crimson and gray tapestry bag at his fee t. beguiling scent that engulfed him when he leaned o Leah Stretton to sponge her face or stroke her temples. He wasn’t one for regrets. “You’re making a big mistake. But I’d rather be sorry than bo red. What was there left to fear? Certainly not his conscience. she found the fr ogs in the palace pond to be a more interesting lot. The walls of Castle Faraway were tall and strong . A fat lot of good the King’s walls did him.Near dawn. His inquisi tiveness changed to bewilderment. he needed to know about the woman who was his wife in name only. thin noses and fussy vel vet tunics and were forever adjusting their crowns. but s hapely. trying to out-maneuver the second thoughts t hat lay in ambush at the edges of his mind. “You’ll be sorry.

wanting to be gone by the time she discovered what he had done. O’Hara entered the room and found him there. He approached the bed and took her hand in both of his.” He swallowed hard. She felt so warm. Colin was to ride with him back to town as planned. while Will nd as long as necessary to handle matters. Adrian was grateful that they teased Will about being ill-suited for his calling.” He trembled slightly as he added. Lady Meredith?” Meredith Gidding. How much was would never know. “God be with you.” “I’ll take care of it. transfixed. the sort Adrian wished to have by his side in his . including persuading her maid and driver no t to say a word to anyone about all this. as her fingers curled over the spo t his mouth had touched.. Adrian refused her offer of breakfa st. would remain behi for that. Leah. something she had not done for years prior to that evening. She was alone.” Chapter 2 “More sherry. For all he was a kind and own final moments Adrian handed Will a full purse as he waited for his horse to be brought around. he was beginning to At first light Mrs. With a mixture of surprise and suspicion she hustled him out. How was it possi ble? he thought. he r manuscript to the vali it. smile d warmly at Adrian. Though he’d be drawn and quartered before he admitted wish he’d listened to Will last night. I’ll be in touch as soon as .. feeling an odd twinge as he returned the se. wife of Sir Arthur Gidding and a prig beyond redemption. amazed to find that already the texture of her skin and the fineness of her bones were fa miliar to him.” Adrian said.” Will’s furrowed brow suggested that Adrian was not the only one feeling serious morning-after pangs.. Slowly he lifted her hand to his li ps. kissed her palm. Besides.Adrian grinned and gazed at the woman in the bed with new the audacious Princess Olivia modeled on her creator? He eminded himself. “Anything at all . “If she needs anything. With morning had come the inevitable clearing of his head—and the sharp. He had to get out of there.. “This should take care of everything. Rave. he had a distinct lack of appetite that morning. so alive. gentle man.” “I know. and watched. He was vividly aware of the pulse beating rapidly at her wrist. unshakabl e suspicion that this time even he may have gone too far. “N . “And with me.” The very last thing Adrian did before leaving was find a pretense to bound back upstairs for a final glimpse of his wife. “I’ll be in touch. interest.

“There is no mystery. The thought of it should have filled him with anticipation. nor did I. That. giving the earl’s arm a firm pat. allowing the corners of his mouth to turn up just a fraction. for no mere words from me can ever capture her beauty and her spirit. is she as great a beauty as everyone is speculating?” inquired Lady Hockliffe. It was more or less the truth. suitably pensive smile. What was done could not be undone. was his reason for inviting these three par ticular couples to dinner. And so they would. He nodded. one might say.” “And her eyes?” . was tantamount to placing a notice in the Times . “The color of blazing chestnuts.” Adrian gave a small. What color is her hair?” He closed his eyes briefly. announcing that he had wed and that his bride. Or was she suffering still? he wondered. thank you. Adrian graced them both with a self-effacing smile. “We simply must hear more from Raven about his oh-so-mysterious b ride. Raven. he could safely an d sorrowfully reveal the final chapter in the story of his ill-fated “marriage” and then settle into the gloriously unfettered existence of a grieving widower. b ut information. Your Grace. who was to have joined him in t own as soon as he had prepared his bachelor abode to receive her. Raven. though he understood that it was not sherry she thirsted for. I had no idea there was such a romantic hiding beneath that notoriously sinful persona o f yours. She and the other wives present at the small gathering in his Gr osvenor Square home had come in hopes of learning more about the woman who had a t long last snared the ton’s most elusive bachelor. Torrington. As soon as he heard from Will. Confiding in Lady Meredith and her bosom friends. It had been over a fortnight since he’d returned and still no word from his friend.” Lady Meredith gazed at him with amazement and approval.o.” “Tell us. “Nor did I. but he’d be relieved when it was all behind him. Lad y Hockliffe and Lady Torrington. madam. He would have sent for news by now if not for his fear of putt ing the gossipmongers onto the scent. Not to mention an irrational. after all. I am quite content at the moment.” The Marquis of Hockliffe. “Gracious. otherworldly. Damn Will for not keep ing him informed. but still un settling dread of somehow rushing matters. eyed him with suspic ion. Almost.” He doubted that. All evening he had been dribbling fictional details of his whirlwind courtship a nd sudden marriage. “Truly a vision. seriously troubled by the possibility. “Enough of your war stories.” admonished Lady Hockliffe. and by his own prickly misgivings over the whole thing. Surely it couldn’t be much longer. who knew him a great deal better. Instead it caused an increasingly familiar tightness in his chest. I only wish Leah could be here t onight. had fallen ill and was convalescing with her sister in the country.” “I must have details. simply another case of Cupid finding his mark. Lady Hockliffe. He resisted the urge to tug at hi s collar.

her goodness . this is too rich. “Arthur. She was taught in Rome. while the others limited themselves to surpris ed chuckles. brought to he el by a convent girl. Her co mplexion is as flawless as fresh cream.“Like summer meadows. “You’ve never been much for formal entertaining.” He remembered to lift his hands with a sort of bewildered earnestne ss. I am too besotted to deny the woman anything. A convent school actually. madam. “Please remember yourself.” “She sings?” “Like a nightingale. You.” “So she attended school abroad?” “Yes. apparently. . But please. . I beg you.” said Lady Torrington. Lucky me. the clear. I assure you. her lips as soft and alluring as the pet als of a rose.” The Marquis ducked his head like a child who’d had his knuckle s rapped. u nless it’s behind someone’s back. her generosity of spirit. That was the ton’s first commandment. .” “I’m surprised you can bear it at all.” “I must confess your invitation did come as a bit of a shock. not wallowing in it.” he replied. of all people. and not in the dining room either. “So it was her beauty that finally captured you and brought you to your knees?” “Only at first.” “Of course.” said Lady Meredith.” “But I daresay he’s done more than his share of informal entertaining here. Of course. Even my reluctant absence. “So I can only wait. Raven. no more of t his.” scolded his wife. .” He allowed the chorus of feminine sighs to abate before continuing.” Lady Torrington laughed outright. thought Adrian disdainfully.” He hoped he wasn’t straining credibility with the convent bit. “Good God. he was nauseating even himself. I invited you here tonight in hopes of distracting myself from my loneliness.” Good God. But not Lady Hockliffe. rich green that soothes and warms at once. How tacky of T . “The instant she spoke I was ensnared by the velvet chains of her gentleness. Thou shalt never speak the truth . It only makes it harder to be without her.” remarked Lord Torrington. “How poetic.” she gushed. “But now I really must insist that you cease this torment. the victim of one too many g lasses of wine.” “Yes. Her sister writes that Leah is adamant that I not see her looking so pale and wan. of course. “And does she play as well?” “Masterfully. and though I am equally fervent in replying that she could never appear less than perfect in my eyes. “Why do you remain in town i nstead of joining your new bride?” “Only at her impassioned request. and dream of the day when my beloved will join me here and I will hear he r angelic voice fill these empty halls.

.orrington to have broken it. my dear. As hi s father had done and had expected him to do. but he must now do so in secret while presenting to the world the facade of a faithful husband.” “Oh. But. Their hidden message was tha t it was perfectly all right for him to go on with his amorous liaisons. “Sorry. if his rather useless life had a m ission. sir. Adrian thought about his latest pet project.” He glanced quickly at his wife. startled. no. Raven. shall we say.” “And just how do you propose to go about this?” inquired Lady Meredith with a muffle d hint of laughter. and in t ruth.” muttered her husband. “In fact. He knew exactly what both men meant.” “My my. He enjo yed chipping away at that hypocrisy. Their remarks touched a raw nerve deep inside him. A gentleman always puts marriage ahead of pleasure. A jest of the first order. a scheme so scandalous. With disastrous results. “You’ve read my mind.” “We must?” she countered. “What on earth can you mean?” “By encouraging your husbands to refuse my participation in the fledgling Society for the Protection of Animals. he supposed that was it.” observed Lady Torrington. you managed to shock me to my senses. fishing out his quizzing glass to peer at Adrian. Lady Torrington. No. As most of th e married men of the ton—and more than a few of the married women—did as well. you know wh at I mean. That.” said Adrian. “I mean every word I say. don’t look at me that way . this is a remarkable transformation. it would forever cast him o utside the ranks of the socially acceptable.” he said to the circle of raised eyebrows.” She squirmed. Isn’t that rig ht. shaking his head in feigned wonder at the other man’s insight. “Have you ever witnessed such a metamorphosis. so abominable. frivolous pursuits behind me and applying my energie s to more worthy undertakings. They also stirred his loathin g for the hypocrisy that seemed to be the glue holding society together. “and you and these other good ladies m ust take some of the credit for it. “What I meant to say was that it’s time you put all those shenanigans behind you. “Yes. “You forced me to ask myself w hat kind of man I was that decent ladies considered me unfit even to serve as a . Hockliffe?” “Just so. no. That.” he said to Torrington. The Marquis cleared his throat and looked sternly at Adrian from beneath lowered brows. I intend to go beyond discreet. A worthy goal. “By putting my. A man in your position can’t be too discreet. past time really. in his estimation. still in its infancy. my dear?” “Hell’s whiskers. In fact. The slight had occurred several months earlier. It is my goal to become a model of decorum and propriety . clearly surprised that he knew who had spearheaded the mov ement to blackball him.” Adrian nodded. . that didn’t come out quite right. “I have changed.” Adrian expelled a self-recriminating sigh. he could not have cared less about it. N ow his guests’ admonishments convinced him there was no time like the present to p ut things in motion. well. Exactly as the men sitting at his table that evening did.

he would succeed in killing two birds at once . I insist on proving my resolve by personally overseeing the organizational work and the acquisition pro cess. You must allow Harvey to contribut e. First. Rare species from all over the world.” Lady Torrington assured him. so to speak. .” urged Sir Arthur.” concurred Lady Hockliffe. “I suppose one might call it that. If all went well. And damn proud of it.benefactor for the most miserable of four-legged beasts. “Tell us how we can help. no. Your involvement will doubtless attract other notabl es to our cause. dear?” “Yes. I predict that the grand opening of the London House o f Birds will be the talk of the town for years to come. by becoming benefactors and lending your good names to the project. “Yes.. it’s the most exciting proposal I’ve heard in ages. not at all. Adrian beamed back. he had to think ahead to that day when his widower’s immunity would ex pire. and establi sh the London House of Birds. “In the simplest way possible. Raven. “Why.” “Did he say birds?” inquired Hockliffe.” replied Adrian. brought together in one place for study.” said Adrian. Exotic birds with the most colorful plumage imaginable.” Lady Torrington exchanged a look with her friends. he was wretched husband m aterial. but rather allow me t o prove to you how determined I am to overcome them. he would teach a well-deserved lesson to London’s most narrow-minded hypocr ites.” “An aviary. He smiled. “I cannot deny that in my wasted past I have mad e a practice of overindulging in liquor. . cards and—if I may be frank— women of dubio us nature. “I was hoping you would pledge your assistance. madam.” “You’ve already proven yourself to me. “Thank you.” exclaimed Lady Meredith. “I have decided to follow your philanthropic example.” He glanced around the table. gentlemen.” All three women beamed at him as if he had suddenly sprouted angel wings. As for the more practical arrangements. clapping her hands together. The House of Birds was guaranteed to convince even the most optimistic lad ies of the ton that. twisting in his seat so that his good ear fa ced the head of the table. indeed. Isn’t that right.” he interrupted. savoring his visitors’ awkward and astonished express ions. exhibition and—most important—the wholesome enjoyment of the masses. I insist you not make light of my shortcomings. At the same time he would also be enhancing his own scandalous reputation. After all.” agreed Adrian with a straight face. “Perhaps we were a bit hasty in our—” “No. beneath his title and his wealth. and you have my word that you will be left speechless by the fi nal result of my efforts. yes. I insist on being part of it. “What an absolutely marvelous idea.” “Yes. “Birds. of course.” said her not nearly as enthusiastic husband.

” she replied. as you persist in referring to him. “Bridget. A blinkin‘ stranger is what he is . ma’am?” Leah glanced across the carriage at Bridget Granahan. .” “Somehow I knew that you would. or even particularly well kept. and no extra coin is ever needed. “Very sure. Just ask yourself what manner of man would think to wed a lady who—” “That’s enough. and a daft on e at that. “Or Rowland either. If she hadn’t sent her driver. Bridget. The large brick dwelling was located in the most fashionable part of the cit y. . destroy her sister Christiana’s chance for happiness. which you haven’t. “But I wa nt you to have the reward just the same. “A pity. but the house itself did not strike Leah as fashionable. he had neither use nor desire for a wife. the London home of the Duke of Rav en. you know that. she might have concluded the place was deserted. An apology.” “You’re sure about going in there then?” asked the maid. the coins came from the duke’s purse and that’s the least he owes us under the circumstances. and die.” “Husband?” echoed her maid. Grantley first revealed to her what had transpired during her illness. . need I remind you that that madman. marriage. since I’ll be giving it to you just the same. and was in fact hosting a dinner party that very moment. Grantley rewarded you and Rowland handsomely for your promise to remain silen t about the circumstances surrounding my . Truthfully. “Would you be wanting some advice. .” Leah reached across the carriage to squeeze her maid’s hand. to ferret out the information that the duke was in residence.” “If you ask me. What’s more. the middle-aged maid who h ad been looking after her since the first day she arrived in Baumborough. We’ve been over this time and again. Rowland. unlike most noblemen who looked to marriage to broade n their connections and fill their nurseries with heirs to be shaped and molded in their own image. “Pooh.” Bridget’s expression was indignant and wounded at the same time. When Mr. for starters. she wasn’t sure of anything except that she was not about to let anyon e. without one. I’d tell you I think you’re making a big mistake. It had that air about it. is my husband. After all. Bridget. And he fully inten ded to live.The simple truth was that.” “Don’t worry. You should not be going into the house of that madman.” “As if I needed rewarding. We’d both of us do anything for you and Lady Christiana. not even the infamous Duke of Raven.” “I do know that.” “He owes you.” The carriage was stopped outside Raven House. “Not really.” Leah lied. I know that M r. is more like it. I shall collect from His Grace in my own manner. .

in her opinion.” she said. after such a sham of a service. sordidly embellished along the way. But how? What could be done about a husband one had never seen and didn’t want? If the blackguard even was her husband.” “If you say so. Leah would prefer to be bored than sorry. if he wasn’t legally her husband. At that instant . could turn the tables on one of the most ruthless and debauched men in all of England? She stared at the imposing wrought-iron gates of Raven House. As she lay in bed convalescing. she was ruined. a decision. given a choice. my lips are sealed. Olivia would take action fate to her advantage. thanks to the duke’s arrogance. so be it. how will I ever manage to keep the truth from C hristiana?” “Wouldn’t it be simpler to just come out and tell her what’s happened?” “No. and had indeed spent the night by her b edside. embellished with f ierce bird of prey finials that. she told herself. my being sure of beardin g the lion in his den is not enough. an d all my planning and scrimping and saving to give her a glorious. “That’s out of the question. she turned to Bridget. inflaming old wounds. she thought. you can be sure.” “I do. but not now. Sh e was determined to secure Christiana’s future. please unseal them long enough to wish me luck. laying bare other heartaches and resentments she thought she had left behind. For days. You know how impulsive she can b e.her disbelief had given way to indignation. “However. Marshalling her courage. “You’re going in now?” .” Leah shook her head. such as being staked out atop a hill of ants—and a cowardly but equally tempting desire to return to the un complicated safety of home and pretend the whole thing had never happened. she’d resorted do in her place. would look equally at home on t he gates of hell. the whole humiliating story w ould be all over London. and if that meant venturing deeper into the lion’s den than she had originally planned. her feelin gs had been a raging inferno. The answer had come . On the oth er hand. Gradually reason returned. She was accustomed to dealing with injustice. Leah realized. reso What in God’s name could she have been thinking? That she. who was far better at w riting about romance and adventure than living it. When she could no longer avoid making ade sense at the time. and then anger. she’d vacillated between a desire to see Raven suf fer for his sins—something suitably creative and horrid. If I can’t count on you to back me up. Unfortunately. Somehow she would turn the whims of lving then and there to do the same. And Christiana along with her.” Bridget pressed her fingertips to her lips to il lustrate. and she would deal with this.” “In that case. she had not been given a choice. Olivia could keep her adventures. “I also need to be sure of you. she’d done the only thing that m to asking herself what Princess Olivia would to her instantly. unblemished s eason will have been for naught. She would be so indignant on my behalf that there’s no telling what she might s ay or do.” Bridget’s eyes widened. Perhaps someday I will be able to confide the t ruth. “Well. I fear that within hours of her knowing.

The least the old crank could do was pretend to be proper and heedful. “Yes. It was she. “What I am trying to say to you. Adrian was still savoring the praise being heaped on him by his guests when the crusty manservant who managed his household appeared by his side.. Darling? Adrian registered the gleam of smug satisfaction in Thorne s squinty eyes just bef ore the same intriguing female voice spoke again. sooner or later she would begin to feel confident. arranging the cloak around her shoulders. the former infantryman who pa ssed for a cook.” “No. Instead he continued to glare. What was she doing standing in his dining room? Hell.” The woman threw open her arms and smiled at him as if they were alo ne. darling. But you really ought to—” “Not now. He understood that formal entertaining was a rarity in Raven House and a bloody strain on everyone. I prefer for our little reunion to take place in front of witnesses. . Thorne. frozen in his seat even as the other gentlemen at the table leapt to their feet. His wife. breathing deeply to steady her nerves and hoping desperately that if she manage d to appear confident. “What is it. Her last sight as she left the carriage was of Bridget making the sign of the cr oss.” Adrian gaped at her.. sir. Thorne?” he asked. “There you are. Adrian glared back. had turned out an edible meal and a pair of feckless footmen ha d managed to relay it to the table with a minimum of mishaps. what was she doing standing anywhere? She was supposed to be . You ought—” “You handle it. Y’Grace. Thorne bent to whisper close to his ear. Leah. is—” “Raven? Darling?” a woman’s voice called from somewhere outside the dining room. this time from just inside the dining room. reluctant to have his amusement interrupted.Leah nodded.” ordered Adrian. but Snake.. I’m home. Oh sweet Lord. “A problem. well. sir.” She summoned the driver to assist her. dead.” The servant set his jaw and glared at Adrian. Bridget flinched. “Perhaps it would be better to wait till morn .. “Surprise.

he grasped Leah by her shoulders. Belatedly it occurred to him to wonder any num ber of things he should have considered a fortnight ago. but would doubtl ess restrain himself from doing before onlookers. . But why? Why indeed. Adrian seldom restrained himself. his urge to conquer might have been satisfied and he might have gon e easy on her. “I mu st do what I have been dreaming of doing since I left you in Devon what seems li ke years ago. and he certainly wasn’t about to start now and g ive this presumptuous chit the notion that she had the upper hand. She was breathtakingly alive. He saw resistance flash in h er eyes and felt it in her tensed muscles. This woman was most definitely not dead. Large brothers. She blinked rapidly. his first order of business was to wipe the increasingly speculative looks from the faces of their audience. “Leah. what the bloody hell was he going to do now? He squared his shoulders. his wife was a beauty. England was going to be minus one inept. Good. First. disloyal botchbag of a rect or. using his tongue to claim her the way any randy bridegroom would want to. Spring herself on him. my own flesh-and-blood Leah. . only distantly aware of the expectant hush all around him.He placed his palms flat on the table and pushed himself upright on leaden legs. He should probably count himself lucky she’d come alone—and unarmed. “That was my intent. but she didn’t flinch or try to pull aw ay. he’d damn well better start acting like a husband in a hurry.” he said. And second. would she? “Now that I am convinced you are real. But now . thought Adrian. he thought. that lonelin ess had driven me mad and you were but an apparition. signaling a crack in her composure. how I’ve missed yo u.” “Good.” The look she gave him left no doubt that she had meant to ambush him with her su dden appearance and was enjoying his discomfiture to the hilt. Had she. . When you first walked in I thought I must be seeing things . His wife. “You have taken me totally by surprise. As it was. “God.” He ran his ha nds down her arms. He kissed her . if Leah Stretton was standing there calli ng him “darling” and apparently presenting herself as his wife.” Their gazes remained locked as he lowered his head. Belatedly it occurred to him to wonder if the wo man had brothers.” he went on. . finally sliding them around to her back to draw her closer and press her stiff body tightly to his. he tightened his grip and opened his mouth. My God. With hair the color of blazing chestnuts and eyes like fields of clover. Oh sweet Lord. At the moment however. then up. My sweet. when he got his hands on Wil l Grantley. forcing his facial muscles to form a smile. Striding across the room. his usually quick wits slowed by shock.” She captured his gaze and held it. Instinct made him certain of only two things. recovering his senses.

” He handled the introductions as succinctly as possible. darling.” His wife slipped her arm through his. inquiring about Leah’s health and her journey to town. Adrian frowned. aware of the impudent glint in her eyes as she g azed up at him with seeming adoration. Of course. Try as his over taxed brain did.” he said when they persisted in lingering. darling. it could not come up with any way to avoid using the words my w ife in presenting her. it is a wonder I can even remember to breathe. . or the countless other details ab out her life that he had fabricated that evening. The rectory. But now.” he assured her gently. her tone steady and audible enough for everyone in the room t o hear.” his wife chimed in. Saint Anne’s. my wife overtaxes herself she will suffer a relapse. Think nothing of it. “Especially when they have been separa ted for so long. The doctor assures me that kidney stones rarely afflict wome n my age and a recurrence is unlikely.” she said. I insist you make us acquainted with this surpr ise addition to our party. but alto gether unnecessary. . “Perfectly understandable under the circumstances. That could be a problem. as naturally as if he had every right in the worl d to put it there.” Stones? thought Adrian. watching her long . I can see that.” “Yes. nearly forgetting that they were not alone and that it was merel y a performance. If necessary. dark lashes flutter and open. Raven. “Westerham. His blood heated rapidly and one of his hands moved to rest on the pleasing curve of her hip. I’ll prompt you. Devon was where her fictional sis ter lived. “I fe ar if sh . of course I haven’t forgotten. I totally forgot myself for a moment. “What did you say?” “I said you left me in Westerham. Have you forgotten already?” Westerham. But she had no way of knowing that.” “Don’t worry. Could be a problem? He nearly laughed out loud at his own absurdity. her eyes as bright as those of a hound circling a meaty bone. allowances must be made for newlyweds.” Sir Arthur raised his hand. “Your concern is touching. not Devon. “I know you’ll understand if I beg to end the evening prematurely. To that end he proceeded to push the chairs nearest him back to the table before any of his guests could resettle themselves. The damage was done now. no. He released her and turned to his guests. Le . “Though when you are clo se to me.” “Of course. Though the phrases long-lost sister and recently acquired ward did flit through his mind. . Rav en. he lifted his head slowly. When he finally remembered himself.” he murmured. . “No.hard and long.” “Yes. The best he could hope for was to limit the repercussio ns as much as possible. I happen to be a most accomplish ed breather. . “Please forgive my lapse in manners. pre cisely the things he intended to inquire about the instant he had her alone. This entire affair was turning into a debacle right before his eyes.

“Stones?” exclaimed Lady Hockliffe.” She swiped at Raven with her closed fan. kissing the back of Leah’s hand before tucking it inside his arm once more. Having recovered from the aftershocks of being manhandled and kissed so audaciou sly. Leah contrived to glance unhurriedly to her left. the very last man Leah would have chosen to wed. will you please do me the honor . “Come with me. Grantley had reluctantly revealed that her husband had a dre adful reputation and was notorious for living down to each deplorable nuance. to her chagrin. had there bee n any choosing involved. “Are you d eaf as well as ill-mannered?” he demanded loudly. that she was wed to one of the most a rrogant. Heart pounding. since she was not an accomplished swooner. What other tricks can you do?” His brows shot up. There would be ti me later to squeeze the truth out of her. then her right . Grantley and learned. generous side that he kept hidden. self-indulgent rakes in the land. in short. If I were yo ur bride I should never forgive you for abandoning me in my hour of need. though Grantley loyally maint ained that the duke had a caring. “Is that what ailed you? Why you poor dear. Her one advantage lay in the fact that even a man of Raven’s ilk would n ot want to be publicly associated with the gruesome deed of which he was guilty. though not surprising. For the longest moment of her life. In his eyes she saw annoyance edging toward anger. Well hidden. she told herself. as she watched his guest s depart. Threatened with swooning—a bluff. “You beastly man. Leah planted her feet on the floor and watched the duke’s rapidly disappearin g back. he stared at her. his smile quick and nasty. “Are you by chance addressing me? I was certain from your tone that you must be speaking to your dog.” he ordered the instant they were alone. Chapter 3 The Duke of Raven dispatched his guests with a lack of delicacy that Leah found appalling.” “How exceedingly clever of you. Then. or ev en a passable one—Mr. but still she stood her ground.” he replied.” vowed Adrian. Gently. She had spent hours questioning the remorseful Mr. “Madam. He was. that i s a horror. He reappeared and stood glaring at her from the far end of the hallway. executing an exagger ated bow. All of that was beside the point now. He was generally thought to be heartless and wicked. “I was able to teach my dogs to respond t o a whistle.” “No. he swept his arm in a wide arc.” “I shall spend the rest of my life making amends.

she surmised. Any sane woman would have picked up her skirt s and fled the instant he tried to kiss her. she would send for Christiana to join her as plan ned. situated at t he back of the spacious. “I’d be delighted. no doubt as poorly tended as the rest of the house. she noted. A top-to-bottom cleaning. His dress was what she had once read d escribed as the fastidious and simply elegant style of Brummell. She made a quick inspection as she passed and. Oh yes. A massive fireplace was centered on one of the remaining walls and a bank of tall windows on the other. if somewhat gloomy. . Thanks to her illness. regularity. th e words had conjured in her mind a dashing and darkly romantic image and Raven d id not disappoint. small victory. Raven House. Leah managed to regard them as placidly as she did everything else ccording them no more—or less—attention than the crystal decanters as if erotic paintings were something she encountered with tedious hen in fact. nudes. That would have to be remedied as well. featuring the most voluptuous and hungry -looking women she had ever seen. The place was in s ore need of a thorough remodeling. found herself calculating how it fit into her plan.” This time he allowed her to precede him upstairs into the library. Humph. The difference was that instead of launching her into society from a modest house in Knightsbridge. They were an explosion o f crimson in the otherwise somber room. Silence. as alway s lately. Unfortunately for Leah. A pair of them. Not to mention having the considerable resources and influence of the Duke o f Raven behind her. but there was no time. snug black trousers. overlooking. this was g oing to work out splendidly. she would be fi ring her off in style. some flowers a nd perhaps a fresh coat of milk paint here and there would have to suffice. “Please be seated. which was all their budget had allowed. thrilled by this first. The continued silence afforded her ample time to note in detail the framed maps. Leah folded her hands in her lap and gazed around as she waited for him to speak . finished off with a snowy shirt and cravat that set off to great advantage his bronze skin and the bluest eyes she had ever seen. she would love nothing more than to get up and take a around her. black waistcoat and jacket. she was already weeks behind schedule. . He wa s quite tall and flawlessly proportioned. a or wooden globe. . one hung on either side of the door. a man who bred scandal and broke hearts with callous disregard for anyone but himself. If her husband thought he could buy her off with a few gold coins. W closer look. If all went well that evening. He looked like what he was.” He indicated a leather wing chair as he shoved aside newspapers and betting slips to make room for himself on one corner of the desk. the subtly patterned Persian rug and the . Black boots. imagining a colorful oasis of flowers and greenery where Christiana could entertain suitors on warm afternoons. Two walls of the room were lined with leather-bound books. She took o ff her cloak and sat. a sizable g arden. townhouse. She could hardly miss them. Rave n’s lair was more like it. he was due a lesson in paying the piper.of accompanying me to the library so we may discuss privately a certain matter o f importance to us both?” She smiled. which her fingers i tched to explore. At the time. from one of the most prestigious addresses in all of Lond on. She also managed to slant several quick glances at the man staring at her. fleeing was not an option.

“Tell me. Leah could not. willing it not to tremble. do you have an y other insights into my character you’d like to share?” “Yes.” “Do we ever. The heavy gold signet rin g. however. incredulous laugh. I have your signed letter of intent and this ring to prove it. dragging it ba ck so that the chiseled planes and angles of his face were bathed in golden cand lelight. “Mr. “I think you are a bad influence on him. “My sentiments exactly. had been placed on her finger as she lay semiconsc ious in Raven’s arms. Leah braced herself . but they can wait.” she prompted in turn. Duchess.” “I see. the way a fine painting was distracting. dropping his hands to his sides.” she responded quietly. “I am waiting.“Well. Mr. “Do you have any id ea who I am. “Which clearly makes me a duchess.” .” “I am a duke.” He laughed harshly and ran his hands through his dark. according to Mr.” he corrected impatiently. “This is insane.” “It does now. Grantley was kind enoug h to arrange for a goldsmith to fit it. Your Grace. He was too handsome.” “For . expecting him to bare his teeth at any second.” He got to his feet and began to pace. im agine a mere painting causing her heart to hammer the way it was hammering now. Distractingly so. . .” “Me? Explain?” He folded his arms with a short.” She held out her left hand. His gaze went from aloof inquiry to sharp and penetrating. Grantley is a—” “A decent man.” he said at last. breaking the silence abruptly. “Your duchess.” She turned her hand palm up to illustrate.” she interjected. compelling one to look again and again. to be precise.” “Is that so?” He turned and cornered her with his wolfish stare. wavy hair. madam?” “I know exactly who you are. I bear hi m no ill will. We all make mistakes. but with equal vehemence. “For an explanation of why you saw fit to barge in here without notice or invitation. It doesn’t even fit properly. “He deeply regrets the role he played in this matter and has assured me that he will do whatever I desire to make it right. she decided. “That proves nothing.” he prompted.” “You’ll never get away with it.” “Did he now? Well. Actually I had rather expected to be on the receiving end of any explanati ons that were proffered. Grantley. I regret to say you are my husband.

“See here. “I thought that could wait?” Leah conceded the point with a nod. “With what?” He made an impatient gesture. Raven . faci ng her.” “Coerced?” he retorted. Stretton . yes.” H e growled with frustration. after all. I also would hav e believed it impossible for a woman to fall ill and wake up several days later to discover that she is wed to a man she has never met. “All right. I never intended you any harm. “What I started to say was that I do regre t. . what occurred.” She paused. On the cont rary. Did he confe ss that? We all were.” “Only two short weeks ago I would have agreed with you. “Tell me.” “Traitor.” He tugged at his cravat. . .. Colin had just finished going on about how Reggie Plimpton had been widowed almost as soon as he was wed.She raised her eyebrows.” He grabbed a straight-back chair. So was the rector. spun it around and straddled it. “I don’t even know what the devil to call you. “Because he serves a higher master?” “Will? Ha! He serves himself more often than not. “That only makes it more reprehensible for you to have coerced him into aiding and abetting you in such a fashion. What’s it going to cost me?” “Cost you?” “Yes. “We are married. I see.. or at least made it possible?” “He explained to me that you are his benefactor. Nerves.” “Mr.” His mouth curled into a mocking smile. “I was half-foxed at the time. Lady . And I thought—” ..” “And just who do you think ordained him . . I arranged to handle all your needs and expenses.” She studied his countenance.. of q uestionable character. Grantley bother to tell you that?” “He told me everything. Did the kind and decent Mr. But then. whatever brings you here.” “I see no harm in your calling me Leah. do you regret your action bec ause it was a sneaky. she told herself. A man.” “Oh. that’s what. . very much actually. Leah.” The duke nodded with satisfaction. “All right.” His perfect mouth curved in a rueful smile and something warm and unfamiliar unf urled in the pit of Leah’s stomach. “This . get on with it. sir. “I made a mistake and I regret it.” he muttered. despicable thing to do or because you ended up with a wife instead of a corpse?” He had the decency to look uneasy. Grantley is an ordained minister. I might add. Name your price. .

” she broke in sharply. She was no longer fourteen years old and th is man was not her father. And I am only a woman. a nobleman at that. Duchess. a high and mighty peer of the realm.” “I have. In fact.“You thought how convenient. Leah realized with annoyance. she found Raven watching her with cynical amusement. “Oh yes. not lovers.” “I never entertained it in the first place. Duchess? Money? Jewels? A cozy little setup of your own here in town?” “None of those things. Looking up.” His mouth hardened. she deplored all extremes of emotion.” He frowned in confusion. Why should it? After all. as you so passionately brandished your ring to illustrate. you are a man. whose life—and death apparently—are subject to your whims.” “Your ring. anger replaced with common sense. such as my consent or my feelings about the whole thing. . when she most needed to think coolly and appear co nfident. “Enough sparring. Let’s get on with it. I might add. Now.” “And there I was. Or so she’d thought. “Something like that. You thought you’d fo und a way to use marriage as a shield against unwelcome female attentions withou t suffering the actual bother of a wife.” she replied. conveniently unconscious.” Leah corrected.” “So now it’s an unfortunate dilemma. I will not feel better until we have settled this unfortunate dilemma which y ou have thrust upon me. Oh no.” “Feel better?” “No. “I want only what you promised me before man and God. “But passionate? Meaningful? At the risk of disappointing Your Grace. and bitterness with careful plan ning. Your drunk en whims. She was not going to cry or beg him to let her stay.” “Perish the thought. She had purposely delayed this meeting until she had brought her initial turmoil under tight contr ol once more. “Quite. That helped eve n more. I know all about your little plan. Just a moment ago you seemed to think it someth ing far more meaningful.” He shrugged. “Finished?” he asked. so you didn’t have to contend with petty details. steeling herself for what lay ahead. She was going to compose herself and get on with the business that brought her t here. She was not given to temperamen tal outbursts. provoked by his attempt to ratio nalize his actions. may I point out that we are merely married.” She was trembling. her emotions threatened to overwhelm her. shall we? What is it you want from me. what I thought or wanted or felt didn’t matter a twit to you. She would not permit that to happen. A few deep breaths helped to revive her determination.

She understood then.” Leah also stood. But surely.” he said. will not be tolera ted even from a titled nobleman. that showing any hint of weakness or vu lnerability would be her undoing.” “I’m well aware that you have the reputation of being something of a—” “Miscreant? Degenerate? Satan’s spawn?” “Rogue.” His mouth twisted. “Says anyone who was there.” . are you after. for a moment it ap peared he had forgotten which side he was on and who had started this in the fir st place.” he argued. “I beg to differ..” “Not I. “What. Loudly. Grantley. “It’s not wor th discussing. “If your goal is to ruin my reputation. I want you to honor your pledge to me . wedding a dying woman. She squared her shoulders.” she said.. . all I can say is good luck. He claims that had he not heard me affirm t he vows. He shot her a probing look.” “Says who?” “Says me.” “We didn’t speak any vows.” “That’s absurd.” “Precisely.” He laughed.” he roared.” “What he heard was . if she hadn’t before. his arms crossed and his jaw thrust out. . “Then I shall be forc ed to ruin your reputation as deliberately as you have ruined mine. “The fact that we are strangers is something you ought to have considered before we spoke our vows. madam?” “Exactly what I said a moment ago.” “And if I refuse?” he demanded. “You were barely conscious. exactly. he could not have legally proceeded with the service.” she admonished. laughing again. flinging the chair aside.” she countered. We don’t even know each other. “You would be amazed at what is tolerated if the price is right . at le ast for the time being.” Her placid agreement obviously took him by surprise. “Nor Mr.“A husband. He shot to his feet. I’m demanding you honor your pledge. without her consent. her temper rising. I’ve taken a stab or two at it myself through the years and I fear my good name is as besmirched as it’s likely to get. for pity’s sake.” He stopped and shook his head with exasperation. “It’s hardly a laughing matter. If he wanted to glare at her he would have to do it eye to eye. The entire marriage is a sham and any claim you make to the contr ary will never stand the scrutiny of the court. ma dam. In fact. “You cannot be suggesting we contin ue this farce?” “I’m not suggesting anything.

” he interjected. “I’m curious. “But people will talk. . Because that’s what you’ll have to do once w ord of your macabre stunt gets around.” she snapped. the barrister. The man was a knave. “You’re joking. and she hoped that meant she had hit her mark. I do. “That shouldn’t be too expensive to resolve. “Nine lives. You definitely kiss l ike a nun. at the moment. Do you or do you not intend to honor your vows?” .” he told her. she peered at him with great interest.” she said finally.” His smile was mocking. even knaves have weak spots. through and through. Grantley could find himself in serious stra its.” “I hope you feel as antagonistically toward your other friend. “Though one must wonder how you could possib ly have knowledge of—” “You don’t want to know. .. not the least of which is how your own signature came to be on a back-dated license. as appalling as it had been. “Let them. however. “Mr.” “A pity you can’t buy off all of London. “I told them you were a r unaway nun.. “For all I know. what did you tell them about me? They all seemed so pleased to make my acquaintance this even ing. “You’re right. want an answer to my question. struggling to regroup.” retorted Leah. “Who says I can’t?” There was a stretch of stunned silence as she let that sink in and hit bottom. I believe. alarmed that this was not going at all the way she had planne d.” He meant it. “you’re in luck then.” he managed to reply offhandedly. “What of your friends?” she demanded.” There was just the slight tensing of his ja w. she told her self. I don’t. his deepening smile eroding her confidence e ven further. As certain as she suddenly was that Mr.Leah gaped at him. Grantley’s depiction of his friend. did not come close to bein g the whole truth. wrong target. Colin will land on his feet. I da resay he will also have some explaining to do .” “Do you mean to say you don’t care at all what people say about you?” “Not a whit. Still. Concealing her trembling hands behind her back. if your friends don’t take offense at being lied to in the first place. What is the penalty for officiating at an unlawful marriage? Fourteen years transportation. it’s true. They always do.” He shrugged. “Well. of course?” He gave his head a careless shake.” “Chalk it up to curiosity.” She inhaled sharply. Leah was certain.” “I most certainly do not. I would be most willing to row the rector’s sorry hide all the way to Australia myself.” He shrugged. You see. “Nice try. As for the license . That is.” “Old Colin is like a cat.

“How did you know her name?” “You mentioned it that night. Soothing and tender are not the wor ds she would choose to describe the man standing before her. It’s a small village on the western border. In your sleep. “Onl y in the duration of the current season. yes. You were very feverish. “Mr. Now.” he said quietly.” “To what purposes do you refer?” he asked. as the silence lengthened.” she added. and a quite simple one at that. I could handle all that and be ready to devote myself to Chrissie when she arrived.” “Baumborough?” “Yes. unsettling flashes of a deep.” Raven’s expression had grown thoughtful and skeptical. quic k. I decided that by comi ng ahead.” The picture painted by his words fixed itself in her mind. soothing voice and a strong. “I suppose you are waiting for me to express my gratitude.“You mean. You wouldn’t have preferred to travel tog ether?” “That would be my preference.” “Yes. “I have only one purpose for this trip. do I or do I not intend to go on paying. In fact. I’m here to provide my younger sister with a season in town. she thought tartly.” His eyes gleamed with new interest.” That concluded her preplanned expl anation.” “Christiana.” Leah quickly lowered her gaze. Surely self-interest is a motive you can understand . Thank you for ruining my life.” she told him. our home is there. ignoring her barb. you’re in Scotland.” Leah hesitated. “Why?” “Because it suits my purposes.” she said. I did. “I see. Since both our parents are deceased. “So I shall.” Amusement tugged at the corners of his mouth as he gave a small bow. Grantley said you spent th e night by my side. madam. is your .” “That is a long journey for a woman alone. “The plan was for me to get settled in town and send to Baumborough for her to join me. “Tell me. “All in a day’s work. her cheeks warming. Very small. if you miss our turn. “Yes. reluctant to reveal more than she absolutely had to. She must have been feverish. tender touch. but Christiana is barely eighteen and has no pa tience for the mundane details of setting up a household. for one drunken mistake?” “I have no interest whatsoever in the rest of your miserable life.” She regarded him with suspicion. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of it. joining the fragmente d memories that had been teasing her ever since she regained consciousness. “and very near the border. tell me why your sister isn’t here with you. You seemed to sleep easier if I sponged your forehead with a cool cloth. I feel even more responsible for her than an older sister ordinarily would. madam. for the rest of what would no doubt be a miserable life.

” When he continued to stare at her blankly.” he advised. “Not that d knowledge of familial devotion. but the straig htforward compassion in her tone was very unsettling. given the inequities of the marriage contract. Wistfulness? Or relief? I have much firsthan to a father who pr wanted most in lif Always. A nd I shall do whatever necessary to make my sister happy.” she said. “I’m so sorry. outgoing girl. and he found himself tu rning to see her expression.” Leah bristled.” “Such as?” He was conscious of an undercurrent in her tone.” . Beside s. dear wife?” he inquired over his shoulder. “In which case. You’re here to trap a husband for your sister. He poured himself a generous portion and downed it.” said Leah. we come at last to the truth. “Don’t be.” Quiet? Intellectual? Chrissie? Leah had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from chuckling as he continued. I’m a bit past the age for a season. perhaps?” “Actually. “It all turned out for the best. “Not quite. And wh at about your happiness. He had no idea what had prompted him to make such a revealing remark.” “Even if it means being my wife?” “Even so. “Did you perhaps set out from Baumborough hoping for a double wedding?” She laughed. a little self-consciously it seemed to him. When she was younger she found ways to keep herself happy and entertained at home. much less what he expected her response to be. she may choose to confine herself to the reading rooms or one of t he societies dedicated to a particular discipline. keeping his back to her.” “Ah. but now she needs to be around people more. but in London she will be able to go to balls and parties an d meet gentlemen her own age. My own experience runs more oved he would go to any lengths to stop me from having what I e. I have all I want waiting for me at home.sister’s interest in London of an artistic nature? Touring the great museums and galleries?” “I’m sure we shall visit a gallery or two. she heav ed a sigh and added.” He feigned surprise. Help her to be trapped? Now that is m ore like it. intellectual vein. But if marriage and a family of her own are what Chrissie wants. Leah shook her head.” He reached for a bottle of brandy and held it alof t with a questioning look. “Trap a husband? I think not. Adrian turned away abruptly. “Eligible gentlemen. “Are there no people in Baumborough?” “Of course there are. thank you very much.” she said quietly. “Or perhaps her pursuits are in a more quiet. “Chrissie is a very lively. thinking that a tour of the sho ps on Bond Street was more Chrissie’s style. then that is what I want for her. Astronomy or botany.” “How revoltingly devoted of you. And a mother who devoted herself to looking the other way.

and gardening. and she intrigued him.He couldn’t be sure. “And if I agree to th is charade?” “Then I shall agree to an annulment immediately following Christiana’s wedding. from the very convincing mix of determination an d nervousness in her manner to the way she had responded and yet hadn’t to his wel coming kiss.” “What if your sister doesn’t land a husband?” “She will. If his new bride was willing to admit th at she was seeking a husband for her sister. “I do some writing. and shall return home never to darken your door again. we must appear to be the perfect couple. “I’m afraid I’m not a very romantic person. He hadn’t trusted any woman in years. recalling the pages he’d found tucked in the bottom of her valise. and the thought of having her right under his roof. attentive .” he said.” “Really?” He surveyed her closely. he’d hand her that. He didn’t trust her. Our sudden marriage is bound to caus e speculation as is. I have something eminently more reasonable and o f shorter duration in mind for us. Everything in his experi ence warned him not to believe a word she said.” he observed dryly. as she claimed. or sauntered in to deliver it so smoothly. which should make her pleasing beyon d all reason to the young men of the ton. and faithful. No. Especially knowing it was strictly . “Please. and of course there’s the running of the househol d. till death us do part and all that rubbish?” She rolled her eyes. Christiana is beautiful and an accomplished flirt and not overly intere sted in anything of an intellectual nature. “What about us?” “Us?” “You know. don’t scowl. She didn’t look or speak like a country miss and no in nocent. For the bene fit of the rest of the world.” “How romantic. wh o so obviously harbored ulterior motives. but there was more to her than that.” He crossed the room and dropped into his chair behind the desk. that women were master manipulat ors and invariably had a hidden agenda. She was good. he would never choose this woman. it was a safe bet that wasn’t all she was after. She may well be from the back of nowhere.” “Tell me. Please. Still. Ev en if he were foolish enough to change now. at his disposal. he propped one booted foot on the desk as he studied her. I know your reputation for womanizing and I refuse to have you fanning the flames by catting around behind my back. devoted.” “You agree to allow our marriage to stand until I see Christiana wed. his tone sardonic.” “Only a fool would argue with that. Leah Stretton was beaut iful. ten years to be exact. her proposal was tempting. In more ways than one. Leaning back. inexperienced maiden could have devised such a solution to her problem. was not at all unpleasant.

” he murmured. he had welcomed her that evening as if she were his bride and introduced her as such to six of the most influential gossips in all London. he’d bra gged about it. there was his reputation to consider. Then too. and certainly more than he deserve d after the stunt he’d pulled. Not that he would have wasted time considering her proposal unless it served his own purposes as well. Though he’d refused to concede the point to her. there was a crucial distinction between being thought a scoundrel and being branded a liar. Masquerading as a devo ted husband would not only allow him to go forward with his plan. “What about when the world is not watching?” If she understood the implication of his question and was flustered by it. Adrian was well aware that he was trying to talk himself into accepting her term s. Hell. More damning yet. there was his plan for the London House of Birds. waiting for h is decision. it di dn’t show. I must insist that no one. “You said we must appear the perfect couple when the rest of the world is watching . And he would never have to think about Leah Stretton or that misbegotten night again.” “Of course. He held it up. The illusion must be co mplete. Thi s is her one chance for the kind of life she longs for and for the happiness she deserves. however.” “In that case. know the truth about our arrangement.” “Isn’t it a bit late for that?” “Not if we ed to make that they have to be he will be employ a bit of ingenuity. in every way. A few short months of captivity and both their problems would be solved. pitched forward. and I will not have it spoilt for her in any way. Thornton.temporary. She sat. She and I are extremely close and s quick to suspect if anything is amiss. Lastly. “A man’s home is his castle after all. Nor will I permit t he loose tongue of a friend or servant to ignite gossip. “When no one else is present. She would fret and feel guilty that I was undertaking such a charade for her sake and that would ruin everything.” She smiled. He had spoken openly about his marriage. it would also lend credence to his claim to have abandoned his wicked ways. we may have as little to do with each other as we please. What she suggested was straightforwar d enough. . “Do you mind?” “Not at all. It was almost too good to be true. Gra ntley and Mr. But the reason. not even your friends Mr. and relatively painless. to his surprise. It would be awkward to explain her away now. However. Christiana will handled more delicately. he assured himself.” That was an encouraging attitude. reaching for a cigar from the humidor. We shall tell them simply that we have decid the best of a bad situation. had less to do with her desirability or his latest scheme than with the small. why not simply tell her the truth?” “Because she would be outraged on my behalf. hands clenched on the arms of her chair. and request keep the circumstances of our wedding to themselves. since he would see the sister wed by season’s end even if he had to buy her a bloody groom. which is close to the truth. worried V that had formed between her brows. he thought as he lit his cigar. Foolproof even.” he began. running his gaze over her slowly as he savored the prospec t of playing the role of her husband.

steamy scandal. “but let me make one thing abundantly clear.” she declared. She stood with her back to him as she arranged the folds of her cloak. “I took a small house in Knightsbridge for the season. business venture of a deli cate nature. watching as she stoo d before the mirror in the chamber adjoining his. “it appears we do have a deal. yes. lo oking very pleased with herself. How the hell should he know? He was ignorant about sisters or t he launching of them into society. That was still sufficient time for Adrian to register the soft. “Here?” He was on his feet. “Do yo u mean you intend for your sister to stay here?” She shook her head as if he were a not-too-bright child. if confronted with such a blatant attempt at blackmail. Now there was a picture.“Does that mean you’ll do it?” “Ordinarily. Where else wo uld she stay?” Adrian shrugged. a dark. “Where had you planned for her to stay?” he inquired.. letting both float slowly over her rounded hips and bottom and lo ng bare legs until they settled in a frothy pool at her feet. His mind peeled away the sash of her dress and unlaced the frilly chemise he ima gined beneath.” he concluded. Him. So. and a ten dril of hair came loose. It was not an unpleasant prospect . Besides. “I’ll write Christiana at once with the good news of our marriage and to tell her ho w eager you are to have her join us here at Raven House. not a second longer than what politenes s dictated. However. I’d tell you to go hang. one that will not be well served by gossip. I will not take an active part in any husband hunting. Adrian had a sudden image of himself sprawled in a chair. at present I am about to launch a . “She may stay here.” he said. “Of course. and would prefer to keep it that way.” She took his hand and shook it. It was as if some cosmic jest er had picked up the world and turned it upside down.” She reached for her cloak and tossed it over her arm. “Of course. o ffering her his hand. even if that were an option. that house does not compare with this one as a place to receive suitors and host soi rees. “Being under your protection should advance Chris tiana’s cause considerably. tossing the cigar into the marble tray on his desk.” “Very well. but there is no question of Chrissie staying there unchaperoned. It enliv ens the season and serves to keep the most fainthearted of the husband-hunters a t bay.” “Excellent. familiar contour s of her palm and the way it fit comfortably against his own.. gleaming ribbon that fell softly across fine sh oulders that were generously revealed above the neckline of her pale green dress .” Under his protection. but with a sweet young virgin to protect. I happen to enjoy being the object of a good.” she said. Not at all.” “Suitors? Soirees?” Adrian felt queasy. He was saddled not only with a wi fe. unpinning the rest of her hair and letting it cascade down her slender back. He was rising from . I daresay that is the silver lining to this nightmare.

I’ll have Thorne see to it right away.his imaginary chair.” was all she said. easy or otherwi se.” “Your chamber.” “Leah. when sh e actually did turn. his hands reaching to turn her around to face him. and that clear.” Her eyes widened. he thought. he’d suffered an un easy moment or two at her hands this evening. two inches of him. “Arm yourself. Was that a challenge? Or an invitation? He would soon find out. . She glanced over her shoulder at him.” “How can you be so sure? Most women seem to find me irresistible.” he said as she turned away. there is more chance of you falling in love with me.” “And for all the wrong reasons. Forewa rned is forearmed and all that. Of course. You could try. and for several seconds she stood with her teet h biting her bottom lip. placid gaze swept from the top of his head to the toes of his boots and back.” “Apparently not. I feel compelled to warn you . Six years under Wellington and I n ever did develop a taste for an easy victory.” she countered drily. . anti cipation mingling with a general feeling of contentment.” His smile left him.” “Then neither of us has any cause for concern. taking in all six feet. but what if you fall in love with me before it’s over?” “That won’t happen.” she said. “As it appears our discussion is finished. “I don’t believe in love. . then narrowed. looking for all the world like a schoolgirl who’d forgott en her lesson. but he had everything back under c ontrol now. “Warn me of what?” “You asked earlier if I knew any other tricks. “Yes?” “Your plan sounds reasonable. “perhaps you would be so kind as to have someone show me to my chamber. Adrian grinned as she turned and walked out. I’m certain that if I put my mind to it. by all means.” “That’s just as well. Trust me. and the very level state of my own. True.” He laughed softly. Still. Then her chin came up. “You could try.” She eyed him warily as he let his voice trail off. I could teach you to come when I whistle. Raven.” “Thank you. . “Which no doubt accounts for the swollen condition of your head . because you won’t be claiming victory this time. .

Surprise. The bedchamber was spacious. perhaps he would even show his poor married brethren how a wife ought to be han dled. or was just of prickly disposition. “Tell me. “Thank you.” His eyes didn’t exactly widen in surprise. Instinct. And he had it. in fact. “And the key would be . “And thank you for the warning. An al mirrors and even a quick count turned up no fewer than er appeared to be a resting place for castoffs. who had a slight stoop and gray-whiskered chin. Now that she was awake and recovered. “If you’re needing anything. little of that. leaving a streak in the dust. ring the bell. she decided little was the operative word. Thorne. And with plenty of spi rit. Not that it matters none. He was definitely looking forward to handling his wife. as if the expected was for someone to turn up and claim the room.” He indicated the connecting door between her chamber and the adjoining one. There was no pieces of dark. When it came to women. Where is the duke’s chamber located?” “Right through there. but cluttered.” “What a charming anecdote.” From what she had seen thus far. There were too many of everything. his own gracious form of agreement.” He muttered something. in every sense of the word. ?” “Gone. Chapter 4 Leah was shown to her chamber by Raven’s very aptly named manservant.” His shaggy gray head bowed in the general direction of the brocade bellpull by the black walnut. I shal l take care not to sleep too close to the wall.” Her troubled gaze focused on the lock. canopied bed. “I do have a question. He’d meant what he said about easy conquests.” she said as she ran a fingertip over a particularly horrendous po rcelain owl. he thought with satisfaction. My maid will see to whatever else I might need tonight. Thorne. he r in particular. I once seen His Grace kick in a brick wall ‘cause he was in a mood for what lay on the other side.” she remarked drily. “Lost years ago. a man either had it or he didn’t.” he said. leaning back and reaching for his cigar. “what exactly are your duties here?” “Little of this. the woman was a great deal more alluring than he had realized when he made her his bride. however.. The chamb very last thing anyone . He did not appear pleased by the new s that she was staying and Leah wasn’t sure if he objected to women in general. “I see. but they did gleam a bit. heavy extra washstand.What idiot couldn’t play the perfect husband for a few months? While he was at it. with too many furniture.. sever eight lamps.” “I see. she supposed.

they could never truly satisfy her ye arning for a real family.” said Leah. she was accustomed to running a household. True. hoping she was right. “Best not get too accustomed to all this Your Grace nonsense. she had to look the part. “If that little weasel wants to see a witch. even a temporary one.” Bridget arrived. since there’s not room enough for an onionskin left in either the wardrobe or dres ser. “Thank you. Thorne.question he was taking her measure anew. but sh e refused to indulge those who would love nothing more than to titter and chortl e over what a dowdy item the glamorous Dava’s elder daughter had turned out to be. “I’ll undress and do my own hair tonight. “Well. Now she was doubly glad she had made the investment.” Your grace? Leah’s first instinct was to glance around to see if the duke had crep t up behind her. Almost. and as s uch the new mistress of Raven House. Y’Grace.” announced Bridget as she hung up the final garment. or for the sense of closeness and security that had be en stripped away from her so suddenly. It was a yearning she had learned to live with. la de da.” she whispered as soon as she was alone. You must be as tired as I am. If she was going to play t he role of a duchess. “Your grace.” she promised. but at home the servants were devoted and cooperative.” She dismissed him with a nod worthy of a duch ess. She grumbled the whole while about how the p lace reminded her of a cave and how Thorne had asked her where she left her broo m when she’d done no more than inform him of precisely when and how her mistress’s b reakfast was to be served. That will be all. Ain’t too much in this world worth getting clunked in the head with a brick for. almost family. Bridget. so months earlier. She’d been resigned to the role of spinster elder sister. she curtsied to h er reflection. she had retained a fashionable modiste from Bath to create a new wardrobe for Christiana. “That’s it.” she muttered to herse lf. so run along to bed. then she remembered who she was. but she was not nearly so acquiescent when it came to Christiana’s fate. then shook her head with a self-conscious laugh. “It will be ended as quickly as it began. followed by a small regiment of footmen with Leah’s bags and trun k. “You do that.” she said as the maid lifted her si lver-handled hairbrush from the dressing table.” There was little of fashion in Baumborough.” Catching sight of the full-length looking glass in the corner. Ch rissie deserved to have a loving husband and children. That was why the season i n town was so important. “She has twice as many o f everything I have. Bridget.” “Let’s hope Christiana’s chamber has a larger closet. Regardless of their affection and concern. the Duchess of Raven. and immediately began unpacking.” . “I want to write to Christiana bef ore it gets any later. I’ll—” “That won’t be necessary. “And a good thing too. I can handle Thorne. and for herself as well.

She had no choice. is a very good question. You’ll never guess . everyone would b e long tucked in their beds. and her breath caught in her throat. which he clearly . this was even more difficult than she’d feared. . That was true. unprincipled cur. she wrote. Happy news! Are you sitting down? Ten minutes later. in this case. the floor around her was littered with crumpled sheets of par chment and she had nibbled the left corner of her lower lip raw. but here fine carriages still clattered along the s treets and there was even an occasional gentleman stroller. Gad. wrin kling her nose at the small cloud of dust that arose. If that news has not landed you squarely on your posterior. She was. I implore you to hur ry and sit down before you read any further. Especially since at that mome nt she wanted nothing more than to spill everything to Chrissie and hear what sh e had to say about Raven’s despicable stunt. imagining Chrissie’s response. half a country away. . She had undertaken this venture solely on Chrissie’s behalf. It was an effort of will to tear herself from the window and seat herself at the writing desk tucked in one corner to do what had to be done. I can see your eyes going wide and hear you shrieking. Leah wished she had a very good answer. Alone. Dear Chrissie. . She gazed out over the cit y. Not that she wasn’t determined to lie. . she was eager to see and experience for herself everything i t had to offer. My sister and a duke? How on earth did this come about? That. Thoughts of the ball s and concerts and theatrical performances where they might have spent the eveni ng filled her head. . one that she could safely reveal. . Back home at this hour. she wrote. . I am married to—take a deep breath—none other than the Duke of Raven. She di pped the pen and thought and dipped the pen again.Bridget nodded and withdrew. Leah read what she had written. You’ll never guess . There I was . Leah crossed to the window and pulled back the heavy burgundy drape. It was not easy to lie to the person closest to you in the whole world. A person who knew her well enough to detect when something was amiss from forty paces—or. dear sister. . Chrissie would say that Raven was a selfish. I am married. It was the oddest thing . Dear Chrissie. but now that she was actually in London. There.

Her own bizarre version of them. A real kiss. even if it meant stretching the truth a bit for her sister’s sake. it was what she did best. she thought. . but fairy tales nonetheless. . . All true. As she relived the mome nt when Raven had pulled her into his arms and kissed her. and that she must publicly denounce him as the scoundrel he was . Fully recovered at last. no t the cold. tasted the cognac sweetness of his warm breath. quickly telling of her sudden. Why hadn’t she thought of that earlier? It had a much more pl easant sound than lying. he r stomach clenched and she forgot all about the letter. felt his hand sweep down her back and com e to rest on her hip. Raven’s kiss had been a real kiss. and it had driven home to her just how paltry the powers of her imagination were. . At least she would not have to invent this. She then conveniently skipp ed ahead to their first meeting—first conscious meeting. my own dear Adrian. brief illness and how she happened to ta ke refuge at the rectory at Saint Anne’s-on-Clayton. she thought . happy coincidence!. the Duke of Raven. She ran her fingertip over the feather quill. she must grit her teeth and make the best of things. She wrote fairy tale s. jowled widower from a neighb oring estate had once subjected her to when she failed to turn her head away qui ckly enough. . timelessly and in silence and we knew. . Leah assured herself. her heart pounded. Sparks flashed. and that he had abused Leah beyond all respectability and endurance. Stretc hing the truth . which he had. I entered the dining room and locked gazes with the mos t handsome man ever created. Besides. How easily the lies came after all. her expression brightening.was. where Raven was also staying. And? And? And knew we were destined to be together. A fresh scandal would only stir up the past and put an end to Chrissie’s hopes of making a suitable match. for heaven’s sake. She resumed writing. since he was obviously without any shred of concern for the opinion of others. . recalling how nervous she had been a few hours e arlier. We took one look at each other and . to be sure. surely she could make up a story about herself and Raven. she wouldn’t even have the satisfaction of seeing Raven humiliated. What’s more. she thought irritably. Leah smiled and closed her eyes. Oh. . wh ich she could not do. At least for the time being. Again she heard the hot rush of Raven’s breath close to her ear. she wrote with a lip curled. tight-lipped peck on the lips a flabby. the air hummed and my stomach was tied in such knots I feared th ey would never come undone. . We stood as if alone in the world. She used to imagine what it would be like to be kissed by a man. Then he kissed me and . that is—and twisted the fac ts where necessary. No. when you had been secretly rehearsing them in your heart for years. She’d written often enough of princesses who found love in unexpecte d places.

” “By smothering yourself?” He arched one dark brow. That’s an old country remedy and as you can see.” “Exactly. That pillow. . Raven was standing in the doorway between his chamber and hers. it worked. “Isn’t that a bit drastic?” “Very funny. and a married woman at that. staring at her i n bewilderment.” she blurted. The linen casin g smelled faintly musty. “I was writing a letter to my sister. Now may I inquire what you are doing in my chamber?” “I saw the light and thought you might have fallen asleep with the candle burning.She shook her head. I was trying to hold my breath. “What in blazes are you doing?” Leah jumped and turned. And froze. “Yes. That is the one you had your face buried in.” “Well?” “Well?” “What were you trying to accomplish?” “I was . And how naive. Worse. pretended her pillow was a suitor and practiced her technique on it.” Leah gestured toward the desk. “I had the hiccups and I was trying to stop them . She no longer believed that anything was possible. “What did you say?” she asked.. Wrapping her arms around the pillow. but with the vast experienc e of one incredible kiss behind her. not something a woman her age shou ld be indulging in . holding it aloft. she pressed it to her face. isn’t it?” “Yes. “I asked what you were doing with that pillow pressed to your face.. It is. . he felt lumpy. In those days she’d still believed that knig hts in shining armor existed outside of storybooks. She felt silly suddenly. hiccuping. as though he had a mouthful of porridge. as if her imaginary suitor spent too much time in a dam p attic. stalling.” “This pillow?” she echoed. wincing as she recalled long-ago nights when she had lain in her bed. and that at any moment one w ould come riding up to save her from the harsh fate she had been dealt. she stood and reached for one of the plump pillows piled on the bed . she could at least give her imagination ano ther go at it. Impulsively. This was a schoolgirl’s trick. H ow young she had been. He eyed her mockingly.” . She groaned inwardly as she slowly lowered the pillow.” “Until you were stricken with a sudden attack of hiccups.

she was bereft.” “That’s it. . Leah. . Just . that. drawing her to a place without restraint or regret. I’m kissing you. When he stopped kissing her. .” As he spoke. . She would permit him to kiss her this one ti me and one time only. His mouth brushed hers. I never . if my efforts are so totally unrecognizable. “Hold your mouth open for me.” he drawled. attributable to nerves. He teased her. “It so happens. The pressure of his thumbs kept her mouth open. wanted to feel once again that strange a nd wonderful explosion of pleasure that left her dizzy and breathless. to see if her response the first time had been an anomaly. like . because her foolish brain needed to hear what her b ody and her heart and her soul already knew. her body sensing the precise nature of a danger her mind was slower to perceive. I’ll answer. He stopped mere inches away. but she would have cooperated an yway. she told herself. his gaze focused on her lips as his ha nds cupped her face and tipped it up to him. .” he said.” He tugged the pillow free and tossed it aside. . “Perhaps in Baumborough you had need of a su bstitute. An experiment. . surely . It took several seconds for her to remember that this had been only an experiment. “Just what do you think you’re doing?” she demanded as soon as she felt steady enough. however. He licked her lips and traced the straight line of her teet h. his voice a soft whisper. but that’s no longer true.” His mouth curved into a knowing smile. . . wanted the rough and tender thrusts of his tongue. purposeful stride. that I am glad you’re here. But if you must a sk. . bathing her lips with the faint scent of smoke and brandy. . “Somehow I thought you might be. Her anxious gaze followed the movem ent of his hands as they lifted to the pillow. . His tongue filled her mouth and the reality of it overwhelmed her senses. Leah’s pulse skittered and her spine tingled. Some unfamiliar reckless streak inside wanted him to kiss her.” A wave of heat that was part embarrassment and part excitement swept over her. “You can’t be suggesting that I was . his head bent and his mouth came closer and she knew that what she both dreaded and craved was about to happen. And then . “A regrettable job. a world of pure f eeling unlike any she had ever known. . running his hands over her shoulders and down her back.” . “What are you doing?” she asked. “A sack of feathers is a poor stand-in for a flesh and blood lover. that is. And then . chal lenging gaze. moving toward her with a slow.Silence. Leah clutched the pillow and tried not to fidget under his steady. . Her th oughts drifted away. played with her. with sensations she could never have possibly imagined.

“Not clear enough.” “Very well. . you did say you’re not a romantic. “I suppose because it seemed more po lite than walking in. because .” He released her. it means I will not be giving any private performances. I am not to bed another. and never touch each othe r? That’s .” “Oh. I’ll worry about that when the time comes. apparently.” she reminded him. to night or any other night. because . Our bargain calls for you to play the role of m y husband in public. R our agreement.” When he trailed off. by chance.” His grunt of relief gave way to a look of even greater disbe lief as she continued. U nless marriage customs are very different where you come from—” Again she interrupted. looking baffled. you may touch me.” He chuckled.He bent his head to continue. . . If you prefer that approach—” “I don’t. “Because. thought of some other solution to our problem?” “I haven’t thought about it at all. “In public. sleeping in adjoining rooms every blessed night. “Why?” “Why?” He sounded incredulous. as husband and wife. But then. We shall proceed according to ly wed.” disapproval. I understood I was to play the part of your husband. “In fact. “That seems to be a habit of yours. she shook her head. As soon as Christiana is safe so-called marriage dissolved on grounds that .” “And I am not allowed to bed you.” she broke in. but this time Leah stopped him by bracing her hand s against his chest. “we shall be seeking an annulment when this is over. “I prefer no approach from you at all. An affectionate pat on the shoulder or a gentle hand at th e small of my back will go a long way toward convincing others that we are the m ost deliriously happy wedded couple in all of Christendom. unnatural. Have you already forgott en our agreement?” “No. I think it would strain credibility if you did no t do so occasionally. and a bit annoyed.” “What the hell does that mean?” “I believe I made my terms very clear. “The annulment? Is that all that’s holding you back?” “All? Have you.” “Let me see if I have this straight. because that might g ive rise to gossip?” “That’s correct. .” “Oh really?” Her expression dripped cting on impulse and worrying about aven. . Your Grace.” “You can’t be serious? You actually expect us to live here together. . but it seems you have. we shall apply to have this it was never consummated. But not this time. a the consequences later. throwing you on your back and tossing your skirts over you r head.

“Say no more. All too well. that.” “Self-control?” he echoed. I’ll send a carriage for her. “There may be another problem. A fig on that.” she said.” “Ask. She hadn’t tim e to waste coddling his moods.” “Would it be possible for you to send a carriage to collect my sister? My intentio n was to send my own carriage back for her. “Why? Is your sister a rather large woman?” . but at the moment she had her own problems wit h the gossipmongers to worry about.” “It will need to be a rather large carriage. “I’m not. his tone coldly indignant. leaving her feeling stung by his parting s hot. then you sorely overestimate either your charms or my s usceptibility to them. Hadn’t she? When he was almost to the door. “Why the hell did you say you were glad I’d come to your chamber.” he retorted hotly.” She watched the word afraid work its magic.” she advised. if you were not?” “Oh. Then it’s settled. but .” “I’m pleased you do. the rigidity of his stance suggesting that perhaps she ou ght to bide her time before pushing him any further.” she replied tersely. He eyed her smugly.” He held up his hand to stop her.” he growled. impaling her. sympathetic smile he was sure to resent. That is. “Can you imagine the field day the gossipmongers will have with that?” She could.” “The most obvious approach to making me a complete laughingstock. Have you consid ered that?” “They shall have their proof. Me? In capable of bedding my own wife?” His loud laugh held no trace of amusement. “If you think this is a question of self-control.. She had wanted him to leave her.His gaze narrowed. T he powers that be shall want proof that the deed was never done. You really are afraid of their ill opinion. madam.. “That seem s the most obvious approach to take. “But . “Have you lost your bloody mind?” “Not at all. but Rowland tells me there is a prob lem with one of the axles.” She hesitated. He arched one dark brow.” She tried not to let her voice quiver the way her knees were. .” He gave a stiff nod and turned to go.” She subjected him to a small. he turned abruptly. . “Like hell. you mean. Which was ridiculous since his retreat clearly signaled that she had won th is round. “I see. “I find it necessary to ask a favor of you. I’m sure he can repair it as he’s often done so in the pa st. unless you are so devoid of self-cont rol that you cannot see our bargain through for even a single night without rene ging. “I see. in fact. “I thought you were not concerned with the opinion of others. however.

“If I post it first thing. We c ouldn’t send her out to compete without them. “Nothing. private. “A larger pillow perhaps?” “No. manageable doses. I’m afraid.” Sh e waved her hand toward the desk. throwing caution to the wind. taunting her. But there are her bags to co nsider. in theory and in small. “Nothing you need?” His mouth curved.” “Then I bid you good night. any man. Not that she was opposed to passion. rule her life. and as p ersonally inexperienced as she was in this domain. “Quite slender. That was not all that difficult to do in Baumborough. as long as you’ve asked. As much as she hated to admit it.” she said.” she said. in fact. but especially a man as unprincipl ed as Raven.“Not at all.” He glanced over his shoulder at her. smiling. It was revolting. She pressed her palms to her cheeks and felt the heat there. So much for her experiment. If she had learned anything from her mother’s tragic fate. Will that suit?” “Very well. Heat that was part . B ut she was very much opposed to letting passion. Her private yearning s and desires were exactly that. Instead of spending the past weeks trying to anticip ate her husband’s reaction to her. It was some thing deeper and far more portentous. Leah sagged with relief.” The door clicked shut.” The candlelight played across his dark hair as he gave a curt nod. “I don’t care what you do to the place as long as it does not interfere with me. or any other emotion. “And now if there is nothing further?” She shook her head. including pas sion. And that was the very last thing she trusted herself to feel with a man. For her mother that had ultimately led to the loss of everything. And dangerous. She could not conceive of a man to whom she’d be more loath to surrender control than the one whose hands had just made themselve s at home all over her body.” she said tightly. “Was that all?” “Well. “I wonder if yo u would object to me freshening the house up a bit before Christiana arrives? I thought perhaps some new—” “Spare me the details. “Of course. Quite a number of them. even her life. thank you. That Raven should be the one to threat en to unleash what she kept so carefully bottled up was worse than unfortunate.” he snapped. Leah had made up her mind years ago that she would never risk sharing that fate. I shall make sure to send my largest carriage to fetch her. it should arrive befo re your carriage. She steadfastly avoided feeling any emotion she could not govern. I’ll inform Christiana of the change in plans in my letter.” His eyes gleamed with smug understanding. and will toss in a couple of brawny footmen while I’m at i t. it was that passi on could easily lead to loss of control. Exactly what had her response been? Indifference? Ha. she should have better prepared herself for her response to him. her woman’s intuition told her that what she felt in his arms was passion. her armor and weaponry. Curiosity? No.

she forgot her ow n. she would have run away by carriage. “I see.” she told him. After swinging from his tiger. . .” Olivia felt so sorry for him that when he asked to take her to his castle. But the shoe would not go on. sh e felt as if she were going in circles. Now I have a question for you. “What if you found a man who had only three of the four qualities you seek? Would you be willing to compromise?” Olivia shook her head. Stop fretting. she turned her attention to her manuscript . “You must allow me to tak e you back to my castle to rest. and experienced. well.embarrassment and part . But she was . . The sooner she had Christiana’s life settled. “I never compromise. Raven may be clever and smooth. she ordered herself. Olivia turned to see . she was wiser than she was a half hour ag o. What? Closing her eyes. A knight dressed all in silver. She turned to see . A knight seated astride a tiger. at the sound of thundering hooves behind her. I nstead she trudged for miles along the narrow road that curled in such a way. She quickly became so embroiled in Princess Olivia’s troubles.” said the prince. devious and totally wit hout scruples. and ended by urging Christiana to join her immediately . . “I am Princess Olivia of Faraway. . . “I fear your foot is swollen from walking. describing Raven House and the little she had seen of London thus far. she a ccepted. he offered Olivia the missing red slipp er. . I must wear the mask if I am to have any hope of fin ding a bride. Her cheeks flamed anew. . His name was Nevar. but for the bla ck leather mask covering his face. .” “I haven’t time to rest. Why do you wear that mask?” “Because I am cursed as well. turned to s ee . she pictured the scene that an artist would later render for t he book’s fanciful illustrations. And nothing would. after all. with a great flourish of the sort for which princes are known. She was tired and hungry and missing one red kid slipper when. . After signing and sealing the letter. And she was determined. She finished her letter in a rush. If Olivia were a more practical princess. Zanzibar. Nothing had happened. There would be no further experiments.” Olivia told him all about the Old Hag and the curse. and I am on a quest. something else. the sooner she could return to the peace and safety of home. .” he said when she was through. and he was the prince of Here-and-Now.

stuttering as he always did when backed into a corner. Will was seated at an out-of-the-way table. dropping his voice. “Where . It’s natural I would want to be present and what’s more. . the road to Castle Here-And-Now d Leah as she stretched mightily. made a hasty sign of the cross. Duke of Raven.” Will hissed. bane of her exi stence. In the mood he was in. “In Boodle’s?” “In London. but was curious and couldn’t hide the fact. what . he did an intentional double take as he passed Will’s ta ble. what am I thinking? Your presence in town c an mean only one thing. Prince of Scoundrels.” Adrian looked confused. my friend.” His gaze careened aro und the room..” “Of course. All the things that Adrian. One who did not want to be tumbled.” He clapped Will on the back .” Adrian said. a virgin.. “You mean she lingers still?” “I mean she’s here. “I can always trust you to look out for my best interests. . She liked Prince Nevar and was sorry that he obviously lacked the very first quality on her list. Princess. Adrian would have hunted him down in whatever hole he sought to hide. I need a ddrink. He paused just inside the shadowy room.” He collapsed heavily into the seat beside Will and bowing his head. but I see your reasoning. in a transpar ent attempt to go unnoticed. She’s here t-to . Now it appeared he had a wife who was that most irksome of all creatures. Dammit. God.” . was not. He was torn. . .. but.” he exclaimed. * * * That same night Adrian found Will at Boodle’s. He would have . . he would have done something to avert disas ter. nodding with approval. Striding across the room. “Just tell me this. . Ah. whispere night. is long and winding. with his back to the door. “My God. she’s not here to be b-buried. “what are you doing here?” The color drained from Will’s round face. Rave. “I had assumed the burial would be in Westerham. finished for the at Prince Nevar had ample opportunity to teach the mpromise. She would see to it th stubborn Olivia the art of co honest and true. did she go peacefully?” “What in blazes are you t-talking about?” Will demanded. man. Had Will warned him of Leah’s recovery in time.” “Good God. and prove to her that he was courageous. She tried not to think about the face hidden beneath his mask. “Will. The urge to walk over and k nock Will off his seat without warning was a near second to the desire to see hi m dangling from a noose. he could have . Adrian let his jaw drop. this way there will be a grave nearby where I can deposit flowers and appear properly grief-stricken at regular intervals. a club they rarely frequented.They rode with Olivia seated in front of Nevar on the tiger’s back. “She didn’t go at all..

“You. and when the Duchess makes up her m ind about something—” “The duchess?” Adrian interjected. folded the note.” He leaned closer to Will.Adrian signaled the waiter to bring a bottle of brandy and poured them both a dr ink. I mean. Perhaps. you great menac ing dolt. steady your nerves. and joined them.” Adrian listened contentedly as Will rattled on. . still smoothing his lapels whe re Will had clutched them. and it’s all my fault.” he ordered. Will gulped his. “But she was set on handling the meeting with Raven her way. She’s alive.” Will muttered. But who is her closest r elation really?” Will reached out and grasped the lapels of his coat.” Sandy hair curled damply around his ears and the back of his neck as he began sweating in earnest. He looked at Adrian.” . old man. she’s not dead. What the blazes am I to do with a gallery in Soho ?” He shrugged.” urged Adrian. in town. Adrian waited until he lifted the glass to his lips. steadily progressing from alarme d to frantic. “Congratulate me. “I knew I should have seen her to Raven House myself. “Yes. or worse. that’s where she should be. it’s you. The silenc e got his attention at last. “Where?” “Yes. Which means she never made it to Raven House. “Looks like the cat’s out of the bag. “You must agree that a memorial service of some sort is in order. Raven.. “How’s he taking it?” “He’s not taking it. “I can see this tragedy has taken a to ll on you and I shan’t forget your loyalty. At least.” His friend went from white to gray.” He squinted at the signed note in his hand . it’s you. “That’s right. then at Will. Perhaps by the time he approached apoplectic. “As well as a gallery in Soho.” At that instant Colin emerged from the card room. then back at Adrian and whistled softly .” Will lamented. yes.” Will snapped. . at your house this very moment. as well as .” Will poured himself another brandy. I didn’t know what else to call her. “Well. Adrian would have ha d his fill of retribution. that’s what she is. And she’s here. the devoted and grieving husband and all that. “The body . “Besides..” “Yes. and slipped it in his waistcoat pocket.” he went on. where?” said Adrian. “He’s no idea she’s alive. “So where is she?” Will coughed and sputtered and wiped brandy from his chin with the back of his h and. “I’ve just relieved that obnoxious young sot Wickerson of half his yearly sum. “Have y ou located her nearest relation?” Will nodded. letting a hint of impatience creep into his tone. “Listen to me. sporting a self-satisfied grin . Which means she’s lost .

she does have you by the jollies.” Adrian regarded him sardonically. “Of course. “There is?” asked Colin. “The lady has threatened to expose the entire truth about that night.” “You deserve it.” Colin’s mouth twisted as if he’d bitten into a rotten apple. “If you can be run t is safe. legal charges against you. “We’ve survived worse. “I said you’d regret it. “What could I do? I welcomed her with open arms. “Worse than threats of deportation for the recto r. Adrian let their pity ooze for another moment or so.” “So it would seem. of all people. you knew? All along? You bastard.” Will broke in. “It’s not enough you dragged me into your fiendish little scheme and then le ft me caretaking an angry woman.” he said. “I never thought you.” he said. now you sink to making sport of me. “It occurred to me that I may have embraced the Plimpton Solution a bit prematurel y. “is safely asleep in the bedchamber adjoining my own .” retorted Adrian. his tone dejected.” Colin exhaled in disgust. his it would end this way for hought with what remained o ground.” declared Colin.” Adrian retorted. “Let her expose whatever she pleases. Married. every muscle in h is body tensing at the words. then couldn’t stand it any longer. and now I’m stuck with her. “Hell. the duchess. . and Giddin g . Even I have my standards.” Adrian explai ned.” Will wet his lips. there is a bright side to all this.“Well.” he s narled.” “You can’t mean you intend to let the marriage stand?” demanded Colin. now that you’ve divined what she is. “And worse. and their wives. and my being publicly branded a liar? I think not. The lady and I have resolved to make the best of this unfortuna te situation.” He washed down that grim t in Will’s glass and then refilled it. Torrington. . “You had that tedious lot in your dining room?” “What did you do when she walked in?” Will asked cautiously. “allow me to enlighten you as to where she is. barely lifting his head.” “I tried to tell you. .” Run to ground? That chafed. “Do you mean to say . no man anywhere expression forlorn. “Good one. Rave.” Will and Colin stared at him blankly. . but would you listen?” . At this very moment. Why the bloody hell didn’t you warn me sh e was alive before she walked into my dining room and staked her claim in front of no less an assemblage of back-stabbers than Hockliffe.” Colin shook his head. Colin caught on first and resumed grinning . Rave. “What other choice does he have?” Will challenged. You even had me going.

Leah would get what she claimed to wan t.” “I like to think of it as the Plimpton Solution with a twist.” He nodded for Adrian to continue. he was won over. savoring the sweet fire at the back of his throat just as he savored the heady prospect and unparalleled challenge of seducing his own wife.” “Perfect.” protested Will. and wandered downstairs barefoot and in his dressing gown. drown your sorrows. . Rave.” Colin’s forehead puckered as the pieces settled in his mind. But there will be no annulment. “Plimpton’s approach was right in theory. or yourself.Colin shoved the brandy glass at him. to al l intent and purposes. It’s . Of course. Ever. and as suddenly as that he realize d it was perfect. Which I am pleased to say I have now accomplished. groggy from another late night. that is brilliant. No. as was his hab it. but it needed a bit of fine-tuning. there was the little matter of her damn annulment. “Easier said than done. I shall embrace my husbandly status and exploit its benefits until I’ve enjoyed all the marital bliss I can stomach.” “But your vows. leaving me free to resume my own pursuits he re. without a wife.” . Then. “The vows will remain intact. a wooden pick c lamped between his teeth. He would get the imm unity of marriage without the complications. “Here. The only difference today was that he stopped abruptly in the door of the dining room. “Someone put out that blasted light. He reached for Will’s glass and tossed back the contents. shall I send the duchess packing. His remarks had been an off-the-cuff effort to make himself ap pear less pathetic in the eyes of his friends. and only then. wincing and shielding his eyes with one hand. He picked up the newspaper from its customary spot on the table by the foot of the stairs and read the headlines as he walked to the dining room for his usu al two cups of bitter chocolate and six slices of buttered toast liberally sprin kled with cinnamon sugar. but he knew of one surefire way to eliminate that stumbling block. it’s beyond brilliant.” Thorne stood in his usual position beside the head of the table. waiting to snap his employer’s napkin into his lap and p our his chocolate. “What the devil is going on here?” he demanded. a husband for her sister and the freedom to return home. Chapter 5 Adrian woke mid-afternoon as he always did.” Adrian pronounced when Colin faltered. rendering me legally and permanently off-limits. Y’Grace. . but as the plan unfolded in his h ead. I do n’t care which as long as you shut up. as a lways. s olitary life she professes to love. Everyone would win. Not on any grounds.” “Damn. back home to the quiet. “Married and yet.

cheerless inch of i t.” he added. all right. Y’Grace. Says they have buttercups on them. buttercups. In the upstairs hallway.” “Then let’s pray for rain. “Says the wainscott ing was too dark. devil take you. . who trailed behind him with a tray. Why is he prying it loose?” “The Duchess. just do it.” “The sun?” Adrian glanced at the windows and for the first time noticed they were ba re of the voluminous dark blue draperies that had hung over them for as long as he could remember. shall we? In the meantime I’ll take breakfast in the librar y. much less the color of it. the Duchess?” “Shopping.“Don’t grumble.” There were more surprises awaiting him en route.” “Isn’t that the point? Where is that wom . still squinting. How am I e xpected to have my breakfast here?” He glowered at the windows. she ordered them taken down. I told her that since you alway s slept most of the—” “All right.” He glanced around. Says they’ll cheer the place up. “The woman is obviously insane. Unless it’s raining.” “Buttercups?” “Yes.” replied the servant. You may tell her so. The wrenching sound ma de him wince. Thorne. . “I can see that.” “Did she say when she would return?” “She said she would be away most of the afternoon. “Prying it loose.” “Then tell that man to put it back the way it was.” .” “Why?” “She said they blocked the sun. “Is it always so bri ght at this hour?” “Yes. though truthfully he’d never notice d the wainscotting was there.” “Yes.” Adrian interrupted. Y’Grace. . “Where in blaze s is it coming from anyway?” “The sun. “And I detest buttercups. he enc ountered a man using a metal crowbar on the wainscotting.” he declared. “What the hell is he doing?” he asked Thorne. “Where are the draperies?” “The Duchess. . Every dark. my wi . Y’Grace. she ordered the wainscotting removed to expose the plaster panels un derneath. Y’Grace.” “I happen to like dark wainscotting.

“Rose bushes in the barrels. “O h. . His gaze traveled over the garden and narrowed. “The duchess desires ivy. . the fellow from the greenhouse said everything was paid for in adv ance by the duchess herself. almost as much as he appreciated the curvaceous lines o .” “We don’t have a trellis. revolting .” “We do now.” the servant said as he arranged the plate and cup . . though their wares had expanded to include fabrics and household goods of a ll kinds. Put it back the way it was .. “the lady made it plain as a pimple on an arse that you had approved certain cha nges in the house.” He settled himself behind the desk while Thorne made a place for the tray amidst the paper and clutter. The duchess—” “Has gone too damn far. “Either. By God. Lilacs in the crates.” “I never approved buttercups. and don’t be sneaking off for a pint till you do. As eager as he w as to set her straight.” he snapped. “Not even here a day and already she’s costing me a fortune. appreciating the st raight line of her back.Thorne turned to the workman. sir. did he now? Does the blasted woman think I cannot afford to adorn my own home ? I can see her now.” “Actually. Sunshin e. Did she happen to say where—” “Bond Street. “You heard the duke. raising eyebrows all over town by paying for her own purcha ses.” “Have my horse—” “It’s waiting out front.” declared Adrian. who still referred to themselves as silk merc ers. “What the hell is that?” “That would be the workmen securing the trellis. he slowed his steps as he drew near.” “Buttercups.” muttered Adrian under his breath as he strode away. Leah was at the back of the shop. .” Thorne informed him. The fountain with the bare-arse Cupid is still on the wagon out front. “If you’ll pardon me for saying so.. Of all the hideous.” “I’ll give her . “What are those?” “In the barrels or the crates?” inquired Thorne without bothering to glance out the window. Or blinding lights . or that infernal pounding. Y’Grace. tapestries a nd fabric samples strewn across the long table in front of her.” he added. . grimacing. . I won’t have it. seated on a high stool.” Adrian threw down his napkin and stomped to the window to see tw o burly men on ladders mounting a wooden trellis to the brick wall at the back o f the house.” He found her at Thatcher and Swan.” Adrian felt as if someone had strung a wire along his nerves and drawn it taut. “Buttercups.

as n wild urge to do something to put everything back the way it was. her expression did not dim.” he said at last. what a wonderful surprise. . he must tell her so in a way that w ould not impede his ultimate goal—seduction. Adrian’s breath caught. not orchestrating the cursed campaign to marry off her sister in grand style . his desire to bring h is errant wife into line.” She pressed her lips together.” “Not at all. its smooth texture and husky u ndertone. it’s about the changes in the house—the w ainscotting. He didn’t speak and his footsteps on the carpeted floor were silent.” That was it.” The impulsive. the trellis. especially if such concessions paved the w . . But. Really. yet she lifte d her head as he approached. Then. e xcept that the smile she turned on him was brighter and warmer than a thousand s uns. I’m very glad you’re he re just the same. bald-faced lie earned him another smile. She was only a means to an end. madam. he assured himself. The snow rain and his creation dissolved right before his eyes. . The woman was turning his home into some lu dicrous showpiece. Immediately he wondered about her motives.” she added. It was not to be tolerated. I’m . Of course. the missing drapes. and its unhurried cadence. Adrian was struck anew by the sound of her voice.” “Oh dear. though not. and Adrian remembered one long-ago winter day. concerned. as if his presence alone held the power to command her attention.f her hips and bottom. “that I never expecte d to be seen here. “That is. And she smiled.” “I hope that remains unchanged after you hear what I’ve come to say. “I wouldn’t say displeased exactly. what difference did a few bushes and a fountain make.” he was stunned to hear himself say. “Well. “I see. he was displeased. “I was afraid I might be overstepping my bound s by ordering the wainscotting removed. His anger abated somewhat.” Her n he’d scraped had turned to ow. he had the smile disappeared. whe together enough newly fallen snow to make a small snowman. he reminded himself. It was like walking into the dining room all over again. “Raven. as if exchanging pleasantries with him was the only thing she had to do.” he replied with a loathing glance around. It was all simply the means to an end.” As impossible as it seemed. He was concerned. You’ve simply saved me the bother. “I never expected to see you here. “Actually I’ve been intending to have it removed for some time. “I assure you. None of this mattered enough to merit a stronger response.” “You’re displeased?” Displeased? he thought. Her head was slightly bent and she had removed one glove to feel the fabrics. “It’s about the house. watching that familiar look of dismay mar her smooth for ehead. and upending his entire life in the process.” she said. . he reassured himself.

What will people say if my wife goes around paying for the refurb ishment of my ancestral home?” “Do you care?” she asked with a sly look. beaming. She nodded.ay to her bed? She eyed him uncertainly. about her? The fact that he couldn’t answer was one more sign of how very wrong things had gone in a single day.” “That’s really not necessary. “So.” God help him. if not the wainscotting. “It is my home. “Just have the bills sent to me.” he ordered gruffly. “I was afraid you might find the panels underneath too d rastic a change.” she exclaimed. “He recommends pastel colors on both ceilings and walls. . and she turned the full force of her g aze on him. “The architect Robert Adam considers the ceiling to be one of the most important f eatures in the design of the room. Her refer ences to walls hung with apricot Spitalfields silk. a nd brocade drapes with braided fringe drifted in one ear and out the other.” he corrected. now hidi ng behind a sweep of what were surely the longest lashes in existence. Now. can you recall the exact color?” The question came at him without warning. I must insist that all future account s be sent to me for settlement. Was it possible that he did care what people said about hi m? Or.” “It is eminently fair. . gilded ceiling medallions.” “No. “Why not?” He listened and watched. “and I think I agree.” “Who would not?” he murmured absently as he watched her mouth. and so very. now intent. and one he felt no more comfortable answering today than he had last evening. having no idea what he was approving. “The expenses. What do you think?” “It sounds perfect. what exactly is your concern?” “My concern?” His mind scrambled. the bills will be sent to me. innately sultry with absolutely no effort on her part. set off with white decora tions and judicious gilding. you are my wife. It was a good question. fascinated by the expr essiveness of her eyes.” “I’m so glad. the way they sparkled and crinkled. Buttercups are precisely what I had in mind. “So.” he replied. very . . “In that case I will definitely have them re-crea ted for the ceiling in the drawing room. would you like to see what I have planned for the din ing room?” He shrugged. I shall be saving a substantial amount by giving up th e house in Knightsbridge and it doesn’t seem quite fair to ask you to pay for what I requested.” she went on. more disturbing still. “Very well. lulled by the music in her tone.

Standing behind her.” “Dangerous?” Her voice was low. leaning just the slightest bit closer. He had be en completely convinced. he slid his palm along her forearm to her ungloved hand and laced hi s fingers with hers. the chit was coaching him . And doing a bang-up j ob of it. “Green? Really? The dining room rug?” She looked perplexed. Nonetheless. It was then that he happened to glance across the table and for the first time n oticed the women. Feint or parry? What the hell. He drank it in. feeling like a complete idiot.” sh e murmured for his ears only. This was very familiar terrain. using him. telling himself it w as all part of the game. She was playing along for her own purposes. cooing and fawni ng over her like some callow. lovesick youth. She tilted her head closer to him and whispered something. he squeezed her hand. “Oh. What’s more . “Perfect. No wonder she was so acquiescent al l of a sudden.” Her lashes fluttered down. She frowned. private smile. “Not the rug. and quickly down again. It was a subt le smell. they had an audience. feeling like a starving m an given a bowl of porridge. He had a good mind to give his scheming bride— and the nosy gawkers—a true demonstra . some in pairs. Almost as wildly as the pounding yearning inside him.” A touch of warmth. Adrian hesitated. “It will add a touch of warmth. Was she mad? The length of him pressed against her back was a lready far too warm for a public place. “How is it possible for one’s eye color to be dangerous?” “Because of the way it draws a man in. She slanted him a small. all pretending to examine fabric an d doodads while their gazes were fastened with avid curiosity on the scene being played out at the sample table by the Duke of Raven and his bride. so that his ch est grazed the back of her shoulder and her scent filled his head. yes. Adrian bent to hear. You’re frightfully good at this. up.” He caught her chin and turned her face toward him. most dan gerous green known to man.” Lashes down. all woman. “The softest. allowing himself to become enthralled. Ah. and pulls him under. elusively floral. some alone. deepest. he thought. and makes him long to drown there. her small laugh slightly breathless and unsteady. Damn. and Leah assumed he was performing for them.” she whispered again. . . he thought. “Pardon?” “I said squeeze my hand. recalling her slight trembling and lowered gaze. Adrian felt her chin tremble.” “Oh. He could feel the pulse in her thumb beating wildly.” he replied.” he said softly. So.“Green. “I was talking about your eyes. that he was in control.” “Oh dear.

on the spot. “Bu t ours is a mutual venture.” said Leah.” she told him as they paused outside the shop. wagging a finger at Raven. As she made a small curtsy. I insist we forge on without our companions. before she melted into a puddle at the man’s feet.” said her husband.” Leah marveled at his aloofness. habits?” “I believe I do. Clearly her resistance technique needed some work. not create it. draw ing at least one audible sigh from across the table.” he said. “There you are.” “Well then. He lifted her hand to his mouth and planted a quick kiss on the back of it. if not f or the wretched fact that he’d given his word to avoid scandal.” He gave her elbow a slightly painful squeeze. “Thank you. but didn’t remember the name. “I must have for gotten to tell you. And he would. black velvet cloak trimmed with fur. like its master. On top of everything else.. The lesson would have to wait for a more private moment. she very subtly connected her elbow with h is rib cage and explained. “Your Grace.tion of husbandly ardor. Lady Torrington. and Leah followed suit. darling. “Order the materials.” he advised.” “Not at all . I hope you appreciate what an amazing effect you have had on your hu sband’s. wearing a lemon-colored bonnet and a short. shall never be worthy of you. “We did have another commitment. but our companions wer e forced to cancel. shall we say. sweetheart.” “You were wonderful. the man was a consumm ate actor. “We’re committed elsewhere. “But you are always mo st welcome.” “Simply living up to my side of our bargain.” They replied in unison.” A woman came barreling toward them. he assured himself. exchanging a subtly ironic look with that husband. “We’d love to attend.” With a steely sweet smile at Raven. Leah recognized her as one of last evening’s dinner guests.” she said. “But since I know how you had your heart set on this evening.” the other woman responded. In the awkward silence that followed. and I would be honored to be the first hostess in London to entertai n the new Duchess of Raven. topped with a pelisse of deep violet cash mere.” replied Leah. “or I fear Raven House. I hope you will mutually agree to attend my ball this evening. he’d ha d much more experience. she took in eve ry detail of Leah’s lilac walking dress. while she was still vibrating like a harp string from his touch. But then. releasing her with a show of reluctance. “Good day. Thank heavens she’d become aware that they were being watched and had resurrected some backbone in time. I assure you. cool and completely unaffected by their little display of affection. Dear lady. I hope you’re not upset with me.” .. “I heard a fascinating rumor that you two lovebirds were shopping together a nd I’ve been searching from one end of Bond Street to the other to see for myself. she added. You ign ored my invitation—again.

“I would much prefer to atten d Lady Torrington s ball.” she said. What does it mean?” “It means.” She refused to let his cynicism intrude on her excitement.” “Then it’s settled. but then hope does spring eternal. . “I read of the plans for the Torrington ball in the society pa ges—” “Of which paper? The Baumborough Gazette?” “Of the London Times. Please. “I c annot believe I am actually going to be there. opening her orchid ruffled parasol so forcefully he had to duc k.” he said in a grim tone. madam. in the short time we’ve known each other I have already disc overed at least three things about which you are extraordinarily sensitive.” “A ball?” he said derisively.” “That’s what I thought you said.” she said. in fact. “Yes. “Now see what yo u’ve done?” “Yes. say we may go.” As soon as they were alone.” “Not so I’ve noticed thus far. stunning her by the reply. visibly annoyed. “I’ve been having it sent to me in preparation for our visit. madam. “I shall see you both tonight. when in fact.” Silence.” she shot back. Very mu ch. ne arly as much as I detest squabbling with my wife in public. “Of course we may attend the ball.” “Nor can I. that I detest balls. wrenching her elbow from his grip.” he said.” declared Lady Torrington. so that I can—” “Plot strategy? Set your traps?” “Something like that. if that’s really what you want. “that you talk a good game about not caring a whit what people say or think abo ut you.“Actually. I saved you from missing out on one of the most important social events of t he season. “Yes.” “Humph. Raven turned to her.” “What did you say?” “I said humph. She nodded eagerly.” “You said all that in a single humph?” “You will find that I am a woman of few words. it is what I want.” Leah noted the irritation in his narrowed gaze and the tic in his right cheek an d realized with every fiber of her being that every fiber of his was gearing up to refuse. “I’ll have you know.” She ignored the warning lurking behind his words.

Which I do. “Dava? My God. That is why I refuse to be a party to your little game. And I especially detest this one.” “Ah. “It is patently obvious that you are loath to have people think that you squabble in public. “I’m sorry. “I understood that you pref erred my silence. Leah deigned to reply. I often—” He halted abruptly. and the man’s shoulder collided with her s. knowing as I do that your prima ry motive for attending has nothing to do with it being one of the events of the season and everything to do with lining up likely prospects for the hunt. “Sweet Jesus. and do not sleep with your wife.” “My sentiments exactly. his lined face becoming a mask of horror. at that. Satisfied that she had made her point.” “I shall let you know when I prefer silence. feigning bewilderment.“So. Ar e you all right. “That will teach me to watch where I’m going. “I’ve been known to w alk into walls myself from time to time. “Can we please go now?” . I have no idea what you’re talking about. I desire nothing more than t he sound of your dulcet tones answering my damn question. “I’m referring to marriage prospects. and one in wh ich you are so obviously lacking that I cannot imagine your participation being of the slightest advant—” She broke off with a small gasp as he grabbed her and jerked her against him. t hat’s three. well-dre ssed gentleman striding toward them with his head down.” “How crass. a kindred spirit.” Leah assured him.” she informed him patiently. “I beg your pardon. “what are these three t hings about which I am supposed to be so sensitive?” “You wish me to speak?” she countered with mock deference. feeling as if someone had run an icicle along her spin e. as if speaking to someone who didn’t know the language. however.” he said as they turned in the direction of her carriage.” She looked at Raven. There.” “I beg your pardon?” she said. “A time-honored art. is that you?” Leah quickly turned away. will you lower your voice?” “See?” “All I see is you extrapolating wildly from my simple statement that I detest ball s. likely candidates.” A sideways glance confirmed that his expression matched his tone in exasperation . sheep ready for slaughter. it is an art. Le ah had been so absorbed in her lecture that she hadn’t noticed the older.” the man exclaimed. madam?” “I’m fine. fail to pay your own bills. Raven’s efforts to move he r out of his path were too late. For now.” “Courtship is not a game. rotating her shoulders to demonstrate.” He glanced around anxiously.

“Of course.” “Don’t be silly. Clearl y. “But .” “You don’t look fine. As she passed the gilt-framed mirror in the entrance hall. she told herself. Ignoring him. “Are you certain you’re all right?” he asked when she was settled. . “I’ll be right behind you.” he called to the driver without taking his eyes off her. . She was different here. . closed her eyes and gave way to the panic she hadn’t dared reveal in front o f Raven. and fine bone structure.” Alone inside the carriage. She folded her arms tightly. but . The years had blurred her image of her mother. There was no denying she h ad the same green eyes.” He nodded and stepped back to close the carriage door.. Leah rested her head against the back of the leather seat. “I’m fine. Obviously. his anxious gaze sc ouring her face. her resemblance to her mother was strong enough to be noticed. she and her mother shared more than a physical likeness . This never would have happened back in Baumborough . she must deal with the matter at hand. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost. the gentleman on Bond Street had been struck by more. Raven quickly led her toward her carriage a short distance away an d helped her in. more reckless and more vulnerable and more needy .” he replied.” he argued. . She paced her room anxiously. thick chestnut hair. she carefully ave rted her gaze. aghast at the possibility that in spite of all her resolve.” the other man sputtered.. Chapter 6 She hurried into the house before Raven dismounted. That had to stop. . In the meantime. Was it somethin g in her expression that made him think she was her mother? The way she held her self? Or perhaps a certain light in her eyes as she’d walked beside Raven. . a man s he had foolishly allowed liberties she now winced to recall. taking her arm. I’m simply tired and want to go home. and high cheekbo nes. Now. R aven made her feel different. and that it showed. Which meant sh . But she h ad no doubt the gentleman who’d bumped into her was convinced he’d seen one. afraid of whose reflection she might see. intent on reaching her chamb er and pleading a headache in order to have some time alone to gather her though ts. She’d spoken the truth when she told him she hadn’t seen a ghost. until she sometimes wondered if s he could possibly favor her as much as she’d been told. brown hair. but you co uld fill a cathedral with women who had green eyes. But things were so different here. and all at the same time. “Straight home.

all smug and hungry. she decided. Still groggy. it was dark outside and she fumbled for the lamp by the bed. It was frightening and confusin g and the absolute antithesis of the woman she thought herself to be. “Thorne. she thought sardonically. That’s what she ought to wear. Fragrant steam wafted as he carried it past Leah to the long pine table at the center of the room. Leah strolled downstairs—and made her grand entrance into a silent. “Gone. do you. was a new and unsettling feeling. its deep hem embellished with pearls and ivory satin ro settes.” Leah clenched her fists. but it was as if she were a prism and facets that had been hidden in darkness for years were suddenly being revealed. She would tell him herself. removing a pie from the oven. . With Bridget’s help. This was a marriage i n name only and it must stay that way. she donned an off-the-shoulder gown of vivid blue silk. The trouble was. The same trim adorned her slippers. clearly unimpressed by her matching pearls and rosettes.” He glanced up at her as he bent over the open oven door. “Thorne. where is the Duke?” she asked. she rang for Bridget and began searching her wardrobe for something to wear to the ball.e had two choices: She could tell Raven everything and hope he was willing to co ntinue their charade in spite of it. And the less Raven would look at her with that look. Th at. the less she would remind people of Dava. “Out. The more ghastly she looked. After Bridget tended to a lock of hair that had slipped free of the upswept cluster of curls at the bac k of her head. When she woke. God only knew why. fan and reticule. A public scene would be far more damagi ng to her cause than anything he might dish out in private. too. Play. empty drawing room. Any notions Raven might be entertaining t o the contrary were doomed. Sackcloth and ashes. but part o f her wanted to play the cream to his tomcat. or do you not. The outfit was the piece de resistance of her new wardrobe and she had intended to save it for a v ery special occasion. It would go no further. she s ettled herself on the bed to plan how to tell him and was soon asleep. “Gone where?” she asked. perhaps even Chrissie’s wedding day. Period. she assured herself. She’d never thought herself the primpin g and preening type. Even more alarming th an her wish to be beautiful was her yearning to see the acknowledgment of that b eauty gleaming in Raven’s eyes. that he can have his fill anytime he pleased and was rather enjoying the anticipation. with a matching lace overlay. “Gone?” He nodded. She wanted to look beautiful. That resolved. or risk letting him hear a much more colorf ul and damning version of the family scandal from someone at tonight’s ball. she didn’t want to look ghastly. know the whereabouts of t he Duke?” “Not.” he replied. like a tomcat eyein g a bowl of cream and knowing there’s no need to pounce. She found Thorne in the kitchen.

week in and week out? You can’t be serious. Same as every third night. No more. “Has he never even attempted a new recipe?” “Used to. I would like to establish some sort of communication with you because I’m interested in what you have to say . “Did Snake make meat pie for dinner this evening?” “No. He was hiding a smile. . “What would a lady know about ticks on a hound?” “Enough. Chicken Fricassee. his expression and gruff tone incredulous. releasing more of the heaven ly aroma.” She tossed her retic ule on the table.” The reply surprised her.” With an exasperated sigh. “Meat pie. second night is stewed beef. for pity’s sake. every third night?” “First night is roast mutton. “I made it. Then he starts again. with whole sentences passing between us? Instead of me havi ng to pull words from you like ticks off a hound?” He eyed her suspiciously. her small smile rueful. Those three dishes are safe.” she said. . do you suppose it might be possible for us to have a conversation? A real conversation. “And because I’m all dressed up for a ball. . He pulled a knife from the wood block by the stove.” he muttered and cut into the pie. you know.” “He serves the same three dishes.” he retorted.” “I understand. “Thorne. and dipped his head.“What is that?” she inquired. And because we’re living under the same roof. Leah realized. Y’Grace?” “I know nothing of the wants or habits of other ladies. with no idea where my husband is and I haven’t eaten since breakfast and that pie smells delicious. “You cook?” “Some.” “That’s more than enough. third is the fricassee. the table between them. “And thus far I’ve sampled only his eg gs.” “And why would a lady be wanting conversation with a servant . in the same order. she moved so they faced each other.” “What do you mean.” Having partaken of Snake’s culinary offerings.” “You want a piece?” he asked. He was no doubt galled to think that he co uld share a laugh with the woman who’d invaded this bastion of male chaos. I haven’t always lived in London. It would take a braver man than me to down something Snake whipped up on his own.” “The devil you know. “Then where did this pie come from?” she ventured to ask. Leah regarded the pie with less ent husiasm.

his flinty gaze fixed on his plate. there was never much gardening to be done.” “Sorry. Leah followed suit until she put down her fork. where it was warm.” For half a minute. “Will you tell me how you learned to cook?” Silence. Leah nodded. “Tell me. things are less formal. he stared at her. It tasted even better tha n it smelled. Where I come from. He didn’t pull away. He’d rather be out there talking to the posies. “Till you sho wed up. Y’Grace?” “Of course not. full on only half the serving he’d given her. flushing. roses. Shall I serve yours in the dining room . then shoveled a huge bite of pie into his mouth. si gnaling he’d rather eat than talk.” Without thinking she reached over and briefly touched the back of his han d. “It’s your house. We brought her bed into the kitchen.” When Leah continued to gaze at him with an expectant look. “Not hardly. shifting to a less emotionally charged subject. Is Snake right?” “Who knows?” He looked surprised.“May I?” He shrugged. “Y’Grace. I prefer a bowl of soup with the clatter of pots and pans around me to sitting for a full-course meal in a big dining room. Leah told him so. Snake says when it comes to gardening. t hen served them each a generous slice of the meat pie. . as if searching for some hidden motive. but flattered to be asked his opinion. “From my mo ther.” Thorne ordered. with only my sister and our governess for company. And you can stop looking at me that way.” she said. “I understand. This is hardly the first time I’ve taken a meal in the kitchen. then added. he added. Manningt on doesn’t know his ars—” He broke off. so old Mannington took to spe .” He fetched knives and forks and rummaged in a drawer for a rough linen napkin. To tell you the truth.” “It’s your pie. Thorne. When he finally did speak it was with a decided lack of zeal.” He swallowed hard. She’d lay there and tell me what to do and I learned. What happened wh en your mother recovered? Did she take over as cook or by that time did the pupi l outshine the teacher?” “She didn’t recover. “does Sna ke mind you invading his domain?” He snorted. .” he responded brusquely.” “And very well indeed. “I’m sorry. whatever they are. “She was laid sick for more than a year when I was just thirteen. Fin ally he said. if this is any indication of your talents. then waited until they’d both slaked their appetit e a little before speaking. “My own mother died when I was around that same age.” “Posies?” “Posies. “There’s plenty.” “Sit.

He was a modestly successful solicitor whom Adrian called on to handle matters of an unusual or sensitive nature.” “It was the Duke’s doing. and set himself up somewhere with no ghosts.” “Oh. from the Battle of Salamanca on. a cook w ho’d rather garden and a gardener who loved horses. To her surprise. and everything. She could tidy and rearrange Raven Hous e all she liked.” “But what did he do with the existing staff?” “Weren’t none left. The old duke had been dead and gone for years. It smelled of old leather and old tobacco. What I don’t understand is why servants would be employed in such a fashion. It’s when—” “I understand the concept. there might be the solution to a problem that had been nagging at her. that one. Thorne s remarks made her suspect that the state of the house had more to do w ith contempt.” Leah thought that somewhere in this jumble of a butler who’d rather cook. What would cause Raven to feel such disdain for his own h eritage? And whose ghost haunted Raven House? Cyril Gates’s Glasshouse Street office was empty except for Adrian and Cyril Gates himself. But why? she wondered. you see.” That explained nothing. “Tell me. The man was preeminently qualified f or such assignments because he had few scruples and knew how to keep his mouth s hut. if you like to cook. Once we were all back home. and was lit by a sing . And he had something lacking in the solicitors who handled Adrian’s routine b usiness affairs—connections in all the wrong places. it would be in the same sorry state in no time.” “I see. Thorne. Truth be told. with this place s tanding empty. “You received my instructions?” Adrian inquired as soon as he was seated in a small private office. “We served under His Grace. assuming he was too busy with the pursuit of selfish.” “I see. dissolute pleasures to giv e a thought to the water stains on the ceilings or the inefficiency of the staff . Thorne elaborated without prodding.” “I beg your pardon?” “Lots. Likes horses better than people.” She had attributed his neglect as further evidence of his self-indulgence. but unless something was done about the inefficiency with which it was run. I think His Grace would as soon have left it that way until it rotted and crumbled.nding his time with the horses. H e’s only here to give the rest of us a spot to hang our hats. how did you end up in your current position instead. and a better or braver commanding officer there never was. We weren’t about to quibble over our duties . while Snake was hired to cook?” “We drew lots. we ne eded work and His Grace gave it to us.

these aren’t p . “this makes it even more imperative that you do not bri ng me any two birds alike. “Your instructions. everything will be yellow.le lamp. But as I said. you’re onto something. I can lay my hands on the right birds. There are some details a gentleman hesitates to commit to writi ng.” And so would every other red-blooded man in town. And I like it.” “Of course.” interjected Gates.” “It was just a figure of speech. “were a bit vague. “Of course. would soon be bored if the bird in one cage was just like the next. Ar e you up to the task?” “Oh.” “Intentionally so.” Gates replied.” “Actually. You may even need to import specimens from abroad.” “No. I hadn’t considered cages . “Yes. ah. scoffing at the very notion. The le nses were perfect circles and had the effect of making his brown eyes appear the same shape. I desire creatures both beautiful and spirited.” Gates agreed.” Adrian’s mouth curved. each one designed to highlight a part icular specimen. I may have already done that. I am looking to acquire the most spectacular spec imens available. Then I would say our first task is to determine the proper location . delicate venture?” “Precisely. That brings us to the matter of the. and of course. In the cardinal’s cage—” “Red. I like it very much. Your Grace.” Adrian nodded with a small smile. That’s bloody brilliant. Adrian realized with satisfact ion. I know of a gallery in Soho that I may be able to acquire in a discreet fashion. “Yes. Then I am correct in assuming that this House of Birds you intend to e stablish is a very. straightening his wire-rimmed glasses. ah.” he said to Gates. all right. I can see it already.” “Of course. room-size cages.” continued the solicitor. we most definitely are not.” “I understand.” “I take it we are not talking about the sort of ordinary bird that any man with a few quid in his pocket might lay his hand on at any street corner?” “No. “Your. That and the feathery fringe of dark hair ringing his bald head alw ays gave Adrian the impression that he was conducting business with an owl. birds themselves. I think cages will provide exactly the sort of ambie nce necessary to set this establishment apart from every other birdhouse in Lond on. yes. ah. patrons. fl oor to ceiling. no. For instance. “Cages. Gates.” “Very well. no two are to be alike. “I received your note. I see where you’re going with this. in the canary cage. and that is the most delicate and critical part of the entire endeavor.

Had Colin seen him on Bond Street earlier? No. “I have another commitment. and they won’t come cheap. nodding encouragingly. The next thing you know you’re traipsing down Bond Street after her. “And now. . cooing over the latest silks and lugging packages like a pack mule. Both men we re at least one drink ahead of him.” “That’s decent of you. then a recital by somebody’s tooth-faced niece.igeons we’re talking about. but he also seldom sat o ut one of Colin’s. Rave. Once Adrian had caught up. “My thanks for the warning. First you allow you rself to be dragged to a ball.” Adrian flashed a smug smile. Adrian defiantly turned his horse not toward home. Cost is no object. engaged in a game of cards. “A ball?” inquired Colin. of my own free will. He’d spent the afternoon pacing and waiting.” “Not on your life. while the duchess remained locked in her room with a convenient headache. “Did I neglect to mention that I have gathered a most generous group of benefactors to fund the entire project? Set your traps. whose nearby establishment featured some of the most exquisite prostitutes in London. “Are you feeling all right?” “I feel fine. .” declared Will. if you gentlemen will excuse me . “You’re go ing to a ball? Of your own free will?” “Of course.” Colin grinned.” “Don’t you two think you’re a bit old for this sort of nonsense?” Adrian inquired with h is most patronizing air. Will?” Will clambered to his feet. his expression progressing from startled to amused. he had not been lugg ing any packages. “And so it begins.” He explained about the Torrington ball. Colin reached for his glass and emptied it.” Colin said. . rising along with Adrian. Both his friends stared at him.” Adrian responded.” Outside Gates’s office. Besides. Colin suggested a visit to Madame Loiselle.” Adrian eyed him suspiciously. The duchess desires a proper introduction into society and I decided it was the least I could do under the circumstances. “I hadn’t thought to attend th e Torringtons’ ball. He rarely initiated a jest. “It will also give me a chance to get a look at your bride with her eyes open. Gates .” snapped Adrian. How about you. but in the direction of his club. Thank God. Colin and Will were already at the club. Now it was her t urn to wait. gentlemen. but damned if I’m not suddenly feeling a yen for pickled quail eggs and a waltz. “Enjoy yourselves. He would have crowed about it straightaway if he had.” he retorted. “I think I could force myself to partake of a quail egg or two.

Chapter 7 “Duchess. In retrospect. Leah was unpredictable. He must remember at all times that his ulti mate goal was the duchess herself.“No. She smiled.” they replied in unison. No matter how uncomfortable things became however. Anything. . he would not react in any way that might jeopardize his campaign. and it had taken all of that to win the man’s unswerv ing loyalty. may I present Sir Colin Thornton?” The tall. that is. Adrian hoped that “collecting the duchess” was not going to present a pro blem. he realized he’d left her hanging for quite a while this evening. and she possessed a disconcerting tendency not to respond to anything the way a woman ought to. Or she might be waiting by th e door to tell him exactly what she thought of him. Where was the woman’s resentment at being kept waiting? Her indignation? Her God-g iven wifely wrath. “So then. He ought to know. and from his own orneriness countless times. He entered the house braced for anything. warm. Or t rust them. a knife in the back at least twice. a fact that Colin and Will would not fail to toss in his face . a very special present he couldn’t wait to open. And Leah was proving to be one damn surprise after another. laughing and sipping tea with one of the mo st cantankerous men ever dropped on earth. He’d saved Thorne fro m a military tribunal once. willing and consummated lik e no woman had ever been consummated before. How many times had he himself snickered at a husband in just such a humiliating predicament? Too many to count. she might have given up and gone to bed. Her hair was pinned up. Leah rose gracefully at the sight of him and he was swept by desire as swift and hot as it was untimely. revealing a slender throat. lean man by Raven’s side stepped forward and bowed. for pity’s sake? Not that he wanted her to be angry with him. He simply didn’t like surprises. S he might well have taken it in her head to go to the ball without him. gor geous shoulders and an absolutely perfect bosom.” said Colin. except for the sigh t of his wife seated in the kitchen. Any one of the three could p rove awkward in front of his all too easily amused companions. in his bed. On the ot her hand. apparently pleased to see him in spite of his unexplained absence. She was a confection wrapped in deep blue silk. “shall we go collect the duchess?” Privately. He had eyes that spa rkled like amber glass and a masterpiece of a grin.

” Leah replied. You are mine.” added Will. “I believe you and Mr.” He chuckled good-naturedly. Duchess?” Colin demanded. You r ease around a compliment suggests you encounter most exquisite creatures on a regular basis. “Some other time. his dark gaze seemed to say. taking Leah’s arm. “You hate to dance.” “Raven loves balls.” He tipped his head toward Raven.” Colin confided in a tone she didn’t trust.” drawled Colin.” he growled.” “Wouldn’t miss it for the world. beauty and intelligence. “Out of the question. gentlemen.” de clared Colin. Raven added. “You must have him tell you about the time he single-handedly brought the dancing to a complete halt at the Earl of Penwick’s birthday ball.” retorted Raven. it was as if no bargains existed between them. “Ah. “It is already promised to me. She’d counted on having time alone with Raven before they arrived at the ball. flattered and quite amazed by the novelty of being the center of s .” Leah smiled warmly and returned Will Grantley’s stammered greeting. Sir Colin. “Make haste. and yet c ould not help liking him immediately.” “Is that true.” His friend made a scoffing sound. if you’re still bent on coming with us. this is truly a pleasure. Leah decided as he pressed his lips to the back of her hand. “but I don’t know if I shall believe you.” he countered easily. sensual awareness ran through her. “May I be permitted to say that yo u are the most exquisite creature I have ever encountered? Certainly much more t han this lucky devil deserves. “Your Grace. as Leah hid her dismay over the fact that Raven’s friends would be accompanying them.” said Raven. Leah grinned. In a dry tone.A rascal. “You may say it.” “If you’re through flirting with my wife. More than ever she regretted not tel ling him everything at the start. and no compromises.” she told Colin. “I’m afraid I am. a rare and intoxicating combination.” said Colin. “I claim the second dance.” Leah turned her curious gaze on Raven. “perhaps we can be on our way. “Are you going to commit the ultimate social sin of dancing with your own husband?” She glanced at Raven. his expression magnificentl y arrogant. and I will dance with you when and where I p lease.” “And I the third. Grantley are already well acqua inted.” “Not anymore. “I will leave as soon as the Duchess promises me her first dance of the evening. “In that case. At that ins tant. his head tilted slightly back. and a shiver of pure.

” Her laughter was ringed with relief. surrendering everything. and now at last she was . she woul d be thoroughly enjoying herself.” “Really?” she said. Leah mused as he helped her with her black velv et wrap and then shepherded them all out the door. “I beg your pardon ?” “Social sin. hoping he couldn’t feel the nervous tremor that raced through her. Set well back from the s treet.” . “So. No matter how hard she tried to focus. except w hen the great iron gates were thrown open. It was all she could do to keep up her part of the conversa tion. Instinct warned that Rav en was not like any other man alive. thrown off balance by her own guilty conscience.o much male attention. She would slip from her bed a nd peer through the banister at the deliciously grown-up scene below. when he walked in and gave her a look that was more hungry lion than lazy tomcat . she had only longed to be part of it. Then. Seeing the stream of finely attired gentle men and ladies reminded Leah of the balls her parents had hosted when they all s till lived together in a big house near Hyde Park. to receive gues ts arriving in their carriages. Why. a large courtyard provided a buffer from the noise of Picadilly. shamelessly maneuvering to claim the seat beside her. He kept his hand on her as they entered the carriage. It was a dangerous game she was playing. Leah shivered. and sent a steady stream of warm tingles c oursing through her. her thoughts were drawn to the man beside her.” said Raven as he led her across the crowded dance floor in a ballroom with a m agnificent high gilt ceiling and burgundy silk-sheathed walls. . “how does it feel t o be steeped in social sin?” Leah stumbled. He sat so close. its heat and weight causing a pleasant whirling in her stomach. They were not the only late arrivals. . as n ow. The difference w as that back then. as they were tonight. The Torrington home was grand even by London standards. and that to become involved with him would mean. as if he were not the one responsible for their being late in the first p lace. Isn’t that how Colin described the act of dancing with your own husband ?” “Oh. “I hadn’t noticed. and everything she’d secretly hoped for when she’d chosen to wear this dress. “I suppose we are being dreadfully bo ring.” grumbled Raven. His hand rested possessively on the small of her back. the air around her was filled with laughter and excitement. “Provided there are three dances remaining by the time we finally arrive. to the scent and heat and overwhelmingly masculine allure of him. that. He really was an impossible man. his hard thigh pressed against hers through the layers of silk and lace.” “Not judging by the amount of attention we are attracting. sooner or later. if not for the proverbial ax hovering above her outstretched neck. The sensation was not unlike what she’d felt a few moments earlier.

” “Hang Colin.” he said. madame. gaping all around and dancing with my husband. “Well?” he said eventually. And fra nkly. “You didn’t notice that every head turned as we walked past? Or that. the same way she was? No. you sound jealous. excruciatingly aware of the speculative glances they were drawing and the hushed voices that seemed to ripple around them like a whir lpool. “Right here.At least she had tried not to notice. with just enough of a suggestive edge to merit repeating to every person in the room. to pull away. at l east half the people on this dance floor are stumbling over their own feet tryin g to get a closer look at you?” He did not sound at all pleased that his new bride was the object of such intens e scrutiny. . I’m sure they’re all staring and thinking what an abs olute country bumpkin I am. where you belong. It only added to her anxiety to meet all t hose curious gazes and wonder what nasty thoughts and questions lurked behind th em.” He shot her a sardonic smile. “Why.” She glanced around uncertainly. and that she had hidden it from him when they struck their bargain. “I imagine I was too busy being dazzled by my first London ball to notice. “You. Soon everyone would be saying what a devoted bridegroom the Duke of Raven was. making her breath catch. “What do you want?” she asked. he surprised her a second time by taking her hand and pr eventing her from leaving the dance floor. regarding her with mock reproach. not wanting. and Leah tucked away the pos sibility of what it might mean. intending to examine it at some future time. His gaze locked with hers as the orchestra began another waltz. It was not possible. . T he growing gaggle of lies and pretenses she had to keep track of made it nearly impossible. You’re mine. that the half of the dance fl oor I was referring to—the male half—are not looking at you in that dress and thinki ng anything nearly that innocent. And who could blame her? It w as difficult enough to think clearly when her head was swirling from his heat.” She gazed up at him with astonishment. Was that his intent? Was he simply playing the role she had demanded of him? Or was it something more? Was it possible that he felt what she felt when they touc hed? And that he was merely pretending to be pretending. A man of Raven’s habits and experience did not go all tin gly inside at the touch of a country spinster with more imagination than sense. “But Sir Colin .” was all he said.” “Don’t be absurd. certainly far closer than a woman intent on avoiding sca ndal should allow. Raven. When the music stopped. Leah didn’t even want to think about what his reaction would be when h e learned the real reason for it. “I assure you. It was she who was confusing fantasy with reality.” His husky whisper was just loud enough to be heard by those standing near. I wish you hadn’t told me. “Bo re me some more.” Leah’s pulse raced as he pulled her even closer than before. The irritation in his gruff voice was unmistakable. closer than was proper. But Leah found herself not able. “Have you exhausted your . even now.

. “Infuriating. trying to relax her shoulders. of course. “I have a hunch that boring will never be one of the words I’ll choose to describe our time together.” She glanced around.” “What words will you choose?” she asked impulsively.” he told her with a rueful laugh. Infuriating. Surprising.” she argued.” “Why. instead of this curious. Surprising.” “Why?” He moved his hand on her back. she thought.” she replied .” she said finally. but a crowded dance floor was hard ly the place for confessions and explanations.” “Very funny. So much for trying to relax. to bore you. “You have to admit our situation does involve a certain amount of risk. “Challenging.” “You never know. when she would be safely home in Baumborough. And dangerous. And I am not stiff. The prospect should have filled her with anticipation.” “Why? It’s been a while since I made an appearance at one of these things. “Challenging. Am I succeeding?” “Frankly. “Not at all. He shrugged. Le . “Think about it. Leah thought.” “Dangerous? In what way?” In every way. as I imagine a good wife ought to.” she echoed.self flirting with those worthless friends of mine and now have nothing left to say?” Nothing to say? She had plenty to say to him. looking back on her ordeal. “I wouldn’t put any thing past some of these people.” “Memorable.” “And those instructions would be . but last I knew the ton didn’t infiltrate the crowd with lip-readers. . As you should be. “Why do you ask?” He spun her around with effortless grace. “I’ll settle for that. no. “Merely c autious. I admit. “You mean because it is all a charade?” “Shh.” Leah gazed around with barely concealed suspicion. unnamed longing. “Don’t even say that word in public. in ways she hadn’t dreamed existed before he charged in to her life and taught her that she didn’t know herself nearly as well as she thou ght.” “Any particular reason?” She quickly brought her anxious gaze back to meet his. turning the word over in her mind and smiling. And memorable. “I suppose because you suddenly went so stiff I felt as if I were dancing with the corpse you once accused me of wishing you to be.” “How will you describe it?” The question directed her thoughts to the future. I was simply following your instructions.

ah, would it really be so bad if we said the hell with it and abandoned the char ade?” “Bad?” Leah was appalled, fearing he meant to renege on their deal. “It would be worse than bad. It would be a nightmare. It would ruin everything.” Suddenly she felt as if she were the one dancing with a corpse. “By everything,” he said in a voice as rigid as his arms, “I assume you’re thinking of y our purpose in coming to London.” “Of course. What else would I be thinking of?” “What indeed?” he muttered. “You can relax. Far be it from me to ruin your sister’s pros pects of landing herself a plump pigeon.” “I prefer to think of it as ensuring my sister’s ability to meet a decent, honorable man and to be wed in a church with flowers and music and a proper ceremony.” “The way you would have wished to be wed, is that it?” “Yes.” She caught herself. “I mean no. Oh, you make everything so difficult, I don’t kno w what I mean.” “Perhaps I can help. It’s clear that in spite of your claim not to be a romantic, yo u are as susceptible to legalized sentimentality and empty promises as every oth er member of your sex.” “And it is equally clear that you are as given to cynicism and self-serving prevar ication as every member of yours.” “Smile when you say that,” he advised. “Our audience may not read lips, but they’ll cert ainly recognize a lovers’ spat when they witness one.” He waited until she managed to shape her lips into a tight smile before bending his head to nuzzle her. The small, negligent gesture incited in her a rush of wa rmth that quickly exploded into something more perilous when he pressed closer a nd swirled his tongue in her ear. The touch was hot and wet and so audacious tha t if not for the way her knees were buckling, Leah would not have believed he ha d done it. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded. “Convincing our audience that I’m mad about you. That was our agreement, was it not?” “No. Our agreement called for tasteful displays of affection.” “Tasting you is exactly what I was doing.” “You’re impossible,” she snapped. “And you’re delicious. And just for the record,” he added, his smile filled with lazy satisfaction, “that is how I brought the dancing to a halt at old Penwick’s birthday ball. Of course, the trick is that it was Penwick’s wife I was tonguing at the ti me and not my own. Now where were we before I gave in to temptation?” It galled Leah that he could be so nonchalant while she was still light-headed. “Of course,” he continued. “Now I remember. We were discussing your secret longing for a church wedding with all the trimmings. Tell me, Duchess, did you have a groom

picked out along with the flowers? Is there perhaps a gentleman farmer eagerly awaiting your return?” “If there were, Your Grace, you can be assured he would not have to render me unco nscious to get me to the altar.” “Ah, ah,” he chided. “Smile. Much better. Has it occurred to you that perhaps I prefer you unconscious?” “Less of a challenge?” “Less of a shrew.” “Lord, you two are sickening.” They both turned to see Colin Thornton beside them. “I swear, you haven’t taken your eyes off each other since the music started.” Grinnin g at Raven, he added, “But if you thought that would discourage me from cutting in , you’re mistaken. She may be your wife, but she’s promised to me for this dance.” He held out his hand. “May I?” “She’s all yours,” Raven replied, releasing her. Too abruptly, Leah thought peevishly, and after taking such pains to warn her to smile and keep up appearances. “That was easier than I expected,” remarked Colin. His arm circled her loosely, with far more deference than Raven’s and, she noted with irritation, with none of the same impact. Though to be truthful, she wasn’t sure which fate would be worse—respon ding indiscriminately to any man’s touch or coming alive only to Raven’s. “Though I mu st say he didn’t look too happy to share you,” Colin pointed out. “On the contrary,” she assured him, “I believe he was very happy to be rid of me. It’s m e he is not pleased with.” “What? A lovers’ quarrel already?” “Certainly not,” she replied indignantly, then realized she probably ought not appea r offended by the suggestion that she and Raven were lovers. “It was simply a slig ht difference of opinion.” “Well, fear not, Duchess, you shall find me a most agreeable partner. In fact, I h ereby make it my life’s purpose—well, at least for this evening—to agree with your eve ry utterance.” Leah was amused in spite of herself. Noting her smile, he furrowed his brow. “You’re giggling. You don’t trust me?” “Should I?” “Probably not. No, make that definitely not. A woman should always require a man t o earn her trust. So go ahead.” “I beg your pardon?” “Go ahead. Put me to the test. Say something, anything and I shall concur, no matt er how ridiculous. In fact,” he said, flashing an infectious smile as he whirled h er enthusiastically, “the more ridiculous it is, the more sickeningly agreeable I shall be.” Leah shook her head, hardly in the mood for games. Then she caught sight of Rave

n among the onlookers at the edge of the dance floor. He was watching, glowering really, so fiercely she wondered if it was the power of his gaze that had drawn her attention to him in the first place. With a defiant toss of her head, she directed her most dazzling smile at her par tner. “Let me see. I have it ... the moon is made of green cheese.” He nodded. “And always has been. Would Your Grace care to step into the garden wit h me and confirm that fact?” “You’re incorrigible,” Leah said, laughing with genuine enjoyment. “Not totally,” he protested. “For example, a totally incorrigible man would fail to se ize this opportunity to apologize for his role in your recent marriage . . . whe reas I do, and most sincerely. Can you ever forgive me, Duchess?” “Of course, I forgive you.” He immediately stepped on her toe and uttered a quick apology. “You forgive me? Ju st like that?” His expression was such a mixture of hope and disbelief that Leah h ad to laugh again. “Yes, just like that. What did you expect?” “Torture, a couple of spins on the rack perhaps, tar and feathers at the very leas t. Seriously, most women of my acquaintance would let me dangle at the end of my apology until they’d extracted their pound of flesh.” “Then the women of your acquaintance are far more talented than I, for I would hav e no idea how to make you dangle, nor what to do with you once I had you there.” He drew back slightly and studied her as if not quite knowing what to make of he r remark. Probably because it was so blatantly inane, she thought. She hardly ne eded to underscore her lack of sophistication in such matters. She added, “However, perhaps gentleman-dangling is a skill I will acquire now that I am in town.” “I hope not, Duchess,” replied Colin, his smile rueful. “I sincerely hope not.” By the time the dance ended, she had agreed to call him by his given name and ha d impulsively extended him the same privilege. And she had decided that her firs t instinct was right; Colin Thornton was a thoroughly likable man. And loyal to a fault. Contrive though she did, he refused to reveal any further details about Raven’s dance floor spectacle with Lady Penwick. He insisted it was because he li ked his own tongue exactly where it was, thank you very much, but Leah was convi nced his silence had less to do with fear of her husband than with friendship. Will Grantley appeared to claim her as soon as the music ended. The next dance w as a cotillion, which limited conversation. He still managed to make it clear he was concerned for her and that she should feel free to call on him if she ever needed him for anything. “Not that Rave’s a bad sort, not at all,” he assured her at one point, when the intric ate steps of the dance brought them side by side. “Just difficult. Sometimes, when things don’t go precisely as he thinks they ought to—-” “Meaning his way,” she interjected drily. “Meaning his way,” Will concurred ruefully. “Then he can be like a great lumbering bea

” “Yes. I wouldn’t say never.” Will countered with a blushing smile. he’s never had anyone he cared enough about to be posse ssive of.r with his hand caught in a beehive. because you asked if Raven is possessive. looking trapped. Th at’s twelve that she owned up to. Privately. She had known of Raven’s reputation for phi landering. Leah was breathing hard and her cheeks were flushed.” he said. because it was so lo ng ago and Rave was so young. intrigued. One of whom he admitted to mauling publicly and the other had obviously played a significant part in his past.” agreed Leah. “I’ve got it.” Privately she thought that if anything proved her point. When it ended. just barely twenty-one. But this is different.” observed Will. That certai nly conjured up some scorching images in her mind. Unless you count Charlotte Bonnaire. that whole situation was such a blo ody mess. . that I never put much credence in anything Rave s aid or did back then. Colin and I always thought she’d shaved off a few years along the way. A mysterious older woman and a randy. “Look at how this ma rriage has turned out. He’d give you anything if you needed. curbing the frustration that made her want to gr ab him and shake him until he told her everything about Charlotte Bonnaire. so eager to please that it did not occur to him that he was leaving her alone in a room full of strange . “You’re warm. Till now. “Is he the possessive type?” “I can’t really say. the shirt off his back and all th at.” “But . and do a lot of damage without meaning to. but I don’t think Rave would care for it if I went off alone with yo u. The final moments of the dance had them moving in intertwining circles and swing ing rapidly from one partner to the next. who had a good twelve years on him if she had a day. Or that i mpulsiveness never leads to anything but regrets. For once. Oh. self-indulgent young nobleman.” Hi s eyes brightened. she regretted the v ivid fertility of her own imagination. At any rate. “What’s that?” “I asked who Charlotte was?” “No one. Will blinked rapidly. “I don’t even know why I brought up her name. isn’t it? You’re not a shirt. “Well. but apparently hordes of nameless women were easier for a wife—even a temporary wife—to overlook than two with names. and green as anything. which I don’t. appearing more out of breath than she was. begging your pardon. and he’s not. especially not with h is things. you’re his wife. How about a cold drink? There’s no harm in that. after all. that did. just look. esp ecially compared to her. .” “You don’t have to convince me that the man is given to acting on impulse.” he instructed.” Her mother’s fate had taught her all she needed to know about that. ri ght. In fact. of course. “I’d offer you so me fresh air.” “None that I can see. “I’ll return straightawa y with your drink.” “Who’s Charlotte?” asked Leah.” “Why not?” she asked.” Leah’s protest faded as he bounded into the crowd. I know he wouldn’t care for it at all. She was still struggling to subdue her imagination as Will led her to an open sp ace at the edge of the dance floor. “Wait here.

her season would not hold much promise regardless of who was in town. a mean-spirited old cro ne with a heart as bad as her breath. fixing a smile in place in an attempt to a ppear confident and carefree. wrinkled-up meddler withou t a kind or loyal bone in her body.” said her aunt. a servant with a talent for the fiddle. “Remarkable surprise.. judging b y the pucker of her aunt’s colorless lips. she turned to greet the very last person she wished to deal with this evening. She had contacted t hem only out of a sense of propriety. “you had the effrontery to come after all. What on earth can it serve but to dredge up a lot of ugline ss and spoil my Jenny’s season?” Leah had not seen her cousin Jenny in years. don’t you agree? I don’t think I’ve ever heard finer music for danci ng. “What do you hope to gain by coming here?” the older woman demanded. a sorry excuse for an adventuress who was in over her head and sorry as sin that she had ever had the bright idea to come— “Leah?” The stern female voice was instantly recognizable. Trying not to wince. I t would hardly do for them to hear from others that she and Chrissie were in tow n. My only interest is in providing my sister with the same opportunity you are affording Jenny. a chan .rs.” Wonderful? Nice? Pleasant? She’d rather sm other herself than go that far. They were her closest family. then yes. Not that she had expected an offer of help or hospitality. Aunt Millicent.” Leah replied evasively. on a good night. she told herself. the o nly one she could envision was Raven’s. girl. Whispering. She felt a lon g way from everything that was familiar and safe. Ironically. Aunt Millicent. fr iendless wallflower. however. resided in the elegant—and expansi ve—London mansion that had once been home to her and Chrissie. ogling strangers. desperately hoping to see a friendly face. Suddenly Leah felt a very long way from Baumbo rough and the assembly room dances. This is such a . And. but if she at all resembled the sul len. “It is a marvelous ball. Serves me right f or wishing for a familiar face. having deep roots in both the unhappiest days of her life and some of her worst nightmares. the present Earl and Countess of Aldwick. but your presence in London. to be completely truthful. freckled monster she’d been at seven.” She managed to maintain a civil tone in spite of her recollection of th e curt reply to a letter she sorely regretted writing. an overbearing. and doing her best not to look like an anxious. where music was provided by a single pianofo rte and.. The devil you know. You know very well I was not referring to the ball. she had hoped that the advance warning would enable her to avoid the unpleasant scene that was about to take place.” “If by after all you mean after your less than enthusiastic response to the news t hat I was planning to bring Christiana to town for the season. “A pleasurable evening.” “So. though her aunt and u ncle. thought Leah. “I have no wish to spoil anything for anyone. a woman whose dour expression perfectly expressed her outlook on life. after all. The last thing she wanted was for R aven to find her embroiled in a heated airing of the family’s dirty laundry. She glanced around. I suppo se I did. “Hello.” “Don’t be cheeky. still inte nt on keeping the conversation cordial and ending it as soon as possible. She refrained from saying so.

” she declared pointedly. Though I am a great believer that blood will tell. Caution and civility gave w ay to the need to strike back for all the slights and insults that had been infl icted over the years on Chrissie and herself. to a man who tolerates my willfulness every bit as w ell as he handles being married to the daughter of a whore. “You do not b elong here. “You brag of this? As if your mother’s l egacy is something to be proud of?” “Indeed. leaving her children to fend for themselves. I am married. “As is your own.” She ran a contemptuous gaze over Leah. but she was ki nd and loving . her lip curled with distaste. but obviously I shall have to be more dir ect.ce to meet a suitable young man and make a happy life for herself. “I very much belong here. You always did. Why else would you have wed i n secret? Without asking permission of your uncle?” Leah gazed at her incredulously. the sister-in-law she thou ght was her friend. She was not perfect by any means.” “I’m pleased to hear that. I thought I had made the situation clear in my letter. “On the contrary. and she never sought to better herself at the expense of oth ers. Perhaps you will avoid making the same mistakes she did. And in the end it was she who chose to take her own life.” her aunt spat.” said her aunt. Without friend or family—” “You had your mother. and on their mother before that. .” The powder-caked trenches that fifty year s of scowling had etched in her cheeks deepened. She betrayed your father and dragged all our good names through the mud. “Husband? What are you talking about?” “It’s true.” “The way you and my uncle kept me there even after his death?” “For your own good.” “Your sister’s life is back in Baumborough. if you can find a man w ho’ll tolerate your willfulness. I shall never forget anything that happened back then. and now mine as well. Have you forgotten that?” “Your mother was the one guilty of betrayal. and it shall be Christiana’s for as long as she desires. Banished. even as a girl. . Aunt. No gentleman of consequence will marry the daughter of a whore. “Did you honestly expect that I would ask permiss ion from an uncle who cares so little for my happiness and well-being that for y ears our only contact has been through solicitors?” .” Her aunt’s eyes narrowed to slits. and Christiana onl y seven. I am proud of my mother.” It felt to Leah as if a dam had broken in her heart. Who knows what further disgrace you might have brought on your self and the rest of the family?” “Disgrace? I was little more than a child when I was sent away. Have you forgotten th at?” “No.” she retorted.” The countess’s ample chest heaved with anger. “I suppose I should not be surprised to hear you take her part. Your father was wise to send you away to Baumborough and keep you there. “You have her look about you. Let your si ster seek a husband at home and be content. “My mother died within a year of being betrayed by you. since this is my husband’s ho me. and you too.

if memory serves. May I present my aunt. . please do me the honor of introducing your friend. frustrated that this woman still had the power to hurt her. my love. “Is that really the reason for your s ecrecy? Or were you simply reluctant to have us meet this new husband of yours?” H er eyes brightened with nasty anticipation. . as if she were th e answer to prayers he didn’t dare to pray. Sweetheart. Ignoring the countess. . on decisions I am capable of making for myself. There would be time to deal with that later. . Raven smiled at her. darling.” she countered. I . A shipping venture.” The insolent yet. “Tell me. bowing. what sort of man would wed a woman whose own connections keep her at a distance?” “This sort. She didn’t even stop to wonder how much he had heard and what he must think o f her. gently. “That’s two too many.” y wife gets her beauty and charm. adoringly.” “It was only two dances. he added.” said Raven. “I’ve missed you. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.The countess sniffed.” she replied. . you say? I believe I’ve done st.” her aunt stuttered.” He glanced at the countess with a smile that flashed l ike a drawn saber in the light from the chandelier overhead. but his manner was impeccable. she felt absurdly happy.” Locking gazes with Leah. . “Aunt. “The Earl of Aldwick is a very busy man.” “Of course .” he murmured.” “I . “Remind me never to let you out of my sight for so long again. but kept her gaze riveted on h er aunt as she continued. At the moment she wanted onl y to savor the look of complete and utter shock on her aunt’s face. Leah. “Again.” “And I am a busy woman—” “Busy with what?” interrupted her aunt.” The countess’s round chin lifted in challenge. “Aldwick. the Duke of Raven.” she could never conjure up such a perfect scena rio. “I beg your pardon. and even though Leah knew it was all f or show. I got carried away. leaving no married. and Leah thought that if she lived to be a hundred and wrote a million “little books. “I am far too busy to seek approval from those whose opinions do not matter. madam. lifting her hand and running his lips lightly over the back of it. a natural gift for ingratiation overcoming her shoc . at her side. .” Chapter 8 Raven was there. this is my husband. “Those little books of yours?” “Among other things. the Countess of Aldwick?” She was a ware of the flicker of surprise in his dark eyes. “I’ve wondered where m curve of his lips said he wondered doubt what sort of man Leah had business with your husband in the pa The countess nodded eagerly.

I was not ready to share her with others. dear little Christiana.” he said to Leah.” she said. “I shall have to consider renewing those dealings in light of our new connection. this was heady wine indeed. She craned her neck to look around the room. “Thank you. “He’s right here somewhere. “Send a card.” But not nearly as extensive as the Duke of Raven’s. Your Grace.” murmured Raven. We should love to see her too.” “Some other time.” h e said. The earl has extensive holdings in shipping and tra nsport. To you both. “I was just scolding my dear niece fo r not informing us of her intent to wed. “I’m sure Leah will fill me in on all the pertinent details. I’m sure you have. I’m still not.k.” instructed Raven. so that her uncle could see her off pro perly. yes. Few men did. and that.” he explained. Come with me. and that will occupy a good portion of her time until her sister’s arrival. reaching for Leah’s hand once mor e. accounted for her aunt’s sudden about-face. “Send your card.” . Leah could sense the whe els in her head spinning in search of a way to turn this development to her adva ntage.” The countess plucked at Leah’s sleeve as they began to move awa y. “Perhaps we could call on you.” “Oh yes.” she persisted. that is. The gradual unclenching of her muscles made it clear how tense sh e had been. . “Y ou did mention hosting a soiree. “But your uncle . didn’t you darling?” Leah nodded.” He continued to ease Leah away. as well as his rank. Ah. “At Raven House? How absolutely fabulous.” Leah sighed with relief as they finally broke free and walked arm in arm through the ballroom. “Leah is intent on transforming Raven House as com pletely as she has me. Perhaps my Jenny and Christiana could both—” “Perhaps. so if you’ll excuse us. and her aunt simply smiled as if she’d been blessed instead of dismissed. “A soiree?” exclaimed the countess. strategically turning his shoulder to block her advanc e.” Her aunt beamed shamelessly at her. “Yes. and I kn ow he’ll want to extend his best wishes to you.” “And I’m sure you shall. Raven saved her the trouble.” “I’m afraid the fault is entirely mine.” interrupted Raven. in a voice that made her feel as though she was wrapped in black velvet. . “I am not a patient man once I have found what I desire most.” “I swear I detest that woman with every last fiber of my being.” “Of course. I refused to wait for banns and invitations and all that nonsense to make her my own. “My pleasure. with the countess trailing. Besides.

It’s our family creed. but just the sight of it makes me . this tiny V” —he ran a fingerti p between her eyebrows—“that forms right here whenever you’re worried or upset. Never surrender. I assure you that every one of the people staring at us so intently does. almost bewilde red expression. Whatever your reason for rescuing me. makes me contemp late doing things I wouldn’t otherwise. . “Not technically. because I’ve never before been inspired to rescue anyone.” he added.” “I’m also not a Devereau. “And enough to know you needed rescuing. “Glad to hear it. The music continued. in private. . until she remembered what a consummate actor he was. and we can deb ate that later. but even the couples on the dance floor gazed steadi . “Don’t tease. weak .” In response to his quirked brow. Duchess. I can’t explain why.” “Sweeten me up? Whatever for?” “To get you into bed with me . it’s because of this. Raven.” Leah laughed. in spite of our agreement. all right. You are my wife. save one. Her smile turned pensive. “It really doe sn’t matter.” “Then why did you do it tonight?” “The truth?” He studied her as if assessing whether or not she could take it. “You mean run away? You disapp oint me. I would say.” “You most certainly are.” She gazed up at him. They were being star ed at.” He took hold of her arm to prevent her from moving. slightly breathless. she added. Now I jus t want to go home.“With good reason. indignant. Never retrea t.” he declared in a soft.” she groused.” Leah made an impatient sound. Because a Devereau never runs.” Leah barely had to shift her gaze to see that he was right. I didn’t take you for a coward. What really made you do it?” He stopped walking and shook his head. I am grateful to you.” “I wanted to sweeten you up and that seemed as good a way as any.” “I am not a coward.” She went cold inside. and even if you do not fully understand the significance of t hat. “Why? How much did you hear?” “Enough to decide that the only way I’d do business with your uncle again is to comm ission a sinking ship and put her on it. “If you must know.. .” she said. “No one has ever come to my rescue before.” “Then we’re even. Damsels in distress are definitely not my weakness. implacable to ne. gazing at her with an odd.. “Of course. . “Oh. “and a Devereau. don’t tell me the truth if you don’t want to. technically and every other way.

“Better. she looked at him skeptically.” “Odd. “It mus t be a cultivated taste. “No?” He unhurriedly tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.” Leah forced herself to take her time smoothing the folds of his white silk neckc loth and tucking it into his waistcoat.” he coached. The fact that the contact was intended for the be nefit of their audience did not stop it from sending a shiver through her. “Straighten my neckcloth. she thought. Duchess. touch me like a wife.” “What?” she asked. but what about what she had to say? Tha t might soon bring this whole foolhardy charade crashing down on her. “Just do it.” “You should have thought of that before you decided to remain married to a man lik e me. she lifted her hands and adjusted his already impeccably arranged ne ckcloth.” he observed. This evening’s exhibition is all yours. “Not like that. utter confidence that I am yours and nothing anyone says will change that. “Stand here and let them all talk about us for the rest of the evening?” “They shall talk about us for the rest of the evening—and then some—whether we stand h ere or not. “And one I have no desire to acquire. I don’t. her earlier gratitude wearing off. Hypocrites that they are. “Fuss w ith it and do it slowly. as if waiting to see what would happen next. “Confidence.” she reminded him.ly in the direction of the shadowy alcove where they stood. letting her fingertips briefly trace the swirling pattern of the brocade.” He bent his head closer to hers with a seductive smile that would l ead an observer to conclude he was saying something much more provocative. I’m simply going to teach you to use it to your advantage. spinning on her heel. “Now I know I want to leave.” she said. and there is a unique thrill in denying them that opportunity.” she retorted. “That’s it? Appearing c onfident and fussing with your neckcloth—that is your magic formula for undoing an y damage done by my aunt’s words?” . I don’t feel thrilled. that’s the message I want you to convey. For God’s sake. Sheer.” “You promised to be good. Giving the cloth a final pat.” That was all well and good. managing to turn the smal l gesture into a lover’s caress. incredulous.” Hesitantly. “I am being good. they would simply prefer to do it behind o ur backs.” “What do you want to do?” Leah demanded hotly. but wary. not a damn surgeon. He spun her back.” “And exactly how do I do that?” She was intrigued. “Too bad.

” “Never surrender. “Tell me. what did you think of this evening’s e ntertainment?” “I’m afraid we arrived too late to enjoy it. fence and shoot with the best of them. My musical gifts rival that of a common hedgehog. “Did I say Rome?” he asked. In Rome. Dreadfully. “Don’t be so modest. even solicitous response.” With a low chuckle. No. Shall we dance?” he invited. “Consider yourself blessed.” agreed Lady Meredith.” Lowering her voice and rolling her eyes. who smiled and nodded in return. No. “Seriously. They were bowing to an iron fist in a velvet glove. they encountered Sir Arthur Gidding and his wif e. of course.“Nothing can ever undo that. he nodded at a number of gentlemen. while his expression remained all innocence. “I am serious. offering his arm.” he returned carelessly. sweetheart. I detest the flute even when the musician is capable. I resisted all of my governess’s efforts to un cover some musical talent in me. Several times he paused to make introductions. I’d soon be dismissing my valet if I were you. No doubt they believed. Before reaching the dance floor. As they passed through the crowd. The Duchess’s country estate i s so close to the border that if you miss her drive you’ll be issued bagpipes and asked to don a kilt.” Lady Meredith glanced at him sharply. and letting my bride handle those duties. Raven gave her arm an affectionate squeeze.” Leah glanced at him.” Leah replied. she added. arguing or offering denials. Raven. as s he did. that Raven would not hesitate to remove the glove if necessary. one corner of his mouth curving into a devious smile.” “I fear you will have a long wait. Duchess. Perhaps you’ll permit me to entertain you by shooting a cork from a wine bottle at thirty paces?” Lady Meredith looked as if Leah had offered her a bite of lemon. when will you play for us?” It took Leah a moment to reply. unamused by the reference to Leah’s performa nce a few moments earlier. She felt a burst of panic. I adore the pianoforte however and cannot wait to hear you play. on second thought the hedgehog probably has a better ear. Lady Meredith. “malicious gossip is usually indelible. don’t be modest.” “As in never retreat. “I say.” he went on. I can ride. though I was open to other lessons. suddenly understanding the reason for his grip on her elbow . The only wa y to retaliate is to drive the scandalmongers mad by showing them that nothing t hey say or do troubles you in the least. “I meant Scotland. “But—” “Least of all. distracted as she was by the pressure Raven was exerting on her elbow. Sir Arthur gently poked his elbow in Raven’s ribs and in a manly aside said. whom she recalled had also been present at her unannounced arrival.” “Yes. Leah was e ncouraged by everyone’s polite. but she was not fooled. “Governess? But R aven said you were taught to play by a master. “Lady Torrington’s niece played the flute.” .

” “Yes.” he murmured when they finally escaped to the dance floor. and you know that no one can surpass you when it comes to imitating the lead judge’s lisp. I insist you do that part for us. but before she could say anything more . B y a master horseman. “One good rescue deserves another. help me convince the D uchess to share her story with you. Besides. why couldn’t you have boas ted about some talent I actually possess?” “Because.. why don’t you tell Sir Arthur and Lady Meredith a bout the time you took first place for jumping at the Baumborough Fair . “But really . Raven. “So you were taught to play in Scotla nd? Not Rome?” “Did I say play?” Raven asked. aghast. “I can’t carry a tune to save myself. “I meant to say ride. so . “That’s a good one.” “Me? You are without question the master of the lisp. in a storm. You appeared so frail. Sweetheart. “Gidding. you tell it much better than I do. “Isn’t she adorable when she’s shy?” he asked the others. “Though I was c oncerned that I may have strained credibility a bit with my praise for your sing ing.” “You told people I could sing?” she asked. “Thank you. “I wouldn’t dream of stealing your thund er.Sir Arthur laughed heartily. I always say. “I didn’t know of any. but co uld not quite tell where it was coming from. First place? In a storm? He was mad to put her on t he spot this way. his eyes bright.. .” He took her left hand in his as they circled each other. Raven. “you know how I detest tal king about myself.” His gaze locked with hers.” Lady Meredith’s nose wrinkled slightly as her narrowed gaze slice d between Leah and Raven. no less?” Leah turned her head slowly. “Oh. shaking his head.” she said. which see med to suffice. please darling. his self-effacing smile beguiling i n the extreme..” “Thirty. Raven’s arm came around her in a spontaneous hug.” he reminded her in a dry tone.” . For pity’s sake.” Naturally Sir Gidding picked up his cue and Leah was left no gracious alternativ e but to extricate Raven from the hole he’d dug himself. . She hurriedly made up som e nonsense about jumping hedges with thunder rumbling in the distance.” She shot him a beseeching look. delicate. Don’t tell me you haven’t demons trated it for your friends before this?” She shifted her gaze to the other couple. as if she caught the scent of something rotten. The Duchess was taught to ride in Scotland. Can you?” he asked nonchalantly. her smile privately wicked. to be precise. how was I to guess you drive as hard a bargain as any Cheapside merchant and can shoot the cork from a bottle at twenty paces. taught by a master? In Rome? Wasn’t that going a bit overboard?” “Not at all. most amusing.. “Like a nightingale.

In a perfect world . Quite apropos.” They danced and then there were more introductions. Will eventually appeared with a cup of warm punc h and profuse apologies for taking so long. . “I should have known. . . For Chrissie’s sake. yet you’re willing to let the family home go to ruin a round you. “In the meantime.” he said with that maddening casual air o f his. to an ancient Irish earl who seemed to know everything about everyone in the room and had her laughing out loud as they danced. . Of course. don’t you think?” “Eerily so.” “Impossible. “Then whose—” “Mine. discrepancies?” “Without question. So it would appear we have to decide on future strategy. Do we continue to make this up as we go along.” “In the most cerebral sense of the word. we avoid any prolonged conversations with others. just the sight o f him a surprising source of comfort and reassurance. in spite of its inauspicious beginnings. Raven smiled that smile. At her hostess’s invitation. “And exactly when did you . she would have preferred to triumph on her own. “I was hoping yo u’d say that. too powerful.“Thirty paces. to be trifled with.” “Tonight. “Remember the Devereau creed: Never retreat. . she was willing to take social acceptance and respectability on any terms. or devote some time to getting better a cquainted?” “We get better acquainted.” “Do you think Sir Arthur and his wife will mention our little .” “I never said they were my ancestors’ words. trying to ignore the melt ing sensation inside.” she replied without hesitation. and survived.” Leah sighed.” he declared. She had step ped into the lion’s den. I find it curious that you diligently adh ere to your ancestors’ words. braved its bared teeth and snapping jaws. but she’d learned a long time ag o that this was far from a perfect world. Raven was by her side. Leah viewed the Torrington s’ impressive collection of antiquities and then found herself in demand as a dance partner by a variety of gentlemen. she knew full well that her success was entirely because of Raven. though they were careful not to be drawn into conversation. from the young son of a viscount who clasped her with sweaty palms an d gazed worshipfully at her the entire time.” She regarded him with increasing suspicion.” she pointed out. too ruthless. that one that turned her spine to jelly. A nd through it all.” “Never listen to reason is more like it. or hovering close by. never surrende r. first to find the refreshments and t hen to find her. a man too rich. The evening was a success.

but toyed with it for his own amusement. An avalanche of innuendos from friends and foes alike is something e ntirely different.” “Are you afraid. “Since it appears you overheard more of what my aunt had to say than you led me to believe—” “Please.” “I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean. wouldn’t y ou? It is easy to be direct and forthright when you don’t have to be afraid of the consequences.” “Come now.” she said finally. on his own terms. “Yes. no hint of either comfort or reassurance i n his manner now.” A small. Duchess. I would prefer to hear the truth fro m you. but pr epared for a siege. No. the bench where his full-of-surprises wife perched nervously.” “God. you had to expect that your marriage. “Very well.” She looked away for a second. Mostly because I refused to listen. and so rel axed that she was caught completely off guard when Raven settled himself in the seat opposite her and leaned forward.” “Why?” “To find out if I married a liar.” he growled. my interest was aroused more by the intense scrutiny and whispers which followed wherever we went this evening. Leah?” . would create a stir. rueful smile lifted one corner of her mouth. Wounded innocent or skilled opportunist? Which was she? He was curious to find o ut.” “What did your friends tell you about me?” “Nothing. but content with her progress that evening. as if his steady gaze was a sun too hot to star e at for long.” “A stir? Yes. especially one so sudden and unor thodox. I would hardly give credence to anything that spilled from that woman’s mou th. He’d app roached this as he would any battle. with a man who not only disdained the hypocrisy that had destroyed her mot her and changed her own life forever. there was a degree of smug satisfaction in joining forces. hoping for a rout. “All right. you would be. He settled against the velvet cushions and hitched one boote d foot on the bench opposite. Duchess. Colin and Will having made other arrangem ents. She squirmed a bit as he continued to stare.” “I’m quite sure you do. Leah was exhausted. “Are you always so direct?” “Yes. They returned alone to their carriage.” Adrian watched as her back stiffened and her expression became shuttered.Then too. however bri efly. “time to get better acquainted. You can start by tel ling me exactly what the hell is going on.

Leah? Did she invite the rector for tea and—” She interrupted fiercely. “For God’s sake. why d idn’t I just come out with it at the start. “I remember hiding beneath her furs in the closet and listening to her laugh as sh e pretended she couldn’t find me. The first could be excused. It was a simple matter of possession. seeming to lose her anger as swiftly as it had come. with a huge. resisting a biz arre urge to rescue her a second time. “I didn’t always live in Baumborough. Leah. “Whatever. before we struck our bargain?” She sighe d heavily and lifted her chin to meet his gaze.” She glanced up at him apologetically. “Me?” “I’m afraid of what you might do when you hear what I have to say. He would no m ore allow someone to harass his wife than he would permit them to kick his dogs. out with it. The very word was like a red flag waved at his pride. “Back then.” “Me? This is not about me. in London. There. Come o n.Her small nod had a peculiar effect on him. curving staircase and beds with lace canopies and closets as big as room s to hold all my mother’s beautiful gowns. he said. . until she pounced and—” She caugh t herself and broke off with a self-conscious shrug. shall we?” “Annulment. He crossed his arms. in the most handsome house in the city. “I’m rambling on and you still don’t know any mo re than you did a moment ago. A series of them. my mother to be specific and her . his brows s hot up.” She moistened her lips with a slow. It concerns my family. bother.” “Let’s wait until I hear whatever it is before we go planning an immediate divorce. Now all I do is worry that I have. Oh.” He could not suppress a smug smile. faster and faster. whatever you did cannot be that bad. utterly distracting movement of her tongue. This was something different. “What are you afraid of. did not quell his des ire to gather her close and tell her she never had to be afraid again.” he urged in a soft voice. Duchess. Thinking over my dead body. How very droll. Duchess?” When she slanted him a sideways look.” She caught her bottom lip with her teeth. The fact th at he had no idea from whom or what he wanted to save her.” She rested her head against the seat and gazed past him. her laughter coming closer and closer. I suspect. I—we. “She used to laugh all the time in that house. then opened her mouth to speak and stopped. and my he art pounding with anticipation. and she read us stories and had tea with us whenever she was home and brought us back surprises from her little tri ps. my parents and s ister and I lived here. Instantly a wave of steely resistance rose up in him. do you?” “Just tell me. That is why she spent so many afternoons and weekends away from home.” “My mother had lovers. . She spent them with a lover. There’s no other word for it. “What happened. disgrace. I wanted to grow up to be exactly like her. “Tell me what it is you’re so afraid to say.” she corrected.” “Disgraced in Baumborough. “I will not blame you if you choos e to end it here and now.” .

That talent failed him now. Quickly. but it happened on her birthday. “No. as if we were going to a fancy party. running his hand through his hair. right there before him in her pale. Lord. ineffectual pat . Our Knight in Shining Armor. and I knew even back then that she had simply given up. “Very well. There was never any proof that it was intentional. It was a different pai n. and for the wrong reason. believi ng that if he would not come on her birthday. that had whipped him to silence. Leah. of course.” Adrian hunched forward. drawn to her. One look at her told him w hat that composure was costing her. sparing him having to ask. feeling the dampness beaded on his brow. trembling lips and the d efensive. . my mother waited for him—her latest lover—to come for h er. He knew a dozen ways to make a woman scream with pleasure and not a single one to comfort her. however. “We had been there almost a year when my mother drowned in the small pond on t he property. He’d spen t years perfecting the art of holding at bay this particular pain and the bitter memories surrounding it.” With one fingertip. Had I—” She silenced him with an impatient wave. I want yo u to know who you’ve gotten yourself involved with.” “Do more than not have husbands who walk in and find them in bed with a lover? How many of their husbands get even by banishing them to the most far-off corner of the country possible? Their children with them? And never. Lea h’s pain was visible. But he knew. my mother and Chrissie and me.“That’s hardly a novel offense. We all waited. I want you to hear everything.” “There’s nothing you can say. Each morning we rose and got d ressed up in our very best frocks. “I did not hear her say that. “Sweet Jesus. until Chrissie became impossibly bored or it started raining too hard to stay outdoor s or my mother collapsed in one of her weeping fits. one buried in his own past. “Though right to the very end she insisted he would. and waited. .” she continued. with bone-chilling precision.” “After my father sent us away. “Let’s hear the rest. the man who was going to save us from my father’s wrath and bring us back to Lon don to live with him forever. He could only imagine what it felt like to be a child sent away from the only home you knew.” He leaned forward and reached for the hands clenched in her lap. he knew what it felt like to walk in and find the woman you love in bed with another man.” she replied in an even tone. ever allow them to c ome home?” Adrian was suddenly without words to respond . she called him . The daughter of a whore. she absently traced the closure at the neck of her velvet wr ap.” He leaned back and folded his arms. “Perhap s it would be best to put this off until another—” She pulled away from him. he was useless at this.” he muttered. “I don’t know what to say. he blanked the rest of the memory and forced his attention back to Leah. in my aunt’s words.” His anger was swift and instinctive. “It is late. . Most days we waited for hours. yet unmistakably defiant. and gave her leg a clumsy. he would never come for her. More ladies of the ton than not take lovers. All of it. desperately. set of her shoulders. “He never came. and we walked to the end of the drive.

yours are not that appalling. “perhaps a brother. you were how old when all this happened? Fourteen? Hell.” In her tight smile Adrian at last saw a hint of the bitterness she had every right to feel. even a half brothe r.“Hell. I knew that if he could so easily mistake me for my mother.” He moved to the seat beside her and took her hand in his. but I think that. “What did you say?” “I said the man who bumped into me earlier mistook me for my mother. “I already know you well enough to realize that the threat of gossi p would do more to provoke than deter you.” “Sweet Jesus. might have proven a better ally than my uncle. He remarried within a month. that I misled you. “Though now that I think of it.” “You have an ally now. no do ubt hoping to sire the son he longed for. or your witch of an aunt . He could and did.” she replied.” “Guilt by association is one of the ton’s most time-honored rules.” she continued.” he whispered.” “You can’t be serious? He couldn’t just abandon you there? His own children?” “His own daughters. I promise you.” she broke in. Leah. “Trust me on this. but evidently the resemblance is even stronger than—” “No. “The Incredible Dava. That was my mother’s name. I was more concerned that you would b e angry that I didn’t tell you right away. who inherited instead. “You knew my mother?” . you mean.” “Nothing will. one more powerful than your uncle. He failed.” He shook his head impatiently. I wanted to tip the scales in m y favor. an icy premonition lodged square in his chest. or anyone else who might seek to make you suffer for something you had no part in. “I told myself I wasn’t taking unfair advantage of you any mo re than you had me. I imagine.” She nodded ruefully. firmly enough that she could not pull away again. Surely your father must have—” “Been delighted by her death. harsh edge to her voi ce. a new. Then when I collided with that man on Bond Street and he called me Dava. deep down. Leah. All my life I’v e been told I favor her. but surely you can understand now why I am so intent on avoiding any impropriety that might reflect badly on my sister and destroy whatever chanc e she has for happiness. is it not?” “Rules are made to be broken. “I cannot say with any certainty for I never saw the man again.” “Why did you?” She appeared sheepish. Did you honestly think this was enough to cause me to go back on my word to you?” “No. I was desperate to have you go along with my plan.” “By you perhaps. as closet skeletons go. Betrayal at the hands of your father was another thing he understood all too well. others would as well and —” Adrian frowned. “W hat did you say that man called you?” “Dava.

” she said with a weary laugh.” he muttered finally. his to ne cynical. the Incredible Dava had existed only as a taunt to throw in hi s father’s face. “Hell.” she explained in a biting tone. He found himself curiously relieved by that fact.” At the time he had been too involved in his own affairs to pay much attention to gossip. “Bloody hell. “I thought the reason Aunt Millicent looked s o utterly stunned to meet you was simply because I had not only managed to wed. They rode in silence. She shook her head.” “Perhaps. that’s not possible. and at length.“We never met. “Silly me. “And I imagine there are any number of people who suspect that you did. “He didn’t have the guts. That’s not what I meant.” “You did. but had done so well for myself.” The carriage slowed as it approached Raven House. I knew of your mother because my father was her l over.” Her jaw tightened.” she reminded him with a quelling look.” he concurred dryly. “Well. but I certainly knew of her.” “I could not agree more. grappling with the revelation. If Leah was harboring a motive other than her idiotic. In terms of shock value. “I’ve been told she was notorious back then.” She shook her head. a play for leverage.” “I’m quite certain my father was not planning to run off with her.” “Several. “She was also the one who provided my father with information about h er liaisons.” “No wonder we caused such a damn furor. But I know for a fact they were involved with each other. For him. Aunt Millicent was my mother’s trusted confidante. “No. there’s enough irony in that to fill an ocean. both str uggling to come to terms with this new complication.” Chapter 9 Leah looked stunned. trying to ascertain whether her surprise was completely genuine. He studied her. “Good heavens. typically female obsession with seeing her sister wed. It was. our union could n ot be more perfect if I’d orchestrated it myself.” . it did not have anything to do with the c onnection between his father and her mother. The man she plann ed to run away with was named Sheffield.” Raven said.” “You think she knew of the connection between your mother and my father?” “I’m sure of it.

“Bridget? I’m glad you’re back. gone was the clutter and any trace of mustiness.” she said without opening her eyes. The pale roses of the black Persian rug were echoed in the soft peac h tones of the walls and satin bed coverings. The driver opened the carriage door and she stepped over him with a rustle of silk and a scent of roses. and feeling a great deal more depressingly respectable than he did bloody married. The furniture had bee n polished until it gleamed and the bedding aired.” “And we surely are that. to her submerged fe et.” The suggestion seemed to startle her. “It will not be easy to convince them that a t least one of us is not attempting to either exact revenge or relive the past. Under Brid get’s capable supervision. .” he murmured.” said a voice that was deep and male and definitely not Bridget’s. She heard the door open and close. “For the time being. however. leaving him wan ting. Leah leaned back and closed her eyes.” she murmured.” “Any time. “Will you please see i f there is any hot water left in the kettle? My feet still feel as if they’ve been trampled by a herd of elephants. “Remember what I said about denials being futile?” She thought it over. Duchess. what matters most for Chrissie’s sake i s that we are respectably married. She sighed and wiggled her toes in the cooling water. She opened her eyes.” he agreed. her chamber had been transformed. At the moment. was the bucket of warm w ater Bridget had fetched for her to soak her tired. with more charm than she’d believed possible on f irst sight. Raven stood before her. what she was most grateful for. The result was a spacious haven. was all she could think. thank you. from her unbound hair and the robe she had tossed on over her white nightgown and neglected to fasten. aching feet. sighing with pleasure. “Why indeed? After all. for the time being.” She heard the scrape of metal and then felt the glorious swirl of heat around he r feet and ankles as water was slowly added to the bucket. swinging the empty kettle from one finger and smiling in solently as his gaze roamed over her. They were not a ccustomed to attending balls that went on into the wee hours of the morning.“And the rest all suspect you. Lord.” “Why bother?” he retorted. It had been an exhausting evening and she was grateful for the comfortable overstuffed chair and the warm fire. “Ahh. “That feels heavenly.” “Of course. how humiliating. making the entire room glow pretti ly in the candlelight.

” She wished she sounded more certain.. giving every indication he meant to linger. I assume you mean you’ve seen my feet?” She did her best to sound unruffle d. “Don’t bother.” She rolled her eyes. “Your ankles? I’m not sure I would go as far as to call them fascinating at this poi nt.” Just the same. . as a connoisseur of femininity. or even the entire world. . Duchess..” “I like you better this way. When would yo u like to get started?” “Never. perhaps all of England. “I am at your service. “I don’t recall any complaints when I miraculously appeared to rescue you from your aunt’s clutches.” she grumbled. “I’ve already seen it all.” “How fascinating. .” advised her husband. of course.” He gave a negligent shrug as he straddled the chair in the fashion he seemed to prefer. she took the precaution of pressing her lips tightly together. m anaging in her haste to thrust most of it into the bucket. in spite of the excruciating awareness that she was in utter disarray while h e—curse his black heart—was as impeccably attired as when they arrived at the ball. “Feet and ankles.” “Don’t you believe everything you overhear in powder rooms. Far wiser to settle such matters for yourself .” “Don’t be so modest. “I was referring to the fact that you find the mere sight of my bare feet and ankles so enticing.” “Perhaps because I was dressed at the time. Perhaps if I took a closer look . Ridding himself of the kettle. It’s hardly the sort of reaction I would expe ct of a man with your reputation. and we both know how very fond you are of settling matters for yourself.” He laughed. While I was freshening up in Lady Torrington’s powder room.” “My reputation for what?” “Why.“You do have a knack for turning up when I least expect you.” His voice was pitched caressingly low. “Very shrewd of you. The sopping fabric mo lded transparently to her shins and ankles. shapely ankles. “I didn’t. “I don’t know about the entire world.” “By it all. and his blue ey es gleamed wickedly. he dragged a chair closer.” He bo wed his head with exaggerated grace.” She smiled sweetly. I chanced to overhear one lady holding forth to another that you are generally acknowledged to be the most skillful and adventurous lov er in all of London. and that her heart would stop doing th at funny little slap whenever he let his gaze dip below her shoulders. Let’s not forget those enticing. I know I shan’t. Refusing to blush. “Is that enticing pout intended to discourage me?” “Yes. she pulled the hem of her nightgown down to cover her legs.” she drawled.

refusing to let him see that she was in any way flattered by his interest. But surely you can understand how once I started reading Olivia and Nevar’s story. I don’t expect you to recognize the name.” He was afraid? She was the one who felt as if she were picking her way along the edge of a very steep cliff. “I cannot believe you went rummaging through the personal belongings of a complete stranger. . . “Yes. and new interest. “They’re children’s books.” he conceded.” “Not even I know that yet.He shook his head and sighed deeply. her feelings of irritation doing battle with the sheer pleasu re of his compliment.” “You’re right.” she snapped. She hardly needed to be reminded of al l that she did not know about men. looking not especially contrite. I’m afraid. “You were my wife.” “The night you were ill. I was captivated and had to see how it would turn out.” he reminded her. “When will you know?” “Not until I finish writing it. and not that she had a nervous tic. all written under the pen name Lee Alexande r.” Leaning forward. “Yes. “Is that so?” she challenged. Blindfolded. You’re a very talented writer. I couldn’t sleep.” “You weren’t a stranger.” He flashed a lopsided grin that Leah would wager had gotten him out of any number of tight spots with women. the first time.” “Publisher?” He regarded her with astonishment. hoping the quick arching of her brows gave the impress ion that she was terribly amused by him.” “Thank you. “But you made a serious wrong turn in that last bit you wrote. “Do you mean to say you’ve sold your story? Before you’ve even finished writing it?” “That’s right. for example.” “I shouldn’t be surprised that you are published. Your bag was right there in plain view. “Take old Prince Neva r. and six others before it.” She stopped and lowered her voice. still smiling. “You have a great deal to learn about men.” he confessed. please.” “What?” She glanced at the writing desk in the corner and her eyes narrowed accusing ly. “You read my manuscript?” “I couldn’t resist. he rested his chin atop his folded arms. “It was a scurrilous thing to do and I beg y our forgiveness.” she said. “When? When could you possibly have read it?” “The first time?” “How many times . Leah. which may not be for months since it’s not due at my publishers until the end of the year.” .” “Oh.” she added.

” he was saying.” “That’s the point. because Nevar is nowhere near as naive as you are? He would make damn s ure he was alone before he took off his mask. But this was the first time anyone had ever displayed such interest in the actual work itself.” He ignored the thinly veiled jabs. “I understand. But don’t you see that could never happen. “no man ever lets a woman know where he’s most vulne rable. “You don’t say?” she drawled.” He was referring to the scene she’d written only that morning.” she asked impulsively. as if what she did was import ant enough to argue about. This is your interpretation of his motives.” “Nevar is randy. Leah found it exhilarating. and hid. Desperat ely. “Olivia stole into his room.” “I never wrote anything about her scent. he feels confident taking it off?” “No man who’s reached the age of reason ever trusts any woman that much. whose very scent haunts him night and day. that on some level he’s not even aware of.” “What he wants—desperately—is to bed her. he shrugged and stretched.” “All right then.” .” “Can’t you see that it’s because he has come to trust Olivia not to violate his privac y.” “That’s ridiculous.Irritation won. “And another thing.” He shrugged.” “My point exactly. I know that for a fact. “I’ll have to give it more thought. After a few sec onds of silence. and my brain is not at its best at this hour. “And you base this on how many years of literary critical analysis?” “I base it on a lifetime of being a man. Sweet Jesus. written for children. and if ever he did find himself alone in his chamber with t he woman he desires more than his next breath. “He didn’t let her see him. He’s sick of the life he is living. It was also t he first time Leah had ever discussed her work so intensely with anyone. but you’ve neglected one critical fact—Nevar is noble. Chrissi e always expressed interest in how a book was coming along and her young readers wrote her letters telling her how much they enjoyed a particular story and her publisher provided editorial input. not to mention totally inappropriate.” The conversation was absurd. “I’m reading between the lines. with the express purpose of seeing something which was none of her business.” she informed him. This is a fairy tale.” “Nevar is not a child. I imagine. which meant he must have invaded her chamber before he’d come looking for her. that’s tantamount to handing her a weapon to use against him. He wants to trust her. in much the same sneaky way you stole into my chamber. “what do you think Nevar would have done?” The query seemed to take him as much by surprise as it did Leah. There is no way on earth Nevar would let Leah—or any other woman—see him without his mask. he would not turn away from her for any reason.

stood. She’d had no idea h er toes were so sensitive or that the soles of her feet could tingle. just as there was no need for her palms to be da be taking flight and for shivers to be racing up and down precisely what was happening. “I’ll have the other foot now.” he directed. he held it spread open and regarded her expectantly. At last he tossed aside the towel. There w robe wet. I won’t have you dripping all over what I’ve just dried. “Really .” he urged when she sat there as if made of stone. Rave n wrapped the thick cloth around it gently. Everything he said made such perfect sense. She lifted one foot from the water and placed it on the towel in his hands. “Let’s have them. . “And my water has grown cold. So much for keeping him at a safe distance. replaced by a combination of dreamy somnolence and raw excitement. stranger’s voice. Would you mind ringing for Bridget on your way out?” “I sent Bridget to bed. he slid the bucket aside and moved closer.” she murmured.” He stood and casually reached for the towel warming by the fire. She stiffened. and without warning. she would have cinched the robe on principle alone. feeling both relieved and disappointed by the signs that he was preparing to leave. and as efficiently as if drying a la dy’s feet were a commonplace occurrence in his life. I cannot permit my duchess to dry her own feet.“Mine either. Crouching before her. “Lift your night dress. Really.” he said when she had reluctantly inched the wet nightdress midway to her knees. Leah felt her immunity to h im dissolving and drifting away. So why did she feel as if the world was suddenly spinning one way and she another? “That’s better. Leah instinctively reached to pull together the front of her robe.” “No. “Leave it. “There’s no need to get your robe wet as well. She simply dropped her hands to her lap. He was as no need to get her mp and her stomach to her spine. “Of course not. Given his infamy. really. “Come on. She was simply being sensible.” she said. Raven did not hurry.” “Yes.” He moved the towel closer. there’s no need—” “There is every need. .” As she lifted it from the water. but she didn’t think.” That made sense too. . lifted her in his arms. and with each lingering stroke. perhaps it was. enfo lding both her feet in the towel and patting and rubbing them. but an order.” It wasn’t a request.” he said. Of course not. but that’s only being helpful. “What are you doing?” she demanded in a husky. If she had stopped to think.

even. he nibbled at the corners of her lips. Leah. I must disagree.” His voice alone. were her lifeline and she grabbed it. the sensation sharp and thrilling. “What other surprises do you have in store for me. intensifying her pleasure .” “Adrian. her breast. “You a re not making love to me. deep and rough. A torrent of unknown pleasure gushed inside her. she pushed hard. “As a connoisseur of femininity. then trailed hi s hot. flat on her back. His fingers were threaded in her hair. I think that beneath the protests and the denials. Really. “Raven. “Raven .” he murmured again. Oh my God.“Carrying you to bed. “I am really quite ordinary..” she replied. dripping with self-assurance. but that only served to heighten the effect of his caresses. “My name is Adrian and I would prefer you use it when I a m making love to you. I’ve heard it said many times. Another heartbeat and she was on the bed.” He laughed softly and ran his lips across her throat. damp mouth down the side of her neck.” “I could have. “I think you harbor all sorts of secret delights. He was definitely licking h er. her neck and her nightdress and through it.” He touched t he tip of his tongue to the hollow above her collarbone and Leah trembled inside . If she’d had any lingering uncertainty a s to his intent. “Raven. “First I discover I am wed to the daughter of an infamous beauty. just enough for her to see his to ngue drag lazily across the turgid peak of one breast.” He smiled down at her.” He lifted his head just enough to speak. Duchess?” “None. She felt the edge of his teeth on h er skin. Then the pressure turned softer and more diffuse. her breathing shaky. and her panic. all of it. Tiresome. he was. then that she is also a successful authoress. Strenuously.” “Adrian.. She meant to sound firm and was startled by the small sound that emerged from her throat. spun a mood of sen sual awareness that held her motionless. I want to b e your lover. you are a gloriously passionate woman.” she said as soon as she could draw breath to speak. “Raven.” Nothing he said could have frightened her more. a roguish smile that reminded Leah of his nic kname and how he had earned it. Leah. as if he were . . She tried aga in. a meandering drizzle of a caress. Leah gasped and tried to hold herself absolutely still. . Placing her hands against the solid wall of his shoulders.” His words.” “You could have simply fetched my slippers. holding her head still as his mouth claim ed hers in a kiss that was slow and deep. it ended there.” . I want that passion. her and Raven’s arms a nd legs such a tangle she didn’t know where to begin sorting out. love. Secrets even you h ave yet to discover.” Without lifting his head.

” Her conciliatory mood faded quickly now that she was certain he was all right. I told you at the ball of my intent to bed you.” “Was I?” He smiled and managed to look even more menacing. curse your scoundrel’s soul. And every bit as physically aroused. wary. He took note of her attention and one corner of his mouth lifted suggestively as he pointed a finger at her.” His expression grew fierce. I am not dead. Raven . That would have done it. oh my God. I am not in the habit of forcing women. Unfortunately he reared back and she connected with his head instead. though he could not hide it nearly as well. dismissing her wishes as if they meant nothing.” “I never once heard you utter the word stop. why didn’t you sim ply ask me to stop?” “I did.” Leah was incensed now and not feeling in the least lethargic.” “Of course not. are going to listen.. He lay on top of her. don’t be dead. He stalked across the room. she observed. apologetic smile. noting the thickness a t the front of his snug breeches. He was laughing at her.” “It didn’t feel small.” Leah whispered. “Let me assure you. “If you say so. as if sh e were a powerless child all over again. “I did not trick you this evening. If you were not interested in my attentions. “Raven. aiming for his back. I assure you . please . . my God. She seize d it and brought it down hard. anyway?” “A vase. Though it would serve you bloody right if I were. The vase was too heavy to shatter. “I have only my own experience to guide me. “Oh. I am not teasing now. “A very small vase. rubbed the back of his head and glared at her. A frantic glance around turned up a crystal vase on the bedside table. Duchess. struggling to free herself and going up on her knees b eside him. “Oh my God. madam. “No. “What the blazes did you hit me with.” He muttered something that sounded like cursed hellcat as he gin gerly felt the back of his head.” She felt his chuckle as much as heard it.” “You were teasing..” .” She gave him an awkward. .” She tried witho ut success to turn him over. oh my God. “Are you dead?” She yelped and pulled away as he suddenly rolled to his back. Lea h braced herself.” “Yes.He lifted his head and smiled at her.” He was off the bed as if she had set fire to it. please. shaking him. a rough vibration against her breast. “Are you suggesting that I need to trick a woman to ge t her into my bed?” She shrugged. but it made contact with a solid thud and he went limp.” she pleaded. but not so wary she failed to notice—with some glee—that he now appeared nearly as rumpled as she was. a sight so novel and intriguing that she had d ifficulty looking away. silent and motionless. “And you. I do say so. “Your style is to trick them.

blast you. “There is no such world. but there is. a drunken aberration.” He made an impatient gesture. You may find you like relinquishing control to me.” She gave a noncommittal shrug. On the contrary. fluttering her lashes. and your own. Selection. And soon. And I intend to show it to you. so close Leah was certain the finest parchment would not have fit between them . . I have no more need to trick women than I have to force them. I suppose I will have to accept your word on it. “Oh. and are ready to move on to stage two. for which I am paying dearly. that is romantic.“But you are attempting to turn an innocent situation to your lecherous advantage.” he said softly.” Leah purred.. We have already passed stage one. But tonight. “You might not think so now.” He stopped directly in front of her. a world without rules or limits or conseque nces. my beauty.” He tilted his head to the side and brought his lips close to hers . The dark heat of his gaze made it hard for her to concentrate on resisting the pull of his deep voice. . “And I make it a point never to resist a challenge.” “That was an aberration.” “I won’t cooperate. becoming a sl ave to my passion . Seduction. . his still roused body only inches away from where she knelt at the edge of the mattress. “Fine.” “I never said I had a gift for it. so that she could demonstrate exactly how uncooperative she intended to be.” “My. “It’s true.” he corrected. as I will seduce you.” He arched one dark brow. “You don’t have to.” she insisted. you have managed to t ransform yourself into a challenge of the first order. to try to kiss her the way he had kissed her before. Be certain to wake me when we get there. He laughed softly. “Perhaps you’ll enjoy being charmed into doing everything—and anything—I desire for you to do. There is a definite allure to losing yours elf in a world of sensual lassitude. F rom the start. walking slowly tow ard her. But if you insist you have a gi ft in that area. though I associate seduction with tend er glances and poetic compliments and gallantry. I have desired you. She waited for him to touch her. dear lady. this is an acquired skill.” “And you definitely tricked me into marrying you.” He lifted her chin a fract ion.” “Then just how did you acquire your randy reputation?” “I seduce them . hoping to sound as if she knew what she was talking about.” She feigned a yawn.” she told him. “The word gift implies a natural tal ent.” “Perhaps you won’t want to wake when we get there.. but you will. I long ago reduced a love affai r to its four basic stages and mastered each one. “What? You don’t beli eve I can?” “I am far from an authority on the subject. “That’s a different proposition entirely.

She would never surrender. and to my pleasure when we fin ally move on to stage three. The promise o f a speedy annulment was the only thing she had to offer Raven to keep him in li ne. Leah had no trouble making her position known. .” Surrender. And the woman responsible had been in his life for only two days. What nonsense. As she had told him outright of h ers. she wished it had occurred to her to ask what the fourth stage mi ght be. by God. Her s. “I would prefer y ou not cooperate. Adrian grimaced as he passed his reflection. That was definitely not his style. The blackguard. With the word still swirling inside her head.But he did not kiss her. Mysteriously. she had Chrissie’s future to consider. And she’d been forewarned. Surrender. Duchess. she would be completely at his mercy. His hot her nightgown and she felt her breasts tighten in response. was that. . Pulling off the wet nightdress. What would he look like after two weeks? Two months? Whatever the cost. his gravelly whisper a different sort of caress. He was a mess. he would not be the first perso n who ever put lust ahead of common sense. even if he did not want her more than he could recall w anting any woman in years. he straightened abruptl y and smiled at her. Just the same. He’d made it clear he did not desire her to be a wife to him any more than she desired to be one. . and there was a lump the size of a turkey e gg at the back of his head. Ever. at any time as it sensitive skin ben her was more distu breath penetrated “In fact. slowly passed over her mouth and cheeks and the ultra eath her uplifted chin. which she did not. but about surrender. “Complete . his hair in disarray. there was no turning back now. . His thro bbing skull was proof of that. There was also his propensity to act on impulse and damn the consequences to consider. Even if he had not boasted to his friends.” he said. What could be more fair than that? He’d told her outright of his intent.” He tucked her hair behind her ear and leaned close t o whisper.” Surrender? He was fooling himself. Surely he could see that annulment was the best solution—the only solution—for them both. His mouth never actually touched her slowly. Tonight she had thrown down the gauntlet. Any concern he might have had that he was taking undue advantage by sabotaging t heir agreement was gone. Seduction. even if her damn annulment did not threaten his very ability to hol d his head up in public. Without it. His clothes were dam p and rumpled. . Not that she feared he would break their agreement by forcing her to mate with h im. he’d picked i t up and that. and total . Even if she wanted to. Already she understood Raven well enough to know that this game was not about staking his claim. she hurled it at the closed connecting door befo re donning a dry one. the act of not touching rbing to her senses than kissing her would have been. surrender. Selection. That will add to my excitement. Of course. “Sweet dreams.

in the legendary Raven wedding bed. Y’Grace. eyeing his master as if this might well be a trick question. But seduce her he would. Y’Grace. If she wanted poetry and tender glances. Except for Charlotte nagged a small voice inside. I wouldn’t say. It couldn’t be healthy t o be walking about in all that damp morning air. The Duchess. The servant appeared. He had yet to meet a woman he could not have if he desired her badly enough. Adrian fumed as he waved off Thorne s offer to fetch his valet and instead stripped off his clothes and boots himself. Crossing the room. if that helps. Cha rlotte had not been just any woman. his usual approach wa s obviously going to require some fine-tuning where Leah was concerned.” “Yes. He had learned much since then. “Well?” “Well what?” “Well. dammit. what time do normal people rise for breakfast?” “I believe it varies. He would have to take things slowly and lower her defenses one small surrender at a time . wake me for nine. “All right. and he had been young and inexperienced.” “Nine?” Adrian looked at his watch and grimaced.” “Nor would I. “Well. “Yes. How was a man expected to function with so few hours sleep. she would have them. of all places.He planned to bed her and she intended to fight him every step of the way. He grinned suddenly. That left him only six hours to sleep and come up with some suitably revolting poetic tidbits with which to sweeten her morning tea. st ill tying his robe. I want you to wake me for breakfast tomorrow.” Adrian waited impatiently. He rubbed the spot on his head that still hurt. under any circumstances. which he quickly silenced. Y’Grace?” He didn’t bother to conceal the yawn that distorted his grizzled feature s. Of course. much less attempt to seduce his own wife? He fell on the bed and punched his pillow. by God. And do not. allow me to go back to sleep. “Not normally. It certainly was not fashionabl e. God help him. He coul dn’t remember the last time he had been awake at that hour. he yanked the cord to summon Thorne. His father must be rolling in h .” Nine o’clock in the bloody morning. she requested her breakfast at nine. “Is three in the afternoon the time you would normally wake someone for breakfast?” Thorne hesitated. At the usual hour?” Adrian’s jaw clenched in exasperation. It was only a question of how soon. struck by the irony of plotting a seduction while lying. “Thorne. is it?” demanded Adrian. Nine o’clock.

and in other beds. There was nothing forcing him to accompany her. Instead. Like a husband. And. She was avoiding him. pleasure resided in other places. but he wa s determined that she was not going to escape today. It was too soon for daffodils. he was g oing to get her attention. apparently. And so their evenings we re a whirl of theater and opera appearances. about as indispensable as one of the beaded reticules that completed each of her outfits . he’d been told. a damn prop. but these bulbs. did she. she was rapidly mastering the art of turning all that attention. was a pot of daffodils. At the foot of the stairs. he thought with satisfaction. each morning he rose a half hour earlier. Chapter 10 Three consecutive mornings. lining up prospective prey. She seemed resolved not to decline a single invitation. to add to his confusion. some way. to her advantage. appeared to be progressing nic ely. Instead . of course. After all. Adrian felt as if Leah treated him like an afterthought. bracketed by tedious dinner parties before and pointless gatherings after. had bee n sheltered and coddled and forced into early bloom in a sunny patch out by the stables. So while her mission. One more seemingly inconsequential inroad on his house hold and his life. and plucked the talles t of the bright yellow blooms. tradition had it that this be d was reserved for the duty of love. in the exact spot where his morning paper ought to be . All in the distasteful interest of greas ing her sister’s slide into matrimony. The fact that she so o bviously did not trust herself alone with him should have fortified him. only to find that she had already gone off to do whatever it was she s pent her days doing. then grinned suddenly. his new bride was quite in demand by society. he thought fiercely. but he refused. . He was convinced of it. favorable and otherwise. of course. The curiosity factor at work. Staying away all day and only retu rning home in time to dress for another evening out and about. Not surprisingly. he thought cynically. Until now. but how the blazes was he to seduce a woman he never set eyes on? Besides. He was tired. he found himself actually enjoying time spent with a woman outside of bed. But no more. His initial response had been to snort and wonder aloud if his groomsma n’s preoccupation with daffodils explained why the stables were such a disaster. Adrian dragged himself out of bed to breakfast with his wife. For Raven men. as he made his way downstairs at the ungodly h our of eight in the morning. for fulfilling obligations and siring heirs . Somehow. thanks to his advice. and so. He had every right to ask what that was.is grave. frustrated and blurry-eyed. Adrian scowled. his own had yet to make it out of the starting gate.

Now he gazed at the blooms in a new, self-serving light. What, he asked himself as he impulsively clamped the stem between his front teeth, could be more insipi dly romantic than greeting his lady love with a fresh flower? He was so busy congratulating himself on his creativity that he paid no heed to the sounds emanating from the dining room until he had already crossed the thres hold. Then it was too late. He stopped in his tracks, trapped, the daffodil dang ling idiotically between his teeth for the benefit of his wife and his two close st friends. Will and Colin recovered quickly and let loose with loud gusts of laughter. Leah simply gazed at him from the far end of the table, her eyes bright with a blend of sympathy and amusement. Not at all the response he had been hoping for. What a sight he must make. The aloof and haughty Duke of Raven, munching on a da ffodil and making a total ass of himself. For a woman, no less. He had sworn nev er to be in this position again, but evidently he was as big a fool as ever. He felt a burning urge to turn on his heel and walk out. It started deep in his gut and rose, like bile, until it was an effort just to breathe. Pride alone demanded he carry through to the bitter, humiliating end. For the sa me reason he had once, as an underclassman, played an entire game of rugby with a dozen raw eggs running down his back, he nonchalantly ambled the length of the dining room and dropped the damn flower from his teeth to his open palm and off ered it to Leah. “For you,” he murmured . . . and waited for her to toss the bloom in his face and ma ke his mortification complete. He told himself he would not care. But he was a damn liar. He did care. More tha n he wanted to, much more than was wise. “Thank you, Adrian. It’s lovely.” She accepted the daffodil, and the kiss he pressed o n the back of her hand, with equal grace. She was dressed in a shade of yellow that was softer and more delicate than daff odil, and the sunlight pouring in the window behind her spun a hundred different shades of burgundy and gold across her hair. At that moment, he had no doubt sh e was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and if they had been alone, he might have told her so. Turning to Thorne, she said, “Will you please bring me a vase? Daffodils cannot li ve long without water.” He moved to his place at the head of the table on a wave of relief. She had save d him. And she had called him by his given name for the first time. That could o nly be construed as progress. As soon as he was seated he felt more like himself. “Forgive my tardiness,” he said, with a heavy undercurrent of sarcasm. “I had no idea we were hosting a breakfast party.” “Tardy?” retorted Colin. “I don’t recall ever before seeing you upright before noon, and usually not for a good while after.” “Colin came by to drop off a book of poetry he has recommended,” Leah told him. He quirked a brow at his friend. “Poetry? At this hour? I’d no idea you were such a devotee.”

“Even I have a cultural side, you know,” Colin muttered. “These are epic poems,” explained Leah. “We were discussing my work and Colin thought I might find them inspiring in terms of theme.” Adrian couldn’t help glaring at her in disbelief. “You discussed Olivia and Nevar wi th him?” “Actually we talked about my earlier books,” she replied. He had a discomfiting sense that she was trying not to smile. “Who are Olivia and Nevar?” asked Colin. “None of your business,” snapped Adrian. “And since when are you an early riser? Eithe r of you?” “I suggested they come early and keep me company for breakfast, since I’m seldom her e to receive calls later in the day.” “Really?” Adrian reached for the cup of bitter chocolate Thorne had poured for him. “I was not aware your schedule was so full these days.” “Almost too full.” Almost? he thought. “I once feared that I would have trouble keeping Christiana entertained when she f inally gets here, but already I am struggling to keep up with all the invitation s and requests from people who want to pay calls.” She indicated the silver salver piled high with engraved calling cards and invitations. “And more arrive each hou r. Fortunately, Will has offered to help me sort through them all.” Adrian glanced sideways at Will as a footman placed before him a plate piled hig h with eggs, toast and ham. “How very . . . noble of you, Rector. And nowhere near as obvious a ruse for spending time with another man’s wife as a book of poems.” “Adrian,” scolded Leah. “What a horribly uncharitable thing to say in response to such generosity.” “Perhaps if you knew these two—” Adrian broke off, heeding ng him that he was about to take a giant step off the path on. “You’re right, of course,” he said, attempting to look able. And after all my two old friends have done for me of the small inner voice warni to successful seducti chastened. “Horribly uncharit late.”

He smiled warmly at them and received looks of outright suspicion in return. The y knew him well. “I can’t think what got into me. Forgive my appalling lack of sensitivity to your fe elings,” he went on, laying it on so thick both men’s jaws dropped. Reaching for the plate of sweet rolls, he offered them with a smile. “More sweet rolls, gentlemen? Will, I know these are your particular favorite.” “Well, perhaps just one,” said Will, helping himself to two. “Actually,” Adrian went on, after pressing a roll on Colin as well, “I am particularly glad to find you here, Colin. It saves me a trip to your office later.” “My office? What would bring you there?”

“I seem to recall your mentioning that you had acquired a gallery in Soho.” “That’s right,” said Colin. “Talk about useless winnings. I should have pressed young Wi ckerson for his interest in the carriage works at Tingsley instead. At least the re’s some use to them.” “It so happens I have use for a piece of property in that area and your gallery wi ll fit the bill perfectly. That is,” he added, buttering a piece of toast, “if you’re interested in relieving yourself of it.” “Interested? I’d give it away for the sum of the taxes.” “Then we’ve a deal. Send the tax bill with the deed and I’ll take care of it.” Leaving Colin looking startled by the speed with which he’d been taken, he turned his attention to Leah. “I assume you have plans for the day?” “Yes, I’ve arranged to visit my publisher’s office and I have to stop by the millinery shop to check on several new bonnets I ordered for Christiana. Not that she was in need of any,” she added, with a small shake of her head. “You shall see what I m ean when she arrives with trunk after trunk of every bit of frippery imaginable.” The men laughed appreciatively. “A lady can never have too much frippery,” Will assured her. Easy knowing he wouldn’t be lugging in the chit’s trunks, mused Adrian. “When do you expect your sister?” inquired Colin. “I don’t know for sure. Adrian was kind enough to send a carriage for her the day af ter I arrived in London. I expect word any time now that she is on her way.” Her animated tone revealed how much she anticipated her sister’s arrival. One more thing to distract her and occupy her time, he thought, wishing he’d told the driv er to take the long way back from Baumborough. “As eager as I am to have her here, however, I am glad for this time to prepare th e house and plan her schedule. Which reminds me,” she continued, “I also have to sto p at the stationer’s to order calling cards for her. I’d assumed I could simply add her name to my own, but I’ve received individual cards from several unmarried ladi es, so that must be the current trend. I want Chrissie’s first season in London to be perfect to the last detail.” “It shall be if we have anything to do with it,” Colin promised before Adrian could get a word out. “Between us, Will and I know everyone worth knowing.” “We’ll take her to the theater,” Will offered. “My sisters have a box.” “And to Astley’s,” said Colin. “That is, if she enjoys that sort of thing?” “I’m sure she will. Chrissie is eager to experience everything that London has to of fer. This is a dream come true for her.” She met Adrian’s gaze across the table, her eyes sparkling as if she were the one who was eighteen years old and about to embark on the adventure of her life. “Well,” she said, a bit self-consciously in the face of his probing stare. “If I’m to ac complish all I have planned, I should be off.”

with a quick glance at the clouds. it can rain all it pleases for the time being. eager to make her escape.” She knew she had been right to avoid being alone with him for a s long as she had. Adrian tossed his napkin beside his untouched plate. Which means the s un will shine on your sister every step of the way between Baumborough and here. who actually pays attention to the ridiculous things. after all. And because she was ne ver entirely sure when he was playacting and when he was not..” She sensed the same undercurrent in his voice she had at breakfast. “I was happy to oblige. “I wouldn’t be surprised. And if there is a God in heaven. surveying the afternoon sky.” she c ontinued in the same lighthearted vein. I want the w hole city to sparkle and glow before her. He gave a lazy bow. she had to be extr a vigilant around him.” “I was only joking. but far more than conquest. the most amazingly beautiful and perfect woman I have eve r known. “Why are you staring at me that way?” “Because you’re beautiful. and you are my witness. The small bell above the door jangled as they made their way back out. gloomily predicted an other rainy evening ahead. “This is Eng land. she feared ins urrection within. I have no doubt he will be as powerles s to ignore any wish of yours as I am to take my eyes off you. I shan’t have her delayed by mudholes and washouts. Was it possible he was jealous of her growing closeness with his friends? She wasn’t sure. but I here and now request a perfect. when he ques tioned her about discussing her work with Colin. in reference to their earlier visit to her publisher on nearby Fleet Street. it was the way he looked at her when he said them. Adrian was a mighty adversary.” she said. “Your advice was impeccable .” “Well. It was not only the distracting things he said. “I want to thank you for your advice on the wording on Christiana’s cards. “I’ll go with you. as was your performance with Mr.. as she had learned over the past se veral hours. sunny day for Christiana’s arrival. “I’m sure he thinks I have the most loyal and supportive husband in existence. “It so happens I have business at the stationer’s myself.All three men hastened to their feet as she stood. “I forbid any rain to fall along her route . and very.” She met his gaze and paused in the act of adjusting the black feather that adorn ed her hat at a rakish angle.” he concurred. very foolish to have broken that self-imposed rule today.” When she glan ced at him in surprise. Leah preceded Adrian up the narro w stairs to the sidewalk and. and the way her foolish heart was only too eager to re spond. .” “Who says it was a performance?” “Was it?” She turned to meet his gaze squarely. just the way it did for me. Also.” The stationery shop was located just off Chancery Lane. he added. “What is it?” she asked.” she add ed. Though I am sure I am not as knowledge able about the subtleties of calling cards as Will. Pickering. An exhausting effort.

” “Why?” She blinked. And n ow. Never make direct eye contact with a predator. “It’s only a short distance and if we stay beneath the overhangs .” The truth was that she was in no hurry to be alone w ith him in the close confines of a warm carriage. the way she might be if o bserving a wild animal through a cage door she was not sure was locked. ho wever.” “You have a point.” she said. And to her delight and distress. I intend to do nothing b ut fulfill your every desire. startled. He seemed surprised she recognized it. “Wait here. “Why? Because I’m sure you have many more serious matters to attend to than accompanying me to a millinery shop. he bowed to her wishes and gallantly steered her to the drier path close to the buildings. “The Brewsters at home are cousins of Sir David Brewster. he was winning. How many times had she said that to Chrissie when they encountered a strange dog on one of their walks? Their gazes remained locked. from cardboard and bits of glass and mirror .” Looking as if he’d been asked to crawl the entire distance. with another of those small.A mistake. “on the grounds that I’m damn ed if I do and damned if I don’t. She was not at all confused over Adrian’s purpose in spending the day with her. all-out campaign to charm his way past her defenses. I must let you go. “Look. insouciant bows of his.” He positioned her under the shop awning. Pieces of brightly colored glass were arranged on a mirrored tray.” He let that hang provocatively in the air. “I’ll send for the carriage.” she conceded with a small smile.” he said at last.” she exclaimed. he added. a kaleidoscope. you will—mistakenly— conclude that I do not greatly admire you and your talent. “Have you seen one before?” Leah nodded. Then. They’d gone o nly a few steps when the display in the bow window of a silversmith caught her a ttention. “I think I shall abstain from answering. He was launching an unabashed. you won’t believe me anyway and will conclude that yo u have even more reason to distrust me in the future. alo ng with a stand holding an engraved silver cylinder. filled with a strange excitement.” “How so?” she countered. As luck would have it. “And we can window-shop while we’r e at it. and tell you I meant every word.” “Please don’t. his smil e as intimate as a touch. “I wouldn’t answer me either. Duchess?” It was still sprinkling an hour later when they emerged from the preeminent mill inery shop at Pall Mall. my entire day—and night—are free. every fawni ng glance in your direction. He built hi s first kaleidoscope some years ago. “Where to. If I deny it. as passersby detoured aroun d them and the first scattered drops began to fall from the sky and their breath ing seemed to come in unison. we’ll hardly get wet at all. she realized at once. Leah had gone there with the intention of changing the color of the ribbon on one of the bonnets she had ordered and adding flowered tr im to the other. Don’t you?” “No. “If I say I was pretending. She left not certain if the straw bonnet was to have the daisie s and the felt the poppy-red ribbon or the other way around.

that having had her calling cards. perhaps. God help her. recalling it . “For Chrissie to give to her bridegroom. She was very eager to reach the carriage now. I said. he flipped up the collar of his coat and hunched his should ers.” When she glanced at him quizzically. Can you imagine creating anything so absolutely amazing out of ordinary bits and pieces?” “No. He left one of his ear ly efforts with Kit Brewster when he came to visit last year and for weeks after we all wore a path to her door to take a turn with it. Now. he added. but she had no doubt he’d spoken odes to numerous other eyes and other hai r before hers. madam. But this. The day sudde nly seemed bright and warm. They’d gone about a block in total silence when two boys scampered from an alley.” She laughed. There was no mistaking the strained patience in his tone this time. “We nearly wore Kit and the kaleidoscope out in the bargain. “It happens to b e the truth. this she believed was real.” With a quick motion. I cannot. “Have you ever looked through one?” He nodded. “That’s very kind of you to say. “Give it here. I shall mention the kaleidoscope and leave the decision to her. while she committed hi s compliment to memory.” he retorted with a trace of impatience.” She turned to resume walking.” “What did you think?” “I thought it was very entertaining. and equally phenomenal to tho se of us who lack your gift for creating something fascinating and compelling wh ere nothing existed before. I meant. He offered her his arm with stiff formali ty. bonnets and bridegro om all pre-selected on her behalf. “Not the same. “An excellent point. confident the icy wall between them would not be thawed before they reache d home.” “It’s not the same.” “Kindness has no part in it. At a scientific exhibition in Rome.” From the co rner of her eye she saw him start to grin and realized how easily her comment co uld be mistaken for a hint. briskly. forcing them to a sudden halt. directly into their path.” She glanced sideways at him. gazing dreamily at the one on display. reaching around the oth . “Last year. she explained. The things he said about her eyes and her hair were flat tering. “You do that very thing all the time in your books. Hurriedly. sir.” shouted the smaller of the two boys.” “I thought it was like breathing color.” she said softly.. She accepted it in the same manner. “Does it not occur to you. that your sister just might prefer to pick ou t his damn gift for herself?” Leah colored fiercely.” she protested. “Sir David is a most accomplished gentleman. and everything inside her hummed with pleasure. though he’s only recently obtained a patent for his work. but every bit as impressive. I was thinking what a wonderful marriage gift it would make. but you should have no trouble imagining it.” Leah kept her gaze carefully focused on the kaleidoscope. were you thinking of going inside to examine this model more c losely?” “Actually.

“No. th en he’ll give me the small half to get back for all those other times. “I won’t. “He said to share. Let’s have a look at nothing. “What does your friend here have that you want so badly?” Adrian asked the boy.” “I see. “Why don’t you give your brother half?” “I tried to. “He’s not my friend. “He’s my brother. said.” said Adrian.” argued his brother. hauling the boy back to his feet and taking hold of bo th by the back of their collars. “Where did you get that?” Adrian asked him. son.” “Is not.” “ ‘Cause he’ll give me the small half.” “Then how about if we let the little fellow here break it?” suggested Adrian.” she said. “Did you steal it?” “No. the bigger boy swung out a hand. “Now. He stared at his feet. “From the pastry shop over on Bartlett. “I think sharing it is a good idea.” both boys cried in unison.” “Is so. though their coats and breeches had seen better da ys. and probably a year or two older.” Leah rolled her eyes at the sheer idiocy of giving one biscuit to two hungry boy s.” “I carried one too. What did you just slip into your pocket?” he asked the bigger of the two. as Leah had known he would.” he cried.” He indicated the direction with his shoulde r. The older boy shook his head frantically. Leah realized that one boy was quite a bit bigger than the other.” he told her.. The older one.” he replied.. “Enough.” “Fine. They looked cle an and cared for. whom she guessed to be about ten.” .” Adrian said firmly. “Nothing. “It’s mine. “The man gave it to me for carrying his e mpty flour barrels. catching the other square in the fac e and sending him flying backward onto the sidewalk.er to grab whatever it was he was crouched over so protectively. his eyes widening fearfully. “but he don’t want me to break it. Leah noted. “Are you all right?” he asked the child who’d been kn ocked on his posterior.” cried the other boy. I think so.” Adrian looked from one to the other. “I . sir.” Reluctantly. Now that she had a good look at them. “He always does. “That still does not answer my question. wiping the back of his hand across his eyes. the boy withdrew a sugar biscuit from his pocket.” With that.” his younger brother chimed in.

” she reminded him.” They came to the corner. I suppose. “But my favorite tearoom is that way. my writing aside.” he said. “And you are nothing short of a modern-day Solomon. Adrian gave them each coin enough to bu y a week’s worth of sugar biscuits. “You’re chi . as she refers to it.” “Does she want children?” “Well.” “I’ll bear it in mind the next time Will and Colin lock horns.” Seeing the dubious look on his face.” “Have I ever wanted them? I suppose. There was a time when I blithely assumed that a happy marriage and a full nursery would be my future. as you know. Leah. she does. nudging her to the right. of course. She looked first at the older boy. “But. “I have an idea. “Why don’t you break the biscuit i nto two equal pieces. so there will be plenty of birthdays o n which to spoil them. I dou bt it would work quite so neatly with a woman. Your Grace. “have you never wanted children of your own? You seem so nat ural around them.” There was a note of regret in her voice. Leah resisted. I hope she has at least a half dozen. “The carriage is that way.” “Yes. Unfortunately I cannot take credit for it.” Leah said. it was.” she answered. After which. The answer to his question was bringing her close to places inside herself that she had closed and locked long ago and she quickly pulled back. “You are a soft touch. peop le I both loved and trusted. I long ago accepted my fate and decided to look forward to being a doting aunt to Christiana’s brood. is one of my particular favorites. When he tried to steer her to the right. “True.” she remarked as they disappeared into the alley. Personal ly. Of course. “She will make a wonderful mother. He shrugged uncomfortably.Adrian grit his teeth. but it is more than I have now. my life took a different turn from the one for which I had been groomed. it will not be qu ite the same as having a family of my own. and always one or two the right age for me to whisk off o n holiday. “Tell me. one chooses method.” “I can hardly argue with that logic. “My friend So phie has five children under the age of ten and I have seen her resolve their di fferences hundreds of times. but it was too reasonable to protes t and so the deed was done.” He pointed.” “I think this time I shall abstain from comment. that was a t ime when I assumed a great many things about life and the people around me. The one cuts.” She smiled.” she confessed. Tha t was brilliant. and then we’ll have your brother here take his choice? How d oes that sound?” Neither boy looked thrilled by the proposal. pointing left. she added. hoping to defuse things before he dropped them both on their bottoms. And. I am a diehard realist. the awkwardness of a few moments ago gone. Though frankly.

a short. having been led there at Adrian’s request by the owner hims elf. A brothel. She was licking t he froth from her top lip when she saw how the sight mesmerized him. he smiled. These things take time. hoping to steer conversation to a safe. do you ever overlook an opportunity to shock?” “No. The very fact that it was so outrageous was. “Yes. “I thought you had a sudden yen to sit in the front window. But that was impossible. after the man had returned with two steaming mugs of chocolate and disappeared.” “Nor would I. “Shall I apologize?” . and I have a sudden yen to sit with my bride in the front window of Beresford’s. where the air was saturated with rich aromas an d the tiny table brought his long legs into much too close contact with her own.” So much for safe. My yen at this moment is to ha ve you entirely to myself. She shook her head and shot him the most disapproving look she could muster. his blue eyes glinting. with her glancing around at the other patrons and his gaze never wavering. trying to pretend it did not bother her. She was having serious second thoughts about being there. neutral subjects. Leah could swear he was telling the truth. “I’m not planning an aviary. Personally. I wouldn’t know how to begin organizing an aviary. More tummy flutters. I am. “You’re staring again. what made it perfect for his brand of cynical humor. He hurried from the back r oom to greet Adrian and personally take their order. of all things. ensconced in a private corner of his favorite tearoom. “Tell me. He leaned back. Never.” she ventured. it was a table in the far back corner of the popular establishment w here they were seated. “Have you indeed?” He wore a look of cautious interest. More of that awful-wonderful shivery feeling along her spine. I’m planni ng a brothel. He grinned.” In the end.” “Of course. I can feel it through your sleeve.” she said softly.lled.” When she looked askance. You can do with a cup of chocolate. “I’ve heard wonderful things about your latest venture.” More nonsense.” she remarked.” For an instant. When do you expect it will open?” “Not for months. one horrible instant. “You’re right. dapper little man with a thin mustache. The London House of Birds is on everyone’s tongue and it doesn’t even exist yet. They sipped their chocolate in silence.” “Are you frequently given to such fits of whimsy?” “Only lately. “It passed.” She took another sip. neutral subject. of course.

“Good.” “No.” He leaned closer. o r shouldn’t I ask?” “Of course you should ask.” He flashed his pirate’s grin. Curiosity won. “No. He really is much more loyal than you give him credit for being. she left me standing at the altar. I meant only that. as my brides go. did he tell you about her?” “Exactly nothing.” she admitted. exactly. “She was conscious. she lacked the one crucial attribute that drew me to you. then kept her waiting a few seconds before addi ng.” She felt torn between the lady’s code of honor. Gazing at you is that vital to my existence.” he said. which required her to huff an d change the subject immediately..“That depends. “Does this approach usually work with the women you pursue?” “I don’t pursue women.” “Yes. and they were always there. “You misinterpreted my words. until now. He didn’t. waiting and willing. “That means I shall have to increase my efforts to convince you of my undying devotion and fascination. How else will you find out what you want to know about my infamous past? The fact is.” “I see. and the curiosity that had been gnawing at her since the Torringtons’ ball.” . “Who?” “Charlotte Bonnaire. “The good rector strikes again. And all because. They pursue you.. his voice deepening. yet Leah sensed that he was not at all pleased by th e discussion. “At times like this. Are you sorry?” “No more sorry than I am for having opened my eyes this morning or for drawing my next breath. the only sort of women who interested me did not require pursuit. though his expression remained relaxed. even playful.” she told him.” he said lightly. “Does that include Charlotte?” He went still. let me guess. with a little shake of her head. My faithful fr iend Colin told you about her?” “Actually it was Will. He only mentioned her name in passing when I expressed interest in the women in your infamous past. I believe that was her name. What happened . how silly of me.” Leah leaned back in her chair.” “Now where did you hear about Charlotte Bonnaire? No.” “Then he didn’t tell you that we were to be married?” Leah felt a soft thud in the pit of her stomach.” she said. “And what. I’m never sure whether to believe you or not.” “Of course. I knew where to find them when I wan ted them.

“You’ve proven your point. But I a m. “I have it.” she said. finally deciding that such a claim w as too easily verified for him to risk lying about it. “Does this mean you will sit for me?” Leah hesitated. at least in this instance. I took you for a consummate rake who slept all day and pla yed all night. perhaps.” “I accept your apology.” she said finally. I’m asking your permission to paint a portrait of you. but he did neither. Leah trusted neither.. . in some small way. cannot help myself . So you can stop now.” He brightened. “You paint?” “Not overly well. I could gaze at it to my heart’s content without making you feel . . Far beyond. “Are you asking for a miniature?” “A miniature won’t do. You are a master of the art of seduction. . “Some way to resolve this to ou r mutual satisfaction .” Immediately a look of concern replaced his look of ardor.Lord help her if his efforts became any more enthusiastic. He simply continued to gaze at her as if she were the most fascinating sight he had ever encountered. Determined that is. forcefully.” She let the spoon clatter to the saucer and offered him a resig ned smile. If I had a likeness of you. enough. . I’m su re you have cut a wide and successful swath through the ladies of the ton—errant b rides aside—and if I were not so absolutely determined not to be seduced.” He leaned forward until she felt caged in her chair by his closeness. “But. fall victim to your charms. going weak inside as the damp heat of his breath passed through her glove. overpowered .” “I would say you are going beyond the pale with this silly game. “It is unnerving to b e stared at so . Apparently I was wrong. He was still staring.” he replied. “Not t o mention astonished.. .” He reached for her hand and pressed his lips to the inside of her wrist.” Leah debated whether or not to believe him. with great passion. “I’m impressed. “All right.” “A likeness?” She eyed him cautiously.” he ventured. “I would still ask that you cease and desist. “There must be some room for compromise.” Her eyes widened with astonishment. It must be a full portrait. Leah reached for her spoon and stirred her chocolate.” “What if I told you that it is no longer a game?” She waited for him to smile or add something scandalous. with uncharacteristic modestly. with no care for anything more substantial than your whims of the moment. . “What if I t old you I cannot?” “Cannot stop?” “Cannot stop . . cannot control this feeling inside me. She looked up. . . I myself might possibly.

“Let this be your wedding gift to me. after all.” “Of course. “it’s all approved by the Duke. Subvert and conquer. drawing all sorts of untoward attention from the ladies at the next ta ble and making her head spin. primal possessiveness in his eyes. if you pref er. “I did. Leah. reasoning that Adrian had tol d her to do as she pleased with the house as long as she stayed out of his way.“Please.” he said. it was a ringing endorsement.” he added.” he urged. “Very well. She just did not know what. “Wait for me.” Chapter 11 When they arrived back at Raven House. “I’ve remembered some business that requires my attention today.” “I definitely do not prefer.” “And are they agreeable to giving my plan a try?” “They say it can’t hurt. That was his tactic and it was working. until she was hanging d irectly over the snapping jaws of disaster.” He was up to something. “Though I’m not so green as t o discount the distinct possibility that I shall live to regret it. “I shall return in plenty of time to accompany you to the Hoddletops’ dinner par ty. But anoth er part wanted to feel this way for as long as possible. and she smiled happily. and it was not in her nature to refuse such a direct plea.” Coming from Thorne. “All right. I could meet you there. before he could utter a w ord. She knew he was.” With a sigh. I’ll do it. “Have you had a chance to speak to the others?” she asked.” he told h er. deep vibration inside boded and a part of her brain screamed run. a glint of pure. “I shall wait.” said Leah. . Thorne approached. “If.” she assured him. it’s approved by the Duke. ordered the same small voice inside. she withdrew her hand. He bobbed his head.” As soon as she entered the house. Especially not when his tongue w as making forays between the tiny pearl buttons that ran along the inside of her forearm.” Run. Adrian accompanied her as far as the fron t door.” “Please do not rush your business for my sake. She knew what this low.

he drew her attention to the tortoise-shell-framed mirror hanging above a mahoga ny inlaid chest. I only dare because of the connection between us.” He crossed the room and bowed deeply over the hand she offered him. her expression guarded.” Leah crossed the room and turned to view his tall. then stopped and handed her the calling card he was holding. as you surely know better than anyone. “though you obviously do not recall it. I am your cousin. “Have we been introduced?” she inquired.” he replied with a gentle smile.” “That could mean any number of things. “Do you think for a moment that I would rearrange the entire h ousehold staff if he did not approve?” Thorne eyed her in wary silence for a few seconds. To his credit.Not only would this not be getting in his way.” Leah peered at the Honorable Michael Holt’s card and her brow wrinkled. I appreciate your diligence. Leah touched his arm. Right outside the door meant he would be only a few steps away if she needed him. Holt’s his name. he replied the same way. he turned to go. seeing to it. “Thank you for seeing me.” Michael Holt stood by the window overlooking the garden. He turned as she entere d and Leah’s breath hitched with surprise as she recognized the man she had collid ed with on Bond Street several days earlier.” He followed Leah up the stairs to the drawing room. though she could not see where it was so. “I suppose there’s approval and then there’s approval. “It means only that we had shared interests. “I suspect His Gr ace won’t waste any time letting us know his feelings. and that she trusted me. “I was. thrice removed. “Are you sur e he asked to see me and not the Duke?” “Sure as—” He caught himself. solid frame. “It’s off again. Y’Grace.” “And were you worthy of her trust?” she asked bluntly.” With a creaky bow.” he said. “I nearly for got the gentleman waiting for you in the drawing room. Your Grace. It had been ten years. “Been meaning to re hang it for a while now. Though I was unable to save her in the end. He looks harmless enough.” Understanding dawned. “Very sure. “Thank you. I a pologize for my impudence in coming to see you this way. why do I not have any recollection of you at all?” . I’ll just be right outside the door here. and I am proud to s ay that I was also a close friend of your mother’s.” Leah said. trying in vain to recall his face from her childhood. None of us who loved her were. in the long run it would improve his life immensely.” he said finally. As she approached the door. swept-back silve r hair and strong features from another angle. “We have. The two of them had forged a grudging respect that night in the kitchen and she was counting on his support t o pull this off. Thorne. People cha nge. “If we are connected as you say.

no one ever does.” he said quietly.” The slight twist of his mouth showed disapproval.” Michael Holt nodded as if he understood.” Leah smiled. “Sent me straight to my club for fo rtification. perhaps I can answer them.” “Thank you. with a broad sweep of his arm.” “Why have you come to see me?” she asked. “She was real. Except for commenting on our likeness. All too real.” He hesitated. Your Grace. with your head always up.” he added ruefully. How m uch do you know about your husband?” “I know his father was once my mother’s lover. this duke of yours?” “He’s called the Wicked Lord Raven. “Sometimes it’s as if she wasn’t even real. but it may prove awkward. sir. “I am told I favor my mother. “Your granny may be Irish. p erhaps.” His expression softened with undisguised affection. madam.” she replied. I know it disturbed me. It is just so strange to hear someone talk about my mother to me. And I . “But from childhood the o nly thing he and I shared was a marked lack of affinity.. then his heavy silver brows came together in a fie rce frown.” . At the risk of severely overstepping my bounds. . impulsive n ature. . “For any number of re asons. but I know some out by th e Scottish border with the same gift for a colorful turn of phrase. “Why?” He gave a humorless laugh and ran his palm over his hair.“Probably because my visits to your home were so few. Perhaps you’ll come to dinner some evening?” He clenched and unclenched his fists by his side. you did. all right. she co uld have spit you out.” She laughed outright at that.” he said. It was Dava who was lik e a sister to me.” She fo lded her arms. may I say that I have heard talk that your marriage was of a rather . I would like that very much. as well. “But enough of that. I won’t make the same mistake with you. “And you move the same. We are related on your fathe r’s side. as if you cannot wait to see wha t life has waiting for you around the next bend. “To see you again. I bit my tongue once and lived to regret it. but I feel it’s safe t o say I knew her as well as anyone.” “You have her laugh. not wanting to try to speak past the sudden lump in her thro at. have me tossed out on my ear. “Did you know that?” She shook her head. “I did not come here to put tears in your eyes. If you have questions. Or if you ever just want to know more about what she was like. “And do you know what they call him.. taking him by surprise. That is another reason I came. encouraging Leah to tr ust him.” “They are not unhappy tears. To see if my first impression could possibly be right. if you will. but very accurate words of my poor Irish granny. And to apologize for what must have been a very disturbing encounter the other day.” “Favor her? In the coarse. “I will if you like. He nodded grimly. feeling cold. I’ve no idea what you’ve been told about your mother or how much you know about what happened back then. “The devil take it. I am at you r disposal.

“Wake you for breakfast again?” “Yes. brushes. “Red velvet.” Adrian muttered. Thorne.” It was long after the Hoddletops’ dinner party had ended when Adrian made his way up the narrow wooden staircase to Thorne s tiny chamber. “Forgive the hour.” “I see. “And I am definitely not my mother. I would have you be always on your guard. I don’t pretend to know what his ga me is in marrying Dava’s daughter. and discreetly. and he comes from a long line of the same. “In return. and a re d velvet chaise for the Duchess. You never fail to amaze me. and had been non e too adept with one even then. And without the Duchess knowing about it . A few of those as well. There are many who would not have had the courage to c ome here today.” Thorne squinted up at him. For atmosphere. that too. See if you can’t pick up a few works in progress. That you did is.” . .” Thorne yawned.” she continued. Will that be all?” “Yes. “But after that. Have eve rything sent at once . It’s to be a surprise then?” “A surprise?” Adrian winced to think of Leah’s reaction should she discover the truth. make it a chaise.“Aye. . along with a nything else a serious painter might require. but I will not rest until I find out.” A pleased smile spread across his face. proof of your regard for my mother. . he used the other to shake the older man to a semi-awake state. an easel . Several would be even better . no. “Paint. I think. palettes. canvas. “Will you remember all that?” Adrian asked him. painterly bric-a-brac. No.” supplied Thorne. No.” he whispered. me ntally refining his strategy. “I hope I can ease your mind by telling you that Raven is not his father.” “Just get it done as quickly as possible.” “Palette. and one of those wooden things with a hole for the thumb. do you understand? Have the room at t he top of the stairs cleaned and aired and have it all arranged in there. Thorne. canvas. “Here. Paint.” Before he could voice the concern that flashed in his eyes. Holding a candle in one hand. . I suppose. The word escapes me. Go there and purchase everything necessary to sto ck a studio.” “Thank you for the warning. I’ll also need a chair for the Duche ss to sit on. that he had not held a paint brush since he was in shortpants. “Exactly. In the me antime. several easels. my dear.” “It could take several days. “Especially the red velvet part.” He took a scrap of paper from his pocket and handed it to him. I need you to visit an a rtists’ supply shop. “There is something I require you to do for me first thing tomorrow. I’ve located a likely one.” He smiled.” Thorne warned him. she a dded. Preferably a velvet chaise. “Not if my luck holds. brushes.

as they climbed the narrow staircase to Adrian’s studio for her first sitting. All right. The exchange was typical of his tirele ss efforts to charm the drawers off her and her own secret. he stopped.” “Of course. “This is a fine place to work.” “And it is still difficult for me to think of you as an artist.” She did a complete turn.” “I know that. Most artists prefer the morning light.” said Leah.“I feel silly. “I suppose we should ge t started. He busied himself at his worktable. . Canvases in variou s states of completion leaned against the far wall. increasing ly strong inclination to raise the white flag and let him.” She shrugged. He was her husband. “Why? Beautiful women pose for artists all the time. Very te mpted. “As w hat? Your husband? Confidante? Lover?” “Nemesis. abandoning her question on techn ique. it’s wonderful. “I’m curious that you choose to paint so late in the day.” At her hesitation. She was tempted. opened a jar of white paint and poured a generous amou nt. she felt contrite for ever having suspected that this might be just one more ruse.” she observed. He was interested. He reached for a palette. so generous in fact that paint ran over the palette’s edge and dripped onto th e floorcloth. “I envy you. mutinous. So bright and airy and spacious. the more shocking and unthinkable th ings seemed quite natural. The more time she spent with Adrian. but I do not think of myself as beautiful and—” “You should. when he turned his back to her. . There’s little enough light left. shifti ng around brushes and examining jars of richly colored oil paint as if looking f or something in particular.” “Not I. by law if not by choice. ta king in the tall windows that let in the late afternoon sun and the paint-splatt ered cloth covering the wood floor at the center of the room. . . and in the air there was the scent of the oil of cl ove in which brushes were soaking. rather than as .” He looked around as if seeing the room for the first time. forcing her to do the same on the step below.” His wry expression reflected no surprise.” she said. Watching how thoroughly he became engrossed in his p reparations. . she was a bit more than curious. He opened the door and stepped aside for her to enter.” “But aren’t shadows accomplished . I do a great deal of work with shadows. She w as curious. brushes and jars of paint co vered a well-worn worktable. She let loose a cry of pu re delight. toss out the clutt er and make room for the creative energy I sense here. after all. I vow that the moment I get bac k home I am going to strip my writing room to the bare walls. “Adrian.

” Colin nodded vigorously. “Now you’re the one who is staring at me. Will?” He poked Will with his elbow. temperamental. “Good morning. He turned his head. “So modest. She leaned closer. I thought you had given all that up. “It’s nice to see you haven’t lost your gift. his tone emphatic as he turned to face his friends. “You never mentioned you painted as well as wrote. puzzled. . the sudden motion setting her back on her heels.” Colin gave Leah a conspiratorial look. “Did he tell you he was a child protégé?” “That’s enough. glancing around. Does it bother you?” “Frankly. “Is this the first time you’ve seen the studio?” Leah inquired. “Yes. “I had no idea you were an artist. “This is Raven’s studio. My painting.” Raven said.” echoed Will. Do you usually paint still lifes then?” she inquired. It’s no won der it completely slipped our minds that he had any. clearly annoyed by the interruption. never wanting anyone to talk about his talent. yes. moving to the door and holding it open . put ting his back to Leah. I did.” replied Colin. “What the devil is all thi s?” “What does it look like?” snapped Raven. “Can I help?” she offered. “Do you mind if I have a look?” He was prevented from answering by the sound of footsteps on the stairs.” “Nor did I. smiling to offset Rave n’s curtness.” “Raven’s?” Colin furrowed his brow.” “Your painting? Oh.” he muttered. Rave. Duchess.” “I don’t. his expression injured. “What does Raven need a studio for?” Raven spoke for himself. “I’m sorry. “For my work.” Irritation was evident in his tone and the downward slant of his mouth. “I see. I’m not used to having others around when I work. “As a matter of fact it is. of course.” Will grinned at Raven. she thought.” Colin said.” she said. Didn’t you. glancing toward the ca nvases leaning against the wall.” Raven warned. Colin s trolled into the room with Will close behind. your painting.” Hmm.” “I’m so sorry you can’t stay longer. Colin sighed. He waved her off and reached for the jar of black paint. Duchess . “Of course.“Damn.

“You said you wanted a wedding portrait and this is something I might have worn. well. dripping palette in hand. “good day. At last he turne d to her. And now. gently. . The fi rst canvas was simply a sketch of a crucifix with a few brushstrokes here and th ere. . was even more so after see ing their reaction. “Do you really think tha t anyone in his right mind would go to all this bother as a joke?” Leah looked around the studio. Where do you keep them?” “I . I shall have to have a word with Thorne about it.” he added. “You really can paint?” she inquired. “A rag?” “Yes.” He looked around. trying not to stare. resisted the urge to wipe up after him. to wipe the excess paint. tossing aside brushes and other tools with abandon. “Some of your work?” he asked. Leah. Rave. .” He now had paint dripping from jars onto the table. as he returned to pouring paint onto his palet te. “Actually I ordered them tosse d out long ago. I don’t see any. “Do you need a rag?” she asked. “Actually I don’t use rags.” “What are you talking about?” He. “I hope what I’m wearing is appropriate.” he added.” He glanced up with a wry expression. “I sup pose not. ecclesia stical. Colin strolled in the opposite direction and began looking through the canvases leaning against the wall. “Soon. turning the outermost canvas face in. Raven’s jaw tightened the way Leah noticed it tended to when things were not to hi s liking. These represent my early God-fearing phase. “Very . “Surely you’ve heard that al l artists go through phases. she thought. this time dragging Colin and Will with him to the door.” “No rags?” . but displayed a wide variety of styles. She would let him work for a while and then insist on seeing his progress. There was no denying it had a well-used air. and Will gathered to peer over Colin’s shoulder at the paintings. gentl emen. “Of course I can paint. The others.Smiling. . Leah. lest she upset his concentration. fingering the skirt of the simple ivory organza dress. were all similar in subject matter . frowning. Leah. the floor and himself. “Yes.” he said when they had reached the last canvas. “Are you ready for me?” she asked. mostly unfinished paintings. already skeptical.” But there was one sure way to find out.” “Mmm.” she said.” he said.” His friends made disgruntled noises and then could be heard laughing as they mad e their way down the stairs. Very ea rly.

” “But you said you wanted this to be reminiscent of a wedding. . Leah?” he asked quietly. For all intents and purposes w e had no wedding.” He pointed to the wicker privacy screen in the corner. A game yo u want very badly to win. positively certain. Silky. maddeningly calm tone. and don’t you try to deny it. all furrowed brow and concerned innocence. But it will not work.” she told him.” She made a gesture with one hand.” Temperamental and eccentric. “Very creative of you. .. This is all a game .” Leah stepped behind the screen and immediately stepped back out. w e can get started. “In what way? Am I overdressed?” “Overdressed.” she said. which is to be my only lasting reminder of you. “What is it?” Leah asked. grasping the folds of her skirt. It’s hanging behind the screen there. he said.” “That’s very . “If you’d care to slip it on. swinging the sheer white lace garment she had found hanging by one of its absurdly narrow straps.” In that same deep.. “Night what?” he prompted. you conniving blackguard.” Leah touched her hair where it was pinned on top of her head in back and looked down at her satin slippers. “What is it then?” “It’s a nightdre—” His dark brows arched—like devil’s horns. “You understand perfectly well what I meant. .” His tone turned reassuring. to be a memento of our wedding night. “Absolutely.” he corrected. . “This.“No rags.” “It’s not?” asked Adrian. How in the world was she supposed to dress to remind him of their wedding when she had been all but unconscious during it? “But don’t worry. “I took the precaution of se lecting the perfect dress for you to wear.” “I said I wanted it to be reminiscent of our wedding.” Leah struggled not to snap at him. “Oh. snapping now and his concentration be damned. “That’s precisely the word I was searching for. “Is something wrong?” “It’s all wrong. “is not a dress. even. and to do so. Adrian looked at her dress as if seeing it for the first time and his lip curled with disapproval. “Then why are you so afraid to put on the nightdress and honor your promise to sit for me?” .” “Obviously it’s you who does not understand what I meant when I said I wanted this p ainting. even the shoes. she thought.” “We had no wedding night. “Nightdress. the hair .” he repeated. you are trying to make me forget that it’s a game. I prefer to let creativity take its natural course without any interfere nce whatsoever.” “Are you certain of that. The dress.

Tossing back her shoulders and anchoring the hip rosette firmly in place. arrogant look of his. Soon Christiana would be there and Leah had every confidence that. stamina. On her left si de. So what if he went away thinking that he had triumphed and had. she st epped from behind the screen. It was worse than she’d first thought. the m ore she would have to devote to Chrissie and the entire situation would be resol ved that much sooner. the less time she was forced to waste on senseless games. Leah looked for some way to undo it wi thout ruining the dress. Difficult. m eaningless way.” She told herself she ought to toss the harlot’s nightdress in his face and walk ou t. the man was reeling.” he called after her. His strategy had backfired. unprincipled scoundrel th ought of her? “All right. The fabric was as insubstantial as smoke and molded itself to her body. with a little guidance. she had no doubt.” she heard herself say.“Honor?” She shook the nightdress at him. In the limited space behind the screen. In the meantime. “The dress. Coupled with the slippers he provi ded. she reached for the stockings. was her husband’s calculated intent. satin rosettes. shall we?” Adrian’s jaw dropped and he sucked in air. silly things trimmed with soft white fur. Well. You. of all people. Leah made an exasperated sound through clenched teeth and disappeared behind the screen.” he prodded. In fact. They t oo were sheer white lace and ended mid-thigh. “I’d dare anythi ng. they left her feeling more expose d than she would have with no stockings at all. and self-control. “Let’s get this over w ith. Leah realized even before she had finished shimmying the flimsy garment over her hips. Oh. and I’ll honor my word to sit for you. in some small. sweeping her with that lazy. broken her? She wouldn’t have to endure his smug gloating for too long. “You’ll find matching stockings and slippers back there as well. her sister would be happily betrothed before the season was hal f over. she practiced walking while maintaining her modesty. but on the right the material was gathere d just below the hip in a larger rosette. looked him in the eye and said. the filmy skirt fell to the floor. but it was hopeless. what did she care what this arrogant. it was not going to work. you see—stren gth. She ought to put an end to this sensual fencing match between them. “You dare to talk to me of honor?” He unfurled his dark angel’s smile and leaned back against the table.” He smiled and made a little scooting motion with his hand. he masked his loss of composure qui ckly enough. He was utterly d . “I’ll put on the damn dress. I have a few S words of my own. Intent on concealing as much as she could. But not so quick ly Leah did not see the effect she was having on him. Which. Much worse. Behind that cocky air of s elf-assurance. If only to prove to you once and for all how totally hopeless your silly little seduction campaign is. The deep scoop neckline was secured in front by ten tiny. but possible if she took small steps and kept her hands by her sides to keep the frothy skirt from swishing. should know that. She ought to do as she had vowed and refuse to cooperate in his game.

thinking it was worth dressing up like a tart to have finally discovered a chink in Adrian’s armor.” Leaning over her. It was as real as t he sweat on her palms. She was determined to see this through to the end. the b ack of her knee. “I was certain that white would be the most dramatic choice against the red velvet. ethereal ly luminous. it shifted the balance of power between them. his touch infinitely carefu l.” he sai d. the nightdress l eft so little to the imagination as it was. “Where do you want me?” she asked. “Yes. she decided. and again saw him flinch. any further disgrace could only be a matter of degree. bent a little. as if she might be damaged if he exerted too much pressure. “That’s right. “Perfec t. shocking. He stared at her with the determined but wary look of a lion tamer. knowing full well how the light would enhance the e ffect of the nightdress. He frowned. . You are perfectly. providing the p erfect symbol of a bride’s transformation on her wedding night. But it’s not. legs up. on the chaise. purity giving way to passion. I was right to choose the white. . “Lean all the way back. this was an interesting development. tilted his head to consider the ef fect and once again nodded approval. and in some subtle way she did not yet fully comprehend.” He trailed his fingertips under her jaw.” He held out his hand to her and even though it meant releasing her hold on the r osette. that your skin might be too pale. he opened the first few rosettes at her bodice. I had some concern the color might wash you away. She smiled at him.” He slipped one narrow strap off her shoulder. the contrast is quite stark. “I gave a great deal of thought to the choice of what color to dress you in. but no one’s control wa s absolute.” he said. Let him deny it even.” . This. as casually as if he were flicking a piece of lint from his lapel. Leah let her lashes drift slowly downward. Let him try to hide his vulnerability. was much more fun than playing the delicate maiden. She had come too far to go all lily-livered now. almost . My my. her hand. There.” He straightened and studied her thoughtfully. his touch quick and light on her shoulder. opened one more rosette and smiled with alarming satisfaction. She tried not to think about how much of the upper swell of her bosom he had exp osed. He always managed to radiate an aura of controlled desire. moved her skirt a fraction of an inch and nodded. “Yes.” he coached. “By the window?” she suggested. watching with thinly veiled amusement as she lowered herself onto the chaise and discovered that the nightdress had not been designed with sitting in mind. not quite so much . “I want you there. The power was going to her head.azzled by the sight of her in this dress he had chosen. no matter what. she took it and let him lead her to the heavily tufted chaise he had pos itioned in front of his easel. Besides. “No.

You’ve sat for a moment to ref lect on the day past.. “Can I help it if you defy the age-old wisdom that says you cannot improve on perf ection?” He moved to stand beside the chaise once again. pirate image he now presented because uth. “Perfect. her mouth suddenly too dry to speak. that wreaked the most havoc on her poor. heating her. Judging by his smile.” she observed in a dry tone. Then he undid yet another rosette. “You’re alone in you r chamber.” “If I agreed to this dress. . of excitement .” Using his fingers as a comb. he carefully repositioned one tendril in front of her shoulder so that it curled across her breast. “The pose is good. his eyelids lowered slightly. no. “I’m hardly likely to balk at l etting down my hair. he had removed his coat eckcloth so that he was clad only in snug black irt open at the throat.” “You said that a moment ago. scrambled senses. and the warm pressure of his fingertips between her breasts caused a sharp. and waistcoat and loosened his n trousers and boots. A smile denotes happiness and satisfaction. like an appraiser a ssessing the value of a rare find and determined not to overlook the tiniest det ail. working with excruciating patience until it hung loosely aroun d her shoulders. The ceremony is over. too fussy for what I have in mind.. “I hope you don’t mind. While she was changing.” she pointed out. He appeared to have recovered nicely from his initial shock. mesmerizing tone. What I want from you is a look of anticipation . and to speculate about the unknown pleasures of the night ahead.” Leah gave a small nod. when it was too late for her to say if she did. he moved around behind her and she felt his hands on her hair. Now it was she who was overwhelmed . Still standing behind her. “Now for your expression.” “Shall I smile?” “God.” “How inordinately rational of you. of longing . soft and con templative. mostly with her own subver sive response to him.” he said.. his white sh that she was safer when he was a gentleman. But it was his mouth. awakening sensations too quickly and in too many places for her to control. His gaze roamed slow ly over her body. waiting for your husband to come to you. “This is too structured. the effect pleased him greatly. It’s much too soon for either. dislodging pins and loosening the careful coil that had taken Bridget an hour to assemble. and there was so precious little she could etween them. But she liked best th she knew it was closer to the tr count on being true or genuine b He stood with his arms folded.” he told her in a deep. his speculative stare mak ing Leah feel like a lump of clay about to be molded into shape. She had a vague feeling ll buckled and buttoned and looking the perfect e rakish. irritated. sweet thrill. A lock of dark hair tumbled across his forehead and she took note of the bl ack whiskers shadowing his jaw and upper lip.” he pronounced at last. She tried to lessen its power by closing her eyes. he gently went about freeing all the twists and tan gles in her hair.Next.. but felt it still.

she arched her back. Restless. here. touching you in ways and places where no man has ever touched you before .” He spoke slowly. . “The only question is. “You wet your lips. “You take a sip of wine. any moment he will come to me . She felt branded. and the yearning i nside grew sharp and focused. .. .” Yes. as if she had kicked them there. In that instant. he did. seeking him . He tossed them to t he bottom of the chaise. and immediately. “On fire almost. For him. at the same tim e turning her face into his hand to prolong the caress. and her resistance was crumbling like a house of card s. . yes. “Your head falls back..” Her eyes flew open as she felt him pulling off her slippers. Heaven help her.” A single fingertip trail ed fire from her chin to her breastbone. . made to caress your luscious t highs and hips and breasts. And there is a faint sheen. . the way you know your lover’s hands and mouth will soon be wandering over your body. It was made for you. . first one. “And here.” H e ran his oiled fingertips across her forehead.. . he produced a glass of wine and handed it to her.“You’re waiting. “Ahh. she knew exactly what she wanted. Thoughts of tomorrow and the price she might pay for it were only a soft haze at the edges of her mind. worshiping at each of those places w ith his touch. or will you?” . The wine eased the dryness in her mouth.” He brushed the tops of her brea sts. .” From out of nowhere it seemed. You take off your shoes. his rough. places no other man but this one will eve r touch .” He was whispering now. or gaze upon . His thumb stroked now in the opposite direction. Leah thought. Your eyes close. as if privy to her t houghts. She w anted this. “You hear his footsteps outside your door.” murmured the achingly beautiful god looming over her in the growing darkness. waiting for her to take a sip. . had only spoken about it. shall I take it off.” She felt his thumb slide across her bottom lip and tasted oil o f clove and was too far gone to wonder how he had managed it. yes. She wanted him to touch her. his thumb stroking h er cheek as he eased her head back onto the chaise. or possess. “You’re warm. “And here. like an offering to the gods. but added to her headiness. everywhere. . Without thinking. . . Your beautiful body is flushed . then the other. lifting herself to him. seeking more of the spicy essence. any moment . She wanted it now. The flickering urge to run away was quickly swamped by a much more powerful a nd elemental desire to stay. You’re thinking . Her tongue moved of its own volition. “I was right about this gown. she realized. . hushed tone like a bow drawn across h er tightly wound nerves. and she wanted it to never end. You r mind races.” The restlessness inside her intensified.. a glow of expectation . . “You let your imagination wander . She let him. Your heart pounds. yes. .” he said and his hand was on her throat. He’d barely touched her. sliding deeper into her mouth. as by fire.

My bones and muscles have all melted inside me. it seemed to Leah. . in order to he ighten your anticipation. Now she gazed up at her husband. what he had wanted all along. he moved onto the chaise beside her. . “He is a most exacting lover. knowing smile. half-covering her with his body.Chapter 12 There was no mistaking the intent. unable to even attempt to capture what he feels in words. “Dilatory? Not at all. there was no doubt this was what he wanted. But she had not planned on mutiny. so he must resort to letting his hands . . He wants you eager . After all.” It was clearly not the response he had expected. . convey his utte r.” His voice was pitched low. and the quick brush of his fingertip s swept it aside. Leah?” he asked quietly. and said. “Is he pleased with wh at he sees when he opens the door?” “He is most definitely pleased. and had rehearsed numerous clever ways to extricate herself with her virtue and self-respect intact. He dallied. Why didn’t he simply take her. . and ripe . touching her everywhere at once. exposing her breasts to his ardent gaze. and body . and ready for him. . from his gaze and from the fingers that slid beneath the straps of he r gown and deftly peeled them off her shoulders. Leah had imagined this moment at least a hundred times. her own eyes luminous with barely leashed desir e. She had not prepared for the possibility that the rest of her might not want to be extricated.” she told him. claiming her mouth with his. for pity’s sake? “I want to know what happens next. . “Are you sure you want this?” At that moment. you see. wanting h im was the only thing in the world she was sure of. “He is quite speechless actually.” She wished he would stop asking questions and stop looking at her as if she were an intriguing riddle.” Her breathing strained as she watched those strong. .” As he finished speaking.” One fingertip trailed idly along her throat and traced the upper swell of her breast. a rough counterpoint to the lightness of his touch as he released the final rosette. you shall have to be the one to do it. in his heat and the erotic power of his . pushing aside thoughts of tomorrow . “Are you sure. or the hunger. She was drowning in him. and mouth . while his palm molded the curve of her shoul der and stroked the length of her arm and added irresistible new dimensions to t he yearning within her. All trace of hesitancy di sappeared. skillful fi ngers reach for the few rosettes still securing her bodice. very much. “I think if it is to come off.” His beautiful mouth curved into a slow. with his touch on her fiery and clever and possessive. unmitigated devotion. “I want to know what happens wh en my most dilatory bridegroom finally decides to grace me with his presence. of everything that existed outside of that room. “Yes.” “I think it worked. . The rapid rise and fall of her full breasts parted the fabric. in Adrian’s dark gaze. . Shrewd is more like it.

he levered himself up and began tugging impatiently at the b uttons of his white shirt. to run her fingers over him and trace that fascinating line of dark hair that tapered and disappeared beneath the waistband of his trou sers. And cherished. Now. Her eyes widened in surprise. “Touch me the way I want to touch you. lazily now. You’re bea utiful.” he murmured. His arms and shoulders were leanly muscled. his deep voice cutting through the air . Adrian fully clothed was perfection. With a rough groan. He repeated the delicious torment on her other breast. and in the need she felt simmering in him. following the movement with his gaze. Leah was torn between an instinctive urge to c over herself and a shocking new desire to have him see her. ?” He laughed softly. “I want your skin against mine. he stripped off his shirt and dropped it on the floor. And she knew that once joined. And for reaso ns she was beyond explaining. “How . he continued to gaze at her. Leah. “Sweet Jesus. just beneath the surface. Everywhere. . moving closer so he was within easy reach. Nov ice though she was. I want to see all of you.. she felt beautiful.” His tone was staccato and thrillingly rough. He ran his hand over her slowly. Touch me. that pleased Leah. then slid his palm lower. “Because I can read your mind. leaving her clad only in t hose ridiculous sheer white stockings that ended mid-thigh. and ple asure moved through her in waves. and the way he was looking at her now. as he dragged the filmy white lace over her hips and along her legs.” . “I want to feel you against me. And strong.” Just the thought of it made Leah’s pulse race. and suddenly they di d not seem quite so ridiculous. I can’t. He gathered the gown in one hand and tossed it aside. His t humb brushed back and forth across the tip. Propping his head on one hand.” He took her by the wrists and drew her hands to his chest. She longed to touch him. lifting it so that its fullness overflowed his palm.” he told her. his skin smooth and several shades darker than her own. he’d said. Leah. All of her. as if he had the rest of his life to study each a nd every fascinating inch of her and just how he might decide to use it.touch. his impa tience checked for the moment. The glow from the lowering sun highlight ed the ridges of muscle and bone. I can’t wait . It had barely steadied when.” he urged. Adrian bare-chested was a gift from the gods. It was the first time she had seen him without it and when she looked at him it almost hurt to breathe. I know you want to. you’re beautiful. arousing it to a tight peak. “Do it. which had become heavy with expectancy. still holding her gaze. .. the tw o would comprise a force that would be impossible to turn back. she recognized that need in him as the natural complement to the longing that burned at her very core. coasting over the slight swell of her stomach and fanning to both sides in turn to mold the fullness of her hips and shape of her thigh. The dark gleam in his eyes when he lifted his he ad to look at her assured her that the sight pleased him mightily. he reached with his free ha nd to cup her breast. When she thought she would die if he didn’t touch her. “I thought I could do this slowly.

feeling heady and woman ly and alive. “Yes. Muscles were wonderful. . then up. Men were wonderful. please?” “I believe someone already has named them. I rather thought you would like that. regular cadence. she stroked back and forth across it. Pushing her arms over her head. as if he had been waiting for this his entire life and could not bear to wait a single moment longer.” “I’d like.” he said. then down. the strained indulgence in his made her wonder how long she had dallied in her unhurried exploration of his body. She felt his heart beating. “And this. his dry humor familiar and r eassuring. “Or shall I kiss you in one of the other hundred or so other places I have in mind?” “My choice?” she asked. not needing a reply. He felt firm and resilient and gloriously male.” he whispered against her lips. breathing hard. “Oh.” “Could you name them for me. she turned her hands so her fingers pointed inward and played th em up and down his chest. exactly .” “So do I. “But I’d be happy to show them to you if you like. Growing braver. but not smooth either. When she moved her hands away he caught them and pressed his palms against hers. Not rough. Even the texture of his s kin was a seductive surprise. He responded with a soft. Unconsciously she matched her breathing to his.” She arched her neck as he touched his tongue to the soft indentation benea th her ear. letting the moment and her anticipation spin out deliciously. “How about this?” His teeth closed gently on t he tendon between her neck and shoulder and the entire upper half of her body er upted in goose bumps. He looked th e way she felt. the feel of him totally new and unfamiliar.” he replied.Leah closed her eyes and allowed him to press her palms against him. disco vering that even that felt extraordinary.” . not lifting his head. she heard him suck in a sharp breath and felt his muscles beneath her fingertip s contract. their fingers lacing together.” he murmured. down a few inches. “Or here?” His lips slid along her neck and hovered just above her breast. When at last she opened her eyes. venturing lower each time. He was warm and hard. “Let’s see now. she thought. so very different from her own. “Of course.” He hesitated. Leah felt his breath on her flesh and that slight contact alone was enough to make t he tips of her breasts tighten. lulled by its str ong. and learned the way his chest rose and fell with eac h deep breath. . “Where shall I lass you first? Here?” He b rushed her mouth with his. She moved her thumbs and encountered that dark arrow of hair at the center of hi s chest. the strands crisp and short and slight ly curling. When her thumbs finally brushed the band at the top of his trousers. yes I like that very much. he pinned them t here as his weight pressed her into the pillows piled behind her. teasing laugh. “Or . With her eyes still closed.

and grunted sharply when she pressed deeper.” “I don’t” she whimpered. opening her. She didn’t care about safety or pr opriety or tomorrow. “I don’t. “Please. That’s what this is all about. in her woman’s p lace.He brought his mouth to hers and kissed her. Do it hard. then back up a nd down the other. a fleeting shad ow stroke that she clamped her legs together to try to hold. he caressed her leg as far down as her knee. pain and pleasure at once. twisting. “Push.” he whispered. they were both breathless.” As he spoke. She wanted it from Adrian. Releasing her hands. . His hard man’s part pushed against the back of her thigh . Leah shifted her legs and arched her back . His laughter was a low-pitched rasp that danced across her breasts. but nothing could slow the sharp. Two fingers. his hips moved against her from behind. using his lips and tongue and teeth until she was twisting beneath him. This time his touch was firm and sure. rushing need deep inside her. Rub against me. feeling a raw thread of frustration entwining with the pleasu re his fingers were bestowing. .. and focusing it on feeding the wild. at that instant in time. Le ah wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted. mounting urge centered there. You know how . She felt surrounded by his strength and masculinity. She whimpered and closed her eyes and pushed against his hand. teasing her sensitive inner thighs while the secret place in between grew hot and wet and frenzied.” “You do. Leah..” she breathed again. each one mor e unbearably intense than the last.” she whispered. commanding all of her energy and desire. making delicious circles just inside her with his thumb. The sensations were exciting and frightening at the same time. A new urgency swept through her. you know what you want . his hand hot and bus y between her thighs. her husband. he alone held the key to her existence. imitating his rhythmi c thrusts.” he urged. When at last he lifted his head to string hot. She felt aching and full. He groaned when she swirled her tongu e around his. damp kisses along her throat and chest. “That’s it. That’s it. “Your body knows. The thrill his avid mouth sent spiking through her was heavenly.” he said as he brought his hand back to the place that wept for him. but not enough. Use my hand. Harder. his mouth at her throat as he rolled her to her side so that he r back was pressed to his chest. only that she wanted more. and his hand swept between her thighs. Make it feel good. Leah knew now what she wanted. oblitera ting pleasure and pain and control. finding new and sharper points of pleasure. and Adrian bent his head to her breast and suckled her. “There. He pushed one finger inside her and she bucked against the strange. hard. unfamiliar p ressure. He licked her nipple and caught it lightly between his teeth and whispered somet hing low and wicked. She wanted this. his arm circling her hips. She felt his fingers separating the delic ate folds. “Please. knowing intuitive ly that in some primal sense. She wanted this.

s, as if demanding entrance. An impossibility, since he still wore his trousers, but she felt the pulsating heat of his desire for her right through the fine wo ol and that thread of frustration inside her snapped. Time stopped. The world froze. White hot pleasure gushed and swamped her. Ecstac y. Leah first cried out, then she just cried, her tears flowing silently. She we pt with amazement, with relief, and with sheer joy. Adrian was startled to taste tears when he hurriedly pushed her onto her back an d kissed her mouth. Only a woman would think to cry at one of life’s most pleasura ble milestones, he thought. It was his last coherent thought for a while. He had been afraid that he wouldn’t last. His lust for her was so great, he’d feared it would drag him under and it would be over before he’d succeeded in satisfying her, much less gotten his damn trousers open. Even at the risk of his own disapp ointment and humiliation, however, he had been determined to pleasure Leah fully . It seemed to him that her first time ought to be memorable for more than pain an d a few spots of blood. He’d wanted Leah to know the thrill of release, before she felt the full impact of a man’s complete possession. And this would be full, and furious, and fast. He was already at fever pitch whe n he pressed her thighs wide open with his own and guided the throbbing tip of h is erection to the place his fingers had stroked and teased to hot, slick readin ess. The playfulness that had marked their mood earlier was gone. Leah looked up at him, unsmiling, her eyes dark and watchful. He swallowed hard, knowing he was about to hurt her and knowing the only thing t hat could stop him now was her. “The first time can be rough,” he warned her. “I know,” she said. He entered her with one hard, fast thrust. He felt her virgin’s membrane give way, felt her quake beneath him. But there were no more tears and no plea for him to stop. Instead she clutched his shoulders, desperation in her grasp. He closed his eyes and forced himself to remain still for a few seconds, wanting to let her tender flesh adjust to the invasion. Withdrawing slowly, he told himself he would continue to go slowly if it killed him. He threw his head back and clenched his teeth together. God, it would kill him. She felt amazing. Hotter, tighter, wetter than anything he had ever felt be fore. On the downstroke, her arms came around him and she bent her knees. It was like sliding deep into heaven. He was most certainly dying. He didn’t care.

His vow to go slowly lasted for three full strokes. Maybe four. After that the s troking was finished and he was thrusting, hard, fast, grinding against her and forcing her legs farther apart to accommodate his need to sink all the way in an d lose himself in her. “Please,” he moaned, with pleasure, with hunger. “Please.” “Like this?” Her voice soft and eager, she lifted her legs higher, holding him insid e her with delicate tremors that sent him spiraling to the very edge of his cont rol. Adrian grunted and grasped her thighs, pushing them higher still, until her long legs were locked around his waist. His heart pounding, he reared back and looke d down at the place where their bodies were joined and he was stunned by the ero tic intimacy of the sight, and by an unprecedented sense of wholeness, of comple tion. It was as though they were alone at the center of the universe, as if thei r coming together had been destined by forces from within and without, all drivi ng them toward what he did not know. God, he was hallucinating. He must be, if he was mixing philosophy and sex. Evid ently, he’d wanted her even more desperately than he’d realized. He had never felt s o feverish ... or so alive. If he had not been delirious, he never would have done what he did next, somethi ng he avoided doing whenever he was making love to a woman. He looked into Leah’s eyes, and the undisguised passion he saw there did him in. He had a sense that h e was seeing all the way to her soul and, even more alarming, that she could see all the way to his. The shock nearly made him forget the one taboo he could not afford to violate. Plummeting over the edge, rushing into the darkness of fulfillment, only at the very last instant did he remember to withdraw and spill his seed safely outside her body. Release. And not a second too soon. Sanity returned slowly. His breathing slowed. His head cleared. The fire blazing in his veins subsided and his first rational thought was that he had won. He’d done it. He had seduced his wife, put an end to any further nonsense about an annulment, and proved . . . Adrian frowned and peeled a long chestnut curl from his damp neck. He’d proved wha tever it was he’d set out to prove, that’s what he had proved. And splendidly, if he did say so himself. Leah looked all dazed and drowsy, and he himself felt unins pired to move anytime soon. Perhaps not for weeks, he thought. Months even. That’s how long it would take for him to begin to fulfill the fantasies that even now were teasing the edges of his mind. Sweet Jesus, he wanted her again. Right away. And that, most definitely, was not part of his careful plan. He tried to ignore the gentle movement of her hands on his back and the effect h er touch was having on his pulse. It was useless. He felt himself start to harde n against her thigh, saw the wonder and delight in her eyes, and knew that far f rom being over, the game was only beginning. Never had victory been so fleeting. Taking her was supposed to have quenched the lust that had been riding him hard

ever since she’d arrived. Consummating their marriage was supposed to bind her to him forever, providing a hedge against every other conniving female in the world , and put him firmly back in control of his own life. Instead, he felt more unde r her spell now than when she’d stepped from behind that damn screen and sucked th e breath from his lungs. Which explained everything, he told himself, reaching for her in spite of the gu t instinct warning him to walk away. He couldn’t leave her. Not yet. Just as he could not get it through his thick skul l that nothing with Leah would ever be the way it was supposed to be.

Leah’s stomach growled. And no wonder, she thought, shielding her sleepy eyes from the late morning sun that spilled across her rumpled bed. She’d missed dinner las t evening and had slept well past her usual breakfast hour. She stretched, wincing to discover she was sore in some very surprising places. Deliciously sore. So this is what the morning after felt like, she mused with a contented smile. H ungry, sore, alone . . . and not a bit sorry. Well, perhaps she was a bit sorry to find herself alone, but that was all. What was done was done, she told hersel f cheerfully, knowing she would not undo it if she could. Last night had been a wonderful surprise, far surpassing her feeble daydreams of romantic wedding nights, surpassing anything she could ever have dreamed or ima gined or anticipated. She might have attributed her amazement to lack of experie nce alone, but Adrian had obviously been every bit as overwhelmed as she was by the passion that had exploded between them. “I never knew it was like this,” she had whispered to him after he had carried her t o her chamber and made slow, perfect love to her all over again. He’d tightened his arm around her as she lay with her head on his chest, and brush ed her hair with his lips. “It never is.” It never is. So said the man with more than enough experience to know. But it ha d been like that last night, for both of them. Not that she was silly enough to fancy herself in love with the man, or naive enough to expect him to fall in lov e with her simply because they had gone to bed together. They might be husband and wife legally, but last night had been strictly about p leasure, something that mature, sophisticated people shared all the time. Her hu sband had wanted a memento of their wedding night and he had gotten one. Sighing, she held up her left hand and studied the heavy signet ring on her thir d finger, recalling the first time she had awakened and seen it there. That nigh t had changed her life forever, and it would seem last night had done the same. “With this ring,” she murmured, tracing the crest engraved in gold and feeling more married than she had at any time since she’d been wearing it. It was time to think about what would happen next. Any day now Christiana would arrive. That much remained unchanged. She was no less determined to see her sist er properly wed. But what then? What effect would last night have on their agree ment? What became of schemers turned lovers, when an annulment was no longer a p ossibility, and a marriage that wasn’t supposed to be one was suddenly all too rea l?

some way. and the Raven colors of mid night blue and deep gold dominated. Until now. The mahogany furnishings were dark and imposing. she had no suitably sophisticated answers. He’d run. still without opening his eyes or lifting his head fro m the pillow. Leah waited for her eyes to adjust b efore tiptoeing across the room.” he retorted. Somehow. Chapter 13 Stepping from her room into the master chamber was like moving from day into nig ht. had no t walked away this time. making it difficult to see. Apparently neither did the Wicked Lord Raven. and she definitely did not like being treate d like an intruder on this.” “Obviously. Servants are paid to mind their manners. ha ving a warm. The jaded libertine who never lost his head or his heart. “Now please leave. And you needn’t look so indignant. His eyes opened and his head jerked up. The tightly closed draperies kept out any hi nt of sunlight. It was not quite the welcome she h ad anticipated and it took willpower not to bolt. But it was too late. she was something of a master at playing the hand she was dealt. “I wanted to surprise you. and together they would have to find a way to deal with it. I’m not one of the servants. “You succeeded. she thought wryly. he had her to help him through it. “Why?” she demanded. He had never been forced to compromise or ad apt or make the best of a situation that was not to his liking. they were in this together forever now . “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” His gravelly voice stopped her in her tracks. or she would not have found herself a lone in her bed that morning. of all mornings. she was g oing to make him see that in spite of what he’d been telling himself for years. “Why? I order you to leave and you stand t here and ask me why?” “Yes.Unfortunately. Luckily for him. For better or worse.” she sn .” “I hardly think it ill-mannered for a wife to want to share her husband’s bed. a naughty smile shaping her mouth as she envisi oned Adrian’s response when he woke and found her in his bed. Adri an did not have the same advantage.” She decided she didn’t like his tone. willing wife in his bed was not the worst fate that could befall a man.” she told him. and who could walk away from any woman without a backward glance. Of course.

“Legend has it. his dark ha ir tousled and a red crease along one cheek where it had been pressed to the pil low. Th en maybe you will come to your senses and leave me alone.” he went on. and that I was not to sleep in it until then. “that when the master of the house takes his bride for th e first time in this bed. you cannot share this bed. For a second Leah wondere d if he was about to remove her forcibly. so who am I to argue?” “I’d hardly call that a curse.” “Last night is over. I know.” she exclaimed. Leah’s desire to slip into bed beside him was greater than ever.” “Why on earth would you do a thing like that?” “Justice.” “To honor your father?” she asked hesitantly. He slept in it from the day he wed my mother until the day he died. If I die without male issue. most men of rank dedicate th eir lives to producing a male heir. . Not ever. “Now will you get the hell out?” “No.” His sardonic smile emphasized the bitterness etched in the tense lines around his eyes and mouth. “Why not?” she persisted. After all.” She folded her arms across her chest. but he merely punched the pillows into a mound at his back and sat up. “No.apped. “Especially when he seemed not at all averse to sharing hers last night. Suffice it to say that proper. he flung the covers aside.” His clipped retort lashed across the distance between them.” “Not I. but i t has proven true for six generations.” he indicated with a dramatic sweep of one arm. that’s why. “In fact. Besides. And irresistibly male. “Not this morning. I had other ideas. To spite him. s lam the door behind her and say to hell with him. I’ve devoted mine to not producing one. Wilbur the Beneficent. All my life I was told that this bed would become mine on the day I married. the Raven title and holdings pass to my dis tant cousin.” Stung by his indifference.” He rolled to his side and yanked the covers nearly ov er his head. to borrow my father’s name for him. I slept here the night my father die d. He was naked and bleary eyed. “You want to know about the curse? I’ll tell you . . Sounds preposterous.” An edge of cynical amusement crept int o his tone. and countless nights since. “Because it’s cursed. bewildered by his attitude. In fact. with black whiskers shadowing his jaw. To her horror. you ought to know the truth. “Though I can see how you would easily make that mistake.” “And that is your notion of justice?” . “This. otherwise known as the Raven Wedding Bed. “But as usual. pious old Wilbur represents everything my father despised. My father was fanatically proud o f this bed. He laughed. “is the eighth wonder of the wo rld. a son is conceived. since you’re obviously determin ed not to give me any peace until I do. she refused to heed a very prudent urge to retreat. mos t people would consider it a blessing. “Cursed how?” Muttering under his breath.” He yawned as if the entire matter was boring beyond endurance. He looked awful.

The technique is something I’ve become quite good at over the years . he had coolly calculated the matter from start to finish. that he had been swept up by the passion between them just as she had n. I am. apparently. madam. frowning. I’m sure whatever your father did to make you feel such resentment—” “You’re mistaken. I understand only too well how it is possible to feel blinding rage toward your ow n father. without question. half-formed thoughts streaking back and forth in h er head. I shall take your lack of notice as a compliment. “Have n’t I modeled my life after him? I make money.” Leah’s face warmed with comprehension. How easily he lumped her with all the other female bodies he had used for his own pleasure and left behi nd.” She paused. as if he wanted to hu .” She refused to be sidetracked by his taunt. “I thought your pr edilection for recklessness and debauchery was all about sowing wild oats and re fusing to accept responsibility. The techniq ue is something I’ve become quite good at over the years. I’m also the last.He shrugged.. disparaging cu rve. his expression dark and smug. someone you ought to love and trust above all others. I feel nothing toward my father other than a burning desire not to inflict him on future generations. “Then why did you make love to me at all?” “Don’t be obtuse. but she had foolishly believed that something had changed when they came ether. That means I spilled my seed elsewher e. He won only half the battle. you don’t.” He nodded. then with shame and resentment. Duchess. But I also know the price you pay by holding on to that kind of bitterness.. “You.” “Why do you hate your father so much?” She moved closer until his hard stare froze h er in place a few steps from the bed. “I may have grown up in the country. and do e xactly what pleases me no matter the cost to anyone else. her voice quietly incredulous. . far from being carried away. He got the son he always wanted.” “You’re serious about this.” “Don’t you be. and for the most self-serving ns. his lips a thin. “Now you understand why your little surpr ise this morning went awry. and why I will never take you in this cursed bed. “I withdrew before I climaxed.” He smiled cruelly. reaso tog bee lea Now he was lounging there. and how it can ruin your life if you don’t put it behind you. . wield power and influence. But it will have to do.” she said. his gaze completely shuttering. And tucked away in a corner of her heart had been a fragile hope it might d to something more. Coitus interruptus is the technical term. “If you think to shock me. “What makes you think I hate him?” he countered. are living proof of my dedication to that particular family tradition. “Not by a long shot. casually boasting that. It was as if he was deliberately trying to provoke her .” “Not quite worldly enough. but it’s much more than that. the latest in a long line of Wicked Lord Ravens.” His nonchalance infuriated her. you see. but I’m worldly enough to know that your stupid bed is not the only place an heir mig ht be conceived.” “But . This is the real re ason you went to such lengths to avoid marriage.” he remarked. She’d known that he had set out to seduce her.

She tossed back her hair as silly. half-formed dreams of happily-ever-after gave way to a deep.” Her smile broadened.” “And then?” Her hands fell to her sides. “Then you will return home to write about beautiful princesses and th e stupid. but you most definitely acquired a wife . noble men who love them. “Why should I be?” “We had an agreement. Where t he hell is my shirt?” He crossed to his wardrobe.” “Why aren’t you angry?” she demanded. Everything except for one sma ll detail. Leah followed. she jumped.’ ” “Fine.” “But our original agreement was for an annulment. “What exactly are you proposing?” “I’m not proposing anything.” He yanked open the wardrobe door and rummaged through th e stack of identical white linen shirts. “I’m merely picking up where you left off b y coming here. Leah. “I believe the technical term for it is ‘till death do us part . of course. But Leah swore she’d walk through hell before she’d let him see her cry. .rt and humiliate her. “The annulment. There will be no annulment. “Y ou certainly did think of everything last evening. that is.” .” “What are you talking about? Of course there was the possibility.” she said.. “I have no intention of reneging on our agreement.” “What small detail is that?” The amused indulgence in his tone made Leah regret that there was not a heavy crystal vase handy now. “What do you mean fine?” “I mean fine. a nd reached for his trousers.” He adde d..” He rose from the bed. You may have mana ged to avoid getting an heir last night. He shrugged. her voice blessedly steady. She contented herself with flashi ng a smug little smile of her own.” she reminded him. “There are no longer any grounds for one. and I shall get on with my life here. And he had succeeded. We shall continue to display ou r marital contentment in public until we’ve turned every stomach in London. Till death do us part . smirking. to make sure she understood that last night had meant no thing to him. “And I will see your sister wed to the man of your dreams if I have t o parade before you every eligible male alive to do it. “There was never any possibility of an annulment. figuratively speaking. .” she said. her emotions caught in a crosscurrent of relief and dismay. “Thank you for the impromptu science lesson. marshalling her own thoughts. We agreed. Leah watched suspiciously as he stepped into them.” He grabbed a shirt and slammed the wardrobe door so hard. naked and magnificent and not at all self conscious. wary. pressing ache. fists tightly clenched.” “For God’s sake.

” “That’s right. This was a heartache she recog nized all too well.” Oh God. . He intended to send her away. made her skin crawl. It was as if a dark shadow had moved over her. He’d intended it all along. but I believe I would have preferred to be kept in suspense at least u ntil I had the chance to present you to my sister. Christiana.” For just an instant his insouciant air seemed to falter. She went cold inside.. She wasn’t n eeded or wanted there. provided it is not that one. She could not imagine how she was goin g to pull herself together and go on pretending to be happily married for anothe r moment. The man was beyond contemptible. even in your wildes t little virgin’s dreams. “What I believed was that when you gave me your word. and I’m no goddamn prince. His message was clear.” he reminded her. her voice stiff and polite. He was a . “Did you really believe. She knew exactly how to deal with this kind of pain. Duchess.” “And once she is wed. you will expect me to leave Raven House and return home. Or so he thought. “Let me be certain I understand you. shoving his arms into the sleeves of the shirt. Leah felt a fresh emotion— panic—add to the clamoring inside. use her for his own sordid amusement. It was true that experience was the best teacher.. blithely destroying whatever slim chance she m ight have had of someday marrying a decent man.” she said. stretching from deep in her past to her most whimsical fantasies of the future. you meant it. a devil. If he thought that he could keep her there under false pretenses. how to contain it. “And I kept it. I simply spared you the trouble. and then send her away without a second thought .” She ignored that last remark. manipulative husband by her side.” “I also gave you my word that I would seduce you. Li fe’s not a fairy tale. much less the entire length of Christiana’s stay. Don’t look so horrified. . in the deepest hours of the night. He r chest was rising and falling painfully. “And Christiana will still be welcome to stay here?” “Of course. I have no objection to sharing a bed with you from time to time.” . and let it out to do its damage only w hen she was all alone. how to draw strength from it. that I would play the part of the besotted bridegroom an d then permit you to announce to the world that I had failed to bed you? Even I have some pride.” “Thank you.He pinned her with his sardonic gaze. Personally. “If you prefer it that wa y. It made perfect sense wh en you considered that an absent wife was nearly as much protection as a dead on e. You would have found that out for yourself sooner or later. “We are to continue as if last night never happened.” Shock and anger raged through her. Just the thought of sm iling through endless balls and soirees with her deceitful. and what she thought or felt about it did not matter.

“Wrong. her smile silky.” he argued. then re ally.” She paused to eye him sardon ically. An “You’re mad. “Her children? You cannot seriously expect us to continue living under t he same roof . I shall natu rally require a house of my own.” she assured him.” “But I thought you preferred life in Baumborough. A cozy little does not have to be anything gr the scale of Raven House. “but it turns out I prefer it here.” he said.” she countered airily. “I’m assuming now that the entire portrait escapade was simply one more tric k?” His stony silence told her all she needed to know. what’s the point?” “Pleasure. but a more satisfying shade of red.” “And what is that?” he demanded. no one is sending you anywhere. “Certainly nothing on townhouse anywhere in Mayfair will suffice. I’ll be able to see her and her children more often. then we understand each other. I will not be banished to the ends of the earth like some tired old nag that has served its purpose. “You seduced your own wife. “Once Chrissie is wed. “This is what you said you wanted. With d a garden would be especially lovely.” “Sweet Jesus. a feat of great duplicity and little impact.” she hastened to add. She sighed.” she admonished. I do recall your offering setup of my own. “I cannot possibly set up my own wife as if she were my damn mistress. Living h ere. so the terms of our agreeme nt matter when they suit your purposes?” “All right. not the King himself. If you preclude the possibility of either love or children. “So did I. following. is ever going to send me away again. in London. no man.” She turned back to slant him an incredulous look.” She reached for the brass knob. forget the damn agreement.” “In London?” he demanded loudly. remember? Don’t look so horrified. I believe is how you put it. permanently?” “Of course not. as agreed. “I am not going anywhere.” His face was no longer pale. after all.” “Of course you can. “As I was saying. not you. .” he asserted. Your Grace. flushing and running his fingers th rough his hair. “Of course. catching her arm firmly.” He paled. A simple a carriage house. a feat of great duplicity. “Signifying nothing?” he echoed harshly. “You’ll simply be going home. Whomever Chrissi e marries.” me precisely that. she will doubtless settle closer to London than Baumborough. “You got what you wanted. of course.” She turned to leave. “What the hell does that mean?” “Exactly that. taunting him with his own words as she moved toward the door. Leah.” she snapped. . signifying nothing.” “I’ve changed my mind. It and. No on e. “Don’t even try to deny that I gave yo . “Oh. You can do anything you dare.” “Good.

don’t you?” he asked in a soft. as if he found her patently ridiculous. and paused.” He chuckled. I just do not believe it would be enough to satisfy me for a lifet ime. his hand slid down the silk sleeve of her robe and clamp ed over hers. it would hurt worse.” . “lie to yourself if it suits you. he fell and cut his knee badly.” she told him. “Charlotte broke my heart and I’m still licking my wounds. “You’ve been hurt badly.” “Why?” He was so close she could see flecks of gold in his blue eyes. whi le I was entertaining my friend’s little boy for a few hours. “After everything else I’ve said to you this morning. “Why are you so afraid of love?” He jerked his hand away as if she’d caught fire. menacing voice . but even in the shadows she could see the tension in him. Seconds later there was a second. . “Pleasant?” he growled. It’s as simple as that. closing the door behind her with a bang. But if you twisted my arm and stuck hot coals b etween my toes. sobbing.” She rolled her eyes. Leah stood her ground. “Once. looking like a man with his self-control on a very shor t leash. and you’ve convinced yourself that it is less painful to cove r it up than face the truth squarely and heal.” As she turned the knob. sending a warning she heeded only insofar as she tightened her grip on the knob. I would have to say that it has something to do with Charlotte B onnaire. “You think you have me all figured out.. “I think you’re like that little boy. He stood in the doorway.” “And what is the truth.” He moved closer. “I am not afraid of love. why the hell would I bother to lie about something like this?” “Because it’s easier . louder bang.” “Oh. . as Adrian flung it open and it hi t the wall. It has to be. please. “That I do not know . I simply don’t believe in it. or so you believe. but I have no pat ience for it. “Too bad. “Very pleasant. He was afraid to look. Blood was running down his leg and it was obvious how much it hurt. and even more afraid that if he let me touch him. It was a very pleasant experience.. and glared at her.” She moved quickly. “That is the second time you have thrown that woman’s na me at me.” She opened the door.u pleasure last night. but he would not take away his hand and let me see the wound. He came running to me. Leah?” His eyes had darkened dangerously. exactly.” She watched with relish a s that faint praise ruffled his demeanor. with his little hand clamped over hi s knee.” “I wouldn’t dream of it. Duchess. Because it is enough for me.

You li ed when you said you were not a romantic. I know how badly you want to. I need a bloody miracle.” “But you can help.” she replied.” “And you want to help me. “I want to tell you things I’ve never told anyo ne. I am in exactly the right frame of mind. Beside The last thing she wanted was for open warfare with her new husban “If you want to talk. but you obviously a re not in the right frame of mind at the moment to even discuss it. I was co unting on you to produce a fairy godmother for me. and all she could think about was the . are you. or at the very least a spell of some sort. he ignored it. let’s look at my wounds togeth er. haughty and invincible. be glad to listen. “Truthfully.” “Let me go. I will. She had no illusions that if this was the first time he’d be it couldn’t hurt to listen. You have to do that for yourself. Leah? Changed your mind about helping? Don’t you deal in lost causes?” “I would never refuse to help anyone who truly wanted my help. s. Duchess?” Leah considered her options and didn’t like any this was anything but another game to him. I hope not. Actually. so you can rec laim it from the devil and turn me into something worth hanging on to?” She was shaking her head. is that it?” He didn’t wait for her reply. of course.” He released her hand abruptly. Leah wouldn’t have been surprised if he walked out. as if the desire to unburden himself had been a threat he never had any real in tention of following through on and he didn’t know where to go from there. What’s the matter. isn’t it? For me to bare my soul to you.” “No. Only a dyed-in-the-wool romantic would believe a beautiful princess could fall in love with a hideously scarred man. he drew her inexorably closer. I’m doomed. What’s more.” She refused to be goaded. when you come right down to it. That is what you want. even for the wrong reasons.” “I cannot make anything better.” “God. I know you can. Duchess. “I’ll be a good little boy and show you where it hurts. Duchess. Grabbing her hand . of them. I believe you are the most complicated mess I’ve ever encountered.” His smile was taut and derisive. I do not think there is anything simple about it. I’m so far gone. “I knew you would. And it’s the first time in ten year s I have been.” “Wrong. And just for the record.“Not at all. “I know the difference between fantasy and reality. Charl otte did not break my heart so much as she ripped it from my chest and stomped o n it. When he met her gaze he looked li ke himself again. Instead he stalked to the fire place and put his shoulder against the mantel.” He eyed her mockingly. You’re not going to turn me away and let me go on bleeding. but if he registered her desire t o be free. who knew how he’d respond to being rebuffed? Christiana to arrive and find her in a state of d. Then you can kiss it and mak e it better. If you’re going to approach this realistically. looking startled that he had said even that much. trying to move away. but en willing to talk. “Let’s do it.

something more. she paid a back-alley butcher to rip my unborn child from her womb and d ispose of it as well.” “She just left you standing there? No message? No word of explanation?” “Oh.” He nodded.” Leah drew a deep. She was older than I. olde r than all the silly.” .” “Do you?” He looked doubtful. his composure fraying. “He considered her a scheming opportunist. “What I “And did you find it?” “I thought so. suitable little flirts my parents were forever arranging f or me to meet. ugly laugh. wondering even more what the hell he was doing at Charlotte’s. “Hell. I used my key and walked in .” “But you went ahead anyway? You must have loved her very much. “I would have done anything for her. where my father and my soon-to-be-bride were having a rousing old time in bed t how my father and his friends lived. I don’t. I saw ated their wives. “I was young and ignorant. and decided I would neve I wanted something different. and wonder at what cost. While she was at it.” “So he did not approve of her?” “Approve?” He smiled sardonically. and threatened to disown me. “No. I was telling the truth about that as well. “She did it behind my back. and Leah felt a small twinge. w aited forever. Do you think I wo uld have allowed it if I had known?” She shook her head. even before she told me about the baby. And this was a woman you once thought to marry?” “I had every intention of marrying her.pain locked behind all that pride. there was a message. eventually. shuddering breath. summoning me to Charl otte’s apartment. “Charlotte was not subtle.. waged wars. wondering the whole time who could have told him about what was supposed to have been a secret ceremony. which she knew was absurd.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. it felt like forever the day I w aited at the altar for her. “I would have battled dragons. a widow. “She did this against your wishes?” “Against my wishes?” he echoed savagely. A note from my father. unfit to bear his grandson. “Against my father’s direct and very specific wishes.” “I see.” Hi wanted was all-consuming passion. what he had kn own I would do. She was experienced.” “There was no answer when I knocked. I hardly know what to say. What she did was unbelievably cru el. but she was thorough to a fault. and when it came to passion.” He gave a short. His style would have been to halt the ceremony by marching down the center aisle and dragging me away. I ran all the way there. she kn ew exactly what I wanted and how to give it to me. s mouth curved slightly. in a voi ce that held a very revealing tremor. Charlotte was also a master of illusion. you see.” he went on. so I did what anyone would do. all the way into the bedchamber. how they tre were supposed to love. I might add. the women they r become that kind of hypocrite.. I surely understand now why you object to having her name brought up.

I would never again let m yself need anything enough to beg for it. it took a few stiff drinks to clear my senses and make me realize it was all for the best. “I crawled.. What I cannot imagine is why any woman would do such a thing. and how helple ss. but she was afraid. in a voice she had to strain to hear.” He made a sound.” He waved off her effort to protest. And she knew that nothing anyone said or did could make it go away until you wer e ready to let go of it. I proved to him that I could outdrink. My baby.” He clutched his forehead with both palms. absolute betrayal felt like. at the most unexpected mom ents. “Adrian. She did it because she was for sale.” “Can’t you?” He laughed disparagingly. but definitely not that. I cannot imagine anything worse.” She shook her head stubbornly. I vowed I would never even let myself want something unless I knew the price up front.” he said before she had made up her mind which fear was strongest. Still I wanted her. she longed to take him in her arms and comfort h im. She hadn’t known what to expect. afraid to say nothing. and I wanted our child. What a horrid. “She said to me. as I st ood there like an idiot in my fine wedding clothes. and outwhoremonger anyone. My father was. I said to her when nothing else I said had swayed her.” he said. his eyes tightly shut. He swept them w ith the heels of his hands before lifting his head again. you are even more naive than I was. “I crawled and I begged he r not to leave me. You have to marry me. his own father. His father. “was the day I became my father’s son in earnest. I still thought I was holding the trump card. “That can’t be right. I’m so very sorry. But my father did what he set out to do. It was a sound Leah could imagine coming from a drowning man.ogether. Still. . not anymore. Not a nymore I’m not. S he understood what that kind of sudden. you see— the baby . I can perhaps understand how yo . “And that. He proved to me that Charlotte was not the woman I thought she w as. . outgamble. I can only imagine how enraged you must have felt . and that I was not the man I wanted to be. The baby she was carrying even as she lay n aked beneath my father.” Leah’s legs nearly buckled. The urge to touch him was overwhelming. Oh. And I promised myself that I would never again allow anyone to have that kind of power over me. unspeakable blow it must have been. Even now sh e could smell it and taste it and she remembered how. “Needless to say.. she said. afraid to approach. And she said . afraid to say the wrong thing. If she was car rying your child and you were willing to marry her in spite of your father’s threa ts.” He hesitated an d seemed to withdraw to some place deep inside himself. I embraced my birthright. The baby no one knew about but us. you’re c arrying my baby. she was so shocked. why—” “Sweet Jesus. the bitterness could suddenly rise up and make you gag. Leah.” “Oh Adrian. “What I did next was worse by far. and I was not the high bidder. not quite a laugh or a curse. and was willing to pay it.

Surely he w ould not have paid her to—” “Kill my child? His own grandchild? Yes. “And I r efuse to pay yours. but the other .” Chapter 14 Adrian glanced up from the papers he had been staring at for over an hour and st ared out the window instead. he paid for it all.” he ordered. She said she was sorry— sorry. the pric e is measured in pounds and shillings. “A woman like every other woman in the world when she’s found someone willing to meet her price. as if she had stepped on my toe while dancing—but that she had to look to her own best interests. For women like my mother and all those co untless other wives who smile and look the other way. mind you. He says it is urgent he spe ak to you right away. If she had her way. The garden was a vexing reminder of the changes taking place all around him. the price is steeper. no doubt senseless. sister-in-law. and he called “Enter” without bothering to turn his chair around. “Couldn’t risk any troublesome bastards cropping up when I finally came to my senses and m arried a woman who could produce a suitable heir. she told me. but he didn’t bother. . his gaze hard and fiat. What kind of woman—” “What kind?” he interrupted harshly. By leaning forward.” He cupped her chin and tipped her face up to his. She would ha ve to be. Th e venture. and expensive. compiled by Cyril Gates. then glanced sharply at the figure in the doorway. The only thing he was expecting from Baumborough was the delivery of one troublesome. “Send him in. he’d have sworn there wasn’t sufficient space remaini ng for a blade of grass. of details he must attend to before plans for the House of Birds could progress. including him. if I know Charlotte at all. A knock sounded on the library door. and where? Between the f ountain and the new shrubbery.” That did bring him around. As did everything else he touched. “Phelps?” . He tossed the list aside and leaned back in his chair. That’s one more lesson my father taught me—every woman has her price.” he said baldly. He was holding a list. meas ured in titles and prestige and position. which had once promised to be so entertaining. to permit a gooey-eyed romantic like Leah to oversee the most signific ant and misguided occurrence of her life. For women like Charlotte. How did she put it when I asked her why she did it? Oh. Everything that was not Leah. “Your Grace. What the devil was she having planted now? he wondered. yes. Life was short. . And he paid through the nose. seemed only tedious to day. Through the open window c ame the sound of a shovel working the earth.ur father might pay her to break your betrothal. a messenger has arrived from Baumborough. he could easily have seen for himse lf what was being done. she would leave her mark on everything in the place.” “My God.

an ever-present temptation that he was not at all sure he could resist. And not simply to remove herself to a townhouse ri ght under his nose. yours. Let her change every last wal l hanging and floorboard in the place.” . “Why. She’s eloped. let her turn the house inside out.” “Lucky me. he bowed hastily. bayonet wounds. squaring his shoulders with obvious pride. He had endured betrayal. a young man looking bedraggled and road-weary hurried into the ro om. “Your Grace. She won’t be coming at all. “A bit overdressed for the stables. Adrian’s lip curled. endure her. The Duchess assured us you had evaluated our individual . At your service. It’s not as if it would last forever. Your Grace. As soon as he had the sister out of his home. so he could take over the garden from Mannington. with a precise bow. “Where is Thorn e?” “In the kitchen. sir. “Don’t just stand there. “If you’re going to be major domo. Clutching his cap to his chest. well-cut blue and gold jacke t and pantaloons.” he barked at Phelps.” he explained. but he refused to give her the satisfaction of know ing she could get to him in any way. . When the time came.His eyes narrowed as he took in the man’s immaculate. “am the new major domo. he would make her see that she belonged back home in Baumbor ough. I am just back from Baumborough with news for you. “What are you doing in that getup?” “The Duchess arranged for new livery for the entire staff. Send the man in. he would find a way to make Leah see it was i n her best interest to leave. Adrian recognized him as one of the footmen who had gone along with the carr iage. White stockings and black boots as highly polished as any he’d s een outside of a military review completed the outfit.” Phelps replied. a nd he would.” Seconds later. She would not change him. where she would be a constant reminder of all he could never have. who else but his conniving Duchess could possibly be behind it? He had a mind to order them a ll back where they belonged.” He didn’t bother to listen to the rest. . install cupids outside his w indow and serve dinner on the roof if she pleased. “And just whose brainstorm was this?” Phelps looked puzzled. the cook gardening and the groundsman running the stables. And I. by God. Meanwhile.” “Has Lady Christiana been detained?” “Not exactly.” drawled Adrian.” “What in God’s name is he doing there?” “He relieved Snake. and treks across bloody battlefields. If his manservant was c ooking.” he concluded. sir. get to i t. There was no need. “New duties?” A quiver of suspicion worked its way along Adrian’s spine. aren’t you? And why are you i n here announcing messengers?” “It’s part of my new duties. who is now i n charge of the stables.

Inevitable.” Sheep. and he had won. The image that suddenly floated before him was like a steel fist in his gut. sir.” Adrian took the folded note and glanced at it. Sh e would be stunned. This was perfect. “None at all. Raises sheep. Sweet Jesus. It was addressed to Leah and seal ed with the initials CS. In fact. but no one was letting on why. referring to the driver and indicating a spot high on his neck. “Eloped. “For the Duchess. It appeared he was going to have his way much sooner than he’d anticipated. And brokenhearted.” “Good. All he could see was the look on her face that morning.” “Then how do you know she eloped?” “Quigley finally had it up to here with their run-around. eloped. not a bad chap. and for certain they did not want a ny outsiders knowing what she was up to. It had not been intentional. that was his new motto. A bunch of men from tow n went off to Gretna Green after them. Someone ought to have a word with her about th e best-laid plans. Bloody hell. So much for Little Miss Fussy’s search for a debonair. a ccording to the locals. “She left this behind though. Leger. he gloated silently.” While I. God forbid the young couple begin their married life together w ithout her there to choose their bedclothes for them and tell them which side of the bed to climb out of in the morning. imagining Leah’s reaction to the news. There would be nothing to hold Leah there now. . cutting the cigar tip. He’s the nephew of a neighbor. in fact. and she coughed up the whole truth. That is to say.” he said. “Now go have yourself a hot meal and a bath. I don’t think they could believe the y oung miss had just upped and offed that way. they say. he decided. He could see it now. more or less by the rules. how the girl and th is fellow had sneaked off together in the dead of night. celebrate with a good cigar. but it had been necessary. it would not surprise him if she chose to be on her way home at once upon h earing the news. He snorted. Winner take all. the sight of tears in her eyes had battered his heart. He flicked a match. And furious. but it was no use. he knew. well-con nected bridegroom for her sister. good job in relaying the news with such haste. “He had a sharp word or two with t he woman in charge. “There’s no chance you’re mistaken? Or that there might still b e time to stop them?” The messenger shook his head.” He turned his hat over and pulled a paper from inside the brim. He glanced up sharply. He shook the match out and dropped the cigar onto the desk unlit. Your Grace.“Eloped?” Adrian jerked to his feet. “Are you certain?” “Yes. Just the same.” He shook his head at the sheer irony of it. Christiana Stretton. The coup de grace.” He clapped th e young man on the shoulder. He’d hurt her. making it plain Your Grace would hold her personally respons ible for any more delay. When we first got there. there was all manner of confusion in th e household. “Do we know whom she eloped with ?” “A fellow by the name of St. He had played her game.

And too stu bborn. but you still have not answered my question. the magn ificent brick mansion that had been her childhood home. What’s more. of course.” Michael said. he felt a sudden flash of anger at this thoughtless chit he’d never even met. The fact that her sister had eloped. but that’s what she had done. she had. she deserved it.” She did her best to form a smile. “My apologies for startling you. One thing he was most definitely not looking forward to was telling Leah the tru th. “I suppose finding myself here again. “Would it help to talk about it?” Leah turned abruptly. “I was simply worried when I saw you s lip off alone and thought I would check to be sure you were all right. Curiosity had prompted her to accept her aunt’s invitation to tea. What the hell w as she thinking.” His comment was a relief. A fool could see that the whole scenario— the perfect London season. You startled me. disgustingly proper bridegroom. It was Leah who longed for romance and a church filled with flowers and a noble prince to sweep her off her feet with promises of forever after. thanks to him.” She and her distant cousin were standing in the garden of Trevor Place. he acknowledged that it was also for her sake that Lea h had gone along with his botched scheme. she felt no obli gation to go on trying to hide it from him. in the wake of her disastro us confrontation with Adrian that morning. “Perhaps. that her most cherished hopes and dreams had been shattered.” “I’m fine. Since he had noticed her unhappiness. only weariness and relief that it would al l soon be over. . and happily ever after—was the product of her overzealous imaginat ion. When Michael had appeared at Raven House to escort her. How many disappoin ting blows could she be expected to take before her spirit was crushed? Before h er smile was extinguished for good? Her sister’s note lay where he had tossed it. nearly canceled. but she had not allowed any to spill. putting herself in the untenable posit ion of being a wife to a man who did not want one. or felt any satisfaction. H ad she no care that it was for her sake Leah had made the trip to London in the first place? With a twinge of remorse. Returning there for the first time in ten years was proving to be more emotional than she had anticipate d. suggested she’d h ad her sights set in a different direction all along. “Michael. she would never have any of those things. he would have be en done in. For both of them. And. pinning all her hopes and dreams on someone else? She would deny it. with a farmer no less. Would it help to talk about it?” “About what?” “Whatever has stolen your smile this afternoon. He prayed that same fierce will would protect her now. an ungrateful girl with so li ttle regard for her sister’s feelings and the sacrifices she’d made on her behalf.Had just one of those pooled tears made its way down her cheek. a p assel of brats. He no longer took pleasure in any of it. Seeing it. She was too proud.

by his reputation. you were s o right to tell me to be on guard. “Like the toys rned here. “The circumstances surrounding my marriage to Adrian are . She could hardly indict h im for it however. though it shames me to admit it. is that right?” “Did I say I was worried?” “You didn’t have to. and it was a lready easy to envision Michael becoming that person. she needed someone with whom she could talk candidly. “Are you certain it’s only the s urroundings that have you on edge?” She hesitated only briefly.” she revealed.after so many years of missing everything about this place. “Has Raven done something—” She shook her head. and by Adrian himself. Raven had done something all right.” Her gaze fell to the flagstones beneath her feet.” she continued. where a dozen or so guests were gathered for tea. .” had once been her chamber. being here bad. Oh. . both good and She lifted her gaze to the window of what I once played with and the lessons I lea a thing of the past. just as his father probably misled and used my mother.” “At the risk of being disagreeable. unusual. “as what he is. But you may take my word for it that he intentionally misled me. but that is all they are—memories. my connection to this house is stirs memories to be sure. Without Christiana or any of her friends from home t o confide in. he had stopped her fooli sh heart dead in its tracks by making it clear that she would never mean anythin g more to him than a convenient shield to hide behind. Oh. “In spite of your warning and all my own . Raven men are of a breed interested in women for one thing and o ne thing only. “No. I wish I had taken your first warning more seriously. “You’re right. “far too complicated to go into here.” She glanced cautiously at the French doors leading from the drawing room. has me feeling a bit melancholy. it is more than that. she had been given ample warning as to what sort of man he wa s. “Only because I am so concerned about you.” she told him drily. “And. “It is not so much what he has done.” She slanted him a rueful glance.” she told Michael. Again. She would not be saying so much if she wasn’t so upset or had no need to unburden herself. “It is my misfortune to share my mother’s weakness in that regard.” “Why?” he asked sharply. Though they had spoken onl y on occasions when their paths crossed socially and during his brief visits to Raven House. I have learned the hard way that Adrian is mu ch more like his father than I wanted to believe. and compli cated. she felt safe and comfortable around him.” he replied. I am as much like my mot her as I feared. might I be allowed to point out that you were melancholy before we arrived?” “You’re much too observant. wit h a mixture of anger and regret.” “What do you mean by saying such a thing?” “Only that the similarities are so obvious I was a fool to ignore them.” “And it is the future that worries you now. by Michael.

“Yo u’re suggesting that your mother was a . But in turn she—” “She smiled.” . In that wa y. the same way you can.” “They don’t. his silver brows gathered in a perplexed frown. “If he is glowering. and with cause.” “Than you heard wrong.” he snapped. and God knows how many other men. “And a victim beside s? Dava? That’s preposterous. young lady. “She ended up being banished. .” He laughed. Again. “No doubt much of it from the Countess of Slander in there. Why. I’ve seen you do the same when men pay court to you.” “Now see here. it is the sentiment behind all that glowering that gives me hope there might be more to the man than I once thought. it is most likely a t me. a tremor in her soft voice. if that’s what she wanted.good intentions. the side that drew her to seek attenti on from men. his own mouth curling upward. “There were any number of men who paid attenti on to your mother.” “But she didn’t get what she wanted. my dear girl.. . “How can you doubt that she was victimized? By my father.” He jerked his head toward the house. no. and could never hope to be. “I suppose some may have seen it that way. but she did not seek them out in the man ner you are implying. Your m other was everything Millicent was not. I’ve noticed.” He shook his head forcefully. “They do.. her expression brittle. “She glowed.” “You’re very charitable. The most natural thing in the world. by A drian’s. at least. “Poor child. all very natural. Dava had a highly refined sense of her own power. He glowers. the wrong land of attention.” “No. I will not listen to you speak of your mother that way. you are different from your mother. Have y ou not seen him.” “Perhaps. and when they trip over their own tongues trying to impress you. She was beau tiful and sensual and so exuberant she could brighten your whole day with a look and a word . Your husband notices as well.” “Hold your tongue.” Leah conceded. dear Leah. that is true enough. It has been that way since Adam bit the apple. He told her t o leave.” he interrupted. “I have heard her descr ibed less delicately.” “That is exactly how I remember her. “But there must have been another side of her.” “You misread his sentiment. I can’t deny that.” He colored profusely.” she said glumly. If Dava had a weakness.” Leah was indignant. and Dava went. it was her irrepressibly romantic nature. in spite of the fact that the whole debacle made victims of you and your si ster. I fell victim to a man’s wicked. practiced charm just as she did . by Sheffield.” “Banished?” He cocked an eyebrow. Your fath er was rightfully enraged when he discovered her with another man. where her Aunt Millicent was holdi ng court. Men pay attention to women like Dava. you do have a lot to learn. and she was not above wielding it to get what she wanted.” she countered.” exclaimed Michael. “She was always jealous of Dava.” Leah protested.” He gave a sympathetic chuckle. lurking at the edge of the dance floor whenever he is forced to relinquish you to another man’s arms? To be truthful. she sparkled like the fabulous jewel that she was.

without so much as a word or a visit. and Aunt Millicent spoke with me at length the day we left. Your father never loved her the way she needed to be loved. That was her dream and she was brave enough and reckless enough to ri .” He sounded disgusted. “Quite desperately. servants’ gossip . but it was too late .” “Then why was she running away with another man?” “Because Dava wanted a new life. . the accusation against the father simmering with th e full heat of her anger at the son. it would have taken more than an order fro m old Aldwick to drive Dava away if she did not wish to go. they were both already wed to others.” Leah was more confused than ever. “She planned to take her girls and sail for America to make a fresh start. most public failure.” “Oh. he knew exactly how to handle all those lovely flames that made Dava th e woman she was.” Michael corrected. Isn’t it possible you may have confused or misinterpreted some of what you heard?” “I did not confuse or misinterpret my father’s actions.. By the time they met.“Because she had no choice.” “So he used her. Now those two would have made a fine match. An d because she had failed to give him a son.. I suspect it was not unti l he had won her that he realized he had taken hold of fire . duplicitous one she was leading here. What he did proved he did not love my mother or us. Who had told her? “It’s all mostly bits and pieces. Or us either.” Michael’s gaze grew anguished in response to the undisguised heartache in her voic e. “your father-in-law. It was simply easier for him to be free of any reminder s of his greatest. as I recall.” she said hotly. and like every other m an who fell under her spell. “They speak for themselves.” “If that is supposed to make me feel less resentful for the years he left us in ex ile. . a different life from the frivolous. devastated to be leaving the only home you knew.” “Then why did he marry her in the first place?” He gave a philosophical shrug. Some things Mother told me. “But Raven knew. he wanted to possess her. “You’re wrong. “The fact is he didn’t want he r here anymore. some I overheard at the time. “He loved her. I mean. I partially agree with you.” he agreed.” “Of course it doesn’t.” He looked aghast. “You were little more than a child at the time. of course. so you could all live a life that was simple but happy.” His eyes misted.” declared Leah. “But you have proven you are strong enough to rise ab ove it. I’m sure she did. That kind of passion was just not in him. Because she was flagrant in her unfaithfulness. During the time they were t ogether.” he went on. Trust me. “Who told you all this?” She shrugged. “He saw her and was dazzled. but I believe he did love you and Christiana.” “Because she wanted to leave. She tried to reconcile what Michael was saying with truths she had accepted—and chafed under—for years. a fire much hott er than he knew how to control. it does not. “Confused and hurt. As for your mother.” he reminded her gently. I am certainly no apologist for your father.

I doubt the man was capable of considering anyone el se’s feelings but his own. “Let’s just say he was not a man to be ruled by his heart. “Is it real?” Michael laughed. as if putting that piec the puzzle for the first time. . as she requested. “How can you be so sure?” “Because I knew Dava.” Still unable to take her eyes off it. “I can’t think of anyone with better claim to it. drawing her hand away as if the stone were as hot as its name sake. from which hung a ruby the si ze of a robin’s egg.” he said. “Because had he n ot loved her and cared about her welfare.” His shoulders slumped. I heard from others he was embroiled in serious problems inv his son .” he urged.” “You’re wrong. so simple and spect acular at once.” he added. “If only . “I don’t know what the problem was. She had never seen anything like it. “You could not have known.” “I did tantly olving e into try to return it to Raven. and did not want this to fall into the wrong hands once she was . accepting that Sheffield was not going to come and that her dream was doomed.” “Mine?” she exclaimed. “It’s yours. “Take it. Leah caught her breath. . and he was wise enough to understand that she was and wished her only the best.” Leah was hardly listening. according to the legend. It’s been in your husband’s family for generations. reaching into his coat pocket. it is very real. . with a note asking tha t I personally and discreetly return it to the Duke. Touching it produced an eerie feeling inside her. with her mother. he would never have given her this to take with her. a sense of connection with the past. but for weeks the man was cons unavailable. that would be your husband. It’s called the Sun and Stars. surrounded by more diamonds. and beyond. The nature of those services is prob ably best left to the imagination.” Michael said quietly.” concluded Leah.” He broke off and Leah found herself patting his arm to comfort him.sk everything to make it come true. . Awestruck. and it was a g ift from Charles II to one of your husband’s more infamous ancestors. and then was given without strings to your mother. “Since then I’ve come to believe that she was close to giving up. payment for services rendered. At the time. And. she ran her fingertip over the brilliant g em. . “How do you happen to have it in your possession?” “A few weeks before her death.” .” “And Raven was not. . she asked. “Oh. I simply thoug ht she had decided she did not want any reminders of the past.” His sigh held a he avy edge of self-recrimination. Dava had it delivered to me.” “Ha! Knowing his son as I do.” He carefully loosened the cord securing a black velvet pouch and poured into his hand a single strand of diamonds set in platinum.

not quite certain what I wou ld do with it. It was ten years ago that her mother ha d died. his smile wistful. I tucked this away in my safe. and ten years ago that Adrian had walked in and found his father with th e woman he loved. headstrong. Or rather. Granted. telling myself that if he had handled things differently she might still be ali ve. “Take a moment to pull yourself together. though she was certain it was going to take far longer than a moment to sort through everything Michael had told her. He was busy arranging for the sacrifice of his unborn grandchild and destroying his son’s life. Beautifu l.” he urged. reckless Olivia. it was very easy to im agine her mother as the heroine in one of her stories. but heartening as well. But she at last felt she understood her better. But the more she mu lled it over. it was bizarre to think of the Wicked Lord Raven as an irrepressible ro mantic. Both of them had loved unwisely and too well. while she hurriedly dropped the pouch with the necklace inside into her reticule.” he whispered. No wonder the duke had been unavailable. And she had failed. but it is said to bring the wearer lov e and luck. If he was right. “After her death. her mother had no t been the victim of her own impulsive passion. Out of spite. no longer finding th e notion a cause for concern.” he said. but said nothing. Michae l had described her mother as irrepressibly so. It washed over her. Olivia. Leah sighed wistfully. but rather she had made a brave. first with shock. A shiver of awareness ran along her spine as it occurred to her how accurately t hat described yet another person. grasp for love and happiness. she mused. Michael quickly stood between her and the door to the house. and I knew that when t he moment was right. for one. the woman he thought he loved. “Leah? Where have you disappeared to?” At the sound of her aunt’s shrill voice. I lost interest in giving it back to him. the more convinced she was that her husband and her mother had a g reat deal in common. And something else—both of them were loved by her.Leah nodded. I would return the Sun and Stars to its rightful owner. Listen ing had been painful. Foolish. “I’ll occupy the dragon. May it always be so for you. You r mother never had the chance to wear it. “and Dava in you. Leah groaned and hastily wiped the back o f her hand across her eyes. The realization that she had fallen in love with Adrian came like an avalanche. where tears had welled for what seemed the hundredth time that day. Adrian too had been willing to risk everything . to be with the woman he loved. and he would no doubt recoil at the very suggestion. then with a profuse sense of inevitability . willing to risk everything in her quest for true love. perhaps. Suddenly. and that brought its own kind of peace. “Then I saw you. Too man y innocent people had suffered as a result.” Leah was grateful to be left alone. Both had seen their daring hopes for love destroyed. Perhaps she and her mother were alike after all. Adrian had accused her of being a romantic. albeit reckless. defy his father and forsake his birthright. She knew. pressing it into her tremb ling hands. She could never condone what her mother had done. really.

whether he liked it or not. that I have so been looking forward to speaking privately with you. or more silly little sandwiches or biscuits with chocolate. still looking around for Michael. A hasty. where are you dashing off to now? Not planning a French leave. It’s not that severe.” “Since you’re determined to leave. perhaps. “But—” “No need to be sorry.” her aunt snapped. She would sure ly have a headache if she had to endure a private tęte-ŕ-tęte with this woman who sudd enly seemed more like an octopus than a dragon. All she wanted was to go to Adrian. I have a sudden headache. I h ope. loving no one. we can settle in for a nice lo ng.” It was almost true.” “‘Another time. cozy or otherwise.” exclaimed the countess.” “You can’t. That was why he lived inside a shell of an existence.” she said. Perhaps you ought to lie down. was because his heart was still vulnerable. and now we have our chance. “I must le ave. “I’m sorry. “No. in search of Michael. Her aunt plucked at the white lace trim on her cap. She had come directly from the garden to the center hall. I have not seen you for longer than a few moments all afternoon.and lightness. And she most definitely did not want to settle in for a chat. then knit her fingers togeth . She did not want more tea. unannounced departure was precisely what Leah had planned. “Now that my other guests have all gone. and all the feelings and longing s she had been denying even to herself poured forth. More tea?” Leah felt trapped. “I’ll just have to speak my piece no w.” joked her aunt. She was meant to love him. “Leah. cozy chat. but she had every intention of saving Adrian from himself. I simply want to make it home before it gets worse.” Her aunt took her firmly by the hand and led her into the dra wing room. Hope grew inside her. All the curious twis ts and turns in their respective paths that had finally landed them together had to be proof of that. Aunt Millicent. “Actually. I’ll ring for—” Leah clutched the small bell as her aunt lifted it from the table. She had tried so hard to hide from the truth. Yet. she a llowed herself to truly think about his revelation. “I swear. my dear Duchess. Right that instan t. then attempted to soften the sharp command with a coy smile. It occurred to her that the reason he had worked so hard to keep her from seeing past his anger to what was in his heart. “That is to say. Destined for it. resisting her aunt’s efforts to nudge her into a chair.” she said. For the first time since Adrian had stalked from her chamber that morning.” the coun tess added. Really. trusting no one. “How awful. and making certa in no one got close enough to love him. She had been unable to save her mother. Now the wall she had built for her own protection vanished.” “About what?” Leah inquired warily. my dear. before Michael returns and calls for his carriage.

“but just think of the scandal if word of our situation gets out. if you were to approach him .” the countess continued. that’s all it was.” her aunt conceded. “The Aldwick estates are among the most extensiv e—” “That’s the problem. “The only venture of his that ever prove d a plum was his shipbuilding arrangement with Raven. Surely. “We are quite out at the heels. especially when she has the full backing and support of the Duke of Raven.” She quickly brought her gaze around. “But think of your sister. amazed at the woman’s au dacity. wondering if she had heard right. Now. your father seemed to lose interest. as it surely will if something is not done . in the situation you landed yourself i n.” “What about matters of family?” Her aunt pinned her with an accusing gaze. I do not involve myself in matters of business. I wou ld urge you to do the same. That’s what he’s proposed agai n this time.” Leah shrugged. of all people. if you would be so kind . This really was unbelievable. “It’s dwindled steadily over the years.” “How is that possible?” she demanded. and it never quite p icked up. With your moth er and you girls gone.” She shook her head.” She sniffed. Your uncle tries. “Christiana’s inheritance is not in any way tie d to the estates. Your Grace?” Leah looked away with a small. but I do not involve myself in my husband’s business dealings.” “As I said. as some do. it was absurd. do you understand?” “I do not recall money ever before being a problem. “Not that you have anything to worry about. “Do you inv olve yourself in those. Aunt. What of the income from the es tates?” “Income. “I hardly think the unfortunate circumstances of relations she has not seen in a decade will adversely affect Christiana’s prospects.” She glanced around and lowered her voice to a whisper.er in a tight ball at her waist. I want to ask you to intercede with your husband on your uncle’s behalf. as if Leah’s statement had settled like a burn under her chemis . “A preliminary decision. The estates are extensive and elaborate and expensive. ha.” Her aunt squirmed. .. . Leah stared at her.” “No. The upke ep alone has drained every last penny we possess. should be lecturing her on family loyalty. Lord knows. but he doesn’t have the gift for turning a n easy sovereign. that Aunt Millicent. “Actually. it’s a request I have to make of you.” her aunt announced baldly. I t was beyond laughable.” “You mean to say he’s already turned my uncle down?” she asked. Busted. .” “We are ruined. . It’s sure to be a money-maker for all involved. Her aunt waved her hand. if you could get the Duke to reverse his decision. The earl ha s submitted a business proposal for his consideration and he—” “I’m sorry. and soon.. incredulous laugh. “I thought that would get your attention.

he thought triumphantly.” Chapter 15 Something was different. He took another. whether to be a wife to Adrian or retreat inside a shell of her own. you turned me down cold? Th is has nothing to do with being selfish or mean-spirited.” she declared. “But I shall speak to Raven on my uncle’s behalf.” She felt a twinge of conscience. clo ser look around. for permission to visit for the holidays or even a simple word of encouragement whe n I let it be known we would be in town this season. “You may be right. It was completely her decisi on whether to let go of the past. missing. That soft gray film. Not on the floors or furnishings or glass lamps. if she was not willing to do the same? Her aunt had taken advantage of her silence to resume her appeal. to nurture whatever tenderness wa s left in him and help him heal the deeply buried wound that when poked. the kind that annihilated everything in its pa th.” The word froze on her tongue. which she tried to conce al by fixing her aunt with a stare worthy of a duchess. He stood still and listened to the silence. Something was missing. though he r own gaze remained beady and intent. She had been intending to rush home to Adrian. all of them now twinkling like clusters of diamonds. . was gone. “I cannot make any promises. . Her days of being bullied were over. anywhere. only a little brighter. when each and every time I wrote to you with a request. But my Jenny cannot claim the same advantage.e. “You don’t mean that. Just as it was h er decision whether to remain in London or return to an empty house in Baumborou gh. or a mean-sp irited one. caused him to lash out the way he had that morning. or carry it with her forever. Not different. and left the landscape so barren that nothing cou ld survive in its wake.” “Jenny is not my concern. touching Leah’s arm lightly. of which there seemed to be so many m ore than he recalled. “Mean-spirited? You dare use those words to me after the tr eatment my sister and I have received at your hands all these years? You dare to ask me for a favor.” “Selfish?” Leah exclaimed. which had served t o tone down color and texture and make everything just a little easier on the ey e. Adrian’s brand of justice. He glanced around Raven House’s marble entrance hall. That was it.” she said. raising h er hand in her fervor to make her point. .” the other woman protested. Adrian sensed it the second the front door closed behin d him. guilty and innocent alike. Dust. cutting the other woman off mid-sentence. “You were never a selfish girl. He had never realized the crystal chandelier overhead had quite so many facets. How could she ask him to put aside the pain and the injustices of the past. There wasn’t any. She was wastin g her time. Everything appeared as usual. Justice. “and everything to do with . There was no argument and no amount of reasoning that could bend Lea h to her will. all of them aglow.

Though the most expedient means of summo ning assistance would be to use the bells. Lemon oil. .” the servant added. efficient. She left word to request you kindly join her the re as soon as you arrive home. Your Grace?” came the response before he had made a sound. “Damnation. How was he expected to d eal with a woman who could change the very air a man breathed? he thought irrita bly. “Dinner for two. .” “Well. “Yes.” “They do now. She is in her chamber. he thought. Recalling the mood of their last encounter. The head groom was now the manservant in charge of the househo ld. man.He sniffed the air and discovered it was different too. “It gives me the damn shudders. it definitely was not mutton. he had hardly expected to be invite d back to her chamber until hell had frozen over.” He glanced up to the place where the wide staircase curved into the darkness abo ve. still pouting.” “I anticipated your intent. What in blazes was the woman up to now? . “It would indeed. “How very . Ah. His mo uth watered. he decided. tonight was mutton night. thinking it very likely also accounte d for the blinding glare coming off the carved walnut banister. He opened his mouth to bellow for Phelps. Hovering just be neath the lemon oil was another scent. and sometimes not even then. he thought. this one spicy and very appealing.” he said. sir.” “But I didn’t call. sir. Even so. Adrian gave a jerk. “I heard the door close and came to stand at the ready until you called for me. What the hell was going on? He started to call for Thorne and then remembered that Thorne had been reassigne d to the kitchen. “Please inform the Duchess that I would have her join me for dinner. Then again. and by his calculati ons.” He indicated the brocade bellpull near by. That was the scent. Has the Duchess returned?” “Yes.” Adrian bit back an oath. I’ll call when I want you. he thought with new fondness for the old coot. Your Grace. he decided he would prefer to me et her on neutral territory.” Phelps indicated a spot by the stairs. Whatever it was. “As you wish.” T horne had never appeared until he was summoned. maybe she wasn’t pouting. Phelps bowed his head. except that fully half the bells do not function properly. Or rather.” Phelps informed him. where the hell did you appear from?” “There.” snapped Adrian. and even then not for an intim ate dinner for two. with a sneer. don’t. the major domo. “Madam has already arranged for dinner to be served in her chamber. Your Grace. sir.

his tone straining for credibility. lest he forget his purpose for being there. His appetit e was not the only thing being teased. He shook his head and slipped Christiana’s note from his pocket. fres h asparagus with cream sauce and tiny white potatoes speckled with parsley. “I discovered a week or so ago that he was a far better cook than poor Snake would ever be.” Mind being alone with her in that dress? Within an easy tumble of that bed? Sipp ing his favorite wine and nibbling spicy sausages from her long. ripe peach just begging to be devoured. He had to hand it to her. this languorous mood could not last.” He tasted the full-bodied red and nodded. This time when his mouth watered it had nothing to do with the aroma seeping from the silver domed lids on the serving table. “At least have some wine. the longer he thought about it. Dozens of them had been plac ed around the room. their light bathing her skin with a warm glow. “But tell me. It seemed to be no color at all unti l she moved. silvery explosion of every color in the dam n rainbow.” . The covers had be en turned back to reveal a lacy nest. the more he came to understand that there were three of them there only if you did not c ount the gown she was wearing. ther e is also Russian caviar. “I believe it is a particular favorite of yours. he decided. Whatever her motive.” She poured a glass and handed it t o him. “I hope you don’t mind.” he replied smoothly. “Dinner. “To tease your appetite beforehand. making her lo ok like a soft. Leah smiled knowingly. caressing her all over and driving him to distraction.” she replied.” he said. lifting another cover.” “And to think I’ve been forcing down mutton two times a week for years. “I dismissed the servants so I could serve you myself this evening. As soon as Leah heard what he had come to say. “What is all this?” he inquired. elegant fingers ? “Not at all. Adrian told himself firmly.” she told him. which seemed to dominate the room. The blasted candles only made it worse. the low-cut chemise was sheer and clingy and radiated a presence all its own. Certain ly it was dominating his thoughts. Him. the Duchess and The Bed. Clearly not intended to see the light of day. and these delightful little Bolognese sausages. he realized as soon as he was welcomed ins ide the chamber by Leah herself. “Shall I feed you?” He could almost feel the beads of sweat popping out on his forehead. lifting one lid to reveal slices of rare beef. the fire in the hearth would not be the only thing sho oting off sparks. Spanish olives. Then it became a muted. “I can wait. and.” She picked one up with her fingers and eyed him enticingly. but tonight he has amazed even me. is Thorne really responsible for all this?” She nodded.There were three of them in the room. It w as a shame he would not be there long enough to eat. this was a very effective countermove. But was it inte nded as a taunt or an invitation? It did not matter.

“It’s just that she . losing himself in the mysterious g reen pools of her eyes. from Baumborough. he raised his other hand to share in the bounty and from the corner of his eye he saw he was still holding the note from her sister.” he said.” he heard himself say.” He tightened both fists around the blasted note. “Detained how? For how long?” Her brows furrowed in that familiar V. “That won’t be necessary. Talk about backing into something t he long way around. has it?” “No. she laughed up at him. I shall ring and have a plate of mutton brought for you immediately.” Her smile softened seductively. trusting hi m. “All you had to do was open your eyes and see the potential all around you. does that satisfy you?” “No.. drawing it lower. and to his disg . “There is so mething I must discuss with you and there is no sense in delaying any longer. And it occurred to him that Leah might take the news of the elopement better on a full stomach. Did you ever stop to consider that?” “No. Y our Grace?” He shook his head.” He trailed one fingertip down the length of her throat and h ooked the center of the neckline. and froze. “And this .. “But if that is the case. he said.” she chided.” “What is it?” she asked. Forcing himself to look her in the eye.” “Perhaps I liked things the way they were. “Oh dear. nothing has happened to her. exposing the upper swells of her breasts. hating the damage he was about to do. . “She’s been detained.” Dropping his hands to his sides.“That is entirely your own fault. nothing has happened to h er. .” It seemed foolhardy to stand on principle when you had no idea when the next dec ent meal would come along. “A messenger arrived this morning .” she answered. “What is it? Is something the matter?” “No. he took a step away from her. running his hand over the filmy wrapper she wore over the ch emise. Yes. “And I like these very. Damn. “Damn..” “I will admit to liking what I see under those lids better than mutton. crushing it the way he was about to crush her fondest dreams. believing him.” He grasped her hand as she reached for the bell-pull. Adrian.” As he spoke. You like the changes I have made. very . “Admit it.” Her face lit up. her own became shadowed. taking the bait willingly. .. “With news of Christiana? Do you know when she will be arriving?” N oting his expression. . making it sound more like a complimen t. “Is that the only thing you see that you like. He clutched the note more tightly. her tone wary. Without removing her hand from his.” he muttered. “I like this.” he assured her and watched her relax.

“All that remains is to hire the ladies to fill them. More wine?” He held his glass while she filled it. sitting around trying to keep each other awake.” She shook her head.” . “That is. the various cages built and decorated. “Not quite. “Not too long. i f you’re here long enough.” “Really?” she said with feigned astonishment. to repay her for making him feel things he did not want to feel and for exposing his weakness.” Her silence was expectant. He took another succulent mouthful of beef and chewed in silence.” she replied. At least as far as the tea itself. he deplored it. demanding that he elaborate. was going to wipe it from her face for good. “Tedious. The public areas have been completely refurbished. Tedious sums it up nicely. He did not like that smile at all. Fine. “Now tell me about your day. because it was the polite thing to do. very shortly.” He snapped the one word reply. In fact.” He snorted. Almost as much as he deplored having to be the one who. with a little smile. I’ve sat through any number of sessions of Lords that could be described the same way. “A very apt description. he would give her details. she wanted details.” he urged. he thought. “What did he have to say that you found s o fascinating?” “We talked about my mother. over a meal that rivaled any he had sampled from c hefs renowned the world over. “How are your plans progressing for the House of Birds?” “Rapidly.” she replied.” He to ok a bite of beef and chewed vigorously. All he had done with his tr umped-up excuse about the weather was postpone the inevitable. “I’ve told you they were great friends. Lavishly.” He laughed with genuine amusement. “Tea at your aunt’s. of course. “I suppose I should have known better than to ask. deciding there was a great deal to be sai d for dispensing with servants now and again. and one with many appl ications.” “Of course. “And here I pictured the House of Lords as a place where the noblest of men debate matters of great import.” “Him again? He seems to be underfoot nearly as much as Will and Colin lately. I believe?” “Yes. “I did have a very interesting conversation with Michael Holt this afternoon howev er. . It’s the weather that’s holding them up. I’ll bring you along one day and you can sit in the gallery and see for yourself .ust. he found himself making another adjustment in his approach. I’m sure of that much.” He lowered his gaze to his plate. So bloody unpredictable at this time of year. .” He met her gaze. “Colin’s property proved to be perfe ctly suited to my needs. Shall we eat?” “How was your day?” she inquired. A bunch of dre adful bores.

Well. I meant all you had to do was ask. he thou ght. that’s what this is all about. “So. glowering.” Her frown slowly gave way to that smile once more. Adrian nodded. “And that nonsense about dispensing with the servants and serving me yourself . There was nothing within his power to grant that he would deny her tonight.” “I am not glowering. I’ve a favor to ask of you. and he seems to feel he can pick up with you where he left off with her. which made him think that in a real bus iness negotiation with her. for a moment.” she insisted.” “Do you mean you won’t reconsider the proposal?” she asked softly. . I’m af raid. that ridiculous excuse fo r a .” “Go ahead.” he growled. a rather sizable one. But I would have done so even if you had not gone to such ridiculous length s. . according to Aunt Millicent. that this laborious scene represented anything as innocent as a desire to have dinner with him..” The look of consternation he mustered was a pitiful sham. “If it makes you feel better. What a fool he was. I’ll agree to his damn proposal. Blood vessels most likely. and my cousin Jenny. sausages. Oh. approve it?” He eyed her suspiciously. that I do not want to see them ruined when it may be within my power to help. I’ll have you know it was all a w aste of time.” His gaze locked on her breasts. put yourself in more danger than you can possibly know of e nding up in precisely the same spot you did last night..“Yes. As I distinctly recall promising you I would . . a . “What is that look for?” “What look?” “That look. “I believe my uncle recently submitted a business proposal for your consideration.. they are in the most dire financial straits .” There was a little popping noise in his head. an attempt to hide from himself the truth of the matter. “No. . The candles. And I find. I also spoke with Lady Williams..” “I know. and all of them men. the same day I return ed it—unopened—with a letter of regret. to think. “But do you think you might possibly ask to see it again? And actually look at it this t ime? And. “Gown. of all things.” she said. rising and falling rapidly inside t he diaphanous silk.” “He’s being kind. whatever it is. if at all possible. “Why?” “Because. and Aunt Millicent. and. “Gown?” she suggested.” She flashed him a beguiling smile. “It arrived on my desk last Thursday morning. which reminds me. I assure you. quite to my own amazement. All fem ales. You’re . seeing red. the wine. he would be lucky to walk away with his skin. He flung his napkin aside and stood. then frowned. I’m thrilled my wife has made so many new friends so quickly af ter arriving in town. I might add. Do you understand?” He som .

” Hearing himself compared to other notable vices went a long way toward restoring his equilibrium.” Adrian gaped at her in disbelief. as if it were on a damn string and she was the puppet master. “None of this was for their sake.” she went on. Or.” “And the second?” . a small smile tugged at her beautiful mouth. since you do not make it at all easy and. past her breasts.. at leas t a version of it. . that this is mad ness.” she said. For God’s sake. “Why?” “Because it occurred to me this afternoon that two can play your game.” The mere mention of the gown jerked his gaze back in that direction. getting rid of the servants.” she amended. bewildered. guileless look on her face left hi m no doubt that as insane and impossible a notion as it was. “That will never happen. “Yes. even this gow n . great smothering waves of panic. to his bewilderment. He was powerless to stop it from sliding lower. the v ery best thing that has ever happened to me. but instead s he merely folded her arms. You set out to seduce me into bed and it was wonderful. why would you even contemplate such a th ing?” “Because I love you. truthfully. .ehow managed to lift his gaze from her breasts to her face. you show no promise of being worth all the effort.” He gazed at her. the candles. I shoul d hate to hear what you would liken me to if you did not feel so tenderly. “Two things. enticing pool at the V of her thighs. standing and stepping away from the table. “What are you talking about?” “I’m talking about the wine. and wished he had sat down a moment ago when his legs had f irst started feeling shaky. down her stomach to where the material formed a shallow. “You don’t have to say it. af ter everything I told you this morning.” Reluctantly he dragged his gaze back to her face. “Except what?” “Except none of this had anything at all to do with my aunt and uncle.” Adrian braced himself. where. I’ve decided I am going to return the favor by seducing you into falling in love.” What now? he thought. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” she asked quietly. “The devil alone knows why. Panic. “I know what you are thinking. woman. she believed it.” she answered.. “Except . I love you. and the open. You certainly have a unique way of expressing your affection. “Especially this gown. Like gambling o r taking snuff. He went cold inside. But it is true just the same. It was for your s. half expecting her to throw herself at him. was crashing over him. Bu t apparently love is one of those things that defy common sense.

and a take-it-or-leave-it philosophy that ran righ t to the bone. inquisi tive. But he needed something now. She tasted of soap and salt and woman and he c ouldn’t get enough. caressing his chest with her pal ms. she went to work on his shirt. For years he had been honing to perfection the qualities of det achment and self-sufficiency. He looked on. and it scared the hell out of him. again and again until he had conquered this need. Adrian realized. “The question is. white-hot and sparking. She unbuttoned his waistcoat and he let her. Then her hands were on him and it was too late. He needed it badly. wet. there was no way on earth he c ould let Leah leave until he had quenched his lust for her.” She took a step closer to him. to overwhelm. relishing the feather-light brush o f her fingers. “The way you tasted me last night. even as he hungered for more. ordered an unfamiliar voice inside. and groaned. that nothing is goi ng to turn out the way she hoped it would. Tell her. He straightened and locked gazes with her. creating an opening between his still neatly t ied neckcloth and his waist. he tugged. It was sanity.” she whispered against his skin. giving them up to his hungry gaze and eager mouth. “And until Christiana arrives. If the moment went on forever he would still never get enough.” . He kissed her hard. madam. Do y ou remember? My throat and my tummy and my—” “Sweet Jesus. Her mou th touched him next. “Leah.” Tell her. He needed to devour.” “It’s my time.” She playfully slid her hands inside. He licked her there. to possess . He needed the sweet hot ta ste of her all over his tongue and the liquid fire of her fingers moving on his skin. . H e raked her with his teeth and pressed his mouth to the sweet valley between.” he uttered. It was survival. that there will not be any happy ending to this story. then dragged his teeth along her throat and the curve of her shoulder. intrigued as she leaned closer. and she smiled. hissed inside him. I have a g reat deal of it to waste. bending to capture her mo uth and stop it with his own. shall I take it off or will you?” “Neither. that was not a matter of pride. “what do you think you’re doing?” “Tasting you. then he felt her warm breath on hi s bare chest and was swept by a rush of something he was afraid to name. “There isn’t time. When she’d finished with his waistcoa t. until the str aps fell below her breasts. He needed what she had surrendered to him last night. roughly. He was not a needy man. her soft lips slightly parted. Desire. Tell her that her sister won’t be co ming.“You are wasting your time. “Lovely coat. feeling distinctly unplayful. Hooking one finger inside her gown. . her tongue hot. Her sister be damned. For him.” He gripped her shoulders and hauled her up.” he growled.

he slid his hand between their bodies and pressed his splayed fingers to her belly. fragrant curls. too deep into it now to slow down. He plunged his shaft between her thighs. Wet. as she closed a round him like a satin glove. all-new need rose up inside him. His breath came in short. Leah cried out with surprise and delight. physical pleasure. Bury ing his face in her shoulder. not daring penetration. She was hot. not tonight. made his blood r un thick. creating a sweet. he told himself. all pent-up heat and energy. He tang her soft. “Yes. pressing her there with his body. Adrian felt the wild clutching of her muscles. until there was nowhere higher left and as one they tumbled off t he edge of the universe. When at last his fingers uncovered what he s a rough groan. concealing her eyes from him. stroking deeper and lower. She braced her hands on his broad shoulders. and clamped her le gs closer together. direct gaze of hers. The very idea thrilled him and scared him and made him tighten his grip on her. at once so guileless and so utterly erotic. He b ent his head and as he suckled her breast. reaching for the softness and the gent le curve that sloped down to the silky cloud of curls where her thighs met. He cupped her buttocks and pulled her to him. drinking her into his senses until it hurt to breathe. to give her the closest thing to love he had to offer—raw. she s aid the very last words he wanted to hear. to hear her small cries of amazement. Adrian wasted no time in releasing the buttons of his trousers. With the fabric bunched at her waist. and he would have been supremely content if it all just ended with that. kissing him. The movement. he released into her. She tossed her arm across her face. lusty rhythm. feeling the tantalizing curve of bare flesh beneath the silk. She was like a volcano. She quivered against his fingers and another. harsh pants as he rocked against her with ever greater demand. she ran her fingers through his hair. Needing more. As soon as she had recovered sufficiently to smile. her firm flesh sheathing him. He took her by the hips. moving faster and harder. seeking of flesh beyond. he inhaled her scent. wanting. This would have to suffice. Heaven. but they were going to finish it his way. sharing flesh and sensation. licking him. . their sweat-slick bodies straining together. and drew a kne e up. her head tur ning from side to side.She had started this game. to do more than feel and let the fe eling take him. as though they were already one. His fingers curved led his fingers in the fragile petals ought. gathering it up on both sides in a frantic rush to get at her. arching higher and hi gher together. greedy. and all the while his fingers were shimmying over her gown. and finding him with that dazzling. primitive rumbl e of satisfaction mingle with his rough gasp of pleasure as he found his own rel ease. to wait. They slammed together and pulled apart. wi th his senses so ravaged he was fearful he would not have the presence of mind t o withdraw in time. He levered upward. and hurriedly backed her up against the wall. holding on to him as the storm insi de drove her higher with its primitive. pressing and stroking that small mysterious nub where her ple asure was centered. H e needed to feel that sweet quiver again. Needing her. He heard her low. But no. moist suction that made him desperate. He thrust his leg between hers and felt a shudder that began in her and traveled through him. she groaned and groaned.” she whispered against the damp skin of his throat.

” . as she had known he would. “Do you recognize it?” she asked eagerly. the ruby’s fire burned with a softer. without a trace of doubt. Shou ld I bother asking how he got his hands on a priceless heirloom that had been in my family for generations prior to its mysterious disappearance?” “There is nothing nefarious about it. once she had unwrapped the legendary neckl ace. that must have been an interesting conversation. but with a laugh that reflected the way she felt i nside. She thought it best not to subj ect him to too many sentimental concepts all at once. I have proof. Then he offered the only reply a gentleman could under th e circumstances. though she refrained from telling him so. I shall never be sorry for following my heart. if that’s what you’re thinking.” “What sort of proof could you possibly have?” Breaking contact with her body.” “I’m not.” she whispered.” Adrian snorted. “Did you ever w onder why it’s called a heart and not a brain?” “Don’t be so cynical. “Of course. “Following it straight into disaster is what you’re doing. you see.“I love you. opting instead to drop a kiss on her ench antingly swollen lips. She retrieved the black velvet pouch from her drawer and brought it to him. No matter how it ends up. how do you happen to have it tucked away in your drawer?” “Michael gave it to me this afternoon. I’m being quite practical actually. There was something comfortable about that. or pull away.” Chapter 16 “I shall not be sorry.” He did as she asked and Leah quickly shimmied her gown back into place. but no less spectac ular glow. Adrian. “Don’t you be such a bloody romantic. and the diamonds glittered brightly.” He lifted his gaze to meet hers.” His dark brows rose.” she scolded. “A more interesting question is. In the candlelight. he shifted his weight and glared down at her. He managed not to wince. all loose and easy. “You’ll be sorry.” Leah told him. “Step aside and I’ll show you. “Ever.” he insisted. absently righted his own clothing. Adrian. watching her. “My my.

” “Just the same. Instead he has kept it safe all this time. He was capable of that muc h. “Because if I am right. she answered. then shoved his hands i n his pockets. As I recall. “He gave this to her. his suffering ha dn’t become enmeshed with her own. “You have it back now. If Michael had wanted to profit from this in some way. Today. as if gauging her temper. silent and expressionless.” Yesterday. Take it. What’s one more or less?” “Not jewels like this. and if somewhere along the way. Leah sighed. “Keep it. “Desperately.” he drawled. And she would have.” He eyed her for a few seconds.” “Why?” Ignoring the warning glitter in his midnight eyes.” he replied.“Of course not. “but I—” .” “Safe from its rightful owner.” “I’m happy you have found reason to defend him.” she concluded bluntly. the piece is not entailed in any wa y. his tone bored. all of it. at least. “This piece is priceless. “It’s sure to look better on you anyway. “Can’t you see what that means?” “That your mother drove a hard bargain?” “That’s crude. Just one more example of old Holt simply being a friend. if only for its personal significance to your family.” He sneered at the necklace in her hand. hat in hand. You’re just too pigheaded and set in your ways to ad mit it.” she argued. to end. “The family vault is full of jewels . I may be the one in dire straits and it w ill be you going to your aunt. the remark would have slashed straight to the heart of her vulnerability. he could have sought a private buyer years ago.” He shrugged.” “Do you want to hear about it or not?” she demanded. you mean. she recogniz ed the pain behind his cynicism and anger. as she related what Michael had confided about the relationship between her mother and his father and how the necklace h ad been a farewell present to her mother as she embarked on her new life. if the man gets too friendly. if she hadn’t gone and fal len in love with the scoundrel. He listened. thinking it would serve him right if she didn’t tell him and just let him go on running around in circles in the little world of bitterness and halftruths he’d been living in for years.” She thrust it at him.” he countered harshly. for all his faults. when he persisted in looking underwhelmed by the tale. it proves your father was not a completely coldhearted bastard and it is far easier for you to just go on telling yourself he was. but a great deal had changed since yesterday.” “That’s unfair. it was an extraordinarily personal and extravagant gift for a man to give to his mistress. he truly loved her.” “Here. and I know why. Careful. Duchess. “It was his to give. She wanted that suffering. “To have given her something so preciou s means that. “Don’t you see?” she prodded.” “Rubbish.

Of . pre cisely. “This is symbolic. suffered an even worse fate. “Michael said the necklace first c ame to your family as a reward for some clandestine. and how much co urage it took. “You r father did not steal just one woman from you. does this prove you are justified in following the foolish dictates of y our heart? It occurs to me your mother chose that route.” “Sometimes life strains credibility.” “And your father chose not to listen to his heart and. before adding. The damage he did tha t day was only the beginning.” Leah interrupted. and you let him. “You can stop yourself from making the same stupid mistake he did. “Man’s infinite capacity to delude himself ?” “No. But what I despise ev en more is what he is still doing to you. taking his arm when he tried to turn away. act on the king’s behalf.” “Of what?” he countered with biting cynicism. just when she thought she was reaching him. of . her voice rising. “I must have missed something crucial in all this. so horrid.” She let go of his arm and held the necklace in both hands. “Lord knows. so unrelentingly evil.” “Did he?” She let the question hang in the air. “Think about it. in my opinion. “He got exactly what he wanted. just as in the end. that you must dedicate every day of the rest of your life to avenging yourself. he takes away possibilities. courage. all the babies you might have had . “As far away as I could get. You can stop thinking of your father as some malevolent ogre. Duchess. “I think not.” He kept his gaze averted. at last settling on the word that came closes t to capturing something that was pure emotion. Where were you when your father d rew his last breath?” His eyes narrowed.” She held up the necklace once more. and no doubt dangerous and courageous. turning on her. but you can stop allowing something that happened years ago to keep on hurtin g you. I suspect he got what he thought he wanted.” “Forgive me. what he’d always been told he shoul d want. . “Make no mistake. He takes from you every single day.. He did not take only one child. we are nothing if no . finding a woma n he loved and letting her go. every single day that you choose to go on living in the shadow o f his mistakes.” “Don’t you see? He gave up on love in favor of duty and some narrow sense of family tradition.” she pleaded. everywhere a nd forever. But it strains credulity even more than Olivia and Nevar’s doe s. that you might still have. he failed himself. with disastrous results .” he said. I desp ise him for what he did to you and that will never change.” “Failed?” he challenged. A muscle quivered at his jaw.” she shot back.” she said. and lost his only son in the bargain. How.. Adrian. “I cannot undo what he did .” “Nice story. You just go on letting him.” “No. then gleamed with comprehension. withdrawing behind that shuttered look. I think he chose all the things that are supposed to matter over the thi ngs that really do. He understood what she was doing and why. he took any number of them. what he has cost you and what he goes on costing you. he stole all women.“I am not defending him.. and ended up with nothing. . failing her just as he failed you.. or perhaps. Your father gave it to my mother to wish her well in her new life.

The roomy chamber suddenly seemed reduced to the size of a cell. for all his miserable failings as bot h a father and a human being. prove to her once and for all that she was sadl y mistaken if she thought she could overhaul and rearrange his thoughts and beli efs as easily as she had everything else around Raven House. His wife thought he was redeemable. a man who had scrupulously adhered to the family tradition surrounding a frigging bed. the closed door a solid barricade at his back. But though destroying the bed might provide momentary satisfaction. “Personally. delectabl e. . But she was wrong. Again he berated himself for failing to tell her about her sister’s elopement. He dragged both hands through his hair as he paced the floor. in the process. His palms were sweating and his head fel t as if it had been kicked around. that he could be seduced as easily as an ove rripe spinster.” Not until he was alone in his own chamber.. The Raven Wedding Bed. if he had ever truly loved Dava. the one holding the necklace. and he was going to prove it to her. cold-hearted bastard alive. Leah’s statements suggested that his father. Adrian. She would doubtless feel used and betrayed and rail at him for being the most conniving. And more resolved than eve r to keep his guard up around her. His wandering gaze at last came to rest on the bed. He briefly considered visiting his club.” “A perfect ending. It made him angry. had at least practiced what he preached. Duchess. have given the equally rever ed Sun and Stars to a woman for any reason other than he loved her beyond reason ? The fact that he could not come up with a more likely explanation than Leah’s did not make him like hers any better. all this would be behind him and his life could return to normal. Personally. . he decided. He ha d a sudden impulse to summon Thorne and order the useless thing carted outside a nd burned. only to discover that neither d rinking nor gaming held the appeal it usually did when he found himself in a res tless mood. Adrian was still not convinced the man had had it in him to love or cherish anyone except as pawns to fulfill his v ision of what life ought to be. the more difficult telling her was going to be. unprincipled. he tho ught. In other words. Think of it. His gaze darted about like a cage d bird. i t would not eliminate the niggling suspicion that was already eating away at the edges of his resolve. and brought it to his lip s. And now. exactly what he was.” He reached for her hand. The lo nger he waited. “Night. what were the odds of us coming together a t all? Much less in the curious manner we did. did Adrian abandon the facade of nonchalance he had somehow maintained in her presence. because of us. and the angrier Leah was going to be that he had withheld the information from her in the first place. That is. the Sun a nd Stars is at last back where it belongs . and murmured. News of the elopement could wait a few days. and at no small cost. His stubbornly opaque gaze locked with hers as he dropped a perfunctory kiss on the back of her hand. as if this was always meant to be. If he had. I’m much too tired tonight to undertake the complete abandonment of rationality it would take for me to believe any of what you’ve said. Dinner was . Why not use it for the princess and old Nevar?” He stretched migh tily.t proof of that.. He would indulge her li ttle scheme and. Why would his father. .

nibbling her bottom lip in a way tha t Adrian. of course. . th ere was the same mood of breezy lightheartedness Leah seemed to evoke wherever s he went. for the first time in a decade. e ver since she had thrown herself into this campaign to seduce him into falling i . what the rector consents to wear is entirely his own business. when they were alone together.” “Didn’t I warn you that I was a master at Dutch Rubbers?” Colin teased.” “Very funny. observing from a shadowed corner of the house. be that as it may. Never this early in the season however. It means Colin is still beating you by double digits and edging me out by t hree. both their passions ran too high and hot to ever be described as anything resemb ling light or breezy. he felt something for the man who had sired him other than pure. W ill. and nev er had they appeared to be having so much fun. feelings he no longer had any use for. what would he have left? Chapter 17 “That’s seven pins down for me.” exclaimed Leah. Though he coul d not put a name to what he was feeling. unmitigated hatred. The three of them joked and laughed easily together as they went about setting u p the lawn game for another round of play. He had nurtured and developed it. narrow. Besides which. found most tempting.” she scoffed. Except with him. feeli ngs like trust and innocence and need. “Drat.” “And I still say. it was hatred alone that had sustained him and given him a purpose t o go on living. So me might consider that an improvement. The more it grew. It had been years since Adrian had se en the long. . But they coul d not possibly understand. “and five for Will. It was at the cente r of who he was. If he lost that.” muttered Will. Of course. with its frame at one end to hold nine sm all pins. That had been truer than ever for the past several days. “It’s simply that your legs are so much longer than mine and that your two steps and throw is double what I can manage. In the darkest days of his life. Eventually there was nothing left inside him but bitterness. no longer wanted to have use for. wooden enclosure. He had no doubt Leah would. “Some master. given it shape and direction a nd carried it with him always. following the double betrayal by his father and Charlotte. For better or worse. I am not donning a skirt.At least. I sti ll say my skirts get in the way. the more room it commanded inside him. Add to what we had at the start of this round . as a knight always carried his shield into battle . Other feelings gave way . she could not alter them any more than she already had.” She paused. He had a vague recollection of his mother playing Dutch Rubbers with h er friends on summer afternoons. Despite her playful grumbling. He was sorry when she completed the computations in her head and looked up.

he resisted the faint tug of wha t could only be conscience. S he’s frighteningly good as is and I don’t fancy losing at Dutch Rubbers to a slip of a female. “I married a genius. he was actually doing her a favor.” Adrian could no longer resist. too o ptimistic. And he. Leah giggled. Shall I clear the skies for you?” “If it’s not too much bother.” ordered Colin. that a two-pro nged attack was most effective when your aim was to bring the enemy to his knees . “No whi stling while the master prepares.” “Two steps.” Colin responded grudgingly.” “That’s brilliant.” Leah retorted. He spent his days accelerating plans for the House of Birds and his nights takin g everything Leah offered him.” he said. “A real man rises above the birds. She smiled at him often th ese days. “Silence.” Leah stretched onto her toes and looped one arm around his nec k to reward him with an exuberant kiss on the cheek. “One step. “Perfecto.” She smiled broadly at the sight of him. Colin took two long strides and hurled the ball along the wooden planks. “It’s the birds. “No.” he shot back over his shoulder. knowing.” Ignoring them. if indeed anyone ever had. “Forget the skirt and have these gentlemen grant you three extra steps to com pensate.” Colin quickly conceded.” He threw both arms in the air and grinned. all part of her scheme to break him. “Traitor. It was. then shot Adrian a disgusted look. he strolled toward the corner of the narrow lawn where they had set up play.n love. which apparently did not strike anyone but him as remarkable. prompting groans all around. renewing his det ermination to prove to her that he could not be broken.” “That’s not us. taking all three of them by surpr ise. Duchess. he deci . as all good soldiers did. It was a totally spontaneous gesture. as he made a great show of lining up his next throw. barrister.” decreed Will. telling him that as cruel and calculating as his act ions might seem.. in turn. had launched a private counterattack guaranteed to put an end to any and all romantic fantasies involving him and happily-ever-after. gentlemen?” s he asked. and too damned romantic to be discouraged by anything less. “You’re using the wrong strategy. Leah was too generous. “It’s either that or the skirt. Unless you fancy having it get around that you forfeited a match to a slip of a female?” “Two steps. Master. he told himself. “It appears a real man lets his performance speak for him. take your pick. a real man would wear a skirt and even things up. knocking over all nine pins. He could not recall the last time any woman had planted so c asual a kiss anywhere on his body .” Adrian put forth on her behalf.. Stepping forward into the sunshine. “How about it. As he watched her laughing with such abandon.

I hear Biswell is going to run the filly he got from Mother of Pearl. “Newmarket boasts the best horse racing anywhere. All in all. I ran into young Wickerson again last night. .” he went on. “but I’ll come along for the show. I’ll stake you. Now I shall leave you to your game. “I’d love to go.ded. a straight course over s ome of the most taxing terrain there is. How about it?” “My pockets are empty until the first.” Her mouth curved merrily.” “Why not join us?” she invited. or facilities. he added.” replied Will.” “Happy does not begin to express my sentiments. All three men chuckled. “Gives me goose bumps just to think of the killing to be made on t hat. “You have to watch from your mo unt. “How long have you been watching?” she inquired.” he offered Will.” More low-pitched chuckling. for one thing. it’s a long day in the saddle and not at all. resigning himself to th e fact that there would not be a single corner left untouched when she was throu gh.” Adrian saw her jaw set. Duchess.” “I should like the opportunity to decide that for myself. “And suckers. It’ll be he r first time out.” added Adrian dryly.” she assured him.” she declared. “Sorry. “There are also no stands. “It’s not a difficult game. “I only came out to ask Will and Colin if they’re up for Newmarket on Thursday.” replied Will. Thinking quickly. you’d abhor Newmarket. “I don’t play lawn games. “Only a moment.” he drawled.” said Colin. “The sport of kings. And one he did not need. Where on earth did you dig up that old relic anyway?” “Brewster found it when he took over the stables. He smiled indulgently. my pockets are full. but Newmarket is no place for ladies. smiling up at him. If you think Dutch Rubbers is no place for ski rts. I’m certain. “It’s us ually endless mud. along with a number of other ite ms that have probably been missing from the household for years. “Turf. as luck would have it. the challenge still in her voice. I happen to love a good horse race. the gent eel sort of horse race you’ve witnessed at country fairs. “You’ll be happy to know the fireplace in the library now has a matched se t of andirons. T his Thursday will be the Fawley Mile for two-year-olds. different sort of pleasure than any he was accustomed to.” Colin whistled.” he lied. a subtle. And. “What’s at Newmarket?” she asked.” Leah’s green eyes brimmed with excitement.

He ignored them . “I have work to do. Ordinarily when she was working on a story.” Fun. was the last time he had done anything simply because it promised to be fun? “I won’t even ask you to wear a skirt. Still. and the injured look that flashed in Leah’s eyes. . . quickly finding the one she w as looking for. She had just seen the man she loved at his worst.” She was cajoling now. scarred and . Olivia was certain of one thing and one thing only . “My woman is. Adrian? It wil l be fun.” he advised. Leaning back in her chair. She was dredging up all sorts of buried memories that day. . Her lips pursed in concentration. she straightened and began rummaging through t he manuscript pages piled at the side of her desk. her ploy so obvious it was laughable. he wondere d. It was no use. she was not sharing it with her creator. . Did the woman really think he could be taken down with such an unskilled maneuve r? She stepped closer and placed her hand lightly on his arm. . Frustrated. Preoccupied with the convoluted affairs of her own heart.” she teased.” Chapter 18 Olivia decided . she seemed to have lost the thread of Olivia and Nevar’s story. Don’t forget it.” “Don’t waste your breath. Olivia thought if only she . “Please. however. Leah tossed aside her pen and propped her chin in a cupped palm. she had written herself into a corner. gazing at him from be neath a lush fringe of dark lashes.” “Are women officially precluded?” she persisted. When. . It was Adrian.“That’s not the point.” “Surely your work can wait a half hour. she was so deeply in volved she had practically every word committed to memory. Nowhere in the scene in which Olivia saw Nevar without his mask did she actually come right out and say he was scarred. . and her suspicion was right.” His hard tone drew curious looks from Will and Colin. she could not believe she would have forgotten so critical a detail. . “There is not a chance on God’s green earth of my s howing up at Newmarket with a woman. Recently her life had been anything but ordinary. If Olivia had any inkling of what she was up to.” That she thought the reason he would not play was because he l acked confidence irritated him. “And it will give us an opportunity to discuss my deep and abiding love of horse racing. . Leah closed her eyes and imagined herself in Princess Olivia’s place. “Your place in my life is limite d to this house and my bed.

and she had gone a long with him. If only Christiana would arrive. a curse that blinded him to his own beauty and kep t him from seeing himself as he really was.. It co nsisted of the usual letters for Adrian and an array of invitations addressed to Bu a wh ea a cu and paw .reading over her shoulder. Adrian was as good as cursed. Deciding she was finished for the day. Such as he believed himself to be scarred even though he was not. completely bli nd to his capacity to love. because he was laboring under some sort of awful curse of his own . on the surface things were fine. she reached for her pen and forced her attention back to her work. such as . Like Adrian. She couldn’t help wondering what he was up to.. What if Nevar was n ot scarred? What if there were some other reason he kept his face hidden behind that leather mask? Such as .. In fact. . t just yesterday Adrian had received word that her sister’s carriage had lost eel and would be held up for at least a day or so while repairs were made. As ger as she was to see Chrissie. It would hardly do to have her arrive and find Leah’s supposedly devoted head-over-heels in love bridegroom walking around like a bear who’d stuck his in a hornet’s nest. she paused on her way to find Phelps and looke d through the morning mail gathered in the Chinese bowl by the front door. Oh. Princess. she thought. Smiling wickedly in anticipation. she thought wi th a surge of excitement. and in bed. And he no longer protested her pre parations for Christiana’s arrival. especially since it was fr equently accompanied by a scowl. she thought wistfully. He was bound to be weary after a long day of finalizing plans for the aviary. He continued to play the p art of devoted husband in public. F or that reason alone. she mused. Now she let her imagination wander in a different direction. be sure to let me know. she couldn’t decide if that was a blessing or rse.. . . she went downstairs to see if Adrian had returned from an afternoon meeting with his solicitor. but she had not made much progress. cut off from his own feelings. It was. he occasionally made suggestions or p roposed the name of a suitable young man to be added to one of her pile of guest lists. And then. who had jumped to that conclusion. she knew. the only time he really let her close to him lately. her thoughts abruptly taking a more personal turn. she would have something else to occupy her. as the only man she could ever love. but the house always seemed quieter and a little darker when he was not there.. The problem was that his cooperation made her uneasy. Because . replacing the pen in the stand. It was absurd. and she had som e new bath salts that would pamper every aching muscle. she would go about taming him in ways not avai lable to princesses in fairy tales. She had vowed to change that. Sighing. If you fig ure it out before I do. she sensed he was still out. Olivia knew she must somehow find a way to make Nevar see himself as she saw him .. But how? Good question. . and his need to be loved in return. when he was na ked and relaxed and at her mercy. Perhaps she would arrange for a bath to coincide with his arrival. In a way. In some ways he had been more moody and difficult than ever since she’d revealed h er love for him.

“Do you know the address where th e Duke was to meet with his solicitor?” “Yes. This was just not possible. Please see that the carriage is waiting out front when I get there . Oh. She impatiently broke the seal and opened it.” She pa used at the bottom of the stairs and glanced back over her shoulder. twisting the note in her hands. Not until she had found Adrian and told him everything. Christiana wrote that she was married. he would.them both. He’d apparently thought of everything. thought Leah. Your Grace?” He saw her expression and blanched. She had made plans . but he was not the man for Chrissie. She deserved more. And do you know if the Duke took the carriage?” “He did. . Why. her mind a jumble as she fr antically smoothed out the crumpled note in order to check the date. . Madam. Write it down for me. she had vo uchers for them to attend Almack’s a week from that night. and had traveled the devil’s own route to get to her. Leah forced h erself to read it a second time.” she replied impatiently.” “Shall I send in the next applicant. Though how Christiana had managed such an elaborate hoax about the carriage was beyond her. Everything is wrong. All those phony excuses and delays. m ost likely. He had been taken in right along with her. Eloped. . But it was the wrinkled note at the very bottom of the pile that ins tantly commanded her attention. Your Grace?” inquired Gates. Leah shook her head as if dazed. Phelps came running. without bothering to date a letter or give a thou ght to the fact that she was throwing her entire life away. “Is something wrong?” “Yes.” she cried. More of St. She had eloped . . this was just lik e Christiana. with the Grisholms’ nephew. She would return home and put a stop to this outrage at once. “Yes. The note was brief and to the point and so absolutely devastating. lined up invitations . at the same time she was tugging on the bellpull. She hissed through clenched teeth. Of course not. . Poor Adrian. She deserved someone who would excite and challenge and cherish her. But she was not about to give u p hope yet. Someone like Adrian. Oh. summon my driver and have my carriage brought around at once. she thought. It was from Christiana. acting in haste. horrified anew. Brian St. or would be by the time her letter arrive d. “I’m going to f etch my wrap. How fast could she possibly get there? she wondered. that sheep farmer from Wentwor th.” “Good. No date. If anyone wo uld know of a way to save Christiana. The word alone made her ill. . Madam. . She would n ot let it be true. arranged for every last detail . “Phelps.” “In that case. . Leger’s doing. Leger was nice enough. This could not be true. . judg ing from the looks of it.

the Ebony Parlor. Before he could say so. “Your Grace. He simply wasn’t savoring it as much as he’d expected to and he couldn’t figure out why. The workmen. “Your Grace.” There was the Canary Cage. without exception.” Adrian forced a smile. “But now is not the time—” “Now is always the time. It was not he r fault he had temporarily lost his taste for all this. said. Ringing the area where he was seated were the various cages. a soft saffron rug and brass accents. He had been l uring her deeper into the trap. He ought to be pleased. He refused to think about the fact t hat he had no trouble enjoying himself with Leah. Adrian could not have been less interested.“Why not?” Adrian replied. This had to end. The fingertip she was suggestively trailing down his chest should have been all the invitation he need ed.” Miss de Pardieu entered with all the subtlety of a brass band. this is indeed a pleasure to end all pleasures. he reassured hi mself.” he told Miss de Pardieu. a nd Bluebird’s Retreat. felt more out of control. each designed to display a different “bird of paradise. A smiling Gates st epped just inside and with a flourish. But he was through waiting. waiting f or that moment when the damage he inflicted would be most complete and irrevocab le. She was plump and blonde and smiling an invitation no male over the age of fourteen could misread . He glanced around as he waited for Gates to bring in the next overly eager appli cant. he was bored. hips swaying and a determined gleam in her eyes. who was supposed to be mastermindin g the counter-assault. Gates had withdrawn. Miss de Pardieu stopped directly in front of him and cranked her come-hither loo k up another notch. I present to you Miss Gl oria de Pardieu. mor e at home where he did not want her. “Here is always the place. where the centerpiece was a vivid blue satin swing suspende d from hooks in the ceiling. savoring every moment. who had been handpicked by Gates and well p aid for their discretion. comely and overtly sensual. exactly the sort of women he had once sought out on a regular basis to satisfy his carnal desires. and wondering whom he was trying to convince. He was so busy plotting strategy to counter her every ploy that he couldn’t even enjoy himself with a woman. And he. the perfect specimen to grace the Canary Cage. that’s what. And he was. It was a situat ion Miss de Pardieu was not at all uncomfortable with.” she broke in. With each passing day. rubbing his hands together in a show of anticipation. as she began to saunter toward him.” . I have heard such wonderful stories about you. He ought to be enjoying this. he realized. waiting for the perfect moment to tell her the t ruth about her sister and about the true nature of the House of Birds. had executed every detail exactly as requested. the Cardinal Cage. “You flatter me. Leah seemed more content. Though they were. dislodging her hand gently. irritated that he had to force it. For over an hour he had been interviewing the “ladies” Gates had lined up to inhabit the cages at the House of Birds. featuring black satin and lace. And would say so i f the very idea wasn’t utterly ludicrous. with bright y ellow sateen sofas. A clever woman is a lways. always amenable to the situation at hand. What the hell was wrong with him? Leah. don e entirely in shades of red. He turned as the door leading from the reception area opened. Gates or himself. leaving them alone.

Perfect. what he wanted. I like that. Then s he wiggled her toes. How about giving Gloria a little push whi le you’re at it?” “Sorry. and the door behind him opened. Adrian grunted and grabbed her leg. Miss de Pardieu. he thought. then watched as it carved a horrif ied path from his face to the foot he must surely appear to be pressing against his genitals. “no push.” she said. she didn’t believe it either. like that Gates fellow said.” he said drily. this is not what it appears to be. “Please. The interview is over. Adrian flinched fro . “Sure you don’t want a little sample.” Believe him? He couldn’t believe he’d even said it. “If it is not what it appears to be. “Leah.” he began as she sashayed around him and plopped herself in the swing a few feet away. “what in God’s name is it?” She could not seem to tear her gaze away from the sight of Miss de Pardieu in th e damn satin swing. but through Leah’s eye s. Obviously. and the garish scene made him cringe. “After getting myself all done up in yell ow. my God. self-centered libertine. Suddenly he saw his surrounding s not through the eyes of a jaded. Gates will be in touch.” She curled her fingers around the satin ropes and smiled co quettishly. He had been waiting for just such a moment. Mr. “And call me Gloria.” “Well. When at last she stared directly at him. Miss de Pardieu giggled. Madam. a chance to demonstrate to Leah exac tly what kind of man she had married.” she invited. “Oh. “Look all you like.“Look.” She was clearly miffed. her posture so tense he was afraid if he touched her she would shatter. her brow furrowed. So why did he feel as if the b ottom had just fallen out from under him? He dropped Miss de Pardieu’s foot. This was what he had planned for. I must see—” He turned his head and met Leah’s stunned gaze.” she said. Gloria. I’ve told you that His Grace cannot be disturbed. She dragged her gaze around the room. believe me. leaning forward to display her considerable charms to full advantage. He heard Gates’s frantic voice. you don’t even give a girl a chance to show you w hat she has to offer. If you will kindly wait—” “And I told you that I cannot wait. Your Grace?” With that she lifted one stocking-clad foot and planted it in his crotch.

But she shattered on the in side. A pompous. and a soul-searing desire to beg her forgiveness.” he said quietly.” The words. “You’re not wrong. Madam. And I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I was. “Don’t touch me. “Because what this appears to be. He was still a jackass. “Very clear. is that clear?” He shuddered. She did shatter then. as he left Wh ite’s alone later that evening. “Please. wrong to e ver think.m the accusation that blazed in her eyes. “You weren’t teasing. Her shoulders remained square. I never want to see y ou again. her jaw high. Not on the outside.” The self-recrimination in her tone tore at him.” “No. her gloved hands firmly clasped at her waist. pigheaded jackass. fierce desperation. he told himself. the contempt on her face enough to stop him even if she had not moved. “Let me explain. She shrank back as he reached out to touch her.” she said. sir. her rejection falling like a lash across old wounds. and it showed in her quick. He hated hims elf for letting it happen. He was the one to blame for this . . “I won’t importune you further. the only one. brittle smile. Leah. and he no right to feel anything at all other than remorse. “All those times you told me you were planning a brothe l and I laughed so knowingly.” Chapter 19 He was a jackass. I was wrong.” he said. You are beyond redemption. filled him wit h sudden. and for that one instant. he hated her as well. Don’t come near me.” she ordered. is a brothel.” Her voice suddenly simmered with rage. and anyone else within earshot. you weren’t teasing. her fierce demand giving way to a heartrending plea. Am I wrong? Tell me I am wron g. You may c ount on it. “This place and that woman are explanatio n enough. Leah had had every right to be enraged and to say the things she had said to him . quickly covering the distance between them.” Her voice trembled at the end. that you had changed. wrong to come here thinking you could help me. “Don’t speak to me. for a moment. precisely the words he had wanted to force her to say.” he said with a quick bow.

I though t she met with Your Grace. Your Grace. but that he had done so only because he had not been ready to give her up. The irrefutable proof of that. I believe so. He would jump off that bridge when he came to it. I. Your Grace?” . She left sho rtly after returning from her meeting with you earlier today. sir. a knot of alarm forming in his gut. Who sa id he was beyond redemption? He was not. . it was fine. “You don’t mean ho me to Baumborough?” “Why. she . too. “Why. “It doesn’t make sense. “Has the Duchess already retired for the evening?” he asked Phelps. No easy task. And with the absolute clarity of several too many brandies. He was going home and he was going to tell her the truth. yes. “The Duchess is gone.” Phelps answered. “This is her home. “She asked the whereabouts of your meeting with your s olicitor and I provided her with the address. About everything. thinking out loud as he struggled to clear his head. He would tell her he h ad been wrong to keep the news from her. home. “If I may be so bold as to suggest a possible explanati on. leashing his temper. His gut knew that she had not been in a mood for any of th at. Fortunately.” “Gone where?” Adrian demanded.” Phelps cleared his throat. sir. Or at least what remained of it after he’d spent his anger on the place. those same brandies gave him the courage he needed .” He rattled on uncontrollably as Adrian’s expression grew darker and more ferocious. “Why. yes. I hope that was all right. He was most redeemable. . Somehow he would find the courage to tell her that. At least. any number of balls. “Why would she leave London now? With her sister supposedly due here any day. any more than it was Leah’s. Then he was going to tell her about her sister’s elopement.” he said.” The servant looked perplexed by the query. the opera.” His eyes narrowed accusingly. Then if she still insisted she never wanted to see him again. instead of ten years. . he would . He sighed and closed his eyes. as far as Adrian was concerned. . He had to come clean with Lea h. who had material ized before him with his usual quickness and was helping him off with his jacket .But he was not a fool. And that he was still not ready and might ne ver be. “Home?” snapped Adrian. he knew exactly what he had to do.” “Yes. was that it had t aken him only a few hours to come to his senses this time. “Gone where?” he repeated. his uneasiness obvious. He ran through al l the possible places Leah might have gone for the evening—the theater.” Adrian told him. None of this was Phel ps’s fault. He hauled himself into the back of the carriage and called to the driver. I assumed you knew. no. Firs t he was going to tell her that he had ordered Gates to see to the permanent dis mantling of the blasted House of Birds.

could only have fueled her ire. Where she’d found him. he’d w ager Leah had been upset.” said Adrian again. “Have my horse saddled and brought round. “It was directly after reading this that the Duchess first became upset.” Adrian stared at the note from Christiana Stretton without touching it. And too much to forgive. Nothing was ending. prepared to bellow. “Perfect. willing to listen to anything. the same way her mother h ad given up on her dreams years before. He . Leah had given up on him. Oh. but somehow he didn’t think so. thinki ng he could get used to this. Which explained why she had come looking fo r him.” said Adrian. It seemed fitting.” he directed Phelps.” He removed a wrinkled sheet of parchment from the pile of mail nearby and held it out. m uch less trust him enough to give him a second chance. all right. sending the valet scurrying to the closet. who brought it to me. He had schemed and lied and risked deportation to get her. “Perhaps the Duchess’s decision to leave had something to do with this. he thought disgustedly. Leah was his wife. There was too much to explain.” he barked. then it could damn well be of service as w ell. His one chance to redeem himself had been to tel l Leah the truth before she discovered it on her own. The way she had walked in and discovered him with a harlot’s foot in his crotch. and I in turn placed it with the incoming mail where—” “Where the Duchess would be sure to find it. He could see no reason now why she should ever believe anything he had to say.” Adrian finished for him. Clothes suited for riding. He wandered toward the stairs. He started for the door. Perhaps things would look brighter in the morning . If this new. a chance to go back and d o things over the way he should have done them from the start. Adrian closed his eyes for several moments before throwing off the covers and ge tting to his feet. wretchedly efficient household of his was going to w ork against him. Perfect ending. then remembered the bellpull and us ed it instead. be damned. “Where did that come from?” he asked. Adrian grinned. Least of all his bloody marriage. “Perfect. “Exactly.“What is it?” he asked. the perfect end to the most wretched day of his life. The message was short and to the point.” Phelps said proudly. his tone flat. and with whom. She gave it to the housekeeper. “One of the upstairs maids found it tucked behind the leg of the dressing table in the Duchess’s chamber. “I want to dress. who d isappeared with equal haste. Phelps and his valet appeared quickly and simultaneously. to find the Sun and Stars tucked under his pillow when he crawled into bed. turning up letters that inadvertently fell from his pocket whil e he was making love to his own wife.

She pressed her lips together. after twisting and turning the facts every whic h way in his mind. He encountered the first scattered. Better yet. As the road narrowed and curved into the countryside. . Cold and drenched. The chase w ould give him plenty of time to rehearse. Perhaps it was lucky Leah had a head start on him. until he was riding blind through blowing torrents. appeared. and within minutes the front do or opened. He would s eek shelter at the rectory at St. extinguishing the flicker of soft welcome he had already seen. he wou ld open a damn aviary on that site in her honor. “Have you any idea of the hour?” “I couldn’t care less about the hour. Cole B rindley. It was only after he’d dealt with the rain-sodden saddle and blankets and settled his horse for the night. I’m Raven. M arried couples had misunderstandings all the time. The sister’s elopement was another matter. He would apologi ze profusely for the harlot. and start out fresh first th ing in the morning. Groveling appeared to be th e only way to go. Clean and simple. with trepidation. Leah stood framed in the light from a single candle. Adrian forgot how cold and wet and scared he was. if it pleased Leah. “Quiet down.” Adrian shouted up to him. His heart constricted. with joy. No sense dragging the poor groom out in this weather when he was alread y soaked to the bone. he decided. and her foot. Not for any reason. “And I’m not a good man. heavy drops of rain just outside of town. and went on.had connived and wheedled and put up with cupids and buttercups in order to bed her. my good man. “You’re beautiful. and he was not. he circled the darkened house and rode directly to the stable. and he took off running through the rain. Shoulders hunched against the water pouring off the overhang above his head. but certainly not because of some stupi d .” Brindley sputtered something. In a heartbeat. g oing to give her up. Her hair was loose and she was wearing a simple ivory wool robe. Misunderstanding. it rained steadily harder an d the wind picked up. He had appeared at balls and sat through recitals and allowed himself to b e paraded down Bond Street like a besotted bridegroom. that Adrian realized the carriage closest to the stable door belonged to Leah. The window closed. with relief.” he said. With luck. by God. The House of Birds had been an unfortunate misunderstanding. and I’ve come for my wife. he arrived in Westerham and gave up for the night. he still ought to overtake her carriage before no on. he pounded on the front door until an upstairs window opened and the curate. .” he called. he decided. the ruffles of her cotton nightgown visibl e at the neck. and he would inform her he had alread y abandoned the whole misbegotten scheme. A mere apology would not do here. Anne’s. Turning into the rectory. It could not accurately be described as a misunderstanding. .

down to his shirt and breeches. but it was hot and sweet and Adrian wanted to go on kissing it forever. Reluctantly. and turned his ha nds palms up to her. Still. .” She was in his arms. They sat in chairs flanking the fireplace. “I came all this way to tell you that I love you. or give chase. and he wanted it back. both of them up straight. Mrs. He leaned farther forward. He just needed t o touch her. Her open mouth was wet.” He stepped closer.” she added. “May I hold your hands?” he asked when she ignored the gesture. and followed her inside. bringing the cold and the rain to the threshold that separa ted them. This was no longer a contest. as if ready to take flight . “I know it’s late. could be from anger or could be from kissing. poised. and placed a bottle of brandy and a glass by the chair closest to the fireplace. and all those convoluted excuses and explanation s he had rehearsed on his way there. a fire in her green eyes which. . “that’s all. he couldn’t wait until they were inside to ask. I am furious with you. “No. resting his forearms on his thighs. a soft.“You came all this way in the rain to tell me that?” she asked frostily. “I thought that merited commemoration of s ome sort.” he persisted. if he was to get through this. “Does this mean you’re not still angry with me?” he asked with a hopeful grin.” she said and bustled from the room. It was only when he gripped her head and felt the moisture already in her hair that common sense returned. “Not at all.” she retorted. O’Hara appeared to help him shuck his coat and everything else that was wet. h e figured. even if it meant spending the rest of his life on the rectory steps in the rain. “No. she leaned forward and placed her hands on top of his. He looked into her eyes and abandoned them all. Adrian watch .” He promised himself it was the last lie he would ever tell her. to hold on to some part of her. “But it is not every day a woman sees a mountain move.” he drawled. he thought wryly. She was h is life. He loved her.” “To warm them. clinging bundle of warmth and blessed dryness. He wanted what was in his head to be as clear as what was in his heart. then turned to the housekeeper with a rueful smi le.” “I shall consider myself duly commemorated. Adrian glanced at it wistfully. At last he was alone with Leah. She was no longer a prize. Brindley had already stoked the fire in the smal l sitting room to a welcoming roar. but would a cup of tea be too much trouble?” “Hot tea coming up.

diffe rent in every way. It occurred to him that with almost no effort at all. If you had gotten your way. creative. . .” “But not at all sorry for creating it. I am so sorry that you walked into that . “I’m sorry too for ruining your plans to have our marriage annulled. I admit that.” She quirked her brow skeptically.” he declared.” she drawled. her skin smooth and unmarred. just as you accused.” “And the cages?” He shrugged. It was always for—” “Quiet.” He exhaled heavily.” he protested. he could mark her fragile flesh. not all of it.” he explained. her expression still.” She remained motionless. “I’m sorry. Nearly as blind as I have b een. tightening his grip on her hand s..” He took a deep breath.” “That was never my dream. and woefully inadequate. hoping to skirt over as many of those details as possible. “That is. “I’m sure I’m skipping over hundreds of small infractions here. “and I never will be. rinces and fairy-tale weddings sorry for so many things that I hardly know where to star I shall start at the beginning. I really couldn’t tell you. ragged with regret. you might have save d that gift for a better man. “I didn’t have anything to do with the actual details. It made him feel fiercely protective. I’m sorry for tricking and in doing so. . “So you into marrying me.” “You’re very . “It was your dream. I suppose I should also be sorry for tak ing what you can only give once.ed his fingers close over them. It would be as swift and easy as breaking a heart or scarring a soul. Leah. rash move. You were simply too blind to see it. “Were all those feathers real?” “Yes. if the glint of satisfaction in her eye was any indication. stealing your dream of gallant p and happily-ever-after endings. a man who could love you the way you deserve to be loved. not for myself. Her hands were smaller and paler than his. It was delibera te and calculated.. scene.” she protested. no . her bones delicate. But I am not sorry for that. His voice was deep. “A joint effort. It also filled him with determination to ne ver again hurt her. “And I definitely did not invite or in any w ay encourage that woman to . I would say. With a single. I take it?” “I didn’t create it. “So damn t. Duchess. his awkwardness seeming to please her.” .” he said. “God. The only indication that she recalled the incident to w hich he referred was the flush that appeared high on her cheekbones. .” he ordered. Yet they fi t together perfectly. . he could crush her hands a nd break those narrow bones. the gentlest command he had ever issued and still he felt compe lled to soften it further by rubbing his thumbs across the back of her hands. “The brothel was my idea. . “At least. Th e knowledge did not make him feel strong or powerful. but that brings me mor e or less to this afternoon.” She listened in silence.

Because I sudd enly realized how it would look to your eyes. malicious prank? I’m assuming it was that. but she didn’t pull away.” she allowed. I decided not to go throug h with it not for their sake. forcing him to figure it out on his own. . I never..” He took a deep bre ath and tightened his grip on her hands. her tone heartbreaking ly bleak. and I am prepared to give up a great many other things as well. “I’m the same man who carried you across the road to that church and married you wit hout your consent. rueful smile. but . with a self-deprecating air.” . and I came after you prepared to tell you that you weren’t wr ong. “Exactly. I was armed with a long list of arguments to prove it t o you. . .” He felt her fingers stiffen. Leah. “That’s the truth of it. “That’s the right answer.” he said again. my love.” Again her brow quirked. I think at that point I had already decided to call off the whole damn thing. “Close enough. “Why?” “Yes. the smallest change in temperature. whatever is necessary to make you happy. “You said this afternoon that you were wrong to believe that I had changed. “And I had already informed her the interview was over when she . or mine. Her hands had become a sort of barometer for him. isn’t it?” She simply stared. But the fact is. and that your motive for lining up such a renowned group of benef actors was to make them the very public butt of your joke? Am I right?” “Close enough. I haven’t changed.. Adrian ignored it and forged ahead. Why did you decide to call it off? Because you suddenly realized that it was a childish.” “Why?” His gaze narrowed.” “You didn’t exactly lie about the House of Birds. an d that is all I care about. I abandoned the plan. “And did you change your mind because you suddenly realized that what you were doi ng was tasteless and despicable?” He hesitated. but for you and you alone. “Deep down. “I made up my mind I am never going to li e to you again and I’m not.” He lifted one finger to silence her half-formed protest. attuned to the slightest trembl e. Hell. And I know it’s what I ought to tell you. that I had changed. there’s part of me that still thinks the House of Birds would be a brill iant comeuppance for that bunch of stodgy hypocrites.” he admitted. the same man who made love to you knowing it was not really w hat you wanted. and not a serious business venture . and how it would make you feel. . ever want to do anything that will hurt you in any way again. . He held them loosely now. I intended only to interview her . to close up the House of B irds before it opened. then gave her a small.“Fondle you?” she suggested when he hesitated. Then you walked in. “I know it is. .

Then I walked in and .” That was the pain his father had to live with. Adrian.” he said. . Leah believed that the letter from her sister had arrived only that day. She had no idea of his role in it. eyeing her cautiously. but Adrian forced himself to resist and finish. but for the first time in so long. but it took you to move them around and make something of it. “You didn’t drive me away. . Of course not. thanks to you. her mouth tight. Her mouth looked soft and kiss able. . “Riding in the cold and the dark.” “Tell me what?” he prodded. So I—” “You aren’t. grudging sliver of understanding. but everything around me has. to tell you and ask what I ought to do next. She pulled back and looked at him in surprise. bett er than I ever can be. I am not a better man than I was. That’s losing someone you love and knowing you have o nly yourself to blame. He brushed his mouth across her cheek and ran his hand through her ha ir. “I’ve made a mess of explaining it.” “Oh. You make me want to be a better man. he realized. “The worst possible news.” Her bottom lip trembled. “What about her?” he asked. .” He ran his hands up to her elbow and held her that way.” he whispered.” Her gaze wi dened. letting the moment spin out as his feelings churned inside. you make me w ant to try. “Donf you see.Her hands were cool. All I’m trying to sa is that I can take no credit for any of this. The bits and pieces have always be en there. perhaps. I thought that my life is like a kaleidoscope. and knew I had driven you away. It’s only that you make me wish I were.” he broke in. that’s why I cannot let you leave me. It was a pain he never wanted to feel again .” He kissed her lips. “But you still don’t know . . “She’s eloped. keeping the pressure light. his voice rough. I haven’t changed. how he had diverted it and then fabricated messages to explain Christiana’s continued delay. “I once thought there was no pain worse than being betrayed by someone you love. and I don’t want to le t go.” she said stiffly. feeling another smal l.” she said. “When I came home and found you gone. her fingers breaching his ruffled cuffs. her hands sliding free to move to the inside of his wrists. He quic kly pieced it all together as she went on about the folly of impulsive girls and opportunistic sheep farmers. you do a lot of thinking to distract yourself. “but I wouldn’t dream of so severely hindering or restricting your own pursuit of happiness. even when he sensed she would ac cept more. I’m sure. his mouth buried close to her ear.” She leaned closer. “That is very charitable of you.” She didn’t know. Leah? That’s why I came after you. to make me come alive again. The realization was a massive jolt to his nervous system. I went a lit tle crazy. “I learned tonight that there is a pain much worse. “It’s about Christiana. puzzled as to what else could have sent her fleeing. jerking heartstrings he didn’t kno w he had. how could you? That was my rea son for going to see you in the first place.

his brain thought of its own volition.” He got to his feet so suddenly the teacups rattled in their saucers on the s mall table beside him. turning sharply to face her. “He’s pleasant looking and speaks French fluently and plays the mouth harp. How simple it would be to pre tend he had never seen the note. I’m praying for a miracle.” she allowe d.” “A dead giveaway. without a trace of humor. it anyone is to blame for anything.” she added. anything that might prevent them from doing the deed. But then.” Her lips curved in a reluctant smile. I feel a bit the way you described a moment ago.Perhaps she never had to know. “You knew?” . “Fai ling that. but his grim expression did not hold out any more real hope for that than she felt. I received word of their elopement days ago and I said nothing. she thought. recalling the moment. One would thi nk it was his sister who had eloped and ruined all his plans. and leave open the possibility of an annulment. The footman who’d brought it could be dispatched elsewhere. as if I’ve lost someone I love and have only myself to blame. All he had to do was say nothing. and respectable.” he said. “You are not to blame. She had stars in her eyes when she said it. his tight.” He nodded. Wor I hid the note your sister left for you. it was only by chance turned up where you found it today. I thought that was the best w ay to handle it at the time. “It’s not that St. pacing the small room like a caged lion. This may not be what you wanted for her. The gift of an extra herd or two ought to persuade his new brother-in -law to take full credit for those troublesome messages. “If The se.” He was breathing harshly.” “You are not to blame. He’s perfectly nice. “Of course. as his bro w gathered itself in a properly sympathetic frown. Now I’m not—” “Stop. She sighed.” Leah got to her feet. but it was apparently what she wanted for herself. “Chrissie once told me that he can play for over two minutes without pausing for breath. “I mean for leaving her home alone and unsupervised. Chapter 20 Poor Adrian. she’d had longer to come to terms with it. “it is I. do you hear me? This was your sister’s decision to make all along and she made it. “When you come right down to it.” he agreed. Leger is a bad man. I am still hoping to arrive home in time to stop them. hard tone coming as something of a surpr ise. “I suppose I should have known then. I assure you.” she told him.” he said. he looked nearly as devastated by the news about Chris tiana as she was. fact is.

” His jaw was rigid.” She took a deep breath. wanting the privacy of her own room before she gave in to the grief building inside. Though it may hearten you to know the villagers mounted a valiant se arch for the couple on your behalf.” she said.” she said before he had a ch ance to answer. “You wanted to keep me there becaus e you were not through playing games with me?” “Yes.” he ordered. as if my wishes do not count every bit as much as yours.” “Then it really is too late. . Not n ow. . isn’t it?” She found it difficult to keep her fury going full force when he was being so damn conciliatory. shoving a chair aside to stop her as she moved toward the door.” Her feeble hope slipped away. “But why?” “What would you have done if I had told you?” “I would have left for home at once. but she kept her jaw taut beneath his f ingers.” “Precisely.” He cupped her face. Don’t.” “So you kept the truth from me?” she demanded. knowing it was going to break your hear .” “I’ve heard enough. How easily she had been taken in by him again. dammit. the things he said were only half the story. . “You commandeered a l etter addressed to me? What makes you think you have the right to meddle in some one else’s life that way? I don’t care if I am your wife. Leah didn’t pull away. Clearly. do you understand?” “Yes.” “Understood. . I was not ready to have you leave me. “And I will not be treated like . “I will not allow you to decide what I ought to know and when I ou ght to know it. “I’m not g oing to let you run away until you hear what I have to say. but i t’s because I can’t stand the thought of hurting you that I kept the truth from you long after I knew it was only going to lead to worse disaster.He nodded. “I’m afraid so. He held her by the arm and turned her to face him. “How can you say you don’t want to hurt me and t hen do this?” “I said it because it’s true.” “That is why you did it. her voice rising. “Not then. She wish ed now he had never come after her. All he’d had to do was offer the words she wanted so desperately to hear. “I know it sounds crazy. of course. but only at first. and even then it had been d elayed due to your staff’s reluctance to admit to mine that their young mistress h ad run off.” He shook his head. Words like love and forever. “And you said nothing at all to me?” He nodded.” “The footman relayed all this to you?” She felt suspicion growing where hope had onc e been. “A footman brought the news last week . like chattel. “I couldn’t stand to be the one to tell you.

boyish grin that made her dizzy. a c athedral full of people. I want to watch you walk down an aisle a mile long. And I know that isn’t possible if there are lies and secrets betwee n us. and said. yes . . . whe a weary smile that she refused to acknowledge. She was suddenly deliriously happy to be that woman. To simply keep m shut and let you go on believing that I’d had no knowledge of the elopemen you told me. every night. “I didn’t tell you because I knew your eyes would go all teary th e way they are right now.” “After the cathedral.t. And he would not have ridden half the night to tell a woman he loved her . and a wedding breakfast fit for a duchess. exactly.” Leah felt as if she were shimmering inside as she listened to him put into words the most secret longings of her heart. “You must be rubbing off on me.” He grinned.” “Why didn’t you? The odds are I never would have known the truth. W . Not to lie. “I want flowers and music and a church. “You’ll never know how tempte not to tell you the truth tonight. your dream of re love makes everything right. I shall take you home and take you to bed. before God and man. a perfect world.” he said. “Say yes. .” Leah reminded him. “and I’ll tell you what comes n ext. He wound his arms around her and she let him. delicately. every ble ssed moment for the rest of my life. barely lifting his mouth from hers.” He gave d I was y mouth t until sister. “Honor . private the one you don’t even acknowledge to yourself. and very.” he urged. but I would have. yes. a and tried to keep dream all your own.” She struggled to breathe and laugh and kiss him all at the same time. . and at that moment Leah knew he wa s wrong. sending a thrill along her spine. “Not simply the dream of finding the perfect husband for your s she anchored her watery gaze on the top button of his shirt her resentment from melting away. “Every day. but I want a shot at the happy ending. “My bed.” “Ah. He would not have confessed to anything unless his back was to th e wall. Duchess. He had changed. no. very grateful she’d had the stamina to outlast that other man and be rewarded with this one. “and because I knew I would be destroying the hopes and dreams you cherish more than anything.” “We are married. “Marry me. just this way. I want you in the most beautiful dress you can imagine. and I want to stand with you at the altar. touching her there with the rough pad of one thumb. “I mean the secret.” He kissed her eyelids as they fluttered shut. “I’m still no prince. This time I want everything right from the start. open mouth hovered over hers. . he kissed her mouth.” he said with a wry laugh. . that wicked. The man he had once been—the man who would blithely wed a dying woman—would have had no compunction about turning her trust in him to his f ull advantage. sweetly.” he told her.” he said quietly.” he sai d.” His warm. “And cherish y ou .” “Yes. as if she were something fine and rare that had been entrusted to him for safekeeping. With his hands in her hair. and vow to love .” he went on. “Yes. smiling at me all the while .” His lips slid alon g her cheekbone and down her throat as his hands moved on her back. and that your chin would tremble. “You call that a wedding?” he scoffed.

St.” “Two little girls sounds perfect. In spite of his light tone. “How about it.” she told him. body and sou l. “Do I have a choice?” .” “Already worrying about your figure?” he teased. “I thought we’d switc h to daughters after that. she sensed his need for her to know exactly what he was offering. fully. “That is what I w ant. “Do you fancy giving me a son?” Leah took his face in her hands and gently traced the curve of his smile.” He groaned. his chuckle edged with relief. only I was too afraid to reach out fo r them for myself. Adrian. “I love you. little girls with beautiful green eyes and their moth er’s laugh. Madam. we shall have to schedule it for when Christiana and Mr. I’ve seen you at work and I do believe that living through one wedding—ours— will be my limit. heavy. sons and only sons will do nicely. his touch slow. to make all your dreams come true. Leah could feel his heart poun ding against her breast.” she agreed. Leah. sweetheart?” “Very much. well and truly and forever. “I’d love to. “Would you like that. “Actually I was thinking more along the lines of three. about their seasons overlapping. adoringly.” His mouth softened with gentle indulgence.here I shall make love to you properly.” “You already have. He was asking for forever. who can play outside my open window and distract me from my work. “On second thought. He was asking for all of her. That way we can all confirm our vows together. and for as long as it takes to co nsummate every sweet inch of you and make you mine. Duchess?” he drawled softly. He was asking for more than her hand. Starting with Olivi a and Prince Nevar. resignedly.” He cherished her with mouth and han ds. It will be a c elebration for all of us. and what it meant to him for her to accep t. “I have at last figured out what s he must do to bring him around. “Perhaps you’re right.” Her eyes sparkled up at him.” “Three then.” “Dare I ask?” “Wouldn’t you rather be surprised?” He laughed. But only one?” He pulled her hard against him. I want to be able to devote myself to planni ng one wedding at a time. spanning her waist with his hands. a double wedding it shall be.” Her smile grew thoughtful. and I promise that after this I shall content myself with writing happy endings for others. and all the dreams I had for Christiana were really mine all along. stirring to her senses and her heart. Leger can come to London.” “Then it’s settled.” “In that case. “No.” This time his kiss was harder and more demanding. This way it won’t really matter whose they were. Just so they are judiciously spaced.

“Ooh. why did I say that? The word alone makes me queasy. “It’s just me and the coddled eggs. Leger. Thomas might no t be very handsome or very witty. it was the least he could do.” Leah replied. As luck w ould have it. “Please don’t say it again. and she had bloomed in ways Leah had never envisioned. Of course now he feels that Catherine Anne is more than ample compensation. had looked forward to having a quiet moment to themselves. but he was strong and solid and he adored his wife. her golden curls caught in a black ribbon at the back of her head.” “It won’t pass my lips for the remainder of your visit. The mere thought of the stuff made me green. w ho suddenly felt even more of a bond with her new brother-in-law. I simply barred gravy from the table for the entire nine months I w as pregnant. too. and very familiar to Leah. her beauty all the more arresting because it was so effortless. Leah understoo d why. “For me the word was gravy. She now posse ssed the ease of a woman truly content with herself and her life.” answered Leah through gritted teeth.” Leah wondered how she could ever have doubted that her headstrong sister knew ex actly what she was doing when she ran off with Thomas St. so to spe ak. and Leah could not be happier for her. then winced and gripped the edge of the table as if to steady herself.EPILOGUE Baumborough. Marriage to such a man provided a secure environment for a butterfly like Christiana. “It will make him feel a part of things.” She sat and reache d for her napkin.” Chrissie s uggested.” “What did you do? Come to dinner blindfolded every night?” “Don’t be silly. Though Chrissie had proven to be a confident and gracious hostess.” “Which word? Eggs?” Chrissie chuckled sympathetically as she helped herself from the chafing dishes on the sideboard. “I decided since my pregnancy was a joint project and I was carrying most of the load. as though he’s doing something of . “You might consider having Raven give up you-know-what for the duration. England One year later “Are you alone?” Leah looked up from her plate of dry toast and smiled as Christiana entered the room. her expression rueful as she saw Leah shudder at the sight of her full plate. “That’s the one. Her sister was wearing a simple yellow dress. She.” The gleam in her blue eyes was defiant. she appeared thrilled to find the dining room otherwise deserted that morning. Thomas happens to be the world’s foremost gravy aficionado. I promise.

what would I use to line the bird’s cage ?” They were still laughing as their husbands entered the room. her mischievous gaze meeting Leah’s across the table. as if the dining room carpet had suddenly turned into quicksand and t hey were searching for the safest route around it. But th ere was no way she could tolerate a quartet of them. Adrian claimed the seat beside Leah. “But I believe my wife’s condition gives testament to the fact that when it comes to bein g a father.” He smiled as he reached for Leah’s hand and carried it to his lips. But does this mean I have to stop sending you those ten-page letters filled with unsolicited snippets of advice on marriage and housekeeping?” “Of course not.” “Thank you. “It is a great comfort to me to know that Leah has someone experienced to give her an idea of what to expect. The two gestures seemed to be inexplicably linked in his mind. Perhaps she was in greater need of Chrissie’s advice than she first thought. smiling a lazy. I much prefer to think of thi s as sharing what I’ve learned about the care and management of expectant fathers.” said Colin as the men joi ned them at the table.” “I just might do that. Either response was possible when Christiana was setting the pace.” Chrissie wrinkled her nose. A footman appeared to pour coffee. Having met Chrissie and Thomas a year ago. isn’t it?” she asked. Don’t you agree that sounds better?” “Much. as well. . since she sometimes felt as if she were dealing with not one. “After all these years. private smile as he bent to give her a good-morning lass and a pat on the tummy. The men responded with a general clearing of throats and exchange of apprehensiv e glances. They were followed by Colin and Will. You know how men love that sort of thing. you are suddenly the one giving me advice. Perhaps. But Leah suspected their desire to tag along had more to do with another baby than with Catherine Anne. Only Thomas looked completely at ease. leaning back in his seat and gazing indulgently at his wife.” Chrissie grinned. No. Raven.” “You might benefit from my knowledge. It’s odd. “Fascinating.” Leah might have been able to take one smug male smile in stride. I am already well-armed. “I don’t think I like the idea of dishing out advice any more than I liked being on the receiving end.” said Adrian at last. “Forewarne d is forearmed and all that. “If you did. who had accompanied Adr ian and Leah to Baumborough. “So tell us what struck you ladies so funny this morning. her tone bemused. “We were discussing the trials and tribulations of impending motherhood. back from their ear ly morning ride to a neighboring estate to check out some livestock Thomas was c onsidering buying.great import to the success of the venture. and for months she had not received one wit hout the other. but three expectant fat hers. Leah couldn’t be sure if his tone was dry or simpl y cautious.” Chrissie admonished.” announced Christiana. Colin and Will had claimed they wante d to be present for the christening of their firstborn.

self-indul gent past. “Then you won’t mind naming for us one thing you know about being a fa ther and caring for an infant.” Amid a barrage of instructions and observations. Chrissie said. “That will be critical at the time of delivery. if you and Colin are going to be underfoot all the t ime after the baby comes. He held out his arms. “Certainly. giving him the look that men married to pregnant women never understood. .” Her voice brimming with barely suppressed laughter. “Is this really necessary?” “Crucial. Colin curled his lip. “Fencing?” Will shrugged.With a sugary smile at Adrian.” added Leah.” His jaw clenched as he swung his gaze toward T homas. “I seriously qu estion whether a man of your lofty position and rather. “Think of it as fencing. “That’s my domain. “Just trying to help. . and carried it to Adrian. the back too hard. but quickly learned to heed.” chided Leah.” His cheeks darkened. “it’s not fair to draw conclusions before Adrian has had a chance to demonstrate his technique. he added..” declared Adrian as if he’d invented it.” “Lessons?” Colin looked wary.” With a self-conscious shrug.” “Now. sweeth eart.” “Good.” she said. you could probably use a few lessons yourselves. “Show them your technique.” said Thomas without hesitation. who looked absolu tely befuddled.” “And we haven’t even touched on nappies. “Rocking a baby is an even more highly refined talent than burping. “I know exactly what your sister is talking about. “She’s talking about being a father. can ever hope to achieve the same level of expertise as my husband. I know . I know . for starters. she said. .” suggested Will.” He stood. burping. not supplying stud service. Chrissie. “That is.” said Chrissie. Rave. once you get t he hang of not whacking. “Can I give it a try?” asked Will. We can’t have you all stumbling about. snatched a porce lain urn from a table in the corner.” “Not at all. “I have no doubt I will be at least a s accomplished a burper as Thomas is. “In fact.” “And rocking. “Give me the damn thing.. shall we say.” “That’s right. Adrian finally managed to posit ion the urn on his shoulder and burped it to everyone’s satisfaction. bumping into things. “Let him name one first.” said Chrissie. I mean patting.” agreed Colin.” said Leah.” “Burping. It’s not too compli cated or too messy.” she replied. “Lessons in what?” “Pacing. and I have no need of lectures on the subject.” “Burping.” Adrian glared at Leah.

The award-winning author of over twenty-five novels lives in Rhode Island with her husband and tw o teenage sons. . . Leah knew this was only the beginning . All in all. “You’re not sugges ting . She couldn’t help it.” Leah smiled. But she hadn’t planned any of it. she might have planned it he rself. As she gazed around the cir cle of people she loved most in the world. she had it.“Nappies?” Adrian’s hand froze on the urn he had been absently patting. * * * ABOUT THE AUTHOR Patricia Coughlin is a former English teacher who quickly discovered she would r ather make up stories of her own. The sight of the Wicked Lord Raven burping an u rn and contemplating the more rudimentary aspects of fatherhood warmed her heart . and she had learned that sometimes it was better that way. thus ensuring happy endings. . it wasn’t really an ending. Besides. it was an ending so absolutely perfect. If she had needed proof that Adrian would take to his new role as father as th oroughly and enthusiastically as he had to being a husband.