“You kissed me!” he accused.

Amelia shrugged. “Your mouth was in the way. I could not avoid it.”

“You are trouble.” Bending his head, he kissed her one last time. Softer. Lingering. Her toes curled in her slippers. “Now, we must part, before we are discovered.”

She nodded, knowing it was true, understanding that she had been absent far too long. “When will I see you again?”

“I cannot say. After your wedding, perhaps. Maybe never.”

“Why?” She’d asked that question endlessly tonight and still couldn’t collect the answer. Did he not understand how precious it was to feel this alive around another being? She had not realized that she was dormant until she’d met him.

“Because Ware can give you things that I cannot.”

She was about to retort, when the doorknob jiggled. Her breath caught and held. She froze. Montoya did not.

He moved quickly, pulling back from her and fading again into the shadowy corner. She stumbled away from the door when it pushed open behind her. Turning, Amelia faced the intruding party.

“My lord,” she breathed, curtsying.

Ware entered with a frown. “What are you doing in here? I have been searching the house for you.” He studied her carefully; then his jaw tautened. “You have something to tell me, don’t you?”

She nodded and held a shaking hand out to him. He took it and drew her out of the room, pausing a moment to sweep the contents with his gaze. Finding nothing amiss, he led her away from Montoya and into a future that was far less orderly than it had been mere days ago.

Chapter 6

“So that is the whole of it,” Amelia said, her fingers fidgeting with her teaspoon.

The Earl of Ware reached over and stilled his fiancée’s restless movement by covering her hand with his own. “No need to be nervous,” he murmured, his mind sifting through everything she had related.

“You are not angry?” Her green eyes were wide with a mixture of surprise and apprehension.

“I am not pleased, but I am not angry.” He smiled ruefully and settled back more firmly in his chair.

They were seated on the terrace of the St. John house, enjoying tea before their customary ride through the park. It was with some trepidation that he had passed the hours waiting to speak with her. He knew what a woman looked like after a heated assignation, so while Amelia’s revelation was in keeping with his own suspicions, he was sorry to have them confirmed.

“I do not know what to do,” she said, sounding forlorn. “I fear I am out of my depth.”

“And I fear I am not going to be much help,” he admitted. “We are friends, love, but I am a man first and foremost. It does not sit well with me to hear that you feel things for this stranger that you do not feel for me.”

As her hand twisted and gripped his tightly, a becoming blush spread across her cheeks. “I do not like myself very much at this moment. You are dear to me, Ware. You always have been, and I have not acted as you deserve. I pray you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”

He stared pensively over the rear “garden.” The word barely applied to the outdoor space that surrounded the St. John manse. Only low-lying flowerbeds alleviated the stark severity of the spacious lawn.

“I forgive you,” he said. “And I admire your honesty. I doubt I would have the fortitude to reveal so much were I in your stead. However, I cannot have a fiancée who is engaging in such behavior, especially in public venues.”

She nodded, looking like a chastened schoolgirl. While the scolding was required, he took no pleasure in it.

“You will have to decide, once and for all, whether you wish to wed me or not, Amelia. If you choose to proceed with our arrangement, you must act in good faith and deport yourself properly.” Ware pushed to his feet and rolled his shoulders back to alleviate the tension there. “Damnation, I do not like feeling as if you are being coerced to marry me!”

Amelia stood as well, her floral muslin skirts falling to a graceful drape. “You are angry.” She held up a delicate hand to stem his reply. “No. I understand. You have the right to be. Had you acted similarly, I would have been equally furious with you.”

Blowing out her breath, she walked to the marble terrace railing and leaned her weight upon her hands. He joined her, the lawn to his back, she to his side.

She was lovely this afternoon, as she was every afternoon. Her dark hair was arranged in artless, powdered curls that swayed around her shoulders. Her skin was pale as cream, her eyes as green as jade, her lips red like dark wine. He had once jested that she was the only woman he thought of in poetic prose, and she’d laughed with him, delighted at what she called his “fancifulness.” He was only fanciful with her.

“If we wed,” she murmured, “do you intend to be faithful to me?”

“That depends on you.” He considered her carefully. “If you lie there and pray for a swift finale, I probably will not be. I enjoy sex, Amelia. I crave it. I would not give up the pleasure of sexual congress for anything, even a wife.”

“Oh.” She looked away with a sigh.

A stray breeze blew by, rolling a tight curl along the tender, bared skin where her neck met her shoulder. She shivered, not with cold, but from the sensation. Ware noted that reaction, as he noted everything about her. Cataloguing the finer details for future use. Amelia was a tactile, sensual creature. Something he appreciated and had been gentle not to exploit, biding his time for the day when she would be his and he could teach her how to embrace that side of herself. With him alone.

Now, he had much to consider.

“I believe we could enjoy each other,” he offered, teasing her fingers on the ledge with his own. “I think sex between us could be much more than a chore, but only if you open yourself to me completely in that way. No shyness, no reserve. If our marital bed is welcoming, I will not go elsewhere. I am not a man given to the pursuit of conquests. I simply want to fuck and have a splendid time doing it. If I can do that with one woman, more the better in my estimation. Less work.”

The coarse word shocked her, he could tell, but it was the right word for how he liked his bedsport, and it was best she know that now. There would be no brief groping and grunting in the darkness. There would be illumination, flushed and sweaty skin, and many hours.

“Is that what passion in the bedroom is?” she asked, with what appeared to be genuine curiosity. “Animal urges given free rein? Is there nothing more involved in the process?”

It took him a moment to comprehend the question. “Are you referring to the glances your sister shares with St. John? Or how the Westfields look at one another?”

“Yes. They are . . . indecent, yet romantic.”

“You are not the only one to see such affection and covet it.” The inquisitiveness in her gaze made him smile.

“Do you?”

Ware shrugged and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning his hip into the railing. “On occasion. But I do not pine for it or suffer from its lack. I think, however, that you do.”

As honest as ever, she nodded.

“I begin to see that my straightforward approach to wooing you was not the best,” he mused aloud. “I assumed that the miserable end to your first love affair would make you inclined to appreciate a more . . . grounded relationship. But you want the opposite, do you not?”

She pushed away and began to pace, which was her wont when agitated. At times like this, she reminded him of a caged cat prowling in its boredom. “I do not know what I want, that is the problem.” The look she gave him pinned him in his place.

“I am content. There is nothing more that I need.”

“Are you truly content?” she challenged. “Or do you simply accept that friendship is all that one can hope for in your position?”

“You know the answer to that.”

“Who would you wed, if not for me?”

“I’ve no notion, nor do I care to think about it until absolutely necessary. Are you suggesting I consider alternatives to you?”

Coming to a halt, Amelia released a sound that reminded him endearingly of a kitten’s growl. “I want to be mad for you! Why is the choice not mine to make?”

“Perhaps you suffer from bad taste?” He laughed when she stuck her tongue out at him. Then he lowered his voice and stared at her with heavy-lidded eyes. “If it’s the mask that arouses you, I can wear one to bed. Such games can be fun.”

When her eyes went big as saucers, he winked.

Her hands went to her hips as she bristled; then her head tilted to the side. “Perhaps it is the mystery that intrigues me so? Is that what you are suggesting, my lord?”

“It is a possibility.” Ware’s smile faded. “I intend to make inquiries about your admirer. Let us see if we can unmask him.”


“Because he is not for you, Amelia. A foreign count? You have always longed for a family. You would not move away from your sister now that you are reunited, so what future do you have with this man? And let us not discount the fact that he may seek to wound me through you.”

She began pacing again, and he watched, admiring the inherent grace in her movements and the way her skirts swirled enchantingly around her long legs. “Everyone appears to believe that Montoya has no interest in me as an individual, only in the people connected to me. I admit I find it rather insulting to learn that those who claim to love me find it impossible to imagine a man desiring me for myself.”

“I can more than imagine it, Amelia. I feel it. Do not take my courtesy as a lack of desire for you. You would be wrong.”

Heaving out her breath, she said, “St. John is also attempting to find him.”

He expected as much. “If the man is hiding in the rookeries, St. John might succeed. But you said the count was finely dressed and cultured. He sounds as if he is a denizen of my social circles, rather than the pirate’s. My search may prove more fruitful.”

Amelia paused again. “What will you do if you find him?” There was more than a small measure of suspicion in her voice.

“Are you asking me if I will hurt him?” The question was not frivolous, as he was a swordsman of some renown. “I might.”

Her beautiful features crumbled. “I should not have said anything to you.”

Straightening, Ware moved toward her. “I am pleased you spoke the truth. Our relationship would have been irreparably damaged if you had presented a lie to hide your guilt.” As he reached her, he breathed deeply, inhaling the innocent scent of honeysuckle. He had long suspected that her body resembled the flower she favored, fragrant and sweet as honey upon the lips.

He cupped her face in both hands and tilted her gaze upward to lock with his. Something new swirled in the emerald depths and he found himself falling into them. “But that does not change the fact that the man knew you were mine and took liberties regardless. A grave insult to me, love. I can forgive you, but I cannot forgive him.”

“Ware . . .” Her lips parted, the seam glistening in the soft afternoon light.

Leaning over her, he bent to take her mouth. Her breath caught as she recognized his intent.

“Good afternoon, my lord. ”

They sprung apart as Amelia’s sister and her husband joined them on the terrace, followed shortly by a maid bearing a new tea service.

“It is a lovely day,” the pirate said in his distinctive raspy voice. “We thought we would join you in the sunshine.”

Ware understood the warning. With a slight bow of his head, he stepped back farther. The former Lady Winter smiled at his perceptiveness. It was a bedroom smile, the one a woman shared with her lover after a bout of great sex. For Mrs. St. John, it was her only smile, and it was a lauded part of her appeal.

“We would enjoy the company,” Ware said, leading Amelia back to their table.

He spent the rest of the afternoon trading inanities with the St. Johns and, later, with those he and Amelia passed during their drive through the park. But part of his mind was actively occupied with the logistics of his hunts—the one for Amelia’s favor and the other for the masked man who sought to steal it from him.

“Are you certain the man’s name is Simon Quinn?”

“Aye,” the tavern keep said, setting another pint on the bar.

“Thank you.” Colin accepted the ale and moved to a table in the corner. The report of a man searching for him was disturbing, even more so because the one making the inquiries was using Quinn’s name. It could be Cartland, or one of the men with him, though the owner of the tavern was fairly certain the man did not have a French accent.

There was nothing Colin could do aside from settling in to wait, using techniques of concealment in which he was well versed. A man of his size could never hide completely, but he could make himself less noticeable by sprawling low to disguise his height and breadth of shoulder. He also left his hair unrestrained, which roughened his overall appearance.

The establishment itself made it easy to lose oneself among the crowd. The lighting was kept low to hide a multitude of faults and dirt. The dark-stained walnut furnishings—round tables and spindle-backed chairs—only added to the dimness of the interior. The air was filled with the smells of old and new ale and crackling grease from the kitchen. Patrons wandered in and out. Several were regulars whom Colin had spoken to previously.

Long ago, in his past life, he had frequented such places with his uncle, Pietro. Those lazy afternoons off had been spent listening to the imparted wisdom of a good and decent man. Colin missed him, thought of him often, and wondered how he was faring. Pietro had instilled strength of character in him and a belief in honor that had stood him in good stead these many years.

Colin’s hand fisted on the table.

One day, they would be reunited, and he would show his uncle how he had heeded those early teachings. He would free Pietro from his life of servitude and establish him in comfort. Life was too short, and he wanted his beloved uncle to enjoy as much of it as possible.