She waved him off with a graceful toss of her wrist. “You will not stray far. Good luck to you.”

After a quick bow, Colin reached into his pocket and tossed coins on the table. “I will pray for you,” he said to Quinn, squeezing his friend’s shoulder as he passed.

Quinn’s reply was a blistering curse.

Chapter 7

It was a small but fine house in a respectable neighborhood. The Earl of Ware had owned it for three years now, and during that time, it had rarely been unoccupied.

Tonight the lower windows were dark, but candlelight flickered from one upper sash. He pushed his key into the front door lock and allowed himself entry. The home was maintained by two servants, a husband and wife pair who were trustworthy and discreet. They were abed now, and since he did not require their services, Ware did not disturb them.

He set his hat on the hook, followed by his cloak. Beneath that he wore the evening garments he had donned for another night in an endless string of nights spent at balls and routs. Except this evening had been slightly different. Amelia was different. He was different. The awareness between them had changed. She saw him in a new light, as he saw her in altered fashion as well.

Climbing the steps to the upper floor, he paused a moment outside the one door where light peeked out from the gap at the bottom. Ware exhaled, taking a moment to relish the thrumming of blood in his veins and the quickening of his arousal. Then he turned the knob and entered, finding his dark-haired, sloe-eyed mistress reading quietly in bed.

Her gaze lifted to meet his. He watched her breathing quicken and her lips part. The book was shut with a decisive snap, and he kicked the portal closed behind him.

“My lord,” Jane breathed, tossing back the covers, revealing a shapely figure. “I was hoping you would come tonight.”

Ware’s mouth curved. She was hot for it, which meant the first fuck could be hard and swift. Later, they would take their time, but now such dalliance would not be necessary. A circumstance that suited his mood.

From the moment he had first seen the stunning widow, he’d wanted her. When her last arrangement with Lord Riley ended, Ware approached her with haste before anyone else could lure her away. She was flattered and, later, enthusiastic. They suited each other well, and the sex was pleasurable for both.

He shrugged out of his coat; she untied the belt of her robe. Within moments he was deep inside her—her hips on the edge of the mattress, his feet on the floor as he drove powerfully into her writhing body. His frustration and unease were forgotten in the maelstrom of carnal sensation, much to his relief.

But the surcease did not last long.

An hour later he rested on his back with his hand tucked behind his head, his sweat-drenched skin cooling in the evening air.

“That was delicious,” Jane murmured, her voice throaty from passionate cries. “You are always so primitive when aggravated.”

“Aggravated?” He laughed and tucked her closer to his side.

“Yes. I can tell when something is troubling you.” Her hand stroked down the center of his chest.

Ware stared up at the ornate ceiling moldings and thought again of how well the room suited her, with its rose and cream colors and gilded furnishings. He had encouraged her to spare no expense and to think only of her own comfort, having found over the course of several mistresses that a woman’s taste in décor spoke a great deal about her. “Must we talk of things unpleasant?”

“We could work your frustrations into exhaustion,” she teased, lifting her head to reveal laughing dark eyes. “You know I will not complain.”

He brushed back the damp strands of hair that clung to her temple. “I prefer that solution.”

“But it would be only a temporary measure. As a woman, I might be able to assist you with your problem, which I suspect is feminine in nature.”

“You are helping me,” he purred.

Her raised brows spoke of her skepticism, but she did not press him.

Exhaling harshly, he shared his thoughts aloud, trusting Jane as a friend and confidante. She was a sweet woman, one of the sweetest he knew. She was not the kind of soul who sought to hurt others or advance herself at another’s detriment.

“Do you realize that a man of my station is rarely seen as a man?” he asked. “I am lands, money, and prestige, but rarely more than that.”

She listened quietly but alert.

“I spent my youth in Lincolnshire, raised to think of myself only as Ware and never as an individual. I had no interests outside of my duties, no goals beyond that of my title. I was trained so well that it never occurred to me to want something of my own, something that had nothing to do with the marquessate and everything to do with me.”

“That sounds like a very lonely way to live.”

He shrugged and shoved another pillow under his head. “I had no notion of any other way.”

When he held his silence, she prompted, “Until?”

“Until one day I traversed the perimeter of our property and chanced upon an urchin preparing to fish in my stream.”

Jane smiled and slid from his arms and the bed, donning her discarded robe before moving to the console and pouring a libation. “Who was this urchin?”

“A servant from the neighboring property. He was waiting for the young lady whose father he worked for. They had struck up a friendship of sorts, which intrigued me.”

“As did the young lady.” She warmed the brandy expertly by rolling the glass over the flame of a taper.

“Yes,” he agreed. “She was young, wild, and free. Miss Benbridge showed me how different the world looked through the eyes of one who suffered under no one’s expectations. She also completely disregarded my title and treated me just as she treated the urchin, with playful affection.”

Jane sat on the edge of the bed and drank lightly, then passed the goblet over to him. “I think I would like her.”

“Yes.” He smiled. “I believe she would like you, as well.”

They would never meet, of course, but that was not the point.

“I admire you for marrying her,” she said, “despite the sins of her father.”

“How could I not marry her? She is the person who taught me that I had value in and of myself. My aristocratic arrogance is now tempered with personal arrogance.”

Laughing, Jane curled over his legs. “How fortunate for the rest of us.”

Ware ran a hand through his unbound hair. “I will never forget the afternoon when she said, quite innocently, that I was devilishly handsome, which was why she sometimes halted her speech midsentence. No one had ever said such a thing to me. I doubt anyone had ever felt it. When they stuttered it was because of intimidation, not admiration.”

“I tell you that you are comely, my lord,” she said, the sparkle in her eyes giving proof to her words. “There are few men as handsome as you are.”

“That may be true. I do not compare myself to other men, so I would not know.” He drank in large swallows. “But I suspect my attractiveness has more weight when I believe in it myself.”

“Confidence is a potent lure,” she agreed.

“Because she had no expectations of me, I was able to be myself with her. It was the first time in my life that I spoke without considering the confines of my station. I practiced wooing with her and said things aloud that I had never allowed myself to even consider.” He looked down the foot of the bed and into the fire in the grate. “I suppose I grew into my own by knowing her.”

Running her fingertips down his bare thigh, she asked, “Do you feel as if you owe a debt to her?”

“Partly, but our relationship has never been one-sided. We practiced deportment together and conversation. I had experience with such things; she was so sheltered.”

“You gave her polish.”

“Yes. We both gained.”

“And now she belongs to you,” Jane pronounced, “because you helped to create her.”

“I—” Ware frowned. Was that where this disgruntlement came from? Did he simply feel proprietary? “I am not sure that is it. She was in love once—or so she says—and she still pines for him. I do not resent that. I accept it.”

“Perhaps ‘appreciate’ would be a more apt word?” Her lips lifted in a kind smile. “After all, she cannot burden you with elevated feelings if they are engaged elsewhere.”

He tossed back the rest of his brandy, filling his belly with fire, then thrust the goblet at her in a silent demand for more. “If that were true, why am I so annoyed by her fascination with another man?”

As she accepted the glass, her brows rose. “Annoyed? Or jealous?”

Ware laughed. “A little of both?” He waved one hand carelessly. “Perhaps my masculine sensibilities are piqued because she never felt such interest in me? I cannot say for certain. I only know that I doubt myself again. I am wondering if my decision to give her the space and time to heal was an error in judgment.”

Jane paused halfway to the console. “Who is this other man?”

He explained.

“I see.” She refilled his glass and warmed the liquor, then returned to him. “You know I cared deeply for my late husband.”

Nodding, Ware patted the spot next to him. She crawled up beside him, baring her lithe legs to his view. “But I was tempted to marry another, whom I did not love.”

“You jest,” he scoffed. “Women want nothing so much as they want devotion and pronouncements of undying affection.”

“But we are also pragmatic. If you offer Miss Benbridge all the practical things she covets that this other man cannot provide, she will be more tempted to select you.”

“I pointed out that his foreign title would require her to leave her sister behind.”

“Verbally, you did, yes. Now make it even more difficult by proving it in fact. Take her to see your properties, purchase a home near her sibling . . . things of that nature. Then, consider her love of romance and mystery. Put that into play, as well. You can seduce her easily. You have the skill and she is susceptible. Flowers, gifts, stolen kisses. Your competition is working in the shadows. You have no such limitations.”

“Hmm . . .”

“It could be fun for you both. A chance to learn more about each other than you now know.”

He reached over and linked his fingers with hers. “You are so clever.”

Jane’s mouth curved in her winsome smile. “I am a woman.”

“Yes, I am ever aware of that fact.” Reaching to the side, Ware set his goblet atop the bedside table and pulled her beneath him. He kissed her, then moved lower, nudging the edge of the robe aside to take a nipple in his mouth.

“Oh, that’s nice,” she sighed.

Lifting his head, he grinned. “Thank you for your help.”

“My motives are not entirely altruistic, you know. Perhaps you will become aggravated during your attempts to woo Miss Benbridge. I do so love it when you are less than controlled.”

“Minx.” He gave a mock growl and she shivered.

Which prompted Ware to spend the rest of the hours until morning playing the primitive lover to both their delights.

Amelia peeked around the corner of the house, her lower lip worried between her teeth. She searched for Colin in the stable yard, then heaved a sigh of relief when she found the area empty. Male voices drifted on the wind, laughter and singing spilling out from the stables. From this she knew Colin was hard at work with his uncle, which meant that she could safely leave the manse and head into the woods.

She was becoming quite good at subterfuge, she thought as she moved deftly through the trees, hiding from the occasional guard in her journey toward the fence. A fortnight had passed since that fateful afternoon when she had caught Colin behind the shop with that girl. Amelia had avoided him since, refusing to speak with him when he asked the cook to fetch her.

Perhaps it was foolish to hope that she would never see him again, given how closely their lives were entwined. If so, she was a fool. There was not an hour of the day that passed without her thinking of him, but she managed the pain of her grief as long as he stayed away from her. She saw no reason for them to meet, to talk, to acknowledge each other. She traveled by carriage only when moving to a new home, and even then, she could deal exclusively with Pietro, the coachman.

Espying the waited-for opening, Amelia hopped deftly over the fence and ran to the stream, where she found Ware coatless and wigless, with his shirtsleeves pushed up. The young earl had caught some color to his skin these last weeks, setting aside his life of book work in favor of hard outdoor play. With his dark brown locks tied in a queue and his cornflower-colored eyes smiling, he was quite handsome, his aquiline features boasting centuries of pure blue blood.

He did not set her heart to racing or make her ache in unfamiliar places as Colin did, but Ware was charming and polite and attractive. She supposed that was a sufficient enough combination of qualities to make him the recipient of her first kiss. Miss Pool told her to wait until the right young man came along, but Colin already had, and had turned to another instead.

“Good afternoon, Miss Benbridge, ” the earl greeted with a perfect bow.

“My lord, ” she replied, lifting the sides of her rose-hued gown before curtsying.

“I have a treat for you today. ”

“Oh?” Her eyes widened in anticipation. She loved gifts and surprises because she rarely received them. Her father simply could not be bothered to consider such things as birthdays or other gift-giving occasions.

Ware’s smile was indulgent. “Yes, princess.” He offered his arm to her. “Come with me. ”

Amelia set her fingers lightly atop his forearm, enjoying the opportunity to practice her social graces with someone. The earl was kind and patient, pointing out any errors and correcting her. It gave her a higher polish and a deeper confidence. She no longer felt like a girl pretending to be a lady. Instead she felt like a lady who chose to enjoy her youth.