Finally, Mitchell heaved out his breath and sank into the seat opposite the desk. “I’m listening. ”

“Excellent!” Simon leaned back in his chair. “Now here are my thoughts . . .”

“Why did you say nothing to me?” Maria asked when the tale was finished, staring at Simon as if he were a stranger. She felt as if he were.

“If I had told you, mhuirnín,” Simon said softly, “would you have withheld the information from your sibling? Of course not, and the secret was not mine to share.”

“What of Amelia’s pain and suffering?”

“Unfortunate, but not something I could alleviate.”

“You could have told me he was alive!” she argued.

“Mitchell had every right to make himself worthy of Amelia’s esteem. Do not fault him for pursuing the woman he loves in the only manner available to him. Of all men, I understand his motivations very well.” He paused a moment, then spoke in a calmer voice. “Besides, what he did with his life was no concern of yours.”

“It is a concern of mine,” drawled a voice from behind them, “now that it affects Miss Benbridge.”

Maria turned in her chair and faced the man who approached. “Lord Ware,” she greeted, her heart sinking.

The earl was dressed as casually as she had ever seen him, but there was a tension to his tall frame and a tautness to his jaw that told her leisure was far from his mind. His dark hair was unadorned but for a ribbon at his nape, and he wore boots instead of heels.

“This is the fiancé?” Mademoiselle Rousseau asked.

“My lord,” Christopher greeted. “I am impressed by your dedication.”

“Until she tells me otherwise,” the earl said grimly, “I consider Miss Benbridge’s welfare one of my responsibilities.”

“I have not had this much fun in ages,” the Frenchwoman said, smiling wide.

Maria closed her eyes and rubbed the space between her brows. Christopher, who stood at her back, set his hand on her shoulder and gave a commiserating squeeze.

“Would someone care to fill me in?” Ware asked.

She looked at Simon. He raised both brows. “How delicately should I phrase this?”

“No delicacy required,” Ware said. “I am neither ignorant nor cursed with a weak constitution.”

“He does intend to marry into our family,” Christopher pointed out.

“True,” Simon said, though his gaze narrowed. He relayed the events leading up to the present moment, carefully leaving out names like Eddington’s, which could not be shared.

“So this man in the mask is Colin Mitchell?” Ware asked, scowling. “The boy Miss Benbridge fancied in her youth? And she does not know it is him?”

“She knows it now,” Tim muttered.

“Mitchell is telling her as we speak,” Christopher explained.

There was a thud behind them, and they all turned to find Pietro, who stood gaping with a dropped valise at his feet. “That isn’t possible!” the coachman said heatedly. “Colin is gone.”

Maria glanced at Simon, who winced.

“This grows more fascinating by the moment,” Mademoiselle Rousseau said.

“You are a vile creature,” Simon snapped.

Looking up at Christopher, Maria signaled her intent to stand, and he stepped back. “I should go see how things are progressing.”

“No need,” he murmured, his gaze trained beyond her.

All heads turned toward the hallway that led to the private dining room. Amelia appeared with reddened eyes and nose and disheveled hair, the picture of tormented heartbroken loveliness.

Mitchell came into view directly behind her, and the sight of him took Maria aback, as it did everyone who saw him. Elegantly attired and proud of bearing, he left no traces of servitude clinging to his tall frame. He was an arrestingly beautiful man, with dark, sensual eyes framed by long, thick lashes and a voluptuary’s mouth framed by a firm, determined jaw. He, too, looked devastated and gravely wounded, and Maria’s heart went out to both of them.

“Amelia . . .” Ware’s cultured drawl was rough with concern.

Her verdant gaze met his and filled with tears.

A low growl rumbled from the earl’s chest.

“Colin.” Pietro’s agonized tone deepened the trauma of the day’s revelations.

Distracted by the many unfolding events, Maria did not foresee Ware’s intent until he stalked up to Mitchell and asked, “Do you consider yourself a gentleman?”

Mitchell’s jaw tightened. “I do.”

Ware threw a glove down at Mitchell’s feet. “Then I demand satisfaction.”

“I will give it to you.”

“Dear God,” Maria breathed, her hand at her throat.

Christopher left her side. He drew to a halt beside the earl and said, “I would be honored to serve as your second, my lord.”

“Thank you,” Ware replied.

“I will serve as Mitchell’s,” Simon said, joining them.

“No!” Amelia cried, her horrified gaze darting between the grim masculine faces. “This is absurd.”

Maria pulled her away. “You cannot intercede.”

“Why?” Amelia asked. “This is not necessary.”

“It is.”

“I have a home in Bristol,” Ware said. “I suggest we retire there. Our audience will then be made up of those we trust.”

Mitchell nodded. “That was my destination, so the location is convenient for me as well.”

“I caused this.” Amelia looked pleadingly at Maria. “My selfishness has led to this end. How do I stop this?”

“What is done, is done,” Maria said, rubbing her hand soothingly down Amelia’s spine.

“I want to go with them.”

“That would not be wise.”

Christopher turned to her, and she saw in his face that he disagreed. She did not understand why he would wish them to go, but she could learn his motives later. As it was, she trusted him implicitly and knew that his first concern was always for her health and happiness.

“I want to go,” Amelia said again, with more strength.

“Shh,” Maria soothed. “We can discuss this over a hot bath and a change of clothes.”

Her sibling nodded, and they moved away to order heated water and a tub. With everyone distracted with their own thoughts, no one noted the man who occupied a shadowed seat in the far corner. He attracted even less attention when he left.

Stepping outside, Jacques tugged the brim of his hat down and sauntered across the drive toward the carriage that waited a short ways down the lane.

He opened the door and looked inside. “Mitchell was just challenged to a duel.”

Cartland smiled. “Come in and tell me everything.”

Chapter 14

It never ceased to amaze Amelia how a man as vibrant and impossible to ignore as Christopher St. John could fade into oblivion when he chose to. As it was, she hardly noticed that he shared the same squab with Maria as they traveled to Bristol. He held his tongue as she poured out her heart, and she was grateful to him for his silence. Few would believe that the notorious criminal could tolerate hours upon hours of a weeping woman’s lamentations over love, but he did and he did it well.

“You told him you would not see him again?” Maria asked gently.

“Until Ware challenged him, that had been my intent,” Amelia said from behind the handkerchief she held to her nose. She had refused to talk about anything yesterday on the ride to Swindon. Only today did she feel capable of discussing Colin without crying too copiously to speak. “We will be happier apart.”

“You do not look happier.”

“I will be, over the duration of my life, as will Colin.” She sighed. “No one can be happy pretending day after day to be someone they are not.”

“Perhaps he is not pretending,” Maria suggested softly.

“Regardless, the new Colin harbors the same doubts as the old. Despite all that he has accomplished, he still believed Ware was the better choice until just days ago. He continues to make decisions regarding my welfare without consulting me. I had enough of such treatment in my childhood.”

“You are allowing your past to cloud your present.”

“You champion his actions?” Amelia asked with wide eyes. “How can you? I can find nothing good in what he has done. He is wealthy, yes—that is obvious in the quality of everything he owns—but accepting that end as being worthy of my grief and heartache puts a price on my love, and I cannot abide that.”

“I do not champion his actions,” Maria murmured, “but I do believe he loves you and that he thought he was acting in your best interests. I also believe that you love him. Surely, there is something good in that?”

Amelia ran a hand over her skirts and gazed out the window. Behind them, Colin rode in his carriage with Jacques, Mr. Quinn, and Mademoiselle Rousseau. Ware led their procession in his coach. She was trapped between the two, both figuratively and literally.

“I have come to the realization that passion is not as the poets would have us believe,” she said.

There was a suspicious choking sound from the opposite squab, but when she shot a narrowed glance at St. John, his face was studiously impassive.

“I am quite serious,” she argued. “Prior to these last weeks, my life was orderly and comfortable. My equanimity was intact. Ware was content, as were both of you. Colin, too, had an existence that was progressing in its own fashion. Now all of our lives are in disarray. You’ve no notion of how it pains me to realize that my resemblance to Lord Welton is more than skin deep.”

“Amelia. That is absolute nonsense.” Maria’s voice was stern.

“Is it? Have I not done exactly as he would do? Cared only for my own pleasure?” She shook her head. “I would rather be a woman who lives for duty than one who lives for her own indulgences. At least I would have honor then.”

Concern filled Maria’s dark eyes. “You are overwrought. It has been a long journey and the inn in Swindon had little to recommend it, but we are almost to Bristol, and then you must rest for a day or two.”

“Before or after the duel?” Amelia asked testily.


There was a distant shout heard outside, and then the carriage turned. Leaning forward, she looked out the window and watched a long, manicured lane empty into a circular drive graced by a sizeable center fountain. The lavish manse beyond that was breathtaking with its graceful columns and massive portico flanked by abundant, cheery flowerbeds.

The line of carriages rolled to a halt before the steps, and the front door opened, allowing a veritable swarm of gray-and black-liveried servants to flow out. St. John exited first. He then assisted Maria and Amelia down to the graveled drive.

“Welcome,” Ware said, as he joined them. His mouth curved in a rakish half smile as he lifted Amelia’s gloved hand to his lips. He looked dashing in his garb of pale blue breeches and coat the exact color of his eyes, and the strained smile she returned had true appreciation for his charm behind it.

“Your home is lovely, my lord,” Maria murmured.

“Thank you. I hope you will find it even lovelier once you are inside.”

In unison, they turned to look toward Colin’s coach. Amelia steeled herself inwardly for his appearance, expecting that he would look at her as he had done all of yesterday—with entreaty in his dark eyes.

Sadly, no preparation on her part could mitigate the effect he had on her as he vaulted down from his carriage and approached with an elegant stride that was entirely sensual. Damn the man. He had always moved with an animal grace that made her tingle all over. Now that she knew how well that latent sexuality translated to bedplay, the response was worse.

She looked away in an effort to hide the irresistible attraction she felt.

“My lord,” Colin said, his smooth voice roughened by obvious dislike. “If someone could kindly provide direction to the nearest inn, I will be on my way. Mr. Quinn will return later to make the necessary arrangements.”

“I would like you to stay here,” Ware said, startling everyone.

Amelia looked at him with mouth agape.

“That is impossible,” Colin protested.

“Why?” Ware challenged with both brows raised.

Colin’s jaw tightened. “I have my reasons.”

“What is it?” St. John asked, a note in his voice alerting Amelia. Apparently he saw something in the exchange that she did not. “Allow me to help you.”

“That will not be necessary,” Colin said stiffly. “Keep Miss Benbridge safe. That is all the assistance I require.”

“If you are in danger,” Maria said, “I would prefer to keep you close. Perhaps we should stay at the inn as well.”

“Please,” Ware said in his customary drawl, as composed as ever. “Everyone will be safer here than in a public venue with frequent traffic.”

“St. John,” Colin said. “If I could have a moment of your time.”

St. John nodded and excused himself. The two men moved a short distance away and spoke in tones too low to overhear. They became more animated, the conversation more heated.

“What is going on?” Amelia asked Maria.

“I wish I knew,” Maria replied.

“Allow Mrs. Barney to show you to your rooms,” Ware said, gesturing to the housekeeper who waited on the lower step with a soft smile.

“I want to know what is happening,” Amelia said.

“I know you do,” Ware murmured, setting his hand at her lower back and leading her toward the manse. “And I promise to tell you everything as soon as I know it.”

“Truly?” She looked up at him from beneath the brim of her hat.

“Of course. When have I ever lied to you?”

She understood the message. I am not Mitchell, it said. I have always been true to you. Grateful for him, Amelia offered a thankful, shaky smile. Maria joined her, and together they followed Mrs. Barney into the house.