Amelia wrenched away and began to pace, her long legs moving with a lithe, determined elegance.

“I have never left you,” he said, pointing out what he knew to be his greatest strength. “I enjoy your company far too much. There are precious few people in this world about whom I feel similarly.”

“I know. Bless you. I love you for that.” She managed a brief smile. “That is what has decided my mind. You will be steadfast and supportive. You do not seek to be someone you are not. You inspire me to be decorous and deport myself in a manner befitting a lady. We rub along well together.”

Ware frowned, considering. “Amelia. I should like to discuss your thoughts on decorum and deportment in greater detail. Forgive me, but I find it rather odd to mention those traits as being most attractive. I would think our friendship and ease of association would lure you most.”

She halted, her pale green skirts settling gently around her feet. “I have come to realize something these past days, Ware. I have reckless tendencies, just as Welton did. I require a certain environment in order to restrain those selfish impulses.”

“And I provide this environment.”

Amelia beamed at him. “Yes. Yes, you do.”

“Hmm . . .” He rubbed his jaw. “And Mitchell inspires your reckless nature?”

“‘Goads’ would be a more apt word choice, but yes, he does.”

“I see.” Ware smiled wryly. “His role sounds more fun than mine.”

“Ware!” She looked affronted, which made him laugh.

“Sorry, love. I must be honest. In one breath, you point out that I do not seek to be someone I am not—in opposition, I presume, to Mr. Mitchell. Then in the next breath, you say that I inhibit a part of your nature that you are not proud of. Is that not seeking to be someone you are not . . . in a fashion?”

Her lower lip quivered in that way it had when she was upset. She set her hands on her hips and demanded, “Do you want me to be with him?” she cried. “Is that what you are saying?”

“No.” All traces of amusement left him, and he bared the emotions he kept hidden below the surface. “I do not think he is the man for you. I do not think he deserves you. I do not believe he can provide a life that would content you. But that does not mean I want to live with only half of you.”

Amelia blinked. “You are angry.”

“Not at you,” he said gruffly, reaching for her again. He gripped her by the elbows and pulled her close. “But I may eventually become so and I do not want that. I resent that I can have only the one side of you. If you choose me, Amelia, I can make you happy. The question left is whether you can make me happy, and I wonder if that is possible if I am forever waiting for the return of that precocious girl who asked me to kiss her.”

“Ware . . .”

She cupped his cheek with her hand, and he nuzzled into it, inhaling the sweet scent of honeysuckle that clung to her.

“I do not deserve you,” she whispered.

“Is that not what Mitchell said to you?” he asked, altering his hold to embrace her fully. Resting his cheek against her temple, he said, “I will leave you now. I have arrangements to make, and you require time to think.”

“I do not want you to fight him.”

“It is too late to change that end, Amelia. But I demand first blood, nothing more.”

He felt relief relax the tautness of her spine. “Thank you,” she said.

Ware brushed away the lone tear that stained her cheek, and stepped back.

“I am available to you at all times. Do not hesitate to seek me out if you have a need.”

Amelia nodded, and watched Ware turn about and head toward the manse. When he disappeared from her view, she glanced around her, feeling lost and alone. No one knew how she felt, how deeply wounded she was by Colin’s reappearance after all these years.

She stilled, her heartbeat stumbling for a moment over a sudden realization.

There was one person who loved Colin as she had. One person who would be equally devastated by his betrayal.

Knowing Pietro would need comfort as she did, Amelia lifted her skirts and hurried toward the stables.

Chapter 15

Francois Depardue assumed a vaguely bored expression as he entered the inn in Bristol. He took the stairs to the guest rooms above and knocked on the appropriate door. A shout of permission for entry was heard from the interior, and he answered it by stepping inside.

“Well?” Cartland asked impatiently, glancing up from the maps he had spread across the small, round table.

It was with great effort that Francois bit back an angry retort. With every day that passed, he disliked the brash, arrogant Englishman more and more. He’d argued with and then begged his superiors to have Cartland held in custody until he could ascertain who was truly guilty of Leroux’s murder, but to no avail.

If he is lying, they said, he will be close at hand for you to eliminate.

They had insisted that Cartland join the search, and the Englishman had immediately assumed that he was in charge. He was an excellent tracker and even better killer, but those skills were tempered by his mistaken belief in his own superiority.

“It appears that Mitchell will be staying with Lord Ware. The manse is heavily guarded for some distance around. I would guess that is due to the presence of Christopher St. John.”

Cartland smiled. “The earl is likely concerned that Mitchell will flee like the coward he is before the challenge can be met.”

“So you say,” Francois said.

The Englishman’s features darkened. “I think the presence of Mademoiselle Rousseau has spoiled your temper.”

Lysette. Francois smiled at the thought of her. Once, she had been harmless, but he and his men had ensured that she would never be harmless, or innocent, again. Aside from his sincere desire to see justice brought to Leroux’s killer, his one pleasure in this miserable assignment was the thought of crossing paths with Lysette again.

His blood heated in anticipation. She would fight him, she always did, and she improved with every encounter. The harder she resisted him, the more he enjoyed it. Now that the Illuminés, on whose behalf she worked, had tasked her with ensuring either Cartland or Mitchell paid for Leroux’s death, he imagined his inevitable domination of her body would be that much sweeter.

Perhaps the Illuminés thought he would welcome their assistance, but he did not like being second-guessed, which was how he viewed their interference.

“Do you have any suggestions for how we should proceed?” Francois asked.

“We could possibly lure the bulk of the guards away, using me as bait. Then we can attack the manse at night and kill him.”

“But that will not tell me who is guilty, will it?”

Pushing to his feet, Cartland snapped, “I am obviously innocent, or they would not have sent me to find Mitchell!”

“Why, then, is Mademoiselle Rousseau here?” Francois smiled. “You think she is merely present to observe and support my efforts? Surely you are not so stupid. It was well planned to send you with me and Quinn with her. Nothing has been left to chance. You think your spy”—he gestured to the stocky man in the corner with a jerk of his chin—“gives you an advantage, but you are wrong.”

“What do you suggest we do?” Cartland’s face flushed.

Francois debated a moment, then shrugged. “Mitchell is dueling over a woman. Perhaps she is the key to his confession.”

The Englishman paled. “You think to take St. John’s sister-in-law? Are you insane?”

“Surely he cannot be as fearsome as is rumored,” Francois scoffed.

“You’ve no notion,” Cartland muttered. Then his features took on a mien of wily determination. “Then again . . . perhaps you are right.” He smiled smugly. “I will think of a way. Give me time.”

Francois shrugged, but inwardly he was making his own plans. “Fine. I will go eat downstairs. Either of you care to join me?”

“No. We both have work to do.”

“As you wish.”

Cartland watched Depardue leave with a narrowed glance.

“He is becoming more trouble than he is worth,” he muttered. “Since killing him myself is out of the question, we must find another way to hasten the man to his reward.”

“Send him to capture the girl, then,” Jacques replied easily. “Since it was his idea, he should not object.”

Grinning, Cartland considered the beauty of the plan. If Mitchell or St. John took care of Depardue for him, it would only strengthen his own protestations of innocence.

“Can you arrange for him to gain entry?”

“Mais oui.”

“Excellent. See to it.”

Amelia found Pietro leading a bridled horse from the nearby corral to the stable yard. For a long moment, she was struck dumb by the resemblance he bore to Colin. With her memories of her childhood love arrested in the past, she had not noticed before. Now that she had seen him as a man, the similarities were unavoidable and agonizing. Tears welled, and though she tried to blink them back, they were plentiful and blurred her vision. She wiped them angrily away.

“Miss Benbridge.” Pietro looked at her with commiseration in his dark eyes. “It hurts. I know.”

She nodded. “How are you faring?”

“I’m angry,” he admitted, “but grateful to have him back. If you still love the boy he was, perhaps you feel the same?”

“I am glad he is alive,” she managed. “Is there anything you need?”

A smile lifted the corner of his mouth. “It is sweet of you to think of me during this time. I can see why he adores you as he does.”

Her face heated at the gentle praise.

“He has loved you a long time, Miss Benbridge.” Pietro’s deep, slightly accented voice soothed her, though his words did not. “From the beginning, I tried to discourage him, but he wouldn’t listen. I think it says a great deal that you both care so deeply for each other after all these years apart.”

“That does not change the fact that he feels inferior to me”—she released a shaky breath—“or that I do not like the person I become trying to convince him of his worth.”

He watched her for a long moment, then nodded. “Will you help me?”

“Of course.” Amelia stepped closer. “What do you need?”

“Can you lead this horse into the stable for me? I have a few more to round up before the sun sets.”

She accepted the proffered reins. The smile he gave her was strange, but presently everything in her life felt odd.

“Thank you,” he murmured, then walked away.

Amelia turned and moved through the open stable door. The moment she stepped inside, she realized Pietro’s intent. She paused, her breath caught in a mixture of surprise and volatile lust.

Colin worked with his back to her, but his identity was never in question. His torso was bare, his legs clad in worn coarse breeches, his calves hugged lovingly by polished Hessians. Powerful muscles bunched and flexed beneath sweat-sheened skin as he stroked a brush rapidly over a horse’s flanks.

The sudden assailment of memories from their youth almost brought her to her knees. The sight of scratches left by her nails in the golden flesh added a carnal claim to his beautiful body that she longed to enforce.

As she watched, he stilled. Her exhale was a pant, and his head swiveled to face her in a lightning quick movement.


He straightened and pivoted, baring the chest she had worshipped with both mouth and hands.

Dear God, he was divine. So handsome and virile, he made her heart ache.

“Are you alone?” he asked.


Colin flinched and stepped toward her.

“Please do not come closer,” she said.

His jaw tightened and he halted. “Stay. Talk to me.”

“What is there to say? I heard your reasons. I understand why you acted as you did.”

“Is there hope for us? Any at all?”

She shook her head.

Agony transformed his features. “Look at me,” he said in a broken voice. “Look at where we are. This is where I would be if I had not left—tending St. John’s horses while you lived your life in a manse I am not allowed to enter. How could we have been together? Tell me that.”

Amelia covered her mouth to stifle a sob.

“What if I gave it all away?” His words were laced with a desperation that broke her heart into even smaller pieces. “What if I resumed my place as a servant in your household? Would you have me then?”

“Damn you,” she cried, her shoulders straightening in self-defense. “Why must you change yourself to suit me? Why can you not simply be who you are?”

“This is who I am!” He spread his arms wide. “This is the man I have become, but he is still not what you want.”

“Who cares what I want?” She stalked toward him. “What about what you want?”

“I want you!”

“Then why are you so quick to leave my side?” she snapped. “If you want me, fight for me. Do it for you, not for me.”

Amelia thrust the reins at him.

He caught her hand and held it. “I love you.”

“Not enough,” she whispered, yanking free. Then she turned and ran from the stable in a flurry of skirts and lace.

Colin stared after her for long moments, attempting to reason what more he could do, what more he could say to win her love back. He had done everything, lost everything . . .

A dark shape filled the doorway, and he pushed his roiling emotions aside. “St. John.”

The pirate stared at him with knowing eyes. “There was a lone rider spotted on a hill nearby. He is being followed back to town.”

Colin nodded. “Thank you.”

“Supper will be served shortly.”

“I do not think I can bear it.” The thought of the façade he would have to wear while Ware publicly laid claim to Amelia was too much.