He and Quinn parted ways by the staircase, and Colin returned to the library to collect his coats. His fist curled around the empty sheath that normally held his dagger, and his mind returned to the moment when Amelia had come to his aid, defending him to the death. Earlier today he had thought it impossible to love her more than he did. Now he realized he was falling in love with her all over again. With the woman Amelia had grown into.

For the first time, Colin was absolutely certain there was no other man in the world better for Amelia. And even if that were not the case, damn them all regardless. She belonged to him. With perseverance he might convince her to believe that, too.

Resolute and determined, he shrugged into his garments and left the room. Ware was standing at the foot of the staircase, staring down at the location where Depardue’s body had lain not long ago. The scene was tidied now, but Colin suspected the memory would haunt the earl for years to come.

At the sound of footfalls, Ware turned his head, and his gaze narrowed upon seeing Colin.

“If you capture Cartland,” Ware said, “you will have no further business here.” His jaw tightened. “Except for one.”

“Shall we meet at dawn?” Colin suggested. The duel was one more impediment to his future with Amelia. He wanted it dispatched immediately. “We will both have been awake through the night. No advantage for either of us.”

“Perhaps you will fight at length or return wounded,” the earl said grimly. “However, if neither of those conditions applies, dawn will suit me well.”

Colin bowed and hastened toward the stables, spurred by the thought that the sun could rise upon an entirely new life for him. He found St. John waiting with a dozen men. Quinn appeared shortly after.

Within a half hour, a troop of over a dozen riders was on its way into town.

Chapter 17

Cartland heard the sounds of many booted feet approaching his room and reached for the gun resting on the table before him. Sending Depardue along with four others had been a gamble he would have preferred to avoid, but sometimes such risks reaped the greatest rewards.

Holding a pistol lightly in one hand, he waited for the knock and then called out for entry. The door opened, and one of his men entered in a rush.

“I cannot be certain,” the man said; “perhaps I am overcautious, but a group of three heavily armed gentlemen entered the tavern below.”

Cartland tucked his weapon into his waistband and reached for his coat. “Better to be cautious than foolhardy.” He caught up his small sword and moved swiftly toward the door. “Are the others below?”

“Yes, and two in the stables.”

“Excellent, come with me.”

Moving with long, rapid strides, Cartland made his egress by way of the servants’ staircase. Straight ahead was the rear exit, but he turned left instead and went through the kitchen to the delivery door. It always paid to be careful.

The door was ajar, allowing the cool night breeze into the hot kitchen. Cartland saw nothing but darkness beyond the small pool of spilling light, but he rushed outside to the alley in a near run to give himself a better chance of escape if a trap was set.

Once he was shrouded by the enveloping moonlit night, he felt safer.

Until he heard the pained grunt of the lackey who ran just behind him.

Startled, Cartland stumbled over a loose bit of gravel. He spun, pulling his gun free as he did so, his gaze wild and seeking.

“So good to see you again,” Mitchell called out.

The light of the moon illuminated the narrow alley and the prone body on the ground with the knife hilt protruding from its back. The lackey groaned and writhed and was absolutely useless to Cartland.

“You!” he sputtered, unable to see the man who hunted him.

“Me,” Mitchell agreed from the shadows.

The echo created by the surrounding buildings made it difficult to determine where Mitchell was.

Meanwhile, Cartland was out in the open.

Brandishing his firearm, Cartland said, “The French won’t believe that I am at fault. They trust me.”

“Allow me to worry about that.”

There was a thud to the left, and Cartland fired in that general direction. When a large, round rock rolled down the shallow incline to rest against his booted foot, he knew he’d been tricked. Had he not been so panicked, he would have known better. His heart sank into his gut, frozen by terror.

Mitchell’s laughter filled the night. Then the Gypsy appeared in a flurry of a swirling cape like some phantom apparition. In each hand was a weapon. One was a pistol, which left Cartland with no options beyond death or surrender. His useless, smoking gun fell from his nerveless fingers and clattered to the alley floor.

“I can help you,” he offered urgently. “I can speak on your behalf and clear your name.”

Mitchell’s teeth flashed white in the darkness. “Yes, you will—by returning to France and paying for your crimes.”

Amelia jolted awake just before dawn. Her heart was racing as if she’d run a great distance, but she could not discern why.

She lay abed for a long moment, blinking up at the canopy above her. Her bleary gaze lingered upon the gold tassels that framed the edges, and she attempted to regulate her panting by concentrating on every breath.

Then she heard an unmistakable noise that filled her with dread—the sound of swords clashing outside.

For a moment, she feared the men had not succeeded with their early morning capture of Cartland, but the lack of shouting and mayhem dispelled that thought.

The duel!

She called out for her abigail as she leaped up from the bed. “Anne!”

Hurrying to the window, she threw the drapes wide, cursing under her breath to see the pale gray-and-pink sky.

Amelia rushed to her armoire and pulled out a shawl. “Anne!”

The door opened, and she turned in an agitated flurry. “Why did you not wake me before—Maria!”


The note of sympathy in Maria’s voice caused gooseflesh to flare across Amelia’s arms. “No!” she breathed, rushing past her sister to the gallery.

“Poppet! Wait!”

But she did not. She ran with all the strength she had, nearly crashing into an industrious chambermaid before skittering around the corner and stumbling down the stairs. As she approached the lower floor, the unmistakable ring of clashing foils iced her blood. Amelia was nearly to the French doors that led to the rear terrace and the lawn beyond that when she was caught in a crushing embrace and restrained. She attempted a scream, but was gagged by a massive hand over her mouth.

“Sorry,” Tim muttered. “I can’t let you distract ’em while they’re fighting. That’s ’ow men are killed.”

She shuddered violently at the thought of either man being injured. Struggling like a madwoman, Amelia fought for freedom, but even grown men could not best Tim. As the sounds of fighting continued, tears welled and coursed freely. Every clang of steel clashing against steel struck her like a blow, causing her to jerk repeatedly in Tim’s arms. He cursed and pressed his cheek to hers, murmuring things meant to soothe, but nothing could alleviate her distress.

Then . . . silence.

Amelia froze, afraid to breathe in case the sound would overpower the heralds of whatever was transpiring outside.

Tim carried her to a nearby window and pushed up the sash a bare inch. A damp, chilly breeze blew through the tiny gap, making her shiver.

“You are the better man.”

Colin’s voice drifted to her ears, and her lips quivered against Tim’s palm.

“You are the reasonable choice,” he continued in a grim tone. “You have been steadfast and true to her. Unlike my estate, your wealth and title are long-standing. You can give her things that I cannot.”

Amelia hung limply in Tim’s arms, sobbing silently.

“Most importantly, her affection for me is not something she welcomes, while she gratefully embraces her future with you.”

Her head turned to the side, her tear-stained cheek pressing against Tim’s thundering heart.

Colin was leaving her, as he had so many times before.

Tim’s hand fell away from her mouth.

“Release me,” she whispered, her spirit broken. “I will not go outside.”

He set her down and she turned away.

“Poppet.” Maria waited at the bottom of the stairs with her arms wide open. Amelia walked gratefully into them, her knees weakening, forcing them both to sit on the bottom step.

“I had hope,” Amelia whispered, her chest crushed by grief such as she had not felt since she first believed Colin had died. “I hate myself for having hope. Why can I not learn from the past? Those I love do not stay in my life. They all leave. Every one of them. Except for you . . . only you stay . . .”

“Hush. You are overwrought.”

Strong arms curved beneath her as Tim lifted her up. She curled against his chest as he carried her back to her bedchamber with Maria in tow.

Colin straightened from his low bow, his eyes meeting Ware’s as the earl mimicked his movements. He felt the hot trickle of blood weeping from the shallow wound caused by Ware’s blade, but he did not care. Ware had satisfaction, but that was all he would have. It would have to be enough for the earl, for Colin intended to take the spoils.

“But regardless of everything that recommends you, my lord,” Colin continued, “I concede only this duel. Not Miss Benbridge. Her deeper affection is for me, as always. And I believe my feelings for her are quite obvious to one and all.”

“Which is why you abandoned her for several years?” the earl scoffed.

“I cannot alter the past. However, I can assure you that from the present moment onward, nothing on Earth can take her from me.”

Ware’s blue eyes narrowed, and thick tension filled the air between them. Then the corner of the earl’s mouth lifted. “Perhaps you are not the man I thought you were.”

“Perhaps not.”

They bowed again, then quit the lawn, both men heading in the separate directions their lives would now take them.

The next half hour of Amelia’s life—or was it an hour?—passed in a daze. Maria forced tea upon her, as well as a hefty dose of laudanum.

“It will calm you,” her sister murmured.

“Go away,” she muttered, slapping at the many hands that sought to soothe her brow.

“I will read quietly,” Maria said, “and send your abigail away.”

“No. You go, too.”

Eventually they gave up and went away, leaving Amelia to curl into herself and fall back into a dreamless, drug-induced sleep.

Sadly, the respite did not last long. Far too soon another hand brushed the curls back from her face.

“I suppose I have only myself to blame for your lack of faith.”

Colin’s voice brushed across her skin like a tangible caress. She rolled into him, grasping with her hands. He caught them with his own and squeezed.

“You were supposed to sleep straight through this morning,” he murmured, pulling the blankets back from her. “I wanted to spare you any possibility of distress.”

She was lifted and cradled to a warm, hard chest. The scent of his skin, so alluringly masculine and uniquely Colin, urged her to bury her tear-streaked face in his cravat.

She was distantly aware of being carried. It felt as if they descended a staircase, and then fresh air was drifting over her skin, making her shiver.

“There’s a blanket in my carriage,” he murmured. “A minute more and then you will be comfortable again.”

A moment later she was jostled into a carriage, and it set off with a lurch, the wheels crunching across gravel. She was held securely in Colin’s lap and covered warmly. Tears leaked out between her closed eyelids, and she prayed that she would never wake from such a wonderful dream.

His firm lips pressed tightly against her forehead. “Sleep.”

Drugged by the laudanum, she did.

It was the sudden cessation of motion that woke Amelia. Blinking, she fought off the remnants of sleep.

“The horses are fatigued and I am near starved.” Colin’s deep voice pulled her from half awareness to full cognizance in an instant.

The duel . . .

Bolting upright, the top of her head made sharp contact with his chin, causing them both to cry out.

“Ow, damn it,” he muttered, rearranging her atop his lap as if she weighed nothing at all.

Wild-eyed, Amelia took in the luxurious appointments of Colin’s travel coach and then leaned out the window. They were in the courtyard of what appeared to be an inn.

She glanced at him and found him rubbing his chin. “Where are we?”

“On our way.”

“To where?”

“To be wed.”

Amelia blinked. “What?”

His smile revealed his dimples and reminded her of the boy she had fallen so deeply in love with. “You said that we had no hope of moving forward together if I was forever leaving you behind. Since I had no further reason to enjoy Lord Ware’s hospitality, it was time for us to go.”

She stared at him for a long moment, trying to collect what it was that he was saying. “I do not understand. Did you not duel this morning?”

“Yes, we did.”

“Did he not win? Did you not say he was the better man? Dear God, am I losing my mind?”

“Yes, yes, and no.” Colin tightened the arm banded around her waist and pulled her closer. “I allowed him first blood,” he explained. “He had a right to it. When I took you, you were still his.”

Amelia opened her mouth to protest, and he covered her lips with his fingertips. “Allow me to finish.”

She stared at him for a long moment, absorbing the sudden gravity reflected on his countenance. Then she nodded and slipped free of his embrace, moving to the opposite squab so that she could think properly.

It was then she noted that she was dressed in her night rail. For his part, Colin was beautifully attired in a velvet ensemble of dark green. She still encountered difficulty correlating the Colin before her with the Colin of old, but she had no difficulty loving him, regardless. The sight of him filled her with pleasure, just as it always had.