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“I always will.” He placed his hand over hers, and then turned to escort her to her room. Since their mother had passed on and their father withdrew emotionally, Elizabeth had been all he’d had for most of his life. She’d been his only emotional connection during the time before Margaret when he’d been determined never to fall in love and risk the same misery as their father.

As they neared her room, his nose reminded him of the organic eruption that awaited them. “Why didn’t you tell me Westfield was harassing you? I would have dealt with him.”


Her abrupt cry gave him pause, the fierce protectiveness he’d always felt for her rearing up in suspicion. “Tell me you are not encouraging him.”

Elizabeth cleared her throat. “Haven’t we had this discussion before?”

Closing his eyes, William released a deep breath and prayed for patience. “If you assure me that you will come to me for assistance if you have a need, I will refrain from asking you questions you don’t want to answer.” He opened his eyes and looked down at her, frowning at the sight of the high color of her skin and glazed eyes. She didn’t look well at all. And her hair was disheveled. The last time her hair had looked like that …

“Have you gone racing again?” he barked. “Did you take a groom with you? Good God, what if you were thrown—”

“William.” Elizabeth laughed. “Go see to Margaret. I’m tired. If you insist on interrogating me, you can do so once I’ve rested.”

“I am not interrogating you. I just know you well. You are stubborn to a fault and refuse to listen to good sense.”

“Says the man who worked for Lord Eldridge.”

William released a frustrated breath, recognizing from her sudden rigid tone that she was finished talking. All well and good. He intended to manage Marcus on his own terms anyway. “Very well. Find me later.” He bent and kissed her forehead. “If you still look flushed when you wake, I’m sending for the doctor.”

“Yes, yes.” Elizabeth shooed him away.

William went, but his concern would not be dismissed so easily, and they both knew it.

Elizabeth waited in the hallway just outside the office of Lord Nicholas Eldridge, pleased with herself for having snuck out of the house while William was occupied. Because she arrived unannounced, she anticipated cooling her heels. To his credit, Eldridge did not keep her waiting long.

“Lady Hawthorne,” he greeted her in what she imagined to be a customarily distracted manner. Rounding the desk, he gestured to her to have a seat. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” Though the words were polite, the tone held an undercurrent of impatience. He resumed his seat and arched a brow.

She’d forgotten how austere he was, how serious. Yet despite the drabness of his attire and the gray of his wig, his presence was arresting. He bore the weight of his power with consummate ease.

“I apologize, Lord Eldridge, for the importunate nature of my visit. I’ve come to offer you a trade.”

Gray eyes assessed her sharply. “A trade?”

“I would prefer to work with another agent.”

He blinked. “And what are you offering in return?”

“Hawthorne’s journal.”

“I see.” He leaned back in his chair. “Has Lord Westfield done something in particular, Lady Hawthorne, which would cause you to seek his replacement?”

She could not prevent her blush. Lord Eldridge pounced on the telltale sign immediately. “Has he approached you in some manner that would not befit his duties? I would take such an accusation seriously.”

Elizabeth shifted uncomfortably. She did not want Marcus reprimanded, simply removed from her life.

“Lady Hawthorne. This is a personal matter, is it not?”

She nodded.

“I had valid reasons for assigning Lord Westfield to you.”

“I’m certain you did. However, I cannot continue to work with him, regardless of your motives. My brother is growing suspicious.” That was not her only reason, but it would suffice.

“I see,” he murmured. He remained silent for a long time, but she did not waver under his intimidating scrutiny. “Your husband was a valuable member of my team. Losing him and your brother has been difficult. Lord Westfield has done an excellent job of shouldering a great deal of responsibility despite the demands of his title. He is truly the best man for this assignment.”

“I don’t doubt his ability.”

“Still, you are determined, are you not?” He sighed when she nodded. “I will consider your request.”

Elizabeth nodded, understanding he had conceded as much as he was going to. Standing, she smiled grimly at his assessing gaze. He escorted her to the door, pausing a moment before turning the knob.

“It is not my place, Lady Hawthorne, but I feel I should point out to you that Lord Westfield is a good man. I am aware of your history, and I’m certain the ramifications are uncomfortable. However, he is genuinely concerned for your safety. Whatever happens, please keep that in mind.”

Elizabeth studied Lord Eldridge silently, and then nodded. There was something else, something he was not telling her. Not that she was surprised. In her experience, agents were always tight-lipped, sharing little of themselves with others. She was greatly relieved when he opened the door and allowed her to escape. While she held no ill will toward Eldridge, she nevertheless looked forward to the day when he and his damned agency were no longer a part of her life.

Marcus entered the offices of Lord Eldridge just before ten in the evening. The summons had arrived just as he prepared to depart for the Dunsmore musicale. While he was impatient to see Elizabeth, he had some thoughts to share about the investigation and this unexpected audience was highly opportune.

Marcus adjusted his tails and dropped into the nearest chair.

“Lady Hawthorne came to see me this afternoon.”

“Did she?” Settled, Marcus took a pinch of snuff.

Eldridge continued to work without looking up, the papers before him lit by the candelabra on his desk and the shifting glow from the nearby fireplace. “She offered Viscount Hawthorne’s journal in exchange for removing you from your duties.”

The enameled snuff box snapped shut decisively.

With a sigh, Eldridge set aside his quill. “She was adamant about it, Westfield, even threatening to become uncooperative if I refused her.”

“I’m certain she was most persuasive.” Shaking his head, he asked, “What do you intend to do?”

“I told her I would look into it, and so I have. The question is—what do you intend to do?”

“Leave her to me. I was on my way to her when I received your summons.”

“If I discover you are using your position with the agency to further your own personal agenda, I will deal with you harshly.” Eldridge’s expression was grim.

“I would expect nothing less,” Marcus assured him.

“How is the journal coming along?”

“I’m making headway, but the going is slow.”

Eldridge nodded. “Soothe her concerns then. If she comes to me again, I will have no choice but to honor her request. That would be lamentable since you are making progress. I would prefer you to continue.”

Marcus pursed his lips and said what was on his mind. “Avery related today’s events to you, yes?”

“Of course. But you have something to add, I see.”

“I’ve thought of this situation ceaselessly. Something is amiss. The assailant was too aware of our preparations, as if he’d gained the knowledge beforehand. Certainly he would have expected her to contact the agency considering her husband’s involvement and the relevance of the book, but the way he’d hidden himself, the escape route he had planned … Damn it, we were not incompetent! Yet he evaded four men with little effort. He knew how the men were arranged. And Hawthorne’s journal. How did he learn of it?”

“You suspect internal perfidy?”

“How else?”

“I trust my men implicitly, Westfield. The agency couldn’t exist otherwise.”

“Consider the possibility. It’s all I ask.”

Eldridge arched a gray brow. “Avery? The outriders? Who can you trust?”

“Avery bears an obvious fondness for Lady Hawthorne. So you, Avery, myself—that is the extent of my trust at this moment.”

“Well, that certainly negates Lady Hawthorne’s request, does it not?” Eldridge pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed wearily. “Let me reflect on who might have been told about Hawthorne’s journal. Return tomorrow and we’ll discuss this further.”

Shaking his head in silent commiseration, Marcus departed, gazing about the empty outer offices before moving down the hall with its towering ceilings and dimly lit chandeliers. For a brief moment, he’d been furious with Elizabeth and then the feeling passed. She would never have involved Eldridge unless she felt the need was dire. She’d been affected this afternoon, shaken enough to set aside her formidable pride.

A crack had appeared in her armor. He hoped it wouldn’t be long before the shell was removed and he could once again see the vulnerable woman who hid inside.

“You look the fittest I’ve seen you in years,” Margaret said, her sweet smile revealing a charming dimple. “You are radiant this evening.”

Elizabeth flushed and fluffed the pale blue silk of her over-skirts. She looked ravished. There was no other way to describe it. “It is you who is radiant. Every woman here pales in comparison. Pregnancy agrees with you.”

Margaret’s hand moved to cover the slight protrusion of her lightly corseted stomach. “I’m pleased you are making the effort to socialize and be seen. Today’s ride in the park did wonders for your complexion. William is concerned about those formidable looking outriders you hired, but I explained how difficult it must be for you, reemerging alone after the death of your spouse.”

Elizabeth bit her bottom lip. “Yes,” she agreed softly. “It has been difficult.”

Just then, the tiny hairs on the back of her neck began to rise. It was not necessary to turn around to discern why.

Marcus had arrived. She refused to face him. Her blood still thrummed with the pleasure he’d given her, and a man as perceptive as he was would know it.

Margaret leaned closer. “Heavens. The way Lord Westfield looks at you could start a fire. Fortunate for you that William did not attend this evening. Can you imagine if he had? I’d wager they’d come to fisticuffs. You should have heard Westfield say you were worth the risk of death in a duel. Every woman in London is green with envy.”

Elizabeth could feel the burning emerald gaze from across the crowded room. She shivered, her senses acutely attuned to the man who approached her.

“Here he comes.” Margaret arched a copper brow. “The gossips will go mad over this, crazed as they’ve been over that row with William at the Morelands’. This will only add fuel to the fire.” Her voice tapered off.

“Lady Barclay,” purred the velvet voice, as Marcus bowed low over Margaret’s proffered hand. His shoulder brushed deliberately against Elizabeth’s arm, leaving goose bumps in its wake.

“Lord Westfield, a pleasure.”

He turned and the intensity of his gaze robbed her of breath. Dear heaven. He looked as if he meant to toss up her skirts at any moment. Dressed in a dark blue coat and breeches, he made every other man fade to insignificance.

“Lady Hawthorne.” He captured her hand, which hung limply at her side, and lifted it, meeting it halfway with the descent of his mouth. His kiss was anything but chaste, melting through her glove as his fingers caressed the center of her palm.

Instantly she was aroused, on edge, wanting those fingers to caress her everywhere as they’d done mere hours ago. He watched her with a knowing smile, well aware of her reaction.

“Lord Westfield.” She tugged her hand, but he would not release it. Her stomach fluttered as his fingertips continued their gentle stroking.

Her Grace, the Dowager Duchess of Ravensend, announced the start of the musicale, and all the guests left the formal parlor to move into the ballroom where chairs had been assembled to face the musicians. Marcus tucked her hand around his arm and led her out to the foyer, deliberately falling behind.

“The man escaped,” he said for her ears only.

She nodded, unsurprised.

He stopped, and turned to face her. “More must be done to protect you. And I will not be handing this assignment over to someone else, so your efforts this afternoon were for naught.”

“This entanglement offers no benefit to either of us.”

His hand reached up to touch her face, and she stepped back quickly.

“You forget yourself,” she scolded. She shot a wary look around the foyer.

With one warning glance, Marcus sent the attending footman fleeing with haste. Then he turned all of his attention upon her. “And you forget the rules.”

“What rules?”

His gaze narrowed and she took another step back. “I can still taste you, Elizabeth. I can still feel the silky clasp of your cunt on my cock and the pleasure you gave me still warms my blood. The rules haven’t changed since this afternoon. I can have you however and whenever I wish.”

“To hell with you.” Her heart racing, her chest tight, she stumbled backward until the wall prevented further escape.

He bridged the gap between them, enveloping her in his rich, warm scent. Music poured from the ballroom and she shot a startled glance toward the sound. When she looked back at Marcus, he stood directly before her.

“Why do you insist on driving us both to madness?” he asked gruffly.

Her hand went to her throat, nervously fingering the pearls that rested there. “What can I do to satisfy your interest?” she asked bluntly. “There must be something I can do or say, that will cool your ardor.”