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Damn Marcus for coming tonight! Her first social event after three years of mourning and he unerringly sought her out within hours of her reemergence, as if he’d been impatiently waiting these last years for exactly this moment. She was well aware that that had not been the case at all. While she had been crepe-clad and sequestered in mourning, Marcus had been firmly establishing his scandalous reputation in many a lady’s bedroom.

After the callous way he’d broken her heart, Elizabeth would have discounted him regardless of the circumstances but tonight especially. Enjoyment of the festivities was not her aim. She had a man she was waiting for, a man she had arranged covertly to meet. Tonight she would dedicate herself to the memory of her husband. She would find justice for Hawthorne and see it served.

The crowd parted reluctantly before Marcus and then regrouped in his wake, the movements heralding his progress toward her. And then Westfield was there, directly before her. He smiled and her pulse raced. The temptation to retreat, to flee, was great, but the moment when she could reasonably have done so passed far too swiftly.

Squaring her shoulders, Elizabeth took a deep breath. The glass in her hand began to tremble and she quickly swallowed the whole of its contents to avoid spilling on her dress. She passed the empty vessel to George without looking. Marcus caught her hand before she could retrieve it.

Bowing low with a charming smile, his gaze never broke contact with hers. “Lady Hawthorne. Ravishing, as ever.” His voice was rich and warm, reminding her of crushed velvet. “Would it be folly to hope you still have a dance available, and that you would be willing to dance it with me?”

Elizabeth’s mind scrambled, attempting to discover a way to refuse. His wickedly virile energy, potent even across the room, was overwhelming in close proximity.

“I am not in attendance to dance, Lord Westfield. Ask any of the gentlemen around us.”

“I’ve no wish to dance with them,” he said dryly, “so their thoughts on the matter are of no consequence to me.”

She began to object when she perceived the challenge in his eyes. He smiled with devilish amusement, visibly daring her to proceed, and Elizabeth paused. She would not give him the satisfaction of thinking she was afraid to dance with him. “You may claim this next set, Lord Westfield, if you insist.”

He bowed gracefully, his gaze approving. He offered his arm and led her toward the dance floor. As the musicians began to play and music rose in joyous swell through the room, the beautiful strains of the minuet began.

Turning, Marcus extended his arm toward her. She placed her hand atop the back of his, grateful for the gloves that separated their skin. The ballroom was ablaze with candles, which cast him in golden light and brought to her attention the strength of his shoulder as it flexed. Lashes lowered, she appraised him for signs of change.

Marcus had always been an intensely physical man, engaging in a variety of sports and activities. Impossibly, it appeared he had grown stronger, more formidable. He was power personified and Elizabeth marveled at her past naiveté in believing she could tame him. Thank God, she was no longer so foolish.

His one softness was his luxuriously rich brown hair. It shone like sable and was tied at the nape with a simple black ribbon. Even his emerald gaze was sharp, piercing with a fierce intelligence. He had a clever mind to which deceit was naught but a simple game, as she had learned at great cost to her heart and pride.

She had half expected to find the signs of dissipation so common to the indulgent life and yet his handsome face bore no such witness. Instead he wore the sun-kissed appearance of a man who spent much of his time outdoors. His nose was straight and aquiline over lips that were full and sensuous. At the moment those lips were turned up on one side in a half smile that was at once boyish and alluring. He remained perfectly gorgeous from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. He was watching her studying him, fully aware that she could not help but admire his handsomeness. She lowered her eyes and stared resolutely at his jabot.

The scent that clung to him enveloped her senses. It was a wonderfully manly scent of sandalwood, citrus, and Marcus’s own unique essence. The flush of her skin seeped into her insides, mingling with her apprehension.

Reading her thoughts, Marcus tilted his head toward her. His voice, when it came, was low and husky. “Elizabeth. It is a long-awaited pleasure to be in your company again.”

“The pleasure, Lord Westfield, is entirely yours.”

“You once called me Marcus.”

“It would no longer be appropriate for me to address you so informally, my lord.”

His mouth tilted into a sinful grin. “I give you leave to be inappropriate with me at any time you choose. In fact, I have always relished your moments of inappropriateness.”

“You have had a number of willing women who suited you just as well.”

“Never, my love. You have always been separate and apart from every other female.”

Elizabeth had met her share of scoundrels and rogues but always their slick confidence and overtly intimate manners left her unmoved. Marcus was so skilled at seducing women, he managed the appearance of utter sincerity. She’d once believed every declaration of adoration and devotion that had fallen from his lips. Even now, the way he looked at her with such fierce longing seemed so genuine she almost believed it.

He made her want to forget what kind of man he was—a heartless seducer. But her body would not let her forget. She felt feverish and faintly dizzy.

“Three years of mourning,” he said, with a faint note of bitterness. “I am relieved to see grief has not unduly ravaged your beauty. In fact, you are even more exquisite than when we were last together. You do recall that occasion, do you not?”

“Vaguely,” she lied. “I have not thought of it in many years.”

Wondering if he suspected her deception, she studied him as they changed partners. Marcus radiated an aura of sexual magnetism that was innate to him. The way he moved, the way he talked, the way he smelled—it all boasted of powerful energies and appetites. She sensed the barely leashed power he hid below the polished surface and she recollected how dangerous he was.

His voice poured over her with liquid heat as the steps of the minuet returned her to him. “I am wounded you are not more pleased to see me, especially when I braved this miserable event solely to be with you.”

“Ridiculous,” she scoffed. “You had no notion I would be here this evening. Whatever your purpose, please go about it and leave me in peace.”

His voice was alarmingly soft. “My purpose is you, Elizabeth.”

She stared a moment, her stomach churning with heightened unease. “If my brother sees us together he will be furious.”

The flare of Marcus’s nostrils made her wince. Once he and William had been the best of friends, but the end of her engagement had also brought about the demise of their friendship. Of all the things she regretted, that was paramount.

“What do you want?” she asked when he said nothing more.

“The fulfillment of your promise.”

“What promise?”

“Your skin against mine with nothing in between.”

“You’re mad.” She breathed heavily, shivering. Then her eyes narrowed. “Don’t toy with me. Consider all the women who have graced your sheets since we parted. I did you a good turn by releasing you to—”

Elizabeth gasped as his gloved hand spun about beneath hers and his fingers squeezed with crushing force.

With darkened gaze, he bit out, “You did a great many things to me when you broke your word. A good turn is not one of them.”

Shocked at his vehemence, she fought back. “You knew how I felt about fidelity, how strongly I desired it. You could never have been the type of husband I wanted.”

“I was exactly what you wanted, Elizabeth. You wanted me so badly it scared you away.”

“That’s not true! I am not afraid of you!”

“If you had any sense, you would be,” he muttered.

She would have retorted, but the steps of the dance led him away. He flashed a brilliant smile at the woman who minced steps around him and Elizabeth grit her teeth. For the rest of the dance he spoke not a word, even while he charmed every other woman he came into contact with.

Elizabeth’s hand burned from Marcus’s touch and her skin was flushed from the heat of his gaze. He’d never hidden the blatant sexuality of his nature. Instead he’d encouraged her to release her own. He’d offered her the best of both worlds—the respectability of her station and the passion of a man who could turn her blood to fire—and she’d believed he could make her happy.

How naive she’d been. With a family such as hers, she should have known better.

The moment the dance was over Elizabeth fled with rapid steps. A slightly raised hand caught her eye, and she smiled at the sight of Avery James. She cleared her thoughts, knowing immediately he was the man she awaited. Avery would only attend a social event such as this at Lord Eldridge’s behest.

Eldridge had assured her that as the widow of a trusted agent if she ever required anything she was only to ask. Avery had been assigned as the man for her to contact. Despite his cynically world-weary appearance, he was in fact a gentle and considerate man who had been indispensable to her in the first few months after Hawthorne’s death. The sight of him reminded her again of why she was here.

Elizabeth picked up her pace as, behind her, Marcus called out her name.

“The dance you requested is over, Westfield,” she threw over her shoulder. “You are free to bask in the glow of your hard-earned reputation and the amorous attentions of your admirers.”

She hoped he understood the obvious. Whatever the cost, she would not be seeing him again.

Marcus watched Elizabeth move gracefully toward Avery. With her back to him, he no longer had to suppress his grin. She had given him the cut direct. Again.

But alas, his sweet Elizabeth would soon discover that he was not so easily dismissed.

Chapter 2

“Mr. James,” Elizabeth greeted him with genuine affection. “It is a pleasure to see you again.” She held out her hands and they were swiftly engulfed in his much larger ones, his face lit with a rare smile. Tucking her hand under his arm, he led her through nearby French doors to an indoor atrium.

She squeezed his forearm. “I thought perhaps I had arrived too late and missed my appointment.”

“Never say it, Lady Hawthorne,” he replied with gruff fondness. “I would have waited all evening.”

Tilting her head back, Elizabeth sucked in a deep breath of the lushly scented air. The heady redolence contained within the vast space was a pleasant and most welcome relief after the smells of smoke and burnt wax, powders and heavy perfumes that had overwhelmed the ballroom.

As they strolled casually through the paths, Elizabeth turned to Avery and asked, “Would I be correct in assuming that you are the agent assigned to assist me?”

He smiled. “I will be partnering another agent in this matter, yes.”

“Of course.” Her mouth curved ruefully. “You always work in pairs, don’t you? As did Hawthorne and my brother.”

“The order of things works well, my lady, and has saved lives.”

Her steps faltered. Saves some lives. “I lament the existence of the agency, Mr. James. William’s marriage and subsequent resignation is a blessing I treasure. He almost died the night I lost my husband. I eagerly await the day when the agency is no longer a part of my life.”

“We will do our best to resolve this with the utmost haste,” he assured her.

“I know you will,” she sighed. “I’m pleased you are one of the agents Lord Eldridge chose.”

Avery squeezed her hand where it draped over his forearm. “I was grateful for the opportunity to meet with you again. It has been several months since we last met.”

“Has it truly been that long?” she asked, frowning. “Time is running away from me.”

“I wish I could say the same …” a familiar voice interjected from behind her. “Unfortunately, the last four years have seemed an eternity to me.”

Elizabeth tensed, her heart stopping before quickening its pace.

Avery turned them both to face their visitor. “Ah, here is my partner now. I understand you and Lord Westfield are old acquaintances. Hopefully such a fortuitous arrangement will expedite matters.”

“Marcus,” she whispered, her eyes widening as the import of his presence struck her like a physical blow.

He bowed. “I am in your service, madam.”

Elizabeth swayed on her feet, and Avery tightened his grip to steady her. “Lady Hawthorne?”

Marcus reached her in two strides. “Don’t faint, love. Take a deep breath.”

It seemed an impossible task as she gasped like a fish out of water, her corset suddenly unbearably constricting. She waved him off, his proximity and the scent of his skin making it even more difficult to expand her lungs.

She watched as Marcus shot a telling glance to Avery, who then turned and walked away, suddenly finding interest in the fronds of a distant fern.

Lightheaded but recovering, Elizabeth shook her head rapidly. “Marcus, you have truly lost your mind.”

“Ah, feeling better, I see,” he drawled with a sardonic tilt to his lips.

“Find your amusement in some other venture. Resign your commission. Leave the agency.”

“Your concern is touching albeit confusing, after your own callous disregard for my well-being in the past.”

“Save your sarcasm for another day,” she snapped. “Have you no notion of what you’ve involved yourself in? It’s dangerous to work for Lord Eldridge. You could be hurt. Or killed.”

Marcus released a deep breath. “Elizabeth, you are overwrought.”

She glared at him and glanced quickly at Avery, who maintained his discretionary study of the fern. She lowered her voice. “How long have you been an agent?”