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She raised her hands to rub gritty eyes, then attempted a seated position. She cried out at the pain that burned through her hip, and Marcus was instantly at her side.

“Wait.” He pulled her up gently, propping pillows behind her. When she was comfortable, he sat next to her on the bed and poured her a glass of water from the nearby pitcher. With a grateful smile, she took a sip to clear her parched throat.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

She wrinkled her nose. “My hip throbs dreadfully.”

“I expect it would.” Marcus looked away.

Curious about his somber mood, she reached out to touch his hand. “Thank you for the flowers.”

The curve of his mouth was intimately tender, though his thoughts were shuttered in a way she’d not seen in weeks. He looked very much like he had at the Moreland ball so many nights ago, remote and guarded.

“I’m sorry to have disturbed you,” she said softly. “You looked very comfortable.”

“With you, always.” But the tone of his voice was practiced, far too smooth to be genuine, and he gently removed his hand from under hers.

She shifted nervously and pain lanced through her side.

“Stop that,” he ordered with a chastising squeeze to her shin.

She shot him a narrowed glance, dismayed by the newly erected barrier between them.

The slight rap on the door broke the moment. Marcus bade the person to enter and Margaret walked in with William directly behind her.

“You’re awake!” She greeted Elizabeth with a relieved smile. “How are you feeling?”

“Awful,” Elizabeth admitted ruefully.

“Do you recall anything about what happened the other night?”

Everyone looked at her expectantly.

“The other night?” Her eyes widened. “How long have I been asleep?”

“Two days, and you needed every minute of that rest.”

“Good heavens.” Elizabeth shook her head. “I don’t remember much. It all happened so quickly. Lady Grayton stalked off in a bit of a temper, blaming our slovenly gardeners for allowing the climbing rose to grow. Then I was accosted from behind and pulled away.”

“How dreadful!” Margaret covered her mouth in horror.

“It was. Still, it could have been much worse.”

“You were stabbed,” William growled. “It does not get any worse.”

She lifted her gaze to meet his. “I believe the assault was not meant to go that far. But the other man—”

Marcus stiffened at Elizabeth’s words. More than one. He would expect as much from an organized effort, but the knowledge still struck a sharp blow. “What other man?”

Elizabeth sank back into the pillows, frowning at his harsh tone. “I could be mistaken, but I think the man who attacked me was frightened away by someone else.”

“Most likely by Westfield and Barclay,” Margaret suggested.

“No, someone else. There was a shout, a masculine voice, and then the … rest.”

Margaret rounded the bed, and sat on the other side. William, however, strode purposefully toward the open door to the sitting room. “Westfield, a word, if you would.”

Wanting to hear more of Elizabeth’s recollection, Marcus shook his head. “I would rather—”

“If you please,” William insisted.

With a curt nod, he rose and followed William, who shut the door behind them.

When William gestured to the nearest chair, Marcus realized this would not be a short conversation. “Barclay, I really must—”

“Elizabeth’s stabbing is my fault.”

Marcus stilled. “What are you talking about?”

William again gestured for him to sit as he moved to a nearby chair to do the same. “Hawthorne’s death was not the result of highway robbery, as everyone has been led to believe.”

Feigning surprise, Marcus sank onto the settee, and waited for more.

William hesitated a moment, studying him with disquieting intensity. “I cannot say much, I’m sorry. But since Elizabeth will soon be residing with you, I feel you should know something of what you will face as her husband.” He paused for a deep breath, and then said, “Hawthorne was privy to sensitive information that led to his murder. It was not an accident.”

Marcus kept his face impassive. “What information?”

“I cannot tell you that. I can only tell you that my own safety and the safety of my wife has been a point of tortuous care for the last four years, and with your marriage it will become likewise for you with Elizabeth. She and I are the only ones who knew Hawthorne well enough to be a danger to those who killed him.”

“I can see that. However, I fail to see how her stabbing would be your fault.”

“I knew of the danger and should have been more cautious.”

Marcus sighed, knowing full well how the other man felt. William, however, had no knowledge of the journal or the attack in the park. Barclay’s failure to foresee the events in the garden was excusable. Marcus’s was not. “You have been dogged in your protection of her. You could not have done any more than you have.”

“I don’t believe the disarray we saw in her room was her doing,” William continued. “Although she claims it was.”

This time Marcus’s shock was genuine. “You don’t?” “No. I think her room was ransacked. That is why I tracked her to Essex. I was terrified for her.” William leaned his head back, and closed his eyes. Against the burgundy leather of the wingback chair the exhausted strain of his features was even more striking. “Those ten days were the worst of my life. When I found the two of you together, I wanted to thrash you both for allowing me to worry myself into an early graying.”

“Barclay …” Marcus sighed, his guilt weighing heavily. “I am sorry.”

William opened his eyes and scowled. “I have no notion how you found her before I did. I have connections—”

“A fortunate guess,” Marcus said quickly.

“Yes, well, what she has in her possession that is so important I haven’t a clue, though obviously Elizabeth does. I don’t know if they’ve threatened her in some manner or if she simply wants to protect me. She’s been skittish since Hawthorne passed on.”

“It would be difficult to lose a spouse, I’m sure.”

“Of course. I don’t discount that.” His voice lowered.

“Although Hawthorne was an odd fellow, he was a good man.”

Marcus leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “Odd?”

“Hawthorne was an excitable sort. One moment he’d be as calm as you and I at this moment, then the next he’d be pacing and muttering. The damnedest thing, I tell you. Annoying at times.”

“I know a few gentlemen such as you describe,” Marcus said dryly. “The king, for one.”

“In any case.” William’s gaze narrowed. “You are taking this rather well for a man discovering someone wishes to harm his future wife.”

“That discovery was made a few days ago. I’ve had time to consider it. Of course this cannot be allowed to continue. No one can live like this, reacting after the fact. The threat has to be dealt with.”

“I should have told you sooner.” William grimaced. “I assumed I had some time to find the best way to present it. What does one say in a situation such as this? Too many questions and not enough answers. But things have been hectic, and you both are so bloody popular. You are always in a crowd. I thought the sheer volume of witnesses would keep her safe, but she’s not inviolable anywhere. A ball for Christ’s sake! One would have to be mad to attempt absconding with the guest of honor at such a well attended event. And the knife!”

Marcus stilled. “What of it?”

William flushed. “Nothing of importance, just—”

Rising, Marcus moved through the door to his chamber and retrieved the knife. He turned it over in his hands and examined it in the light of day. He’d meant to do this earlier, but the need to watch over Elizabeth was a lure he couldn’t resist. The blade could wait, it was not going anywhere.

Now he studied it carefully. It was well made and costly. The gold handle was intricately designed with vines and leaves, which gave the hilt a textured grip. The base of the handle was monogrammed with the initials NTM. Nigel Terrance Moore, the late Viscount Hawthorne.

Marcus looked up as William entered the room. “Where has this been?”

“I assume whoever killed Hawthorne took all of his valuables. He always carried that, and it was with him the night he was killed.”

Lost in thought, Marcus attempted to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but they didn’t fit—no matter how many various ways he assembled it.

Christopher St. John had returned Elizabeth’s brooch to her, the brooch Hawthorne had been carrying when he was killed. Now another item from that night had reappeared.

The clues laid blame at St. John’s feet, but the attacks on Elizabeth were out of character. St. John was successful because of his cleverness and pinpoint precision. Both of the assaults against Elizabeth had resulted in failure, something the pirate would never have allowed to happen once, let alone twice. While it was possible St. John was the culprit, Marcus could not shake the feeling that something else was amiss.

Why take the risk of attacking Elizabeth at a ball where hundreds of people were in attendance? She would not be carrying the journal during such an event.

But if St. John was innocent, a possibility that infuriated Marcus, there was someone else who was aware of the journal, and desired it enough to kill for it. Acknowledging that his own efforts were not enough, he regretted he could not confide in William, but he would honor Elizabeth’s wishes for the moment. In the end, her safety was paramount, and he would elicit all the help he needed to ensure it.

Elizabeth’s gasp from the doorway startled them both. Dressed in a simple night rail and dressing robe, she stared at the dagger in shock, all color draining from her face. She looked so tiny, so childlike with her disheveled hair and fidgeting fingers.

His chest tightened, and Marcus shoved the feeling aside ruthlessly. His deepening affection for her could only bring more trouble, as had already been proven. Dropping the knife back into the drawer, he hurried to her side. “You should not be walking around yet.”

“Where did you find that?” she asked in a barely audible whisper.

“It was the blade used to stab you.”

Her knees buckled, and Marcus supported her gently in his arms, paying careful attention to her wounded hip. He walked her back to her room with William close on their heels.

“That was Hawthorne’s,” she whispered as he returned her to the bed.

“I know.”

William moved to the other side. “I will explore this matter further, Elizabeth. Please don’t worry, I—”

“You will do no such thing!” she cried.

He squared his shoulders. “I will do what is best.”

“No, William. It is no longer your duty to protect me. You must look after your wife. How could I ever face Margaret were something to happen to you on my account?”

“What can Westfield do?” he scoffed. “I am in a much better position to acquire the information we need.”

“Lord Westfield is a powerful and influential man,” she argued. “I’m certain he has important connections as well. Leave this business to him. I will not have you involved in any way.”

“You are being ridiculous,” he grumbled, his hands on his hips.

“Stay out of this, William.”

Leaving the side of the bed, he stalked toward the door. “I must do something or go mad. You would do no less for me.” He slammed the door on his way out.

Elizabeth stared at the portal with mouth agape. When she lifted her gaze, she was crying. “Marcus, you must stop him.”

“I will try my best, love.” He stared grimly at the door, trying to ignore the way her tears tore at his conscience. “But your brother is as stubborn as you are.”

After a light meal with Elizabeth, Marcus took his carriage and collected Avery James. Together, they traveled through town to meet with Lord Eldridge.

Staring pensively out the coach window, Marcus barely registered the bustle of the London streets or the calls of vendors to sample their wares. There was too much to consider, too much awry. He didn’t say a word until they reached Lord Eldridge’s office, and then he filled in the details he’d been unable to expand upon through the post.

“First of all, Westfield,” Eldridge began when he’d finished, “I cannot leave you on this assignment. Your impending marriage destroys any hope for objectivity.”

Marcus drummed his fingers on the carved wooden arm of his chair. “I maintain I am in the best position to protect her.”

“At this point we know so little about the danger. The best protection would be to keep her locked away. But her safety is not our only aim. And before you protest, consider the alternatives. How else can we apprehend the culprit, other than to draw him out?”

“You want to use her as a lure.” It was not a question.

“If need be.” Eldridge moved his gaze to Avery. “What say you about the attack on Lady Hawthorne, James?”

“The reasoning eludes me,” he admitted. “Why attack Lady Hawthorne when she does not have the book with her? What purpose does that serve?”

Marcus stilled his fingers, and shared his conclusion. “Ransom. Lady Hawthorne for the journal. They know the agency is involved. The brooch and dagger suggest they were at the site where Hawthorne was murdered so they know Barclay is involved as well. The move against her was rash, yes. But it was truly the only time since Hawthorne’s journal surfaced that she has been without escort.”