Page 24

“After the incident with the brooch I am certain St. John is involved,” Eldridge said, rising from his seat and turning to take in the view of the thoroughfare. “The men assigned to watch him have a gap in their accounts of his whereabouts the evening of the betrothal ball, an hour of time close enough to the stabbing to be suspicious. Although underlings could have performed the deed, I would think something of this delicacy would be a task he would perform himself. He’s a bold one.”

“I agree,” Marcus said gruffly. St. John was not averse to doing his own dirty work. In fact, he seemed to prefer it.

“There is one person who can help us,” Avery suggested. “The individual who scared away Lady Hawthorne’s attacker.”

Marcus shook his head. “No one came forward at the ball, and I certainly cannot interview everyone on the guest list without revealing the nature of my inquiry.”

Eldridge clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels. “Troubling to be sure. I wish we understood the contents of that journal. The key to this whole affair is locked away in there.” He fell silent a moment and then, casually, he mentioned, “Lord Barclay came by this morning.”

Marcus stifled a groan. “I cannot say I’m surprised.”

“He came looking for James.”

Avery nodded. “I will speak with him when he comes to me. Hopefully, he will allow me to research the matter on his behalf.”

“Ha!” Marcus laughed. “Those Chesterfields are a stubborn lot. I would not count on his easy complacency.”

“He was a good agent,” Eldridge mused. “I lost him when he married. If this would bring him back into the fold—” He shot a pointed glance over his shoulder.

“You once told me that young, foolishly adventurous agents are easy to acquire,” Marcus reminded.

“Ah, but there is no substitute for experience.” Eldridge returned to his chair with a slight smile. “But it’s just as well. Emotional detachment is necessary to put the mission first. Barclay would lack that. As, I suspect, do you, Westfield. It is extremely possible that your emotional involvement with Lady Hawthorne will jeopardize her life.”

Avery shifted nervously in his seat.

Marcus smiled grimly. “It already has. But it won’t happen again.”

Eldridge’s gaze never wavered. “You are certain about that, are you?”

“Yes.” He’d forgotten, for a few brief weeks, how deeply she could hurt him. He’d thought himself beyond that. Now he knew he was not. It was best, for both of them, that he keep his distance. He refused to need her to survive. She’d already proven she did not need him. First, with her elopement, and then with her ease in ending their affair. There was no doubt he was expendable to her.

“All men succumb eventually, Westfield,” Eldridge said dryly. “You are in great company.”

Marcus stood, effectively cutting off the line of discussion. “I shall continue to work on the journal. The wedding is only a fortnight hence, and then she’ll be in my home, where she’ll be far better protected.”

Avery stood as well. “I will speak with Lord Barclay and see what can be done to allay his concerns.”

“Keep me advised,” Eldridge ordered. “As it stands, unless we learn more about the journal we can only wait, or use Lady Hawthorne to draw out her attacker. It won’t be long before we must decide which course to take.”

Sunlight sparkled in the puddles left by the early morning’s light rain. The day was momentous, the day of his wedding, and Marcus turned from the window to finish dressing. He had ordered the creation of a jacket and breeches in a pearl grey with a silver waistcoat heavily embroidered with silk thread. From the top of his wigged head down to his diamond-studded heels, his valet took great pains to make Marcus’s appearance perfect, and the act of dressing took well over an hour.

Once finished, he walked through the adjoining sitting room, then beyond into the lady’s chamber. Most of Elizabeth’s personal belongings had already arrived, and he’d scattered them about the room in an effort to make her feel welcome and less alienated. Touching her things had seemed so intimate, he hadn’t allowed the servants to do it. He would keep his emotional distance as he had the last fortnight, but he had rights now and after all he’d been through for her, he would damn well enjoy them.

Glancing around the room one last time, Marcus made certain everything was where it should be. His gaze came to rest on the escritoire, where a small likeness of Lord Hawthorne sat. Marcus picked it up, the image bothering him as it always did. Not because of jealousy or misplaced possessiveness: No, the image disturbed him because of the niggling sense that he should be seeing something he was missing.

As often happened in recent days, his mood turned pensive. How different his future would have been had the handsome viscount lived. When Elizabeth married, Marcus had thought she would be forever out of his reach. Seduction had crossed his mind. Despite the Hawthorne title, he’d always thought of her as his, but when he’d returned to England she was already widowed, negating that course of action.

He returned the image to the escritoire, where it joined likenesses of William, Margaret, and Randall Chesterfield. The past was gone and best forgotten. Today, a great injustice that had been done to him would be righted, and then his life would return to some semblance of the normalcy he’d known before Elizabeth.

Moving downstairs, Marcus collected his hat and gloves before vaulting into his coach. He was one of the first people to arrive at the church and he breathed a sigh of relief to learn Elizabeth was already in the bride’s ready room preparing for the ceremony. Truth was, he’d half feared she would fail to appear. Until she spoke her vows, he couldn’t quite allow himself the satisfaction he longed to revel in.

Smiling, he spoke with family, friends, and important members of society as they arrived. With safety paramount, agents were spread out liberally among the guests. Aside from Talbot and James, who sat together, he was unaware of who they were, he knew only that they were there.

A curious sort by nature, he couldn’t help cataloging the personages in the pews, wondering who amongst them lived an agent’s life like he did. He also noted the marked reticence between peers and their wives, and wished he also felt such detachment from Elizabeth.

Would they have lost their minds, as he nearly had, if their spouses had been threatened? Was their every breath contingent upon the safety of their wives? He doubted it. It was unnatural, this fascination. Without its curse, his failure to protect Elizabeth would never have occurred, and he would not feel as restless as a caged animal.

Oddly, the only way he could conceive of finding peace was to wed himself to his torment. For four years, the loss of Elizabeth had been the thorn in his side. Now, he could pull it free. Now, he would be rid of the ache that plagued him. From this moment on, his mission and his own sanity could take precedence. Elizabeth would be his, and the world would know it. Those who thought to harm her would know it. She would know it.

There would be no more running, no more chasing, no more frustration. He’d wanted closure.

Today he would have it.

Chapter 16

“You’re trembling,” Margaret murmured.

“It’s cold.”

“Then why are you perspiring?”

Glaring, Elizabeth met her sister-in-law’s sympathetic gaze in the mirror.

Unperturbed, Margaret smiled. “You look beautiful.”

Lowering her eyes, Elizabeth examined her appearance in the mirror. She’d chosen pale blue silk taffeta with elbow-length sleeves, matching skirt and open overskirt. The result was serene, an emotion she wished she felt at the moment.

She sucked in a shuddering breath and grimaced. Having sworn this day would never come, she was completely unprepared for the reality of it.

“Your spirits will improve once you stand with him,” Margaret promised.

“Perhaps I’ll feel worse,” she muttered.

But a quarter hour later, as Elizabeth walked down the aisle on her father’s arm, the sight of Marcus arrested her, lifted her, just as Margaret had predicted. He was resplendent in his finery and gazed at her so intensely she could see the emerald color of his irises even from a substantial distance.

There was more between them than just this physical space. Marcus’s reputation and his work with Eldridge were great obstacles she wondered if they could surmount. He’d hinted at fidelity and agreed to consider leaving the agency, but he’d made no promises. If he failed to change his course on either account, she could grow to detest him. And if he married her for revenge, their arrangement was doomed before starting. She couldn’t help but worry, couldn’t help but be very afraid of the future.

“Are you certain this is the path you choose to take?” her father asked in a low tone.

Startled, Elizabeth glanced at him with wide eyes. He stared straight ahead, as aloof as ever, in much the same way Marcus had adopted in the last few weeks. “Why?” was all she could manage to say.

His lips pursed as he stared at the altar and the man who waited there. “I had hoped you would consider marrying for happiness.”

If not for the multitude of observers she might have gaped. “I would not have expected such a statement from you.”

He sighed and shot her a sidelong glance. “I would gladly suffer a thousand torments for the privilege of having your mother as long as I did.”

Her heart ached for him and the emptiness she glimpsed in his eyes. “Father—”

“We can turn about, Elizabeth,” he said gruffly. “Westfield’s motives concern me.”

As the doubts began to churn her stomach, she turned her head to study her groom. Marcus’s mouth curved with blatant charm, a silent encouragement, and her heart stopped.

“Think of the scandal,” she whispered.

He slowed his steps. “I care for nothing other than your well-being.”

Her breath caught for a moment and her steps faltered. How long had she waited for some sign that she mattered at all to her pater? Long enough that she’d thought it an impossible dream. The unexpected support for a hasty retreat was not only astonishing, but very tempting. She studied him and the occupants of the church, then she looked at Marcus again. She saw the tiny step forward he took and the clenching of his fists, barely noticeable warnings that he would give chase should she flee.

It should have frightened her further, that almost imperceptible threat. Instead, she remembered how the sound of his voice in the garden had filled her with relief. She remembered the way he’d held her after the stabbing, and how the trembling of his arms and voice had betrayed the depths of his concern. And the nights in his arms, how she craved them. Her heart started to race, but it was not the urge to run that moved her.

She lifted her chin. “Thank you, Father. But I’m certain of my course.”

Marcus glanced at his younger brother, who stood with him at the altar. Paul grinned, his brow arching in silent query. Any doubts? his look seemed to ask.

Marcus opened his mouth to whisper back when the sudden hush in the church drew his attention. Elizabeth entered beside her father and the sight of her took his breath away. Paul’s low whistle just before the music swelled said his unspoken question had been answered.

Marcus had never seen a more beautiful bride.

His bride.

Muffled weeping moved his attention to his mother who sat tearfully in the front row. His youngest brother, Robert, held her fragile hand carefully in his and gazed at Marcus through gold-rimmed spectacles with a reassuring smile.

The soon-to-be Dowager Countess of Westfield was beside herself with joy. She’d adored Elizabeth upon their first meeting so many years ago, and now said that any woman who could move her eldest son to matrimony must be extraordinary indeed. Marcus had never quite managed to explain that he was dragging his fiancée to the altar, and not the reverse.

Even as he thought it, Elizabeth’s steady steps faltered. She glanced around the church like a frightened doe. He stepped forward. She would not run. Not again. His heart raced with something akin to panic. Then she met his gaze, lifted her chin, and continued to approach him.

The ceremony began. And it was long. Too bloody long.

Eager to hasten the process, he repeated his vows with strength and conviction, his deep voice carrying across the packed pews. Elizabeth repeated her vows slowly and with great care, as if she were afraid to stumble over the words. He could see her trembling, felt how cold her hand was in his, and knew she was terrified. He squeezed her hand gently, reassuringly, but with unmistakable claim.

And then the deed was finally done.

Pulling her close, he kissed her, and was surprised at the ardor with which she kissed him back. Her taste flooded his mouth, intoxicated his senses, made him mad with desire. His forced abstinence weighed heavily between his legs, demanding the rights that were now his alone.

It was horribly scandalous.

He didn’t care.

Marcus felt an anxious, unrestrained emotion well up inside of him as he stared at his wife. It was almost too much.

So he crushed it and looked away.

Elizabeth tried not to think too much while she prepared for her wedding night. Taking her time with her toilette, she glanced around the room, content to be surrounded by her own things even in a strange place. The chamber was beautiful and expansive, the walls lined with soft pink damask. Only two doors separated her from the room where she’d first made love to Marcus. The remembrance made her skin hot and her stomach clench. It had been so long since he’d taken her, just thought of the night to come made her shiver in anticipation.

Despite the endless desire she’d become accustomed to, it was still terrifying to have married a man whose will was greater than her own. A man so determined to achieve the realization of his goals that nothing was allowed to stand in his way. Could she influence such a man? Convince him to change his ways? Perhaps change was not even possible and she was foolish to hope.