Page 27

Christopher laughed.

Elaine frowned. Uncertain of how to handle the situation she fell back on her manners. “Thank you, Mr. St. John, for your assistance. I’m certain The Earl will be most appreciative.”

The full lips curved with wry amusement. “I sincerely doubt that, my lady.”

Elizabeth struggled against his thickly muscled chest. “Release me,” she hissed.

He chuckled as he straightened her, making certain she was steady on her feet before dropping his arms away. Then he turned and paid the besotted shop girl for the broken items.

“Elizabeth, are you unwell?” Elaine asked with obvious concern. “Perhaps it is too soon after your illness for you to be out.”

“I should have eaten this morning. I felt faint for a moment, but it’s passed now.”

St. John returned to their sides, gave a courtly bow, and made his excuses.

“Wait!” Elizabeth hurried after him. “You cannot simply walk away after telling me something like that.”

Christopher lowered his voice, glancing over her head at the dowager countess. “Does your mother-in-law know of this affair?”

“Of course not.”

“Then it’s not wise to discuss this now.” He collected his hat from atop the bin near the rear hallway where he’d left it. “I will find you again soon. In the meantime, please be careful and trust no one. I would never forgive myself if something untoward happened to you.”

It was shortly before luncheon when Elizabeth and Elaine returned home. They parted on the second floor landing, both retreating to their rooms to change their gowns. Elizabeth was exhausted, hungry, and totally confused by St. John’s revelations, a combination that gave her a splitting headache.

What was she to do now?

She couldn’t share St. John’s claims of kinship until she knew them to be true. And if they were, her marriage would be a disaster. Marcus truly hated St. John and had wed her for reasons best left unconsidered. What would he do if he knew? Despite how she wished it, she couldn’t see him considering it of no consequence. Certainly it would mean something to him, and Eldridge as well, that the man they pursued with a vengeance was connected to her in so personal a way. And William. All these years it was St. John who bore the blame for nearly killing him. But was that true? Was the pirate so cold and calloused as she’d been led to believe? And Nigel … Dear God, Nigel. Working for Eldridge to hunt his own brother. Or perhaps he’d assisted St. John in his activities, which made him a traitor.

She needed time to think and contemplate the ramifications of what she’d learned today. As it was, she was barely able to walk, her steps dragging and her stomach growling. Later, once she was of firmer mind, she would reason out how to share the news with her husband.

Entering her room, she closed the door. She moved to collapse in the large wingback chair by the fireplace and started in surprise to find Marcus sitting there.

“Good heavens, Marcus! You gave me a fright.”

He rose from the chair and Elizabeth wondered if it was her lack of sleep that made him appear taller and more menacing. “Surely not so much of a fright as I received when I discovered you had left the house,” he drawled.

Her chin lifted in response to the sudden leap of her heart. Dressed for riding, he was impossibly handsome and she hated to discover that she still wanted him, even after crying over him all night. “Such care for my well-being. Unfortunate that you had none for me last night.”

When she attempted to pass him, his hand whipped out and caught her upper arm, dragging her to him. “I heard no complaints,” he growled.

“Perhaps if you’d stayed longer you would have.”

“If I’d stayed longer, there would be no complaints at all.”

She yanked free of his grip, her chin quivering at his words, which betrayed his understanding of the pain he inflicted. “Leave me and take your arrogance with you. I must change for luncheon.”

“Despite being de trop, I believe I’ll stay,” he said softly, though the challenge in his eyes was hard.

“I don’t want you here.” His presence renewed the unhappiness she’d spent all morning trying to forget.

“And I did not want you venturing out without me. Sometimes we don’t attain the things we desire.”

“How well I know it,” she muttered, ringing for her abigail.

He released a breath that could only be described as frustrated. “Why must you deliberately ignore the danger?”

“I took the outriders with me and as you can see, I am home and all in one piece. You didn’t mind when I went out before. Am I to be a prisoner now that we’re wed?”

“You have not been out since the stabbing. The danger is greater now, and well you know it.”

Elizabeth dropped into her gilt vanity chair and gazed at his angry reflection in the mirror.

Marcus eyed her closely before resting his large hands on her shoulders and squeezing so tightly she flinched. He opened his mouth as if to speak and then a soft rap came at the door.

For the next half hour he watched as her abigail helped her to dress. He said nothing, but his stifling presence made both her and the servant uncomfortable. By the time she finished changing she was certain she was about to expire from hunger and the thick tension radiating from her husband. She was greatly relieved when they reached the main floor and joined his family for the meal. She settled into her seat and ate with as much decorum as she could manage considering how long she’d gone without food.

“I am relieved to see you feeling better, Elizabeth,” Elaine said. “I thank the Lord you were caught by that St. John fellow before you fell to injury, although he did seem—”

“Could you repeat that, Mother?” Marcus said with dangerous softness.

Elizabeth winced and ate with greater haste.

“Surely your wife mentioned her near faint this morn?” Elaine shot a questioning glance down the table.

“As a matter of fact, she did not.” Setting his knife and fork down with unnatural care, he offered a grim smile and asked, “Did you say St. John?”

Elaine blinked in obvious confusion.

Elizabeth’s stomach clenched in apprehension. She should say something, she knew, but her throat was so tight she couldn’t manage even one word.

The sudden pounding of Marcus’s fist on the table startled everyone. Only the plates rattling sharply together broke the ensuing stunned silence. He slid his chair back and stood, placing his palms flat on the table. His glowering face had Elizabeth quaking in her chair. She held her breath.

“At what point did you intend to share this with me?” he roared.

The Ashfords sat with mouths agape, utensils paused in mid-air.

Galvanized by their horror, Elizabeth pushed back from the table and stood. Paul and Robert leapt to their feet.

“My lord,” she began. “If you would prefer to—”

“Do not try to sway me with sudden docility, Lady Westfield.” He walked around the table. “What did he want? By God, I’ll kill him!”

She tried again. “Might I suggest the study?”

Paul sidestepped neatly into his path. Marcus glared, then moved to the sideboard and poured a hefty ration of brandy.

“I didn’t mention it directly, because I knew it would upset you.”

Marcus stared at her as if she’d grown two heads, then he downed his drink in one gulp and left the room, his handsome face set in harsh, unyielding lines. She heard the front door slam behind him.

Paul whistled softly.

“Good heavens,” gasped Elaine, collapsing backwards in her chair. “He was angry.”

Robert shook his head. “I would not believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Can hardly believe it now.”

All eyes turned, awestruck, to look at Elizabeth who stood trembling. She inhaled a shaky breath. “I apologize. I realize you are unaccustomed to seeing him in such a state. I regret you had to witness it today.”

Robert frowned. “St. John. The name sounds familiar.”

“I should explain.” She sighed. “Marcus suspects St. John is responsible for the attacks on vessels belonging to Ashford Shipping, but there is no evidence to support that.”

“Was it simply unfortunate that he happened to be in such close proximity to you?” asked Elaine. “I thought it odd for him to be perusing soaps and bath oils.”

Elizabeth searched for an explanation. “He was a close friend of Hawthorne’s. When our paths cross, he pays his respects.”

Robert removed his spectacles and began to polish the lenses. “Is St. John aware of Marcus’s suspicions about him?”


“Then he should bloody well stay away from you and keep his respects to himself,” Paul growled.

Elaine tapped her fingers against her water glass. “You did not appear to care much for him yourself, Elizabeth.”

“He is a stranger to me.”

“And for Marcus to be goaded into such a temper over the whole affair,” Elaine continued, “well, I’ve never seen the like.”

“He was very angry,” Elizabeth agreed, crestfallen. She’d never seen him so furious. That his fury had driven him to leave the house made her sick to her stomach. Certainly she was angry at him as well, but this gulf between them seemed as wide as when she’d been married to Hawthorne. She stepped away from the table. “I pray you will excuse me.”

Climbing the stairs, Elizabeth considered the events of the day with a heavy heart. Marcus was important to her. She’d known that when she chose to marry him, and though she’d tried to discount it when he’d treated her so coldly, it remained immutable. Now that their bond, as tentative as it was, was threatened, she understood the depth of her attachment.

This morning the distance between them had been entirely her husband’s doing. Now she too contributed to their estrangement. Perhaps if he cared for her they could meet in the middle, but she’d destroyed whatever tenderness he’d felt for her four years ago.

And she finally understood just how much she had lost.

Chapter 18

Elizabeth woke to damp skin at her back and warm hands on her body, one wrapped in her hair and the other stroking her thigh. Her toes were curled, her nipples hard, her body already aware, even though her mind was not.

She whimpered. Marcus had been gone for hours, all through the afternoon and late into the night. She had cried herself to sleep again, after she’d sworn she wouldn’t, and the feel and smell of him against her was both a balm and a barb. His cock, hard and hot, snuggled in the valley between her buttocks, a silent promise of his amorous intent.

“Hush,” he said softly, his mouth nuzzling her throat, his wet hair cooling her suddenly feverish skin. Gripping her inner thigh, he lifted her leg and anchored it on his own, his fingers drifting to the curls between her legs. His touch was gentle, coaxing, once again the lover she craved and not the fiercely possessive husband who’d claimed her the night before.

With skill born of much practice and intimate knowledge, Marcus parted the lips of her sex with reverent fingers and dipped inside, swirling around her clitoris and the opening to her body with a callused fingertip, the roughness of which heightened her pleasure almost unbearably. Desperate, she undulated helplessly against his hard body. “Please …”

“My wife,” he exclaimed, his tongue swirling around the shell of her ear, his breath hot against the newly damp flesh. “Always on fire. Naked in her bed, and waiting for my attentions.”

He stroked through her cream and then slipped inside her, thrusting into the drenched walls of her sex with maddening leisure. In and out. Just that one digit, not nearly enough to satisfy, but enough to make her beg for more.

“Marcus!” She struggled to turn, to move, to take what she wanted, but his arm tightened and pinned her still.

“Relax, and I’ll let you come.”

Elizabeth stilled a tremor shaking her body as his single finger was joined by another, the deep plunge and withdrawal sounding wetly over her panting breaths. She hitched her leg higher, opening herself wider, and he fisted his hand in her hair and arched her neck back.

Turning her head, she met his avid mouth with her own, her tongue thrusting along his in a frenzy of desire. Her eagerness goaded him, broke his rigid control. The shift was tangible, his frame tensing behind her, his cock swelling even further between them, his hips grinding forward.

She gasped as his thumb rubbed her clitoris, the barely-there pressure increasing her thrashing. At her back she felt the rapid rise and fall of his chest, in her mouth she caught his harsh exhalation. Her skin was coated with a fine sheen of sweat and she rode his thrusting fingers with greater and greater urgency.

“Please!” she cried, clenching around his fingers in her quest to orgasm. “I need you.”

Marcus shifted, his fingers sliding free to reach for his cock. Then he was there, the wide flared head breaching her and pushing inside. His hand, drenched in her cream, cupped her breast, pinched her nipple. And deeper he slid, a thick pulsing possession.

“Yes,” she hissed struggling to meet him, to hurry him, to take the long length of him.

His groan in her ear enflamed her. That she could bring him such pleasure while lost in her own was an intoxicating power.

And still he pressed into her.

But it was not enough. The curve of her buttocks kept him from the full depths she craved, and she wanted him, all of him. Not just his cock and his hand at her breast, but his body over hers, his eyes locked on hers. The gulf between them was there, widened by the hours he’d spent away from her today, but in this there was no division. In this, they could be one.

“You’re not deep enough,” she complained, wiggling her bottom against his pelvis, crushing the curls at the base of his shaft.

He growled. “Greedy vixen.”