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Biting her lower lip, she seethed, but held her tongue. She should have known not to expect fair play from a man used to gaining whatever he desired. At any cost.

He strolled to the nearest chair and turned it about to face the bed, rather than the grate. Then he sat, crossing one ankle over the opposite knee and adjusting his heavy silk robe with studious leisure. The traitorous key was slipped into his pocket.

“You are the most arrogant man I have ever met.”

“You are welcome to discuss my perceived flaws at a later date. At the present moment, let’s keep to the topic of why you’ve been barring me from your bed.”

She crossed her arms beneath her breasts. “You know why.”

“Do I? Well then I appear to have forgotten. Would you be so kind as to remind me? And be quick about it, if you please. I’ve done my best to allow you time to set aside your pique, but a sennight of waiting has stretched my patience.”

Elizabeth growled. “I am not merely a cunt to rut in. If you need sex so badly, take yourself in hand.”

His harshly indrawn breath was the only sign she’d struck effectively. “If all I needed was sexual release, I would have done just that. Now, the reason for the locked door?”

She sat there for a long time, thinking it would be best if he determined what was wrong on his own. But finally the pregnant silence was too much to bear. “You owe me an apology.”

“I do?”


“For what, pray tell?”

“You know why. It was wrong to involve William when I asked you not to.”

“I will not apologize for that.” His large hands, with their long, elegant fingers, curled over the carved wooden arms of the chair.

She lifted her chin. “Then we have nothing more to discuss.”

“Ah but we do,” he drawled softly. “Because I’m sharing your bed tonight, my lovely wife, and I prefer it to be a pleasurable experience.”

“I have feelings, Marcus, and a mind. You cannot just trample over those things and expect me to welcome you with open arms.”

“I covet your feelings, Elizabeth, and I respect your mind. I could not have married you otherwise.”

Her head tilted as she considered him, so tall and broad he dwarfed the chair he occupied. “If you speak the truth, why didn’t you discuss your intent with me and allow me to offer my opinion? You belittle me by acting without my knowledge and then concealing your actions.”

“I concealed nothing. When you asked, I told you. And your opinion was known to me. I am fairly clever,” he said dryly. “You can tell me something once and I’ll retain it.”

“Then my opinion is of so little consequence it does not bear considering?”

He stood. “I will always consider your opinion, and give it as much weight as my own, but your safety will always come first. Always.”

Feeling on unequal footing, Elizabeth slid from the bed. Although Marcus was far taller than she, it gave her some comfort to stand tall against him. “And what of William’s safety? And his family?”

Marcus crossed to her, and lifting a hand, brushed the back of his fingers along her cheekbone. His eyes closed, as if he savored the touch of her. For her part, she shivered at the smell of him, that warm scent of sandalwood and citrus she knew and loved so well.

“I worry for him, yes. And I regret I was forced to involve him. Should something happen to him or his wife I would be forever wracked with guilt and I would mourn the loss of a man who was once, and hopefully will be again, as close to me as my brothers.” His voice lowered, became almost wistful. “But I would survive. I could not say the same were I to lose you.”

“Marcus …” Stunned by his words, her hand came up to catch his and hold it to her cheek.

“I don’t know how I lived those four years without you. Looking back now, remembering the endlessness of days, the aching longing, the sense I was missing something vital …” He shook his head. “I couldn’t go through that again. And that was before. Before I knew the many facets of your smiles, the warmth of your skin, the sounds of your pleasure, feeling you next to me both in public and private.”

Suddenly, she felt overwhelmed and she gasped for breath.

He tugged her closer and embraced her within gentle arms. “I am sorry you are hurt by my decision, but I would make it again, a hundred times over. This is difficult for you, I know, and I understand you cannot collect how I feel. I would sacrifice my own life to protect yours, because none of it would be worth anything without you. And so I am resigning my commission, because my work jeopardizes you.”

“Wh-why …” She swallowed hard and held him tight. “I never expected you would say such things to me. I-I don’t know how to reply …”

“A week without you was enough to realize it was best to explain myself plainly, so there would be no doubt.”

“I never thought you would love me. Not after all that I’ve done.”

His cheek rested atop her head. “I used to wonder why it had to be you. I’ve met beautiful women, smart women, funny and bold women. Why Elizabeth? Why not someone who could open her heart to me? Perhaps it was the chase. Perhaps it’s that you are wounded and I wish to heal you.” He shrugged. “The Lord only knows.”

“I still cannot help but wish you would have told me your intent,” she grumbled, even though her upset was immeasurably soothed by his declaration of her importance.

“In the future, I hope I have more time to convince you of the merits of my opinion, but in this case I didn’t have that luxury.”

She leaned against his arms and narrowed her eyes. “How long could it have possibly taken?”

He laughed. “A sennight it seems, and we didn’t have that.”

Looking up at him, seeing the warmth in his eyes and the loving curve of his mouth, she wanted to sigh like a besotted schoolgirl. Time and intimate familiarity did not lessen the effect of his masculine beauty. She didn’t have the words to say things like he did, so plainly and with such courage. But she would do the best she could.

Her hands slipped between them and parted the front of his robe, revealing the body that made her mouth dry and her sex clench in eagerness. Her fingertips drifted over taut, warm skin, across his abdomen, and down to his thighs.

“Feel what you do to me?” he asked, his eyes drifting shut as he quivered beneath her touch. He licked his lips and clutched her waist, the crests of his cheekbones flushing with arousal. “I ache for this, Elizabeth, burn for it.” Reaching for her hand, he brought it to his cock, already hard and throbbing. He drew in his breath sharply when she curled her hands around it.

Awed, her gaze roamed the length of his body, helpless in the grip of only exploratory caresses.

Trust, he’d said to her once. This is trust.

She would have to trust that he would always do what was best for her, even if she did not agree with his methods. Would she not do the same to protect him?

Filled with feelings that had no outlet, she sank to her knees and opened her mouth, giving him the pleasure she knew he desired.

Ahhh … how she loved it as well. The silky feel of him, his ravished gasp, those long fingers clenched in her hair.

“Yes,” he cried as he thrust his hips gently, his buttocks like stone within her palms. “I would die for this.”

A moment later he lifted her and carried her to the bed, her night rail drifting over her head to be cast aside. She sank into softness, covered by hardness and everything melted as he lifted her thigh and slid deep within her.

The strength of him, the hard length of his thrusting cock, the damp skin, the near unbearable intimacy, was diminished by the intensity of his gaze.

Awash in heat and consumed by the memory of his words, she wrapped her arms around his straining body and cried with joy. Her tears wet his shoulder, mixed with his sweat, bound them together. Her body seized beneath his, suspended in orgasm, held there by the steady plunge and withdrawal Marcus knew would prolong her pleasure.

And when he joined her, when he shuddered against her and cried out her name, she set her mouth to his ear and spoke her heart.

Chapter 21

“Mr. Christopher St. John has come to call, my lady.” Elizabeth looked up from her novel and stared at the butler with mouth agape. She dropped the book on the settee next to her and rose. “Where did you put him?”

“In the lower parlor, my lady.”

Marcus had departed with the steward to survey some tenant properties that required repair. Elaine had retired for an afternoon nap, and Robert and Paul had gone to the village only an hour past. She was alone, but unafraid, nodding at the two guards who stood on either side of the parlor door.

Taking a deep breath, she swept into the room. St. John rose when she entered, splendidly attired and angelically handsome. He smiled and the brief reminiscence of Nigel momentarily disconcerted her.

As she drew closer, she noted he appeared leaner, the ever-present shadows under his eyes were darker, and while his bearing was as proud as ever, she could sense the weariness beneath the façade.

“Rather daring of you to come calling here.”

He shrugged. “I half expected to see Westfield charging through that door. I’m relieved it’s you instead. I’m not worthy of a fight right now.” He glanced over her head. “Where is his lordship?”

“Near enough.”

His blond brows lifted, and his lips curved. “As long as he gives me a wide berth, I’ll manage.”

“Eldridge is searching for you.”

Immediately the smile left Christopher’s face. “I know.”

“You say you want to help me, but you place my life in jeopardy by maintaining your silence.”

He spun away, moving toward the window to brush aside the curtain and stare at the front circular drive. “I never wanted to involve you. I knew the man was vile, but to use you, to threaten you …” He growled. “I wish to God that bloody journal had remained hidden.”

“I cannot say I feel the same. Perhaps if it had not arrived, Marcus and I would not have found each other again.”

Facing her, he offered a sad smile. He looked around, taking note of the liveried guards who stood conspicuously by the doorway. “I see Westfield has you well-guarded. That eases my mind somewhat.”

“I see you look worn,” she retorted bluntly.

“Thank you for noticing,” he grumbled, “after I took such pains to make myself presentable. I must remember to discharge my valet.”

“The best valet in the world cannot hide the signs of hard-living,” she retorted. “Have you ever considered a change of occupation? The way you live is sapping the life from you.”

His full mouth thinned with displeasure. “I am not here to discuss my way of life.”

Taking a seat, she waited for him to do the same. “Very well then. I no longer have the journal.”

St. John cursed so foully Elizabeth blushed. “Is it in Eldridge’s possession?”

She hesitated a moment, wondering how wise it would be to tell him anything further. “No,” she said finally, the restlessness of her fingers was the only betraying sign of her unease.

“Thank God. Keep it from him.”

“He has been content to allow Westfield to work on it. At the moment, he seems most interested in finding you.”

“Yes, he would be. I’m surprised he waited this long, truth be told. I would venture to say he wanted all of his agents in a lather before he released them on me. He’s nothing if not meticulous.”

Elizabeth studied St. John carefully. “Why did you come?”

“Once I learned Eldridge was looking for me I understood how delicate this situation has become. I don’t know what to do. In the end there is only one solution and yet it’s nearly impossible to implement.”

She opened her mouth to speak when a sudden disturbance outside drew their attention. Leaping to her feet, she ran with St. John to the window. Out front, a village cart tottered precariously on three wheels. “Stay here,” she ordered, knowing Marcus would wish to speak with the pirate, perhaps even detain him.

Elizabeth took only a moment to ensure assistance was being offered and then turned back to the room. It was empty. She stood blinking.

“Where did he go?” she asked the two guards.

They rushed in and quickly searched the space.

St. John was gone.

Marcus leaned his shoulders against the headboard and adjusted the weight of his wife’s sated body, which draped over his own. Even her grumbled protest failed to make him smile. He stroked his hand down the length of her spine, soothing her back to sleep, while finding his own elusive.

Why had St. John come? If his aim had been the journal, he would want more than just Elizabeth’s verbal confirmation that it was no longer with her. And yet he’d learned no more than that before dropping out the window and fleeing. To have arranged the distraction of the broken cart in advance was typical. To have known the house was emptied of Ashford men meant he’d been watching them.

His arms tightened around Elizabeth and her face nuzzled his chest in response. The pirate’s warning was clear, You are not safe. Even in your own domain.

Even as he thought it, Marcus stilled. He cocked his head, his ears straining to hear over the soft crackling coming from the grate. He was greeted by silence, but he couldn’t relax. The hairs on his nape stood on end.

He’d long ago learned to trust his instincts, so he slid down to his back and rolled, settling Elizabeth into the pillows. Her arms surrounded him, accustomed to his habit of waking her for sex. Pressing a quick kiss to her mouth, Marcus disentangled himself and withdrew from the warmth of the bed.

“What are you doing?” she complained, blinking.

Her pout was flattering and he took a moment to relish it. There had been a time when he could only dream of having her in his bed, eager for him. His ring on her finger caught what remained of the firelight and his jaw tightened. He’d be damned if anyone or anything jeopardized her now.