Page 34

“Yes, she always has. Don’t look so grim, Westfield. I can see you are not in accord with her decision by way of your early morning arrival and avoidance of returning to your own residence. You don’t want anyone to be aware of her return.”

“Do you fault me for that? She is my wife. You must know how I feel. Have you not lived with the same fear these last four years?”

“It was not like this,” William admitted. “There was no journal to worry over and no knowledge of a spy within the agency. The danger is greater now, I’m not blind to it or nonchalant. I love Elizabeth, as you well know, but I have a son. The time has come to conclude this chapter of our lives so we can all proceed.”

“And what of my children? Should something befall Elizabeth I will be left with nothing. You both beg the impossible from me.”

“Westfield …” William sighed heavily. “You and I will be prepared when the time comes.”

“When the time comes for what?” Elizabeth asked from the doorway.

“For you to be enceinte,” William said with a smile that hid the true nature of their exchange.

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “You were discussing children?” She looked at Marcus. “Our children?”

He smiled at the thought. Every day he forced himself to believe she was his. It was a gift he continued to marvel over.

William engulfed her in a quick hug.

“Your son is beautiful,” she said with a soft smile. “He’d fallen asleep by the time I arrived. I look forward to holding him when we are both less weary.”

Kissing her forehead, he yawned before making his egress. “’Til morning then.”

The door shut with a quiet click and Elizabeth faced Marcus with shoulders squared. “We have never discussed children.”

“There is no need.” He moved toward her. “They’ll come when they come, and not a moment sooner.”

She looked away, biting her lower lip.

He frowned at the sudden chill of her features. “What pains you, love?”

“I don’t wish to discuss it.”

Chuckling softly, he ran a fingertip over her collarbone, feeling the flare of awareness flow from his touch to her skin. “You often say that, and then force me to pry your thoughts from you. But the hour is late, so I pray you’ll spare me.”

Her eyes closed. “Can we not just retire? I’m tired.”

“Tell me,” he urged, his lips to her brow. He dropped his voice seductively. “There are ways I can make you. Would you like that?”

“Perhaps …” Her chin lowered, as did her volume. “Perhaps I’m barren.”

He pulled away, stunned. “Where do you find these ridiculous notions?”

“Think of it. I was married a year to Hawthorne and—”

“He didn’t put any effort into it,” Marcus dismissed with a snort.

“You have put more than enough effort into it these last months,” she argued. “And still my courses come with clockwork regularity.”

Frowning, Marcus stared at Elizabeth’s downcast head. Her tangible sadness caught his breath. “Ah, sweet.” He reached behind her and began to loosen her garments. “You worry without cause.”

“With every month that passes I fear I’ve failed you.” She rested her cheek against the velvet of his coat.

“How odd. With every month that passes I’m thankful I can have you to myself for a little while longer.”

“Please don’t jest.”

“Never. I have two brothers. The Ashford line is in no danger.”

“Surely you want your own offspring and it is my duty to provide them.”

“Enough.” He spun her around to facilitate undressing her. “I only want you. In all my life, I’ve only ever wanted you.”

“Marcus—” Her voice broke, as did his heart to hear it.

“I love you,” he said gruffly, his throat tight. “I always have.” Beneath his hands he felt her crying. “If it is meant to be just you and I alone, I would die the happiest man. Never doubt it.”

She turned and caught him, tugging his mouth down to hers, pressing tear-covered lips to his. “I don’t deserve you,” she sobbed, her fingers frantic in his hair.

Marcus absorbed her assault with a crushing embrace, unable to speak now that he’d said the words he’d once sworn not to say, not to even think. She pressed forward, her movements so wild he stumbled backward. Her hands slipped into his coat, shoved it from his shoulders, tore at the ivory buttons of his waistcoat.


She was everywhere, clawing at the many layers of his clothing and the placket of his breeches until all he could do was help her. He understood her, perhaps better than she understood herself. She was cornered, trapped by feelings she had run from since she’d met him, and she was running again, only this time it was to him, rather than away from him. And he would give her the solace she needed, and take what she offered in return, because he loved her with every breath in his body.

“Take this off,” she cried, ripping at her bodice. “Get this off me.”

He gripped the loosened back flaps, and rent the gown open. She stepped out of the remnants, then with corset and chemise and a pile of underskirts, his wife tugged him to the floor, pressed him down, and tossed her leg over his hips. Marcus laughed, adoring her in her concentration and near brutal need of him. Then he gasped, and arched upward as she took him in hand, and then took him inside her, clasping his cock in slick, silky tissues.

“Christ,” he groaned, wondering, as he did every time he fucked her, if the pleasure would ever subside to where it was at least bearable. If this was all there was, if his seed never took root, he could live with that. He knew it in his soul.

Elizabeth stilled, panting, her waist and breasts squeezed tight by her undergarments. She gazed down at her husband, sprawled beneath her, so gorgeous in his disarray. Marcus Ashford, known for his unshakable implacability, was flushed, his eyes bright, his sensual mouth parted. Unable to resist, she cupped his nape in her hand and lowered her lips to his. The taste of him, dark and dangerous, and the feeling of his tongue, silken and hot, made her shiver and clench tight around the shaft that throbbed within her.

He moaned into her mouth, and wrapped gentle arms around her. He thrust his hips upward in deep lunges, stroking her depths with the broad head of his cock.

“Marcus …” Filled with heated, voluptuous yearning, she rose and swiveled her hips, then bore down as he pumped upward, taking him so deeply she writhed with the pleasure of it. Every touch, every growl from his throat told her how much he loved her and accepted her, how much he needed her. Despite all her faults.

The intensity of his gaze was a tactile caress. He loved to watch her, she knew. Loved to hear her cries, and feel her need. Her body undulated over his, a thing separate from her mind, lost to her desire. The unyielding grip of her corset altered the experience, made her both achingly aware and dreamily dizzy.

“Yes,” he urged hoarsely. “Take what you need. Let me give it to you.”

Her fingertips rested on his abdomen and beneath his linen shirt she felt the tight, hard lacing of muscles flex with his exertions. Her eyes locked with his. “Hold me.”

He pulled her down, pressed his lips to hers, his tongue driving into her mouth in rhythm with the long, deep plunges of his cock. She was so wet, so aroused, every upward thrust sounded wetly through the room.

I would die for this, he’d said, and she knew it was true, because there in his arms, she did.

And was reborn.

Elizabeth woke late in the morning, and found herself alone. She bathed and dressed, eager to find Marcus before she spent the rest of the day with Margaret and the baby.

As she descended the main stairs, she spied Lord Eldridge and Avery standing with her husband in the visitors’ foyer. She paused a moment, composing herself for whatever was ahead, and then proceeded.

Seeing her approach, Marcus met her at the bottom of the staircase. “Good morning, my love.” His gaze, both warm and appreciative, spoke volumes.

“Has something transpired?” she asked.

“I must leave with Eldridge. St. John has been seen in London, and there are other things that need to be attended to.”

She smiled briefly at Lord Eldridge and Avery. “Good morning, my lord. Mr. James,” she called out.

Both gentlemen bowed in greeting.

Turning her attention back to Marcus, she searched his face, and noted the taut lines that etched his lips. “Is there something else? Something you are withholding from me?”

He shook his head. “I simply worry about leaving you. Avery will remain, but I would much prefer to guard you myself. Whenever I turn my back, something untoward happens and—”

Setting her fingers to his lips, Elizabeth silenced him. “Hush, I will be fine with Mr. James. And William is here.”

“Even the King’s guards could not ease my mind.”

“So stay,” she said simply. “Send Mr. James with Eldridge.”

“I cannot. I have resigned my commission, and there are things I must resolve before I can be free.”

Elizabeth covered her mouth with her hand, tears filling her eyes and threatening to fall from her lashes. He’d kept his promise.

“Tell me those are happy tears.”

“I love you,” she breathed.

His mouth curved in an intimate smile. “I shall return at my soonest. Stay out of trouble in the meantime. Please.”

Making their egress from Chesterfield Hall, Marcus and Eldridge retrieved the reins from the waiting groomsmen and mounted their horses.

“Did you say anything to Lady Westfield?” Eldridge asked once they’d reached the road.

“No. It would only serve to unduly worry her.”

“You don’t believe a threat against your life is worth the worry?”

Marcus snorted. “St. John would have killed me before, if that was his true intent,” he said dismissively. “He is aware that threats to Lady Westfield carry the greater weight. Still, the possibility exists that I would lower my guard of her to raise my own. A foolish attempt, but it costs him nothing more than the missive he sent you to try.”

Marcus was so confident in his assessment that when the shot rang out and burning pain tore through his shoulder, he was caught completely unaware.

The horses reared, Eldridge yelled, and Marcus was thrown with stunning force to the ground. Dazed, he could not defend himself against the half dozen men who swarmed toward him in ambush. He could only realize, with horrified clarity, how far he had erred when Talbot loomed over him with small sword in hand. He works well with Avery James, Eldridge had said. Blind to the perfidy, he’d left Elizabeth in the care of the very man who wished her harm.

Now he lay on his back and noted that the trees, which shielded the lane, were a verdant backdrop to the steel of the blade swooping toward him with deadly precision.

But in the end, his greatest fear came not from his approaching death, but for his beloved wife, who needed him. And he would not be there.

Chapter 23

“You look beautiful.”

Margaret blushed. “Good heavens, Elizabeth. How can you say such a thing? I must look a fright. I’ve not had a full night of rest since the birth, my hair is ever in disarray, I am—”

“Glowing,” Elizabeth interjected.

Gazing with adoration at her infant son, Margaret smiled, “I did not believe it was possible to love someone as much as I do this child.” She glanced at Elizabeth who stood by the door. “You shall see when you and Westfield have children of your own.”

Elizabeth nodded sadly, and reached for the doorknob. “I will leave you to feed my nephew.”

“It’s not necessary for you to go,” Margaret protested.

“We arrived so late yesterday, I find myself still weary. A small nap, and then I’ll return.”

“Where is Lord Westfield?”

“Attending to some matters. I expect he’ll return shortly.”

“Very well, then.” Margaret nodded. “Come back to me refreshed. I miss female companionship.”

Yawning, Elizabeth retreated to her room, her heart heavy with worry. Marcus was disturbed. Despite his denials to the contrary, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong.

She paused in the gallery outside her chamber, frowning when she noted the door was ajar. Entering cautiously, she saw the familiar figure digging in her escritoire drawers. He turned to face her.

It was then she saw the knife in his hand.

She froze, and swallowed hard. “What are you about, Mr. James?”

Inwardly steeled for the pain of being run through, Marcus jolted in surprise at the sound of gunfire. Talbot jerked, his eyes widening in horror. Deep crimson soaked through his waistcoat, spreading from the hole that bored through his chest. The downward swing of his sword arm faltered and he stumbled, forcing Marcus to roll away as he fell to the ground. Dead.

Surrounded by a grisly melee, Marcus leapt to his feet, staring at the battle that raged around him. A dozen men, none of whom he recognized, fought with deadly intent. Dust rose from the dry lane, choking his throat and gritting his eyes. Steel clashed in a macabre cacophony, and while his left arm was nigh useless, his right was serviceable. He withdrew his sword with lightning speed, prepared to defend himself.

“Stand down.”

Spinning about with blade raised, he faced St. John. “You are in no condition to fight,” the pirate said dryly, tossing aside a now useless smoking pistol.

“How long have James and Talbot been in your employ?”

St. John continued to approach him. “They haven’t been. That’s not to say I lack eyes and ears within the agency. However, the men you mention are not associates of mine.”