Page 7

Her voice was soft as it floated across the room. “How could I forget?”

“You scandalized every matron there by making me laugh aloud.”

After that memorable first dance, he’d made it a point to attend the same events she did, which sometimes necessitated stopping at several houses before finding her. Society dictated that he could claim only one dance per evening and every moment spent with her had to be chaperoned, but despite these restrictions they’d discovered a mutual affinity. He was never bored with her, was instead endlessly fascinated.

Elizabeth was genuinely kind but had a quick temper that rose in an instant and dissipated as rapidly. She had in abundance all of the things that made a girl a woman but retained a childishness that could be at once endearing and frustrating. He admired her strength, but it was the fleeting glimpses of vulnerability that pushed him far past infatuation. He longed to protect her from the world at large, to shelter her and keep her all to himself.

And despite the years and the misunderstandings between them he still felt that way.

Marcus cursed under his breath and then jumped as her hand touched his shoulder.

“I know your thoughts,” she whispered. “But it can never be that way again.”

His laugh was harsh. “I’ve no desire to have it that way a second time. I want simply to be rid of the craving I have for you. You won’t suffer in the slaking, I can promise you that.”

Turning, he stared into her upturned face, seeing the violet eyes so unfathomable and sad. Her lower lip quivered and he stilled the betraying movement with a soft stroke of his thumb.

“I must go and make preparations for the meeting tomorrow.” He cupped her flushed cheek and then lowered his hand to her breast. “I will speak with the outriders Avery assigned to you. They’ll follow at a discreet distance. Wear neutral colors. No jewelry. Sturdy shoes.”

Elizabeth nodded and held still as a statue as he lowered his head and brushed his lips across hers. Only the racing of her heart beneath his palm told him how he affected her. He closed his eyes at the painful tightening of his loins and chest. He’d give up his fortune to be rid of this longing.

Sick with self-disgust he stepped past her and departed, hating the hours between now and the moment when he could see her again.

Chapter 5

Marcus stared through the cover of bushes, his jaw clenching as a droplet of sweat trickled between his shoulder blades. Elizabeth stood a few feet away in the clearing with her husband’s journal clutched tightly in her tiny hands. The grass beneath her feet was trampled by her pacing, releasing the scent of spring into the air, but it didn’t soothe him as it normally would.

He hated this. Hated leaving her out there, exposed to whoever it was that wanted Hawthorne’s book. She shifted nervously from one foot to the other and he longed to go to her, longed to soothe her and take the burden of waiting from her slight shoulders onto his own.

He’d had precious little time to prepare. Surrounded by trees, the specified location made surveillance frustratingly difficult. There were too many places to hide. Avery and the outriders, who stood nearby watching the worn paths that led to the meeting place, were completely undetectable to him. He couldn’t signal them, nor they him, and he felt helpless. Waiting patiently was not in his nature and he gripped the hilt of his small sword with barely restrained ferocity. What in hell was taking so damn long?

This mission was the most important of any he’d previously been assigned to; it required the presence of mind and unflappable calm that marked all of his dealings. But to his dismay, he was as far from level-headedness as he’d ever been in his life. Failure was never an option, but this … this was Elizabeth.

As if she sensed his turmoil, she glanced around furtively, searching for him. She chewed her bottom lip between her teeth and his breath caught in his throat as he watched her. It had been so long since he’d had the opportunity to study her at his leisure. He drank her in, every detail, from the uplifted chin that defied the world, to the restless way she shifted the journal. A slight breeze ruffled the curls at her nape, revealing the slender white column of her throat. Distracted momentarily by her courage and the fierce protectiveness it engendered, Marcus failed to see the dark-clad body dropping from the tree until it was too late. He leapt to his feet as the realization hit, his blood roaring so loudly he could scarcely hear past it.

Elizabeth was knocked to the ground, the book flying from her hands to land a few feet away. She cried out, the startled sound cut short by the crushing weight of the man atop her.

With a low growl of fury, Marcus lunged over the bushes and tackled the assailant away from her, his fists striking before they rolled to a halt. A quick blow to the man’s masked face subdued him and Marcus continued pummeling him with punishing blows, his rage such that he couldn’t think beyond the instinct to kill anyone who threatened Elizabeth. He fought like a man possessed, snarling with the need to ease the fear that gripped him.

Elizabeth lay immobile, her mouth agape. She’d known Marcus was a physically powerful man, but he had always controlled himself with a confident air of self-mastery. She had romanticized him in her thoughts, imagining the self-assured rogue brandishing a sword or a pistol with careless arrogance, taunting his opponents with a few cutting remarks before making quick work of the matter with nary a bead of sweat on him. Her imagination had not pictured the Marcus before her—a vengeful beast, easily able to kill a man with his bare hands and at this moment quite willing to do so.

She scrambled to her feet, eyes wide, as he wrapped his hands around the man’s throat, a man who was their only clue to the importance of Nigel’s book. “No! Don’t kill him!”

Marcus loosened his grip at the sound of Elizabeth’s voice, the haze of bloodlust retreating. With amazing strength after such a beating, the assailant bucked upward, effectively garnering his release by throwing Marcus to his back.

Rolling quickly to his stomach, Marcus pushed himself up, prepared to fight, but the attacker scooped up the book and fled.

There was the barest glint of sunlight off the muzzle of a gun as the fleeing man turned and took aim, but it was warning enough. Marcus rose from the ground, his only goal to reach Elizabeth and shield her from harm. But he couldn’t move fast enough. The report of the pistol bounced off the trees around them. He yelled a warning and turned, his heart stopping at the sight that greeted him.

Elizabeth stood by her mount, her hair in disarray about her shoulders. In her outstretched hands was the smoking muzzle of a gun.

Realizing where the shot originated, he turned his head and watched in confounded wonder as the assailant stumbled to his feet from where he’d fallen, his dropped gun skittering away across the dewy grass. The man’s left hand was limp, the red journal abandoned, while his right hand pressed against a wound to his shoulder. Swearing, he ducked between two bushes and disappeared into the trees.

Stunned by the series of events, Marcus was startled as Avery ran past him in pursuit.

“Bloody everlasting hell,” he snapped, furious at himself for allowing the situation to go so awry.

Elizabeth took his arm, her voice shaky and urgent. “Are you hurt?” Her free hand drifted over his torso.

His eyes widened at her obvious concern.

“Damn you, Marcus. Are you injured? Did he hurt you?”

“No, no, I’m fine. What the devil are you doing with that?” He stared, dazed by the sight of the pistol she held at her side.

“Saving your life.” Her hand to her heart, she released her breath in a rush and then walked to the fallen journal to retrieve it. “You may thank me when you recover your wits.”

Marcus sat silently in the sitting room of his London townhouse. Divested of his coat and waistcoat, he lounged with his feet propped up on the table, and watched the play of light from the window behind him as it moved through the brandy in his snifter.

To say the morning had been a disaster would be an understatement, and yet Elizabeth had retained the book and wounded her attacker. Marcus was not surprised. His friendship with William had given him rare insight.

Her mother lost to illness, Elizabeth had been raised by a father and older brother who were both notorious voluptuaries. Governesses never lasted long, finding the young Elizabeth to be incorrigible. Without the calming influence of a woman in the house, she’d been allowed to run wild.

As children, William had taken his sister with him everywhere—galloping neck-or-nothing through the fields, climbing trees, shooting pistols. Elizabeth had been blissfully unaware of the societal rules women were expected to follow until introduced to them at boarding school. Years of rigorous training in deportment had given her the tools she used to hide herself from him, but he paid them no mind. He would know her, all of her.

The mystery of the book was proving to be far more dangerous than any of them had previously realized. Steps had to be taken to ensure Elizabeth was kept safe.

“Thank you for allowing me to repair myself here,” Elizabeth said softly from the doorway that led to the bedroom.

She’d used the room that was meant to be hers—that of the lady of the house. Turning to face her, he saw her staring down at her clasped hands. “William would have known something was amiss if I’d returned home looking a mess.”

Marcus studied her, noting the dark circles that rimmed her eyes. Was she having trouble sleeping? Was he tormenting her dreams the way she tormented his?

“Is your family not in residence?” she asked, looking about as if she could find them. “Lady Westfield? Paul and Robert?”

“My mother writes that Robert’s latest experiment is delaying their arrival. So that leaves you and me quite alone.”

“Oh.” She bit her lower lip.

“Elizabeth, this matter has become extremely dangerous. Once the man who attacked you recovers, he will come after you again. If he has associates, they won’t wait.”

She nodded. “I’m aware of the situation. I will be on my guard.”

“That’s insufficient. I want you to be guarded night and day, not just outriders when you go out. I want someone with you at all times, even when you sleep.”

“Impossible. William will grow suspicious if I have guards at the house.”

Marcus set the glass down. “William is more than capable of making his own decisions. Why don’t you allow him to decide if he can be of assistance to you?”

She rested her hands on her hips. “Because I have made the decision. He is finally free of that damned agency. His wife is with child. I refuse to risk his life and Margaret’s happiness for nothing.”

“You are not nothing,” he growled.

“Consider what happened today.”

He stood. “I cannot stop considering it. It rules my thoughts.”

“You were almost killed.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I was there …” Her voice broke and turning on her heel, she strode toward the door.

He moved swiftly to block her egress. “I’ve not finished speaking, madam.”

“I am finished listening.” She attempted to step around him, but he sidestepped quickly into her path. “Damn you. You are so bloody arrogant.”

She poked him in the chest with her finger and he stilled the movement with his hand. It was then he noticed her trembling.

“Elizabeth …”

She stared up at him, so tiny and delicate, yet formidable in her fury. The thought of her injured made his stomach clench. Deep in her eyes, he saw fear and his heart went out to her.

“Spitfire,” he murmured, pulling her toward him. His fingertips tingled from the touch of her ungloved hand. Her skin was so soft, like satin. His thumb brushed over the pulse at her wrist and it leapt to match his own quickened heartbeat. “You were so brave today.”

“Your charm won’t work on me.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” He tugged her closer.

She snorted. “Despite everything I say, you still insist on attempting to seduce me.”

“Merely attempting? Not succeeding?” He laced his fingers with hers and found her hand cold. “I must try harder then.”

Violet eyes glittered dangerously, but then he’d always liked a bit of danger. At least she was not thinking about the assailant anymore. Her hand was quickly warming within his. He intended to warm the rest of her as well.

“You are trying quite hard enough.” Elizabeth took a step back.

He followed, directing her backward steps toward his bedroom, which waited on the other side of the private sitting room.

“Have women always fallen all over themselves for you?”

Arching a brow, he replied, “I’m not certain how I should answer that.”

“Try the truth.”

“Then yes, they have.”

She scowled.

He laughed and squeezed her fingers. “Ah … Jealousy was always the emotion most easily inspired in you.”

“I am not jealous. Other women can have you with my blessing.”

“Not yet.” He smiled when her scowl deepened. Stepping nearer, he slipped their joined hands around her back and tugged her to him.

Her gaze narrowed. “What are you about?”

“I’m distracting you. You are overwrought.”

“I am not.”

Her lips parted as his head lowered. He smelled gunpowder and her heady vanilla rose scent beneath that. Her palm grew damp within his and he nuzzled his nose against hers.

“You were magnificent this afternoon.” He brushed his mouth across hers and felt her sigh against his lips. He nibbled gently. “Although it disturbs you to have shot a man, you don’t regret it. You would do it again. For me.”

“Marcus …”

He groaned, lost in the sound of her voice and the sweetness of her taste. His entire body was hard and aching from holding her so closely. “Yes, love?”