She begged.

“Please,” she whispered, “let me go.”

He did, his hand releasing her with a startling abruptness. “My apologies,” he said, sounding the slightest bit…surprised?

No, that was impossible. Nothing could surprise this man.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he added softly.

“Didn’t you?”

He gave his head a small shake. “No. To scare you, perhaps. But not to hurt you.”

Kate stepped backward on shaky legs. “You’re nothing but a rake,” she said, wishing her voice had emerged with a bit more disdain and a bit less quavering.

“I know,” he said with a shrug, the intense fire in his eyes draining down to light amusement. “It’s in my nature.”

Kate took another step back. She didn’t have the energy to try to keep up with his abrupt changes of mood. “I’m leaving now.”

“Go,” he said affably, waving toward the door.

“You can’t stop me.”

He smiled. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

She began to edge away, walking slowly backward, afraid that if she took her eyes off him for one second he might pounce. “I’m leaving now,” she said again, unnecessarily.

But when her hand was an inch away from the doorknob, he said, “I suppose I’ll see you next time I call upon Edwina.”

Kate went white. Not that she could actually see her face, of course, but for the first time in her life, she actually felt the blood drain from her skin. “You said you were going to leave her alone,” she said accusingly.

“No,” he replied, leaning rather insolently against the side of the chair, “I said that I didn’t think you were likely to ‘let’ me marry her. Which doesn’t really signify, as I have no plans to let you manage my life.”

Kate suddenly felt as if a cannonball were lodged in her throat. “But you can’t possibly want to marry her after you—after I—”

He took a few steps toward her, his movements slow and sleek like a cat. “After you kissed me?”

“I didn’t—” But the words burned the back of her throat, because they were so obviously a lie. She had not initiated the kiss, but she had, in the end, participated in it.

“Oh, come now, Miss Sheffield,” he said, standing up straight and crossing his arms. “Let’s not go down that road. We don’t like each other, that much is true, but I do respect you in an odd, perverted sort of way, and I know you’re not a liar.”

She said nothing. Really, what could she say? How did one respond to a statement that contained the words “respect” and “perverted”?

“You kissed me back,” he said with a small, satisfied smile. “Not with any great enthusiasm, I’ll admit, but that would be just a matter of time.”

She shook her head, unable to believe what she was hearing. “How can you talk of such things not even a minute after declaring your intention to court my sister?”

“This does put a bit of a crimp in my plans, that is true,” he commented, his voice light and thoughtful, as if he were considering the purchase of a new horse, or perhaps deciding which neckcloth to wear.

Maybe it was his casual posture, maybe it was the way he stroked his chin as if pretending to give the matter some thought. But something ignited a fuse inside of Kate, and without even thinking, she launched forward, all the furies of the world collecting in her soul as she threw herself against him, pounding his chest with her fists. “You will never marry her!” she cried out. “Never! Do you hear me?”

He raised one arm to ward off a blow to his face. “I’d have to be deaf not to.” Then he expertly captured her wrists, holding her arms immobile while her body heaved and shook with rage.

“I won’t let you make her unhappy. I won’t let you ruin her life,” she said, the words choking in her throat. “She is everything that is good and honorable and pure. And she deserves better than you.”

Anthony watched her closely, his eyes trained on her face, somehow rendered beautiful by the force of her anger. Her cheeks were high with color, her eyes shone with tears she was fighting hard to keep off her face, and he was beginning to feel like he might be the worst sort of cad.

“Why, Miss Sheffield,” he said softly, “I do believe you truly love your sister.”

“Of course I love her!” she burst out. “Why do you think I have gone to such efforts to keep her away from you? Did you think I did it for amusement? Because I can assure you, my lord, I can think of many things more amusing than being held captive in your study.”

Abruptly, he let go of her wrists.

“I should think,” she said with a sniffle, rubbing her reddened, abused flesh, “that my love for Edwina would be the one thing about me you could understand with perfect clarity. You, who are supposedly so devoted to your own family.”

Anthony said nothing, just watched her, and wondered if perhaps there was a great deal more to this woman than he’d originally estimated.

“If you were Edwina’s brother,” Kate said with deadly accuracy, “would you allow her to marry a man like you?”

He did not speak for a very long moment, long enough so that the silence rang awkwardly in his own ears. Finally he said, “That is beside the point.”

To her credit, she did not smile. She did not crow, nor did she taunt. When she spoke, her words were quiet and true. “I believe I have my answer.” Then she turned on her heel and began to walk away.

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