"You don't know him as well as you think you do."
His lips parted as he prepared to argue. But as he saw the trembling of her chin, the aggressive gleam faded from his eyes. "Don't be afraid." He startled her by settling his palm on her chest, on the smooth reach between her throat and her breasts. She inhaled deeply, her chest rising beneath the soothing weight of his hand. "I meant it when I told you that I would take care of you and your family," he said. "You're giving Radnor more importance than he merits."
"You couldn't possibly understand the way he has overshadowed my entire life. He-"
"I do understand." His fingers drifted to her throat, stroking the tender place where he could feel her swallowing. Such a powerful hand-he could crush her so easily, and yet he touched her with incredible gentleness. "And I know that you've never had anyone to defend you from him. But from now on I will. So stop turning pale every time his name is mentioned. No one is ever going to dominate you again, least of all Radnor."
"No one exceptyou , you mean."
He smiled at the pert accusation, toying with a lock of her hair. "I have no desire to dominate you." Leaning over her, he kissed the tiny pulse in her throat and touched it with his tongue. Lottie held very still, her toes curling inside her stockings. She wanted to put her arms around him, touch his hair, press her br**sts upward into his chest. The effort to hold back made her entire body stiffen.
"After we wed tomorrow, I'll take you to meet my sister Sophia," he said against her neck. "Will that be agreeable?"
"Yes, I would like that. Will Sir Ross be there as well?"
Gentry lifted his head. "Probably." He sounded distinctly less than thrilled by the prospect. "I received a warning today that my brother-in-law is hatching some plan, as usual, and wants to see me."
"Is there no liking at all between you?"
"God, no. Sir Ross is a manipulative bastard who has plagued me for years. Why Sophia saw fit to marry him is still beyond any hope of understanding."
"Does she love him?"
"I suppose," he said reluctantly.
"Do they have children?"
"One daughter, so far. A tolerable brat, if one likes children."
"And is Sir Ross faithful to your sister?"
"Oh, he's a saint," Gentry assured her dourly. "When they met, he was a widower who had been celibate ever since the death of his wife. Too honorable to lie with a woman outside of wedlock."
"He sounds quite chivalrous."
"Yes. Not to mention honest and ethical. He insists that everyone around him follow the rules...hisrules. And as his brother-in-law, I receive an ungodly amount of his attention."
Having a fair idea of how well Gentry received Sir Ross's attempts to reform him, Lottie bit the inside of her lower lip to suppress a sudden smile.
Seeing the twitch of her lips, Gentry gave her a glance of mock warning. "That amuses you, does it?"
"Yes," she admitted, and yelped in surprise as he nudged a sensitive spot beneath her ribs. "Oh, don't! I'm ticklish there. Please."
He moved over her with easy grace, his thighs straddling her hips, his hands catching at her wrists to pull them over her head. Lottie's amusement disappeared at once. She felt a pang of fear, as well as a confusing rush of excitement, as she stared at the large male above her. She was stretched beneath him in a primal position of submission, helpless to prevent him from doing whatever he wanted. Despite her anxiety, however, she did not ask him to release her, only waited tensely with her gaze locked on his dark face.
His grip on her wrists loosened, and his thumbs dipped gently into the humid cups of her palms. "Shall I come to you tonight?" he whispered.
Lottie had to lick her dry lips before she could answer. "Are you posing a question to me or yourself?"
A smile flickered in his eyes. "You, of course. I already know what I want."
"I'd rather you stayed away, then."
"Why prolong the inevitable? One more night isn't going to make a difference."
"I would prefer to wait until after we are married."
"Principle?" he mocked, his thumbs tracing slowly along her inner arms.
"Practicality," Lottie countered, unable to prevent a gasp as he touched the delicate creases inside her elbows. How was it that he could elicit sensation from such ordinary parts of her body?
"If you think I might change my mind about marrying you after one night of lovemaking...you're wrong. My appetite isn't satisfied nearly that easily. In fact, having you once is only going to make me want you more. It's a pity that you're a virgin. That will limit the number of things I can do with you...for a while, at least."
Lottie scowled. "I'm so sorry for the inconvenience."
Gentry grinned at her annoyance. "That's all right. We'll do the best we can, in light of the circumstances. Perhaps it will be less of a hindrance than I expect. Never having had a virgin before, I won't know until I try one."
"Well, you will have to wait until tomorrow night," she said firmly, wriggling beneath him in an effort to free herself.
For some reason he froze and caught his breath at the movement of her h*ps beneath his.
Lottie frowned. "What is it? Did I hurt you?"
Shaking his head, Gentry rolled away from her. He dragged a hand through his gleaming brown hair as he sat up. "No," he muttered, sounding a bit strained. "Although I may be permanently debilitated if I don't get some relief soon."
"Relief from what?" she asked, while he left the bed and fumbled with the front of his trousers.
"You'll find out." He glanced over his shoulder, his blue eyes containing both a threat and a delicious promise. "Put yourself to rights, and let's have supper downstairs. If I can't satisfy one appetite, I may as well attend to the other."
As a wedding to Lord Radnor had figured prominently in Lottie's nightmares for years, she had inevitably come to regard such a ceremony with suspicion and dread. She was gratified, therefore, that the rite in the superintendent-registrar's office turned out to be fast and efficient, consisting of signing her name, exchanging obligatory vows, and paying a fee. There were no kisses, no long glances, no hint of emotion to color the businesslike atmosphere, and for that she was grateful. However, she felt no more married upon leaving the registrar's office than she had when entering it.
She had just become the wife of a man who did not love her and was probably incapable of such an emotion. And by marrying him, she had just removed all possibility of ever finding love for herself.
However, there would be consolations in this union, the greatest one being her escape from Lord Radnor. And truth be told, Nick Gentry was fascinating company. He did not bother to conceal his faults as everyone else did but instead boasted about them, as if there were some merit in being amoral and mercenary. He was a foreigner to her, coming from a world she had only heard about in whispers...a world populated with scavengers, thieves, dispossessed people who resorted to violence and prostitution. Gentlemen and ladies were supposed to pretend that the underworld did not exist. But Nick Gentry answered Lottie's questions with stunning frankness, explaining exactly what occurred in the rookeries of London, and the difficulties the Bow Street runners encountered in trying to bring criminals to justice.
"Some of the alleyways are so narrow," he told her as their carriage traveled to Sir Ross's home, "that a man has to turn sideways to squeeze between the buildings. Many times I've lost a fugitive simply because he was thinner than I. And then there are masses of buildings that are connected-roof, yard, and cellar-so a thief can slip through them like a rabbit in a warren. I usually accompany the new constables who don't have much experience, as they can get lost in less than a minute. And once a runner is lost, he can stumble right into a trap."
"What kind of trap?"
"Oh, a group of thieves or costers will be waiting to bash a pursuing officer's skull, or stab him. Or they'll cover a cesspool with a few rotten boards, so when he sets a foot on it, he'll drown in a vat of sewage. That kind of thing."
Her eyes widened. "How dreadful!"
"It's not dangerous when you learn what to expect," he assured her. "I've been in every corner of every rookery in London, and I know every dodge and trap there is."
"You almost seem to enjoy your work...but you couldn't possibly."
"I don't enjoy it." He hesitated before adding, "I need it, though."
Lottie shook her head in confusion. "Are you referring to the physical exertion?"
"That's part of it. Jumping over walls, climbing onto rooftops, the feeling of catching a fugitive and bringing him to the ground..."
"And the fighting?" Lottie asked. "Do you enjoy that part of it?" Although she expected him to deny it, he nodded briefly.
"It's addictive," he said. "The challenge and excitement...even the danger."
Lottie twined her fingers together in her lap, reflecting that someone needed to tame him enough so that he could live in a peaceful manner someday-or his prediction of being short-lived would fulfill itself rather quickly.
The carriage traveled along a drive lined with plane trees, their intricately lobed leaves providing dense cover for the underplantings of white snowdrops and spiky green-stemmed cornuses. They stopped before a large house, handsome in its stately simplicity, the entrance guarded by wrought-iron railings and arched lamp standards. The pair of attentive footmen, Daniel and George, helped Lottie alight from the carriage and went to alert the household of their arrival. Noticing that the letterC had been worked into the designs of wrought iron, Lottie paused to trace it with her fingers.
Gentry smiled sardonically. "The Cannons aren't members of the peerage, but one wouldn't know it to look at them."
"Is Sir Ross a very traditional sort of gentleman?"
"In some regards, yes. But politically speaking, he's a progressive. Fights for the rights of women and children, and supports every reformist cause you can name." With a short sigh, Gentry guided her toward the front steps. "You'll like him. All women do."
As they ascended the stone staircase, Gentry surprised Lottie by fitting his arm behind her back. "Take my hand. That step is uneven." He navigated her carefully over the irregular surface, releasing her only when he was certain that her balance was perfect.
They walked into a large entrance hall painted in eggshell shades, with gleaming gold ormolu swags that bordered the lofty ceiling. A half-dozen doorways connected the hall to six principal rooms, while a horseshoe-shaped staircase led to the private apartments above. Lottie scarcely had time to appreciate the graceful design of the house's interior before they were approached by a lovely woman.
The woman's blond hair was much darker than her own, the color of aged honey. It had to be Lady Cannon, whose face was a delicate copy of Gentry's severely handsome features. Her nose was less bold, her chin defined but not quite as decisive as her brother's, her complexion fair instead of tanned. The eyes, however, were the same distinctive blue; rich, dark, and fathomless. Lady Cannon was so youthful in appearance that one would never have guessed that she was older than her brother by four years.
"Nick," she exclaimed with an exuberant laugh, coming forward and lifting up on her toes to receive his kiss. He enclosed her in a brief hug, rested his chin on the crown of her head, then drew back to look at her appraisingly. In that one instant, Lottie saw the remarkable depth of feeling between the two, which had somehow survived years of distance, loss, and deception.
"You're expecting another one," Gentry said after a moment, and his older sister laughed.
"How did you know? Sir Grant must have told you."
"No. But your waist is thicker-or else your corset strings have come loose."
Pulling away, Lady Cannon laughed and swatted at his chest. "You tactless wretch. Yes, my waist is thicker, and will continue to increase until January, at which time you'll have a new niece or nephew to dandle on your knee."
"God help me," he said with feeling.
Lady Cannon turned toward Lottie, her face softening. "Welcome, Charlotte. Nick sent word to me about you yesterday-I have been terribly impatient to meet you." She smelled like tea and roses, a fragrance that was as soothing as it was alluring. Sliding a slender arm around Lottie's shoulders, she turned to address Gentry. "What a lovely sister you've brought me," she remarked. "Mind you treat her well, Nick, or I shall invite her to live here with me. She appears far too well-bred to keep company with the likes of you."
"So far, I have no complaints about Mr. Gentry's treatment of me," Lottie replied with a smile. "Of course, we've only been married for an hour."
Lady Cannon frowned at her brother. "Marrying this poor girl in the registrar's office, of all places! I wish to heaven you had waited and allowed me to arrange something here. Why, you haven't even given her a ring! Honestly, Nick-"
"I didn't want to wait," he interrupted brusquely.
Before Lady Cannon could reply, a small child toddled into the entrance hall, followed by an aproned nanny. The dark-haired little girl, with her blue eyes and dimpled cheeks, could not have been much older than two. "Unca Nick!" she shrieked, rushing at him headlong, her curls flying in a wild, tangled mass.
Gentry caught her and swung her up in the air, grinning at her screams of delight. As he hugged her close, his strong affection for the child was more than obvious, belying his earlier description of her as a "tolerable brat."
Wrapping her plump arms around his neck, the little girl growled playfully, kissing him and pulling at his hair.
"God, what a savage," Gentry said, laughing. He turned her upside down, making the child squeal in excitement.
"Nick," his sister reproved, although she was laughing as well. "Don't, you'll drop her on her head."
"I will not," he said lazily, righting the child and holding her against his chest.
"Candy," the little girl demanded, plunging inside his coat as busily as a ferret. Finding what she had been searching for, she extracted a small paper parcel and crowed with excitement as her uncle opened it for her.
"What are you giving her this time?" Lady Cannon asked with resignation.
"Cinder toffee," he said cheerfully, while his niece popped a large sugary wad into her cheek. His eyes continued to sparkle as he glanced at Lottie. "Would you like some?"
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