Lottie was certain that Sophia meant to be reassuring. However, the idea of Nick Gentry falling in love with her was not only improbable but alarming as well. He would never let his guard down to that extent, never allow someone such power over him, and if he did, he might very well become as obsessive and domineering as Lord Radnor. She did not want anyone to love her. Although it was clear that some people found great joy in love, such as Sophia and Sir Ross, Lottie could not help but regard it as a trap. The arrangement that she and Nick had devised was much safer.
Nick found himself strangely adrift after he left the public office. It had begun to rain, and the burgeoning clouds promised a heavier deluge yet to come. Hatless, striding along the slick pavement, he felt the cold, fat splashes of water sinking through his hair and pelting the broadcloth weave of his coat. He should seek shelter somewhere...The Brown Bear, a tavern located across from Bow Street No. 3...or perhaps Tom's coffeehouse, where the runners' preferred physician, Dr. Linley, was wont to appear. Or his own home...but he shied from that thought instantly.
The rain fell harder, in cold, soaking sheets that drove street sellers and pedestrians to huddle beneath shop awnings. Scrawny boys darted into the street to fetch cabs for gentlemen who had been caught unawares by the rain. Umbrellas snapped open, their frames strained by strong gusts of wind, while the sky was partitioned by jagged shafts of lightning. The air lost its characteristic stable-yard odor and took on the freshness of spring rain. Brown currents ran through the drains, washing them clear of the foul matter that the night-soil men had failed to remove during evening rounds.
Nick walked without direction, while the rain slid down his face and dripped from his chin. Usually in his off-time he went somewhere with Sayer or Ruthven to exchange stories over ale and beefsteaks, or they would attend a prizefight or a bawdy comedy at Drury Lane. Sometimes they would patrol the streets in a small pack, leisurely inspecting the thoroughfares and alleys for any sign of disruption.
Thinking of the other runners, Nick knew that soon he would lose their companionship. It was folly to hope otherwise. He could not move in their world any longer-Sir Ross had made that impossible. But why? Why couldn't the interfering bastard have left well enough alone? Nick's mind chased in circles, failing to apprehend the answer. Perhaps it had something to do with Sir Ross's unfailing pursuit of rightness, of order. Nick had been born a viscount and therefore must be restored to his position, no matter how unsuited he was for it.
Nick considered what he knew of the peerage, of their habits and rituals, the countless rules of conduct, the inescapable removal of landed aristocrats from the reality of common life. He tried to imagine spending the majority of his time lounging in parlors and drawing rooms, or rustling his freshly ironed newspaper at the club. Making speeches at the Lords to demonstrate one's social conscience. Attending soirees, and prattling about art and literature, and exchanging gossip about other silk-stockinged gentlemen.
A sense of panic filled him. He hadn't felt this trapped, this overwhelmed, since he had been lowered into the dark, stinking hold of the prison hulk and chained alongside the most degraded beings imaginable. Except that then he had known that freedom lay just outside the hulls of the anchored ship. And now there was no place to escape.
Like an animal in a cage, his mind cast about in angry sweeps, hunting for some kind of refuge.
"Gentry!" The friendly exclamation interrupted his thoughts.
Eddie Sayer approached Nick with his customary hail-fellow-well-met grin. Big, dashing, and congenial in nature, Sayer was liked by all the runners, and he was the one that Nick most trusted in a tight situation. "You're finally back," Sayer exclaimed, exchanging a hearty handshake. His brown eyes twinkled beneath the brim of his dripping hat. "I see you've just come from the public office. No doubt Sir Grant's given you a devil of an assignment to make up for your long absence."
Nick found that his usual arsenal of ready quips was depleted. He shook his head, finding it difficult to explain how his life had turned upside down within the space of a week. "No assignment," he said hoarsely. "I've been dismissed."
"What?" Sayer stared at him blankly. "You mean for good? You're the best man Morgan's got. Why the hell would he do that?"
"Because I'm going to be a viscount."
Suddenly Sayer's puzzlement disappeared, and he laughed. "And I'm going to be the duke of Devonshire."
Nick did not crack a smile, only stared at Sayer with a grim resignation that caused the other man's amusement to fade slightly.
"Gentry," Sayer asked, "isn't it a bit early for you to be this fox-faced?"
"I haven't been drinking."
Ignoring the statement, Sayer gestured to Tom's coffeehouse. "Come, we'll try to sober you with some coffee. Perhaps Linley is there-he can help figure out what has made you so addlepated."
After numerous cups of coffee that had been liberally sweetened with lumps of brown sugar, Nick felt like a pocket watch that had been wound too tightly. He found little comfort in the company of Sayer and Linley, who clearly did not know what to make of his implausible claim. They pressed him for details that he was unable to give, as he could not bring himself to discuss a past that he had spent a decade and a half trying to forget. Finally he left them at the coffeehouse and walked back out into the rain. Bitterly he thought that the only period of his life in which he had been able to make decisions for himself had been his years as a crime lord. It would be damned easy to overlook the violent squalor of those years and think only of the savage enjoyment he'd taken in outwitting Sir Ross Cannon at every turn. Had someone told him back then that he would someday be working for Bow Street, andmarried , and compelled to take up the cursed family title...holy hell. He would have taken any and all measures to avoid such a fate.
But he could not think of what he could have done differently. The bargain with Sir Ross had been unavoidable. And from the moment he had seen Lottie standing on that wall on the river-bluff in Hampshire, he had wanted her. He knew also that he would never stop wanting her, and he should probably abandon all attempts to puzzle out why. Sometimes there were no reasons-a thing was just so.
Thinking of his wife's sweetly erotic scent and her eloquent brown eyes, he suddenly found himself before a jeweler's shop. The place was devoid of customers, save one who was preparing to dash out into the downpour beneath the questionable cover of a battered umbrella.
Nick went inside just as the other man plunged out. Pushing the dripping hair out of his eyes, he glanced around the shop, noting the felt-covered tables and the door that led to the safe room in back.
"Sir?" A jeweler approached him, his neck hung with a large magnifying loupe. He gave Nick a glance of pleasant inquiry. "May I assist you?"
"I want a sapphire," Nick told him. "For a lady's ring."
The man smiled. "You have done well to come here, then, as I have recently imported a magnificent selection of Ceylon sapphires. Is there a particular weight you have in mind?"
"At least five carats, without flaws. Something larger, if you have it."
The jeweler's eyes gleamed with patent eagerness. "A fortunate lady, to receive such a generous gift."
"It's for a viscount's wife," Nick said sardonically, unfastening his rain-soaked coat.
It was afternoon by the time Nick returned to Betterton Street. Dismounting at the entrance of his house, he gave the reins to the footman, who had dashed out into the storm with an umbrella.
Refusing the umbrella, which would do him little good at this point, Nick sloshed up the front steps. Mrs. Trench closed the door against the bluster of the storm, her eyes widening at the sight of him. Then Lottie appeared, neat and dry in her dark gray gown, her hair silvery in the lamplight.
"Good Lord, you're half-drowned," Lottie exclaimed, hurrying forward. She enlisted a maid to help tug the sodden coat from his shoulders and bid him remove his muddy boots right there in the hall. Nick barely heard what she said to the servants, all his awareness focused on Lottie's small form as he followed her upstairs.
"You must be cold," she said in concern, glancing over her shoulder. "I'll start the shower-bath to warm you, and then you can sit before the fire. I was out earlier with your sister-she came to call, and we went to Oxford Street and spent a delightful morning at the dressmaker's. I vow, you will regret giving me carte blanche with your credit, as I allowed Sophia to persuade me into ordering a shocking number of gowns. A few were positively scandalous-I fear I shall never have the courage to wear them outside the house. And then we made an excursion to the bookshop, and it was there that Itruly lost my head. No doubt I've made paupers of us now..."
An extensive description of her various purchases ensued, while she nudged him into the changing-room and bid him to remove his wet clothes. Nick moved with unusual care, his intense awareness of her making him almost clumsy. Lottie ascribed his slowness to a chill taken from outside, saying something about the health risks of walking about in a storm, and that he must drink a cup of tea with brandy after the shower-bath. He was not cold at all. He was burning inside, remembering details from the night before...her breasts, her open thighs, the places where silken smoothness flowed into light, intimate curls.
He could not simply fall on her the moment he entered the house, as if he had no modicum of self-control. But oh, how he wanted to, he thought with a wry smile, fumbling with the fastenings of his clothes. The wet garments came off with difficulty. Despite his inner heat, he realized that he was indeed chilled. He heard the rattle of pipes as Lottie started the shower-bath, and then her hesitant tap at the door.
"I've brought your dressing robe," came her muffled voice. Her hand appeared around the door-frame with the burgundy velvet clutched between her fingers.
Nick looked at her small hand, the tender inside of her wrist with the little tracing of veins. Last night it had been easy to find every throb of her pulse, every vulnerable place of her body. He found himself reaching out, ignoring the robe in favor of wrapping his fingers around her delicate wrist. He pushed the door fully open and pulled her in front of him, looking down into her flushed face. It was not difficult for her to see what he wanted.
"I don't need a robe," he said gruffly, pulling the garment from her hand and dropping it to the floor.
"The shower-bath..." Lottie murmured, falling silent as he reached for the front placket of buttons on her gown. His fingers became swift and self-assured, peeling the bodice apart to reveal the construction of linen and stays that molded her flesh. He pushed down her sleeves, taking the straps of the chemise with them, and set his mouth to the bare curve of her shoulder. Miraculously she relaxed in his hold with a willingness he had not expected. Inflamed, he tasted the fine skin of her shoulder, kissed and licked his way to her throat, while he coaxed her hands free of the gown and pushed it over her hips.
The shower-bath began to heat, saturating the air with steam. Nick unhooked the front of the corset, briefly compressing the hard edges of the garment, then releasing them completely. Lottie held onto his shoulders as she moved to help him strip away the rest of her undergarments. Her eyes were closed, her translucent lids trembling slightly as she began to breathe in long sighs.
Hungrily, Nick pulled her with him into the hot rain of the shower-bath. Turning her face out of the stream of water, Lottie rested her head on his shoulder, standing passively as his hands slid over her body. Her br**sts were small but plump in his hands, the ni**les turning hard in the clasp of his fingers. He shaped his hands over her unrestricted waist, the swell of her hips, her round backside...caressing her everywhere, moving her against the engorged length of his sex. Moaning, she parted her thighs in compliance with his exploring hand, pushing her delicate flesh against his stroking thumb. As he entered her with his fingers, she gasped and instinctively relaxed at the gentle penetration. He caressed her, stroking in deep, secret places that brought her to the brink of cl**ax. When she was ready to come, he lifted her against the tiled wall, one arm beneath her hips, the other behind her back. She made a sound of surprise and clung to him, her eyes widening as he pushed his c**k inside her. Her flesh closed tightly around him, swallowing every inch of his shaft as he let her settle against him.
"I've got you," he murmured, her slippery body locked securely in his arms. "Don't be afraid."
Breathing fast, she rested her head back against his arm. With the hot water falling against his back, and the lush female body impaled on his, every lucid thought promptly evaporated. He filled her in heavy upward surges, again and again, until she cried out and clamped around him in luxurious contractions. Nick held still, feeling her quiver around him, the depths of her body becoming almost unbearably snug. Her spasms seemed to pull him deeper, drawing waves of pleasure from his groin, and he shuddered as he spent inside her.
Releasing her slowly, he let her drift down his body until her feet touched the tiled floor. He cupped a hand around her wet head and rubbed his mouth over her sodden hair, her saturated lashes, the round tip of her nose. Just as he reached her lips, she turned her face away, and he growled in frustration, dying for the taste of her. He had never wanted anything so badly. For a split second he was tempted to hold her head in his hands and crush his mouth on hers. But that wouldn't satisfy him...he could not get what he wanted from her with force.
Carrying Lottie from the shower-bath, he dried them both before the hearth in the bedroom and combed Lottie's long hair. The fine strands were dark amber when wet, turning to a pale shade of champagne when they were dry. Admiring the contrast of the shining locks against his velvet robe, he smoothed them with his fingers.
"What was said between you and Sir Grant?" Lottie asked, leaning back against his chest as they sat on the thick Aubusson rug. She was wearing another of his robes, which was at least three times her size.
"He supported Sir Ross's decision, naturally," Nick said, inwardly surprised to realize that his bitter desperation of the morning had faded considerably. It seemed that his mind was reconciling itself to the prospect of what lay ahead, however unwillingly. He told her what Morgan had said about the runners being disbanded soon, and Lottie twisted to look at him with a thoughtful frown.
"London without the Bow Street runners?"
"Things change," he said flatly. "So I'm learning."
Lottie sat to face him, unthinkingly curving her arm around his propped-up knee for support. "Nick," she said cautiously, "as Sophia and I were talking today, she mentioned something that I believe you will wish to know, even though it is supposed to be a surprise."
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