"No!" she gasped, shielding her face with her arms.
The strike never came. All went still. Trembling, Lottie lowered her arms and looked up to see Nick's face change, the nightmarish mask dropping, sanity and awareness creeping back into his expression. He lowered his fist and stared at it blankly. Then his gaze fell to Lottie's slim form, and the fury and terror in his eyes made her cringe.
"I could have killed you," he snarled, his white teeth gleaming like an animal's. "What are you doing here? Don't ever touch me while I'm sleeping, damn you!"
"I didn't know, I...what in heaven's name were you dreaming about?"
He rolled away from her in a lithe movement and left the bed, panting. "Nothing. Nothing at all."
"I thought you needed something-"
"All I need is for you to stay the hell away from me," he snapped. Finding his discarded clothes on a chair, he jerked his trousers on.
Lottie felt as if she had been struck. She hated it that his words had the power to hurt her. Even more than that, she was anguished for him, wishing he did not have to bear such torment alone.
"Get out of here," he said, pulling his shirt and coat on, not bothering with a waistcoat or necktie.
"Are you leaving?" Lottie asked. "There is no need. I will go back to bed, and-"
"Yes, I'm leaving."
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know." He didn't spare her a glance as he picked up his stockings and shoes. "And don't ask when I'll return. I don't know that, either."
"But why?" Lottie took a halting step toward him. "Nick, please stay and tell me-"
He shot her a warning glance, his eyes bright with the ferocity of a wounded animal. "I told you to get out."
Feeling the blood drain from her face, Lottie nodded and went to the door. Pausing at the threshold, she spoke without a backward glance. "I'm sorry."
He made no reply.
Lottie bit the insides of her lips, damning herself as she felt the sting of tears at the corners of her eyes. She left swiftly, retreating to her room with the shreds of her dignity.
Nick did not return all the next day. Anxious and bewildered, Lottie tried to find ways to occupy herself. However, no distraction proved sufficient to stop her from worrying. She took a long walk with a footman in tow, attended to needlework, read, and helped Mrs. Trench make tallow candles.
The housekeeper and servants were quietly deferential to Lottie. Predictably, not one word was mentioned about the previous night, although they were all certainly aware that some disturbance had taken place. Servants knew everything, but none of them would ever admit to knowledge of the intimate details of their master's life.
Wondering where her husband had gone, Lottie feared that perhaps he had done something reckless. She consoled herself that he was quite good at taking care of himself, but that did not ease her distress. He had been so very upset, and she suspected that his anger had stemmed from the fear that he might have hurt her.
However, she was his wife, and she deserved better than to be abandoned with no explanation. The day was relentlessly long, and Lottie was relieved when evening finally approached. After dining alone, she took a long bath, donned a fresh white nightrail, and read from a stack of periodicals until she finally felt able to sleep. Exhausted by the endless circling of her thoughts and the tedium of the past hours, she sank into deep slumber.
Long before morning, she was roused from the thick mist of sleep by the realization that the weight of the blankets had been drawn from her. Stirring, she became aware of a solid presence behind her, the mattress dipping slightly. Nick, she thought in drowsy relief, yawning as she turned toward him. The room was so dark that she could not quite distinguish him. The familiar warmth of his hands pressed her back to the bed, one large palm resting gently on the center of her chest...and then he drew her wrists over her head.
Lottie murmured in surprise, awakening fully as she felt him loop something around each wrist. Before she realized what was happening, the bonds were secured to the headboard, stretching her tautly beneath him. Her breath stopped in amazement. Nick moved over her, crouching like a cat, his breath coming in rough surges. He touched her body over the cotton veil of her gown, his fingers slipping beneath the curve of her breast, the indentation of her waist, the swell of her hip and thigh. His weight shifted, and his mouth sought her breast, wetting the gown, licking the rising peak of her nipple. He was naked, the scent and heat of warm male skin surrounding her.
Dazedly Lottie realized that he wanted to take her like this, with her hands fastened over her head. The idea made her fearful. She did not like being restrained in any way. But at the same time she understood what he wanted...her helplessness, her absolute trust...the knowledge that he could do anything he wanted to her without restrictions. He rolled her distended nipple against his tongue, excited the tight peak with long, dragging licks, and sucked hard through the wet cotton until she gasped. She squirmed in a mute plea for him to remove her gown, but he only slid farther down her body, his muscular arms braced on either side of her.
Curling her thumb and forefinger over one of the bonds that fastened her wrists, Lottie discovered that Nick had used her silk stockings. The light tension on her arms seemed to intensify her response to him, sensation racing through her in electric charges.
His mouth was at her stomach, his breath burning through the delicate gown. He nibbled at her body, his caresses languid, while the pace of his breathing betrayed his excitement. He made a space between her thighs, pushing them apart with his hands. His mouth rooted gently between her legs, against the cotton fabric. Lottie strained toward him, her fingers opening and closing helplessly, her heels digging hard into the mattress. He played with her leisurely, then rose again to find her breasts, kissing and fondling her through the clinging nightrail until she thought she would go mad if he didn't remove it. Every inch of her skin was hot and oversensitive, the fine fabric seeming to chafe her unbearably.
"Nick," she said frantically, "my gown, take if off, please take it..."
He hushed her with his fingers, resting two of them lightly against her lips. When she quieted, his thumb brushed over the curve of her cheek in a whisper-soft caress. Reaching for the hem of the gown, he pulled it upward, and she sobbed with gratitude. Her legs twitched as they were exposed to the cool air, and her wrists tugged at the silken bonds as she writhed to help him. The cotton was raised over her chest, catching slightly at the stiff tips of her nipples.
Nick's hand slid carefully over her stomach, traveling to the tender flesh of her inner thighs. His fingertip stroked through the curly hair, found the welling moisture, and brushed softly against the smoldering, delicate flesh. Her legs spread, her body throbbing with anticipation. She gave a pleading sob as his hand left her. The tip of his middle finger traced the sensitive edge of her upper lip. His finger was damp with the salty elixir of her own body, leaving the fragrance wherever he touched. Suddenly her nostrils were filled with the scent of her own arousal, filling her lungs with every breath.
Slowly Nick turned her to her side, his hand running over her arms to check their tension. His body settled behind hers, his mouth caressing the back of her neck. Lottie strained backward, her bottom pressing into his turgid shaft. She wanted to touch him, to twist around and stroke the coarse, thick hair on his chest, and then to grasp the hard weight of his sex and let the silken barrel of it push through the circle of her fingers. But her position made movement impossible, and her only choice was to wait helplessly for his pleasure.
He hooked one arm beneath her top leg, lifting it slightly, and she felt the swollen tip of his sex nudge inside her. He entered her only an inch, teasing her, withholding the full possession she craved. Lottie trembled violently, pleading with wordless gasps as he kissed the back of her neck. With the head of his shaft lodged just inside her entrance, his hand wandered over her...an exquisite tug at her nipple, a circling stroke of her navel. Gradually his caresses became more purposeful, his gentle, clever fingers delving into the thicket of curls.
Sweating, moaning, Lottie undulated against his sweetly provoking fingertips. She felt his shaft slide all the way inside her, filling her completely, and she cried out sharply, her body shaken with tremors of delight.
Nick waited until she quieted. He began to pump inside her, his movements steady and deliberate, flooding her with pleasure. She breathed in open mouthed sighs, her wrists pulling hard at the silk loops as she cl**axed again with a long, shuddering moan. He thrust harder then, his loins meeting hers in delicious impacts, his breath rushing through his clenched teeth. The bed shook from his movements. Lottie felt at once vulnerable and strong, possessing him as surely as he did her, with her heart beating against his hand, and her flesh surrounding his. He tensed inside her, his organ jerking and pulsing, his lips parting as he gasped against her neck.
For a long time she lay against his large, hard body, giving a soft moan when he released her wrists. He rubbed them gently, and then his hand came down to cup her wet sex. His breathing slowed, and at the thought that he was drifting to sleep beside her, Lottie quivered in longing. Suddenly nothing was more desirable in the world than to have him stay in her bed for an entire night. But he rose eventually, leaning to kiss her breast, his tongue swirling around the tender peak.
As Nick left the bed, Lottie bit her lip to keep from asking him to stay, knowing that he would only deny her as always. The door closed, leaving her in solitude. And although her body was sated and weary and her flesh tingled pleasantly, she felt tears welling behind her eyelids. She felt sorrow...not for herself, but for him. And longing...the dangerous need to comfort him, even though he would bitterly resent her for doing so. And last of all, a deep tenderness for a man she barely knew-a man who needed to be rescued far worse than she ever had.
The following morning a parcel arrived from Sir Ross, containing a sheaf of documents bearing elaborate seals and an invitation to a ball to be held in one week's time. As Lottie entered the dining room, she saw Nick sitting alone at the table, a half-finished breakfast plate before him. His gaze lifted from the thick sheet of parchment in his hand, his eyes darkening as he saw her. He rose to his feet, staring at her without blinking.
Lottie felt a brilliant tide of red sweep over her face. On the mornings after an unusually passionate evening, Nick usually teased her, or smiled as he made some commonplace remark to ease her discomfort. Today, however, his face was taut and his eyes were bleak. Something had changed between them-the ease of their former interactions was gone.
Awkwardly she gestured to the paper in his hand. "It has arrived?"
There was no need to clarify what "it" was.
Nick nodded briefly, his gaze returning to the summons.
Striving to maintain an appearance of normalcy, Lottie went to the sideboard and served herself from the covered dishes. Nick helped her into the chair beside him and resumed his seat. He regarded the remains of his breakfast with unusual concentration, while a maid came to set a cup of steaming tea before Lottie.
They were both silent until the maid left the room.
"The ball will be given next Saturday," Nick said brusquely, not looking at her. "Will you have an appropriate gown by then?"
"Yes. I've already been fitted for a ballgown, and there were only a few minor alterations to be made."
"Are you angry?" Lottie asked.
He picked up his knife and regarded it moodily, scraping the tip of the blade against the calloused pad of his thumb. "I'm beginning to feel oddly resigned to the situation. Now the news is leaking from the offices of the Crown and the Lord Chancellor. It's all been set in motion, and there is nothing anyone could do to stop it now. Sir Ross will introduce us at the ball as Lord and Lady Sydney...and from then on, Nick Gentry will be dead."
Lottie stared at him intently, struck by his odd phrasing. "You mean the name will no longer be used," she said. "You, as Lord Sydney, will be very much alive. Shall I begin to call you John in private?"
A scowl pulled at his features, and he set the knife down. "No. I'll be Sydney to the rest of the world, but in my own home I'll answer to the name that I choose."
"Very well...Nick." Lottie stirred a generous lump of sugar into her tea and sipped the hot, sweet liquid. "The name has served you well for many years, hasn't it? I daresay you've given it far more renown than the original Gentry ever would have." Her idle remark earned a peculiar glance from him, somehow rebuking and beseeching at the same time. A sudden realization flashed through her mind-the real Nick Gentry, the boy who had died of cholera aboard the prison hulk, was at the heart of the secret that tormented her husband. Lottie stared absently into her tea, striving to keep her tone casual as she asked, "What was he like? You haven't yet told me."
"He was an orphan, whose mother was hanged for thievery. He lived in the streets for most of his life, starting as a pudding shammer and eventually acquiring his own gang of ten."
"Pudding shammer," Lottie repeated, puzzled.
"Stealing food to survive. That's the lowest of the low, except for beggars. But Gentry learned fast, and he became a proficient thief. Finally he was caught robbing a house, and he was sentenced to the prison hulk."
"And then you became friends," Lottie prompted.
Nick's expression became distant as long-buried memories recalled him to the past. "He was strong, shrewd...with sharp instincts from living so long in the streets. He told me things I needed to know to stay alive in the hulk...protected me sometimes..."
"Protected you from what?" Lottie whispered. "The guards?"
Nick jerked out of his trance, blinking the remoteness from his eyes. He glanced down at his hand, which was gripping the knife handle too tightly. Carefully he set the gleaming object on the table and pushed his chair back.
"I'm going out for a while," he said, his voice stripped of all nuance. "I expect I will see you at dinner this evening."
Lottie responded in the same carefully neutral tone. "Very well. Have a pleasant day."
During the week that ensued, the days and nights were dizzying in their contrast. Lottie's daytime hours were occupied with errands and small practical matters. She was never quite certain when she would see Nick, for he came and went at will. At supper they would discuss meetings that he'd had with investment partners and bankers, or his occasional visits to Bow Street, as Sir Grant occasionally consulted with him on matters pertaining to past cases. In the daytime, Lottie's interactions with Nick were cordial, the conversation pleasant and yet slightly impersonal.
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