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Over breakfast the next morning, Leonora considered her social calendar; the evenings were now much fuller than they had been three days ago.

“You choose,” Mildred had told her as she’d descended from the carriage last night.

Munching her toast, Leonora weighed the possibilities. Although the Season proper was some weeks distant, there were two balls that evening to which they’d been invited. The major event was the ball at Colchester House in Mayfair, the more minor and assuredly less formal, a ball at the Masseys’ house in Chelsea.

Trentham would expect her to attend the Colchester affair; he’d wait for her to appear there, as he had last night at Lady Holland’s.

Pushing away from the table, Leonora rose and headed for the parlor to dash off a note to Mildred and Gertie that she fancied visiting the Masseys that evening.

Sitting at her escritoire, she wrote the brief note, inscribed her aunts’ names, then rang for a footman. It was her hope that, in this instance, absence would make the heart grow less fond; quite aside from the fact her nonappearance at Colchester House would annoy Trentham, there was also the definite possibility that, if left alone in such an arena, he might find his eye drawn to some other lady, perhaps even become distracted with one of Daphne’s ilk…

Inwardly frowning, she looked up as the footman entered, and handed over the note for delivery.

That done, she sat back and determinedly turned her mind to more serious matters. Given her stubborn refusal of his suit, she was perhaps naive in thinking Trentham would continue to aid her in the matter of Montgomery Mountford, yet when she tried to imagine him losing interest, removing the men he had watching the house, she couldn’t. Regardless of their personal interactions, she knew he wouldn’t leave her to deal with Mountford alone.

Indeed, in light of what she’d learned of his character, the notion seemed laughable.

They would remain in undeclared partnership until the riddle of Mountford was solved; it therefore behooved her to push as hard as she could on that front. Keeping clear of Trentham’s snares while dealing with him on a daily basis would not be easy; prolonging the danger was senseless.

She couldn’t expect any answers to her letters for at least a few days more. So what else could she do?

Trentham’s suggestion that Cedric’s work was most likely Mountford’s target had struck a chord. Besides Cedric’s letters, the workshop had contained more than twenty ledgers and journals. She’d brought them up to the parlor and stacked them in a corner. Eyeing them, she recalled her late cousin’s fine, faded, cramped writing.

Rising, she went upstairs and inspected Cedric’s bedroom. It was inches deep in dust and strewn with cobwebs. She set the maids the task of cleaning the room; she’d search it tomorrow. For today…she descended to the parlor and settled to work through the journals.

By the time evening arrived, she’d uncovered nothing more exciting than the recipe for a concoction to remove stains from porcelain; it was difficult to believe Mountford and his mysterious foreigner were interested in that. Setting aside the ledgers, she went upstairs to change.

 

The Masseys’ house was centuries old, a rambling villa built on the riverbank. The ceilings were lower than now fashionable; there was a wealth of dark wood in beams and paneling, but the shadows were dispersed by lamps, candelabra, and sconces liberally scattered through the rooms. The large interconnecting chambers were perfect for less formal entertaining. A small orchestra scraped away at the river end of the dining room, for the occasion converted into an area for dancing.

After greeting their hostess in the hall, Leonora entered the drawing room, telling herself she’d enjoy herself. That the boredom caused by lack of purpose that customarily afflicted her would not affect her tonight because she did indeed have a purpose.

Unfortunately, enjoying herself with other gentlemen if Trentham was not there to see…it was difficult to convince herself there was all that much to be gained from the evening. Nevertheless, she was there, gowned in silk of a deep turbulent blue no young unmarried lady could ever wear. As she didn’t particularly want to chat, she might as well dance.

Leaving Mildred and Gertie with a group of their cronies, she made her way down the room, stopping to exchange greetings here and there, but always moving on. A dance had just ended when she stepped through the doors into the dining room; quickly scanning those present, she considered which of the gentlemen—

Hard fingers, a hard palm, closed about her hand; her senses reacted, informing her who stood at her shoulder even before she turned and met his gaze.

“Good evening.” His eyes on hers, Trentham raised her hand to his lips. Searched her eyes. Raised a brow. “Would you care to dance?”

The look in his eyes, the tenor of his voice—just like that, he made her come alive. Made her nerves tighten, her senses sing. Sent a rush of pleasurable anticipation sliding through her. She drew breath, her imagination eagerly supplying what dancing with him would feel like. “I…” She looked away, across the sea of dancers waiting for the next measure to begin.

He said nothing, simply waited. When she glanced back at him, he met her gaze. “Yes?”

His hazel eyes were sharp, watchful; behind them lurked faint amusement.

She felt her lips set, lifted her chin. “Indeed—why not?”

He smiled, not his charming smile but in predatory appreciation of her meeting his challenge. He led her forward as the opening strains of a waltz began.

It would have to be a waltz. The instant he drew her into his arms, she knew she was in trouble. Valiantly battling to dampen her response to having him so near, to feeling his strength engulf her again, his hand spread over the silk at her back, she cast about for distraction.

Let a frown form in her eyes. “I thought you would attend the Colchesters’ affair.”

The ends of his lips lifted. “I knew you’d be here.” His eyes quizzed her—wicked, dangerous. “Believe me, I’m perfectly content with your choice.”

If she’d harbored any doubt as to what he was alluding, the turn at the end of the room explained all. If they’d been at the Colchesters, waltzing in their huge ballroom, he wouldn’t have been able to hold her so close, to curl his fingers so possessively about her hand, to draw her so tight through the turn their hips brushed. Here, the dance floor was crowded with other couples all absorbed with each other, immersed in the moment. There were no matrons lining the walls, watching, waiting to disapprove.

His thigh parted hers, all restrained power as he swung her through the turn; she couldn’t suppress a reactive shiver—couldn’t stop her nerves, her whole body responding.

Tristan watched her face, wondered if she had any idea of just how responsive she was, of what seeing her eyes flare, then darken, seeing her lashes sweep down, her lips part, did to him.

He knew she didn’t know.

That only made it worse, only heightened the effect, and left him in even greater pain.

The insistent ache had been escalating over the past days, a nagging aggravation he’d never before had to contend with. Before, the itch had been a simple one to scratch. This time…

His every sense was focused on her, on the sway of her supple body in his arms, on the promise of her warmth, the elusive, teasing torment of the passion she seemed intent on denying.

That last was something he wouldn’t permit. Shouldn’t permit.

The music ended, and he was forced to halt, forced to release her, something he did reluctantly, a fact her wide eyes said she realized.

She cleared her throat, smoothed her gown. “Thank you.” She looked around. “Now—”

“Before you waste time planning anything else—like attracting another gentleman to dance with you—while I’m with you, you’ll dance with no one else.”

Leonora turned to face him. “I beg your pardon?”

She honestly couldn’t believe her ears.

His eyes remained hard. He raised a brow. “Do you want me to repeat it?”

“No! I want to forget I ever heard such an outrageous piece of impertinence.”

He seemed totally unaffected by her increasing ire. “That would be unwise.”

She felt her temper rise; they’d kept their voices low, but there was no doubt which way the discussion was heading. Drawing herself up, drawing every ounce of haughtiness she possessed about her, she inclined her head. “If you’ll excuse me—”

“No.” Steely fingers closed about her elbow; he nodded across the room. “See that door over there? We’re going to go through it.”

She drew in a huge breath, held it. Carefully enunciated, “I realize your experience of the ton—”

“The ton bores me to death.” He glanced down at her, started unobtrusively but effectively steering her toward the closed door. “I’m therefore unlikely to pay much attention to its strictures.”

Her heart was thumping. Looking into his eyes—hard, faceted hazel—she realized she wasn’t playing with just a wolf, but a wild wolf. One who didn’t acknowledge any rules beyond his own. “You cannot simply…”

Abduct me. Ravish me.

The intent in his eyes left her breathless.

His gaze remained on her face, gauging, judging, as he expertly herded her across the crowded room. “I suggest we repair to a place where we can discuss our relationship in private.”

She’d been private with him any number of times; there was no need for her senses to leap at the word. No need for her imagination to run riot. Irritated that it had, she made a firm bid to take charge again. Lifting her head, she nodded. “Very well. I agree. Clearly we need to address our differing views and set matters straight.”

She wasn’t going to marry him; that was the point he needed to accept. If she emphasized that fact, clung to it, she’d be safe.

They reached the door and he opened it; she stepped through into a corridor running alongside the reception rooms. The passage was wide enough for two to walk abreast; one side was lined with carved paneling in which doors were set, the other was a wall of windows looking out over the private gardens.

In late spring and summer the windows would be opened and the corridor would become a delightful venue in which guests could stroll. Tonight, with a raw wind blowing and the promise of frost in the air, all the doors and windows were closed, the passage deserted.

Moonlight streamed in providing light enough to see. The walls were stone, the doors solid oak. Once Trentham shut the door behind them they stood in a silvered, private world.

He released her arm, offered his; she pretended not to notice. Head high, she paced slowly along. “The pertinent point we need to address—”

She broke off when his hand closed about hers. Possessively. She halted, looked down at her fingers swallowed in his palm.

“That,” she said, her gaze fixed on the sight, “is a perfect example of the issue we need to discuss. You cannot go around grabbing my hand, seizing me as if I in some way belonged to you—”

“You do.”

She looked up. Blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

Tristan looked into her eyes; he wasn’t averse to explaining. “You. Belong. To me.” It felt good to state it, reinforcing the reality.

Her eyes widened; he continued, “Regardless of what you imagined you were doing, you gave yourself to me. Offered yourself to me. I accepted. Now you’re mine.”

Her lips thinned; her eyes flashed. “That is not what happened. You’re deliberately—God alone knows why—misconstruing the incident.”

She said nothing more but glared up at him belligerently.

“You’re going to have to work a lot harder to convince me that having you naked beneath me on the bed in Montrose Place was a figment of my imagination.”

Her jaw firmed. “Misconstruing—not imagining.”

“Ah—so you admit that you did, indeed—”

“What happened,” she snapped, “as you very well know, is that we enjoyed”—she gestured—“a pleasant interlude.”

“As I recall, you begged me to…‘initiate you’ was, I believe, the term we agreed on.”

Even in the poor light, he could see her blush. But she nodded. “Just so.”

Turning, she walked along the corridor; he kept pace beside her, her hand still locked in his.

She didn’t immediately speak, then she drew in a deep breath. He realized he was going to get at least part of an explanation.

“You have to understand—and accept—that I don’t wish to marry. Not you, not anyone. I have no interest in the state. What happened between us…” She lifted her head, looked down the long corridor. “That was purely because I wanted to know. To experience…” She looked down, walked on. “And I thought you were a sensible choice to be my teacher.”

He waited, then prompted, his tone even, nonaggressive, “Why did you think that?”

She waved between them, slipping her hand from his to do so. “The attraction. It was obvious. It was simply there—you know it was.”

“Yes.” He was starting to see…he halted.

She stopped, too, and faced him. Met his gaze, searched his face. “So you do understand, don’t you? It was just so I would know…that’s all. Just once.”

Very carefully, he asked, “Done. Finished. Over?”

She lifted her head. Nodded. “Yes.”

He held her gaze for a long moment, then murmured, “I did warn you, on the bed at Montrose Place, that you’d miscalculated.”

Her head rose another notch, but she evenly stated, “That was when you felt you had to marry me.”

“I know I have to marry you, but that isn’t my point.”

Exasperation flared in her eyes. “What is your point?”

He could feel a grim, definitely cynical, totally self-deprecatory smile fighting for expression; he kept it from his face, kept his features impassive. “That attraction you mentioned. Has it died?”

She frowned. “No. But it will—you know it will….” She stopped because he was shaking his head.

“I know no such thing.”

Wary irritation crept into her face. “I accept that it hasn’t faded yet, but you know perfectly well gentlemen do not remain attracted to women for long. In a few weeks, once we’ve identified Mountford and you’ll no longer be meeting me on a daily basis, you’ll forget me.”

He let the moment stretch while assessing his options. Eventually asked, “And if I don’t?”

Her eyes narrowed. She opened her lips to reiterate that he would.

He cut her off by stepping nearer, closer, crowding her against the windows.

Immediately, heat bloomed between them, beckoning, enticing. Her eyes flared, her breathing caught, then continued more rapidly. Her hands rose, fluttered to rest lightly against his chest; her lashes lowered as he leaned closer.

“Our mutual attraction hasn’t faded in the least—it’s grown stronger.” He breathed the words along her cheek. He wasn’t touching her, holding her, other than with his nearness. “You say it’ll fade—I say it won’t. I’m sure I’m right—you’re sure you are. You want to address the matter—I’m willing to be party to an agreement.”

Leonora felt giddy. His words were dark, forceful, black magic in her mind. His lips touched, butterfly light, to her temple; his breath fanned her cheek. She dragged in a tight breath. “What agreement?”

“If the attraction fades, I’ll agree to release you. Until it does, you’re mine.”

A shiver slithered down her spine. “Yours. What do you mean by that?”

She felt his lips curve against her cheek.

“Exactly what you’re thinking. We’ve been lovers—are lovers.” His lips drifted lower to caress her jaw. “We remain so while the attraction lasts. If it continues, as I’m sure it will, beyond a month, we marry.”

“A month?” His nearness was sapping her wits, leaving her dizzy.

“I’m willing to indulge you for a month, no more.”

She struggled to concentrate. “And if the attraction fades—even if it doesn’t completely die but fades within a month, you’ll agree that a marriage between us is not justified?”

He nodded. “Just so.”

His lips cruised over hers; her unruly senses leapt.

“Do you agree?”

She hesitated. She’d come out here to address what lay between them; what he was suggesting seemed a reasonable way forward…she nodded. “Yes.”

And his lips came down on hers.

She mentally sighed with pleasure, felt her senses unfurl like petals under the sun, wallowing, glorying, absorbing the delight. Savoring the urge—their mutual attraction.

It would fade—she knew it, absolutely beyond doubt. It might be waxing stronger at the moment simply because, at least for her, it was so new, yet ultimately, inevitably, its power would wane.

Until then…she could learn more, understand more. Explore further. At least a little bit further. Sliding her hands up, she wound her arms about his neck and kissed him back, parted her lips for him, surrendered her mouth, felt the addictive warmth blossom between them when he accepted the invitation.

He shifted closer, pinning her against the window; one hard hand closed about her waist, holding her steady while their mouths melded, while their tongues dueled and tangled, caressed, explored, claimed anew.

Hunger flared.

She felt it in him—a telltale hardening of his muscles, self-restraint imposed, desire harnessed—and felt her own response, a rising tide of heated longing that welled and washed through her. That had her pressing closer, sliding a hand to trace his jaw, tempting him to deepen the kiss.

He did, and for a moment the world fell away.

Flames flared, roared.

Abruptly he drew back. Broke the kiss enough to murmur against her lips, “We need to find a bedchamber.”

She was giddy, wits whirling. She tried, but couldn’t concentrate. “Why?”

His lips returned to hers, taking, needing, giving. He drew away, his breathing not quite steady. “Because I want to fill you—and you want me to. It’s too dangerous here.”

The gravelly words shocked her, thrilled her. Shook a few of her wits into place. Enough so she could think beyond the heat coursing her veins, the pounding in her blood.

Enough to realize.

It was too dangerous anywhere!

Not because he was wrong, but because he was absolutely right.

Just hearing him say the words had escalated her need, deepened that heated longing, the emptiness she knew he could and would fill. She wanted, desperately, to know again the pleasure of having him join with her.

She pulled out of his arms. “No—we can’t.”

He looked at her. Blinked dazedly. “Yes, we can.” The words were uttered with simple conviction, as if he was assuring her they could walk in the park.

She stared at him. Realized she had no hope of arguing convincingly against it; she’d never been a good liar.

Before he could seize her wrist—as he usually did—and haul her off to a bed, she whirled and fled.

Down the corridor. She sensed him behind her; swerved and flung open one of the many doors. Rushed through.

Her mouth fell open in a silent O. She stopped, teetering on her toes just inside a large linen press. They were alongside the dining room; tablecloths and napkins were neatly stacked on shelves on either side. At the end of the tiny chamber, filling the gap between the shelves, was a bench for folding.

Before she could turn, she felt Trentham behind her. Filling the doorway, blocking her escape.

“Excellent choice.” His voice purred, deep and dark. His hand curved around her bottom; he pushed her forward, stepping in behind her.

Shutting the door.

She swung around.

Tristan swept her into his arms, brought his lips down on hers, and let his reins loose. Kissed her witless, let desire rule, let the pent-up passions of the last week pour through him.

She sank against him, caught up in the maelstrom. He drank in her response. Felt her fingers tense, then her nails sank into his shoulders as she met him, appeased him, then tormented him.

Urged him on.

Why she’d taken against a bed he had no idea; perhaps she wanted to expand her horizons. He was only too willing to accommodate her, to demonstrate all that could be accomplished even in such surroundings.

A narrow fanlight above the door let in a shaft of moonlight, enough for him to see. Her gown reminded him of a storm-wracked sea from which her breasts rose, heated and swollen, aching for his touch.

He closed his hands about them and heard her moan. Heard the entreaty, the urgency in the sound.

She was as heated, as needy, as he. With his thumbs, he circled her nipples, hard pebbles beneath the silk, tight and hot and wanting.

Sinking deeper into her mouth, plundering evocatively, deliberately presaging what was to come, he released her breasts and swiftly dealt with her laces, let the dark gown collapse about her waist while he found and unfastened the tiny buttons down the front of her chemise.

He pushed the straps from her shoulders, bared her to the waist; without breaking the kiss, he fastened his hands about her waist and lifted her, sat her on the bench, cupped her breasts one in each hand, broke from the kiss, and bent his head to pay homage.

She gasped, fingers tightening on his skull, spine bowing as he feasted. Her breathing was fractured, desperate; he pushed her ruthlessly on, laving, then suckling, until she sobbed.

Until his title fell from her lips on a pleading gasp.

“Tristan.” He licked a tortured nipple, then raised his head. Took her lips again in a searing kiss.

Lifted her skirts, frothed the soft petticoats up about her waist, spreading her knees as he did, stepping between.

He clamped one hand about her naked hip.

Trailed the fingers of the other up the silky inner face of one thigh, and cupped her.

The shudder that wracked her nearly brought him to his knees. Forced him to break from the kiss, drag in a huge breath, and reach desperately for some small measure of control.

Enough to hold back from ravishing her.

He stepped nearer, pressing her knees wider, opening her to his touch. Her lids fluttered; her eyes glinted through the screen of her lashes.

Her lips were swollen, parted, her breathing ragged, her breasts alabaster mounds rising and falling, her skin pearly in the silvery light.

He caught her gaze, trapped it, held her with him as he eased a finger into her tight sheath. Her breath hitched, then rushed out as he reached deeper. Her fingers sank into his upper arms. She was slick, wet, so hot she scalded him. He wanted nothing more than to sink his aching erection into that beckoning heat.

Their gazes locked, he readied her, pressing deep, working his hand so she was fully prepared, releasing her hip to unbutton his trousers, then guiding himself to her entrance. Gripping her hip, he held her, and nudged in.

Watched her face, watched her watching him watch her as he pressed deeper. Releasing her hip, he spread his hand over her bottom, and eased her forward. With his other hand lifted her leg.

“Wrap your legs about my hips.”

She dragged in a breath and did. Cradling her bottom in both hands, he drew her to the edge of the bench, and pressed in, inch by inch deeper, feeling her body give, accept and take him in.

Her eyes remained locked on his as their bodies came together; when he finally thrust the last inch, embedding himself inside her, she caught her breath. Her lashes swept down, her eyes closed, her face passion blank as she savored the moment.

He was with her, watching, knowing, feeling.

Only when her lashes fluttered up, and she again met his gaze did he move.

Slowly.

His heart was thundering, his demons raging, desire pounding in his veins, but he kept a tight rein—the moment was too precious to lose.

The startling intimacy as he drew slowly back, then filled her again, and watched her eyes darken even more. He repeated the movement, attuned to her heartbeat, to her need, to the urgency in her—not a hard, driving need like his but a softer, more feminine hunger.

One he needed to sate even more than his own.

So he kept the pace slow, and watched her rise, watched her eyes glaze, heard her breath strangle—watched her come apart in his arms. Listened to her cries until he had to kiss her to mute the telltale sounds, the sweetest symphony he’d ever heard.

He held her, sunk deep in her body, deep in her mouth, when she shuddered, fractured, and climaxed about him. Knew only a fleeting surprise when she took him with her.

Into bliss.

The slow, hot, deeply fulfilling dance slowed, halted. Left them locked together, breathing hard, foreheads touching. The thudding of their hearts filled their ears. Their lashes lifted, gazes touched.

Lips brushed, breaths mingled.

Their warmth held them.

He was sheathed to the hilt in her clinging heat and had no desire to move, to break the spell. Her arms locked about his neck, her legs locked about his hips, she made no effort to shift, to edge away—to leave him.

She seemed even more dazed, more vulnerable, than he.

“Are you all right?”

He whispered the words, watched her eyes focus.

“Yes.” The reply came on a soft exhalation. She licked her lips, looked briefly at his. Cleared her throat. “That was…”

Leonora couldn’t find any word that sufficed.

His lips kicked up at the end. “Stupendous.”

She met his gaze, knew better than to nod. Could only wonder at the madness that had gripped her.

And the hunger, the raw need that had gripped him.

His eyes were dark, but softer, not sharp as they usually were. He seemed to sense her wonder; his lips curved. He touched them to hers.

“I want you.” His lips brushed hers again. “In every possible way.”

She heard the truth, recognized its ring. Had to wonder. “Why?”

He nudged her head back, set his lips cruising her jaw. “Because of this. Because I’ll never have enough of you.”

She could sense the power of his hunger rising again. Felt the sensation of him within her grow more definite.

“Again?” She heard the stunned amazement in her voice.

He answered with a low growl that might have been a very male chuckle. “Again.”

 

She never should have agreed—acquiesced—to that heated second mating among the tablecloths.

Sipping her tea at the breakfast table the next morning, Leonora made a firm resolution not to be so weak in future—during the rest of the month that was left to them. Trentham—Tristan as he’d insisted she call him—had finally escorted her back to the reception rooms with a smug, wholly male, proprietory air she’d found irritating in the extreme. Especially given she suspected his smugness derived from his entrenched belief that she would find his lovemaking so addictive she’d blindly agree to marry him.

Time would teach him his error. In the meantime, it behooved her to exercise some degree of caution.

She hadn’t, after all, intended to acquiesce to even a first mating, let alone the second.

Nevertheless…she had learned more, had definitely added to her store of experience. Given the terms of their agreement, she had nothing to fear—the impulse, the physical need that brought them together would gradually wane; an occasional indulgence was no great matter.

Except for the possibility of a child.

The notion floated into her mind. Reaching for another slice of toast, she considered it. Considered, surprised, her initial impulsive reaction to it.

Not what she’d expected.

A frown growing in her eyes, she waited for common sense to reassert itself.

Eventually acknowledged that her interaction with Trentham was teaching her, revealing to her, things about herself she’d never known.

Never even suspected.

 

Through the following days, she kept herself busy, studying Cedric’s journals and dealing with Humphrey and Jeremy and the customary round of daily life in Montrose Place.

In the evenings, however…

She started to feel like the perennial Cinderella, going to ball after ball and night after night inevitably ending in the arms of her prince. An exceedingly handsome, masterful prince who never failed, despite her firm resolve, to sweep her off her feet…and into some private place where they could indulge their senses, and that flaring need to be together, to share their bodies and be one.

His success was startling; she had no idea how he managed it. Even when she avoided the obvious choice of entertainment, guessing which event he would expect her to attend and attending some other, he never failed to materialize at her side the instant she walked into the room.

As for his knowledge of their hostesses’ houses, that was beginning to border on the bizarre. She had spent far more time than he in the ton, and that more recently, yet with unerring accuracy he would lead her to a small parlor, or a secluded library or study, or a garden room.

By the end of the week she was starting to feel seriously hunted.

Starting to realize she might have underestimated the feeling between them.

Or, even more frightening, had totally misjudged its nature.

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