NextPrevious

“Is this the place?”

Tristan nodded to Charles St. Austell and reached for the doorknob of Stolemore’s establishment. By the time he’d dropped by one of his smaller clubs, the Guards, the previous evening, he’d already decided to call on Stolemore and be rather more persuasive. Encountering Charles, up from the country on business, also taking refuge at the club, had been too good a stroke of fortune to overlook.

Either of them could be menacing enough to persuade almost anyone to talk; together, there was no doubt Stolemore would tell them all Tristan wished to know.

He’d only had to mention the matter to Charles, and he’d agreed. Indeed, he’d leapt at the chance to help, to once again exercise his peculiar talents.

The door swung inward; Tristan led the way in. This time, Stolemore was behind the desk. He looked up as the bell tinkled, his gaze sharpening as he recognized Tristan.

Tristan strolled forward, his gaze trained on the hapless agent. Stolemore’s eyes widened. His gaze deflected to Charles. The agent paled, then tensed.

Behind him, Tristan heard Charles move; he didn’t look around. His senses informed him Charles had turned the wooden sign on the door to CLOSED, then came the rattle of rings on wood; the light faded as Charles drew the curtains across the front windows.

Stolemore’s expression, eyes filled with apprehension, said he understood their threat very well. He grasped the edge of his desk and eased his chair back.

From the corner of his eye, Tristan watched Charles cross soft-footed to lounge, arms folded, against the edge of the curtained doorway leading deeper into the house. His grin would have done credit to a demon.

The message was clear. To escape the small office Stolemore would have to go through one or other of them. Although the agent was a heavy man, heavier than either Tristan or Charles, there was no doubt in any of their minds that he would never make it.

Tristan smiled, not humorously yet gently enough. “All we want is information.”

Stolemore licked his lips, his gaze flicking from him to Charles. “On what?”

His voice was rough, underlying fear grating.

Tristan paused as if savoring the sound, then softly replied, “I want the name and all the details you have on the party who wished to purchase Number 14 Montrose Place.”

Stolemore swallowed; again he edged back, his gaze shifting between them. “I don’t go talking about my clients. Worth my reputation to give out information like that.”

Again Tristan waited, his eyes never leaving Stolemore’s face. When the silence had stretched taut, along with Stolemore’s nerves, he softly inquired, “And what do you imagine it’s going to cost you not to oblige us?”

Stolemore paled even more; the lingering bruises from the beating administered by the very people he was protecting were clearly visible beneath his pasty skin. He turned to Charles, as if gauging his chances; an instant later, he looked back at Tristan. Puzzlement flowed behind his eyes. “Who are you?”

Tristan replied, his tone even, uninflected, “We’re gentlemen who do not like seeing innocents taken advantage of. Suffice to say the recent activities of your client do not sit well with us.”

“Indeed,” Charles put in, his voice a dark purr, “you could say he’s rattling our cages.”

The last words were laden with menace.

Stolemore glanced at Charles, then quickly looked back at Tristan. “All right. I’ll tell you—but on condition you don’t tell him it was me gave you his name.”

“I can assure you that when we catch up with him, we won’t be wasting time discussing how we found him.” Tristan raised his brows. “Indeed, I can guarantee he’ll have much more pressing claims on his attention.”

Stolemore smothered a nervous snort. He reached for a drawer in the desk.

Tristan and Charles moved, silent, deadly; Stolemore froze, then glanced nervously at them, now positioned so he was directly between them. “It’s just a book,” he croaked. “I swear!”

A heartbeat passed, then Tristan nodded. “Take it out.”

Barely breathing, Stolemore very slowly withdrew a ledger from the drawer.

The tension eased a fraction; the agent placed the book on the desk and opened it. He fumbled, hurriedly shuffling pages, then he ran his finger down one, and stopped.

“Write it down,” Tristan said.

Stolemore obliged.

Tristan had already read the entry, committed it to memory. When Stolemore finished and pushed the slip of paper with the address across the desk, he smiled—charmingly, this time—and picked it up.

“This way”—he held Stolemore’s gaze as he tucked the paper into his inner coat pocket—“if anyone should ask, you can swear with a clear conscience that you told no one his name or address. Now—what did he look like? There was just one man, I take it?”

Stolemore nodded in the direction in which the slip of paper had disappeared. “Just him. Nasty piece of work. Looks gentlemanly enough—black hair, pale skin, brown eyes. Well dressed but not Mayfair quality. I took him for a nob from the country; he behaved arrogantly enough. Youngish, but he’s got a mean streak and a hasty temper.” Stolemore raised a hand to the bruises about one eye. “If I never see him again, it’ll be too soon.”

Tristan inclined his head. “We’ll see what we can do to arrange it.”

Turning, he walked to the door. Charles followed on his heels.

Outside on the pavement, they paused.

Charles grimaced. “Much as I would love to come and cast an eye over our stronghold”—his devilish grin dawned—“and over our delectable neighbor, I have to hie back to Cornwall.”

“My thanks.” Tristan held out his hand.

Charles grasped it. “Anytime.” A hint of self-deprecation tinged his smile. “Truth to tell, I enjoyed it, minor though it was. I feel like I’m literally rusting in the country.”

“The adjustment was never going to be easy, even less so for us than for others.”

“At least you’ve got something to keep you occupied. All I have is sheep and cows and sisters.”

Tristan laughed at Charles’s patent disgust. He clapped him on the shoulder, and they parted, Charles heading back to Mayfair while Tristan headed in the opposite direction.

To Montrose Place. It was not quite ten o’clock. He would check with Gasthorpe, the ex–sergeant major they’d hired as the Bastion Club’s majordomo who was overseeing the final stages of preparing the club for its patrons, then he’d call on Leonora as he’d promised.

As he’d promised, discuss how to go on.

 

At eleven o’clock, he knocked on the door of Number 14. The butler showed him to the parlor; Leonora rose from the chaise as he entered.

“Good morning.” She bobbed a curtsy as he bowed over her hand.

The sun had managed to struggle free of the clouds; the beams of sunshine playing over the foliage in the back garden drew Tristan’s gaze.

“Walk with me in the garden.” He retained possession of her hand. “I’d like to see this back wall of yours.”

She hesitated, then inclined her head; she would have led the way, but he didn’t free her fingers. Instead, he curved his hand more definitely about hers. She threw him a brief glance as side by side they walked to the French doors. Opening them, they passed through; as they went down the steps, he drew her hand through his arm.

Aware of the skittering of her pulse, the way it quivered beneath his fingers.

She lifted her head. “We need to go through that arch in the hedges.” She pointed. “The wall is at the back of the kitchen gardens.”

Which gardens were extensive. With Henrietta ambling behind, they strolled down the central path, past rows of cabbages followed by endless rows lying fallow, long mounds covered with leaves and other debris waiting, slumbering, until spring returned.

He halted. “Where was he standing when you saw him?”

Leonora glanced around, then pointed to a spot just a little way ahead, about twenty feet inside the back wall. “It must have been about there.”

He released her, turning to look back up the path, through the archway to the lawn. “You said he whisked out of your sight. In which direction did he go? Did he turn and walk back toward the wall?”

“No—he went sideways. If he’d turned and run back down the path, I would have been able to see him for longer.”

He nodded, surveying the ground in the direction she’d indicated. “That was two evenings ago.” It hadn’t rained since. “Has your gardener been working here?”

“Not in the last few days. There’s not much to do here in winter.”

He put a hand on her arm, pressed briefly. “Stay here.” He continued down the path, treading carefully along the edge. “Tell me when I get to where he was standing.”

She watched, then said, “About there.”

He circled the area, eyes on the ground, then moved between the beds away from the path in the direction the man had gone.

He found what he was looking for a foot from the base of the wall, where the man had stepped heavily before jumping onto the thick creeper. He crouched down; Leonora came bustling up. The footprint was clearly delineated.

“Hmm…yes.”

He glanced up to find her bending near, studying the impression.

She caught his eye. “That looks about right.”

He rose; she straightened. “It’s the same size and shape as the print I found in the dust by the side door of Number 12.”

“The door the burglar came in through?”

He nodded and turned to the creeper-covered wall. He scanned it carefully, but it was Leonora who found the evidence.

“Here.” She lifted a broken twig, then let it fall.

“And here.” He pointed higher, where the creeper had been dislodged from the wall. He glanced at the heavy gate. “I don’t suppose you have the key?”

The look she threw him was coolly superior. She drew an old key from her pocket.

He swiped it from her fingers. Pretended not to see the flare of irritation in her eyes. Moving past her, he fitted the key to the huge old lock and turned it. The gate groaned protestingly as he hauled it open.

There were two clear prints in the alley running behind the houses, in the accumulated dirt covering the rough flags. A brief glance was enough to confirm they were from the same boot, made as the man jumped down from the wall. Thereafter, however, there were no clear traces.

“That’s conclusive enough.” He took Leonora’s arm, urged her back to the gate.

They reentered the garden, Leonora shooing Henrietta before them. Tristan closed and relocked the gate. Leonora was the only one who walked in the garden; he’d been watching long enough to be certain of that. That the burglar had singled her out worried him. Reminded him of his earlier conviction that she hadn’t told him all.

Turning from the gate, he held out the key. She took it, looked down to slip it into her pocket.

He glanced around. The gate lay to one side of the path, not in line with the archway in the hedge; they were out of sight of the lawn and the house. Courtesy of the fruit trees lining the side walls, they were also screened from any neighbors.

He looked down as Leonora raised her head.

He smiled. Infused all the art of which he was capable into the gesture.

She blinked, but, somewhat to his chagrin, seemed less addled than he’d hoped.

“Those earlier attempts to break in here—the burglar didn’t see you, did he?”

She shook her head. “The first time, only the servants were about. The second time, when Henrietta raised the alarm, we all came tumbling down, but he was long gone by then.”

She offered nothing more. Her periwinkle blue eyes remained clear, unclouded. She hadn’t stepped back; they were close, her face turned up so she could look into his.

Attraction flared, raced over his skin.

He let it. Let it flow and build, didn’t try to suppress it. Let it show in his face, in his eyes.

Hers, locked on his, widened. She cleared her throat. “We were going to discuss how best to go on.”

The words were breathless, uncharacteristically weak.

He paused for a heartbeat, then leaned closer. “I’ve decided we should play it by ear.”

“By ear?” Her lashes fluttered down as he leaned closer yet.

“Hmm. Just follow our noses.”

He did precisely that, lowered his head and set his lips to hers.

She stilled. She’d been watching, skittish, but had not anticipated such a direct attack.

He was too experienced to signal his intentions. Not on any battlefield.

So he didn’t immediately take her in his arms, instead simply kissed her, his lips on hers, subtly tempting.

Until she parted hers and let him in. Until he cradled her face, sank deep and drank, savored, took.

Only then did he reach for her, and draw her to him, unsurprised, as his tongue tangled with hers, that she stepped toward him without thought. Without hesitation.

She was caught in the kiss.

As was he.

Such a simple thing—it was just a kiss. Yet as Leonora felt her breasts meet his chest, felt his arms close around her, there seemed to be so much more. So much she’d never before felt, never before even realized existed. Like the warmth that raced through them—not just through her but through him, too. The sudden tension, not of rejection, not of reining back, but of wanting.

Her hands had risen to rest against his shoulders. Through the contact, she sensed his reaction, both his ease in this sphere, his expertise, and beneath that a deeper yearning.

His hand on her back, strong fingers splayed over her spine, urged her closer; she acquiesced, and his lips turned demanding. Commanding. She met them, gave her mouth and felt the first lick of glory in his hunger. Against her, his body felt like oak, strong and unbending, yet the mobile lips that held hers, that played, teased and made her want, were so alive, so assured.

So addictive.

She was about to sink against him, about to willingly slide deeper under his spell, when she sensed him ease back, felt his hands slide to her waist and grip lightly.

He broke off the kiss and lifted his head.

Looked into her eyes.

For a moment, she could only blink at him, wondering why he’d stopped. Regret flashed through his eyes, superceded by resolve, a hard glint in the hazel. As if he hadn’t wanted to stop but felt he must.

A fleeting madness gripped her—a strong urge to reach her hand to his nape and draw him, and those fascinating lips, back to her.

She blinked again.

He set her back on her feet, steadying her.

“I should go.”

Her wits snapped back into place, back into the real world. “How have you decided to proceed?”

He looked at her; she could have sworn a frown crossed behind his eyes. His lips thinned. She waited, her gaze steady.

Eventually, he replied, “I called on Stolemore this morning.” He grasped her hand, wound her arm in his, and steered them back along the path.

“And?”

“He consented to tell me the name of the purchaser so intent on buying this house. One Montgomery Mountford. Do you know him?”

She looked ahead, mentally running through all her and her family’s acquaintances. “No. He’s not one of Humphrey’s or Jeremy’s colleagues, either—I help with their correspondence, and that name hasn’t arisen.”

When he said nothing more, she glanced at him. “Did you get an address?”

He nodded. “I’ll go there and see what I can learn.”

They’d reached the archway. She halted. “Where is it?”

He met her gaze; again she got the impression he was irritated. “Bloomsbury.”

“Bloomsbury?” She stared. “That’s where we used to live.”

He frowned. “Before here?”

“Yes. I told you we moved here two years ago, when Humphrey inherited this house. For the four years before that, we lived in Bloomsbury. In Keppell Street.” She caught his sleeve. “Perhaps it’s someone from there, who for some reason…” She gestured. “Who knows why, but there must be a connection.”

“Perhaps.”

“Come on!” She set off for the parlor doors. “I’ll come with you. There’s plenty of time before lunch.”

Tristan swallowed a curse and set off after her. “There’s no need—”

“Of course there is!” She flicked him an impatient glance. “How will you know if this Mr. Mountford is in some odd way connected with our past?”

There was no good answer to that. He’d kissed her with the connected aims of further arousing her sensual curiosity and thus distracting her enough to allow him to pursue the burglar on his own, and had apparently failed on both counts. Swallowing his irritation, he followed her up the steps.

And through the French doors.

Exasperated, he halted. He wasn’t used to following another’s lead, let alone tripping on a lady’s heels. “Miss Carling!”

She halted before the door. Head rising, spine stiffening, she faced him. Her eyes met his. “Yes?”

He struggled to mask his glare. Intransigence glowed in her fine eyes, invested her stance. He debated for an instant, then, like all experienced commanders when faced with the unexpected, adjusted his tactics.

“Very well.” Disgusted, he waved her on. Giving way on a relatively minor point might well strengthen his hand later.

She sent him a beaming smile, then opened the door and led the way into the hall.

Lips compressed, he followed. It was only Bloomsbury, after all.

 

Indeed, being Bloomsbury, her presence on his arm proved a bonus. He’d forgotten that in the middle-class neighborhood into which Mountford’s address took them, a couple attracted less attention than a single, well dressed gentleman.

The house in Taviton Street was tall and narrow. It proved to be a lodging house. The landlady opened the door; neat and severe in dull black, she narrowed her eyes when he asked for Mountford.

“He’s gone. Left last week.”

After the foiled attempt at Number 12. Tristan affected mild surprise. “Did he say where he was going?”

“No. Just handed me my shillings on the way out.” She sniffed. “I wouldn’t have got them if I hadn’t been right here.”

Leonora edged in front of him. “We’re trying to find a man who might know something of an incident in Belgravia. We’re not even sure Mr. Mountford’s the right man. Was he tall?”

The landlady considered her, then thawed. “Aye. Medium-tall.” Her eyes flicked to Tristan. “Not as tall as your husband here, but tallish.”

A faint blush tinged Leonora’s fine skin; she hurried on. “Lightly built rather than heavy?”

The landlady nodded. “Black-haired, a bit too pale to be healthy. Brown eyes but a cold fish, if you ask me. Youngish in looks but in his middle twenties, I’d say. Thought a lot of himself, he did, and kept to himself, too.”

Leonora glanced up, over her shoulder. “That sounds like the man we’re searching for.”

Tristan met her gaze, then looked at the landlady. “Did he have any visitors?”

“No, and that was strange. Usually, young gentlemen like that, I have to have a strong word about visitors, if you take my meaning.”

Leonora smiled weakly. He drew her back. “Thank you for your help, ma’am.”

“Aye, well, I hope you catch up with him and he can help you.”

They stepped back off the tiny front porch; the landlady started to close the door, then stopped.

“Wait a minute—I just remembered.” She nodded at Tristan. “He did have a visitor, once, but he didn’t come in. Stood on the pavement just like you’re doing and waited until Mr. Mountford came out to join him.”

“What did this visitor look like? Did you get a name?”

“He didn’t give one, but I remember thinking as I went up to fetch Mr. Mountford that I wouldn’t need one. I just told him the gentleman was foreign, and sure enough, he knew who it was.”

“Foreign?”

“Aye. He had an accent you couldn’t miss. One of those that sounds like they’re growling at you.”

Tristan stilled. “What did he look like?”

She frowned, shrugged. “Just like any spic-and-span gentleman. Very neat he was—I do remember that.”

“How did he stand?”

The landlady’s face eased. “Now that’s something I can tell you—he stood like he had a poker strapped to him. He was that stiff, I thought as how he’d break if he bowed.”

Tristan smiled charmingly. “Thank you. You’ve been a great help.”

The landlady turned a soft shade of pink. She bobbed a curtsy. “Thank you, sir.” After an instant, she shifted her gaze to Leonora. “I wish you good luck, ma’am.”

Leonora inclined her head graciously and allowed Trentham to steer her away. She half wished she’d asked the landlady what she was wishing her good luck with—finding Mountford, or keeping Trentham to his supposed wedding vows?

The man was a menace with that lethal smile.

She glanced up at him, then tucked the thought away along with the rest the day had brought. Better not to dwell on them while he was beside her.

He was pacing along, his expression impassive.

“What do you make of Mountford’s visitor?”

Tristan glanced at her. “Make?”

Her eyes narrowed, her lips thinned; the look she bent on him told him she was more than seven. “What nationality do you think he is? You clearly have some idea.”

The woman was annoyingly acute. Still, there was no harm in telling her. “German, Austrian, or Prussian. That peculiarly stiff stance plus the diction suggests one of the three.”

She frowned, but said no more. He hailed a hackney and helped her in. They were bowling back to Belgravia when she asked, “Do you think the foreign gentleman could be behind the burglaries?” When he didn’t immediately answer, she went on, “What possible thing could attract a German, Austrian, or Prussian to Number 14 Montrose Place?”

“That,” he admitted, his voice low, “is something I’d dearly like to know.”

She glanced sharply at him, but when he volunteered nothing more, she surprised him by looking ahead and keeping her counsel.

He handed her down outside Number 14; she waited while he paid the jarvey, then linked her arm in his as they turned to the gate. She kept her gaze down as he swung it open, and they passed through.

“We’re giving a small dinner party tonight—just a few of Humphrey’s and Jeremy’s friends.” She glanced briefly up at him, faint color in her cheeks. “I wondered if you would care to join us? It would give you a chance to form an opinion of the sort of secrets Humphrey or Jeremy might have stumbled upon.”

He hid a cynical smile. Raised his brows in innocent consideration. “That’s not a bad idea.”

“If you’re free…?”

They’d reached the porch steps. Taking her hand, he bowed. “I would be delighted.” He met her gaze. “At eight?”

She inclined her head. “Eight.” As she turned away, her eyes touched his. “I’ll look forward to seeing you then.”

Tristan watched her climb the steps, waited until, without looking back, she disappeared through the door, then he turned and let his lips curve.

She was as transparent as glass. She wanted to question him over his suspicions regarding the foreign gentleman….

His smile faded; his face resumed its customary impassive mien.

German, Austrian, or Prussian. He knew enough for those options to set warning bells clanging, but he didn’t have enough information yet to do anything decisive—other than delve deeper.

Who knew? Mountford’s acquaintance with the foreigner might be pure coincidence.

As he reached the front gate and swung it wide, a familiar sensation spread across the back of his shoulders.

He knew better than to believe in coincidence.

 

Leonora spent the remainder of the day in restless anticipation. Once she’d given her orders for dinner and airily informed Humphrey and Jeremy of their extra guest, she took refuge in the conservatory.

To calm her mind and decide on her best tack.

To revisit all she’d learned that morning.

Such as that Trentham was not averse to kissing her. And she was not averse to responding. That was certainly a change, for she’d never before found anything particularly compelling in the act. Yet with Trentham…

Sinking back against the cushions of the wrought-iron chair, she had to admit she would have happily followed wherever he led, at least within reason. Kissing him had proved quite pleasurable.

Just as well he’d stopped.

Eyes narrowing on a white orchid bobbing gently in the draft, she replayed all that had happened, all she’d felt. All she’d sensed.

He’d stopped not because he’d wished to, but because he’d planned to. His appetite had wanted more, but his will had decreed he should end the kiss. She’d seen that brief clash in his eyes, caught the hard hazel gleam as his will had triumphed.

But why? She shifted again, very conscious of the way the brief interlude had remained, a nagging abrasion in her mind. Perhaps the answer lay there—the curtailing of the kiss had left her…dissatisfied. On some level she hadn’t previously been aware of, unfulfilled.

Wanting more.

She frowned, absentmindedly tapped a finger on the table. With his kisses, Trentham had opened her eyes and engaged her senses. Teased them with a promise of what might be—and then left it at that.

Deliberately.

After telling her they should follow their noses.

She was a lady; he was a gentleman. Theoretically, it wouldn’t be proper for him to press her further, not unless she invited his attentions.

Her lips curved cynically; she suppressed a soft snort. She might be inexperienced; she wasn’t foolish. He hadn’t curtailed their kiss because of any obedience to social mores. He’d stopped deliberately to entice, to build her awareness, to provoke her curiosity.

To make her want.

So that when next he wanted, and wanted more, wanted to take the next step along the path, she would be eager to accede.

Seduction. The word slipped into her mind, trailing the promise of illicit excitement and fascination.

Was Trentham seducing her?

She’d always known she was handsome enough; catching men’s eyes had never been difficult. Yet she’d never before been interested enough to pay attention, to play any of the accepted games. Hadn’t seen anything to enthuse her.

So now she was twenty-six, the despair of her aunt Mildred, definitely past her last prayers.

Trentham had come along and teased her senses awake, then left them alert and hungry for more. Anticipation of a sort she’d never before known had gripped her, but she wasn’t yet sure what she wanted—what she wished their interaction to be.

Drawing a breath, she slowly exhaled. She didn’t have to make any decisions yet. She could afford to wait, watch, and learn—to follow her nose and then make up her mind whether she approved of where that took her; she hadn’t discouraged him, nor led him to believe she wasn’t interested.

Because she was. Very interested.

She’d thought that aspect of life had passed her by, that circumstances had left those thrills beyond her reach.

For her, marriage was no longer an option—perhaps fate had sent Trentham as consolation.

 

When she turned and saw him crossing the drawing room toward her, her words echoed in her mind.

If this was consolation, what was the prize?

His broad shoulders were clothed in evening black, the coat a masterpiece of understated elegance. His grey silk waistcoat shone softly in the candlelight; a diamond pin winked from his cravat. As she was learning to expect, he’d avoided any intricacy; the cravat was tied in a simple style. Dark hair neatly brushed and sheening, framing his strong features, every element of his appearance—clothes, assurance, and manners—all proclaimed him a gentleman of the haut ton, accustomed to rule, accustomed to obedience.

Accustomed to his own way.

She curtsied and gave him her hand. He took it and bowed, lifted a brow at her as he straightened and raised her.

Challenge gleamed in his eyes.

She smiled, content to meet it, knowing she looked well in her apricot silk gown. “Permit me to introduce you, my lord.”

He inclined his head, and anchored her hand on his sleeve, leaving his hand over hers.

Possessively.

Serene, with no hint of awareness showing, she led him to where Humphrey and his friends, Mr. Morecote and Mr. Cunningham, were already deep in discussion. They broke off to acknowledge Trentham, to exchange a few words, then she led him on, introducing him to Jeremy, Mr. Filmore, and Horace Wright.

She’d intended to pause there, to let Horace, the liveliest of their scholarly acquaintances, entertain them while she played the part of demure lady, but Trentham had other ideas. With his usual assumption of command, he eased her out of the conversation and guided her back to their initial position by the hearth.

None of the others, engrossed in their arguments, noticed.

Prompted by caution, she drew her hand from his sleeve and turned to face him. He caught her eye. His lips curved in a smile that showed white teeth, along with appreciation. Of her intention, but also of her—of her shoulders rising from the wide neckline of her gown, of her hair dressed in curls that tumbled about her ears and nape.

Watching his eyes drift over her, she felt her lungs tighten, fought to suppress a shiver—not of cold. Heat rose in her cheeks; she hoped he’d imagine it was due to the fire.

Lazily his gaze ambled upward and returned to hers.

The expression in his hard hazel eyes jolted her, made her breath seize. Then his lids swept down, thick lashes screening that disturbing gaze.

“Have you kept house for Sir Humphrey for long?”

His tone was the usual social drawl, languid and apparently bored. Managing to drag in a breath, she inclined her head and answered.

She used the opening to deflect their conversation into a description of the area in Kent in which they’d previously lived; paeans on the joys of the countryside seemed much safer than courting the fell intent in his eyes.

He responded with mention of his estate in Surrey, yet his eyes told her he was playing with her.

Like a very large cat with a particularly succulent mouse.

She kept her chin high, refused to acknowledge her awareness by the slightest sign. She breathed a sigh of relief when Castor appeared and announced the meal—only to realize that as the only lady present, Trentham would naturally lead her in.

Meeting his gaze directly, she placed her hand on his proffered sleeve and allowed him to steer her through the doors into the dining room.

He seated her at the end of the table, then took the chair on her right. Under cover of the jocular exchanges as the other gentlemen sat, he met her gaze, arched a brow.

“I’m impressed.”

“Indeed?” She glanced around, as if to check that everything was in order, as if it was the table that had motivated his comment.

His lips curved dangerously. He leaned closer. Murmured, “I expected you to break before now.”

She met his gaze. “Break?”

His eyes widened. “I felt certain you’d be determined to wring from me just what our next step should be.”

His expression remained innocent; his eyes were anything but. Every utterance had two meanings, and she couldn’t tell which he meant.

After a moment, she murmured, “I’d thought to restrain myself until later.”

Looking down, she shook out her napkin as Castor placed her soup plate before her. Picking up her spoon, she coolly—much more coolly than she felt—met Trentham’s eyes.

He held her gaze as the footman served him, then his lips curved. “That would no doubt be wise.”

“My dear Miss Carling, I had meant to ask—”

Horace, on her other side, claimed her attention. Trentham turned to Jeremy with some inquiry. As usually occurred at such gatherings, the conversation rapidly turned to ancient writings. Leonora ate, sipped, and watched, surprised to see Trentham joining in, until she realized he was subtly probing for any suggestion of a secret find among the group.

She pricked up her ears; when the opportunity presented, she threw in a question, opening up yet another avenue of possibility among the ruins of ancient Persia. But no matter in which direction she or Trentham steered them, the six scholars were patently unaware of any potentially precious find.

Finally, the covers were removed and she rose. The gentlemen did, too. As was their habit, her uncle and Jeremy intended taking their friends to the library to consume port and brandy while poring over their latest research; normally, she retired at this point.

Naturally, Humphrey invited Trentham to join the male congregation.

Trentham’s eyes met hers; she held his gaze, willing him to decline and allow her to conduct him to the door…

His lips curved; he turned to Humphrey. “Actually, I noticed you have a large conservatory. I’ve been thinking of adding one to my town house and wondered if I might prevail upon you to allow me to inspect yours.”

“The conservatory?” Humphrey beamed genially and looked to her. “Leonora knows most about that—I’m sure she’ll be pleased to show you around.”

“Yes, of course. I’ll be happy to…”

The tenor of Trentham’s smile was pure seduction; he moved toward her. “Thank you, my dear.” He looked back at Humphrey. “I will need to leave soon, however, so in case I don’t see you again, I do thank you for your hospitality.”

“It was entirely our pleasure, my lord.” Humphrey shook hands.

Jeremy and the others exchanged farewells.

Then Trentham turned to her. Raised a brow and waved to the door. “Shall we?”

Her heart was beating faster, but she inclined her head calmly. And led him out.

Close

This is a web preview of the "The Bastion Club" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App