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It wasn’t the first time in his career that he’d made a tactical blunder. He needed to put it behind him, pretend it hadn’t happened, and stick to his strategy of rescuing the damn woman, then moving on, getting on with the fraught business of finding himself a wife.

The next morning, as he strode up the front path to the door of Number 14, Tristan kept repeating that litany, along with a pointed reminder that an argumentative, willful, trenchantly independent lady of mature years was assuredly not the sort of wife he wanted.

Even if she tasted like ambrosia and felt like paradise in his arms.

How old was she anyway?

Nearing the front porch, he thrust the question out of his mind. If this morning went as he planned, he’d be much better placed to adhere to his strategy.

Pausing at the bottom of the steps, he looked up at the front door. He’d tossed and turned all night, not only with the inevitable effects of that unwise kiss, but even more because, stirred by the earlier events of the night, his conscience wouldn’t settle. Whatever the truth about the “burglar,” the matter was serious. Experience insisted it was so; his instincts were convinced of it. Even though he had no intention of leaving Leonora to deal with it on her own, he didn’t feel comfortable in not alerting both Sir Humphrey and Jeremy Carling to the danger.

He’d come determined to make a real attempt to bring home to them the true tenor of the situation. It was their right to protect Leonora; he couldn’t in all honor usurp their role while leaving them in ignorance.

Straightening his shoulders, he went up the steps.

The ancient butler answered his knock.

“Good morning.” Charm to the fore, he smiled. “I’d like to speak to Sir Humphrey, and also Mr. Carling, if they’re available.”

The man’s starchy demeanor eased; he opened the door wide. “If you’ll wait in the morning room, my lord, I’ll inquire.”

He stood in the middle of the morning room and prayed Leonora didn’t hear of his arrival. What he wanted to achieve would be easier accomplished between gentlemen, without the distracting presence of the object central to their discussion.

The butler returned and conducted him to the library. He entered and found Sir Humphrey and Jeremy alone, and heaved a small sigh of relief.

“Trentham! Welcome!” Seated as he had been on Tristan’s earlier visit, in the armchair by the fire with—Tristan was almost certain—the same book open on his knee, Humphrey waved him to the chaise. “Sit down, sit down, and tell us what we can do for you.”

Jeremy, too, looked up and nodded a greeting. Tristan returned the nod as he sat. Again, he got the impression little had changed on Jeremy’s desk except, perhaps, the particular page he was studying.

Catching his glance, Jeremy smiled. “Indeed, I’ll be grateful for a respite.” He waved at the book before him. “Deciphering this Sumerian script is deuced hard on the eyes.”

Humphrey snorted. “Better that than this.” He indicated the tome on his knees. “More than a century later, but they weren’t any neater. Why they couldn’t use decent quills—” He broke off, then grinned engagingly at Tristan. “But you’ve not come to hear about that. You mustn’t let us get started, or we can talk scripts for hours.”

Tristan’s mind boggled.

“So!” Humphrey closed the tome on his lap. “How can we help you, heh?”

“It’s not so much a matter of help.” He was feeling his way, unsure of his best approach. “I thought I should let you know that there was an attempted burglary at Number 12 last night.”

“Good God!” Humphrey was as taken aback as Tristan could have wished. “Dashed bounders! Getting a great deal too above themselves these days.”

“Indeed.” Tristan grabbed back the reins before Humphrey could bolt. “But in this case, the builders noticed that some tampering had occurred on the previous night, so we mounted a watch last night. The felon returned and entered the house—we would have caught him but for some unexpected obstacles. As things fell out, he escaped, but it appeared he was…let us say not the expected low-class villain. Indeed, he bore all the signs of being a gentleman.”

“A gentleman?” Humphrey was astounded. “A gentleman breaking into houses?”

“So it seems.”

“But what would a gentleman be after?” Frowning, Jeremy met Tristan’s gaze. “It seems quite nonsensical to me.”

Jeremy’s tone was dismissive; Tristan squelched his exasperation. “Indeed. Even more amazing is that a burglar would bother breaking into a completely empty house.” He looked at Humphrey, then Jeremy. “There’s literally nothing in Number 12, and given the builders’ paraphernalia and presence throughout the day, that fact must be patently obvious.”

Both Humphrey and Jeremy only looked more puzzled, as if the entire subject was completely beyond them. Tristan knew all about deceptiveness; he was starting to suspect he was watching a practiced performance. His voice hardened. “It occurred to me that the attempt to gain access to Number 12 might be linked to the two attempted burglaries here.”

Both faces turned to him remained blank and vague. Too blank and vague. They understood everything, but were steadfastly refusing to react.

He deliberately let the silence grow awkward. Eventually, Jeremy cleared his throat. “How so?”

He nearly gave up; only a trenchant determination fueled by something very like anger that they shouldn’t be allowed so easily to abdicate their responsibilities and retreat into their long-dead world, leaving Leonora to cope by herself in this one, had him leaning forward, with his gaze capturing theirs. “What if the burglar isn’t your usual run of thief, and all evidence suggests that’s so, but instead he’s after something specific—some item that has value to him. If that item is here, in this house, then—”

The door opened.

Leonora swept in. Her eyes found him; she beamed. “My lord! How delightful to see you again.”

Rising, Tristan met her eyes. She wasn’t delighted—she was in a flat panic. She glided up; inwardly disgusted with how poorly things had gone, he seized the inherent advantage and held out his hand.

She blinked at it, but after only the slightest hesitation surrendered her fingers. He bowed; she curtsied. Her fingers quivered in his.

The courtesies satisfied, he drew her to sit beside him on the chaise. She had no option but to do so. As, tense and on edge, she sank onto the damask, Humphrey said, “Trentham’s just told us there was a burglary next door—just last night. Blackguard escaped, unfortunately.”

“Indeed?” Eyes wide, she turned to Tristan as he sat again, angling herself so she could watch his face.

He caught her eye. “Just so.” His dry tone wasn’t wasted on her. “I was just suggesting that the attempt to gain access to Number 12 might be connected to the previous attempts to gain entry here.”

She, he knew, had arrived at the same conclusion, and that sometime ago.

“I still don’t see any real link.” Jeremy leaned on his book and fixed Tristan with a steady but still dismissive gaze. “I mean, burglars try their hand wherever they might, don’t they?”

Tristan nodded. “Which is why it seems odd that this ‘burglar’—and I think we can safely assume all the attempts have been by the same party—continues to push his luck in Montrose Place despite his failures to date.”

“Hmm, yes, well, perhaps he’ll take the hint and go away, given he couldn’t get into either of our houses?” Humphrey raised his brows hopefully.

Tristan hung on to his temper. “The very fact he’s tried three times suggests he won’t go away—that whatever he’s after he’s driven to get.”

“Yes, but that’s just it, don’t you see.” Sitting back, Jeremy spread his hands wide. “What on earth could he want here?”

“That,” Tristan retorted, “is the question.”

Yet every suggestion that the “burglar” might be after something contained in their researches, some information, concealed or otherwise, or some unexpectedly valuable tome, met with denials and incomprehension. Other than speculating that the villain might be after Leonora’s pearls, something Tristan found difficult to believe—and from the look on her face, so did Leonora—neither Humphrey nor Jeremy had any ideas to advance.

It was patently clear they had no interest in solving the mystery of the burglar, and were both of the opinion that ignoring the matter entirely was the surest route to getting it to disappear.

At least for them.

Tristan didn’t approve, but he recognized their type. They were selfish, absorbed in their own interests to the exclusion of all else. Over the years, they’d learned to leave anything and everything to Leonora to deal with; because she always had, they now viewed her efforts as their right. She haggled with the real world while they remained engrossed in their academic one.

Admiration for Leonora—exceedingly reluctant for it was definitely something he didn’t want to feel—along with a deeper understanding and a niggling sense that she deserved better bloomed and slid through him.

He could make no headway with Humphrey or Jeremy; eventually he had to concede defeat. He did, however, exact a promise that they would bend their minds to the question and inform him immediately if they thought of any item that could be the burglar’s goal.

Catching Leonora’s eye, he rose. Throughout, he’d been conscious of her tension, of her watching him like a hawk ready to jump in and deflect or confuse any comment that might reveal her part in the previous night’s activities.

He held her gaze; she read his message and rose, too.

“I’ll see Lord Trentham out.”

With easy smiles, Humphrey and Jeremy bade him farewell. Following Leonora to the door, he paused on the threshold and looked back.

Both men were already head down, back in the past.

He looked at Leonora. Her expression stated she knew what he’d seen. One brow rose quizzically, as if she was wryly amused that he’d thought he could change things.

He felt his face harden. Waving her on, he followed, closing the door behind them.

She led him to the front hall. Drawing level with the door to the parlor, he touched her arm.

Met her gaze when she looked at him. “Let’s walk in the back garden.” When she didn’t immediately acquiesce, he added, “I want to talk to you.”

She hesitated, then inclined her head. She led him through the parlor—he noticed the piece of embroidery still precisely as it had been previously—out through the French doors and down onto the lawn.

Head high, she walked on; he fell in beside her. And said nothing. Waited for her to ask what he wished to talk about, grasping the moment to work on a strategy for convincing her to leave the matter of the mysterious burglar to him.

The lawn was lush and well tended, the beds circling it thick with odd plants he’d never seen before. The late Cedric Carling must have been a collector as well as an authority on herbal horticulture…“How long ago did your cousin Cedric die?”

She glanced at him. “Over two years ago.” She paused, then continued, “I can’t see that there’d be anything valuable in his papers, or we would have heard long ago.”

“Most likely.” After Humphrey and Jeremy, her open acuity was refreshing.

They’d walked across the width of the lawn; she halted where a sundial was set on a pedestal standing just within the boundary of a deep bed. He stopped beside and a little behind her. Watched as she put out a hand, with her fingertips traced the engraving in the bronze face.

“Thank you for not mentioning my presence in Number 12 last night.” Her voice was low but clear; she kept her gaze on the sundial. “Or what happened on the path.”

She drew breath, lifted her head.

Before she could say more—tell him the kiss hadn’t meant anything, had been a silly mistake, or some similar nonsense he’d feel forced to prove wrong—he raised his hand, set one fingertip to her nape, and traced slowly, deliberately, down her spine, all the way down to below her waist.

Her breath caught, then she swung to face him, periwinkle blue eyes wide.

He trapped her gaze. “What happened last night, especially those moments on the path, is between you and me.”

When she continued to stare at him, searching his eyes, he elaborated, “Kissing you and telling anyone is not within my code, and definitely not my style.”

He saw the flash of reaction in her eyes, saw her consider asking, waspishly, just what his style was, but caution caught her tongue; she raised her head, haughtily inclined it as she looked away.

The moment was going to turn awkward, and he still hadn’t thought of any approach likely to deflect her from the burglaries. Casting about in his mind, he looked past her. And saw the house beyond the garden wall, the house next door, which also, like Number 12, shared a wall with Number 14.

“Who lives there?”

She glanced up, followed his gaze. “Old Miss Timmins.”

“She lives alone?”

“With a maid.”

He looked down into Leonora’s eyes; they were already filled with speculation. “I’d like to call on Miss Timmins. Will you introduce me?”

 

She was only too happy to do so. To leave the disconcerting moment in the garden—her thudding heart had yet to slow to its normal rhythm—and plunge instead into further investigations. By Trentham’s side.

Quite why she found his company so stimulating Leonora didn’t know. She wasn’t even sure she approved, or that her Aunt Mildred, let alone her Aunt Gertie, would either, if they knew. He was, after all, a military man. Young girls might have their heads turned by broad shoulders and a magnificent uniform, but ladies such as she were supposed to be too wise to fall victim to such gentlemen’s wiles. They were invariably second sons, or sons of second sons, looking to make their way in the world through an advantageous marriage…except Trentham was now an earl.

Inwardly, she frowned. Presumably that excused him from the general prohibition.

Regardless, as she walked briskly down the street beside him, her gloved hand on his sleeve, the sense of his strength engulfing her, the excitement of the hunt simmering in her veins, there was no question in her mind but that she felt immeasurably more alive when with him.

When she’d heard he’d called, she’d panicked. She’d felt sure he had come to complain of her infraction in going into Number 12 last night. And possibly, even worse, to mention—in whatever manner—their indiscretion on the path. Instead, he’d made not the slightest allusion to her part in the night’s activities; even though she was sure he’d sensed her agitation, he’d said and done nothing to tease her.

She’d expected a lot worse from a military man.

Reaching the gate of Number 16, Trentham swung it wide, and they went through, walking up the path and climbing the steps to the small front porch side by side. She pulled the bell, heard it ring deep within the house, smaller than Number 14, a terrace similar in style to Number 12.

Footsteps pattered, approaching, then came the sound of bolts being drawn back. The door opened a little way; a sweet-faced maid peeped out.

Leonora smiled. “Good morning, Daisy. I know it’s a trifle early, but if Miss Timmins can spare a few minutes, we have a new neighbor, the Earl of Trentham, who’d like to make her acquaintance.”

Daisy’s eyes had grown round as she took in Trentham, standing blocking the sunlight at Leonora’s side. “Oh, yes, miss. I’m sure she’ll see you—she always likes to know what’s going on.” Opening the door fully, Daisy waved them in. “If you’ll wait in the morning room, I’ll tell her you’re here.”

Leonora led the way into the morning room and sat on the chaise.

Trentham didn’t sit. He paced. Prowled. Looking at the windows.

Examining the locks.

She frowned. “What—”

She broke off as Daisy hurried back in. “She says as she’ll be delighted to receive you.” She bobbed to Trentham. “If you’ll come this way, I’ll take you up to her.”

They climbed the stairs, following Daisy; Leonora was aware of the glances Trentham directed this way and that. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was the burglar looking for the best way in….

“Oh.” Halting at the top of the stairs, she swung to face him. Whispered, “Do you think the burglar might try here next?”

He frowned, waved her on. With Daisy sailing ahead, she had to turn and hurry to catch up. Trentham merely lengthened his stride. With him on her heels, she glided into Miss Timmins’s drawing room.

“Leonora, my dear.” Miss Timmins’s voice quavered. “How sweet of you to call.”

Miss Timmins was old and frail and rarely ventured outside. Leonora often called; over the past year, she’d noticed the brightness in Miss Timmins’s soft blue eyes fading, as if a flame were burning low.

Smiling in return, she pressed Miss Timmins’s claw-like hand, then stepped back. “I’ve brought the Earl of Trentham to call. He and some friends have bought the house beyond ours, Number 12.”

Gently vague, her prim grey curls neatly brushed and dressed, her pearls looped about her throat, Miss Timmins shyly gave Trentham her hand. Nervously murmured a greeting.

Trentham bowed. “How do you do, Miss Timmins. I hope you’ve been keeping well through these cold months?”

Miss Timmins flustered, but still clung to Trentham’s hand. “Yes, indeed.” She seemed caught by his eyes. After a moment, she ventured, “It’s been such a shocking winter.”

“More sleet than usual, certainly.” Trentham smiled, all charm. “May we sit?”

“Oh! Yes, of course. Please do.” Miss Timmins leaned forward. “I heard you’re a military man, my lord. Tell me, were you at Waterloo?”

Leonora sank into a chair and watched, amazed, as Trentham—a self-confessed military man—charmed old Miss Timmins, who wasn’t, generally, comfortable with men. Yet Trentham seemed to know just what to say, just what an old lady thought appropriate to talk about. Just what snippets of gossip she’d like to hear.

Daisy brought tea; as she sipped, Leonora cynically wondered just what goal Trentham was pursuing.

Her answer came when he set down his cup and assumed a more serious mien. “Actually, I had a purpose in calling beyond the pleasure of meeting you, ma’am.” He caught Miss Timmins’s gaze. “There have been a number of incidents in the street lately, of burglars trying to gain entry.”

“Oh, dear me!” Miss Timmins rattled her cup onto its saucer. “I must tell Daisy to be doubly sure she locks every door.”

“As to that, I wonder if you would mind if I look around the ground floor and belowstairs, to make sure there’s no easy way inside? I would sleep much more soundly if I knew your house, with only you and Daisy here, was secure.”

Miss Timmins blinked, then beamed at him. “Why, of course, dear. So thoughtful of you.”

After a few more comments of a more general nature, Trentham rose. Leonora rose, too. They took their leave, with Miss Timmins instructing Daisy that his-lordship-the-earl would be looking around the house to make sure all was safe.

Daisy beamed, too.

In parting, Trentham assured Miss Timmins that should he discover any less than adequate lock, he would take care of its replacement—she wasn’t to bother her head.

From the look in Miss Timmins’s old eyes as she pressed his hand in farewell, his-lordship-the-earl had made a conquest.

Disturbed, when they reached the stairs and Daisy had gone ahead, Leonora paused and caught Trentham’s eye. “I hope you intend making good on that promise.”

His gaze was steady and remained so; eventually he replied, “I will.” He studied her face, then added, “I meant what I said.” Stepping past her, he started down the stairs. “I will sleep more soundly knowing this place is secure.”

She frowned at the back of his head—the man was a complete conundrum—then followed him down the stairs.

She trailed after him as he systematically checked every single window and door on the ground floor, then descended to the basement and did the same there. He was thorough and, to her eyes, coolly professional, as if securing premises against intruders had been a frequent task in his erstwhile occupation. It was increasingly difficult to dismiss him as “just another military man.”

In the end, he nodded to Daisy. “This is better than I expected. Has she always been worried about intruders?”

“Oh, yes, sir, m’lord. Ever since I came here to do for her, and that’s going on six years, now.”

“Well, if you lock every lock and shoot every bolt, you’ll be as safe as you could be.”

Leaving a grateful and reassured Daisy, they walked down the garden path. Reaching the gate, Leonora, who’d been pursuing her own thoughts, glanced at Trentham. “Is the house truly secure?”

He looked at her, then held the gate open. “As secure as it can be. There’s no way to stop a determined intruder.” He fell into step beside her as they paced along the pavement. “If he uses force—breaking a window or forcing a door—he’ll get in, but I don’t think our man is likely to be so direct. If we’re right in thinking it’s Number 14 he wants access to, then to get that via Number 16, he’ll have to have a few nights undetected to tunnel through the basement walls. He won’t get that if he’s too obvious about how he gets in.”

“So as long as Daisy is vigilant, all should be well.”

When he didn’t say anything, she looked at him. He sensed her glance, caught her eye. Grimaced. “On our way in, I was wondering how to introduce some man into the household, at least until we’ve laid this burglar by the heels. But she’s frightened of men, isn’t she?”

“Yes.” She was astonished he’d been so perceptive. “You’re one of the few I’ve ever known her to talk to beyond the barest commonplace.”

He nodded, looked down. “She’d be too uncomfortable with a man under her roof, so it’s lucky those locks are so sound. We’ll have to put our faith in them.”

“And do everything we can to catch this burglar soon.”

Her determination rang in her voice.

They’d reached the gate of Number 14. Tristan halted, met her gaze. “I suppose there’s no point insisting you leave the matter of the burglar in my hands?”

Her periwinkle blue eyes hardened. “None.”

He exhaled, looked away down the street. He wasn’t above lying for a good cause. Wasn’t above using distractions, either, despite their inherent danger.

Before she could shift away, he caught her hand. Turned his head and trapped her gaze. Held it while with his fingers he sought, then flicked the opening in her glove wide, then raised her wrist, the inner face now exposed, to his lips.

Felt the quiver that raced through her, watched her head lift, her eyes darken.

He smiled, slowly, intently. Softly decreed, “What’s between you and me remains between you and me, but it hasn’t gone away.”

Her lips set; she tugged, but he didn’t release her, instead, with his thumb, languidly caressed the spot he’d kissed.

She caught her breath, then hissed, “I’m not interested in any dalliance.”

Eyes on hers, he raised a brow. “No more am I.” He was interested in distracting her. They’d both be better off with her concentrating on him rather than on the burglar. “In the interests of our acquaintance”—in the interests of his sanity—“I’m willing to make a deal.”

Suspicion glowed in her eyes. “What deal?”

He chose his words carefully. “If you promise to do no more than keep your eyes and ears open, to do no more than watch and listen and report all to me when next I call, I’ll agree to share with you all I discover.”

Her expression turned haughtily dismissive. “And what if you don’t discover anything?”

His lips remained curved, but he let his mask slide, let his true self show briefly. “Oh, I will.” His voice was soft, faintly menacing; its tone held her.

Again, slowly, deliberately, he raised her wrist to his lips.

Holding her gaze, kissed.

“Do we have a deal?”

She blinked, refocused on his eyes, then her breasts swelled as she drew in a deep breath. And nodded. “Very well.”

He released her wrist; she all but snatched it back.

“But on one condition.”

He raised his brows, now as haughty as she. “What?”

“I’ll watch and listen and do no more if you promise to call and tell me what you’ve discovered as soon as you discover it.”

His gaze locked with hers, he considered, then let his lips ease. He inclined his head. “As soon as practicable, I’ll share any discovery.”

She was mollified, and surprised to be so. He hid a grin and bowed. “Good day, Miss Carling.”

She held his gaze for a moment longer, then inclined her head. “Good day, my lord.”

 

Days passed.

Leonora watched and listened, but nothing of any moment occurred. She was content with their bargain; there was in truth little else she could do beyond watch and listen, and the knowledge that if anything did occur, Trentham expected to be involved in dealing with it was unexpectedly heartening. She’d grown used to acting alone, indeed eschewed the help of others who in general were more likely to get in her way, yet Trentham was undeniably able—with him involved, she felt confident of resolving the issue of the burglaries. Staff started to appear at Number 12; Trentham occasionally called in there, as duly reported by Toby, but did not venture to knock on the Carlings’ front door.

The only factor that disturbed her equanimity was her recollections of that kiss in the night. She’d tried to forget it, simply put it from her mind, an aberration on both their parts, yet forgetting the way her pulse leapt whenever he came near was much harder. And she had absolutely no idea how to interpret his comment that what lay between them hadn’t gone away.

Did he mean he intended to pursue it?

But then he’d declared he wasn’t interested in dalliance any more than she was. Despite his past occupation, she was learning to take his words at face value.

Indeed, his tactful dealings with the old soldier Biggs, his discretion in not speaking of her nighttime adventures, and his unprecedented charming of Miss Timmins, going out of his way to reassure and see to the old lady’s safety, had in large part ameliorated her prejudice.

Perhaps Trentham was one of those whose existence proved the rule—a trustworthy military man, one who could be relied on, at least in certain matters.

Despite that, she wasn’t entirely certain she could rely on him to tell her all and anything he discovered. Nevertheless, she would have allowed him a few more days’ grace if it hadn’t been for the watcher.

At first, it was simply a sensation, a prickling of her nerves, an eerie feeling of being observed. Not just in the street, but in the back garden, too; that last unnerved her. The first of the earlier attacks on her had occurred just inside the front gate; she no longer walked in the front garden.

She began taking Henrietta with her wherever she went, and if that wasn’t possible, a footman.

With time, her nerves would doubtless have calmed, steadied.

But then, strolling in the back garden late one afternoon as the abbreviated February twilight closed in, she glimpsed a man standing almost at the rear of the garden, beyond the hedge that bisected the long plot. Framed by the central arch in the hedge, a lean, dark figure swathed in a dark cloak, he stood among the vegetable beds—and watched her.

Leonora froze. He wasn’t the same man who had accosted her in January, the first time by the front gate, the second time in the street. That man had been smaller, slighter; she’d been able to fight back, to break free.

The man who now watched her looked infinitely more menacing. He stood silent, still, yet it was the stillness of a predator waiting for his moment. There was only a stretch of lawn between them. She had to fight the urge to raise a hand to her throat, had to battle an instinct to turn and flee—battle the conviction that if she did he’d be on her.

Henrietta ambled up, saw the man, and growled low in her throat. The rumbling warning continued, subtly escalating. Hackles rising, the hound placed herself between Leonora and the man.

He remained still for an instant longer, then whisked around. His cloak flapped; he disappeared from Leonora’s sight.

Heart thudding uncomfortably, she looked down at Henrietta. The wolfhound remained alert, senses focused. Then a distant thud reached Leonora’s ears; an instant later, Henrietta wuffed and relaxed from her stance, turning to calmly continue their progress back to the parlor doors.

A chill swept Leonora’s spine; eyes wide, scanning the shadows, she hurried back to the house.

 

The next morning at eleven o’clock—the earliest hour at which it was acceptable to call—she rang the doorbell of the elegant house in Green Street that the urchin sweeping at the corner had told her belonged to the Earl of Trentham.

An imposing but kindly-looking butler opened the door. “Yes, ma’am?”

She drew herself up. “Good morning. I am Miss Carling, from Montrose Place. I wish to speak with Lord Trentham, if you please.”

The butler looked genuinely regretful. “Unfortunately, his lordship is not presently in.”

“Oh.” She’d assumed he would be, that like most fashionable men he was unlikely to set foot beyond his door before noon. After a frozen moment in which nothing—no other avenue of action—occurred to her, she lifted her gaze to the butler’s face. “Is he expected to return soon?”

“I daresay his lordship will be back within the hour, miss.” Her determination must have shown; the butler opened the door wider. “If you would care to wait?”

“Thank you.” Leonora let a hint of approval color the words. The butler had the most sympathetic face. She stepped across the threshold and was instantly struck by the airiness and light in the hall, underscored by the elegant furnishings. As the butler closed the door, she turned to him.

He smiled encouragingly. “If you’ll come this way, miss?”

Insensibly reassured, Leonora inclined her head and followed him down the corridor.

 

Tristan returned to Green Street at a little after noon, no further forward and increasingly concerned. Climbing his front steps, he fished out his latch key and let himself in; he had still not grown accustomed to waiting for Havers to open the door, relieve him of his cane and coat, all things he was perfectly capable of doing himself.

Setting his cane in the hall stand, tossing his coat across a chair, he headed, soft-footed, for his study. Hoping to slip past the arches of the morning room without being spotted by any of the old dears. An exceedingly faint hope; regardless of their occupations, they always seemed to sense his flitting presence and glance up just in time to smile and waylay him.

Unfortunately, there was no other way to reach the study; his great-uncle who’d remodeled the house had, he’d long ago concluded, been a glutton for punishment.

The morning room was a light-filled chamber built out from the main house. A few steps below the level of the corridor, it was separated from it by three large arches. Two hosted huge flower arrangements in urns, which gave him some cover, but the middle arch was the doorway, open country.

As silent as a thief, he neared the first arch and, just out of sight, paused to listen. A babble of female voices reached him; the group was at the far end of the room, where a bow window allowed morning light to stream over two chaises and various chairs. It took a moment to attune his ear to pick out the individual voices. Ethelreda was there, Millie, Flora, Constance, Helen, and yes, Edith, too. All six of them. Chattering on about knots—French knots?—what were they?—and gross-something and leaf-stitch…

They were discussing embroidery.

He frowned. They all embroidered like martyrs, but it was the one arena in which real competition flourished between them; he’d never heard them discussing their shared interest before, let alone with such gusto.

Then he heard another voice, and his surprise was complete.

“I’m afraid I’ve never been able to get the threads to lie just so.”

Leonora.

“Ah, well, dear, what you need to do—”

He didn’t take in the rest of Ethelreda’s advice; he was too busy speculating on what had brought Leonora there.

The discussion in the morning room continued, Leonora inviting advice, his old dears taking great delight in supplying it.

Vivid in his mind was that piece of embroidery lying discarded in the parlor in Montrose Place. Leonora might have no talent for embroidery, but he’d have sworn she had no real interest in it, either.

Curiosity pricked. The nearest flower arrangement was tall enough to conceal him. Two swift steps and he was behind it. Peering between the lilies and chrysanthemums, he saw Leonora seated in the middle of one of the chaises surrounded on all sides by his collection of old dears.

Winter sunlight poured through the window at her back, a glimmering wash spilling over her, striking garnet glints from her coronet of dark hair yet leaving her face and its delicate features in faint and mysterious shadow. In her dark red walking dress, she looked like a medieval madonna, an embodiment of feminine virtue and passion, of feminine strength and fragility.

Head bowed, she was examining an embroidered anti-macassar laid across her knees.

He watched her encourage her elderly audience to tell her more, to participate. Also saw her step in, swiftly tamping down a sudden spurt of rivalry, soothing both parties with tactful observations.

She had them captivated.

And not only them.

He heard the words in his mind.

Inwardly humphed.

Yet he didn’t turn away. Silent, he simply stood, watching her through the screen of flowers.

“Ah—my lord!”

With incomparable reflexes, he stepped forward and turned, his back to the morning room. They’d be able to see him, but the movement would make it seem he’d just walked by.

He viewed his butler with a resigned eye. “Yes, Havers?”

“A lady has called, my lord. A Miss Carling.”

“Ah! Trentham!”

He turned as Ethelreda called.

Millie stood and beckoned. “We have Miss Carling here.”

All six beamed at him. With a nod of dismissal to Havers, he stepped down and crossed toward the group, not quite certain of the impression he was receiving—almost as if they believed they’d been keeping Leonora there, trapped, cornered, some special delight just for him.

She rose, a light blush in her cheeks. “Your cousins have been very kind in keeping me company.” She met his gaze. “I came because there have been developments in Montrose Place that I believe you should know.”

“Yes, of course. Thank you for coming. Let’s repair to the library, and you can tell me your news.” He held out his hand; inclining her head, she surrendered hers.

He drew her from the midst of his elderly champions, nodded to them. “Thank you for entertaining Miss Carling for me.”

He had no doubt of the thoughts behind their brilliant smiles.

“Oh, we enjoyed it.”

“So delightful…”

“Do call again, dear.”

They beamed and bobbed; Leonora smiled her thanks, then let him place her hand on his sleeve and lead her away.

Side by side they climbed the steps to the corridor; he didn’t need to glance back to know six pairs of eyes were still avidly watching.

As they passed into the front hall, Leonora glanced at him. “I didn’t realize you had such a large family.”

“I haven’t.” He opened the library door and ushered her in. “That’s the problem. There’s just me, and them. And the rest.”

Drawing her hand from his sleeve, she turned to look at him. “Rest?”

He waved her to the chairs angled to the blaze roaring in the hearth. “There’s eight more at Mallingham Manor, my house in Surrey.”

Her lips twitched; she turned and sat.

His smile faded. He dropped into the opposite chair. “Now cut line. Why are you here?”

Leonora lifted her gaze to his face, saw within it all she’d come to find—reassurance, strength, ability. Drawing breath, she leaned back in the chair, and told him.

He didn’t interrupt; when she’d finished he asked questions, clarifying where and when it was she’d felt under observation. At no point did he seek to dismiss her intuitive certainty; he treated all she reported as fact, not fancy.

“And you’re sure it was the same man?”

“Positive. I caught only a glimpse as he moved, but he had that same loose-limbed motion.” She held his gaze. “I’m sure it was he.”

He nodded. His gaze drifted from her as he considered all she’d said. Eventually, he glanced at her. “I don’t suppose you told your uncle or brother about any of this?”

She raised her brows, mock-haughtily. “I did, as it happens.”

When she said nothing more, he prompted, “And?”

Her smile wasn’t as lighthearted as she would have liked. “When I mentioned the feeling of being watched, they smiled and told me I was overreacting to the recent troubling events. Humphrey patted my shoulder and told me I shouldn’t worry my head about such things, that there really was no need—it would all blow over soon enough.

“As for the man at the bottom of the garden, they were sure I was mistaken. A trick of the light, the shifting shadows. An overactive imagination. I really shouldn’t read so many of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels. Besides, as Jeremy pointed out—in the manner of one stating an absolute proof—the back gate is always kept locked.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.” She met Trentham’s hazel eyes. “But the wall is covered on both sides with ancient ivy. Any reasonably agile man would have no difficulty climbing over.”

“Which would account for the thud you heard.”

“Precisely.”

He sat back. Elbow on one chair arm, chin propped on that fist, one long finger idly tapping his lips, he looked past her. His eyes glinted, hard, almost crystalline sharp beneath his heavy lids. He knew she was there, wasn’t ignoring her, but was, at present, absorbed.

She hadn’t before had such a chance to study him, to take in the reality of the strength in his large body, appreciate the width of his shoulders disguised though they were by the superbly tailored coat—Shultz, of course—or the long, lean legs, muscles delineated by tightly fitted buckskins that disappeared into glossy Hessians. He had very large feet.

He was always elegantly dressed, yet it was a quiet elegance; he did not need or wish to draw attention to himself—indeed, eschewed all opportunity to do so. Even his hands—she might dub them his best feature—were adorned only by a plain gold signet ring.

He’d spoken of his style; she felt confident in defining it as quiet, elegant strength. Like an aura it hung about him, not something derived from clothes or manner, but something inherent, innate, that showed through.

She found such quiet strength unexpectedly attractive. Comforting, too.

Her lips had eased into a gentle smile when his gaze shifted back to her. He raised a brow, but she shook her head, remained silent. Their gazes held; relaxed in the chairs in the quiet of his library, they studied each other.

And something changed.

Excitement, an insidious thrill, slid slowly through her, a subtle flick, a temptation to illicit delight. Heat blossomed; her lungs slowly seized.

Their eyes remained locked. Neither moved.

It was she who broke the spell. Shifted her gaze to the flames in the hearth. Breathed in. Reminded herself not to be ridiculous; they were in his house, in his library—he would hardly seduce her under his own roof with his servants and elderly cousins standing by.

He stirred and sat up. “How did you get here?”

“I walked through the park.” She glanced at him. “It seemed the safest way.”

He nodded, rose. “I’ll drive you home. I need to look in at Number 12.”

She watched while he tugged the bellpull, gave orders to his butler when that worthy arrived. When he turned back to her, she asked, “Have you learned anything?”

Tristan shook his head. “I’ve been investigating various avenues. Searching for any whispers of men seeking something from Montrose Place.”

“And did you hear anything?”

“No.” He met her gaze. “I didn’t expect to—that would be too easy.”

She grimaced, then rose as Havers returned to say his curricle was being brought around.

While she donned her pelisse and he shrugged into his greatcoat and dispatched a footman to fetch his driving gloves, Tristan racked his brains for any avenue he’d left unexplored, any door open to him he hadn’t been through. He’d tapped any number of ex-servicemen, and some who were still serving in various capacities, for information; he was now certain that what they were dealing with was something peculiar to Montrose Place. There had been no whispers of gangs or individuals behaving in like manner anywhere else in the capital.

Which only added weight to their supposition that there was something in Number 14 the mystery burglar wanted.

As they bowled around the park in his curricle, he explained his deductions.

Leonora frowned. “I’ve asked the servants.” Lifting her head, she tucked back a strand of hair whipping in the breeze. “No one has any idea of anything that might be particularly valuable.” She glanced at him. “Beyond the obvious answer of something in the library.”

He caught her glance, then looked to his horses. After a moment, asked, “Is it possible your uncle and brother would hide something important—for instance if they made a discovery and wanted to keep it secret for a time?”

She shook her head. “I often act as hostess for their learned dinners. There’s a great deal of competition and rivalry in their field, but far from being secretive about any discoveries, the usual approach is to shout any new finding, no matter how minor, from the rooftops, and that as soon as possible. By way of claiming rights, if you take my meaning.”

He nodded. “So that’s unlikely.”

“Yes, but…if you were to suggest that Humphrey or Jeremy might have stumbled across something quite valuable, and simply not seen it for what it was—or rather they would recognize it but not attribute an accurate value to it”—she looked at him—“I’d have to agree.”

“Very well.” They’d reached Montrose Place; he drew rein outside Number 12. “We’ll have to assume something of the sort is at the heart of this.”

Tossing the reins to his tiger who’d jumped from the back and come running, he climbed down to the pavement, then handed her down.

Linking their arms, he walked her to the gate of Number 14.

At the gate, she drew back and faced him. “What do you think we should do?”

He met her gaze directly, without any hint of his usual mask. An instant passed, then he said, softly, “I don’t know.”

His hard gaze held hers; his hand found hers, his fingers twined with hers.

Her pulse leapt at his touch.

He raised her hand, brushed his lips across her fingers.

Held her gaze over them.

Then, lingeringly, touched his lips to her skin again, blatantly savoring.

Dizziness threatened.

His eyes searched hers, then he murmured, deep and low, “Let me think things through. I’ll call on you tomorrow, and we can discuss how best to go on.”

Her skin burned where his lips had brushed. She managed a nod, stepped back. He let her fingers slide from his. Pushing the iron gate, she stepped through, shut it. Looked at him through it. “Until tomorrow, then. Goodbye.”

Her pulse thrumming through her veins, throbbing in her fingertips, she turned and walked up the path.

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