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She had cooled; he hadn’t. He seriously doubted she had any idea of what she did to him, to what level she called to him, especially with them naked in the dappled dark, alone in an essentially empty house.

It was impossible to shake the aura of illicit danger; it was so much a part of him, he didn’t even try. She wanted this, knowingly. As he stretched beside her, propped on one elbow and reached for her, he didn’t try to hide anything, any part of him, from her.

Least of all the dark, primitive desire she evoked.

Their eyes had adjusted long ago; they could see each other’s faces and expressions, even, given they were so close, the emotions in each other’s eyes. He sensed the trepidation that quivered through her as he drew her to him. At the same time read the determination in her face, and didn’t pause.

He kissed her, not as he had before but as a lover who had been given free rein. He entered like a conqueror, laid claim as he wished, laid waste to her senses.

Initially passive, waiting to see, Leonora instinctively rose to his challenge. Her body stirred, came alive once more; she lifted one hand, and speared her fingers once more into his hair.

And clung tight as, once again, the flames erupted between them. This time, he made no effort to hold them, contain them; instead, he let them rage. Deliberately sent them raging with each possessive sweep of his hard palms as he shaped her body beneath his, as he claimed every inch of her softness, explored at will, even more intimately.

She shuddered, and let him. Let him sweep her into the fiery sea, the conflagration of desire, passion and simple, unavoidable need.

He touched her in ways she had never imagined, until she clung and sobbed. Until she was awash with heat and longing, with desire burning so fiercely she felt literally on fire. He shifted over her, spread her thighs, and settled between. In the deepening darkness, he was literally a god, powerful and intent as, braced above her, he looked down on her. Then he bent his head and took her mouth again, and his sheer vitality—the fact he was all hard muscle and bone, and hot, heated blood—captured her.

The crinkly roughness of his haired skin chafed, abraded, reminded her how soft her own skin was, how sensitive. Reminded her how vulnerable and defenseless she was against his strength.

He shifted, reached down, caught one of her knees, and lifted her leg to his hip. Set it there, then traced back with his palm, around, until he found her slick and swollen, hot and ready.

And then he was pressing into her, hard, hot, and much larger than she’d realized. Her lungs seized. She felt her body stretching. He pressed inexorably in.

She gasped, tried to pull away from the kiss.

He didn’t let her.

Instead, he held her down, held her trapped, and slowly, slowly filled her.

Her body arched as he did, bowed, tightened, tensed against his invasion. She felt the restriction, felt the pressure build, but he didn’t stop; he pressed deeper, deeper, until the barrier simply gave, and he surged through. And on.

Until she was so full of him she could barely breathe, until she felt him throbbing high and deep inside her. She felt her body give, surrender, then accept.

Only then did he stop, hold still, the solid reality of him buried deep within her.

He drew back from the kiss, opened his eyes, looked down into hers from two inches away. Their breaths, ragged and broken, hot and heated, mingled.

“Are you all right?”

The words reached her, deep and gravelly; she considered how she felt with the hot weight of him holding her down, his muscled hardness trapping her spread and so vulnerable beneath him. With his erection buried intimately within her.

She nodded. Her lips were hungry for his; she touched them to his, tasted him, then sent her tongue exploring, savoring the unique flavor. She felt more than heard him groan, then he moved within her.

At first just a little, rocking his hips against her.

But soon that wasn’t enough, not for either of them.

What followed was a journey of discovery. She hadn’t imagined intimacy would be this consuming, this demanding, this fulfilling. This hot, this sweaty, this involving. He didn’t speak again, didn’t ask what she thought, asked for no permission as he took her. As he filled her, sank into her body, sheathed himself in her heat.

Yet throughout, again and again his eyes touched hers, checking, reassuring, encouraging. They communicated without words, and she followed him eagerly. Wantonly.

Into a landscape of passion.

It rolled on, unfolding, scene upon scene, and she realized just how much the simple act of joining could be.

How enthralling. How fascinating.

How demanding. How addictive.

How, at the very end as they tumbled through space and she felt him with her, fulfilling.

Given his expertise, she’d expected him to withdraw from her before he spilled his seed. She didn’t want that; instinct drove her to sink her nails into his flexing buttocks and hold him to her.

He looked at her; almost blindly, their eyes met. Then he closed his eyes on a groan, and let it happen, let the last powerful surge take him even deeper into her, locking them together as he spent himself within her.

She felt his warmth flood her.

Her lips curved in a satisfied smile, and she finally let go, and let oblivion take her.

 

Slumped across the bed, Tristan tried to make sense of what had happened.

Leonora lay across him, still intimately entwined. He felt no urge to disengage. She was half-asleep; he hoped she’d remain so until he found his mental feet.

He’d collapsed on top of her, sated literally out of his mind. A novel occurrence. Later, he’d roused enough to roll to the side, taking her with him. He’d pulled the coverlet over them to protect her cooling limbs from the chill invading the room.

It was full dark, but not that late. No one would be unduly worried by her absence, not yet. Experience suggested that despite what had seemed a journey to the stars, it would not even be six o’clock; he had time to consider where they were now, and how best to go forward.

He was too experienced not to understand that going forward usually meant understanding where one had been.

That was his problem. He was not at all sure he understood all that had just taken place.

She’d been attacked; he’d arrived in time to rescue her, and they’d come in here. All seemed straightforward to that point.

Then she’d wanted to thank him. He’d seen no reason not to let her.

It was after that that matters had become complicated.

He vaguely recalled thinking that indulging her was a perfectly sensible way of taking her mind off the attack. True enough, but her thanks, rendered in the manner she’d chosen, had both soothed and invoked a darker need of his own, a reaction to the incident, a compulsion to put his mark on her, to make her irrevocably his.

Put like that, it seemed a primitive, somewhat uncivilized response, yet he couldn’t deny that was what had driven him to strip her, to touch her, to know her intimately. He hadn’t understood enough to fight it, hadn’t seen the danger.

He glanced down at Leonora’s dark head, at her hair, tumbled and jumbled, warm against his shoulder.

He hadn’t intended this.

This, he now realized, increasingly so as his brain caught up with the ramifications, with the full extent of what all this now meant to him—this was a major complication in a plan that hadn’t been running all that smoothly to begin with.

He felt his face harden. His lips thinned. If he hadn’t been wary of waking her, he would have sworn.

It didn’t take much thinking to know that now there was only one way forward. No matter what options his strategist’s mind devised, his instinctive, deeply entrenched reaction never wavered.

She was his. Absolutely. In incontrovertible fact.

She was in danger, under threat.

There was only one option left.

Please…don’t leave me.

He hadn’t been able to resist that plea, knew he wouldn’t, even now, were she to make it again. There’d been some need so deep, so vulnerable in her eyes, it had been impossible for him to deny. Despite the upheaval it was going to cause, he couldn’t, didn’t, regret anything.

In reality, nothing had changed, only the relative timing.

What was required was a restructuring of his plan. On a significant scale, admittedly, but he was too much a tactician to waste time grumbling.

 

Reality seeped slowly into Leonora’s mind. She stirred, sighed, luxuriating in the warmth that surrounded her, enveloped her, engulfed her. Filled her.

Lashes fluttering, she opened her eyes, blinked. Realized what the source of all that comforting warmth was.

A blush—she prayed it was a blush—suffused her. She shifted enough to look up.

Trentham glanced down at her. A frown, rather vague, filled his eyes. “Just lie still.”

Beneath the covers, one large palm closed about her bottom and he shifted her, settled her more comfortably on him. About him.

“You’ll be sore. Just relax and let me think.”

She stared at him, then looked down—at her hand spread on his naked chest. Relax, he said. They were naked, limbs tangled, and he was still inside her. No longer filling her as he had, but still definitely there…

She knew men were generally unaffected by their own nakedness, yet this seemed—

Dragging in a breath, she stopped thinking about it. If she did, if she started letting herself dwell on all she’d learned, all she’d experienced, stunned amazement and wonder would keep her here for hours.

And her aunts were coming to dinner.

She’d dwell on the magic later.

Lifting her head, she looked at Trentham. He was still vaguely frowning. “What are you thinking about?”

He glanced at her. “Do you know any bishops?”

“Bishops?”

“Hmm—we need a special license. I could apply to—”

She braced her hands on his chest, pushed up, and got his immediate attention. Eyes wide, she stared down at him. “Why do we need a special license?”

“Why…” He stared, bemusedly, back at her. Eventually said, “That’s the very last thing I expected you to say.”

She frowned at him. Clambered up and off him, twisting to sit in the coverlet. “Stop teasing.” She looked around. “Where are my clothes?”

Silence reigned for a heartbeat, then he said, “I’m not teasing.”

His tone had her looking, very quickly, back at him. Their eyes locked; what she saw in his set her heart thumping. “That’s not…funny.”

“I didn’t think any of this was ‘funny.’”

She sat and looked at him; her spurt of panic receded. Her brain started to function again. “I don’t expect you to marry me.”

His brows rose; she dragged in a breath. “I’m twenty-six. Past marriageable age. You don’t have to feel that because of this”—her wave encompassed the coverlet cocoon and all it contained—“you have to make any honorable sacrifice. You don’t need to feel you seduced me and so must make amends.”

“As I recall, you seduced me.”

She blushed. “Indeed. So there’s no reason you need to find a bishop.”

It was definitely time to get dressed. She spied her chemise on the floor and turned to crawl out of the cocoon.

Steely fingers closed like a manacle about her wrist.

He didn’t tug or restrain her; he didn’t have to. She knew she couldn’t break free until he consented to let her go.

She sank back into the coverlet. He was staring up at the ceiling; she couldn’t see his eyes.

“Let’s just see if I’ve got this straight.”

His voice was even, but there was an edge to it that left her wary.

“You’re a twenty-six-year-old virgin—I beg your pardon, ex-virgin. You have no other entanglements, romantic or otherwise. Correct?”

She would have loved to tell him this was pointless, but from experience she knew humoring difficult males was the fastest way to deal with their megrims. “Yes.”

“Am I also correct in stating that you set out deliberately to seduce me?”

She pressed her lips together, then conceded, “Not immediately.”

“But today. That”—his thumb had started to draw distracting little circles on the inside of her wrist—“was intended. Deliberate. You were set on having me…what? Initiate you?”

He turned his head and looked at her. She blushed, but forced herself to nod. “Yes. Just that.”

“Hmm.” He went back to staring at the ceiling. “And now, having accomplished your goal, you expect to say: ‘Thank you, Tristan, that was very nice,’ and carry on as if it never happened.”

She hadn’t thought that far. She frowned. “I assumed, eventually, we’d go our separate ways.” She studied his profile. “There’s no consequences to this, no reason we need do anything because of it.”

The corner of his lips lifted; she couldn’t tell which of the possible moods the gesture reflected.

“Except,” he stated, his voice still even, but with the accents increasingly clipped, “you’ve miscalculated.”

She really didn’t want to ask, especially given his tone, but he simply waited, so she had to. “How?”

You may not expect me to marry you. However, as the one who was seduced, I expect you to marry me.

He turned his head, met her gaze—let her read in the blazing hazel of his eyes that he was absolutely serious.

She stared—read the message twice. Her jaw actually slackened, then she snapped her lips shut. “That is nonsensical! You don’t want to marry me—you know you don’t. You’re simply being difficult.” With a twist and a tug, she wrenched her wrist free, aware she managed only because he let her. She scrambled from the bed. Anger, fear, irritation, and trepidation were a heady mix. She made for her chemise.

Tristan sat up as she left the bed, his gaze locking on the bruises circling her upper arms. Then he remembered the attack, and breathed again. Mountford had marked her, not him.

Then she bent and swiped up her chemise, and he saw the smudges on her hips, the faint bluish marks his fingers had left on the alabaster skin of her bottom. She turned, struggling into the chemise, and he saw similar marks on her breasts.

Softly swore.

“What?” She yanked her chemise down and glared at him.

Lips compressed, he shook his head. “Nothing.” He stood, and reached for his trousers.

Something dark, something powerful and dangerous was churning inside him. Burgeoning, struggling to break free.

He couldn’t think.

He grabbed her dress from the bed and shook it out; there was only the slightest stain, and a small red spot. The sight rattled his control. He blocked it out, and carried the gown to her.

She took it, conveying her thanks with a haughty inclination of her head. He nearly laughed. She thought he was letting her walk free.

He shrugged into his shirt, quickly buttoned it, tucked it into his waistband, then quickly and expertly knotted his cravat. All the while he watched her. She was used to having a maid; she couldn’t do up her gown on her own.

When he was fully dressed, he picked up her cloak. “Here. Let me.” He handed her the cloak; she glanced at him, then took it. And turned, presenting him with her back.

He quickly laced up her gown. As he tied off the laces, his fingers slowed. He hooked one finger beneath the laces, anchoring her before him. Leaning down, he spoke softly in her ear. “I haven’t changed my mind. I intend to marry you.”

She stood poker straight, looking ahead, then she turned her head and met his eyes. “I haven’t changed my mind either. I don’t want to get married.” She held his gaze, then added, “I never truly did.”

 

He hadn’t been able to shift her.

The argument had raged all the way down the stairs, reduced to hissed whispers as they crossed the ground floor because of Biggs, only to escalate again when they reached the relative safety of the garden.

Nothing he’d said had swayed her.

When, driven to complete and total exasperation by the notion that a lady of twenty-six whom he’d just very pleasurably initiated into the delights of intimacy should refuse to wed him, title, wealth, houses, and all, he’d threatened to march straight up her garden path and demand her hand from her uncle and her brother, revealing all if she made that necessary, she’d gasped, halted, turned to him—and nearly slain him with a look of horrified vulnerability.

“You said what was between us would remain between us.”

There’d been real fear in her eyes.

He’d backed down.

In real disgust had heard himself gruffly assuring her that of course he wouldn’t do any such thing.

Hoisted with his own petard.

Worse, hoisted with his honor.

Late that night, slumped before the fire in his library, Tristan tried to find a way through the morass that had, without warning, appeared around his feet.

Slowly sipping French brandy, he replayed all their exchanges, tried to read the thoughts, the emotions, behind her words. Some he couldn’t be certain of, some he couldn’t define, but of one thing he felt reasonably sure. She honestly didn’t think she—a twenty-six-year-old ape-leader—her words—was capable of attracting and holding the honest and honorable attentions of a man like him.

Raising his glass, eyes on the flames, he let the fine liquor slide down his throat.

Admitted, quietly, to himself, that he didn’t truly care what she thought.

He had to have her—in his house, within his walls, in his bed. Safe. Had to; he no longer had any choice. The dark, dangerous emotion she’d stirred to life and now unleashed would not permit any other outcome.

He hadn’t known he had it in him, that degree of feeling. Yet that evening, when he’d been forced to stand on the garden path and watch her—let her—walk away from him, he’d finally realized what that roiling emotion was.

Possessiveness.

He’d come very close to giving it free rein.

He’d always been a protective man, witness his erstwhile occupation, and now his tribe of old dears. He’d always understood that much of himself, but with Leonora his feelings went far beyond any protective instinct.

Given that, he didn’t have much time. There was a very definite limit to his patience; there always had been.

Rapidly he mentally scanned all the arrangements he’d put in place in pursuit of Mountford, including those he’d initiated that evening after returning from Montrose Place.

For the moment, that line would hold. He could turn his attention to the other front on which he was engaged.

He had to convince Leonora to marry him; he had to change her mind.

How?

Ten minutes later he rose and went to seek his old dears. Information, he’d always maintained, was the key to any successful campaign.

 

The dinner with her aunts, a not-infrequent event in the weeks leading up to the Season when her aunt Mildred, Lady Warsingham, would come to try and convince Leonora to cast her hat into the matrimonial ring, was a near disaster.

A fact directly attributable to Trentham, even in his absence.

The next morning, Leonora was still having trouble subduing her blushes, still battling to keep her mind from dwelling on those moments when, panting and heated, she’d lain beneath him and watched him above her, moving in that deep, compulsive rhythm, her body accepting the surges of his, the rolling, relentless physical fusion.

She’d watched his face, seen passion strip away all his charm and leave the harsh angles and planes etched with something far more primitive.

Fascinating. Enthralling.

And utterly distracting.

She threw herself into sorting and rearranging every scrap of paper in her escritoire.

At twelve, the doorbell pealed. She heard Castor cross the hall and open the door. The next instant Mildred’s voice rang out. “In the parlor, is she? Don’t worry—I’ll see myself in.”

Leonora pushed her piles of papers into the escritoire, closed it, and rose. Wondering what had brought her aunt back to Montrose Place so soon, she faced the door and patiently waited to find out.

Mildred swept in, stylishly turned out in black and white. “Well, my dear!” She advanced on Leonora. “Here you sit, all by yourself. I wish you would consent to come with me on my visits, but I know you won’t, so I won’t bother bemoaning that.”

Leonora dutifully kissed Mildred’s scented cheek, and murmured her gratitude.

“Dreadful child.” Mildred subsided onto the chaise and settled her skirts. “Now, I had to come because I have simply wonderful news! I have tickets for Mr. Kean’s new play for this very evening. The theater is already sold out for weeks ahead—it’s going to be the play of the Season. But by a fabulous stroke of magnanimous fate, a dear friend gave me tickets, and I have a spare. Gertie will come, of course. And you will come, too, won’t you?” Mildred looked at her beseechingly. “You know Gertie will mutter all through the performance otherwise—she always behaves when you’re there.”

Gertie was her other aunt, Mildred’s older, unmarried sister. Gertie had strong views about gentlemen, and while she refrained from voicing these in Leonora’s presence, deeming her niece still too young and impressionable to hear such caustic truths, she had never spared her sister from her blistering observations, blessedly delivered sotto voce.

Sinking into the armchair opposite Mildred, Leonora hesitated. Visiting the theater with her aunt generally meant meeting at least two gentlemen Mildred had decided were eligible partis for her hand. But such a visit also meant watching a play, during which no one would dare talk. She would be free to lose herself in the performance. With luck, it might succeed in distracting her from Trentham and his performance.

And a chance to see the inimitable Edmund Kean was not to be lightly refused.

“Very well.” She refocused on Mildred in time to see triumph fleetingly light her aunt’s eyes. She narrowed her own. “But I refuse to be paraded like a well-bred mare during the interval.”

Mildred dismissed the quibble with a wave. “If you wish, you may remain in your seat throughout the break. Now, you will wear your midnight blue silk, won’t you? I know you care nothing for your appearance, so you may do it to please me.”

The hopeful look in Mildred’s eyes was impossible to deny; Leonora felt her lips curve. “As such a sought-after opportunity comes through you, I can hardly refuse.” The midnight blue gown was one of her favorites, so appeasing her aunt cost her nothing. “But I warn you—I won’t put up with any Bond Street beau whispering sweet nothings in my ear during the performance.”

Mildred sighed. She shook her head as she rose. “When we were girls, having eligible gentlemen whisper in our ears was the highlight of the night.” She glanced at Leonora. “I’m due at Lady Henry’s, then Mrs. Arbuthnot’s, so I must away. I’ll call for you in the carriage around eight.”

Leonora nodded her agreement, then saw her aunt to the door.

She returned to the parlor more pensive. Perhaps going out into the ton, at least for the few weeks before the Season proper commenced, might be wise.

Might distract her from the lingering effects of her seduction.

Might help her recover from the shock of Trentham offering to marry her. And the even greater shock of him insisting that she should.

She didn’t understand his reasoning, but he’d seemed very set on it. A few weeks in society being exposed to other men would no doubt remind her why she’d never wed.

 

She suspected nothing. Not until the carriage drew up before the theater steps and a harried groom opened the door did the faintest glimmer of a suspicion cross her mind.

And by then it was too late.

Trentham stepped forward and calmly held out his hand to assist her from the carriage.

Jaw slack, she stared at him.

Mildred’s elbow dug into her ribs; she started, then threw a swift, fulminating glance at her aunt before haughtily reaching out and placing her fingers in Trentham’s palm.

She had no choice. Carriages were banking up; the steps of the theater hosting the most talked-about play was not the place to create a scene—to tell a gentleman what one thought of him and his machinations. To inform her aunt that this time she’d gone too far.

Cloaked in chilly hauteur, she allowed him to help her down, then stood, feigning icy indifference, idly surveying the fashionable hordes streaming up the theater steps and through the open doors while he greeted her aunts and assisted them to the pavement.

Mildred, resplendent in her favorite black and white, forcefully linked her arm in Gertie’s and forged her way up the steps.

Coolly, Trentham turned to her and offered his arm.

She met his gaze, to her surprise saw no triumph in his hazel eyes, but rather a careful watchfulness. The sight mollified her somewhat; she consented to lay the tips of her fingers on his sleeve and allow him to guide her in her aunts’ wake.

Tristan considered the angle of Leonora’s chin and preserved his silence. They joined her aunts in the foyer, where the crush had brought them to a standstill. He took the lead and with no great difficulty cleared a path to the stairs upward, drawing Leonora with him; her aunts followed close behind. Once on the stairs the press of bodies eased; covering Leonora’s hand on his sleeve, he led his party up to the semicircular corridor leading to the boxes.

He glanced at Leonora as they neared the door of the box he’d hired. “I’ve heard that Mr. Kean is the best actor of the day, and tonight’s play a worthy showcase for his talents. I thought you might enjoy it.”

She met his eyes briefly, then inclined her head, still haughtily aloof. Reaching the box, he held aside the heavy curtain screening the doorway; she swept in, her head high. He waited for her aunts to pass him, then followed, allowing the curtain to fall closed behind him.

Lady Warsingham and her sister bustled to the front of the box and disposed themselves in two of the three seats along the front. Leonora had paused in the shadows by the wall; her narrowed gaze was fixed on Lady Warsingham, who was busy noting all the notables in the other boxes, exchanging nods, determinedly not looking Leonora’s way.

He hesitated, then approached.

Her attention swung to him; her eyes flared. “How did you manage this?” She spoke in a hissed whisper. “I never told you she was my aunt.”

He raised a brow. “I have my sources.”

“And the tickets.” She glanced out at the boxes, quickly filling with those lucky enough to have secured a place. “Your cousins told me you never go out in society.”

“As you can see, that’s not strictly true.”

She glanced back at him, expecting more.

He met her gaze. “I’ve little use for society in general, but I’m not here to spend my evening with the ton.”

She frowned, somewhat warily asked, “Why are you here then?”

He held her gaze for a heartbeat, then murmured, “To spend my evening with you.”

A bell clanged in the corridor. He reached for her arm and guided her to the remaining chair at the front of the box. She threw him a skeptical glance, then sat. He drew the fourth chair around, set it to her left, angled toward her, and settled to watch the performance.

It was worth every penny of the small fortune he’d paid. His eyes rarely strayed to the stage; his gaze remained on Leonora’s face, watching the emotions flitting across her features, delicate, pure; and, in this setting, unguarded. Although initially aware of him, Edmund Kean’s magic quickly drew her in; he sat and watched, content, perceptive, intrigued.

He had no idea why she’d refused him—why, according to her, she had no interest in marriage at all. Her aunts, subjected to his most subtle interrogation, had been unable to shed any light on the matter, which meant he was going into this battle blind.

Not that that materially affected his strategy. As far as he’d ever heard, there was only one way to win a reluctant lady.

When the curtain came down at the end of the first act, Leonora sighed, then remembered where she was, and with whom. She glanced at Trentham, was unsurprised to find his gaze steady on her face.

She smiled. Coolly. “I’d very much like some refreshment.”

His eyes held hers for a moment, then his lips curved and he inclined his head, accepting the commission. His gaze went past her and he rose.

Leonora swiveled and saw Gertie and Mildred on their feet, gathering their reticules and shawls.

Mildred beamed at her and Trentham; her gaze settled on his face. “We’re off to parade in the corridor and meet everyone. Leonora hates to be subjected to the crush, but I’m sure we can rely on you to entertain her.”

For the second time that evening, Leonora’s jaw fell slack. Stunned, she watched her aunts bustle out, watched Trentham hold the heavy curtain aside for them to escape. Given her earlier insistence on avoiding the ritual parade, she could hardly complain, and there was nothing the least improper in her and Trentham remaining in the box alone; they were in public, under the gaze of any number of the ton’s matrons.

He let the curtain fall and turned back to her.

She cleared her throat. “I really am quite parched…” Refreshments were available by the stairs; reaching the booth and returning would keep him occupied for a good portion of the interval.

His gaze rested on her face; his lips were lightly curved. A tap sounded by the doorway; Trentham turned and held the curtain aside. An attendant ducked past, carrying a tray with four glasses and a bottle of chilled champagne. He placed the tray on the small table against the back wall.

“I’ll pour.”

The attendant bowed to her, then Trentham, and disappeared through the curtain.

Leonora watched as Trentham eased the cork from the bottle, then poured the delicately fizzy liquid into two of the long flutes. She was suddenly very glad she’d worn her midnight blue gown—suitable armor for this type of situation.

Picking up both glasses, he crossed to where she still sat, swiveled on her chair so she sat sideways to the pit.

He handed her one glass. She reached for it, somewhat surprised that he made no move to use the moment, to touch her fingers with his. He released the glass, caught her gaze as she glanced up.

“Relax. I won’t bite.”

She arched a brow at him, sipped, then asked, “Are you sure?”

His lips quirked; he glanced out at the patrons milling in the other boxes. “These surrounds are hardly conducive.”

He looked back at her, then reached for Gertie’s chair, turned it so its back was to the throng, and sat, stretching his long legs out before him, elegantly at ease.

He sipped, his gaze on her face, then asked, “So tell me. Is Mr. Kean really as good as they say?”

She realized he would have no notion; he’d been away with the army for the last several years. “He’s an artist without peer, at least at the moment.” Deeming the topic a safe one, she related the highlights of Mr. Kean’s career.

He put a question here and there. When the subject had run its course, he let a moment pass, then quietly said, “Speaking of performances…”

She met his eyes, and nearly choked on her champagne. Felt a slow blush rise to her cheeks. She ignored it, lifted her chin. Met his gaze directly. She was, she reminded herself, an experienced lady now. “Yes?”

He paused, as if considering not what to say but how to say it. “I wondered…” He raised his glass, sipped, his lashes screening his eyes. “How much of an actress are you?”

She blinked, let her frown show in her eyes, let her expression convey her incomprehension.

His lips quirked self-deprecatingly. His eyes returned to hers. “If I were to say you’d enjoyed our…last interlude, would I be wrong?”

Her blush intensified but she refused to look away. “No.” Remembered pleasure flooded her, gave her strength to waspishly state, “You know perfectly well I enjoyed…all of it.”

“So that didn’t contribute to your aversion to marrying me?”

It suddenly occurred to her what he was asking. “Of course not.” The idea he might think such a thing…she frowned. “I told you—my decision was reached long ago. My stance has nothing to do with you.”

Could a man like him really need reassurance on such a point? She could tell nothing from his eyes, his expression.

Then he smiled, gently, yet the gesture was more predatory than charming. “I just wanted to be sure.”

He hadn’t resigned the battle to get her to accept him—that message she read with ease. Determinedly ignoring the effect of all that lounging masculinity mere feet away, she fixed him with a polite look and asked after his cousins. He replied, allowing the change of subject.

The audience started returning to their seats; Mildred and Gertie rejoined them. Leonora was aware of the sharp glances both her aunts cast her; she kept her expression calm and serene, and gave her attention to the stage. The curtain went up; the play recommenced.

To his credit, Trentham made no move to distract her. She was once again aware his gaze remained primarily on her, but refused to acknowledge the attention in any way. He couldn’t force her to marry him; if she held to her refusal, he’d eventually go away.

Just as she’d imagined he would.

The notion of being proved right for once brought her no joy. Inwardly frowning at such a hint of susceptibility, she forced herself to concentrate on Edmund Kean.

When the curtain came down, tumultuous applause filled the theater; after Mr. Kean had taken countless bows, the audience, finally satisfied, turned to leave. Swept away by the drama, Leonora smiled easily and gave Trentham her hand, paused beside him as he lifted the curtain to allow Mildred and Gertie to pass out, then let him guide her in their wake.

The corridor was too crowded to allow any private conversation; the jostling crowd, however, gave plenty of scope for any gentleman wishing to tease a lady’s senses. To her surprise, Trentham made no move to do so. She was highly conscious of him, large, solid, and strong beside her, protecting her from the pressure of shifting bodies. From his occasional glances, she knew he was aware of her, yet his attention remained focused on steering them efficiently through the throng and out into the street.

Their carriage drew up as they gained the pavement.

He handed Gertie and Mildred up, then turned to her.

Met her gaze. Lifted her hand from his sleeve.

Holding her gaze, he raised her fingers to his lips, kissed—the warmth of the lingering caress spread through her.

“I hope you enjoyed the evening.”

She couldn’t lie. “Thank you. I did.”

He nodded and handed her up. His fingers slid from hers with only the faintest hint of reluctance.

She sat; he stepped back and closed the door. He signaled to the coachman. The carriage lurched, then rumbled off.

The impulse to sit forward and peer back out of the window to see if he stood watching nearly overcame her. Hands clasped in her lap, she stayed where she was and stared across the carriage.

He might have refrained from any illicit caress, any attempt to ruffle her senses, but she’d seen—experienced—enough to appreciate the reality behind his mask. He hadn’t given up yet.

She told herself he would. Eventually.

Seated opposite, Mildred stirred. “Such polished manners—so masterful. You have to admit there are few gentlemen about these days who are so…” Lost for words, she gestured.

“Manly,” Gertie supplied.

Both Leonora and Mildred looked at her in surprise. Mildred recovered first. “Indeed!” She nodded. “You’re quite right. He behaved just as he ought.”

Shaking free of the shock of hearing Gertie, the gentleman-hater, approve of any male—then again, this was Trentham, the charmer—she should have expected it—Leonora asked, “How did you meet him?”

Mildred shifted, settling her skirts. “He called this morning. Given you were already acquainted, accepting his invitation seemed perfectly sensible.”

From Mildred’s point of view. Leonora refrained from reminding her aunt that she’d said an old friend had given her the tickets; she’d long known what lengths Mildred would go to to get her into the presence of an eligible gentleman. And there was no doubt Trentham was eligible.

The thought brought him once more to mind—not as he’d been in the theater, but as he’d been in the golden moments they’d shared in the upstairs bedroom. Each moment, each touch, were imprinted on her memory; just the thought was enough to evoke again, not just the sensations but all the rest—all she’d felt.

She’d tried hard to keep the memories from her, not to think or dwell on the emotion that had filled her when she’d realized he intended drawing back from consummation—the emotion that had driven her to utter her plea.

Please…don’t leave me.

The words haunted her, the memory alone enough to make her feel acutely vulnerable. Exposed.

Yet his response…despite all, regardless of what else she knew of him, how she judged his character, his machinations, she owed him for that.

For giving her all she’d wanted.

For being hers to command in that moment, for giving himself to her as she’d wished.

She let the memory slide from her; it was still too evocative to wrap herself in. Instead, she turned to the evening, considered all that had and hadn’t been. Including the way she’d reacted to him, to his nearness. That had changed. No longer did her nerves leap and jump. Now, when he was close, when they touched, her nerves glowed. It was the only word she could find for the sensation, for the warm comfort it brought. Perhaps an echo of remembered pleasure. Regardless, far from being on edge, she’d felt comfortable. As if rolling naked together on a bed indulging in the act of intimacy had fundamentally changed her responses to him.

For the better, as she saw it. She no longer felt at such a disadvantage, no longer felt physically tense, keyed up in his presence. Curious, but true. Their time alone in the box had been comfortable, pleasant.

If she was honest, totally enjoyable despite his probing.

She sighed, and leaned back against the squabs. She could hardly upbraid Mildred with any sincerity. She’d enjoyed the evening far more, and in quite a different way, than she’d expected.

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