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He considered every option before replying, “At times.”

Her eyes remained steady on his, then she looked back at the garden. “That’s how you knew who I was when I ran into you that first day.”

To that he said nothing, then was left wondering what track her mind was taking.

After a long moment, her gaze fixed beyond the glass, she murmured, “I’m not very good at this business.” She gestured briefly, her hand waving between them. “I haven’t had any real experience.”

He inwardly blinked. “So I’d assumed.”

She turned her head, met his gaze. “You’ll have to teach me.”

As she faced him, he straightened. She closed the distance between them. He frowned, his hands instinctively circling her waist. “I’m not certain—”

“I’m perfectly willing to learn.” Her gaze dropped to his lips; hers curved, innocently sensual. “Even eager.”

Lifting her gaze to his eyes, she stretched upward, palms to his chest, lifted her lips to his. Softly murmured, “But you know that.”

And kissed him.

The invitation was so blatant it captured him utterly. Temporarily suspended his wits, left him at his senses’ mercy.

And his senses were merciless. They wanted more.

More of her, of the soft, luscious haven of her mouth, of her pliant, innocently beguiling lips. Of her body, tentatively yet determinedly pressing against his much harder frame.

That last shook him, shook enough of his wits into place for him to take control. What she was thinking he didn’t know, but with her lips on his, her mouth all his, her tongue dueling increasingly hotly with his, he couldn’t spare enough of his mind to follow the contortions of hers.

Later.

Now…all he could do—all he could force his body and senses to do—was follow her lead.

And teach her more.

He let her press close, gathered her fully into his arms. Let her feel his body hardening against hers, let her sense what she invoked, the response her body, supple, curvaceous and blatantly tempting, all female softness and feminine heat, provoked.

During their wanderings through the house, she’d opened her pelisse. Sliding a hand beneath the heavy wool, he set his palm to her breast. Not lightly tracing as he had before, but claiming possessively. Giving her now what their earlier interlude had teasingly promised, tauntingly foretold.

She gasped, clung, but not once did she waver; her lips cleaved to his, innocently demanding. Unfrightened, unshocked. Determined. Enthralled. She was caught, totally fascinated. He deepened the kiss, touched, caressed.

Felt the flames start to smolder. Felt desire slowly rise, stretch languidly, then reach out in hunger.

Leonora felt it, too, although she couldn’t name it, that wash of heated emptiness deep within. It infused her, and him, intrigued and beckoned. Ensnared. She had to get closer, somehow deeper into the exchange; sliding her hands up, she twined them about his neck, sighed when the movement pressed her breast firmly into his hard palm.

His hand closed and her senses rocked. His fingers shifted, seeking, finding, and her wits, her very being, stilled.

Then fractured, shattered, as those knowing fingers tightened, tightened…until she gasped through their kiss.

His fingers eased and heat flooded her, a rushing tide she’d never felt before. Her breasts swelled; the bodice of her walking dress was suddenly too tight. The thin film of her chemise chafed.

He seemed to know; he dealt with her bodice’s tiny buttons with practiced ease, and she could breathe again. Only to catch her breath on a rush of pleasure, on a spike of anticipation when he boldly slid his hand beneath the gaping gown to caress, to fondle. His touch screened by fine silk, to build her yearning once again, so that she ached for more definite contact. Burned to feel his skin against hers, desperate to feel still more.

Her lips were hungry, her demands clear. Tristan couldn’t resist. Didn’t try.

Two quick tugs and her chemise was loose; hooking one finger between her full breasts he drew the fine fabric down.

Then set his hand to her bounty.

Felt the deep shudder that racked her in his soul.

He closed his hand, hungrily possessive, and her heart leapt.

His followed.

Into a furnace of greedy, eager giving, of sensual taking, of appreciation, and a dawning recognition of mutual need.

Hands and lips fed the hunger, eager, inciting. Enthralled.

There was a change in their interaction. He sensed it, surprised to find himself, although still in control, no longer dictating their play. Her developing assurance, her interest and understanding, invested her lips, directed the way she met him, the slow sensuous stroking of her tongue against his, the seductive caress of her fingers in his hair, the openly confident, determinedly fascinated way she sank against him, all supple limbs and soft heat, bathing in the flames of a mutual conflagration he’d never imagined sharing with an innocent woman.

Lust and a virtuous woman.

The thought echoed in his brain even while she filled his senses. She was more than he’d expected even while he was something other than she’d thought. Something beyond her experience, yet she was something beyond his.

The flames between them were definite, real, scorching, firing thoughts of passion, of greater intimacy, of the satiation of that mutual need.

It hadn’t occurred to him that they might travel this far so soon. He in no way regretted it, yet…

Deeply entrenched instincts had him drawing back, easing her back. Slowing their caresses, lightening them. Letting the flames gradually subside to a simmer.

He lifted his head, looked at her eyes. Watched her lashes rise, then met her clear, startlingly blue gaze.

Read in it not shock, not the slightest hint of retreat or fluster, but instead an awakened interest. A question.

What next?

He knew, but this was not, yet, the time to explore that avenue. He recalled where they were, what his mission was. He felt his face harden. “It’s getting dark. I’ll see you home.”

Leonora inwardly frowned, but then her gaze slipped past his shoulder to the window; night had indeed fallen. She blinked, stepped back as he released her. “I hadn’t realized it was so late.”

Naturally not; her wits had been in a whirl. A pleasurable whirl, one that had opened her eyes considerably more. Ignoring her chemise, doggedly refusing to let her mind dwell on what had just occurred—later, when he wasn’t around to see her blushes—she adjusted and re-fastened her bodice, then buttoned her pelisse.

His gaze, sharp as ever, hadn’t left her. She lifted her head and met it directly. He searched her eyes, then raised a brow. “I take it”—his gaze shifted from her to sweep the room—“you approve of the decor?”

She raised a haughty brow back. “I daresay it’s eminently suitable for your purpose.” Whatever that might be.

Head high, she swung toward the door. She felt his gaze on her back as she crossed the room, then he stirred and followed.

 

She had very little experience of men. Especially not men like Trentham. That, Leonora felt, was her greatest weakness, one that left her at an unfair disadvantage whenever she was with him.

Stifling a humph, she dragged her silky quilt about her and climbed into the old armchair before the fire blazing in her room. It was icy outside, too cold even to sit in the conservatory and think. Besides, a quilt and an armchair before the fire seemed much more suitable given the issues she was determined to think about.

Trentham had escorted her home and requested an interview with her uncle and Jeremy. She’d taken him to the library, listened while he questioned them as to whether they’d stumbled onto any possibility that might be the burglar’s aim. She could have told him that neither of them would have spared a thought for the burglar let alone his objective since he, Trentham, had last mentioned the matter—and so it had proved. Neither had any ideas or suggestions; the puzzled look in their eyes clearly stated they were surprised he was still intersted in the affair at all.

He saw it as well as she; his jaw set, but he thanked them and politely enough took his leave.

Only she had sensed his disapproval; her uncle and brother had remained, as ever, determinedly oblivious.

With Henrietta padding beside her, canine appreciation for Trentham transparent, she’d walked with him to the front hall. She’d dismissed Castor earlier; they’d been alone in the soft lamplight, in a place in which she’d always felt secure.

Then Trentham had looked at her, and she hadn’t felt safe at all. She’d felt hot. Warmth had spread beneath her skin; a light flush rose to her cheeks. All in response to the look in his eyes, to the thoughts she could see behind them.

They’d been standing close. He’d lifted a hand, traced her cheek, then slid one finger beneath her chin and tipped up her face. Set his lips to hers in a swift, unfulfilling kiss.

Raising his head, he’d caught her gaze. Held it for a moment, then murmured, “Take care.”

He’d released her just as Castor came hurrying from the nether regions. He’d departed without a backward glance, leaving her to wonder, to speculate. To plan.

If she dared.

That, she decided, snuggling into the quilt’s warmth, was the crucial question. Did she dare satisfy her curiosity? It was, in truth, more than curiosity; she had a burning desire to know, to experience all that could lie between a man and a woman physically and emotionally.

She’d always expected to learn those facts at some point in her life. Instead, fate and society had conspired to keep her ignorant, the commonly accepted decree holding that only married ladies could participate, experience, and thus know.

All well and good if one was a young girl. At twenty-six, she no longer fitted that description; to her mind, the proscription no longer applied.

No one had ever advanced any explanation of the moral logic behind society’s acceptance that married ladies, once they’d presented their husbands with an heir, could indulge in affairs as long as they remained discreet.

She intended to be the very soul of discretion, and she had no vows to break.

If she wished to avail herself of Trentham’s offer to introduce her to the pleasures she’d thus far been denied, there were, in her view, no social conventions she need consider. As for the somewhat indefinite quibble of her falling with child, there had to be some way around such things or London would be awash with by-blows and half the ton’s matrons perpetually pregnant; she was sure Trentham would know how to manage.

Indeed, it was in part his experience, that air of competence and expertise, that attracted her, that had made it possible that afternoon for her to grasp the invitation he’d offered.

Clearly, she’d read that invitation correctly; the subtle, step-by-step advancement of their engagement, from touch, to kiss, to sensual caress confirmed it. Now she’d taken the first step into his arms, he’d shown her enough for her to have some inkling of what she’d missed, of what lay ahead.

He’d introduced her to a degree of intimacy that was clearly the prelude to all she wished to know. He was willing to be her partner in adventure, her mentor in that sphere. To guide her, teach her, show her. In return, of course…but she understood that and, after all, who was she saving herself for?

Marriage and its attendant dependency was a yoke that simply didn’t fit her. Having accepted that years ago, her only real regret, a silent and somewhat suppressed regret, had been that she would never experience physical intimacy or that particular brand of sensual pleasure.

Now Trentham had appeared, dangling temptation before her.

Eyes on the flames glowing hotly in the hearth, she considered reaching for it.

If she didn’t act now and grab the chance fate had finally consented to allow her, who knew for how long his interest, and therefore his offer, would stand? Military gentlemen were not renowned for their constancy; she had firsthand experience of that.

Her mind slid away, assessing the possibilities, distracted by them. The fire slowly died to red-hot embers.

When the chill in the air finally penetrated her absorption, she realized she’d made her decision. Her mind had been engrossed, had been for some time, with two questions.

How was she to convey that decision to Trentham?

And how could she manage their interaction so that the reins remained in her hands?

 

Tristan received the letter by the first post the next morning.

After the customary salutations, Leonora had written:

With respect to the item the burglar seeks, I have decided it would be wise to search my late cousin Cedric’s workshop. The room is quite extensive, but has been closed up for some years, indeed, since before we took possession of the house. It may be that a determined search will turn up some item of real but esoteric value. I will commence my search immediately after luncheon; should I discover anything of note, I will of course inform you.

Yours, etc.

Leonora Carling

He read the letter three times. His well-honed instincts assured him there was more to it than the superficial meaning of the words, yet her hidden agenda eluded him. Deciding he’d been a covert operative for too long and was now seeing plots where there patently were none, he set the letter aside and put his mind determinedly to business.

His, and hers.

He dealt with hers first, listing the various avenues available for identifying the man masquerading as Montgomery Mountford. After considering the list, he wrote a summons and sent a footman to deliver it, then settled to write a series of letters the recipients would prefer not to receive. Nevertheless, debts were debts, and he was calling them in in a good cause.

An hour later, Havers conducted a nondescript, rather shabby individual into the study. Tristan sat back and waved him to a chair. “Good morning, Colby. Thank you for coming.”

The man was wary, but not servile. He ducked his head and sat in the chair, glancing quickly around as Havers closed the door, then looking back at Tristan. “Mornin’, sir—beggin’ your pardon, it’s m’lord, ain’t it?”

Tristan merely smiled.

Colby’s nervousness increased. “What can I help you with, then?”

Tristan told him. Despite his appearance, Colby was the recognized underworld baron of the patch of London that included Montrose Place. Tristan had made his acquaintance, or rather made sure Colby knew of him, when they’d settled on Number 12 for the club.

On hearing of the strange goings-on in Montrose Place, Colby sucked his teeth and looked severe. Tristan had never believed that the attempted burglaries were the handiwork of the local louts; Colby’s reaction and subsequent assurance confirmed that.

His eyes narrowed, Colby now looked more like the potentially dangerous specimen he was. “I’d like to meet this fine gentleman of yours.”

“He’s mine.” Tristan made the statement blandly.

Colby glanced at him, assessing, then nodded. “I’ll put the word around you’re wanting a word with ’im. If any of the boys hear of ’im, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

Tristan inclined his head. “Once I lay hands on him, you won’t see him again.”

Colby nodded, once, bargain accepted. Information in exchange for removal of a competitor. Tristan rang for Havers, who saw Colby out.

Tristan finished the last of his requests for information, then gave them to Havers with strict instructions for delivery. “No livery. Use the heaviest footmen.”

“Indeed, my lord. I apprehend we wish to make a show of strength. Collison would be best in that regard.”

Tristan nodded, fighting a smile as Havers withdrew. The man was a godsend, dealing with the myriad demands of the old dears, yet with equal aplomb accommodating the rougher side of Tristan’s affairs.

Having accomplished all he could regarding Montgomery Mountford, Tristan gave his attention to the day-to-day business of keeping his head above water with the details and demands of the earldom. While the clock ticked and time passed without his making any real headway in the matter of making said earldom secure.

For one of his temperament, that last irked.

He had Havers bring him luncheon on a tray and continued to whittle down the stack of business letters. Scrawling a note to his steward on the last, he sighed and pushed the completed pile aside.

And turned his mind determinedly to marriage.

To his wife-to-be.

Telling that he didn’t think of her as a bride, but as his wife. Their association was not based on social superficialties, but on practical, ungilded day-to-day interactions. He could easily picture her by his side, as his countess dealing with the demands of their future life.

He should, he supposed, have considered a range of candidates. If he asked, his resident gossipmongers would be thrilled to provide him with a list. He’d toyed with the notion, or at least had told himself he was, yet appealing to others for assistance in such a personal and vitally crucial decision was simply not his style.

It was also redundant, a waste of time.

To the right of the blotter lay Leonora’s letter. His gaze locking on it, on the delicate script reminiscent of the writer, he sat and brooded, turning his pen end over end between his fingers.

The clock struck three. He looked up, then threw the pen down, pushed back his chair, stood and headed for the hall.

Havers met him there, helped him into his greatcoat, handed him his cane, then swung the door wide.

Tristan walked out, went quickly down the steps, and headed for Montrose Place.

 

He found Leonora in the workshop, a large chamber tucked into the basement of Number 14. The walls were solid stone, thick and cold. A row of windows high along one wall looked out at ground level toward the front of the house. They would have admitted reasonable light once, but were now fogged and cracked.

They were, Tristan instantly noted, too small for even a child to crawl through.

Leonora hadn’t heard him walk in; she had her nose buried in some musty tome. He scraped a sole on the flags. She looked up—and smiled in delighted welcome.

He smiled back, let the simple gesture warm him; he strolled in, looking about. “I thought you said this place had been closed up for years?”

There were no cobwebs, and all surfaces—tables, floors, and shelves—were clean.

“I sent in the maids this morning.” She met his gaze as he turned to her. “I’m not particularly partial to spiders.”

He noticed a pile of dusty letters stacked on the bench beside her; his levity faded. “Have you found anything?”

“Nothing specific.” She closed the book; a cloud of dust puffed out from the pages. She gestured to the wooden rack, a cross between bookshelves and pigeonholes covering the wall behind the bench. “He was neat, but not methodical. He seems to have kept everything, stretching back over the years. I’ve been sorting bills and accounts from letters, shopping lists from drafts of learned papers.”

He picked up the old parchment topping the pile. It was a letter inscribed in faded ink. He initially thought the script a woman’s, but the contents were clearly scientific. He glanced at the signature. “Who’s A. J.?”

Leonora leaned closer to check the letter; her breast brushed his arm. “A. J. Carruthers.”

She moved away, lifting the old tome back to the shelf. He squelched a flaring urge to draw her back, to reestablish the sensual contact.

“Carruthers and Cedric corresponded frequently—it seems they were working on some papers before Cedric died.”

With the tome safely stored, Leonora turned. He continued flicking through the letters. Her gaze on the pile of parchments, she moved closer. Misjudged and moved too far—she brushed, shoulder to thigh, against him.

Desire ignited, flamed between them.

Tristan tried to breathe in. Couldn’t. The letters slipped from his fingers. He told himself to step back.

His feet wouldn’t move. His body craved the contact too much to deny it.

She glanced fleetingly up at him through her lashes, then, as if embarrassed, eased fractionally back, creating a gap of less than an inch between them.

Too much, yet not enough. His arms were rising to haul her back, when he realized and lowered them.

She reached quickly for the letters and spread them out.

“I was”—her voice was husky; she paused to clear her throat—“going to sort through these. There might be something in them that will point to a discovery.”

It took longer than he liked for him to refocus on the letters; he’d clearly been celibate for too long. He breathed in, exhaled. His mind cleared. “Indeed—they might allow us to decide if it’s something Cedric discovered that Mountford’s after. We shouldn’t forget he wanted to buy the house—it’s something he expected would be left behind.”

“Or something he could gain access to by virtue of being the purchaser, before we moved out.”

“True.” He fanned the letters over the bench top, then looked up at the large pigeonholes. Stepping away from temptation, he turned down the room, following the bench, scanning the shelves above it, searching for more letters. He pulled out all he saw, leaving them on the bench top. “I want you to go through every letter you can find, and collect all those written in the year preceding Cedric’s death.”

Following him, Leonora frowned at his back, then tried to peer around at his face. “There’ll be hundreds.”

“However many, you’ll need to study them all. Then make a list of the correspondents, and write and ask each one if they know of anything Cedric was working on that could have commercial or military significance.”

She blinked. “Commercial or military significance?”

“They’ll know. Scientists may be as absorbed in their work as your uncle and brother, but they usually recognize the possibilities in what they’re working on.”

“Hmm.” Gaze fixed between his shoulder blades, she continued following at his heels. “So I’m to write to each contact he made in his last year.”

“Every last one. If there was anything of significance, someone will know.”

He reached the end of the room and swung around. She looked down—and walked into him. He caught her; she looked up, feigning surprise.

Didn’t have to fabricate her leaping pulse, her suddenly thudding heart.

He’d focused on her lips; her gaze fell to his.

Then he glanced at the door.

“All the staff are busy.” She’d made sure of that.

His gaze returned to her face. She met it but briefly; when he didn’t immediately move, she wriggled her hands free and reached up, sliding one to his nape, curling the fingers of the other into his lapel.

“Stop being so stuffy and kiss me.”

Tristan blinked. Then she shifted in his arms, unintentionally teasing that part of his anatomy most susceptible to her nearness.

Without another thought, he bent his head.

 

He escaped nearly an hour later, feeling distinctly bemused. It had been years—decades—since he’d indulged in any such mildly illicit behavior, yet far from boring him, his senses were smugly content, luxuriating in the stolen pleasures.

Striding down the front path, he raked his hand through his hair and hoped it would pass muster. Leonora had developed a penchant for thoroughly mussing his normally elegant cut. Not that he was complaining. While she’d been mussing, he’d been savoring.

Her mouth, her curves.

Lowering his arm, he noticed a smear of dust on his sleeve. He brushed it off. The maids had dusted all surfaces; they hadn’t dusted the letters. When they’d finally separated, he’d had to brush telltale streaks off both himself and Leonora. In her case, not just from her clothes.

The image of how she’d appeared at that point swam across his mind. Her eyes had been bright but darkened, her lids heavy, her lips swollen from his kisses. Drawing his attention even more to her mouth—a mouth that increasingly evoked mental images not generally associated with virtuous gentlewomen.

Closing the front gate behind him, he suppressed a wholely masculine smirk—and ignored the effect such thoughts inevitably had. The afternoon’s discoveries had improved his mood significantly. Reviewing the day, he felt he’d gained on a number of fronts.

He’d come to view Cedric’s workshop determined to move the investigation into the burglaries forward. Impatience was sharpening its spurs; it was his duty to marry, thus protecting his tribe of old dears from destitution, but before he could marry Leonora, he had to nullify the threat to her. Eliminating that threat was his top priority; it was too immediate, too definite to give second place. Until he successfully completed his mission, he’d remain focused first and always on that.

So having escalated his own investigations through the various layers of the underworld, he’d come to assess what avenues for advancement Cedric’s workshop might suggest.

Cedric’s letters would indeed be useful. First in eliminating his works as a potential target for the burglar, second in keeping Leonora amused.

Well, perhaps not amused, but certainly busy. Too busy to have time to embark on any other avenue of attack.

He’d accomplished a great deal for one day. Satisfied, he strode on, and turned his mind to the morrow.

 

Devising her own seduction, or at least actively encouraging it, was proving more difficult than Leonora had thought. She’d expected to get rather further in Cedric’s workshop, but Trentham had failed to close the door when he’d entered. Crossing the room and closing it herself would have been too blatant.

Not that matters hadn’t progressed; they just hadn’t progressed as far as she’d wished.

And now he’d lumbered her with the task of going through Cedric’s correspondence. At least he’d restricted their search to the last year of Cedric’s life.

She’d spent the rest of the day reading and sorting, squinting at faded writing, deciphering illegible dates. This morning, she’d brought all the relevant letters up to the parlor and spread them on the occasional tables. The parlor was the room in which she conducted all household business; sitting at her escritoire, she dutifully inscribed all the names and addresses onto a list.

A long list.

She then composed a letter of inquiry, advising the recipient of Cedric’s death and requesting they contact her if they had any information regarding anything of value, discoveries, inventions, or possessions, that might reside in her late cousin’s effects. Instead of mentioning the burglar’s interest, she stated that, due to space constraints, it was intended that all nonvaluable papers, substances, and equipment would be burned.

If she knew anything of experts, should they know of anything the least valuable, the idea of it being burned would have them reaching for their pen.

After luncheon, she commenced the arduous task of copying her letter, addressing each copy to one of the names on her list.

When the clock chimed and she saw it was three-thirty, she set down her pen and stretched her aching back.

Enough for today. Not even Trentham would expect her to get through the inquiries all in one day.

She rang for tea; when Castor brought the tray, she poured and sipped.

And thought of seduction.

Hers.

A distinctly titillating subject, especially for a twenty-six-year-old reluctant-but-resigned virgin. That was a reasonable description of what she’d been, but she was resigned no more. Opportunity had beckoned, and she was determined to play.

She glanced at the clock. Too late to call at Trentham House for afternoon tea. Besides, she didn’t want to find herself surrounded by his old ladies; that would not advance her cause.

But losing a whole day in inaction wasn’t her style, either. There had to be some way, some excuse she could use to call on Trentham—and get him to herself in appropriate surrounds.

 

“Would you like me to show you around, miss?”

“No, no.” Leonora crossed the threshold of the Trentham House conservatory and cast a reassuring smile at Trentham’s butler. “I’ll just amble about and await his lordship. If you’re sure he’ll return soon?”

“I’m certain he’ll arrive home before dark.”

“In that case…” She smiled and gestured about her, moving deeper into the room.

“Should you require anything, the bellpull is to the left.” Serene and unperturbed, the butler bowed and left her.

Leonora looked around. Trentham’s conservatory was much larger than theirs; indeed, it was monstrous. Recalling his supposed need of information on such rooms, she humphed. His was not just larger, it was better, the temperature much more even, the floor beautifully tiled in blue-and-green mosaics. A small fountain tinkled somewhere—she couldn’t see through the artfully arranged, lush and verdant growth.

A path led on; she strolled down it.

It was four o’clock; outside the glass-paned walls the light was fading fast. Trentham clearly wouldn’t be long, but why he would feel impelled by falling night to return to his house she couldn’t fathom. The butler, however, had been quite definite on the point.

She reached the end of the path and stepped into a clearing ringed by high banks of shrubs and flowering bushes. It contained a circular pond set into the floor; the small fountain at its center was responsible for the tinkling. Beyond the pond, a wide window seat, heavily cushioned, followed the curve of the windowed wall; sitting on it, one could either view the garden outside, or look inward, contemplating the pond and the well-stocked conservatory.

Crossing to the window seat, she sank onto the cushions. They were deep, comfortable—perfect for her needs. She considered, then stood and walked on, along another path following the curved outer wall. Better she meet Trentham standing; he towered over her as it was. She could lead him back to the window seat—

A flash of movement in the garden caught her eye. She stopped, looked; she couldn’t see anything unusual. The shadows had deepened while she’d been ambling; gloom now gathered beneath the trees.

Then, out of one such pocket of darkness, a man emerged. Tall, dark, lean, he wore a tattered coat and stained corduroy breeches, a battered cap pulled low on his head. He glanced furtively around as he strode rapidly for the house.

Leonora sucked in a breath. Wild thoughts of yet another burglar flooded her mind; recollection of the man who twice had attacked her stole her breath. This man was much larger; if he got his hands on her, she wouldn’t be able to break free.

And his long legs were carrying him straight to the conservatory.

Sheer panic held her motionless in the shadow of the massed plants. The door would be locked, she told herself. Trentham’s butler was excellent—

The man reached the door, reached for the handle, turned it.

The door swung inward. He stepped through.

Faint light from the distant hallway reached him as he closed the door, turned, straightened.

“Good God!”

The exclamation exploded from Leonora’s tight chest. She stared, unable to believe her eyes.

Trentham’s head had snapped around at her first squeak.

He stared back at her, then his lips thinned and he frowned—and recognition was complete.

“Sssh!” He motioned her to silence, glanced toward the corridor, then, soft-footed, approached. “At the risk of repeating myself, what the damn hell are you doing here?”

She simply stared at him—at the grime worked into his face, at the dark stubble shading his jaw. A smudge of soot ran upward from one brow and disappeared beneath his hair, now hanging lank and listless under that cap—a worn tartan monstrosity that looked even worse at close range.

Her gaze drifted down to take in his coat, tattered and none too clean, to his breeches and knitted stockings, and the rough work boots he had on his feet. Reaching them, she paused, then ran her gaze all the way back up to his eyes. Met his irritated gaze.

“Answer my question and I’ll answer yours—what in all Hades are you supposed to be?”

His lips thinned. “What do I look like?”

“Like a navvy from the most dangerous slum in town.” A definite aroma reached her; she sniffed. “Perhaps down by the docks.”

“Very perceptive,” Tristan growled. “Now what brought you here? Have you discovered something?”

She shook her head. “I wanted to see your conservatory. You said you’d show it to me.”

The tension—the apprehension—that had flashed through him on seeing her there leached away. He looked down at himself, and grimaced. “You’ve called at a bad time.”

She frowned, her gaze once more on his disreputable attire. “But what have you been doing? Where have you been, dressed like that?”

“As you so perceptively guessed, the docks.” Searching for any clue, any hint, any whisper of one Montgomery Mountford.

“You’re a trifle old to be indulging in larks.” She looked up and caught his gaze. “Do you frequently do such things?”

“No.” Not anymore. He had never expected to don these clothes again, but on doing so that morning, had felt peculiarly justified in his refusal to throw them out. “I’ve been visiting the sort of dens that would-be burglars haunt.”

“Oh. I see.” She looked up at him with now openly eager interest. “Did you learn anything?”

“Not directly, but I’ve passed the word—”

“Oh, is she in here, then, Havers?”

Ethelreda. Tristan swore beneath his breath.

“We’ll just keep her company until dear Tristan arrives.”

“No need for her to mope about all alone.”

“Miss Carling? Are you there?”

He swore again. They were all there—coming this way. “For God’s sake!” he muttered. He went to grab Leonora, then remembered his hands were filthy. He kept his palms away from her. “You’ll have to distract them.”

It was an outright plea; he met her eyes, infused every ounce of beseeching candor of which he was capable into his expression.

She looked at him. “They don’t know you go out masquerading as a lout, do they?”

“No. And they’ll have fits if they see me like this.”

Fits would be the least of it; Ethelreda had a horrible tendency to swoon.

They were casting about along the paths, drawing inexorably nearer.

He held out his hands, begging. “Please.”

She smiled. Slowly. “All right. I’ll save you.” She turned and started toward the source of feminine twittering, then glanced back over her shoulder. Caught his eye. “But you owe me a favor.”

“Anything.” He sighed with relief. “Just get them out of here. Take them to the drawing room.”

Her smile deepening, Leonora turned and went on. Anything, he’d said. An excellent outcome from an otherwise useless exercise.

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