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The conservatory was her domain. Other than the gardener, no one else came there. It was her sanctuary, her refuge, her place of safety. As she led the way down the central aisle and heard the door click behind her, for the first time within the glass walls, she felt a frisson of danger.

Her slippers slapped softly on the tiles; her silk skirts swished. Lower yet came Trentham’s soft tread as he followed her down the path.

Excitement and something sharper gripped her. “Through the winter, the room’s heated by steam piped from the kitchen.” Reaching the end of the path, halting in the deepest curve of the bow windows, she dragged in a breath. Her heart was thudding so loudly she could hear it, feel the pulse in her fingers. She reached out, touched one fingertip to the glass pane. “There are two layers of glass to help keep the heat in.”

The night outside was black; she focused on the pane, and saw Trentham approaching, his image reflected in the glass. Two lamps burned low, one on either side of the room; they threw enough light to see one’s way, to gain some idea of the plants.

Trentham closed the distance between them, his stride slow, a large, infinitely predatory figure; not for an instant did she doubt he was watching her. His face remained in shadow, until, halting close behind her, he lifted his gaze and met hers in the glass.

His eyes locked with hers.

His hands slid around her waist, closed, held her.

Her mouth was dry. “Are you really interested in conservatories?”

His gaze drifted down. “I’m interested in what this conservatory contains.”

“The plants?” Her voice was a thread.

“No. You.”

He turned her, and she was in his arms. He bent his head and covered her lips, as if he had the right. As if in some strange way she belonged to him.

Her hand came to rest on his shoulder. Gripped as he parted her lips and surged in. He held her anchored before him as he savored her mouth, unhurriedly, as if he had all the time in the world.

And intended taking it.

The engagement made her head spin. Pleasurably. Warmth spread beneath her skin; the taste of him—hard, male, dominant—sank into her.

For long moments, they both simply took, gave, explored. While something within them both tightened.

He broke the kiss, lifted his head, but only enough to draw her closer yet. His hand, spread across her back, burned through the fine silk of her gown. He looked into her eyes from beneath heavy, almost slumbrous lids.

“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

She blinked, valiantly struggled to reassemble her wits. Watched him watch her attempt it. Requesting enlightenment on what his next step would be would assuredly be tempting fate; he was waiting for the question.

“Never mind.” Boldly, she reached up and drew his lips back to hers.

They were curved as they met hers, but he obliged; together they sank back into the exchange, let it draw them deeper. He drew back again.

“How old are you?”

The question feathered across her senses, into her mind. Her lips throbbed, hungry still; she brushed them across his.

“Does it matter?”

His lids lifted; their gazes touched. A moment passed. “Not materially.”

She licked her lips, looked at his. “Twenty-six.”

Those wicked lips curved. Once again, danger tickled her spine.

“Old enough.”

He drew her to him, against him; once again he bent his head.

Once again she met him.

Tristan sensed her eagerness, her enthusiasm. That much, at least, he’d won. She’d handed him the situation on a platter; it had been too good to pass up—another chance to build her awareness, to expand her horizons. Enough at least so that next time he sought to distract her sensually he’d have some chance of success.

She’d snapped out of his hold too easily that afternoon, evaded his snare, shaken free of any lingering fascination far too readily for his liking.

His nature had always been dictatorial. Tyrannical. Predatory.

He came from a long line of hedonistic males who had, with few exceptions, always taken what they’d wanted.

He definitely wanted her but in a way that was somehow different, to a depth that was unfamilar. Something within him had changed, or perhaps more correctly emerged. Some part of him he’d never before had reason to wrestle with; never before had any woman called it forth.

She did. Effortlessly. But she had no idea of what she did, far less of what she tempted.

Her mouth was a delight, a cavern of honeyed sweetness, warm, beguiling, infinitely alluring. Her fingers tangled in his hair; her tongue dueled with his, quick to learn, eager to experience.

He gave her what she wanted, yet reined his demons back. She pressed closer, all but inviting him to deepen the kiss. An invitation he saw no reason to decline.

Slender, supple, subtly curvaceous, her softer limbs and softer flesh were a potent feminine prod to his totally masculine need. The feel of her in his arms fed his desire, stoked the sensual fires that had sprung up between them.

Play it by ear. Follow their noses. The simplest way forward.

She was so unlike the wife he’d imagined—the wife some part of him, was still stubbornly insisting was the sort he should be searching for—he wasn’t yet ready to resign that position completely, at least not openly.

He sank deeper into her mouth, drew her closer still, savoring her warmth and its age-old promise.

Time enough to examine where they were once they’d got there; letting matters develop as they would while he dealt with the mysterious burglar was only wise. Regardless of whatever was growing between them, his priorities at this point were unwaveringly clear. Removing the threat hanging over her was his primary and overriding concern; nothing, but nothing, would deflect him from that goal—he was too experienced to permit any interference.

Time enough once he’d accomplished that mission and she was safe, secure, to turn his mind to dealing with the desire that some benighted fate had sown between them.

He could feel it welling, growing in strength, in intent, more ravenous with every minute she spent in his arms. It was time to call a halt; he had no compunction in shutting his demons in, in gradually drawing back from the exchange.

He lifted his head. She blinked dazedly up at him, then drew in a sharp breath and glanced around. He eased his hold and she stepped back, her gaze returning to his face.

Her tongue came out, traced her upper lip.

He was suddenly conscious of a definite ache. He straightened, drew breath.

“What—” She cleared her throat. “What are your plans in relation to the burglar?”

He looked at her. Wondered what it would take to totally strip her wits away. “The new Registry they’re compiling at Somerset House. I want to learn who Montgomery Mountford is.”

She thought for only a moment, then nodded. “I’ll come with you. Two people looking will be faster than one.”

He paused as if considering, then inclined his head. “Very well. I’ll call for you at eleven.”

She stared at him; he couldn’t read her eyes but knew she was surprised.

He smiled. Charmingly.

Her expression turned suspicious.

His smile deepened into a genuine gesture, cynical and amused. Capturing her hand, he raised it to his lips. “Until tomorrow.”

She met his eyes. Her brows rose haughtily. “Shouldn’t you take some notes on the conservatory?”

He held her gaze, turned her hand, and placed a lingering kiss in her palm. “I lied. I already have one.” Releasing her hand, he stepped back. “Remind me to show it to you sometime.”

With a nod and a final challenging glance, he left her.

 

She was still suspicious when he arrived to take her up in his curricle the next morning.

He met her gaze, then handed her up; she stuck her nose in the air and pretended not to notice. He climbed up, took the reins, and set his greys pacing.

She looked well, striking in a deep blue pelisse buttoned over a walking gown of sky-blue. Her bonnet framed her face, her fine features touched with delicate color as if some artist had taken his brush to the finest porcelain. As he guided his skittish pair through the crowded streets, he found it hard to understand why she’d never married.

All the tonnish males in London couldn’t be that blind. Had she hidden herself away for some reason? Or had her managing disposition, her trenchant self-reliance, her propensity to take the lead, proved too much of a challenge?

He was perfectly aware of her less-than-admirable traits, yet for some unfathomable reason, that part of him that she and only she had tempted forth insisted on seeing them as, not even anything so mild as a challenge—more a declaration of war. As if she was an opponent blatantly defying him. All nonsense, he knew, yet the conviction ran deep.

It had, in part, dictated his latest tack. He had agreed to her request to accompany him to Somerset House; he would have suggested it if she hadn’t—there would be no danger there.

While with him, she was safe; if out of his sight, left to her own devices, she would undoubtedly try to come at the problem—her problem as she’d so trenchantly declared—from some other angle. Ordering her to cease investigating on her own, forcing her to do so, was beyond his present powers. Keeping her with him as much as possible was unquestionably the safest course.

Tacking down the Strand, he mentally winced. His rational arguments sounded so logical. The compulsion behind them—the compulsion he used such arguments to excuse—was novel and distinctly unsettling. Disconcerting. The sudden realization that the well-being of a lady of mature years and independent mind was now critical to his equanimity was just a tad shocking.

They arrived at Somerset House; leaving the curricle in the care of his tiger, they entered the building, footsteps echoing on the cold stone. An assistant peered at them from behind a counter; Tristan made his request and they were directed down a corridor to a cavernous hall. Regimented rows of wooden cabinets filled the space; each cabinet possessed multiple drawers.

Another assistant, advised of their search, pointed to a particular set of cabinets. The letters “MOU” were inscribed in gold on the polished wooden fronts. “I would suggest you start there.”

Leonora walked briskly to the cabinets; he followed rather more slowly, thinking of what the drawers must contain, estimating how many certificates might be found in each drawer…

His conjecture was borne out when Leonora pulled open the first drawer. “Good Lord!” She stared at the mass of paper crammed into the space. “This could take days!”

He pulled open the drawer beside her. “Just as well you invited yourself along.”

She made a sound suspiciously like a suppressed snort and started checking the names. It wasn’t as bad as they’d feared; in short order they located the first Mountford, but the number of people born in England with that surname was depressingly large. They persevered, and ultimately discovered that yes, indeed, there was a Montgomery Mountford.

“But”—Leonora stared at the birth certificate—“this means he’s seventy-three!”

She frowned, then pushed the certificate back, looked at the next, and the next. And the next.

“Six of them,” she muttered, her exasperated tone confirming what he’d expected. “And not one of them could possibly be him. The first five are too old, and this one is thirteen.”

He put a hand briefly on her shoulder. “Check carefully on either side in case a certificate’s been misfiled. I’ll check with the assistant.”

Leaving her frowning, flicking through the certificates, he walked to the supervisor’s desk. A quiet word and the supervisor sent one of his assistants scurrying. Three minutes later a dapper individual in the sober garb of a government functionary arrived.

Tristan explained what he was looking for.

Mr. Crosby bowed. “Indeed, my lord. However, I do not believe that name is one of those protected. If you’ll allow me to verify?”

Tristan waved, and Crosby walked down the room.

Dispirited, Leonora shut the drawers. She returned to his side, and they waited until Crosby reappeared.

He bowed to Leonora, then looked at Tristan. “It is as you suspected, my lord. Unless there’s a certificate missing—which I very much doubt—then there is no Montgomery Mountford of the age you’re searching for.”

Tristan thanked him and steered Leonora outside. They paused on the steps and she turned to him.

Met his gaze. “Why would someone use an assumed name?”

“Because,” he pulled on his driving gloves, felt his jaw set, “he’s up to no good.” Retaking her elbow, he urged her down the steps. “Come—let’s go for a drive.”

*   *   *

He took her into Surrey, to Mallingham Manor, now his home. He did so impulsively, he supposed to distract her, something he felt was increasingly necessary. A felon using an assumed name boded no good at all.

From the Strand, he headed across the river, immediately alerting her to the change in direction. But when he explained he needed to attend to business at his estate so he could return to town free to pursue the question of Montgomery Mountford, phantom burglar, she accepted the arrangement readily.

The road was direct and in excellent condition; the greys were fresh and eager to stretch their legs. He turned the curricle in between the elegant wrought-iron gates in good time for luncheon. Setting the pair pacing up the drive, he noted Leonora’s attention was fixed on the huge house ahead, standing amid manicured lawns and formal parterres. The gravel drive swept up to a circular forecourt before the imposing front doors.

He followed her gaze; he suspected he saw the house as she did, for he’d yet to grow used to the idea that this was now his, his home. A manor house had stood on the spot for centuries, but his great-uncle had renovated and refurbished with zeal. What now faced them was a Palladian mansion built of creamy sandstone with pediments over every long window and mock battlements above the long line of the facade.

The greys swept into the forecourt. Leonora exhaled. “It’s beautiful. So elegant.”

He nodded, allowing himself to acknowledge it, permitting himself to admit that his great-uncle had got something right.

A stable lad came running as he stepped to the ground. Leaving the curricle and pair to his tiger’s care, he helped Leonora down, then led her up the steps.

Clitheroe, his great-uncle’s butler, now his, opened the doors before they reached them, beaming in his usual genial way. “Welcome home, my lord.” Clitheroe included Leonora in his smile.

“Clitheroe, this is Miss Carling. We’ll be here for luncheon, then I’ll tend to business before we return to town.”

“Indeed, my lord. Shall I inform the ladies?”

Shrugging out of his greatcoat, Tristan suppressed a grimace. “No. I’ll take Miss Carling to meet them. I assume they’re in the morning room?”

“Yes, my lord.”

He lifted Leonora’s pelisse from her shoulders and gave it to Clitheroe. Placing her hand on his sleeve, with his other hand he gestured down the hall. “I believe I mentioned that I had various females—family and connections—resident here?”

She glanced at him. “You did. Are they cousins like the others?”

“Some, but the two most notable are my great-aunts Hermione and Hortense. At this time of day, the group are invariably to be found in the morning room.” He met her eyes. “Gossiping.”

He paused and threw open a door. As if to prove his point, the flurry of feminine chatter within immediately ceased.

As he conducted her into the long room filled with light courtesy of a succession of windows along one wall, all looking out over a pastoral scene of gentle lawns leading down to a distant lake, Leonora found herself subjected to wide-eyed, unblinking stares. His ladies—she counted eight—were positively agog.

They were not, however, disapproving.

That was instantly apparent as Trentham, with his usual polished grace, introduced her to his eldest great-aunt, Lady Hermione Wemyss. Lady Hermione beamed and bade her a sincere welcome; Leonora curtsied and responded.

And so it went around the circle of lined faces, all exhibiting various degrees of joy. Just as the six old ladies in his London house had been sincerely thrilled to meet her, so, too, were these women. Her first thought, that perhaps, for whatever reason, they did not venture into society and so were starved for visitors, and therefore would have been delighted with whoever had come to call, died a quick death; as she sank onto the chair Trentham placed for her, Lady Hortense launched into an account of their latest round of visits and the excitement surrounding the local church fete.

“Always something happening around here, you know,” Hortense confided. “Not dull at all.”

The others nodded and eagerly chimed in, telling her of the local sights and the amenities of the estate and village before inviting her to tell them something of herself.

Completely assured in such company, she responded easily, telling them of Humphrey and Jeremy and their endeavors, and Cedric’s gardens—all the sorts of things older ladies liked to know.

Trentham had remained standing by her chair, one hand on its back; now he stepped back. “If you’ll excuse me, ladies, I’ll rejoin you for luncheon.”

They all beamed and nodded; Leonora glanced up and met his gaze. He inclined his head, then his attention was claimed by Lady Hermione; he bent to listen to her. Leonora couldn’t hear what was said. With a nod, Trentham straightened, then walked from the room; she watched his elegant back disappear through the door.

“My dear Miss Carling, do tell us—”

Leonora turned back to Hortense.

She might have felt deserted, but that proved impossible in the present company. The old ladies quite plainly set themselves to entertain her; she couldn’t help but respond. Indeed, she found herself intrigued by the myriad snippets they let fall of Trentham and his predecessor, his great-uncle Mortimer. She put together enough to understand the route by which Trentham had inherited, heard from Hermione of her brother’s sour disposition and disaffection with Trentham’s side of the family.

“Always insisted they were wastrels.” Hermione snorted. “Nonsense, of course. He was just jealous they could jaunter all over while he had to stay at home and mind the family acres.”

Hortense nodded sagely. “And Tristan’s behavior these past months has proved how wrong Mortimer was.” She caught Leonora’s eye. “Very sound man, Tristan. Not one to shirk his duties, whatever they might be.”

This pronouncement was greeted with wise nods all around. Leonora suspected it had some significance beyond the obvious, but before she could think of any way to inquire tactfully, a colorful description of the vicar and the rectory household distracted her.

Some part of her liked, even reveled in the simple gossip of country life. When the butler arrived to announce that luncheon awaited them, she rose with an inward start, realizing how much she’d enjoyed the unexpected interlude.

Although the ladies had been pleasant and gentle companions, it was the subject matter that had held her, the talk of Trentham and the general round of country events.

She had, she realized, missed it.

Trentham was waiting in the dining room; he pulled out a chair and seated her by his side.

The meal was excellent; the conversation never flagged, yet neither was it strained. Despite its unusual composition, the household seemed relaxed and content.

At the end of the meal, Tristan caught Leonora’s eye, then pushed back his chair and glanced around the table. “If you’ll excuse us, there are a few last matters I need to attend to, and then we must return to town.”

“Oh, indeed.”

“Of course—so nice to meet you, Miss Carling.”

“Do get Trentham to bring you down again, my dear.”

He rose, taking Leonora’s hand, helping her to her feet. Conscious of impatience, he waited while she exchanged farewells with his tribe of old dears, then led her out of the room and into his private wing.

By mutual agreement, the resident ladies did not intrude into his private domain; conducting Leonora through the archway and into the long corridor in some irrational way soothed him.

He’d left her with the group knowing they’d keep her amused, reasoning he’d be able to concentrate on his business affairs and deal with them more expeditiously if spared her physical presence. He hadn’t reckoned with his irrational compulsion—the one that needed to know not just where she was, but how she was faring.

Throwing open a door, he ushered her into his study. “If you’ll take a seat for a few minutes, I have a few matters to deal with, then we can be on our way.”

She inclined her head and walked to the armchair angled before the hearth. He watched her settle comfortably, eyes on the blaze. His gaze rested on her for a moment, then he turned and crossed to his desk.

With her in the room—safe, content, and quiet—he found it easier to concentrate; he quickly approved various expenditures, then settled to check a number of reports. Even when she rose and walked to the window to stand looking out on the vista of lawns and trees, he barely glanced up, just enough to register what she was doing, then returned to his work.

Fifteen minutes later, he’d cleared his desk sufficiently to be able to remain in London for the next several weeks, and single-mindedly devote his attention to her phantom burglar. And, subsequently, if matters continued to head in that direction, to her.

Pushing back his chair, he looked up—and found her leaning against the window frame, watching him.

Her periwinkle blue gaze was steady. “You don’t appear the least like one of society’s lions.”

He held her gaze, equally direct. “I’m not.”

“I thought all earls—especially unmarried ones—were by definition.”

He lifted a brow as he rose. “This earl never expected the title.” He crossed toward her. “I never imagined having it.”

She raised a brow back, eyes quizzing as he reached her. “And the unmarried?”

He looked down at her, after a moment said, “As you’ve just noted, that adjective only gains status when attached to the title.”

She studied his face, then looked away.

He followed her gaze out of the window to the peaceful scene beyond. He glanced down at her. “We have time for a stroll before starting back.”

She glanced at him, then looked back at the gently rolling landscape. “I was just thinking how much I’ve missed country pleasures. I would like a stroll.”

He led her into an adjoining parlor and out through French doors onto a secluded terrace. Steps led down to the lawn, still green despite winter’s harshness. They started to amble; his gaze on her, he asked, “Would you like your pelisse?”

She looked at him, smiled, shook her head. “It’s not that cold in the sunshine, weak though it is.”

The bulk of the house protected them from the breeze. He glanced back at it, then faced forward. And found her watching him.

“It must have been a shock to discover you’d inherited all that”—her wave indicated more than the roof and walls—“given you hadn’t expected it.”

“It was.”

“You seem to have managed quite well. The ladies seem thoroughly content.”

A smile touched his lips. “Oh, they are.” His bringing her here had ensured that.

He looked ahead to the lake. She followed his gaze. They walked to the shore, then idled along the bank. Leonora spotted a family of ducks. She stopped, shading her eyes with her hand to better see them.

Pausing a few steps away, he studied her, let his gaze dwell on the picture she made standing by his lake in the dappled sunshine, and felt a content he hadn’t before experienced warm him. It seemed senseless to pretend that the impulse to bring her here hadn’t been driven by a primitive instinct to have her safe behind walls that were his.

Seeing her here, being with her here, was like discovering another piece of a still scattered jigsaw.

She fitted.

How well left him uneasy.

He was normally impatient of inaction, yet was content to walk by her side, doing essentially nothing. As if being with her made it permissible for him to simply be, as if she was sufficient reason for his existence, at least in that moment. No other woman had had that effect on him. The realization only escalated his need to nullify the threat to her.

As if sensing his suddenly hardening mood, she glanced at him, wide eyes searching his face. He slipped on his mask and smiled easily.

She frowned.

Before she could ask, he took her arm. “Let’s go this way.”

The rose garden even in hibernation distracted her. He led her on into the extensive formal shrubbery, slowly circling back toward the house. A small marble temple, austerely classical, stood at the center of the shrubbery.

Leonora had forgotten just how pleasant walking in a large, well-designed and well-tended garden could be. In London, Cedric’s fantastical creation lacked the soothing vistas, the magnificent sweeps that could only be achieved in the country, and the parks were too limited in view and too crowded. Certainly not soothing. Here, walking with Trentham, peace slid like a drug through her veins, as if a well that had been almost dry was refilling.

Placed at the junction of the shrubbery paths, the temple was simply perfect. Lifting her skirts, she climbed the steps. Inside, the floor was a delicate mosaic in black, grey, and white. The Ionic columns that supported the domed roof were white veined with grey.

Turning, she looked back at the house, framed by the high hedges. The perspective was superb. “It’s magnificent.” She smiled at Trentham as he halted beside her. “No matter any difficulties, you can’t be sorry that this is yours.”

She extended her arms, her hands, including the gardens, the lake, and the surrounding countryside in the statement.

He met her gaze. Held it for a long moment, then quietly said, “No. I’m not sorry.”

She caught his tone, the existence of some deeper meaning in his words. She let her frown show.

His lips, until then straight, as serious as his expression, curved, she thought a touch wryly. Reaching out, he shackled her wrist, then slid his hand down to close about hers.

He lifted it, raised her wrist to his lips. Eyes holding hers, he kissed, let his lips linger as her pulse leapt, then throbbed.

As if that had been a signal he’d been waiting for, he reached for her, drew her closer. She permitted it, went into his arms, more than curious, openly eager.

He bent his head and her lashes fluttered down; she lifted her lips and he took them. Smoothly slid between, took possession of her mouth, and her senses.

She yielded them readily, totally unafraid; she was more than confident in her reading of him—he would never harm her. But where he was heading with his intoxicating kisses—what came next, and when—she still didn’t know; she had no experience on which to draw.

She’d never been seduced before.

That that was his ultimate aim she accepted; she could see no other reason for his actions. He’d asked her age, stated she was old enough. At twenty-five, she’d been deemed on the shelf; now twenty-six, she was—clearly to his mind as well as hers—her own woman. A spinster whose life was no one’s business but her own; her actions would impinge on no one else, her decisions were her own to make.

Not that she was necessarily going to accede to his wishes. She would make up her mind if and when the time came.

It wouldn’t come today, not in an open temple visible from his house. Free of any prospect of having to think, she sank into his arms and kissed him back.

Dueled with him, let herself flow into the exchange, felt heat rise between them, along with that fascinating tension—a tenseness that sent excitement rippling along her nerves, sent anticipation coursing beneath her skin.

Her body tightened; heat welled and pooled.

Emboldened, she pushed her hands up, over his shoulders, slid them to his nape. Splaying her fingers, she speared them slowly through his dark locks. Thick and heavy, they slid through and over her fingers, even as his tongue slid deeper.

He angled his head and drew her nearer, until her breasts were crushed to his chest, her thighs brushing his, her skirts tangling around his boots. His arms locked around her, lifting her against him; his strength captured her. The kiss deepened into a melding of mouths, a far more intimate exchange. She half expected to be shocked—felt she should be—yet instead all she knew was that burgeoning heat, a certain assuredness both in him and her, and a dizzying hunger.

That escalating hunger was theirs—not hers, not his, but something growing between them.

It beckoned.

Enticed.

Fed Tristan’s need.

But it was her need that he played to, that he watched and gauged, that ultimately had him easing his hold on her, gathering her in one arm while he raised a hand to her face. To trace her cheek, frame her jaw, hold her still while he methodically plundered. Yet at no stage did he seek to overwhelm her; that, he knew, was not the route to ensnare her.

To seduce her was an instinct he no longer sought to fight. He eased his fingers from the delicate curve of her jaw and sent them lower, flirting with her senses until her lips turned demanding, then caressing lightly, enough to educate her imagination, enough to feed her hunger, not enough to sate it.

Her breasts swelled beneath his tracing touch; he ached to take more, to claim more, but held back. Strategy and tactics were his strong suit; in this as in all things, he was playing to win.

When her fingers clenched on his skull, he consented to palm her breast, to fondle, still lightly, still inciting rather than satisfying. He felt her senses leap, sensed her nerves tightening. Felt her nipple pebble against his palm.

Had to drag a breath deep and hold it, then, gradually, step by step, he eased back from the kiss. Gradually unclenched the muscles locking her to him. Gradually let her surface from the kiss.

But he didn’t take his hand from her breast.

When he released her lips and lifted his head, he was still lightly tracing, back and forth across the swell, teasingly circling her nipple. Her lashes fluttered, then she opened her eyes, looked into his.

Her lips were lightly swollen, her eyes wide.

He looked down.

She followed his gaze.

Her lungs locked.

He counted the seconds before she remembered to breathe, knew she had to be dizzy. But she didn’t step back.

It was he who shifted his caressing hand to her upper arm, grasped gently, then slid his hand down to hers. He lifted it to his lips, met her eyes as, faint color in her cheeks, she looked up at him.

He smiled, but hid the true tenor of the gesture. “Come.” Setting her hand on his sleeve, he turned her to the house. “We need to start back to town.”

 

The journey was a godsend. Leonora took full advantage of the hour during which Trentham was engrossed with his cattle, smoothly tacking through the traffic that grew heavier as they entered the capital, to calm her mind. To try to restore—reclaim—her customary assurance.

She glanced at him often, wondering what he was thinking, but other than an occasional enigmatic glance—leaving her certain he was partly amused but still quite intent—he said nothing. Aside from all else, his tiger was up behind them, too close to allow any private words.

Indeed, she wasn’t sure she wanted any. Any explanation. Not that he’d shown any sign of giving her one, but that seemed to be part of the game.

Part of the building exhilaration, the excitement. The craving.

That last she hadn’t expected, but she certainly felt it—could now understand what she never had before—what caused women, even ladies of eminent sense, to cater to a gentleman’s physical demands.

Not that Trentham had made any real demands. Yet. That was her point.

If she could know when he would, and what those demands might be, she’d be better placed to plan her response.

As matters were…she was left to speculate.

She was sunk in that endeavor when the curricle slowed. She blinked and looked around, and discovered they were home. Trentham drew the curricle up before Number 12. Handing the reins to the tiger, he climbed down, then lifted her to the pavement.

Hands about her waist he looked down at her.

She looked back, and made no attempt to move away.

His lips curved. He opened them—

Footsteps crunched on gravel nearby. They both turned to look.

Gasthorpe, the majordomo, a thickset man with crisp salt-and-pepper hair, came hurrying down the path from Number 12. Reaching them, he bowed. “Miss Carling.”

She’d made a point of meeting Gasthorpe the day after he’d taken up residence. She smiled and inclined her head.

He turned to Trentham. “My lord, forgive the interruption, but I wanted to make sure you called in. The carters have delivered the furniture for the first floor. I would be grateful if you would cast your eye over the items, and advise me if you approve.”

“Yes, of course. I’ll be in in a moment—”

“Actually”—Leonora gripped Trentham’s arm, drawing his gaze to her face—“I would love to see what you’ve done to Mr. Morrissey’s house. May I come in while you check the furniture?” She smiled. “I would be happy to help—a lady’s eye is often quite different in such matters.”

Trentham looked at her, then glanced at Gasthorpe. “It’s rather late. Your uncle and brother—”

“Won’t have noticed I left the house.” Her curiosity was rampant; she kept her eyes wide, fixed on Trentham’s face.

His lips twisted, then set; again he glanced at Gasthorpe. “If you insist.” She took his arm and he turned toward the path. “But only the first floor has been furnished as yet.”

She wondered why he was being so uncharacteristically diffident, then put it down to being a gentleman more or less in charge of fitting out a house. Something he no doubt felt ill equipped to do.

Ignoring his reticence, she swept up the path beside him. Gasthorpe had gone ahead and stood holding the door. She stepped over the threshold and paused to look around. She’d last glimpsed the hall in the shadows of night, when the painters’ cloths had been down, the room stripped and bare.

The transformation was now complete. The hall was surprisingly light and airy, not dark and gloomy—an impression she associated with gentlemen’s clubs. However, there was not a single item of delicacy to soften the austere, starkly elegant lines; no sprigged wallpaper, not even any scrollwork. It was rather cold, almost bleak in its eschewing of all things feminine, yet she could see men—men like Trentham—gathering there.

They wouldn’t notice the softness that was missing.

Trentham didn’t offer to show her the downstairs rooms; with a gesture, he directed her to the stairs. She climbed them, noting the high gloss on the banister, the thickness of the stair carpet. Clearly expense had not been a consideration.

On the first floor, Trentham moved past her and led the way to the room at the front of the house. A large mahogany table stood in the middle of the floor, eight matching chairs upholstered in ocher velvet surrounding it. A sideboard stood against one wall, a long bureau against another.

Tristan glanced around, swiftly surveying their meeting room. All was as they’d envisaged it; catching Gasthorpe’s eye, he nodded, then with a wave, directed Leonora back across the landing.

The small office with its desk, bank of drawers, and two chairs, need no more than a cursory glance. They moved on to the room at the back of the house—the library.

The merchant from whom they’d purchased the furniture, Mr. Meecham, was overseeing the siting of a tall bookcase. He glanced briefly their way, but immediately returned his attention to directing his two assistants, waving first one way, then that, until they had the heavy bookcase positioned to his satisfaction. They set it down with audible grunts.

Meecham turned to Tristan with a wide smile. “Well, my lord.” He bowed, then looked around with patent satisfaction. “I flatter myself you and your friends will be excellently comfortable here.”

Tristan saw no reason to argue; the room looked inviting, clean, and uncluttered yet with plenty of deep armchairs dotted about and numerous side tables waiting to support a glass of fine brandy. There were two bookcases, presently empty. Although the room was the library, it was unlikely they would retire here to read novels. News sheets assuredly, periodicals and reports, and sporting magazines; the library’s primary function would be as a place of quiet relaxation where if any words were spoken, they would be in a deep murmur.

Glancing around, he could see them all here, private, quiet, but companionable in their silence. Returning his gaze to Meecham, he nodded. “You’ve done well.”

“Indeed, indeed.” Gratified, Meecham waved his two workers from the room. “We’ll leave you to enjoy what we’ve thus far wrought. I’ll have the rest of the items delivered within the week.”

He bowed low; Tristan nodded a dismissal.

Gasthorpe caught his eye. “I’ll see Mr. Meecham out, my lord.”

“Thank you, Gasthorpe—I won’t need you again. We’ll see ourselves out.”

With a nod and a speaking look, Gasthorpe left.

Tristan inwardly winced, but what could he do? Explaining to Leonora that females were not supposed to be inside the club, not beyond the small front parlor, would inevitably lead to questions he—and his fellow club members—would much rather were never asked. Answering would be too risky, akin to tempting fate.

Much better to give ground when it didn’t really matter and couldn’t really hurt than explain what was behind the formation of the Bastion Club.

Leonora had drifted from his side. After trailing her fingers along the back of one armchair, noting the amenities, he thought with approval, she’d wandered to the window and now stood looking out.

At her own back garden.

He waited, but she didn’t return. Heaving an inward, somewhat resigned sigh, he crossed the room, the rich Turkish carpet muffling his steps. He stopped by the side of the window, leaned against the frame.

She turned her head and met his gaze.

“You used to stand here and watch me, didn’t you?”

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