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When he called to take her driving in the park the next morning, she was stunned. When she tried to refuse, he simply looked at her.

“You’ve already admitted you don’t have any engagements.”

Only because she’d thought he wanted to tell her about his investigations.

His hazel eyes remained fixed on hers. “You should tell me about the letters you sent to Cedric’s acquaintances. You can tell me just as well in the park as here.” His gaze sharpened. “Besides, you must be longing to get out in the fresh air. Today is not the sort of day to let slip by.”

She narrowed her eyes at him; he was seriously dangerous. He was right, of course; the day was glorious, and she’d been toying with the idea of a brisk walk, but after her last excursion hesitated to go out alone.

He was too wise to press further, but simply waited…waited for capitulation as he was wont to do.

She pulled a face at him. “Very well. Wait while I get my pelisse.”

He was waiting in the hall when she came down the stairs. As she walked by his side to the gate, she told herself she really should not allow this ease she felt with him to develop much further. Being with him was altogether too comfortable. Too pleasant.

The drive did nothing to break the spell. The breeze was fresh, tangy with the promise of spring; the sky was blue with wispy clouds that merely flirted with the sun. The warmth was a welcome relief from the chill winds that had blown until recently; the first swelling buds were visible on the branches beneath which Trentham steered his greys.

On such a day, the ladies of the ton were out and about, but the hour was still early, the Avenue not overly crowded. She nodded here and there to those of her aunts’ acquaintances who recognized her, but largely gave her attention to the man beside her.

He drove with a light touch she knew enough to admire, and an unthinking confidence that told her more. She tried to keep her eyes off his hands, long fingers expertly managing the ribbons, and failed.

A moment later, she felt heat rise in her cheeks and forced her gaze away. “I sent the last letters off this morning. With luck someone will reply within a week.”

Tristan nodded. “The more I think of it, the more likely it seems that whatever Mountford is after, it’s something to do with your cousin Cedric’s work.”

Leonora glanced at him; wisps of her hair had come loose and flirted about her face. “How so?”

He looked to his horses—away from her mouth, her soft luscious lips. “It had to be something a purchaser would get with the house. If your uncle had been willing to sell, would you have cleared out Cedric’s workshop?” He glanced at her. “I got the impression it had been forgotten, dismissed from everyone’s minds. I hardly think that applies to anything in the library.”

“True.” She nodded, trying to tame her wayward locks. “I wouldn’t have bothered going into the workshop if it hadn’t been for Mountford’s efforts. However, I think you’re overlooking one point. If I was after something and had a reasonable idea where it might be, I might arrange to buy the house, not intending to complete the sale, you understand, and then ask to visit to measure up rooms for furnishings or remodeling.” She shrugged. “Easy enough to get time to look around and perhaps remove things.”

He considered, imagined, then relucantly grimaced. “You’re right. That leaves us with the possibility that it, whatever it is, could be just about anything secreted anywhere in the house.” He glanced at her. “A house full of eccentrics.”

She met his gaze, raised her brows, then tipped her nose in the air and looked away.

 

He called the next day and swept aside her reservations with invitations to a special preview of the latest exhibition at the Royal Academy.

She cast him a severe glance as he ushered her through the gallery doors. “Do all earls get such special privileges?”

He met her gaze. “Only special earls.”

Her lips curved before she looked away.

He hadn’t expected to gain all that much from the excursion, to his mind a minor exercise in his wider strategy. Instead, he found himself engrossed in a spirited discussion on the merits of landscapes over portraiture.

“People are so alive! They’re what life’s about.”

“But the scenes are the essence of the country, of England—the people are a function of the place.”

“Nonsense! Just look at this costermonger.” She pointed to an excellent line drawing of a man with a barrow. “One glance and you’d know exactly where he came from—even what borough of London. The people personify the place—they’re a representation of it, too.”

They were in one of the smaller rooms in the labyrinthine gallery; from the corner of his eye, he saw the other group in the chamber move on through the door, leaving them alone.

Leaning on his arm, studying a busy river scene populated with half a regiment of dockworkers, Leonora hadn’t noticed. Obedient to his tug, she strolled on to the next work—a plain and simple landscape.

She humphed, glanced back at the river scene, then up at him. “You can’t expect me to believe you’d rather have an empty landscape than a picture of people.”

He looked into her face. She stood close; her lips, her warmth, beckoned. Her hand lay trustingly on his arm.

Desire and more unexpectedly surfaced.

He didn’t try to mask it, to screen it from his face or his eyes.

“People in general don’t interest me.” He met her gaze, let his voice deepen. “But there’s one picture of you I’d like to see again, to experience again.”

She held his gaze. A soft blush slowly rose in her cheeks, but she didn’t look away. She knew exactly what image he was thinking of—of her naked and wanting beneath him. She drew a brief breath. “You shouldn’t say that.”

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

He felt her quiver.

“It’s not going to happen—you won’t see that picture again.”

He studied her, felt both humble and amazed that she didn’t see him for what he was—that she believed, not naively but with simple conviction, that if she stood firm, he wouldn’t step beyond the bounds of honor and seize her.

She was wrong, but he valued her trust, treasured it too much to unnecessarily shake it.

So he raised a brow, smiled. “On that I fear we’re unlikely to agree.”

As he’d anticipated, she sniffed, put her nose in the air, and turned to the next work of art.

 

He let one day go by—a day he spent checking with his various contacts, all those whom he’d set the task of locating Montgomery Mountford—before returning to Montrose Place and inveigling Leonora to accompany him on a drive to Richmond. He’d done his forward planning; the Star and Garter was apparently the place to see and be seen.

It was the “be seen” aspect he required.

Leonora felt curiously lighthearted as she walked beneath the trees, her hand locked in Trentham’s. Not precisely de rigueur, but when she’d pointed that out, he’d merely raised a brow and continued holding her hand.

Her mood was due to him; she couldn’t imagine feeling this way with any other gentleman she’d known. She knew it was dangerous, that she would miss the unexpected closeness, the totally unanticipated sharing—the subtle thrill of walking beside a wolf—when he finally gave in and bade her adieu.

She didn’t care. When the time came, she’d mope, but for now she was determined to grasp the moment, a fleeting interlude as spring bloomed. Not in her wildest dreams had she imagined such a state of ease could arise from intimacy, from one simple act of physical sharing.

There wouldn’t be any repetition. Despite what she’d thought, he hadn’t intended it to happen in the first place, and no matter what he said, he wouldn’t precipitate another encounter against her wishes. Now that she knew he felt honor-bound to marry her, she knew better than to lie with him again. She wasn’t such a fool as to tempt fate further.

No matter how she felt when with him.

No matter how much fate tempted her.

She slanted him a glance.

He caught it, raised a brow. “A penny for your thoughts.”

She laughed, shook her head. “My thoughts are much too precious.” Much too dangerous.

“What are they worth?”

“More than you can possibly pay.”

When he didn’t immediately reply, she glanced at him.

He met her gaze. “Are you sure?”

She was about to dismiss the question with a laugh, then she read his true meaning in his eyes. Realized on a rush of understanding that, as so often seemed to occur, his thoughts and hers were very much in tune. That he knew what she’d been thinking—and quite literally meant he’d pay anything she asked…

It was all there in his eyes, engraved in crystalline hazel, sharp and clear. He rarely adopted his mask with her now, not when they were private.

Their steps had slowed; they halted. She dragged in a tight breath. “Yes.” Regardless of the price he was prepared to pay, she couldn’t—wouldn’t—accept.

They stood facing each other while a long moment passed. It should have turned awkward, but, as in the gallery, a deeper understanding—an acceptance each of the other—prevented it.

Eventually, he simply said, “We’ll see.”

She smiled, easily, companionably, and they resumed their walk.

After inspecting the deer and ambling under the oaks and beeches, they returned to his curricle and repaired to the Star and Garter.

“I haven’t been here for years,” she admitted as she took her seat at a table by the window. “Not since the year I came out.”

She waited while he ordered tea and crumpets, then said, “I have to admit I have difficulty seeing you as a young man on the town.”

“Probably because I never was one.” He settled back, held her gaze. “I went into the Guards at twenty, more or less straight from Oxford.” He shrugged. “It was the accepted route in my branch of the family—we were the military arm.”

“So where were you stationed? You must have attended balls in the nearest town?”

He kept her entertained with tales of his exploits, and that of his peers, then turned the table and drew out her memories of her first Season. She had enough she could say to make a decent showing; if he realized her accounts were edited, he gave no sign.

They’d moved on to her observations of the ton and its present inhabitants when a party at a nearby table, all standing to leave, tipped over a chair. She glanced around—and realized, from the fixed stares of the three girls and their mother that the reason for the commotion was that all attention had been locked on them.

The mother, an overdressed matron, cast a supercilious, purse-lipped glance their way, then moved to gather her chicks. “Come, girls!”

Two moved to obey; the third stared for a moment longer, then turned and hissed, her whisper clearly audible, “Did Lady Mott say when the wedding would be?”

Leonora continued to stare at the retreating backs. Her wits were tumbling, shooting off in all directions; as scene after scene replayed in her mind, she felt chilled, then overheated. Temper—an eruption more powerful than any she’d known—overtook her. Slowly, she turned her head, and met Trentham’s gaze.

Read in the hard hazel not an ounce of contrition, not even a hint of exculpation, but simple, clear, and unequivocal confirmation.

“You fiend.” She breathed the word. Her fingers tightened on the handle of her teacup.

His eyes didn’t so much as flicker. “I wouldn’t advise it.”

He hadn’t shifted from his lounging pose, but she knew how fast he could move.

She suddenly felt dizzy, giddy; she couldn’t breathe. She pushed up out of her chair. “Let me out of here.”

Her voice wavered but he acted; she was dimly aware that he was watching her closely. He got her outside, swept aside all hurdles; she was too overwrought to stand on pride and not take advantage of the escape he arranged.

But the instant her half boots touched the grass in the park, she jerked her hand from his arm and strode out. Away from him. Away from the temptation of hitting him—trying to hit him; she knew he wouldn’t let her.

Gall burned her throat; she’d thought him out of his depth in the ton, but it was she who had had her eyes closed. Lulled into doe-eyed trust by a wolf—who hadn’t even bothered to wear wool!

She gritted her teeth against a scream, one directed against herself. She’d known what he was like from the first—a remarkably ruthless man.

Abruptly, she came to a halt. Panic would get her nowhere, especially with a man like him. She had to think, had to act—in the right way.

So what had he done? What had he actually accomplished? And how could she negate or reverse it?

She stood still as her wits slowly realigned. A measure of calm descended; it wasn’t—couldn’t be—as bad as she’d thought.

She spun around and wasn’t the least surprised to discover him two feet away, watching her.

Carefully.

She locked her eyes on his. “Have you said anything to anyone about us?”

His gaze didn’t waver. “No.”

“So that girl was simply…” She gestured with both hands.

“Extrapolating.”

She narrowed her eyes. “As you knew everyone would.”

He didn’t reply.

She continued to look daggers at him as the realization that all was not lost—that he hadn’t created a social snare she couldn’t simply step out of—seeped through her. Her temper subsided; her annoyance did not. “This is not a game.”

A moment went by before he said, “All life is a game.”

“And you play to win?” She infused the words with something close to contempt.

He stirred, then reached out, took her hand.

To her utter surprise, he jerked her to him.

She gasped as she landed against his chest.

Felt his arm lock her to him.

Felt smoldering embers burst into flame.

He looked down at her, then carried the hand he’d trapped to his lips. Slowly brushed his lips to her fingers, then across her palm, lastly pressed them to her wrist. Holding her gaze, holding her captive all the while.

His eyes burned, reflecting all she could sense flaring between them.

“What’s between you and me remains between you and me, but it hasn’t gone away.” He held her gaze. “And it won’t.”

He lowered his head. She dragged in a breath. “But I don’t want it.”

From under his lashes, his eyes met hers, then he murmured, “Too late.”

And kissed her.

*   *   *

She’d called him a fiend, and she’d been right.

By noon the next day, Leonora knew what it felt like to be under siege.

When Trentham—damn his arrogant hide—had finally consented to release her, she’d been left in no doubt whatsoever that they were locked in combat.

“I am not going to marry you.” She’d made the declaration with as much strength as she’d been able to muster, in the circumstances not as much as she’d have liked.

He’d looked at her, growled—actually growled—then grabbed her hand and marched off to his curricle.

On the way home, she’d preserved a frigid silence, not because various pithy phrases hadn’t been burning her tongue, but because of his tiger, perched behind them. She’d had to wait until Trentham handed her to the pavement before Number 14 to fix him with a narrow-eyed glare, and demand, “Why? Why me? Give me one sane reason why you want to marry me.”

Hazel eyes glinting, he’d looked down at her, then bent closer and murmured, “Do you remember that picture we spoke of?”

She’d quelled a sudden urge to step back. Searched his eyes briefly before asking, “What of it?”

“The prospect of seeing it every morning and every night constitutes an eminently sane reason to me.”

She’d blinked; a blush had risen to her cheeks. For an instant, she’d stared at him, her stomach clenching tight, then she’d stepped back. “You’re crazed.”

She’d spun on her heel, pushed open the front gate, and stalked up the garden path.

The invitations had started arriving with the first post that morning.

One or two she could have ignored; fifteen by lunch-time, and all from the most powerful hostesses, were simply impossible to dismiss. How he had managed it she didn’t know, but his message was clear—she could not avoid him. Either she met him on neutral ground, meaning within the social round of the ton, or…

That implied “or” was seriously worrisome.

He was not a man she could easily predict; her failure to foresee his objectives to date was what had got her into this mess in the first place.

“Or…” sounded far too dangerous, and when it came down to it, no matter what he did, as long as she adhered to the simple word “No” she would be perfectly safe, perfectly secure.

Mildred, with Gertie in tow, arrived at four o’clock.

“My dear!” Mildred sailed into the parlor like a black-and-white galleon. “Lady Holland called and insisted I bring you to her soirée this evening.” Subsiding with a silken swish onto the chaise, Mildred turned eyes filled with zeal upon her. “I had no idea Trentham had such connections.”

Leonora suppressed a growl of her own. “Nor had I.” Lady Holland, for heaven’s sake! “The man’s a fiend!”

Mildred blinked. “Fiend?”

She resumed her activity—pacing before the hearth. “He’s doing this to”—she gestured wildly—“flush me out!”

“Flush you…” Mildred looked concerned. “My dear, are you feeling quite the thing?”

Turning, she looked at Mildred, then switched her gaze to Gertie, who had paused before an armchair.

Gertie met her eyes, then nodded. “Very likely.” She lowered herself into the chair. “Ruthless. Dictatorial. Not one to let anything stand in his way.”

“Exactly!” The relief of having found someone who understood was great.

“Still,” Gertie continued, “you do have a choice.”

“Choice?” Mildred looked from one to the other. “I do hope you’re not going to encourage her to fly in the face of this unlooked-for development?”

“As to that,” Gertie responded, entirely unmoved, “she’ll do as she pleases—she always has. But the real question here is, is she going to let him dictate to her, or is she going to make a stand?”

“Stand?” Leonora frowned. “You mean ignore all these invitations?” Even she found the thought a trifle extreme.

Gertie snorted. “Of course not! Do that, and you’ll dig your own grave. But there’s no reason to let him get away with thinking he can force you into anything. As I see it, the most telling response would be to accept the most sought-after invitations with delight, and attend with the clear aim of enjoying yourself. Go and meet him in the ballrooms and if he dares press you there, you can give him his congé with half the ton looking on.”

She thumped her cane. “Mark my words, you need to teach him he’s not omnipotent, that he won’t get his way by such machinations.” Gertie’s old eyes gleamed. “Best way to do that is to give him what he thinks he wants, then show him that it isn’t what he really wants at all.”

The look on Gertie’s face was unashamedly wicked; the thought it evoked in Leonora’s mind was definitely attractive.

“I take your point…” She stared into the distance, her mind juggling possibilities. “Give him what he’s angled for, but…” Refocusing on Gertie, she beamed. “Of course!”

The number of invitations had grown to nineteen; she felt almost giddy with defiance.

She swung to Mildred; she’d been watching Gertie, a rather bemused expression on her face. “Before Lady Holland’s, perhaps we should attend the Carstairs’s rout?”

 

They did; Leonora used the event as a refresher to dust off and buff up her social skills. By the time she walked into Lady Holland’s elegant rooms, her confidence was riding high. She knew she looked well in her deep topaz silk, her hair piled high, topaz drops in her ears, pearls looped about her throat.

Following in Mildred’s and Gertie’s wake, she curtsied before Lady Holland, who shook her hand and uttered the usual pleasantries, all the while observing her through shrewd and intelligent eyes.

“I understand you’ve made a conquest,” her ladyship remarked.

Leonora raised her brows lightly, let her lips curve. “Entirely unintentionally, I assure you.”

Lady Holland’s eyes widened; she looked intrigued.

Leonora let her smile deepen; head high, she glided on.

From where he’d retreated to lounge against the drawing-room wall, Tristan watched the exchange, saw Lady Holland’s surprise, caught the amused glance she shot him as Leonora moved into the crowd.

He ignored it, fixed his gaze on his quarry, and pushed away from the wall.

He’d arrived unfashionably early, uncaring that her ladyship, who had always taken an interest in his career, would correctly guess his reasons. The past two hours had been ones of inaction, of unutterable boredom, reminding him why he’d never felt he’d missed anything in joining the army at twenty. Now Leonora had consented to arrive, he could get on with things.

The invitations he’d arranged through his own offices and those of his town-bound old dears would ensure that for the next week he’d be able to come up with her every night, somewhere in the ton.

Somewhere conducive to furthering his goal.

Beyond that, even if the damn woman still held firm, society being what it was, the invitations would continue of their own accord, creating opportunities for him to exploit until she surrendered.

He had her in his sights; she wouldn’t escape.

Closing the distance between them, he came up alongside her as her aunts sank onto a chaise by one side of the room. His appearance preempted a number of other gentlemen who had noticed Leonora and thought to test the waters.

He’d discovered that Lady Warsingham was by no means unknown within the ton; nor was her niece. The prevailing view of Leonora was that she was a willful lady stubbornly and intractably opposed to marriage. Although her age placed her beyond the ranks of the marriageable misses, her beauty, assurance, and behavior cast her in the light of a challenge, at least in the eyes of men who viewed challenging ladies with interest.

Such gentlemen would no doubt take note of his interest and look elsewhere. If they were wise.

He bowed to the older ladies, both of whom beamed at him.

He turned to Leonora and encountered an arch and distinctly chilly glance. “Miss Carling.

She gave him her hand and curtsied. He bowed, raised her, and set her hand on his sleeve.

Only to have her lift it off and turn to greet a couple who’d strolled up.

“Leonora! I declare we haven’t seen you for an age!”

“Good evening, Daphne. Mr. Merryweather.” Leonora touched cheeks with the brown-haired Daphne, a lady of bounteous charms, then shook hands with the gentleman whose coloring and features proclaimed him Daphne’s brother.

She shot Tristan a glance, then smoothly included him, introducing him as the Earl of Trentham.

“I say!” Merryweather’s eyes lit. “I heard you were in the Guards at Waterloo.”

“Indeed.” He uttered the word as repressively as he could, but Merryweather failed to take the hint. He babbled on with the usual questions; inwardly sighing, Tristan gave his practiced answers.

Leonora, more attuned to his tones, shot him a curious glance, but then Daphne claimed her attention.

His hearing acute, Tristan quickly realized the tenor of Daphne’s inquiries. She assumed Leonora had no interest in him; although married, it was clear Daphne did.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Leonora cast him an assessing glance, then she leaned closer to Daphne, lowered her voice…

He suddenly saw the danger.

Reaching out, he very deliberately closed his fingers about Leonora’s wrist. Smiling charmingly at Merryweather, he shifted, including Daphne in the gesture as, entirely unsubtly, he drew Leonora to him—away from Daphne—and linked her arm with his. “I do hope you’ll excuse us—I’ve just sighted my erstwhile commander. I really should pay my respects.”

Both Merryweather and Daphne smiled and murmured easy farewells; before Leonora could gather her wits, he inclined his head and drew her away, into the crowd.

Her feet moved; her gaze was locked on his face. Then she looked ahead. “That was rude. You’re not a serving officer—there’s no reason you need make your bow to your ex-commander.”

“Indeed. Especially as he’s not present.”

She shot him a narrowed-eyed look. “Not just a fiend but a lying fiend.”

“Speaking of fiendish, I think we should set some rules for this engagement. For however long we spend fencing within the ton—a length of time entirely in your control, I might add—you will refrain from setting any harpies such as the lovely Daphne on me.”

“But why are you here if not to sample and select among the fruits of the ton?” She gestured about them. “It’s what all tonnish gentleman do.”

“God knows why—I don’t. I, as you very well know, am here for only one purpose—in pursuit of you.”

He paused to lift two glasses of champagne from a footman’s tray. Handing one to Leonora, he guided her to a less congested area before a long window. Positioning himself so he could keep the room in view, he sipped, then continued, “You may play the game between us in any way you like, but if you possess any self-preservatory instincts at all, you will keep the game between us and not involve any others.” He lowered his gaze, met her eyes. “Female, or male.”

She considered him; her brows lightly rose. “Is that a threat?” She calmly sipped, apparently unperturbed.

He studied her eyes, serene and untroubled. Confident.

“No.” Raising his glass, he clinked the edge to hers. “That’s a promise.”

He drank and watched her eyes flare.

But she had her temper firmly in hand. She forced herself to sip, to appear to be surveying the crowd, then lowered her glass. “You can’t simply come along and take me over.”

“I don’t want to take you over. I want you in my bed.”

That earned him a faintly scandalized glance, but no one else was near enough to hear.

Her blush subsiding, she held his gaze. “That is something you can’t have.”

He let the moment stretch, then raised a brow at her. “We’ll see.”

She studied his face, then raised her glass. Her gaze went past him.

“Miss Carling! By Jove! A delight to see you—why it must be years.”

Leonora smiled, and held out her hand. “Lord Montacute. A pleasure—and yes, it has been years. Can I make you known to Lord Trentham?”

“Indeed! Indeed!” His lordship, ever genial, shook hands. “Knew your father—and your great-uncle, too, come to that. Irrascible old blighter.”

“As you say.”

Remembering her aim, Leonora brightly asked, “Is Lady Montacute here tonight?”

His lordship waved vaguely. “Somewhere about.”

She kept the conversation rolling, foiling all Trentham’s attempts to dampen it—dampening Lord Montacute was beyond even Trentham’s abilities. Simultaneously, she scanned the crowd for further opportunities.

It was pleasing to discover she hadn’t lost the knack of summoning a gentleman with just a smile. In short order, she’d collected a select group, all of whom could hold their own conversationally. Lady Holland’s gatherings were renowned for their wit and repartee; with a gentle prod here, a verbal poke there, she started the ball rolling—after that, their discourses took on a life of their own.

She had to suppress a too-revealing smile when Trentham, despite himself, was drawn in, becoming engaged with Mr. Hunt in a discussion of suppression orders as pertaining to the popular press. She stood by his side and presided over the group, ensuring the talk never flagged. Lady Holland drifted up, paused beside her, then nodded and met her eye.

“You have quite a talent, my dear.” She patted Leonora’s arm, her gaze sliding briefly to Trentham, then archly back to Leonora before she moved on.

A talent for what? Leonora wondered. Keeping a wolf at bay?

Guests had started leaving before the discussions waned. The group broke up reluctantly, the gentlemen drifting off to find their wives.

When she and Trentham once more stood alone, he looked at her. His lips slowly set, his eyes hardened, glinted.

She arched a brow, then turned toward where Mildred and Gertie stood waiting. “Don’t be a hypocrite—you enjoyed it.”

She wasn’t sure, but she thought he growled. She didn’t need to look to know he prowled at her heels as she crossed the room to her aunts.

He behaved, if not with joyous charm, then at least with perfect civility, escorting them down the stairs and out to their waiting carriage.

Tristan handed her aunts up, then turned to her. Deliberately stepping between her and the carriage, he took her hand, met her eyes.

“Don’t think to repeat that exercise tomorrow.”

He shifted and handed her to the carriage door.

One foot on the step, she met his gaze, and arched a brow. Even in the dimness, he recognized the challenge.

“You chose the field—I get to choose the weapons.”

She inclined her head serenely, then ducked and entered the carriage.

He closed the door with care—and a certain deliberation.

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