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“Excellent!” Leonora looked up as Tristan walked in. Quickly tidying her escritoire, she shut it and rose. “We can walk in the park with Henrietta, and I can tell you my news.”

Tristan raised a brow at her, but obediently held the door and followed her back out into the hall. She’d told him last night that she’d received quite a few replies from Cedric’s acquaintances; she’d asked him to call to discuss them—she’d made no mention of walking her hound.

He helped her into her pelisse, then shrugged on his greatcoat; the wind was chilly, whipping through the streets. Clouds hid the sun, but the day was dry enough. A footman arrived with Henrietta straining on a leash. Tristan fixed the hound with a warning glance, then took the leash.

Leonora led the way out. “The park is only a few streets away.”

“I trust,” Tristan said, following her down the garden path, “that you’ve been exercising with your dog?”

She shot him a glance. “If by that you mean to ask have I been strolling the streets without her, no. But it’s definitely restricting. The sooner we lay Mountford by the heels, the better.”

Bustling forward, she swung open the gate, held it while he and Henrietta passed through, then swung it shut.

He caught her hand, trapped her gaze as he wound her arm in his. “So cut line.” Holding her beside him, he let Henrietta tow them in the direction of the park. “What have you learned?”

She drew breath, settled her arm in his, looked ahead. “I’d had great hopes of A. J. Carruthers—Cedric had communicated most frequently with Carruthers in the last few years. However, I didn’t receive any reply from Yorkshire, where Carruthers lived, until yesterday. Before that, however, over the previous days, I received three replies from other herbalists, all scattered about the country. All three wrote that they believed Cedric had been working on some special formula, but none of them knew any details. Each of them, however, suggested I contact A. J. Carruthers, as they understood Cedric had been working most closely with Carruthers.”

“Three independent replies, all believing Carruthers would know more?”

Leonora nodded. “Precisely. Unfortunately, however, A. J. Carruthers is dead.”

“Dead?” Tristan halted on the pavement and met her gaze. The green expanse of the park lay across the street. “Dead how?”

She didn’t misunderstand, but grimaced. “I don’t know—all I do know is that he’s dead.”

Henrietta tugged; Tristan checked, then led both females across the street. Henrietta’s huge and shaggy form, her gaping jaws filled with sharp teeth, gave him a perfect excuse to avoid the fashionable area thronging with matrons and their daughters; he turned the questing hound toward the more leafy and overgrown region beyond the western end of Rotten Row.

That area was all but deserted.

Leonora didn’t wait for his next question. “The letter I received yesterday was from the solicitor in Harrogate who acted for Carruthers and oversaw his estate. He informed me of Carruthers’s demise, but said he couldn’t otherwise help with my query. He suggested that Carruthers’s nephew, who inherited all Carruthers’s journals and so on, might be able to shed some light on the matter—the solicitor was aware that Carruthers and Cedric had corresponded a great deal in the months prior to Cedric’s death.”

“Did this solicitor mention exactly when Carruthers died?”

“Not exactly. All he said was that Carruthers died some months after Cedric, but that he’d been ill for some time before.” Leonora paused, then added, “There’s no mention in the letters Carruthers sent to Cedric of any illness, but they might not have been that close.”

“Indeed. This nephew—do we have his name and direction?”

“No.” Her grimace was frustration incarnate. “The solicitor advised that he’d forwarded my letter to the nephew in York, but that was all he said.”

“Hmm.” Looking down, Tristan walked on, assessing, extrapolating.

Leonora glanced at him. “It’s the most interesting piece of information we’ve found yet—the most likely, indeed, the only possible link to something that might be what Mountford seeks. There’s nothing specific in Carruthers’s letters to Cedric, other than oblique references to something they were working on—no details at all. But we need to pursue it, don’t you think?”

He looked up, met her eyes, nodded. “I’ll get someone on it tomorrow.”

She frowned. “Where? In Harrogate?”

“And York. Once we have the name and direction, there’s no reason to wait to pay this nephew a visit.”

His only regret was that he couldn’t do so personally. Traveling to Yorkshire would mean leaving Leonora beyond his reach; he could surround her with guards, yet no amount of organized protection would be sufficient to reassure him of her safety, not until Mountford, whoever he was, was caught.

They’d been strolling, neither slowly nor briskly, towed along in Henrietta’s wake. He realized Leonora was studying him, a rather odd look on her face.

“What?”

She pressed her lips together, her eyes on his, then she shook her head, looked away. “You.”

He waited, then prompted, “What about me?”

“You knew enough to realize someone had taken an impression of a key. You waited for a burglar and closed with him without turning a hair. You can pick locks. Assessing premises for their ability to withstand intruders is something you’ve done before. You got access to special records from the Registry, records others wouldn’t even know existed. With a wave of your hand”—she demonstrated—“you can have men watching my street. You dress like a navvy and frequent the docks, then change into an earl—one who somehow always knows where I’ll be, one with exemplary knowledge of our hostesses’ houses.

“And now, just like that, you’ll arrange for people to go hunting for information in Harrogate and York.” She pinned him with an intent but intrigued look. “You’re the oddest ex-soldier-cum-earl I’ve ever met.”

He held her gaze for a long moment, then murmured, “I wasn’t your average soldier.”

She nodded, looking ahead once more. “So I gathered. You were a major in the Guards—a soldier of Devil Cynster’s type—”

“No.” He waited until she met his gaze. “I—”

He broke off. The moment had come sooner than he’d anticipated. A rush of thoughts jostled through his mind, the most prominent being how a woman who’d been jilted by one soldier would feel about being lied to by another. Perhaps not quite lied to, but would she see the difference? His instincts were all for keeping her in the dark, for keeping his dangerous past and his equally dangerous propensities from her. For keeping her in sublime ignorance of that side of his life, and all it said of his character.

Her eyes on his face, she continued slowly strolling, head tilting as she studied him. And waited.

He drew breath, softly said, “I wasn’t like Devil Cynster, either.”

Leonora looked into his eyes; what she saw there she couldn’t interpret. “What sort of soldier were you, then?”

The answer, she knew, held a vital key to understanding who the man beside her truly was.

His lips twisted wryly. “If you could get access to my record, it would say I joined the army at twenty and rose to the rank of major in the Guards. It would give you a regiment, but if you checked with soldiers in that regiment, you’d discover few knew me, that I hadn’t been sighted since shortly after I first joined.”

“So what sort of regiment were you in? Not the cavalry.”

“No. Not the infantry, either, nor the artillery.”

“You said you’d been at Waterloo.”

“I was.” He held her gaze. “I was on the battlefield, but not with our troops.” He watched her eyes widen, then quietly added, “I was behind enemy lines.”

She blinked, then stared at him, thoroughly intrigued. “You were a spy?

He grimaced lightly, looked ahead. “An agent working in an unofficial capacity for His Majesty’s government.”

A host of impressions swamped her—observations that suddenly made sense, other things that were no longer so mysterious—yet she was far more interested in what the revelation meant, what it said of him. “It must have been terribly lonely, as well as being horrendously dangerous.”

Tristan glanced at her; that wasn’t what he’d expected her to say, to think of. His mind ranged back, over the years…he nodded. “Often.”

He waited for more, for all the predictable questions. None came. They’d slowed; impatient, Henrietta woofed and tugged. He and Leonora exchanged a glance, then she smiled, tightened her hold on his arm and they stepped out more briskly, circling back toward the streets of Belgravia.

She had a pensive expression on her face, faraway and distant, yet not troubled, not irritated, not concerned. When she felt his gaze, she glanced at him, met his eyes, then smiled and looked ahead.

They crossed the thoroughfare and paced down the street, then turned into Montrose Place. Reaching her gate, he swung it wide, ushered her through, then followed her in. She was waiting to link her arm in his; she was still deep in thought.

He stopped before the steps. “I’ll leave you here.”

She glanced up at him, then inclined her head and reached for Henrietta’s lead. She met his gaze; her eyes were a startling blue. “Thank you.”

Those periwinkle blue eyes said she was speaking of much more than his help with Henrietta.

He nodded, thrust his hands into his pockets. “I’ll have someone on their way to York tonight. I believe you’ll be attending Lady Manivers’ rout?”

Her lips lifted. “Indeed.”

“I’ll see you there.”

Her eyes held his for a moment, then she inclined her head. “Until then.”

She turned away. He watched her go inside, waited until the door shut, then turned and walked away.

 

Dealing with Tristan, Leonora decided, had become unbelievably complicated.

It was the following morning; she lolled in her bed and stared at the sunbeams making patterns on the ceiling. And tried to sort out what, exactly, was going on between them. Between Tristan Wemyss, ex-spy, ex–unofficial agent of His Majesty’s government, and her.

She’d thought she’d known, but day by day, night by night, he kept…not so much changing as revealing greater and ever more intriguing depths. Facets of his character that she’d never imagined he might possess, aspects she found deeply appealing.

Last night…all had progressed as it usually did. She’d tried, not too hard, admittedly—she’d been distracted by all she’d learned that afternoon—but she nevertheless had made an effort to hold to a celibate line. He’d seemed even more determined, more ruthless than usual in storming her position—and taking her.

He’d whisked her off to a secluded room, one draped in shadows. There, on a daybed, he’d taught her to ride him—even now, just thinking of those moments made her blush. Remembered sensation sent warmth washing through her. The muscles in her thighs now ached, yet in that position she’d been better able to appreciate how much pleasure she gave him. How much sensual delight he took in her body. For the first time in all their interactions, she’d taken the lead, experimented, and gloried in her ability to pleasure him.

Addictive. Enthralling. Deeply satisfying.

That, however, had been the least of the revelations the evening had brought.

When, finally slumped in his arms, heated and replete, she’d nipped his shoulder and told him she liked the sort of soldier he was, he’d sent one hard palm stroking slowly, pensively, down her spine, then said, “I’m not like Whorton, I promise you.”

She’d blinked, then struggled up onto her elbows to frown down into his face. “You’re not anything like Mark.” Her mind had been groggy; the rock-hard, tanned, scarred body beneath her was nothing like what she’d ever imagined Mark’s might be, and as for the man within it…

Tristan’s eyes had been dark pools, impossible to read. His hand had continued slowly, reassuringly stroking. He must have read her confusion in her face. “I want to marry you—I won’t change my mind. You don’t need to worry I’ll hurt you like he did.”

Realization had dawned. She’d pushed up, stared down at him. “Mark didn’t hurt me.”

He’d frowned. “He jilted you.”

“Well, yes. But…I was actually quite happy to be jilted.”

Of course, she’d had to explain. She’d done so with greater candor than she’d previously brought to the subject; stating the reality aloud had more clearly established the truth in her mind as well as his.

“So you see,” she’d concluded, “it wasn’t any deep and lasting slight—not in any way. I don’t have any”—she’d waved—“adverse feelings toward soldiers because of it.”

He’d considered her, searched her face. “So you don’t hold my former career against me?”

“Because of what happened with Whorton? No.”

His frown had only deepened. “If it wasn’t Whorton jilting you that gave you a distaste for men and marriage, what did?” His gaze had sharpened; even in the shadows she’d been able to feel its edge. “Why haven’t you married?”

She hadn’t been ready to answer that.

She’d brushed it aside, clung to a more immediate point. “Is that why you told me about your career—to distinguish yourself from Whorton?”

He’d looked disgruntled. “If you hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have told you.”

“But I did ask. Is that why you answered?”

He’d hesitated, his reluctance clear, then admitted, “Partially. I would have had to tell you sometime…”

“But you told me this afternoon because you wanted me to see you as different from Whorton, different from how you imagined I saw him—”

He’d hauled her down and kissed her. Distracted her.

Effectively.

She hadn’t known what to make of his reasoning—his motives, his reactions—last night. She still didn’t. Yet…he’d obviously felt threatened enough by her experience with Whorton, and how he believed that affected her view of military men, to tell her the truth. To break with what she suspected was habit and neither hide nor conceal his past.

A past she felt sure none of his family knew. That few others of any sort knew.

He was a man with shadows behind him, yet circumstances had dictated he step into the light, and he needed someone—someone who understood, who could understand him, someone he could trust—beside him.

She could see that, acknowledge that much.

Slowly stretching under the covers, she sighed deeply. Because of his earlier suggestion, she’d allowed herself to imagine what being married to him would be like; her response to the vision had been completely different to what she’d expected. To what her response to all such thoughts of marriage had been in the past.

Now…now that she was imagining being his wife, the prospect enticed. With age and experience—maturity, perhaps—she’d come to value things—things like the gentle round of country life—far more than she had previously; she’d gradually come to realize such elements were important to her. They provided an outlet for her natural abilities—her organizational and managerial talents; without such outlets she’d feel stifled…

Just as, indeed, she felt increasingly stifled in her uncle’s house.

The realization was not so much a shock as an earthquake, one that literally rocked the concepts she’d thought for so long were the foundations of her life. That realization was not a small thing to assimilate, to absorb.

The sunbeams danced on the ceiling; the household was awake—the day called to her. Yet she remained in the cocoon of her bed and instead opened her mind. Let her thoughts free.

Followed where they led.

The girlish dreams she’d buried long ago had revived, subtly re-created, altered so that this time they were attractive to the woman she now was—this time, they fitted her.

She could see, imagine—start to desire if she let herself—a future as Tristan’s wife. His countess. His helpmate.

Swirling through those dreams, lending them greater fascination and power, was the enticement of being the one—the only one according to him—who could give him all he wanted. That, very possibly, he needed. When they were together, she could sense the power of what had grown between them, that welling emotion deeper than passion, stronger than desire. The emotion that in those quiet, intense and private moments wrapped them about.

The emotion they shared.

It was something ephemeral between them, something most easy to see in those heated moments when both their guards were completely down, yet it was also there, peeking through, like something caught from the corner of an eye in their more public exchanges.

He’d asked why she’d never married; the truth was, she’d never truly studied the reason. The instinctive, deeply held belief—the one that had made letting Whorton go so easy—was something so buried in her mind, so much a part of her, she’d never taken it out and examined it, never truly concerned herself with it before. It had simply been there, a certainty.

Until Tristan had appeared, and laid all he was before her.

He did, now, have the right to question, to ask for her reasons, to demand they were sound.

It was time to look deeper, into her heart, into her soul, and discover whether her old instincts were still relevant, whether they remained relevant to the new world on whose threshold she and Tristan now stood.

He’d seized her hand, dragged her to that threshold, forced her to open her eyes and truly see…and he wasn’t going to go away. To simply draw back and leave her.

He’d been right; the attraction between them wouldn’t fade.

It hadn’t. It had grown.

Lips setting, she flung back the covers, got out of bed, and determinedly crossed to the bellpull.

 

Reexamining and possibly restructuring the basic tenets of one’s life was not an undertaking that could be accomplished in a few rushed minutes.

Unfortunately, throughout that day and those following, rushed minutes were all Leonora could find. Yet as the events of each passing day strengthened and deepened the connection between her and Tristan, the need to revisit the reason underlying her aversion to marriage grew.

Their slow progress on the matter of Mountford, either locating the man masquerading by that name or identifying whatever it was he was after, only added pressure by way of Tristan’s increasing protectiveness, which spilled over into a more primitive possessiveness.

Even though he battled to hide it, she saw. And understood.

Tried not to let it prod her temper; he couldn’t, it seemed, help it.

February had finally given way to March; the first hint of spring blew in to soften winter’s bleakness. The ton started to return to the capital in earnest, to prepare for the upcoming Season. While earlier the entertainments had been small, largely informal, the social calendar was growing ever more crowded, the events equally so.

Lady Hammond’s ball bade fair to be the first acknowledged crush of the year. Arriving with Mildred and Gertie, Leonora stood patiently on the stairs leading up to the ballroom together with half a hundred others all waiting to greet their hostess. Looking around, she noted familiar faces, nodded, exchanged smiles. There were weeks yet before the Season proper; in years past, she was sure town hadn’t been so crowded so early in the year. Even in the park…

“My dear, of course we’re here early.”

The lady behind Leonora had just met an old friend.

“Everyone will be, mark my words. Or at least, every family with a daughter to bring out. It’s quite criminal the number of gentlemen who were lost in all those wars…”

The lady continued; Leonora stopped listening— she’d seen the light. Pity the eligible gentlemen as yet unmarried.

Eventually, she, Mildred, and Gertie gained the ballroom door; after making her curtsy to Lady Hammond, an old acquaintance of her aunts’, she followed Mildred and Gertie to one of the alcoves set with chairs and chaises to accommodate chaperones and the older generation.

Her aunts found seats among their cronies; after turning aside a number of arch queries, Leonora retreated.

Into the crowd. Tristan would have some difficulty locating her; he hadn’t joined the queue to the ballroom by the time she’d gained the top of the stairs, which meant it would be some time before he could join her.

Tonight, the crowd was too dense to amble through with only nods and smiles; she had to stop and chat, to exchange greetings and opinions and social conversation. She’d never found that difficult, sometimes boring perhaps, but tonight so many were newly come to town that there was plenty to catch up with, to hear, to laugh at and be amused. Nevertheless, aware she was attracting a certain degree of attention from gentlemen too recently returned to the ballrooms to have registered Tristan’s interest, she did not remain for too long within one group, but kept drifting.

Dealing with one wolf at a time seemed wise.

“Leonora!”

She turned, and smiled at Crissy Wainwright, a plump and these days somewhat buxom blond who had been presented in the same year she had. Crissy had quickly snared a lord and married; successive confinements had kept her away from London for some years. Crissy all but elbowed her way through the crowd. “Phew!” Reaching Leonora, she snapped open her fan. “It’s a madhouse. And here I thought I was wise coming up to town early.”

“Many had the same idea, it seems.” Leonora took Crissy’s hand; they pressed fingers, touched cheeks.

“Mama is going to be miffed.” Eyes dancing, Crissy glanced at Leonora. “She was all for stealing a march on all others with daughters to establish this Season—she’s got my youngest sister to puff off, and she’s set her sights on this earl who has to marry.”

Leonora blinked. “An earl who has to marry?”

Crissy leaned closer and lowered her voice. “It seems this poor soul has only recently inherited and has to marry before July or lose his wealth. But he’ll retain his houses and his dependents, neither of which would be easy to maintain on a pauper’s budget.”

A chill touched Leonora’s spine. “I hadn’t heard. Which earl?”

Crissy waved. “Doubtless no one thought to mention it—you’re not interested in a husband, after all.” She grimaced. “I always thought you were quite touched, being so set against marriage, but now…I have to admit there are times I think you had it right.” Her expression clouded briefly, but then brightened. “Indeed, I’m here determined to enjoy myself and not think about being married at all. If this poor earl is as hunted as it sounds he’ll be, maybe I’ll offer him a safe harbor? I’ve heard he’s astonishingly handsome—so rare when combined with wealth and title—”

“What title?” Leonora broke in without compunction; Crissy could ramble for hours.

“Oh—didn’t I say? It’s Trillingwell, Trellham—something like that.”

“Trentham?”

“Yes! That’s it.” Crissy swung to face her. “You have heard.”

“I assure you I hadn’t, but I do thank you for telling me.”

Crissy blinked, then studied her face. “Why, you sly thing—you know him.”

Leonora narrowed her eyes to slits—not at Crissy but at a dark head she could see tacking toward

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