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He couldn’t risk lighting a match to check his watch. Stoically, Tristan settled his shoulders more comfortably against the wall of the porter’s alcove off the front hall. And waited.

About him, the shell of the Bastion Club lay silent. Empty. Outside, a bitter wind blew, sending flurries of sleet raking across the windows. He estimated it was past ten o’clock; in such freezing weather, the burglar was unlikely to dally much beyond midnight.

Waiting like this, silent and still in the dark for a contact, a meeting, or to witness some illicit event had been commonplace until recently; he hadn’t forgotten how to let time slip past. How to free his mind from his body so he remained a statue, senses alert, attuned to all around him, ready to snap back to the moment at the slightest movement, while his mind roamed, keeping him occupied and awake, but elsewhere.

Unfortunately, tonight, he didn’t appreciate the direction in which his mind wanted to go. Leonora Carling was certain distraction; he’d spent most of the day lecturing himself on the unwisdom of pursuing the sensual response he evoked in her—and she, correspondingly and even more strongly, evoked in him.

He was well aware she didn’t recognize it for what it was. Didn’t see it as a danger despite her susceptibility. Such innocence would normally have dampened his ardor; with her, for some ungodly reason, it only whetted his appetite further.

His attraction to her was a complication he definitely did not need. He had to find a wife, and that quickly; he required a sweet-tempered, biddable, gentle female who would cause him not a moment’s angst, who would run his houses, keep his troop of elderly relatives in line, and otherwise devote herself to bearing and raising his children. He did not expect her to spend much time with him; he had for too long been alone—he now preferred it that way.

With the clock ticking on the outrageous terms of his great-uncle’s will, he couldn’t afford to be distracted by a strong-willed, independent-minded, prickly termagent, one he suspected was a spinster by design, and was, moreover, possessed of a waspish tongue and, when she chose to deploy it, a distinctly chilly hauteur.

There was no purpose in thinking of her.

He couldn’t seem to stop.

He shifted, easing his shoulders, then leaned back again. What with taking up the reins of his inheritance, getting accustomed to having a tribe of old dears under his feet on a daily basis, inhabiting his houses and complicating his life, as well as considering how best to secure a wife, he’d let the small matter of a mistress or any other avenue of sexual release slide to the back of his mind.

In hindsight, not a wise decision.

Leonora had cannoned into him and set spark to tinder. Their subsequent exchanges hadn’t doused the flame. Her haughty dismissiveness was the equivalent of a blatant challenge, one to which he instinctively reacted.

His morning’s ruse of using their sensual connection to distract her from the burglars, while tactically sound, had been personally unwise. He’d known it at the time, yet had cold-bloodedly reached for the one weapon that had promised the greatest chance of success; his overriding aim had been to ensure her mind was fixed on matters other than the putative burglar.

Outside the wind howled. Again he straightened, silently stretched, then settled against the wall once more.

Fortunately for all concerned, he was too old, too wise, and far too experienced to allow lust to dictate his actions. During the day, he’d formulated a plan for dealing with Leonora. Given he’d stumbled onto this mystery and she was, no matter what her uncle and brother thought, threatened by it, then given his training, given his nature, it was understandable, indeed right and proper, for him to resolve the situation and remove the threat. Thereafter, however, he would leave her alone.

The distant scrape of metal on stone reached him. His senses focused, expanded, straining to catch any further evidence that the burglar was near.

A trifle earlier than he’d expected, but whoever it was was most likely an amateur.

He’d returned to the house at eight o’clock, slipping in via the rear alleyway and the shadows of the back garden. Entering through the kitchen, he’d noted that the builders had left only a few tools gathered in a corner. The side door had been as he’d left it, the key in the lock but not turned, the teeth not engaged. The scene set, he’d retreated to the porter’s alcove, leaving the door at the top of the kitchen stairs propped open with a brick.

The porter’s alcove commanded an uninterrupted view of the ground floor hall, the stairs leading upward, and the door to the kitchen stairs. No one could enter from the ground or the upper floors and get access to the basement level without him seeing them.

Not that he expected anyone to come that way, but he’d wanted to leave the way clear for the burglar belowstairs. He was willing to wager the “burglar” would head for some area of the basement; he wanted to let the man settle to his task before he intervened. He wanted evidence to confirm his suspicions. And then he intended to interrogate the “burglar.”

It was difficult to imagine what a real burglar would expect to steal from a vacant house.

His ears caught the soft slap of a leather sole on stone. Abruptly, he turned and faced the front door.

Against all the odds, someone was coming in that way.

A wavering outline appeared on the etched-glass panels of the door. He slipped noiselessly out of the porter’s booth and merged with the shadows.

 

Leonora slid the heavy key into the lock and glanced down at her companion.

She’d retired to her bedchamber supposedly to sleep. The servants had locked up and retired. She’d waited until the clock had struck eleven, reasoning that by then the street would be deserted, then she’d slipped downstairs, avoiding the library where Humphrey and Jeremy were still poring over their tomes. Collecting her cloak, she’d let herself out of the front door.

There was, however, one being she couldn’t so easily avoid.

Henrietta blinked up at her, long jaws agape, ready to follow her wherever she went. If she’d tried to leave her in the front hall and go out alone at this hour, Henrietta would have howled.

Leonora narrowed her eyes at her. “Blackmailer.” Her whisper was lost in the strafing wind. “Just remember,” she continued, more by way of bolstering her own courage than instructing Henrietta, “we’re only here to watch what he does. You have to be absolutely quiet.”

Henrietta looked at the door, then nudged it with her nose.

Leonora turned the key, pleased when it slid smoothly around. Removing it, she pocketed it, then drew her cloak close. Curling one hand about Henrietta’s collar, she grasped the doorknob and turned it.

The bolt slid back. She opened the door just wide enough for her and Henrietta to squeeze through, then swung around to shut it. The wind gusted; she had to release Henrietta and use both hands to force the door closed—silently.

She managed it. Heaving an inward sigh of relief, she turned.

The front hall was shrouded in stygian gloom. She stood still as her eyes began to adjust, as the sense of emptiness—the strangeness of a remembered place stripped of all its furnishings—sank into her.

She heard a faint click.

Beside her, Henrietta abruptly sat, posture erect, a suppressed whimper, not of pain but excitement escaping her.

Leonora stared at her.

The air around her stirred.

The hair on her nape lifted; her nerves leapt. Instinctively, she dragged in a breath—

A hard palm clamped over her lips.

A steely arm locked about her waist.

Hauled her back against a body like sculpted rock.

Strength engulfed her, trapping her, subduing her.

Effortlessly.

A dark head bent close.

A voice in which fury was barely leashed hissed in her ear, “What the devil are you doing here?”

*   *   *

Tristan could barely believe his eyes.

Despite the gloom, he could see hers, wide with shock. Could sense the leap and race of her pulse, the panic that gripped her.

Knew absolutely that it was only partially due to surprise. Sensed his own response to that fact.

Ruthlessly reined it in.

Lifting his head, he scanned with his senses but could detect no other movement in the house. But he couldn’t talk to her, even in whispers, in the front hall; devoid of furnishings, its surfaces polished and clean, any sound would echo.

Tightening his arm about her waist, he lifted her off her feet and carried her to the small parlor they’d set aside for interrogating females. Spared a moment to wonder at their farsightedness. He had to take his hand from her face to turn the knob, then they were inside, and he shut the door.

He still had her in his arm, feet off the ground, her back locked to him.

She wriggled, hissed, “Put me down!”

He debated, in the end, grim-faced, complied. Speaking face-to-face would be easier; keeping her wriggling her derriere against him was senseless torture.

The instant her feet touched the floor, she spun around.

And collided with his finger, raised to point at her nose. “I didn’t tell you about the incident here so you could waltz in and put yourself in the middle of it!”

Startled, she blinked; her eyes rose to his face. Quite stunned; she’d never had any man take such a tone with her. He seized the initiative. “I told you to leave this to me.” He spoke in a deep but furious whisper, at a level that wouldn’t carry.

Her eyes narrowed. “I recall what you said, but this person, whoever he is, is my problem.”

“It’s my house he’s going to be breaking into. And anyway—”

“Besides,” she continued as if she hadn’t heard him, chin lifting but like him keeping her voice low, “you’re an earl. I naturally assumed you’d be out socializing.”

The jab pricked his frustration. He spoke through his teeth. “I’m not an earl by choice, and I avoid socializing as much as I can. But that’s neither here nor there. You are a woman. A female. You have no purpose here. Especially given I’m here.”

Her mouth fell open as he grabbed her elbow and spun her to face the door.

“I’m not—!”

“Keep your voice down.” He marched her forward. “And you most certainly are. I’m going to see you out of the front door, then you’re going straight home and staying there come what may!”

She dug in her heels. “But what if he’s out there?”

He halted, looked at her. Realized she was staring beyond the hall door toward the dark, tree-shrouded front garden. His thoughts followed hers.

“Damn!” He released her, squelched a more explicit curse.

She looked at him; he looked at her.

He hadn’t checked the front door; the would-be intruder could have taken an impression of that key, too. He couldn’t check now without lighting a match, and that he couldn’t risk. Regardless, it was perfectly possible the “burglar” would check the front of the house before proceeding to the alley behind. Bad enough she’d come in, running the risk of scaring off the burglar or worse, encountering him, but to send her out now would be madness.

The intruder had already proved to be violent.

He drew in a deep breath. Nodded tersely. “You’ll have to stay here until it’s over.”

He sensed she was relieved, in the dimness couldn’t be sure.

She inclined her head haughtily. “As I said, this may be your house, but the burglar’s my problem.”

He couldn’t resist growling, “That’s debatable.” In his lexicon, burglars were not a woman’s problem. She had an uncle and a brother—

“It’s my house—at least, my uncle’s—that he’s trying to gain access to. You know that as well as I.”

That was unarguable.

A faint scratching reached them—from the hall door.

Saying “Damn!” again seemed redundant; with an eloquent glance at her, he opened the door. Shut it behind the shaggy heap that walked in. “Did you have to bring your dog?”

“I didn’t have a choice.”

The dog turned to look at him, then sat, lifting her great head in an innocent pose, as if intimating that he of all people should understand her presence.

He suppressed a disgusted growl. “Sit down.” He waved Leonora to the window seat, the only place to sit in the otherwise empty room; luckily the window was shuttered. As she moved to comply, he continued, “I’m going to leave the door open so we can hear.”

He could forsee problems if he left her alone and returned to his post in the hall. The scenario that most exercised his mind was what might happen when the burglar arrived; would she stay put, or rush out? This way, at least, he would know where she would be—at his back.

Opening the door silently, he set it ajar. The wolfhound slumped to the floor at Leonora’s feet, one eye on the gap in the door. He moved to stand beside the door, shoulders against the wall, head turned to watch the dark emptiness of the hall.

And returned to his earlier thought, the one she’d interrupted. Every instinct he possessed insisted that women, ladies of Leonora’s ilk especially, should not be exposed to danger, should not take part in any dangerous enterprises. While he acknowledged such instincts arose from the days when a man’s females embodied the future of his line, to his mind those arguments still applied. He felt seriously irritated that she was there, that she’d come there, not defying so much as negating, stepping around, her uncle and her brother and their rightful roles….

Glancing at her, he felt his jaw set. She probably did it all the time.

He had no right to judge—her, Sir Humphrey, or Jeremy. If he read all three arright, neither Sir Humphrey nor Jeremy possessed any ability to control Leonora. Nor did they attempt to. Whether that was because she’d resisted and browbeaten them into acquiescence, or because they simply did not care enough to insist in the first place, or alternatively, were too sensitive to her willful independence to rein her in, he couldn’t tell.

Regardless, to him, the situation was wrong, unbalanced. Not how things ought to be.

Minutes ticked by, stretched to half an hour.

It had to be close to midnight when he heard a metallic scrape—a key turning in the old lock belowstairs.

The wolfhound lifted her head.

Leonora straightened, alerted both by Henrietta’s sudden attention and the unfurling tension emanating from Trentham, until then apparently relaxed against the wall. She’d been conscious of his glances, of his irritation, his frowns, but had vowed to ignore them. Learning the burglar’s purpose was her aim, and with Trentham present they might even succeed in catching the villain.

Excitement gripped her, escalated as Trentham motioned her to stay where she was and restrain Henrietta, then flitted, wraithlike, through the door.

He moved so silently, if she hadn’t been watching, he’d have simply disappeared.

Instantly, she rose and followed, equally silent, grateful the builders had left drop sheets spread everywhere, muting the click of Henrietta’s claws as the wolfhound fell in at her heels.

Reaching the hall door, she peered out. Spied Trentham as he merged with the dense shadows at the top of the kitchen stairs. She squinted as she drew her cloak about her; the servants’ door seemed to be propped open.

Ow! Ooof!”

A string of curses followed.

“Here! Get orf!

“What the hell are you doing here, you crazy old fool?”

The voices came from below.

Trentham was gone down the kitchen stairs before she could blink. Grabbing up her skirts, she raced after him.

The stairs were a black void. She rushed down without thinking, heels clattering on the stone steps. Behind her, Henrietta woofed, then growled.

Reaching the landing midway down, Leonora gripped the banister and looked down into the kitchen. Saw two men—one tall and cloaked, the other large but squat and much older—wrestling in the middle of the flags where the kitchen table used to sit.

They’d frozen at Henrietta’s growl.

The taller man looked up.

In the same instant she did, he saw Trentham closing in.

With a huge effort, the taller man swung the older one around and shoved him at Trentham.

The old man lost his footing and went flying back.

Trentham had a choice; sidestep and let the old man fall to the stone flags, or catch him. Watching from above, Leonora saw the decision made, saw Trentham stand his ground and let the old man fall against him. He steadied him, would have set him on his feet and gone after the tall man, already racing toward a narrow corridor, but the old man grappled, struggling—

“Be still!”

The order was rapped out. The old man stiffened and obeyed.

Leaving him swaying on his feet, Trentham went after the tall man—

Too late.

A door slammed as Trentham disappeared down the corridor. An instant later, she heard him swear.

Hurrying down the stairs, she pushed past the old man and raced to the back of the kitchen, to the windows that looked down the path to the rear gate.

The tall man—he had to be their “burglar”—raced from the side of the house and plunged down the path. For one instant he was lit by a faint wash of moonlight; eyes wide, she drank in all she could, then he disappeared beyond the hedges bordering the kitchen garden. The gate to the alley lay beyond.

With an inward sigh, she drew back, replayed all she’d seen in her mind, committed it to memory.

A door banged, then Trentham appeared on the paving outside. Hands on his hips, he surveyed the garden.

She tapped on the window; when he looked her way, she pointed down the path. He turned, then went down the steps and loped toward the gate, no longer racing.

Their “burglar” had escaped.

Turning to the old man, now sitting at the bottom of the stairs, still wheezing and trying to catch his breath, she frowned. “What are you doing here?”

He talked, but didn’t answer, mumbling a great deal of fustian by way of excuses but failing to clarify the vital point. Clad in an ancient frieze coat, with equally ancient and worn boots and frayed mittens on his hands, he gave off an aroma of dirt and leaf mold readily detectable in the freshly painted kitchen.

She folded her arms, tapped her toe as she looked down at him. “Why did you break in?”

He shuffled, mumbled, and muttered some more.

She was at the limit of her patience when Trentham returned, entering via the door down the dark corridor.

He looked disgusted. “He had the foresight to take both keys.”

The comment wasn’t made to anyone in particular; Leonora understood that the fleeing man had locked the side door against Trentham. While he halted, hands in his pockets and studied the old man, she wondered how, key-less, he had managed to get through that locked door.

Henrietta had seated herself a yard from the old man; he eyed her warily.

Then Trentham commenced his interrogation.

With a few well-phrased questions elicited the information that the old man was a beggar who normally slept in the park. The night had turned so raw he’d searched for shelter; he’d known the house was empty, so he’d come there. Trying the back windows, he’d found one with a loose lock.

With Trentham standing like some vengeful deity on one side and Henrietta, spike-toothed jaws gaping, on the other, the old codger clearly felt he had no option but to make a clean breast of it. Leonora suppressed an indignant sniff; apparently she hadn’t appeared sufficiently intimidatory.

“I didn’t mean no harm, sir. Just wanted to get out of the cold.”

Trentham held the old man’s gaze, then nodded. “Very well. One more question. Where were you when the other man tripped over you?”

“In through there.” The old man pointed across the kitchen. “Farther from the windows is warmer. The bu—blighter hauled me out here. Think he was planning on throwing me out.”

He’d pointed to a small pantry.

Leonora glanced at Trentham. “The storerooms beyond share basement walls with Number 14.”

He nodded, turned back to the old man. “I’ve a proposition for you. It’s mid-February—the nights will be freezing for some weeks.” He glanced around. “There’s dust cloths and other coverings around for tonight. You’re welcome to find a place to sleep.” His gaze returned to the old man. “Gasthorpe, who’ll be majordomo here, will be taking up residence tomorrow. He’ll bring blankets and start to make this place habitable. However, all the servants’ bedrooms are in the attic.”

Tristan paused, then continued, “In light of our friend’s unwelcome interest in this place, I want someone sleeping down here. If you’re willing to act as our downstairs nightwatchman, you can sleep here every night legitimately. I’ll give orders you’re to be treated as one of the household. You can stay in and be warm. We’ll rig up a bell so all you need do if anyone tries to gain entry is ring it, and Gasthorpe and the footmen will deal with any intruder.”

The old man blinked as if he couldn’t quite take in the suggestion, wasn’t sure he wasn’t dreaming.

Without allowing any trace of compassion to show, Tristan asked, “Which regiment were you in?”

He watched as the old shoulders straightened, as the old man’s head lifted.

“Ninth. I was invalided out after Corunna.”

He nodded. “As were many others. Not one of our better engagements—we were lucky to get out at all.”

The rheumy old eyes widened. “You were there?”

“I was.”

“Aye.” The old man nodded. “Then you’ll know.”

Tristan waited a moment, then asked, “So will you do it?”

“Keep watch for ye every night?” The old man eyed him, then nodded again. “Aye, I’ll do it.” He looked around. “Be strange after all these years, but…” He shrugged, and pushed himself up from the stairs.

He bobbed his head deferentially to Leonora, then moved past her, looking around the kitchen with new eyes.

“What’s your name?”

“Biggs, sir. Joshua Biggs.”

Tristan reached for Leonora’s arm and propelled her onto the stairs. “We’ll leave you on duty, Biggs, but I doubt there’ll be any further disturbance tonight.”

The old man looked up, raised a hand in a salute. “Aye, sir. But I’ll be here if there is.”

Fascinated by the exchange, Leonora returned her attention to the present as they regained the front hall. “Do you think the man who fled was our burglar?”

“I seriously doubt we have more than one man, or group of men, intent on gaining access to your house.”

“Group of men?” She looked at Trentham, cursed the darkness that hid his face. “Do you really think so?”

He didn’t immediately answer; despite not being able to see, she was sure he was frowning.

They reached the front door; without releasing her, he opened it, met her gaze as they stepped out onto the front porch, Henrietta padding behind them. Faint moonlight reached them.

“You were watching—what did you see?”

When she hesitated, marshaling her thoughts, he instructed, “Describe him.”

Letting go of her elbow, he offered his arm; absentmindedly she laid her hand on his sleeve, and they went down the steps. Frowning in concentration, she walked beside him toward the front gate. “He was tall—you saw that. But I got the impression he was young.” She slanted a glance at him. “Younger than you.”

He nodded. “Go on.”

“He was easily as tall as Jeremy, but not much taller, and leanish rather than stout. He moved with that sort of gangling grace younger men sometimes have—and he ran well.”

“Features?”

“Dark hair.” Again she glanced at him. “I’d say even darker than yours—possibly black. As to his face…” She looked ahead, seeing again in her mind’s eye the fleeting glimpse she’d caught. “Good features. Not aristocratic, but not common, either.”

She met Trentham’s gaze. “I’m perfectly sure he was a gentleman.”

He didn’t argue, indeed, didn’t seem surprised.

Emerging onto the pavement into the teeth of the wind slicing up the street, he drew her close, into the lee of his shoulders; they put their heads down and swiftly walked the few yards to the front gate of Number 14.

She should have made a stand and left him there, but he’d swung the gate open and whisked her in before the potential difficulties of his seeing her all the way to the front door occurred to her.

But the garden, as always, soothed her, convinced her that no problem would arise. Like inverted feather dusters, a profusion of lacy fronds lined the path, here and there an exotic-looking flower head held high on a slender stalk. Bushes shaped the beds; trees accented the graceful design. Even in this season, a few starry white blooms peeked from under the protective hoods of thick, dark green leaves.

Although the night sent chill fingers sneaking along the twisting path, the wind could only batter at the high stone wall, could whip only the topmost branches of the trees.

On the ground, all was still, quiet; as always the garden struck her as a place that was alive, patiently waiting, benign in the dark.

Rounding the last bend in the path, she looked ahead, through the bushes and waving branches saw light shining from the library windows. At the far end of the house, abutting Number 16, the library was distant enough for there to be no danger of Jeremy or Humphrey hearing their footsteps on the gravel and looking out.

They might, however, hear an altercation on the front porch.

Glancing at Trentham, she saw that his eyes, too, had been drawn to the lighted windows. Halting, she drew her hand from his arm and faced him. “I’ll leave you here.”

He looked down at her, but didn’t immediately reply.

As far as Tristan could see, he had three options. He could accept her dismissal, turn his back, and walk away; alternatively, he could take her arm, march her up to the front door, and, with suitable and pointed explanations, hand her into her uncle and brother’s keeping.

Both options were cowardly. The first in bowing to her refusal to accept the protection she needed and running away—something he’d never done in his life. The second because he knew neither her uncle nor her brother, no matter how outraged he managed to make them, was capable of controlling her, not for more than a day.

Which left him no option bar the third.

Holding her gaze, he let all he felt harden his tone. “Coming to wait for the burglar tonight was an incredibly foolhardy thing to do.”

Up went her head; her eyes flashed. “Be that as it may, if I hadn’t, we wouldn’t even know what he looks like. You didn’t see him—I did.”

“And what”—his voice had taken on the icy tone he would have used to dress down a wantonly reckless subaltern—“do you think would have happened had I not been there?”

Reaction, hard and sharp, speared through him; until that moment, he hadn’t allowed himself to envisage that event. Eyes narrowing as real fury took hold, he stepped, deliberately intimidating, toward her. “Let me hypothesize—correct me if I’m wrong. On hearing the fight belowstairs you would have rushed down—into the teeth of things. Into the fray. And what then?” He took another step and she gave ground, but only fractionally. Then her spine locked; her head rose even higher. She met his gaze defiantly.

Lowering his head, bringing their faces close, his eyes locked with hers, he growled, “Regardless of what happened to Biggs, and having seen the villain’s efforts with Stolemore, it wouldn’t have been pretty, what—just what do you imagine would have happened to you?”

His voice had not risen but deepened, roughened, gained in power as his words brought the reality of what she had risked home to him.

Her spine stiff, her gaze as chill as the night about them, she opened her lips. “Nothing.”

He blinked. “Nothing?”

“I would have set Henrietta on him.”

The words stopped him. He glanced down at the wolfhound, who sighed heavily, then sat.

“As I said, these would-be intruders are my problem. I’m perfectly capable of dealing with any matters that arise myself.”

He shifted his gaze from the hound to her. “You hadn’t intended to bring Henrietta with you.”

Leonora didn’t succumb to the temptation to shift her eyes. “Nevertheless, as it happened, I did. So I wasn’t in any danger.”

Something changed—behind his face, behind his eyes. “Just because Henrietta is with you, you aren’t in any danger?”

His voice had altered again; cold, hard, but flat, as if all the passion that had invested it a moment earlier had been drawn in, compressed.

She replayed his words, hesitated, yet could see no reason not to nod. “Precisely.”

“Think again.”

She’d forgotten how fast he could move. How totally helpless he could make her feel.

How totally and completely helpless she was, yanked into his arms, crushed against him, and ruthlessly kissed.

The impulse to struggle flared, but was extinguished before it took hold. Drowned beneath a tidal wave of feelings. Hers, and his.

Something between them ignited; not anger, not shock—something closer to avid curiosity.

She closed her hands in his coat, grabbed hold, held on as a rush of sensation swept her up, caught her, held her trapped. Not just by his arms but by myriad strands of fascination. By the shift of his lips, cool and hard on hers, the restless flexing of his fingers on her upper arms as if he longed to reach further, explore and touch, longed to pull her closer yet.

Spiraling thrills cascaded through her; licks of excitement teased her nerves, built her fascination. She’d been kissed before, but never like this. Never had pleasure and greedy need leapt to such a simple caress.

His lips moved on hers, ruthless, relentless, until she surrendered to the unsubtle pressure and parted them.

Her world shook when he pressed them wider yet and his tongue slid in to meet hers.

She tensed. He ignored it and caressed, then probed. Something within her rocked, teetered, then cracked. Sensation spilled down her veins, flowing steadily through her, hot, scalding, bright.

Another flash, another sharp shock of sensation. She would have gasped but he caught her to him, one steely arm sliding about her and tightening—distracting her as he deepened the kiss.

By the time her senses refocused, she was too enthralled, too enmeshed in the novel delights to think about breaking free.

Tristan sensed it, knew it in his bones, tried not to let his hunger take advantage. She’d been kissed before, but he’d stake his considerable reputation that she’d never yielded her mouth to any man.

But it, and she, were now his to enjoy, to savor, at least as far as a kiss would allow.

Madness, of course. He knew that now, but in that heated moment when she’d blithely consigned her protection to a hound—a hound who was sitting patiently by while he ravished her mistress’s soft mouth—all he’d seen was red. He hadn’t realized how much of that haze had been due to lust.

He knew now.

He’d kissed her to demonstrate her inherent weakness.

In doing so had uncovered his own.

He was hungry—starved; by some blessing of fate so was she. They stood in the silent garden, locked together, and simply enjoyed, took, gave. She was a novice, but that only added a piquancy, a delicate touch of enchantment to know that it was he who was leading her along paths she’d never trod.

Into realms she hadn’t before explored.

The warmth of her, the supple strength, the blatantly feminine curves pressed to his chest—the fact he had her locked in his arms sank through his senses, sank evocative talons deep.

Until he knew just what he wanted, knew beyond doubt what Pandora’s box he’d opened.

Leonora clung as the kiss went on, as it progressed, expanded, opening up new horizons, educating her senses. Some part of her reeling mind knew without question that she wasn’t in any danger, that Trentham’s arms were a safe haven for her.

That she could accept the kiss and all it brought if not with impunity, then at least without risk.

That she could grasp the brief glimpse of passion he offered, seize the moment and, starved, ease her hunger at least that much, own to wanting more without fear, knowing that when it ended she would be able—would be allowed—to step back. To remain herself, locked away and safe.

Alone.

So she made no move to end it.

Until Henrietta whined.

Trentham lifted his head instantly, looked down at Henrietta, but he didn’t let her go.

Blushing, very glad of the darkness, she pushed back, felt his chest, warm rock, beneath her hands. Still frowning, glancing around at the shadows, he eased his hold on her.

Clearing her throat, she stepped back, out of his arms, putting clear distance between them. “She’s cold.”

He looked at her, then at Henrietta. “Cold?”

“Her coat’s wiry hair, not fur.”

He looked at her; she met his gaze, and suddenly felt terribly awkward. How did one part from a gentleman who’d just…

She looked down, snapped her fingers at Henrietta. “I’d better take her in. Good night.”

He said nothing as she turned and started for the front steps. Then suddenly she sensed him shift.

“Wait.”

She turned, raised a brow, as haughty as she could make it.

His face had hardened. “The key.” He held out a hand. “To the front door of Number 12.”

Heat rushed to her cheeks again. Reaching into her pocket, she drew it out. “I used to visit old Mr. Morrissey. He had terrible trouble doing his household accounts.”

He took the key, weighed it in his palm.

She glanced up; he caught her gaze.

After a moment, very quietly he said, “Go inside.”

It was too dark to read his eyes, yet caution whispered, told her to obey. Inclining her head, she turned to the front steps. She climbed them, opened the door she’d left on the latch, slipped in, and quietly closed it behind her, conscious all the while of his gaze on her back.

Sliding the key into his pocket, Tristan stood on the path amid the waving fronds and watched until her shadow disappeared into the house. Then he swore, turned, and walked away into the night.

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