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There was very little Tristan didn’t know about establishing a network of informers.

Lady Warsingham’s coachman saw no difficulty in providing the local streetsweeper with news of whither he’d been instructed he would be heading each evening; one of Tristan’s footmen would go strolling at noon to meet with the streetsweeper and return with the news.

His own household staff were proving exemplary sources, intrigued and eager to supply him with details of the houses Leonora chose to grace with her presence. And Gasthorpe had exercised his own initiative and handed Tristan a vital contact.

Toby, the Carlings’s bootboy, inhabited the kitchen of Number 14 and therefore was privy to his masters’ and mistress’s intended directions. The lad was always eager to hear the ex–sergeant major’s tales; in return, he innocently provided Tristan with intelligence on Leonora’s daytime activities.

That evening, she’d elected to attend the Marchioness of Huntly’s gala. Tristan sauntered in a few minutes before he estimated the Warsingham party would arrive.

Lady Huntly greeted him with a twinkle in her eye. “I understand,” she said, “that you have a particular interest in Miss Carling?”

He met her gaze, wondering…“Most particular.”

“In that case, I should warn you that a number of my nephews are expected to attend tonight.” Lady Huntly patted his arm. “Just a word to the wise.”

He inclined his head and moved into the crowd, wracking his brains for the relevant connection. Her nephews? He was about to go and look for Ethelreda or Millicent, both of whom were somewhere in the room, to request clarification, when he recalled Lady Huntly had been born a Cynster.

Muttering a curse, he executed an immediate about-face and took up a position close by the main doors.

Leonora entered a few minutes later; he claimed her hand the instant she was free of the receiving line.

She raised her brows at him; he could see a comment regarding overt possessiveness forming in her mind. Placing his hand over hers, he squeezed her fingers. “Let’s get your aunts settled, then we can dance.”

She met his eyes. “Just a dance.”

A warning, one he had no intention of heeding. Together, they escorted her aunts to a group of chaises where many of the older ladies had gathered.

“Good evening, Mildred.” A bedezined old dame nodded regally.

Lady Warsingham nodded back. “Lady Osbaldestone. I believe you’ll remember my niece, Miss Carling?”

The old dame, still handsome in her way but with terrifyingly sharp black eyes, surveyed Leonora, who curtsied. The old harridan snorted. “Indeed I remember you, miss—but you’ve no business being a miss still.” Her gaze moved on to Tristan. “Who’s this?”

Lady Warsingham performed the introductions; Tristan bowed.

Lady Osbaldestone humphed. “Well, one can hope you’ll succeed in changing Miss Carling’s mind. The dancing’s through there.”

With her cane, she waved toward an archway beyond which couples were whirling. Tristan seized the implied dismissal. “If you’ll excuse us?”

Without waiting for further permission, he whisked Leonora away.

Pausing beneath the archway, he asked, “Lady Osbaldestone—who’s she?”

“A bona fide terror of the ton. Pay her no heed.” Leonora surveyed the dancers. “And I warn you, tonight we are only going to dance.”

He made no reply; taking her hand, he led her onto the floor and whirled her into a waltz. A waltz he used to maximum effect, unfortunately, given the limitations of a half-empty dance floor, not as great an effect as he would have liked.

The next dance was a cotillion, an exercise he had little use for; it provided too few opportunities to tweak his partner’s senses. It was too early yet to inveigle her away to the tiny salon overlooking the gardens; when she admitted to being parched, he left her by the side of the room and went to fetch two glasses of champagne.

The refreshment room gave off the ballroom; he was only absent for a moment, yet when he returned he discovered Leonora in conversation with a tall, dark-haired man he recognized as Devil Cynster.

His internal curses were vitriolic, but when he approached, neither Leonora nor Cynster, who was not thrilled at the interruption, would have detected anything beyond urbanity in his expression.

“Good evening.” Handing Leonora her glass, he nodded to Cynster, who returned the nod, his pale gaze sharpening.

One aspect that was instantly apparent was that they were very much alike, not just in height, in the width of their shoulders, in their elegance, but also in their characters, their natures—their temperaments.

An instant passed while both assimilated that fact, then Cynster held out his hand. “St. Ives. My aunt mentioned you were at Waterloo.”

Tristan nodded, shook hands. “Trentham, although I wasn’t that then.”

He mentally scrambled for the best way to answer the inevitable questions; he’d heard enough of the Cynsters’ involvement in the recent campaigns to guess that St. Ives would know enough to detect his usual sliding around the truth.

St. Ives was watching him closely, assessingly. “What regiment were you in?”

“The Guards.” Tristan met the pale green gaze, deliberately omitting any further definition. St. Ives’s gaze narrowed; he held it, murmured, “You were in the heavy cavalry, as I recall. Together with some of your cousins, you relieved Cullen’s troop on the right flank.”

St. Ives stilled, blinked, then a wry, quite genuine smile curved his lips. His gaze returned to Tristan’s; he inclined his head. “As you say.”

Only someone with a very high level of military clearance would know of that little excursion; Tristan could almost see the connections being made behind St. Ives’s clear green eyes.

He noted St. Ives’s quick, reassessing glance before, with an almost indiscernible movement they both saw and understood, he drew back.

Leonora had been looking from one to the other, sensing a communication she could not follow, irritated by it. She opened her lips—

St. Ives turned to her and smiled with devastating, purely predatory force. “I was intending to sweep you off your feet, but I believe I’ll leave you to Trentham’s tender mercies. Not the done thing to cross a fellow officer, and there seems little doubt he deserves a clear shot.”

Leonora’s chin came up; her eyes narrowed. “I am not some enemy to be captured and conquered.”

“That’s a matter of opinion.” Tristan’s dry comment brought her gaze swinging his way.

St. Ives’s smile grew, unrepentant; he sketched a bow and withdrew, saluting Tristan from behind Leonora’s back.

Tristan saw that last with relief; with luck, St. Ives would warn off his cousins, and any others of their ilk.

Leonora cast a frowning glance at St. Ives’s retreating back. “What did he mean by you ‘deserving a clear shot’?”

“Presumably because I sighted you first.”

She swung back, her frown deepening. “I am not some form of”—she gestured, glass and all—“prey.”

“As I said, that’s a matter of opinion.”

“Nonsense.” She paused, eyes on his, then continued, “I sincerely hope you’re not thinking in such terms, for I warn you I have no intention of being captured, conquered, let alone tied up.”

Her diction had grown more definite with every word; her last phrase had nearby gentlemen turning to view her.

“This”—Tristan caught her hand and wound her arm in his—“is not the place to discuss my intentions.”

“Your intentions?” She lowered her voice. “As far as I’m concerned, you have none vis à vis me. None that have any likelihood of coming to fruition.”

“I’m desolate to have to contradict you, of course. However…” He kept talking, fencing with her as he steered her to a side door. But as he reached to open it, she realized. And dug in her heels.

“No.” She narrowed her eyes at him even more. “Just dancing tonight. There’s no reason we need be private.”

He raised a brow at her. “Retreating in disarray?”

Her lips thinned; her eyes were mere slits. “Nothing of the sort, but you won’t catch me with such an obvious lure.”

He heaved an exaggerated sigh. In point of fact, it was too early—the rooms insufficiently crowded—for them to risk slipping away. “Very well.” He turned her back into the room. “That sounds like a waltz starting up.”

Lifting her glass from her fingers, he handed both glasses to a passing footman, then swept her onto the dance floor.

Leonora relaxed into the dance, let her senses free; at least here, in the presence of others, it was safe to do so. In private, she trusted neither him nor herself. Experience had taught her that once in his arms, she couldn’t rely on her intellect to guide her. Rational logical arguments never seemed to win when pitted against that warm rush of needy yearning.

Desire. She knew enough now to name it, the passion that drove them, that fired their attraction. She’d acknowledged it as such to herself, but knew better than to allow her understanding to show.

However, as she whirled through the dance in Trentham’s arms, relaxed but with her senses exhilaratingly alive, it was a different aspect of their interaction that concerned her.

An aspect Devil Cynster’s words and their ensuing discussion had brought into sharper focus.

She held her tongue until the dance ended, but then they were joined by two other couples, and conversation became general. When the musicians struck up the opening bars to a cotillion, she met Trentham’s gaze in fleeting warning, then accepted Lord Hardcastle’s hand.

Trentham—Tristan—let her go with no reaction beyond a hardening of his gaze. Heartened, she returned to his side once the dance ended, but when the next measure proved to be a country dance, she again accepted an offer from another—young Lord Belvoir, a gentleman who might one day be of Tristan’s and St. Ives’s ilk, but was now merely an entertaining companion much of her own age.

Again, Tristan—she’d started to think of him by his given name—he’d teased it from her often enough under circumstances sufficiently unique and memorable that she was unlikely to forget it—bore her defection with outwardly stoic calm. Only she was near enough to see the hardness, the possessiveness, and, more than anything else, the watchfulness in his eyes.

It was that last that underscored her thoughts of how he viewed her, and finally had her throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to reason with her wolf. Her wild wolf; she didn’t forget, but sometimes it was necessary to take risks.

She bided her time until the small group they were a part of dispersed. Before others could join them, she placed her hand on Tristan’s arm and nudged him toward the door he’d previously headed for.

He glanced at her, raised his brows. “Have you had second thoughts?”

“No. I’ve had other thoughts.” She met his eyes fleetingly, and continued toward the door. “I want to talk—just talk—to you, and I suppose it had better be in private.”

Reaching the door, she paused and met his gaze. “I presume you do know of somewhere in this mansion we can be assured of being alone?”

His lips curved in a wholly male grin; opening the door, he handed her through. “Far be it from me to disappoint you.”

He didn’t; the room he led her to was small, furnished as a sitting room in which a lady of the house could sit in comfortable privacy and look out over the manicured gardens. Reached through a maze of intersecting corridors, it was some distance from the reception rooms, a perfect venue for private conversation, verbal or otherwise.

Inwardly shaking her head—how did he do it?—she went straight to the windows, to stand and look out on the fog-shrouded garden. There was no moon, no distraction outside. She heard the door click shut, then felt Tristan approaching. Dragging in a breath, she swung to face him, put a palm to his chest to hold him back. “I want to discuss how you see me.”

He didn’t outwardly blink, but she’d obviously taken a tack he hadn’t expected. “What—”

She stopped him with an upraised hand. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that you view me as some sort of challenge. And men like you are constitutionally incapable of letting a challenge lie.” She eyed him severely. “Am I right in thinking you view getting my agreement to marry you in such a light?”

Tristan returned her regard. Increasingly wary. It was difficult to think how else he would view it. “Yes.”

“Ah-ha! That, you see, is our problem.”

“Which problem is that?”

“The problem of you not being able to take my ‘no’ for an answer.”

Propping his shoulder against the window frame, he looked down at her face, at her eyes glowing with zeal at her supposed discovery. “I don’t follow.”

She made a dismissive sound. “Of course you do, you just don’t want to think about it because it doesn’t fit your stated intentions.

“Bear with my muddled male mind and explain.”

She threw him a long-suffering look. “You can hardly deny that any number of ladies have been—and more will be once the Season proper starts—throwing themselves at your head.”

“No.” It was one of the reasons he clung to her side, one of the reasons he wanted to gain her agreement to their wedding as soon as possible. “What have they to do with us?”

“Not us so much as you. You, like most men, have little appreciation for what you can have without a fight. You equate fighting for something with its value—the harder and more difficult the struggle, the more valuable the object attained. As with wars, so with women. The more a lady resists, the more desirable she becomes.”

She fixed him with her clear, periwinkle blue gaze. “Am I right?”

He thought before nodding. “It’s a reasonable hypothesis.”

“Indeed, but you see where that leaves us?”

“No.”

She gave an exasperated hiss. “You want to marry me because I won’t marry you—not for any other reason. That”—she waved both hands—“primitive instinct of yours is what’s driving you—and it’s getting in the way of our attraction fading. It would be fading but—”

He reached out, caught one of her waving hands, and yanked her to him. She landed against his chest, gasped as his arms closed around her. He felt her body react as it always had, always did, to his. “Our mutual attraction hasn’t faded.”

She hauled in a tight breath. “That’s because you’re confusing it….” Her words faded as he lowered his head. “I said we’d only talk!”

“That’s illogical.” He brushed her lips with his, pleased when hers clung. He shifted, settling her more comfortably in his arms. Setting her hips to his, the soft curve of her stomach cradling his erection. He looked down into her eyes, wide, darkening. His lips curved, but not in a smile. “You’re right—it is a primitive instinct that’s driving me. But you picked the wrong one.”

“What—”

Her mouth was open—he filled it. Took possession in a long, slow, thorough kiss. She tried to resist, hold back, but then surrendered.

When, eventually, he lifted his head, she sighed, murmured, “What’s illogical about talking?”

“It’s not consistent with your conclusion.”

“My conclusion?” She blinked at him. “I hadn’t even got to my conclusion.”

He brushed her lips again so she wouldn’t see his wolfish grin. “Let me state it for you. If, as you hypothesize, the only reason I want to marry you—the only true reason driving our mutual attraction—is because you’re resisting, why not try not resisting and see what happens?”

She stared dazedly up at him. “Not resisting?”

He shrugged lightly, his gaze falling to her lips. “If you’re right, you’ll prove your point.” He took her lips, her mouth again, before she could consider what would happen if she was wrong.

His tongue stroked hers; she shivered delicately, then kissed him back. Stopped resisting, as she generally did when they’d reached this point; he wasn’t fool enough to believe that meant anything more than that she’d inwardly shrugged and decided to take what she might, still firmly convinced the desire between them would wane.

He knew it wouldn’t, at least on his part. What he felt for her was quite different from anything he’d felt before—not for any other woman, not for anyone at all. Protective, deeply to-his-bones possessive, and unquestionably right. It was that conviction of rightness that drove him to have her again and again, even in the teeth of her determined denials, to demonstrate the breadth and depth, the increasing power of all that was growing between them.

A stunning revelation in any circumstances, but he set himself to paint the sensual reality between them in bold and striking colors the better to impress her with its power, its potency, its undisguised truth.

She felt it, broke from the kiss, from beneath heavy lids met his eyes. Sighed. “I really did intend that tonight we would only dance.”

There was no resistance, no reluctance, only acceptance.

He closed his hands about her bottom and shifted suggestively against her. Bent his head to brush her lips. “We are going to dance—it just won’t be to a waltz.”

Her lips curved. Her hand tightened on his nape and she drew him to her. “To our own music, then.”

He took her mouth, caught their reins, and deliberately set them aside.

The daybed angled to the windows was the obvious place to lay her, to lie alongside her and feast on her breasts. Until her soft gasps were urgent and needy, until she arched and her fingers clung to his skull.

Suppressing a triumphant smile, he slid farther down the daybed, raising her skirts, pressing them high about her waist to expose her hips, and her long slender legs. Tracing her curves, fingers first trailing, then gripping to part her thighs, opening her to him.

Then he bent his head and set his lips to her softness.

She cried out, tried to catch his shoulders, but they were beyond her reach. Her fingers tangled in his hair, clenched as he laved, licked, then lightly suckled.

Tristan! No…”

“Yes.” He held her down and pressed deeper, savoring the tart taste of her, step by step knowingly winding her tight…

She was quivering on the crest of climax when he shifted, freed his erection from the confines of his trousers, and rose over her. She gripped his forearms, nails sinking deep, her knees rising to grip his flanks. Sensual entreaty etched every line of her face; urgency drove her restless body, shifting wantonly, beckoning beneath his.

Her spine bowed as he entered her; he drove home and she climaxed, a glorious rippling release. He caught her up, drove her on. She clung, sobbed, and matched him, as committed as he as they swept up the mountain, with each forceful thrust climbed the jagged peaks, then tension splintered, fractured, fell away, and they soared into the void, into the sublime heat of their sharing.

Into that moment when all barriers fell away, and there was just him and her, joined in naked honesty, wrapped in that powerful reality.

Chests heaving, hearts thundering, heat coursing beneath their skins, they stilled, waited, locked intimately together, for the glory to wane. Their gazes touched, held—neither made any move to shift, to part.

She raised a hand, traced his cheek. Her eyes searched his, wondering…

He turned his head, pressed an openmouthed kiss to her palm.

Knew when she drew a deep breath that although her body and her senses were still sunk in the bliss, her mind had snapped free; she’d already resumed thinking.

Resigned, he looked into her eyes. Raised one brow.

“You said I’d picked the wrong primitive instinct—that it wasn’t the response to a challenge that was driving you.” She held his gaze. “If not that, then what? Why”—with one hand, she waved weakly—“are we here?”

He knew the answer, couldn’t manage a smile. “We’re here because I want you.”

She made a derisive sound. “So it’s just lust—”

“No.” He pressed into her and gained her complete attention. “Not lust—not anything like it. But you’re not hearing what I’m saying. I. Want. You. Not any other woman; no other will do. Only you.”

She frowned.

His lips curved, not in a smile. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why I’ll pursue you no matter what comes until you agree to be mine.”

*   *   *

Only you.

Sipping tea at the breakfast table the next morning, Leonora examined those words.

She wasn’t at all sure she understood the implications, understood what Tristan had meant to convey. Men, at least those of his ilk, were a species unknown to her; she felt uneasy in attributing too much meaning—or the meaning she would have intended—to his phrase.

There were further complications.

The ease with which he’d subverted her determined intentions at Huntly House—just as he had on the evenings before that—made thinking she could stand against him and his practiced seduction a frankly ludicrous hope.

No more pretending on that front; if she seriously wanted to deny him, she’d have to unearth a chastity belt. And even then…he could almost certainly pick locks.

And there was more yet to consider.

While it was perfectly obvious that testing her hypothesis by not resisting would play into his hands, if she was right in her estimation of the reason behind his passion, then not resisting the notion of marrying him would indeed see his interest wane.

But what if it didn’t?

She’d spent half the night wondering, imagining…

A gentle cough from Castor jerked her back to reality; she had no idea how long her mind had been wandering, caught by an unexpected vista, entranced by a prospect she’d long ago thought she’d turned her back on. Frowning, she pushed aside her uneaten toast and rose.

“When the footman takes Henrietta for her walk, please ask him to summon me—I’ll accompany them today.”

“Indeed, miss.” Castor bowed as she left the room.

 

That evening, together with Mildred and Gertie, Leonora swept into Lady Catterthwaite’s ballroom. They were neither early nor late. After greeting their hostess, they joined the fray. With every passing day, more of the fashionable returned to town and the balls grew commensurately more crowded.

Lady Catterthwaite’s ballroom was small and cramped. Accompanying her aunts to where a grouping of chairs and chaises gave the older female guests a place to sit and watch their charges, and exchange all the latest news, Leonora was surprised to find no Trentham waiting for her—waiting to step out of the crowd and waylay her. Claim her.

She helped Gertie settle in an armchair, inwardly frowning at how accustomed to his attentions she’d grown. Straightening, she nodded to her aunts. “I’m going to mingle.”

Mildred was already speaking with an acquaintance; Gertie nodded, then turned to join the circle.

Leonora glided into the already considerable crowd. Attracting a gentleman, joining a group of acquaintances would be easy enough, yet she had no desire to do either. She was…not precisely concerned, but certainly wondering over Tristan’s nonappearance. Last night, after he’d so deliberately uttered the words “only you,” she’d sensed a change in him, a sudden wariness, a watchfulness she’d been unable to interpret.

He hadn’t cut himself off from her, hadn’t precisely withdrawn, but she’d sensed a self-protective recoil on his part, as if he’d gone too far, said more than was safe…or, perhaps, true.

The possibility nagged; she was already having trouble enough trying to fathom his motives—coping with the fact that his motives had, entirely beyond her wishes or her will, become important to her—that the idea he might not be open with her, honest with her…that way lay a morass of uncertainty in which she had no intention of becoming mired.

It was precisely the sort of situation that most strongly supported her inflexible stance against marriage.

She continued drifting aimlessly, stopping here and there to exchange greetings, then, entirely unexpectedly, directly ahead of her in the crowd, she saw a pair of shoulders she recognized instantly.

They were clad in scarlet, as they had been years ago. As if sensing her regard, the gentleman glanced around and saw her. And smiled.

Delighted, he turned and held out his hands. “Leonora! How lovely to see you.”

She returned his smile and gave him her hands. “Mark. I see you haven’t sold out.”

“No, no. A career soldier, that’s me.” Brown-haired, fair-skinned, he turned to include the lady standing by his side. “Allow me to present my wife, Heather.”

Leonora’s smile slipped a fraction, but Heather Whorton smiled sweetly and shook hands. If she recalled that Leonora was the lady her husband had been engaged to before he’d offered for her hand, she gave no sign. Relaxing, somewhat to her surprise Leonora found herself regaled with an account of the Whortons’ life over the past seven or so years, from the birth of their first child to the arrival of their fourth, to the rigors of following the drum or alternatively the long separations imposed on military families.

Both Mark and Heather contributed; it was impossible to miss how dependent on Mark his wife was. She hung on his arm, but even more, seemed totally immersed in him and their children—indeed, she seemed to have no identity beyond that.

That was not the norm in Leonora’s circle.

As she listened and smiled politely, commenting as appropriate, the truth of how badly she and Mark would have suited sank in. From his responses to Heather, it was patently clear that he rejoiced in her need of him—a need Leonora would never have had, would never have allowed herself to develop.

She’d long ago realized she hadn’t loved Mark; at the time of their engagement she’d been a young and distinctly naive seventeen—she’d thought she wanted what all other young ladies wanted—lusted after—a handsome husband. Listening to him now, and remembering, she could admit that she hadn’t been in love with him but with the idea of being in love, of getting married and having her own household. Of gaining what for girls of that age had been the Holy Grail.

She listened, observed, and sent up a heartfelt prayer; she truly had had a lucky escape.

 

Tristan strolled nonchalantly down the stairs of Lady Catterthwaite’s ballroom. He was later than usual; a message received earlier in the day from one of his contacts had necessitated another visit to the docks—night had fallen before he’d returned to Trentham House.

Pausing two steps from the bottom, he scanned the room, but failed to find Leonora. He did, however, locate her aunts. A niggle of concern pricking his nape, he stepped down to the floor and headed their way.

Impelled by a need to find Leonora, an impulse whose strength unnerved him.

Their interlude the previous evening, the explanation he’d given her, that she and she alone could fulfill his need, had only served to underscore, to exacerbate, his growing sense of vulnerability. He felt as if he were going into battle missing part of his armor, that he was exposing himself, his emotions, in a reckless, foolish, wantonly idiotic fashion.

His intincts were to immediately and comprehensively guard against any such weakness, to cover it up, shore it up with all speed.

He couldn’t help being the type of man he was, had long ago accepted his nature. Knew there was no sense fighting his escalating need to secure Leonora, to make her unequivocally his.

To have her agree to marry him with all speed.

Reaching the gaggle of older ladies, he bowed before Mildred and shook hands with both her and Gertie. He then had to endure a round of introductions to the circle of eager, interested, matronly faces.

Mildred saved him by waving toward the crowd. “Leonora is here, somewhere in the melee.”

“About time you got here!” Grumbling under her breath, Gertie, sitting to one side of the group, drew his attention. “She’s over there.” She pointed with her cane; Tristan turned, looked, and saw Leonora chatting with an officer from some infantry regiment.

Gertie snorted. “That blackguard Whorton’s toadying up to her—can’t imagine she’s enjoying it. You’d best go and rescue her.”

He’d never been one to rush in without understanding the game. Although the trio of which Leonora was one was at some distance, they were, from this angle, clearly visible. Although he could see only Leonora’s profile, her stance and her occasional gesture assured him she was neither upset nor worried. She also showed no sign of wanting to slip away.

He looked back at Gertie. “Whorton—I assume he’s the captain she’s talking with?” Gertie nodded. “Why do you call him a blackguard?”

Gertie narrowed her old eyes at him. Her lips compressed in a tight line, she considered him closely; from the first, she’d been the less encouraging of Leonora’s aunts, yet she hadn’t attempted to thrust a spoke in his wheel. Indeed, as the days had passed, he thought she’d come to look on him more favorably.

He apparently passed muster, for she suddenly nodded and looked again at Whorton. Her dislike was evident in her face.

“He jilted her, that’s why. They were engaged when she was seventeen, before he went away to Spain. He came back the next year, and came straightaway to see her—we were all expecting to learn when the wedding bells would ring. But then Leonora showed him out, and returned to tell us he’d asked her to release him. Seemed he’d found his colonel’s daughter more to his liking.”

Gertie’s snort was eloquent. “That’s why I call him a blackguard. Broke her heart, he did.”

A complex swirl of emotions swept through Tristan. He heard himself ask, “She released him?”

“Of course she did! What lady wouldn’t, in such circumstances? The bounder didn’t want to marry her—he’d found a better billet.”

Gertie’s fondness for Leonora rang in her voice, colored her distress. Impulsively, he patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry—I’ll go and rescue her.”

But he wasn’t going to make Whorton into a martyr in the process. Aside from all else, he was damned glad the bounder hadn’t married Leonora.

Eyes on the trio, he tacked through the crowd. He’d just been handed a vital piece of the jigsaw of Leonora and her attitude to marriage, but he couldn’t yet spare the time to stop, consider, jiggle, and see exactly how it fitted, nor what it would tell him.

He came up beside Leonora; she glanced up at him, smiled.

“Ah—there you are.”

Taking her hand, he raised it briefly to his lips, then placed it on his sleeve as was his habit. Her brows lifted faintly, in resignation, then she turned to the others. “Allow me to introduce you.”

She did; he heard with a jolt that the other lady was Whorton’s wife. His polite mask in place, he returned the greetings.

Mrs. Whorton smiled sweetly at him. “As I was saying, it’s proved quite an effort to organize our sons’ schooling…”

To his definite surprise, he found himself listening to a discussion of where to send the Whorton brats for their education. Leonora gave her opinion from her experience with Jeremy; Whorton quite clearly intended giving her advice due consideration.

Contrary to Gertie’s supposition, Whorton made no attempt to attach Leonora, nor to evoke any long-ago sympathies.

Tristan watched Leonora closely, but could detect nothing beyond her customary serene confidence, her usual effortless social grace.

She wasn’t a particularly good actress; her temper was too definite. Whatever her feelings over Whorton had been, they were no longer strong enough to raise her pulse. It beat steadily beneath his fingers; she was truly unperturbed.

Even discussing children who, had things been different, might have been hers.

He suddenly wondered how she felt about children, realized he’d been taking her views vis à vis his heir for granted.

Wondered if she was already carrying his child.

His gut clenched; a wave of possessiveness flowed over him. He didn’t so much as flutter an eyelash, yet Leonora glanced at him, a faint frown—one of questioning concern—in her eyes.

The sight saved him. He smiled easily; she blinked, searched his eyes, then turned back to Mrs. Whorton’s chatter.

Finally, the musicians tuned up. He seized the moment to part from the Whortons; he led Leonora directly to the floor.

Drew her into his arms, whirled her into the waltz.

Only then focused on her face, on the long-suffering look in her eyes.

He blinked, raised a brow.

“I realize you military men are accustomed to acting with dispatch, but within the ton’s ballrooms, it’s customary to ask a lady if she wishes to dance.”

He met her gaze. After a moment, said, “My apologies.”

She waited, then raised her brows high. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”

“No. We’re already waltzing—asking you is redundant. And you might refuse.”

She blinked at him, then smiled, clearly amused. “I must try that sometime.”

“Don’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you won’t like what happens.”

She held his gaze, then sighed exaggeratedly. “You’re going to have to work on your social skills. This dog-in-the-manger attitude won’t do.”

“I know. Believe me, I’m working on a solution. Your help would be appreciated.”

She narrowed her eyes, then tipped up her nose and looked away. Feigning temper because he’d had the last word.

He swung her into a sweeping turn, and thought of the other little matter, a pertinent and possibly urgent matter, he now had to address.

Military men. Her memories of Whorton, no matter how ancient and buried, could not have been happy ones—and she almost certainly classed him and the captain as men of the same stamp.

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