After the Abduction (Swanlea Spinsters, Book 3)

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After The Abduction Sabrina Jeffries (Swanlea Spinsters, Book 3)


Contents Chapter 1 Lady Juliet Laverick tried to ignore the pounding of her…

Chapter 2 ―That‘s impossible!‖

Chapter 3 Only after the sound of footsteps along the corridor faded…

Chapter 4 An hour after dinner was over, Juliet approached Lord Templemore‘s…

Chapter 5 Sebastian knew he was in trouble when he awakened the…

Chapter 6 Drat it all, she‘d made an enormous tactical error. When…

Chapter 7 Sebastian led Juliet toward the drawing room, certain that he‘d…

Chapter 8 My bones melt? Juliet thought in a panic, as Sebastian…

Chapter 9 The sun had just poked its nose above the horizon…

Chapter 10 ―You simply must see Lucinda‘s favorite sitting room,‖ Mr. Pryce said…

Chapter 11 Sebastian stepped into the room, her words ringing in his…


Chapter 12 Sebastian‘s eyes shot open when he heard the peculiar note…

Chapter 13 A week later, Juliet paced her bedchamber, tired of plying…

Chapter 14 With mixed feelings, Sebastian watched her stroll out into the…

Chapter 15 Juliet gaped at him, certain that she‘d misheard. ―You mean—‖

Chapter 16 As Juliet sat up and clutched the sheet about her…

Chapter 17 Sebastian‘s blood curdled at those words. ―What kind of problem?‖

Chapter 18 Juliet had ridden halfway back to Charnwood when she heard…

Chapter 19 Midmorning on the second day after Juliet‘s departure, Sebastian stood…

Chapter 20 Juliet sighed when she entered Lord Feathering‘s palatial mansion for…

Chapter 21 Not long after her dance with Lord Havering, Juliet returned…

Chapter 22 For five days, Sebastian watched as Juliet made her brilliant…

Chapter 23 The Duke of Montfort emerged from the shadows where he‘d…


Chapter 24 As the Knighton carriage rolled off, Rosalind resolved to keep…

Chapter 25 Sebastian stood in Wimbledon Common with his valet in the…

Epilogue When the mail came at Charnwood Hall, Juliet squealed to…

About the Author Other Books by Sabrina Jeffries Copyright About the Publisher


Chapter 1 ‘Immortal locks fell forward from the lord’s deathless head, and he made great Olympus to tremble.’ - Homer’s Iliad, embroidered by Juliet Laverick on a pillowcase

Shropshire February 1818 Lady Juliet Laverick tried to ignore the pounding of her heart. Tried to blot out the thunder of horse‘s hooves on frozen earth, carrying her closer and closer to a confrontation with her past. Tried to pretend her hands were icy from traveling in winter, and not from her raw nerves. But she couldn‘t. After more than two years, she was finally going to set her past to rest and see justice done. So how could she possibly remain calm, with Charnwood estate only a few miles away? ―That Llanbrooke inn was dreadful,‖ came her sister‘s voice from across the carriage. Rosalind sat beside her husband Griff Knighton with a tambour in her lap that she was pointedly ignoring. Juliet leaped at any excuse to keep her mind off the appointment at hand. ―I‘ve never seen cobwebs on top of a mantel before. Underneath it, perhaps, but on top? And that tankard sitting on the table—did you see the scum in it? That innkeeper ought to be drawn and quartered for keeping such a filthy common room.‖ ―I wouldn‘t give him quite so harsh a punishment, dearest,‖ Rosalind retorted, ―but then I‘m not attuned to domestic matters the way you are.‖

~7~ ―I assure you,‖ Juliet said, ―attuned to domestic matters or not, you‘ll be ordering the same punishment after a night spent among the bugs under soiled linens. I dearly hope we can avoid returning there.‖ ―It will depend on what the baron reveals this afternoon.‖ Griff stared out the window, scanning the quiet Shropshire forest with the wary eye of a man used to trouble. ―If Lord Templemore proves uncooperative, we may find ourselves back at the Peacock‘s Eye until we finish questioning the townspeople.‖ Juliet grimaced at the thought. ―Surely his lordship won‘t continue to shield his ward once he hears what Pryce did to Juliet,‖ Rosalind protested. They both glanced to her, faces full of their usual sympathy and concern. It made her want to scream. She hated being treated as if she might break under the least strain. But that came of being the youngest of three sisters, the only one not yet married. And the only one foolish enough to run off with a scoundrel like Morgan Pryce at eighteen, endangering herself and her family after he turned out to be kidnapping her, not eloping with her. Pasting a blithe smile to her lips, she said to Griff, ―Didn‘t the innkeeper say that Morgan doesn‘t reside with the baron?‖ ―Yes. But that was as much as I could discover. No one will identify the man in Helena‘s sketch as his lordship‘s ward.‖ Helena was Juliet‘s oldest sister and gifted with a paintbrush. She, too, had cause to see Morgan brought to justice, but with her first baby‘s arrival imminent, neither she nor her husband, Daniel, had dared journey to Shropshire. Griff went on, ―Templemore‘s father might have tarnished the family name and run the estate into the ground, but Templemore himself has an unassailable reputation as a worthy gentleman. So no one in town would speak of him or Pryce to a stranger.‖ ―But you‘re sure that Morgan and Lord Templemore‘s ward are one and the same,‖ Juliet said.

~8~ ―I‘m sure. The Bow Street runner‘s evidence proved it incontrovertibly.‖ ―Still, it‘s odd that a man with such lofty connections would stoop to kidnapping.‖ ―It‘s Pryce‘s lofty connections that make me suspect we‘ve hit on the truth,‖ Griff said. ―Everyone described your kidnapper as a man of refinement and education, who acted and talked like a gentleman.‖ He didn’t kiss like a gentleman. Juliet roundly chastised herself for the aberrant thought. Why was Morgan‘s most annoying characteristic also the one that stuck in her brain? The impudent wretch! After all his wicked behavior, he‘d had no business pressing a dark, shattering kiss on her before riding off into the mist like some careless knight of the road, leaving her behind. Not that she‘d wanted to go with him, after the way he‘d deceived her. No, indeed! A man like that, untrustworthy and treacherous… So what if he‘d turned noble in the end, refusing to hand her over to the smugglers he‘d kidnapped her for in the first place? So what if he‘d fought his way out of the lion‘s den with her, then left her to her family? He was still a devil for kidnapping her. Even if he had asked her to go with him after all that—and he hadn‘t—doing so would have been disaster. Who knew what he really was, beneath his gentlemanly veneer? She‘d seen how well he wielded a pistol. She had no illusions about him now, despite his handsome appearance and deft kissing. Drat it all, she must stop dwelling on that infernal kiss. ―Do you think the baron will tell you where Morgan‘s hiding?‖ Juliet asked. ―He‘d better,‖ Griff said, ―or I‘ll see that he answers for it. And once he does, I intend to hunt Pryce down and punish him to the fullest extent.‖ Juliet tensed. ―Now see here, you will hold to your promise, won‘t you?‖ When Griff kept silent, Rosalind asked, ―What promise?‖ Griff looked a jot uncomfortable, not a good sign at all. Juliet glared at him. ―Griff swore not to duel with Morgan or drag him back to London for a trial.‖

~9~ ―He won‘t do either of those,‖ Rosalind said easily. ―Both would create a scandal that would ruin you, dearest, and Griff would never risk that.‖ ―Griff?‖ she prodded. ―Damnation, Juliet, you know I won‘t do anything to shame you or your sisters,‖ he grumbled. ―But I will see that scoundrel pay.‖ ―As long as you don‘t challenge him,‖ Juliet said, ―I don‘t care what you do.‖ Her brother-in-law forced a smile. ―Challenging him would be the height of foolishness, anyway. I don‘t suppose either of you have ever heard of the Templemore cartridge?‖ The women looked at him blankly. ―It‘s a device for pistols that combines gunpowder, ball, and priming in one unit. The baron invented it. When he demonstrated its use in London six months ago for the Royal Society, he hit every target dead center. Since Pryce probably learned from his benefactor how to shoot, I‘m not such a fool as to challenge him.‖ ―I‘m sure Griff will handle the matter with discretion and gentlemanly calm,‖ Rosalind remarked, patting her husband‘s hand. Juliet caught Griff narrowing his eyes, and groaned. She wanted justice, but she‘d already put her family through hell once. And though they‘d covered up her mortifying elopement/kidnapping without a word of scandal two years ago, as long as Morgan remained free her reputation, and thus all her hope for future happiness, would never be safe. That had become painfully clear a month ago, when out of the blue whispers had begun circulating among the wags in London. Hints that she‘d once been ―illicitly involved‖ with a man. ―I don‘t understand why Morgan had to start spreading tales and dredging up the past after all this time.‖ ―No one has actually attributed the rumors to him,‖ Rosalind said. ―But who else, other than us, knows the truth?‖ This latest betrayal wounded her even more than his initial one, rubbing salt in a wound already well salted. How

~ 10 ~ could she have been so very wrong about him? ―No, it‘s Morgan, all right. And when I get my hands on him, I‘ll make him tell me why. I shall make him stop!‖ Griff laughed harshly. ―How do you propose to do that? Beat him with a duster? Poke him in the eye with an embroidery needle?‖ Her brother-in-law‘s condescension made Juliet grit her teeth. She cast him her loftiest look. ―I realize that you think I‘ll take one look at Morgan and melt into a puddle the way I did before—‖ ―He doesn‘t think that at all,‖ Rosalind broke in. ―—but I learned my lesson very well two years ago.‖ ―Yes, exactly,‖ Rosalind said softly. ―That‘s why we‘re here.‖ Her sister‘s compassionate look made Juliet wince, then glance away. At eighteen, she hadn‘t minded her family‘s smothering so much, but now that she was twenty it was near to suffocating her. Undoubtedly, they worried that she‘d run off with some other scoundrel if they didn‘t hover over her. For goodness sake, she‘d learned a few things about men in the past two years. Before Morgan came along, she‘d believed in the essential goodness of people. That if you treated them well, they would reward your kindness with good behavior. Before Morgan came along, she‘d been a fool. Kept in blissful innocence at her family‘s estate, Swan Park, she‘d never realized how devious and hurtful and betraying some people could be. It was the one good thing Morgan had taught her. Two years in society had finished her education. Watching badly matched couples parade through London had constantly reminded her how close she‘d come to disaster by believing in Morgan‘s good character. And seeing the games everyone played had forced her to sharpen her wits for fear she‘d say or do something again to shame her family. She was wiser now, more careful whom she trusted. She tried hard not to let her naturally tender heart get her into trouble, even if sometimes she missed the innocent part of herself that had died two years ago.

~ 11 ~ Rosalind apparently caught her scowling, for she said gently, ―You mustn‘t fret so. It‘ll all be fine, I‘m sure.‖ Then she tapped her neglected tambour. ―Why don‘t you help me with this? It will take your mind off this sordid business. Besides, I‘m at a complete loss as to how to proceed.‖ ―What a shock,‖ Griff said dryly. Rosalind glared at her husband. ―I do have some domestic ability, you know.‖ His smile turned wicked. ―You do indeed. But my favorite is not your needleworking skills, my darling.‖ With a roll of her eyes, Rosalind held the tambour out to Juliet. ―All the same, I‘d like to expand my repertoire.‖ Fighting a blush, Juliet took up the tambour. Griff and Rosalind could be so very…blatant at times. Determined to ignore their meaningful glances, she examined the puckered fabric, then pointed to some crooked stitches. ―Here‘s where you‘ve gone wrong. This is supposed to be flames in a forge to represent the God of Fire. But you‘ve made it black pudding.‖ ―Not black pudding,‖ Rosalind protested. ―It‘s supposed to be Olympus. I know you sketched the design as Hephaestus working his forge while Aphrodite stood by. But the God of Fire is ugly, so I changed it to Zeus and Hera. It‘s supposed to represent me and Griff, after all.‖ Juliet raised an eyebrow. ―You can‘t change designs midstream. It mucks everything up. No wonder you‘re having trouble.‖ She began pulling out stitches, no small feat in the weak afternoon light with the chill air stiffening her fingers. ―Besides, Zeus was a tyrant and Hera a nagging witch. Surely that‘s no better.‖ ―But Zeus and Hera had children,‖ Rosalind snapped. ―Hephaestus and Aphrodite did not.‖ Juliet glanced up from the tambour. ―What does that signify?‖ Griff looked suddenly stony-faced, and Rosalind inexplicably blushed and glanced away. ―Nothing,‖ she said. ―Nothing at all.‖ How very odd. What was going on between those two? ―I can‘t salvage this mess now. I‘ll sketch a new design with Zeus and Hera later, and you can start again.‖

~ 12 ~ With a nod, Rosalind took back the tambour and stared glumly down at it. ―I honestly don‘t know how you can bear to do needlework. I find it tedious and annoying.‖ ―Which is exactly how I find that Shakespeare you both enjoy so much. But I do like working with my hands. It soothes me.‖ And took her mind off Morgan. Drat it all, there he went again, intruding in her thoughts. They turned off the main road onto a smoother one. ―Apparently, we‘ve reached Charnwood estate.‖ Griff frowned. ―I don‘t see a house anywhere close; it must be larger than I‘d realized. It‘s difficult to obtain accurate information on a man who buries himself in the country and never comes into society.‖ As they trundled along mile after mile, Juliet‘s heart sank. Bad enough that the baron had the respect of his peers. Must he own half the land in the shire as well? This didn‘t bode well for forcing him into revealing anything about his ward. ―There‘s plenty of room here to hide Morgan,‖ Griff remarked. ―Plenty of room to hide him and plenty of wealth to feed him, clothe him, and keep him warm for a decade,‖ Juliet grumbled. ―I thought you said Lord Templemore‘s father ran the estate into the ground.‖ ―That‘s what I‘d heard. Apparently somebody resurrected it. Though it must have taken a fortune.‖ An understatement, to be sure. Thick stands of pine and oak stood sentinel to the busy efforts of workmen spreading compass on ice-crusted fields. Quaint, immaculately kept dairy buildings gave way to neat, half-timbered tenant cottages. Why, the man probably had his own tannery and smithy and goodness knew what else. ―Consorting with smugglers and acquiring fortunes go hand in hand,‖ Rosalind quipped. ―Since Morgan was connected to those smugglers somehow, perhaps Templemore is, too. He might have come by his wealth the same way you did originally, darling—by dealing in smugglers‘ goods.‖

~ 13 ~ ―Very amusing,‖ Griff muttered. ―But if he did, why hadn‘t any of the smugglers questioned by the runner ever heard of him? They only knew Morgan, and some of them didn‘t even know him. If Morgan was ever a smuggler himself, he wasn‘t one for long.‖ Soon they began an ascent up a low, wooded hill. When they shot out of the treebordered road onto a long, forbidding drive, Juliet tensed. Worse and worse. Charnwood‘s grounds were ten times grander than Swan Park‘s. The coldly elegant lawns seemed to stretch on forever beneath the wintry gray skies. The formal gardens were tediously beautiful, with gravel paths and dainty bridges knitting together newly turned flower beds and manmade ponds. There was an impressive knot garden and hedge maze, too, just to emphasize that the baron was a man of consequence. As if Charnwood Hall wasn‘t enough to prove that. My oh my oh my. Only a dead woman could remain unimpressed by the sprawling ancient edifice of claret-hued brick. Compared to this stately matron, Swan Park was an upstart at her coming out. Charnwood was the kind of eclectic great house Juliet had fallen in love with on trips to house parties. Pieces had been added here and there—a Jacobean wing stuck onto the Elizabethan core on one end, a Palladian orangery on the other. Dutch gables gilded the somber brick, and ornate cupolas perched atop the clifflike towers at each corner of the core. Every generation had stamped its own time upon the building, so harmoniously that, taken altogether, Charnwood Hall both enchanted and intimidated the viewer. ―It must require an army of servants,‖ Rosalind commented. ―It‘s a wonder his lordship hasn‘t married yet. Although God help the woman who takes on the daunting task of running that household.‖ ―Some women would enjoy it.‖ Juliet‘s own domestic heart certainly leaped at the thought. The challenge of it all, the accomplishment! ―Wouldn‘t it be positively thrilling to be the one ensuring that it runs smoothly? Turning it into a home?‖ Rosalind raised an eyebrow. ―Oh yes, thrilling is precisely the word I would have chosen.‖ Then she turned pensive. ―The man is unmarried, as I recall. Wasn‘t he in London when you and Helena first began attending parties? I remember talk of the

~ 14 ~ newly ascended baron, though we never met him. I didn‘t make the connection until now.‖ ―I remember that as well.‖ Juliet brightened. ―Might he have been in town to help his wayward ward? That was right after Morgan fled from Sussex.‖ ―We‘ll know soon enough,‖ Griff remarked as they drew up in front of an imposing stone entrance. Their coachman climbed down and scurried to open the carriage door and lower the steps. A footman ran out to attend them, his face marked by surprise. Charnwood Hall clearly had few visitors. If the sudden brutal blast of cold air from the opening carriage door was any indication of Shropshire weather at this time of year, she could understand why nobody visited here in winter. As they descended, they heard shots being fired behind the house, and Juliet wondered if that might explain the lack of visitors as well. ―Is that your master shooting?‖ Griff asked the footman. ―Yes, sir,‖ the young man answered. ―He always tests his pistol designs on the west lawn this time of day.‖ ―Come on then,‖ Griff told Juliet and Rosalind as he started off along a gravel path that skirted the house. ―But sir,‖ the footman called out, scurrying after them, ―Mr. Simpkins should announce you!‖ ―No need!‖ Griff retorted as he continued on. The footman hesitated, then ran back to the house, no doubt to fetch the butler. Juliet hurried to keep up with her long-legged brother-in-law and sister. ―Griff, are you sure this is a good idea—popping up on him like this?‖ Another alarming gunshot split the air. ―I want the element of surprise,‖ he answered. ―You want to get your head shot off,‖ Rosalind muttered at his side, though she didn‘t attempt to stop him.

~ 15 ~ ―He won‘t shoot me in broad daylight before witnesses. That wouldn‘t be gentlemanly.‖ His acid tone gave Juliet pause. She wished Griff wouldn‘t take so much upon himself. She‘d never forgive herself if he were hurt. But once Griff set his course, he didn‘t waver. As they rounded the corner of the massive building, they spotted two men standing in the middle of the lawn, facing away from them. A servant in rich livery waited nearby with a large silver tray. Both men held pistols, but at the moment only one was shooting at the painted wood target set up some yards away. The blond one who wasn‘t shooting was clearly the baron himself. No one but a gentleman of rank would wear such foppish attire: highly polished top boots and spurs, puce cossack trousers, a tight-fitting jonquil tailcoat pinched at the waist, and a costly top hat. But it was the other man—a younger, dark-haired fellow wearing a plain black greatcoat and no hat—who made Juliet‘s heart stammer, then pound. He loaded his pistol, aimed, and then shot at the target. ―Good show!‖ the older man called out. ―That was nearly a bull‘s eye this time.‖ ―‗Nearly‘ isn‘t good enough,‖ the shooter replied. ―This lock needs adjustment.‖ The voice was painfully familiar, humming through her memory, urging her to quicken her steps. As a wisp of smoke faded into the chill air, the shooter examined the pistol, then set it on a small table holding ammunition. As he moved toward the tray, apparently to obtain another pistol, the servant spotted them and called out, ―Your lordship, someone‘s approaching.‖ Both men turned at once. When Juliet saw the shooter‘s face, her heart stopped. There before her was her nemesis. She‘d never mistake that iron-black hair, those devilish lips, that bold, square jaw. ―Morgan,‖ she whispered. His gaze widened in surprise and then swept her face. She could have sworn that recognition shone in the eyes that had always been impenetrably black.

~ 16 ~ Unfortunately, Griff heard her exclamation. Striding ahead of her, he growled, ―That‘s him, the younger one?‖ ―Yes,‖ she replied without thinking. Griff didn‘t even break step. Walking up to the man, he raised his fist and punched him in the face. As Rosalind cursed and Juliet groaned, Morgan staggered back. But he did nothing to defend himself. Coolly he withdrew a handkerchief to wipe away the blood trickling from his mouth. He ignored Griff, who brandished his fists and demanded, ―Come on, you damned blackguard, fight me! Or do you only bully women?‖ ―What happened to Griff‘s handling the interview with ‗discretion and gentlemanly calm‘?‖ Juliet muttered to her sister. ―Hope springs eternal,‖ Rosalind muttered back. Morgan‘s companion grabbed Griff‘s arm. ―Here now, sir, what is all this? Are you mad?‖ Wrenching free, Griff pivoted to glower at the older man. ―I regret to inform you, your lordship, but your ward is a scoundrel and a villain. Mr. Pryce has injured my family, and I shall see—‖ ―Your lordship?‖ the older man interrupted. ―Oh no, you are confused. I am not Lord Templemore.‖ ―Then who is?‖ Rosalind burst out. Morgan stepped forward, blood-soiled handkerchief still in hand. ―I am.‖ As the three of them gaped at him, he flashed Griff an unreadable look. ―And judging from your accusations, sir, you‘ve recently run afoul of my brother, Morgan.‖ ―You‘re Morgan,‖ Juliet blurted out, never so sure of anything in all her life. Then the rest of his statement arrested her. ―Brother? He‘s not your…that is…‖ The gaze he leveled on her now was remote and aloof, showing no sign of recognition. ―I beg your pardon, madam, but I‘m not Morgan. I‘m Sebastian

~ 17 ~ Blakely, Lord Templemore. I do understand your confusion, however. You see, Morgan and I are not only brothers, but twins. Identical twins.‖ Griff gaped at him. ―That cannot be. I was informed that he was the baron‘s…I mean, your ward.‖ A pained smile crossed his lordship‘s handsome features. ―No doubt you were. It‘s a complicated story.‖ He straightened to his full height. She‘d forgotten how very tall he was. ―But I prefer not to discuss it with complete strangers.‖ The precise language, the gentlemanly demeanor, the wry smile were all Morgan‘s. Yet the man was clearly master of the house, judging from the irate servants now gathering on the lawn to form a protective phalanx beside him. It was unfathomable that her Morgan could be a lord. Lords didn‘t kidnap women and consort with smugglers. Still… Griff hesitated, then bowed stiffly. ―I see that I must beg your pardon and provide introductions. My name is Griffith Knighton. This is my wife, Lady Rosalind, and my sister-in-law, Lady Juliet.‖ He nodded toward Lord Templemore‘s companion. ―I assumed from this other gentleman‘s age that he was master of Charnwood. So when my sister-in-law recognized you, we both thought—‖ ―That I must be Morgan,‖ Lord Templemore finished. ―Yes. You have my deepest apologies, sir. I shouldn‘t have struck you.‖ ―Good of you to admit it.‖ His gaze flicked to her, then back to Griff, as if looking at her unsettled him. ―Is your sister-in-law the person my brother ‗injured‘?‖ ―Yes,‖ Juliet answered for Griff, wanting Lord Templemore to look at her again. She couldn‘t believe his assertions. There was too much of Morgan in him, not only in his looks, but his controlled manner, his refined speech…his arrogance. If she could only read his eyes… But he continued to gaze steadily at Griff. ―Knighton, is it? Of Knighton Trading in London?‖ ―Yes, that‘s my business concern,‖ Griff responded. ―We traveled all this way hoping to speak with your war—

~ 18 ~ …your brother.‖ The older gentleman in puce snorted. ―Speak with? You have a peculiar way of starting conversations, young man.‖ Griff flushed a dark red, and Juliet felt not a jot of pity to see him tug nervously at his cravat. ―I‘m afraid that ours is also a…complicated tale, Mr.…er…‖ ―Allow me to introduce you,‖ Lord Templemore put in civilly. ―Mr. Knighton, this is my mother‘s brother: Mr. Pryce.‖ The familiar name made them all look to the older man. He quickly added, ―Mr. Llewelyn Pryce, mind you, so don‘t be aiming any fists at me.‖ Rosalind gripped Griff‘s elbow. ―My husband won‘t be aiming fists at anyone else today, I assure you. I‘ll see to that.‖ For once, Griff had the good sense to suffer the rebuke in silence, though not without frowning. Juliet thought it politic to step in, especially since she couldn‘t catch Lord Templemore‘s eye. ―But we do need to speak to your lordship about a matter concerning Morgan Pryce. If you wouldn‘t mind, we‘d appreciate it if you‘d hear us out.‖ Lord Templemore refused to acknowledge her in any way. Instead, he cast Rosalind and Griff a considering glance. ―Very well. Though I believe this conversation should take place in more…ah…private surroundings.‖ ―Yes,‖ Griff agreed at once. ―If you‘ll follow me…‖ Lord Templemore said and gestured toward the house. They all trooped off toward Charnwood Hall. Seething with indignation at how blatantly his lordship ignored her, Juliet fell back to observe him from behind. His attire was as sober as Morgan‘s had been: a suit of drab and a plain silk waistcoat with a cravat tied in a simple knot. He walked with Morgan‘s self-assured gait. And when his uncle spoke, he cocked his head to listen exactly as Morgan had done with her a dozen times or more. But perhaps identical twins would share such mannerisms. She didn‘t know.

~ 19 ~ Once they reached the side door leading into the house, he stood by to let them all enter first. She passed close enough to smell him. Lord help her if he didn‘t smell exactly like Morgan—of saltpeter blended with iron and smoke, the smell of Hephaestus, the God of Fire. Then they passed into a great hall, and she dragged in a sharp breath. The God of Fire had a substantial arsenal, didn‘t he? Hung in menacing row after row on one long wall were swords, daggers, halberds, and a variety of firearms— muskets and blunderbusses and wicked- looking dueling pistols. The servants must be in a perpetual terror whenever they dusted them. She certainly would be. Had he designed all those pistols? It wouldn‘t surprise her—she could see him as Hephaestus, laboring over his implements of fire in a hidden forge beneath the earth. No wonder he—or his twin, if he was to be believed—had thought it amusing to associate with smugglers. ―Planning to start a war soon, Lord Templemore?‖ she asked as he led them down the gauntlet. He stared straight ahead. ―They are daunting, aren‘t they? They‘re not all mine, however. My grandfather acquired the bulk of them years ago. He collected weapons—they were his passion.‖ ―And pistols in particular are yours,‖ Griff remarked. Lord Templemore cast him a cryptic look. ―I take it you‘ve heard of my hobby.‖ ―More than a hobby, from what I understand.‖ He shrugged. ―My grandfather piqued my interest in guns when I was young. Then my father gave me a Manton flintlock when I came of age, which cemented my lifelong fascination.‖ ―Manton, eh?‖ Griff said. ―I‘ve been going to his former employee, James Purdey. Purdey has invented a new vent plug—‖ ―Yes, I‘ve heard of it,‖ Lord Templemore broke in. ―Forsyth says…‖ When they went on to discuss firearms and their relative merits, Juliet‘s mind remained caught by two words. Manton flintlock. Two years ago, Morgan had commented on someone‘s having ―two Manton flintlocks‖ when he was helping

~ 20 ~ her escape the smugglers. How many men would note the make of a weapon when surrounded by danger? And would both twins know so much about guns? Rosalind fell back to walk alongside her. ―Men are such boys—prattling on about their favorite pistols and gunsmiths as if they spend their days fighting battles in the streets. Griff rarely shoots a gun, and then only at partridges. Yet from all his talk you‘d think he was a soldier.‖ When Juliet said nothing, Rosalind shot her a concerned glance. ―What‘s wrong, dear heart? Are you disappointed we haven‘t yet found Morgan?‖ ―I think we have found him.‖ Juliet fixed her eyes on his lordship‘s broad back. Rosalind‘s voice dropped to a whisper. ―Surely you can‘t still believe…‖ She trailed off as Lord Templemore stopped outside a room and turned to address them. ―We‘ll have our discussion in my study. Uncle Lew, why don‘t you go see that the servant brings us some tea?‖ His uncle looked at him askance. ―Oh no, my boy, you‘re mad if you think I shall miss this entertaining discussion. Why not just ring for tea?‖ Lord Templemore arched an eyebrow and said sarcastically, ―An excellent idea. I wonder why I didn‘t think of it.‖ Then he ushered them into his study. It was as sumptuous as the rest of his house, of course. And rampantly masculine, too, all glossy dark woods and brass fittings and solid furniture. Sober austerity seemed the order of the day, with one exception—a tall painting of Bacchus leading his revelries that graced one wall. But poor Bacchus faced a wall bearing half a king‘s library adorned in gilt and leather. How fitting that a man who showed two faces to the world should have a study that did the same. Rosalind was admiring the expensive damask curtains and Griff—a wealthy man in his own right—was appraising the massive mahogany desk, but all Juliet felt was despair. They‘d come to snare the black sheep of a noble family, not the scion. So why was it the scion she suspected?

~ 21 ~ He‘d undoubtedly shown them in here on purpose. The man was no fool—how better to intimidate his visitors than to flex the muscles of his wealth and power before them? First the guns and now this. Well, she wouldn‘t be swayed this time. She‘d hold true to the facts, and those said that Morgan was a scoundrel, no matter how pretty his estate. And she knew Lord Templemore was Morgan, despite his claims about an identical twin. Let him shove his money and influence in their faces all he wanted—it wouldn‘t prevent her from unmasking the wretch and stopping his attempts to ruin her future. She and Rosalind took seats on the two chairs near the desk that Lord Templemore sat down behind. Griff stood beside them while the uncle leaned against a bookcase. ―I‘m surprised we‘ve never met in London,‖ Griff told Lord Templemore. ―I heard you aren‘t often in society, but—‖ ―Not in society at all, you mean,‖ Mr. Pryce interjected. ―My nephew has an aversion to the entertainments of town. He always has.‖ ―With good reason,‖ Lord Templemore retorted. He met Griff‘s curious gaze, and his expression turned bland. ―As you undoubtedly know, my father partook more freely of society than was good for the family name. I didn‘t think it wise to have two Blakelys wreaking havoc in London. And since I‘ve ascended to the title, I‘ve had little time to waste in frivolous town pursuits.‖ Either that…or he wanted to avoid being recognized by people who knew of his involvement in less ―frivolous‖ pursuits. Juliet‘s eyes narrowed. ―You were in London only a few months after your ascendance to the title, as I recall.‖ At long last he looked at her, and fire flickered in the shadowy depths of his black gaze. Dear me, she felt distinctly like a virgin who‘d poked a sleeping, smoking dragon. ―I was indeed in London,‖ he said. ―Since you attach significance to that fact, you‘d best tell me why. And while you‘re at it, you might explain the purpose of your search for my brother, Lady…‖ He paused. ―Juliet, isn‘t it?‖ ―Yes.‖ Drat him, he knew very well what her name was. And she‘d make him reveal his real self if it killed her. ―With all due respect, unless you‘re Morgan

~ 22 ~ Pryce, our search is none of your concern. Just tell us where to find him, and we‘ll leave.‖ Griff and Rosalind were agape at her forthright demand, but Lord Templemore‘s gaze remained locked with hers, flinty, unwavering. ―I‘m afraid I can‘t do that.‖ ―You needn‘t worry that there will be a repetition of today‘s—‖ ―Juliet,‖ Griff interrupted, ―we‘d planned from the first to divulge the entire story to his lordship, so that he‘d see we had cause for our pursuit.‖ ―Yes, but why lay out our private affairs to a stranger? His lordship has already deduced that a lady is involved. All that‘s left is for him to be a gentleman and tell us where Morgan is.‖ ―I‘d gladly tell you if I knew,‖ Lord Templemore said tightly, ―but I don‘t. Not precisely. However, I‘ve been led to believe he lies at the bottom of the Atlantic.‖ Her heart gave a horrible lurch. ―Wh-what do you mean?‖ He kept his gaze steady on her. ―Morgan was serving aboard a merchant ship when it was wrecked off the coast of Haiti. We believe him to be dead.‖

~ 23 ~

Chapter 2 ‘She is wondrously like the immortal goddesses to look upon.’ - Homer’s Iliad, embroidered on a pillowcase by Juliet Laverick

―That‘s impossible!‖ Sebastian barely restrained his groan at hearing Juliet‘s adamant disbelief. Bad enough that Knighton had come, but to have brought her… ―Why impossible, Lady Juliet?‖ his uncle drawled. Sebastian shot him a warning glance. Uncle Lew must go along with Sebastian‘s claims or all was lost. Surely the man would have the presence of mind to hold his tongue and let Sebastian deal with this in his own way. ―Morgan can‘t be dead,‖ Juliet said simply. Her gaze settled on Sebastian, suspicious, apprehensive…worried. ―He…I just can‘t believe it.‖ By thunder, she had to believe it! He and Morgan were enmeshed in a dangerous net, and only Sebastian could cut them out. He had to shake off Juliet and her relations to gain breathing room until this insanity was resolved. ―That doesn‘t make it any less true.‖ Sebastian wondered at the calmness of his own voice, when inside he was anything but calm.

~ 24 ~ Devil take it, why were they here? In the beginning, he‘d expected Knighton to hunt him down, but when no one had come after two years, he‘d thought himself safe. Safe! He must have been mad. But he‘d never expected that she would come with them. Pretty Juliet, with her soft, accusing eyes and lush, tempting mouth… He stifled a curse. Why had they brought her? It wasn‘t as if they needed her to identify him—Daniel Brennan or Lady Helena could have done it, since both of them had been present at the final confrontation with Jolly Roger Crouch, King of the Smugglers. Her family should have kept Juliet at home where she belonged. She was too delicate for the maneuverings of men like himself and Knighton. ―By any chance,‖ Knighton asked, ―was the ship that Morgan Pryce went down on named the Oceana?‖ Ah, so Juliet had apparently told them everything. How ―Morgan‖ had refused to hand her over to Crouch unless the smuggler first revealed the name of a ship and a particular date—the Oceana and July 17. Fortunately, the reason ―Morgan‖ had wanted the information hadn‘t come out. That would make it easier to hide the truth—that Sebastian himself had been acting as Morgan at the time. ―How did you know the name of the ship?‖ ―Your brother asked about it. And when did Morgan board the Oceana?‖ Those dates, those sticky dates. ―November 1815, from what I was given to understand later.‖ ―How peculiar. I thought it would have been some months later, in July of 1816.‖ When Sebastian looked deliberately obtuse, Knighton added, ―July 17 seemed to be important to your brother, as well.‖ ―Did it indeed?‖ Uncle Lew put in dryly. ―I wonder why.‖ Sebastian scowled at his uncle. Blast him, he knew very well why. Uncle Lew would plague him endlessly over this; he‘d always claimed that no good would come of Sebastian‘s masquerade as Morgan among the smugglers. He flashed Uncle Lew a steely smile meant to head off any blundering. ―I don‘t know why July 17 was significant. All I know is that Morgan left here sometime in the spring of 1815. Our investigator said he boarded that ship in November.‖

~ 25 ~ ―That does fit with what I‘ve learned of his activities,‖ Knighton interjected. Knighton had taken the bait. Good. Sebastian was stretching the truth only a little, after all. Morgan had left in spring to join the smugglers, but they‘d forced him aboard the Oceana in July. That was why Sebastian had ended up dealing with them in October. Now it was time to play the grieving brother. ―See here, if you know how Morgan ended up on the Oceana, do tell me. I‘ve tried to find out for two years without any luck.‖ ―That‘s all I know,‖ Knighton admitted. ―Why do you think we came here?‖ ―Actually, you haven‘t yet said why you came here,‖ Uncle Lew commented in seeming innocence, the smug devil. ―I confess to being curious about your connection to my nephew. Sebastian seems convinced that Morgan is dead, but I haven‘t relinquished hope that he‘ll one day return home, having survived that ghastly shipwreck.‖ Of course Uncle Lew hadn‘t relinquished hope. He knew very well Morgan was alive. Now if only he‘d keep his wits about him and realize that it was better if the Knightons believed otherwise. Knighton glanced at Juliet. ―I‘m sorry, my dear, but I do think we have to tell them our story.‖ He set his shoulders, then began, ―You see—‖ ―No,‖ she interrupted, ―it is my affair, and I will tell it.‖ Sebastian could scarcely hold his surprise. The shy Juliet he‘d known wouldn‘t have volunteered. Knighton seemed surprised, too. ―Very well, if you wish.‖ Taking a deep breath, Juliet drew herself up. ―When I met Morgan Pryce in Stratford-upon-Avon, he styled himself Captain Will Morgan and claimed to be on leave from an army regiment.‖ As briefly as possible, she explained what had happened: how ―Will Morgan‖ had courted her and convinced her to elope with him, how they‘d traveled night and day to Sussex, where he‘d claimed to be meeting friends who‘d carry them by ship to Gretna Green.

~ 26 ~ Sebastian wasn‘t sure what to make of her bloodless tone. Had his encounter with her faded into the past so fully that it no longer touched her? That would make matters easier for him, but if she no longer felt strongly about what had happened, why was she here after so long? She spoke of her horror at discovering that Captain Will Morgan‘s real name was Morgan Pryce, and that he was working for a smuggling gang who‘d charged him with kidnapping her and bringing her to Sussex. Then her impassive façade cracked. Her self-reproach at not having realized the truth sooner affected Sebastian more than he liked, and he had to look away to regain control of his emotions. Behind her, his uncle‘s eyes held a faint, mocking amusement. ―A kidnapping? Morgan would never have kidnapped a lady and certainly not on behalf of smugglers. Although I‘m sure some men would do such things, it wasn‘t in Morgan‘s character.‖ Sebastian gritted his teeth. ―Nonetheless, he did it,‖ Knighton snapped. Knighton took up the tale where Juliet had left off. Sebastian could feel her probing eyes on him as Knighton laid out his past actions with ruthless efficiency. How ―Morgan‖ had brought her before the smugglers, whose purpose in having her kidnapped was to extort a ransom from Knighton. How ―Morgan‖ had demanded information from Crouch before he would hand her over. Sebastian ached to look at her, to discern how she felt about all of it. But he couldn‘t risk her reading his feelings. Just as he hadn‘t dared try to see her during the past two years, not with so much at stake. Hadn‘t dared approach the lovely, mature woman she‘d become. And damn her for growing into that. Even at eighteen, she‘d borne the promise of future beauty, a golden angel with graceful curves and rich, honeyed hair. But now… Had it been only two years since she‘d offered him those shy, naive smiles that had posed such a threat to his peace of mind?

~ 27 ~ Devil take his peace of mind. She now posed a threat to something weightier—his estate and tenants, his brother‘s future, his very own life. If her brother-in-law was as bent on revenge as he seemed, he could shatter everything, so Sebastian must play this out very carefully. Knighton was still explaining how ―Morgan‖ had behaved in the final moments, when there came a knock at the door. ―That must be the tea,‖ Uncle Lew remarked as he bade the servant to enter. ―How timely. After a tale like that, I‘ve got the shivers.‖ Sebastian glared at his gloating uncle, but everyone else merely watched in silence while the maid brought in the tray. ―That‘ll be all, Mary,‖ Sebastian said curtly. The maid bobbed her head and hurried off, as timid around him as his maidservants always were. Even after she left, no one touched the tea tray. Sebastian fixed Griff with a stony look. He wanted one particular point repeated for his deuced uncle‘s sake. ―You say that ‗Morgan‘ did the right thing in the end. That after he gained this information he wanted, he refused to hand her over, but instead helped her escape the smugglers, thus thwarting their plans to get a ransom from you.‖ Knighton whisked a hand in the air dismissively. ―Yes, but the damage was done. He‘d carried Juliet alone with him over half of England day and night, if you take my meaning.‖ Sebastian certainly did, and if he was implying such an abominable thing, then Juliet had lied to the man, blast her! ―He stole her maidenhead?‖ Uncle Lew‘s smug humor vanished as he frowned at Sebastian. ―No!‖ A wild blush stained Juliet‘s cheeks. ―No, he did not.‖ Sebastian‘s anger ebbed. Ah, so she hadn‘t lied. Thank God. He‘d have a hard time explaining that to Uncle Lew.

~ 28 ~ ―But she was compromised all the same,‖ Knighton went on with fierce determination. ―Worse yet, her other sister, Helena, and my man of affairs had gone after her and were taken by the smugglers as well. It was only through their efforts that the smugglers were completely routed. Morgan, however, vanished in the final battle.‖ ―After seeing Juliet safe,‖ Sebastian put in. Knighton glared at him. ―Yes—or as safe as a compromised woman can be.‖ Sebastian stifled a curse. What was this? He‘d kept track of what happened after the ―elopement,‖ and he knew she‘d not been hurt by it. ―So her elopement was found out, and her reputation ruined?‖ ―Not at first. Since my sister-in-law Helena had wisely kept the elopement secret, my wife and I were able to preserve Juliet‘s reputation upon her return.‖ He scowled. ―Until recently, that is.‖ What the devil— Juliet fixed him with a blistering look. ―Rumors about the elopement have surfaced in town, and the only person who knows enough to spread them is Morgan. That‘s why we‘re here. We want it stopped.‖ ―I‘m sure you do.‖ Sebastian leaned back, catching up the stained hunk of India rubber upon which he sometimes released his frustrations. Kneading it between leather-gloved fingers, he shook his head. ―But I told you—Morgan went down with the Oceana. Someone else must have started the rumors.‖ ―Isn‘t it possible Morgan returned to England without your knowing?‖ Knighton persisted. ―That he wasn‘t on that ship when it went down?‖ ―Even if my nephew had returned,‖ Uncle Lew put in, ―he would never behave so abominably.‖ Uncle Lew might disapprove of Sebastian‘s actions, but he was nonetheless loyal. ―Morgan kidnapped her,‖ Knighton said dryly. ―I don‘t see why he‘d balk at a little gossip.‖

~ 29 ~ Weren‘t any of them listening, blast it? ―I tell you—he‘s dead,‖ Sebastian maintained. ―So he can‘t be spreading your rumors.‖ If there truly were any rumors. ―Well, somebody is,‖ Lady Rosalind protested. ―And what if you‘re wrong? What if he‘s very much alive and hiding out in Sussex or London?‖ ―Now see here, my brother isn‘t—‖ ―That‘s another thing,‖ Juliet put in, her palpable anger slapping at his conscience. ―You still haven‘t told us why the world believes your brother to be your ward. I find that decidedly suspicious.‖ Deuce take it, she wasn‘t accepting any of this. Gritting his teeth, Sebastian exchanged glances with his uncle. He‘d known there was no way to avoid it, but damn if he didn‘t hate laying out his sordid family history for them. For her. ―I understand how you might see it that way,‖ he said stiffly. ―Very well. You‘ve been straightforward with me, so the least I can do is explain.‖ He gestured to the tea tray. ―But you may want some fortification first. This is a long, involved tale.‖ To his surprise, Juliet did the honors, pouring tea for everyone. He couldn‘t help watching her, despite the very real possibility that Knighton would read the avid interest in his eyes. But she was so dainty, so winning, so much like the girl he remembered… Yet entirely different. When had she become the brave creature who now met Uncle Lew‘s gaze squarely when bringing him his tea? Who took charge of pouring the tea in the first place, instead of leaving it to her older sister? It was a conundrum that kept him watching her even when he shouldn‘t. Juliet could feel Lord Templemore‘s gaze on her, and she didn‘t like it one bit. Because every time she tried to catch it, he glanced away. It was most annoying. How could she decide if he was really Morgan when he wouldn‘t even look at her? With deliberate clumsiness, she dripped tea on his desk, yet not even that garnered her a glance. Did that mean he was indeed Morgan? Or just the reclusive sort they‘d heard he was?

~ 30 ~ Taking her own tea, she resumed her seat, eager to see what preposterous tale he offered now. She hoped it would be quite unbelievable; otherwise she‘d have to accept that Morgan was dead, and that was impossible. She might want to throttle Morgan, but she didn‘t wish him dead. Begging for her mercy perhaps, but not dead. So unless Lord Templemore convinced her beyond any doubt, she‘d continue to believe that he himself was her kidnapper. Despite his rich surroundings and lofty station. Lord Templemore settled back into his chair wearily, as if the world weighed down his shoulders. Still holding that odd chunk of rubber, he worked it compulsively, squeezing and torturing it as he began to speak. ―In the summer of 1788, my mother bore my father twin sons, but told him she‘d only borne me. She paid the midwife to care for Morgan in secret. Then as soon as she could leave her childbed, she fled to the Continent, taking Morgan along.‖ ―Goodness gracious, why would she do that?‖ Juliet asked suspiciously. ―She said later that she took Morgan because she couldn‘t bear to leave both children behind, and she figured that if Father had his heir, he‘d not pursue her.‖ ―But why flee in the first place?‖ Griff put in. Lord Templemore looked so highly affronted by the question, she marveled that he didn‘t throw them all out at once. ―That‘s a private matter, sir, immaterial to your situation.‖ He paused, his hard gaze daring anybody to probe further. Apparently satisfied that his aristocratic hauteur had quelled their impertinence, he went on. ―To avoid scandal, Father told the world—including me when I was old enough— that my mother died in childbirth.‖ That‘s what they‘d heard, too. Which explained why she felt so uneasy in this bastion of his power. It lacked a single touch of femininity. There were no vases filled with conservatory flowers by a fond mother, no delicate hangings stitched by a loving sister, no watercolor miniatures of family painted by an adoring wife and displayed in glass cases. She‘d noticed no such items in the hall they‘d passed through, either. It was stark and purely male, a bachelor‘s temple. ―Only Sebastian‘s father and I knew that my sister Ophelia had really abandoned her son and husband,‖ Mr. Pryce interjected. He set his cup back on the saucer, rattling it. ―She vanished, and all attempts to find her were fruitless. So none of us

~ 31 ~ knew of Morgan until sixteen years ago when Ophelia summoned me to Geneva, where she‘d been living.‖ Lord Templemore gulped some tea as if he wished it were something stronger, then set down his cup with an expression of distaste. ―By then, Morgan and I were thirteen. Penniless and dying of consumption, my mother worried about what would happen to him. She begged my uncle to see that Morgan received the advantages of his birth. Needless to say, Uncle Lew didn‘t question her tale—one look at Morgan and he knew she spoke the truth.‖ ―And I thought my background was odd,‖ Griff muttered under his breath. ―How do we know that you speak the truth?‖ Juliet burst out. ―There‘s no corroboration in Debrett‘s—and you know that. You can claim whatever you like. How do we know you and your uncle haven‘t concocted this tale of an identical twin?‖ ―I beg your pardon, I would never—‖ Mr. Pryce began to protest. ―Juliet,‖ Griff interrupted, ―the runner already gave us accounts of both men in separate places at the same time—Morgan serving in the navy and Lord Templemore running this estate. I assure you, no man can run an estate for years from a ship.‖ He had a point, and yet… ―Why doesn‘t anybody know of the twins? If this ‗twin‘ was brought back to England after his mother died—‖ ―He wasn‘t,‖ Mr. Pryce explained. ―Sebastian‘s father and I had Morgan schooled abroad. When he came of age, we purchased him a commission in the navy and he went to war. And stayed out of England.‖ ―He‘d already taken Mother‘s maiden name, so they claimed he was Father‘s ward. That‘s all they told me, too.‖ Anger now tinged Lord Templemore‘s voice. ―Since I rarely left the estate and Morgan served on a succession of ships, they figured they could easily keep us apart and the connection between us hidden. Morgan knew he had a brother because our mother told him, but I didn‘t know anything.‖

~ 32 ~ ―That sounds very unfair,‖ Juliet said softly. His startled gaze swung to her. ―I thought so.‖ His bald admission tugged at her foolishly tender heart. Especially when she glimpsed the vulnerability in his eyes. Then she frowned. Oh, no, not this time. Never again would she let him play on her feelings, so he could slide under her guard and twist in the knife. ―We did what we considered best, Sebastian,‖ Mr. Pryce protested. ―We didn‘t want any trouble when it came time for you to inherit. The midwife was gone, and no one could swear you were the firstborn. Best not to have Morgan around at all to cause trouble when you ascended to the title.‖ Lord Templemore dragged his gaze from her. ―Then it‘s a pity your attempts to avoid trouble didn‘t stretch to keeping Father alive.‖ Despite his flip words, grief lingered in the bitter tone, the hand that convulsively squeezed the India rubber, as if movement distracted him from pain. Mr. Pryce sighed. ―Your father always did whatever he liked.‖ ―True.‖ Lord Templemore rose, went to a side table where sat a decanter and some glasses, and poured himself some dark and intense fluid, probably brandy. He swallowed a mouthful, then stood staring into the glass. Juliet had to fight a silly urge to leap from her chair and comfort him. She‘d heard about his ne‘er-do-well father—who‘d died in a duel over Lady Throwley, the last in a series of married women, opera dancers, and demireps the old baron had taken up with. Leaving his son to suffer the scandal. Her sympathy swelled despite her attempts to suppress it. What good were wealth and privilege when they came at such a personal cost? To never know one‘s mother or brother, watch one‘s father ruin his own life—no wonder his lordship buried himself at his estate, away from prying eyes. Who wouldn‘t? ―In any case,‖ the object of her pity continued, ―the war ended shortly after Father died, and Morgan decided to end the deception. He came here to meet me in the spring of 1815.‖ A ghost of a smile played over his lips. ―Can you imagine my reaction upon first seeing my twin? It was amazing, an instant feeling of kinship.‖

~ 33 ~ He drank another swig, then another. ―We had a month to get acquainted. One morning I told him I meant to re-establish him as a member of the family. He said he had an urgent matter to settle first that would take several months. But he promised to return for Christmas.‖ He swirled the brandy in his glass. ―That was the last time I saw my brother.‖ Juliet swallowed. If this was an act, it was a very good one. And yet… ―I take it that kidnapping Juliet for the smugglers and going aboard the Oceana were the matters he needed to settle?‖ Griff asked. Lord Templemore shifted his gaze to Griff. ―I suppose so. Until now, I knew nothing about any smugglers or kidnapping. When he didn‘t show up as promised, I searched for him, but could learn nothing. I only discovered where he‘d been once the Oceana went down. The ship‘s owners sent me a letter listing the passengers and crew who were lost.‖ Moving to the desk, he picked up a sheet of paper, and handed it to Griff. Griff scanned it quickly. ―But this says, ‗in reference to your inquiries.‘‖ Alarm flickered over Lord Templemore‘s face, though he masked it so quickly, Juliet couldn‘t be sure. ―Yes. That‘s how they found me. As a last resort, I‘d sent inquiries to ship owners, hoping someone might have information regarding Morgan.‖ Griff glanced again at the letter. ―The ship sank a few months after we saw him last. So it‘s been nearly two years since he disappeared.‖ Lord Templemore merely nodded. They all knew what that meant. Two years— nobody came sailing home after two years lost at sea. Not alive, anyway. Tears burned behind Juliet‘s eyes. It couldn‘t be true. She refused to let it be true. Morgan was here, in front of her…and manipulating her sympathies once again. How typical. Rosalind‘s voice broke the somber silence. ―So you have no idea why he consorted with those smugglers? Or why he agreed to kidnap Juliet for them simply to gain the name of the Oceana and the date of July 17?‖ ―No idea at all. I wish I did.‖

~ 34 ~ ―Yes, so do I.‖ His uncle sounded almost sarcastic, and Juliet wondered why. ―In any case,‖ Lord Templemore remarked hastily, ―you now see why he can‘t be in London spreading rumors about your sister-in-law. If he‘d survived that wreck, he‘d have come home. It‘s far more likely that your family servants talked of the matter.‖ ―Possibly,‖ Griff agreed noncommittally. Juliet‘s gaze swung to him. He knew perfectly well the servants knew nothing. Griff stepped forward to hand Lord Templemore the letter. ―I do appreciate your being so frank, your lordship. This is a rather delicate matter…for both of us.‖ His lordship smiled as he took it. ―You keep my secrets and I‘ll keep yours?‖ ―Something like that.‖ Griff extended his hand. ―We won‘t take any more of your time. I can see you‘ve done your best to find your brother. I‘ll try a few inquiries myself, but it doesn‘t sound promising. We‘d appreciate your keeping us apprised of further developments.‖ ―Of course,‖ Lord Templemore said, shaking Griff‘s hand. ―If there‘s anything I can do to squelch these…er…rumors…‖ ―Your stepping in would only make them worse.‖ ―Probably.‖ He cleared his throat. ―Well, unless there‘s something else…‖ Juliet leaped to her feet in alarm. ―See here, Griff, you aren‘t simply accepting this bizarre tale, are you? There are too many questions unanswered, and the matter of the rumors left to resolve. We can‘t walk out of here just like that—‖ ―I agree with Lady Juliet,‖ Mr. Pryce interrupted. ―You have to stay the night in Llanbrooke anyway, since it is much too late to set off for London. Are you at that horrible inn, the Peacock‘s Eye?‖ ―I‘m afraid so,‖ Griff admitted. ―It appears to be the only inn in town.‖

~ 35 ~ ―Then you should stay here instead. That way, if more questions arise tonight, you can renew the discussion. Besides, why endure such wretched accommodations when Sebastian has a mansion all to himself? He can make you quite comfortable.‖ ―Uncle Lew—‖ Lord Templemore began warningly. ―Don‘t be inhospitable, my boy. It‘s bitter cold out there—surely you don‘t expect these poor ladies to suffer the miserly comforts of the Peacock Stye. Good God, man, where is your compassion?‖ ―I was merely going to suggest,‖ his lordship said evenly, ―that Knighton may not wish to stay under my roof, considering the trouble my brother caused his family.‖ ―Nonsense,‖ Rosalind put in, with a familiar gleam in her eye. ―I confess that I wasn‘t looking forward to returning to that nasty inn. As long as Juliet doesn‘t mind—‖ ―I don‘t mind at all,‖ Juliet interrupted, though her reasons for wanting to stay differed vastly from Rosalind‘s. Rosalind was probably playing matchmaker, envisioning a grand marriage between Juliet and the rich brother of her kidnapper. Well, Rosalind could envision it all she wanted, but it wouldn‘t happen. Especially if Juliet was right—and his lordship really was Morgan Pryce. Perhaps she was foolish to still think so, considering the letter and other evidence, but she would swear his lordship was hiding something. The holes in his tale were large enough to sail the Oceana through. She‘d learned two years ago not to let her sympathetic nature distract her from the facts. ―There! You see, Sebastian?‖ Mr. Pryce said triumphantly. ―We‘re all agreed. The Knightons and Lady Juliet will stay here tonight.‖ He held out his arm to Juliet. ―Come along then, all of you. We‘ll get you settled in.‖ Juliet took his arm and he led the way out the door, but when they reached the hall and he realized his nephew wasn‘t with them, he paused and stuck his head back into the study. ―Sebastian, are you coming?‖ ―In a moment. I have some business matters to attend to first. Go take care of our guests. Put them in the east wing, and tell Cook there will be five for dinner.‖

~ 36 ~ ―Certainly, my boy,‖ Mr. Pryce answered, then shut the door. As they walked off down the hall, he let Griff and Rosalind move ahead, then spoke in a voice meant only for her. ―I say, Lady Juliet, would you answer one question?‖ ―Yes?‖ ―Why did you and your family wait two years to come looking for my nephew?‖ She sighed. ―Until this new gossip started circulating, I preferred to let sleeping dogs lie. My family abided by my wishes.‖ ―And now that the sleeping dog appears to be dead?‖ Appears to be? She took a stab in the dark. ―You don‘t believe that.‖ He flashed her a pained smile. ―Sebastian has pronounced Morgan dead, and his opinion is all that counts.‖ What an odd thing to say. ―Is it indeed?‖ ―You‘ll find out soon enough that it is.‖ Raising his voice, he turned to her sister and began asking about their trip from London. How very strange. She didn‘t doubt Lord Templemore‘s wild tale about having a twin—Mr. Pryce had corroborated the story, and parts of it fit very well with Morgan‘s history, as Griff had noted. Yet why did Lord Templemore show so little grief over his brother‘s death? He‘d mourned his father—a man he clearly disliked—yet he didn‘t seem to mourn his brother, whom he‘d expended considerable time and effort searching for. Not to mention his uneasiness around her, and his uncle‘s enigmatic statements. Separately, they were just odd stitches, but together they made a badly patched tapestry. And on this one matter she was resolved—she wouldn‘t rest until she unearthed the grimy fabric beneath all those patches.

~ 37 ~

Chapter 3 ‘A clean glove often hides a dirty hand.’ - English proverb written on a list once mounted on the Templemore schoolroom wall

Only after the sound of footsteps along the corridor faded did Sebastian leave his study. A brief walk, another turn, and a flight of stairs later, he entered his former schoolroom, which now served as his workshop. Where maps and lists of moralistic proverbs had once hung, pistol stocks and barrels rested on nails. A crude scarred table replaced the schoolboy desks and creaky globe. On one end lay his sketched designs and books. Upon the other were scattered locks, priming pans, copper casings, percussion caps, and bottles of finegrained saltpeter, charcoal, and sulphur from which he made his own gunpowder. It was to that end of the table he moved, snatching up a rasp and a stock for a set of dueling pistols he was designing. The rough maple snagged at his leather work gloves as he sat down and began filing away unfinished portions. Working a stock usually relaxed him, but not today. What in God‘s name was he to do about this mess? The Knightons‘ timing was abominable. A pity he hadn‘t thought to have someone in the village alert him whenever strangers came to Llanbrooke, so he could avoid them entirely. But after two years, he‘d let down his guard. Devil take the Knightons for bringing Juliet here. Especially now that she‘d grown up. At eighteen, she‘d moved with the awkward uncertainty of a girl unsure of her attractions. She‘d been oddly untouched, probably because responsibilities at home had kept her from moving in society. At twenty, however…She packed an amazing amount of mature woman into that lethal little body. And what had merely tantalized him then was bedeviling him now.

~ 38 ~

He was an idiot, as bad as his rakehell father. He should be plotting how to allay her family‘s suspicions, not sifting through all her words to glean her memories of their week together. Did she remember the hours playing chess in the cottage in Rye? The easy conversations in the carriage? The kiss they‘d shared at the end? The rasp fell still in his hands as he stared off at nothing. That final kiss—what had he been thinking? In a week of chaste companionship, he‘d not even touched her, and he‘d succeeded in freeing them both from the smugglers. Then he‘d had to go and do something risky like kiss her. At the time he‘d thought to assuage her anger for when he rode away without her. Instead, his foolish impulse had made him yearn for the budding woman inside the girl. Thank God they‘d parted then, or he‘d have disgraced the name of Blakely forever. Unfortunately, all that long-suppressed desire had surged back at the sight of her today. It was perfectly understandable—he‘d lived in austerity all his life, striving to erase his father‘s excesses and his mother‘s absence by a self-imposed adherence to duty and honor. Of course he would find Juliet appealing. Who wouldn‘t? But he couldn‘t allow that to color his response to the situation. He had much to conceal. He mustn‘t let sentimentality or other annoying urges alter his purpose. Without warning the schoolroom door swung open, and Uncle Lew entered. With a groan, Sebastian bent over the stock. ―I thought I might find you here,‖ Uncle Lew stated as he perched atop a stool across the table from Sebastian. Sebastian continued to work the wood, in no mood to discuss this with his blasted uncle. Not until he figured out how to fix the situation. His uncle drew out an enameled snuffbox, pinched some snuff, and snorted it as casually as if this were a fashionable London salon. But Sebastian wasn‘t fooled by his nonchalant air.

~ 39 ~ ―I thought you had matters under control,‖ his uncle finally drawled. ―You claimed they wouldn‘t come looking for you.‖ Wincing to hear his own half truths echoed back to him, Sebastian rasped away half the penciled design before realizing it. What else could he have told his uncle? He hadn‘t wanted to worry him. Not with so many other matters to worry him when he‘d first returned from Sussex. Like how to find Morgan. ―You said even if they came after you,‖ his uncle went on, ―you could handle it.‖ ―I can.‖ Sebastian worked the rasp with a vengeance, and sawdust puddled on his knee. ―I will.‖ ―As you handled Crouch? By agreeing to his terms even though it meant kidnapping an innocent?‖ ―I executed that kidnapping perfectly without hurting her, and then got her out of it unharmed.‖ His uncle raised an eyebrow, and he growled, ―I‘d like to see you do better.‖ ―Oh, I‘m not insane enough to take on a band of smugglers single-handedly.‖ His uncle flicked a particle of snuff off his coat sleeve. ―Or arrogant enough to carry a woman into danger with the assumption that I can save her in the end.‖ ―Deuce take it, Uncle!‖ He tossed down the rasp. ―What do you want from me?‖ His uncle‘s cool gaze pinned him. ―I want you to admit you don‘t have everything under control for a change. That you occasionally blunder.‖ The fact that Uncle Lew was right didn‘t make it any easier to accept. ―I didn‘t blunder. I did what I had to—found out what Crouch‘s men had done with Morgan.‖ ―For all the good it did.‖ Uncle Lew pocketed his snuffbox. ―If the Navy Board hadn‘t told us two months ago that he‘d been spotted on a pirate ship, we‘d still be thinking he‘d gone down on the Oceana.‖ Sebastian sighed heavily, then dusted sawdust off his trousers. That was the hardest to stomach—that the kidnapping, the final confrontation with Crouch, all

~ 40 ~ had been for naught. ―You‘re welcome to go home whenever you wish, Uncle Lew,‖ Sebastian grumbled. ―Oho, my boy, you will not shake me off that easily, though I daresay you‘d like me to trot across the park to Foxglen, so you can throw our guests out on their ears before they start punching giant holes in your paper-thin fabrication.‖ ―Our guests?‖ With a snort of disgust, Sebastian tossed down the stock. He‘d ruined it, anyway. ―You invited them, not I.‖ His uncle waved his hand dismissively. ―A minor detail. How else could I react, after hearing how you destroyed that poor girl‘s life?‖ ―I was trying to protect her, blast it! I told you—Crouch didn‘t just want ransom money; he wanted revenge on Knighton for some business dealings gone sour. That‘s why I agreed to Crouch‘s terms. He would have had her kidnapped, with or without me.‖ He shuddered. ―And raping Knighton‘s sister-in-law would have made a fine revenge.‖ ―At least you protected her from that.‖ ―I protected her from everything.‖ ―Then why are she and her family after your blood?‖ The lash of his uncle‘s words raised welts on his conscience, exactly as the man had intended. He ignored them. And the image of Juliet‘s accusing eyes. Devil take it, he‘d done his best under difficult circumstances. He refused to feel guilty about it. ―Perhaps they don‘t view matters as I do.‖ ―Can you blame them? When you didn‘t bother to tell them any of this? You simply restored her to her relations and vanished, instead of remaining to accept whatever penance they required.‖ ―A trial? That‘s what Knighton would have required, I assure you.‖ ―Not if you‘d offered to marry her and make it right.‖ He scrubbed a hand wearily over his face. ―Don‘t think I didn‘t consider it.‖ Especially after that kiss. ―But it was too risky. If they‘d dragged me off to hang

~ 41 ~ instead, who‘d have been left to search for Morgan and take care of Charnwood? Remember, they had ample reason to despise me, since Lady Helena and Knighton‘s friend Brennan were also thrust into danger while I was trying to extricate Juliet from Crouch‘s clutches.‖ ―So you didn‘t execute the kidnapping perfectly after all, did you?‖ Shooting him a foul look, Sebastian rose and walked to the fireplace, where he crouched to throw a log on the fire. Blast, but it was cold up here and always had been. ―I had matters well under control until they showed up. It wasn‘t my fault that Lady Helena and Brennan blundered in where they shouldn‘t have.‖ ―And I suppose it‘s not your fault that Lady Juliet‘s reputation is now on the verge of being ruined by gossip.‖ ―I had nothing to do with that!‖ Highly offended, he straightened to face his uncle. ―What kind of wretch do you take me for?‖ His uncle took out his snuffbox to dip more snuff. ―I don‘t know. A kidnapper?‖ ―Very amusing. But I took great care to keep Juliet and her reputation from suffering. I counted on her family keeping the matter quiet, which they did. As for this new gossip, I don‘t believe there is any such thing. I‘ve seen no mention in the London rags. And after all this time, why would anybody gossip about what happened? Who could know? If there truly is any gossip, it‘s probably minor. They‘re simply trumping it up to engage our sympathies, make me reveal myself. Which I refuse to do.‖ ―So you‘re going to let her suffer through it on her own?‖ Sebastian bristled. ―See here, if I learn that there is indeed talk about her in London—which I highly doubt—I‘ll do what I can to quell it. But after this matter with Morgan is settled.‖ He paced before the fire. ―It‘s not as if I actually did anything to her while I had her in my care; I acted with the utmost propriety.‖ ―Did you?‖ Uncle Lew cast him a sly look. ―That must have been quite taxing. The young woman is lovely, a temptation to any man with eyes.‖ Sebastian struggled not to scowl. It annoyed him that Uncle Lew had noticed Juliet‘s loveliness, and his annoyance annoyed him, too. For God‘s sake, Uncle

~ 42 ~ Lew was over twice her age. ―All the same, I behaved as a gentleman. I have nothing to be ashamed of.‖ Except for that one kiss. That one perfect, sensuous… By thunder, why must he keep thinking of it? ―If you‘ve done nothing wrong, tell the Knightons the truth.‖ ―Certainly. Then on Knighton‘s way out of town, he can stop by the magistrate‘s and arrange to have me carted off to London in chains. I prefer to keep my neck the appropriate length, thank you very much.‖ ―Surely Mr. Knighton is reasonable enough to understand your desire to rescue your brother.‖ Sebastian rolled his eyes. ―You saw firsthand how reasonable he is.‖ His uncle‘s face clouded over. ―Ah, yes, the man with the ready fist.‖ ―Coupled with Knighton‘s ruthless business reputation…‖ Sebastian strode back to the table. ―I‘m not so much concerned about what he can do to me. I knew the risks. But I can‘t have Knighton sticking his nose into the negotiations for Morgan‘s return.‖ His uncle sighed. ―I‘d forgotten about that. Have you heard more from Morgan? Any explanation?‖ ―Just that one brief letter saying that he‘ll be home soon, and he‘ll explain then.‖ With a scowl, Sebastian dropped onto a leather-bound stool. ―How the devil can he explain showing up on the Pirate Lord‘s ship?‖ His uncle shook his head. ―I still don‘t understand it. He joins some smugglers at the Home Office‘s behest, the smugglers discover he‘s a spy and imprison him aboard the Oceana, it goes down, we think he‘s dead, and then that man from the navy informs us he was spotted aboard the Satyr when it took Lord Winthrop‘s ship. It makes no sense. Why would Morgan take up with pirates after years of loyal service to his country? Could Winthrop‘s crewman have made a mistake when he said he recognized Morgan?‖

~ 43 ~ ―Not if he really did serve with Morgan in the navy. A bad piece of luck, that. Now Winthrop‘s howling for Morgan‘s head. Thank God the man never met me in society or he‘d be howling for mine instead.‖ ―Perhaps Morgan ended up aboard the Satyr because it sank the Oceana?‖ ―I thought of that. But the Pirate Lord is known for plundering only.‖ He sighed. ―Still, he‘s thoroughly hated by the navy. We‘re fortunate they‘re willing to offer that pardon in exchange for Morgan‘s helping them capture the man.‖ Sebastian rose and paced to the window that looked out over the west lawn toward the setting sun and the Welsh border. ―I have to deal with Morgan‘s situation the minute he arrives here, before anyone learns of his return. And the last thing I need is Knighton muddying the waters. If he tells the Navy Board of the kidnapping, they‘ll break off negotiations at once. It‘s only my apparent good character that‘s kept them willing.‖ His uncle sighed. ―I suppose that‘s true.‖ ―That‘s why Knighton must believe Morgan is dead. It might convince him to abandon his vengeance before the Navy Board hears what I did.‖ Uncle Lew observed him quietly for a moment. ―It is not only Morgan I worry about. If you were to hang—‖ He shuddered. ―Let us not think of that. But suffice it to say, without you Charnwood would fall apart, and I somehow doubt Morgan could step into your shoes. You do realize you took a great risk in trying to save your brother.‖ He did realize it. ―Some would even say you went beyond the bounds of familial duty, and all for a man so heedless of the family name that he consorted with pirates.‖ ―He‘s still my brother. A Blakely never turns his back on family.‖ Sebastian would have done anything to get Morgan back. He still would. Who else did he have, aside from Uncle Lew? He‘d spent his whole life with an absent father and no mother. Even Uncle Lew had been away most of Sebastian‘s life. Morgan‘s arrival had finally given him a taste of what it was like to have family, and Sebastian wasn‘t about to give up on him. ―Besides, you‘d have shot me if I hadn‘t looked for him. You do have a soft spot for the rogue.‖

~ 44 ~

―No more than I have for you, my boy. With your mother and my Lucinda long gone, you two are all I have.‖ His uncle cleared his throat. ―Though at present, you‘re both trying my patience enormously.‖ Sebastian twisted away from the window. ―It‘s not my fault Morgan is in this mess.‖ ―No, but it is your fault that we are now under siege by a ruthless man and a young lady bent on learning the truth.‖ He couldn‘t deny that. Striding back to the table, he resumed his seat. ―All the same, when I get my hands on Morgan, I‘ll thrash him into the next shire for getting involved with the Pirate Lord.‖ His uncle laughed. ―I shall help. Although you could just leave him to Knighton, since he is already convinced that Morgan was Lady Juliet‘s kidnapper.‖ ―I‘m sorely tempted, but even Morgan doesn‘t deserve that.‖ Picking up a flint lock he‘d been trying to unstick, he applied some neat‘s-foot oil to its rusty screws. ―No, once Morgan is safely pardoned, I‘ll throw myself on Knighton‘s tender mercies.‖ ―In the meantime, how will you keep them all at bay?‖ ―Devil if I know.‖ He worked the rusty cock up and down until it was moving smoothly. ―You didn‘t help matters by inviting them to stay here.‖ ―Nonsense,‖ Uncle Lew said with a wave of his bejeweled hand. ―They‘ll rest well here tonight, awaken in a genial mood, and be on their way back to London. Whereas if they stayed at the Peacock Stye, they‘d awaken in a foul mood, and Knighton might come back here to punch you in the nose again. I was merely trying to help.‖ ―You were trying to annoy me.‖ Uncle Lew‘s twinkling eyes proclaimed that Sebastian had hit the mark. ―Ah, but you should have seen your face when I did it. It made it worth any inconvenience that might arise from this sticky situation.‖

~ 45 ~ ―Inconvenience?‖ He raised an eyebrow. ―If that‘s all that comes of this, I won‘t begrudge you your entertainment, Uncle. I‘m afraid, however, that it may grow stickier before we‘re done. I‘m not sure that Knighton believed me.‖ ―And Lady Juliet? Did she believe you? That is perhaps more important.‖ Sebastian thought of her face, of the certainty in her eyes, her accusing looks. ―I‘m not sure of that, either. We‘ll simply have to prevent her from divining the truth.‖ He glanced at his uncle. ―That will be your job.‖ Uncle Lew eyed him suspiciously. ―Mine? Why?‖ ―Since you‘re the troublemaker who invited them to stay, you must make my excuses at dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow. The less she sees of me, the less chance she‘ll recognize me as her kidnapper.‖ ―Surely your absence will rouse her suspicions even more.‖ ―Remind her that I‘m a recluse. Or say that talk of my brother dredged up my grief. Just keep Lady Juliet away from me until they leave.‖ ―Are you sure mere evasion will do the trick? Your pretty sprite seems rather determined to root you out.‖ ―She‘s not my sprite!‖ Realizing that his uncle might read something into his strong protest, he modulated his tone. ―She‘s not my anything, I assure you. And though she puts up a brave front, it can easily be punctured.‖ At least he hoped so. Though Juliet had been coddled and cosseted all her life, she‘d shown quite a bit of spirit the night she‘d discovered he was kidnapping her. Still, she‘d always tended to acquiesce to her family‘s opinions. ―As long as her brother-in-law‘s suspicions can be assuaged, she can probably be managed.‖ Uncle Lew shook his head sadly. ―You are a cold one. How can you talk of the poor girl‘s feelings so callously? From what I gather, you hurt her rather badly.‖ His uncle‘s comment disturbed him, but he shoved it into the closet where he‘d had to keep his conscience for the past few years to meet the demands of familial responsibility. ―It isn‘t callousness—it‘s merely practicality. She‘s young. She‘ll

~ 46 ~ get over her hurt feelings as time passes, and more quickly if she thinks Morgan‘s dead.‖ ―You think so, do you?‖ Uncle Lew extracted a scented handkerchief from his coat and dabbed snuff from his prominent nose. ―You made her care about you, then spurned her. My dear nephew, if you think she‘ll stand by and let that pass, you lack a basic knowledge of the female sex.‖ The memory of how she‘d cared for him—once—left Sebastian feeling unsteady and out of breath, not a feeling he relished. Especially if his uncle was right, and all that caring had now turned into a burning desire for revenge. ―I hope you‘re wrong. Because if you‘re not, we‘re in for a long and arduous battle.‖

~ 47 ~

Chapter 4 ‘Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.’ - Homer’s Iliad, written on a design for a sampler by Juliet Laverick but never worked

An hour after dinner was over, Juliet approached Lord Templemore‘s study. The door lay open and the room was dark. I knew it! she thought. I knew his uncle was lying! His lordship wasn‘t ―perusing the estate ledgers in his study.‖ That was a humbug. Nor was he the sort to retire early. No, he was elsewhere in the house, avoiding her. That was why she‘d pretended to retire when Griff and Rosalind had. Why she‘d hunkered down under the bedclothes fully dressed to feign sleep when the maid had come in to undress her. And why she‘d sneaked out of her room to come here. She entered the study to confirm that it was empty. Not that his lordship‘s absence or defection from dinner surprised her. He was avoiding her because he knew she didn‘t believe one jot of that nonsense about his twin being her abductor. She‘d thought about it all afternoon, picking away at the loose threads of his tale, exposing the gaps in the seams. She still hadn‘t figured out the how and why of it, but one matter she was sure of—Lord Templemore was the one who‘d kidnapped her. Steps sounded in the corridor, startling her. Quickly, she ducked behind the door and held her breath as candlelight poked a finger of light into the dark room.

~ 48 ~ ―Sebastian, are you in here?‖ came a voice so near she jerked. But it was only Mr. Pryce, who was also apparently looking for his lordship. Fortunately, he couldn‘t see her. ―Off to your guns again, are you?‖ the older man muttered as he continued down the hall instead of returning the way he‘d come. She hesitated. She really shouldn‘t follow men around strange houses, but she could hardly resist this opportunity to confront his lordship alone. Depending on how he responded to her suspicions, she might garner enough evidence to convince Griff to act. Griff was being incredibly stubborn, insisting upon leaving in the morning. He‘d heard her protests and her reasons for not believing Lord Templemore, then dismissed every one! She supposed she couldn‘t blame him. If she hadn‘t met Morgan herself, she‘d have been skeptical, too. But she had. And that changed everything. The sound of Mr. Pryce‘s steps climbing a stairway prodded her into hastening after him. Perhaps he could lead her to her nemesis. Following him was easy enough. Years of walking softly to and from her father‘s chamber during his illness had made her light of foot, and the years of penury they‘d suffered before Rosalind‘s marriage had taught her how to navigate poorly lit corridors. Stealthy as moonlight, she edged up the staircase at a discreet distance, relying on Mr. Pryce‘s stiff tread above as her guide. She froze when he reached the top. Then she slipped onto the landing below to wait breathlessly. Light shot into the hall from a door being opened. ―Still hiding yourself away up here, are you?‖ Mr. Pryce said as he walked inside. Only then did she dare climb to the top. Heart pounding, she skirted the square of light and pressed into the shadows beyond to wait until Mr. Pryce came back out. She‘d dearly love to eavesdrop on their conversation, but dared not venture nearer. Being caught would defeat her purpose.

~ 49 ~ Seconds later, Mr. Pryce came out and closed the door behind him. He descended the staircase quickly, but only when his footsteps died away did she approach the room he‘d left. Fear punched holes in her confidence. What if she was wrong, after all? What if she made a fool of herself? She wasn‘t wrong; she couldn‘t be. And if she didn‘t confront Lord Templemore now, she‘d lose her chance. Dragging in a steadying breath, she swung the door open and stepped inside. Into the maw of hell. Lantern light reeled eerily over bits of firearms stuck to walls and disgorged onto a long table. Vials of suspicious powder marched down the middle, and a faint stench of sulphur pervaded the smoky air. At the center, with a lantern before him on the table, reigned Lord Templemore, his fingers working metal just as Hephaestus crafted ironwork in the flames of an immortal forge. Judging from the sooty ceiling and the faltering fire, his servants were afraid to enter here. How very sensible of them. She began to regret not being equally sensible. Perhaps this wasn‘t such a good idea after all. Then he spoke without looking up. ―Close the blasted door, Uncle. It‘s cold enough as it is without you letting in the draft.‖ Swallowing her fear, she shut the door behind her. ―Do forgive me, my lord—I shouldn‘t want to make you uncomfortable.‖ His back snapped straight as a sprung bowstring, but he didn‘t look at her. ―Ah, Lady Juliet. You must be lost. The guest bedchambers are in the east wing.‖ As always, the coldhearted beast held his emotions close. ―I‘m not lost, as you well know. I‘ve come to make you tell me the truth. Because no matter what name you use—Morgan or Lord Templemore—you‘re still the man who kidnapped me.‖ With those precise motions she remembered so well, he set down his metalwork and slid around on the leather-upholstered stool to face her. ―My lady, you‘re distraught, and that has made you irrational. Shall I call your sister?‖ Full of false concern, he started to rise from the stool. ―Stay where you are! I‘m more rational than I‘ve been in my entire life.‖

~ 50 ~ Eyes black as his soul assessed her. ―I see. Do you regularly accuse lords of the realm of running with smuggling gangs and kidnapping young women?‖ ―You‘re my first. Though I dearly hope you‘re my last.‖ ―So do I. I‘d hate to see another man wrongfully accused.‖ Her temper flared. She hadn‘t come here intending vengeance. She‘d simply wanted answers. But his arrogant refusal to admit the truth stirred some wretched, uncivilized instinct to punish him. ―You might as well give up this pretense. I know you‘re the man we seek.‖ ―Do you?‖ His smile was edged in menace. Behind him, the lantern light peeked over his substantial shoulders, limning his image in flame, making him appear even more the God of Fire than before. ―Pray tell me, other than wishful thinking, what has convinced you I‘m your kidnapper?‖ Oh, how she hated that placating tone—the one he‘d used two years ago, when she‘d been a silly, gullible girl. If it took all night, she would banish it from his voice. ―Wishful thinking has naught to do with it, unless the wish is to see you on your knees begging for mercy while I hold one of your nasty pistols to your head.‖ That did it. The smile vanished. ―Bloodthirsty little baggage, aren‘t you?‖ Yes. And it felt good, better than she‘d expected. ―I only wish for justice.‖ She paused. ―As for how I can be sure who you are, I have more than enough proof of that.‖ ―Oh?‖ He rose from his stool, straightening to his full height. Tall men had always intimidated her, and he was awfully tall. Still, the thought that he might use that against her merely firmed her resolve. ―Your brother was educated abroad, didn‘t you say?‖ A wary nod was her answer. ―And not even in an English colony, but in Geneva, where they speak French.‖ ―His education was given in English, madam. He had the best tutors.‖

~ 51 ~ ―Not until he was thirteen. By your own admission, he spent his early years without such advantages. And with the sort of mother you‘ve described, he might have been left to run wild in the streets. At the very least, he would speak with an accent; at the most, he‘d lack breeding and refinement as well.‖ His lips thinned. ―Is there a point to all these insults to members of my family?‖ ―My kidnapper had a refined English accent and a polished manner. Like yours.‖ ―Did he indeed?‖ He strolled closer, stopping only a foot away. ―But two years can alter one‘s memory greatly, especially when memory tells us lies to soothe our feelings. Perhaps remembering him that way makes it easier for you to…excuse your bad judgment in eloping with him.‖ Her eyes narrowed to slits. How dared he even insinuate such a thing? ―That isn‘t my only proof, sir. I‘ve found more since you spun your tale this morning.‖ Leaning against the table, he crossed his arms over his chest. ―Have you? I‘m all ears.‖ The words tumbled out. ―First, there was my kidnapper‘s manner of dress—as sober as yours. And the lie he chose to tell—that he was in the army. Your brother was a navy man, so why didn‘t my kidnapper say he was in the navy? That would‘ve made the masquerade easier for him and more convincing.‖ His gaze flicked over her. ―From what you and your family said, convincing you didn‘t prove terribly difficult.‖ She flushed. It was true; how readily she‘d believed his lies. He‘d said what she‘d wanted to hear, made her feel what she‘d wanted to feel. What she still wanted to feel, truth be told. Although now she knew better than to give in to such uncertain and dangerous emotions. ―Besides,‖ he went on, ―if Morgan had revealed that he‘d been in the navy, it would have made it easier for him to be tracked afterward, wouldn‘t it?‖ ―Yet he used his real name with the smugglers,‖ she countered triumphantly. ―Obviously he wasn‘t too concerned about being tracked.‖

~ 52 ~ A muscle ticked in Lord Templemore‘s jaw. ―I‘m afraid I can‘t explain that. Just as I can‘t explain why he kidnapped you to learn some spurious information about the Oceana, or why he went aboard. If you‘d care to enlighten me with some theories, I‘d vastly appreciate it.‖ That was the trouble—she had none. Nor had Griff. Indeed, it was the primary reason he‘d dismissed her concerns so cavalierly. ―Do feel free to question the townspeople, madam,‖ he prodded. ―They‘ll tell you I was here in Shropshire when my brother was consorting with those smugglers. At least until August, when I went to town to see to some matters concerning my pistol designs. But you said yourself that you know I was in town as late as November.‖ An idea suddenly occurred to her. ―But how do we know it was really you? Perhaps Morgan took your place, appearing in public to cover your actions while you went to Sussex. Once you found out about the ship, you told him and he sailed off in it.‖ He gave the heavy sigh of a man much beleaguered by fools. ―Why would I leave the brother I barely knew in charge of my estate, so I could go…what? Adventuring? And why on earth would I consort with smugglers in the first place? Or perhaps you think that‘s how I came by my wealth? Because if so, then speak to my servants. They‘ll be happy to enlighten you about how I did that, and it wasn‘t anything illegal, I assure you.‖ He was so fiendishly logical, it annoyed her. His calm words ought to sway her convictions, but they didn‘t. Because she knew on some level beyond logic that he was her kidnapper. She just knew it. ―So, madam, have you any other ‗proofs‘?‖ ―It hardly matters,‖ she complained, ―since you ignore the ones you don‘t like.‖ He flashed her a surprisingly genuine smile. ―And you ignore my explanations.‖ Her obstinacy reasserted itself. ―Explain this then—my kidnapper knew guns well, just like you. He even recognized a Manton flintlock, though he saw it from a distance.‖

~ 53 ~

―I hate to disappoint you, my lady, but any military man would. And my brother, as I told you, served several years in the navy.‖ That flustered her. ―Still…he excelled at using his own pistol, and I understand that you excel in that area as well.‖ ―I see. So you saw him shoot? Was it at a person or a target?‖ Her stomach sank. It was at a sandstone ceiling. Morgan had shot so as to make it crumble right in front of them without the entire tunnel collapsing. His lofty lordship would hardly find that convincing. After all, it could easily have been accidental. ―Have we come to the end of all your ‗proofs‘? Or are there more?‖ His patronizing tone grated on her, but all she had left was the argument he‘d find least persuasive. ―There is…one more. His scent. And yours. They‘re the same.‖ He burst into laughter. ―Now that‘s rich. We smell alike? I dare say many men do. If that‘s your most compelling evidence, you don‘t have a nose to sniff on.‖ She stamped her foot. ―How dare you laugh at me, you…you scoundrel! After what you did—‖ ―I did nothing, Lady Juliet.‖ Pushing away from the table, he strode up to hover over her, forcing her to crane her head back to look into his forbidding features. ―Forgive me for laughing, but this notion of yours is madness. I understand why you‘re eager for vengeance, but you wish to visit it upon the wrong person.‖ He spoke patiently, as if correcting a child. ―The persons you should attack are the rascals attempting to ruin your reputation. Concentrate your powers of deduction on figuring out who they might be. Not on revenging yourself on your dead kidnapper‘s brother.‖ ―This isn‘t about revenge! I want to know the truth, that‘s all. I want to know why you did it, what purpose was served by it. I think I have the right to know, especially if I shall have to suffer the consequences of it.‖

~ 54 ~ The rawest remorse flashed over his features before he regained his iron control. ―You do have the right to know. But I can‘t tell you, no matter what you think. I have no idea why my brother acted as he did.‖ The man was too infuriating to be believed. How dared he continue to stand there and deny his identity to her face! For a moment, they stood eye to eye, neither one willing to give an inch. But as her temper cooled, she acknowledged that straightforward accusations did her no good. He knew he could hide behind his bulwark of family lineage and money, so no matter how damning her evidence, he‘d ignore her demands that he confess. Unless she tricked him into it. And Lord knows, he‘d tricked her enough times. Dropping her head, she began to sniffle. ―You‘re right, of course. I‘m grasping at straws. But it‘s only because I‘m frustrated that your brother is beyond my power. I can hardly believe I‘ll never have the chance to make him pay for what he did.‖ ―Was it really so very awful?‖ The tone of false concern had vanished. Now he sounded earnest, almost gentle. ―You said he didn‘t…assault your honor.‖ She gave an exaggerated sigh and wiped away an imaginary tear. ―What else could I say, with my family listening? I‘m too ashamed to tell them what really happened—how that beast mistreated me, debauched me, and took my innocence.‖ He swore a low oath. ―You‘re not claiming that he—‖ ―Yes.‖ She lifted her face in great distress. ―That‘s exactly what I‘m claiming.‖ She waited for him to explode, to deny it loudly and thus reveal himself. He searched her face; then his look turned calculating, as if he‘d guessed precisely what she was about. ―So my brother deflowered you, did he?‖ Swallowing hard, she nodded. She‘d never told such a monstrous falsehood in all her life. ―You‘re lying.‖ Her pulse quickened. Success at last. ―And how would you know?‖ ―Because my brother was a gentleman. He‘d never have mistreated a woman.‖

~ 55 ~

Disappointment knifed through her at his deft parry. ―You said you barely knew him, so how could you possibly know his character?‖ That flustered him. ―I just do, that‘s all.‖ He stepped closer, and the sudden glint in his eyes made her back up. ―But I have a way to prove he didn‘t debauch you.‖ He advanced again, and her heart dropped into her stomach. She could think of only one way he could prove such a thing. ―Surely you can‘t mean to—‖ ―No, nothing so dramatic as that.‖ His arm snaked about her waist, tugging her flush against his lean body. ―But if my brother introduced you to the seductive arts, then you probably know something about kissing. Let‘s see, shall we?‖ And before she could even protest, his mouth covered hers. She froze, swamped by memory. The last time he‘d held her. The last time he‘d kissed her. This was the same, but different. His lips were softer now, more coaxing, sliding over hers with a heat and familiarity that startled a trembling in her belly. She tried the tactic that generally worked on her most impertinent suitors and went rigid in his arms. But how could she stay stiff as a poker with him? It was too much to ask. Especially when his hands roamed her ribs, his thighs pressed into her skirts, and his mouth caressed hers. He stirred to life the attraction that she‘d truly thought buried, the craving for his touch that had once tormented her. Suddenly, his tongue swept her lips, and she jerked back in shock. His breath came raggedly, but triumph glittered in his eyes. ―You don‘t even know how to kiss intimately.‖ His voice wound about her like scented smoke. ―How can you claim you‘ve known the greater intimacies shared between a man and woman in bed?‖ She hated the blush flooding her cheeks and giving her away. ―I…I…‖ ―It‘s all right,‖ he whispered. ―I never believed you anyway.‖ That stung. ―I didn‘t kiss you intimately because I don‘t like you, that‘s all.‖

~ 56 ~ Amusement glinted in his eyes. ―Is that so? Then tell me, Lady Juliet, what do I mean by intimate kissing?‖ Drat it all, she had no idea. She‘d only kissed a few men, polite little presses of lips to lips. Did it have something to do with Lord Templemore‘s outrageous attempt to lick her lips? Was she supposed to lick his lips back? Chuckling, he skimmed his thumb over her chin, then pressed down until she opened her mouth slightly. ―Here, I‘ll show you.‖ Then he kissed her again. Except this time his tongue pressed between her teeth. Intrigued, she opened her mouth further, and he groaned low in his throat as he plunged his tongue inside. My oh my oh my, that was interesting. It made her quiver in the oddest places, burned through her like flame devours wick. Curving his hands around her face, he kissed her more thoroughly than any man had ever dared. He did the most wicked and, yes, intimate things with his tongue. As if he had the right to invade her mouth. She could hardly breathe, yet she wasn‘t about to stop him, not when he made her feel so utterly delicious. His fingers snagged her curls, then pressed into her scalp to hold her still as a man clutches a brandy glass in his hour of need. He drank his fill in hearty, deep kisses that made her knees buckle. An ache thrummed between her legs, unfamiliar and surely scandalous. Though she tried not to react, she couldn‘t stop herself from swaying into him. Apparently that inflamed him further, for he grasped her hard about the waist, settling her against him belly to belly as he plundered her mouth like a reckless adventurer. She liked it, liked how intense and uncontrolled he was. Two years ago, she‘d yearned to have Morgan want her like this, and at last he did…he did! It reminded her of running away with him, and later escaping the smugglers with him. The burst of heat and excitement mocking her silly girlish dreams. The wild, fiery need scorching her innocence.

~ 57 ~ What was wrong with her? How could she repeat her mistake of two years ago? She was supposed to be unmasking him, not throwing herself at him, for goodness sake! But this felt so right… Besides, after this, he could hardly deny their previous connection. That thought tipped the balance from uncertainty into surrender, and she flung her arms about his neck, crushing the velvety waves of hair at his nape. The scent of iron and neat‘s-foot oil engulfed her, made her dizzy. Hephaestus was dragging her into the forge, and she would leap willingly into the fire, oh yes. He tore his mouth from her eager lips to whisper, ―Juliet…ah, sweeting…‖ Only he had ever called her sweeting. ―Morgan…‖ she whispered back. He froze. Jerking back from her, he stared uncomprehending into her eyes. Then his face drained of heat as suddenly as hot iron dunked in water. He dropped his hands from her. ―What the devil am I doing? I must be mad…‖ Pivoting away, he leaned over to brace his fists on the table. His shoulders shook from the force of his sharp, heavy breaths. ―Morgan?‖ She stepped forward to lay her hand on his back. He flinched at her touch. ―Don‘t ever call me that again. Call me Sebastian or Lord Templemore, but never Morgan. I‘m not him!‖ He whirled to face her once more. His haunted eyes gleamed in the dimness, and his features were twisted into anger. ―I think I‘ve proved that sufficiently.‖ His denial struck a dagger to her heart, and she began to tremble. Surely, he didn‘t mean to continue in his lies after what they‘d just shared. How could he? ―Please, Morgan, don‘t—‖ ―I‘m not Morgan!‖ He glanced away. ―I‘m not.‖ Only his shaky hand shoving his beautiful, thick hair from his face belied his seeming control. ―And another thing: no woman ruined by a man waits two years to hunt him down when her family is spoiling for vengeance. She doesn‘t hide the truth from them, and she doesn‘t come in secret to accuse her supposed debaucher.‖

~ 58 ~ His gaze swung back to her as he dropped his voice. ―She certainly doesn‘t let him kiss her intimately. Your encounter with my brother wasn‘t ‗wicked‘ at all, was it? This was merely another of your little tests.‖ He did mean to deny it all! Of all the infernal, dastardly— ―But now you should realize,‖ he went on, twisting the dagger, ―that your attempts to paint me the villain are pointless. I‘m not the man you seek. You‘ll never prove I am.‖ If she‘d had one of his horrible weapons in her hand right now, he‘d be dead for certain. That he could stand here and kiss her with such passion, then deny that it meant anything, deny their entire past together, while she still tasted him on her lips… Very well, she could play that game. Lord knows she‘d seen enough games played in society to manage one of her own. If that‘s what it took to make him confess the truth. ―You‘re right. It was a test. But you passed.‖ Her sudden change of tactic made him eye her with suspicion. ―I did?‖ ―Certainly. First, by your reaction to my calling you Morgan. And second, because you kiss nothing like him.‖ ―You mean because he didn‘t kiss you intimately.‖ ―No. Because he put more feeling into it. Like the rogue he was, Morgan kissed with great abandon.‖ She‘d die before she admitted that his lordship had done the same. If he could deceive her without remorse, he deserved this. ―Of course, that‘s to be expected of a reckless adventurer. His sort excel at inflaming women‘s passions. Whereas you—‖ She broke off, as if the rest were perfectly obvious. He gazed at her mulishly. ―Whereas I what?‖ ―You‘re a gentleman, of course. You‘re much too proper to kiss recklessly, and certainly you‘d never attempt to inflame a woman‘s passion.‖ ―You can‘t tell me that my brother kissed you with more passion, for I know otherwise. His kiss was—‖ He broke off, realizing his error too late. ―You‘ve already said that his kisses were perfectly chaste.‖

~ 59 ~

Aha! Finally she‘d pierced his infernal armor. She hadn‘t told him there‘d been only one kiss; he‘d slipped up already. Let him believe she‘d given up her suspicions—it would lull him into lowering his guard. She‘d use his own arrogance against him, batter his pride at every opportunity with ―perfectly innocent‖ comments about the past. She shrugged. ―Chaste? Well, that‘s a different matter entirely. His kiss may have been ‗chaste,‘ as you put it, but it was still thrilling.‖ She could hardly suppress her smile at the lovely effect her words had on Lord Templemore. He looked positively offended. ―I mean, your kisses are perfectly adequate, but—‖ ―Adequate!‖ he thundered. ―But it‘s understandable,‖ she hastened on, warming to this new tactic. ―Morgan was a man of the world, whereas you‘ve preferred to remain out of it. You can‘t have had too many encounters with the fair sex while isolated on this estate. For all I know, you may not even like women—‖ ―What the devil—‖ he roared. ―I am not of that persuasion, madam!‖ She blinked, unsure what he meant. ―What persuasion?‖ The outrage in his face faded a little. ―Never mind. Just rest assured that I like women well enough.‖ She forced concern into her voice. ―Dear me, I think you‘ve misunderstood. I was merely saying—‖ ―I know what you were saying,‖ he clipped out. ―My ‗reckless adventurer‘ of a brother swept you off your feet with his romantic kissing. No doubt that‘s why you wish to find him—so you can punish him for not marrying you as he‘d sworn to do.‖ He would put that construction on it, since it preserved his pride. But she wouldn‘t let him preserve any of that. ―Not at all. I only want to find him to learn the truth. It would have been disastrous if he‘d married me as promised.‖ His eyes widened. ―You didn‘t fancy yourself in love with him?‖

~ 60 ~ ―Of course I did at the time, or I wouldn‘t have run off with him. What kind of wicked creature do you take me for?‖ She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. ―But I came to my senses when I realized he was kidnapping me. No sensible woman wants to marry a man of Morgan‘s sort, even if he does make her heart race and her bones melt and…‖ She trailed off with a condescending smile. ―Whereas even if you don‘t have the most thrilling kisses, you are still a respectable—‖ ―—gentleman,‖ he finished, his tone dripping sarcasm. ―Yes, I believe I thoroughly grasp the distinction you‘re making.‖ ―I‘ve insulted you. I‘m so sorry.‖ Sorry she hadn‘t started this sooner. It was awful of her, but she was enjoying herself enormously. ―I mean it as a compliment, you know. A naive girl might fall madly in love with a scoundrel, but a rational, grown woman knows that proper gentlemen—like yourself—are infinitely preferable to dashing rogues, even if the proper gentlemen‘s kisses don‘t exactly…‖ She purposely trailed off. ―Make her heart race and her bones melt.‖ He sounded as if he were squeezing words through the small end of a bellows. ―Not that there‘s anything wrong with that, mind you. As I tried to—‖ ―Enough, madam,‖ he growled. ―I‘ve heard more than I care to hear about how ‗proper gentlemen‘ kiss.‖ ―I was merely trying to explain why you‘ve convinced me you‘re not Morgan.‖ ―You‘ve explained it deuced well.‖ He appeared to be apoplectic. Good. She hoped he choked on her words. Maybe next time he wouldn‘t leap to deny who he was. And she dearly wanted a next time, now that she‘d stumbled upon the way to strike at him. He‘d lost some of his cursed arrogance, and perhaps if she hammered enough at it, he‘d tire of having his pride assaulted and scream out that he was Morgan, he was the man who‘d kissed her with passion. She needed more time, that was all. Somehow she must convince Griff and Rosalind to stay a day or two longer in Llanbrooke.

~ 61 ~ ―As fascinating as this discussion has been,‖ he snapped, ―I have some work to do, so if you don‘t mind…‖ ―Oh, of course, Lord Templemore.‖ She gave him an exaggeratedly formal curtsy. ―I‘m sorry for taking up so much of your valuable time.‖ That might have been a bit overdone. He eyed her suspiciously. ―We needn‘t stand on formality, I should think, after what we just did. I‘d prefer you call me Sebastian.‖ ―And I‘d prefer that you‘d turned out to be my kidnapper. It would make my life so much easier. But apparently neither of us shall get what we prefer. So good night, my lord. Sleep well.‖ With that, she marched out of the room, feeling decidedly better than she had in years.

~ 62 ~

Chapter 5 ‘For Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.’ - Isaac Watts, “Against Idleness and Mischief,” Divine Songs for Children, embroidered on a sampler by Juliet Laverick at the age of seven years

Sebastian knew he was in trouble when he awakened the next morning to a rampant erection. Devil take it. Sleep well, the teasing minx had said. Ha! Had she guessed he‘d spend the night churning his sheets, his rest riddled with fitful, alluring dreams? No, she‘d never guess that, since he was too ―proper‖ for such passions. Her and her blasted notions about men. And what was wrong with his kissing, anyway? Adequate, she‘d called it. Adequate! As if he were some elderly dullard who didn‘t know how to rouse a woman! Meanwhile, she‘d nearly brought him to his knees with that mouth of hers, damned near brought him to the brink of insanity. Angelic little Juliet, of all women! Then again, this wasn‘t the old Juliet, the romantic girl pining for love like a hundred other well-bred misses of eighteen. Two years ago, convincing her to believe his tales had been easy. Although resisting her charms had taxed his selfrestraint, he‘d kept reminding himself she was barely out of the schoolroom. That had effectively kept him from putting his hands on her. Until the very end and that last kiss… He swore under his breath. This mature Juliet was far too clever for her own good. The impertinent baggage had smoothly tried to trap him into telling the truth—

~ 63 ~ first, by dictating her arguments like a little Napoleon, and then, when that hadn‘t worked, by pretending that ―his brother‖ had debauched her. Ah, but he‘d had his revenge, hadn‘t he? He‘d shown her up for a liar…and made things worse in the bargain. What idiot kissed a woman to prove that he wasn‘t who she thought he was? Instead of staying away from her? By thunder, she knew precisely how to provoke him, with her intelligent dissection of his past and her innocent observations about his prowess with women…Not to mention a body created for the express purpose of driving a grown man full out of his wits, a mouth so luscious he could have fed on it half the night long… He scowled down at the appendage turning the bedclothes into a tent. ―See what you made me do, you blasted, whoremongering—‖ Devil take it, now he was talking to his penis. What next? He glanced to the window, relieved to see that he‘d slept unusually late and the sun was high. With any luck, Juliet and her pesky relations were already heading for London. Of course, with the way his life had gone lately, that was probably too much to hope. Grumbling about the plagues of women, he left the bed and went to splash cold water on his face. Though he ought to be splashing it on his unruly John Thomas. He glared down at his bulging drawers. ―What the devil are you thinking?‖ The unrepentant portion of his anatomy bobbed mindlessly. ―You‘ve never been one to stand to attention for every pretty face—why must you do it for her, of all women?‖ He knew why: because she‘d grown into a delightful armful. But any man who marched to the beat of his John Thomas was marching straight into disaster. Fine. Naive, adoring Juliet had grown up. She‘d changed from a child playing at being a woman, to a woman playing at being Delilah. That didn‘t mean he should let her practice her newly acquired feminine wiles on him. Though she‘d finally seemed to believe him last night, one slip of his tongue could still change her mind, so he had to be careful, keep on his guard. He must

~ 64 ~ remember that the innocent angel who‘d taken his every word at face value had grown up into a devious, calculating…tempting…seductive… There went his randy John Thomas again. ―Stop that!‖ he growled at it. ―You are only making everything worse.‖ ―Milord?‖ came a voice behind him. Blast, he hadn‘t heard his valet enter. ―Nothing, Boggs. I was thinking aloud. And when the devil did you stop knocking, anyway?‖ ―My apologies, your lordship. I thought I heard you call for me.‖ No, I was talking to my willful cock. He could hardly say that, could he? ―It‘s of no matter. Fetch my clothes, will you?‖ He needed a moment to regain his control. ―Are we dressing for pistol designing today, milord? Or for entertaining guests?‖ Sebastian kept his back to the valet. ―Surely the guests have left already.‖ ―No, milord. There was a heavy snow in the night. ‘Tis a foot or more, too heavy for the carriage to manage. It‘ll take a day or two to melt.‖ He groaned. ―Which means my guests are staying until it does.‖ ―Don‘t see as they have much choice. They can‘t travel to London in that mess.‖ What a catastrophe. Two days of Juliet‘s blithe comments and Knighton‘s probing questions, and he‘d be offering his own neck to the noose just to escape them. Besides, what if Morgan arrived while they were here? That would be sheer disaster. Wait until he got his hands on his troublemaking uncle. When Sebastian finished with him, Uncle Lew wouldn‘t be so quick to offer shelter to dangerous strangers. Boggs cleared his throat. ―Milord? Your clothing?‖ ―Right. Do I still have that morning suit of superfine you drool over? The one with the patterned velvet waistcoat I never wear?‖ ―Oh yes, milord, you do!‖

~ 65 ~

Boggs had always been eager to put his master in a ―proper suit of clothes,‖ as he called it. The poor man never got to demonstrate his talent as a valet. Half the time, Sebastian went around in fustian. It didn‘t stain like the finer materials, so he didn‘t ruin a suit of clothes every hour. ―I‘ll wear the superfine then.‖ ―And the silk stockings?‖ Boggs said hopefully. He suppressed a smile. ―Yes, Boggs, the silk stockings.‖ ―We might have trouble with the cravats,‖ Boggs mused aloud as he hurried off into the dressing room. ―It‘s been so long since I tied an elaborate one that it may take a few tries. But you must have at least a mathematical or perhaps a Gordian knot. Those are impressive enough, I think, for the superfine, although…‖ He ignored Boggs‘s dithering, relieved that discussion of his clothing for the day had not only preoccupied his valet, but subdued his reckless John Thomas. By the time Boggs returned with the suit, he was presentable for company again. It took a good hour for Boggs to dress him, but Sebastian endured it for once. Today of all days, he must look the part. He wasn‘t sure how much his wealth influenced Knighton, but anything would help. Then there was Juliet. His dull attire yesterday had probably contributed to her absurd perception of him as some inept country bumpkin lacking any knowledge of how to please a woman. This would remind her of his position and its responsibilities, which precluded the sort of ―reckless‖ behavior that had attracted her before. He sobered. It would remind him as well—of his duty to his family and his estate. It might keep him from losing control the next time he was around her. As soon as Boggs finished, Sebastian headed for the breakfast room, but he‘d arisen so late that no one was there. Thank God. He needed time to plan. Might Juliet have told her relations of her conversation with him last night? He didn‘t think so, for she‘d be loath to admit that she‘d met a man alone. And he couldn‘t imagine her revealing those kisses they‘d shared. Those wholly unwise, incredibly erotic kisses…

~ 66 ~

He must stop thinking of that! Or of her blasted opinions about it afterward. He scowled. All right, so he hadn‘t precisely cut a swath through the available women in society during recent years; that didn‘t mean he couldn‘t kiss perfectly well, thank you very much. Besides, he was also the one who‘d kissed her the first time, the one who‘d ―made her heart race and her bones melt.‖ She‘d merely trumped up the memory like females were wont to do. In her mind, ―Morgan‖ became a reckless adventurer sweeping her away with passion, and the respectable brother couldn‘t begin to compare. Next time he had her in his arms, by thunder, he‘d show her what a respectable gentleman could do when he set his mind to it. He released a groan of frustration. What was he thinking? He wasn‘t going to have her in his arms again, for God‘s sake. He had to steer clear of her—that was absolutely imperative. Why, if Knighton even got wind of any kissing… Sebastian gritted his teeth. Her family was bound to prove an enormous nuisance, no matter what he did. The servants brought in his morning toast and jam as usual, and he devoured it, washing it down with a few swallows of tea. Then he strode to his study, hoping to bury himself in work. The sight of Knighton already ensconced there only further dampened his mood. Did the man have nothing better to do than lie in wait for his enemies? Reining in his agitation, he walked to his desk. ―Good morning, Mr. Knighton. My valet informs me that you may be forced to stay a few days at Charnwood Hall.‖ At least Knighton looked none too happy about it. ―I apologize for the imposition, but my coachman tells me that navigating even the road into town is impossible for the nonce. We must trust to your hospitality awhile longer.‖ Knighton certainly didn‘t act as if Juliet had put him on his guard. So she must indeed have kept silent, something to be thankful for. Sebastian smiled as genially as he could manage. ―It‘s the least I can do. My house is yours, and you‘re welcome to stay as long as you like.‖ Or until I can get rid of you.

~ 67 ~ Hoping that the conversation was at an end, Sebastian sat down behind his desk, but no such luck. Knighton continued to stand there. With a sigh, Sebastian gestured to a chair. ―Please, sir, do tell me what‘s on your mind.‖ Stiffly, Knighton took a seat. ―I have a request, Templemore. I‘ve no right to tell you how to behave in your own house, and after my hasty actions yesterday—‖ He gave a rueful smile. ―After yesterday, I‘ve no right to tell you much at all. But as Juliet‘s present guardian, I‘d appreciate it if you‘d stay away from my sister-in-law while we‘re here.‖ The man was nothing if not direct. ―Certainly. Whatever you wish.‖ Relief shone in Knighton‘s face. ―Not that I expected you to be running after her. It‘s just that all this is difficult enough for her as it is. Despite our interview with you yesterday, she was still insisting that you‘re Morgan Pryce last night before dinner.‖ ―I can‘t say I blame her,‖ he stated coolly, though the weight of impending disaster hovered over his head. Even if she hadn‘t told her family of last night‘s discussion, she‘d apparently tried out her arguments on them beforehand. Knighton waved his hand dismissively. ―No matter what my emotional young sister-in-law may think, I‘m not so foolish as to believe that a man of your consequence needs to practice kidnapping. But Juliet…‖ He shrugged. ―This situation has greatly upset her. Seeing the very image of the man who wronged her has brought it all flooding back, and since she can‘t witness your brother brought to justice, she wants to use you for that purpose instead. So she deludes herself that you are he.‖ ―An understandable reaction.‖ For the child that Juliet once was. But not for the new Juliet. No, she knew precisely what she was about. Or at least she‘d known when she‘d come to his workshop last night. Fortunately, she‘d been swayed by his ―adequate‖ kissing, blast her. But that was merely a temporary solution. Eventually, they‘d all learn the truth—if only when Morgan returned. When that day came, it would be best to be prepared. To know precisely how angry Juliet was and how far she might carry matters. ―You might explain, however, why Lady Juliet is so bent on revenge. From what you‘ve told me, my brother didn‘t actually hurt her, and he left her chaste.‖

~ 68 ~

A grim guilt suffused Knighton‘s face. ―We really don‘t know what he did.‖ Did the man feel responsible for the kidnapping? After all, it was revenge on Knighton that Crouch had been after. Knighton went on coolly. ―We can only rely on her word for the tale, and while she insists that your brother never touched her, I find that hard to believe.‖ Sebastian stiffened, all the more because Knighton was right to be suspicious. ―My brother‘s a gentleman, sir.‖ ―He kidnapped her. That‘s not gentlemanly behavior in any society I know of.‖ ―True,‖ Sebastian admitted, the word eked out from a tight throat. ―Tell me something. If by some chance my brother returned to England—‖ ―You said he went down with the Oceana,‖ Knighton interrupted, eyes narrowing. ―And I have no reason to believe otherwise. You saw that letter. But as a man of trade, you know that people do return from sea after years abroad, after their families have relinquished hope of seeing them again. Records are wrong, information is lost…We still haven‘t given up hope.‖ When Knighton‘s expression softened to sympathy, he felt a quick stab of guilt. ―So if Morgan should return, what will you do?‖ Knighton‘s sympathy vanished. ―Why do you ask? So you could hide him away from us? Warn him off?‖ ―No, indeed. You have every right to seek reparation. I merely want to know what form such reparation will take. To prepare myself, as it were.‖ The gentleman‘s blue gaze sharpened to steel. ―I‘d like him to stand trial for kidnapping.‖ Sebastian could feel the noose closing around his neck—by thunder, the man had a vengeful temper. ―That would mean a scandal for your family and Juliet.‖

~ 69 ~ ―As I said, that‘s what I‘d like. But she‘d have to give testimony, and that would ruin her. Especially once it became apparent that she left Stratford of her own volition.‖ He relaxed. ―Then what else is left to you?‖ ―I could always call him out. That would put a swift end to it.‖ Blast the man, duels never solved anything. Sebastian‘s father had proved that. ―You do like to fight, don‘t you?‖ When Knighton bristled, he added hastily, ―But couldn‘t Morgan serve a penance that wouldn‘t require having someone‘s head blown off? He could marry Juliet. That would make things right.‖ Once Morgan was settled, there was no reason for Sebastian himself not to marry Juliet. Knighton leaped to his feet in outrage. ―My God, man, are you insane? I wouldn‘t let that wretch touch her, much less marry her. What kind of penance would that be? To give him the hand of that sweet girl in exchange for his treachery! The very idea is revolting!‖ Revolting was rather strong. Besides, she wasn‘t a ―girl‖ anymore, and she could make up her own mind. ―She might not find it so revolting herself. She did run away with him once before.‖ All right, so she‘d been singularly unimpressed by Sebastian‘s kisses last night—but he could change that. ―I‘m thinking only of what‘s best for your sister-in-law, you understand, and not the blow to your pride.‖ Knighton stiffened. ―What‘s best for Juliet isn‘t that she marry a scoundrel.‖ Sebastian‘s temper flared. ―Then another penance, perhaps. A financial reparation? Because I‘d happily offer that sort of recompense on my brother‘s behalf—an ample increase to her dowry so she‘d be able to find a husband regardless of any gossip.‖ Knighton drew himself up proudly. ―We didn‘t come here to extort money from your lordship for my sister-in-law‘s misfortune, I assure you.‖ Stung by Knighton‘s vitriol, Sebastian rose. ―That‘s not what I meant—‖ ―Juliet doesn‘t need any funds from you.‖ He glowered at Sebastian. ―If I ever see your brother again, I‘ll take my own vengeance. I‘ll make sure he‘s ruined—with

~ 70 ~ the navy, in society, in business, in any way I can get at him. And I assure you I know how.‖ Undoubtedly. So much for Uncle Lew‘s hope that Knighton might be reasonable. ―But since he‘s unlikely to return and I‘m to be deprived of my chance,‖ Knighton went on, ―I must content myself with helping my sister-in-law get past this nasty affair. Which means keeping her away from you. She‘s recently begun to show some spirit, but that could vanish if seeing your face starts her dwelling on the past.‖ Sebastian bit back a hot retort. Seeing his face seemed only to embolden Juliet further, judging from her ―spirit‖ last night. Her family didn‘t know her half as well as they thought. Come to think of it, that was why she‘d fallen in with his plans so easily the first time. She‘d been sick of being coddled and treated like a child. She‘d wanted to stretch her wings, and the reckless ―Morgan‖ had let her. A pity that the only thing she wanted to stretch now was ―Morgan‘s‖ neck. No matter what she said about not wanting vengeance, her anger last night proved otherwise. ―So will you do your part as a gentleman?‖ Knighton asked loftily. Sebastian gave the barest nod. ―I‘ll avoid your sister-in-law, if you wish.‖ Now if only she‘d avoid him, he might make it safely through this until they departed. ―Thank you.‖ Slightly mollified, Knighton strode to the door, then paused to add, ―I regret that we must inconvenience you, but it can‘t be helped. I assure you that as soon as the road is clear, we‘ll be on our way.‖ Then he left, thank God. Sebastian had heard quite enough from Juliet‘s meddling brother-in-law for one day. But his torment wasn‘t over. An hour later, a knock at his study door presaged the entrance of Lady Rosalind. By thunder, how many people intended to plague him today? Soon Knighton‘s servants would be trotting in with accusations and recriminations.

~ 71 ~ Trying to subdue his irritation, he put aside an article on sheep shearing. ―Good morning, Lady Rosalind.‖ He stood and indicated the chair her husband had vacated earlier. ―May I help you?‖ ―I hope so.‖ As she sat down, she flashed him a blinding smile that lit up her plump face, illustrating what must have initially attracted Knighton to her. ―You see…that is…I don‘t know how to begin, but I need to speak with you about…well…‖ ―Lady Juliet,‖ he finished as he resumed his seat. ―Yes! How did you know?‖ ―Call it intuition,‖ he said dryly. ―You want me to stay away from her during your visit, I assume.‖ Perhaps he could move this conversation along by simply walking her through her husband‘s admonitions. ―No, indeed! Not in the least! That would be disaster!‖ He blinked. ―I beg your pardon?‖ ―Oh dear, I see I‘ve shocked you. I have a tendency to do that to people. Perhaps I should start at the beginning.‖ ―By all means.‖ For God‘s sake, how many more lengthy discussions of Juliet Laverick must he endure before this was over? Lady Rosalind settled her shawl about her shoulders. ―You see, Juliet was much affected by your brother‘s actions two years ago. It changed her utterly.‖ You mean she‘s become strong-willed, obstinate, and maddening? ―In what way?‖ ―Despite her living with us at Knighton House and having every opportunity to move in the best circles, she isn‘t the happy girl she once was. She laughs less and spends long hours in contemplation.‖ Lady Rosalind gave the heavy sigh of one much plagued by the urgent need to make her family fall in line. ―I wish you could have seen her before it happened. She was a delightful child, a bit too malleable perhaps, and naive, but full of joy for life. She was always ready to believe the best about everyone. Now she‘s more cautious, even cynical.‖ ―A normal progression. You wouldn‘t want her to stay a child forever.‖

~ 72 ~

―No. But a kidnapping isn‘t the best way to be thrown into adulthood.‖ Sebastian remained silent, his conscience squirming. Devil take it, he‘d done his best, he‘d protected her from the other men, and he‘d only bruised her pride. But those were excuses. Bruising the pride of a girl on the brink of womanhood could alter her for life. And apparently had. ―When she was first returned to us, her listlessness made us think she pined after your brother, that even after what he‘d done she might still harbor feelings for him.‖ But Juliet had denied that very thing last night, claiming that after she‘d realized Morgan was a scoundrel, she‘d wanted nothing more to do with him. ―And then?‖ he prodded, a rash urge to know the truth eating away at his prudence. ―Then she became rabid about domestic activities, particularly needlework. She suddenly spent hours embroidering and stitching and reworking old gowns and…who knows what all. She‘ll ruin her eyes one of these days.‖ He struggled not to smile. ―And you blame this on my brother.‖ She tilted up her rounded chin. ―As a matter of fact, I do.‖ ―So she had no interest in domestic activities before?‖ ―No, no, that‘s not the point,‖ she said in utter exasperation, as if he were deliberately being obtuse. ―The point is, she buries herself in domestic pursuits to avoid facing life. Your brother‘s actions have turned her skittish.‖ Really? He hadn‘t noticed any skittishness when she‘d spoken of holding a pistol to his head. ―And stubborn, too,‖ Lady Rosalind continued. ―Though she‘s had many offers of marriage, she continues to refuse them all.‖ ―Does she?‖ Aha, so he wasn‘t the only ―respectable gentleman‖ whose kisses didn‘t meet her high expectations. And clearly the supposed gossip that had

~ 73 ~ brought them here hadn‘t kept her suitors away. ―Perhaps she‘s merely discriminating.‖ ―She recently turned down the Duke of Montfort, one of London‘s more eligible bachelors.‖ He scowled. ―That proves my point. Montfort is an inveterate libertine. Not good husband material at all.‖ The idea of Montfort going anywhere near Juliet made him want to bash something, preferably Montfort‘s haughty features. She looked startled. ―I never heard that.‖ ―Perhaps he‘s changed since the summer he spent here when his father and mine ravaged Wales together in my youth. But I doubt it.‖ From what he remembered, the duke had been a younger version of their fathers, the wrong sort of man entirely for Juliet. ―Well, perhaps she was right on that score. But there‘ve been other, perfectly nice gentlemen who‘d make good husbands, and none of them appealed to her.‖ ―And you think this is my brother‘s fault.‖ Leaning forward, she lowered her voice to a confidential murmur. ―I think she‘s built Morgan up in her mind as someone larger than life—a dashing legend whom no other man can live up to. As Shakespeare puts it, ‗Praising what is lost makes the remembrance dear.‘ She pines after him, even while despising him. At one moment he‘s a hero for having saved her in the end, and in the next a monster for having kidnapped her in the first place. She vacillates between one opinion or the other.‖ ―Funny, but she wasn‘t vacillating yesterday. She disliked my brother decidedly.‖ ―You haven‘t seen her in the other mood. Sometimes she sits for hours doing her needlework in deep—‖ ―Contemplation. Yes, I know. Lady Rosalind, if you could get to the point.‖ ―Sorry. It occurs to me that your presence during this time of enforced proximity could help Juliet. You look like your brother, but you differ from him in character.‖

~ 74 ~ Blast it, she was as bad as her sister. ―How can you be so sure of my character? You just met me.‖ If she so much as mentioned the words respectable or proper, he‘d throw her out of his study. She rolled her eyes dramatically. ―I know a gentleman of good character when I see one. My husband was masquerading as a man of affairs when I met him, and I saw right through his disguise.‖ That wasn‘t how Juliet had told it two years ago, but he doubted that correcting Lady Rosalind would be to his advantage. Besides, at least she had the good sense to see responsibility and duty as assets, not the trappings of a dullard. ―Very well. You‘ve established that I‘m a man of good character. How does this help your sister?‖ ―If she could spend time with you—see that the face she remembers is merely the face of a man like any other—it might soften her reactions to that period of her life and make her capable of getting it out of her mind once and for all.‖ It was the strangest piece of logic he‘d ever heard. And from the sly glance Lady Rosalind sent him, he‘d guess it wasn‘t even her true motive. But why on earth would she want him spending time with her sister? Unless… A slow smile spread over his face. Well, well, so Lady Rosalind had decided upon him as a suitor for her sister. That was the only explanation that made sense. Apparently, though she objected to Morgan Pryce, she had no objection to his brother Sebastian, a baron and sole owner of Charnwood. If it weren‘t so ridiculous, he‘d find it amusing. She wanted Juliet to marry him, Knighton wanted the opposite, and Juliet wanted his head—Morgan‘s head— mounted on a platter. What a devilish situation they‘d put him in. No, that wasn‘t fair. He‘d put himself in it. His uncle would say he deserved all the trouble falling on him now. ―An intriguing idea.‖ He contemplated how to respond. ―But when your husband visited my study earlier, he claimed she‘d be better off as far away from me as possible.‖

~ 75 ~ Her long sigh exuded exasperation. ―Please ignore him. He has no idea what‘s best for my sister. I know her much better, I assure you.‖ He began to wonder if any of her family knew Juliet. He wasn‘t so sure that he did, either. ―But he may have been right in one respect. She may not even want my presence.‖ ―Balderdash, why shouldn‘t she? You‘re a nice gentleman, well educated and polite.‖ She smiled broadly at him. ―And you‘re handsome besides. What woman wouldn‘t enjoy your company?‖ ―What woman indeed,‖ said a voice from the doorway as Knighton entered. ―My darling, if I‘d even dreamed you were assessing handsome men for their suitability as companions, I would have come looking for you sooner.‖ Though he said the words lightly, the way he looked daggers at Sebastian belied his easy tone. Lady Rosalind laughed as she rose. ―Don‘t be silly. And where on earth have you been? I‘ve been looking for you everywhere.‖ ―Not hard enough, it seems.‖ Still glaring at Sebastian, he held out his arm, and she took it. ―Excuse me, Templemore, but my wife and I have some matters to discuss.‖ ―Of course,‖ Sebastian murmured. Wonderful. Now Knighton had even more reason to want his neck in a noose. They started out the door, and then Lady Rosalind paused. Glancing back at him, she said, ―So are we in agreement?‖ ―I‘ll consider it.‖ He‘d say almost anything to get her and her jealous husband out of his study. They left. As their footsteps sounded along the hallway, he could hear Knighton asking her, ―What was that all about?‖ but her reply was lost to him. He sat staring at the rows of books marching all around his study like centurions of knowledge. A pity none of them contained advice for this battle he‘d landed in.

~ 76 ~ You could marry her—that would solve everything. The idea rose again, a lingering effect of Lady Rosalind‘s machinations. Yet he didn‘t immediately dismiss it. He had no aversion to matrimony. Certainly he‘d always intended to marry one day. Someone had to produce an heir, and he was that someone. So why not marry Juliet? How better to make up for how he‘d ruined her life than to ensure her future? No one would deny she‘d make a suitable wife. She liked taking care of people—she‘d been her father‘s nurse when he met her. From what Lady Rosalind said and what he remembered of their time together, she had a domestic bent. And there‘d be no trouble in the bedchamber, to be sure. At the thought, his blood pounded madly in his temples…and elsewhere. With an oath, he rose and went to pour himself a dram of brandy. He didn‘t usually drink this early in the day, but under the circumstances… He stood there sipping brandy as he contemplated this new idea. Of course, Knighton would raise holy hell, especially once he learned that Sebastian was her kidnapper. And if Knighton forbade it, he suspected her father would, too. Still, Juliet was a grown woman—nearly the age of consent—and there was always Gretna Green. He rolled his eyes. As if she‘d ever run off with a man again, even ―Morgan‘s‖ wealthy, titled brother. ―Morgan‘s‖ respectable, boring brother. The only way it would work was if he kept the truth from her until after the wedding. That didn‘t give him much time. And it meant he‘d have to woo her as his real self instead of as Morgan, the ―reckless adventurer‖ she‘d once cared for. But it was an excellent solution—tempt her into marriage before Knighton caught on. By the time Sebastian had to reveal the truth, he might have succeeded in defusing the situation entirely. He downed the rest of the brandy. How difficult could it be? He already had Lady Rosalind as an ally. He‘d won Juliet once as Morgan—why not do it as Sebastian, too?

~ 77 ~ All right, he thought testily, so she didn‘t seem to find Sebastian that exciting. But he could change all that. He was sure of it. A rustling of satin at his doorway made him look up, just in time to see Lady Juliet stalk purposefully into his office. He hid a smile. If she only knew what he‘d been thinking… ―Do come in, my lady,‖ he quipped as she approached. The dimness of his study muted the golden girl‘s hair, yet still she glowed as lovely and fresh as a newly opened jonquil. Yes, she‘d make him a good wife indeed. Tamping down on his premature excitement, he poured himself another dram, took his glass to his desk, and sat down. ―What do you want from me now?‖ He added on impulse, ―Further demonstrations of your…lack of experience in certain matters?‖ She eyed him askance. ―Do not speak to me as if I were some idiot child.‖ ―I didn‘t realize I was.‖ ―I‘m not the naive ninny I was when I ran away with your brother.‖ No, you certainly aren’t, he thought, if you ever were. ―And although my family may insist on treating me as if I‘m witless and utterly incapable of knowing my own mind, I won‘t stand for your doing so.‖ ―All right.‖ The evenness of his tone and his solemn agreement seemed to take her aback. Eyes the color of sherry fixed on him. ―I have a proposition to put to you.‖ A smile tugged at his lips. ―Let me guess—you want me to stay away from you while you‘re stuck here.‖ ―No.‖ ―You want me to court you while you‘re stuck here.‖ ―Certainly not!‖

~ 78 ~ But she blushed, and that gave him pause. Perhaps his kisses hadn‘t been so very dull, after all. Leaning back in his chair, he rubbed his finger around the rim of his brandy glass. This was blasted intriguing, and he was actually enjoying himself. ―I‘m merely repeating the two propositions your brother- in-law and sister put to me separately this morning.‖ Her blush deepened to the dark red of anger. ―Griff and Rosalind talked to you about me?‖ ―Yes.‖ ―Oh, that is so like them. Meddlers, both of them.‖ ―I quite agree.‖ He leaned forward. ―Tell me, if you don‘t want me to stay away from you, yet you don‘t want me anywhere near you—‖ ―I didn‘t say that. I merely said I don‘t want you to court me. There‘s a vast difference between the two—you could still be near me without courting me.‖ He lifted his glass and sipped, feeling less than gentlemanly as he pondered that idea. His gaze drifted to her rosy lips. ―Indeed, I could.‖ ―And it‘s not what you‘re thinking, either,‖ she protested hotly. ―You don‘t know what I‘m thinking.‖ ―I have a fairly accurate idea.‖ He didn‘t even pretend to misunderstand. ―I thought I was much too ‗respectable‘ for those sorts of thoughts.‖ That flustered her. ―Well…er…that‘s true. But you are still a man, after all, and even the most gentlemanly of your sex is predictable in that respect.‖ He chuckled. When had the uncertain, shy Juliet blossomed into this impertinent minx? ―Is that so? Well, don‘t leave me any longer in suspense if you don‘t want me leaping to‖—he allowed his gaze to sweep her sweet form—―interesting conclusions.‖

~ 79 ~

Although she noticeably stiffened, he didn‘t garner any more of her pretty blushes. She tossed her head back. ―I wish you to be my tutor.‖ That stymied him. He could think of a thousand things he‘d like to teach her, but she‘d most certainly disapprove of them all. Calmly he lifted his glass to his lips. ―Oh? And what is it I‘m to teach you?‖ ―How to recognize scoundrels.‖ He nearly choked in the middle of sipping his brandy. Coughing, he set the glass firmly on the desk. ―Excuse me?‖ ―No doubt one of my meddling relations has told you of the difficulties I‘ve had choosing a husband.‖ ―They did imply something of the sort.‖ ―It occurred to me this morning that my problem all along has been an inability to distinguish true gentlemen from rogues masquerading as gentlemen. Ever since I mistook Morgan Pryce for a gentleman, I‘ve been unable to trust my instincts regarding men.‖ ―I see,‖ he said tightly. ―It makes it very difficult to choose a husband,‖ she went on, ―especially in society where everybody already masks their true nature. No matter how acceptable a man seems, I always find him suspect.‖ Apparently, her sister had been right in this one respect—she had indeed become skittish. ―So you want me to teach you how to separate the wheat from the chaff?‖ ―Exactly.‖ He swallowed more brandy. ―And what makes you think a ‗respectable gentleman‘ like myself is qualified for such a task?‖ ―Your father was one such scoundrel, wasn‘t he?‖

~ 80 ~ Skittish and forthright. ―Yes, a thorough scoundrel, most especially when it came to women. But I didn‘t share in his activities.‖ He set down his glass and added sarcastically, ―I‘m much too proper for that, remember?‖ ―Still, I‘m sure you had opportunities to observe how he worked. To see him practice empty flatteries on a woman or lie convincingly or persuade her that he cared for her when he really didn‘t.‖ Deuce take her, this was moving a bit too close for comfort. He‘d often regretted having to play the smooth seducer two years ago when he‘d first wooed her. ―The occasional opportunity, yes,‖ he gritted out. ―Well then, you should have no trouble teaching me how to recognize such ploys. Despite my experiences with your brother and in society, I‘m still woefully inept at recognizing scoundrels myself. So to be safe I tar everybody with the same brush. But if I keep it up, I‘ll remain unmarried all my life. I don‘t wish to become a spinster, my lord. You could be quite useful in ensuring that I do not.‖ He could indeed. But not the way she thought. ―You mentioned a proposition. Propositions generally have two parts. I do you a favor; you do me a favor. What will you do for me?‖ The hazel eyes hardened into green-gray steel. ―I‘ll refrain from convincing my brother-in-law to drag your family‘s name through the mud for what your brother did to me and my family.‖ ―Ah.‖ So she was bent on revenge. She adopted a casual stance, calmly straightening her gloves as she continued. ―Of course, if you‘re afraid that being in my company might expose more of your dark family secrets, do feel free to refuse. I wouldn‘t wish to make you uncomfortable.‖ He nearly laughed aloud. The impudent chit was daring him to spend time with her. Not that he would say no. He could keep his ―dark family secrets‖ well enough—he‘d proved that last night. And this was precisely the opening he needed to court her. But he mustn‘t look too eager, or she‘d suspect him. ―I‘m perfectly willing to agree to your proposition, madam. I‘m merely concerned about your family‘s reaction. Your brother-in-law made it clear that he wanted me to stay away from you.‖

~ 81 ~

She flashed him a kittenish smile. ―Then we‘ll simply have to keep our lessons secret, shan‘t we? It‘ll only be a day or two, after all.‖ He sucked in a breath. A day or two of private encounters with Juliet. A day or two of watching his every word, wooing her without telling her the truth. A day or two of her innocent, devastating flirtations. He must be out of his mind. So it was with some surprise he heard himself say, ―As you wish. I‘ll do what I can to help.‖ ―When can we begin?‖ ―Cook is preparing a light luncheon for two o‘clock. Why don‘t we begin after that?‖ It would take him that long to brace himself for an afternoon of ―lessons‖ with his lovely nemesis. ―Excellent. I‘m eager to learn, my lord.‖ She started toward the door, then paused, though she didn‘t look at him. ―One more thing. Under no circumstances will these lessons include any…er…intimacies.‖ A laugh escaped him before he could prevent it. ―You‘ll have to be more specific. What kind of ‗intimacies‘ do you mean—the kind you claim to have shared with my brother? Or the kind we shared last night?‖ Darting an annoyed look at him, she snapped, ―I mean kissing, sir. There will be no kissing.‖ How very interesting. ―I don‘t see why not. If my kisses move you so little, they shouldn‘t annoy you. And how else can I teach you to distinguish between the kisses of a scoundrel and those of a respectable gentleman?‖ She colored from her dainty hairline down to the soft swell of bosom peeping above her bodice. ―That‘s one part of the lesson I‘ve already learned sufficiently.‖ ―Are you sure?‖ With a lazy smile, he leaned back and let his gaze drift over her trim form all rigged out in a fetching pink gown. ―Because you didn‘t give me a fair chance to demonstrate the full range of ‗adequate‘ gentlemanly kissing last night. There are infinite variations, and I‘d be delighted to demonstrate every single one.‖

~ 82 ~

Alarm filled her face. ―If you even so much as attempt it—‖ she burst out, then caught herself. ―I see what you‘re about. You‘re toying with me. But I am in earnest, sir.‖ ―So am I.‖ He cast her a wolfish smile that made her swallow hard and glance away. He found himself feeling decidedly more optimistic about his chances with her. Wanting to test the waters, he threw her challenge back at her. ―Of course, if you‘re afraid that my kissing might improve upon practice and thus tempt you to behave improperly, do feel free to retract your proposition.‖ ―Not at all, my lord.‖ Her sudden smile was honey drizzled over steel. ―If you insist upon kissing me, then by all means go to it. I should like nothing better than an excuse to slap you for your impertinence.‖ Turning on her heel, she flounced toward the door. ―Juliet?‖ She stopped. ―Yes, Lord Templemore?‖ ―I‘ll risk a little pain to get what I want.‖ She cast him a taunting look over her shoulder. ―What makes you think it‘ll only be a ‗little‘ pain?‖ With that she sailed out the door. And for long moments after she left, he sat there laughing.

~ 83 ~

Chapter 6 ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’ - English proverb written on a list once mounted on the Templemore schoolroom wall

Drat it all, she‘d made an enormous tactical error. When Juliet had proposed spending time alone with Lord Templemore for the silly reason she‘d given him, she‘d thought it a good method for unmasking him. Though she didn‘t like playing such games, she saw no way around it when he was so infernally stubborn. What she hadn‘t considered was how he‘d regard the matter. He‘d clarified that in the study. He regarded it as any good sportsman would. As open season. On her. So now as she sat at luncheon with him and her family two hours later, she couldn‘t help fretting over what was to come. This was far beyond her experience with men, to be sure. Oh, why had she thought criticizing his ability to kiss would help her cause? Why had she laid down a gauntlet he seemed more than eager to take up? If he did, she was in deep trouble. Because if Lord Templemore set out to prove himself any better at kissing than he already was, they‘d have to scrape her off the floor when he was done with her. She shot a furtive look to where he presided over the table in the overbearingly magnificent dining room. Officious and formal, he hid well his rakish character. Gone was the sensual smile caressing her from tip to toe. Gone the challenging gaze, black and secret as a cave promising treasures beyond imagining. As they ate from a light spread of sausages, bread, and a local cheese, he offered her the same remote courtesy he offered Rosalind and Griff. But she knew it for a farce, even if nobody else did. It contrasted too sharply with his teasing comments in the study and last night‘s kisses.

~ 84 ~ She groaned. She refused to think of his hot, hard mouth doing the most unnatural, intriguing things to hers. Bad enough that she‘d lain awake half the night remembering his silky, masterful kisses, his hands anchoring her possessively against him— Enough of that! she reprimanded her too acute memory. Remember the plan. Don’t let him distract you. That was all that his sly flirtations were—distractions meant to disarm her. When she‘d prayed for such attentions two years ago, all she‘d received was a nearly ruined reputation and one insolent kiss. So this time she knew better than to let his attentions sway her. If he thought she‘d melt into a puddle at his feet, he was sorely mistaken. ―Where is your uncle today, Lord Templemore?‖ she asked when conversation dragged. His lofty lordship had probably warned the man off to prevent his speaking frankly. ―I thought Mr. Pryce spent much of his time here.‖ ―Rest assured, madam, if not for the snow, he‘d be here. Once the lads have shoveled the walks and beaten down the paths, he‘ll be in our pockets all the time. Especially at meals. He prefers my cook, you see.‖ ―With good reason,‖ her sister put in. Rosalind looked blissful as she bit into an apple tart, her favorite. ―Griff, we must get his lordship‘s cook to write down the recipe for this. The cook at Knighton House makes ours too sour.‖ Griff glowered down the table at his lordship, as if it was all Lord Templemore‘s fault that his cook made superior tarts. ―I‘ll make a note of it, darling.‖ He settled back in his chair and eyed his apple tart rival with the intensity of a man searching for flaws. Juliet couldn‘t blame Griff for being envious. Charnwood would rival any estate with its amenities and obviously competent management. How odd that a man who‘d recklessly involve himself with smugglers would also be a formidable estate manager. Why, she hadn‘t found a single corner left undusted. The water in her washbasin was always fresh, the chamber pots always emptied. The maids even polished the undersides of the silver bowls, and nobody ever thought to look there. Except Juliet, of course.

~ 85 ~ He must pay his servants very well. Either that, or terrify them into working like demons. From what Rosalind‘s maid Polly had related, all the maids jumped when he spoke to them. But if he thought she would do the same, he was in for a shock. ―Templemore, I‘m curious about one matter regarding your uncle,‖ Griff said. ―Yes?‖ His lordship ate his dessert with admirable calm, given the blistering looks Griff lobbed in his direction at regular intervals. Griff hadn‘t touched his own apple tart. ―Is Mr. Pryce married? He seems to spend a great deal of time at your house.‖ ―Ah.‖ Lord Templemore flashed Griff a pained glance. ―He‘s widowed. My aunt died five years ago of a wasting sickness, and he sometimes grows lonely. But he isn‘t often in Shropshire, so he doesn‘t spend as much time here as it seems. He generally prefers to loll about at the townhouse in Bath.‖ ―He has a house in Bath, does he?‖ Rosalind said. Lord Templemore smiled ruefully. ―No, I do.‖ Rosalind straightened to attention. ―It‘s very generous of you to let your uncle use your house.‖ She darted a knowing glance at Juliet, obviously calculating how quickly she could yoke her sister to this wealthy paragon of generosity. Juliet ignored her sister and concentrated on dicing her own apple tart into bits. ―Doesn‘t sound so much generous as foolhardy,‖ Griff grumbled. ―Let your relations take advantage of you, Templemore, and you‘ll soon have no money left.‖ ―Or they‘ll drag you about the countryside on fool‘s errands,‖ Juliet quipped, a little stung by Griff‘s comment. ―He didn‘t mean you, dearest.‖ Rosalind shot Griff a warning look. ―Of course I didn‘t.‖ Griff stiffened. ―And this was no fool‘s errand. We found out some of what we needed to know.‖ Some of? Could Griff be as suspicious as she was? No, not given how he‘d dismissed her arguments as frivolous. He simply couldn‘t believe that a man of

~ 86 ~ Lord Templemore‘s stature could do something so heinous. Griff might not like his lordship, but he was impressed by the man‘s apparent efforts to reverse the fortunes of a foolish father. Griff wouldn‘t easily be persuaded of the man‘s treachery. But she was not impressed, not in the least. Nothing was ever as it seemed with her nemesis. Just because he ran an efficient estate and was nice to his uncle and made her skin tingle didn‘t mean he wasn‘t every bit the scoundrel underneath. She merely had to figure out how to unmask his true character. ―You know, Lord Templemore,‖ she said blithely, ―I‘m still puzzled by one matter. If your brother is dead and you knew nothing of his actions, then who started the rumors about the kidnapping? And why?‖ ―I told you before, it was undoubtedly a servant.‖ ―Not one of mine,‖ Griff said. ―My servants are paid well not to gossip.‖ ―Yes,‖ Lord Templemore said, ―but considering your profession—‖ ―You mean ‗trade‘?‖ Griff snapped. ―I mean dealing in smuggled goods,‖ his lordship said smoothly. Griff bristled. ―I don‘t do it anymore. My business has been legitimate for years.‖ He shrugged. ―Still, the connection undoubtedly made you enemies. Someone might have paid your servants even more money to be disloyal.‖ ―For what reason?‖ Griff sounded offended at the thought that the gossip might be his fault. ―How could an enemy benefit from sullying my sister-in-law‘s reputation?‖ Lord Templemore retreated. ―It was merely a conjecture.‖ ―And a bad one, too,‖ Griff retorted. This didn‘t suit her purpose, Griff‘s sniping at his lordship. It would only put Lord Templemore on his guard. ―It wasn‘t Griff‘s servants,‖ she put in, ―nor ours. Helena covered all that up very well. Since she alone saw my note, she told

~ 87 ~ everybody—the servants, the townspeople—that we‘d been summoned to London by Griff and Rosalind, who were returning early from their honeymoon and would meet us there. Then before she set off after me, she told everybody that she‘d had to send me on first because she‘d had to deal with some last-minute estate matters.‖ ―And they swallowed that?‖ Lord Templemore said incredulously. ―They didn‘t connect your sudden departure with Morgan‘s?‖ ―If they did, they‘ve never said anything to me or my family. Everybody in Stratford knew that ‗Captain Will Morgan‘ expected to return to his supposed regiment soon. And Helena always had the reputation for being the soul of propriety. They‘d never dream she‘d countenance any impropriety in her family.‖ ―Ah, but young ladies don‘t always listen to their older sisters on matters of propriety. Didn‘t they suspect you might ignore your sister‘s stellar example?‖ When Juliet glowered at him, he added with the merest hint of a smile, ―Forgive me, but even well-bred young women can be impetuous enough to run off with ‗dashing rogues‘ like my brother.‖ How dared he echo her own words? ―I was never regarded as impetuous or brave by the townspeople.‖ ―Yet you must have possessed a little of those qualities to have risked eloping.‖ ―I eloped because your brother deceived me into thinking him a worthy suitor.‖ ―If you‘d thought him a worthy suitor,‖ Lord Templemore said coolly, ―you would have sent him to your father to ask for your hand.‖ Goodness gracious, but the man knew how to provoke her. Remember the plan, she cautioned herself. Don‘t lose your temper. ―I did try to do so, but Morgan convinced me it would be pointless. He said Papa would never approve of my marrying a mere army captain.‖ All of that was true, as he well knew. ―Morgan was right, even if it was only an excuse to lure you from home,‖ Rosalind interjected. ―Papa wouldn‘t have approved at all. He‘d wanted better for you. These days, however, he‘d be delighted if you wished to marry the butcher.‖

~ 88 ~ ―He would not,‖ Juliet protested weakly, grateful that her sister had changed the subject. It sounded uncomfortably as if Lord Templemore had been blaming her for his actions. She didn‘t need him echoing her own self-reproaches. Especially when he knew perfectly well that he‘d prevailed upon her to misbehave. ―Papa wants you to marry, you know,‖ Rosalind persisted. ―We all do.‖ ―I say Juliet has been right to refuse her suitors heretofore,‖ Griff put in. ―A sad lot, all of them.‖ Bless her gruff brother-in-law for taking her side. He usually acted as if she couldn‘t think for herself. When he followed his defense with an amiable wink, she beamed at him. ―Don‘t encourage her, for pity‘s sake,‖ Rosalind remarked. ―I liked several of her suitors. How about that nice Lord Havering? You couldn‘t have objected to him, Griff. He‘s young, he‘s handsome, he‘s kind—‖ ―He‘s a bloody idiot,‖ Griff said. ―I once compared Prinny to Falstaff, and he asked me who Falstaff was and why he hadn‘t met him in society.‖ ―Not knowing Shakespeare doesn‘t make him stupid,‖ Rosalind grumbled. Juliet laughed. ―Really? But isn‘t that why you disparaged a certain Lord Andrew to me? Because he attributed to Marlowe one of your precious Shakespeare‘s plays?‖ ―That‘s different.‖ She sniffed. ―Lord Andrew actually is stupid.‖ ―Lord Havering is indeed a nice man,‖ Juliet went on. She really had liked him. She just couldn‘t conceive of marrying him. ―But we wouldn‘t have suited.‖ ―Havering,‖ Lord Templemore mused aloud. ―Isn‘t he the man who accidentally shot himself in the foot while handing his friend the pistol to be used in a duel?‖ When Griff looked surprised, he added, ―I heard about it from Uncle Lew. I understand it made Havering the laughingstock of London.‖ Griff‘s eyes sparkled with humor. ―It put a damper on the duel as well.‖ Rosalind sighed. ―All right, so perhaps Juliet was better off without Lord Andrew or Lord Havering, though I didn‘t realize Havering was quite that cork-brained. But what about the Marquess of Kinsley?‖

~ 89 ~

―Isn‘t Kinsley already married?‖ Lord Templemore remarked. ―Widowed,‖ Griff explained. ―With three children. Apparently, my wife thinks Juliet ought to jump at the chance to inherit a family half grown.‖ ―It wasn‘t the children that bothered me.‖ Juliet stabbed a piece of apple. ―I liked them a great deal. But I found Lord Kinsley…er…distasteful.‖ ―Distasteful?‖ Rosalind snapped. ―Why?‖ ―I‘d rather not discuss it,‖ she mumbled and ate the apple sliver, praying they‘d drop this embarrassing subject. She should have known her brazen sister better. ―Wait, I know why,‖ Rosalind said triumphantly. ―Because of his cigars. You can‘t abide men who smoke.‖ ―That‘s not why,‖ she protested, though she did find smoking a disgraceful habit. The smell was so very hard to get out of the linens. ―You can‘t deny it. It‘s always something like that—smoking or snuff dipping or ragged fingernails or—‖ ―It was not that, Rosalind!‖ Why must her sister always think her the silliest creature in Christendom? ―Then what?‖ She threw down her napkin and blurted out, ―Because he never looked anywhere but down my bodice when we danced. I daresay he didn‘t even know I had a face. There, are you happy now?‖ Juliet regretted her outburst when a painful silence ensued and Rosalind colored. Finally, her sister whispered, ―Oh Juliet, I‘m sorry. I didn‘t know.‖ ―You should have told us,‖ Griff remarked sternly. ―I would have run him off.‖

~ 90 ~ Judging from Lord Templemore‘s thunderous expression, the man shared Griff‘s sentiments. Given how he‘d eyed her bodice himself earlier, it was quite hypocritical. ―What was there to say?‖ She shot Lord Templemore a pointed glance. ―It‘s not as if he was the first man to do it.‖ He raised an eyebrow unrepentantly, and she jerked her gaze back to Griff. ―It‘s just that Lord Kinsley was so very…obvious. He clearly had only one thing on his mind.‖ When Griff puffed up his chest in apparent outrage, she snapped, ―And you shouldn‘t be so self-righteous about it either. I‘ve seen where your gaze lands when Rosalind wears one of her French gowns.‖ Rosalind‘s laugh turned into a cough when Griff glowered at her. Lord Templemore hid a smile behind his napkin. ―Really, Knighton, do you allow just any old fool to court your sister-in-law?‖ ―Allow?‖ she hissed before Griff could retort. ―I‘ll have you know, sir, that I‘m perfectly capable of handling myself with men.‖ ―Are you?‖ His smug tone reminded her that she‘d complained earlier about her lack of instincts in that respect. Not to mention that she‘d let his lordship kiss her quite shamelessly last night. He flicked his gaze over her. ―When you‘re accepting the attentions of men like Kinsley and Montfort, I have to wonder.‖ ―Montfort?‖ she echoed. ―How did you know about him?‖ Rosalind mumbled, ―I…er…may have mentioned something earlier—‖ ―Oh, that‘s wonderful,‖ Juliet said with heavy sarcasm. ―Do go on, Rosalind. Why stop at telling a perfect stranger about my courtship disasters? Why not relate all my silly childhood peccadilloes, too—the time I got stuck in the butter churn, or the time I—‖ ―She merely told me you‘d refused the Duke of Montfort‘s suit,‖ Lord Templemore broke in, his voice oddly gentle. ―And I told her you were right to do so.‖

~ 91 ~

That softened her embarrassment. ―Then you know Montfort.‖ Lord Templemore shrugged. ―A little. He spent one summer here when we were both fourteen and our fathers were friends. Is he still the soul of propriety in public and the soul of impropriety in private?‖ ―You‘ve described his character exactly,‖ Griff said. ―Though I‘m surprised to hear you say it. Even men who know him are unaware of his…er…proclivities.‖ ―What proclivities do you mean?‖ Rosalind put in. ―Not the sort to speak of before young ladies,‖ Lord Templemore said firmly, with a glance at Juliet. ―This isn‘t widely known, my darling,‖ Griff explained, ―but although Montfort behaves like the quintessential gentlemen among his peers, he…Well, suffice it to say, Montfort may have every mama cooing over his charm and every little miss aching to steal his heart, but he isn‘t what he seems.‖ ―If you knew this about him, why you didn‘t keep him away from Juliet?‖ Rosalind asked, clearly intrigued. ―Now see here, I don‘t need Griff to keep my suitors away,‖ Juliet protested. They all ignored her. ―I didn‘t discover his true character until after she refused him,‖ Griff said. ―That‘s when Daniel informed me that he regularly visits…er…certain establishments.‖ Rosalind looked appalled as her gaze swung to Juliet. ―Did you know this?‖ ―I merely knew he disturbed me. I caught him lying once. On the way to a ball one night, I saw his carriage in a wicked part of town, and he later swore up and down that I‘d been mistaken.‖ She shrugged. ―But I‘m not blind.‖ Rosalind looked distressed. Apparently she‘d pinned high hopes on Juliet‘s marrying the duke. ―They do say that reformed rakes make the best husbands—‖ ―The only people saying that,‖ Griff broke in, ―are the rakes themselves, trying to seduce their latest victims. Any woman who believes it is already half in trouble.‖

~ 92 ~

Lord Templemore nodded. ―You might as well say that reformed thieves make the best bank clerks. The day the Bank of England starts hiring pickpockets is the day I‘ll believe in the good character of reformed rakes.‖ ―Wait a minute here,‖ Rosalind protested, ―my brother-in-law Daniel was something of a libertine before he married my sister, and you‘d never find a more faithful husband. Love can make a man reform his habits.‖ ―Daniel‘s an exception,‖ Juliet retorted. ―But I wonder if Griff and his lordship aren‘t right. Can a man who‘s led a sordid life really change, even for love?‖ She cast Lord Templemore a taunting smile. ―I promise you that if Morgan returned to England, swore he‘d changed his ways, and then asked to marry me, I‘d be highly suspicious.‖ ―I should hope so,‖ Griff ground out. ―The bloody man kidnapped you.‖ Lord Templemore looked less than pleased. ―But what if you discovered he had a good reason for his actions?‖ ―Like what? I can‘t imagine how he could excuse the suffering he heaped on my family, the injury he nearly leveled to my reputation or for that matter, the injuries he inflicted on your family name. What possible reason could he give?‖ She boldly met his gaze, daring him to answer, to even hint at the truth. A muscle worked in his jaw. ―I still say my brother isn‘t a villain.‖ Coward, she thought. ―And I still say the proof is in his behavior.‖ She was thoroughly enjoying his disgruntlement when a footman entered the room and approached Rosalind carrying a tray with a glass on it. ―Mare‘s milk for you, m‘lady. Cook said to tell you she was able to get some after all.‖ Rosalind blanched and shot a quick glance at her husband. Juliet followed her gaze to find Griff‘s brow lowering into a deep scowl as he rose from the table. Quickly, Rosalind reached for the glass, but Griff‘s voice boomed out, ―Don‘t you dare!‖ When her hand hovered in midair, Griff ordered the footman, ―Take that vile stuff away. And from now on, tell your cook to ignore any special requests from my wife.‖

~ 93 ~

The footman glanced helplessly to his master, who gave a cursory nod. Juliet should have known that Lord Templemore would never come between a man and his wife. And what in creation was this all about? Rosalind leaped to her feet and threw down her napkin. ―You‘ve gone too far this time, Griff Knighton! How dare you?‖ He rose as well. ―I won‘t let you put that poison in your body!‖ ―Mr. Arbuthnot says—‖ ―That bloody quack! Him with his sheep‘s urine and rabbit‘s blood and mare‘s milk…God knows what other rot is in his potion! I won‘t stand for it, do you hear?‖ ―You‘re such a beast! You have no right…‖ Rosalind trailed off into tears, then ran from the room. Juliet stared after her in shock. Rosalind tended to be dramatic, but this went beyond drama. Rosalind never cried, not without great provocation. And to do so before a stranger… Juliet‘s accusing gaze swung to Griff. He looked grim and lost, standing there with one hand gripping the back of his chair and the other still braced on the table. He caught her stare, then seemed to realize what both she and Lord Templemore had witnessed. He released a shuddering breath. ―If…you will both excuse me, I must see to my wife.‖ Then he hurried from the room. An oppressive silence loomed stark and sudden after such an emotional outburst. She had no idea what to say to his lordship or even how to explain the source of the argument. Mare‘s milk? Why in creation would Rosalind want that? And rabbit‘s blood and… ―I beg your pardon,‖ came Lord Templemore‘s stiff voice, ―but is your sister by some chance…that is…‖ He trailed off into an uneasy silence. When she glanced at him, his expression showed all the discomfort of a man caught in the act of peering into another man‘s closets. ―What?‖ she prodded.

~ 94 ~ He wouldn‘t look at her. ―Mare‘s milk, rabbit‘s blood, and sheep‘s urine are occasionally touted by quacks as having properties that will…er…enhance fertility in a woman.‖ Juliet continued to stare at him blankly. His gaze swung to her, softening. ―Could your sister be trying to conceive?‖ A blush crept up her cheeks at the same time that a thousand little details clamored for her attention. Rosalind‘s strange reaction whenever the impending birth of Helena‘s baby was discussed. Her pre-occupation of late with apothecaries. The wistful look she got whenever she saw children. ―They‘ve only been married two and a half years.‖ Yet patience was not one of Rosalind‘s virtues. Two and a half years without conceiving would seem like a lifetime to her. Juliet winced, remembering the good-natured teasing the family had heaped on Rosalind when Helena had gotten pregnant first after marrying second. And the way Rosalind hadn‘t laughed it off as she usually did when they poked fun. Something else occurred to her. ―How did you know about the mare‘s milk?‖ she blurted out. When a faint tinge of color touched his cheeks, she groaned. She really had no business discussing such an indelicate matter with a man. Yet curiosity got the better of her. ―It‘s just that I‘ve never heard of it. And since I tended Papa during his illness, I‘m familiar with physic.‖ He cleared his throat nervously. ―It‘s an ancient remedy. No sensible woman uses it now, but that doesn‘t stop quacks and the occasional stupid midwife from touting it as an old-fashioned solution. Or women desperate to conceive from attempting it.‖ ―Yes, but how would you have heard of it?‖ she persisted. He shrugged. ―My mother tried it.‖ That shocked her. ―You know that for a fact?‖ And how did a young man find out such a thing about his mother?

~ 95 ~ Closing his hand around a napkin, he murmured, ―My uncle told me. Evidently she tried a number of remedies in her quest to have a child.‖ When his fingers squeezed the napkin convulsively, she felt a stab of pity. Why had his mother tried so hard to conceive, yet left one of her children behind? No doubt he wondered the same thing. Yet his forbidding expression made it clear that any questions in that regard wouldn‘t be welcome. He caught her staring at him with concern, and his jaw tightened. He seemed to be weighing something, then said, ―What actually worked for her was consulting the local wise woman.‖ ―Wise woman?‖ He smiled faintly. ―This may be Shropshire, Lady Juliet, but the blood of Wales runs through a goodly number of the county‘s inhabitants, including my mother. In desperation, she spoke with my father‘s tenant, Winifred, who reputedly could cure anything with her herbs. Whatever she gave Mother worked. Mother conceived twins.‖ ―Perhaps she was only lucky.‖ ―Perhaps. But Uncle Lew said she‘d been trying for five years. And she conceived within three months of her first visit to Winnie.‖ He toyed with the napkin. ―You know, Winnie still dispenses herbs and advice. Your sister might consider a visit to her as well. I‘d be happy to take her.‖ The offer surprised her, since it meant his involving himself in a most delicate family matter. ―That‘s very kind of you. Why would you do such a thing? Especially knowing that my brother-in-law might object.‖ He shot her an enigmatic glance. ―Your sister made a suggestion to me this morning that I begin to think has merit. I‘d merely like to repay the favor. And I can promise that the wise woman won‘t suggest anything harmful.‖ That reassured her only a little. ―I don‘t know if I should interfere.‖ Not in this. How on earth could she tell Rosalind that she‘d discussed this with Lord Templemore?

~ 96 ~

―Do as you think best, but if you change your mind, I usually rise early. If I‘m not at breakfast, I‘m in my study or my workshop. Tell your sister that, and we can arrange for a little visit that wouldn‘t alarm your brother-in-law.‖ ―You mean, go behind his back.‖ ―If she wants.‖ She sighed. ―I‘ll consider it.‖ In truth, she was sorely tempted to step in. It bothered her to see the couple argue, and of late there‘d been tension between them. But she was always complaining about how they interfered in her life, so it was hardly fair of her to do the same. ―In any case, thanks for the offer, Lord Templemore.‖ ―Please call me Sebastian,‖ he said softly. ―At least while we‘re in private.‖ The intimacy in his tone banished all thoughts of her sister‘s problems. He had a way of stripping her inner soul naked when he looked at her, as if he knew her better than she knew herself. It unnerved her. It thrilled her. She should refuse to address him so…familiarly, yet she heard herself saying, ―Very well, Sebastian.‖ The name did suit him better than Lord Templemore or even Morgan. Templemore was the name of a lofty lord, and Morgan that of a reckless adventurer. Sebastian was a solid English name, perfect for a man who‘d offer to help a stranger because someone else had done the same for his mother. That man she could understand and even like. Now if only she could figure out which man was the real one. With a pleased smile, he stood and held out his hand. ―And now, my lady, it‘s time.‖ ―For what?‖ ―Have you forgotten what you asked of me earlier?‖ His smile broadened. ―It‘s time for your first lesson in recognizing scoundrels.‖

~ 97 ~

Chapter 7 ‘Compliments cost nothing, yet many pay dear for them.’ - Book of German sampler designs, worked by Juliet Laverick in penance after Helena caught her flirting with a smooth-tongued footman at fifteen

Sebastian led Juliet toward the drawing room, certain that he‘d lost his blasted mind. What had possessed him to offer help to Lady Rosalind? Her jealous husband was already trawling for any excuse to throttle him—this would not improve matters. And yet…Knighton‘s protective interference and Lady Rosalind‘s affectionate teasing at luncheon had affected him profoundly. Sebastian hadn‘t seen such a well-suited couple since before his aunt‘s death had left Uncle Lew bereft. Like a perfectly balanced pistol, Lady Rosalind‘s enthusiasm compensated for Knighton‘s cynicism, and his common sense compensated for her impulsiveness. Until their argument. What man could ignore the hurt in Lady Rosalind‘s eyes and the bleak despair in Knighton‘s? Not being able to have a child could poison even a good marriage—Sebastian knew that well enough. He‘d often wondered if his mother‘s trouble with conceiving had initially caused his parents‘ estrangement. Perhaps by the time his mother had found herself with child, it had been too late to save their marriage. Perhaps not, but he hated to see another couple suffer through such a problem when they were so obviously devoted to each other. As he and Juliet entered the drawing room, he glanced down at her sun-dappled hair. Then there was the practical reason for stepping in—like the possibility that it could gain him Juliet‘s goodwill. God knew he could use help in that regard. The woman didn‘t feel the least kindly toward him—or Morgan either—and she was clearly finicky about her suitors.

~ 98 ~

Not that he blamed her. But it didn‘t make matters any easier. After showing her to the settee, he started to sit in the adjoining chair. Then something bit him in the behind, making him leap up with a yelp. ―What the devil—‖ Reaching back, he extracted a needle from his rear and dropped it onto the table, where it landed with a ping. ―Remind me to be more careful where I sit in the future.‖ ―Dear me, I‘m so sorry!‖ She rose to whisk a wooden contraption out of the chair, then set it on a side table. ―It‘s my embroidery. I must have left it here when we went in to luncheon. I-I‘m usually more careful. Did it hurt you?‖ ―No more than the average needle piercing one‘s bottom,‖ he grumbled. With a murmur of distress, she quickly circled behind him and lifted his coat tail. He turned abruptly to face her. ―What the devil are you doing?‖ ―Trying to see if you‘re bleeding or—‖ ―I‘m fine.‖ The last thing he needed was Juliet examining his ass at close range. Still, he liked having her fuss over him. No woman had fussed over him in years. He rubbed the sore spot, then held out his fingers. ―You see? No blood.‖ ―Thank goodness,‖ she said with great contrition. ―Truly, I didn‘t mean to—‖ ―It‘s not your fault. I should have looked first.‖ He flashed her a wry smile. ―But I‘m not used to having women—and all their contraptions—at Charnwood Hall.‖ ―I know.‖ She sidled around him to resume her seat on the settee. He remained standing. No telling what else lurked in his chair upholstery. How many needles did a woman use at a time? One? Six? He had no idea. The sum total of his knowledge about needlework could be fit into the lock of a pistol. Then he blinked. ―What do you mean—you know? Am I that poor a host to my female guests? Or did you deduce it from my reaction to being attacked by a chair?‖

~ 99 ~ A small smile graced her lips. ―No. I deduced it from what your servants told Rosalind‘s maid. They were overjoyed to have ladies here for the first time in years.‖ ―I see I‘ll have to admonish my talkative servants.‖ ―Don‘t you dare! They‘re already afraid of you.‖ That brought him up short. ―Whyever for? I treat them well enough.‖ ―Yes, of course, when it comes to salaries and working conditions. And it‘s only the females who complain.‖ When he bristled, she added hastily, ―Don‘t misunderstand me—they seem to respect you enormously. But they‘re also terrified of you.‖ ―What rubbish! What have I done to terrify them?‖ ―It‘s what you don‘t do. You bark orders without stopping to chat or thank them. You treat them with stiff formality, and they see that as evidence of your disapproval.‖ ―It‘s inappropriate to ‗chat‘ with one‘s servants.‖ ―You chat with your valet, don‘t you? And the butler? And your footmen? It‘s only the women you‘re curt with. When I said last night that you might not even like women, it wasn‘t an idle supposition. Servants do talk, you know.‖ Finally comprehending the source of the trouble, he sighed. He rounded the chair, then leaned forward to prop his folded arms gingerly on the back of it. ―I should clarify—it‘s inappropriate for a male master to chat with his female servants.‖ ―I can‘t imagine why—‖ she began. ―Because it can be mistaken for something else. Especially when the previous baron was such a—‖ He couldn‘t believe he was discussing this. But it wouldn‘t do to have her thinking him overly officious with his servants. Not when she already thought him dull and pompous. ―When I took over management of this estate, I had to deal with several female servants with whom my father tended to…‗chat‘ overlong, if you take my meaning. Apparently, they recognized, and rightly so, that

~ 100 ~ I would compensate them financially for the ruin they‘d suffered at my father‘s hand.‖ Her eyes went round, and she blushed furiously. ―Oh.‖ ―Most of them are gone now. I did my best to find them husbands. The new maids know little of that, which is how I want it.‖ He smiled ruefully. ―As a child I wondered why Father‘s maids acted as if I might pounce at any moment. They were always reminding me to keep my hands to myself. They wouldn‘t even let me buss their cheeks. Once I learned why, I decided that my female employees would never have cause to complain about me on that score. But I may have…er… overdone it.‖ ―Perhaps a little,‖ she said gently. ―Praising their efforts once in a while probably wouldn‘t be amiss. As it is, they think you don‘t like them.‖ He stiffened. He wasn‘t used to being lectured on how to treat his servants. ―Better than having them think I like them too well.‖ ―Isn‘t there some middle ground?‖ The soft sympathy in her voice soothed his stung pride. ―No doubt there is. Perhaps you could help me find it.‖ That seemed to disturb her, for she dropped her head and began fidgeting with her gown, smoothing out unseen wrinkles, plucking off invisible lint. ―It would not be my place to do such a thing.‖ It could be, he thought, but didn‘t say it. He mustn‘t scare her off before he‘d even begun courting her. ―Besides,‖ she added, ―I wouldn‘t know how.‖ ―I sincerely doubt that. For one thing, you understand women better than I do.‖ ―You could understand them better, too, if you‘d invite some to visit once in a while. Even bachelors have house parties. I‘m surprised you don‘t.‖ ―No one wants to traipse all the way from London to Shropshire for that.‖ No one he wanted, anyway. After seeing so-called proper society women leap into bed with his father at the drop of a handkerchief, he‘d had no interest in ladies of

~ 101 ~ quality. Or in the other sort either. His determination to avoid his father‘s shameful behavior had kept him from taking a mistress locally. In London, he‘d had a few discreet encounters with light skirts, but here he lived a monkish life, pouring his passions into gun design. But perhaps he‘d been too hasty in cutting himself off from society. With Juliet flitting about, tormenting him…exciting him…he felt the absence of gently bred women in his life most acutely. He could use a wife, and Charnwood Hall a mistress. Especially if it was Juliet. Her very presence brightened the hall, softened its edges. And considering what he owed her, the least he could do was marry her. As if she could read his mind, she tilted her head up suddenly and flashed him a mischievous look. ―We‘ve wandered far afield, my lord. I thought you were supposed to be giving me a lesson.‖ ―Ah, yes.‖ He smiled. ―Although I‘m not sure you need it. Judging from the conversation at lunch, I‘d say you were quite adept at recognizing scoundrels. It sounds as if you had perfectly good reasons for rejecting your suitors.‖ ―That was only five of them,‖ she remarked. ―How many have you refused?‖ Her brow furrowed in thought. ―Let me see…there was Mr. Rowland, the banker‘s son from York. And Lord Ferguson and Sir Patrick Welch, although I suspect both of them were only interested in my dowry. Then there was that count from Italy…whatever was his name…‖ ―I get the point.‖ How many blasted men had courted her, anyway? Not that it surprised him. Who could blame any marriage-minded gentleman for wanting an angel like her gracing his table and sharing his bed? ―Were they all as bad as your brother-in-law said?‖ ―They all had some characteristic I disliked, but whether they were truly bad is anybody‘s guess. Rosalind says no; Griff says yes. I have no idea. Which is why I need you, isn‘t it?‖

~ 102 ~ He wanted her needing him for something else entirely, but this was a start. ―Perhaps you should begin by telling me what aspects of their courtships gave you the most trouble.‖ That would enable him to avoid his predecessors‘ mistakes. She tipped up her chin and stared at him with her new, unnervingly direct gaze. ―Well, there are the compliments, for one thing. Men always give me compliments, but I never know when they‘re sincere.‖ ―What does it matter? If a man shades the truth in his compliments to a woman, that doesn‘t mean he‘s insincere in his interest. It only means he‘s aiming to win, and he‘ll say what he must to achieve that goal. One might almost call it admirable.‖ She arched her delicate eyebrows. ―You‘re quite the cynic.‖ She leaned back against the settee, an impish smile curving up her lips. ―Or is that what you do when you‘re trying to win a woman—shade the truth? Use subterfuge?‖ By thunder, when had naive Juliet become a flirt? There was some hidden meaning in her question, yet all he could focus on was that lovely, kissable mouth. ―We‘re not talking about me.‖ ―Aren‘t we?‖ She ran her finger along the settee cushion, and he felt it as clearly as if she‘d stroked his thigh. ―Very well, consider it mere curiosity. Tell me what you‘d say to gain a woman, Sebastian. If you wanted to court me, for example, how would you ‗shade the truth‘?‖ He stared hard at her. Had she guessed that courtship was his aim? Or was she merely toying with him? ―I wouldn‘t shade the truth with you. There‘d be no need.‖ ―Thank you very much,‖ she said in mock reproof. ―You must be quite sure of yourself if you think I‘d be such an easy conquest.‖ He hid a smile. ―Not at all. I only meant it would be impossible to praise you falsely. You exceed every standard by which a man would measure a woman.‖ She laughed. ―Now that, my lord, is a compliment to end all compliments. And most assuredly a shading of the truth.‖

~ 103 ~ He laughed, too, relishing her pleasure. That was one thing he remembered very well about her—the genuineness of her laugh. How softly feminine it was and lacking the affectation that some ladies possessed. Juliet might chuckle, but she‘d never titter. ―You‘ve caught me out, madam. I was testing you—to see if you could detect the most obvious flattery.‖ Her eyes twinkled. ―And did I pass?‖ ―Certainly. But that‘s only the beginning of the lesson. We should move on to more subtle compliments.‖ He rounded the chair and went to sit beside her on the settee. ―Such as?‖ Her gaze followed him warily. ―There‘s always the catalogue of a woman‘s pleasing attributes. That was my father‘s favorite approach.‖ He reached up to twine a silky blond curl about his gloved finger. ―For example, a man might compare the color of your pretty hair to that of honey. Or say it‘s soft as swans down.‖ ―Those aren‘t subtle compliments, sir.‖ She moved her head just enough to tug her lock free. ―Besides, honey and swans down are a messy combination. Spun gold and swans down would work better together, don‘t you think?‖ ―Or honey and whipped cream. Men are good with food metaphors, because half the time they‘re thinking with their stomachs.‖ That prompted a tiny smile. ―And the other half of the time?‖ They’re thinking with their cods. This was one time he should most certainly shade the truth. ―They‘re using their minds, of course.‖ ―Ah, but I thought men in love lost their minds completely.‖ ―I wouldn‘t know. I‘ve never been in love, and I hope to avoid it entirely.‖ Though when she looked up at him, all wide-eyed and coy, he feared he was perilously close to losing his mind. ―Why would you avoid love?‖ She sounded vaguely disappointed.

~ 104 ~ He stumbled on, despite his nagging feeling that he‘d just said something wrong. ―It‘s too impetuous an emotion. As you‘ve pointed out countless times, I‘m not made for such wildness. Besides, most people use it as an excuse for doing as they please and shirking their responsibilities. ‗I‘m in love,‘ they protest, and they think that makes it all acceptable. But it doesn‘t.‖ She cast him an arch look. ―I suppose you consider me one of those shirkers.‖ When he shot her a quizzical glance, she added, ―Since I ran off with your brother without regard for the consequences.‖ ―Oh, that. Actually, I wasn‘t thinking of you. But now that you mention it, you must admit that your elopement proves my point. If your judgment hadn‘t been clouded by your ‗love‘ for ‗Morgan‘ two years ago, you might have stopped to question the wisdom of running away with him. You might have noticed he wasn‘t what he seemed.‖ ―Perhaps.‖ She eyed him with curiosity. ―So who were you thinking of?‖ He started to change the subject, then thought better of it. If he intended to marry her, she had a right to know about his family. With a hard swallow, he glanced away. ―My parents. Love rarely ended well in my house. My mother loved my father, according to Uncle Lew, but she seemed to get none of his love. And in the end, she gave ‗love‘ as her reason for abandoning her husband and eldest son, for neglecting her duties as a wife and mother to—‖ He couldn‘t bring himself to tell her why his mother had left. Bad enough that Juliet knew the rest. She needn‘t hear his most painful secret. ―Then there was my father, the rogue,‖ he went on. ―He was in love several hundred times, I believe. He fell in love on the hour.‖ An ancient bitterness seeped into his voice. ―And each new love posed new demands.‖ Demands that always came before those of his lonely son. When he caught her staring at him with pity in her eyes, he stiffened. ―You see, for a rogue, love takes a great deal of energy and planning. It‘s all about winning the game and gaining the woman‘s virtue without cost to himself.‖ The pity in her face deepened, and he swore inwardly. Possessed by an urgent need to blot it out of her face, he caught her hand and unfastened the two buttons of her

~ 105 ~ glove at the wrist. When she let him do it, he took advantage of her willingness to tug off her glove one finger at a time. ―Every move of the rogue is calculated. If he praises your delicate hands, it‘s only so he can bare them to his lascivious eye.‖ Dropping the glove in her lap, he held her hand and stroked her fingers with his thumb, outlining each crease, fondling each knuckle. ―If he praises your soft skin, it‘s only so you‘ll let him near enough to caress it.‖ When a shuddering breath escaped her, he instantly forgot his parents‘ troubles as need exploded in him. ―And if he praises your lips…‖ he whispered, lowering his head toward hers. With a sudden look of panic, she jerked her hand from his, caught up her glove, and rose from the settee in one fluid movement. ―I think I‘ve grasped this part of the lesson, my lord.‖ She hastened to the opposite end of the room, tugging her glove back on with great urgency. To his immense satisfaction, her cheeks were flushed and her motions shaky. Perhaps she wasn‘t so immune to his attentions after all. Although when she met his gaze again, she seemed to have regained her control. ―All you‘ve mentioned so far are compliments to a woman‘s appearance. Doesn‘t a scoundrel ever compliment a woman‘s character?‖ ―Certainly. If he thinks it will get him something.‖ He had to forcibly restrain himself from leaping across the room and dragging her into his embrace. What would she do if he did? Probably give him another lowering assessment of his performance. ―Then you must provide me with examples of that sort of insincere compliment,‖ she ordered. ―So I can recognize them when I hear them, you understand.‖ Pretending to be thinking about it, he watched as she ambled about the room, centering a porcelain box here, adjusting the pieces on the marble chess table there. She was so utterly feminine, such a symphony of grace and beauty, that he couldn‘t drag his gaze from her. Had his mother moved through Charnwood like that? No, probably not, given how she‘d left. By all accounts, his mother had eventually come to hate this house and everyone in it.

~ 106 ~ But Juliet wouldn‘t. Somehow he knew, merely from her comments about his servants, that she would cherish Charnwood as he did. She‘d fuss over it and tend it and bear him children to fill its halls with laughter. By thunder, how had he ever left Juliet behind the first time? Perhaps his uncle was right. If he‘d stayed and faced the consequences, married her to make amends… He rolled his eyes. Oh, certainly. As if Knighton would have let her marry her kidnapper. Sebastian would have been hanging from the nearest gallows within a week. Then what would have become of Charnwood? Especially if his death had left Morgan, the only heir to the estate, without a champion in England. No, he‘d done what he had to. But in the process, he‘d handed her back to all those blasted men in London who‘d tried to court her. How many had there truly been? How many had she captivated with that charming stroll, that delicate sweep of skirts that barely hinted at legs sure to be as finely wrought as the rest of her? How many men‘s hopes had she dashed? Well, she wouldn‘t dash his. He would convince her to marry him somehow. He owed it to her to redress his wrongs, and he owed it to his family and estate to marry and sire an heir. So they would marry, because it was the sensible, responsible thing to do. Because she would preside over his table with winsome grace, would handle his household competently…would be the perfect companion in his cold, lonely bed. He sucked in a breath as tantalizing images sprang to mind, of her sighing and moaning beneath him, arching up to meet his hands and mouth and thrusts— Swearing inwardly, he picked her needlework up from the side table, desperate for something to distract him from thoughts of how she‘d look stripped down to nothing but her smile. It took him a long moment to focus on the intricate, accomplished handiwork. ―My lord?‖ she prodded. ―Compliments to a woman‘s character?‖ He scrambled to collect his thoughts and thrash his urges into respectability. ―You have a fine hand with a needle,‖ he rasped.

~ 107 ~ She laughed, oblivious to his struggle. ―That‘s far too obvious an insincere compliment. How could a man know whether I was good with a needle or not? Besides, men don‘t care about such things.‖ ―That‘s not true. An intelligent man recognizes and respects good workmanship when he sees it, whether it‘s in the design of a pistol or the plying of a needle. And the truth is…‖ He managed a grin. ―That was my own compliment to you. Your skill so dazzled me that I made an honest observation.‖ She eyed him skeptically. ―Then you‘re more adept at this compliment business than I expected, sir. But you‘re supposed to help me ascertain when a man is not sincere.‖ Recovering, he leaned back against the settee. ―Very well—let‘s attack this from another angle. Give me examples of compliments you found insincere in the past.‖ A mischievous smile touched her lips. ―What an excellent idea. How about this one? ‗You‘re not shy, my lady, just circumspect. There‘s nothing wrong with being cautious about whom you allow into your life.‘‖ That sounded familiar, though it didn‘t seem like the common run of flatteries. ―I‘m not sure why that would be—‖ ―Or this one: ‗Your gentle nature makes it impossible for you to think ill of someone. That‘s a virtue, not a defect, no matter what your sisters may say.‘‖ His smile vanished. Strolling nearer, she gazed coolly into his face. ―Or my favorite: ‗You are every man‘s dream, the perfect woman.‘ A variation of ‗You exceed every standard by which a man would measure a woman.‘‖ A knot formed in his gut. He forced himself to ask the question she would expect, the one he already knew the answer to. ―Why do you find those compliments insincere?‖ She halted a foot away to glower down at him. ―They were spoken by your brother while he was trying to seduce me away from my family.‖

~ 108 ~ Of course. A pity he didn‘t have her excellent memory. But why had she chosen his own compliments? Why did her stance imply a challenge? If he didn‘t know better, he‘d think she‘d reverted to her earlier suspicions of him. That couldn‘t be. He hadn‘t let anything slip, not once. And she‘d professed to be convinced of his truthfulness last night. All the same…―Just because my brother used them deceitfully doesn‘t mean they were insincere. Indeed, they seem apt assessments of your character.‖ She lifted one delicate brow. ―Oh? So he truly thought me the ‗perfect woman‘? How odd then that he left me behind so easily after helping me escape Crouch.‖ Her words stunned him. Last night, she‘d implied that she‘d been happy to be free of a man who wasn‘t suitable husband material. He rose abruptly from the settee to approach her. Startled, she backed up a step. ―Did you really want Morgan to take you with him? After what he‘d done? After the danger he‘d put you and your family in?‖ She colored, then dropped her gaze from his. ―No, indeed. Don‘t be absurd.‖ But devil take it, she had. He could see it in her face. Which meant Lady Rosalind had been right about her after all. The young Juliet had apparently nursed romantic notions even after she‘d learned that he wasn‘t what he seemed. That thought tightened the knot of guilt in his gut. ―I‘m sure he didn‘t mean to wound your feelings by leaving you, Juliet. He probably thought you better off without him. No doubt you‘d made it clear that you found him despicable for his betrayal of you.‖ Her head came up, eyes blazing. ―He did not wound my feelings. I was merely explaining why his compliments were insincere.‖ ―Even if he didn‘t marry you, that doesn‘t mean his time with you was all a lie.‖ ―Doesn‘t it?‖ She looked at him a long moment, and then a mask came down over her generally open features. ―Oh, you wouldn‘t understand. Not an honest man like you.‖

~ 109 ~ He could swear he heard sarcasm in her voice. She went on quickly. ―Compliments that sound perfectly natural and unstudied don‘t trip off your tongue as they did off your brother‘s.‖ ―I thought my compliments tripped off my tongue very well just now,‖ he snapped. ―Yes, but not when compared to your brother. You‘re too honest to comprehend how a deceitful man can flatter so sincerely that a woman can‘t help but trust him. You rely on stock phrases like ‗your hair is the color of spun gold‘ and ‗your skin is soft as swans down,‘ which is natural for a man whose experience with women is so limited.‖ By thunder, the woman knew how to prick a man‘s pride. Stock phrases, indeed. ―See here, those weren‘t my compliments—they were examples of what other men might say. And ‗limited experience‘ doesn‘t mean I‘ve spent the past thirty years in a monastery, for God‘s sake. It merely means I haven‘t run after every woman in petticoats.‖ ―Of course,‖ she said with a dainty wave of her hand. ―And I‘m sure the women you meet out here don‘t mind if your compliments aren‘t smooth or clever—‖ ―So now I‘m an imbecile, am I?‖ he growled. She whirled away, but just before she did, he could have sworn she smiled. ―I‘m merely saying you‘re not adept at deceiving women with flattery the way your brother was. It takes a certain sort of man to manage that—‖ ―A clever man, I suppose,‖ he ground out. ―A man of the world. You wouldn‘t aspire to that sort of cleverness, would you?‖ ―Devil if I know.‖ He rubbed his temples. This entire conversation was giving him a headache. Why was it whenever she started comparing his two selves, Sebastian came off as a boring provincial idiot and ―Morgan‖ as an unfeeling Continental blackguard? Neither of his incarnations escaped unscathed. And she did it so casually, too, as if oblivious to how she left him licking his wounds. He‘d think she was doing it on purpose, except that Juliet could never be that wily. Could she?

~ 110 ~ She stopped at the checkered marble table that held his grandfather‘s onyx and silver chess pieces and began to move them about, reminding him of how well she‘d played chess two years ago in the cottage. Hmm. His eyes narrowed. ―Let me see if I have this straight. You find me to be a proper, respectable imbecile—‖ ―I didn‘t call you an imbecile. You said that, my lord.‖ ―Forgive me. A proper, respectable gentleman so lacking in cleverness that he spouts only clichés, and so inexperienced with women that he kisses very dull indeed—‖ ―Nor did I call your kisses dull.‖ She faced him warily, apparently beginning to sense the dangerous shift in his mood. He stalked closer. ―You called them ‗adequate,‘ which is only one step above ‗dull‘ as far as I‘m concerned.‖ She backed up a step. ―I didn‘t mean to insult you—‖ ―The devil you didn‘t.‖ When she half stumbled over the chess table, he hauled her into his arms. ―It‘s only fair, madam, that you give me another chance to show you I‘m not the inept idiot you take me for.‖ Her cheeks reddened, and alarm spread over her pretty face. ―Really, my lord, there‘s nothing for you to prove.‖ ―Ah, but I think there is.‖ He clasped her chin, but as he lowered his mouth to hers, she laid her small hand on his chest. ―We agreed to no kissing.‖ ―You agreed. I agreed only to let you slap me. And so you may. After we‘re done.‖ Then giving her no more time to protest, he covered her mouth with his. He kept the kiss gentle at first, savoring the taste and scent of her…until he realized she wasn‘t responding. Her stiff posture and clenched teeth were a measure of her determination to resist, but he wouldn‘t let that stop him. His

~ 111 ~ experience with women might be ―limited,‖ but it was quality experience, and he‘d be damned if he‘d let her think otherwise. He tried to deepen the kiss, but she wouldn‘t let him. Only her fragile throat trembling beneath his splayed fingers gave any indication that he affected her. So he caressed it slowly, enjoying a moment‘s triumph when she swallowed hard. But that was all she gave him, standing there rigid in his arms, refusing to unbend. His arousal thrummed heavily between his thighs as he pressed closer, hardening into her softness, seeking the essence of woman that had tantalized him for hours. Yet still she remained immobile, unmoved. It drove him insane. He needed to distract her from whatever was making her determined not to respond. Because he was fairly sure it was a foolish reason, easily gotten over. He drew back to find her gazing at him with an expression of false nonchalance. He knew it was false, because her chin quivered and her breath came decidedly faster than before. Besides which, she hadn‘t slapped him. ―Are you…quite done?‖ she murmured shakily. That was worse than any slap. By thunder, he‘d breach her defenses if it took him all afternoon. ―Not yet.‖ Reaching around her to the chess table, he grabbed three of the heavy silver pieces, then closed her hand around them. ―Hold these. If you can.‖ ―Why?‖ she asked, even as her fingers automatically clutched them. He smiled and seized three of the onyx pieces to press into her other hand. ―Because I intend to prove that I can make your heart race and your bones melt.‖

~ 112 ~

Chapter 8 ‘Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu! No glory lives behind the back of such.’ -William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, embroidered onto a handkerchief by seventeen- year-old Juliet and given as a Christmas gift to her sister Rosalind, who loved the handkerchief and ignored the quotation

My bones melt? Juliet thought in a panic, as Sebastian lowered his head again. Then God help me. His first kiss had sent her reeling. She‘d tried blotting him out, thinking of complicated embroidery patterns and chess maneuvers. That had provided only a little relief. When he‘d drawn back, she‘d congratulated herself on her success. She should have known he wouldn‘t let it drop. His mouth was now even more of a temptation, despite his veering away from her lips to lavish kisses over other parts of her—her pounding temples, her heated cheeks, her vulnerable neck. That he felt free to kiss every bare inch while she held his silly chess pieces made the whole thing seem indefinably more seductive. She should just drop them. She really should. Yet she didn‘t. For one thing, she refused to give him the satisfaction. That‘s what he wanted, wasn‘t it? To make her react? So if she stood here acting unaffected, surely he‘d grow humiliated and give up. Unfortunately, it was very hard to act unaffected when a handsome, virile man feathered kisses along one‘s throat…trailed openmouthed caresses up one‘s jaw line to one‘s ears…then laved one‘s ears with his tongue in a most outrageous manner. Dear me, it was hot in here. And the room was spinning. ―You have the tastiest earlobes, Juliet.‖ When he actually nibbled at them with his teeth, it sent a surprising jolt right down her spine. His warm breath in her hapless ear spiked her pulse up a notch.

~ 113 ~

―Thinking with your st-stomach again?‖ she stammered as he kissed a path from her ear across her cheek and down. ―Not exactly.‖ He kissed the corner of her mouth. ―Though your lips are tasty, too. They‘re so plump and tender, they make me very, very hungry.‖ He proceeded to outline them with slow, gentle kisses, never fully kissing her. It drove her mad. ―For a man who excels at firing pistols, your aim is very bad.‖ She‘d meant it to be a dry, witty insult of his kissing that would stop the torture. Instead, it came out all husky and sensual, like an invitation. And he took it that way, for he chuckled. ―Then I‘ll have to improve my trajectory,‖ he said, and moved the necessary inch to seal her mouth with his. He wasn‘t gentle this time, or sweet. Hungry was the word, so hungry it roused her hunger, too. This kiss demanded respect, no doubt about it. His mouth took, and she gave, as simple as that. Already primed by his other tempting kisses, she fell into this one with ridiculous ease. And when he sought again to deepen it, she could no more stop him than she could stop snow from falling. That‘s when it got interesting. He seduced her mouth so expertly, he had her uttering sounds she didn‘t know she could make, going soft in parts of her body that had never done so. The longer he kissed her, with those deep, stunning kisses that stole her will, the more she craved them. Sebastian had certainly perfected this intimate kissing business. He mightn‘t be a rake like his father, but he was still his father‘s son. Suddenly, his hand slipped up to gauge the madly beating pulse at her neck. ―I believe your heart is racing, sweeting,‖ he murmured against her mouth. ―Check.‖ She barely had time to ponder that odd comment before his hands began roaming, skimming down her waist and hips, traveling back up to dance along her ribs. In long, slowly widening strokes, his hands learned the contours of her body as surely as his lips and tongue learned her mouth. Soon she craved not only his kisses, but his caresses, too. He made her want to caress him back, to smooth her hands over his arms and chest and— The soft thuds at her feet warned that she‘d dropped the chess pieces. She didn‘t care. She just wrapped her arms around his neck and held on.

~ 114 ~

He smiled down at her triumphantly. ―There go the bones melting. That would be checkmate.‖ Then he proceeded to kiss her senseless again. Even his arrogant comments didn‘t dampen her enthusiasm. Delighted to have her hands empty once more, she took advantage of it to slide them inside his coat, between the layers of superfine and silk. It was warm in there, and his waistcoat fit him so well she could feel his muscles flex beneath the fabric, beneath the touch of her fingers. Her hands grazed his ribs, and he groaned, then kissed her more fiercely. But everything changed when he swept his hand down from her neck to cup her breast. At first, she was too lost in the kiss to notice. Then he began to knead and stroke her through the muslin, which was enough to drag her to her senses. ―Sebastian, stop that!‖ she cried as she shoved him away from her. ―Whatever do you think you‘re doing?‖ She backed up instinctively and knocked over the chess table. It hit the carpet with a muffled boom, pieces scattering everywhere. He ignored it. His breath was labored, his eyes an intense, predatory black that made a wanton shiver snake down her spine. ―I believe, madam, I‘ve been proving I can kiss well enough even to suit your finicky tastes.‖ She could hardly deny it. She‘d responded to those kisses with all the enthusiasm of a wicked demi-rep. ―That didn‘t mean you should…that you could—‖ ―Even a respectable dullard of a gentleman gets carried away when a woman is letting him make her bones melt.‖ Oh, how mortifying. She could already feel the blush rising in her cheeks. He shoved his hands in his frock coat pockets as if afraid to leave them out where they might touch her again. ―Or perhaps I‘m simply not as ‗respectable‘ as you took me for. Which should make our future lessons far more useful to you.‖ ―There will be no more future lessons of that sort,‖ she snapped. ―Is everything all right in here?‖ barked a voice from the doorway.

~ 115 ~ Juliet swung around to see Griff standing in the doorway. Please don‘t let him have seen us kissing, she prayed. She shot Sebastian a glance, only to find his gaze probing her face, as if he waited for her to tattle. But this was between the two of them and always had been. She‘d handle this in her own way, in her own time. Griff entered, his eyes shifting back and forth from her to Sebastian, whose grim expression showed a man determined to face the consequences of his actions. It was a little late for that, she thought testily. He should have done it years ago. ―Hello, Griff.‖ She fought to sound normal, to scour the husky need from her voice. ―We were just playing chess.‖ When Sebastian glanced sharply at her, she answered him with a warning look. What did he expect—that she‘d admit before her brother-in-law that she‘d been allowing Sebastian to put his hands all over her? Griff regarded the table and the scattered pieces with suspicion. ―Chess?‖ ―I was winning.‖ Sebastian fixed his heated gaze on her. ―I called checkmate and got Lady Juliet so agitated that she dropped some pieces. When she went to retrieve them, she knocked the table over. Now we‘ll have to play again.‖ Leave it to Lord Arrogant to trumpet his victory any way he could. And in the process make her sound like a ninny. ―Considering my clumsiness, I don‘t think that‘s wise, do you?‖ Oh, why must she sound so breathy…and…and wanton? ―I wouldn‘t want to destroy your table.‖ ―I‘d happily risk a broken table to make you feel at ease in my home, Lady Juliet.‖ Sebastian‘s smoky voice swirled round her like a fragrant Oriental incense, offering temptation…oblivion…satisfaction. She swallowed, reminded of his similar statement in his study: I’ll risk a little pain to get what I want. Why was that? He acted as if he wanted her when she knew he didn‘t. Was he simply too proud to accept that she mightn‘t welcome his advances? Or was he trying to throw her off balance so she wouldn‘t unmask him?

~ 116 ~

Lord knew he was devious enough for any such machinations. Griff frowned at Sebastian. ―My coachman tells me it‘s warming sufficiently today to melt some of the snow. We ought to be able to leave by the day after tomorrow at the latest. I know you‘re glad to hear that.‖ ―Not at all, I assure you,‖ Sebastian answered, though his fiery gaze never left her face. ―I enjoy company once in a while.‖ Especially certain company, his look seemed to say. Drat it all, she was blushing again. The devil knew precisely how to unsettle her. To think she‘d let him kiss her so passionately again! And worse still, that she‘d enjoyed it, wanted him to do more, to kiss and fondle her and make desire course through her, as hot, sweet, and spiced as mulled wine… It simply wasn‘t fair. Of all the men in England, why must the one who made her heart race and her bones melt be the same untrustworthy scoundrel who‘d nearly ruined her life? ―Juliet, I need a word with you.‖ Griff glanced at Sebastian. ―In private.‖ Panic rose in her chest. If Griff meant to question her about Sebastian, what on earth could she tell him? Of course, his infernal lordship didn‘t look the least worried. ―Certainly. I have work to do in my study anyway. I‘ll see you both at dinner.‖ Without a backward glance, he stalked out, leaving her shaken. Devious wretch! She was glad he was gone. Yes, delighted. If only the room didn‘t seem so confining and dull with him out of it. ―I don‘t like that fellow,‖ Griff grumbled. ―He‘s too courtly with the ladies. I suspect he has more of his father in him than he lets on. I don‘t trust him.‖ ―Neither do I.‖ He shot her a speculative look. ―Good. Just bear that in mind and stay away from him. That should keep you safe.‖

~ 117 ~

From Sebastian? Impossible. When he kissed her, he annihilated her will. Or else she would never have ended up with his palm caressing her breast… Oh no, she would not dwell on that shameful memory. ―Anyway,‖ Griff went on, ―that‘s not what I want to talk to you about.‖ He jerked his thumb toward the ceiling. ―Rosalind has locked herself in our bedchamber. She won‘t let me near her. She‘s so angry about…well, things. What I did earlier.‖ He speared his fingers through his hair in utter distraction. ―I was hoping you could talk to her, make her understand that she shouldn‘t follow the prescriptions of that bloody quack. You know something about remedies. You might convince her where I only seem to infuriate her.‖ His request startled her. She couldn‘t believe he‘d noticed her knowledge of medicines, paltry as it was. Besides, the last person Rosalind was likely to listen to was her baby sister. ―I‘m not sure if I—‖ ―Please, I don‘t know what else to do. I worry that she‘ll hurt herself or…‖ His voice cracked. ―Juliet, I don‘t want to lose her.‖ The poor man looked so distraught. ―Oh, Griff, you won‘t,‖ she assured him. ―I‘ll admit that these quack remedies sound nasty, but I doubt they‘ll do more than give her a bellyache. I don‘t think they‘re fatal.‖ ―I didn‘t mean—‖ He halted to drag in a heavy breath. ―Never mind. I‘d just feel better if someone were to make her see reason. Will you try?‖ She managed a smile. ―Of course. I‘ll do my best.‖ The relief on his face was palpable. ―You‘ll have to convince her to unlock the door first.‖ Goodness gracious, Rosalind really was angry, wasn‘t she? And of course, Griff was too proud to ask their host or the housekeeper for the key to his own bedchamber. ―Very well. But I may be a while.‖ He nodded tersely.

~ 118 ~ His anxious expression lingered with her as she left the room, headed for the staircase. Poor, misguided Griff. He had a hard battle before him if he thought to bully Rosalind into anything, no matter how much he meant it for her own good. He could forbid her to use that potion all he liked—Rosalind would do exactly as she pleased. Which is why it would be better to find Rosalind a substitute, one less harmful. Sebastian‘s proposal earlier had merit. What harm could some old wise woman‘s herbs do? And even if the remedies failed, the mere hope of success might calm Rosalind. Griff had asked for Juliet‘s intervention, after all, so it wasn‘t as if she were really interfering, was it? On the other hand, taking Sebastian up on his offer would mean spending more time with him. More time prodding him into confessing. More time fighting her foolish feelings for him. Dance with the God of Fire, and you were sure to get burned. Yet dancing with him seemed her only way to uncover his secrets. At least Rosalind‘s presence would prevent him from trying any more of his sly tricks. She only got into trouble when she was alone with him, so she‘d simply avoid that. And if it should happen despite her best efforts, she‘d hold firm. None of that ―intimate‖ kissing or touching, no matter how deliciously it made her stomach flip over. By the time she‘d reached the bedchamber Rosalind shared with Griff, she‘d decided to tell Rosalind about Sebastian‘s offer. Let Rosalind make the choice. Then Juliet would help if she could, but without being alone with Sebastian. She rapped on the door. ―Curse you, Griff, go away!‖ came a muffled cry from inside the room. Juliet squared her shoulders. Rosalind in a temper was no easy matter. ―It‘s not Griff; it‘s me,‖ she called through the door. ―Open up before the servants come running.‖ ―I don‘t care if God Himself comes running,‖ Rosalind burst out. ―Just go away. Tell Griff I don‘t want to speak to him or his emissary.‖

~ 119 ~ Dear me, what to do now? She couldn‘t stand out here discussing matters, for goodness sake. Lowering her voice, she said, ―Listen, dearest, I need to speak to you about…er…about…Lord Templemore.‖ Silence. Then a terse, doubting ―What about him?‖ came from nearer than before. Glancing up and down the hall, Juliet prayed no one was in hearing distance. ―He kissed me.‖ That was the truth, wasn‘t it? With relief, she heard a key turn in the lock, and then the door cracked open. Juliet pushed her way in. ―Thank you. I urgently need your advice.‖ Fortunately, Rosalind could never resist interfering in Juliet‘s affairs. As Rosalind stuck her head out the door and looked both ways along the hall, Juliet surveyed the room. It was neat. Tidy. Not a good sign at all. If Rosalind had stooped to straightening her room, she must be extremely upset. Rosalind shut the door and locked it again, then faced Juliet with a frown. ―All right, what‘s this about Lord Templemore kissing you?‖ Not to mention that Rosalind‘s eyes were bloodshot and swollen, and her nose looked rouged. ―You‘ve been crying,‖ Juliet stated as she settled onto Rosalind‘s bed. ―No, I haven‘t.‖ With a sniff that belied her words, Rosalind stalked off to the dressing table. She plopped down on the stool in front of it and scowled at her face in the mirror. ―Curse it all, why must it show? I don‘t want him to see it.‖ ―I suppose you mean Griff. And I think you should know that your husband is prowling downstairs, utterly beside himself over this.‖ ―Aha!‖ Rosalind swung around on the stool. ―I knew you had come as his emissary!‖ She pointed at the door. ―This is none of your affair, Juliet. Get out!‖ ―I‘m not here about your argument with Griff. I‘m here because Lord Templemore has offered his help.‖ Rosalind stared hard at her. ―Help with what?‖ Now came the difficult part. ―Well…er…you see, his lordship figured out what‘s going on between you and Griff.‖

~ 120 ~ Averting her gaze, Rosalind picked up a tambour, of all things, and actually took up the needle. Worse and worse. Rosalind doing embroidery without being prodded—now Juliet felt genuine alarm. Rosalind pierced the cloth. ―I can‘t imagine what you mean. Griff and I had a spat, that‘s all.‖ ―Yes, over a concoction used to help a woman conceive children.‖ The tambour clattered to the floor. ―H-how…I mean, that‘s nonsense.‖ Feeling her heart catch in her throat, Juliet rose from the bed to go to her sister‘s side. ―It‘s nothing to be ashamed of. Plenty of women take time to conceive.‖ She laid her hand on Rosalind‘s shoulder, but her sister leaped to her feet as if branded. ―Two years? When all we do is…when we are so diligent in our…oh, bother, you know what I mean.‖ Juliet blushed. ―In theory, yes.‖ ―So there‘s no reason for it except that…‖ She trailed off with a curse. ―Yes?‖ Rosalind faced her, eyes desolate. ―That something awful is wrong with me.‖ ―Don‘t be silly.‖ Juliet picked up the tambour and set it on the dressing table. Then, looping her arm about her sister‘s waist, she led her to the bed. ―It just takes time, is all.‖ ―A lot you know about it,‖ Rosalind muttered, but she let Juliet sit her down, then tolerated Juliet‘s taking a seat beside her. ―You don‘t understand—it‘s been forever. And I want a child so badly, Griff‘s child…‖ The anguish in her face tugged at Juliet‘s heart. Then Rosalind‘s tone hardened. ―But my stubborn husband doesn‘t even care.‖ ―Of course he cares,‖ Juliet said, rubbing Rosalind‘s back with soothing strokes. ―I‘m sure he wants a child as much as you.‖

~ 121 ~ ―Then why won‘t he let me do what I must to fix my body?‖ ―Probably because he doesn‘t think there‘s anything wrong with your body that time won‘t cure.‖ When Rosalind scowled, Juliet added, ―Besides, this mare‘s milk concoction you‘re taking doesn‘t even work and could be dangerous. Griff‘s right about that much, and Lord Templemore says so, too.‖ Rosalind looked shocked. ―You talked to him about me and Griff?‖ ―No! I mean, not exactly. Mostly we discussed his parents. Until he and Morgan came along, his mother also had trouble conceiving. She went five years before finding herself with child.‖ Judging from the sudden light in Rosalind‘s eyes, Juliet had finally snagged her interest. ―What happened?‖ Juliet related what Sebastian had told her and explained his offer. ―A wise woman? I‘ve heard of such people living in the provinces.‖ She mused a moment, then sat up straighter. ―I‘m willing to try it. But I can‘t tell Griff. He‘s still convinced I‘m overreacting. He‘ll never agree to it. The wretch is so bloody pigheaded.‖ Black pots and kettles came instantly to Juliet‘s mind. ―If this plan is to work,‖ Juliet said, ―you‘ll have to convince him that you‘re through with your bout of temper. Or you‘ll never be able to sneak away.‖ Rosalind nodded, her clever mind undoubtedly working at some plan already. ―That means you must apologize,‖ Juliet prodded. With a roll of her eyes, Rosalind stood. ―I suppose so.‖ She turned her sharp gaze on Juliet. ―If I didn‘t know better, I‘d think you invented this tale of a wise woman just to make Griff and me stop fighting.‖ Juliet grinned. ―But you know I‘m not that devious.‖ ―Humph, I‘m not so sure.‖ Rosalind crossed her arms over her chest. ―And did you lie about Lord Templemore‘s kissing you?‖

~ 122 ~

She only wished she had. Hiding her face, Juliet stood. ―I had to get in here somehow, didn‘t I?‖ She headed for the door, hoping Rosalind didn‘t continue her inquisition further. ―Now come along. Griff is waiting for you downstairs.‖ With a heavy sigh, Rosalind rose to follow her. Juliet opened the door. ―I know your husband‘s highhanded pronouncements have put your back up, but you do realize he‘d do anything for you, don‘t you? This whole thing has him very upset. He even said he was afraid of losing you.‖ ―Losing me! How ridiculous. Who‘s overreacting now?‖ Rosalind swept past Juliet and through the doorway. ―It was just a little harmless remedy.‖ ―Sheep‘s urine?‖ Juliet said dryly as she hurried to catch up with her sister. Rosalind made a face. ―Well, I‘ll admit that the urine sounded a bit…questionable, but Mr. Arbuthnot said it‘s been used for centuries.‖ ―Urine was used to clean castles for centuries, too, but that doesn‘t mean I want to fill a bucket with it and scrub the walls, especially when there‘s soap ready to hand. And to drink it? Ugh!‖ A faint smile touched Rosalind‘s lips. ―You do have a point.‖ Striding alongside Juliet, she reached up to pat her shoulder. ―You‘re full of passionate opinions these days, aren‘t you? Indeed, you‘re turning into quite the little fighter.‖ Juliet swallowed hard past the lump in her throat. It was the first time Rosalind seemed to notice she wasn‘t a foolish girl anymore. ―I‘m trying.‖ Rosalind squeezed her shoulder. ―Well, don‘t try too hard,‖ she joked. ―Or before you know it, you‘ll be as brazen as me, and that would never do. One outspoken, temperamental female in the family is plenty.‖

~ 123 ~

Chapter 9 ‘Don’t scald your tongue in other people’s broth.’ - English proverb written on a list once mounted on the Templemore schoolroom wall

The sun had just poked its nose above the horizon the next morning when Sebastian strode down the central staircase of Charnwood Hall. When he realized the foyer was empty, he glanced through the window to the grooms waiting on the front drive. There was no sign of the women. Before dinner last night, he and Juliet had managed a few words alone, agreeing that the three of them would meet here at dawn. She‘d told him that the early hour might help Lady Rosalind escape her husband unnoticed. So where the devil were they? He paced as his mind settled on another vexing subject. Yesterday‘s encounter with Juliet might have been rash, given that Knighton had nearly caught them, but it had proved one crucial fact. No matter what she protested about his kissing, she was attracted to him. Him, Sebastian. Not his other self, ―Morgan.‖ Because if she hadn‘t been, she would have told Knighton of his advances, then watched in glee as Knighton strung him up. No, she had feelings for him. But obviously, she didn‘t particularly like having feelings for him, or she wouldn‘t deny them so adamantly. He didn‘t understand it. She said she wanted to marry, and that he was the sort of man for it. So why pretend his kisses didn‘t move her? It must be because of ―Morgan.‖ Perhaps she feared that Sebastian was like his ―wicked‖ brother at heart. And she thought pretending to be unaffected would keep him from her. Ha! She knew little about men if she believed that insulting a man‘s pride would frighten him off. Not a man with any self-respect. Not a man like him. It simply challenged him to do better.

~ 124 ~ A smug smile crossed his lips. He‘d say he met the challenge deuced well yesterday. He could still feel her small hands sliding inside his coat and her wonderful mouth opening like a spring rose… ―Excuse me, milord,‖ came a soft female voice from behind him, and he whirled around, his pulse leaping in expectation of Juliet. But it was only a kitchen maid, which turned his smile into a scowl. ―What is it?‖ he demanded. The maid blanched as she dropped her gaze. ―C-Cook said to tell you that the ladies are having a b-bit of toast in the kitchen, and they‘ll be here in a trice.‖ He relaxed. ―Ah.‖ Now that the little mystery was cleared up, he noticed Mary‘s shaking. Juliet‘s words came back to him: They’re terrified of you…You bark orders without ever stopping to chat with them or thank them. Blast it all. He forced some amiability into his voice. ―Thank you, Mary.‖ She glanced up, startled, then bobbed a little curtsy. ―‗Tis no trouble, milord. Now if that‘s all…‖ she murmured timidly, turning toward the back of the house. ―Mary—‖ he called out to stay her. She froze, then faced him, a hint of worry in her features. ―Yes, milord?‖ He felt all at sea. Sifting frantically for something with which to allay her discomfort, he suddenly remembered a tidbit of gossip that Boggs had mentioned this morning. ―I understand that your sister is ill.‖ Her eyes went wide. ―I promise it won‘t affect my work in the least, milord!‖ Oh, for God’s sake, did they think him a monster? ―I merely wanted to inquire after her health. Is she doing better? Does she require a physician?‖ He might as well have asked if she required a jester, for she gaped at him, bewildered. ―Mary?‖ he prodded. ―Should I send a physician to your family home?‖

~ 125 ~ A smile broke over her face as broad as morning. ―Oh…oh no, milord, no. She‘s faring better now. Thank you for askin‘.‖ ―You‘re welcome,‖ he answered, amused by how little it took to please the girl. With another quick curtsy, she hurried off, still smiling, and he turned to find Juliet and Lady Rosalind standing there. When he spotted Juliet‘s warm look, he wavered between pleasure at her approval and annoyance that she‘d seen him following her instructions like some besotted halfwit. ―Good morning, ladies. I trust you slept well.‖ ―Quite well,‖ Juliet answered as the footman hastened to bring her sensible wool cloak and her sister‘s crimson velvet pelisse. ―I‘m sorry we‘re late.‖ She shot Lady Rosalind a teasing smile. ―My eternally ravenous sister had to stop in the kitchen to eat.‖ ―You know I don‘t go anywhere without breakfast,‖ Lady Rosalind grumbled. ―It‘s all right,‖ he interjected. They didn‘t have time to stand around chattering, not with Knighton liable to come looking for them at any moment. ―Let‘s be off. Winnie‘s cottage is on the estate, but still a good distance away. And with this snow…‖ Hurrying them out the door, he began helping them navigate the slick stairs. As they neared the bottom, Lady Juliet exclaimed, ―A sleigh! You have a sleigh?‖ He glanced at the elaborately painted gold and black equipage with its curved blades and plush seats. ―Yes. Uncle Lew bought it in Geneva years ago when he went to see about my mother and Morgan.‖ He helped Lady Rosalind in. ―He had a devil of a time getting it back to England, but said he couldn‘t resist. Unfortunately, we rarely have enough snow to make it useful. And it‘ll be a tight squeeze, since it‘s really built for two. But with the carriage useless just now, I thought you‘d prefer the sleigh over horses.‖ ―Oh, I do, I do!‖ Juliet beamed up at him as he helped her in next. ―I‘ve never ridden in a sleigh. And it‘s perfect weather for it.‖

~ 126 ~ ―Perfect indeed,‖ Lady Rosalind grumbled as she drew her pelisse closer about her shoulders. ―Cold and miserable. How delightful.‖ Taking two fur lap robes from the footman, Sebastian handed them to the ladies. ―Pay no mind to Rosalind,‖ Juliet said apologetically as she spread one over her legs. ―She hates rising early.‖ ―I‘d never have guessed.‖ Sebastian climbed in and squeezed himself in between the two women, then took the reins. If Knighton were smart, he‘d stay abed a long time. As they set off, Juliet tugged her lap robe over to cover his legs, too. The solicitous gesture warmed him far more than the fur. He decided at once that sharing a sleigh with Juliet might be worth Lady Rosalind‘s grumbling. Especially when it put Juliet in such high spirits. Despite the cold, she threw back her hood as the sleigh set off, lifting her face to the brilliant blue sky with a crow of delight. ―Ah, fresh air!‖ Her cheeks flushed with pleasure. ―I do so love being out in the early morning.‖ It was hard to resist her infectious enthusiasm. Even Lady Rosalind managed a small smile at Sebastian. ―My sister was always one for the country, my lord. If not for her desire to marry, I think she would‘ve been perfectly content to abandon Knighton House in London for our family‘s moldering old estate at Swan Park.‖ ―Most assuredly.‖ Juliet laughed, emitting little puffs of frosty air. ―Oh, Rosalind, how could you not find this invigorating, you who like all things strong and bracing?‖ ―I only like them later in the day, dear heart, when I‘m awake enough to enjoy them. Besides, this isn‘t strong and bracing—it‘s just cold. I‘d much rather be back in my warm bed with my husband.‖ ―I daresay he‘d rather have you there as well,‖ Sebastian remarked. ―Not this morning. I doubt he‘ll even notice I‘m gone.‖ Her eyes sparkled with sudden humor. ―I kept him up quite late, you see. He needs time to recuperate from the different sort of ride he took last night.‖

~ 127 ~ ―Rosalind!‖ Juliet exclaimed. ―I can‘t believe you‘d speak of such things, and before his lordship, too!‖ ―I was merely informing you that I followed your orders yesterday,‖ Lady Rosalind told her sister smugly. ―My orders! What are you talking about?‖ ―You did tell me to apologize convincingly to Griff, didn‘t you? So he wouldn‘t suspect what we were up to? And considering my husband‘s love of certain activities—‖ ―That‘s quite enough!‖ Juliet cut in with a blush. She refused to look at either one of them. ―I‘m sure we all take your meaning. Your inappropriate, improper—‖ ―Have I embarrassed you, dear heart?‖ Lady Rosalind teased. ―I didn‘t mean—‖ ―Yes, you did,‖ Juliet grumbled. ―It‘s your favorite pastime. Though one would think that after all these years the sport would pale. Or that as a married woman, you‘d have learned some sense of propriety.‖ ―Propriety is highly overrated, dearest, especially for married women.‖ Lady Rosalind winked slyly at Sebastian. ―Don‘t you agree, Lord Templemore?‖ ―Oh no, you won‘t draw me into this family spat,‖ he protested, though he envied them their easy, familial teasing. He‘d scarcely had the chance to get to know his own relations. Well, that situation wouldn‘t continue, no matter what he must do to get his brother back. ―She‘s only trying to provoke me, you know,‖ Juliet complained. ―She likes making me blush.‖ He cast her a sidelong glance as he guided the sleigh down a hill. ―I can‘t blame your sister for that—even I like making you blush. Especially when you do it so prettily.‖ That deepened her blush to crimson, and he smiled. He couldn‘t help it—he found her blushes enchanting. And downright provocative. How had she run the gauntlet of London society and still managed to retain her refreshing innocence? That and

~ 128 ~ her new flirtatious manner provided her with a lethal arsenal of female attractions. All he wanted to do was get her alone so she could use him for target practice. ―So that‘s the way of it, is it?‖ Lady Rosalind eyed him with keen interest. ―My sister—‖ ―Oh look, what‘s that?‖ Juliet broke in, pointing to a modest Palladian villa in the distance. What an obvious ploy to change the subject. Sebastian shook his head, but decided to let her off the hook. For the moment. ―That‘s Foxglen, Uncle Lew‘s estate. We‘ll pass it on our way.‖ ―Has his family always lived so near?‖ Juliet asked. ―Since before either of us was born.‖ Sebastian drove them along its outskirts. ―The Pryces and Blakeleys have been neighbors for over a century, but oddly enough, it took my parents to join the two families in marriage.‖ He sighed. ―Unfortunately, it looks as if the Pryce branch of the family will end with Uncle Lew. He didn‘t marry until late, you see, and then they had only a few years together before my aunt fell ill. So they never had children. Now Uncle Lew says he‘s past the age to marry, which is absurd, even if he is fifty. And since he seems intent on remaining a bachelor and there are no male heirs, he‘s said he‘ll leave Foxglen to me.‖ ―Which is why you don‘t mind letting him use your house in Bath, I suppose,‖ Lady Rosalind remarked. ―Letting?‖ Sebastian laughed. ―My refusal wouldn‘t make a whit of difference, I assure you. My uncle would merely find a way to insinuate himself into the household, and before long they‘d be thinking he owned the place.‖ But she was right. It was indeed his uncle‘s situation that made Sebastian tolerate the man‘s sponging and meddling. One day, Sebastian would commit the great sin of inheriting his uncle‘s estate, so he didn‘t mind softening the hurt for Uncle Lew when he could. Besides, he rather enjoyed the way the old scoundrel took it as his due.

~ 129 ~ ―Be grateful Uncle Lew never rises so early, or he‘d invite himself along,‖ he added. ―We‘d have a fine time explaining why we‘re sneaking off to Winifred‘s on such a raw morning.‖ They rode awhile, comfortably silent with only the sounds of blades squeaking and horse‘s hoofbeats on the icy paths to break the winter quiet. After they‘d passed yet another of his woodlands, Juliet said in an awed tone, ―You have wonderful grounds, Lord Templemore. Quite extensive, too. And I do so love all the little copses and parks and gardens.‖ Good, he thought as he glanced down at her pretty bared head, because I intend to lay them all at your feet, sweeting, if only you‘ll give me the chance. And when she praised the carved wooden bridge they crossed over and the tidy tenants‘ cottages, he felt a surge of pride. He rarely got to show off Charnwood. His few visitors, business-minded or bent on discussing pistols, barely noticed his property. Certainly they never expressed their admiration with such unaffected pleasure. Perhaps convincing Juliet to marry him wouldn‘t be so difficult, after all. If she enjoyed his estate and wanted to marry a respectable, dependable man…why not? He must persuade her that he meant well this time, that he wasn‘t like ―Morgan.‖ Even if he was the Morgan she knew. But surely he could allay her fears eventually. If the usual methods of courtship failed him—like the compliments she found suspect—he could always rely on giving her the lessons she wanted and helping her sister. And kisses. Juliet liked kisses, no matter what she protested. But he would bring her around. He had to bring her around. Because he‘d begun to think that life with her as his wife would be vastly more rewarding than life alone. By the time they reached Winnie‘s cottage, Juliet was radiant. Lady Rosalind had remained silent throughout most of their ride, but he attributed that to nervousness about meeting with a wise woman.

~ 130 ~ ―You‘ll like Winnie,‖ he tried to reassure her as the sleigh approached the thatchroofed structure. ―She‘s forthright sometimes, but she knows more than anyone about herbs and ancient remedies. If she can‘t help you, no one can.‖ After speaking to Juliet last night, he‘d sent a stable boy over to inform Winnie of their plans. So it was no surprise that upon their approach, the cottage door swung open and she trundled out to meet them in all her white-haired, twenty-stone glory, swathed entirely in a voluminous pink wool shawl. She looked like a great dollop of marzipan. ―Good morning, Lord Templemore,‖ she crooned. ―And welcome to you ladies, too.‖ She looked Juliet and Lady Rosalind over as he drew the sleigh to a halt. ―Aren‘t you both lovely things? I daresay his lordship is delighted to have such pretty visitors stranded at Charnwood Hall.‖ ―Indeed I am,‖ he said truthfully. He climbed out, then turned to help the ladies. ―I hope this isn‘t too early for you, Winnie.‖ ―You know better than that, m‘lord. I‘m up with the chickens, I am. And I did want to tell you that…‖ The rest of Winnie‘s words faded as he took Juliet‘s slender hand in his and helped her down. Just that brief contact made his blood thunder in his ears. Holding her hand more tightly than was proper, he didn‘t release it right away. Her gaze flew to his for the merest second, enough to steal his breath. Flushed from the journey, she looked fresh and bright and happy. He burned to sweep her into his embrace and kiss her until she melted. As if she‘d read his thoughts, her face flamed. She tugged her hand free, then slid from between him and the sleigh, leaving him frustrated and bereft. He turned to help Lady Rosalind next, but she‘d already climbed out the other side and was eyeing him with speculation. ―M‘lord?‖ came Winnie‘s voice behind him, wafting down as if from on high. He turned to find Winnie wreathed in a knowing smile. ―Yes?‖ ―I was just thanking you for sending Henley over to clean out my chimney.‖

~ 131 ~ Only then did he realize he hadn‘t heard a word she‘d said. ―Oh. Yes. Of course. Think nothing of it.‖ He was babbling like an idiot. Juliet had that effect on him. He forced himself to pay attention. ―So it‘s drawing better now?‖ ―Indeed it is. He did a fine job, he did.‖ Winnie folded her wrinkled hands over her ample belly and winked at Sebastian. ―But he wasn‘t as handsome as that last fellow you sent. What nice muscles that one had! And such blushing cheeks! He was quite the shy thing for a man full grown.‖ Wonderful—she was making the footmen blush again. God knew what she‘d said to the poor lad about his ―nice muscles.‖ Winifred never minced her words on any subject, but especially not when it came to handsome, strapping youths. ―But it‘s good of your lordship to send the lads.‖ She smiled at Lady Rosalind and Juliet. ―His lordship takes great care of me. Been looking after me since he was thirteen.‖ ―Thirteen?‖ Juliet echoed in surprise. ―Winnie exaggerates,‖ he muttered. ―Bah, don‘t listen to him and his modesty,‖ the wise woman retorted. ―Thirteen, he was, when he took over managing the estate. The old baron tried to send him off to Eton, but he‘d have none of it. ‗No, sir,‘ he said, ‗I‘ll stay right here, if you please. You may hire me tutors.‘ That‘s when he set to putting Charnwood to rights. Read himself all those big books about breeding and crops, learned what he could from farmers hereabouts, and fired the thieving steward. God knows the old baron didn‘t give a tuppence for the estate. If his lordship here hadn‘t taken it in hand, who knows what would‘ve become of us all? And then that Morgan showed up—‖ ―Winifred!‖ he said sharply. The wise woman probably didn‘t know anything, but just to be safe…―The ladies aren‘t interested in that. We have other matters to discuss.‖ A sly smile curved up her thin mouth. ―I‘m getting to it, m‘lord.‖ She surveyed the two women. ―So which of you lovelies is the one that wants a baby?‖ Her gaze swept over Juliet, who hastily remarked, ―Not me. I‘m not even married.‖

~ 132 ~ ―But you will be, mark my words.‖ Winnie shot Sebastian a mysterious look. ―And sooner than you think, I warrant.‖ When he raised an eyebrow at her, her eyes filled with merriment. If he believed in such things, he‘d think the Welshwoman had a touch of the second sight. But more likely she hoped to see him married and had fixed on Juliet as the best prospect. One thing he‘d give Winifred—she had excellent taste. Subjecting Lady Rosalind to her scrutiny, Winifred pursed her shriveled lips. ―So you‘re the one. You certainly look healthy enough for childbearing. What about your husband? Is he young and spry enough to get a child on you? Are your courses regular?‖ Sebastian choked back an oath. ―Winnie, why don‘t you and the ladies go inside to discuss all this? I‘ll remain with the sleigh until you‘re done.‖ ―In this cold?‖ Winnie said. ―Wouldn‘t you rather come in by the fire?‖ And listen to them talk over the intimate details of Lady Rosalind‘s female troubles? No thanks. ―I‘ll be fine out here.‖ As if she‘d read his mind, she laughed. ―You‘d best get used to such talk, m‘lord, if you intend on taking a wife.‖ ―When the time comes, I‘ll be sure to consult you, but until then I pray you show me some mercy.‖ She flapped her hand at him. ―Oh, go on with you then—you and your manly squeamishness. Wait until you‘ve had your own six wee ones. Then you‘ll have a real reason to beg for mercy.‖ She opened her cottage door and beckoned to Juliet and Lady Rosalind. ―Come along, m‘dears. We have a goodly bit to discuss, and we don‘t wish to make his lordship uncomfortable.‖ ―Too late for that,‖ he muttered under his breath. And what did she mean, ―your own six wee ones‖? As if it were already planned. By thunder, she‘d better not have the second sight. He intended to have children, but for God‘s sake, six? Still, the thought of Juliet heavy with his child held a surprising appeal. She‘d be a wonderful mother, warm and loving, the sort of mother he‘d never had himself. If any woman was meant to have six children, it was Juliet.

~ 133 ~

Then he remembered how small and fragile she was, how her own mother had died in childbirth, and that gave him pause. To take his mind off the disturbing idea of Juliet suffering through childbirth, he paced the perimeter of Winnie‘s cottage, noting whatever repairs might be necessary. He had a certain fondness for the old woman, despite her nonsense. He might never have been born if not for her. So he looked after her when he could, especially now that her husband was dead and buried. It appeared that the thatch would need replenishing this spring, and a shutter had come loose since his last visit. He‘d send Henley over later. Or Tompkins, so Winnie could admire the man‘s ―nice muscles‖ some more. God knew the woman had few enough pleasures at her age. He‘d finished his inspection, had circled the cottage half a dozen times more, and was beginning to wonder how much longer all this would take when the cottage door opened and Juliet strolled out. Lady Rosalind followed close behind, cradling a large canvas bag in her hands as she continued her conversation with Winifred. ―Now tell me again so I can make sure you have it aright.‖ Winifred took Lady Rosalind‘s hand to halt her beside the sleigh. ―I‘m to drink red raspberry leaf tea every day for a week. The red clover blossoms are best in an infusion with mint. I can drink that whenever I please and have it with chamomile tea if I want.‖ ―That‘s the way of it. But remember, the herbs will do you no good if you don‘t relax, m‘lady.‖ Winifred patted Lady Rosalind‘s hand. ―Think of yourself as a strawberry blossom opening to the bee. The blossom don‘t slap at the bee, nor close its petals in fear of a sting. It lets the bee fly right in and drink its nectar. And that‘s the only way to have the sweet strawberries in the spring, ain‘t it? So don‘t let anxiousness make you fight your destiny. Embrace it, take it into your bosom. And there it will bear fruit.‖ It sounded like a lot of twaddle to him, but what did he know of such things? Lady Rosalind threw her arms about the older woman‘s neck and planted a kiss on her papery cheek. ―Thank you ever so much!‖

~ 134 ~ ―You‘re very welcome, m‘lady. And you must tell me if it works, d‘you hear? Send me a letter from London. His lordship will be happy to bring it to me.‖ He stifled a smile. Leave it to Winnie to relegate him to the role of footman. Apparently there was one woman on the estate whom he didn‘t terrify. He helped the two ladies into the sleigh. After he‘d climbed in after them, Winifred cried, ―Wait! I forgot one more thing, m‘lady. Does your husband bathe daily?‖ Lady Rosalind gazed over at her, perplexed. ―As it happens, he does. And please don‘t tell me he shouldn‘t or we‘ll never have children, because I won‘t let him within ten feet of me.‖ Sebastian and Juliet both chuckled. ―No, the bathing is fine,‖ Winnie said, ―it‘s the heat of the water he should beware. It mustn‘t be too hot, you ken?‖ ―But Griff loves hot baths!‖ Lady Rosalind wailed. ―Love it or no,‖ Winnie remarked with a dire look, ―they drain the strength from a man‘s seed. ‘Tis very bad. You‘d best not let him take any more of those.‖ Lady Rosalind slumped in her seat. ―However am I supposed to prevent it?‖ Winnie turned her knowing gaze on Sebastian. ―Well, you‘re not to home just now. It ought to be easy enough for his lordship to manage sumpthin‘ like that. All he need do is command his servants not to bring hot water.‖ When Juliet and Lady Rosalind glanced to him imploringly, he groaned. ―Oh no, you don‘t. Bad enough that I‘m sneaking around with you two behind his back. Now you want me to deny the poor man his creature comforts—‖ ―The ‗poor man‘ won‘t listen to me.‖ Lady Rosalind batted her eyelashes at him. ―Besides, if I have to explain why he can‘t take hot baths, I‘ll have to explain where I got the notion. Which means telling him who brought me here to meet Winnie—indeed, who told me of her in the first place.‖ Blasted blackmailing wench. ―How am I supposed to explain why my servants won‘t give him hot water?‖

~ 135 ~

―Don‘t explain anything.‖ Juliet busily spread the lap rug over his legs and hers. ―Have the servants make the baths warm instead of hot. Let him think they don‘t know what they‘re doing.‖ He glowered at her. ―After lecturing me yesterday on how to treat my servants, you now want me to subject them to a guest‘s complaints for the next few days—‖ ―Oh, a few days ain‘t near long enough,‖ Winnie put in. ―It‘ll have to be longer than that—a week at least until her ladyship is fertile. And if she don‘t conceive then, she‘ll have to keep at it till she does, however many months that takes.‖ ―Months!‖ Sebastian cried. ―No, of course not,‖ Lady Rosalind hastened to put in. ―Griff would never stay that long, and I can‘t miss the birth of Helena‘s baby. After we leave, I‘ll take my chances, but if I could have at least a week to try all of Winnie‘s suggestions…‖ She flashed Sebastian another of those pleading looks. ―Once we leave, Griff will simply demand hot water at the inns and in London, and I won‘t be able to stop him. It has to be here. That is, if your lordship will extend your hospitality a little while longer.‖ Deuce take it, when he‘d volunteered his aid, he hadn‘t expected to engage in a thousand subterfuges. This was nearly as bad as engineering the kidnapping of a lady. On the other hand, having them stay would give him time to court Juliet. ―How will you convince your husband not to leave for London as soon as the roads are ready?‖ Lady Rosalind frowned. ―I don‘t know…I suppose I could tell him I‘m ill. That all this traveling has unsettled my stomach or something.‖ ―That won‘t work,‖ Winnie put in, ―unless your husband fancies taking a sick woman to his bed. No point in you going to the trouble of staying here if you‘re not being bedded often in the meantime, you know.‖ When both sisters blushed violently, Sebastian gritted his teeth. Sometimes Winnie could be too much for anyone. But she did have a point.

~ 136 ~ ―Then I‘ll be the one to be sick,‖ Juliet ventured. ―It‘ll be easier for me than for Rosalind, anyway. I can just have Rosalind‘s maid Polly proclaim me too ill for visitors, and I needn‘t show any evidence of illness.‖ ―Oh, thank you, Juliet!‖ her sister exclaimed. ―That might actually work.‖ It might work for Lady Rosalind, but it wouldn‘t help Sebastian‘s courtship. Blast. ―Now that we‘ve got that settled,‖ he grumbled, ―we‘d best head back, before the unwitting recipient of all your plotting wakes up. Or worse—has a hot bath.‖ As his two companions laughed and said their goodbyes to Winnie, he urged the draft horses into a walk. Once they were on their way, he renewed the discussion, trying to make his voice sound casual. ―You know, Lady Juliet, if you pretend to be sick, you‘ll have to stay cooped up in your bedchamber all the time.‖ ―I‘ll do nothing of the sort. Polly will keep Griff out of the room, and Rosalind can give him regular announcements of how awful I feel.‖ Her smile was pure mischief. ―Then I‘ll simply sneak out and do as I please. Charnwood is large enough that I can avoid my pesky brother-in-law with ease. Especially if he‘s busy with Rosalind.‖ ―And you can stay busy with me,‖ he said, glancing over at her. Beneath the lap robe, he rubbed his calf against hers. ―We can play chess. You seem to enjoy that.‖ Coloring, she moved her leg away, though it took some doing in close quarters. Lady Rosalind cast him a sly look. ―I‘d forgotten Juliet‘s fondness for chess. However did you discover it, my lord?‖ ―Quite by accident. But your sister plays very well. Though she‘s a sore loser, prone to decline a challenge.‖ Juliet‘s gaze was pure ice. ―I‘ll meet any challenge you propose, my lord, at any time. Especially in chess.‖ He smiled. She was so easy to bait. ―Excellent. Then chess it is.‖ ―As long as Griff doesn‘t know about it, and there‘s a proper chaperone,‖ Lady Rosalind warned, ―I suppose that would be all right.‖

~ 137 ~ ―Oh, of course,‖ Juliet said sweetly. ―We‘ll have Polly serve as chaperone, shan‘t we, Lord Templemore?‖ ―Whatever you wish.‖ His blood quickened at the thought of endless hours of keeping Juliet busy without Knighton‘s interference. ―A chaperone is a small price to pay for the chance at trouncing you in chess.‖ ―And what makes you think you‘d trounce me?‖ she snapped. ―I trounced you the last time we played, didn‘t I?‖ Without looking at her, he pressed his thigh against hers and was rewarded by her sharp intake of breath. ―I reached checkmate with great speed, as I recall.‖ ―That won‘t happen again.‖ But her high color and shaky tone said otherwise. Feeling decidedly cheerier, he concentrated on navigating the treacherous paths with the sleigh. He didn‘t even mind when Lady Rosalind began a series of impertinent questions about his family and connections, obviously designed to determine his suitability as a husband for Juliet. Since his plans fell in with hers, he was more than happy to oblige her with answers. But Juliet seemed to disapprove. She constantly attempted—unsuccessfully—to change the subject. Only when they were halfway back to Charnwood did she seize on a suitable distraction. ―Look there, Rosalind,‖ she cried, ―what a quaint little cottage. I wonder that we didn‘t notice it when we first came this way.‖ ―The rock face obscures it from the other direction,‖ he explained. ―You‘d have to look back to see it.‖ ―Does it belong to another of your tenants?‖ Lady Rosalind asked. ―I swear, my lord, you have so many tenants. How many exactly?‖ When Juliet rolled her eyes, he chuckled. ―Actually, that cottage and its outbuilding are no longer inhabited. It used to be the estate blacksmith‘s, but he died in my father‘s time. His apprentice preferred to join with the smithy in town, so I bought the forge from him. I come out here to do a little gunsmithing, mostly for the fine, small pieces, like the brass for the cartridges and the silver facings.‖ ―You forge things?‖ Juliet said. ―Why, you truly are Hephaestus!‖

~ 138 ~ ―Hephaestus?‖ ―The Greek God of Fire and the immortal smithy who made weapons for the other gods. He has a forge, too.‖ He tried to remember his Greek. ―Wasn‘t he ugly and lame?‖ ―Was he?‖ Juliet smirked at him. ―At least he was very good at metalworking.‖ ―I‘m not sure I like that comparison,‖ he grumbled. He‘d been called a lot of things, but ugly wasn‘t one of them. ―Don‘t mind Juliet—she‘s merely provoking you,‖ Lady Rosalind interjected. ―Besides, Hephaestus was married to Aphrodite, so he couldn‘t be that ugly, could he?‖ That comment softened the blow considerably. Marrying a goddess was his own aim. He glanced over at the still smirking Juliet and smiled to himself. Smirk all you want, my Aphrodite, but you’ll be my wife one way or the other. And when you are, I’ll make you eat your words. In bed. Where I intend to do a great deal of forging myself. That thought made him randy enough to be uncomfortable. Fortunately, the rest of the journey went quickly. Less fortunately, by the time they reached Foxglen, his uncle had arisen. Uncle Lew strode out to hail them as the sleigh neared the manor. With a sigh, Sebastian pulled it up. When Uncle Lew approached to greet them, he glanced meaningfully at the two ladies, then shot Sebastian a questioning look. Ah yes, Uncle Lew didn‘t know how things had changed. The last time they‘d spoken, Sebastian had sworn to steer clear of Juliet. Now here he was, squiring her about. He‘d have to explain later. ―Out for a morning ride, are you? And in such lovely weather, too,‖ Uncle Lew said with a trace of sarcasm. ―I was just on my way over to Charnwood Hall, but the three of you look frozen to the bone. Why don‘t you come in for a spot of tea to warm you? I can show off my modest abode, then fetch my horse and ride on with you.‖

~ 139 ~ ―I‘m sorry, Uncle, but we‘ve no time to tarry,‖ Sebastian said smoothly. ―Knighton is probably worried about his wife. We took longer than we intended.‖ ―Go on then with Lady Rosalind if you must. But I don‘t see why Lady Juliet can‘t remain with me for a while. I‘ll settle for only one of your delightful companions.‖ Sebastian groaned. So the blasted fool had finally decided to do as he‘d been told the night before last. A pity it was precious little and too late. ―I‘m not sure we should leave Lady Juliet without a chaperone,‖ Sebastian said. ―Her family is very particular about such things.‖ ―It‘ll be fine.‖ Lady Rosalind fidgeted impatiently in her seat. ―Your uncle is clearly respectable, and there are servants about, I‘m sure. I‘d go on alone, but I don‘t know if I can manage a sleigh.‖ ―And I‘d like to stay,‖ Juliet chimed in. ―I‘d simply adore seeing Foxglen and hearing all your uncle‘s tales about you and Morgan.‖ Deuce take it, he hadn‘t even thought of that. His uncle might let something slip that would rouse her suspicions again. ―See here, Juliet—‖ ―You mustn‘t keep Knighton waiting, my boy,‖ his uncle put in. ―We‘ll have a lovely little chat, Lady Juliet and I. I‘ll enthrall her with tales of our wicked family secrets.‖ He shot Uncle Lew a warning glance. Damn the man‘s hide—this was not a game! But his uncle merely winked as he offered his hand to Juliet. Casting Sebastian a taunting smile over her shoulder, she rose and climbed down. When Sebastian hesitated, Uncle Lew made a shooing gesture with his hand. ―Go on, I say! We‘ll be fine.‖ Devil take them both, they‘d left him no choice. Gritting his teeth, he drove on. He would accompany Lady Rosalind to Charnwood Hall, then return immediately to Foxglen. The less time Juliet and Uncle Lew had to confer, the better.

~ 140 ~ As they approached the hall, however, an all too familiar figure vaulted down the entrance stairs, heedless of the treacherously icy steps. Sebastian muttered an oath under his breath. Knighton. ―Where in the hell have you been?‖ Knighton asked Lady Rosalind as the sleigh halted before him. Then he scowled at Sebastian. ―And what do you mean, taking my wife out in this weather, Templemore?‖ ―Oh, don‘t blame him, Griff,‖ Lady Rosalind said as Knighton hastened to help her out. ―I was so very tired of being cooped up inside. We rode over to his uncle‘s house, so Mr. Pryce could show me that edition of Hamlet he was talking about at dinner day before yesterday. You were sleeping and I didn‘t want to wake you.‖ Knighton looked only slightly mollified by that explanation. ―Where‘s Juliet? The servant said she went with you.‖ ―She did start out to go with us,‖ Lady Rosalind lied, ―but she wasn‘t feeling well and decided to return to bed instead. The servant probably didn‘t see her come back in.‖ Sebastian would have applauded the woman‘s ingenuity if she hadn‘t made it appear as if he‘d been having a tête-à-tête with her in the sleigh. Knighton looked as if he wanted to strangle someone, and Sebastian had a fairly good idea who it might be. Blast, blast, blast! These three were nothing but trouble. And God only knew what Uncle Lew was revealing with his loose tongue even as they stood here dawdling. ―Well, Knighton,‖ he said quickly, ―now that you‘re up, you two can have a cozy breakfast. I promised my uncle I‘d go back and speak to his…er…steward about one of the tenants. You understand—estate business and all that.‖ Lady Rosalind raised an eyebrow, but merely told her husband, ―Yes, dear, let‘s do have breakfast. I‘m simply famished. And then I‘ll look in on Juliet.‖ As the couple climbed the stairs, Sebastian turned the sleigh back toward Foxglen, praying he wasn‘t overtaxing the draft horses in this snow. But he dared not leave Juliet with Uncle Lew any longer than necessary.

~ 141 ~ ―You‘ll have a nice bag of oats in a moment,‖ he crooned to the horses. ―Just a little farther, and you can relax in comfort.‖ A pity he couldn‘t say the same for himself. He began to think it would be some time before he got to relax anywhere.

~ 142 ~

Chapter 10 ‘Much effort, much prosperity.’ - Euripides’ The Suppliant Women, embroidered on a towel by Juliet Laverick

―You simply must see Lucinda‘s favorite sitting room,‖ Mr. Pryce said an hour later as he accompanied Juliet down a middling hall toward an open door. ―I think it would appeal to you.‖ She managed a smile. Ever since Sebastian had driven off, she‘d tried to turn the subject to him and Morgan, but Mr. Pryce always deftly returned it to some innocuous topic—like his late wife‘s sitting room. She didn‘t want to be rude, but for goodness sake, how could she find out anything to help her unmask Sebastian when Mr. Pryce wouldn‘t discuss his nephews? ―You promised me family secrets,‖ she told him lightly, ―and I haven‘t heard a single one.‖ ―I‘m building up to it.‖ He patted her hand where it rested on his forearm. ―All in good time, my dear, all in good time.‖ She was still pondering that enigmatic statement when he showed her into the sitting room. Thoughts of his nephews fled her mind. ―Oh my word…‖ she whispered as she gazed in awe around her. From the tapestry of breathtaking beauty on one wall to the intricately worked seat cushions of every chair, the room was a celebration of needlework. Hangings and a fire screen and even the tablecloths were embroidered or worked entirely in delicate silks on linen or satin or even lace. Half in a daze, she left his side to stroll from piece to piece, admiring the choice of colors, the delicacy of the stitching, the consistency of design.

~ 143 ~ ―It was my wife‘s passion, you see,‖ Mr. Pryce said behind her. ―Like you, she was never without her tambour or her needle.‖ ―She worked all these?‖ Juliet murmured in sheer admiration. ―Not entirely. The tapestry has been in the family for generations, and I purchased some of the other pieces for her. But the rest—‖ He swept his hand in an elegant arc to encompass the entire room. ―All done by her hand.‖ He spoke the words with a soft pride that brought a lump to her throat. She glanced at him. ―If you don‘t mind my asking, how long were you married before she…that is…‖ ―Ten years.‖ The gray morning light dusted his pale hair with ash as he scanned the room. ―And she spent most of the last two in here, during the final stages of her illness. Being in this room surrounded by her own handiwork soothed her.‖ A faint smile touched his lips. ―It soothed me, as well.‖ His clear affection for his Lucinda made her want to cry. After seeing Rosalind try desperate measures to conceive a child by her beloved husband, then hearing Mr. Pryce speak so adoringly of his late wife, Juliet felt envious. She had no one for whom her needs and wishes were tantamount, and vice versa. No matter what she protested to her sisters, she wanted that so badly she ached from the need. Feeling tears well up, she glanced away. Mr. Pryce‘s hand came to rest on her shoulder in a fatherly gesture that only made the tears burn more urgently. His voice dropped to a comforting murmur. ―Lucinda preferred needlework because it was something she could master during a time when she lacked mastery over anything else—like what was happening to her body. No doubt you understand how necessary it can be to pour your energy into a passion that gives you some measure of control when elsewhere you have none.‖ All she could manage was a nod. She‘d long ago noticed that her fondness for needlework waxed and waned according to the feelings of helplessness that assailed her. Whenever Papa and Helena admonished her, or Rosalind started to meddle, Juliet went looking for her tambour. The only time in her life when needlework had not consumed her was during her supposed elopement, when she‘d thought she was finding freedom with Morgan.

~ 144 ~

That had turned out to be merely another trap. Mr. Pryce led her to a settee. When she took a seat, he sat down next to her. ―You‘re much like my nephew, I suspect. He pours his frustration into his passion, too, except that his passion happens to be pistols. His guns allow him the control over his life that he lacks.‖ The last person to whom she‘d compare herself just now was Sebastian. She eyed him bitterly. ―In what possible way does your nephew lack control over his life, pray tell? He owns a vast, unencumbered estate that he rules with absolute power. He seems even to have control over you and your estate at times.‖ ―That is merely an illusion, all of it.‖ He fell silent a moment, staring off across the room. When he spoke again, his voice held an edge. ―Charnwood runs like a finely crafted watch these days, but Sebastian knows better than anyone how easily such efficiency can be ripped away. He‘s seen it happen before.‖ ―I find that hard to believe.‖ He swung his gaze back to her. ―You don‘t seem terribly fond of my nephew. Is it because of what his brother did?‖ His ―brother,‖ ha! She scowled at him. Did the man know the truth? Because if he did, and he was covering for Sebastian‘s lies, he was as bad as his nephew, despite his appearance otherwise. ―You could say that.‖ ―Before you make any judgments, you should know some things about Morgan and Sebastian.‖ He searched her face. ―And about my brother-in-law, Sebastian‘s father.‖ ―Are these the family secrets you were offering? Because if you mean to tell me that the previous baron was a notorious rake, I‘m well aware of that.‖ ―Ah, but you are not aware of how that affected my nephews. It was Edward‘s philandering that drove my sister to flee the marriage, leaving Morgan to grow up in exile and Sebastian to grow up motherless and friendless. You can‘t possibly know what that meant for them.‖

~ 145 ~ She tipped up her chin. ―Actually, I do know what it‘s like to grow up motherless. My own mother died giving birth to me.‖ The sympathy that flared in his eyes was so obviously genuine it hurt for her to look at it. Swallowing hard, she averted her gaze. ―But you had sisters to fill the role of mother. And a father who was part of your life. Sebastian had no one.‖ So now they‘d come to the crux of the matter. Sebastian. Not Morgan, but Sebastian. She shot Mr. Pryce a hard look. ―He had his father. And you.‖ ―He had no one,‖ Mr. Pryce repeated firmly. ―After my sister left, Edward abandoned Sebastian at Charnwood with a nurse and the housekeeper, then returned to London to enjoy himself. Sebastian rarely saw him.‖ A trace of remorse filled his face. ―My parents were dead, so I spent my days in London, too. As a young buck on the town, I did not concern myself with my young nephew, believing that he was well taken care of at the estate.‖ By servants? she thought, vainly attempting to squelch her sympathy for a little boy ignored by all family and left to his own devices in a huge, soulless mansion. ―He was fourteen when I married,‖ Mr. Pryce went on, ―but my wife and I rarely came to Foxglen. We enjoyed the delights of town.‖ A heavy sigh shook him. ―After she became ill, we made the round of physicians, hoping for a cure. By the time we repaired here, when Lucinda was dying, Sebastian was twenty-two. My wife required my full attention anyway. There was no time for my nephew, even if he‘d needed my help.‖ His revelations tugged at her heart, which infuriated her. ―Why are you telling me all this?‖ She rose from her seat and went to stand before the fire, trying to distance herself from his heart-wrenching revelations. ―You asked me how he lacked control in his life. I‘m merely explaining.‖ His clipped tone bore into her back. ―Sebastian grew up alone and friendless, inevitably tainted by the scandals his father attracted. Even out here we get the papers, you know, and they were full of Edward‘s exploits. Sebastian couldn‘t go into town without hearing his neighbors speak of his father with contempt and censure. As a child, he blamed himself, sure that his father‘s behavior was connected to the death of Ophelia while she was bringing Sebastian into the world.

~ 146 ~ No doubt you‘re familiar with the guilt a child can feel in such a circumstance, warranted or not.‖ She stared wordlessly into the flames. Oh, yes, she was quite familiar. It still haunted her to know her mother had died bringing her into the world, no matter how much her family dismissed her culpability. ―Sebastian reacted by arguing with anyone who condemned Edward‘s behavior. The more the townspeople criticized, the more Sebastian defended him. That brought on their pity, which only angered him. Nor did it help that he had to watch pieces of his inheritance being sold off to pay for Edward‘s London extravagances–his mistresses and other entertainments. Or that he had to witness a succession of stewards steal his father blind, though he wrote Edward repeatedly about their incompetence. Yet despite all the evidence of Edward‘s true character, Sebastian was stubborn, damn his hide. He made excuses for his father at every turn.‖ ―Children often do.‖ She thought of all the excuses she‘d made for Papa‘s behavior through the years. ―But everything changed when he turned thirteen.‖ Sudden awareness dawned as she put together what else she‘d heard. She faced him, feeling her heart twist in her chest. ―When he learned the truth about his mother.‖ Mr. Pryce nodded. ―Once he knew that his mother had left deliberately to escape his father, he could no longer excuse Edward‘s actions. Nor could he stand by and watch the man destroy himself, his family, and his estate through a lack of character or sense of responsibility.‖ ―So Sebastian ran Charnwood himself,‖ she mused aloud. He eyed her with interest. ―You heard that, did you? Yes, he demanded it of Edward, and fortunately for the estate Edward agreed. By that point, my brotherin-law was so sunk into depravity he didn‘t much care what happened at Charnwood.‖ ―Still, to leave his affairs in the hands of a boy of thirteen—‖ ―It was the only wise thing Edward ever did.‖ A half smile played about his rouged lips. ―Sebastian at thirteen was more capable than the average man at twenty, I assure you. By the time he was seventeen, he‘d reversed the dangerous downward

~ 147 ~ spiral begun by his father. By the time he was twenty-six and Edward died fighting a duel, Sebastian had restored Charnwood to its former glory. And he did it all alone. That‘s the sort of man he is.‖ Her throat constricted painfully. Not the sort of man who‘d kidnap a young woman on behalf of smugglers. How could someone so responsible risk the family name he‘d fought so hard to protect? Yet she was as sure as ever that Sebastian had been the one to kidnap her. Indeed, Mr. Pryce‘s attempt to engage her sympathies toward him only proved it. ―Why are you telling me all this about Sebastian?‖ She crossed her arms over her chest defensively. ―What does it have to do with Morgan‘s kidnapping me?‖ The question seemed to disturb him, just as she‘d intended. He glanced away. ―If you‘ll recall, this conversation began when you asked me how Sebastian lacked control. I‘m merely explaining that having spent half his life with no control, he now goes to extremes to exert it in every sphere.‖ She laid her cards on the table. ―You mean, by kidnapping a gentlewoman for some…purpose he won‘t reveal?‖ His gaze swung back to her in alarm. ―Sebastian was not responsible for that.‖ Drat him, did he not know the truth? Or was he simply being loyal? Either way, she‘d get nowhere by pressing the matter. Like his nephew, he‘d merely dig in his heels. She tried another tack. ―Morgan may have performed the act, but how do I know Sebastian had no part in the planning?‖ Instead of answering that question, he posed one of his own. ―Is that why you came here? To find some way of making my nephew pay for what his brother did?‖ ―No, I came here to learn the truth, that‘s all,‖ she said fiercely. ―I want to know why he did it. What it was about. Why he didn‘t just tell Crouch to leave me and my family alone. I want to know why, after it was all over, he just abandoned—‖ She caught herself before she could reveal more. Sucking in a harsh breath, she said, ―I only want the truth.‖

~ 148 ~ He looked visibly shaken by her words. ―Perfectly understandable. And you deserve it, too. But sometimes the truth is complicated, and knowing it wouldn‘t change anything.‖ ―It would for me. I‘ve spent two years wondering how I could be so stupid as to fall into your nephew‘s trap. But if I thought he‘d done it for something more than a whim or a hope of monetary gain…‖ Her face brightened. ―Could he have needed the money for Charnwood? Could he have done it for that reason?‖ ―Morgan?‖ he asked coolly. ―Why would he care about Charnwood?‖ She gritted her teeth. He refused to acknowledge the truth, even though she felt certain he knew it. ―Besides,‖ Mr. Pryce continued, ―you said he didn‘t take any money for it. Only information.‖ ―Yes, but perhaps that‘s why he wanted the information, so he could go aboard the Oceana. Perhaps Crouch knew of some…I don‘t know…rich cargo that would be loaded on July 17, one that would make it worth Morgan‘s while to be aboard.‖ It made sense. Indeed, it was the only explanation that did, in light of the evidence. His face closed up. ―Morgan had no interest in money from that kidnapping. I am certain of that. It is not in his character.‖ ―Yes, but if his brother asked it of him—‖ ―It is not in Sebastian‘s character, either. Have you not heard anything I told you?‖ Oh yes, every word. He‘d told her all the things calculated to make her want to forgive Sebastian, to forget his deceptions and treacheries. But she refused to let him—or Sebastian—use her tender feelings against her. ―I agree that your nephews have had difficulties in their lives. But if you expect me to excuse their actions because of what you‘ve told me, you don‘t know me very well. My father was a scoundrel, too. He brought great shame on his children at one point in our lives, yet my sisters and I have never used that as an excuse for behaving badly.‖ ―You are a hard case, Lady Juliet.‖ He brushed a speck of dust from his immaculate coat. ―Nonetheless, although my nephew enticed you away from your

~ 149 ~ family, you are the one who ignored all propriety and good sense to go with him. So what excuse do you use for ‗behaving badly‘ two years ago?‖ She flinched, but his question was fair. ―None. The difference between me and your nephew is that I don‘t make excuses. I don‘t wish to avoid the consequences of my foolishness. I recognize that I made my own bed, and now I must lie in it. But if I should have to pay, so should he.‖ ―And if he‘s dead and cannot pay, you will seize on Sebastian for your revenge?‖ ―This isn‘t about revenge!‖ Striding up to the settee, she sat down and grabbed his hand. ―This is about justice. Please, Mr. Pryce, you must understand. Soon I‘ll return to London to face the effects of this gossip. It doesn‘t matter who started it or who‘s spreading it—someone will eventually dig deeply enough to realize it‘s true. No one will believe I was kidnapped—my family didn‘t prosecute it. So society will note only that I eloped with a man and came home unwed. When that occurs, no man will marry me.‖ ―I have trouble believing that.‖ He patted her hand with a fatherly concern that made her want to scream. ―A lovely woman like yourself, with so much to offer? I am sure that when your family explains the situation—‖ ―My family wouldn‘t be here if they thought they could simply explain everything away.‖ She leaned toward him imploringly. ―And you know what happens to women who are ruined. They‘re scorned by other women, shunned by respectable men, and sought out by those scoundrels who consider any such woman an easy target.‖ ―Perhaps in some cases, but—‖ ―Do you think it‘s fair that the man who wronged me should walk freely in society while I suffer the attentions of every rogue who wants to ravish me?‖ ―Of course not!‖ Sweat beaded on his forehead. Looking uncertain, he drew out a handkerchief with a shaky hand and mopped his brow. ―But I don‘t know what you want from me. Morgan is…dead. What could I possibly offer—‖ ―The truth, curse it! It‘s the least I deserve! If I have to endure the groping hands and improper advances of unfeeling blackguards thanks to this gossip—‖

~ 150 ~ ―You will not!‖ boomed a voice from the doorway. She looked up to find Sebastian standing there, his face alight with anger. ―You won‘t suffer any of that ever again. I give you my word.‖

~ 151 ~

Chapter 11 ‘Let my heart be wise. It is the gods’ best gift.’ - Euripides’ Medea, worked on a handkerchief by Juliet Laverick

Sebastian stepped into the room, her words ringing in his ears—the groping hands and improper advances of unfeeling blackguards. By thunder, men were treating her in this barbarous fashion? Because of him? He‘d thought from her inexperienced kissing and naiveté that she‘d never endured such improprieties, but it seemed he was wrong. How could Knighton have let it continue so long? Why hadn‘t he come here before? If Sebastian had possessed any idea of what was going on in London… But he hadn‘t known, of course. Mentions of her in the papers had always been respectful: ―Lady Juliet Laverick was seen at the opera house‖ or ―One member of the party was Lady Juliet.‖ Never a bad word was spoken of her. All the same…―I‘ll make sure no one harms you, do you hear?‖ he repeated. ―I‘ll put an end to any gossip, I swear.‖ A flush of anger darkened her features as she leaped to her feet. ―Oh? And how shall you do that?‖ By marrying you, by laying claim to you so no man ever dares touch you or speak ill of you again. He didn‘t dare say it aloud. Yet. ―You needn‘t worry how. I will, I promise. There won‘t be the tiniest breath of scandal attached to your name when you return to London.‖ When his uncle rose and seemed about to speak, Sebastian shot him a quelling glance. ―I‘ll take care of it personally. You have my word.‖ Uncle Lew‘s gaze met his, no doubt trying to determine Sebastian‘s intentions. There‘d be plenty of time later to explain how things had changed.

~ 152 ~

In the meantime, Sebastian had much to say to Juliet privately, much to learn after her astonishing comments to his uncle. And the only way to do that was to whisk her off. His gaze snapped back to her. ―You‘d best come along.‖ She hesitated, her gaze flying to his uncle in mute appeal. It irritated Sebastian that she‘d tried to attach Uncle Lew as her ally. And deuce take it, what had they discussed before he came? ―Knighton was standing outside Charnwood Hall when we rode up,‖ Sebastian added. ―He was furious.‖ Instantly, her hesitation turned to alarm. ―Oh dear, Rosalind didn‘t tell him where we‘d been, did she?‖ ―No,‖ Sebastian answered, ―but—‖ ―Where had you been?‖ his uncle asked. Sebastian figured he‘d best let Juliet answer that. ―It‘s…complicated.‖ She flashed Uncle Lew an apologetic smile. ―I have to go. Thank you for the informative discussion. I do hope we can finish it some time.‖ He looked uncomfortable. ―I‘ll show you out,‖ he murmured and started forward. With a scowl, Sebastian took her arm. ―Don‘t trouble yourself, Uncle.‖ Wise man that Uncle Lew was, he knew better than to go against Sebastian‘s wishes in this devilish situation. ―Very well,‖ the man said curtly, then sank down on the settee. Sebastian led her into the hall as he considered which room would suit a private discussion. He‘d rather have it here at Foxglen, where she couldn‘t easily escape him. As soon as they were out of earshot, she tried to remove his hand from her arm, but he wouldn‘t let go. ―So what did Griff say?‖ she snapped. ―Did he demand to know where we‘d been? How did Rosalind respond? Is he waiting for me to confirm her claims?‖ He spotted the door to the conservatory at the other end of the hall and quickened his pace. ―He doesn‘t even know you were with us. She told him you were sick.‖

~ 153 ~ They‘d reached the conservatory. When he opened the door, a blast of fecund warm air hit them. He hurried her inside. ―The last time I saw them, they were heading in to breakfast, and he seemed satisfied by her tale that we‘d ridden over to visit my uncle.‖ She stared about her in confusion at the riot of flowering hibiscus, ferns, and potted palms in the round, glass-ceilinged room. As he closed the door behind her, she whirled around. ―You said Griff was furious—‖ ―He was. But he isn‘t now. I merely wanted to talk to you.‖ It took a second for his words to register, and a second more for her to realize they were alone together for the first time since yesterday. Then her eyes widened to panic. Without pausing to berate him, she darted around him and reached for the doorknob. He planted his hand against the door before she could even open it. ―Let me out!‖ she demanded, rattling the knob. ―Not until we‘ve had our discussion.‖ She faced him, flattening herself against the door. Her lilac scent misted over him, delicate and fine. He wanted to grab her and hold her close, but she‘d likely throttle him if he tried. Still, with his arm braced against the door over her shoulder, she was so close only a breath separated them. As he stared down at her face, his every muscle went taut. Ah, but she was lovely, especially here. Like Aphrodite, the goddess of spring and beauty, she belonged in warm Cyprian groves, dripping flowers from her fingers as she danced through the moonlight. She did not belong amid the treacherous forests of London society, that was certain. He should never have left her to wander them alone. The sudden quickening of her breath showed she was aware of him, too. She dropped her gaze to stare into his cravat. ―I have nothing to discuss with you just now.‖ He leaned into her. ―Tell me about the scoundrels in London, the ones who put their ‗groping hands‘ on you. When you said you wanted to learn about rakes so you could avoid them, I didn‘t realize it was because they‘d made ‗improper advances.‘‖

~ 154 ~

A tiny frown of confusion creased her smooth brow. ―What in creation are you talking about? Men in London may have courted me, but none of them ever—‖ She broke off suddenly, and her expression cleared. ―That‘s what you get for eavesdropping. Heard something you didn‘t like, did you?‖ ―Devil take it, I want to know who they are!‖ ―Oh, for goodness sake, you misunderstood what I told your uncle. I wasn‘t speaking of what had already happened, but what could happen if this gossip continues.‖ Relief nearly brought him to his knees. What had he been thinking? From the beginning, she‘d shown herself to be nearly as innocent as a woman her age could be. Jealous anger had so overtaken him that he hadn‘t stopped to consider what he‘d seen of her character. Of course no one had put his hands on her. He‘d been right all along about the gossip. If there was any, it was minor. She only spoke of it when she wanted to tug at someone‘s sympathies—like his uncle‘s. ―You needn‘t worry about such nonsense. It won‘t continue if I have anything to say about it.‖ She cast him a mutinous look. ―What makes you think you can stop it? And you know how all the rakes will act once they learn for certain that I‘d been a very naughty girl. Witness how you behaved after you learned about the kidnapping. You felt free to kiss me and touch me—‖ ―That had nothing to do with it. I kissed you because I wanted you. I would have kissed you if I‘d met you under perfectly proper circumstances.‖ That she could lump him in with those scoundrels in London infuriated him. He didn‘t know which was worse—her thinking him an inept imbecile, or a heartless seducer. Especially when he‘d already proved she didn‘t mind his attentions, no matter what he was. ―It‘s not as if I was alone in all that kissing and touching, either,‖ he snapped. ―You know very well that you welcomed it.‖ With a haughty little sniff, she turned her head. ―That‘s absurd.‖ Anger boiled up through him. After yesterday, that she could still pretend—―I didn‘t imagine it, Juliet, so don‘t think you can return to telling me how ‗adequate‘

~ 155 ~ my kisses are. I remember your eager mouth. I remember your soft sighs of pleasure. That isn‘t how a bored or offended woman behaves. Have you forgotten kissing me back? Sliding your hands inside my coat? You can no longer deny that you want me. Yesterday I proved that you do.‖ ―You proved nothing.‖ She moved away from the door. ―I never said—‖ ―You didn‘t have to.‖ He caught her arm when she tried to pass him. ―Your actions spoke well enough.‖ ―I was merely…caught up in the moment,‖ she whispered, though she wouldn‘t meet his gaze. ―But if you think that means anything—‖ ―Blast it all, it means everything, and you know it. It means you care for me. I dare you to look me in the eye and deny it.‖ Juliet knew she was on shaky ground already, but it got shakier when she made the mistake of doing as he demanded. Goodness gracious, but the man could rock the very floor beneath her feet with just a look. Such a magnetic gaze, such a brooding stare…It made her want to throw herself into his arms. Or run. He‘d eyed her like that yesterday in the drawing room—as a starving sea serpent eyes the virgin tied to the rocks just before he strikes and devours. His all-consuming need scrambled her already quite muddled thoughts, and that was the last thing she could afford in this secret winter Eden. Without answering, she jerked her arm free and hurried down the three marble steps into the conservatory‘s center. Looking for a door to the outside, she strode along the circular path around a huge marble pedestal upon which reigned an impressive potted begonia. It was no use. She felt him stalking her, felt his lambent heat behind her in the musky damp of the room. ―You can‘t deny it, can you?‖ he rasped. ―You may not like being attracted to the brother of your kidnapper, but you are.‖ She gritted her teeth against the urge to protest that he and her ―kidnapper‖ were one and the same. She refused to confront him until she had him inescapably trapped. ―It‘s not an attraction. You‘ve merely misunderstood—‖

~ 156 ~ ―That you want me? Have I?‖ Without warning, he slipped his arm about her waist and dragged her back against his rock-hard flesh. ―So you don‘t want me to hold you like this?‖ he murmured against her hair. ―You find it disgusting?‖ Dear me, if only she did. ―Sebastian, don‘t—‖ ―Hold you? Kiss you? Want you, too?‖ He nuzzled her upswept hair, then pressed a delicious kiss to her bared neck. ―Why not?‖ She couldn‘t speak or think or…or anything. Not when his lips were dancing kisses over her skin, awakening it to a world of sensual possibilities. ―Tell me you want me to leave you alone,‖ he prodded. ―Say it, and I will. I swear I‘ll never touch you again if you say the words.‖ Such a small request for him. Such a huge request for her. Because the longer he held her, the more addicted she grew to his embrace. To the firm, masculine feel of his unyielding upper torso imprinted on her back and derriere. To the warmth of his body curling around hers. His hold immobilized one of her arms, yet he exerted very little force. She believed he really would release her if she asked. She didn‘t ask. ―Is that what you want—for me not to touch you?‖ He brushed his parted lips over her ear, and a luscious shiver swept her skin. ―I‘ll make it easy for you.‖ He lifted his gloved hand scant inches to place it squarely—scandalously—upon her breast. ―This, sweeting, is an ‗improper advance.‘ Feel free to chide me for it.‖ She opened her mouth to do that very thing. Then he began rubbing in exquisitely slow, tempting circles, and she couldn‘t form any word or thought that didn‘t involve him continuing that intriguing motion. ―You like that, don‘t you?‖ There was triumph in the words whispered hot against her ear. ―You like having my hands on you. Say it.‖ ―I-I can‘t…‖ Because then he‘d win. She couldn‘t stand letting the wretched liar win. Yet she also couldn‘t wait to see what outrageous thing he‘d do next, what naughty touches he‘d use to sway her. Why not see? At least then she‘d know. She‘d get to

~ 157 ~ taste the forbidden fruit he‘d dangled in front of her two years ago, then snatched away. After that, she‘d have a perfectly good reason to slap him and thrust him away. And she would. Afterward. As if he read her very thoughts, he stripped off his gloves, then slid both bare hands over her clothed breasts to engage in the most daring caresses. His palms fondled her artfully, his fingers squeezed and thumbed and stroked through the muslin until she wanted to die from the thrill. He made her want things, unbelievable, wicked things…He made her ache to tear her clothes off to feel those expert hands on her naked skin. On her nipples, yes, and her belly and… My oh my oh my. She ought to stop him. Really. Now… ―You like having me touch you, my naughty angel. Admit it.‖ ―Sebastian…‖ she whispered, trying for a protest, but managing only a demand. He chuckled. ―I know why you can‘t admit it in words. Why you‘ve been toying with me all this time, refusing to admit you want me.‖ She froze. Had he guessed what she‘d been trying to do? ―Wh-why?‖ ―Because of what my foolish brother did to you by gaining your affections and then abandoning you.‖ He nibbled her earlobe. ―But I won‘t abandon you like Morgan. If he‘d had an ounce of sense, he wouldn‘t have either. He‘d have ridden off with you when he had the chance and carried you straight to Gretna Green. He was a fool not to.‖ His words trickled into her consciousness, rending the sensual haze of his caresses. Drat him for saying such things now, when it was too late! How dared he maintain the pretense, thinking he could make it all right with a few kisses and sweet words? She wriggled out of his too tempting arms and turned to face him, eyes blazing. ―Yes, ‗Morgan‘ was a fool. You‘re right about that. And it cost him his chance with me.‖ The sheer force of his will glimmered in his midnight black eyes. ―But it won‘t cost me my chance.‖ He reached for her. ―I won‘t allow it.‖

~ 158 ~

―A pox on you, Sebastian—‖ He stopped her with a raw, needy kiss, his hands gripping her arms to hold her still. Angry resentment pounded through her, but though she fisted her hands against his chest and tried to shove him away, he didn‘t let go. He just kept his clever mouth on hers, wearing down her resistance, twisting her fury into something more fiery, more dangerous. By the time he backed her against the marble pedestal and deepened the kiss, she‘d completely forgotten why she shouldn‘t let him. So of course, the devil took full advantage. With a groan, he drove his tongue into her mouth, demanding a response. And he got one, too. She clung to his lapels like a woman drowning in treacherous waters. The marble edge of the pedestal dug into her back, yet all she felt was his hungry mouth feeding on hers. When he had her weak-kneed and limp, he drew back. Watery sunlight filtered down from the glass ceiling to light his yearning expression. Tugging loose the fichu tucked into her bodice, he tossed it beyond her reach when she made a grab for it. ―Admit that you want me, sweeting. Or you‘ll force me to take extreme measures.‖ A thrill coursed through her. ―Like what?‖ His eyes darkened. ―Like this.‖ He skimmed his knuckles lightly over the swells of her breasts, then had the audacity to dip one finger beneath the bodice to graze her nipple, back and forth until it grew tight and hard. ―Stop that!‖ ―Not until you confess. You have two choices—tell me you despise me or admit that you want me. Either choice will gain you your freedom. Otherwise…‖ ―O-otherwise?‖ she stammered, intrigued despite her better judgment. ―More extreme measures, of course.‖ Flashing her a dark smile, he reached behind her to remove the potted begonia from the wide marble pedestal. Like an idiot, she just gaped at him as he set it on the floor. Then with no more warning than that, he straightened and lifted her onto the marble.

~ 159 ~ ―What do you think you‘re doing?‖ she hissed, taken by surprise. There was probably dirt on top of this thing, and bugs and— He pressed into the gap he‘d created between her legs, opening them so he could lean into her and pin her skirts to the marble. Within seconds, he had her trapped. ―I‘m putting you on a pedestal, Aphrodite. Where every goddess belongs.‖ ―I am not a goddess, drat it!‖ She shoved at his chest, but it was as unyielding as it was infernally broad. ―If I were, I‘d already have had my minions banish you to the underworld, where you belong!‖ With an outrageous grin, he reached behind her to unclasp her gown‘s top button. ―You can‘t. I‘m Hephaestus, remember? Goddesses can‘t banish gods to the underworld.‖ ―Sebastian, desist at once!‖ she protested, grabbing hold of his arms. But among the many traits he had in common with that blasted smithy god was strength and nimble fingers. She felt her gown give way a little even as she pushed at his too brawny arms. He paused in unbuttoning her gown to smile roguishly. ―Tell me you want me.‖ She tipped up her chin. ―No.‖ Because if she did, he‘d most certainly press his advantage. Besides, he was only bluffing. At heart, Sebastian was a gentleman. He wouldn‘t actually do anything truly wicked to her, would he? Another button came loose. Perhaps he would, after all. ―Come now, sweeting,‖ he prodded. ―It‘s just four words. ‗I want you, Sebastian.‘ Very simple. And you know it‘s true.‖ ―It is not!‖ she protested. ―Stubborn minx.‖ He slid her gown off her shoulders. This called for different tactics. ―I thought you were supposed to be the responsible twin, the one who restored Charnwood on his own, the one who looks after old women and rascal brothers—‖

~ 160 ~ His mouth closed over hers, wild and angry now. He kissed her until her head reeled, and when he drew back, she gazed at him through slumberous eyes. It took several moments for her to clear the cobwebs from her brain, but when she did, it was to find him untying her chemise. His fierce gaze swept her face. ―I‘m tired of being the responsible twin. What has it gained me? A monk‘s life in a mansion full of servants who fear me. And the one woman I desire won‘t admit she desires me unless I prove as much a rascal as Morgan. Very well, if it‘s the reckless adventurer you want, then by thunder, you‘ll have him.‖ Suddenly, he pulled the edge of her gown and chemise down enough for one breast to spring free, then bent to flick his tongue over her nipple. She gaped at him in pure disbelief. ―That is not…proper,‖ she choked out. He chuckled. ―No. And neither is this.‖ Then his mouth closed around her breast. ―Oh…my…word…‖ she whispered as he began to suck and tease and do the most amazing things to her nipple with his tongue. ―Goodness gracious…you shouldn‘t…you mustn‘t…have you lost your mind?‖ He tore his mouth free long enough to grin up at her. ―Absolutely. I‘m operating purely on instinct now. You should try it.‖ She didn‘t dare, not when instinct produced such tempting sensations. She gathered breath to protest, but it was too late. His mouth had returned to caressing her naked breast in the most delightful fashion. Hardly daring to move, she stared down at the unreal image of his head at her breast. All her half protests died in her throat. He looked so very blissful with his eyes closed as he sucked and tongued her flesh. How intimate this was, as intimate as she‘d wanted him to be two years ago. And much more exciting than she‘d imagined in her vague and formless dreams. While she watched in utter fascination, he slid his hand inside her chemise to free her other breast, then fondled it shamelessly, rolling the nipple gently between his fingers as his teeth tugged at the other. A thrill of expectation coursed right down to her belly, startling an ache between her legs.

~ 161 ~

He straightened to stare at her, his free hand taking over for his mouth on her breast. ―Morgan may have been the reckless one, but I‘ll wager he never did this, never touched you like this.‖ ―You know he didn‘t,‖ she breathed. ―He was a fool. To have a goddess in his hands and throw her away…an utter fool.‖ She tried to summon up her earlier anger at him, but the regret in his words was so palpable, so genuine that she couldn‘t. ―I‘ll make you forget what happened back then, sweeting,‖ he whispered. ―I‘ll make you admit that it‘s me you want. Me, Sebastian.‖ Poor man. Couldn‘t he see that she wanted both? God help her, but she was just that greedy. She wanted the dependable Lord Templemore and the reckless Morgan who‘d carried her off. Despite Morgan‘s actions. Despite Sebastian‘s lies. ―Because God knows I want you,‖ he added. Was that all a lie, too? ―Why? Why do you want me?‖ ―Because you‘re soft. And sweet.‖ He bent to skim his open mouth along her jaw. ―You make me forget I‘m supposed to be responsible and respectable.‖ One of his hands left her breast to drag her skirt and petticoat up her leg. ―Because when there‘s nothing but winter all around, with you it‘s always spring.‖ His hand swept her thigh, and she quivered everywhere he touched. ―Oh, you are…much too good at this,‖ she murmured as his lips brushed kisses over her cheek. ―At what? The compliments? Or the touching and kissing?‖ ―All of it.‖ ―Better than Morgan?‖ He nuzzled her ear.

~ 162 ~ ―I wouldn‘t go that far,‖ she said, to provoke him. She should have known better; he only took it as a challenge. His hand at her thigh slid over her drawers and then inside the slit. ―Ah, but I‘m not done, sweeting.‖ His thumb sank into her private nest of hair, searching out a secret place that he rubbed, making her jerk upright on the pedestal. ―Goodness gracious, Sebastian!‖ She‘d never felt anything so shocking in all her life! She grabbed his forearm in a vain attempt to halt his caresses. ―I may be naive, but I know you aren‘t supposed to do that.‖ The clever scoundrel had the audacity to smile, then thumb her again, wringing a sigh from her. ―Tell me you want me, sweeting. Say the words, and I‘ll stop.‖ She didn‘t want him to stop. Indeed, her hand dug into his forearm, keeping him there. Oh, she was wicked, so very wicked. His smile widened. ―You like that, don‘t you. No point in denying it.‖ As if she could. One hand teased her breast, the other inside her drawers made her insane…what was there to deny? He stared down at her, his muscles taut as he searched her face. ―Oh yes, you like it. I can feel that you do. You‘re so warm and wet, my naughty goddess.‖ Wet? How did he know about…Oh, of course he knew. His thumb pressed against the very intimate place where she felt slick and hot and eager. Then suddenly, it wasn‘t just his thumb stroking her, but his finger, and it was sliding up inside her… ―Dear me…‖ she moaned. ―What in creation do you think you‘re doing?‖ ―You don‘t like it?‖ He stroked deeply, making her quake and quiver. Of course she liked it. ―I shouldn‘t like it.‖ ―I don‘t know why the devil not,‖ he growled. ―God knows I do.‖ Then he was kissing her…long, drugging kisses. His finger delved inside her in the most astonishing manner, in and out, while his thumb played over some tight nodule of flesh she‘d never even known was there. Certainly she‘d never known that any part of her could feel like that.

~ 163 ~

He dragged his lips from hers to murmur, ―Am I reckless enough for you?‖ ―Yes, oh yes…‖ His hand on her breast caressed her with a fine precision. He was working her, molding her, and shaping her with such exquisite care that she began to lose all sense of time and self. She knew only the reality of his finger inside her, of his hands awakening her skin to hitherto unknown delights. ―Is it Morgan you‘re thinking of?‖ he demanded. She couldn‘t speak, could only shake her head no. ―Who is it you want, sweeting? Say it, damn you!‖ She keened his name, low and urgent, over and over until he smothered her mouth triumphantly with a kiss. Then he worked her in earnest, coaxing from her body some hidden wildness she‘d kept secret even from herself. Like a god, he breathed life into her body, an act of creation so delicious that she leaped to be clay in his hands. Soon her own hands crawled up his sleeves to clutch his shoulders, and her hips undulated against his fingers with a nameless wanting that was building, building… ―Yes,‖ he rasped, ―reach for it, my Aphrodite…reach…‖ That‘s when she shattered, so utterly and delightfully that her cry echoed off the glass ceiling above and the brick walls surrounding them. ―Dear me, Sebastian…‖ she breathed as her body throbbed with the most luxurious enjoyment she‘d ever known. Then she sank into a blissful torpor, oblivious to everything but the lingering pleasure of his hands still touching her. What had he done to her? How he had done it? And when would he do it again? That truly was a scandalous thought. He withdrew his hand from between her legs and lowered her skirts, though the one fondling her breast continued the motion. Her breathing slowed, but his seemed to quicken as he feathered kisses along her cheekbone.

~ 164 ~

―You liked that, didn‘t you?‖ ―Oh yes.‖ She could hardly deny it. He‘d have to be blind and deaf not to know. ―And just so you won‘t lie about it ever again, I want the words. Admit that I gave you pleasure, that I—not Morgan—managed it. I deserve to hear the words.‖ It was such a typically arrogant statement, the kind that only Sebastian would make. ―Why, so you can control me as you control everybody else in your dominion?‖ Drawing back, he gave a wry laugh. ―I only wish I could. But I can‘t even control myself when I‘m around you—how in God‘s name do you think I could control you?‖ He grabbed her hand and flattened it on the fall of his trousers. The firm bulge inside leaped under her touch, making her gaze at him wide-eyed. ―You see?‖ he said hoarsely. ―My poor John Thomas has been uncontrollable ever since you showed up here.‖ ―Your…John Thomas?‖ ―This, sweeting, this.‖ His hand pressed her fingers around the hard ridge. ―The sign that a man wants you.‖ He released her, but curiosity kept her from taking back her hand. So this was a man‘s ―thing.‖ She would never have guessed that mere flesh could get so firm. And it seemed awfully large for something meant to lie between a man‘s legs. When she swept her fingers along it, exploring him as he‘d done to her, he groaned and pushed himself into her hand. ―Yes, like that…yes. Touch me. I‘ve imagined you touching me for years.‖ ―Have you?‖ she said coyly and stroked him again. It was nice to have power over him for once. Then slowly his words sank in. Her heart began to pound. ―For years?‖ she prodded, though she continued to stroke him. ―Years, Sebastian?‖

~ 165 ~ His eyes were shut, his expression rapt. ―Since the day I…first saw you in that theater.‖ The first time they‘d met had been at the theater in Stratford. As victory swelled through her blood, she broke into a smile. ―Oh, Sebastian, I‘ve got you at last.‖

~ 166 ~

Chapter 12 ‘A guilty conscience needs no accuser.’ - English proverb written on a list once mounted on the Templemore schoolroom wall

Sebastian‘s eyes shot open when he heard the peculiar note of triumph in Juliet‘s voice. His cock was still in her hand, and at first he thought that‘s what she meant. Then the fever in his blood cooled, he saw her exultant look, and it dawned on him what he‘d said. About the theater. ―You can‘t deny it now,‖ she said. Drawing back her hand, she smiled with feminine glee. ―You can‘t.‖ A cold reality washed over him that froze his ardor as surely as if she‘d doused him in snow. She knew. She really knew. And he‘d accused her family of being oblivious to her abilities! She was far more sly and disarming than he‘d given her credit for. All these little games and lessons…they hadn‘t been about attraction, not for her. The devious baggage had been setting traps, waiting for him to step into one and hang himself. And he‘d played right into her hands. Why hadn‘t he seen what she was about until now? What had blinded him? His own hubris, that‘s what. And the needs of his deuced John Thomas, the same thing that had proved his father‘s downfall. By thunder, it would not prove his. ―What are you talking about?‖ he said to buy himself time while he searched for how to cover his blunder. ―Deny what?‖ Her eyes gleamed. ―You can‘t play dumb this time, you rogue. You know what. You‘ve only seen me in a theater once in your life.‖ Her mention of the theater sparked the solution to his blunder. He nearly sagged against the table with relief. ―Yes, that‘s true. But I didn‘t know you saw me.‖

~ 167 ~ Her giddy smile faded. ―What? Of course I saw you. That‘s when we met, when we talked about the play and—‖ ―Talked about the play?‖ He forced himself to speak the words he knew would infuriate her. ―We never spoke. I saw you from afar two years ago when we were both in London. We didn‘t meet, but I saw you from my box. You wouldn‘t remember it, of course, and indeed I hadn‘t remembered it either until today but—‖ ―You…you…‖ she sputtered. ―How dare you?‖ She shoved him hard, and instinctively he backed away to let her leap down from the pedestal. With alarming frenzy, she fastened her chemise, then began struggling with the buttons of her gown. ―You don‘t intend to claim…surely after this you can‘t still—‖ She glanced up at him, eyes bleak with hurt. ―How could you? How could you stand here kissing me and touching me, then turn around and lie to my face when…‖ She trailed off, her breath coming in great tearful gasps that drove out all his own anger. He could handle her fury at being thwarted in her aims. But to see her wounded feelings—oh Christ, that cut him to the soul. Still, he couldn‘t take back the words. He didn‘t dare bring out into the open the reality of what they‘d been to each other before. Because once he did, everything would change, and he couldn‘t predict how. The likelihood that knowing the truth would provoke her to vengeance seemed more real now than it had scant moments ago. He‘d thought she was warming to him. Now he knew this had been a ploy to make him lower his guard and reveal himself. She could have only one reason for such measures—revenge. He‘d underestimated her before. He wouldn‘t do it again. ―I don‘t…know what you‘re talking about.‖ Every word was wrenched from somewhere inside his gut. The most painful irony was that he was telling the truth about the theater. He had seen her in London two years ago, after the kidnapping, wanting to assure himself that she was well. Or so he‘d told himself. What he‘d wanted was a glimpse of her, any glimpse at all, no matter how imperfect. Filled with regret for what might have been, he‘d lurked in a private box and watched a succession of young idiots approach her seeking introductions, all of

~ 168 ~ whom he‘d wanted to strangle for being able to speak to her and flirt with her when he couldn‘t, when he dared not. ―Truly, Juliet, the only time I ever saw you in a theater—‖ he began. ―No, don‘t,‖ she said in a small, heart-ripping voice as she returned to struggling with her buttons. ―Here, let me.‖ He needed something to distract him from the pain on her face. And the uneasy sense that he was blundering somehow. Turning her around, he fastened her buttons. ―I saw you in London, you know. I did.‖ ―Stop it! I can‘t bear to hear your lies when I know the truth. When we both know the truth. It was hard enough before, but I can‘t pretend anymore.‖ She started to walk away, but her words had rekindled his own feelings of betrayal. He caught her arm to stay her. ―So all your coy games and flirtations and response to my kisses were merely your attempt to prove that I‘m Morgan, weren‘t they?‖ ―No!‖ ―All you wanted from me was some heedless statement that would prove your point. And for that you were willing to let me—‖ He tamped down the bitterness souring his soul. ―You‘re more heartless than I realized, Juliet.‖ Lifting her face, she showed him a countenance etched with hurt. ―No more than you. Don‘t you think I know why you practiced your seductions on me?‖ He blinked. Had she guessed that he‘d been courting her? ―What do you mean?‖ ―I‘m not an idiot. I quickly figured out that you wanted to distract me from my purpose, to…to wrap me so thoroughly in your spell again that I‘d forget what I came here for. But I didn‘t care. Not when you were kissing me.‖ Her voice dropped to a whisper. ―You‘re a clever rogue, Sebastian. You always were. And you know too well how to make a woman want you. I was so affected that if you‘d acknowledged the truth just now, I might have forgiven all.‖ She shook her head blindly. ―But I‘ll never forgive you for this. Never.‖ Turning away, she darted up the steps for the door.

~ 169 ~ All he could do was stand there, fists clenching, while she fled into the hall. I didn’t care. Not when you were kissing me. Devil take her for that. She‘d been practicing her own seductions, and she tried to make him feel guilty for his? At least he‘d had marriage in mind. All she‘d had was vengeance. Though he couldn‘t blame her; God knew she had good reason. And it wasn‘t as if he‘d told her he wanted to marry her. He‘d been so busy trying to keep from scaring her off that he hadn‘t considered how she‘d regard his advances. Especially since she‘d never stopped knowing he was her kidnapper. The worst of it was, if he had it to do all over again, he would in a heartbeat, just to see her face alight with pleasure, feel her flesh warm and soft beneath his fingers, have her tremble in his arms. By thunder, she‘d truly gotten to him. Spearing his hands through his hair, he paced a circle around the pedestal. What was he to do now? The door to the conservatory slammed shut, and he jerked his head up to find that his uncle had entered the room. ―What‘s going on, Sebastian?‖ Uncle Lew demanded. ―Lady Juliet just nearly knocked me over in the hall in her eagerness to leave. She was so shaken I was afraid to let her return to Charnwood Hall in the sleigh without an escort, but she insisted. I thought you‘d both left long ago, but apparently I misjudged your character. What the hell did you do to her?‖ ―Nothing.‖ He refused to discuss Juliet with Uncle Lew. ―Women do not generally flee my house in tears for ‗nothing.‘‖ His head shot up. ―She was crying?‖ ―I believe that‘s what they call it when water courses down one‘s cheeks and the nose turns a bright red,‖ his uncle snapped as he stalked down the marble steps. ―Very funny,‖ Sebastian growled. I’ll never forgive you for this. Never. He tried— and failed—to ignore the guilt trammeling his conscience. ―I didn‘t think I‘d ever see the day when a nephew of mine drove a lady to tears.‖

~ 170 ~ ―There‘s a first time for everything.‖ Striding up to him, his uncle grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. ―Good God, have you no soul?‖ Sebastian shoved him away. ―Deuce take it, she wants me hanged! How do you expect me to react?‖ Uncle Lew blinked, then backed up a step. ―What do you mean?‖ ―I mean, she knows I‘m her kidnapper. Not just suspects. Knows.‖ ―You are sure?‖ ―Yes. She‘s been trying for the past two days to trick me into confessing it.‖ ―Then why the bloody hell have you been spending time with her? You told me to keep her away, and the next thing I know you‘re showing up here with her—‖ ―She came to my workshop that first night they arrived, after you left Charnwood Hall. She accused me, and I…‖ Let my attraction to her govern my actions. ―I convinced her that she was wrong. Or I thought I convinced her. I thought I was safe.‖ He dragged in a harsh breath. ―Obviously, I‘m more easily taken in by sweet-faced beauties than I realized. I underestimated her.‖ ―You? Make an error of judgment? Never!‖ Sebastian rapidly tired of his uncle‘s sarcasm. ―Apparently, you find the possibility of my being hanged amusing.‖ His uncle snorted. ―She does not want you to hang. The girl is already half in love with you.‖ When the very word love made his pulse pound, he scowled, both at his uncle‘s blindness and his own. ―Be sure to have that carved on my tombstone.‖ ―You impudent scapegrace—has it not occurred to you why she came here?‖ ―I know why. For my blood, and she‘ll do what she must to get it.‖

~ 171 ~ Uncle Lew crossed his arms over his chest. ―I think you are wrong. All she wants is the truth. Because you broke her heart when you abandoned her. It took me only one short conversation to deduce that. She wants to hear why you did it. And she deserves to know. You ought to tell her. It‘s the right thing to do.‖ ―Don‘t you think I realize that?‖ He whirled away from his uncle. ―I want to tell her so badly I can taste it.‖ He planted his hands on the pedestal, staring blindly across at a jungle of rose vines climbing trellises. Some Eden this turned out to be. ―But I can‘t risk it when her intentions are so uncertain. Too much is at stake, both for me and for Morgan.‖ ―Then perhaps you should not be seducing the young lady in my conservatory. Or did you think seduction would make her forget what you owe her?‖ He stiffened. He couldn‘t look at his uncle. The man would read his guilt in his face. ―What makes you think I was seducing her?‖ ―My favorite begonia is on the floor, Lady Juliet‘s fichu is draped over my fern, your gloves are on the pedestal, and when she left, she looked decidedly disheveled.‖ He winced. ―I…she…it‘s not what you think.‖ ―I think you have decided to follow in your father‘s footsteps.‖ A blinding fury possessed him, but when he spun around to find his uncle regarding him smugly, he realized there was someone else he tended to underestimate. It took a herculean will to regain control over his anger. ―I meant to court her,‖ he said tersely. ―I thought marrying her would make everything right.‖ ―Was seducing her supposed to further your courtship?‖ ―I was not—‖ He scrubbed his hand over his face. ―We were talking. About the gossip in London. One thing led to another and…we got carried away.‖ Uncle Lew raised an eyebrow. ―Do tell. My nephew making an error in judgment and getting carried away, all in one day. Will wonders never cease.‖

~ 172 ~ ―You‘re not making this any easier,‖ Sebastian snapped. ―I am not trying to, my boy.‖ He strolled over to the benches that lined the circular area and sat down. ―Since Lady Juliet‘s guardians seem unaware of what you two have been doing, I am trying to step in on her behalf, to discern what your intentions are. Because I find that I like the young lady quite a lot. And I should hate to see you ruin her life twice.‖ ―I don‘t wish to ruin her life. Until today, I wanted to marry her.‖ ―So you could defuse her need for vengeance and assuage your own guilt, I suppose. How crafty of you.‖ Put like that, his aims sounded less than admirable. ―Those weren‘t the only reasons.‖ He wet his dry lips. Admitting these things to his uncle was hard, yet he hated being thought the same sort of seducer his father had been. ―I‘d forgotten how delightful she can be. You didn‘t know her before, but sometimes I glimpse the younger Juliet, the one who smiled at everyone, welcomed every attention, anticipated every need.‖ ―If that was the younger Juliet, I would say she has not changed that much. When she is not plaguing me with questions about you, she is a perfectly charming woman.‖ ―Charming, perhaps, but distrustful. She used to be open and artless, never suspicious of anyone. How the devil do you think I carried her away so effortlessly?‖ He glanced away. ―And now she suspects everyone. Especially me. It makes her unpredictable and dangerous. She‘ll use any deceit to unmask me.‖ ―That is your own fault. You taught her that men are betrayers, so what else can she do but use deceit to learn the truth?‖ He had a point. ―That‘s why I was foolish to think courtship would work.‖ He paced back and forth, wracked by restless energy. ―She‘ll never trust me, and I can never trust her. Even if she agreed to marry me, it would only be another of her little ploys. My first instinct was right—I should stay the devil away from her until the Knightons leave. Knighton has already said he doesn‘t believe her suspicions, so as long as I‘m not around for her to trick into admitting I was her kidnapper, there‘s nothing she can do.‖

~ 173 ~ His uncle chuckled. ―You weren‘t terribly successful in staying away from her before. I suspect you won‘t manage it any better this time.‖ He bristled. ―And why not?‖ ―You want her. That changes everything. Because once a man wants a woman, he will do any number of foolish things to secure her.‖ Like risk putting his neck in a noose. He shook off the thought. ―I‘m not my father. I can control my physical urges.‖ Uncle Lew idly stroked the ivy streaming over one end of the bench. ―I am by no means certain that is true. But even if it is, the physical urges are not what will trap you. It is the other urges that will prove your downfall.‖ ―What other urges?‖ ―The temptation of having a soft woman to confide in. The lure of a companion who understands you. The need for love.‖ He shook his head. ―Then you have naught to worry about. I outgrew the need for love the day I discovered what havoc it wrought in the life of my mother—your sister. It won‘t govern my own actions.‖ ―One does not outgrow the need for love, my dear nephew. One merely twists it elsewhere, toward secondary passions.‖ Uncle Lew twined the green ivy around his gloved finger. ―But like a vine, it will always creep back around your heart when you least expect it, and if you do not take great care, it will seize such hold of you that only by satisfying the need can you cut yourself free.‖ That was precisely the possibility that alarmed him. ―You‘ve become tediously philosophical in your old age, Uncle Lew. Thank God one of us is immune to such sentimentality, or else we‘d all be lost and done for.‖ With that, he turned and strode out of the conservatory. So he didn‘t hear his uncle murmur, ―Who says you are not lost and done for already, my boy?‖

~ 174 ~

Chapter 13 ‘According as the man is, so must you humour him.’ - Terence‘s The Brothers, embroidered by Juliet Laverick on her personal washcloth at seventeen

A week later, Juliet paced her bedchamber, tired of plying her needle and ferreting out what little dirt she could find. She‘d run out of things to wipe, scour, or straighten. The silver, which had already been well polished, now reflected her image with startling clarity. She‘d even banished all dust from the canopied top of her bed. Thanks to Rosalind‘s scheme, sneaking out was nearly impossible. Somebody was always in the halls, and the servants had been told she was ill. Only Rosalind‘s maid had been taken into their confidence, since she was supposedly taking care of Juliet. So after a week Juliet was going steadily insane, with no one to talk to but her sister and Polly. It was her own fault, too. She‘d driven Sebastian out of her reach by her emotional outburst at their last encounter. He‘d avoided her entirely all week. Even if she could find him, he‘d never confess now. And she couldn‘t find him. She‘d tried sending notes, saying that they needed to speak. He ignored them. When she sneaked out at night, he was nowhere to be found. Once she‘d even approached his bedchamber, but he hadn‘t been there. That perturbed her more than she‘d like. Although he sometimes showed up at meals, according to Rosalind, he must be spending the rest of his time elsewhere. At Foxglen, perhaps? Or with a friend? She hadn‘t thought of it until now, but he might have a mistress in town. He might be in another woman‘s bedchamber at this very moment, fondling and kissing her and…

~ 175 ~ Tears welled in her eyes, and she wiped them away viciously. She didn‘t care if he was! She didn‘t! Never mind that after being in his pockets for two days, it felt odd to go a week without him. Never mind that lately she ate little and slept less. And when she did sleep, she had shocking, fantastical dreams: of rolling about naked in rose petals on the floor of the conservatory. Or ivy vines twining up her thighs, past her belly and over her breasts until suddenly they weren‘t ivy at all, but plundering fingers and hot, caressing lips that woke her from her fevered state to find herself mashing her pillow in her arms. Drat the wretch! It had taken her two years to banish him from her dreams, and now he thought he could creep in again when her back was turned. He had no right! The door to her bedchamber banged open, startling her. She made a belated leap for her bed, but only landed sprawling across it as her sister entered. ―Not a very convincing sickbed performance,‖ Rosalind snapped. ―It‘s a good thing Griff is a gentleman and would never barge in here without knocking.‖ Juliet sat up and scowled. ―A pity that his wife doesn‘t share his good breeding.‖ ―Indeed it is.‖ Not the least affronted, Rosalind plopped down on the end of the bed. ―Lord, he‘s driving me insane.‖ ―Is he?‖ Then at least she had company in her misery. ―Him and his bloody hot water. He grumbles about his bath. He grumbles about your being ‗sick.‘ He grumbles about Lord Templemore‘s absences from most of our meals, because he‘s certain that any man who doesn‘t dine with his guests is off somewhere plotting trouble.‖ Griff was only half wrong. Sebastian was actually off somewhere avoiding trouble. ―He even grumbles about Mr. Pryce, who‘s perfectly amiable, but who gained Griff‘s enmity solely by being related to the ‗untrustworthy‘ Lord Templemore. I‘m beginning to think this was an awful idea.‖ ―Good. If I have to spend one more day in this bedchamber, lovely as it is, I shall go mad. It‘s time for my miraculous recovery.‖

~ 176 ~ ―It is not! My courses would normally come next week, and I refuse to leave Shropshire until I see if any of this works. I may have to consult Winnie again.‖ With a groan, Juliet dropped back against the pillows. ―Then for goodness sake, find some way to get me out of this room for a while.‖ Find me a way to see Sebastian. Rosalind smiled. ―Actually, that‘s why I‘m here. I‘ve persuaded Griff to go to town for the day. I said I wanted to shop. Lord knows there‘s probably nothing much in Llanbrooke, but I told him I needed an outing, and he agreed. So we‘re heading off as soon as I finish looking in on my poor ill sister.‖ ―What good does it do me if you go to town? The servants are everywhere, so I‘m virtually a prisoner.‖ Mischief glinted in Rosalind‘s eyes. ―I had the groom saddle a horse for Polly. I told him I needed my maid to ride over to Winnie‘s cottage. But you can do it instead. Only you don‘t have to go to Winnie‘s—you can go where you please. Polly‘s waiting for you with the horse at that side door to the orangery. You know the one?‖ ―I think so.‖ Her blood began to pound. Freedom! ―This time of day there‘s no one on the backstairs on this wing. I‘ve taken careful note of their movements. So you can slip out without being noticed.‖ Leave it to Rosalind to spring her from prison. ―Thank you,‖ Juliet said. ―Another day of brushing dust out of the canopy fringe, and you‘d have to cart me off to Bedlam.‖ ―Do be careful. The snow‘s gone, but you don‘t know the area, and—‖ ―For goodness sake, just go. Go! Enjoy your time with Griff. I‘ll be fine.‖ ―I‘m sure you will.‖ Rosalind stood and headed for the door. ―One more thing. If you want company, you might ride to that quaint cottage we saw the other day. I believe that‘s where Lord Templemore has gone to hide from Griff‘s foul temper.‖ Juliet sucked in a breath. Of course! She should have thought of it sooner. Where else but to his forge did Hephaestus retreat when besieged by enemies?

~ 177 ~

Then she caught Rosalind‘s questioning glance, and the blood rose in her cheeks. ―Why would I want Lord Templemore‘s company? Or be so brazen as to seek him out?‖ ―I‘m not saying to go alone, silly. Take Polly with you. But the man did promise to keep you busy while you were in seclusion, and from what I can see he‘s reneged on his promise most abominably. Did the two of you argue?‖ How much should she reveal? If Rosalind were to realize what she and Sebastian had been doing, she‘d be locking the bedroom doors, not setting her free. ―Yes, we did argue. At Foxglen. And…er…he‘s been avoiding me ever since.‖ Rosalind scrutinized her. ―Then perhaps you should make it up with him.‖ ―Why?‖ ―Because you like the man, admit it. And God knows he likes you.‖ She swallowed, wishing she could confide all her confused feelings to her sister. But Rosalind wouldn‘t understand. She didn‘t even believe Sebastian to be Morgan. Still, Juliet couldn‘t let her go on thinking these foolish things about him. ―Lord Templemore doesn‘t like me, not the way you mean. He‘s merely being polite, to make up for what his brother did to me.‖ With a shake of her head, Rosalind returned to sit beside Juliet. ―When a man‘s being polite, he doesn‘t follow a woman‘s every move with his eyes, nor disrupt his entire household on behalf of her sister. He doesn‘t drive out at dawn in the snow just to be with her, and he certainly doesn‘t make her blush over talk of checkmates.‖ She glanced up, startled. ―Griff told me about finding the two of you alone in the drawing room. From what he said and what Lord Templemore mentioned the next day about chess, I‘d wager that the two of you were not merely moving pieces about on a board.‖

~ 178 ~ To Juliet‘s annoyance, she colored right up to the roots of her hair. Rosalind chuckled. ―He‘s courting you, you ninny. Surely you figured that out.‖ Juliet gaped at her. ―No, he‘s not.‖ ―He most certainly is. Why else would he do all those things?‖ Because he wanted to unnerve her and distract her from finding out the truth. Then again, he could do that better by avoiding her, couldn‘t he? Yet he‘d readily agreed to her proposal that he give her lessons. Until this week, he‘d spent time with her at every opportunity. As Morgan, he ought to have stayed far away from her—as he‘d started out to do. Instead, he‘d kissed her and willingly walked into all her traps. ―You don‘t mind that he‘s courting you, do you?‖ Rosalind asked. ―I…I…don‘t know. Until this very moment, I didn‘t think he was.‖ ―I assumed that you felt some attraction to him as well. I‘ve never seen you respond to a man as you do to him. With all the others, you seemed bored or faintly annoyed, but he makes you…well, glow. You do like him, don‘t you?‖ She‘d been so busy trying to resist his sensual pull that she hadn‘t bothered to think about whether she liked him. ―I don‘t dislike him,‖ she evaded. ―But he often infuriates me.‖ ―Then you do like him,‖ Rosalind said with a sly smile. ―That‘s how it starts.‖ You don‘t understand, she wanted to say. He denies our entire past together. Yet knowing that, she still missed him. She still longed to see him. ―I must go.‖ Rosalind patted her knee. ―Polly‘s waiting, so don‘t be too long.‖ After Rosalind left, Juliet dressed with particular care in her green velvet riding habit ornamented with gold cord and a small matching hat with gold tassels. She was probably being foolish. He probably wasn‘t even there. Rosalind was surely mistaken.

~ 179 ~ And if Rosalind was right? She paused in drawing on the matching half boots fringed in green. What if Rosalind was right about all of it? What if Sebastian really wanted to marry her? The warm thought seeped through her, insidious and seductive. Then she shook her head sternly. She mustn‘t let idle speculation tempt her from her purpose. If he‘d been courting her, it was for a treacherous reason—to ensure that she kept quiet about his identity, for example. He couldn‘t possibly have feelings for her. Beyond desire, of course. He admitted that he desired her, although that, too, was probably only because she‘d pricked his pride by criticizing his seduction skills. You’re more heartless than I realized, Juliet. His words thundered through her memory, lacerating her conscience. What had seemed an unfair accusation now rang true in light of what Rosalind had said. That wasn‘t the statement of a man who wanted only to prove his skills. With a coil of anxiety tightening in her belly, she fled her bedchamber prison. Was it possible that she‘d actually hurt him? For one moment in the conservatory— when the meaning of her accusations had dawned on him—she‘d glimpsed pain in his face. At the time, her own hurt had been too great to acknowledge his, but now she had to wonder… Spurred on by that thought, she hurried down the stairs and furtively threaded her way through the empty halls to the side door Rosalind had spoken of. Polly was waiting for her as Rosalind had promised, and in moments Juliet was mounted and away, without Polly. She didn‘t need the servant witnessing this confrontation, to be sure. What now? She finally had a chance to get Sebastian alone again, and she didn‘t know what to do with it. Rosalind‘s comments had thrown her off balance. If Sebastian truly cared for her, that changed matters considerably. What was she thinking? How could he possibly care for her? He continued to deny who he was, for goodness sake. He could hardly expect her to marry him when he wouldn‘t even admit whom she was marrying.

~ 180 ~ On the other hand, she hadn‘t exactly made it easy for him to confess. That first night, she‘d threatened to hold a pistol to his head. Later, she‘d refused to marry ―Morgan‖ under any circumstances. And last week, she‘d sworn never to forgive him. All without knowing the reasons for his actions. Her behavior had been understandable when she‘d first come here, full of righteous indignation, wounded from two years of abandonment and tormenting questions. But as she‘d come to know the kind of man he was—proud, responsible, overwhelmingly conscious of how scandal could wreck his family—she should have realized her mistake. In launching herself at him in anger, without stopping to think how he‘d view it, she‘d erected walls that made it impossible for him to confess anything. No wonder he‘d remained mute. Didn‘t he deserve the chance to speak without fear of reprisal? She stiffened in the saddle. Very well, she‘d give him that chance. She‘d try this again, without all the tricks and the anger. After all the games she‘d played, she had to change her pattern, rip out the old stitches. Neither of them had spoken an honest word from the beginning. She‘d sought to trap him; he‘d sought to allay her suspicions. But somebody had to start being honest, and it might as well be her. If he truly had felt something for her, then surely he still did. She must remind him of that. She must confess that she wanted to hear him out, that she cared for him, too. Perhaps then they could be honest with each other. And if he didn‘t care for her, after all? If it had been as she feared—all part of a scheme to distract her? She‘d deal with that when the time came. Worrying about it now would only lessen her resolve. With that, she spurred the horse to a trot along the broad path to the cottage. Without the snow to hamper her, she reached it in little time. She spotted the plume of smoke before she saw the cottage itself, and her gloved hands squeezed the reins. He was indeed here. She‘d have him to herself, so she must make good use of the opportunity. Moments later, she drew up in the clearing where sat the cottage and its outbuilding. Dismounting, she glanced around. A painted target was set up at one end. Sebastian‘s horse was tethered beneath a lean-to at the other, contentedly

~ 181 ~ munching hay. And the plume of smoke hadn‘t come from the cottage after all, but from the outbuilding. His forge. Of course. The doors and windows stood open, no doubt to release the heat from the fires. Tying off her horse at a nearby tree, she approached slowly, nervous now that she was here. Nor did the loud clang of metal against metal inside calm her agitation. When last she‘d seen him, they‘d both been angry. He probably still was, judging from how he‘d been avoiding her. And accosting an angry man with a hammer in an isolated place might not be the brightest idea she‘d ever had. Yet her other choice was to return to London without seeing him again, which was no choice at all. Squelching any misgivings, she walked in. A pleasant warmth engulfed her, a sharp contrast to the cold outside. Sebastian stood with his back to her at an oven, drawing out a glowing red object with iron tongs. She froze just inside the door when she realized he was naked from the waist up. Good Lord in heaven. Apparently he hadn‘t heard her enter over the roar of the fire, and she was in no hurry to alert him, not with such a magnificent display before her. She‘d never seen him shirtless, not even when they‘d eloped and certainly not since she‘d come here. This was one of those things an unmarried woman simply wasn‘t meant to see, yet she couldn‘t tear her eyes away. Damp, inky tendrils of hair clung to his neck. And what a sleek, fine neck it was, too, as beautifully made as the muscular shoulders flexing under their gloss of sweat and the well-defined sinews of his back. Then there was his nicely rounded bottom and thick, strong thighs so eloquently displayed by snug breeches. My oh my oh my. She swallowed hard. So this was how a man looked beneath the layers of coat and waistcoat. She wasn‘t sure why, but the very sight evoked an exotic quivering in the nether reaches of her belly. Knowing it was horribly wicked of her, she held her breath, willing him to turn around and show the rest of that impressive male physique. To her delight, he did, swinging the tongs around to dip the glowing object into a pail that lay between her

~ 182 ~ and him. It sizzled hotly, steam rising to veil him, but as the steam dispersed, she found herself staring at his sculpted chest with its smattering of black, curly hair. How would that taut skin feel beneath her fingers? Or her lips? She blushed at the thought, and that‘s when he lifted his head and saw her. His fabulous chest rose with his sharp intake of breath. ―What are you doing here?‖ The curt tone caught her off guard, and she wet her lips nervously. ―I…I…was looking for you.‖ ―Were you?‖ Eyes cool as chilled wine flicked over her. He lifted the tongs out of the bucket, then carried his object over to a high wooden table and dropped it there. Picking up a small hammer, he tapped with rhythmic, skilled blows, molding the metal to suit some inner design. ―That means you‘ve either come to your senses and recognized you were wrong. Or you‘re trying a new trick to get me to confess to Morgan‘s crime.‖ A week ago, the mere mention of ―Morgan‖ in third person would have sparked her temper. But that had been her problem all along—letting her anger keep her from asking reasonably for the truth. ―I‘m not wrong. But I‘ve given up on tricking you. You‘re obviously too clever for that.‖ He stopped tapping. ―Then why are you here?‖ She couldn‘t just blurt out what she wanted, not with him so hostile. Yet she must bridge the gap that he seemed determined not to cross. What did a woman do when she wanted a man to resume his courtship of her, aside from telling him right out? Why, she showed an interest in his endeavors. ―I‘d like you to teach me to shoot.‖ That got his attention. Slowly he faced her. With his forearm, he wiped the sweat from his brow, streaking soot across the already grimy skin and giving her a glimpse of hair-shadowed underarms. ―To shoot what?‖ ―What do you think? A pistol.‖ ―Why in God‘s name would you want that?‖ She thought fast. ―To have some means of protection from scoundrels in London.‖ His jaw tightened. ―You don‘t need protection. You have your family, remember?‖

~ 183 ~ ―All the same, I want to learn to shoot. And I want you to teach me.‖ ―No.‖ ―Why not? What can it hurt?‖ His harsh laugh reverberated in the room. ―You think I‘m the man who kidnapped you, yet you want me to put a gun in your hand? Do I look that insane?‖ ―Oh, for goodness sake, I‘m not going to shoot you.‖ ―I seem to recall something about your wanting me on my knees begging while you held a pistol to my head.‖ Dear me, all her rash comments were coming back to haunt her. ―I…um…might have exaggerated a little.‖ He lifted one eyebrow. ―What good would shooting you do, anyway?‖ she persisted. ―I can hardly prove you‘re my kidnapper if you‘re dead.‖ She tipped up her chin. ―Besides, you‘re only refusing to teach me because you‘re afraid you might let something slip again.‖ ―I didn‘t let anything slip before. I told you—‖ ―Yes, yes, you saw me in London. Nonsense.‖ She gritted her teeth. ―If you‘re not afraid of confessing something, then why not teach me?‖ He shrugged. ―Because I don‘t want to.‖ She stepped toward him and lowered her voice. ―Coward.‖ For a moment, the heat that flared in his eyes gave her hope. Then he banked it quickly and turned back to his work. ―Your little taunts no longer work on me, Lady Juliet. I‘m wise to the full range of your techniques. So you‘d best trot right back to Charnwood Hall before I throw you out of my forge.‖ Her heart sank. This wasn‘t going well at all. How could she ever break down the walls between them if he wouldn‘t even let her near?

~ 184 ~ She squared her shoulders. She wouldn‘t let it end like this. She simply would not. Scanning the room, she caught sight of exactly what she needed—a pistol lying on a table. Walking over to it, she picked it up. ―I suppose I could teach myself. I think I know how this works. Isn‘t this the cock? I know you pull it back, but as for loading—‖ ―Give me that!‖ He stalked over to snatch it from her hand. ―This is not a toy.‖ ―I know. And it would be far more helpful if I didn‘t have to blunder my way alone through learning to shoot, but I suppose I shall, since you won‘t help me. Knowing you, there are all manner of pistols in that cottage over there.‖ He eyed her warily. ―You wouldn‘t.‖ ―I‘ll be no bother, I promise,‖ she said brightly. ―I‘ll find a pistol and begin target practice on my own. Now does the gunpowder go into something near the cock or am I supposed to dribble it down inside the barrel?‖ He glared at her so ferociously that she half feared he‘d shoot her. Then he laid the pistol on the table and snapped, ―Go wait for me outside. You want to learn to shoot? Fine. I‘ll teach you. Give me a moment to wash up and dress.‖ ―Thank you,‖ she said primly, biting the inside of her lip to keep from smiling as she turned for the door. So he was wise to the full range of her techniques, was he? Well, the poor man hadn‘t seen anything yet.

~ 185 ~

Chapter 14 ‘Wisdom at times is found in folly.’ - Horace’s Odes, embroidered on a doll dress by Juliet Laverick for a servant’s child

With mixed feelings, Sebastian watched her stroll out into the clearing. The little minx had certainly played him well this time. He should have called her bluff, told her she was welcome to blow her head off with any of his pistols she preferred. But he hadn‘t. And why? Because, devil take her, after a week without her he‘d snatch any foolish, reckless chance to be near her again. He‘d suffered too many days of constant hard labor designed to pummel her out of his mind, all the while knowing she was somewhere in Charnwood cementing her hatred of him. He‘d lain too many nights awake and aroused, remembering her winsome smile, her luscious mouth, her little gasps of pleasure. And after those endless, agonizing nights, he‘d spent far too many dawns pacing outside her bedchamber, wondering why he couldn‘t simply walk in, waken her with a kiss, tell her all, and order her to marry him. Uncle Lew was right—he could no more stay away from Juliet than he could give up Charnwood. That‘s why he‘d started spending his time out here, far from temptation. And she was right, too—he was afraid of letting something slip. He was afraid of letting everything slip. All because he wanted her, because he was rapidly sliding into the abyss that had swallowed up his foolish father. Oh, and didn‘t she know his weakness, too, coming here in all her splendor to torture him. Look at her standing in the clearing—a golden Greek goddess in apple

~ 186 ~ green, spreading spring with every sunny smile. Unfortunately, Greek goddesses had a dark side, and he‘d uncovered hers. So what trick did she have up her gold-bedecked sleeve this time? Why—though his mind screamed, ―Run!‖—was he standing here waiting to find out? Because he was curious. Because he could never resist a challenge. Because he wanted her so badly he‘d risk anything for an afternoon with her. Tearing his gaze from the open door, he doused the fire in the forge, then hurried to the basin to scrub off soot and grime. He dragged on a shirt and tucked it into his breeches hastily. On his way out the door, he stopped at his gun cabinet, unlocked it, and withdrew a case of dueling pistols. By the time he joined her, she was humming tunelessly to herself, as if ladies took lessons in shooting from half-dressed rogues every day, as if nothing else had ever passed between them. Good. If they could be civil and no more, perhaps he‘d make it through this without wanting to strangle her…or drag her into his arms and kiss every sweet inch of her delectable body. She turned as he approached, and her gaze fixed on the open neck of his shirt. ―I thought you were going to dress.‖ ―This is as much as I wear when I‘m working. If you expected formal attire, my lady, you shouldn‘t have come.‖ ―It‘s fine.‖ Her gaze drifted down the front of him, and she colored inexplicably. ―Perfectly fine.‖ Opening the pistol case, he held it out to her. ―Your weapon, madam.‖ She stared into the case, a look of unease spreading over her face. ―Don‘t you have any that are smaller?‖ ―You are certainly finicky today. Perhaps you‘d prefer a slingshot.‖

~ 187 ~ Her gaze snapped to his. ―I was merely thinking that I have no reticule large enough to contain a pistol of this size.‖ A reluctant smile touched his lips. ―No, I don‘t suppose you have. But there are pocket pistols. I just don‘t have one ready to hand, since I prefer larger guns.‖ ―Why doesn‘t that surprise me?‖ Removing her pretty kid gloves, she tucked them in her skirt pocket, then snatched the pistol from the case. ―Careful now. You never know when a gun is loaded, and flintlocks are notoriously jumpy. You wouldn‘t want it to go off before you‘re ready.‖ Brow tightening in great solemnity, she nodded. She was taking this seriously, and he pitied any London gentleman who crossed her when she returned. He drew out the powder flask, the rammer, a leather patch, and a lead ball, then set down the case. Soon he was showing her how to check the flint and ready the patch and ball, but every motion seemed laced with sexual meaning. Readying the patch meant sucking on the thin leather square to dampen it—an action he‘d never thought twice about until he said, ―Now you try,‖ and she did so. As he watched her suck the leather, all he could think was how it would be to have that delicate little mouth sucking on his— With a curse, he took the pistol from her and demonstrated how to pour the black powder down the muzzle and ram the ball down after it. Except that it meant shoving the rammer in with a deep thrusting stroke— He groaned. This was absurd. He was getting hot and hard over loading a gun, for God‘s sake! Well, at least he‘d be safe with the shooting part. Lifting the pistol, he fired easily at the center of the target. Her horse whinnied, and she gave a little shriek. When he glanced over at her, she looked pale. He suppressed a smile. It was one thing to contemplate shooting a pistol in the abstract and quite another to do it. He handed her the gun. ―Now you try loading it. But be careful—the barrel‘s still hot. Wait until it cools a little.‖ She held the gun gingerly, less eager than before. ―What if I do it wrong?‖

~ 188 ~ ―Then you‘ll blow your head off,‖ he drawled. When her gaze jumped to him in abject alarm, he chuckled. ―I won‘t let you do it wrong.‖ That seemed to satisfy her. Biting her lower lip, she propped the butt against her hip as he had, then concentrated on following the steps he‘d shown her. He tried not to dwell on her erotic motions. He had to keep his mind on the task at hand, or she‘d hurt herself. To his surprise, she was as nimble at manipulating a gun as she was with a needle. God help him if she ever did decide to put a ball through his skull. When she finished, she cradled the butt awkwardly in both hands. ―So it‘s loaded.‖ ―Yes. Do you want to try shooting it?‖ ―I-I suppose.‖ Stifling a laugh, he stepped closer to fit her hands more securely around the butt. ―Hold it as if you control it, or you‘ll never convince anyone of your willingness to fire. Half of the power in having a pistol comes in the brandishing of it.‖ She nodded, but her hands shook and her fingers were placed all wrong. ―Here,‖ he said impatiently, moving behind her. Reaching around her on either side, he maneuvered her fingers into the correct position. He was painfully aware of having her so close, so soft in his arms. The sunwarmed scent of lilac in her hair, the fragility of her fingers around the huge gun made him swallow hard. He wanted those fingers curving around something else, gripping it, stroking it— ―How do I shoot it?‖ she asked. Well, first you squeeze… He swore under his breath, released her hands, and stepped back. The woman was downright dangerous, no matter what she gripped. Best to remember that. ―Curl your index finger into the trigger hole.‖ ―Like this?‖ He glanced easily over her shoulder at her hands. By thunder, she was a petite thing, wasn‘t she? ―Yes, like that. See that bump on the end of the barrel? That‘s

~ 189 ~ the sight. Lift the pistol until you can look straight down the barrel and see the center circle of the target sitting right on top of that bump.‖ She did as instructed. Her grip was firmer now. ―Tell me something, Sebastian.‖ ―What?‖ ―You knew what you risked in being around me. You knew I might recognize you as Morgan at any moment, yet you continued to play my games. Why?‖ He‘d expected a question on pistols. The abrupt change of subject made him tense up. ―I thought this was a shooting lesson, not another of your inquisitions.‖ ―I‘m making polite conversation, that‘s all.‖ ―It‘s hardly polite to accuse me of things I didn‘t do.‖ She didn‘t rise to that. He could see her hands tremble, but she didn‘t lash him to ribbons with her tongue. Instead, she squeezed the trigger, sending the ball off into the trees beyond the target somewhere. ―I missed,‖ she said in obvious disappointment. ―No one ever hits the first time. It takes practice.‖ She lowered the pistol. ―You didn‘t answer my question.‖ ―Because it‘s one of those you can‘t answer without incriminating yourself. Like ‗When did you stop beating your wife?‘‖ A laugh burst from her. ―Nobody ever asks a question like that.‖ ―You just did.‖ Taking her hand, he pressed the powder flask, another ball and patch, and the rammer into it. ―Load the pistol again.‖ Apparently not minding his abruptness, she did as he said. ―All right, let me rephrase the question: Why have you been spending time with me? Why did you agree to my silly proposition to have you ‗tutor‘ me?‖

~ 190 ~ He saw no point to lying. ―For the same reason any man spends time with an enchanting woman. Because he‘s attracted to her. Because he enjoys her company.‖ ―Nothing more than that?‖ He wasn‘t sure what she was fishing for. ―Nothing more than that,‖ he repeated. She lifted the gun to look down the sight, but either she was nervous or she hadn‘t quite grasped how sighting down the barrel worked, for her aim was substantially off. He reached over to steady her arm. ―Here, forget about the sight. Just think of the gun as an extension of your index finger and point it at what you want to shoot.‖ She fired. This time the ball nicked the outer rim of the target. ―Very good.‖ He took the pistol from her. ―Practice makes perfect.‖ She wiped her shaky hands on her skirt. ―Is that why you spent time with me—to practice honing your skills with women? I suppose you were merely amusing yourself with me since I was conveniently here.‖ The ache in her voice was unmistakable, and it suddenly dawned on him what she wanted to know. ―It wasn‘t like that.‖ He loaded the pistol himself this time, needing to keep his hands from reaching for her. ―To be honest, my interest was more honorable. I was courting you.‖ He held his breath, uncertain what she‘d say to that. ―Rosalind said the same thing, but I didn‘t believe her.‖ He let out his breath. ―Why not?‖ ―Because I‘d already decided you were trying to distract me from my purpose.‖ ―That‘s what you were doing. Trying to madden me into saying something rash.‖ ―Yes.‖ Her honesty startled him. ―Yes?‖

~ 191 ~

―If you‘ll recall, the straightforward approach got me nowhere that first night.‖ She had him there. Turning, he stared out over the fields beyond the cottage and asked the question that had been plaguing him for a week. ―So all that talk about my ‗adequate‘ kissing and my trite compliments—‖ ―—was the not-so-straightforward approach.‖ She lowered her voice. ―You melted my bones when you kissed me two years ago, and you‘ve done it every time since.‖ Pulse racing, he swung around to stare hard at her. ―Is frankness your latest trick?‖ She shook her head, her eyes dark with imploring. ―No more tricks, I told you. I‘m being perfectly honest. I‘m attracted to you, too. I enjoy being with you, too.‖ A blush stained her cheeks. ―I-I enjoyed what you did…what we did…‖ She stiffened. ―But I can‘t go on without knowing why you kidnapped me. Is it so very much to ask?‖ Hot blood pulsed through his veins. When she looked at him like that… He must escape her, before she dragged him back under. ―You have no idea,‖ he ground out. Turning, he stalked toward the cottage. She froze a moment, then hurried to catch him, reaching him just as he‘d opened the door. She caught his arm. ―Please hear me out, Sebastian. I know you think I want revenge, that I‘ll use the truth to hurt you, but I swear I won‘t. Don‘t you see? It‘s the not knowing why you did it that‘s tormenting me. I just have to know why.‖ He stood with his hand on the doorknob, shaking with the need to tell her. But what if this was the most devious trick of all? Her hand tightened on his arm. ―Isn‘t there some way I can prove that I‘m not seeking revenge? Something that will make you feel secure enough to confide in me?‖ There was one thing. He stared down into her anxious face and felt a twist inside his gut. ―You could marry me.‖

~ 192 ~ She released his arm, paling. ―Wh-what do you mean?‖ ―Precisely what I said. If you marry me, then I‘ll know that whatever secrets I have—if there aremany—are safe with you. It would prove I could trust you. You wouldn‘t turn against your husband. I know you wouldn‘t.‖ She frowned and glanced away. ―But if I marry you and discover that you‘re not the man I thought, that you possess a dark or criminal nature, then I‘ll be trapped in an unworkable marriage with no recourse.‖ Her gaze swung back to him. ―No, you have to tell me the truth first. Then I‘ll consider whether to marry you. That‘s only fair. You weren‘t the one wronged, after all. I was.‖ She was right, and he knew it. He wanted her so badly, he almost agreed. But he wasn‘t ready to risk so much, not after having glimpsed how strongly she felt about what he‘d done. And certainly not with his life and Morgan‘s in jeopardy. Suddenly he thought of a solution to their dilemma. ―All right. You could do one thing that wouldn‘t trap you, but would prove you care for me enough to keep my secrets.‖ ―What‘s that?‖ ―You could come to my bed.‖

~ 193 ~

Chapter 15 ‘Take heed lest passion sway Thy judgement to do aught, which else free will Would not admit.’ - Milton’s Paradise Lost, sketched, but never worked, by Juliet Laverick when Rosalind talked about going on the stage

Juliet gaped at him, certain that she‘d misheard. ―You mean—‖ ―Let me make love to you.‖ His intent gaze sent luxurious shivers dancing along her spine. ―I know you, Juliet. After your unwise elopement, you‘d never give yourself to a man frivolously, even to learn the truth. If you share my bed, it‘ll prove to me that you‘ll keep an open mind and not be ready to condemn. It will prove you have genuine feelings for me.‖ ―And if what you say destroys my…feelings for you?‖ ―It won‘t, I swear it.‖ He set down the pistol case just inside the door, then caught her hands and lifted them to his lips, kissing them with such gentleness it made her throat ache. ―But if it does, you‘ll still be free to do as you please, to marry where you will.‖ ―How? I‘ll be ruined!‖ ―Yes. And I‘ll be ruined—my brother will be ruined—if what I tell you sends you crying to Knighton or the authorities. So we both risk something, you as much as I.‖ He lowered his voice to a husky thrum. ―If, however, what I say doesn‘t send you fleeing me in horror, then we can marry and no one will be the wiser about what we‘ve done.‖ He smiled. ―Though we may require a hastier wedding than usual.‖

~ 194 ~ How crafty he was. Surely he could guess how those words, hinting of a future for them with children and happiness and a real marriage, would affect her. Suddenly, she could envision them together, surrounded by their own little ones by day, wrapped in each other‘s arms by night. The image seduced her more than any estate or title. Goodness gracious, she couldn‘t believe she was actually considering his insane bargain. ―When?‖ she asked shakily. Naked hunger flared in his eyes. ―Whenever you want. Now. Here.‖ He jerked his head to indicate the open door. ―This cottage has a bed, you know.‖ She swallowed convulsively. Feeling awkward, she quipped, ―Yes, but does it have a pedestal?‖ He sucked in a breath. ―It has whatever you want, sweeting.‖ He caught her up in his arms and carried her inside. All she could do was hold on and pray she hadn‘t gone completely mad. Then he kissed her with such flagrant need that she was utterly lost. His body still held heat from the forge, and his embrace was like slipping into a warm pool of wickedness. Such delicious wickedness. He tore his lips from hers as he reached the stairs. She only had time to glimpse the cozy surroundings before he was carrying her up and up, no doubt to the bedchamber above. Her heart pounding with an excitement she couldn‘t squelch, she pressed her flaming cheeks to his chest. He smelled of fire and iron—strong, powerful smells that made her breath catch in her throat. ―Does anyone know where you are?‖ he asked in a rumbling voice. ―How did you know to look for me out here?‖ ―Rosalind told me.‖ Alarm swept his face. ―How much does she know about us?‖ ―Not much. I‘m not so foolish as to tell my sister I‘ve been seeing you in private. But she has guessed that there‘s something between us.‖ ―Has she?‖ Scant moments later, he‘d kicked open the door to a small room dominated by a rumpled bed that would scarcely hold one person, much less two. Setting her down beside it, he turned her around and began unbuttoning her gown,

~ 195 ~ impatiently, urgently. ―Is there any chance that she and Knighton will troop out here to interrupt us?‖ ―They‘ve gone to town for several hours.‖ She unpinned her hat and set it aside. ―Thank God,‖ he said hoarsely. He made her face him, heat flaring in his gaze as he dragged her gown off, leaving her in her filmy chemise. ―I‘ll need every bit of that time to make love to you as you deserve.‖ He skimmed her arms and hips and waist with his hands, a blind man feeling his way along uncharted territory. ―Ah, sweeting, you don‘t know how long I‘ve waited for this.‖ ―Two years?‖ she teased, unable to resist. A frown creased his brow. Turning away abruptly, he strode to the fireplace and bent to stoke up the nearly dead fire. ―Your questions will be answered, Miss Inquisitive, but not just now. Later. After we‘ve sealed our bargain.‖ Not just now. Later. That rankled. It echoed too closely the way he‘d treated her during the kidnapping—with the indulgence of a man in complete control. ―Everything is always as you want, isn‘t it?‖ She unpinned her hair, feeling suddenly vulnerable. ―You snap your fingers, and we all come to attention. You must always hold the reins, always be the one to say when and where things are done.‖ He stalked back toward her, his eyes glittering dangerously. ―What do you mean?‖ ―Charnwood. The kidnapping. Telling me the truth.‖ She shook her hair out. ―Everything. Everything follows your timetable. You dictate your terms, and we all must accept them. You won‘t tell me the truth without making love to me, so here I am.‖ As if in a trance, he reached up to stroke the blond strands where they fell over her shoulders. ―I didn‘t ask you to seek me out. Not when you first came to Charnwood and not today. You began this discussion—not I. You could have stayed far away from me. Even now, you could go back to London and refuse my offer. I would never force you.‖

~ 196 ~ ―I know that. But leaving without knowing the truth is no choice for me.‖ When uncertainty clouded his face, she added quickly, ―Don‘t misunderstand me—I want this bargain. Not only because I want the truth, but—‖ She swallowed, a little embarrassed. Yet she‘d said she wanted honesty between them. ―But also because I want to share your bed. Even if that makes me the most wicked creature in England. I don‘t even care what you tell me afterward—that‘s how badly I want it.‖ She managed a wan smile. ―I suppose I thought to get the token resistance out of the way. Because we both know once you start kissing me I turn into a puddle of mush.‖ ―Do you?‖ he said huskily and stepped closer. The clear satisfaction on his face peeved her a little. ―Of course. It‘s exceedingly annoying. I hate how you win every time, how you always gain the upper hand, with the kidnapping and your chess pieces and trapping me on that pedestal. And I hate that you know it.‖ Indecision flickered in his features as he glanced away and dragged his fingers through his hair. ―I didn‘t realize how it affected you.‖ ―Don‘t let it bother you,‖ she said dryly. ―Soon, it won‘t even bother me.‖ ―But I don‘t want you to feel that way with me. I don‘t want you to feel forced.‖ ―I don‘t feel forced, not exactly.‖ ―What if I…let you hold the reins for this?‖ ―Meaning what?‖ ―Why don‘t you take charge of our lovemaking? At least until you feel comfortable.‖ What an odd suggestion. So why did it send a strange thrill coursing through her veins? ―I wouldn‘t know how to begin. I‘ve never been with any man but you.‖ His eyes gleamed down at her with intense satisfaction. ―I know.‖

~ 197 ~ ―And you have so much experience—‖ ―So I‘m not an inept dullard, after all?‖ She sniffed. ―You aren‘t inept at anything, as you know very well, you devil.‖ That earned her a broad smile. ―All the same, you might feel more comfortable if you set the pace, have some control.‖ He held up his hands, palms out, in a gesture of complete surrender. ―I‘m at your mercy, madam. What do you want from me?‖ For a moment, she was at a complete loss. It was ridiculous really, and a bit embarrassing, to think she could tell him how to proceed. Yet their afternoon in the conservatory had taught her a little of what men and women did together. And what felt good and what she liked. Combined with what her sisters had told her, perhaps she could blunder through some of it. Besides, at this moment she knew precisely what she wanted. ―Kiss me.‖ When he grinned and started toward her, she said, ―No, wait. Take off your shirt first.‖ He halted, bemused. ―Whatever madam wants.‖ He unfastened his cuffs, and her mouth went dry. She really was going to do this. Yet it felt strange to just stand here and watch him undress. Glancing nervously about her, she noticed the disordered sheets on the bed. ―Have you been sleeping here?‖ ―Last night, that‘s all.‖ ―But I went to your bedchamber one night—‖ She stopped, realizing how that sounded. He paused to shoot her a burning glance. ―Did you?‖ With a defiant little toss of her head, she muttered, ―Yes, and you weren‘t there.‖ ―You must have come too early. I haven‘t been sleeping much lately.‖ As he dragged his shirt over his head, his voice grew muffled. ―I labor in the forge to the point of exhaustion, then fall into bed in the wee hours and rise at dawn.‖

~ 198 ~ ―Why?‖ Tossing the shirt aside, he stepped close to fold her in his arms. ―You have to ask?‖ The stark need in his face spoke volumes. ―No,‖ she whispered. ―I haven‘t slept much myself this week.‖ With a pleased smile, he bent his head to kiss her, but she pressed her finger to his lips. ―Not yet. I want to look at you first.‖ The faintest irritation flickered in his eyes, filling her with a mischievous delight. ―You don‘t like giving up control, do you?‖ ―I didn‘t expect you to take to it so well, you teasing minx,‖ he grumbled. Easing back from him, she ran her hands down his chest as she‘d wanted to do earlier in the forge. It was as eloquently crafted as any of his pistols, and far more dangerous to her peace of mind. She rubbed her thumbs over his flat male nipples, and he swallowed, his Adam‘s apple bobbing madly. Her heart leaped at that sign of his vulnerability to her touch. She could get used to holding the reins. Knowing his reluctance to relinquish anything, she‘d best take full advantage of this opportunity, since she might never have it again. She let her hands roam his ribs, his trim belly, even his shadowed navel. ―You have a magnificent body, you know,‖ she told him. ―So speaks the woman with the wealth of experience,‖ he choked out. She gave his chest a little shove. ―It‘s too awful of you to throw my inexperience in my face.‖ ―Trust me, sweeting, you make up in enthusiasm for what you lack in experience.‖ ―Somewhere in there is an insult, I think.‖ She skimmed her hands down to the fall of his breeches. ―But I don‘t care.‖ ―I meant no insult at all.‖ He sucked in a sharp breath as she unfastened two buttons of his breeches. When he spoke again, he sounded as if he were strangling. ―I like enthusiasm. I love enthusiasm. I much prefer it to the opposite.‖ ―Even if decent, respectable young ladies aren‘t supposed to—‖

~ 199 ~ ―Yes, even if.‖ He shivered when she slipped loose the other two buttons. ―I…I prefer an enthusiastic woman to a respectable woman any day. Decent young ladies can be deuced boring.‖ She laughed. ―I suppose they can.‖ Being a respectable young lady had gained her nothing but loneliness. Decency did seem highly overrated at times. She stared down at his breeches, satisfied to see them bulge every bit as obviously as they had that day in the conservatory. ―And do you find me boring?‖ she teased. His gaze burned into her. ―You know the answer to that.‖ ―Kiss me,‖ she whispered. That was all it took to have his arms around her, his mouth on hers. She met it with all the eagerness of a wanton, and oddly enough felt no remorse. She was about to abandon everything she‘d been taught, and she didn‘t care. Because she knew no one else would ever satisfy her. That was why she‘d never considered any other man from the day she‘d met him. It was why she now prayed she could accept his explanations. The thought of life without him had simply become too unbearable to contemplate. His hand slid up to fondle her breast through her chemise, and for a moment she rose to it, reveled in the deft caress. But when he then slipped his hand beneath the muslin with a husband‘s possessiveness, she shoved him away. He was breathing heavily, his eyes black as the devil‘s soul. ―Let me touch you,‖ he whispered. ―I want to touch you, sweeting.‖ She shook her head wordlessly. She was probably being perverse, since she wanted him to touch her more than anything. But she didn‘t want him taking it as he took everything else. For once she wanted to give it to him. ―You said I could hold the reins.‖ His hands fell into fists at his sides. ―Indeed I did. Though I‘m starting to regret it.‖ With a chuckle, she considered what to do next. Not tell him to touch her, because then she‘d be falling in with his wishes. Instead, she flicked her hand to indicate his breeches. ―Take those off,‖ she ordered.

~ 200 ~ ―The breeches and your shoes and stockings.‖ His eyebrows arched high on his forehead. But he did it, all the while keeping his eyes on her with wary uncertainty. ―Aren‘t you going to remove your chemise, sweeting?‖ he asked in the compelling thrum of a voice that usually dissolved her insides. ―Not yet,‖ she responded, though she blushed. ―I get to look my fill first.‖ ―Then shall I remove my drawers, too? Or is that too much for you?‖ The hint of mockery in his smile told her he knew very well that it was. Which was precisely why she would make him do it. ―Y-yes, take them off.‖ She couldn‘t believe she was doing this shocking thing, ordering him to strip down to nothing for her. She couldn‘t believe he was letting her. Apparently, he couldn‘t either. With a faint look of surprise, he divested himself of the glove-tight scrap of stockingette and set his ―thing‖ free. He stood motionless while she gaped at it transfixed, fascinated by its nest of dusky hair, its smooth length…its immensity. What had he called it before? His John Thomas. Leave it to men to name the thing, as if it were a person. And such a respectable name, too, for what looked terribly improper—bold and reckless and belligerently male. Anything that could lie so dormant inside a man‘s breeches, yet in an instant become this amazing wonder of flesh, had a dangerously unpredictable nature. The longer she looked, the more it stiffened, so she prolonged his torment, strolling around him in a circle to survey his physique from every angle. My oh my oh my. So this was how Sebastian looked beneath his breeches—all muscle and taut skin and impossibly hard flesh. When she returned to the front of him, she marveled again at the astonishing rigidity of his ―thing.‖ ―C-can I touch it?‖ she whispered, remembering what she‘d done in the conservatory. ―Oh God, yes!‖ he growled.

~ 201 ~

Tentatively she stroked a finger along his heated length. When it jerked beneath her touch, she yanked her finger back, murmuring an apology. But he grabbed her hand and closed it around him, urging her to grip it tightly. ―You like that?‖ she asked uncertainly. ―More than you can imagine.‖ He showed her how to stroke him, and when she mimicked his motions, she was rewarded with his deep, heartfelt sounds of pleasure. His hand dropped away from hers. ―Ah, sweeting, you handle this pistol as well as you handled the other.‖ A pistol. Yes, it was like a pistol—sleek and hard and wicked. Buoyed by his clear enjoyment of her caresses and delighting in her newfound power, she squeezed more firmly, stroked more quickly. He gave a guttural sound and thrust eagerly into her hand. After a moment, he grabbed her wrist to stay her. ―That‘s enough of that for me, my sweet goddess.‖ She stopped, but didn‘t release him. ―Why?‖ ―You do any more of that, and I‘ll lose control.‖ ―You‘d lose control?‖ A smile curved up her lips as she resumed her motions. ―I‘d love to see that.‖ His eyes blazed down at her. ―No, you wouldn‘t.‖ ―Oh yes, I would,‖ she said stoutly. He tightened his fingers around her wrist, and growled, ―Not like this.‖ ―You said I could set the pace.‖ ―Yes, but I didn‘t mean—‖ ―Are you going to renege, Sebastian?‖ ―No, but—‖ ―Then let go of my hand.‖

~ 202 ~ He released her wrist, but grumbled, ―You don‘t understand…I can‘t…I don‘t want to—‖ ―Lose control. Oh, but I do understand.‖ Though she didn‘t. Not really. All she knew was that she had him in her power as never before, and she wasn‘t about to give that up. Especially when her every stroke made his breath quicken and his body sway. ―You truly don‘t understand,‖ he choked out. ―Damn it, Juliet…I want…Oh God, stop…stop…stop!‖ Suddenly, he yanked himself out of her hand and turned to the bed with a hoarse cry that sounded almost like pain. She saw his back spasm, heard him curse as he caught up the sheet and pressed it to the front of him. At once contrite, she hurried to his side. ―I‘m sorry, Sebastian, did I hurt you? Are you all right?‖ He was holding the sheet around his John Thomas, but his expression was unlike any she‘d ever seen—a strange blend of bliss and anger. ―I did hurt you!‖ she exclaimed, horrified. ―No, you didn‘t hurt me,‖ he snapped. ―But I wanted to be inside you when—‖ He broke off, looking as if he fought to restrain his temper. ―Think of it like this— your stroking made my pistol fire too early, all right?‖ She stared at him, perplexed, trying to remember what Rosalind had said about lovemaking. How a man put himself inside the woman and released his seed…And Sebastian had wanted to be inside. So that‘s what he‘d meant by ―losing control.‖ ―Ohhh,‖ she murmured, coloring to the roots of her hair. ―And now your… um…pistol can‘t fire again.‖ ―It certainly can, and it will, believe me.‖ Eyes blazing, he tossed the soiled sheet to the floor, then turned to lift her onto the bed. ―So if you thought to get out of it—‖ ―I don‘t want to get out of anything,‖ she protested as she landed on her knees.

~ 203 ~ In a flash, he knelt before her to tear loose her chemise ties. He still seemed angry. ―I-I didn‘t know…‖ she whispered, ―and you did say I could take charge—‖ ―Yes, I‘m a blasted idiot, I am. Remind me never to put you in charge of my pistol again.‖ Tears filled her eyes. ―I didn‘t mean to ruin everything.‖ His hands gentled. ―Ah, sweeting, forgive my temper. You didn‘t ruin anything.‖ Sweeping the long fall of her hair aside, he dropped a kiss on her collarbone. ―It‘ll take me a while longer to reload, that‘s all.‖ He hastily dispensed with her chemise. ―But that gives me plenty of time to make you lose control, my willful Aphrodite.‖ Her pulse did a little jig to think of how he might make her lose control. Would he touch her in that secret way of his again, as he‘d done in the conservatory? She‘d liked that. She‘d liked it very much. Suddenly he was tipping her head up for an endless, searching kiss. As she met it with a surge of excitement, he tumbled her back onto the bed. The kiss went on and on, and when she came up for air, she found him rising to his knees next to her so he could remove her half boots. In moments, her drawers followed her half boots to the floor, and he was kneeling between her stocking-clad calves, smoothing his hands over her knees as his gaze swept with greedy delight over every inch of her. Wherever it touched, her body reacted. Her nipples tightened into hard knots, her belly quivered, and between her legs a rush of some mysterious fluid dampened the curls that hid her most secret place. Even that did not escape his frank look. ―By thunder, I knew if I ever had you naked, I‘d find you perfect in every way.‖ His voice was half worshipful, half wicked. ―I knew it the moment I met you.‖ ―In Stratford?‖ she whispered. His gaze lifted to hers, searching, hesitant. Then he echoed, ―In Stratford.‖ Her heart leaped at this evidence of trust, and with a blazing smile of sheer joy, she reached for him. ―I thought you were supposed to be making me lose control.‖

~ 204 ~ Gladness filled his eyes, too, and he lowered himself to her with a growl of satisfaction. His lips roamed her breasts, caressing and teasing, and his fingers sought out her hips and the tender cleft between her legs. From there the two of them fell into a fever of touching and exploring and fondling. She‘d never dreamed it could be like this with a man, although once or twice she had wondered how it would be with Morgan. Sebastian. Her Sebastian. Now she could think of him that way, because she believed in her heart he could never do anything really criminal. Not the man she‘d come to know and respect, the man who would give up control over his own body if she asked it of him. She wished she could memorize every smooth touch, every startling flick of his gifted tongue, every luscious, sinful kiss he pressed to her belly and arms and breasts. Soon his fingers delved inside her in that scandalous caress she craved, marvelous strokes that made her squirm and beg beneath him. ―Losing control, are you?‖ he growled as his hand worked its amazing magic. ―Not…in the…least,‖ she gasped, then made a liar of herself by adding, ―Please, Sebastian…like that…yes…‖ ―Whatever madam wants.‖ He thumbed the secret spot that sent her out of her mind. ―I love how you give yourself to me so freely, how you shake and tremble. I love how you arch your neck and thrust your pretty breasts up for me…‖ With wicked comments like that and even more wicked caresses, he soon had her writhing beneath him, feeling the pleasure grow to a fever heat inside her until it splintered her into a million blissful pieces, and she cried out her enjoyment like a shameless wanton. But she‘d scarcely floated down into consciousness before something bigger pressed inside her, stretched her. She looked down to find his stiff John Thomas half buried between her thighs. Obviously, he hadn‘t needed much time to reload after all. He hovered over her with his hands braced on either side of her shoulders, his eyes gleaming in a face sheened in sweat. ―You know there will be pain,‖ he warned in a guttural voice, as if it cost him a great deal just to speak.

~ 205 ~ Still awash in her previous satisfaction, she flashed him a contented smile and brought her arms up about his neck. ―I‘ll risk a little pain to get what I want.‖ Fire leaped in his face. He bent to brush a kiss over her lips, then murmured, ―I‘ll make it as little pain as I can manage, sweeting.‖ And he did. The twinge that accompanied his initial tentative thrust hardly made her wince. But the sensation of being opened impossibly wide wasn‘t quite so easy to ignore. Slowly, he inched his way in, planting himself inside her as thoroughly as a rooted oak, and the mad thought entered her mind that she might never uproot him again. Especially when he looked so very happy to be there. ―You can‘t imagine how good it feels to be inside you,‖ he said hoarsely. ―My darling angel, you have no idea.‖ ―I certainly don‘t,‖ she muttered, a little peeved. It hardly seemed fair that it should feel so good for him when all she felt was this invasive pressure. Why in creation did Helena and Rosalind praise lovemaking so much? Only because of what went before? To be sure, that was wonderful, but this… As if he guessed her annoyance, he smiled. ―Hold on, it gets better. Give me a chance.‖ To do what—split her in two? Then he began to move. At first, she felt only an uncomfortable friction. But that soon became a comfortable friction, then an agreeable friction, then an absolutely glorious friction. Like a brush fire, pleasure leaped from her thighs to her belly, smoldering wherever it landed, sparking more delights, more amazing sensations. And when he brought his hot mouth down around her nipple, his tongue teasing the heat to the surface until she whimpered and strained beneath him, she began to understand what her sisters had hinted at. Down below, it was like with his fingers, but better. As the inside of her loosened to accommodate him, her skin thrummed with life and her blood hummed through her veins. She clutched at his arms, stamped kisses on whatever parts of him she could reach—his shoulders, his whisker-shadowed chin, his strong neck.

~ 206 ~ ―Not so bad now, is it?‖ he choked out as he increased the pace of his thrusts, pounding, thundering into her like Hephaestus hammering the molten metal with stroke after stroke after stroke… ―Sebastian…oh…dear heavenly God…I‘m on fire…‖ ―Then we‘ll burn together.‖ He stared down at her, an all-powerful creature, the giver of fire whose every driving thrust heated her to boiling point. ―Now…forever…just we two…‖ Reaching down between them, he flicked his thumb over her sensitive secret place, and she exploded at once, crying out his name, erupting into ecstasy. ―Ah, yes…yes!‖ he growled, then drove so deeply that she clutched him close and held on for dear life. The hot flood of his seed flowed into her, and his body spasmed as it had before. But this time she knew what it meant, and it gave her immense satisfaction to think she could drive him to lose control not once, but twice. For a moment, they strained against each other, taut and clinging. Then slowly they drifted back to normalcy and sank back onto the bed. Relaxing, he rolled off to lie at her side. He tugged her over until they lay facing each another, arms entwined. He brushed the hair from her eyes and rubbed his thumb along her damp lips. ―So how do you like losing control, my dearest Juliet?‖ She raised an eyebrow. ―As much as you do, I think.‖ He chuckled. ―That much? Then I suspect we‘ll do very well together as husband and wife.‖ ―If we marry. You haven‘t yet fulfilled your part of the bargain, you know.‖ His amusement faded at once. ―Thanks for reminding me.‖ Sighing, he rolled away from her to lie on his back and stare up at the ceiling. ―You certainly know how to put an abrupt end to a man‘s pleasure.‖ ―I‘m sorry,‖ she said, and meant it. ―That was rather unfair of me. I‘ve waited over two years to hear this. I suppose it won‘t hurt to wait a few minutes more.‖

~ 207 ~

He shook his head. ―No, putting it off won‘t make it any easier.‖ Dragging a sheet up to cover her body, he left the bed to pull on his drawers.

~ 208 ~

Chapter 16 Who cannot open an honest mind No friend will he be of mine. - Euripides’ Medea, worked on a sampler by Juliet Laverick at seven

As Juliet sat up and clutched the sheet about her lush curves, Sebastian paced the floor, determined to keep to his end of the bargain. He was a man of honor, after all, and when he‘d promised to tell her everything, he‘d meant it. ―It was my brother Morgan who took up with Crouch‘s gang of smugglers in the spring of 1815.‖ When Juliet looked disappointed, he added softly, ―But I was the one who kidnapped you.‖ Confusion spread over her face. ―How could that be? Surely you and your brother are very different, for all the reasons I said before—‖ ―Yes, we are. What I think has probably kept your family—particularly Knighton—confused is that both Morgan and I were involved with the smugglers at different times, with Crouch‘s knowledge.‖ As awareness dawned, Juliet sat up straighter. ―So then I was right about you. Not that I wasn‘t sure anyway, but—‖ ―You were right.‖ He paused. ―You see, I…er…lied a little when I said Morgan had promised to return for Christmas. Actually, he‘d promised to return for the harvest at the end of July. We generally hold a large feast on the estate then, and I‘d asked if he thought he‘d be back. He said yes.‖ ―But he didn‘t return.‖ ―No. And since he hadn‘t told me where he was going, other than to say it was south, at first I waited and did nothing. But it worried me, his not returning. He‘d

~ 209 ~ been so mysterious about his destination. So around the middle of August, I went to London and hired a runner, who tracked him to Hastings in Sussex.‖ She pursed her lips and waited. ―I went there at once, not knowing what purpose he‘d had in being there. But as soon as Crouch saw me in town, he mistook me for Morgan. He waved a cavalry pistol in my face—prime piece, too…French, I‘d say…three, four years old—‖ ―Sebastian, I don‘t care about the pistol,‖ Juliet said irritably. He cast her a rueful smile. ―No, of course not. Anyway, he waved it at me, cornered me in an inn where I was the only person not of the free-trading persuasion, and demanded to know how I‘d escaped.‖ ―Escaped what?‖ He paced in front of the bed. ―Crouch thought I was Morgan, remember? I let him rant, hoping he‘d reveal what he‘d done with my brother. When he didn‘t, I tried leading him to tell me, but I blundered. My rapscallion of a brother may look like me, but as you guessed, our accents and manner differ markedly. Crouch became suspicious and demanded to know who I was.‖ He tightened his fists. ―God, how I wish I‘d thought to mimic Morgan the moment I saw that blasted smuggler.‖ ―You can hardly blame yourself for not knowing the circumstances ahead of time,‖ Juliet murmured. Glancing over, he noted her calm, unreadable expression. Yet sympathy showed in it, too, which encouraged him to continue. ―So I told Crouch the truth—that I was Morgan‘s brother come in search of him. That‘s when he recognized the advantages of having me in his power.‖ Walking to the fireplace, he poked at the coals. ―He had this…blasted stupid plan he needed carried out by someone who could pass for a gentleman. He wanted to kidnap you, and thought it might be more successful if it were worked as an elopement. He said if I‘d help him, he‘d release Morgan. He let me think he had Morgan prisoner.‖ ―The scoundrel!‖

~ 210 ~ ―My sentiments exactly.‖ Sebastian faced her. ―I wanted to have him carted off to the magistrate and forced to tell me. But I couldn‘t risk Morgan‘s life, and Crouch had me in his power.‖ ―So you did as Crouch asked and kidnapped me,‖ she whispered in an aching voice. His gaze shot to her. Hurt welled in her eyes, hurt that he‘d chosen to protect his brother at the cost to her reputation. It drove a stake through his heart. ―There was more to it than that,‖ he said hastily. ―Crouch was determined to kidnap you, with or without my help. Since I thought I couldn‘t go to the authorities, I had nowhere to turn. After one look at his companions, I knew I‘d never let a defenseless young woman fall into their hands. I figured if I were the one to take you, I could protect you, and in the bargain obtain Morgan‘s release.‖ ―And Helena and Daniel?‖ she said indignantly. ―What about them? Didn‘t you even consider that other people might be harmed in your little scheme?‖ He certainly deserved that blow. ―When it came to your relations, I confess I miscalculated. I truly believed Lady Helena would wait in Warwickshire for word of our supposed marriage. You must admit she isn‘t the sort to risk a scandal or go running after her relatives. You repeatedly assured me of that on our way south.‖ He drew himself up stiffly. ―Besides, I got them out safely, too, didn‘t I?‖ ―They got themselves out,‖ she corrected him. ―Though I suppose they couldn‘t have if you hadn‘t looked after me.‖ It was deuced hard to gauge what she thought when she sat so still with the ends of the sheet clutched in her delicate fists. There wasn‘t a hint of how she felt. It worried him. ―I did what I thought I had to.‖ He ached to make her understand, to cut through her shield of quiet accusation. ―I truly believed Crouch had Morgan at that point. Crouch showed me Morgan‘s pistol as proof, the one I had designed especially for him when he was here. Morgan would never have given it up without a fight. So I thought Crouch would kill Morgan if I didn‘t do what he wanted. After all, the man was called the King of the Smugglers and spent most of his time armed to the teeth.‖ When she merely gazed past him to the fire, frustration made him desperate. ―I only learned after I‘d brought you to Sussex that Morgan wasn‘t in Crouch‘s power

~ 211 ~ anymore.‖ He scrubbed his face with both hands. ―Even then, everything might have been different if I‘d known that Morgan had joined the smugglers at the Home Office‘s behest, to spy on them.‖ That got a reaction from her at last. ―What? He wasn‘t even a smuggler?‖ she said in surprise. He shook his head. ―I should have realized Morgan wouldn‘t turn his back on his family and country for something like that. If I had, I could‘ve just gone to the Home Office or the navy for help with Crouch. But all I knew was that Morgan was mixed up with a gang of smugglers. I had to conceal that so he wouldn‘t be caught and hanged.‖ ―And by then you had me to bargain with,‖ she said coolly. He flinched. ―Yes, for all the good it did. Even though I learned that Crouch had paid to have Morgan imprisoned aboard a merchant ship and carried off God knows where, Crouch refused to tell me when and on what ship. He wanted his ransom money first, and I needed his information to track Morgan‘s journey. So I had to see the whole thing out.‖ ―Why didn‘t you simply offer him a ransom of your own for Morgan?‖ She still refused to look at him. ―Lord knows you can afford it.‖ ―Actually, I did, but he thought I was inventing my tale of wealth to escape him. I didn‘t march into town initially with all the pomp and circumstance of the Right Honorable Lord Templemore, you know. Besides, he didn‘t want only money; he wanted revenge on your brother-in-law. And I feared he might take it at the cost to your virtue, if I didn‘t stand between you and him.‖ Her gaze swung to his, softening infinitesimally. ―Which is exactly what you did that day in the caves, and from the beginning. You stood between me and Crouch, between me and all of them.‖ Relief rushed through him. She understood. ―I couldn‘t gain my brother if it meant ruining an innocent young woman. Everything I did was designed both to protect you and find Morgan.‖ ―And after all that, you lost him anyway, didn‘t you?‖ Compassion flared in her features. ―My poor, dear Sebastian.‖

~ 212 ~

Blast, he‘d forgotten that she still thought Morgan dead. Yet another lie he must untangle. ―For a long while, I…er…thought I had. When response to my queries brought that letter I showed your brother-in-law, it nearly killed me.‖ He dragged in heavy, cold air, bracing himself for the rest of the tale, the part she would despise him for. ―As it turned out, Morgan wasn‘t—isn‘t—dead.‖ She gazed up at him with wide eyes, clasping the sheet tightly to her chest. ―No?‖ ―No.‖ He paced restlessly. ―A few months ago, the Navy Board came here to reveal that Morgan had been in Sussex at the Home Office‘s request, but that he‘d recently been spotted aboard a pirate ship, the Satyr. No one knows how he escaped the Oceana before it sank, or how he ended up on the Pirate Lord‘s ship. Unfortunately, he was recognized when the Satyr‘s crew separated a certain Lord Winthrop from his gold.‖ ―I don‘t imagine Lord Winthrop approved,‖ she said dryly. ―He‘s rather fond of his gold.‖ He sighed. ―Indeed he is. And he set up a hue and cry at the Navy Board for Morgan‘s head. They came to me with an offer—Morgan‘s life in exchange for the Pirate Lord. They said they would pardon him for piracy if he helped them capture the scourge of the seas. And I agreed to act as go-between…whenever I heard from him.‖ ―So you still don‘t know where he is?‖ He shook his head. ―He wrote me a letter to say he would come home when he could manage it. I‘ve been waiting for his return. And then you showed up.‖ She smiled faintly. ―With my bloodthirsty relations in tow.‖ ―Precisely.‖ ―That‘s why you kept hiding the truth—because you were worried about what I might do to you?‖ ―And what you might convince Knighton to do. I had to be free to arrange Morgan‘s pardon, you see.‖ She thought on that a moment.

~ 213 ~ ―So it was all that simple—the kidnapping and the lying and the games.‖ He nodded, holding his breath, waiting for the ax to fall. ―I thought it might be something like that.‖ He approached the bed, certain he‘d misunderstood her. ―What?‖ She shrugged. ―At first I‘d assumed your motive had been financial, even though you hadn‘t demanded any of the ransom Crouch wanted. But once we saw the extent of your estate, I had to abandon that idea. I did speculate that you might have come by your wealth through smuggling, but even back then you never seemed much a part of the smugglers. And Griff‘s investigator learned that you‘d never joined any other gang.‖ Sitting down next to her, he chose his words carefully. ―So you‘re not angry.‖ Her clear eyes met his. ―That depends.‖ ―On what?‖ ―The answers to some questions.‖ His heart sank. He should have known he wouldn‘t escape so easily. ―Ask away.‖ For the first time since he‘d begun his explanations, he glimpsed uncertainty in her face. ―When you first came to Stratford, you…approached Helena. Why? I daresay if she hadn‘t been so suspicious of men in general, you and I might not be sitting here having this discussion, for she would have been the one to go with you.‖ She looked so vulnerable that his heart lurched in his chest. ―I doubt that. It wasn‘t in your sister‘s character to elope. I figured that out soon enough.‖ She sighed. ―But you could tell that it was in my character.‖ A sticky point, and he could see how she‘d view it. But he wasn‘t about to prevaricate now. ―Back then you were a romantic soul, sweeting, and I‘ll admit that I thought you‘d be easier to influence.‖ With a frown, she bit her lower lip, and he added hastily, ―But I can honestly say I was relieved when Lady Helena rebuffed my advances. Relieved and alarmed.‖

~ 214 ~ ―Alarmed?‖ Reaching up, he stroked a line from the apple of her cheek to her lush, sweet lips. ―Terrified, more like. I didn‘t want to unsettle either of your lives more than necessary. I planned to act the gentleman, and I knew that a long trip with Helena wouldn‘t tempt me to misbehave. I knew equally well that a long trip with you would do precisely that.‖ Her gaze shot to his. ―But throughout that trip you ignored me and treated me like a child. And the one time I asked you to kiss me, you refused flat out.‖ ―Exactly. The alternative was to lay you out in the carriage and have my wicked way with you.‖ When she continued to look skeptical, he cupped her cheek, caressing her pouting lower lip with his thumb. ―I spent most of that trip burning for you, sweeting. That day you asked me to kiss you…I suffered a thousand agonies imagining what it would be like to bury my hands in your hair, turn your face up to mine, and kiss you senseless. I wanted you from the beginning. Very, very badly. I only felt safe in kissing you when I knew I was leaving you behind. And that‘s the honest truth.‖ Her eyes slid shut as if to block out the sight of his need. ―Then why didn‘t you take me with you instead of leaving me? Why didn‘t you simply marry me? If you‘d told me all of this, I would have forgiven you. I wanted to forgive you then. I wanted to believe in you, even after your betrayal.‖ ―I had to go look for Morgan, don‘t you see?‖ ―At first, perhaps. But once you heard he was dead, why didn‘t you come to me in London and ask me to marry you then?‖ ―And risk my life? What if I‘d told you the truth and you‘d decided to drag me through a trial?‖ Her eyes flew open, full of outrage. ―I wouldn‘t have done that!‖ ―How could I be sure? And even if you didn‘t want me hanged, Knighton would have done all he could to see it happen. At the very least, he would have sought to ruin me.‖ He left the bed and went to stand by the fireplace, bracing his hand against the far end of the mantel as he stared into the flames. ―Besides, I knew you were safe and well in London. I figured I had no right to upset you after what I‘d

~ 215 ~ done. I wasn‘t even sure you would have me. So what point would there have been in disrupting your life?‖ ―Or yours,‖ she said dryly. Glancing back over his shoulder, he said softly, ―People depend upon me here, Juliet. This isn‘t just about Morgan, you know. I have duties and responsibilities. I couldn‘t risk the future of Charnwood because I‘d once fancied a pretty girl.‖ When she went pale, he realized he shouldn‘t have put it quite that baldly. But he stumbled on. ―So I thought it best to leave it alone. And once I had Morgan to worry about again, too…Well, I couldn‘t risk what you might do. Too much was at stake—my brother, my estate, my life.‖ She stared at him uncertainly. ―You‘re risking all that now. Is it suddenly all right for you to fancy a pretty girl?‖ He winced to hear her echo his rash comment. ―Our bargain has lessened the risk considerably.‖ He stared back into the fire. ―I trust you to hold to your part. You let me make love to you. I told you the truth. And now you‘ll marry me, as we agreed. I know you, Juliet. You wouldn‘t have come to my bed if you weren‘t half ready to believe that I‘d possessed a good reason for my actions.‖ Juliet acknowledged to herself that he was right. She‘d already guessed he was keeping the truth from her out of concern for what revenge she might take. It wasn‘t much of a leap to hear he‘d been doing so to protect his brother and his estate. And she‘d already been leaning toward forgiving him entirely. She, of all people, could understand acting to protect one‘s family. But it stung to hear that while she‘d been madly in love with him two years ago, he‘d merely ‗fancied a pretty girl‘. ―You say it‘s our bargain that made you decide upon marriage, but that‘s not true. You began courting me shortly after we arrived here. It would have made more sense to ignore me and toss us out as soon as possible. Why, after all this time, did you want to marry me when it was such a risk?‖ He shrugged. ―I‘m attracted to you.‖ Her stomach tightened into a knot. ―That won‘t wash. By your own admission, you were attracted to me two years ago, yet you abandoned me then because of your

~ 216 ~ concern for your family and your estate.‖ She fought past the pain digging into her heart. He‘d chosen his responsibilities over her. It shouldn‘t hurt, but it did. A muscle worked in his jaw. ―Everything is different now. Your reputation may be in jeopardy. I owe it to you to set things right.‖ Drat his noble hide. She‘d guessed it might be something perfectly respectable… and devoid of any affection. Swallowing her pain, she forced herself to speak lightly. ―So you want to marry me to make up for the kidnapping. A sort of penance, is it?‖ He shoved away from the fireplace, eyes alight as he stalked back toward the bed. ―No. It‘s not like that.‖ ―Isn‘t it?‖ The raw hurt of unshed tears clogged her throat. ―I don‘t want to be only some onerous obligation to you.‖ ―You aren‘t! I know you‘ll make me a good wife, do your part in the marriage.‖ ―Wonderful. You‘re choosing a wife rather like you pick a pistol. How flattering.‖ ―No, that‘s not—Blast it, why must you twist this into some vulgar trade transaction! What the devil‘s wrong with wanting to do the right thing by you?‖ She tipped her head up proudly. ―I‘ll have you know I‘m no longer some…some urchin who needs rescuing, either by you or by my family. I want to share my life with somebody who cares for me, not take the crumbs of a man who feels dutybound to make amends for his mistakes.‖ With a sigh, he sank onto the bed beside her and gathered her stiff, resisting body against his chest. ―I‘m not making myself very clear, am I?‖ Stroking her hair from her brow, he stared down into her eyes warmly. ―I‘ve been alone here for a long time, discontented with my existence without really knowing why. Then you came to shake everything up, and I realized what I‘d been missing was you.‖ She held her breath as the hurt subsided a little. Idly, he wound a lock of her hair about his hand. ―Don‘t misunderstand me—I love Charnwood. I much prefer it to the crowds and nonsense of London.‖ He kissed

~ 217 ~ the lock of hair. ―But it‘s empty and quiet and lonely. It needs a mistress. It needs children.‖ Hardly daring to hope, she turned her face up to his. ―And what about you? What do you need?‖ ―I need you,‖ he said simply. Then his mouth was on hers, tempting her with his need, sucking her under into that secret, intimate place where nothing mattered but him. When he drew back, they were both gasping. He held her so close she felt his heart pound. ―This past week has been agony, knowing you were here but I couldn‘t talk to you or touch you or kiss you. I stood outside your room every morning debating whether to tell you the truth.‖ ―Why didn‘t you?‖ ―I couldn‘t stand the thought that you might push me away once you heard it.‖ She snuggled up close to him. ―I‘m not pushing you away now.‖ ―No, thank God.‖ His hands stroked up and down her arms, dislodging the sheet. ―I couldn‘t bear it if you did.‖ ―So you must love me at least a little,‖ she whispered against his broad and very masculine chest. He froze. Then he gently slipped from her embrace, holding himself apart from her. Obvious unease knit his brow into a frown. ―Juliet, I…I do feel a great deal of affection for you. But don‘t expect more than that from me. I‘m not really a passionate person. It‘s nothing to do with you. It‘s just…how I am.‖ He flashed her a faint smile. ―You weren‘t far wrong when you thought me too dull and respectable for passion.‖ ―I don‘t think you dull at all, and you certainly don‘t lack passion. But we‘re not talking about passion; we‘re talking about love, a different thing altogether.‖ She‘d hoped what they‘d done might change his odd ideas. Knowing that it hadn‘t

~ 218 ~ unsettled and disappointed her. ―You‘re perfectly capable of feeling love if you‘d only let yourself.‖ His jaw went taut. ―And why should I? It‘s a reckless emotion that only wreaks havoc. It‘s called ‗falling in love‘ for a reason, you know—because it‘s as uncontrollable and unpredictable as falling. I‘d be a fool to let myself be sucked into the whirlwind.‖ ―Yes, but whirlwinds can be thrilling, too. And marriage is far pleasanter between two people who love each other.‖ He eyed her askance. ―How do you know? From what you‘ve heard, from what a lot of wild-eyed poets claim?‖ She ducked her head to stare at the sheet. ―I‘ve seen how my sisters and their husbands behave when they‘re in love. And I‘ve heard how my parents were together.‖ He gave a little mocking laugh. ―My parents were in love, too. But it didn‘t make their marriage easier, I assure you. All it did was give them an excuse for abandoning their responsibilities.‖ ―But if they truly loved each other…‖ ―I didn‘t say they loved each other.‖ Crossing his arms over his chest, he stared off with the cool remoteness of a stranger. ―That would have been too tidy, I suppose.‖ Pain shimmered in his voice, ragged and deep, despite his efforts to hide it behind an expression of iron detachment. ―As I told you, my father fell in love with a different woman every month. My mother…‖ He swallowed convulsively, and she dearly wanted to reach over and cradle him in her arms, kiss away all his hurts. But he looked too unapproachable for that just now. ―My mother left my father for her lover. Left me for her lover. She abandoned her family, separated me from my only brother, and ignored all duty, responsibility, and good sense because she fell prey to love. And all for a man who abandoned her within a year, according to my uncle.‖ His gaze swung back to her, brimming with hurt. ―So don‘t ask me for love. I wouldn‘t show you so little respect as to offer you that fickle emotion. Unlike my

~ 219 ~ parents, I‘m not blown this way and that by every storm of romantic feeling. What I offer is infinitely better—a secure future, a lifelong devotion to you and our children, the promise that I‘ll always act in your best interest. What I offer is steady and dependable.‖ ―And very respectable,‖ she said sarcastically. ―Yes. I happen not to find that a dirty word.‖ He looked so insulted that she softened her tone. ―Sebastian, why can‘t there be both? Love and responsibility. They needn‘t be mutually exclusive, you know.‖ ―And you‘ve deduced that from your vast experience, have you?‖ She colored, then glanced away. ―I was in love once, remember?‖ ―Which only got you into trouble.‖ She smiled despite the gravity of their conversation. ―I can‘t believe you‘d chide me for that. Especially when you worked so hard to make me fall in love with you then.‖ ―That‘s not true. I was only trying to coax you into running away with me. You were the one who fell in love, and what did it bring you but heartache?‖ She couldn‘t bear to admit he might be right on that score, so she said nothing. ―And you learned that lesson yourself,‖ he went on, ―or you‘d have spoken of your suitors differently. You never said you rejected them because you didn‘t love them. You complained about this character trait or that, but you didn‘t speak of love. Because by then you‘d learned the truth: that a good husband is more likely to be found among men of irreproachable character than among men who inspire some dubious emotion.‖ That remark about her suitors hit painfully close to the truth. She hadn‘t been looking for love among them. But was it because she‘d learned her lesson? Or because she‘d still been in love with him? Still was in love with him. She groaned. Goodness gracious, what was wrong with her? After all that had happened, she was as much a captive to his perilous appeal

~ 220 ~ as ever. And he didn‘t even love her! For all she knew, he really was incapable of love. She glanced up into his face, only to be met by a stark, needy expression that gave her pause. No, he was capable of love. But he seemed to fear it; he worried that if he gave in to it, it would leave him gutted and alone, as his parents had left him loveless and friendless. So he sat there speaking of duty and honor and responsibility, all the while not quite able to hide his yearning for something more. ―What are you proposing then, Sebastian? A marriage of convenience?‖ ―No!‖ He gave the refusal so forcefully it sparked hope in her heart. ―Not of convenience. That sounds more formal than I want. I do care for you, Juliet.‖ The melting softness in his eyes made her ache. ―And desire you. I want a marriage where we can enjoy each other, keep each other company. Share a bed. I want that very much.‖ She caught her breath. She wanted all of that and love, too, but that would have to wait until she could show him that he needn‘t fear it. In the meantime, however, she would settle for his version of marriage. Because she truly believed it would turn into more eventually. ―Very well,‖ she whispered. ―Far be it from me to deny you what you want.‖ The relief in his face made him look positively boyish. ―Then you‘ll marry me?‖ His pleasure was infectious. She laughed. ―Yes, I‘ll marry you, you devil.‖ With a growl of satisfaction, he lunged for her, and then he was kissing her and pressing her back onto the sheets and having his ―wicked way with her‖ once more. This time was even better than before, because she knew what to expect, how to act. It was glorious, simply glorious. He might not speak words of love or claim to adore her, but she could feel his adoration in every touch, feel his love in every kiss. That was enough for now.

~ 221 ~ When they were done and lay tangled in the sheets and each other‘s arms, he whispered against her ear, ―Much as I enjoy this, sweeting, we dare not linger much longer. Unless you want your family to find us here together.‖ ―I suppose that wouldn‘t do,‖ she said with faint regret. ―It‘ll be bad enough when you speak to Griff about marrying me.‖ He groaned and rolled away from her. ―Don‘t remind me. Your brother-in-law doesn‘t like me at all, I‘m afraid.‖ She chuckled. ―I hadn‘t noticed.‖ ―Impudent minx.‖ He threw a pillow at her before leaving the bed to search for his drawers. ―No doubt you‘ve enjoyed watching him bait me and grouse at me and make vague threats to do me in.‖ ―A little. You deserved it, after all.‖ He raised an eyebrow as he dragged on his drawers and fastened them. ―You‘ve become quite the bloodthirsty wench since I first met you.‖ ―You have only yourself to blame for that,‖ she teased. Pulling on his trousers, he cast her a rueful smile. ―How well I know.‖ ―But soon it will all be over—this nastiness between you and Griff. Once we marry, he can hardly treat you badly. The tricky part will be convincing him and my father to allow the marriage after what you did to me.‖ ―By bedding you? Some things are better left secret, sweeting, don‘t you think?‖ She blushed. As if she could ever tell her father or Griff such a thing! ―I meant the kidnapping. Once you explain why you did it, he may make a fuss, but—‖ ―I‘m sure he‘ll make more than a ‗fuss.‘‖ He donned his shirt and tucked the tails in his trousers. ―That‘s precisely why I‘m not telling him any of that. Not yet, anyway.‖ She stared at him, her heart giving a little lurch. ―Wh-what do you mean?‖

~ 222 ~ ―Just what I said. Until we‘re married and Morgan is safely back in England, I‘m not telling your brother- in-law a blasted thing.‖ Suddenly, he glanced up and saw her expression. A small frown creased his brow. ―Surely you didn‘t expect me to.‖ Feeling suddenly exposed and vulnerable before him, she sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. ―I most certainly did!‖ ―Why?‖ He buttoned up the vee of his shirt, then his cuffs. ―It will only make more trouble. What would be the point?‖ ―The point is that we‘re going to marry. The point is that you‘ll be part of my family. So before we rush into anything so serious, I think you owe them an explanation about how we really met and why you did what you did!‖ His lips thinned. ―And they‘ll hear one. As soon as Morgan returns and I‘m sure he‘s safe.‖ She drew herself up and prepared for battle. ―Then I‘m afraid we have a problem.‖

~ 223 ~

Chapter 17 ‘Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail’. -John Donne’s “To Sir Henry Wotton,” worked badly on a hanging by Rosalind Laverick at thirteen

Sebastian‘s blood curdled at those words. ―What kind of problem?‖ ―I can‘t possibly marry you without their knowing the truth. We‘ll have to wait to marry until your brother returns.‖ ―The devil we will!‖ He stared at her, completely taken aback. ―He might not return for weeks, even months! Morgan wrote that he wasn‘t sure how long it would be. For God‘s sake, I don‘t even know where he is or how he plans to get back!‖ She watched him with cool, assessing eyes. ―So you want me to live a lie until then, no matter how long it takes. I‘m supposed to marry you and keep secret the fact that you‘re the one whose actions hurt my family and nearly ruined me.‖ By thunder, but the woman knew how to put things so they drove a stake through his conscience. ―It‘s better than the alternative.‖ ―For you, perhaps, but not for me.‖ She slid off the bed and tugged her chemise back on. ―I‘ve suffered two years of believing that I‘d been entirely wrong about your character—that I‘d fallen in love with a scoundrel. I doubted myself, but even worse, my family doubted me, too. The very least you can do is set their minds at ease and prove I wasn‘t wrong to believe in you. So when you‘re ready to do that, I shall marry you, and not a moment before.‖ His stomach sank. He hadn‘t realized till this very moment how much he‘d counted on her marrying him at once. Blast, she was taking this all wrong. He had to talk sense into her.

~ 224 ~ He stalked to where she stood with her chemise hanging open. The flash of her lovely breasts momentarily distracted him. Only with an effort did he lift his gaze to her face. ―Hear me out, Juliet. I‘m not asking you to keep silent out of some perverse desire to make you miserable. I have good reasons for my caution.‖ She raised one eyebrow. ―Oh? And what might those reasons be?‖ ―For one thing, I‘m in the midst of a sticky negotiation with the Navy Board for my brother‘s pardon. I can‘t have that jeopardized just now.‖ Crossing her arms over her chest, she glared at him. ―And how would that be jeopardized by your telling my family the truth, pray tell?‖ ―That should be obvious. Your brother-in-law already said he‘d ruin your kidnapper if he got the chance.‖ ―First of all, my kidnapper is you, not Morgan, so Morgan won‘t be harmed at all. For that matter, neither will you. When Griff hears your story he‘s sure to relent in his urge for vengeance. He‘s a fair man.‖ He laughed harshly. ―Have you forgotten how he reacted when he first laid eyes on me and you said I was Morgan?‖ ―He didn‘t know the whole story—‖ ―He didn‘t care, either. He still doesn‘t—even I can see that. The day he came to my study, he told me he‘d do all in his power to ruin your kidnapper. That would certainly include going after my feckless brother to punish me. And I highly doubt any amount of persuasion will change his mind.‖ ―Yet you aren‘t worried about how he‘ll take the news after we marry.‖ He shrugged. ―By then it won‘t matter. Once Morgan is safe, let Griff do as he wishes.‖ The instant her face went cold, he knew he‘d blundered. ―I see. By then it won‘t matter because you‘ll merely have a wife to worry about. And perhaps a child or two, depending on when Morgan returns.‖ She shimmied into her drawers. ―Apparently, it hasn‘t occurred to you that if you wait to tell Griff, he‘ll be twice as angry when he realizes you deceived him all that time.‖

~ 225 ~

No, it hadn‘t occurred to him. Why the devil should Knighton‘s opinion have any effect whatsoever on his life? Juliet had forgiven him; who cared what the rest of them thought? ―Let him be angry. I don‘t care what he does to me once Morgan is safe.‖ ―He could bring you to trial!‖ ―He could do that now.‖ ―But he won‘t. Because he won‘t risk dragging me through a scandal as long as there‘s some chance I might marry somebody respectable. Once you and I marry, however, that chance is gone. So he‘ll weigh the risk of scandal versus the risk of my being ‗enslaved‘ to my kidnapper all my life, and he‘ll choose to ‗save‘ me from you. Daniel and Helena and Rosalind will be right there with him, prodding him on.‖ ―And this is the man you want me to confess to,‖ Sebastian said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. ―It‘ll be different after we marry, don‘t you see?‖ Nimbly, she buttoned up her chemise. ―They‘ll think you deceived me to gain my hand. Or they‘ll think you wed me to keep me silent or some nonsense like that. You‘ll never convince them that I knew who you were all along.‖ She set her shoulders stubbornly. ―If you don‘t squelch it now, they‘ll have you carted off in chains, if only to separate us. It‘s just the sort of idiotic thing they might do to ‗protect‘ me from myself. They still believe me to be the most featherbrained, half-witted—‖ ―No, they don‘t.‖ It tore at him to see how she considered her family‘s admittedly overprotective instincts as a reflection of their opinion of her. ―They only want what‘s best for you, sweeting,‖ he murmured, reaching for her again. ―As do I.‖ She shoved him away. ―Do you? You want me to lie to my family about you. You want me to live in fear that I‘ll let the truth slip at some inopportune moment. And once your brother returns, you want me to convince them that it‘s all right, when they‘re sure to think anything but that. You want me to begin our marriage with a lie!‖ ―I refuse to risk my brother‘s future just so you won‘t have to lie to your family!‖ he snapped. ―Don‘t ask it of me.‖

~ 226 ~

Her tone turned pleading. ―Griff won‘t harm you or Morgan, I swear. He won‘t try to stop your negotiations for Morgan‘s return. I won‘t allow it.‖ ―We both know you can‘t promise that.‖ She stiffened. ―My brother-in-law, hot-tempered as he might be, is an honorable man. When faced with the facts and my earnest pleading of your case, he‘ll understand. I know Griff hasn‘t made a good impression on you, but once he and the rest of my family are as convinced of your fine and noble character as I am— and your remorse for what you did—they‘ll close ranks around you. They‘ll even try to help.‖ ―You mean, help save my rapscallion of a brother? Now why in God‘s name should they care enough to do that?‖ ―Because I care. Because it matters to you, and I want to marry you. Because I intend to convince them that it‘s important to me. But the longer you deceive them, the less inclined they‘ll be to listen. Which is why you simply must tell them everything now. You must trust me to know what my family will do. If you can‘t trust me—‖ ―This isn‘t about trusting you. I trust you. I just don‘t trust them.‖ ―It‘s the same thing!‖ ―No, it‘s not! Your affection for them has blinded you to their faults. But it hasn‘t blinded me. I won‘t let you dictate the terms of our marriage when you can‘t see the enormity of what you ask. You‘ll have to accept that I‘m doing what‘s best for us both.‖ ―As you did when you kidnapped me?‖ she said dryly. That sent his temper over the edge. ―This is absurd. I‘m not going to tell your blasted family a blasted thing until Morgan returns, so that‘s that. And we will marry as soon as possible. Don‘t think to sway me on this with your childish ultimatums.‖ Her head shot up so fast, it was a miracle it didn‘t go flying off. And as soon as he saw the fire in her gaze, he realized his mistake. Blast.

~ 227 ~

―Childish ultimatums? Childish, mind you?‖ Striding up to him with her gown in tow, she poked him in the chest. ―You have the audacity to call me childish, when you‘re the one who refuses to do the right thing!‖ ―Now see here, Juliet, I didn‘t mean—‖ ―Oh yes, you did! You think I haven‘t changed a bit in two years. You think you can just order me about in that condescending tone, and I‘ll do exactly as you say. And if I deign to disagree or want matters handled another way, you call me childish.‖ ―I didn‘t call you childish!‖ But he could feel her slipping from his grasp. She ignored his protest, that blasted finger of hers continuing to stab his chest. ―If that‘s what you think of me, you…you arrogant, pistol-shooting bully, then you are sadly mistaken. I was a fool the first time I let you tell me what to do. I let you convince me that eloping and sneaking about were better than going right to my father and telling him everything. Well, I‘ll be damned if I let you convince me to do it again!‖ She poked him again, and he grabbed her finger. ―Juliet, be sensible. You don‘t want to upset your family needlessly—‖ ―That‘s what you said the last time.‖ Jerking her hand free, she snatched up her gown and shimmied into it. Devil take her impeccable memory. ―It isn‘t the same, and you know it.‖ ―Only because this time you aren‘t kidnapping me under the erroneous belief that you can maneuver everything to your satisfaction—‖ ―Erroneous!‖ he exploded. ―I succeeded, didn‘t I?‖ ―Except for putting my family in danger and destroying my reputation. I suppose you‘re perfectly happy to see me maligned by every loose tongue while you wait for your precious brother to return!‖

~ 228 ~ ―If you marry me,‖ he bit out, ―whatever small rumors there are won‘t matter, will they? Unless you planned on our staying in London and becoming the cream of society.‖ Her cold expression struck him hollow. ―You seem to forget that my family will be hurt by gossip as much as I would. The least you can do is let them know why they‘re suffering.‖ She struggled to fasten her buttons. Swearing under his breath, he circled around to stand behind her and seize the edges of her gown. Though she stood rigid as a post, she dropped her hands and allowed him to fasten her up. It felt so comfortable and natural to help her dress. If she‘d only be reasonable, he could soon do it whenever he wished. Which would undoubtedly be often, since he couldn‘t keep his hands off her. He leaned close and lowered his voice. ―Why the devil do you care so much about them? It‘s me you‘re marrying.‖ She bent her head to give him access to the top buttons. He swept the gossamer strands of her hair aside, his gut clenching to think that she might postpone their marriage. Over this, for God‘s sake! ―I‘d think you‘d put my wishes ahead of your family‘s welfare, since I‘m to be your husband.‖ Until he‘d said the words, he hadn‘t realized how much he resented her family‘s influence in her life. How much he ached to be the one who mattered most to her. Not that he would ever let her know it. He wouldn‘t beg, damn it. ―Why should I do otherwise when you‘re doing exactly the same—putting Morgan‘s welfare before my wishes?‖ He gritted his teeth, wishing she hadn‘t chosen this particular moment to be so blasted logical. ―So your solution is to delay the wedding.‖ She shrugged. ―If you won‘t tell them anything—‖ ―I won‘t.‖ He had to keep silent about Morgan until matters were settled. ―Then I see no other solution.‖ Leaving him, she hurried to the bed and sat down to draw her stockings up her gamine legs, making his mouth go dry. She couldn‘t truly mean to delay the wedding. Could she?

~ 229 ~ ―How long can you keep your family in Shropshire?‖ he asked, trying to sound nonchalant when inside he felt like a man slipping into a dangerous quagmire. She wouldn‘t look at him as she tied her garters, then put on her half boots. ―Actually, I was thinking that my family and I ought to return to London. The longer we stay away, the more chance there is for the gossip to take hold. Now that we know you didn‘t start it, we should find out who did, and nip it in the bud before it becomes nasty.‖ The quagmire deepened; he sank to his knees in it. ―You won‘t stay here?‖ ―It‘s not as if we could stay until Morgan returns, you know. As you said, it might be ‗weeks, even months.‘‖ No doubt she took great delight in throwing his own words back in his teeth. ―I can‘t leave here until he returns.‖ ―Of course not,‖ she said tersely. ―You stay and take care of your brother, and when you‘ve got it all settled and you‘re ready to speak to my family, come to London.‖ She added in a small voice, ―That is, unless you change your mind about marrying me.‖ ―I won‘t change my mind.‖ Now his chest was going under, now his neck. He couldn‘t breathe for the thought of her actually leaving him. ―At least tell your family we‘re engaged to be married.‖ Rising from the bed, she faced him with shoulders set. ―But we‘re not. And we won‘t be until you tell them the truth.‖ Then she turned and strode toward the door. In a panic, he crossed the room to grab her by the arm. ―You promised you‘d be my wife if I told you the truth, and I did. Your family doesn‘t figure into the agreement.‖ She lifted her clear-eyed gaze to him. ―As I recall, the terms were that if I didn‘t like what you had to say, I could do as I pleased.‖ ―Blast it, Juliet, I ruined you! And I take responsibility for my actions.‖ ―Except when it conflicts with your notions about your duty to your family.‖

~ 230 ~ ―I have a responsibility to my brother, too.‖ ―As I do to my family.‖ Which was absurd. Her family wasn‘t in danger. They deserved nothing from him. No matter what she claimed, this wasn‘t about responsibility. It was another of her little tricks—meant to force him into doing what she wanted. Well, he had a few tricks of his own up his sleeve. ―What if I tell Knighton that I‘ve taken your innocence? Then he‘ll insist that you marry me at once.‖ Anger and hurt mingled in her lovely features. ―You‘d really do that to me? Shame me before him?‖ He squelched ruthlessly any twinges of guilt. ―Better that you suffer a little shame now than a great deal of shame later if you should find yourself with child. So yes, I‘ll tell him if I must.‖ That stubborn little chin of hers shot up a notch. ―Go ahead. Then I‘ll tell him who you really are, and it will all be out in the open, won‘t it?‖ ―You‘re going to do that anyway,‖ he growled. She flinched. ―No, of course not. They deserve to hear it from you. If I tell them, they‘ll think I‘m trying to cover it up for you. They won‘t believe you did it for a good reason, and they‘ll want your head. So I‘m not saying a word until you tell them, whenever that is.‖ He gaped at her. ―You expect me to believe that you‘ll keep quiet, even though you have every reason not to?‖ ―I don‘t give a farthing what you believe,‖ she whispered, wrenching free of his hold. Her lovely eyes shimmered with tears. ―If you can‘t see that I care about you enough to want to protect you, then that is your problem.‖ She started for the door, and he stood there frozen. She cared as much as all the others who‘d chosen to leave him. They, too, had always had what they thought were perfectly good reasons to go. His mother‘s reason had been love, that dubious emotion. His father‘s had been freedom. His uncle‘s reason had been the glitter and excitement of London and

~ 231 ~ Bath. Even Morgan had initially possessed a rational reason to ignore all familial ties—his duty to his country. At least that one was noble. The rest were all as flimsy and self-serving as Juliet‘s. And they all bore the same results—Sebastian was left alone with his responsibilities, left alone to take care of everything, eternally alone. Fine. He always managed to get through it before, and this time was no different. The alternative was to dance to her tune—or beg—and he‘d be damned if he did either. Not since he was a child had he begged anyone to stay. Grown men didn‘t beg. And he sure as the devil wouldn‘t beg her. She halted in the doorway and glanced back at him, suddenly uncertain. ―You‘ll be all right here?‖ ―I‘ve done without you for most of my life, Juliet,‖ he bit out. ―I think I can manage a few more weeks.‖ She paled. ―Yes, of course you can. How stupid of me to think you might miss me.‖ She turned to walk out the door. Oh Christ, of course he‘d miss her. How could she think otherwise? ―Juliet?‖ he said, on the verge of telling her that very thing. Then she gazed back at him, her face hopeful, as if she half expected him to tell her he‘d forget about his brother and his duty. And the words—too close to begging for his comfort—drained from him. He sighed. ―You‘ll send word if you find yourself with child, won‘t you?‖ The hope died in her face. ―Of course.‖ ―Because I‘ll come to London at once if you do.‖ ―Yes, I‘m sure you will.‖ Her voice was laced with sarcasm. ―That responsibility would be impossible for you to ignore, even for your brother‘s sake.‖ He nodded, not sure what to say.

~ 232 ~ ―Well, I‘d better go,‖ she said briskly, though her eyes looked suspiciously watery. ―Whenever Morgan returns and you‘ve settled your ‗sticky negotiations,‘ you‘ll find me in London. Good-bye, Sebastian.‖ She swept through the door, and suddenly he was thirteen again, hearing about his mother and how she‘d abandoned him because his father didn‘t love her and she preferred ―love‖ with another man to caring for her eldest son. A powerful rage came over him, propelling him to hurry to the top of the staircase. He watched Juliet descend the steps he‘d carried her up only a few hours before. Devil take the stubborn wench! He wanted to race down the stairs, catch her in his arms, and kiss her until she agreed to marry him at once. But he‘d be damned if he‘d give in to her manipulations. Let her go back to blasted London with her blasted family. If she refused to marry him until she got what she wanted, then she could damned well wait on his leisure. He would not let her wrap him around her little finger! He had important responsibilities, and the sooner she learned that, the better. Now if only he didn‘t feel as if the quagmire had finally swallowed him whole.

~ 233 ~

Chapter 18 Trifles light as air Are to the jealous confirmations strong As proofs of holy writ. - Shakespeare’s Othello, underlined in Griff Knighton’s copy of the play

Juliet had ridden halfway back to Charnwood when she heard a shot fired in the distance behind her. For a second, she panicked. Surely Sebastian wouldn‘t hurt himself… Then came another pistol shot, and she realized how stupid an idea that was. Sebastian didn‘t even care enough about her to do as she asked. He certainly didn‘t care enough to kill himself. He cared so little that he‘d gone right back to his target practice. How very appropriate. He could make a pistol behave exactly as he wished, which was all he cared about. A pistol didn‘t ask him for anything as foolish as loyalty or support or…or even affection. Tears burned her eyes, and her shoulders began to heave again. She didn‘t stop the tears. She couldn‘t. Dratted stupid scoundrel! It was so like him to want everything his way. He‘d only told her the truth after he was sure he had her where he wanted her. And then to refuse to tell her family— Very well, he could molder out there until doomsday for all she cared, him and his infernal pistols and his precious brother. But if he thought she would marry him without reassuring her family that all was well, then he could think again. She was right, drat it, and he knew it! He owed it to her to be truthful to her family. Charnwood loomed up ahead, and she swiped furiously at her tears. Nobody must ever know of this. They‘d try to make her marry him immediately. Or worse, try to hurt him. She ought to let them; Lord knew the wretch deserved it. But she couldn‘t betray him like that.

~ 234 ~

Even if it restored her to the position of featherheaded ninny in her family‘s eyes. Which she clearly was, anyway. Why else had she allowed herself to fall in love not once, but twice with a man who cared so little for her? Except that this time she‘d ruined herself in the process. Oh, what did it matter? If the rumors got any worse, she‘d be ruined anyway. Besides, it wasn‘t as if she wanted to marry anybody else. If she couldn‘t marry Sebastian, she wouldn‘t marry at all. And right now, the possibility of marrying Sebastian looked decidedly shaky. The longer he locked himself away in Shropshire, the less inclined he‘d be to marry. After all, it wasn‘t as if he had any strong feelings toward her that made him want marriage. She blinked back more tears. When he‘d said those words about needing her, she‘d let herself hope that he truly did. But clearly he needed her to soothe his conscience, nothing more. Very well, if he wanted his conscience soothed, he‘d have to come after her in London. Because she wasn‘t letting Sebastian Blakely tell her what to do anymore. The setting sun pierced through some branches, blinding her with light, and she suddenly realized how late it was. Oh, dear, this wasn‘t good. Griff and Rosalind had surely returned by now. She hastened around to the orangery door where Polly was supposed to be waiting, but there was no sign of the maid. Dismounting quickly, she tied the horse to a nearby tree and slipped inside. She‘d have to send Polly to bring it to the stables once she reached the safety of her bedchamber. Praying that no one saw her, she nearly wept with relief when she made it to the door of her bedchamber without being accosted. But when she opened her door to sneak inside, all hell broke loose. ―Where on earth have you been?‖ Griff shot up from a chair by the hearth. ―We‘ve been worried sick.‖ Juliet froze in the doorway, her heart tripping double-time. Goodness gracious, this was pure disaster. In the corner, Polly stood looking ill at ease. She‘d obviously been kept there so she couldn‘t warn Juliet off. And a white-faced Rosalind sat rigid on the bed.

~ 235 ~

When Juliet glanced to her sister in a panic, Rosalind gave a tiny shake of her head. So Rosalind hadn‘t told Griff anything. And now she probably expected Juliet to lie for her. Even as Juliet rebelled at the thought, she mustered her energy to do so. Because if she didn‘t, Rosalind and Griff would be at odds again, and she couldn‘t bear to see it. Just because her own chances at happiness were melting away didn‘t mean theirs had to. She faced her brother-in-law calmly. ―I went riding. What of it?‖ He strode forward. ―You‘re supposed to be resting, that‘s what of it! I thought you were too ill to travel, and here you are gadding about the countryside. And alone, at that.‖ ―I woke up feeling much better today, that‘s all.‖ His eyes narrowed. ―Rosalind told me you were so ill this morning, you could barely raise your head.‖ Juliet winced as her sister groaned. They really should have compared notes. ―Well, I…um…‖ ―Polly, you may leave,‖ Griff said tersely, and the maid gratefully fled. As soon as she was gone, he crossed his arms over his chest. ―What‘s going on here? What have you two been up to?‖ ―Nothing!‖ they said in unison. He rounded on Rosalind. ―I‘m not an idiot, you know. Juliet has never been sick a day in her life and suddenly she‘s stayed ill for a week? And wouldn‘t allow a doctor near? I thought I could trust you to tell me if I had reason to be suspicious, but obviously I was wrong. You‘ve both been plotting behind my back. And I demand to know why!‖ As Rosalind sat there uselessly fumbling for words, Juliet stepped forward. ―I wasn‘t ready to leave Shropshire yet, that‘s all. So I pretended to be sick.‖

~ 236 ~ ―Might that have anything to do with that scoundrel Templemore?‖ His face darkened to a shade of red that boded ill for both of them. ―You‘ve been meeting him in secret, haven‘t you? I wondered why he was always absent, and now I know why.‖ ―That‘s not true!‖ Juliet protested. Oh, dear, was her loss of virtue written in her face for the whole world to see? Or was he merely guessing? ―All this time, you pretended to be ill while you crept out to meet him. Damn it, Juliet, I thought better of you than this. But I won‘t let him take advantage of you as his brother did. A worse pair of wretches I‘ve never encountered. When I get my hands on the bastard—‖ ―Please, Griff—‖ Juliet began, alarmed at the thought of what he might do or say to Sebastian. ―This has nothing to do with his lordship,‖ Rosalind broke in wearily. ―Juliet did it all for me.‖ A rush of relief hit Juliet. ―Rosalind, you don‘t need to—‖ ―It‘s all right, dearest,‖ her sister said. ―I shouldn‘t make you fight my battles.‖ Griff stiffened. He searched his wife‘s face, and then his features went stony. Turning back to Juliet, he said, ―Lord Templemore has nothing to do with this?‖ ―Nothing at all,‖ she lied. The last thing she needed was Griff confronting Sebastian in his current state. Sebastian would add fuel to the fire by saying he‘d compromised her, and before she knew it, the two men would be marking off paces in a field somewhere. ―Then it won‘t matter to either of you if we return to London?‖ he asked. ―Actually,‖ Juliet said, ―I was going to suggest that we return anyway. I went riding precisely because I‘d grown tired of staying cooped up in my room. I‘m ready to go back to London whenever you two are.‖ Griff nodded, apparently satisfied by that answer. ―Good.‖ He held out his arm to his wife. ―Come now, Rosalind, let‘s leave Juliet to pack. I think you and I have a few matters to discuss in private.‖

~ 237 ~

As soon as they were gone, Juliet sank onto the bed. Well, that was that. She had no choice now. They were returning to London. She‘d made her decision, and it was too late to do anything else. She swallowed past the lump in her throat. She was leaving Sebastian here. What if he never came after her? He‘d abandoned her before for the sake of his brother; what was to keep him from doing it again? For a moment, she considered running back to him. Perhaps she was being too stubborn about this. Could it really hurt if he hid the truth until his brother returned? But then what would happen when Morgan did return? Disaster, that‘s what. She could end up permanently estranged from her family, and for what? A man who thought she‘d ―make him a good wife,‖ and that‘s all. Who said he couldn‘t love her. Who thought of her only as some waif in need of rescuing. She blinked back new tears. No, she had run off with him once before without his offering her anything but promises of a future that had never materialized. She wouldn‘t do it again. This time she‘d be wise. Even if it tore her heart in two.

Griff watched his wife sweep into the room ahead of him and march straight to the dressing room. The terror gripping him was too painful for words. Rosalind had been hiding things from him. From the day they‘d married, she‘d always been truthful with him, never gone behind his back. That she‘d do so now only increased his desperate fear that he was losing her. Ever since she‘d begun to obsess about having a child, he‘d worried that she blamed him for her inability to conceive. And why was it so important to her anyway? Why wasn‘t he enough for her? He‘d lost her affections, and he didn‘t even know how or why.

~ 238 ~ Oh, she still came to his bed with all the eagerness she‘d shown before. But it was her behavior outside the bedchamber that worried him—her constant air of distraction, her determination to marry Juliet off, her fixation with having a child. He often found her staring at nothing. And when he asked what was wrong, she wouldn‘t tell him. They used to share everything. Now they shared only a bed. He missed the way it was before. He entered the dressing room to find her removing gowns from hangers and folding them neatly. ―Rosalind,‖ he said, coming up behind her, ―what‘s this all about?‖ She glanced up at him with a false smile. ―What do you mean? You said we were going back to London.‖ ―That‘s not—Why would you ask Juliet to pretend to be sick so you could stay here longer?‖ She concentrated on her folding. ―You‘ll think it‘s silly.‖ God, he hoped so. He could handle silly. ―Try me.‖ ―I thought perhaps the country air would do me good. Help me conceive, you know? I‘ve long wondered if it‘s not that ghastly London air that‘s hindering me.‖ Relief coursed through him for the briefest moment. Then reality sank in. ―If that‘s the case, why haven‘t you ever asked me to take you home to Swan Park, or even the chateau? We needn‘t spend all our time in the city.‖ ―I wouldn‘t want to drag you from your work,‖ she said evenly. ―Besides, I like being in town. But after we came here…well, I merely thought that staying awhile might be invigorating.‖ ―Invigorating.‖ ―Yes.‖ She shot him a hesitant smile. ―And you must admit we‘ve had a fine time together without you having to dash off to Knighton Trading all the time.‖

~ 239 ~ He wanted to believe her. God, how he wanted to believe her. But her explanations simply didn‘t ring true. Rosalind hated the country. She‘d always thrived on activity and bustle and the excitement of the city. ―Yes, but what‘s so special about Charnwood?‖ he persisted. ―The master is never around, and the servants can‘t heat water to save their lives…I can‘t imagine why you‘d find Charnwood any more ‗invigorating‘ than your own home. And if that‘s all it was, why not tell me you wanted to stay, instead of engineering some nonsense with Juliet? I would gladly have done whatever you wanted.‖ ―That‘s not true. You would have insisted you had too much work to do to remain out here.‖ He supposed he couldn‘t refute that. Yet for her to go so far as to have her sister play sick…―So that‘s all there was to it. You wanted to enjoy the country air.‖ ―Of course.‖ ―And you weren‘t concerned that being here put Juliet in the path of Templemore, whose own brother kidnapped her.‖ ―He isn‘t like his brother,‖ she said hotly. Too hotly. ―He‘s a very nice man. Juliet would be hard-pressed to find a better suitor.‖ Now she was championing Templemore for Juliet. His eyes narrowed. ―So I was right then. That‘s where she‘s been sneaking off to all this time.‖ ―She hasn‘t been sneaking off anywhere,‖ Rosalind snapped. ―If you don‘t believe me, ask Polly. Juliet has been lolling about in her room, that‘s all.‖ ―Has he been ‗lolling about‘ with her? All those times he missed meals and disappeared God knows where—‖ ―For pity‘s sake, Griff, he wasn‘t with her. I‘m sure that most of the time he was out at that cottage of his. I swear you‘re the most suspicious man in creation.‖ He went still. ―What ‗cottage of his‘? I never heard him mention any cottage.‖

~ 240 ~ She glanced up at him, startled. The change that came over her face made his heart drop into his stomach. She knew something he wasn‘t supposed to know. Regarding Templemore and a secret cottage. Dropping her head, she folded a chemise into the smallest square he‘d ever seen. ―I…I…the servants mentioned it once. He goes out there to shoot, I believe.‖ ―But you haven‘t seen it yourself or anything.‖ ―Seen it? No, of course not,‖ she said, too quickly. God help him, she was lying. He could tell. Rosalind had always been an awful liar. She was lying to him about Templemore. His blood thundered in his ears. Then something occurred to him, and he brightened. The cottage could be an assignation site for Juliet. Since Rosalind would never condone Juliet‘s meeting Templemore alone, she might have gone with her sister to act as chaperone. It would explain why she and Juliet had conspired to stay in Shropshire. Yet Juliet didn‘t want to remain anymore. No, it was Rosalind who seemed to have wanted to stay. He swallowed down the sudden bile rising in his throat as several little niggling details loomed in his mind. Rosalind and Templemore returning from a cozy ride in a sleigh. Them whispering together one day in a corner when they‘d thought he wasn‘t looking. Templemore‘s father had been known for preying on married women, after all. He shook his head. No, he wouldn‘t even think it. Rosalind would never be unfaithful to him. She wouldn‘t. But that didn‘t mean she mightn‘t be a bit enamored of the fellow. After all, Templemore possessed that courtly manner toward women that Griff had never managed to acquire. He lacked Griff‘s explosive temper. And he always paid attention to what Rosalind said, unlike most men of their acquaintance. Griff winced. He hadn‘t paid enough attention to her of late, too wrapped up in his business affairs. Besides, it had been hard to be around her, knowing that he

~ 241 ~ couldn‘t give her the child she desperately wanted. So he‘d buried himself in his work. He‘d told himself he‘d do better once he settled this matter of finding Juliet‘s abductor. How could he have been so blind? Rosalind wasn‘t the sort of woman one neglected with impunity. Could she have found in Templemore a companion who‘d pay her heed when her husband was not around? And how long would it be before friendship turned to something else? Especially if they were meeting in secret at some cottage… No, he couldn‘t bear to think of that. ―Rosalind,‖ he whispered, slipping his arm about her waist, needing to touch her. ―Are you happy?‖ She gazed at him with a bemused smile. ―Of course I am. Why wouldn‘t I be?‖ ―You just seem…very distracted lately.‖ Twisting around to face him, she looped her arms about his neck. ―That‘s because you‘re always distracting me.‖ Her teasing smile and sensual glances were the same as ever. And when she pressed her ample breasts up against him, the band constricting his heart eased a little. Perhaps he was imagining all this secrecy. Nothing was wrong. He was being absurd. All the same, he wouldn‘t feel safe until he had her far away from Templemore.

~ 242 ~

Chapter 19 Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error. -Cicero’s Philipics, worked on a hanging by Juliet after her disastrous elopement

Midmorning on the second day after Juliet‘s departure, Sebastian stood on the west lawn with a pistol in hand. Could it really have been only two days? It seemed like more. Especially when he spent them wearing himself out beating brass into casings and silver into facings. And spent the nights sleeping at the cottage to avoid his bleak, cold bed at Charnwood. Not that the cottage was much better, with her lilac scent still fragrant on the pillows. Last night he‘d found a long golden hair tangled in the sheets, and only a stern self-lecture had prevented his tucking it away somewhere for a deuced keepsake. What insanity. His craving for her should have lessened once she was gone. But if anything, it had increased. And now this. He was so busy loading that he didn‘t hear footsteps approach. Only the scent of Russian Oil alerted him to his uncle‘s arrival. ―You sent for me?‖ Uncle Lew asked. ―Yes.‖ Sebastian sighted down the pistol and fired. This one wouldn‘t do—it pulled a little to the right. He‘d forgotten about that. He set it with the other two unacceptable pistols. ―I‘m leaving for London as soon as the trunks are loaded in the carriage and I‘ve finished choosing a dueling pistol.‖ ―A dueling pistol! Whyever would you need that?‖

~ 243 ~ ―It‘s just a precaution. I don‘t know what I‘ll have to deal with in town.‖ ―Surely you are not expecting to face Knighton on the dueling field!‖ ―No.‖ He took up the next pistol. ―But I don‘t know who else I‘ll have to face.‖ ―What in God‘s name do you mean?‖ Reaching inside his coat pocket, Sebastian withdrew a torn out piece of newspaper and handed it to his uncle. ―Read the column headed ‗Secret Elopement.‘ It was in this morning‘s paper.‖ It took his uncle mere seconds to scan it. ―Bloody hell,‖ he said softly. ―Yes.‖ His voice was laced with self-loathing. ―I didn‘t believe Juliet when she said the gossip might spread. I thought it was just a little misinformation circulating among servants, that it would go away. After all, if someone had known the truth from the beginning, what reason could they have for coming out with it now? And if they hadn‘t known it—well, I didn‘t see how they could suddenly stumble upon it after two years.‖ He checked the pistol‘s flint, then added grimly, ―But I was wrong.‖ His uncle laid a hand on his arm. ―It‘s not your fault. Even the Knightons said the rumors were vague rumblings.‖ ―That article is more than vague rumblings. It states quite clearly that Juliet is believed to have eloped at eighteen and then been abandoned by her ‗suitor.‘‖ He gritted his teeth. ―At least they said ‗suitor‘ instead of ‗lover.‘ Though I‘m sure that‘s what they‘re calling me in society. God only knows what they‘re calling her. This paper is three days old, so there‘s been plenty of time for the nastiness to progress.‖ Deuce take it! Lifting the pistol, he fired at the target, but only the click of the empty gun sounded on the lawn. ―I believe you have to reload after each shot, my boy,‖ Uncle Lew said softly. Only half aware of his uncle‘s remark, he whirled to face him. ―By now, they‘re tearing her apart for the sheer pleasure of it. She‘ll be ostracized by everyone, spoken of with contempt, treated like a whore—‖

~ 244 ~

―Come now, Sebastian, surely it will not be that bad. Knighton will not let it progress that far.‖ ―How can he stop it?‖ He rubbed his pounding temple. ―And it worries me that the rumor is so close to the truth. What if someone stumbled across the entire story and has set out purposely to ruin her reputation? A spurned suitor perhaps, or some enemy of Knighton‘s? What if it‘s an act of deliberate malice?‖ The possibility had tormented him all morning as he‘d prepared to leave. Though the Knightons couldn‘t have reached London yet, they soon would. When they did… His mind conjured up nasty images of Juliet being shunned or forced to defend her actions publicly or groped by men who thought her a loose woman because of the rumors. ―What will you do in London?‖ his uncle asked. ―I don‘t know. First I‘ll have to find out who started the gossip and why. Then I‘ll deal with it as best I can.‖ ―And Morgan? What if he shows up here while you are gone?‖ ―You‘ll have to take care of it. He doesn‘t need us both looking out for him. Write to me in London if he arrives before I return, and I‘ll…‖ He trailed off. He didn‘t know what he‘d do. For God‘s sake, he didn‘t even know what to expect in London. He only knew he had to go. He‘d promised her to take care of any gossip, yet he‘d let her go off without making any provision for it. He‘d never forgive himself for that. ―Sebastian, I wanted to ask as soon as I heard that the Knightons had gone, but since Boggs said you were too busy to see me, and I did not like to pry—‖ Sebastian raised one eyebrow. His uncle smiled wryly. ―All right, so that never stopped me before. But you have never been too busy to see me before. I figured you would tell me on your own eventually. Indeed, that is why I thought you had sent for me this morning, and—‖

~ 245 ~

―What is it you wanted to ask, Uncle?‖ he said impatiently. ―What happened between you and Lady Juliet that sent them all running?‖ Sebastian concentrated on loading the pistol. ―I asked her to marry me.‖ His uncle sucked in a breath. ―Ah. And she did not like the idea?‖ ―Actually, she accepted my offer. But she had some demands I couldn‘t meet.‖ ―Demands? What—‖ Comprehension dawned in his face. ―Oh, I suppose she wanted you to tell her the truth.‖ ―No. I‘d already done that.‖ ―You had?‖ his uncle said disbelievingly. ―The day she left. I told her everything and asked her to marry me. She said she would. But when we began to discuss her family—‖ He broke off, his gut twisting as he remembered. ―She demanded that I go to Knighton with the truth. I explained that I couldn‘t risk Knighton‘s interference, that I had to wait until Morgan returned before I could reveal all. Then she told me some nonsense about not wanting to start our marriage with a lie. She said she‘d marry me only after I came clean. Then she and the Knightons headed off for London.‖ With a sigh, his uncle took a seat at the nearby table. ―I suppose it makes sense that she would react that way—given her past and her relationship with her family.‖ Sebastian‘s gaze shot to Uncle Lew. ―What do you mean?‖ ―Come now, my boy. You have seen how they treat her—like a child who must be protected for fear she will blunder again. The poor girl lived in the shadow of her older sisters all her life, and then she did something that forever cemented their opinion of her. Finally, she has the chance to prove that her behavior wasn‘t so awful, was even understandable, and you tell her that she can‘t. You offered her marriage, but refused to take her side with her family. How did you expect her to react?‖

~ 246 ~ He hadn‘t looked at it like that. ―You think I was wrong to refuse her demands.‖ ―Not at all. You were being cautious. And with matters as they are, caution is warranted. I am merely pointing out how she probably saw it.‖ His uncle drew out his snuffbox. ―How do you know she will not tell her family herself?‖ He stared off into the woods, but saw only eyes that glinted amber and green, regarding him with understanding and ready forgiveness. Until he‘d gone and spoiled everything. ―She promised she wouldn‘t, said it was my place to do it. I trust her to keep her word.‖ ―She must care a great deal for you if she is willing to shield you from them.‖ ―Yes, a great deal,‖ he said sarcastically. ―That‘s why she hied herself off to London instead of marrying me.‖ His uncle dipped some snuff. ―If you do not mind me asking, what did you tell her when you proposed?‖ He shrugged. ―That I wanted to marry her, that I was attracted to her. That I thought she‘d make me a very good wife.‖ ―No doubt she positively swooned at that.‖ Uncle Lew sniffed a pinch of snuff. ―Didn‘t you tell her you love her?‖ Sebastian stiffened. There was that blasted word again. ―Love has nothing to do with it. You know what I think about that reckless emotion, and so does she. We talked about it, and she accepted that I…have no interest in love. That is, until I refused to bare my soul for her vengeance-mad family.‖ ―No woman likes to hear that the man she cares for doesn‘t love her.‖ ―Well, she‘ll never hear otherwise.‖ He tightened his grip on the pistol. ―Especially since she‘s only using such talk to make me come to heel. I shall not run after a dream of love like my mother. And I won‘t follow in Father‘s footsteps, either.‖ ―Too late for that.‖ Uncle Lew eyed Sebastian speculatively. ―You‘re already more like your father than you realize.‖

~ 247 ~ With a snort, Sebastian sighted down his gun. ―That‘s absurd. He was a rake who fell in love indiscriminately, and I‘m nearly a monk.‖ ―Ah, my dear boy, what your father felt had nothing to do with love, no matter what he called it. It was infatuation, pure and simple, a childish emotion that disappeared whenever his dalliances became serious. I doubt he was ever in love. He feared it too much to experience it. As do you.‖ He lowered the pistol to stare at his uncle. ―What the devil are you talking about? I don‘t fear a deuced thing.‖ ―Oh yes, you do. That‘s why you avoid it. Your father avoided love by immersing himself in meaningless passionate encounters. You avoid love—or have until now—by eschewing passionate encounters altogether. But in the end, you both miss experiencing the one emotion that makes life worth living.‖ The ring of truth in his uncle‘s words made him lash out. ―Did having love make your life worth living? Even after the one you loved left you behind to mourn her for the rest of your life?‖ He regretted the cruel words almost as soon as he said them, especially when pain flashed briefly in his uncle‘s eyes. But then it was gone and Uncle Lew smiled. ―If I had been given the choice of one day with your aunt or a lifetime without her, I would have gladly chosen the one day with her.‖ The radiant adoration in his uncle‘s face roused an aching envy in Sebastian‘s chest. Envy? That was absurd. Why would he want such an all-encompassing emotion dictating his actions to him? Something he wasn‘t even sure he understood? And he certainly didn‘t fear it. His uncle was wrong. Completely wrong. Uncle Lew sighed. ―What I am trying to say is do not let your pride—or fear of losing control—stand in the way of love. Both are cold comfort when a man is alone. So think carefully before you refuse love when it is offered. Because no one knows better than I that a true, abiding love does not come along very often in a man‘s life.‖ The side door to the house suddenly opened, and Simpkins stepped outside. ―My lord? The carriage is ready.‖

~ 248 ~ ―Thank you, Simpkins. I‘ll be there shortly.‖ Lifting the pistol again, Sebastian fired into the target and hit dead on. This one would do very nicely. He cleaned the gun swiftly, then set it in the dueling case. ―So you‘re off to London then,‖ his uncle said, a tinge of alarm in his voice. ―Yes.‖ ―Do you intend to meet Lady Juliet‘s demand?‖ ―Of course not. Nothing has changed. I cannot risk having Knighton muck up my negotiations for Morgan.‖ Uncle Lew slumped in obvious relief. ―Thank God.‖ ―What? A week ago you were convinced that I should tell Knighton the truth.‖ ―A week ago you were not testing dueling pistols with the intention of using them.‖ He gazed earnestly at Sebastian. ―I worry about Morgan, of course, but I worry more about you. This gossip will incense Knighton. He will want your blood. So as much as I should like to see you and Lady Juliet marry, I think it best for you to wait to tell her family the truth, at least until you see if you can stem the rumors.‖ He couldn‘t help but be amused by his uncle‘s concern. ―Don‘t worry. I‘ll act with my usual caution.‖ ―I am not even sure you ought to go to London at all,‖ his uncle said anxiously. ―I promised her I wouldn‘t let the gossip ruin her life. I owe her at least that much.‖ That was the only reason he was hurrying off to London. It had nothing to do with the new emptiness of Charnwood Hall or how he missed having embroidery needles pop up where he least expected them. It was certainly not because he ached to see her and hold her again, to reassure himself that she still cared for him. ―I suppose you are right.‖ With alarming solemnity, Uncle Lew stood and set his shoulders. ―Very well, I will see to matters here at Charnwood while you are gone. You can count on me.‖

~ 249 ~ ―To drain my store of good brandy and borrow all my cravats, perhaps,‖ Sebastian joked. ―But the thought of you managing my estate sends a chill through me, Uncle. So I beg of you to leave that to my steward.‖ Fortunately that put the twinkle back in his uncle‘s eyes. ―Oh, go on and run off to London then, you ungrateful scamp, before I decide to thrash the insolence out of you.‖ ―As if you could.‖ With a grin, Sebastian turned toward the side door. ―Sebastian?‖ his uncle said. ―Yes?‖ ―Be careful. I should not like to have to claim your body the way I claimed your father‘s.‖ He managed a reassuring smile. ―Don‘t be absurd. I‘m not foolish enough to get myself killed. Besides, I‘m a crack shot, remember?‖ ―So was your father.‖ With that sobering reminder ringing in his ears, Sebastian left.

~ 250 ~

Chapter 20 ‘Reputation is often got without merit and lost without fault.’ - English proverb written on a list once mounted on the Templemore schoolroom wall

London Juliet sighed when she entered Lord Feathering‘s palatial mansion for her first ball since her return. It wasn‘t that she disliked balls. She‘d always enjoyed the dancing part, if she could find a partner who didn‘t tromp on the slippers she‘d embroidered herself. And she did like seeing how a hostess transformed the ordinary into the sublime with a sprig of laurel here and a whimsical paper lantern there. She even relished the insistent buzz of conversation overlaying every event like a chorus of crickets. But only when it didn‘t concern her. And that seemed to be the only topic of conversation since her return three days ago. Her dreadful fall from grace. Apparently, two weeks away from the city had been just enough time to let the gossip take hold and spread like a noxious weed. Yet she refused to stop attending social affairs until the invitations, most of which had been issued and accepted long ago, petered out. It didn‘t matter how much Griff and Rosalind protested. It didn‘t matter that last night‘s dinner party at Lady Ipswich‘s had been utter disaster—a gauntlet of whispers and snide remarks and lewd advances that had nearly brought her to tears. None of it dissuaded her from attending. Because if these small-minded prattlers thought to drive her from society with their vile contempt, they were in for a surprise. She intended to brazen it out. Hiding from the gossip would merely

~ 251 ~ convince them of its veracity; she could only squelch it by appearing in public and acting as if it were all nonsense. Fortunately, she‘d become quite good at acting, thanks to her time spent trying to unmask Sebastian. Sebastian. Who‘d sworn to put an end to the gossip, then abandoned her as usual. Who‘d made love to her with sweet excess, then coolly refused to speak the truth to her family, even when it meant her going off to London without him. She blinked back tears for at least the fiftieth time since she‘d left Shropshire. Drat that wretch! She wouldn‘t think about him tonight. Everything was awful enough as it was. With Rosalind and Griff at her side, she walked into the ballroom with head held high. Lady Merrington gave her the cut direct, and she didn‘t flinch. Juliet didn‘t like the fussy old marchioness anyway. Lord Kinsley muttered to his friends and cast her indecent looks, but she merely stared him down until he flushed and turned his back to her. No doubt he‘d embellished the rumors by claiming he‘d found her fast or some such disgusting thing. Let him say what he wished. She didn‘t want to associate with any companions of his anyway. Her resolve faltered only when she passed three girls she‘d once called friends, who darted condescending looks her way. Of course, they were standing with their very strict mamas. Even so, their whispers were loud enough for her to catch snatches of ―the bold creature‖ and ―how shameful‖ and ―is it true that—‖ She hurried past before she could hear more. That hurt; she couldn‘t deny it. But she‘d die before she let anybody see how much. Rosalind‘s hand caught her elbow. ―Listen, dear heart, you needn‘t stay if you don‘t want to.‖ Juliet shrugged off her sister‘s hand. ―Oh no, they won‘t banish me so easily as that. Better to face it now. I won‘t have them thinking me a coward, or worse yet, embarrassed to have my ‗sin‘ found out.‖ An elderly knight who wouldn‘t have dared to approach her a month ago cast her a leering grin, and she glowered at him until his grin disappeared. ―It‘s all right, Rosalind. I can handle it.‖

~ 252 ~ ―Well, I‘m putting an end to it tonight,‖ Griff growled. ―I‘m told that Montfort is here somewhere. I should have guessed he was the one to start the rumors. But I truly expected a duke to behave better.‖ Before leaving for Shropshire, Griff had written to Daniel at Swan Park to mention the problem with the gossip and that they were headed off to put a stop to it. Upon their return to London, they‘d found a letter waiting from Daniel. Griff wouldn‘t say what it contained, but apparently it had been enough to convince him that Montfort was guilty. ―Be very careful how you approach the duke,‖ Rosalind told her husband. ―If you‘re not entirely sure he‘s the culprit—‖ ―I‘m sure,‖ Griff retorted. ―He was very nasty when I refused his offer of marriage,‖ Juliet said grimly. ―But you‘ll have trouble proving his culpability. In society, he‘s regarded as quite the amiable gentleman, which means he‘s as sneaky as he is malicious. And even if you prove that he started the gossip, what can you do about it?‖ ―You just leave Montfort to me‖ was all he would say before he strode off across the ballroom. ―I hope he doesn‘t do anything rash,‖ Juliet murmured. ―I hope not, either,‖ Rosalind said. ―But let him do what he can. He‘s taken it as his mission to avenge the wrongs done to you. Since your kidnapper isn‘t around for him to visit his vengeance upon, he‘ll bludgeon Montfort instead.‖ ―Montfort could use some bludgeoning,‖ Juliet retorted. ―But frankly, I don‘t hold much hope Griff can influence his grace. Montfort has too much money and power for his own good. Not to mention that he takes enjoyment from watching others squirm. Which is why I won‘t give him the satisfaction.‖ She would pretend to be entirely unaffected, even if she had to do it with clenched teeth. She saw Lord Havering hastening toward her and braced herself for whatever he might say. He‘d always been nice, but now no one‘s behavior toward her was certain.

~ 253 ~ He reached them all out of breath and stammered, ―Have you heard the latest news? It‘s all anybody‘s talking about!‖ Juliet drew herself up, fully prepared to give him a verbal thumping for repeating the gossip about her to her face, but before she could speak, he added, ―The Pirate Lord has struck again! And this time he‘s gone too far. He‘s taken captive an entire shipload of English convict women!‖ ―Are you sure?‖ Rosalind said, wide-eyed with excitement. ―An entire ship?‖ ―Not the ship, mind you, just the women. And nobody can figure out why.‖ He leaned forward, clearly delighted to be the one to tell them this latest on dit. ―What‘s more, Lord Blackmore‘s stepsister, Miss Willis, was aboard when the pirates attacked. She‘s a reformer, you know. Anyway, Blackmore is livid! They say he‘s been at the docks all afternoon. Supposedly Miss Willis wasn‘t taken with the other women, but nobody‘s seen her since the convict ship returned to England without its passengers. And there are rumors—‖ ―Which are probably false,‖ Juliet put in sternly. This was too close to her own situation for comfort. ―Really, my lord, you shouldn‘t believe everything you hear.‖ He let his gaze rest warmly on her. ―I don‘t, Lady Juliet. There are some things about some young ladies that I wouldn‘t believe even if Prinny himself said them.‖ His meaningful pause touched her. ―But this information comes directly from one of the Navy Board‘s commissioners. The only part in doubt is whether Miss Willis was taken, and that‘ll become known soon enough, I s‘pose.‖ ―That poor girl!‖ Rosalind remarked. ―To be taken by pirates…it‘s ghastly.‖ That‘s when it hit Juliet. Morgan was with the Pirate Lord. He might even be part of this. Poor Sebastian, he would be crushed. Her heart sank. And if there‘d been any small chance before that he would come for her before his brother returned, it was dashed by this news. Unlike Lord Winthrop, Lord Blackmore had a great deal of political power. He wouldn‘t rest until the Pirate Lord was vanquished, along with the unlucky members of the villain‘s crew. Like Sebastian‘s hapless brother. No, Sebastian wouldn‘t risk anything for her now. Not after this.

~ 254 ~ ―Lady Juliet?‖ Lord Havering asked anxiously. ―Are you all right? You look very pale. It must greatly vex gentle creatures like yourselves to hear of such awful villains.‖ Bending near enough for her to smell his nasty-smelling hair oil, he took her hand and chafed it between his. ―May I fetch you some punch? You look like you might faint.‖ Rosalind was eyeing her curiously, too, so Juliet forced the frown from her face. ―No, I‘m fine. I was merely thinking of what those women must be suffering.‖ ―I tell you, if I had a ship,‖ he said stoutly, ―I‘d be out there at once and after the brigand. I would, I swear.‖ She suppressed her smile. ―Of course you would.‖ But only if somebody were holding a gun to his head. The present dance ended, and their conversation was momentarily interrupted by applause. Then Lord Havering turned to her with a hopeful smile. ―If you‘re sure you‘re well, perhaps you‘d stand up with me for this next one?‖ The poor sweet dear. He might not be the cleverest man, but at least he had the courage to be seen dancing with her. At least he did not let things like duty and responsibility stand in the way of his feelings for a young lady. So although she could never return them, she held out her hand to let him lead her to the floor. She ignored the people who whispered as she passed by. Let the others disdain her if they wished; she would stay above it all. She would dance and laugh and pretend to be the pure virgin she wasn‘t. She would smile until her face hurt, and if nobody smiled back, she‘d keep on smiling anyway. Most of all, she would try not to dwell on the treacherous Sebastian Blakely, who‘d landed her in this muddle in the first place.

The treacherous Sebastian Blakely had come to London to clean up his muddle. Which had mushroomed this afternoon at the Navy Board when they‘d told him the latest about that blasted pirate. But it wasn‘t the muddle with his brother that

~ 255 ~ concerned him just now; it was the muddle with Juliet. That was what had brought him to this ball. That, and the fact that he wanted to see her. It was the only reason he stood in Feathering‘s blasted ballroom, scanning the crowd of unfamiliar faces and cursing the crush. She must be here somewhere. Knighton‘s servants had been so certain of her destination that he‘d come without an invitation. Which had clearly been an idiotic idea, since she was nowhere to be found. By thunder, how he hated these silly affairs, with their prancing fops and overdressed females lacking the good sense to stay at home by a warm fire. There was a reason he hadn‘t moved in London society since right after the kidnapping. He‘d been looking for her then, too. He‘d stood in the private theater box and sought out her slender form with all the ravenous craving of a drooling hound. As he was doing now, God help him. Suddenly, he spotted her, dancing with a handsome gentleman who set Sebastian‘s teeth on edge. He didn‘t like how the man gazed down into the lovely face kissed by candlelight. He disapproved entirely of her gown—some shimmering silky thing that showed far too much of her creamy shoulders above her dainty, laceedged bodice. And he most assuredly did not like how the man caught her waist possessively in the turns, as if he had the right to skim his hand adoringly over her eloquent curves. Devil take it, how Sebastian burned to stride across the ballroom and snatch her from her partner. But that was unwise. First he must find out who‘d started the rumors about her, which would be harder to do once his connection to her became known. Although the gossip clearly hadn‘t affected her as much as he‘d feared. Why else would she be dancing with what appeared to be a respectable gentleman? Unless the man wasn‘t respectable after all. He scowled. Who was the blasted ass daring to dance with her? Glancing about, he saw some young men clustered nearby. ―Excuse me,‖ he asked the nearest one. ―Who‘s that fellow with Lady Juliet Laverick?‖ The man gave him a once-over, but apparently found Sebastian‘s immaculate and rich attire satisfactory. ―That‘s Lord Havering.‖

~ 256 ~

The bird-witted chap? ―I thought she refused his offer of marriage,‖ Sebastian said as casually as he could manage. The man lifted an eyebrow. ―She did. But he must have decided that his chances with the lady have improved now that no one else will have her.‖ Blast, there was that gossip again. It was time to do what he‘d come for. ―Why won‘t anyone have her?‖ he asked, feigning ignorance. ―She seems pretty enough.‖ Too pretty for the likes of you fools. Another young idiot joined the conversation. ―Where have you been, man? Until this latest news about the Pirate Lord, Lady Juliet‘s escapade was the tale of the season. The girl is damaged goods. Ran off with a bounder a couple of years ago who abandoned her after having his way with her. The family‘s kept it quiet until now, but somebody got wind of it, and now everybody‘s talking about it.‖ Once again, guilt sliced through him. To think that he‘d risked her reputation so horribly with his foolish actions! He‘d never stop regretting it. ―I heard that it was a highwayman she ran off with,‖ the first young fool put in. What the devil? Another joined the conversation. ―I heard it was an escaped murderer. And that she helped him escape.‖ ―You‘ve all got it wrong,‖ a tall addlepate put in. ―She met him in a tavern in Stratford. That‘s where the Swanlea Spinsters live, you know, outside of Stratford.‖ He lowered his voice to a confidential murmur. ―Anyway, she danced in her chemise on one of the tables, and that‘s what brought it all about.‖ ―Oh, for God‘s sake,‖ Sebastian snapped, unable to take another word of this. ―Does she look like the sort to dance half naked on a table top? Has everyone in London completely lost their senses?‖ ―Appearances can be deceiving.‖ The nearest man nudged him and winked. His companions exchanged knowledgeable looks.

~ 257 ~ ―Not that deceiving,‖ he snapped. ―I‘d wager a fortune that the young woman is as proper as any other lady in this room.‖ ―We all thought so, too, but we were wrong,‖ the man went on. ―No, she‘s secretly a wanton little miss just begging for a man between her legs. I daresay the only men who‘ll dance with her now, other than chuckleheaded Havering, are the ones looking for a mistress.‖ Blithering idiots! Sebastian saw so many colors of red, he thought he might explode. He wanted to tear out what lay between their legs. He wanted to strangle every one of them. But if ever there was a time for control, it was now. Because this was his one chance to learn who‘d been spreading the tales about her. By some miracle, he choked down his rage. ―Surely you can see how silly these tales are. They don‘t even match. Highwaymen? Young ladies in taverns? Escaped murderers, for God‘s sake? Someone is making it all up.‖ ―Now see here,‖ the one with the tale of the murderer protested, ―it‘s not so unlikely. That family of hers has quite the history. Knighton made his money in smuggled goods. And his brother-in-law, that Brennan fellow, is the son of a highwayman. The girl‘s probably been exposed to the criminal element from the day her oldest sister got married. And there‘s some question about her father, the earl, as well.‖ He‘d never considered any of this in his machinations two years ago. He‘d thought only of his own circumstances, not how damning her personal history was. By kidnapping her, he‘d cast fuel onto a fire primed to burn. Oh God, he was such a fool. The man who‘d first spoken shook his head stubbornly. ―Well, I don‘t know about these other fellows‘ tales, but mine is the truth. I heard it from Langston who heard it directly from Montfort. And Montfort said his own source was very reliable. It must be, for Montfort is too much the gentleman to say anything against a young lady unless he‘s sure of his information.‖ Every muscle in Sebastian‘s body turned to stone. He should have suspected Montfort sooner. It was just the sort of thing that sly bastard would do.

~ 258 ~ ―Well, that explains everything,‖ Sebastian retorted. ―Montfort offered marriage to the lady, and she turned him down. So now he‘s striking back at her any way he can.‖ ―How the devil do you know that, sir?‖ said one of the other men in a hostile tone. ―I never heard of any offer, and who are you, anyway?‖ ―I‘m Templemore. From Shropshire.‖ The man‘s eyes went wide, and his friends exchanged glances. One of them asked, ―You‘re old Templemore‘s heir, Sebastian Blakely?‖ Sebastian nodded tersely. ―The one who designs the pistols?‖ asked another man. ―The very one. I shoot them, too.‖ He leveled a hard stare on the lot of them. ―And I‘d like nothing better than to practice upon gentlemen who spread malicious lies about innocent young ladies without knowing the entire story.‖ That shut the wagging tongues of most of them, but there was one brave soul who spoke up. ―What do you know about it? You come in here from out of nowhere, make these claims, slur Montfort, then threaten us and—‖ ―You‘re quite right. My quarrel is not with you ‗gentlemen.‘ It‘s with Montfort. Do any of you know where I might find him?‖ They looked uneasy, but one of them finally offered, ―I saw him headed toward the library with Knighton a few moments ago. It seems you‘re not the only one to take issue with his tales.‖ Devil take it, Knighton would only make matters worse. ―Where‘s the library?‖ They pointed him in the right direction, and he hastened toward it. As he skirted the ballroom, he watched Juliet more closely, cringing to see the forced smiles she bestowed on her partner. When the dance ended and Havering led her off the floor, Sebastian noticed how women clustered together to whisper when she passed. How the young gentlemen felt free to look her over with a detestable impudence that had him swearing under his breath. His hands clenched into fists. By thunder, he‘d brought her to this with his blindness. But he‘d never expected his carefully controlled actions to run so

~ 259 ~ completely amok. He‘d never meant to hurt her, to ruin her life with such utter finality. He gritted his teeth. It hardly mattered what he‘d meant. This was the result. And he‘d even made light of her worries to her face! How cruel could a man be? Well, no more. If he did nothing else, he‘d take care of this ridiculous gossip. Though he knew he could never squelch it entirely, he could certainly reduce its effects. Dancing in her chemise in a tavern, for God‘s sake! He‘d have Montfort dancing on the point of his sword for this, he would. He found the library easily, since the sound of raised voices floated halfway down the hall from it. Hesitating outside, he wondered if he should wait until Knighton had said his piece. Then he noticed the door that opened into the adjoining room. Ducking inside, he was pleased to discover that the door connecting the two rooms had been left open. Prepared to jump in if he had to, he inched nearer the open doorway. ―I don‘t know what you‘re talking about.‖ Montfort‘s usual Eton clip sounded dulled by drink. ―Why should I bother to gossip about your sister-in-law?‖ ―You know why!‖ Knighton bellowed. ―Because she spurned you!‖ Sebastian stifled a groan. The man was about as tactful as a cannon. ―I wouldn‘t trouble myself over any chit stupid enough to refuse my offer of marriage,‖ Montfort said with a faint slur. ―And I certainly have no reason to seek revenge. I can have any woman I want.‖ ―Perhaps so, but I know you started these rumors.‖ ―How d‘you know that?‖ ―I had a letter from Daniel Brennan, my brother-in-law.‖ ―Ah, the good Mr. Brennan.‖ There came the sound of a glass clinking. ―And what did your highwayman‘s bastard of a brother-in-law say about me?‖ Montfort might be a bit foxed, but he was baiting Knighton most effectively. Still, Sebastian held back, wanting to hear Knighton‘s proof.

~ 260 ~

―Daniel says you saw Helena in London two years ago when she was supposed to be in Warwickshire, and you accosted her at a ball over the matter. She kept quiet about it, not wanting to cause trouble for you—‖ ―What drivel!‖ Montfort exclaimed with a laugh. ―She kept quiet about it, because she didn‘t want any of you to know she‘d let the cat out of the bag.‖ ―What cat? You mean this nonsense you‘ve been spreading about Juliet running off with a man?‖ More clinking glass. ―Really, Knighton, you should give up the pretense. I know the truth. After Juliet refused my suit, I hired a man to learn precisely where your two sisters-in-law were when they claimed to be home in Warwickshire. Learned all about Juliet‘s little trip down to Sussex with some fellow named Morgan. So don‘t try to lie. I know darling Juliet isn‘t as pure as she seems.‖ Sebastian barely restrained himself from leaping into the next room to throttle Montfort. The one that truly deserved throttling was himself. What had he been thinking? Montfort was a shark, but many more like him swam in society. If Sebastian had taken a moment to think about anyone but himself, he‘d have realized how precarious a situation he was placing her in when he kidnapped her. ―So you are the one spreading the rumors,‖ Knighton bit out. ―Not rumors. Truth. I‘m merely providing a service to society. I‘d hate to see anyone make assumptions about your sister-in-law when I know what she really is.‖ ―You blackguard!‖ Knighton growled. ―I‘ll see you at dawn for this—‖ ―I don‘t think so. If you fight me, that‘ll confirm the rumors, and she‘ll be even worse off. Besides, even if you manage to kill me, which is highly uncertain, you‘d have to flee England, abandon your business to managers, and leave your family to fend without you. Or take them off to an uncertain existence on the Continent. And that‘s only if you win. You might not win. Then I should dearly love to comfort your poor, grieving sister-in-law.‖ Sebastian‘s blood ran cold at the thought.

~ 261 ~ ―You blackhearted devil, I will ruin you!‖ Knighton cried. ―I‘ll see that your name is dragged through the mud—‖ ―You‘re welcome to try. But mine is an old and venerable family, sir, while yours is rife with scandal. If you drag my name through the mud, I‘ll emerge unscathed. I doubt I can say the same for you.‖ There was a long, tense silence. ―So you mean to ruin her, a woman who never did anything more than refuse your offer of marriage.‖ ―She won‘t refuse it for long. Not when no one else will have her.‖ ―If you think I‘d ever let her marry you after this—‖ ―You say that now.‖ There was a pause and more tinkling of glass. ―But you may decide otherwise after seeing how society treats her and the rest of you.‖ Sebastian stood there stunned. All this, only to force Juliet to marry him? Had Montfort lost his blasted mind? ―This isn‘t over yet,‖ Knighton growled. ―You won‘t get away with this. I‘ll find a way to stop you, depend on it.‖ Montfort merely chuckled in response. As Knighton apparently left, slamming the outer door to the library behind him, Montfort called out, ―Good luck trying to stop me, you bastard!‖ Smoothing his features into a semblance of nonchalance, Sebastian strolled through the adjoining door into the library. ―One overhears such interesting things at these affairs,‖ he commented, taking grim pleasure from the way Montfort cursed and dropped the bottle he was holding. With a thud, it fell onto the desk he sat behind. Then Montfort saw who‘d entered and relaxed. ―Well, I‘ll be damned, if it isn‘t Templemore.‖ He poured wine out of the half-empty bottle into a glass, then held up the bottle. ―Want a drink, old fellow? Feathering probably has another glass around here somewhere…‖ He rose to amble about the room in search of one.

~ 262 ~ ―Thank you, but no,‖ Sebastian said to halt his stumbling. What he truly wanted was to cram the bottle down Montfort‘s throat until the fair-haired demon‘s effeminate features turned purple. But before he showed his hand, he must determine Montfort‘s purpose and how far the man would go. It was always wise to know one‘s enemy. Montfort swigged some wine. ―Good Lord, man, how long has it been since we saw each other? A year? Two?‖ ―Two at least. The last time I was in London.‖ Leaning unsteadily against a bookcase, Montfort took out a quizzing glass and looked Sebastian over. ―I thought you were moldering out at that country estate of yours.‖ ―I needed a change.‖ Sebastian propped one hip against the edge of the desk and crossed his arms. ―I came to Feathering‘s hoping for excitement. So your little contretemps with Knighton amused me enormously.‖ A smug smile spread over Montfort‘s face. ―You heard all that, did you?‖ He lifted his glass as if toasting himself. ―I daresay Knighton‘ll think twice before tangling with me again.‖ ―No doubt. Though I‘m surprised you‘re going to so much trouble for a woman, and a respectable one at that, from what I hear. Spreading rumors and such—she must be quite the beauty if you‘d risk Knighton‘s wrath to gain her in marriage.‖ Montfort dropped the quizzing glass. ―She is, but it‘s not really that.‖ He drained his glass, then set it down hard on a shelf. ―It‘s the principle of the thing, y‘see. I‘ve never offered marriage to anyone before. Figured I had a few more years to get leg-shackled. But then I met her and decided she‘d do splendidly. Sweet and young and malleable.‖ He shook his head. ―Or so I thought. I was sure she‘d be easy to mold to my tastes, which, as you know, are…sophisticated.‖ He winked at Sebastian. Only with difficulty did Sebastian suppress a shudder. ―Is that what they call it these days when a man likes to use a crop on unwilling bed companions?‖ Even at fourteen, Montfort‘s tastes had shocked the denizens of Llanbrooke. While in

~ 263 ~ Shropshire, he‘d never bothered to hide them as he had in London. But then, he‘d held the ―provincials‖ in complete contempt. ―So you‘re still the prig you were in our youth.‖ Montfort shrugged. ―Must say I‘m surprised. Given your father‘s wild streak, I‘d have expected you to develop some sophisticated tastes of your own by now.‖ ―Alas, I‘m still as temperate in my tastes as ever. I dislike props in lovemaking.‖ ―But props truly add to the excitement, y‘know, and temperate is so dull.‖ He waved the bottle in the air. ―While you‘re in town this time, I‘ll have to introduce you to London‘s more exotic pleasures.‖ Sebastian gritted his teeth. ―I‘ll consider it. But you were telling me about this woman who refused to marry you. Knighton seems determined to keep her from you.‖ Montfort‘s blond brows lowered in a petulant frown. ―Foolish bastard. But he‘ll change his tune when nobody else of consequence is willing to marry her.‖ An indolent smile touched his lips. ―I actually find her youthful indiscretion an inducement to marriage.‖ ―Oh?‖ ―Do you know how hard it is to find a young, marriageable woman who can play both innocent and wanton? Who‘s well-bred enough to serve as my wife, yet young and fresh enough even for my exotic tastes?‖ He drank straight from the bottle. ―After I learned of her indiscretion, I thought about making her my mistress. But her loyal family closed ranks about her. Besides, I have to marry. Why not get my heir on a woman I can enjoy? Especially one who‘d be grateful to be my duchess, whose past I could hold over her throughout the marriage. Only think of the possibilities.‖ His stomach already roiled enough at the thought of Montfort eyeing Juliet as ―fresh enough‖ for his ―exotic tastes.‖ ―But she refused you. It doesn‘t sound as if she was all that ‗grateful‘ to be offered the position as your duchess.‖ He looked sour. ―Yes, she was quite the little hypocrite—refused me because of my character. It annoyed me exceedingly.‖

~ 264 ~ ―So you retaliated by exposing what you‘d discovered.‖ ―Really, old chap, this isn‘t about retaliation. It‘s about getting what I want. And what I want is Juliet. I want to punish her for her insolence. Take that lady whore over my knee until she understands the value of a man with a firm hand.‖ His tone turned cold. ―Besides, I can‘t allow a mere chit to refuse me. It would set a nasty precedent.‖ Sebastian clamped down on his fury. ―So you think she‘ll have you after you‘ve slandered her throughout society.‖ ―Of course. I‘ve got her and her family right where I want them. I‘ll let her suffer a few weeks of society‘s disapproval and all those men offering her a carte blanche instead of marriage. Then I‘ll promise to make the gossip go away. But only if she marries me.‖ He smiled wolfishly. ―I can do it, too. All I need say is that I looked into the matter and discovered she was wronged. The high sticklers will still murmur, but everybody else will believe me, especially once I marry her. And after having suffered a bit, the woman‘ll weep with joy to have me offer her a respectable position.‖ Over Montfort‘s knee. The very idea made Sebastian‘s skin crawl. He‘d heard enough. He pushed away from the desk. ―I suggest you skip the ‗weeks of society‘s disapproval‘ and go straight to making the gossip go away.‖ Montfort laughed. ―You always were the gentleman. Though I don‘t see why you care about a woman you don‘t even know.‖ ―Actually, I know her quite well. She and her family have been my guests at Charnwood for the last two weeks. Why do you think I‘m here?‖ The duke‘s humor faded, and his eyes narrowed. ―If this is some joke—‖ ―It‘s no joke. She‘s entertaining an offer of marriage from me at this very moment. I intend to settle the matter while I‘m in London. So you might as well give up any hope of having her.‖ ―You‘d marry her even though she‘s been with another man?‖ Montfort said with a sneer. ―You, the soul of prudery?‖

~ 265 ~ By thunder, he was tired of everyone thinking him a prig. ―I‘m not quite as dull as you seem to think. You aren‘t the only man who can appreciate the particular charms of a woman like Juliet.‖ Montfort pushed away from the bookcase, his face flushing with more than drink. ―You sneaky, conniving—‖ ―Which is why,‖ Sebastian went on, his tone deadly serious, ―I expect you to put an end to the rumors at once.‖ ―You expect—‖ ―I won‘t have my future wife‘s good name tarnished by your tawdry insinuations. So here‘s what you‘ll do. You‘ll trot back out into that ballroom and tell your vile friends that you were mistaken about Lady Juliet. And you‘ll be completely convincing if you know what‘s good for you.‖ Every ―sophisticated‖ bone in Montfort‘s body trumpeted his contempt. ―And what in God‘s name makes you think I‘ll do any of that? If Knighton couldn‘t force me, why do you think you can?‖ ―Because unlike Knighton, I have nothing to lose by taking you on—no wife, no sisters-in-law, no loyal friends, and no family but an uncle who‘s eager to see me married at any cost.‖ Thank God Montfort didn‘t know who Morgan was to Sebastian, especially with this latest trouble. ―I have no business concern to protect. So you can threaten to drag my name through the mud all you want. My father has ruined the family name so entirely that I doubt you could make it any worse, and even if you did, it wouldn‘t affect my life at Charnwood.‖ Sebastian stepped close enough to see alarm flicker briefly in the duke‘s eyes. ―And if you‘re foolish enough to wish a duel over this, I‘ll have no compunction about killing you, even if it means abandoning my estate and fleeing to the Continent with Juliet.‖ Montfort stiffened. ―What makes you think you‘d win? Granted, your prowess with a pistol is legendary, but if you call me out, I‘ll choose swords and—‖ ―Who said anything about calling you out? I‘ll merely insult you so vilely in public that your pride will demand you call me out. Then I‘ll happily put a bullet through your black heart.‖ He ran his gaze contemptuously down Montfort‘s slender frame.

~ 266 ~ ―I might even decide to put it through your tiny prick instead. And I can do it, too, before you even manage to aim.‖ Montfort paled. Everyone knew the duke was a horrible shot. And Sebastian was well aware that the man was too proud to endure any public insult for long. ―I see that we understand each other,‖ Sebastian went on. ―You have forty-eight hours to set the gossip to rest. By day after tomorrow, I‘d better see everyone in society treating Juliet like the angel that she is. Or I swear I‘ll make your life a living hell until they do.‖ Without waiting for an answer, he walked to the door and opened it. When he looked back, Montfort still stood frozen, his eyes wide with fright at the idea of having his cock shot off. And publicly, too. For the first time since he‘d entered the library, Sebastian smiled. ―And now, if you‘ll excuse me, I think it‘s high time I dance with the woman I intend to marry.‖ Sebastian left, his plans regarding Juliet having changed greatly. He would not stand in the shadows watching Juliet anymore. He would claim her before the world, and devil take all her foolish conditions. He would marry her and protect Morgan—he‘d done it before; he could do it again. But one thing was for certain, he wasn‘t abandoning her this time.

~ 267 ~

Chapter 21 Though the wisdom or virtue of one can very rarely make many happy, the folly or vice of one man often make many miserable. - Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, worked on a hanging by Juliet upon her return to London from Shropshire

Not long after her dance with Lord Havering, Juliet returned from the ladies‘ retiring room to see her brother-in-law circling the ballroom like a wasp hunting a daisy. Before she could duck back into the hall, he spotted her. He paused in his stride only long enough to pull Rosalind under his wing, then buzzed directly toward her. With a sigh, she stood waiting for him. Judging from his expression, his talk with Montfort hadn‘t gone well. Not that she‘d really expected it to. ―We‘re going home now,‖ he said as he approached. ―Why?‖ Much as Juliet hated moving among people who despised her and whispered about her, she hated even more being run off. ―Montfort is unreasonable,‖ Griff said. ―Though he does seem to be the one who started the rumors, he won‘t relent. He‘s determined to have you, and he thinks dragging your reputation through the mud will accomplish it. I can stop him eventually, I‘m sure, but it‘ll require some digging to discover how to get at him. In the meantime—‖ ―In the meantime,‖ Juliet interjected, ―I shall act as if nothing happened. I‘m sorry, Griff, but I shan‘t give him the satisfaction of seeing me bury myself away. So you might as well abandon that notion.‖ ―But Juliet—‖ Rosalind began.

~ 268 ~ ―Now, if you‘ll excuse me,‖ Juliet said firmly, ―I need some punch. My mouth is dry as toast.‖ With that, she marched off toward the supper room. Really, this was the outside of beyond. She could strangle Montfort, not only for the gossip, but for sending her family into their protect-Juliet-at-all-costs stance once more. She ought to run away from home again, if only to escape them. The orchestra struck up a waltz, and across the room she saw Montfort emerge from a hall and look her way. She met his gaze coldly, expecting him to cast her the same supercilious smile he‘d been annoying her with all night. Instead, he glowered at her, then stalked off toward some friends. How very odd. Griff himself had said that his talk with Montfort had come to naught. So why wasn‘t the duke gloating like the sly beast he was? She was so distracted that she didn‘t notice the hand touching her elbow until a familiar husky voice murmured, ―May I have this waltz, my lady?‖ She froze, hardly daring to look, to believe he was here. When she did gather the courage to turn around, she thought her heart would knock loose from her chest, it was pounding so. He flashed her a half smile, as if uncertain of his reception, and every particle of her silly, besotted soul lit up. ―Sebastian,‖ she breathed. ―You were expecting someone else?‖ he said with raised eyebrow. ―N-no. That is…well, I certainly wasn‘t expecting you.‖ His eyes searched her face with a tenderness that made her ache. ―Did you really think I‘d abandon you twice?‖ The words snapped her out of her happy dream. She drew herself up stiffly, not sure what to make of his sudden appearance here. ―Actually, I did.‖ ―Then I have much to make amends for. Dance with me, sweeting.‖ She arched an eyebrow in a vain attempt to act nonchalant and sophisticated. ―You think dancing with me is a sufficient way to make amends?‖ ―No. I think dancing with you will reassure me that you don‘t hate me.‖

~ 269 ~

He looked so painfully earnest that she couldn‘t help but soften. She held out her hand. ―I don‘t hate you. Not entirely, anyway.‖ ―Then I‘ll try to improve upon your feelings even more.‖ Tucking her hand in his elbow, he led her to the floor, and a moment later they were waltzing. She could hardly breathe for the memories. They hadn‘t danced together since he‘d first appeared in Stratford all that time ago. She‘d forgotten how well he danced, how sensuous it had always felt to have his hand resting on her waist and his smoky scent swirling between them. She examined his face, marking the changes since she‘d last seen him. Had he always looked so thin and weary? Or dared she hope that her absence had affected him as strongly as it had her? And did this mean he‘d decided to tell her family the truth at last? ―Why are you here?‖ she asked bluntly before she could begin hoping too much. He gazed down at her with an impenetrable look. ―I missed you.‖ Vainly she tried to squelch the thrill his words sent coursing through her. ―I seem to recall your claiming that since you‘d ‗done without me‘ for most of your life, you could ‗manage a few more weeks.‘‖ He winced. ―One of my more idiotic statements. Being a man, I‘m prone to the occasional blustering. You‘ll have to get used to it.‖ ―Still the same arrogant scoundrel as ever,‖ she said with a sniff. ―Absolutely.‖ He moved her smoothly, easily about the floor. For a man who rarely came into society, he certainly danced well. ―I‘m giving you fair warning, sweeting. I‘m here to marry you.‖ Despite all her stern self-cautions, her pulse began to race. ―I haven‘t exactly accepted an offer of marriage from you, Sebastian, and you know it.‖ ―Ah, but you will. This time I won‘t brook any refusal.‖

~ 270 ~ It was getting decidedly harder to restrain her foolish, hopeful heart, but restrain it she must. She didn‘t yet trust him. Though she did indulge her urge to stare at him, so fine and handsome in his evening attire. The only way he‘d look better was if he were peeling it off one piece at a time to bare that delicious chest and— ―I‘ll begin,‖ he went on, ―by making my intentions known to your family tonight.‖ ―You think to stride in here and marry me, no matter what my wishes.‖ ―Something like that.‖ She wished her insides would stop doing all that premature leaping for joy. ―And I don‘t suppose you‘ve come to your senses about telling my family everything.‖ His long, sober silence was her answer. The leaping for joy stopped at once. She‘d known it was too good to be true. ―Then we have nothing more to discuss,‖ she murmured, trying to pull out of his arms. He jerked her back, managing it so well that she didn‘t even stumble. ―Hear me out, Juliet.‖ ―No! You‘re still refusing to do the right thing, so—‖ ―The ‗right thing‘ doesn‘t involve abandoning my brother for you,‖ he snapped, ―no matter how much I want you for my wife. I can‘t risk it—especially now, with this whole mess involving—‖ ―The pirates,‖ she finished for him. ―I heard all about the Pirate Lord and his new outrage. And I knew you‘d respond like this.‖ She added in a whisper, ―I sometimes think I know you too well. That‘s probably why you really came to London—for him.‖ ―No, I came for you. I didn‘t hear about the pirates until this afternoon, I swear.‖ At least that was some comfort. If he‘d come all this way for her after being so firm about how he wouldn‘t, then he must care about her a little.

~ 271 ~ Just not enough. ―You know, Sebastian, if your brother was involved with that nastiness, you ought to be handing him over to the authorities, not trying to get him pardoned.‖ ―He wasn‘t involved—I refuse to believe it.‖ They swept past one of the gossipy Miss Marches, who was straining to hear their conversation. Sebastian cast the woman a pointed glance, then moved them both well away from her. ―But I can‘t prove it, of course. I spoke to the Navy Board this afternoon. I‘d already gone there to prevail upon them to consider a pardon for Morgan even though he hasn‘t shown up in England yet. They told me of the pirates instead. Now the pompous sots are refusing even to consider the matter until the Pirate Lord is captured. They are up in arms over this.‖ ―At least they‘re concerned over those poor women convicts.‖ ―It‘s not the women they care about; it‘s Blackmore‘s stepsister. I suppose you heard about that, too.‖ She nodded. ―No one on the Navy Board would say whether Miss Willis was taken with the others—apparently, it‘s some great secret—but the earl is enraged all the same. And when the great Blackmore is enraged, they‘re enraged. They want the Pirate Lord‘s head, and failing that, Morgan‘s.‖ He grimaced. ―I swear, if Morgan has gotten himself involved with kidnapping a gentlewoman—‖ ―Yes, that would be truly awful,‖ she put in dryly. ―Kidnapping a gentlewoman— what kind of scoundrel would do that?‖ He blinked, then groaned. She took a petty pleasure in his discomfort. ―You Blakely twins seem to have a penchant for this sort of thing. I do hope Morgan comes out of it as well as you have.‖ His eyes narrowed. ―What the devil do you mean?‖ She shrugged. ―Only that you have yet to suffer any inconvenience because of what you did. You won‘t even tell my family of your part—‖

~ 272 ~ ―One word from Knighton to the Navy Board about my kidnapping you, and any possibility of a pardon for Morgan vanishes, even if Morgan had naught to do with this latest outrage. You know very well I can‘t risk it!‖ She ground her teeth in sheer frustration. Why was the man cursed with such a perverse sense of duty to his family? ―You needn‘t tell Griff about Morgan, you know. He still thinks your brother is dead. Just let him believe that. Tell him why you kidnapped me, and leave it at that.‖ ―Then he‘ll wonder why I didn‘t simply tell the truth from the beginning. Why I blamed it on my brother.‖ He drew himself up stiffly. ―He‘ll think I was too cowardly to admit what I‘d done. That won‘t make him any more eager to countenance a marriage between the two of us, will it?‖ ―I don‘t care what he countenances! I want him—and the rest of my family—to hear the truth.‖ She put some distance between them, though it wasn‘t easy to do when he held her with all the intimacy of a lover. ―You won‘t change my mind on this, you know. If you won‘t tell him until after Morgan returns, then we won‘t marry until then.‖ He glowered at her. ―All the same, I shall ask Knighton for your hand.‖ His hand slid to her back. ―At least we can be engaged while I‘m cleaning up this mess.‖ ―No.‖ Leave it to Sebastian to try to wriggle through her conditions however he could. She saw Rosalind across the room speaking to Lady Brumley, who was probably trying to find out how much of the gossip about Juliet was true. That firmed her resolve. ―Until you can ask Griff properly, I won‘t accept any offer of marriage from you. If you even mention marriage to him, I‘ll tell him flat out that I refused you, and that will hamper your efforts later.‖ ―Deuce take it, be reasonable!‖ he hissed. ―It won‘t be long before Morgan returns, one way or the other. Blackmore is going after the Pirate Lord with a well-armed crew. If Morgan is no longer with the pirates, then he should be in England any day. If he is still with them, Blackmore will bring him back in chains, as Morgan deserves. But one way or the other, the whole matter will be settled soon enough. So if we agree to marry—‖ ―No, I tell you,‖ she said firmly. ―Until this is all worked out, I‘m not agreeing to anything.‖ Because then he‘d find another way around it, another reason, and she‘d

~ 273 ~ be marrying a man her family didn‘t really know. ―As you say, it‘ll be settled soon enough.‖ Eyes hard as onyx glared down at her. ―You do know you‘re being incredibly exasperating, irritating—‖ ―Don‘t forget ‗childish‘,‖ she put in. ―—and stubborn?‖ She tipped her nose up airily. ―Then I wonder why you want to marry me.‖ The anger in his expression was suddenly tempered by a healthy dose of desire. ―If we were alone, sweeting, you wouldn‘t have to wonder.‖ He danced his fingers sensuously across her back, stopping just short of smoothing them down over her derriere. But she could feel the heat of them, muted by her silk gown and his kid gloves, but palpable all the same against her spine. ―Perhaps you‘d fancy a walk in Feathering‘s gardens.‖ Her mouth fairly watered at the thought of slipping outside with him where he could kiss her and caress her and do all those other wicked things he excelled at. But she knew better than to let his seductive voice coax her this time. ―We shan‘t be alone again, sir—either in the gardens or anywhere else—until you speak to my family. I shall not be your paramour while you wait for matters to turn out to your satisfaction.‖ ―You know I don‘t see you that way!‖ ―Oh look, the waltz is done,‖ she said brightly as the music came to an end. ―And I desperately need some punch.‖ Jaw set, he gestured toward the open French doors that led to the gardens. ―Come with me for a walk in the fresh air, so we can finish discussing this.‖ ―We‘ve already finished discussing this.‖ And the last thing she needed was to be alone with him where he could melt her iron reserve into a slag heap. She started to leave him right there, but he caught up to her and tucked her arm firmly in the crook of his elbow as he led her off the floor. ―I sometimes miss the old Juliet, the one I met two years ago.‖

~ 274 ~

She scowled at him. ―Why? Because like a ninny, she did whatever you asked?‖ ―No. Because she was so eager to have me that she asked me to kiss her.‖ A reluctant smile touched her lips. ―You refused me at first, as I recall.‖ ―Temporary insanity. I won‘t make the same mistake again, however.‖ He rubbed her hand with his. ―Now where is this blasted punch you say you want?‖ ―In the supper room. But you needn‘t accompany me—‖ ―You‘ll not be rid of me that easily, sweeting,‖ he murmured and squeezed her hand. Her mouth went dry. She dearly wished she had the fortitude to walk away from him entirely. But three days without him had weakened her just a little. They‘d almost reached the supper room when Griff and Rosalind accosted them. ―Hello, Templemore.‖ Griff‘s rigid stance and curt tone belied the seeming cordiality of his greeting. ―What brings you to London?‖ Sebastian glanced down at her with unmistakable affection. ―A certain young lady.‖ Juliet groaned. He might as well have written ―MINE‖ in ink across her forehead. ―Actually, Lord Templemore is in town to find out more about his missing brother. He‘s never given up hope of finding him, though I fear he‘s doomed to disappointment. In that, as in other things.‖ ―Ah, Lady Juliet, such a pessimist you are,‖ Sebastian rumbled. ―But as you know, I‘m a determined sort, and I don‘t brook disappointment.‖ ―I for one am very glad to see you, Lord Templemore,‖ Rosalind burst out, as if she couldn‘t contain herself any longer. ―I know you‘ll be interested in what Lady Brumley was just telling me before Griff found me.‖ Beaming at Juliet, Rosalind lowered her voice. ―Apparently, there‘s a new rumor sweeping the ballroom—that Lord Montfort took it upon himself earlier today to

~ 275 ~ check into the claims about you. He‘s now pronouncing to everyone his discovery that they were utterly false.‖ Griff looked perplexed. ―That‘s an abrupt reversal from an hour ago, isn‘t it?‖ ―It certainly is,‖ Juliet said, musing over this strange new twist of events. Rosalind winked at Sebastian. ―You wouldn‘t happen to know what brought it about, would you, my lord? There are some young gentlemen who claim you were looking for the duke earlier.‖ Juliet glanced to Sebastian in surprise. ―Is this true? Did you have a part in this? And if so, why didn‘t you tell me?‖ Sebastian shrugged. ―I couldn‘t be sure that Montfort would respond to my…er… suggestions. But yes, I spoke to him. I didn‘t think it fair that you be maligned for what my brother did.‖ ―I spoke to him, too,‖ Griff said gruffly, ―but Montfort was determined to ruin her, and I couldn‘t sway him. However did you convince him to relent?‖ ―As I told you before,‖ Sebastian said smoothly, ―I knew Montfort when we were younger. I merely appealed to his sense of decency.‖ Griff‘s eyes narrowed. ―Montfort has no sense of decency.‖ Sebastian stared him down. ―Then let‘s just say that my arguments left him no room for refusal.‖ He glanced over to where the duke stood with a gaggle of his gossipy friends, and his jaw went taut. ―He won‘t trouble Lady Juliet again, I swear.‖ His hard tone made fear leap in Juliet‘s belly. ―Oh, please say you didn‘t challenge him!‖ she cried. His gaze swung back to her, soft and faintly amused. ―Would you care?‖ ―Of course I would care!‖ A smile blazed across his face. ―I didn‘t challenge him. I merely pointed out to him the advantages of reversing his story.‖

~ 276 ~

―Oh, Lord Templemore,‖ Rosalind gushed, ―we owe you such a debt of gratitude!‖ ―Then again,‖ Griff grumbled, ―your brother was the one to cause all this in the first place. The least you could do was set matters to rights.‖ ―Griff, really!‖ Rosalind protested. ―You shouldn‘t be so ungracious!‖ Griff‘s suspicious gaze fixed on Sebastian. ―I was merely stating facts.‖ ―It‘s all right, Lady Rosalind,‖ Sebastian put in quickly. ―He does have a point.‖ ―Perhaps so,‖ Rosalind retorted, ―but pay his rudeness no mind. He‘s been grousing and mumping about ever since we left Shropshire.‖ ―Mumping!‖ Griff looked offended. ―I haven‘t done any such thing.‖ ―Yes, you have.‖ Rosalind leaned toward Sebastian confidentially. ―He‘s been very worried about this situation with Juliet, you see. And no matter what he says, I assure you we‘re all very grateful for your help.‖ Strange, but Griff didn‘t seem grateful at all. Indeed, he looked as if he wanted to tear Sebastian‘s head off and mount it on Lady Feathering‘s wall. ―I was happy to do it,‖ Sebastian said. ―Now, if you‘ll excuse me, Lady Juliet has expressed an urgent desire for punch. Lady Rosalind, would you like some as well?‖ Rosalind smiled broadly. ―I‘d love some punch, Lord Templemore.‖ With a bow, Sebastian left to fetch it. As soon as he was out of earshot, Griff muttered, ―I still want to know what he said to Montfort. This is all very questionable.‖ ―Balderdash.‖ Rosalind winked at Juliet. ―I think my shy sister has finally found a suitor who suits her.‖ She smiled at her little play on words. ―Perhaps you shouldn‘t be so hasty to leap to conclusions,‖ Griff bit out.

~ 277 ~ Unable to bear her family one minute more, Juliet murmured, ―Excuse me,‖ and hurried after Sebastian. She couldn‘t believe he‘d threatened Montfort on her behalf. It gave her hope. Surely if he would risk that sort of trouble…She halted him as he passed some French doors leading out to a balcony. Tugging him outside, she faced him in the cold night air. ―Thank you for speaking to Montfort,‖ she whispered. ―Even if it doesn‘t work—‖ ―It will work. You needn‘t worry about that.‖ His eyes searched her face. He stepped nearer, and she suddenly realized they were quite alone on the balcony. He took her hand. ―I don‘t suppose this changes your mind about becoming engaged to me.‖ She glanced away, torn. She should have known he‘d try to sway her at every opportunity. ―It‘s not that I‘m not grateful—‖ she began. ―If I wanted gratitude, I‘d buy a puppy,‖ he growled. ―I don‘t want gratitude from you, especially when it‘s misplaced. As Knighton pointed out, I‘m responsible for this nightmare, and I do take care of my responsibilities.‖ Him and his infernal responsibilities. Her gaze swung back to him. ―Not all of them. You still refuse to do the one thing I‘ve asked of you.‖ A flush of anger darkened his cheeks. ―Yes, I refuse to let you twist me around your little finger. I don‘t take kindly to manipulation, Juliet.‖ She bristled. ―Nor do I. And if you think I‘ll sit and twiddle my thumbs like some poor Penelope while vainly waiting for you to do this properly, you can think again. I intend to move about society as before until you come to your senses.‖ Snatching her hand away, she turned to go back inside. He caught her arm, drawing her close enough that she could feel his breath against her cheek. ―You do that. Dance with your bumbling idiots. Flirt with a lot of scoundrels who‘ve shown themselves eager to believe the worst of you. But I promise you, sweeting, this time I won‘t bury myself in Shropshire while you do it. I intend to marry you with all due haste, and you know how persuasive I can be when I set my mind to something.‖ Oh yes, he was a master of persuasion. The very thought of what he might do made her shiver. He slid his arm about her waist as he brought his mouth to her ear.

~ 278 ~ ―I happen to know all your weaknesses. I know your fondness for ‗intimate‘ kisses and chess and pedestals. I know how to make you burn. And I shall exploit my knowledge to the fullest. By the end of the week, you‘ll be begging me to marry you, make no mistake.‖ ―Y-you seem very sure of yourself for a man who hasn‘t had much experience with women,‖ she said, trying for icy disdain and managing only tepid uncertainty. As if scenting triumph already, he nuzzled her hair aside to plant a hot, openmouthed kiss to her ear. ―I don‘t need experience with women. I only need experience with you. Fortunately, I have all that I require. And I‘ll win you on my own terms, too. That is my solemn vow.‖ Then brushing a kiss to her hair, he was gone. She stood on the balcony shaking with both anger and desire for long moments after. So the impudent scoundrel thought to change her resolve with some kisses and caresses, did he? She‘d just see about that. Yes, she wanted the scoundrel for her husband, and she wanted him badly. But they could have no kind of marriage at all if he expected her always to bow to his dictates. It was high time Sebastian Blakely learned a thing or two about women. She knew how to make him burn, too. By the end of the week, she‘d have him agreeing to do whatever he must to secure her. And that was her solemn vow.

~ 279 ~

Chapter 22 Fate finds for every man His share of misery. - Euripides’ Helen, worked on a handkerchief by Juliet on her way from Shropshire to London

For five days, Sebastian watched as Juliet made her brilliant return into the good graces of society, aided by Montfort‘s reluctant reversal. But watch was all Sebastian could do, thanks to her stubborn determination to make his life hell. It was hard to make her burn when she wouldn‘t let him within a foot of her. Now that the gossip was fading, her popularity was rising. Not that he regretted his part in ending the rumors, but he did hate having to join all the others trying to get her attention. If it wasn‘t her family, it was a simpering girlfriend or a gossipy matron. And the men came sniffing around her skirts, too. Sebastian disliked that intensely. From what she‘d said about suitors, he‘d erroneously believed they were all lacking, but quite a few were too handsome and eligible for his peace of mind. Of course, Juliet, being not easily prone to forgiveness, paid most of them little heed. After all, they‘d been the first to shun her after Montfort‘s initial tales, so she clearly wasn‘t about to countenance their suits now. But she did allow one man close—that blasted Havering. Apparently, ever since Havering had stood by her during her disgrace, he‘d risen in her esteem. Sebastian had to remind himself often that the man was too stupid for her to be genuinely attracted to him. That was the only thing that kept Sebastian from lunging for Havering‘s throat whenever the man took her to the dance floor or fetched her pelisse or brought her negus at parties.

~ 280 ~ His reaction to Havering plagued him. Sebastian couldn‘t believe he was actually jealous. He‘d never been jealous before, mostly because he‘d never had a woman he felt possessive about. It was a singularly unpleasant sensation. He wondered how his father had ever flitted from woman to woman. One tiny female was tying Sebastian into knots—he couldn‘t fathom suffering this misery with a succession of them. Nor did he intend to let Juliet inflict it on him anymore. So tonight he lay in wait for her at Lady Brumley‘s card party, determined to get her alone. He‘d come prepared, too. He‘d uncovered Havering‘s main weakness—a fondness for cockfighting—and had learned the dates and times of all the matches. A few choice words to Havering about tonight‘s ―fight of the season‖ had sent the young lord racing off to the Royal Cockpit for an exciting evening of bloodletting and mayhem. Sebastian intended his own exciting evening, of a decidedly different sort. He spotted his quarry the second she entered Lady Brumley‘s massive salon, which had been turned into a card room for the evening. Tonight, Juliet wore some green satin confection that swirled about her slender form like the sea mist from which Aphrodite had arisen. Pearl pins adorned the hair that foamed in golden curls about her face, and pearls encased her lovely throat. His heart flipped over in his chest. By thunder, she was beautiful. There were women here dressed more richly, with finer features and more buxom figures, but only Juliet was perfection. Even the entrance of her blasted family a few seconds behind her couldn‘t dampen his enthusiasm. Sebastian had planned for that, too, by paying a furtive visit to Lady Rosalind today to ask her assistance in getting Juliet alone. He‘d told her he wanted the chance to propose marriage. Which was almost the truth. But his secret weapon came in the most unlikely form—their hostess herself, Lady Brumley. The battle-ax had been eager to help him once she‘d heard that a secret romance was involved. With one of her signature nautical headdresses perched atop her gray head, Lady Brumley now wended her way across the room. When she reached Juliet, she attached herself to the young woman like a barnacle. A few moments later, Rosalind pulled Griff off to a card game.

~ 281 ~

Congratulating himself for choosing such worthy allies, Sebastian shoved away from the pillar he‘d been holding up and headed for his quarry. Two other gentlemen reached Juliet first, but Lady Brumley quickly dispatched them to card tables. Some chit tried to strike up a conversation with the ladies, but she, too, was sent on her merry way. By the time Sebastian sauntered up, Juliet still stood alone except for Lady Brumley. The matron greeted him with a smile and a wink. ―Ah, Lord Templemore, I have found you a partner at last.‖ Juliet whirled around with an almost comical expression of dismay. ―You see, Lady Juliet,‖ Lady Brumley went on, ―poor Lord Templemore spent so many years away from good society that he never learned to play cards. Imagine that! But I‘ve discovered he‘s rather fond of chess, and I promised to secure him a partner.‖ Juliet glared daggers at him, and he met it with a look of perfect innocence. She wasn‘t the only one who could be devious. Lady Brumley patted Juliet‘s hand. ―I‘m so delighted that you said you play, too. I should hate to force the poor man to sit in the corner idle all evening.‖ ―Yes, what a crime that would be,‖ Juliet said coolly. Despite her frigid air, he knew he had her trapped. Juliet‘s one unfailing characteristic was good manners and an inability to be rude to anyone but him. So it was a foregone conclusion that Lady Brumley‘s request for Juliet to ―entertain the poor man‖ at chess would be met with terse agreement. Sebastian offered Juliet his arm, then tried not to gloat as she was forced, under their hostess‘s watchful eye, to take it. ―I even have a special table set aside,‖ Lady Brumley went on. She pointed across the room to an alcove separated from the other guests‘ tables by a low wall and a post. Sebastian had tried to talk Lady Brumley into putting the table in a private room, but she‘d told him sternly that she wasn‘t in the business of arranging seductions. So he‘d settled for the alcove. At least it afforded them some measure of privacy.

~ 282 ~

―Now that Lord Templemore is settled,‖ Lady Brumley said, ―I must go see about poor Miss Childs. She‘s complaining about the quality of my wine again. Such a vexing young woman.‖ With that, Lady Brumley bustled off. ―I‘ll tell you who‘s vexing,‖ Juliet muttered under her breath as soon as the marchioness was gone. ―Scheming hostesses, that‘s who.‖ ―I rather like them, myself.‖ He led her toward the alcove, his heart pounding foolishly at the prospect of having her all to himself. ―You would. And I daresay you had a hand in this particular scheme.‖ He didn‘t even bother to deny it. ―You gave me no choice. You‘re never at home when I call, you won‘t answer my notes, and you surround yourself with fawning admirers in public.‖ Despising how peevish he sounded, he forced a smile to his face. ―You‘re clearly worried that if you let me close, I‘ll convince you to change your mind.‖ ―No, I‘m merely busy enjoying myself with companions who find me interesting and fun. As opposed to you, who find me ‗childish‘ and unreasonable.‖ ―I did not call you—‖ He broke off, tamping down his irritation. He would not let her put him on the defensive this time. ―Yes, I suppose you would prefer a mooncalf like Havering, who lets you tromp all over him. You never did like a challenge.‖ She stuck her chin out. ―I‘m not afraid of you. I‘ll meet any challenge you offer.‖ ―Excellent. Because I look forward to a rousing game of chess, and it would be spoiled if you were cowering in the corner.‖ ―By ‗chess,‘ you‘d better mean the board game and nothing else,‖ she warned. ―We‘re surrounded by Lady Brumley‘s guests. I can scarcely ravish you over the table.‖ He bent to whisper, ―Though I‘ll admit the thought did occur to me.‖ When she blushed and jerked her gaze away, he chuckled. This was what he‘d missed most about Juliet—how she turned from determined goddess into fetching

~ 283 ~ innocent with little provocation. She was the only woman he actually enjoyed talking to. The virginal sorts annoyed him with their vacuous discussions of the weather, the latest gossip, and the last ball they‘d attended. The widows were no more tolerable, either. When they weren‘t assessing his suitability for marriage, they were offering to ―entertain‖ him. Come to think of it, the married women did their share of the latter. Where the devil were their husbands? Didn‘t the men know how to keep their women content? No, he supposed not, judging from the number of married men spending these evening affairs drinking with their male friends. That would never be him. He wouldn‘t make the mistake his father made— neglecting his wife until she looked elsewhere for comfort. He smiled to himself. As if he‘d ever prefer any other entertainment to spending time with Juliet. He led her to the seat at the table before the white pieces. ―I‘ll give you the advantage of being first,‖ he said as he went back round to sit in the other chair. ―As a gentleman should,‖ she said haughtily. From across the table, he watched her assess the board, her pretty brow furrowed in concentration. ―You‘re looking very lovely tonight,‖ he ventured. She moved her pawn out to begin the game. ―How adorable of you to say so,‖ she responded in a sugary voice. ―And so original, too. Lord Ferguson and Mr. Rowland said exactly the same thing when I entered this evening. Lord Havering has remarked on it often this week. I do believe I have looked ‗very lovely‘ to every gentleman I‘ve met for the past five nights.‖ If she thought to provoke him, it wouldn‘t work. ―Can we help it if your astonishing beauty dulls our wits?‖ He blocked her pawn with his. ―That doesn‘t bode well for our chess game. A dull-witted man can hardly win. I wonder why you even bothered to play.‖ ―To sharpen my dull wits, so I can proffer more ‗original‘ compliments next time.‖

~ 284 ~ ―Don‘t trouble yourself.‖ She examined the board, then moved her knight out. ―Any compliment you give would be insincere, since—as a certain devious man once told me—it only means you‘re ‗aiming to win‘ and has naught to do with me.‖ He chuckled. ―You‘re bent on annoying me, aren‘t you? But nothing you say can annoy me tonight. I plan to enjoy myself. How can I not, with such fetching company?‖ Tipping up her chin, she stared hard at him. ―I don‘t suppose you‘ve received any more news of your brother.‖ His smile faded. He‘d been wrong—there was something she could say to annoy him. ―No, I haven‘t.‖ ―I heard that it isn‘t at all certain Lord Blackmore will find the pirates. Men have tried before, you know, and failed.‖ ―I have faith in Blackmore,‖ he ground out. ―Now can we discuss something else?‖ ―Why?‖ He moved out his knight. ―Because you only speak of it to keep your resentment of me alive.‖ She arched an eyebrow. ―My resentment of you is thriving very well on its own.‖ Reaching over, he caught her hand. ―Then give me a chance to banish it.‖ He lifted her gloved hand and pressed a kiss into the palm. She snatched her hand back. ―That is not the way to go about it. Besides, you‘re only distracting me so you can win the game.‖ ―True. But chess isn‘t the game I‘m trying to win. And the only reason you won‘t let me touch you is you know how strongly it affects you.‖ ―Not at all, I assure you.‖ She held out her hand with a haughty frown. ―Go on, kiss it all you like. I‘m immune to your ridiculous maneuvers, sir.‖

~ 285 ~ ―Are you indeed?‖ He ignored her hand to attack on another front. Since the low wall of the alcove completely shielded everything below the table from the other players, he used that to his advantage. Removing his shoe, he ran his stocking foot up her calf. Sucking in a sharp breath, she jerked up straight. Then she leaned over the table to whisper, ―Stop that right now, Sebastian!‖ ―Or what? You‘ll capture my king?‖ With a smile, he caressed her calf. She kicked at him, then winced. He laughed outright. ―If you‘re going to kick, you need something other than slippers to be effective. And since they‘re doing you no good anyway…‖ He hooked his foot behind her heel and slid her slipper off. Then he dragged the flimsy satin confection back to where she couldn‘t reach it. At least now she couldn‘t jump up and storm off without doing it in stocking feet. After all, that wouldn‘t be proper. Judging from her look of outrage, she knew it, too. ―Give me back my slipper,‖ she hissed under her breath. ―Not yet.‖ She moved her bishop onto the playing field, then smiled with suspicious sweetness. Sliding her little foot up his own calf, she caressed the back of his leg. ―Come now, Sebastian, play nicely.‖ ―My wits aren‘t that dulled by your beauty, my lady. I know when I‘m being manipulated.‖ He moved out his other knight. Glancing at the next table of players a few feet away, he whispered, ―I‘ll return your slipper when I‘m good and ready.‖ With a sniff, she dropped her foot from his leg and took his first knight with her bishop. ―And when might that be?‖ He leaned over the table to murmur, ―After I‘ve made you burn.‖ Then he slid his toe right up her calf and under her skirts. Her eyes went wide. She tried to thrust her knees together, but it was too late. His foot had already reached the bare skin above her garters, which he stroked

~ 286 ~ shamefully, moving higher with each stroke. She clamped her thighs together around his foot. Making a pretense of examining the board, he said quite clearly, ―I do so like trying to extricate myself from a tight spot.‖ Then he wriggled his stocking foot high enough to reach the promised land, to which he applied a light pressure. Her mouth formed a startled O. He rubbed her gently, and with a strangled squeak, she stuck her hand under the table to move his foot aside. But she rapidly discovered it was impossible to dislodge a foot planted against one‘s privates when it lay beneath one‘s skirts and the man attached to it refused to remove it. ―You wicked, wicked man,‖ she whispered, but her whisper turned to a barely stifled moan when he caressed her again. Even with the layers of stocking and drawers between them, he could feel her quiver beneath his assault. While his pawn leisurely took her bishop, his foot leisurely stroked her tender parts. His reward was the crimson blush that started at the too visible swells of her tempting breasts and crawled rapidly up her neck to her face. ―I do play a mean game of chess, don‘t I, Lady Juliet?‖ he said with a grin. ―Though you‘re not so bad yourself. It‘s just a pity that your defensive maneuvers are a little shaky.‖ He curled his toe into a certain spot, eliciting a gasp from her. ―Then perhaps I need…offensive maneuvers instead,‖ she choked out. She took another of his pawns with her knight, encroaching far into his territory. And while that distracted him, she sent her own stocking foot encroaching far into his other territory, right between his thighs. She began to poke her toe at the fullness in his breeches. If her legs hadn‘t been so much shorter than his, he‘d be doubled in pain by now, since she clearly wanted to do him an injury. But she couldn‘t progress far enough forward to do more than stroke his already rigid John Thomas with the tip of her toe. It made him insane. ―I like your offensive maneuvers,‖ he growled and moved his bishop. Then before she could jerk her foot away, he thrust his hand under the table to capture it. He tugged just enough to make her slip down in her chair so that the

~ 287 ~ sole of her foot could rest squarely on his swelling cock. ―I like them a lot,‖ he added. This wasn‘t exactly what he‘d intended, but by thunder, if it didn‘t feel incredible. His own foot slipped from between her legs so he could widen his thighs and slump down in his chair to give her better access. God help them both if anybody noticed what was going on behind the low wall of the alcove. She stared at him a long moment, as if debating what to do about her foot, when he held it captive against his John Thomas. Then a decidedly suspicious smile spread over her luscious lips. She moved one of her pawns above the table. And she moved her foot below the table, in a slow, sensual stroke up the bulge in his breeches. He gaped at her. What was she up to now? Then her foot rubbed again, eliciting an involuntary moan from him that made her eyes glitter with clear mischief. ―Something wrong, Lord Templemore?‖ she said, loud enough to carry. ―I take it that my chess-playing skills have you worried.‖ He scarcely knew. He scarcely knew anything except that he wanted that cursed foot of hers to keep moving. And it did, achingly slow, sweeping up and down his erection with alarming expertise. ―It‘s your move, you know,‖ she added with a sly look. ―Or perhaps my offensive maneuvers have taken you by surprise.‖ Damned right they had. He was supposed to be making her burn, not the reverse. He tried to concentrate on the chess game, but his mind couldn‘t wrap itself around anything as complicated as chess strategy, not with her talented foot bringing him rapidly toward the point of no return. He took her pawn with his knight…or at least he thought it was his knight. Rational thought was becoming impossible. Juliet moved out her queen. Under normal circumstances, that move would have set off alarm bells. Instead, a different set of bells went off when she began using her dainty heel to knead his ballocks.

~ 288 ~ God help him. His ability to breathe was now seriously in question, yet he couldn‘t bring himself to move her foot away, not just yet. It felt so damned good. Whoever would have thought it? ―She‘s trouncing you, eh, Templemore?‖ came a voice from the nearest table, making him wonder if his excitement showed in his face. It must—he could feel hot blood creeping into his cheeks. ―Trouncing him soundly,‖ Juliet put in, her smile now overly bright. ―I‘m afraid his lordship is no match for a wily woman.‖ ―We‘ll see about that,‖ he muttered. Determinedly, he focused on the game. Seeing trouble impending in more ways than one, he moved his knight defensively, then grabbed her foot to stay it. Enough was enough. If she did any more, he‘d erupt. With an impish grin, she captured the adjacent pawn with her queen and wriggled her foot against him. Quickly, he shifted her foot onto his knee and manacled her ankle, but he should have put it on the other knee, for now her other foot came up to caress him. He grabbed that one, too, and she giggled. ―I think it‘s your move, my lord,‖ she said blithely. ―If you don‘t make a move, we‘ll be here all night.‖ Deuced impudent woman. If he let go of her foot to move his piece, she‘d return to stroking him. In his present state, it wouldn‘t take much more for him to explode. Too late, he remembered her delight in making him lose control that day in the cottage. Why, the little minx wanted him to explode, didn‘t she? Here, with an avid audience… By thunder, he wouldn‘t give her the satisfaction. Releasing her foot, he darted his hand above the table to move his knight out, but before he could return to restraining her foot, she grabbed his hand above the table. ―Are you sure you want to make that move, Lord Templemore?‖ she asked in a perfect image of innocence. ―I‘ll not hold you to it if you change your mind.‖ ―I‘m sure,‖ he snapped and tried to tug his hand loose unobtrusively.

~ 289 ~ In the meantime, her foot stroked him with a frenzy. Wild images clouded his mind—of her naked and spread-eagled beneath him, with her hot little mouth uttering sweet cries of excitement and need and want… Yanking free of her hand, he jerked back his chair, which scraped the floor loudly. Everyone turned to look at them as her feet dropped harmlessly down. He forced a smile for the other players‘ benefits, and they returned to their play. Devil take her, he was hard as stone. And though she‘d brought him to the brink of embarrassing himself, she sat there looking as innocent as any wide-eyed miss. But she wasn‘t done yet. While he was still reining in his heated fantasies, she leaned forward, captured a pawn with her queen, and smiled in triumph. ―Check and checkmate, my lord.‖ Feeling like a trout clubbed by a fisherwoman, he stared down at the board to see her queen placed irrevocably in the winning position. She‘d won. The blasted wench had actually beaten him! Not that she‘d played fair. But then, neither had he. While he gaped at the board, she ducked under the table and found her slippers. When she popped up again, she said in a carrying voice, ―Well, sir, I believe I shall go find another game. This one isn‘t nearly challenging enough.‖ He grimaced when the players at the nearest tables chuckled. Wonderful. It wasn‘t enough for her to leave him aching with a desire he couldn‘t possibly satisfy—she had to bludgeon his pride and his reputation while she was at it, the vengeful sprite. Looking disgustingly pleased with herself, she rose and tried to hurry past him, but he caught her arm. ―Surely you‘re not so cruel as to leave me before I‘ve had a chance for satisfaction.‖ Though she still wore a smile, a sudden despair flickered behind her eyes. ―I‘ve given you too many chances already, my lord,‖ she said softly. ―Eventually a woman has to cut her losses.‖ Then she wrenched free of him and strode off. He would have gone after her at once, except that his breeches weren‘t yet fit to be seen. So he sat there stewing, pretending to examine the chess game. Cut her

~ 290 ~ losses? What the devil did that mean? She‘d won the game, for God‘s sake! She‘d even won their more private skirmish. Or had she? It suddenly occurred to him that her words held a certain finality. As if she‘d grown tired of waiting for him to settle matters with his brother‘s situation. As if she were giving up on him. Panic spiraled in his belly. What if she‘d truly had enough? She certainly hadn‘t made it easy for him to see her lately. In truth, she‘d been ignoring him. But that didn‘t mean she‘d given up on him. Making him think she had might be just another of her little tricks. Still, he‘d expected her to give in long before now. Ah, but the young, naive Juliet was gone forever, thanks to him. He‘d been as guilty as her family of leaping to conclusions about her, assuming that she‘d come around as she always had, forgive him as she always had. After setting the gossip to rest, he‘d expected her to leap gratefully into his arms. And when she hadn‘t, he‘d thought physical pursuit might persuade her. What a stupid ass he‘d been! Juliet was a grown woman now, and when a grown woman of character set her principles, she didn‘t change them on a whim. Quickly, he rose from the chair and set off across the card room at a ground-eating stride. He had to find her; he had to settle this once and for all, before he lost her for good. He‘d almost reached the door when he heard a sly voice murmur, ―It seems the young lady isn‘t that delighted by your offer of marriage either, Templemore. Every time I see her, she‘s avoiding you.‖ He paused to glare at Montfort. ―At least she hasn‘t turned me down.‖ ―Yet.‖ Yet. The short word had long repercussions, exploding in his brain like a badly designed pistol. He had no answer for Montfort, and no time to trade insults, either. Turning on his heel, he went looking for her. But she wasn‘t anywhere, not in the drawing room or supper room, not in any of the other public rooms. He planted

~ 291 ~ himself outside the ladies‘ retiring room, but a young lady who came out told him she wasn‘t there either. As he left the hall, he spotted Lady Rosalind coming toward him. She was alone, thank God, so he accosted her. ―Have you seen your sister? We haven‘t yet finished our discussion, and now she‘s vanished.‖ ―As a matter of fact, I spoke with her not five minutes ago. She told me she was taking the carriage home and would send it back for Griff and me.‖ ―She‘s leaving already?‖ Lady Rosalind shrugged. ―We do have a long trip ahead of us tomorrow, after all.‖ Alarm splintered his composure. ―What long trip?‖ She looked surprised. ―Didn‘t she tell you? We received word this afternoon that my sister Helena has had her baby—a little boy. The three of us leave tomorrow for Swan Park, where Helena has been staying during her confinement.‖ ―Blast it all!‖ ―If you hurry, you might catch Juliet before she leaves the ball. It will take some time for the carriage to be brought.‖ He started to race off without a word, then caught himself. ―Thank you, madam.‖ Taking Lady Rosalind‘s hand, he brushed a quick kiss to the back of it. ―You‘ve always been a friend to me. For that, I‘ll be forever grateful.‖ When he glanced up to see Knighton bearing down on them, he beat a hasty retreat. As he headed for the entrance hall, his heart began to pound. Juliet hadn‘t even mentioned that they were leaving town. That didn‘t bode well for him. By thunder, what if he had pushed her too far at last? What if he‘d lost her with his refusal to consider her earnest request? Or worse still, what if she turned to another man? By putting a stop to the gossip, Sebastian had certainly made it easy for her to find someone else.

~ 292 ~ In a flash, he saw her ten years from now—married to some respectable dolt like Havering, with a lot of little dolt Haverings running about. And he saw himself at Charnwood all alone, except for the occasional visit from his wild brother. He might not even get that, at the rate Morgan was going. If he did manage to save Morgan‘s hide this time, how long would it last? Until the next time the rascal took up with pirates? Or went spying for the Home Office or the navy? In the meantime, Sebastian would be alone, always alone, remembering that he‘d let the one woman he‘d ever wanted walk away. The thought made his throat close up. He couldn‘t lose her—it was unthinkable! He hastened his steps to the entrance hall and nearly collapsed with relief to see her still waiting there. But she wasn‘t alone. Havering was with her. ―Really, my lord,‖ she was telling the mooncalf in a polite, but firm tone, ―I don‘t need you to accompany me home. You only now arrived, and besides, it would be most improper. So if you‘ll just leave me be, I will call for my brother-in-law‘s carriage—‖ ―But there are footpads and nasty sorts about. You shouldn‘t go alone. I‘ll fetch my sister to go with us if that‘ll make you feel better. She‘s playing cards tonight, too.‖ ―Then I should hate to ruin her evening,‖ Juliet said sweetly. ―Oh, she won‘t mind, I‘m sure—‖ he began. ―Havering, what are you doing here?‖ Sebastian barked as he stepped forward. ―I thought you were at the cockfight.‖ ―I was, but it was a dull ‘un, not a‘tall what you said it would be. So I came here and found Lady Juliet pleading a headache and heading off for home all by herself.‖ ―I‘ll take care of accompanying Lady Juliet home.‖ Juliet glared at him. ―Nobody is accompanying me home.‖ Turning to a footman, Sebastian ordered his own carriage brought round.

~ 293 ~

―Now see here,‖ Havering protested, ―if anybody‘s taking the lady home, it‘s me.‖ ―As she said, that would be improper,‖ Sebastian growled. ―No more than for you to take her—‖ Havering began. ―Listen, Havering, you don‘t want to provoke a man who handles pistols well, not with your checkered experience.‖ Havering blinked at the sudden change of subject, then colored. ―I…um…don‘t know what you mean exactly.‖ ―I‘d be happy to show you what I mean at dawn tomorrow if you‘re so inclined.‖ ―Don‘t be ridiculous,‖ Juliet retorted. ―Really, gentlemen, this is too silly. I‘m going home by myself in my family‘s carriage—‖ ―You‘re not…er…calling me out, are you, Templemore?‖ Havering asked, his brow a veritable field of furrows. Sebastian almost wished he were. But bluffing Havering would be easy enough. ―Not if you go into the card room like a nice gentleman and find some other young lady to impress with your gallant nature.‖ Havering looked torn. Then apparently deciding he wasn‘t quite ready for pistols at dawn, he mumbled something about looking for his sister and slunk away. Juliet stared coolly at Sebastian. ―Although I thank you for ridding me of him, I‘d thank you even more for ridding me of yourself. Go away, and leave me alone.‖ ―I want to talk to you.‖ ―Very well.‖ She tugged at her gloves with the nonchalance of a woman who thinks she holds all the cards. ―Perhaps if you come round in the morning—‖ ―Your sister says you‘re leaving in the morning. Why didn‘t you tell me?‖ She shrugged. ―I didn‘t think of it.‖

~ 294 ~

―The devil you didn‘t. We‘re going to talk, and we‘re going to do it now,‖ he said firmly. Beyond her he saw the footman motion to him that his carriage had arrived, and he nodded. ―Come on, Juliet. I‘m taking you home.‖ ―I‘m not going anywhere with you, drat it!‖ she cried as he grabbed her elbow and propelled her toward the entrance door. ―If you don‘t, I‘ll carry you out, and this time we‘ll run off for good. It‘ll be straight to Gretna Green for you, sweeting.‖ The footman looked somewhat disturbed by Sebastian‘s statement, but opened the door nonetheless, and Sebastian dragged her through it. ―Do you really think I‘d run away with you again?‖ she protested. ―I‘m not the ninny I was two years ago—‖ ―You weren‘t a ninny then; you‘re not a ninny now.‖ He hurried her down the stairs. ―However, I‘m more of a scoundrel than I was then, and I‘ll do anything to secure the woman I want.‖ ―Not ‗anything,‘ Sebastian.‖ She dug in her heels at the open door to his carriage. ―If you‘d do ‗anything,‘ we wouldn‘t be at odds.‖ He stared into her lovely face, feeling the blood pound in his ears. ―I meant what I said,‖ he heard himself respond, as if through a fog. ―I‘ll do anything. Anything you want. So get in the coach. It‘s high time we discussed our wedding.‖ She searched his face for a long moment, then abruptly turned and climbed up into the carriage. And for the first time all night, Sebastian felt truly hopeful.

~ 295 ~

Chapter 23 ‘They love too much that die for love’. - English proverb written on a list once mounted in the Templemore schoolroom

The Duke of Montfort emerged from the shadows where he‘d been watching Templemore dispatch Havering and then carry off Juliet. Following Templemore on his perambulations about Lady Brumley‘s townhouse had certainly paid off. So there really was a connection between Juliet and Templemore. He‘d begun to wonder if the baron had been lying about it. The footman came back inside, then jumped when he spotted Montfort. ―Your Grace! I did not see you there.‖ ―It‘s all right. I see that Lord Templemore and Lady Juliet just left together.‖ ―Yes, and to be honest, I am rather disturbed by it. I don‘t generally pry into the affairs of her ladyship‘s guests, you understand, but I do fear…‖ He trailed off with an expression of great agitation. Montfort stepped forward. ―Yes? I‘ll try to help if I can.‖ ―It sounded as if his lordship might have been…well…taking the young lady off in his carriage against her will.‖ ―Really? Why do you think so?‖ The footman related the entirety of what Montfort had only heard in snatches. When the man finished, it was all Montfort could do to stifle his laughter. Instead, he nodded somberly. ―You were right to speak. Never fear—I‘ll notify her ladyship of your concerns right away. I‘ll say I was the one who overheard

~ 296 ~ Templemore and Lady Juliet. No one need know that you were behind it.‖ Especially since he didn‘t plan to tell her ladyship a word. She tended to meddle. Besides, he had better plans for this information. ―Thank you, your grace!‖ ―I‘ll tell Lady Juliet‘s family as well. They‘ll know if Lord Templemore might present a threat. The Knightons are still here, are they not?‖ ―Yes. Shall I fetch them?‖ ―No, don‘t trouble yourself. Go on about your duties.‖ He handed the servant a couple of sovereigns. ―This is for your silence. You may leave the entire matter to me.‖ After the footman gushed his thanks again and hurried off, Montfort stood there chuckling. So Templemore had been Juliet‘s despoiler two years ago? How very intriguing. It explained so much—why the stodgy baron insisted upon courting her, and why she‘d seemed reluctant to go off with him in his carriage. He could use this to his advantage. Knighton couldn‘t possibly know about Templemore‘s part in the elopement or he wouldn‘t be allowing the man even to consort with Juliet. And if Knighton did happen to learn of it, he was just the hotheaded sort to take drastic action—like calling Templemore out. That could be quite useful. No matter the outcome, it would leave Juliet free. If Templemore killed Knighton, Juliet would never forgive the man. Besides, Templemore would be forced to flee the country or stand trial. And if Knighton killed Templemore, then the only person who stood between Montfort and Juliet would be eliminated. How very tidy. Well, that left only one thing to do, didn‘t it? He must find Knighton and reveal that the man‘s precious sister-in-law had just gone off in a carriage alone with the scoundrel who‘d carried her off two years ago. This was proving a very entertaining evening. By morning, he intended to be the only man left standing who could marry Juliet. Juliet watched warily as Sebastian settled into the carriage seat across from her. ―So what‘s it to be?‖ he demanded. ―Gretna Green or Knighton House?‖

~ 297 ~ ―Knighton House, of course.‖ Thrusting his head out the window, he called the command up to the driver, then came back into the carriage. It was black and gloomy inside, yet the moonlight shone enough so she could see his eyes assessing her. ―You do understand that you‘ve just agreed to marry me, don‘t you?‖ he asked. ―If you understand that you‘ve just agreed to tell my family everything at last. You did say you‘d do anything.‖ ―Yes, I did.‖ Joy blossomed in her heart. ―You really mean it?‖ He scowled at her. ―Don‘t I look as if I mean it?‖ ―Actually, you look rather peeved.‖ ―Well, what do you expect? I nearly challenged a man to a duel over you. And I don‘t even believe in duels. They‘re pointless violence that proves nothing.‖ ―I see.‖ She was trying hard not to smile, but he was making it very difficult. ―Is that all you have to say? ‗I see‘?‖ ―To be honest, I‘m still trying to take it all in. I‘ve never won with you before, and I certainly didn‘t expect you to give in so quickly.‖ He looked exasperated. ―You didn‘t expect—By thunder, Juliet, you‘ve spent nearly a week driving me insane, prancing about in fetching gowns and flirting with idiots like Havering, and sticking your dainty foot—your foot, for God‘s sake!—where it doesn‘t belong, and now you‘re surprised I capitulated?‖ She couldn‘t stifle her laugh. ―You put your foot where it didn‘t belong first, you know.‖ ―Yes, and gave you ideas,‖ he grumbled. ―Which you used to torture me. And try to embarrass me before an entire card room full of people.‖

~ 298 ~ ―Is that what I was trying to do?‖ she asked in mock innocence. Taking her by surprise, he reached across the carriage and hauled her onto his lap. ―You know it was. But you‘ll pay for it, you naughty girl.‖ ―Now, Sebastian…mmfph—‖ Whatever she‘d planned to say was blotted out by his mouth taking hers. Oh, what a delicious kiss! It was so fierce and sweet that it jumbled up every thought in her head. How she‘d missed this. How she‘d missed him. When he drew back, it was clear the feeling was mutual. ―You were saying?‖ ―I don‘t have the foggiest.‖ With a grin, he closed the curtains, then kissed her once more. She flung her arms about his neck and kissed him back, wishing this moment would never end. But when his hand tugged her bodice down so he could caress her bare breast, she hesitated and drew back. In the darkness, she could hardly see his gleaming eyes scant inches from hers. ―When do you plan to tell Griff and Rosalind?‖ she asked, still a little unsure of him. ―About the kidnapping, I mean.‖ ―Whenever you want.‖ He thumbed her nipple with an expertise that made her mouth go dry. ―I‘ll do it now, if you prefer. I can turn the carriage around and we can be back at Lady Brumley‘s in moments. Or we can wait for your sister and brother-in-law at Knighton House. It‘s your choice.‖ He fondled her breast shamelessly, thrillingly. She arched against his hand. ―I‘d prefer to wait.‖ ―Would you?‖ His knowing smile as he rolled her nipple between deft fingers made her blush. ―How far is it to Knighton House, do you think?‖ What he was doing felt so delightful she could hardly answer. ―I-I don‘t know…a few miles, I should imagine.‖ ―Perfect. That ought to give me enough time.‖ He began unfastening her gown.

~ 299 ~ ―For what?‖ she choked out, though she already had a suspicion. It was impossible to ignore the part of him thickening beneath her bottom. ―For reminding you that you belong to me and no other.‖ Then he seized her mouth again, kissing her with a fervor that branded her as his. If he hadn‘t been kissing her so ardently, she might not have suffered his clever hands stripping her with alarming efficiency. But by the time he‘d torn his lips from her mouth, leaving her intoxicated with need, he had her gown shoved off her. Her chemise hung open above her corset, and her drawers had vanished, along with her petticoats. She now sat on his lap wearing only her corset and scandalously untied chemise, and his tongue was tracing a path down the slope of her breast. ―What if your coachman hears us?‖ Juliet whispered, both amazed and thrilled by the prospect of having him make love to her in his carriage. ―I‘ll shoot him,‖ Sebastian growled before his mouth closed over her breast. ―Ohhhh,‖ she sighed as his tongue and teeth played havoc with her tender flesh. ―You do that so well, Sebastian.‖ She could almost feel him smiling against her nipple. ―Do I?‖ ―Yes.‖ He tongued the valley between her breasts. ―I‘ve been wanting to do this all night, every time you leaned forward over that blasted chess table. I wanted to reach over and pop them out of your gown and bury my face between them.‖ She giggled. ―Lady Brumley would not have approved.‖ He lifted his head to grin at her. ―I hate to tell you, sweeting, but she wouldn‘t have approved of anything we were doing. Which reminds me…‖ Taking her by surprise, he lifted her off his lap and set her on the seat across from him. ―I still haven‘t finished what I started earlier.‖ Deprived of his warmth, she shivered. ―Oh? What‘s that?‖ ―Making you burn.‖

~ 300 ~ The seductive rumble of his disembodied voice in the darkness brought her to instant alert. She sat there, her inability to see making her all the more acutely aware of her own half nakedness—the plush softness of the seat beneath her thinly clad bottom, the wintry air drifting over her bared breasts, her nipples hardening to tiny points. And the thrumming ache between her legs, too, shameful though it was. The dark amplified the sound of his clothes rustling as he tore loose his cravat, then peeled off his coat and waistcoat and tossed them aside. Suddenly she felt rather than saw him crouch on the floor in front of her. His hands slid her chemise up her thighs, then parted her legs. Relief rushed through her. This, she knew. When his hands tugged on her hips, she slid forward on the seat immediately, preparing for him to insinuate his lower body between her legs. Instead, she was startled to feel his mouth brush a kiss to the inside of her thigh. Quite high up. Nearly to her…her secret place. Feeling all at sea, she reached out in the darkness to find that his shoulders, still covered by his shirt, were now at the level of her knees. ―What in heaven‘s name are you doing, Sebastian?‖ she whispered as he pressed kisses higher and higher up the sensitive skin of her inner thigh. ―You‘ll see. You‘ll be invoking heaven‘s name in earnest in a moment,‖ he rasped. ―And God‘s name, too, if I have anything to say about it.‖ She shivered, but this time not from the cold. His whiskers rasped against her skin, sparking a little tendril of excitement to curl up along her thigh. It seemed to center itself right in her privates, making her squirm. She sank her fingers into his lush, silky hair, meaning to urge his head away. And then his mouth kissed her right there. Right between the legs, where no man had ever kissed her, even him. ―My oh my…Sebastian, you wicked…awful…ohhhh…‖ His tongue sank inside her, and she melted. She‘d never guessed…never even thought…

~ 301 ~ ―You taste wonderful.‖ He laved her tender parts with his tongue, darting it over a spot that throbbed and beat beneath his outrageous caresses. ―I‘ve been aching to taste you forever.‖ Beneath his ravenous, clever mouth, Juliet lost all sense of where or who she was. A hundred footpads could have stormed the carriage, and she would have told them to wait until he‘d finished whatever insanity he‘d embarked upon. It must be insanity for her to feel this fabulous, this…this delicious…this…oh, she couldn‘t even think of adjectives anymore. Her head was going to explode. Or her body. He scraped his teeth ever so lightly against her engorged flesh, making her wild. Frantically she swiveled her hips against him. ―Yes, Sebastian…do that, yes…‖ Chuckling, he renewed his efforts with great enthusiasm. His tongue lapped and his teeth teased and tormented her until she felt herself tumbling over the edge into madness. Then somehow she was clutching his head and screaming, ―Oh God, yes!‖ into the secret, erotic night. She hung suspended in her pleasure for one brief, enchanting moment…then came the sinking back into the world. To the cool confines of the carriage. To Sebastian grasping her hips, kissing her thighs more leisurely now. He lifted his head. ―I told you that you‘d be invoking God‘s name.‖ Not even his infernal insolence could dampen the melting aftermath of her enjoyment. ―If that‘s what it‘s like when you make me burn, then set fire to me whenever you like.‖ ―Oh, I intend to, sweeting. As often as I can for the rest of our lives.‖ More rustling of clothing ensued. Still on his knees, he straightened until she felt something rigid and long and warm brush her thigh. ―But first, it‘s your turn to finish what you began earlier.‖ She pretended ignorance. ―And what might that be?‖ He leaned forward to run his tongue around her nipple. ―You know very well, you teasing minx.‖ Suddenly, the carriage shuddered to a halt, throwing him hard against her. He swore under his breath as she caught at his shoulders.

~ 302 ~

Then his coachman called out, ―We‘re here, m‘lord.‖ Juliet sprang up straight in her seat. ―Sebastian, I can‘t…we can‘t…It‘ll take us forever to dress, and the servants are bound to guess what we‘re up to if we sit in here for so long!‖ ―I know, but what the devil do you want me to do about it?‖ ―Make him go back.‖ ―What?‖ ―To Lady Brumley‘s! Make him go back!‖ ―All right.‖ He called up the command, and the coach set off again. ―Now how will that solve anything?‖ ―It‘ll give us time to dress. Besides, now that I think about it, it might be better to speak to Griff in a public place where he can‘t kill you.‖ ―Very funny.‖ ―I‘m not joking. If he‘d come in and found us together at Knighton House, he might have assumed the worst. At least at Lady Brumley‘s we can sneak out of the carriage and approach him as if we hadn‘t just been alone together.‖ She pushed at his shoulders. ―Now get up. We have to dress.‖ ―Oh no, you don‘t,‖ he rasped. ―We have plenty of time to dress. But you are not going to leave me aroused and unsatisfied twice in one evening.‖ ―Now, Sebastian—‖ she began, then groaned when he tugged her hips forward and buried himself to the hilt inside her. ―Oh!‖ she gasped as he began to move. ―Well, if you must…all right then…‖ Better than all right. It was as fabulous as before, only this time he filled her so utterly she thought she‘d collapse from the sheer joy of it.

~ 303 ~ ―Deuce take it, sweeting, you‘ve been driving me mad with wanting,‖ he choked out as he thrust hard, half lifting her off the seat with his force. ―Me, too,‖ she murmured on a sigh. ―Shall I stop so we can dress?‖ he half growled. ―Don‘t you dare!‖ She clutched his shoulders and tilted her hips higher, needing all of him inside her. ―I couldn‘t if I wanted to.‖ He filled his hands with her breasts, teasing and arousing them as he pounded into her. Sebastian thought he‘d died and gone to heaven at last. Except he doubted that this was allowed in heaven. Finally, Juliet was his completely. Forever. Or else he was dreaming. But despite the darkness, he couldn‘t mistake that it was Juliet he held in his arms. No other woman smelled like an entire meadow of lilacs. No other woman was as soft and giving and open. And no other woman had ever made him feel like a king the second she wrapped him in her forgiving arms. He lost himself in her sweet heat, rocking into her, grinding against the rocking of the carriage until she started uttering little heartfelt mews of pleasure. They echoed to the very root of his John Thomas. He drove harder, deeper, so primed from all her earlier manipulations that he feared satisfaction was only moments away. Wanting to slow himself so they could reach it together, he leaned into her to kiss whatever he could find in the darkness…her delicate throat…the cusp of her stubborn chin…her always blushing cheek. Her fingers dug into his shoulders as she anchored him to her. Then her sheath tightened around him, a satiny fist that squeezed him until with a roar, he reached his release. As he strained against her, his seed pouring into her, she cried, ―I love you, Sebastian!‖ and found her own satisfaction. In that moment, when the unfamiliar words fell on his aching heart like a soothing balm, he realized he‘d do anything to hear her say them again. To hear her cry them from the rooftops for the rest of their lives.

~ 304 ~ He‘d do anything to ensure it—anything. Because pride and duty be damned, he wanted Juliet‘s love. Even if he wasn‘t sure he could reciprocate with those words. And if he couldn‘t? If he didn‘t, would she stay? He clasped her close, feeling the thundering of her heart against his chest and her slowing breaths in his ear. ―Never leave me, sweeting,‖ he whispered. ―I couldn‘t bear it.‖ She drew back to smooth the hair away from his brow. ―What makes you think I‘d ever leave you, my love?‖ There was that word again, that wonderful word he would never tire of. He hadn‘t realized until she said it that it was what he‘d been waiting for all his life. ―I‘d swear you were on the verge of leaving me tonight after we played chess. You were going home, and tomorrow you were heading out of town. And you did say you‘d had enough—‖ ―Yes, of all your petty games. That didn‘t mean I was leaving the field forever, for goodness sake. I just couldn‘t be around you as long as this was going on. But I‘ve always intended to have you, Sebastian Blakely. Whatever it took.‖ ―You might have told me and spared me some worry,‖ he growled. Drawing back from her, he tugged his drawers and breeches up and fastened them. Then he lifted himself onto the seat opposite her. ―Why?‖ She straightened her chemise and began to button it up. ―Then you‘d have been so sure of me that you‘d never have seen sense. I‘m not that stupid.‖ Reaching over, he lit the lamp so they could see to dress, then murmured, ―Some might disagree. They might say…you‘re stupid to fall in love with me.‖ He couldn‘t help himself. He had to hear her say those words again. ―I mean, I‘ve kidnapped you and treated you very ill—‖ ―You certainly have.‖ When his head shot up, she added with a laugh, ―But I forgive you. That‘s the beauty of love. A woman in love is quick to forgive her beloved. You see, love does have its finer points after all.‖ She watched him solemnly, as if waiting for a response.

~ 305 ~ He should say the words now, but something held him back. ―I‘ll have to trust you on that one.‖ He held his breath, sure that she would tear into him for not responding with the words she expected to hear. But she merely cast him a sad smile, then reached for her gown. ―Well, no matter how much I love you—and I do—I hope you intend to stop this kidnapping business. It‘s very trying.‖ He slumped with relief. Yet he felt like a blackguard somehow. ―You don‘t know how seriously I considered kidnapping you tonight.‖ With a scowl, he tucked his shirt tails in his breeches. ―Especially when that damned Havering opened his blasted mouth and started talking about taking you home.‖ ―You wouldn‘t really have fought a duel, would you?‖ ―Should I ever have to fight one, it won‘t be with a man who doesn‘t even know where to point the pistol.‖ ―I knew you were bluffing.‖ She slithered her gown up her body, making his mouth go dry. Then she turned her back to him. ―Do me up.‖ His hands began to sweat as he did what she asked. By thunder, how could he want her again so soon? Would he ever stop craving her like this? ―Boggs will have my head when he sees the condition of my clothes.‖ She sighed. ―I know. Only think of how long it will take to get all the dirt out. And with you on your knees, too!‖ He laughed at her concerns. ―I‘m sure he‘ll manage.‖ ―But what shall we do when we reach Lady Brumley‘s? We both look a fright.‖ ―Why don‘t you disembark in front of the house and sneak from the gallery into some private room, where you can freshen up? I‘ll take a turn in the coach, then get out myself and do the same. Somehow we‘ll manage to hide it. We have to. I can‘t speak to your brother-in-law looking as if I‘ve just been making love to you in the carriage.‖ ―You certainly cannot,‖ she retorted.

~ 306 ~ With their plan agreed upon, they finished dressing, doing their best to restore everything to its former condition, although it was damned hard. By the time they pulled up in front of Lady Brumley‘s again, he thought they looked relatively presentable. But before the coach even came fully to a stop, the door was jerked open and a voice boomed, ―Out, Templemore! Get out now!‖ He groaned. So much for sneaking in. With his heart sinking into his stomach, he climbed out of the carriage to face the one man with good cause to do him harm. Griff Knighton. Knighton was more livid than Sebastian had ever seen him. His eyes had the look of a man bent on spilling blood. Lady Rosalind hung on his arm and begged him to watch his temper, but he ignored her entirely. Beyond her stood Montfort. What the devil was the duke doing out here? No one else seemed to be about. ―I didn‘t want to believe it when Montfort told me you‘d carried Juliet off,‖ Griff snapped. ―But it‘s hard to deny the evidence of my eyes. Juliet, come out this minute.‖ Damn Montfort to hell. He must have seen them leave. Sebastian had half hoped he could brazen it out by claiming to be alone. He should have known better. As Juliet climbed out behind him, Sebastian said, ―I know what you‘re thinking, but it‘s not as bad as it looks. I fully intend to marry your sister-in-law. Indeed, we came back here to speak to you and Lady Rosalind about it.‖ ―Did you?‖ If Knighton‘s gaze had been a sword, it would have sliced him cleanly in half. ―And did you also intend to tell me who you really are?‖ Sebastian‘s blood froze. ―What do you mean?‖ ―God knows I wouldn‘t generally countenance anything Montfort says, but under the circumstances—He claims that you are the one who kidnapped Juliet two years ago. You, and not your brother. Is that true?‖

~ 307 ~ To his shock, he heard Juliet say, ―How can you believe that beast Montfort? It‘s a lie, a fabrication designed to harm me. Sebastian wasn‘t the one, and I should know!‖ She was defending him, for God‘s sake! After all her insistence that he tell the truth, she wanted to protect him. He couldn‘t let her do that. He‘d promised her, after all. He turned to cup her cheek. ―It‘s all right, sweeting. I‘m ready to take my medicine. I should have done it a long time ago.‖ Then he faced Griff once more. ―Yes. It was me.‖ ―But he had a good reason,‖ Juliet burst out as she tried to push her way between the two men. ―You must hear the whole story, Griff. It‘s only fair!‖ Knighton spared her scarcely a glance as he thrust her aside. ―I don‘t have to hear a bloody thing. Your mind may be clouded by his seductions, but mine is not.‖ He cast a steely-eyed gaze on Sebastian. ―As for you, sir, we‘ll meet at dawn tomorrow at Leicester Fields. Choose your weapon and your second and be there, or I‘ll pronounce you a coward with great relish.‖ ―No!‖ the two women cried in unison. Lady Rosalind then added, ―You mustn‘t fight! Be reasonable!‖ ―Stay out of this, Rosalind,‖ Knighton growled. ―It‘s none of your concern.‖ ―None of my—Curse you, Griff, I think preventing my husband from being killed is entirely my concern. You can‘t—‖ ―Hold your tongue, woman, or I swear I‘ll make you hold it!‖ Lady Rosalind seemed to know she‘d pushed her husband too far, for she snapped her mouth shut. But her eyes flashed mutiny. Juliet caught Sebastian by the arm. ―Say you won‘t fight, my love. Tell him you won‘t fight!‖ He stared down at her, wishing he could have spared her this. ―I have to, sweeting. No gentleman refuses a challenge. It‘s not honorable. You know that.‖ ―I don‘t care what‘s honorable!‖ He smiled faintly. ―

~ 308 ~ Ah, but I do.‖ ―You said you didn‘t believe in duels! You called it pointless violence!‖ ―It is. I‘d never instigate one. But now that the challenge is made, I won‘t refuse it, even if he is your brother-in-law. I‘m sorry.‖ He faced Griff. ―I accept your challenge.‖ ―At least you‘re not a coward.‖ Knighton turned to Juliet. ―Come along then. We‘re done here. We‘re going home.‖ He took her arm forcibly to lead her to the carriage, which had just pulled up behind Sebastian‘s. Apparently, the Knightons had been about to set off after them when he and Juliet had driven up. ―Wait!‖ Juliet cried. ―Give me a moment with him, please!‖ Knighton looked as if he might refuse, then nodded tersely. She broke free to run back to Sebastian. ―Oh, my love, why must you only do the right thing when it‘s the wrong thing?‖ ―Habit, I suppose.‖ He smiled wryly. She beat her fist against his chest. ―Don‘t you dare treat this as a joke!‖ With an eye toward Griff, who stood by glowering, he lowered his voice. ―You needn‘t worry about your brother-in-law. I get the choice of weapons, and I‘ll choose pistols. That way I can control the outcome, make sure I do little damage. With luck, I can shoot the pistol right out of his hand, and that‘ll be an end to it.‖ ―I‘m not worried about him, you fool!‖ Tears coursed down her cheeks. ―I‘m worried about you!‖ He reached up to stroke away her tears. ―Don‘t. I‘ll be fine.‖ ―You were right to keep the kidnapping a secret. I should never have asked you to tell them!‖ ―No, you were right. It was just as you said: the longer we waited, the more chance for disaster. It was bound to happen eventually—I was tempting fate.‖ He forced a reassuring smile to his lips. ―But after tomorrow, it will all be over. Knighton will be satisfied, and we can marry.‖ She looked as skeptical as he felt, but he made

~ 309 ~ himself push her away. ―Now go on with your family, and don‘t worry, do you hear? It will all work out.‖ Knighton said behind her, ―Come on, Juliet, let‘s go home.‖ Sebastian glanced up to see Montfort watching the entire interchange with glee, then said, ―Knighton, a moment of your time, if you will.‖ When Knighton approached nearer, Sebastian murmured under his breath, ―Unless you want Montfort to treat this as an entertainment and bring all his friends, I suggest you choose another spot for our duel and keep it private.‖ Reluctant admiration flashed in Knighton‘s eyes. ―Very well. Will Wimbledon Common do?‖ Sebastian nodded grimly. Then Knighton turned, and gathering the two women, hurried them off to the carriage. A few moments later, they were gone. All that was left was to deal with Montfort. Sebastian stared up at the scoundrel, wondering how he‘d learned the truth. ―So you think you‘ve won, do you?‖ ―Me? I‘m merely an observer of an interesting family tragedy.‖ ―Yes, I heard how you ‗observed.‘ But you‘d better not count on observing anything tomorrow. If you know what‘s good for you, you‘ll stay away from Leicester Fields in the morning.‖ ―You, sir, are in no position to make threats anymore,‖ Montfort retorted smugly. ―And I cannot wait to witness this duel. I hope you both die.‖ After Montfort retreated into the ballroom, no doubt to find his cronies, Sebastian uttered a sigh of relief. At least he needn‘t worry about Montfort showing up at Wimbledon Common. But as cold reality sank in, he went weak in the knees. At dawn he was fighting a duel, and despite what he‘d told Juliet, he wasn‘t at all certain that he‘d live through it. Knighton would most assuredly shoot to kill. Climbing into his carriage, he ordered his coachman for home. Devil take Knighton and his temper! If only the man had been willing to sit down and be rational—

~ 310 ~

He sighed. How could a man be rational when he saw an innocent young relation apparently being mistreated by the same man twice? Knighton wouldn‘t have been a man if he‘d walked away without a fight. Sebastian buried his face in his hands. Somehow he must manage the duel so neither of them was hurt. But could he? He had no idea if Knighton had any skill with a pistol. He hoped not. The only way to save this was if he shot first and disarmed Knighton. Because if he missed… He‘d be dead, that was a surety. Leaving Juliet ruined and alone. And after all that he‘d done to destroy her life, he refused to add that to his account.

~ 311 ~

Chapter 24 Out of some little thing, too free a tongue Can make an outrageous wrangle. - Euripides’ Andromache, worked on a towel for Rosalind by Juliet Laverick at fifteen

As the Knighton carriage rolled off, Rosalind resolved to keep quiet until she could get Griff alone. But once Juliet hurried into an explanation of how and why Lord Templemore had kidnapped her, Rosalind‘s resolution was forgotten, and she asked question after question. At first she was indignant, but as Juliet defended her lover, she found herself softening. She was fascinated. Now this was a tale for the theater! A pity that her dull husband couldn‘t see it. He sat there sullen, like the hottempered idiot he was. And by the time Juliet had finished, Rosalind had made a new resolution. To stop this duel at all costs. Yes, Lord Templemore had made some foolish mistakes, but certainly no more foolish than the particularly stubborn man who sat stony-faced beside her, acting as if he hadn‘t heard a word of Juliet‘s explanations. And nothing Juliet said had changed Rosalind‘s opinion that his lordship was perfect for her sister. Now came the difficult part—convincing Griff of that. Their discussion had lasted the entirety of their trip home, but as they disembarked in front of Knighton House, Juliet kept up her pleading. ―You see, Griff? Sebastian did the best he could. How can you fault him for trying to protect his brother? You would have done the same if it had been Daniel.‖ ―I wouldn‘t have lied about it.‖ Griff stalked into the house. ―I would‘ve owned up to my mistake afterward and faced the consequences. When we went to Shropshire—‖

~ 312 ~ ―We were bent on revenge!‖ Juliet hastened up the steps after him. ―And he knew it, too, after you punched him in the face. So his behavior is perfectly understandable. Can you really fault him for playing it cautiously? He was afraid for his brother!‖ ―Who consorts with smugglers and pirates—‖ ―That‘s certainly the pot calling the kettle black,‖ Rosalind muttered under her breath as she followed a little behind. Halting in the entrance hall, Griff turned to shoot her a bitter glance. ―I take it that you find Templemore‘s actions ‗understandable,‘ too?‖ Rosalind squared off against him. ―I do indeed. And so would you, if you‘d allow your temper to cool long enough to see reason.‖ ―Griff,‖ Juliet said, ―I love him. I‘ll never love anybody else. If you kill him—‖ ―Oh, he won‘t kill Lord Templemore,‖ Rosalind broke in, staring down her husband. Her voice rose with her fear. ―Don‘t you remember, Juliet? The very day we arrived in Shropshire, Griff told us of Lord Templemore‘s prowess with a pistol, how he ‗hit every target dead center.‘ Griff promised then not to challenge him, but apparently he‘s forgotten that promise. Suicide by duel seems to be my husband‘s present aim.‖ Griff‘s unwavering gaze grew bleaker than she‘d ever seen it. ―This discussion is ended, Juliet. I‘m fighting your kidnapper tomorrow, no matter how you protest. Now if you‘ll please excuse us, I need a few words with my wife.‖ ―But Griff—‖ Juliet began. ―Go on, dear heart,‖ Rosalind said. ―I‘ll take care of this.‖ Juliet stared at them both, then seemed to sense the magnitude of the tension between husband and wife. ―Rosalind, come to my room when you‘re done, all right?‖ ―I‘ll be there shortly,‖ Rosalind answered. Casting them a look of concern, Juliet hurried off up the stairs.

~ 313 ~

Griff didn‘t even wait until Juliet had reached the top. Grabbing Rosalind by the elbow, he hustled her into the drawing room, then shut the door. ―If you‘re going to argue for that man, then save your breath. I won‘t hear a word of it, most especially from you.‖ That threw Rosalind off guard. ―What do you mean—‗most especially‘ from me?‖ Turning away, he strode to a chair and gripped the back of it, as if only by holding onto something could he keep from drowning. ―I‘m not a fool, Rosalind, no matter what you think. I know that you‘re a little…enamored of Templemore. But if you expect me to stand by and watch while you let that…that blackguard—‖ ―Whatever are you babbling about?‖ Rosalind cut in. ―I‘m ‗enamored‘ of his lordship? Why in God‘s name would you think that?‖ When he faced her again, he looked lost. ―Don‘t make it worse by lying about it. I‘m not blind. I knew when we left Shropshire that you and Juliet had lied to me about why she pretended to be sick. But I told myself it was just your matchmaking, that it didn‘t mean anything. Even though you‘d lied about that cottage you obviously went to with him. And despite that time you went riding with him alone before I was awake. Not to mention the whispering in the corners or—‖ He broke off with a curse. ―But when I see him kiss your hand and hear that he‘d been to visit you privately this morning…when I see you smile at him or…or praise him or—‖ ―Oh my God,‖ she whispered, rousing herself from her stunned silence. ―You thought—I can‘t believe that you thought…‖ Her own temper got the better of her. ―Why, you…big…idiot!‖ Striding right up to him, she punched him in the chest. ―Ow! That hurt!‖ ―Good! You thought there was something between me and Lord Templemore? Templemore, for God‘s sake?‖ Rubbing the spot where she‘d punched him, he eyed her warily. ―No! Well…I mean, I know you‘d never cuckold me, but—‖ At the word cuckold, she started to punch him again, and he caught her fist. ―I thought you might…you know…have some sort of infatuation for him,‖ he finished lamely.

~ 314 ~

She tried to wrench her fist free, but he was having none of that. She glared at him. ―Curse you, Griff, he was helping me to conceive!‖ He gaped at her, then exploded with, ―Like hell he was!‖ Only then did she realize how that sounded. Thrusting her away, Griff headed for the door. ―Never mind the duel. I‘ll tear the bastard limb from limb!‖ ―No, I didn‘t mean it like that!‖ She hurried after him to catch him by the arm. ―I mean, he brought me to a healer! In Shropshire!‖ That halted him. He turned to stare at her. ―Go on.‖ She swallowed hard at the look on his face, suddenly reminded of why she‘d kept her activities in Shropshire secret from him in the first place. ―You refused to let me try any remedies for my condition, remember?‖ When he just kept scowling at her, she went on hastily, ―His lordship told Juliet of a healer who had helped his mother conceive. That‘s where Lord Templemore and I were that day we returned together. He and Juliet and I took the sleigh to see his tenant Winifred, a wise woman much known for her skill in these matters.‖ ―Juliet wasn‘t with you that day,‖ he corrected her, still scowling. ―I remember it very well.‖ ―She was with us before we saw you.‖ Turning to pace the room nervously, Rosalind explained why Juliet had stayed behind at Foxglen. ―Actually, Juliet sneaked back into Charnwood Hall later. That‘s when we started the whole sickness pretense—so I‘d have a reason to remain at Charnwood and consult with Winnie. Ask Juliet about that day, if you don‘t believe me. For that matter, ask Mr. Pryce. Both will confirm it.‖ ―What about your private meeting this morning?‖ he demanded. ―He wanted me to help him get her alone so he could propose marriage tonight. And when you saw him kiss my hand at Lady Brumley‘s, he was heading off after Juliet.‖ She stared at him earnestly. ―He wants her, you know, not me. To him, I‘m only the sister.‖ ―And the whispering…and the cottage…‖

~ 315 ~

―Lord Templemore pointed out the cottage to us the day we rode to Winnie‘s. And the whispering was merely to tell me that Winnie had sent over more herbs.‖ She colored. ―And to…um…ask what to do about you and your complaints about the baths.‖ Griff‘s face darkened. ―The baths?‖ ―Well, Winnie said that a man is less likely to conceive if he takes very hot baths, so Lord Templemore…that is, he told his servants—‖ ―Not to give me hot water.‖ He glanced away, his jaw taut. ―My God, now it all makes sense. His servants were so very odd about it.‖ He released a shuddering breath. ―And what other fine remedies did this ‗healer‘ offer?‖ ―Only herbs, that‘s all.‖ At his long tense silence, she burst out, ―Oh, Griff, don‘t be angry at me! I couldn‘t resist trying one more thing. I do so want to bear your child. Our child.‖ With a heartfelt sigh, he rubbed his hand over his face. ―I‘m not angry at you, darling. I‘m angry at myself. For leaping to conclusions, for not listening to what you wanted.‖ His voice dropped guiltily. ―For not trusting you. I‘m a jealous—‖ ―—‗idiot‘ works nicely for me.‖ All her anger had returned. To think that he could believe her capable of such a betrayal! He nodded earnestly. ―Yes, idiot. If you only knew the tortures I‘ve put myself through…‖ ―You deserved every one if you thought I‘d even look at another man in that way!‖ She walked up to him, and he held out his hands defensively. ―No more hitting,‖ he warned. ―No more hitting.‖ She clasped his hands in hers. ―Look at me, Griff.‖ After a second, his troubled gaze shifted to her. ―I love you,‖ she said fiercely. ―I‘ve loved you almost from the day we met. That has never changed. It will never change. And I‘d certainly never be so foolish as to yearn for a piece of pie when I have a whole feast at my disposal.‖

~ 316 ~ Some of the bleakness left his face. ―I thought I was losing you,‖ he whispered. ―You‘d been so short-tempered lately. And so disappointed about not conceiving that I thought you might blame me.‖ ―I‘m sorry you thought that. I didn‘t blame you. And if I was short-tempered, it was because my inability to give you a child frustrated me.‖ She flashed him a wan smile. ―I‘m not used to failing at anything, as you well know.‖ ―It doesn‘t matter if you give me a child or not, darling,‖ he said fervently. ―As long as I have you, it‘s enough for me.‖ For the first time, she realized that it wasn‘t just words. He truly meant it. He‘d probably meant it all along when he‘d said it, but she‘d been so caught up in feeling flawed that she‘d attributed the same feeling to him. ―I don‘t want to…to raise your hopes prematurely,‖ she offered, ―but my courses were supposed to begin last week and they didn‘t. So it is possible—‖ ―If it is, then fine. If it isn‘t, that‘s fine, too. I can bear anything as long as I don‘t lose you.‖ Tears welled in her eyes. ―You‘re not going to lose me, you silly man.‖ She reached up to kiss his cheek. ―And you simply must learn to talk to me when these things worry you, instead of creating mountains out of molehills.‖ She added, to be fair, ―But I swear I‘ll never lie to you again. That was part of the problem, I know.‖ Then she thought a moment and scowled. ―Though the reason I lied in the first place was because you started ordering me about, telling me what I could and couldn‘t do and—‖ His mouth cut off the rest of her tirade. He kissed her hungrily, reminding her of the first time they‘d kissed in the plum orchard at Swan Park. When he drew back, her knees were weak and her anger gone. He held her close, nuzzling her hair. ―I‘ll never doubt you again, my darling, I swear it.‖ They stood like that for some time, long enough that she remembered what had begun their argument in the first place.

~ 317 ~ ―Um, Griff?‖ she murmured into his coat, loath to ruin their renewed bond, but all too aware of time slipping away. ―Now that you understand about Lord Templemore, and you know he was never anything to me, do you think you could—‖ ―No.‖ He stiffened in her arms. ―The duel is set, Rosalind. I won‘t let him get away with mistreating Juliet.‖ Gritting her teeth at his stubbornness, she drew back. ―Even if she is perfectly happy with how things have turned out?‖ ―Can‘t you see he‘s taking advantage of her good nature to muddy her reason?‖ ―The way you took advantage of my fondness for certain…naughty vices to muddy my reason when we met?‖ ―It isn‘t the same,‖ he grumbled. ―What he did was worse, and he must pay for it.‖ ―Curse you, Griff, I don‘t want you to die!‖ He looked annoyed. ―I wish you‘d stop talking as if I‘m completely inept with a pistol. I can handle a firearm, you know.‖ ―You‘re the one who touted Templemore‘s skill, so don‘t be grousing at me for believing what you said.‖ He crossed his arms over his chest. ―This is a matter of honor, and I won‘t go back on my word. I will fight at dawn, and I won‘t discuss it anymore.‖ He softened his voice. ―So let‘s stop arguing, and go to bed. I can think of a better way to spend our last night before I fight a duel.‖ She rolled her eyes. How typical of her husband to think she could just turn off her anger and hop into bed. ―So can I. I shall spend it consoling my poor dear sister. If you‘re still alive in the morning, you can join us for breakfast. If not…‖ She smiled sweetly. ―Then you may go into hell with your manly urges unsatisfied. Because I am not sharing your bed until this is all over or you‘ve come to your senses, whichever comes first.‖ Then turning on her heel, she marched toward the door. She heard him sigh behind her, but knew he wouldn‘t come after her. The man was too obstinate for words.

~ 318 ~ Buoyed by righteous indignation, she went straight to Juliet‘s bedroom, where she found the poor girl standing at the window and staring blindly into the night. By now, Juliet had undoubtedly cried herself out. As soon as Rosalind closed the door, Juliet said in a surprisingly calm voice, ―I don‘t suppose you changed his mind.‖ ―No. He‘s as stubborn as ever.‖ Juliet turned from the window, and Rosalind was surprised to see that she hadn‘t been crying after all. Indeed, she looked clear-eyed and determined. ―Very well. If they‘re both going to be fools about it, then it‘s left to us to stop the duel.‖ ―How do you propose to do that? This stupid male honor business seems insurmountable.‖ ―Not necessarily. Honor can be a double-edged sword, you know.‖ A decidedly devious smile crept over Juliet‘s face. ―Sit down, Rosalind. I have a plan.‖

~ 319 ~

Chapter 25 ‘Nothing is got without pain but dirt and long nails.’ - English proverb written on a list once mounted on the Templemore schoolroom wall

Sebastian stood in Wimbledon Common with his valet in the icy predawn, feeling more alert than he had in his entire life. He‘d sat up all night settling his affairs, updating his will, and writing letters to Uncle Lew, Morgan, and the Navy Board, yet he wasn‘t the least bit drowsy. Because at last he knew the truth that had eluded him from the first. ―Do you think he‘s coming?‖ Boggs asked at his side. ―I hope not. But probably.‖ ―You sure you wouldn‘t rather one of your friends serve as your second, milord?‖ Boggs asked. ―I have no friends in London.‖ Truth be told, he had no friends at all. Because he had no relationships beyond those of family. There wasn‘t much to those, either—a brother he‘d known only a month and an uncle he was only beginning to know well. The realization last night that there wasn‘t a single man he could ask to be his second—other than his servant—had hit him like a blow. It had prompted him to spend the rest of his night examining his life. It, coupled with Juliet‘s fervent profession of love, had made him realize it was time to make some changes. The first one was to recognize how he felt about Juliet. He loved her. There was no getting around it. Why else would he have spent half the night worrying not about

~ 320 ~ whether he would die, but how to make it up to her if he survived this ordeal? How to make everything right for her? If he hadn‘t been in love, he wouldn‘t have cared. He wouldn‘t have considered her first in every decision. Love. He smiled to himself. How strange that the word had stopped terrifying him sometime between midnight and dawn. And he needed the chance to tell Juliet that. So whatever happened today, he must come out of this alive. Knighton must, too. Juliet would highly disapprove of his killing her brother-inlaw. The perplexing matter was how to avoid it. Shooting Knighton in the hand would ensure that the man couldn‘t fire, but he could still switch hands, and then he‘d have a clear shot to Sebastian‘s heart. Then again, firing wide would give him that as well. So the first alternative was the best, the one that gave him the most control over the situation. Even if it was the riskiest for Knighton. Perhaps he‘d be lucky for once in his life, and Knighton‘s temper would have cooled enough so that the man decided not to show up. That hope—slender as it was—died when the Knighton carriage rumbled up to the common, complete with attending footmen. The man himself disembarked, followed by two companions. One was clearly a doctor, judging from the enormous black bag he carried. The other man, whom Sebastian didn‘t recognize, must be Knighton‘s second. Sebastian sighed. ―Good morning, Knighton.‖ ―Templemore.‖ Knighton looked unsure of himself in the faint haze of early dawn, but nonetheless carried a pistol case much like Sebastian‘s own. He had scarcely made the introductions when the sound of horsemen approaching drew their attention. No, not horsemen. Horsewomen. ―What are they doing here?‖ Sebastian asked, his blood pounding in his ears as Juliet and Lady Rosalind came into view. He didn‘t want Juliet here. He could never shoot straight with her watching him. Knighton scowled. ―I don‘t know. They were supposedly both asleep when I left.‖

~ 321 ~

The two women reined up and dismounted. To Sebastian‘s shock, Juliet was carrying a pistol case similar to Knighton‘s. Knighton strode toward his wife. ―What do you think you‘re doing, Rosalind? If you plan to interfere—‖ ―We don‘t,‖ Juliet broke in. She held up the pistol case. ―We‘re here to fight our own duel. And since you‘ve already had the good sense to choose a location and provide seconds, we figured we could hit two birds with one bullet. So to speak.‖ Knighton gaped at her, then turned to his wife. ―What the bloody hell is she talking about?‖ Without waiting for an answer, he asked Sebastian, ―Did you have anything to do with this?‖ Sebastian threw up his hands. ―Not me, I assure you.‖ ―It‘s very simple,‖ Juliet said primly. ―If you and Sebastian insist upon this idiocy and either of you is killed as a result, Rosalind and I shall fight our own duel. If you kill Sebastian, I‘m bound by honor to avenge his death and shoot Rosalind.‖ ―And if Lord Templemore kills you,‖ Lady Rosalind put in, ―then I am bound by honor to avenge your death and shoot Juliet.‖ ―It‘s only fair,‖ Juliet said. ―The right and honorable thing to do,‖ Lady Rosalind added. Sebastian couldn‘t stifle his laugh, although judging from Knighton‘s glare, it wasn‘t appreciated. ―This absurd trick will get you nowhere, Juliet,‖ Knighton retorted. ―While it wouldn‘t surprise me to hear that my wife can shoot, I know for a fact that you haven‘t the faintest idea how to shoot or even load a pistol.‖ Sebastian winced. ―Um, Knighton? As it happens, Juliet knows how to do both.‖ Knighton whirled on him. ―What do you mean?‖

~ 322 ~ ―Sebastian taught me how to shoot,‖ Juliet said calmly. ―While we were in Shropshire.‖ ―That‘s impossible!‖ Knighton retorted. ―That‘s something we all would have noticed—you standing out on the lawn firing a pistol.‖ Lady Rosalind stepped forward. ―Don‘t you remember that cottage we were discussing last night, my dear? Lord Templemore sometimes goes there for target practice. It‘s well away from everything.‖ ―He taught me how to load, too,‖ Juliet said brightly. Setting down the pistol case, she opened it, then proceeded to load one of the pistols with a competence that made Sebastian proud. Until Knighton caught him smiling and glared at him. Sebastian sobered at once, realizing that death was imminent—Knighton would strangle him before they even began the duel. ―She asked me to teach her,‖ Sebastian bit out. ―What else was I supposed to do?‖ ―Tell her no?‖ Knighton retorted. ―Does that work with you and Lady Rosalind?‖ To his surprise, a reluctant smile touched Knighton‘s lips. ―Not once in our entire marriage.‖ Then he scowled again. ―Did Juliet get the pistols from you, too?‖ ―No! I‘m not insane, for God‘s sake,‖ Sebastian said hotly. ―They‘re your pistols, Griff,‖ Lady Rosalind put in. ―Don‘t you recognize them? I got them out of storage last night and had one of the footmen clean and oil them.‖ Knighton groaned. ―Now she‘s got the servants working against me.‖ ―She‘s good at that,‖ Sebastian said. ―I know.‖ Knighton cast him a searching glance. ―By the way, it seems I have you to thank for my tepid baths at Charnwood.‖

~ 323 ~ Clearly Lady Rosalind had confessed all her secrets. But he couldn‘t tell whether they‘d softened Knighton toward him or made him only more furious. Sebastian weighed his words carefully. ―I‘m sorry. I shouldn‘t have meddled in your private affairs.‖ ―You bloody well shouldn‘t have,‖ Knighton said, but his tone lacked conviction. The doctor stepped forward and cleared his throat. ―Gentlemen, if there‘s to be no duel today, I should like to return to my bed.‖ Sebastian looked to Knighton. So did everyone else. With so many eyes upon him, Knighton stiffened. ―We‘re fighting, make no mistake,‖ he said. ―My honor has not yet been satisfied.‖ Somehow Sebastian wasn‘t surprised by that answer. Knighton was the proudest, most stubborn man he‘d ever met. But Juliet glowered at her brother-in-law as if he were the devil incarnate. Lady Rosalind merely frowned and told her sister, ―Load one of those pistols for me, dear heart. It seems you and I shall be dueling, after all.‖ Knighton glanced uneasily at Sebastian. ―They‘re just bluffing, you know.‖ ―I know.‖ All the same, it was rather unnerving. As the seconds went on about their business, measuring off the paces and setting the lines for where the men would stand, Lady Rosalind and Juliet did the same only a few feet away, mimicking all their movements. Knighton was either an idiot or made of stone, if he could ignore his wife checking her weapon while her sister practiced aiming at a nearby tree. Bluffing or no, they were certainly making a good show of it. Did the man really think to have a duel with all that going on? Apparently he did, for his second told them both to take their places. Resigning himself to his fate, Sebastian did so. ―Wait!‖ Juliet cried suddenly and ran into the line of fire.

~ 324 ~

―Damnation, Juliet, get out of the way,‖ Knighton growled. She tilted up that stubborn little chin of hers. ―I will when I‘m ready. But first I want a word with Sebastian.‖ Griff sighed. ―Very well. Only a moment. I want this done.‖ Handing her pistol to Lady Rosalind, Juliet ran over to Sebastian. Without hesitation, she took his face between her hands and kissed him squarely on the mouth. Her display of affection ought to mortify him, especially with four men looking on, but it didn‘t. Not when he saw her tears. She pulled back, but only enough to say, ―Listen to me, Sebastian. I know you‘ll do the right thing.‖ ―Then you‘ll have to tell me what the right thing is, sweeting, because damned if I know.‖ ―You do know,‖ she said earnestly. ―In your heart, you know. And whatever you choose to do is the right thing as far as I‘m concerned. Because I trust you. Now show me that you trust me, too.‖ After that enigmatic comment, she started to walk away, but he caught her arm before she could. ―I do trust you, Juliet,‖ he said. ―And I…I love you.‖ She flashed him a sad smile. ―You‘re only saying that because of this silly duel.‖ He shook his head. ―I‘m saying it because it‘s true.‖ Ignoring the impatience of Knighton and the seconds, he decided to tell her everything he‘d realized last night, while he still had the chance. ―I was always afraid that allowing myself to love would mean giving up control over my life as my parents did. I figured that without my control, disasters would be set in motion.‖ He took a steadying breath. ―You see, I‘d always thought of life as a series of target practices. A man had to approach them with a clear head and a fine pistol. He saw the target and he shot, and if he had a steady hand and a gun that shot true, he hit what he aimed for.‖ She stared at him, nodding as if she understood.

~ 325 ~

―And love was the sun that blinded him when he prepared to shoot, a dangerous distraction.‖ He shook his head at his own foolishness. ―But I forgot one very important thing—without the sun, he can‘t see to aim. By blocking it whenever it dared to shine, I missed what I was aiming for—security, duty, family. And for the past two years, I‘ve missed the mark over and over. So what did I get? The very thing I wanted to avoid—setting disasters in motion.‖ He reached out and took her hand, then squeezed it. ―But yesterday when you said you loved me, the sun cut through the clouds. Now I see things clearly. Without love, I have no security, duty is a pointless exercise, and family an empty comfort. Without your love, I might as well put this pistol to my own temple and fire, because I‘m not going to hit anything else I aim for in life.‖ ―Oh, Sebastian,‖ she said, her heart in her eyes. She looked as if she might throw her arms about him, but he stayed her with a shake of his head. ―After this is over, sweeting, I intend to hold you for a very long time. But now, I have to make amends.‖ She swallowed. ―If you say so. Just remember, I trust you to do the right thing. Show me that you trust me, too.‖ There were those words again. What did she mean? Then as she returned to her sister‘s side and took back the pistol, it hit him. Once before, she‘d asked him to trust her. To trust her to know that her family wouldn‘t hurt him. He looked over at Knighton. Him? Trust her to know that Knighton wouldn‘t shoot to kill? If that‘s what she was asking, it was a lot to ask. And she‘d already proven herself wrong about Knighton‘s willingness to fight a duel. But she‘d been no more wrong than Sebastian at guessing how matters would evolve. Knighton‘s second once again called for them to take their positions, and both men readied themselves.

~ 326 ~

The way Sebastian saw it, he had two choices. Shoot for Knighton‘s hand, and trust to his own control and ability to hit the man exactly right. Or deliberately shoot wide and trust that Knighton wouldn‘t kill him. Give up control of the situation in favor of Juliet‘s dubious faith in her family. Knighton‘s second moved to where he was out of the line of fire, but could be seen by both men. Taking out his handkerchief, he slowly lifted it into the air. Sebastian glanced over to the women. They stood at the ready, too, with pistols at their hips, though both were pale. Yes, they were bluffing, but there was something so endearing, so noble in their determination to save their men from themselves that he realized he had no choice at all. I trust you to do the right thing. Show me that you trust me, too. The handkerchief dropped. Sebastian raised his gun and fired. At a bush beyond Knighton, some two hundred yards off. As the smoke cleared, he realized that Knighton hadn‘t yet fired. The man‘s arm was raised, he stood there frozen, but his finger was still on the trigger and his pistol was aimed straight at Sebastian‘s heart. Sebastian caught his breath, but said nothing, did nothing, his own hand still poised in the air. His blood thundered in his ears, and for a fleeting moment, he wondered if he‘d just made an enormous error in judgment. Then he saw something shift in Knighton‘s eyes, and he knew he was safe. She‘d been right about Knighton, after all. ―You don‘t deserve this, you know,‖ Knighton growled. ―I know.‖ ―I ought to make you suffer the way Juliet has suffered for the past two years.‖ ―Or you could give me the chance to make it up to her. Because I want nothing more in this life than to do that.‖

~ 327 ~ Knighton hesitated another long moment before uttering a frustrated curse. ―I know I‘m going to regret this. But I suppose we can‘t have our women doing anything foolish out of pique. Especially when they‘re brandishing pistols.‖ With a self-deprecating smile, he raised his arm and fired into the air. Sebastian let out his breath in a long whoosh. The women cheered. The doctor and the seconds, though more subdued in their response, made it clear that they, too, approved of the outcome. A moment later, Sebastian was assaulted by a fast-moving bundle of lilac-scented woman. Laughing, he caught Juliet around the waist and swung her into his arms. ―You love me!‖ she cried, her face aglow. ―You really do!‖ ―Of course I do,‖ he answered. ―What man in his right mind wouldn‘t?‖ She eyed him askance. ―You weren‘t always in your right mind, for I seem to remember you telling me time and again that—‖ He kissed her hard, until she melted in his arms. When he drew back, he murmured, ―I‘m in my right mind now. After all, we can‘t have you marrying a madman.‖ ―Now see here, Templemore,‖ Knighton said beyond them. ―One thing at a time. I‘m not so sure you deserve to marry my sister-in-law.‖ His wife, now plastered to his side, punched him in the arm. He rolled his eyes. ―On the other hand—‖ ―On the other hand,‖ Lady Rosalind put in, ―as long as you can prove that you can support her—‖ Juliet giggled. ―—and treat her well—‖ Knighton continued. ―—and promise to bring her often to London to visit her relations—‖ Lady Rosalind added.

~ 328 ~ ―—and make amends to Daniel and Helena for all the danger you put them in,‖ Knighton said, then scowled. ―Damnation, what am I thinking? You‘re a scoundrel and a kidnapper—‖ ―—who I‘m marrying, no matter what you say,‖ Juliet retorted stoutly. ―So that‘s the end of this discussion. You will now hush up and give us your blessing, Griff Knighton, or I‘ll forget about any wedding and we‘ll simply elope. Again. This very minute.‖ ―Which might not be such a bad idea,‖ Sebastian grumbled under his breath. But Knighton‘s scowl had softened considerably during her speech. ―All right. I suppose I can give the man a chance.‖ ―I promise to do right by her,‖ Sebastian said. ―You‘ve naught to fear on that score.‖ ―We‘ll see,‖ Knighton said, but Sebastian knew the man had conceded, especially when Knighton added, ―Now let‘s find someplace a bit warmer for this discussion.‖ Everyone wholeheartedly agreed. ―If you‘ll all follow my carriage to my townhouse,‖ Sebastian said, ―I‘d be happy to provide breakfast for everyone. God knows it‘s time my staff got used to entertaining.‖ He glanced down at Juliet. ―Since it looks as if I‘ll be doing it often in the future.‖ Though the doctor and Knighton‘s second demurred, saying they‘d best be home, the others accepted his plan readily. As they headed for the carriages, Griff said dryly, ―Montfort will be so disappointed to hear that we both returned alive.‖ ―I wonder if he went out to Leicester Fields,‖ Sebastian remarked. ―If he did, I can‘t wait to see his face when we walk into some social affair together.‖ ―Not me,‖ Juliet said quietly. ―I never want to see that man again.‖ Juliet meant it, too. She was sure that if it hadn‘t been for the duke, she and Sebastian could have avoided all this duel business. Though she was relieved by the outcome, for one horrible, heart-stopping moment, she‘d feared the worst.

~ 329 ~

Now she gazed up into Sebastian‘s face, her heart warming when he smiled down at her. ―At least it‘s all over, thank goodness,‖ she murmured. But she‘d spoken too soon. They arrived at Sebastian‘s townhouse to find that chaos had ensued while they were out at Wimbledon Common. As soon as Sebastian brought her inside, he was greeted by the one man neither of them had expected to see. His uncle. ―For God‘s sake, where have you been at this hour?‖ Mr. Pryce commented before Sebastian could say a word. Then his eyes widened as Griff and Rosalind came in behind, followed by Sebastian‘s valet. ―What are they all doing here?‖ ―I was going to ask you what you‘re doing here,‖ Sebastian snapped. ―You were supposed to be waiting in Shropshire for Morgan.‖ Mr. Pryce blinked, as if surprised by Sebastian‘s referring to his brother in front of the others. ―Er…Morgan‘s here. I brought him. We‘ve been riding hard for three days to get here, after I told him all the foolishness you‘d been involved in.‖ He scanned the group of them. ―I suppose they all know the truth now?‖ ―Yes,‖ Sebastian answered. ―So exactly where is the scoundrel?‖ ―In the drawing room. With that bloody Montfort.‖ The sound of heated arguing wafted to them—the soft, faintly Continental accents of a stranger, and a haughty, irate voice that was only too familiar. With a scowl, Sebastian headed toward the drawing room, Juliet right on his heels. Mr. Pryce followed along beside them. ―The duke forced his way in a few minutes ago, along with some scoundrel friends of his, demanding to see you and babbling something about a duel. I was out here looking for the footmen to oust him when you walked in.‖ The voices rose as they approached the open door. ―I tell you,‖ Montfort was saying, ―I saw you challenge Knighton last night and I heard him accept the challenge with my own ears! And why the dickens are you speaking in that awful accent, Templemore?‖

~ 330 ~ ―Because I‘m not Templemore. I keep telling you. I‘m his…‖ ―Brother,‖ Sebastian finished for him as he entered the drawing room. ―Good morning, Montfort. What brings you here?‖ Montfort had five of his gossiping cronies with him, and as soon as Griff came in behind Sebastian, he cried to them, ―Aha! You see? There‘s Templemore and Knighton now! I told you they fought a duel!‖ Griff, bless his soul, didn‘t miss a beat. He looked at Sebastian with a perfect expression of bewilderment. ―What‘s he talking about? You know anything about a duel?‖ Sebastian shrugged. ―No idea. I can‘t imagine what possessed him to think it.‖ Montfort scowled blackly. Casting his smirking friends a quelling glance, he growled, ―Then why are the two of you coming in here shortly after dawn—‖ ―With my wife and my sister-in-law?‖ Griff finished for him. ―Really, Montfort, do you think I‘d allow my womenfolk at a duel? We‘ve been at my house ever since we left Lady Brumley‘s. Lord Templemore proposed to my wife‘s sister last night, and we‘ve been celebrating the engagement.‖ Sliding his arm possessively about Juliet‘s waist, Sebastian took up the tale, clearly eager to get the man out of his house so he could talk to his brother. ―Then I invited them over here for some breakfast. I‘d invite you to stay, too, old fellow, but this is…well, family. You understand.‖ As Montfort began to turn an alarming shade of purple, his friends exchanged weary looks. One of them clapped his hand on the duke‘s shoulder. ―Come on, man, let‘s go home—can‘t you see you were mistaken?‖ ―I was not mistaken!‖ Montfort protested. ―I know what I heard, damn it!‖ ―First it was all that back and forth nonsense about Lady Juliet eloping,‖ one of his friends grumbled as he began hauling Montfort toward the door, ―then some wild tale about her being kidnapped by Templemore, and then this duel you invented and dragged us all out of bed to see—‖

~ 331 ~ ―It‘s the truth! The truth, I tell you!‖ Montfort shouted as two of his friends grabbed each of his arms and carried him out. He was still shouting it as they dragged him out the front door. As soon as he was gone, Rosalind grinned. ―That was very entertaining. I don‘t think anybody will listen to him much anymore.‖ Juliet couldn‘t stop laughing. ―No, indeed,‖ she gasped out. ―Sebastian, my love, you‘re the most inventive man I‘ve ever met.‖ ―Which doesn‘t bode well for his character,‖ Griff put in. ―Here now, Knighton, you started the lie in the first place,‖ Sebastian protested. Morgan spoke up from where he stood near the settee. ―Would somebody like to tell me what‘s going on?‖ For the first time since she‘d entered, Juliet had the chance to survey Morgan Pryce, the man who‘d unwittingly set all the painful—and not so painful—events of the past two years in motion. It was astonishing how much he resembled Sebastian—same black eyes, same square chin, same seductive lips. If his hair hadn‘t been several inches longer and his clothing not quite so rakish, she would‘ve sworn he was his brother. Until she looked more closely. Then she would have noticed the hint of worldliness in his face, and the faint but unmistakable cynicism to his smile. Sebastian had been lots of things in all the time she‘d known him. Cynical wasn‘t one of them. Morgan looked as if the world had chewed him up and spit him out one too many times. Then he caught her staring, and gave an elaborate bow. ―Mademoiselle. May I assume that you‘re the lovely jeune fille who was harmed by my foolish brother?‖ He had the strangest accent, not a foreign one exactly, but English tempered with other influences. Yet his French was perfect, at least to her untrained ears. ―Your assumption is almost correct,‖ Sebastian retorted, a slight edge to his voice. ―Morgan, this is Lady Juliet, my fiancée. Juliet, this is my rapscallion of a brother.‖

~ 332 ~ Coming forward, Morgan took her hand and pressed a kiss to it continental-style, his eyes twinkling up at her. ―Enchanté, mademoiselle.‖ She couldn‘t help laughing, and Sebastian‘s arm tightened about her waist. ―That‘s enough, you rascal,‖ Sebastian growled. ―After all you‘ve put us through, you don‘t even deserve to speak to her.‖ ―Moi?‖ Morgan protested. ―Mon frere, I‘m not the one who kidnapped her or carried her into a den of smugglers. What were you thinking?‖ ―I was thinking to save you, blast it all!‖ Sebastian said sourly. ―Speaking of which, you shouldn‘t have let Montfort and his friends see you just yet. The Navy Board will hear of it, and they‘ll have your head before I can stop them. Unless you agree to turn over that Pirate Lord fellow to them.‖ Morgan shrugged. ―They‘ll have to find somebody else for that. The Pirate Lord saved me from a boring existence on an island off the coast of Africa where Crouch‘s seamen marooned me. Thanks to the Pirate Lord, who found me there, I was able to travel to the Cape Verdes and on to England. Besides, I understand he‘s decided to retire from piracy on that very island.‖ Sebastian opened his mouth, and Morgan said in a steely tone, ―And no, I won‘t tell you where it is. I owe the man. I won‘t repay him with betrayal.‖ Juliet had to stifle her smile. He sounded very much like his brother. ―But the Navy Board—‖ Sebastian began. ―The Navy Board won‘t lift a hand to me when I tell them what I learned on the Oceana. It seems Crouch had a source high up in the navy who tipped him off that I was spying on him. So if they give me trouble over my association with the Pirate Lord, I‘ll gladly reveal their own rascal‘s name to every newspaper in London. I‘ll create a scandal so rank they‘ll never live it down. I‘m sure the citizens of England will be very interested to hear who‘s been enabling the smugglers to operate all this time.‖ Sebastian stood there stunned. ―Do you mean to tell me—‖ ―That I managed fine without you? That I can take care of myself? Yes, mon frere, I do. If I‘d known you were taking such steps…‖ He gave a Gallic shrug, then smiled at Juliet. ―And to abduct such an angelique, magnifique—‖

~ 333 ~ ―Remind me not to let your brother anywhere near my wife,‖ Griff said behind them. ―And here I thought you were the gallant one, Templemore.‖ Sebastian began to laugh. It started as a sort of hiccup, but quickly grew to gasps of laughter that had Juliet staring at him in frank alarm. ―Sebastian? My love?‖ ―I lived with smugglers…for weeks…‖ he choked out. ―I kidnapped an innocent…I lied…I fought a duel…and for this? Oh God, it‘s too much…‖ ―Will you excuse us a moment?‖ Juliet murmured as she pulled the gasping Sebastian past their combined relations and out of the drawing room. When she had him completely alone, she shook him a little. ―Are you all right? Sebastian?‖ ―I‘m fine,‖ he choked out. ―Really, Juliet, fine.‖ ―You don‘t sound fine.‖ ―Well, what do you expect?‖ He paused, fighting for breath. ―Don‘t you find it ironic? Think of it—all the things I did to you, the ways I ruined your life. And all for nothing! Doesn‘t it make you just want to…to…‖ ―Kiss your brother?‖ ―What?‖ ―Don‘t you see, Sebastian? If not for your strange ideas about duty and honor and responsibility for family, we would never have met. What are the chances our paths would have crossed in London? None, that‘s what. Besides, you said yourself that Crouch would have had me kidnapped one way or the other, probably by some nasty smuggler. So I don‘t think it was ‗all for nothing‘ at all. Indeed, I‘m quite happy with the results.‖ He gaped at her. ―But sweeting, I ruined your life! The gossip, the lies…the—‖ ―Are you sorry for it?‖ ―You know I am!‖ ―Then all is forgiven.‖

~ 334 ~

He pulled her close, his eyes shining. ―Your brother-in-law is right, you know. I don‘t deserve you.‖ ―You certainly don‘t. But I‘m stuck with you now, so I‘ll just have to adjust.‖ With a laugh, he bent his head to kiss her, but she held her finger to his lips. ―And speaking of my brother- in-law…‖ He groaned. ―Must we?‖ ―I‘ve been wondering about one thing ever since we left Wimbledon Common. Last night you said you were going to shoot the pistol out of Griff‘s hand. Why did you change your mind?‖ Cradling her head between his hands, he smiled down at her with such tenderness it made her want to cry. ―You asked me to trust you. So I did.‖ She caught her breath. ―Just like that? For the first time in your life, you gave up control of a situation and took a chance that Griff wouldn‘t shoot you, because of what I said?‖ ―No. I did it because I love you. And that‘s all the reason I could ever need.‖ As he folded her in his arms and kissed her with the full sweetness she‘d always known lay inside him, she thought that was quite enough reason for anybody.

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Epilogue A rare spoil for a man Is the winning of a good wife. - Euripides’ Andromache, inscribed by her husband on Juliet’s list of quotes to use in embroidery

When the mail came at Charnwood Hall, Juliet squealed to see a letter from Griff. That could mean only one thing—Rosalind‘s baby had been born! She devoured her brother-in-law‘s sparse description, knowing she‘d get a better one from Rosalind later. When she finished, she sighed happily and rubbed her swelling belly, then hurried out of the house toward the west lawn. Neither Sebastian nor Morgan saw her make her slow way to where they stood facing a pair of painted targets. They were too busy examining the new pistol Sebastian had designed for Morgan. Once again, Morgan had lost a pistol—this time when he‘d been in Cornwall tracking down a highwayman on behalf of some nobleman. Morgan lived for trouble, she would swear. It worried Sebastian enormously, for though he‘d given up control, he hadn‘t quite given up feeling responsible for his brother. Which made her love him all the more. As she approached them, she noticed another pistol lying on the table. Quickly, she lifted it, checked to be sure it was loaded, then fired at the target. They both jumped. As the smoke cleared, Sebastian turned and snatched the pistol from her. ―Think of the baby, my love! What if the pistol had misfired?‖ ―I have yet to see any pistol of your design misfire,‖ she said impishly. ―Besides, I wanted to know if I could still do it.‖

~ 336 ~ Morgan eyed the target. ―Not bad for an amateur.‖ She beamed at him, then handed Griff‘s letter to her husband. ―Rosalind‘s had her baby. A little girl. They‘ve named her Winifred.‖ ―Winnie will be pleased.‖ He scanned the letter quickly. ―Though I hope that helping women conceive is Winnie‘s only talent. Because if she can predict the future, too, then we‘ve got five more children on the way, sweeting.‖ Juliet laughed. She‘d forgotten what Winnie had said about his lordship‘s ―six wee ones.‖ ―I wouldn‘t mind so much.‖ She reached up to smooth his wind-ruffled hair. ―I rather like the idea of a lot of little Blakelys running about Charnwood Hall.‖ He raised an eyebrow. ―Smearing jam on your embroidery and tracking mud on the carpets?‖ ―I can manage all of that,‖ she retorted. ―Yes, I‘ve no doubt that you can,‖ he murmured as he bent to kiss her. Morgan cleared his throat. ―Must you two always be so sickeningly in love?‖ She laughed at him. ―You should try it, Morgan. It‘s less dangerous than running off to get yourself killed at every opportunity.‖ ―Do you worry about me, cherie?‖ Morgan teased. ―Here now, don‘t you use that French with my wife, you rascal,‖ Sebastian warned mockingly. ―I know the effect it has on females.‖ ―Not me,‖ Juliet protested. ―I‘m quite immune.‖ Morgan stepped closer to whisper, ―I dare say if I‘d got to you first, cherie, matters would be entirely different.‖ She shoved him away playfully. ―Not at all, I assure you.‖

~ 337 ~ He shot Sebastian a devilish look. ―You‘re lucky I didn‘t arrive in England sooner last year, mon frere. Your Juliet would have fallen for the real Morgan Pryce, and you‘d have been left without the girl and only this dreary old manor for companionship.‖ She shook her head. ―I would have known the difference at once.‖ ―She would have,‖ Sebastian agreed. ―I tried to tell her over and over that I wasn‘t her kidnapper, but she didn‘t believe a word of it, no matter what I did or said.‖ ―Of course not. She didn‘t have me for comparison.‖ Morgan drew himself up stoutly. ―And I don‘t sound quite like you or dress like you. But I‘ll wager that if we dressed alike and came before your pretty wife without speaking, she wouldn‘t know us apart.‖ Juliet crossed her arms over her chest. ―I‘ll take that wager, sir. I could pick Sebastian out in a crowd of Morgans.‖ ―You think so, do you?‖ Morgan cocked his head in that same way his brother had. ―Very well. What would be the terms of this wager?‖ She thought a moment, then grinned. ―If I pick out Sebastian, then you have to stay in England and out of trouble for one year. No adventures. No running after highwaymen. Just a nice, normal life in London or Shropshire or wherever you prefer.‖ He scowled. ―Hard terms indeed. And if you don‘t pick him out?‖ ―Then Sebastian will finance one grand adventure for you in any country you wish. You can go to India and ride elephants. Break your neck, if you like.‖ ―Now see here,‖ Sebastian protested, ―this wasn‘t my idea. Why should I suffer the consequences? A trip to India…why, that would cost me a pretty penny—‖ ―He won‘t take the wager unless it‘s worth his while,‖ Juliet said. ―And what could I possibly offer to tempt him?‖ Morgan smiled mischievously. ―I‘m sure I could think of something—‖

~ 338 ~ ―Over my dead body, ‗mon frere,‘‖ Sebastian growled in a perfect imitation of his brother‘s French. ―All right. I‘ll agree. But only because I have complete faith in Juliet.‖ ―You see, Morgan?‖ she teased. ―You can‘t win. You sure you want to do this?‖ ―Hmm…the odds are fifty-fifty that you‘ll guess right.‖ ―I won‘t be guessing.‖ ―Then, to be fair, you have to do it three times correctly. That will sufficiently decrease the odds of your guessing right.‖ ―Very well,‖ she agreed readily. ―I accept those terms.‖ ―Um…Juliet,‖ Sebastian muttered beside her, ―are you sure about this?‖ ―Absolutely.‖ He didn‘t look nearly as certain as she did, but he merely shrugged and said, ―Well, it‘s only money,‖ as he went off with his brother into the house. The first time they came out, it was laughably simple. Morgan had tied his own cravat—far more elaborately than Sebastian ever would—so it took her no more than a second to point out her husband. Afterward, she felt compelled to explain Morgan‘s error. She did want this to be fair. And at least he graciously agreed to count the trial. The second time, they‘d apparently had Boggs dress them both, for every aspect of their attire was identical, and even their hair was combed the same. She made her choice in seconds and Morgan cried, ―That was a lucky guess!‖ ―You still have another chance,‖ she said, smirking. When they came out the third time, she surveyed them a moment, then laughed and said, ―This is too easy.‖ Walking up to her husband, she kissed him full on the mouth. Morgan exploded beside her. ―Sacrebleu, Juliet, how did you know?‖

~ 339 ~

She stared up at her husband‘s smug smile. ―It‘s his eyes. I can see the weight of responsibility in his eyes.‖ She cocked her eyebrows at Morgan. ―Whereas in yours, I only see mischief.‖ Sebastian laughed, then drew her into his arms. ―You may as well surrender, Morgan. You‘re no match for a woman who knows her man simply by the quality of his eyes.‖ ―You tricked me, Lady Templemore,‖ Morgan accused half jokingly. ―I don‘t know how, but you did.‖ ―Of course she tricked you,‖ Sebastian retorted. ―She made you bet on what she knew was a sure thing. For her. Juliet may look like an angelic innocent, but under all that sweetness lies one wily woman.‖ ―It‘s a good thing, wouldn‘t you say?‖ Juliet kissed him lightly. ―Because it takes a wily woman to capture a reckless man.‖

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About the Author I‘ve been creating fiction for years (I started when I was two and it‘s only gotten worse since then), and I plan to continue until my imagination stops filling my head with ideas, which should be sometime in the next century. Besides, writing novels gives me an excuse for not cleaning the house. Fortunately, my dear husband and son tolerate my obsession because a) I still cook; b) they don‘t know how to write novels; and c) they know I‘m much happier with plots and characters in my head than with a mop in my hand. So if you‘d like to know more about my numerous books under various names (or find out just how I turn the flotsam and the jetsam in my head into actual books), visit my website at

Visit for exclusive information on your favorite HarperCollins author.

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If You‘ve Enjoyed This Book, Be Sure to Read These Other AVON ROMANTIC TREASURES CLAIMING THE HIGHLANDER by Kinley MacGregor MARRY ME by Susan Kay Law TOO WICKED TO MARRY by Susan Sizemore A TOUCH SO WICKED by Connie Mason WHEN THE LAIRD RETURNS: BOOK TWO OF THE HIGHLAND LORDS by Karen Ranney

Coming Soon ONE NIGHT OF PASSION by Elizabeth Boyle

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Copyright This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author‘s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. AFTER THE ABDUCTION. Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Martin. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.

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