Chapter Nine

Except for his nightly visits, Brynn saw little of Lucian the following week. She was perfectly satisfied, however, to live separate lives. As far as marriages went, theirs was not an unusual arrangement for the upper classes and the nobility, although her reason for their distance-the danger of a curse- was rather unique.

During the days, her husband spent a great deal of time away from home, presumably at his work, Brynn concluded from conversations with Raven. Lucian reportedly had offices at Whitehall, where he toiled for the Foreign Office.

The first inkling she had of Lucian’s unusual job came one afternoon when she accompanied Raven shopping for bride clothes. After inspecting a bolt of ivory lace, Brynn rejected it, saying the quality was inferior.

“How can you tell?” Raven wanted to know.

“See the dropped stitches here? And the dye? The pattern isn’t uniform. We can do better, I’m certain.”

As they left the shop, their footmen following dutifully behind carrying parcels, Raven asked Brynn how she knew so much about lace.

“I have sold a good deal of it to modistes and milliners over the past few years.”

Raven raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Your family is in trade?”

Brynn hesitated, wondering how much of her background to reveal. “Of a sort,” she replied, realizing Raven could be trusted not to be judgmental. “But not the merchant trade. In Cornwall, when we speak of trade, we mean the Free Trade.”

“Smuggling?” Raven’s eyes brightened with curiosity. “How intriguing.” Glancing over her shoulder then to see who might overhear, she evidently remembered she was on a public street and lowered her voice. “Do tell me about it.”

Brynn returned a wry smile at her friend’s delight. “I don’t consider smuggling to be intriguing. Actually, it is very hard work, and rather dangerous. But it is a fact of life where I come from, a way to make ends meet. I know of few families who aren’t involved in some fashion or another.”

“And you take part yourself?”

“Not often. Mostly I handle disposing of various kinds of contraband.”

“I think it would be gratifying,” Raven said almost wistfully, “to be able to engage in adventures forbidden to women. Still… I wouldn’t advertise your connection to Lucian, if I were you.”

It was Brynn’s turn to be curious. “Why not?”

“Because he has a great aversion to smugglers. I’ve heard him express his opinion in no uncertain terms. Smuggling cheats the government of badly needed tax revenue that Britain and the allies must have to vanquish the French. I can understand his point of view, even if I don’t share it. Lucian has spent years trying to bring down Napoleon. He takes pride in his work-even though spying is considered a vulgar enterprise by most of the ton.”

“Spying?”

At Brynn’s quizzical look, Raven added, “Lucian is a genuine spymaster, did he not tell you?”

Brynn felt her heartbeat quicken with alarm. “My brother said he worked for the Foreign Office.”

“He does. In intelligence. It is all very clandestine and hush-hush. Sometimes Lucian disappears for weeks at a time, no doubt on some mission or other. He won’t discuss his work, but in fact he is considered something of a hero.”

Brynn scarcely heard that last remark, for she was still recovering from the shock of her friend’s revelation. Disquieted, she thought back over her various conversations with Lucian, wondering if she had ever said anything in his presence to implicate her brother in the illegal act of smuggling. She hadn’t considered Lucian as a danger to her family, only to her, but now she realized he could very well be a threat to Gray.

And Lucian hadn’t mentioned a word about his occupation to her, Brynn thought, vexed. His secretiveness and lack of candor was yet another cause for resentment, while the danger was one more reason to be wary of her new husband.

“Forgive me, Brynn…”

She shook herself mentally when she realized Raven had spoken to her. “I’m sorry, I was woolgathering. What did you say?”

“I know it is none of my business, but is something wrong between you and Lucian?”

“No. Why would you think so?”

“You are scarcely ever together, for one thing. You don’t behave at all like newlyweds.”

Brynn forced a smile. “Ours was a marriage of convenience, nothing more. I am perfectly content with our arrangement.”

And even if that was a lie, Brynn reflected, she was glad she seldom encountered Lucian.

Other than his work, several other business enterprises apparently occupied his time, including the vast Wycliff shipping concerns. When he was home, he was often closeted with his secretary as well as numerous business mangers and clerks.

And according to the Wycliff butler, Lucian regularly engaged in the typical gentlemen’s sports of riding, fencing, and fisticuffs. In the evenings he frequently dined at his club. And afterward, well… Brynn suspected Lucian was carousing with his Hellfire colleagues, since he never returned until late at night.

The evenings were the worst for her. After lonely dinners with only herself for companionship, she would lie in wait for him, dreading his visits, although she had usually fallen asleep by the time he came to her bed. Emotionless, silent, he would awaken her with his dispassionate caresses, arousing her as if performing a perfunctory and not particularly pleasant chore. Just as silently, he would return to his own rooms, leaving her burning with the pleasure he had given her.

Brynn fought his carnal mastery with fierce determination. He might possess her in the flesh, but she would never allow him to touch her spirit.

The days were more pleasant, at least. Not surprisingly, Lucian possessed an extensive library, and Brynn discovered countless subjects within the shelves of leather-bound tomes that interested her. Additionally, she spent hours reading the newspapers to which her husband subscribed, catching up on the events of the world, events that were rarely even discussed in the backwaters of home.

And thankfully Raven proved a delightful companion. Brynn thought she might be truly miserable without their friendship. They rode in the park each morning and paid calls or visited the shops each afternoon. Raven was grimly determined to assemble a trousseau befitting her impending marriage to a duke. And she proved to be a stern taskmaster in demanding that her own advice regarding Brynn’s apparel be followed.

Brynn found her wardrobe growing at a shameful rate-dresses for morning, afternoon, and evening, walking and riding and traveling, shoes and bonnets and reticules to match, spencers and pelisses…

She regarded the expense a shocking waste, especially when she considered how much good she could do at home with even a tiny fraction of what she was so nonchalantly spending. The centuries-old stone church of the St. Mawes parish was crumbling. Her own home badly needed repairs. Most of the fishing vessels owned by the villagers were held together by prayers… It was dismaying to realize that a single one of the new gowns Raven insisted she purchase could lift a Cornish family out of squalor into relative prosperity.

Yet beautiful gowns were necessary for the role she must play. Raven was right, Brynn conceded; she needed to be fashionably attired if she intended to stare down the despots of the ton. And while she had no profound desire to enter Lucian’s aristocratic world of luxury and license, or to become a useless ornament for his earldom, she did indeed want a place in society for Theo… and for her possible future children, if it came to that.

Moreover, Brynn admitted only to herself, after being shunned for so many years, it was gratifying to be accepted into a group where no one knew anything of her past, instead of being treated like a leper.

As the week passed, she found it harder to allow herself to mope and wallow in loneliness. The moments when she longed for even a Latin grammar to help occupy her thoughts were gone.

She gradually began making acquaintances as she allowed Raven to coax her out of seclusion. Perhaps it was time, Brynn rationalized, to stop hiding at home like a prisoner, letting the curse rule her life. But she made a concerted effort to dull her demeanor, remaining polite but distant in company, speaking only when spoken to.

She liked most of Raven’s friends, and some she even found clever and fascinating. Raven, with her own brand of beauty and lively allure, proved a potent draw, and handsome young gentlemen regularly flocked around her like honeybees-gentlemen who regrettably soon turned their attention to Brynn, despite her earnest attempts to act the wallflower.

Lucian wasn’t pleased to find his wife the object of such ardor, either. One afternoon he came home to discover Brynn surrounded by a half dozen young bucks gathered in his drawing room, with only Raven providing female chaperonage.

A dandy with an outrageously high cravat was reciting a sonnet praising the lure of Lady Wycliff’s emerald eyes, but since the verse didn’t quite rhyme, it was received with winces and convivial laughter.

“No, no, I am being unjustly maligned,” the poet protested amiably.

Brynn’s low voice held a smile when she agreed. “Indeed, Mr. Pickering. You should be commended for your effort.”

Lucian felt an unreasonable shaft of jealousy as he paused in the doorway. For the most part he’d succeeded in resisting his desire for Brynn this past week, but seeing her looking so fresh and lovely in a jonquil-shaded gown aroused him, while the presence of so many admiring beaux incited an uncustomary instinct of primitive male possessiveness.

The company grew suddenly quiet when Lucian moved into the room. Clamping down on his jealousy, he kept his expression bland as he crossed to Brynn and bent to kiss her cheek.

“Why don’t you introduce me to your friends, my dear?” he said lightly, ignoring her flush and the way she visibly stiffened.

Raven stepped in to perform the duty, however, while Brynn fell silent. It was soon clear that the lively mood of the company had changed to reserved formality. And when Lucian settled himself beside his wife on the settee, he found himself the recipient of continual wary glances.

After a short while the gentlemen began to excuse themselves. When the last one had gone, Raven gave Lucian a disapproving frown as she rose to her feet. “I am sorry that we have seen so very little of you lately, Lucian.”

“Regrettably I have been busy.”

“You seem to have forgotten that you are recently wed. I would not have expected you to neglect your bride so.”

He glanced at Brynn. “My bride doesn’t seem to be suffering. Not when I find her holding court for admirers who compose sonnets to her emerald eyes.”

Brynn returned her husband’s gaze with a cool look before she rose from the settee. “You needn’t champion me, Raven. I am quite content. Come, I will show you out.”

She started to follow her friend from the room, but halted when Lucian called softly to her, feeling a warm shiver run down her spine. It disturbed her that just the sound of his voice could affect her.

“Need I warn you, love, that you have a position to uphold in society now?”

Wincing at his implied criticism, she glanced back at him. “I have done nothing wrong.”

“Perhaps not, but encouraging the attentions of those wild young bucks could give the wrong impression.”

His accusation stung, yet she knew Lucian was right. She had indeed forgotten herself this afternoon. She would have to take greater care to remember the dangers of becoming too friendly with her admirers.

Squaring her shoulders, Brynn sidestepped his charge with an indirect reply. “Is there a reason you deigned to grace us with your company this afternoon, my lord?”

“Must I have a reason to return to my own home?”

“You have been here so seldom, I thought perhaps you might have one.”

“Actually I wanted to deliver an invitation to you. My great-aunt, Lady Agatha Edgecomb, is holding a garden party in our honor Saturday next.”

Brynn stared at him in surprise. “In our honor? When I first met her, Lady Agatha swore she would never acknowledge our marriage. She thinks me nothing but a tart.”

Lucian’s mouth curved dryly. “I persuaded her to reconsider. She understands she has no choice but to accept you as my wife if she doesn’t want me to cut the connection.”

“That does so relieve my mind,” Brynn said with false sincerity. “Your aunt will make such a delightful acquaintance.”

A muscle in his jaw flexed at her facetious tone, but he answered mildly, “I don’t care much for my relatives, particularly Aunt Agatha, but I trust you will behave with circumspection and give them no cause to impugn our marriage.”

Brynn smiled coolly. “They will doubtless impugn our marriage, no matter how I behave. And if you wanted a model of circumspection, you should have considered that before you wed me,” she retorted before walking from the room.

She had to pause to compose herself, however, before joining her friend. It vexed her that Lucian should take her to task for her behavior. Despite appearances, she hadn’t purposefully encouraged the reckless ardor of her admirers. A few poems were nothing compared to what had happened in the past.

Indeed, she wondered what Lucian would say if he saw gentlemen truly losing their heads over her. It would serve him right, Brynn reflected with indignation, if she allowed it to happen. Perhaps then he would believe her.

Still, she reminded herself, she wasn’t willing to risk the danger for a few moments’ satisfaction of thumbing her nose at her autocratic husband.

She was dreaming again, another dark dream of Lucian. This time the danger came not from her, hut from a man wielding a deadly rapier.

Caught off guard by the unexpected attack, Lucian leapt back, barely eluding the slashing blade. His opponent followed, thrusting viciously, a look of feral rage on his face.

Unarmed, Lucian spun away defensively, trying to avoid becoming a target in the uneven contest. When he took refuge behind a table, the man reached out and sent it thudding to the floor, then lunged again.

This time Lucian was ready. Sidestepping, he caught the hilt of the rapier and held hard, trapping the weapon between their bodies.

The man tried to wrest it free, to no avail. For an endless moment, they stood locked together, straining in a desperate struggle for control, teeth bared, breath coming harshly. Finally the man gave an anguished cry and launched himself against Lucian, throwing them both off balance. Grunting, they fell together, crashing over the table.

Instinctively Lucian rolled to one side and sprang to his feet, firmly in possession of the rapier. Yet his opponent lay there on the floor, groaning, blood seeping from a mortal wound in his chest.

Dropping the blade with a clatter, Lucian went down on his knees beside the dying man, cradling his head almost tenderly.

“Giles…” he whispered, his face taut with agony.

“Forgive me, Luce… It is better this way… Please…don’t tell…”

His last rasped words were lost in a violent fit of coughing as blood bubbled up from his throat.

Brynn came awake suddenly, her heart strangely aching for Lucian. She felt his torment, his despair, in killing his friend.

“No…!”

Hearing the muffled groan, she gave a start and turned her head on the pillow to find Lucian lying beside her. They must have both fallen asleep after he’d made love to her, she realized; her inner thighs were still wet with his seed, while her body still throbbed from his possession.

He was in the throes of a nightmare, it seemed.

Her heart wrenching with compassion, Brynn reached out to touch his shoulder-a mistake, she discovered when Lucian jolted awake. She gasped as he grasped her wrist in a fierce grip.

His blue eyes fixed wildly on her before he finally recognized his surroundings. She could see his confusion in the dim light of the bedside lamp. Usually he left her bed directly afterward.

Releasing her wrist as if burned, Lucian ran a hand roughly down his face. Then, pushing the covers away, he sat up abruptly, giving Brynn his naked back as he swung his legs over the side of the bed.

“Lucian,” she asked quietly, needing to know. “Who is Giles?”

He flinched visibly. His voice was hoarse when he finally spoke. “Who told you about Giles?”

“No one told me. I saw him in my dreams.”

His back remained so rigid, Brynn knew he didn’t believe her.

“You must be mistaken,” he said finally. “Giles is dead.”

Without another word, he rose from the bed and snatched up his robe, then crossed the bedchamber. The door shut softly behind him, leaving her alone.

Brynn lay there unmoving, her thoughts still whirling. Her dreams could be deadly premonitions, but somehow she was certain her dark images of Giles were part of Lucian’s past, not his future. And she was just as certain that she had probed an open, festering wound in his conscience.

Despite her professed indifference, Brynn did care deeply about how she was received by society. By the time Saturday arrived, she felt as if an army of butterflies had taken up residence in her stomach, for she knew she would be on trial at her first major public appearance.

The day of the garden party dawned bright with sunshine. At the appointed hour of two, she found Lucian awaiting her in the entrance hall.

His eyes followed her as she descended the grand staircase. There was nothing in her costume to earn his disapproval, Brynn knew; her high-waisted gown of pale jade jaconet, with a floral-patterned shawl draping her arms, was almost modest. Her hair was sedately tamed in a chignon, except for a few errant curls wisping at her temples, and mostly hidden by a jaunty, close-fitting hat adorned with knots of jade ribbon.

Brynn endured his inspection silently, mentally daring him to comment, but he merely offered her his arm in silence and escorted her to the waiting carriage.

Only when they were settled did she really notice Lucian’s appearance. He was dressed with his usual damn-your-eyes elegance in a blue coat and buff breeches, and his striking features were so handsome that she found it hard to catch her breath in such close quarters with him.

There was little conversation between them at first, until Lucian bestirred himself to tell her about the guests she was likely to meet, particularly his many relatives. He had more than a dozen cousins in London alone.

Brynn found her curiosity aroused, despite her resolve to keep their relationship impersonal. “Raven says your favorite cousin isn’t even English.”

Lucian’s mouth twisted in a wry smile. “No, Nicholas Sabine is American. He was here in England this past summer, in disguise.”

“Why in disguise? ”

“Because he was accused of piracy. Nick is an adventurer who ran afoul of the British navy and wound up marrying an Englishwoman.”

“Raven told me of his marriage, but nothing about why.”

“It is an interesting story, but I was out of the country during most of Nick’s visit, so I’m not privy to the details. I expect you should ask Raven. The two of you seem to be growing close.”

Brynn fell silent at Lucian’s suggestion, remembering her vow to have no intimate interaction with him other than what was strictly necessary to maintain civility.

She gave a cool, curt reply, and turned her attention to the passing landscape outside the carriage window. If she saw the way his lips tightened, she ignored it.

The Edgecomb estate was on the outskirts of London, near Richmond, and along the bank of the Thames River. Brynn felt her nervousness rise as they drew closer, wondering how she would endure the scrutiny of Lucian’s scornful relatives and disdainful acquaintances.

By the time they arrived, a goodly number of guests were milling about the grounds to the rear of the estate. The elegant gardens bore a formal design, with stately rows of yew trees and myrtles lining the smooth gravel paths, interspersed with occasional statuary and giant urns. Beyond, an immaculate lawn led down to the river. Brynn could see rowboats on the water and an archery range that had been set up to provide entertainment.

Lady Edgecomb received Brynn with the same frosty stare as before, yet unlike during their last meeting, the lady seemed prepared to bite her tongue. She extended a stiffly courteous welcome, even though her mouth puckered as if she were sucking lemons.

After a moment of polite conversation, Lucian took Brynn’s arm to stroll the garden avenues and meet the various guests. Several of his cousins were present-both genders and of varying ages. If he disliked any of them, Brynn couldn’t tell, for he exchanged pleasantries with every evidence of his usual charm and appeared to overlook their obvious fawning.

Much to Brynn’s surprise, Lucian seemed almost proud to proclaim her his wife. Even more surprising, he was oddly protective of her. She felt the heat of his body as he stood close beside her, the strength of his hand that rested so casually at the small of her back, but for once she accepted his possessive touch with gratitude rather than dismay. Despite the cold reserve that existed in their marriage, he apparently had decided to shield her from the sniping and criticism of his relatives.

Brynn was quite aware that they were the center of attention-not just herself, but Lucian as well. Other women followed him with their eyes, hunger evident in their expressions, a hunger Lucian appeared not to notice.

The first half hour passed without incident, even when they encountered Lady Agatha again. The dowager’s chill seemed to thaw marginally, but when Lucian ushered Brynn toward another group, she audibly let out her breath.

“Relieved?” he murmured, as if understanding.

“Yes. That wasn’t as bad as I feared. At least your aunt didn’t swallow me alive.”

Lucian’s mouth curved in a wry half smile. “I never expected her to. I’m certain you can hold your own with Lady Agatha or anyone else.”

His praise unaccountably warmed Brynn, but just then she caught the reflection of sunlight off the river. The pastoral scene could have been an oil painting, with willows growing along the bank and fleecy clouds scudding overhead.

“How lovely. May we walk that way?”

“As you wish, my lady.”

When Lucian offered his arm, she took it and strolled with him down toward the river.

“This is nothing like the ocean,” she said wistfully, pausing to view the scene. “But I miss having a view of the water. I miss being able to swim whenever I wish.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. A sea siren should be allowed to cavort in her kingdom.”

She heard the amusement in his tone and glanced up at Lucian to find him regarding her with an intimate warmth in his eyes.

“I’m afraid you cannot swim just now,” he added, “but if you like, we can return here at another time so you can indulge your secret vice.”

Brynn felt herself tense at the unwanted tender moment between them. Her pleasure faded, as did Lucian’s smile.

“Come,” he said evenly, “there are more guests to meet.”

He had just turned her back toward the house when a fair-haired gentleman crossed the lawn to intercept them. Lucian’s features showed genuine affection as the two men greeted each another.

“My dear, let me make known one of my closest friends, Dare North, Earl of Clune-and now the Marquess of Wolverton. Dare came into the title recently when his grandfather passed away.”

Wolverton flashed a wickedly charming smile as he bowed over her hand. “A pleasure, my lady. I heard Lucian hung himself in the parson’s noose, but after seeing what a lovely lady he chose, I can almost understand why. The rumors of your beauty don’t do you justice.”

Brynn kept her own answering smile curt. She had no intention of arousing male attention, certainly not that of a rake like Lord Clune-or Wolverton, she amended. He was a rogue of the first order and one of the founders of the Hellfire League. News of his outrageous exploits had penetrated even to Cornwall.

“I have heard of you as well, my lord. Your reputation precedes you.”

His grin was slow and lazy and in its own way as powerfully magnetic as her husband’s. “I am not nearly as wicked as the gossips make me out to be.”

Lucian’s laugh held amusement. “Don’t believe it for a minute, my dear. Dare has half the ladies in England swooning over him, and the other half quaking in outrage at his scandals.”

Wolverton actually winked at her, which made Brynn struggle to swallow a smile. She could well understand his dangerous appeal to the ladies.

“I don’t suppose you have any sisters?” Wolverton asked in a leading tone.

“I have five brothers, my lord.”

“A pity-”

Just then Raven came up to them. “Clune!” she exclaimed after pressing cheeks with Brynn in greeting. “Or I should say Wolverton…When did you get back from inspecting your new family seat?”

Surprisingly, he bussed her cheek with a kiss that held more brotherly affection than ardor. “I returned just this morning, vixen. I trust you have missed me.”

“Most certainly. No one but you appreciates a good gallop in the park. I’ll wager half the female population has found London impossibly dull without you.”

“I should hope so. Where is Halford?”

Raven waved in the direction of the house. “Speaking with some of his friends. He has no skills in archery, and I am dying to learn.” Her betrothed, the Duke of Halford, was some twenty years her senior, Brynn knew, and had no interest in most of Raven’s activities. “Do come with me, Brynn. Pickering has offered to teach me to shoot, and I don’t wish to be the only novice.”

After glancing at Lucian, Brynn nodded and excused herself.

Both noblemen followed her progress as she and Raven joined a group of gentlemen at the archery butts. Lucian didn’t much like seeing Brynn consorting with the same young bucks who had written poetry to her last week, but he could hardly forbid her participation in an innocuous sport, held in public and in broad daylight. Especially when she could claim so few acquaintances in her new life.

He felt a measure of guilt over that. He hadn’t made the transition easy for Brynn, leaving her alone so much of the time. But he’d thought it best to avoid her, for her sake as well as his own. Being in her company made his own dilemma that much more difficult. His fierce need to visit her bed each night was growing out of control. He was becoming obsessed- and that knowledge disturbed him deeply.

When he heard a throat being politely cleared, he realized Dare was watching him with an unusually somber expression.

“You always did have exquisite taste in women, Luce, but marriage?”

Lucian shrugged. He could hide his thoughts from most people, but not his closest friend, so he didn’t even try. “I want a son.”

“I thought you went to Cornwall to sniff out traitors.”

“I did.”

“But you were seduced into marriage, as rumor says?”

“Quite the contrary. I was the one who insisted we wed.”

“Well…” Dare returned his gaze to Brynn. “I can certainly understand why you would wish to claim her. There is something about her… A quality beyond beauty. It’s quite bewitching.”

It was a rare statement coming from a true connoisseur of women, Lucian knew. “She is unlike anyone I’ve ever known,” he said in a low voice. “Since meeting her, all I’ve done is think with my loins.”

“I would never have guessed it from the gossip. Word is you’ve been avoiding her, spending all your evenings at your club. This is the first time you’ve even been seen together in public. Rumor has it that yours is not a happy union.”

“That much is true. I essentially had to coerce Brynn to the altar, and she hasn’t forgiven me for it yet.” He felt his friend’s penetrating gaze. “But I can at least put the rumors to rest about my not wanting her.”

The marquess grimaced. “I hope you don’t mean to curtail your activities with the League? When Sin wed, he forgot all about his Hellfire companions, claiming he was stricken by the hopeless malady called love.”

Lucian nodded at the memory. Damien Sinclair, known as Lord Sin to the ton, had been one of their leading members before he fell hard for a beautiful widow who had acted as companion to his invalid sister.

“I’m afraid I’ve already begun to curtail my activities,” Lucian said.

“In the name of respectability?”

“Primarily. I owe it to my name and title to put my wilder days behind me.”

Dare gave a deep sigh that was only slightly exaggerated. “This is a dark day for libertines. We will miss you, Luce.”

Trying to shake off his somber mood, Lucian glanced pointedly at the other nobleman. “I needn’t warn you to keep away from my wife, do I, Dare?”

“Certainly not.” He flashed an amiable grin. “I would never poach on a friend’s private preserve. I have that much honor.”

Lucian nodded. Dare’s devil-may-care charm hid a surprising depth of intellect and feeling, though he seldom revealed it. And while he might not flinch at cuckolding an adversary, he would never betray a friend-Lucian would have wagered his life on it.

“Your wife seems to be quite the center of attention at the moment,” Dare mused aloud.

Lucian followed his gaze to find a knot of gentlemen gathered around Brynn. From the looks of it, they were publicly vying for her favors.

He felt himself stiffen. He couldn’t blame them for being entranced by her vibrant beauty, but it incensed him all the same. As did his inability to control his jealousy.

Just then the crowd suddenly parted, and Lucian realized an altercation had sprung up between two of the archers. Even from a distance, he could see Brynn was in the thick of it.

Frozen by incredulity, Lucian watched as the fight showed no signs of abating. One gentleman struck the other, then was felled to the ground with a reciprocal blow. When Brynn stepped between them, she was nearly bowled over-

Lucian felt a surge of fear that shook him from his stupor. Lunging into action, he sprinted across the lawn, intent on protecting her. When he reached the two combatants, he grasped the first one by the scruff of the neck and hauled him to his feet.

Hard on Lucian’s heels, his friend Dare took hold of the second brawler, while Raven began chiding both fighters in a fierce undertone.

“Stop this nonsense at once, both of you! You should be ashamed of yourselves, causing such a spectacle.”

“But I wanted to be the one to teach Lady Wycliff,” Lord Hogarth said plaintively, wincing in pain as Lucian’s choking hold tightened on his collar.

“She said I could have the honor,” Pickering muttered.

Brynn stood to one side now, looking shaken. When Lucian eyed her narrowly, her cheeks flushed with guilt and she turned away, refusing to meet his gaze.

Lucian felt a swell of anger. His first instinct was to pummel both young bucks with his fists for fighting over his wife. His second was outrage at Brynn herself for being the cause of their brawl.

When Hogarth began to cough, however, Lucian forced himself to release his grip.

Raven was still venting her fury on the hapless miscreants. Both gentlemen appeared chastened now, and both sported wounds: one a bloody lip, the other an eye that would doubtless turn black and blue.

When she fell silent, Dare spoke up, making light of the situation in an evident attempt to ease the tension. “Perhaps this might be the ideal time to return to the house for refreshment.”

“Yes,” Raven agreed, still fuming. “We have had quite enough entertainment for one afternoon.”

The crowd dispersed then, one of the gentlemen limping, the other carrying himself rigidly as if nursing a grudge.

Brynn would have followed, but Lucian caught her arm and said in a dangerous voice, “I thought I warned you about the need for propriety.”

She stiffened at his touch. “I was simply learning to shoot,” she replied, her chin lifting with a measure of defiance.

Lucian had to clamp down on his own anger. “If you care to shoot, I will be the one to teach you.”

“How curious. I suddenly find I have lost my appetite for archery.”

Pulling her arm from his grasp, Brynn turned and walked away.

Lucian swore under his breath, struggling against the urge to follow her and drag her back to him. He wasn’t normally given to fits of jealous rage, but his possessiveness where Brynn was concerned was utterly savage. Bloody hell, he had to get control of himself.

Bending, he snatched up a bow and notched an arrow, then drew it back and let the missile fly with a whooshing thud. It struck the target dead center.

When he turned, however, he realized he wasn’t alone. Dare was regarding him with something akin to sympathy.

“I must say, I don’t envy you,” his friend said softly. “If this is what marriage leads to, I believe I shall pass.”

Only when Lucian was alone with Brynn in the carriage, driving home, did he have the chance to mention the fray on the archery range that had caused a minor scandal among the company. “Would you care to explain how you managed to create a sensation less than an hour into the party after you agreed to behave with circumspection?”

Brynn gave him a wounded look that was edged with indignation. “You cannot believe I deliberately encouraged that dispute?”

Lucian found himself gritting back a reply. Perhaps she wasn’t entirely to blame. Perhaps she hadn’t purposefully orchestrated a public fight over her attentions. But she could certainly have prevented a spectacle by simply keeping away from those two young hotheads and not giving them cause to drool over her. “Can’t I? I think you deliberately encouraged those pups to make fools of themselves over you.”

“You are quite wrong. I’ve told you before. The curse makes men do foolish things when they are around me.”

“Then I suggest you not allow them to be around you.”

“Are you saying I must shun their company?”

“I am saying I would like you to avoid scandal. I don’t enjoy seeing my countess become a public spectacle.”

“Then you should never have wed me,” Brynn said stiffly. “I warned you how it would be.”

Annoyed, Lucian frowned. “What are you about, Brynn? Is this your means of revenge for having to wed me-to disgrace me and our marriage before the ton?”

“No, of course not. It is merely the curse at work.”

“I don’t believe in such things as curses.”

“Perhaps you should.”

His eyes narrowed. “I have been tolerant until now,” he said finally, “but my patience can be stretched only so far.”

She gave him an arch look. “And what will you do when it breaks, Lucian? Beat me? Lock me away with nothing but bread and water? ”

“I can think of far more pleasant ways to control a recalcitrant wife.”

Brynn flushed but lifted her chin. “I may be your wife, but you do not rule me,” she retorted before lapsing into chill silence.

Lucian set his jaw as he surveyed his beautiful wife sitting rigidly in her corner of the carriage seat. How had their relationship deteriorated to this? This icy contention wasn’t what he had planned when he had taken her in marriage.

The urge to melt Brynn’s coldness, to destroy her aloofness, surged through him. How satisfying it would be to draw her into his arms, push up her skirts, and thrust deep inside her, giving her pleasure while taking his own…

Swearing at himself, Lucian forced his mind away from the thought. Passion could succeed in turning Brynn’s ice to fire, at least momentarily, but it would do nothing to help him overcome his dangerous attraction to her.

Determined to regain his control, Lucian turned to gaze out the carriage window, his face as coldly aloof as Brynn’s own.

Brynn took a steadying breath as she paused at the door to Lucian’s bedchamber. When they arrived home, he had repaired to his rooms to change his attire for the evening. She’d waited several moments, debating what to do. Finally she pulled the pins from her hair, then crossed through her sitting room into his. But she hesitated as she reached for the door handle.

Lucian claimed not to believe in the curse, but she could prove to him that it was very real. Yet did she dare risk the danger of a demonstration? If she purposely sought to arouse him, there might be no controlling the outcome.

Still, the incident on the archery range this afternoon had only bolstered her belief in the Gypsy’s spell. Her behavior had actually been quite modest, not in the least alluring, certainly not compared to Raven’s charming demeanor. But the two gentlemen hadn’t fought over her friend, Brynn reminded herself. Only her. She was a fool to have hoped she could simply ignore the curse’s power.

She needed to convince Lucian of its potency, though. She had to show him that he was just as vulnerable as any other man-more so, in fact, because of his intimate conjugal demands. She had to make him understand the danger so he would help her avert the dire consequences.

Knowing it was better not to allow time for her courage to wane, Brynn opened the door and stepped inside his bedchamber. She had never been in her husband’s room before. It was decorated with masculine elegance in rich dark colors of forest green and gold. A massive bed dominated the room. Her gaze was drawn to it, then skittered away to find Lucian at the washstand, toweling his face dry.

Brynn came up short. He was shirtless. The sight of his sleekly muscled torso made her breath catch in her throat.

He hadn’t heard her enter, fortunately, which gave her time to recover her composure. She shut the door softly behind her.

Lucian looked up then and froze, surprise flickering in his blue eyes before he quickly masked his expression.

“Have you lost your way?” he asked coolly.

“No. I need help with the buttons on the back of my gown. Will you do me the kindness?”

Lucian eyed her with suspicion. “Why don’t you call your maid?”

“I don’t want to trouble her.”

“But you want to trouble me? ”

She merely smiled, a slow, sultry smile that made his features visibly harden. “Do you mind?”

His gaze raked her, taking in the sight of her hair loose and falling around her shoulders. Without answering, he crossed to her. When Brynn gave him her back, he pushed her hair out of the way almost roughly.

At his evident impatience, Brynn couldn’t help but feel a measure of satisfaction, but she held her tongue as he unfastened the buttons in grim silence.

“Thank you,” she said when he was done, keeping her voice low and husky.

She turned to face him. He was so close, she could feel the heat of his body. He felt the same heat, she knew. The same taut sexual awareness. She could see it in his eyes that were glittering like sapphires.

“What game are you playing, Brynn?”

“No game. I am simply proving a point.”

“And what point is that?”

“That the curse is extraordinarily potent. I did not purposefully try to arouse those gentlemen this afternoon. If I had wanted to, I would have behaved far differently.”

“Like you’re behaving now?”

“Yes.”

Holding his gaze, she bit her lower lip provocatively and raised her hand to the neckline of her gown.

Lucian went rigid as she drew the silk fabric down to expose the lush swell of her breasts beneath her chemise. She meant to undress in front of him, he realized, and deliberately incite him. He felt his loins tighten with a savage ache.

“That is far enough,” he said tightly, determined not to respond.

“I don’t think so.”

She didn’t stop with the bodice of her gown. She pulled her chemise down, freeing her exquisite breasts, high and firm with rose-hued nipples. His mouth went dry at the thought of tasting them.

“Do you truly think you can resist me?” she asked, her husky voice wicked and tempting.

He sucked in a harsh breath. He damned well should resist her. A man could grow addicted to a body like Brynn’s and forget everything else that mattered. Already he wanted her with a fierceness, a longing that stunned him.

“You are playing with fire,” he warned, his voice thick with desire.

“Perhaps. But I suspect you are the one who will be burned.”

He would be burned, he had no doubt. Her hair was an abundance of pure flame, flowing around her ivory shoulders and naked breasts with shimmering life. And yet even knowing the danger, he couldn’t stop himself from reaching for her.

“Take care, Lucian-”

She never finished her sentence. His hungry mouth swallowed her words as his arms crushed her to him.

He kissed her fiercely, anger and arousal making his blood surge hot. She tasted like fire. Flame seared him as he thrust his tongue deeper into her mouth, while savage possessiveness burned inside him.

He felt her involuntary response. She had gone rigid at first, but suddenly Brynn opened to him, her lips parting to accept his thrusting tongue. His hardened shaft cramped beneath his breeches with primal need.

He groaned against her mouth, the sound thick and raw. He wanted more of her, needed more…

His hands grasping her shoulders, he bent to her breast, capturing a taut nipple. She arched instinctively, pushing herself against his hot mouth. When he drew hungrily upon the peak, sucking hard, her hands clutched in his hair.

He heard her hoarse breath through a haze of passion. “Don’t you see?” she gasped. “You can’t stop yourself…”

He jerked backward. With a fierce effort at control, Lucian tore himself away. He stood staring at her, drawing in deep gulps of air, passion making him shake.

The struggle was clear on his chiseled face, Brynn realized, feeling clashing emotions of triumph and despair. His eyes glittered with arousal and something darker, a primal lust that was almost savage.

Reaching for her bodice with trembling hands, she covered her naked breasts, which were still heaving at his explosive kiss.

“Do you see now, Lucian?” she asked softly, praying the lesson had sunk in. “You can’t escape the power of the curse. You won’t be able to resist me unless we keep our distance.”

His fists clenched. “I think you underestimate my willpower. I won’t surrender to your spell, siren. I’ll prove to you the curse isn’t real. I won’t touch you again.”

It was precisely the response she had been hoping for-for Lucian to determinedly fight her allure. So why did she suddenly feel such a loss?

Moreover, his newfound resolve created a fresh dilemma. Brynn forced herself to smile tauntingly while her eyes widened with skepticism. “Does that mean you won’t make love to me any longer? If so, then how can I fulfill my wifely duty and conceive a child?”

Smoldering silence met her question, while his virile face hardened.

Brynn took a steadying breath. “That is what you want, is it not? A child? Well, I’ve begun to want the same thing. You promised that when I conceive an heir, I no longer must endure your carnal attentions. So the sooner I comply, the sooner we can be free of each other. I trust after this, however, when you do visit my bed, you’ll make an exerted attempt to control your lustful urges.”

Having delivered that blow, she turned and forced herself to walk regally from the room.

Alone, Lucian stood shaking as the vestiges of passion began draining from his body. What in hell’s name had come over him? He had been wild to have her. If she hadn’t taunted him about his lack of control, he would have stripped her naked and taken her right then, ravishing her without any thought to tenderness.

He could have raped her, his hunger had been that raw, that explosive.

Lucian clenched his teeth, willing his muscles to unlock, willing the fiery ache in his groin to dissipate. He had never been so powerless, so mindlessly out of control.

He swore a vivid oath. And what of next time? If he touched her, would he be unable to resist the flame-haired, green-eyed witch who was his wife?

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