Chapter 3

If the minx was setting her cap at him, she was going about it in a damned unusual way.

From a corner of the Consulate ballroom, one shoulder propped against the wall, Martin watched Amanda Cynster as she stood on the threshold, looking about. No hint of expectation colored her fair face; she projected the image of a lady calmly considering her options.

Leopold swiftly came forward. She smiled charmingly and held out her hand; Leopold grasped it eagerly, and favored her with a too-elegant, too-delighted bow.

Martin’s jaw set. Leopold talked, gestured, clearly attempting to dazzle. Martin watched, wondered…

He’d been the target for too many ladies with matrimonial intentions not to have developed a sixth sense for being stalked. Yet with Amanda Cynster… he wasn’t sure. She was different from other ladies he’d dealt with-younger, less experienced, yet not so young he could dismiss her as a girl, not so inexperienced he was daft enough to think her, or her machinations, of no account.

He hadn’t amassed a huge fortune in trade by underestimating the opposition. In this case, however, he wasn’t even sure the damned female had him in her sights.

Two other gentlemen approached her, bucks of the most dangerous sort on the lookout for risky titillation. Leopold sized them up in a glance; he introduced them to Amanda, but gave no indication of leaving her side, far less of relinquishing her attention. The bucks bowed and moved on.

Martin relaxed, only then realizing he’d tensed. He fixed his gaze on the cause, taking in her tumbling curls, glossy gold in the strong light, let his gaze linger on the lissome figure draped in soft silk the color of ripe peach. Wondered how succulent the flesh beneath the silk would be…

He caught himself up, wiped the developing image from his mind.

Focused on the reality, on the conundrum before him.

Thus far, every time he’d appeared, she’d clearly been pleased to see him, willing-even glad-to accept the protection he offered. However, he’d yet to see any sign that she was specifically interested in him. She was used to protective males-like her cousins; the possibility existed-lowering thought-that she would with equal ease accept the protection of some other, similar gentleman. He couldn’t offhand think of any other who might appear to squire her platonically, but the prospect remained. Her transparent liking for and encouragement of his company might simply reflect a natural gravitation toward the sort of male in whose company she felt comfortable.

She wasn’t stalking him-she was haunting him. An entirely different circumstance, for as of that moment, he had no idea if she intended to or not.

That, he decided, was the issue he had to deal with-the point he needed to clarify.

He pushed away from the wall. Leopold had monopolized her for long enough, and the bucks who’d approached earlier hadn’t gone far.

Her attention on Leopold, she didn’t see him approach. Nor did Leopold, a willing captive, his dark gaze locked on her face. Only when he loomed beside her did she break off and look up-then she smiled gloriously and held out her hand.

“My lord.”

He closed his fingers about hers. She curtsied. He raised her and bowed. “Miss Cynster.”

Her lips remained curved, her eyes alight with a delight that had not been there before. The frown growing in Leopold’s eyes as they flicked from him to her suggested that the last was not a fabrication of his imagination.

“Dexter.” Leopold’s nod was curt. “You are acquainted with Miss Cynster.”

Not a question-at least, not the obvious one; Martin met Leopold’s gaze. “We’re… friends.”

Leopold’s frown grew more definite; “friends” uttered in that way could mean just about anything. Leopold, however, knew Martin quite well.

If the object of their discussion had any inkling of the communication passing over her head, she gave no sign, but glanced from one to the other, the expectation of entertainment in her eyes. Her gaze came to rest on Martin.

Looking down, he smiled easily. “Would you care to stroll and see who else is present? You’ve been here for a while-I’m sure Leopold has other claims on his time.”

He’d meant the last sentence as a warning; a sudden gleam in her eye, the deepening of her smile had him rapidly replaying his words. As she prettily took her leave of Leopold, Martin inwardly kicked himself. He’d just told her he’d been watching her-for a while.

As host, Leopold couldn’t scowl, but the look he cast Martin as they parted stated he’d be back-back to pry Amanda from Martin’s side. Leopold liked nothing better than to cross swords, metaphorically, with a peer.

Martin offered his arm; Amanda laid her hand on his sleeve.

“Do you know Mr. Korsinsky well?”

“Yes. I have business interests in Corsica.” And Leopold’s family were the biggest bandits on the island.

“Is he…”-she gestured-“trustworthy? Or should I view him in the same light as the other two he introduced?”

Martin went to answer, caught himself, then inwardly shrugged. She knew he’d been watching. “Leopold has his own brand of honor, but it isn’t English. I’m not even sure it falls within the realms of ‘civilized.’ It would be wiser to treat him as you would the other two.” He paused, then added in tones rather less drawled, “In other words, avoid them.”

Her lips quirked; she glanced up. “I’m more than seven, you know.”

He caught her gaze. “They, however, are more than eight.”

“And you?”

They’d slowed. Ahead, a lady waved to attract their attention. Martin saw, but didn’t respond, absorbed in studying the face turned up to his-it could be that of an angel except it held too much vitality. He drew breath, glanced up. “I, my dear, am beyond your ken.”

She followed his gaze; the hiatus that had held them dissolved. Smoothly, they made the transition to social discourse, stopping to chat with a group they’d met at Lady Hennessy’s.

Martin was content to stand beside Amanda and let her animation carry the day. She was assured, confident, and quick-witted, glibly turning aside an arch query as to their friendship. The ladies in the group were intrigued; the gentlemen simply enjoyed her company, watching her face, her eyes, listening to her musical laugh.

He did the same, but with a different intent, trying to see past her facade. He’d felt the tensing of her breathing, the tightening of her fingers on his sleeve during that one, taut moment. He’d tried, again, to warn her; only once he’d uttered the words, heard them, glimpsed-so fleetingly he wasn’t sure he’d seen aright-a steely stubbornness behind her delicate features, had he considered that she might interpret those words differently.

Might see them as a challenge.

She was, after all, looking for excitement.

Watching the flow of expression across her features, through the blue of her eyes, he couldn’t tell what her reaction was. Would be.

Worse-he was no longer sure how he wanted her to react. Whether he wanted her to run from him, or to him.

Inwardly, he frowned; the surrounding conversation slid from his mind. Logically, he knew what he wanted. She was not for him; he didn’t want to become involved with her. Logically, all was clear.

Why, then, this sense of confusion?

A screech from a violin hauled him from his thoughts. Everyone turned, looked, confirmed that a waltz was about to begin. He glanced down, met Amanda’s blue eyes. She arched a brow.

He gestured to the dance floor. “Shall we?”

She smiled and gave him her hand. He led her to the floor, determined to find answers to his questions.

Waltzes at the Corsican Consulate had never conformed to the style approved by the patronesses of Almack’s. Martin drew Amanda into his arms, drew her closer still as couples crowded onto the floor.

They started to revolve; Amanda looked about them as she struggled to master her breathing, to give no sign of the breathlessness that had assailed her the moment Dexter’s hand had come to rest on her back. It was large, strong-effortlessly he steered her through the throng. But the heat, not just from his hand, burning through silk, but the pervasive heat of his large body so close, a bare inch from hers… little wonder that ladies swooned on crowded dance floors.

Not that she’d ever been in danger of joining their ranks before, and she’d danced on crowded floors aplenty.

Out of her ken. She focused on those words, on all they promised-all she intended to have. From him. Serve him right. He was as arrogantly superior as her cousins; truth be known, she didn’t mind at all. It would make his conquest all the sweeter.

She glanced at his face, smiled lightly. “You waltz well, my lord.”

“You’re an expert, I take it.”

“After six years in the ton? Indeed I am.”

He hesitated; she couldn’t read anything in his changeable green eyes. “You’re not, however, an expert in this arena, as Connor rightly stated.”

“Connor told me I was out of my depth in gaming with such as he, and in that I agree.” She glanced at the dancers surrounding them. “In other respects, I see little here I would feel challenged managing.”

When he said nothing, she glanced at his face. He was waiting-he trapped her gaze. “What are you after?”

You. “I told you. I want to live a little-I want to experience entertainments more exciting than can be found within the ton.” She met his gaze boldly. “As you agreed, that’s no crime.”

“No crime, perhaps, but it’s dangerous. Especially for such as you.”

She glanced about. “A little danger adds spice to the excitement.”

Martin couldn’t believe the battery of emotions she so effortlessly evoked. “And if the danger is more than just ‘a little’?”

She looked back at him; again he glimpsed steel. “If that was the case, then I wouldn’t be interested. I’ve been out for six years-I know where the lines are drawn. I’m not interested in stepping over them.”

Again she looked away.

Deliberately, he drew her closer, held her to him as they went through the turns so his thighs parted and brushed hers, so their hips met, slid apart, met again, so her gown shifted, shushing, against his coat, his thighs. He felt the hitch in her breathing, felt the tremor that raced down her spine. She glanced briefly at his face, but remained supple, gloriously light in his arms.

He waited until they were precessing up the long room. “These entertainments you wish to experience. I take it you have some specific event in mind.”

“Events.”

She said nothing further; he was forced to prompt, “And they are?”

His tone brought her gaze to his face, then, her decision to oblige him clear, she recited, ‘To drive-or more correctly to be driven-around Richmond Park by moonlight. To go boating to see the stars reflected in the Thames. To attend Vauxhall in a private party organized by someone my parents don’t know. To attend one of the masquerades at Covent Garden.”

She fell silent; he tersely inquired, “Nothing else?”

Amanda ignored his tone. “For the present, that’s the limit of my ambition.”

His lips thinned. “If you’re discovered doing any of those things-if it becomes known you have-you’ll be-“

“Exclaimed over, dubbed foolish beyond permission, lectured until my ears ache, then closely watched for the duration of the Season.” She let her gaze rest on his face, noting the hard, uncompromising lines. “That prospect is hardly likely to sway me. At my age, nothing short of a proven indiscretion is going to harm my standing.”

He made a derisive sound. She smiled and let her gaze wander. “If you must know, my list is so short precisely because of society’s demands.” The waltz concluded; they swirled to a halt. “I have only so many weeks before the Season gets into full swing. Once it does, my calendar will fill with socially obligatory events, and I won’t have time to seek excitement.”

She stepped back, out of his arms; he let her draw her fingers from his, but slowly. As if, at any moment, he might change his mind and seize them, and her. Freed, she turned, feeling his hand fall from her. Missed its heat. She looked at the gentlemen about them. “I wonder who would be willing to squire me to Richmond.”

Eyes narrowing, Martin reached for her hand to yank her back and tell her what he thought of that idea-and that he didn’t appreciate being baited-when Agnes Korsinsky, Leopold’s sister, materialized before them.

“Dexter, mon cher!”

Agnes launched herself into his arms; he had no choice but to catch her. She planted two noisy kisses, one on each cheek-then for good measure, went back and repeated the greeting.

He gripped her waist and set her away from him. “Agnes.” He kept his gaze on her face. She was all but indecently dressed, her voluptuous charms very much on display. That she harbored designs on him, on his title, his wealth and his person, he was well aware; she had for years and was as dangerous as her brother. Amanda was watching, assessing; he said the first thing that came into his head. “You’ve had an excellent turnout-you must be delighted.”

“Ah, them!” Agnes dismissed the crowd with a wave that included Amanda. “They are as nothing compared to you, mon cher. But how wicked to slip in without paying your respects-I didn’t even know you were here.”

Precisely. He reached for Amanda an instant before Agnes reached for his arm. “Permit me to introduce… Miss Wallace.”

Agnes’s black eyes flashed with the temper that was never far from her surface. She drew herself up, turned haughtily to Amanda. “Miss Wallace?”

Martin glanced at Amanda, and saw her smile. She held out her hand. “Miss Korsinsky. Your soiree has been quite delightful. I spent some moments talking to your brother…”

It took effort to smother his grin. He stood and watched Agnes get bowled over by an effortless tide of ballroom patter. She was no match for one who’d spent six years in the ton. In the end, Agnes recalled someone she had to see. With a mere nod for him, but polite words to Amanda, she left them.

Only then could he allow his lips to curve. “Thank you.” Lifting Amanda’s hand to his lips, he brushed her fingertips-just as their eyes met.

He felt the shiver that raced through her to his toes. Felt arousal surge through him in response, saw her eyes widen.

She drew breath, smiled, slid her fingers from his. “Was there some reason for my change of identity?” She turned away, scanning the crowd.

His gaze locked on the golden curls before his face, he murmured, “Agnes is not one to trust. She can be… vindictive.”

Amanda glanced briefly his way. “Especially over things she wants but hasn’t succeeded in getting?”

“Especially then.”

She started to stroll; he fell in in her wake. The crowd had grown; it was difficult to walk abreast.

Her voice drifted back to him. “Now that I’ve saved you from Miss Korsinsky, perhaps I can prevail upon you to assist me.”

This was where she would ask him to drive her around Richmond at midnight. “In what matter do you require assistance?”

She glanced back, smiling easily. “In the matter of selecting which gentlemen I should ask to squire me on my quests for excitement.”

She faced forward again; again he was left staring at her golden curls. Left, once again, wondering what it was about her that evoked such a maelstrom of impulses in him-impulses stronger, wilder, infinitely more dangerous than anything she was imagining experiencing.

And she was the focus of those impulses.

Jaw locked, he prowled in her wake, grateful she couldn’t see his face, his eyes. They tacked through the crowd; he kept close, unwilling to let her get more than six inches away while he wrestled his demons into some semblance of subjection. She wasn’t intending to ask any other gentleman to squire her. She was baiting him, he was sure.

Amanda stopped here and there, exchanging greetings, very conscious of Dexter at her back, aware that, although he exchanged nods and names, he said nothing more. She could feel his heat, his strength like a hot storm threatening. Smiling confidently, she continued searching for the right provocation to make the storm break.

Then she spied Lord Cranbourne. His lordship was elegant of manner, assured, glibly pleasant. Perfect.

She stopped walking, steeled herself not to react when Dexter walked into her. As he stepped back, without looking at him, she put a hand on his arm. “Lord Cranbourne,” she murmured. She sensed rather than saw Dexter follow her gaze. “I should think he’d be perfect to drive me to Richmond. His conversation is superior, and his greys are magnificent.”

Plastering on her best smile, she released Dexter’s arm and stepped out, her gaze fixed on Lord Cranbourne.

She’d managed all of two steps before hard fingers wrapped, manaclelike, about her wrist.

“No.”

The low growl that had preceded the word nearly made her grin. She turned back to Dexter, eyes wide. “No?”

His jaw was clenched. His eyes bored into hers, searching…

Then he looked up, over her head, over the crowd. His fingers shifted; he changed his hold on her hand, locking it in his. “Come with me.”

She hid her grin as he towed her to the side of the room. She expected him to stop there; instead, he pushed open a door left ajar and stepped through, drawing her into a long gallery that marched down one side of the ballroom. The gallery was narrow; the wall it shared with the ballroom was punctuated by three sets of doors. The other wall contained a succession of windows that looked out over the Consulate gardens.

Other couples strolled in the light shed by wall sconces set between the ballroom doors. The windows were uncurtained, letting moonlight stream in, adding its silvery tint to the scene. The gallery was considerably less stuffy than the ballroom; gratefully, she drew a deep breath.

Dexter set her hand on his sleeve and covered it with his. Face grim, he steered her down the room. “This entire start of yours is madness.”

She didn’t deign to reply. The last window, just out from the room’s corner, drew near; it looked down on a small courtyard. “How pretty.”

They halted before the window; drawing her hand from beneath his hard fingers, she leaned on the windowsill and looked down.

“You’re not seriously considering doing any of those things on your so-called list.”

She said nothing, merely smiled. Kept her gaze on the courtyard.

“You know very well how your cousins will react.”

“They won’t know, so they won’t react.”

“Your parents, then-you can’t expect me to believe you can slip out night after night and they won’t notice.”

“You’re right. I can’t manage night after night. But…”-she shrugged-“occasionally is not so hard. I’ve already spent two nights this week outside the ton. There’s really no impediment to my plans.”

She wondered if the sound she heard was his teeth grinding. She glanced at him-and noticed the other couples returning to the ballroom. Music drifted out to them, muted by the doors. Dexter watched as the last stragglers departed, leaving them alone in the quiet gallery, then he looked back at her.

The silvery light threw the planes of his face into sharp relief, leaving the whole much harsher, more intimidating. He was the descendant of Norman warriors; in this light, he looked it, every angle stripped of its assumed softness, the elegance he wore like a cloak.

She lifted her chin. “I’m determined to experience at least a little excitement-I intend to ask Lord Cranbourne to squire me to Richmond on the next fine night.”

Already hard, his face turned to stone. “I can’t allow that.”

Haughtily, she raised both brows. “Why?”

Not the response he’d expected; a frown gathered in his eyes. “Why?”

“Why do you imagine you have anything to say in the matter? My behavior, my actions, are no concern of yours.” She paused before adding, deliberately provocative, “Earl or not.”

She shifted to slide past him and head for the ballroom. One hard arm rose; his hand locked on the window frame, caging her. She eyed it, then returned her gaze to his face. Raised an even more haughty brow.

His eyes held hers. Then he raised his hand; fingers curved, he brushed the backs, featherlight, down her cheek.

She quelled the resulting shiver before it showed, yet knew he sensed it. His lips, long, thin, set until then in a straight line, eased. His gaze sharpened. “If you want excitement, you can find it here. There’s no need to travel to Richmond.”

His voice had deepened; he seemed much closer, although he hadn’t moved. His strength and heat were palpable things, beating against her. His eyes held hers; she didn’t dare look away. Barely dared to blink.

He leaned closer still, lowered his head. She lost sight of his eyes, fixed her gaze on his lips.

Behind her, she felt the side of the window frame, was grateful for its immovable support.

His head ducked and his lips brushed hers, cruised gently as if testing their resilience, then, not with a swoop but with the confidence of one sure of his welcome, he settled them over hers.

She felt that first kiss all the way to her toes. In response, sweet heat swept up from her soles to her heart. Her breathing locked. She swayed-raised a hand, locked it on the steely arm beside her.

Felt his other hand firm about her jaw, tipping her face up to his.

Alarm bells were ringing in Martin’s head with the wild abandon of banshees. He blocked them out; he knew what he was doing, knew that, in this arena, he wielded absolute control. Instead of retreating, he turned his considerable talents to savoring her luscious lips, then teasing them apart.

Within seconds, he realized that although she’d been kissed, she’d never yielded her mouth to any man. He wanted it. Ruthless but still gentle, he shifted his fingers about her chin, pressed-her lips parted. He surged in-sensed her gasp, felt the sudden tensing of her spine.

Lowering his arm, he locked that hand at her waist, steadying her, fingers pressing to her spine, then soothingly shifting along the slender muscles framing it, distracting her, quieting her. Easing her into the caress.

Until she was kissing him back, luring him in, inexpertly but definitely returning each caress. Growing bolder by the minute.

He angled his head and deepened the kiss.

She tasted sweet. Delicate. Vulnerable.

He wanted more-couldn’t get enough to appease his sudden need.

Every muscle strained to draw her to him, against him. He resisted, reminding himself just what he was doing-demonstrating to her the dangers in her plan to seek excitement. Drawing her to him would be tempting fate.

No matter how desirable that fate might be.

He took her mouth again, glorying in the softness, the subtle beckoning that, innocent though she was, seemed to have come to her instinctively. He let them both sink into the kiss, let the pleasure seep to their bones.

Kept his hand locked at her waist, refused to let it shift up, or down.

Ending the kiss, lifting his head, letting his hand fall from her face, took more effort than he’d expected. It left him slightly dizzy, blinking down into her wide eyes.

“Excitement enough?” He heard the gravelly tone in his voice and wondered to whom the question was addressed.

She blinked dazedly, then awareness flowed into her eyes.

Amanda dropped her gaze to his lips, felt her own tingle. Still felt the thrill of the invasion of his tongue, and all the sensations that had followed. Felt, recognized, her hunger for more. Knew she couldn’t have it-yet.

“For the moment.” She wondered at her tone-a beguiling, still confident purr she couldn’t have bettered if she’d tried.

She glanced up, met his gaze. Saw a frown in the darkened green. Looking away to hide her satisfaction, she slid her hand down his arm to the hand at her waist, eased it away.

He straightened as she stepped out of his shadow. The waltz in the ballroom had just ended; no one else had yet joined them in the gallery.

She started toward the doors. “Incidentally, you were wrong.”

“About what?”

She slowed, glanced back; he’d swung to watch her but hadn’t moved from the window. “I do need to travel to Richmond.” She held his gaze for a moment, then turned and continued to the nearest doors.

“Amanda.”

She halted, then faced him. Across the room, she met his gaze.

Silence stretched.

“When?”

She considered his tone-flat, unforgiving. “We can discuss when tomorrow morning. In the park.”

Turning, she opened the door, then looked back. “Will you send your groom as before?”

He watched her. When her nerves had stretched taut, he nodded. “As before.”

With a graceful nod, she escaped into the ballroom. Within a minute, she felt his gaze on her back. Moving too determinedly for any to waylay her, she left the ballroom, made her way to the stairs and descended without a backward glance. A footman hurried to get her cloak, another rushed to summon a hackney. All the while, she knew Dexter watched her.

Not until the hackney turned into Upper Brook Street did she relax enough to gloat.

In the pre-dawn chill, Martin sat his roan under the tree in the park and watched her ride toward him. The great houses of Mayfair formed a backdrop, emphasizing the fact she was leaving their regimented world for the less structured, more dangerous and exciting world waiting for her beneath the trees.

He watched as she clattered across Park Lane. Felt a familiar quickening in his veins. The roan shifted; he tightened the reins, settled the huge beast.

She’d won their last round comprehensively. He was trapped, yet he doubted she knew it, let alone understood why. He wasn’t sure he understood, not completely. He definitely didn’t understand how he’d come to this pass.

Advised of her purpose, it was impossible to let her swan off and seek excitement with other men, knowing as he did that following such a path would likely lead to her ruin. Impossible because of the type of man he was, because of the absolute, ingrained conviction that, given he had the power to protect her and keep her safe, it was his duty to do so.

All that was clear enough. He’d long been aware of his protective streak and accepted it, accepted himself, as he was. What he didn’t understand was how she had come to invoke his protectiveness, to hold him hostage courtesy of his own convictions, without, apparently, trying.

He scanned her features as she neared, saw nothing beyond cheery good humor and her customary delight on meeting him. She didn’t appear to be considering demanding anything more from him, didn’t appear calculating in any way. She seemed to be revelling in the prospect of their ride.

Bringing the mare alongside, she tilted her head, blue eyes searching his face. Her smile was lightly teasing. “Are you always this grim in the morning, or is there something other than our ride on your mind?”

Narrowing his eyes, he locked them on hers, then brusquely gestured down the park. “I suggest we get on.”

Her smile deepened, but she acquiesced with a nod. They set off at a trot, heading for the tan track.

He watched her as they rode, conscious of a need to simply let his gaze rest on her, uncertain from where such a need sprang. She rode well, hands and posture assured, apparently unconscious of his gaze.

As before, the park was deserted; as before, they sprang their horses the instant they gained the tan. Side by side, they thundered through the morning, the air sharp, biting as they flew through it, drawing color into her cheeks and eyes. When they slowed, the mare danced, eager for more; Amanda steadied her and brought the horse alongside his.

They turned back up the park to where the groom waited under the tree. Martin watched her still, aware to his fingertips of how alive she was, with the dawn just bringing the gold to her hair, deepening the blue of her eyes. Feminine vitality incarnate-he was conscious of the tug, the visceral attraction.

She glanced his way. He met her gaze, brimming with life and a still innocent joy in all life’s pleasures, no matter how small, no matter how unsophisticated. No matter how private.

He looked ahead. “Richmond. It’ll be fine tonight.” He glanced at her. “Can you steal away again?”

‘Tonight?” She worried her lower lip, clearly running down her list of engagements. “My parents are attending the Devonshires’ dinner, but Amelia and I cried off.”

“Amelia?”

“My sister. We often go to our own engagements these days, so tonight, indeed, I can easily be free.”

Martin reined in. “Very well. Tonight. But I have a stipulation.”

She considered him. “What stipulation?”

“That you tell no one where or with whom you’re spending your evening. Furthermore”-he locked his gaze with hers-“I will agree to escort you to your four selected entertainments on condition that you will not, this Season, add to that list, and that you will not at any time tell anyone of those entertainments or of your association with me.”

Amanda didn’t reply immediately, too busy evaluating the proposition, too busy keeping a too-delighted, too-victorious smile from her lips. When she was sure she could manage both, she met his gaze. “Very well. I agree.”

The roan shifted; he steadied the horse. “I’ll meet you at the corner of North Audley and Upper Brook Streets. A black carriage will be waiting.”

“A closed carriage?”

“Most definitely. We’ll switch to my curricle once away from fashionable eyes.”

She smiled, let her gaze dwell on him, then confidingly stated, “Such a relief to be in the hands of one who knows.”

His eyes narrowed; she smiled more brightly and saluted. “Until tonight, then. What time?”

“Nine. Everyone else will be at the dinner table then.”

She allowed her smile to widen, laughed at him with her eyes, then shook the reins and headed for the gates-before she became too flown on success and gave herself away.

“It’s working perfectly! Absolutely perfectly-he can’t help himself.”

“How so?” Amelia climbed onto Amanda’s bed and slumped beside her. It was late afternoon, a time when they often spent an hour alone.

“He’s so like our cousins, just as I suspected. He can’t stop himself from protecting me.”

Amelia frowned. “From what? You’re not doing anything too dangerous, are you?”

“Of course not.” Amanda flopped back on the bed so she didn’t have to meet Amelia’s eyes. Attending the Corsican Consul’s soiree had been the most risky thing she’d ever done; she’d been very much aware of that as she’d chatted to Leopold Korsinsky and prayed Dexter would come to her side. Reggie had refused to escort her there, but she’d had to go. Amelia had explained her disappearance from Lady Cavendish’s drawing room on the grounds of a headache, and, thanks to Dexter, to the accuracy of her perceptions of him, all had gone well. As long as he was in the same room, she would never be in danger. “It’s more a case of creating the potential for danger, at least in his mind. For him, that’s more than enough.”

“So tell me-what exactly are you doing?”

“I can’t tell-he made it a condition that I tell no one what we’re about. Not even that it’s him escorting me, but you already know that.”

Amelia’s frown deepened, but then eased. “Well, after all these years, you should know what you’re doing.” She settled deeper into the bed.

“How’s your plan progressing?” Amanda asked.

“Slowly. I hadn’t realized how many possible husbands exist in the ton once you disregard the matter of them actually wanting a wife.”

“I thought you already had a gentleman in your sights.” Amanda had a suspicion she knew who it was.

Amelia blew out a breath. “I do, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Amanda said nothing; if it was who she suspected, that was an understatement.

“I’ve decided I have to be sure, beyond all doubt, that he’s the one above all others I want, given snaring him is going to take so much effort.” Amelia paused, then added, “And given I might not succeed.”

Amanda glanced at her twin, but could think of nothing to suggest.

Minutes ticked by and they simply lay, content in each others’ company, their minds flitting over their hopes, their plans-all the things they never spoke of except to each other. Amanda was deep in imagining what might come of her jaunt to Richmond when Amelia asked, “Are you really sure it’s safe to encourage Dexter’s protectiveness?” “Safe?” Amanda blinked. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that if you remember all we’ve heard from Honoria and Patience and the others, then that protectiveness you’re playing with goes hand in hand with possessiveness. And not just common or garden possessiveness, either. At least, not with our cousins.”

Amanda considered. “But that’s what I want, isn’t it?” Amelia’s voice reached her. “Are you absolutely sure?”

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