12

The following morning, with Gerrard in attendance, Millicent reviewed Jacqueline’s wardrobe. Jacqueline was unsurprised when her bronze silk sheath was declared most suitable for the Summer Hunt Ball; a present from her mother just before she’d died, it was her most sophisticated and revealing gown, but she’d yet to wear it-apparently, its time had come.

It was the middle of summer; in that corner of the world so distant from the capital, it was customary for the local families to entertain themselves and their youth with some event every few days. Today, Mrs. Hancock was hosting a picnic, or as she more grandly termed it, an “alfresco luncheon.”

They left the Hall at noon; by the time they reached the Hancocks’ house beyond St. Just, most of the guests had arrived.

Once again, Jacqueline found herself tensing as they emerged onto the Hancocks’ terrace and all eyes swung her way. Some of the guests had been at the Frithams’ yesterday, but there were others who had yet to assimilate their new direction. She held her head high, kept a smile of precisely the right, unconcerned degree on her lips, and followed Millicent, Gerrard and Barnaby’s leads. She was grateful for their support, especially Gerrard’s; as at the Frithams’, he remained by her side.

Somewhat to her surprise, Mrs. Elcott, the vicar’s wife, usually so severe, unbent enough to compliment her on her spring-green muslin. “I’m delighted to see that you’re not hiding yourself away. No doubt the discovery of poor Mr. Entwhistle’s body has caused you distress, but it never does to overindulge such passions. Facing forward is precisely what a young lady of your standing must do.”

Mrs. Elcott pursed her lips, as if holding back further comment, then surrendered to temptation. “Have you spoken with the Entwhistles yet?”

Jacqueline managed to look unconcerned. “Not yet.”

Gerrard smoothly cut in with a distracting remark. A minute later, he drew her away.

“She wanted to know so she could be first with the news.” She allowed him to lead her to the trestle table where refreshments had been laid out.

Reaching for the lemonade jug, he glanced at her. “True, but it seems she’s shrewd enough not to credit the killer’s whispers-or if she has in the past, she’s now willing to run with the truth instead.”

Jacqueline accepted the glass of lemonade he’d poured for her. “To give the devil his due-or in this case the vicar’s wife her due-I’ve never heard her gossip maliciously. She’s simply addicted to being up with the latest, to understanding what’s going on.”

She could relate to the impulse. Over the rim of her glass, she glanced at Gerrard; she wished she knew what, precisely, was going on between them. Last night…once she’d returned to her bed, she’d fallen deeply asleep. She’d assumed she’d have time today to assess his proposition, his veiled ultimatum. She was certain she ought to think before she allowed her, where he was concerned, too impulsive desire to sweep her into his arms. Especially now he’d informed her the step would involve irrevocable surrender, at least on her part.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to consider him and his lionlike propensities while he was beside her, or even in the vicinity, which meant there was nothing to be gained by attempting to think of such things now; she might as well enjoy the moment, and his company.

He was the perfect escort-always there, yet never crowding her. Supporting, guiding, but not directing, he played the perfect foil in helping her project just the right image-the impression, as he’d said, of being herself.

By the time they settled on picnic rugs to sample the delicacies Mrs. Hancock’s cook had prepared, she’d relaxed enough not just to laugh, but to do so spontaneously, without reserve. As Barnaby, the inveterate storyteller, continued his tale, she sipped from the flute of champagne Gerrard had handed her, then glanced at him. He caught her eye, held her gaze for an instant, then raised his flute to hers, clinked, and sipped, too.

Suddenly a touch breathless, giddy as if the champagne had gone to her head, she looked away, at Barnaby, and drew in a tight breath. Her breasts rose above the scooped neckline of her gown; she felt Gerrard’s warm gaze sweep her exposed skin.

Raising her glass again, she sipped, and fought to slow her pulse; she wished she had a fan.

“You’re such an accomplished raconteur.” Opposite Barnaby, Eleanor bestowed on him an openly inviting smile. “Why, your adventures seem almost legendary.”

Beside Jacqueline, Barnaby stiffened. “Oh, no,” he airily replied. “I’ve just seen a thing or two-inevitable in the capital.”

“Ah, yes, the capital.” Eleanor was not the least deterred by the less than encouraging response. “Do you spend most of your time there?”

Barnaby murmured a noncommittal response, immediately capping it with a general question, drawing the others-Clara, Cedric and Hugo and Thomasina Crabbe-into the conversation. On Jacqueline’s other side, Gerrard shifted, then glibly deflected a question from Eleanor designed to once again fix Barnaby’s attention on her.

Despite the undercurrents-primarily Eleanor’s doing-the mood remained light. Eleanor, Jacqueline knew, was merely amusing herself; she wished to see Barnaby wound about her little finger, but then she would discard him. Aside from her mystery lover, gaining power over the males who hove on her horizon was Eleanor’s chief amusement.

Jacqueline had seen that for years, but she hadn’t, until now, thought much of it. Now…she couldn’t help but feel Eleanor’s behavior wasn’t very ladylike, or kind. Luckily, Barnaby, the male currently in Eleanor’s sights, showed no signs of succumbing.

The picnic consumed, the matrons sat back in the shade and chatted. Everyone else elected to go on a ramble through the adjoining woods. They set off in a large, rambunctious group; before long, they’d strung out along the path.

Whether by luck or good management, she and Gerrard brought up the rear. That didn’t please Matthew Brisenden. He was swept ahead with the others yet, whenever the curve of the path allowed, stared back at her strolling on Gerrard’s arm.

Gerrard was aware-more aware than he liked-of Matthew’s dark looks. The boy was ridiculously possessive; Gerrard recognized and labeled his attitude instantly, and was in no way amused by it. He was also screamingly conscious of Jacqueline beside him, strolling along with, it seemed, not a care in the world. He was pleased that she’d relaxed, that she was more and more able to show her true colors to the world, yet…

Step by step, they fell further behind. She seemed absorbed with the flowers and trees, for which he gave thanks; he wasn’t in the mood for idle chatter. Increasingly, he watched her face, felt himself falling ever deeper under her spell.

“Oh!” She stopped, looking ahead.

He followed her gaze; the rest of the party had disappeared out of sight around the next bend.

She glanced at him; a challenging light danced in her eyes. “There’s a shortcut, if you’re willing to risk it.”

He was willing to risk a great deal for a few minutes alone with her. He waved. “Lead on.”

She smiled and turned aside, pushing past a thick bush onto a minor path. “This leads to the stream. The main path crosses it at a wooden bridge further on, then curves back on the other side, but it’s a long way around.”

“So what’s the risk?”

Even as he voiced the question the bushes before them thinned, and he saw the stream gurgling along the middle of a wide bed and spanned by an old fallen tree.

“Behold.” Jacqueline waved at the tree. “The challenge.”

She started down the slight slope. Gerrard followed. The stream had shrunk to within its summer banks, leaving the lush green of its winter flood plain ten yards wide on either side. Yet the stream was still too wide to jump, and too deep to wade through, and the tree trunk wasn’t large.

Jacqueline turned to him. “Are you game?”

He looked down at her. “Do I get a reward if I succeed?”

Jacqueline studied all she could see in his eyes, and wondered why he and only he made her feel like a siren. She let her lashes veil her eyes and looked back at the tree. “Possibly.”

“In that case”-he leaned down so his words wafted past her ear-“after you, my dear.”

To her hyperaware senses, he even sounded like a lion.

She drew breath, took the hand he offered to step up to the narrow bole, paused to catch her balance, then ran lightly across. She’d performed the same feat countless times. Jumping down to solid ground at the other end, she turned-and found Gerrard stepping off the tree immediately behind her.

He caught her; hands locking about her waist, he whirled her, then lowered her until her feet touched earth. For one finite instant, they stared into each other’s eyes, then he drew her-fully-against him. He looked into her eyes, briefly searched, then his gaze lowered to her lips. “Reward time, I believe.”

He swooped, captured her lips with his, and plunged them both into a fiery kiss, one that stirred them both, that sent flames spreading beneath her skin, that left her breasts firm and aching, that spilled heat down her veins to pool low, to pulse with a longing she now understood.

She held tight, fingers clutching his upper arms as their lips and tongues dueled, not for supremacy but for pleasured delight.

The moment spun on, and on.

Eventually, he drew back. They were both breathing too quickly as he looked into her eyes. “Have you made your decision yet?”

Gerrard had told himself he wouldn’t push, wouldn’t ask-but he ached to know.

She tried to frown, couldn’t manage it. “No. I…got the impression I’d be wise to think seriously about…what agreeing would entail.”

Her gaze dropped to his lips. He fought against the urge to kiss her again.

“You should.” He couldn’t keep his voice from deepening. The thought of what would follow her decision-

Footsteps. They both heard the steady crunch of boots heading their way.

Turning to the sound, they stepped apart-just as Eleanor and Matthew Brisenden came into view.

“There you are!” Eleanor looked delighted.

Gerrard could quite happily have consigned her to perdition. Along with her companion, who was looking daggers at him.

“I told Matthew you would have taken the shortcut and be waiting for us here.” Patently pleased with her perspicaciousness, Eleanor swept forward, her gaze locked on Gerrard.

Smoothly, he linked his arm with Jacqueline’s. “Just so-we knew the rest of you wouldn’t be long.”

“The others are up on the main path.” Matthew came up, frowning at Gerrard, openly disapproving. “We should join them.”

Gerrard smiled easily. “Indeed. Do lead the way.”

Matthew blinked, but, with tight lips and a curt nod, had to do so. Gerrard steered Jacqueline in his wake.

To his amazement, Eleanor took his other arm.

He stared at her, but she seemed totally oblivious of her impertinence.

“We’ve been talking about the traditional gathering tomorrow.” Eleanor glanced across him at Jacqueline. “Will you come, do you think?”

Jacqueline met her gaze. “Oh, I think so.”

“Well, regardless, Mr. Debbington, you really should attend. It’s almost as much fun as the ball itself. Indeed”-Eleanor’s eyes gleamed as she looked up at Gerrard-“sometimes more.”

“The tradition,” Jacqueline informed him, “is that all the younger people gather at Trewarren Hall in the morning and decorate the ballroom.”

“And the terrace and gardens,” Eleanor put in.

Jacqueline nodded.

“So”-Eleanor fixed her gaze on Gerrard’s face-“will you be joining us?”

Gerrard glanced at Jacqueline; he wouldn’t be letting her out of his sight any time soon. Particularly not if Matthew Brisenden would be anywhere near. “I believe I will,” he murmured, addressing Jacqueline. He caught her gaze when she glanced up. “All work and no play will very likely make me a dull painter.”

Her lips quirked; she looked ahead.

“Excellent!” Eleanor said.

That evening, at the dinner table, Lord Tregonning shocked them all. Looking down the table, he asked Millicent, “How did your excursion go today?”

Millicent stared at him, then hurried to answer. “It was an excellent outing, Marcus-quite gratifying.” She rattled off a list of the ladies who’d been present. “While I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’ve convinced anyone of anything, I do think we’ve started hares in a good many minds, and set the stage for pushing matters further.”

Lord Tregonning nodded. “Good, good.” He glanced at Jacqueline, Gerrard, then Barnaby. “So everything’s going as planned?”

“Quite smoothly.” Barnaby reached for his wineglass. “I understand there’s a gathering of the younger folk tomorrow, which will be our last event before the ball.”

“Ah, yes-the decorating party.” Lord Tregonning turned a sympathetic gaze on Jacqueline. “Are you comfortable attending that, my dear?”

“Oh, yes. Indeed, I haven’t encountered as much difficulty as I’d imagined, and”-Jacqueline glanced at Gerrard, then across the table at Barnaby-“with Mr. Debbington’s and Mr. Adair’s support, I doubt I’ll encounter any challenge I can’t meet.”

She toyed with her fork, then went on, “While most are a trifle confused at first, all thus far have seemed…receptive to thinking again. However, I don’t think that would have been so had we not challenged their preconceived notions.”

Lord Tregonning nodded again.

Gerrard noticed the puzzled look on Mitchel Cunningham’s face. He had no notion of what they were discussing; no doubt he’d work it out soon enough. Turning to Jacqueline, Gerrard asked, “What form does the Summer Hunt Ball take?”

“It’s a proper ball with musicians and dancing. As for the rest…” Briefly she described the usual other attractions-a card room, and a salon for conversation. “The terrace and garden walks are lit for the night, too.”

From there, with Barnaby’s help, Gerrard steered the first conversation they’d had over the dinner table at Hellebore Hall into a more general discussion of the amenities of the area.

Later that night, Jacqueline stood at the balcony window of her bedroom, and wondered if Gerrard was painting. Her windows overlooked the orchards of the Garden of Demeter; she couldn’t tell if light was spilling from the windows of the old nursery, yet she felt sure he’d be there, standing before his easel creating the setting in which her innocence would shine.

Even last night, as she’d left the studio she’d glanced back and seen him returning to the easel, to the canvas on it, as if drawn to it.

His devotion to the portrait, to rescuing her, touched her. Buoyed her.

She recalled, very well, all that had passed between them the night before. That he wanted her she didn’t doubt, and she wanted him. Her reasons for grasping the opportunity to learn what that mutual wanting truly meant remained valid, yet his insistence she decide, that she make what would amount to a declaration of unrestricted acceptance…He was right; about that she needed to think.

He’d said he wanted everything, all she was, to possess her utterly; that was a very wide claim-she wasn’t sure she understood the implications.

To agree to that…to do so, she would need to trust him, to trust that, to whatever extent his “everything” stretched, he wouldn’t hurt or harm her. Not in her wildest imaginings did she think he would, yet in trusting him that much, in specifically and openly acknowledging such trust, as he was demanding, it would help to know why-why had he asked that of her.

Why was he, as he demonstrably was, so deeply interested in her?

The obvious, transparently real answer was that he was fascinated with her as a subject, yet was that the whole answer? Reviewing his absorption with painting her, contrasting that with the intensity he focused on her when he held her in his arms, whether the force that drove him was one and the same she couldn’t tell, and could see no ready way of discerning.

Did she truly care whether his interest in her was driven solely by an artist’s fascination?

The question slid into her mind, and revolved there-yet another question with no easy answer.

Minutes ticked by as she mentally circled. What did she want of this, of him, of what had flared between them?

That she knew-she wanted experience. Of the physical, the sensual, all the aspects of a woman’s life of which, due to the events of recent years, she remained ignorant. At its simplest, she wanted to know. Now he’d arrived and unexpectedly offered her the chance to learn, was she going to take it?

All her instincts sang “yes!” yet she clung to caution and the sensible approach. Was there any reason she shouldn’t accept his terms?

Mentally, she looked ahead, thinking of how a liaison with him as he’d described it would affect her life…and discovered a void.

Her future.

Frowning, she tried to bring her expectations into focus, but the emptiness in her mind remained; she had no vision of her future at all.

Staring unseeing at the night, she felt oddly hollow as realization solidified. The killer had stolen her expectations; her future was a blank canvas, and she had no idea of the picture she wished to see upon it.

It was a shock to discover such complete and utter nothingness where surely something should have been.

She was twenty-three, well dowered and attractive enough, yet she’d been frozen-was still frozen-on the threshold of her life. What dreams she’d nurtured when Thomas had lived had vanished with him; not even a ghostly vestige remained. Presumably once she was free of the nightmare of her mother’s and Thomas’s deaths, her mind would turn from its fixation on the past and present and attend to the future, and sketch in some details. Until then…she had no expectations of her future to guide her.

But Gerrard and his offer were there, before her now; how should she respond?

By agreeing. He’d made it plain he wasn’t asking for her future, but her present; he’d talked in terms of a physical liaison, with no defined strings attached.

If she’d been younger, or felt more a part of the usual round of social life, she might have felt shocked, might have felt she was risking something, might have hesitated. But now?

Given all fate had denied her, given what might yet be denied her forever more, the compulsion to accept his terms burgeoned and grew.

“I want to live.” The whisper fell from her lips, a potent exhortation. A direction. If she waited…until when? Once she was an old maid, would such a chance come again?

Conviction welled. Instinct, yes, but that was all she had to guide her. Yet in this arena, she had so little previous knowledge, so little practice in listening to her heart…

Arms folded, lips set, she tapped one slippered toe. She felt a strong urge to have done with thinking, to open her door, slip through the quiet corridors and return to his lair and his arms. She’d never been an impulsive person, yet in this, with him, instinct was urging her on.

Innate caution held her back.

Turning from the window, she paced into the room and stopped, her gaze fixed on the corridor door. For long minutes, she debated: to yield and accept now, or wait for some further sign?

Or, perhaps, ask more questions?

It took effort to turn aside, but she did. Shedding her robe, she climbed into bed, slid under the covers, tugged them up, closed her eyes, and willed herself to sleep.

Not terribly successfully, but she felt rested enough when she joined the others in the breakfast parlor the next morning. She was conscious of the intentness of Gerrard’s gaze on her face, but merely bade him a good morning, and applied herself to tea and toast.

Intentness of gaze didn’t qualify as a sign.

The day was fine. She, Gerrard and Barnaby decided to drive Gerrard’s curricle to Trewarren Hall; his pair needed exercising. They bowled down the lanes toward Portscatho and the cliffs along the Channel. Trewarren Hall lay a few miles back from the cliffs-far enough so the trees in the park grew tall and straight, not bent and twisted by the Channel winds.

Lady Trewarren was briefly taken aback when she realized Gerrard and Barnaby intended joining the group, but she rallied, setting Barnaby to assist with garlanding the ballroom while Gerrard was dispatched with Jacqueline to oversee the stringing of lanterns through the trees.

Two gardeners were waiting with the crate of lanterns; all she and Gerrard had to do was point out the most suitable positions, something Gerrard with his landscape artist’s eye accomplished with barely a thought.

The first half of the morning passed in pleasant endeavor, then other members of the decorating party, having completed their chores indoors and elsewhere, found them. A laughing group comprising Roger, Mary, Clara and Rosa were the first; they paused to comment excitedly, looking forward to the night, before waving and heading off along the path to the lake.

Gerrard watched them go, then arched a brow at her. “I take it the tradition ends with a party by the lake?”

She smiled. “We gather there, in and around the summerhouse, until the gong sounds for luncheon on the terrace.”

The next group of decorators to come down from the house included Cecily Hancock. Pausing beside Jacqueline, she asked Giles Trewarren, also in the group, if the Entwhistles were expected that evening; she ingenuously pointed out that Sir Harvey was Master of the Hunt.

Glancing apologetically at Jacqueline, Giles admitted Thomas’s parents had sent word they would attend, although they’d leave before the dancing.

Everyone looked to see how she’d react. Jacqueline fought not to retreat behind her usual poker face. Sensing Gerrard beside her helped. She met Cecily’s eyes and kept her expression open, allowing her sympathy for the Entwhistles to show. “I’m looking forward to speaking with them. They’ve had so much to bear. What with being in mourning, I haven’t had a chance to talk with them recently, and now with Thomas’s body being found, I do feel for them.”

Glancing at Gerrard, she found encouragement in his gaze. She looked at Cecily. “And, of course, I must introduce Mr. Debbington and Mr. Adair, who found the body and discovered so much about how Thomas died.”

Cecily searched her face. A spark of surprise showed in her eyes.

The others, too, were watching her, yet they clearly accepted her words as fact. Giles assured Gerrard he’d make sure his father introduced them to Sir Harvey, then the group made their farewells and headed on to the lake, Cecily subdued, apparently thinking.

Jacqueline felt a surge of satisfaction over that.

Turning back to Gerrard, she found him waiting to catch her eye, approval in his. “You handled that well. Every person who shifts their view is one more the killer has lost his hold over. After tonight, I predict he’ll be cursing and gnashing his teeth.”

She smiled, but sobered quickly. “We can but hope.”

Three more groups trailing down from the house found them. After successfully dealing with Cecily, Jacqueline handled the careful comments-about her joining in the decorating again, about her dancing again after her mother’s death, of the dreadful finding of Thomas’s body and speculation over his death, and his parents’ likely feelings-with aplomb.

Yet every mention of Thomas, of the suspicions that lingered in people’s minds, was a reminder of how widely the poison had spread.

Gerrard saw that realization grow, read it in her more sober demeanor when the others moved on. When the last lantern was up and the gardeners left them, he pulled out his watch. “There’s half an hour left before luncheon.”

All those who’d passed had gone to the lake; they could glimpse it glinting through the trees.

“I could use a moment away from the throng.” Pocketing his watch, he glanced around. “In all these acres, there must be somewhere else we can go for a moment of rustic peace?”

She smiled. “There’s a pond upstream. None of the others will have gone there-they always head for the summerhouse.”

“I’ve a fondness for ponds.” He waved her on.

She led him down a path lined with tall trees; within minutes they were out of sight and sound of the lake.

“You’re doing very well.”

She glanced at him, but said nothing. She was growing more comfortable, more consistently leaving her inner barriers down. More consistently and confidently being herself.

That was part of the reason he’d come, to simply be here if she’d needed help. But she’d weathered Cecily Hancock’s malicious spite well; she hadn’t needed him to intervene, yet he’d had to be there.

He glanced at her, very conscious of the other, more major part of his reason for remaining by her side.

She hadn’t yet agreed to be his.

He’d thought that by now she would have, or at least would have given him some sign of acceptance, of intent. His strategy dictated he shouldn’t pressure her. He’d weakened once; he remained determined not to do so again.

But

He glanced briefly at her profile as she walked beside him. That night in the nursery…had he, perhaps, overplayed his hand? He looked ahead, matching his strides to her shorter ones. He’d been so utterly confident she would come to him; last night, even while he was painting, he’d broken off, again and again, to glance past the canvas at the door, and its knob.

Every little sound had had him focusing on that knob, waiting for it to turn. But it hadn’t.

Had he read her wrongly?

Two seconds of remembering how she’d writhed under his hands, under his mouth, eliminated that as a possibility. Which meant that something-some thought, some consideration-was holding her back.

Causing her to hesitate, to rethink and assess.

He drew in a breath, felt a tightness reminiscent of desperation close about his chest. Nonsense-it could only be a temporary hesitation. If she needed reassurance, he was willing and able to give it; if it transpired he needed to adjust his approach, to modify his stance, his declared position, he was willing to do that, too.

Perhaps she simply needed a little encouragement?

Jacqueline kept her gaze on the trees ahead, on the path as she led him on, yet she was acutely aware of the glances he threw her, of the way his gaze lingered on her face.

As if he found her as puzzling as she found him. Just as she was so constantly aware of him, he, too, was absorbed with her; his attention, his focus on her, never really wavered.

The trees thinned; the path opened out into a clearing, dividing to encircle a deep pond fed by the stream that ultimately flowed on to fill the lake. The surface of the pond was still, reflecting the surrounding canopies and the sky. Rushes fringed the edge; waterlilies spread in patches, white and pink splotches floating on dark green leaves.

“We’ve circled around-the house isn’t far.” She indicated another path on the far side of the pond, then led the way to a large flat rock on which a stone bench sat, the perfect place to sit and look out over the pool, and reflect.

He paused beside the rock, looking at the other path, then back at the path they’d come down. “I see.” Stepping onto the rock, he waited for her to sit and draw in her skirts, then sat beside her. He pointed across the pond to where in the middle distance water shimmered silver through the trees. “The lake, I take it?”

“Yes.” She managed not to jump when he took her hand. Her nerves flickered, then pulled tight. She shifted to face him as he raised her hand to his lips, turned it and, catching her eye, holding her gaze, pressed an ardent kiss to her palm.

She felt the lingering caress to her toes, had to fight to quell a reactive shiver.

Before she was free of the effect, he shifted and reached for her face. His long fingers curled about her nape, his thumb cradling her jaw as he drew her to him.

Drew her lips to his, and kissed her.

Ardently.

Making no secret of his desire for her, or of what he wanted.

Richly textured, his tongue found hers and stroked, caressed, then commanded her response. Demanded it, drew her to him and into their play. Into a passionate exchange, an exploration of another degree, on yet another level of their evolving interaction, of their mutual desire.

Hot, increasingly urgent, hungry, yet contained.

Not restrained yet limited, delimited; there was no sense of being swept away, but of meeting him, matching him, of sharing control.

The kiss drew her in, lured her deeper. Quite how it happened she didn’t know, yet when she managed to lift her head enough to draw in a shallow breath, she discovered he’d leaned back against the stone bench and she was leaning over him, his face clasped between her hands, her lips parted as she looked down into his eyes.

“Why?” She searched his eyes, glowing richly brown beneath the distracting fringe of his lashes. “You want so much from me, but why do you want me to decide?”

Beneath her, he stilled-a stillness that communicated the intent focus of his thoughts. Her question had caught him off balance; he was rapidly searching for an answer.

She resisted the urge to press, to reframe the question; it was clear enough and she knew he understood.

He moistened his lips. His gaze lowered to hers, then his hands firmed about her waist. He didn’t lift her from him, but simply held her, then he raised his gaze to her eyes. “I told you-I want all, everything that’s in you to give.”

“What do you mean by that, and why do you want it?”

“Because…that’s what desire is, between a man and a woman. A wanting.”

“You told me yourself, intimated at least, that what you wanted from me was more. More than the usual, the norm.” Whatever that might be. She waited. And sensed for the first time a degree of uncertainty, of, not confusion but wariness in him.

Why would he be wary of her?

When he said nothing, just ran his large, warm palms up and down her back, she arched her brows. “You’re being very mysterious.”

Something flared in his eyes. “There’s nothing mysterious about this.

He must at some point have lifted her; she was half sitting on his lap. She could feel his erection riding against her hip. The growl that had edged his voice, the strength in his hands, only emphasized the aura of danger, of being in the arms of a sexual predator.

Yet she felt no fear, not the slightest lick of trepidation. She looked down into his darkening eyes, and knew that no matter how blatantly he hungered for her, no matter how frankly he displayed his ardor, harming her, hurting her, either physically or emotionally, wasn’t any part of his game.

Why she felt so safe, so secure, so sure when in his arms, she didn’t know, couldn’t explain.

She kept her eyes locked on his. “You haven’t answered my question.”

When his lips remained sealed, she reiterated, “Why do you want more from me? Why is it important I agree to that?”

He exhaled. His gaze dropped to her lips; his own remained set in a stubborn line.

She leaned closer, boldly skated her parted lips over his. “I’m seriously considering not making my decision until you answer my question.”

She’d breathed the words over his lips; she felt his chest swell, knew she’d succeeded in twisting the rack. Two could play at ultimatums. Pressing closer, she kissed him, held his face between her hands, covered his lips with hers and challenged him to take…

The rustle of leaves was soft. She heard, but didn’t react, too caught up in evoking his reaction, in the promise of his rapacious mouth.

A theatrical gasp had her jerking upright, turning to see-

One hand clamped over her lips, Eleanor stood at the edge of the clearing, eyes wide, locked on her.

Beside Eleanor stood Matthew Brisenden, an expression like a thundercloud darkening his face.

Jacqueline could happily have strangled them both.

Biting back an unladylike curse, she tensed to struggle from Gerrard’s arms, to slide from his lap, but his hands firmed, and she obeyed the instruction.

Smoothly, unhurriedly, he lifted her and set her on her feet. Retaining one hand, he rose and stood beside her.

With unshakable savoir faire, he nodded to Eleanor and Matthew. “Miss Fritham. Mr. Brisenden. Have you been down by the lake?”

Gerrard kept his tone polite, faintly bored, as if he was discussing a stroll in the park. A kiss did not qualify as a major indiscretion; he refused to allow them to treat it as such.

Matthew glowered at him. Gerrard quashed the impulse to smile in return. He’d never expected to be thankful to see Brisenden’s disapproving countenance, yet he was. Who knew what he might have revealed if Jacqueline had continued her persuasion?

A gong sounded, resonating through the trees.

“Ah-luncheon.” Setting Jacqueline’s hand on his sleeve, he raised his brows in polite query at Eleanor and Matthew, and waved to the path leading to the house. “Shall we?”

They had no option but to follow as he led Jacqueline up the path; Eleanor did so quite readily; Matthew would, Gerrard suspected, have preferred to call him out, but, still glowering darkly, tramped reluctantly behind them.

Eleanor, unsurprisingly, came up on his other side. Acknowledging her with the most distant of nods, he kept his attention on Jacqueline, instituting a conversation about the various trees they passed; there were times when his hobby was distinctly useful.

Jacqueline responded glibly; far from being embarrassed or trepidatious over being discovered indulging, he sensed she was irritated, sharply annoyed with her importunate friends.

The observation gave him heart; perhaps he’d achieved something today.

Something aside from having attracted Eleanor’s attention in a way he’d up to now avoided.

He’d known his share of predatory females; Eleanor was definitely one. Now that she’d seen evidence of his interest in Jacqueline, specifically the nature of that interest, her blood was up. She thought he was interested in dalliance, and was about to offer her charms.

He was defensively aware of the speculative glances Eleanor threw him as they walked back to the terrace. She didn’t attempt to join his and Jacqueline’s conversation, but eyed him as if she was measuring him to the last inch, and deciding just how to harness him.

She was destined for disappointment, but what intrigued him more was that Jacqueline was aware of Eleanor’s avid interest. He saw it, saw Jacqueline notice Eleanor’s assessing looks, saw comprehension and more in Jacqueline’s eyes.

But she didn’t look at him. Didn’t glance up to see if he’d noticed, or if he was responding. Not a hint of jealousy, or possessiveness, invested her demeanor, but she was watching, noting, nonetheless.

Was she so sure of him, of her hold on his senses?

Or did she truly not care?

The latter option bothered him more than he liked. Even more than her earlier question and her threat of waiting for him to answer before she declared herself his. That was definitely not part of his plan.

They were first to the terrace, but to his relief, the others came up in a laughing, chattering throng before they’d finished helping themselves to the cold meats and pastries set out on a table.

Barnaby was among those returning from the lake. Gerrard summoned him with a look; encouraging Jacqueline to draw the younger girls to their table, they endeavored to hold Eleanor at bay.

Temporarily defeated, she joined Jordan’s circle, but she paid scant attention to her brother’s discourse. Her eyes remained fixed on Gerrard, occasionally sliding to Barnaby, but returning, always, to Gerrard. Jordan’s gaze also frequently came his way.

Inwardly, Gerrard swore and remained on guard.

Just as well; as they all left, going down the front steps in a gay, noisy group, exchanging promises and challenges for when they met again that evening, Eleanor maneuvered to come up beside him. He led Jacqueline to his curricle. His grays stamped, unimpressed by the high-pitched voices; a groom held on to their bits, reverently crooning.

Barnaby had gone to the other side of the curricle; it was just roomy enough to accommodate three.

Alongside, Jordan’s curricle stood waiting with a pair of showy bays between the shafts.

“I wonder, Mr. Debbington…” Boldly, Eleanor gripped his arm, forcing him to halt and face her. She smiled. “I wonder if I might suggest Jacqueline and I swap places, at least until the turnoff to the manor.” She let her gaze sweep his horses, then turned her eyes on him. “I’ve a great penchant for powerful beasts. I find them quite fascinating.”

Gerrard resisted the urge to roll his eyes; even more smoothly than she, he replied, “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. We’ve arranged to take an alternative route.”

“Oh?” Eleanor’s gaze and tone sharpened. “To where?”

In a different direction to the one she was heading in; beyond that, Gerrard had no clue. It hadn’t occurred to him that she would so impertinently question him.

Before he could utter the annihilating setdown spontaneously forming on his tongue, Jacqueline’s fingers tightened on his sleeve; leaning forward, she spoke across him. “Mr. Debbington expressed an interest in viewing the church at Trewithian. With luck, we’ll just have time to head that way, then return to the Hall.”

Eleanor deflated. “Oh. I see.”

Jacqueline smiled lightly; reaching out, she lifted Eleanor’s hand from Gerrard’s other sleeve, squeezed it in farewell and released it. “We’ll see you tonight.”

Eleanor nodded, disappointed, but amiable enough. “Yes, of course.”

Gerrard blinked, and hurriedly added an abbreviated farewell; Barnaby, already in the curricle, waved. With not the slightest sign she understood that she’d just been put in her place, Eleanor inclined her head, and turned away.

For one instant, Gerrard stared. Then he inwardly shook himself, turned and helped Jacqueline into his curricle, followed, gathered the reins, sat, and set his horses trotting.

“Phew!” Barnaby leaned back as the wheels rolled smoothly down the drive. “That was a near-run thing.” He glanced at Jacqueline. “Quick thinking, too. You have my heartfelt gratitude for saving us, m’dear.”

“Indeed.” Gerrard glanced at Jacqueline, and caught her eyes; they were lightly dancing. “Should I really turn east?”

She looked at the gates, rapidly approaching. “I think we’d better. But it’s a pleasant drive and not that much further. Especially with such”-she gestured to his grays-“powerful beasts.”

Gerrard laughed; so did Barnaby.

Her smile deepening, Jacqueline looked ahead.

Despite the roundabout route, they returned to Hellebore Hall in good time. Gerrard drove straight to the stables, then he, Jacqueline and Barnaby walked across the field toward the house. Pegasus watched over them; Jacqueline smiled as they passed the statue.

Over her head, Gerrard glanced at Barnaby. “Did you learn anything?”

Barnaby had intended subtly sounding out the younger generation over the source of the whispers. He’d questioned Lord Tregonning; thinking back, all his lordship could recall was that after he’d emerged from his grief over his wife’s death, Sir Godfrey and Lord Fritham had both behaved as if everyone knew that Jacqueline had been responsible. Everyone had behaved in that way, avoiding speaking of the incident, and if they couldn’t, referring to it as an accident. Lord Tregonning had accepted the unspoken verdict; his grief had left him unable to question it, and without detailed knowledge to challenge it.

Only later, when the pall of grief had fully lifted, had he come to find that unspoken verdict hard to swallow.

Barnaby had been hunting, bloodhoundlike trying to track the whispers to their source. Gerrard wasn’t sure it would prove possible, but he was grateful Barnaby was so tirelessly investigating every possible avenue.

Hands in his pockets, Barnaby grimaced. “Only that the whispers have been spread over a long time-no one remembers from whom they first heard the suggestion that Jacqueline was responsible for her mother’s death. The association with Thomas’s death is an extension of that.” After a moment, he went on, “Jordan and Eleanor are the most open in their support.” He glanced at Jacqueline. “I gathered they’ve always been quick to take your part.”

She shrugged. “We’re next to siblings-they’re my closest friends.”

Barnaby nodded. “So we’re no further ahead on that front, but the older generation might remember more. Until now, the younger ones haven’t spent much time thinking of the deaths. They weren’t that important to them.”

Wise to his friend’s phrasing, Gerrard asked, “What other snippets have you gleaned?”

Barnaby’s grin flashed. “Not so much gleaned as thought through. I’ve been wrestling with the motive for Lady Tregonning’s murder.” He met Jacqueline’s gaze. “At present, we don’t have one, which is in large part the reason it was so easy to cast suspicion on you-you were the only one with any whiff of a cause, no matter how unlikely.”

Looking ahead, he continued, “If we accept that the same person killed Thomas and Miribelle, and that the reason Thomas was killed was because he was about to become engaged to Jacqueline, then isn’t it likely Miribelle was killed for a similar reason?”

“Such as?” Gerrard prompted.

“What if some gentleman had had his eye on Jacqueline all along, and had approached Miribelle to gain her support for his suit?”

Gerrard turned the notion over in his mind. “The relative timing’s always bothered me, but that…it fits.”

Barnaby nodded. “When Thomas disappeared, you”-with his head he indicated Jacqueline-“went into half-mourning. That stymied the killer for a while, but then, when you were accepting callers again, what more natural than that he should seek your mother’s support?”

Jacqueline briefly glanced at Gerrard, then turned to Barnaby. “You’re suggesting she refused her support, and because of that, he killed her?”

Barnaby pursed his lips, then shook his head. “I think it would have to be more than that-I think she must have flatly rejected the proposal, refused to countenance it, and said so. Declared she would forever oppose the match. That, I think, would have been enough to make someone who’d already committed murder to secure your hand resort to murder again.”

Continuing toward the Garden of Hercules and the house, they reviewed old points from that new perspective.

“Murdering your mother meant you went into mourning for a year,” Gerrard said, “but time passing doesn’t seem to worry this villain.”

Jacqueline nodded. “But now I’m out of mourning again, by a few months.” They were still in the sunshine, yet she shivered.

He caught her hand, engulfed it in his, lightly squeezed. “No one’s asked for your hand lately, have they?”

Without looking at him, she shook her head. “I’m sure Papa would have told me if they had. Other than Thomas, and that hadn’t been done formally, no one has ever asked permission to marry me.”

The Garden of Hercules loomed ahead. Shadows engulfed them as they descended toward the terrace. When they reached the steps, Gerrard stood back to let Jacqueline precede him, but as she took the first step, her hand still in his, he halted her and drew her to face him.

He met her eyes. “If any gentleman should ask for your hand, you will remember to mention it, won’t you?”

She held his gaze, then glanced at Barnaby, before looking back at him. “If any gentleman should ask, you’ll be one of the first to know.” Turning, she started up the steps.

Releasing her hand, Gerrard followed, not at all sure how to interpret that. At face value? Or because, by then, she would be his?

Contents

Обращение к пользователям