Chapter 4

Two evenings later, Madeline followed Muriel into Lady Porthleven’s drawing room. By an exercise of will she kept her gaze on her ladyship’s face, waiting while Muriel greeted their hostess.

She’d had two days to recover her equilibrium. On leaving the vicarage, Gervase had ridden alongside her gig until she’d reached the lane; she’d deftly turned into it, flourished her whip in farewell and escaped at a good clip, leaving him to ride on to the castle. She hadn’t looked back.

In the intervening hours, knowing she’d come face-to-face with him tonight, she’d endeavored to recall what their previous relationship had been-how they’d interacted, addressed each other; as far as she could remember she’d always treated him just as she did the other local gentlemen.

She’d come here tonight girded for battle, determined to get their interaction back on its previous tack, well away from the increasingly personal, increasingly intimate level they’d been broaching.

“Madeline.” Turning from Muriel, Lady Porthleven clasped her hand warmly. Her ladyship’s protuberant eyes widened as she took in Madeline’s gown. “That’s a delightful shade, my dear.” Raising her quizzing glass, she examined the rich, bronzed silk. “It matches your hair wonderfully, and does very nice things for your skin. You should wear it more often.”

Madeline smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.” With a nod, she started to move on to make way for the Entwhistles.

Mrs. Entwhistle reached forward and tapped her arm. “Lovely gown, Madeline, dear.”

Acknowledging the compliment with a confident smile, head high, she swept into the room. The compliments were welcome; she rarely paid much attention to her gowns-where was the point?-but it appeared she hadn’t forgotten how to shine when she wished.

Still smiling, still confident, she made for the circle of older gentlemen she customarily joined before dinner; as usual they stood before the French doors, tonight open to the terrace and the balmy night beyond. At no point did she glance around. She was not going to look to see if Gervase was present; he was just another gentleman to her.

Stationed inside the door chatting with Mrs. Juliard, Gervase saw Madeline sweep by. He blinked, looked again, then had to stop himself from staring, from turning to track her progress as she swept across the room.

With her back to the door, Mrs. Juliard hadn’t noticed the Valkyrie like vision. “We’ll definitely need a tent for the embroidery displays.”

“I’ll make a note of it the instant I reach home.” Gervase clung to his politely interested expression, although the urge to follow Madeline was a tangible thing. “If you’ll excuse me, I must have a word with Ridley about the contests he’s organizing.”

“Of course.” Mrs. Juliard patted his arm. “It’s so wonderful that the festival will be back at the castle this year. There’s a great deal of excitement brewing, I assure you.”

Gervase smiled, bowed and moved away. He hadn’t liked the glint in Mrs. Juliard’s eyes. Making a mental note to ask Sybil if there was a daughter or niece he should know about, so he could avoid same, he slowly made his way around the room toward Squire Ridley.

Madeline was standing by Ridley’s side.

Taking his time, Gervase pondered the blatantly apparent. She had gone on the offensive. He’d expected something-some reaction-but had had no real idea what tack she might take. Even now, with the evidence before him-stunning his senses-he was far too wise to take the message at face value.

She’d clearly made some decision, although he had no clue as to what. Regardless, he had his own agenda for the evening. After those revealing moments in the vicarage shrubbery, learning what made them incompatible was no longer the dominant thought in his mind.

“Madeline.” He halted beside her as the other men shifted to give him room.

She’d been speaking animatedly to Ridley; as she turned his way, Gervase captured her hand without waiting for her to offer it. He held the slim digits securely as he nodded a genial greeting around the circle, both felt and sensed the tension that gripped her as she waited, wondering if he would dare…

Bringing his gaze back to her eyes, he smiled. For one instant he considered doing what she feared and raising her hand to his lips; instead, he lightly squeezed her fingers and released them.

Her eyes on his, she drew breath, then smiled a fraction tightly and inclined her head. “Gervase. Gerald was just saying his lads have suggested a horseshoe competition.”

“Is that so?” Gervase looked at Ridley.

“We’ll need an area marked, and a peg of course, but it should be easy enough to manage.”

“There’s an area near the stable arch that should do,” Gervase replied. “I’ll have my grooms mark it out.”

He turned to Madeline.

She looked across the circle. “Mr. Juliard wanted to ask about the treasure hunt.”

Juliard cleared his throat. “I did hear some talk about a hunt for the younger children. I could help with that.”

“I believe Sybil and my sisters have that in hand-I’m sure they’ll be delighted to have your aid.”

And so it went. Every time he so much as glanced at Madeline, she directed the conversation-and his attention-in some other direction. They covered a host of topics, from aspects of the festival to crops and mining, even touching on the weather.

Initially amused, as the minutes ticked by, he felt frustration bloom.

Madeline sensed it-how, she didn’t know-but she knew he was getting her message. Buoyed, she stuck to her plan.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” Lady Porthleven swept up. “Dinner is served. Crowhurst, if you would take Madeline in? And Gerald, come with me. Mr. Juliard, if you take Mrs. Canterbury? And…”

Madeline didn’t take in the other table assignments; the first had made her mind seize. What had possessed her ladyship…?

She shot a sharp glance at Gervase.

He met her gaze and smiled-intently. “No, I didn’t arrange it, but it seems fate is on my side.”

He’d spoken quietly, just for her; the low purr of his voice slid along her skin; she fought to quell a shiver.

“Shall we?” Eyes still on hers, he offered his arm.

She reminded herself of her aim, her determined course-and smiled, equally intently, back. “Thank you, my lord.” Placing her hand on his arm, she let him lead her to join the procession to the dining room.

“I meant to ask.” Gervase caught her eye. “Have you any particular interest at the festival-embroidery, knitting…saddlery, perhaps?”

The last surprised a laugh from her. “No. I’m usually so involved in the organization of the day I barely have time to think of the activities.”

“A pity. At least, this year, you’ll have time to wander and enjoy.”

She raised her brows. “I suppose I will.”

The thought distracted her; he guided her down the table to her place, then took the chair beside hers.

Conversation was general as the dinner commenced, but gradually became more specific as partners turned to each other and applied themselves to being entertaining. Madeline should have felt relieved when Gervase divided his time equally between her and Lady Moreston on his other side; instead, she viewed his amiability with suspicion.

The tiger’s stripes were there, concealed beneath his elegantly cut black coat, disguised by the precisely tied cravat and ivory linen perhaps, but he hadn’t lost them.

Yet every time he turned to her, he seemed perfectly content to toe the line she’d drawn, and interact with her purely on their previous social plane.

Perhaps he’d realized the unwisdom of his enterprise-his tilt at changing her mind about indulging in dalliance with him?

The thought gave her pause. When next she turned from Mr. Hennessy, Gervase was turning from Lady Moreston.

“I meant to thank you,” she said, voice low. “For taking the boys sailing yesterday.”

His lips curved; she saw the smile echoed in his eyes. “I can honestly say it was my pleasure. I haven’t had a boat out in years, and the truth is I can no longer so easily call on my grooms to join me. Having your brothers to crew was the perfect answer.”

She smiled. “They thought the day beyond perfect, too. Of course, now they’re pestering me for a boat of their own.”

“No need. Once Harry and Edmond are a trifle older and stronger, they can borrow one of the castle boats. One of the smaller ones, so they won’t be tempted to go out too far.” He met her gaze and shrugged. “Otherwise the boats are just sitting in the boathouse. The girls will never sail.”

She raised her brows, hesitated, then inclined her head. “The promise of that will hold them for now.”

He sat back, lifted his wine glass, and sipped.

She glanced at him-and found herself trapped in his eyes.

For one long heartbeat, she stared into those tigerish orbs, then she hauled in a breath, wrenched her gaze away and looked across the table. “I-”

“We have to talk.” Beneath the table he closed his hand over hers where it lay in her lap, lifted it when she jumped, long fingers tensing, gripping when she would have twisted free.

Lungs tightening, she again met his eyes. “We are talking.” She clung to her mask, her social persona.

His lips curved, the light in his eyes one she’d never expected to encounter, certainly not about a crowded dinner table. Out of sight, his fingers stroked hers, a soothing touch that didn’t soothe her at all.

“Not about what I need to discuss with you.”

She arched a brow. “Oh? And what’s that?”

His smile widened. “I seriously doubt you want me to answer-not here, not now. Not in public.” He let a moment pass, then added, “Of course, if you insist…far be it from me to disoblige a lady.”

She jettisoned all notion of pretending disbelief; the threat in his words was proof enough of his fell intent.

Rescue came from an unexpected source. Lady Porthleven rose to her feet. “Come, ladies-let’s leave the gentlemen to their musings.”

Chairs scraped. Madeline seized the moment to lean nearer and murmur, “We don’t have anything to discuss, my lord-nothing that can’t be aired in a public forum.” She twisted her fingers and he let them go. She met his amber eyes. “There is nothing of a private nature between us.”

She turned from him and rose.

He rose, too, drawing back her chair.

Facing the door, her back to him, she stepped out from the table.

Into the hard palm he’d raised, ostensibly to steady her.

In reality to shake her.

He succeeded, his touch searing through layers of fine silk to set fires flickering on her skin.

She froze, her breath tangled in her throat.

He leaned close, his murmured words falling by her ear. “I believe you’ll discover you’re mistaken.”

She sucked in a breath, decided against any attempt to have the last word. Head rising, she plastered a smile on her face and walked forward, joining the exodus as the ladies left the room.

The gentlemen didn’t hurry back to the drawing room, for which Madeline gave fervent thanks. She spent the time ensuring she was adequately protected from whatever machinations or maneuverings her nemesis might employ.

Returning to the drawing room to find her wedged between Mrs. Juliard and Mrs. Entwhistle on one of the sofas, Gervase spent no more than an instant in appreciation of her strategy.

He was running out of time.

Not only had the gentlemen lingered over their port, reminiscing and swapping anecdotes, but a storm was blowing in. He’d felt the elemental change in the air long before he’d glimpsed the thickening clouds beyond the windows.

Until then he’d been content to let Madeline play her hand, but there was only one place at Porthleven Abbey where, during a dinner party, he could speak with her alone.

He needed to get her to himself before the storm hit.

Hanging back by the door, he waited until the other gentlemen had been absorbed into the various groups around the room, then strolled across the floor to halt before Madeline.

With an easy smile for Mrs. Juliard and Mrs. Entwhistle, leaning down he reached for Madeline’s hand-trapped it before she, lips parted in surprise, had a chance to pull back. “If you’ll excuse us, ladies, there’s an important matter I must lay before Madeline.”

Straightening, he drew smoothly on her hand; his smile changed tenor as he met her eyes. “It’s that matter I mentioned before.”

She all but gaped, but then her wide eyes searched his, confirming his determination-confirmed that he wasn’t in any way bluffing. “Ah…” She allowed him to draw her to her feet. “I…perhaps…”

He wound her arm in his, nodded politely to the other ladies, then steered her across the room.

She went with him, but…“This is ridiculous!” He stopped before a pair of French doors. She faced him as he released her arm. “We are not having any discussion-and certainly not here!”

His fingers locking about her hand, he met her gaze as he reached for the doorknob. “Half right.” Opening one door, he whisked her through, ignoring the squeak of surprise that escaped her.

Leaving the door open, he put a hand to her back and with barely any pressure kept her moving down the terrace.

They were nearly at the end-out of sight of anyone in the drawing room-when he halted and dropped his hand.

She swung to face him, every inch the Valkyrie, sparks lighting her darkened eyes. “What, precisely, are we doing here?”

Madeline used the tone guaranteed to quell every male she’d ever met. She pinned her tormentor with a fulminating glare-only to discover that neither tone nor glare seemed to have any effect whatever on him.

Worse, he was looking at her hair. The bane of her life, doubtless it had already started escaping from the knot at the back of her head.

But then his eyes shifted; there was just enough cloud-drenched moonlight for her to watch as his gaze slowly swept her face, lowered to linger on her lips, then, at last, returned to meet her eyes.

“We’re here”-his voice had lowered, deepened-“to face what must be faced.”

His amber gaze remained steady; his tone wasn’t forceful, yet neither did it carry any indication of softness. Of uncertainty.

She was reminded, yet again, that he was one of those rare males she couldn’t rule. Which left her with far fewer weapons to fall back on; anger and stubbornness seemed her best hope. She lifted her chin, held to her stony glare. “I have no idea what particular worm has infested your brain, but let me make one thing perfectly clear. I am not looking-”

“Precisely.” There was nothing-not the tiniest hint-of softness in the line of his lips, either. “That’s my point.”

She blinked. He continued, “I haven’t been looking, and neither have you.” He took a step closer. “And you still aren’t.”

Her entire vision was now filled with him.

But this was a side of him she hadn’t before seen, only sensed. She’d locked her curiosity safely away-or so she’d thought-but now it stirred, stretched, pressed forward to look.

She narrowed her eyes on his. “What am I supposed to be looking at?” She lifted her hands, palms up, to the sides. “What is there to see?”

His amber gaze didn’t waver. “Not to see.” Slowly, his gaze lowered to her lips. “To discover.”

His voice had dropped again, to an even deeper, more resonant note. Her lips throbbed; she could feel her own breath passing over them. And knew she had to ask. “What? What is there to find?”

She’d wanted, expected, the words to sound dismissive, derisory; instead, confusion and her damning curiosity colored them.

The heavens answered her. A deep rumble growled through the night, followed by a sharp crack as lightning split the sky. The first flare was followed by others, flashing behind the screen of the roiling clouds, a display of elemental energy.

The light lit his face, every chiseled angle, each rock-hard plane. Gave her fair warning when he moved closer yet, when he raised his large hands and framed her face.

Tipped it to his.

“This.” The word feathered through her mind, dark and tempting.

He bent his head; she was so tall he didn’t have to bend very far before his lips hovered over hers.

She drew in a breath, held it, every muscle tensed and quivering.

His lids lifted; his eyes trapped hers. “Don’t fight.” It was a warning. “Don’t try to break away.”

His lashes lowered as he closed the last inch. “Don’t try to pretend you don’t want to know.”

The last word was a seduction, a whisper staining her lips, a promise-one he instantly fulfilled.

His lips closed over hers, no light caress but a proper kiss-one she’d been waiting for all her life.

Or so it seemed. One part of her seized, grabbed, gloried.

The rest felt stunned, shaken out of her world and into some other.

She was kissing him back before she’d thought. Moving into him in the same instant his hands fell from her face and he reached for her.

Then she was in his arms, locked to him. His lips were hard, demanding; she parted hers, not to appease but to know. To discover. To see.

What she hadn’t imagined might be.

There was heat and sensation, from him, of him-and within her. Not fire, not true flame, but a warmth that was every bit as elemental, as potentially powerful, as tangible as the heavy muscles of his chest beneath her hands.

She sank against him, not because she was boneless, helpless, but because she wanted to.

And the heat merged, his and hers, and flowed about them.

His tongue swept her lower lip, then slid into her mouth, touched hers, and she shivered. Sank closer still, her hands fisting in his coat as she welcomed him in and he drank.

Strength surrounded her, to her more potent than any drug, one so few could give her. She counted the world well lost as he wrapped her in his arms and kissed her as if she were not just a drug but the breath of life to him.

He angled his head, deepened the kiss-and hunger burst through. Elemental, powerful, pure. His, hers-one fed the other, quickly escalating, with every heartbeat spiraling higher, spreading, out of control.

Until it roared through them, ravenous, greedy-insatiable.

Gervase had stopped thinking. In the instant she’d moved into his embrace, when his arms had closed about her and she’d offered her mouth, he’d stepped over some edge-into a world ruled by desire.

But not any simple desire he recognized. The heat was familiar, but every touch was heightened, every glow brighter, every aspect keener, deeper, broader, tighter-infinitely more compelling.

Infinitely more addictive.

He had to have more-and whatever he asked for she gave. Surrendered.

Her lips were his, her mouth, her body supple and curvaceous filling his arms.

Craccccckk!

They both jumped, clutched each other as their senses rushed back and the world returned.

Lightning forked down from the sky; a raking gust swept the terrace, hurling leaves stripped from nearby trees.

“Madeline? Gervase? Are you out there?” Lord Porthleven stood in the open French door, peering down the terrace.

Gervase drew a deep breath, felt his reeling head steady. The shadows hid them. “We’re here-watching the storm.”

“Ah.” Nodding, his lordship looked out at the sky. “Quite something, ain’t it? But you’d best come in-there’s rain on the way.”

Madeline had stepped back, out of his arms. Placing a hand under her elbow, Gervase turned and paced beside her as they strolled-nonchalantly-back along the terrace.

Other guests were pressed to the windows, staring out at nature’s show. Madeline paused before the French door.

Halting beside her, he glanced at the sky, then looked at her. “It’s…mesmerizing. Wild, exciting.”

She met his eyes. “And dangerous.”

Turning, she stepped through the door. He followed, fairly certain that, like him, she hadn’t been talking about the storm.

The following morning, Gervase sank into the leather chair behind the desk in his library-cum-study. Leaning back, raising his legs, he crossed his ankles, balancing one boot heel on the edge of the desk, and gave himself over to the latest reports his London agent had sent him.

Barely ten minutes had passed before the door opened.

“Miss Gascoigne, my lord.”

Surprised, Gervase looked up to see Sitwell step back from the open door, allowing Madeline to march into his library.

March, stalk, stride-definitely nothing so gentle as walk.

“Thank you, Sitwell.” With a crisp nod, she dismissed his butler.

Sitwell bowed, and glanced inquiringly at Gervase. At his nod, Sitwell slid from the room, closing the door.

Madeline halted midway across the room, tugging rather viciously at her gloves. She was wearing a carriage gown, not her riding dress; she must have driven over. She had to have set out-Gervase glanced at the clock on the mantel-immediately after breakfast.

Swinging his feet to the floor, he rose. “Perhaps the drawing room-”

“No.” She shot a frowning glance his way, her eyes the color of a storm-wracked sea. The recalcitrant button finally gave and she stripped off her gloves, then glanced around. “This is your lair, is it not?”

Bemused, he answered, “So to speak.”

“Good-so we’re unlikely to be disturbed. I do not wish to have to exchange polite conversation with Sybil and your sisters-that’s not the purpose of my visit.”

She stuffed her gloves in a pocket, then started to pace back and forth before his desk, all but kicking her skirts out of the way as she turned. From what he could see of her face, her expression was set in determined, uncompromising lines.

“Perhaps you should sit down and tell me the purpose of your visit.”

She halted, looked at him, then at the armchair he indicated. She shook her head. “I’d rather pace.”

Inwardly sighing, he remained standing behind the desk, and watched as she resumed doing just that.

She glanced his way, saw, and scowled. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, sit down!” She pointed to his chair. “Just sit and listen. This time it’s I who have something to say to you in private. And I do mean say.”

He dropped back into his chair. “Discuss.” When she threw him a confused look, he elaborated, “Last night I said we had to discuss something in private-and we did.”

She blinked, then nodded. “Indeed. Which is precisely why I’m here.” She flung around and paced back past the desk. “What we discussed last night is not something we are ever going to discuss again.”

He’d wondered how she would react; now he knew.

Energy poured from her in great waves with every stride. Her fingers, now free of her gloves, linked, twisted, gripping convulsively. Combined with her forceful strides, the signs were impossible to mistake. She was agitated, not angry.

A telling point. One that enabled him to consider her statement with something approaching mild detachment.

“Why?” He kept his tone even, purely curious.

Not that he needed to ask; that was what she’d come there to tell him.

“Let’s consider how we came to this point-the events that led to what occurred last night on Lady Porthleven’s terrace.”

“I kissed you, and you kissed me. And we both enjoyed it.”

“Indeed.” She paused as if debating whether to modify that acknowledgment, but then she drew in a huge breath and continued pacing, addressing the stretch of carpet before her feet. “But regardless, looking back-correct me if I err, but this started with you taking some nonsensical notion into your head that you needed to get to know me better. Subsequently, when I informed you I had no interest in dalliance, you decided convincing me otherwise would be a good idea-and one way and another, that led to last night.” She shot him a glance that was close to a glare. “Is that correct?”

He debated telling her of the initiating action, the point she didn’t know-the reason he’d needed to get to know her better-for all of one second. “That succession of events is materially accurate.”

“Exactly.” She grew more agitated, but she hid it well; it was only by her hands that he could tell. “So there is absolutely no reason behind what occurred on her ladyship’s terrace beyond your whim.”

He opened his mouth.

She silenced him with an upraised finger, even though she wasn’t looking at him. “No-hear me out. That’s all you need to do. Against the worth of your whim stand these facts. One”-she ticked off the point on her finger as she paced-“I am Harry’s regent, his surrogate, and will be for six more years. Two, you are Crowhurst, and as such you and I need to do business with each other on numerous issues, on at least a weekly basis. Three, we are, you and I, the principal landowners in the district, and as such hold positions as effective community leaders.”

She paused at the end of the track she was wearing in his rug, then swung to face him, eyes narrow, her chin set. “I have absolutely no interest in jeopardizing any of those functions in order to accommodate any more of your whims.”

Madeline paused only to draw breath before continuing, “And before you say anything, permit me to remind you I am considerably more than seven. Before you think to even obliquely suggest that dalliance between us might lead to something more, allow me to inform you I am well aware that you couldn’t, wouldn’t, not in this world or the next, imagine me as your wife.”

She cast him a sharp glance-and saw that his expression, until then impassive, had at last changed. Now it was hard-no, stony. His eyes had narrowed; his lips parted-she rode over him again. “For instance, I know perfectly well that your whim to get to know me better was assuredly not driven by any sincere interest in me as a woman-you’ve known me for years, so why now? Because there are no other ladies in the vicinity at present, at least none to your taste, and you are therefore suffering from boredom, if not ennui.

“But I was about, hence your whim. But as we both know, I’m far too old to be considered eligible for the position of your countess. I have none of the airs, graces and aspirations that would be considered right and proper for the position-and am unlikely to develop them, as everyone in the district-even you-knows!”

She barely paused for breath. “Beyond that, my temper and attitudes are entirely incompatible with being your wife.” She wagged a finger at him as she swept past his desk. “We are far too alike to deal well on a daily, household basis, not that you ever actually intended of that, of course.”

At the end of her track, she swung to face him. “Which brings me to my peroration. Given you’re not thinking of marriage, and have no true interest in me-and you needn’t pretend you’ve suddenly been visited by some overpowering urge to make me your mistress-then”-she met his gaze-“as you have no motive whatever beyond satisfying a passing whim, you should cease and desist from this nonsensical pursuit of me.”

Gervase stared at her. His initial impulse was to argue-although deciding which ludicrous point to attack first would take some time. However…as he held her gaze, looked into the stormy seas of her swirling emotions, heard again her voice as she’d catalogued her virtues-missing most-it occurred to him that arguing would almost certainly get him nowhere.

She believed what she’d said. Absolutely, beyond question.

Her words had been rehearsed, yet had rung with conviction.

She honestly didn’t believe he would ever consider, let alone want, her as his wife. And as for desire-she didn’t believe she could inspire that either, at least not in him.

Of course, she’d nicely pricked his ego in numerous places, at least one of which he was disinclined to forgive. She’d all but accused him of trifling with her affections, preying on her finer feelings for idle sport. He didn’t like that, not at all, yet how the hell was he to deal with her now?

Without completely sinking himself in the process.

She met his stare with one of her own, then uttered a small humph and folded her arms. Tightly. Beneath her very ample breasts. Making it even more difficult for him to keep his eyes locked on hers, let alone think.

Her lips pursed. For half a minute, she actually tapped her toe.

Finally she uttered a frustrated sound, and demanded, “Well?”

“Well what?” She hadn’t asked any question, and he certainly had no answers. Not yet.

Her eyes stated she knew he was being willfully obtuse. “Will you agree to cease pursuing me and instead treat me as you previously have?”

He held her gaze for a moment, then sat back. “No.”

Her eyes widened until they resembled silver discs. The Valkyrie was back. “What do you mean, no?”

Had he been less experienced in battle, he would no doubt have cowered and beat a hasty retreat. Instead, he considered her, then evenly stated, “You’ll do perfectly well warming my bed.”

“What?” Thunderstruck, she stared at him. Any doubts he’d had over her complete blindness to her own attractions were slain by the dumfounded look in her eyes. Then she drew herself up; cool dignity fell about her like a cloak. “Stop it,” she said. “You know you don’t want me-”

“Madeline.” He waited until her eyes met his. “What did you imagine that kiss was about?”

She blinked, then frowned at him. “I…haven’t the faintest notion. Why don’t you tell me?”

“That kiss was intended to reveal whether or not we were compatible.” He held her gaze. “In case you aren’t sure how to interpret the result, let me assure you we are.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Compatible as to what?”

He arched a brow; who was being willfully obtuse now? “Leaving aside the subject of marriage-”

“Please don’t insult my intelligence by mentioning it.”

He considered her raised hand, her contemptuous expression, replayed her words and listened to her tone. No matter what he said, no matter the force of any arguments he advanced, she wasn’t going to believe it was marriage he had in mind.

Even though it was. He no longer harbored the slightest doubt on that score, not since he’d followed her from Lady Porthleven’s terrace.

But her disbelief-more, her inability to believe-left him few options. “Very well. As I said, leaving that aside, after last night, I have one, perfectly sane, rational, logical and sensible goal in mind vis-?-vis you.”

“And that is?”

“I want, and will have, you in my bed.” The only woman who would ever warm his bed-the one upstairs in the earl’s apartments-was his countess.

She stared at him for a long moment. “That’s sane, rational, logical and sensible?”

“It is to me.” He kept his expression mild but uninformative; they could have been discussing crop rotations.

She studied him, then drew in a huge breath; as her arms were again folded beneath her breasts, the action severely tried his resolve.

She let that breath out with an explosive, “Lord Crowhurst-”

He rolled his eyes, which made her glare.

“Oh, very well!” She flung up her arms, relieving the pressure on his control considerably. “Gervase, then! But you must see that this nonsense-your ridiculous pursuit of me-isn’t going to get anyone anywhere. All you’ll achieve is to make me lose my temper, and as my brothers will tell you, you don’t want to do that.”

He wasn’t so sure; in her Valkyrie guise she was undeniably arousing. Of course, she didn’t believe she was attractive at all, so telling her so would get him precisely nowhere. He studied her-agitatedly pacing again. If she’d been insulted by his tilt at her, she would have been angry. If she’d been truly uninterested-something he wouldn’t have believed after last night’s kiss, but if she’d been honestly unaffected-her usual calm confidence wouldn’t have been disturbed.

Instead, here she was, wearing a track in his rug, trying to persuade him to stop pursuing her… Why?

Inwardly, he smiled. The right question. The most pertinent question.

He took a moment to assess, then evenly asked, “What if I succeed?”

She halted, stared at him; although he could see her eyes clearly, he couldn’t for the life of him decipher her thoughts. Then she swallowed, and said, “That’s not the point.” Her tone was low. She lifted her chin, and continued more strongly, “The point is why you would want to, and we already know the answer to that.”

He held her gaze. “By your estimation, for a whim. Which, by definition, effectively translates to, ‘Why not?’ So let’s consider. Here I am, as you so rightly note deprived of feminine company. And here you are, twenty-nine years old, unmarried and unattached-and expecting to remain so for the next six years at least. We hail from the same circles. We both know there’s no social impediment to any liaison in which we might indulge.”

He paused, then went on, “I say I want you in my bed-the only hurdle to achieving that is your agreement. The only person I have to convince to say yes is you. And I intend to.”

“But you won’t!”

“Why?”

She made an exasperated sound. Her hands rose as if she were going to run them through her hair; she stopped at the last moment and waved them instead. “Because you don’t truly want me-you’re not truly attracted to me!”

He blinked. “And that kiss last night?”

“Was an aberration!”

“And if I say it wasn’t?”

When she looked at him, all he could see, all he could sense, was suspicion; she didn’t understand why he was doing this. It was time to close in. “Our situation, correct me if I err, can be reduced to this. I say I want you in my bed-and you don’t believe I truly do. Is that correct?”

Madeline compressed her lips. She wished she could read what was going on in his oh-so-male mind, but she couldn’t, so she nodded; his statement was true enough.

“If you’re correct, then nothing will actually eventuate.” He was still sitting back in his chair, the epitome of a gentleman at his ease, except for his eyes, his piercing gaze. “If I’m not serious, I won’t actively pursue you-I’ll lose interest and turn my attention to something, or someone, else. If you’re correct, then I will, indeed, cease and desist, more or less as a matter of course.”

Having him put it like that, so simply and succinctly, made her wonder why she’d driven there in such a frenzy-why she’d spent the entire night talking herself into a panic.

She shifted to face him squarely; she could feel the tension that had driven her to that point draining from her.

Then his lips curved-and all that tension came flooding back.

“If, however, I’m correct, and I am sincerely attracted to you and truly do want you in my bed, then, to my mind, given our current situation, at the very least you should allow me the opportunity to prove that to you.”

She stared. How the devil had they got to this point?

“Do consider”-his voice took on a steely edge-“you have, in essence, questioned my word, certainly my honor. It would only be fair and reasonable for you to allow me to clarify the matter-to set you straight.”

No, no, no, no, no…but…she put a hand to her temple. Rubbed. Frowned. “Why-”

“Why should be obvious. All you need to answer is yes or no.”

She frowned harder. “Yes or no to what?”

He sighed as if she were a widgeon. “To whether you’ll allow-meaning you won’t throw unnecessary hurdles across my path-me to prove to you that my attraction to you is entirely real.”

She narrowed her eyes on his handsome-and as ever uninformative-face. He continued to speak of his outrageous suggestions as if they were commonplace matters. “What, specifically, do you mean by ‘prove’?”

His eyes widened; he paused as if considering the answer, then said, “I suppose I mean that you’ll allow me to seduce you.”

She refused, of course. At length, in various ways. But he wouldn’t budge. He continued to talk her around in circles, bringing her back again and again to his simple, straightforward, transparently reasonable points.

Until, driven to the limit of her endurance, with a headache pounding in her temples, she threw up her hands in defeat. “All right! I agree!” Whipping her gloves from her pocket, she started pulling them on, ignoring his measuring gaze.

“Just to be specific…?”

She gritted her teeth; she couldn’t clench her jaw more than it already was. “Specifically-I will permit you to try to seduce me. However”-gloves buttoned, she pinned him with a glance every bit as steely as any of his-“I do not guarantee to succumb.”

The damned man had the gall to smile, entirely genuinely. He rose. “Indeed. That wouldn’t be any fun.”

Fun? She nearly choked. Deciding words were not a weapon to use with him, she swung to the door. “I’m leaving.”

“So I see.”

Although she moved quickly, he was beside her when she reached the door. She paused to let him open it.

“Do give my regards to your brothers.”

He opened the door. She stepped forward, then hesitated.

As if he could hear the question in her mind, he said from behind her, “I haven’t heard anything more about their interest in the smugglers, or the wreckers-if I do, I’ll tell you.”

It was the assurance she wanted. She dipped her head in acknowledgment, then stalked down the corridor-away from his lair.

Gervase accompanied her to the forecourt, saw her into her gig, then watched her drive away. When he turned back into the castle, he realized he was smiling; he took a moment to savor the feelings behind the smile.

Life in Cornwall had suddenly become very much more interesting.

Madeline was such a complicated, confusing jumble of female types, just learning them all, every fascinating facet of each of her personas, would keep him occupied for years.

He headed back to the library, replaying the last hour in his mind; it was heartening to know he hadn’t lost his knack for successful negotiations. So now, at last, he had a defined goal, a clear target. Dealing with his intended was very like maneuvering on a battlefield; at least now he knew which hill on the field he next had to take.

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