A Regency Rebel's Seduction: A Most Unladylike Adventure / The Rake of Hollowhurst Castle Elizabeth Beacon A Most Unladylike AdventureLady Louisa Alstone, Ice Diamond of the Ton, has turned down numerous proposals from the best in society. Seeking refuge in her brother’s house, she’s shocked to find the scandalous Captain Darke already in residence. A man who certainly doesn’t need the sinful temptation of a woman he presumes to be his friend’s mistress. The misunderstanding could be Louisa’s chance to cast off the strict dictates of her life as a Lady. And if she’s already living in secret with the devilishly handsome Captain, what good is there in preserving an already compromised reputation…!The Rake of Hollowhurst CastleSir Charles Afforde:the infamous, devilish rake has purchased Hollowhurst Castle lock, stock and barrel. All that is left to possess is the castle's determined and beautiful chatelaine.Roxanne Courland:her youthful, romantic dreams of Charles shattered long ago, this unconventional country miss would rather stay a spinster than enter a loveless marriage.Only this rake's devastatingly sensual onslaught is impossible to resist…. ARegencyCollection ELIZABETH BEACON has a passion for history and storytelling and, with the English West Country on her doorstep, never lacks a glorious setting for her books. Elizabeth tried horticulture, higher education as a mature student, briefly taught English and worked in an office, before finally turning her daydreams about dashing, piratical heroes and their stubborn and independent heroines into her dream job: writing Regency romances for Mills & Boon. ARegencyRebel’sSeduction A Most Unladylike Adventure The Rake of Hollowhurst Castle Elizabeth Beacon www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Table of Contents Cover (#ua21ee7af-c04c-5e97-a31c-7207a2746ed7) About the Author (#u1958228b-8a54-56b3-bdae-c8b14cdc284c) Title Page (#u0a3c2e9c-19fc-5242-93a6-19163b5fed33) A Most Unladylike Adventure (#ulink_297f901e-27c4-594c-887c-a378ee6a8ac1) Chapter One (#ulink_645e716a-4a8b-5480-b580-9d6ed0fb3f53) Chapter Two (#ulink_439ce810-72f6-50d7-b525-ca3a3c371ab3) Chapter Three (#ulink_b5eb9e8f-a0c1-521d-b8b1-5d5232b82f65) Chapter Four (#ulink_07e5bfab-268d-5f61-b88a-75f91b341627) Chapter Five (#ulink_8dd45483-b3b2-5b4d-9343-f5eac2e10cf6) Chapter Six (#ulink_5675bf0b-141d-589d-b923-2a6a89769313) Chapter Seven (#ulink_823ea81a-c1b3-5440-8e74-85c1aafdb8b0) Chapter Eight (#ulink_fccccc21-5ddc-59be-abac-2b215fda3c3a) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) The Rake of Hollowhurst Castle (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Endpage (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) A Most Unladylike Adventure (#ulink_c4d0dc3e-c577-56db-97e1-b69b897eaaaa) Elizabeth Beacon Chapter One (#ulink_bc6ce58c-4838-54e7-bd6d-07024ca84f1d) Wondering if she could still climb like a cat, Louisa Alstone swung her feet out of the window and eased into the spring night; considering the thought of marrying Charlton Hawberry was unendurable, she supposed she’d find out soon enough. His purloined breeches shifted about her lithely feminine legs as she flexed muscles she hadn’t used properly in six years and did her best not to look down. She’d certainly changed since the last time she had chased through the London streets, or scampered across rooftops above them, but she fervently hoped she hadn’t forgotten all her street-urchin skills. She should be far too much of a lady to consider such a desperate escape now, but silently prayed her agility hadn’t deserted her as she tried not to shake like a leaf in a high wind. Her brother, Christopher, or Kit Stone as he went by in business, was off with his best friend and business partner Ben Shaw, too busy having adventures on the high seas, so there was really no point waiting around for them to rescue her. Since she’d rather die than wed a man who would happily force her up the aisle after she had refused to marry him, she let go of the window mouldings and edged out along the parapet. This would work; she refused to think of the swift death awaiting her if she fumbled. She boosted herself across the next window and blessed the builder of these narrow town houses for insisting every shutter fitted so neatly no hint of her passing outside would shadow the closely barred wood. She still breathed a little more easily when no one stirred within and felt for her next shallow grip on Charlton Hawberry’s house. If she managed this, then where was there to go next? No point asking Uncle William and Aunt Prudence for help when they were calluding with Charlton. Uncle William would sell his soul to the devil for a good enough price and Kit’s growing wealth hadn’t endeared him or his sisters to their uncle, especially since her brother made sure their uncle got as little of it as possible, which left only her sister and brother-in-law to turn to. Maria and Brandon Heathcote would be deeply shocked at Charlton’s appalling behaviour and give her sanctuary, but how could she bring scandal down on their comfortable Kentish rectory when neither of them deserved such notoriety? Then there was Maria’s ridiculous soft-heartedness to contend with and Louisa grimaced at the thought of her sister feeling sorry for lying, cheating, facilely good-looking Charlton Hawberry. You must learn to be less extreme in your opinions, my dearest, Maria had written in reply to Louisa’s last letter, in which she announced she’d rather die than marry the wretched man after his third proposal in as many weeks. And why not consider Mr Hawberry’s proposals a little more seriously? she had continued. For all you persist in believing you will never marry, he sounds well enough looking and genuinely devoted to you. Being wed is so much better than dwindling into spinsterhood, my love, and I really think you should try to find yourself an agreeable husband, rather than regretting becoming an old maid when it is too late to remedy. Louisa no more believed in that love of Charlton’s than she did in her own ridiculous persona of lovely, impossibly fussy Miss Alstone, Ice Diamond of the ton, rumoured to have rejected more suitors than most débutantes imagined in their wildest dreams. Louisa knew her resistance to marriage would make her a curiosity to the bored gentlemen of the ton, so she’d made herself treat them coldly from the outset. Now her carefully cultivated aloofness was in ruins and, if she escaped Charlton, she’d be besieged by suitors and would-be seducers. In truth, neither Maria nor amiable, optimistic Brandon had it in them to stand up to Charlton for long and Uncle William and Aunt Prudence wouldn’t even try, so her reputation was already gone—a lost cause she couldn’t bring herself to mourn deeply. Perhaps it would persuade Kit to let her keep his house and help in his business, she decided, an old hope lightening her heart as she edged along the ledge, teeth gritted against the compulsion to look down into three-storeys’ worth of shadowy space. ‘I’d sooner starve,’ she’d told Uncle William truthfully when Charlton brought him into the unappealingly luxurious bedchamber she was imprisoned in to show how compromised she was only an hour ago. ‘As you please. I won’t have a notorious woman under my roof, so you can go back to the streets we took you from as far as your aunt and I are concerned,’ Uncle William had replied with a Judas shrug and added, ‘If you don’t want to wed Hawberry, you shouldn’t have run off with him in the first place.’ ‘He abducted me from that wretched masked ball Aunt Prudence insisted on attending and you know very well I hate the man. Won’t you send me to Chelsea to await my brother’s return, even if you won’t help me in any other way?’ ‘I’m done with you, madam. I wish I’d never taken you into my home when your return for my foolishness was to ruin your cousin’s chance of making a good match by stealing all her suitors.’ ‘I couldn’t do that if I tried. I’ve no idea where Sophia gets her looks or her sweet nature since it’s clearly not from you. A normal brother would have helped us when Mama died out of compassion for your orphan nieces and love for your only sister, but you had to be paid a king’s ransom to house us once Kit was at sea mending all our fortunes,’ she told him bitterly as she saw the weasel look in his eyes and realised he’d known about this horrid scheme all along. ‘Don’t worry, Uncle William, I wouldn’t spend five minutes under your roof now if the only alternative was the workhouse.’ Which seemed unlikely since her dowry was substantial, thanks to Kit’s efforts; if she could escape Charlton she’d live on that if Kit wouldn’t let her share his new bachelor home in Chelsea. A share of her fortune would fill Uncle William’s coffers very nicely, of course, but while her uncle and aunt had clearly plotted against her, could her cousin Sophia have known what was afoot? Louisa shook her head very warily and decided to trust one of two certainties in this shifting world that she suddenly seemed to have stumbled into. Cousin Sophia was far too amiable and feather-headed to be party to such a plan. She wondered how Uncle William came to have a sister like her lion-hearted, stubborn mother, and such a sweet widgeon for a daughter. Deciding the mysteries of heredity were unaccountable, she crept on along the façade of the hired town house, still trying to block the killing drop to the flagged pavement three storeys below from her thoughts. Louisa didn’t intend to marry; now the man she didn’t want to marry most of all was threatening her very soul, she wished she’d never agreed to give the marriage mart another try to appease her brother and sister. Her heart hammered against her breastbone as she took an unwary glance into the street below and fancied Death was creeping along the ledge behind her, his cold breath on her neck and bony fingers clutching a ghostly scythe. Since she’d rather die than wed Charlton, she crept on, keeping her thoughts busy with what came next. Could she evade her uncle and Charlton until her brother came home to dismiss their antics as the farce they ought to be? Her brother’s house would be the first place anyone would look for her and his minions lacked the authority or power to repel her enemies. Not quite true; one of Kit’s employees had both and she recalled her encounter with Kit’s most notorious captain as she ghosted past the empty rooms on this part of the third floor inch by heart-racing inch. Captain Hugh Darke had made a vivid impression on her, but he was one step from being a pirate and the rudest man she’d ever met, so little wonder if the image of him had lingered on her senses and her memory long after the man had left her alone in Kit’s office. Considering she’d spent mere seconds in Captain Darke’s darkly brooding, offensively arrogant company, his abrupt insolence and the satirical glint in his silver-blue eyes shouldn’t haunt her as they did. She fumbled her handhold on the neatly jointed stone at the very thought of explaining this latest misadventure to sternly indifferent Hugh Darke and had to swallow a very unladylike curse while she scrambled for another and terror threatened to ruin her escape in a very final way. ‘Confoundedly inconvenient, ill-mannered, cocksure braggart of a man,’ she muttered very softly to herself as she inched round the corner of the Portland Stone–faced building and finally reached the drainpipe to cling onto until the rapid beat of her heart slowed while she thought out her next move. Better with solid-feeling metal under her clutching hands, she decided to go upwards, since she’d got this far and risked being seen on the way down. Better to wait for solid ground under her feet after she had reached the last of this terrace of genteel houses, where there was less chance of being discovered clambering down from the rooftops of a stranger’s house, than if she swarmed down this one like some large and very fearful fly. The idea of meeting Charlton’s bullies again made her shudder with horror and she forced herself to forget their jeering comments and greedy eyes as she crept across the rooftops of Charlton’s unsuspecting neighbours. She reached the quiet and blissfully sleeping house on the end of the row and wasted a few precious moments debating whether to risk the roofs of the humbler mews that ran alongside the high town houses and reluctantly decided against it. Night had made courts and alleyways, relatively safe in daylight, into the haunts of the desperate and dangerous, but there were too many leaps into the unknown to spring across uncharted voids and risk the slightest miscalculation bringing her crashing down to earth. Slipping very cautiously to the ground at last, Louisa blessed Charlton’s love of the macabre for the ridiculous suit of black she’d found in a chest he’d thought safely locked. She grinned at the idea of him clumsily creeping about in the dark in some half-hearted imitation of Francis Dashwood’s infamous Hell-Fire Club of the last century and refused to even consider what Charlton got up to in his other life. His dark clothes had helped her escape and made her hard to see in the dark, so she blessed his secret vices for once and crept on through the chilling night. Kit’s house was the only place that offered her immediate sanctuary and access to the store of money he’d once shown her, in case she was ever in dire need of it and he was away from home. How prophetic of him, she decided, and at least she would be safe until dawn. Apparently six years of dull respectability had taught her to fear her native streets, so she launched into the fuggy darkness with her heart beating like a war drum and prayed she’d find her way in the dark before she aroused the interest of the night-hawks. Captain Hugh Darke woke very reluctantly from the nice little drunken stupor that he’d worked hard to achieve all the previous evening and peered at the ceiling above his head with only the faint, town-bred moonlight to help him work out whose it was and, more importantly, why some malicious elf was jumping about on his mysterious host’s roof and waking him from the best sleep he’d had in weeks. ‘And now I’ve got the devil of a head as well,’ he muttered, much aggrieved at such a lack of consideration by whoever owned the bed he was currently occupying. An insomniac clog dancer, perhaps? Or an iron master with a rush order his unfortunate founders must work all night to fulfil? Although that didn’t work; even he knew no iron founder would carry out his sulphurous trade anywhere but on the ground floor and there’d be smoke, lots of smoke, and flaring furnaces belching out infernal heat, and, if anything, it was rather cool in here. In a moment of reluctant fairness, he forced himself to admit it was a very quiet racket, furtive even; he wondered uneasily what bad company he’d got himself into this time. He shrugged, decided he wasn’t that good company himself and concluded there was no point trying to sleep through it, reminding himself he’d faced down far worse threats than an incompetent burglar before now. Not being content to cower under the bedclothes and wait for this now almost-silent menace to pass him by—if only he’d bothered to get under them in the first place, of course—he decided to find whoever it was and silence them so he could get back to sleep. If he went about it briskly enough, perhaps he could avoid succumbing to the best cure for his various ills that he’d ever come across—a hair of the dog who’d bitten him—and spare himself an even worse hangover come morning. He’d long ago given up pretending everything about his life he didn’t like would go away if he ignored it, so he swung his feet to the floor; even as his head left the pillow it thumped violently in protest, as if the elf had gotten bored with dancing on the ceiling and come into his room to beat out a dance on the inside of his reeling skull instead. ‘Confounded din,’ he mumbled and, liking the sound of his own voice in the suddenly eerily quiet house, he roared out a challenge in his best hear-it-over-a-hurricane-at-sea bark. ‘I said you’re making a confounded din!’ he bellowed as he stamped through the doorway into a stairwell that looked vaguely familiar. ‘Not half as much of a one as you are,’ a woman’s voice snapped back as if he were the intruder and she had a perfect right to steal about in the dark. Her voice was as low and throaty as it was distinctive, so Hugh wondered if she was more afraid of drawing attention to her peculiar nocturnal activities than she was willing to admit. Yet the very sound of her husky tones roused fantasies he’d been trying to forget for days. Her voice reminded him of honey and mid-summer, and the response of his fool body to her presence made him groan out loud, before he reminded himself the witch was Kit Stone’s woman and would never be his. He cursed the day he’d first laid eyes on the expensive-looking houri in his friend’s fine new offices dressed in an excellent imitation of a lady’s restrained finery, with an outrageous bonnet whose curling feathers had been dyed to try to match the apparently matchless dark eyes she had stared so boldly at him with. Such a speculative, unladylike deep-blue gaze it had been as well, wide and curious and fathomless as the Mediterranean, and he’d felt his body respond like a warhorse to the drum without permission from his furious brain. It had seemed more urgent that Kit never discover his notorious captain lusted after his mistress than handing over the report of his latest voyage his employer had demanded as soon as he’d docked in person, so Hugh had left the expensive high-stepper alone in Kit’s office with a gauchely mumbled excuse and a loud sigh of relief. She’d responded to his gaucherie with a few cool words and a dismissive glance that made him feel like an overgrown schoolboy, instead of a seasoned captain of eight and twenty with an adventurous naval career behind him and one in front as master of a fine ship of the merchant marine. Since he was done with reckless adventures, he did his best to avoid the enemy nowadays, as well as his old naval brothers-in-arms, who thought it quite legitimate to hunt down ships like his in order to steal his crew of experienced mariners and press them into the navy. It was a second chance that Hugh valued, so somehow he’d kept his eager hands off his employer’s whore and returned to his ship and the relative peace of his cabin to await Kit Stone’s summons to discuss this last voyage and plan the next one. Now Kit had gone off on some mysterious mission known only to himself; and the other half of Stone & Shaw was probably in the Caribbean by now, while Hugh Darke was drunk, in charge of Kit Stone’s house and business and fantasising over his doxy. There’d be hell to pay if Kit heard so much as a whisper of them being here in the middle of the night together, him stale drunk and her … What exactly was the high-and-mighty little light-skirt doing here when her lover was absent, and in the stilly watches of the night to make bad worse as well? ‘Did you hear me?’ she demanded from far too close for comfort. He swayed a little, then corrected himself impatiently as he wished the annoying witch would stop nagging and let him think. ‘How the devil could I avoid it, woman? You’re yelling in my ear like a fishwife.’ ‘I’m not yelling, you are,’ she informed him haughtily, ‘and where’s my b …?’ She seemed to hesitate for a long moment. Which, even still half-drunk as he was, Hugh thought very unlike the headlong siren who’d so tempted him with her ultramarine come-hither gaze that day in the city. Confound the witchy creature, but he’d had to drink out of the island to get a decent night’s sleep all these weeks later because she had haunted his dreams with the most heated and unattainably alluring fantasies any female had ever troubled him with in an eventful life. He couldn’t have her, had told himself time and time again that he didn’t really want her and it was just a normal lust-driven urge that drove him to dream about her, given he was a normal lusty male and she was very definitely a desirable and perhaps equally lusty female, given her profession. Then he’d gone on to reassure himself that she was nothing like the almost mythically sensuous creature he was fantasising her to be. In reality, the rackety female was probably coarse and calculating under all that lovely outer glamour and fine packaging. Far too often he’d reassured himself she was just a Cyprian, told himself he’d only have to know her to learn to despise her for selling all that boldness and beauty to the highest bidder. Somehow, now she was so close to him again and he was so lightly in control of his senses after all that cognac, the sensible voice of reason was in danger of being drowned out by the hard, primitive demand of his body for hers, as the very sound of her husky feminine tones rendered him powerfully, uncomfortably erect the instant they loomed out of the night and wrapped her toils round him. He fervently hoped her night eyes and well-developed instincts weren’t honed enough to tell her what a parlous state he was in and he bit down on a string of invectives that might have shocked even such an experienced night-stalker as her. ‘Where’s my bad, bold Kit?’ she finally managed, secretly horrified at what her very correct and stern brother would have to say about her various deceits, if he ever found out about them, of course. ‘No idea, he’s his own man and goes his own way,’ he told her absently, wondering why she wasn’t much-better informed about Kit’s whereabouts than he was, considering her supposedly special status in his life. If she were his woman, he wouldn’t let her out of his sight long enough to even look elsewhere, let alone allow her to roam about in a dark and virtually deserted house in the middle of the night, tormenting a poor devil like him who didn’t much care whether he lived or died at the best of times. Yet with her here, the scent and elusive shadows of a playful moon and its lightly concealing clouds playing with her face and form, and the night cool and silent all around them, suddenly the threat of Kit’s wrath wasn’t the deterrent it ought to be. When they had first met, his youthful employer had sobered Hugh up from a far worse carouse than this one before recklessly trusting him with the command of one of his best ships when nobody else would risk a rowboat to his sole charge, for how could a captain control his ship when he couldn’t control himself, or even care that he’d fallen from master of nearly all he surveyed headlong into the gutter? Until this dratted woman sparked all these unwanted urges and one or two wickedly tempting fantasies that made him recall his other life and all the bitter betrayals it had contained, he’d been doing so splendidly at sobriety as well. He’d almost been in danger of becoming a useful member of society, until something occurred to remind him how useless he actually was; but, he decided with a cynical twist of his lips that might have passed for a smile in a dim light, it would have been a fine joke on society if he’d only managed to bring it off. ‘Drat him for not telling me, then,’ the major cause of his latest downfall muttered at his gruff disclaimer and there wasn’t light enough to see if she looked as defeated and desperate as she sounded, before she seemed to recall another option and asked in a brighter voice, ‘Has Ben gone too?’ ‘I dare say Captain Shaw will be in the West Indies or even Virginia by now. So at least he’s out there earning us all some money, whilst I’m stuck on shore sailing nothing better than a desk and your Kit’s off on some wild goose chase all of his own that I would have expected you to know about far better than I do.’ ‘Aye, Ben’s proving himself the best of us all as usual,’ she said, affection very evident in her husky voice, and Hugh frowned fleetingly at hearing her so neatly avoid his implication she wasn’t as close to her protector as she hoped she was. Then he forgot his doubts about that position himself as he pondered the possibility of her maintaining intimate relations with Kit’s business partner as well as Kit himself. He silently cursed the blond giant for apparently taking shares in his best friend’s doxy, especially when Kit could have shared her with him instead. ‘So why are you still here? You could easily have gone to sea in Ben’s stead, and I doubt very much anyone would have missed you,’ she informed him irritably. Which was perfectly correct, he allowed fairly, even if it was brutally frank and deliberately tactless. Once upon a time, when he’d gone by another name and still possessed a relatively innocent soul, a number of good people had cared what became of him and some had even claimed to miss him sadly whilst he was away at sea. The few who were left to recall the blithe young idiot he’d once been probably welcomed the disappearance of the cynical sot he’d become from their lives with unalloyed relief, when he finally had the good manners to remove himself from polite society and the place he’d once thought of as home. He reminded himself sourly that the past was dead and gone and he’d resolved to live for the day when he became Hugh Darke, a man who congratulated himself on caring for nobody, just as nobody cared for him, except somewhere along the way he’d come to value the good opinion of his rescuers. Still, at least he’d been able to tell himself that he’d never again be the gullible, arrogant young fool he’d been back then, before his world fell apart and everything he’d thought solid and safe melted away like mist. Memory of the wanton havoc a careless and selfish woman could create in the life of a so-called gentleman should make him turn away from this one and barricade himself into his borrowed chamber until she gave up on him and went back into the night as swiftly and silently as she’d come. Unfortunately, she fascinated him far too much, even when he was sober and responsible; now he was three-parts’ castaway, he was much too forgetful that whatever sort of woman she was, she certainly wasn’t his, for all his driven wanting of her. ‘I’ve been ordered to stay ashore and run things here while they’re both busy playing on the high seas, or wherever Kit Stone happens to be hiding himself just now,’ he admitted gruffly at last. His ruffled feelings about his part of their current mission were too apparent in his aggrieved tone and he hated to hear that faint whine of discontent in his own voice. From what he could see of his unexpected visitor’s face through the shadowed gloom, she looked quite tempted to push him down the stairs and have done with him for good. A part of himself he’d almost managed to smother in drink and duty would almost be glad if she could put a period to his worthless existence as well, but he shook off the deep sense of melancholy he suspected had a lot to do with returning sobriety and wondered how soon he could drown it in brandy again. The sooner he got rid of the confounded woman and got back to this useless excuse for a life the better, he decided bitterly, then frowned fiercely at the intruder, which made it a crying shame she probably couldn’t see in the dark how very little he wanted her here. Chapter Two (#ulink_756534bd-e231-536b-aff5-75d71184caee) ‘So you’re playing at being in charge of Kit and Ben’s business ashore, whenever you manage to stay sober enough to care if it sinks or swims for the odd half-hour you can spare it, whilst they’re both busy risking their lives to make your fortune for you?’ the intrusive female asked Hugh, condemnation heavy in otherwise dulcet tones. How irresistible her voice might be if she ever found anything to like about him, he mused foolishly. As it was, her question echoed about his head like knife blades and he wondered if she’d been sent to torture him with her nagging questions and the haunting scent of her, the ridiculous sensuality of her very presence in the same room with him when it was too dark for him to see the outline of her superb body. A vital, unignorable here-and-now allure that somehow reminded him with every breath that she was a very human woman and not a haughty goddess after all. A woman well used to satisfying a man’s every fantasy on her back—as long as that man had enough gold in his pockets to pay for the privilege. And, thanks to Kit Stone and Ben Shaw, he had more than enough gelt to buy a lovely woman for their mutual pleasure nowadays, and keep her in comfort while he did so. How unfortunate that the one he wanted at the moment belonged to a friend he already owed so much to that he must leave her as untouched as a vestal virgin. ‘I mind my own business—would I could say the same for you, madam,’ he informed her sharply, in the hope she couldn’t read his bitter frustration at her unavailability or discern his ridiculous state in this gloom. ‘Kit and Ben are my business,’ she informed him impatiently and confirmed every conclusion he’d already reached about her, which really shouldn’t disappoint him as bitterly as it did somehow, especially considering he already expected the worst of her and most of her gender. ‘Not at the moment they’re not, since there’s a few hundred leagues of ocean between you and their moneybags, so you’ll just have to ply your trade elsewhere until they return,’ he drawled as insultingly as he could manage. ‘That’s it! Out you; go on, you get out of this house right now, you verminous toad!’ she ordered as if she had every right to evict him from the house Kit had told him to treat as his own while he was away. ‘Firstly, you’ll cease your screeching, my girl,’ he ordered as he grasped her arms in a steely hold, in case she started scratching and biting in retaliation for being thwarted as was the habit of her type—bred in the gutter and inclined to revert to it at the slightest provocation he decided unfairly, considering he’d long ago concluded nobody could help where they were born, mansion or hovel, and that he preferred hovel dwellers over their better-off neighbours nine times out of ten. ‘Damn you, I’ll screech as long and as loud as I choose to,’ she snapped back and he shook her in the hope it would rob her of breath. Her noise and her closeness and the elusive, womanly scent of her as she fought his grip with a determination he secretly admired was making his head pound again. ‘Secondly, you’ll get out of my room,’ he went on doggedly. ‘We’re not in a room; even if we were, it wouldn’t be yours.’ ‘Irrelevant,’ he dismissed and felt something strange under the controlling grip he couldn’t bring himself to make a punishing one, despite his disillusionment with her sex and the urgent need he felt to be rid of her before disaster struck, something besides warm, soft, tempting woman. ‘And what the devil are you doing running wild about the place dressed in a man’s shirt and breeches and not just asking for trouble but begging for it, you idiot woman?’ he demanded harshly, quite put off his list of demands by that shocking discovery. At least he wished fervently he really did find her unconventional attire shocking, instead of far too sensually appealing for comfort or safety as his exploring hand on her neat derrière made her squirm even more determinedly against him and curse him with an impressive, if far from ladylike, fluency while she was doing so. ‘How I choose to dress is none of your business and never will be,’ she informed him sharply at last, but if she could still blush he was almost sure she was doing so from the sudden increase in body heat under his exploring fingers. ‘No, it’s clearly Kit Stone’s or Ben Shaw’s business, and therefore mine in their absence,’ he asserted, senses sharpening despite the brandy, as he felt a terrible threat to his jealously guarded aloofness in that demand for more information and carried on all the same. ‘Come on,’ he urged recklessly, making her obedience irrelevant by tugging her after him all the way downstairs and into the kitchen, where at least a fire was still burning faintly, even if the manservant Kit employed was snoring in the porter’s chair in the hall, more drunk than Hugh had managed to become so far despite all his efforts before this confounded woman came along and spoilt his chance of a decent night’s stupor. Now, he supposed bitterly, he’d have to endure his usual nightmare-haunted sleep replaying a past he’d so much rather forget, if he was to be allowed any rest this night at all, which currently seemed doubtful with Kit Stone’s woman actually here in the flesh rather than in spirit for once and making sure he had no chance of resting, even when he wasn’t dreaming about her writhing under him, moaning out her desire and then her lusty pleasure as he satisfied every single one. Setting a taper to the dying fire, Hugh lit a candle, decided he didn’t believe his eyes and lit a whole branch of them. He wasn’t often rendered speechless nowadays, but he couldn’t think of a single word to say as his eyes roved over this extraordinary night visitor with numb astonishment. Numb because all the blood and feeling he still had left in him rushed straight to his loins and stopped there to torture him with the mere sight of such blatant allure. It should definitely be a crime for any woman to go about dressed like that, he decided bitterly. A felony carrying with it some sort of severe but not deadly punishment that would put her off taunting poor devils like him with her goddess’s body and those endless, neatly feminine legs. An amateurish attempt at binding her breasts had only made them seem all the more worthy of a sensual exploration and as for that sweetly rounded derrière of hers … If she didn’t realise what a temptation it posed to any red-blooded male who set eyes on her, then she ought to be locked up for her own safety until he’d taught her to know better. ‘What the devil are you doing strutting the streets at night dressed like a female resurrectionist or an undertaker’s apprentice?’ he finally managed, faintly surprised, until they came out of his mouth, that he’d got that many words left in him. ‘It’s nothing to do with you what I choose to do, or where I decide to go while I’m doing it,’ she told him and wrenched her arm out of his slackened grip at last so she could fold it belligerently across her body, trying her best to look as if she’d every right to go about dressed in black breeches and a dark shirt with a black cravat knotted about her slender neck. Her crow’s-wing dark locks suddenly cascaded down her back, like the wickedest promise he’d seen in a long time, when she shook her head defiantly at him and her neat black-velvet cap finally gave up trying to contain so much dusky luxuriance. ‘You just made it a lot to do with me, Witch,’ he informed her hoarsely and let his eyes rove as they pleased over the very feminine body he’d reluctantly fantasised over since the black day he’d found her waiting in Kit’s office, looking as if she had every right to be there and he was the intruder. ‘Men!’ she condemned impatiently, as if his sudden fascination with her long slender legs and those neatly rounded, womanly curves, so blatantly on show, was entirely his fault and nothing to do with her unconventional garb or extraordinary behaviour at all. ‘You’re all the same.’ ‘Now there you’re almost certainly mistaken,’ he lazily informed her, making no attempt to disguise his wolfishly thorough appraisal of her well-displayed charms, for if she aspired to meet some impossibly gallant chevalier who’d be so overwhelmed by her sensual beauty that he’d offer her anything she demanded of him during her peculiar night wanderings, she should never have embarked on a career of selling herself to the highest bidder in the first place. ‘We’re all different, but we think alike when presented with nigh-irresistible temptation, such as you pose any red-blooded male by going about dressed like that.’ ‘On the contrary, it seems to me that you don’t think at all,’ she muttered darkly and frowned at him as if she had the right to find his blatantly sexual scrutiny of her outrageously displayed body ill-mannered at best and deeply insulting at worst. Hugh wondered how she expected any red-blooded male to actually think while she was standing there displaying her assets so generously that he’d soon only function on pure, or impure, instinct alone if she wasn’t very careful. ‘You could be right,’ he told her with a wickedly unrepentant grin as he forgot his headache and began to enjoy himself by living down to her expectations. ‘At the moment I’m too busy fantasising about the feel of your magnificent body writhing under me as you desperately beg me to take you to paradise to waste much of my energy on rational thought, my darling.’ ‘I’m not your darling and I’m prepared to bet you don’t know the first thing about what would truly transport a woman to paradise,’ Louisa snapped back, wishing she felt as cool as she sounded as she stood in front of this outrageous, drunken and dissipated man in her shirt sleeves with everything going wrong with her wonderful plan of escape, even now she’d finally got away from Charlton. She’d shed her jacket and been forced to leave it behind when it had been caught on a spike put there by an inconsiderate neighbour of Kit’s to prevent the stealthy and desperate using their roof for nefarious purposes such as hers. Doing her best not to remember how terrified she’d been then, swinging between safety and a forty-foot drop to her death by one hand as she had wrestled the inextricably trapped coat undone so that she could finally wriggle out of it and haul herself to safety, she shivered in the unreliable light of those untrimmed candle wicks this sot had lit to inspect her by. Until her brother or Ben came back to put the world right for her, she might still be discovered and marched up the aisle so fast the vicar wouldn’t have time to ask what she’d been up to that she deserved this and why she was protesting every step of the way. She reassured herself that could only happen if she was caught and resolved to stay in this scandalous disguise for the rest of her life if she had to, rather than endure such a fate. So she did her best to glare defiance at the wretched man while she convinced herself even his company was preferable to roaming the streets now she was grown up and vulnerable, open to the use and abuse such a reckless female might attract from rogues like this one, if she wandered about even more freely dressed in what was left of Charlton’s fantasy disguise. ‘Aren’t you willing to add me to your stable of lucrative lovers then, my darling doxy?’ he suddenly asked as if he had every right to insult her. He’d only set eyes on her twice in his life, for goodness’ sake, and she doubted he even remembered their first encounter now, given the reek of brandy on his breath whenever he came near her. Not knowing her at all, he somehow thought he had every right to eye her like a starving dog slavering over a juicy bone—surely he couldn’t know a visceral, wayward part of her was inclined to look at him the same way and only made the rest more furious. ‘Firstly, I’m very particular whom I allow to even call me darling, Captain Darke, and secondly, I certainly wouldn’t take a man like you to my bed, even if I wasn’t,’ she informed him haughtily, kicking herself for letting him know she’d been fascinated enough to find out what his name was after that first sight of him in Kit’s office. ‘You put such a high price on your charms, then?’ he asked as if he was surprised. She had to bless his consumption of brandy for fogging his wits that he hadn’t even noticed her faux pas, even if it fuddled him into mistaking her for Kit’s mistress rather than his sister. After all, she didn’t want him to think of her as his employer’s close kin, did she? No, of course she didn’t. If he knew who she really was, he might ruin everything by handing her back to her temporary guardians, so it was far better if he thought her no better than she should be and let her stop here for the night. ‘A very high one indeed,’ she assured him with a toss of her head, which she hoped told him it was beyond anything he could pay, if he had anything left of his share of the last cargo after buying enough brandy to inebriate even him. ‘How’s a man supposed to know if a woman’s price is worth the paying when he’s not even been permitted to check the quality of the goods? Strikes me you’re asking a man to buy a pig in a poke, my dear.’ Good heavens! The appalling man really thought she was a streetwalker, casually selling her body for a bed and food in her belly as well as the clothes on her back. More of a roof-walker, her sense of the ridiculous reminded her, and the past years of suffocating respectability threatened to fall away under the liberty of his wild conclusions about Miss Alstone, spinster of impeccable birth, if not exactly unimpeachable upbringing. Maybe Aunt Prudence was right and she’d never be the proper lady she should have been since birth, if only said birth hadn’t taken place in a rundown lodging-house, so perilously close to the rookeries of St Giles it was almost a part of them. She’d never know now how differently she might have felt about the world if she’d come into it at lofty Wychwood Court, a vast Tudor mansion in the county of Derbyshire that was the Alstones’ ancestral home. A house she’d never been invited to visit and doubtless never would be now, since her Alstone cousins seemed intent on ignoring any relations low enough to run the streets for most of their childhood and then lower the family name still more by taking to trade in order to make up their lamentable lack of the proverbial penny to bless themselves with. Reminded how little she’d enjoyed a life of cramping propriety, she made herself meet this monster of depravity’s sceptical gaze and match his cynical scrutiny with one she hoped he’d find just as difficult to meet. ‘The customer always has the choice not to buy,’ she said boldly, as if she fended off such outrageous provocation every day of the week and reminded herself that, if not for Kit and Ben, she’d probably be exactly what this poor apology for a gentleman thought her right now. ‘And I can take my pick of those who want to do so whenever I like.’ ‘The most readily caught fish doesn’t always taste sweetest.’ ‘But if you throw them back, I’ve found the little ones often live to grow up and learn a lot more, which makes catching them again into much better sport.’ ‘I’ll have to be the one that got away, then, for hooking me would prove a challenge even to the most cunning enchantress, let alone an amateur angler like yourself, Miss … Confound it, whatever is your name, woman?’ ‘Miss Confoundit? Now why didn’t I think of that?’ ‘I’ll just make one up to call you by then, shall I?’ ‘No, it’s …’ Louisa racked her brains for something suitably exotic, something an aspiring Cyprian might use to intrigue ardent gentlemen with plenty of gold in their pockets, if not rude and probably impoverished sea captains. ‘Eloise La Rochelle,’ she invented on the spur of the moment and decided she rather liked it. Nobody would dare drive Eloise La Rochelle to such desperation that she’d risk climbing out of a second-floor window to escape her uncle’s machinations and her importunate suitor, she decided whimsically. Indeed, Eloise would doubtless have far less respectable gentlemen than even this one climbing up the creepers to her scented balcony in their droves of a night-time to beg for her nigh-on legendary favours instead. Would she accept any of them? she wondered, as she slipped deeper into the dangerous fantasy of being a very different female from the one she was in reality, or make them climb back into the night? Charlton could go back the way he came as fast as gravity could take him and she hoped it would teach him a salutary lesson, but Hugh Darke? Daring, dashing Eloise La Rochelle might just let him stay for a while, because he amused and intrigued her, of course, and to enchant him into parting with the dark secrets that lurked in those ironic grey-blue eyes of his, until he finally laid even his cynical heart at her feet. Then he could take his brooding gaze and his warrior’s body down the stairs when he left, to scandalise and intrigue passing dowager duchesses with his disreputable looks and piratical charm and make them long to be as young, bold, stunningly beautiful and irresistibly seductive as the notorious Eloise La Rochelle of such scandalous fame even they couldn’t pretend never to have heard of her. No, she revised her story, he wouldn’t be able to leave. He’d demand, then beg, then sell his soul to stay with her, if he still had one. Infamous Eloise La Rochelle would spoil him for every other female he ever met and in return he’d satisfy her as extravagantly as she would him, or be banished to decline and fall alone as a punishment for his sensual failure. ‘And I’m the Queen of Sheba,’ he responded sceptically to her exotic nom de plume, bringing her back to here and now with an unpleasant jolt, as she struggled with the uneasy certainty that he wouldn’t fail to pleasure her in such an encounter, even if she was a little foggy about what such sensual satisfaction would involve. A very uncomfortable present it was as well, where he didn’t look at all enchanted by her assumed name or shockingly displayed charms and probably wouldn’t beg aught but peace from the likes of her, so he could broach another bottle and swinishly lose himself in drink once more. ‘I suggest you act a little more regally from now on, then,’ she told him crossly, turning her back on that ridiculous fantasy of him falling at her feet, tortured by passion and his searing, insatiable need for her as she searched the Spartan-looking kitchen for something to eat instead. ‘Make yourself at home, why don’t you?’ he muttered ungraciously. ‘Certainly I shall and you can build up the fire whilst I do so,’ she demanded, wishing she could find something more appealing than a hunk of hard and cracked cheese and some pickled onions along with, of all things, a naval officer’s dress sword, in Kit’s larder. ‘Coste sends out for food whenever we’re hungry,’ Hugh told her as if that explained everything and, since they were both men, it probably did. ‘On the rare occasions either of you forsake the brandy bottle long enough to bother to eat at all, I suppose?’ she asked sweetly. ‘Whatever our domestic arrangements may or may not be, we certainly didn’t invite you here in the middle of the night to see if they were up to scratch,’ he mumbled gruffly as he bent to stoke the fire. ‘Which is just as well, considering you clearly don’t have any,’ she informed him disgustedly as she chewed valiantly on the hunk of cheese and wondered if even she was hungry enough to indulge in a pickled onion or two to force it down with, as she could see no sign of anything else remotely edible or drinkable. ‘We don’t need them,’ he informed her defensively, looking endearingly sheepish even as he did so. ‘Neither of us wanted a female nagging and criticising and poking her nose in everywhere it wasn’t wanted when we can manage very well for ourselves.’ ‘No, you can’t. I can assure you that you and Coste really, really can’t manage anything more refined than a sty, Captain Darke,’ she told him fervently, as she finally gave up on finding anything else remotely edible in the dusty larder and purloined his branch of almost-gutted candles to make a more thorough tour round the dusty, dirty, unused room and the once-pristine scullery on the other side of the kitchen that turned out to be piled with every glass, tankard and mug Kit’s house possessed. All were dirty and looked as if they’d been so for too long. ‘And wherever have Mrs Calhoun and Midge gone off to?’ she asked at last. ‘Kit’s housekeeper wouldn’t stay once he’d been gone awhile, nor let Midge stop here without her. She said we lived like swine and she’d no mind to go on mucking out a pigsty every morning, so you two obviously have a lot in common.’ ‘How very sensible of her, but wherever did they go?’ she asked and when he didn’t reply, she walked back into the kitchen to find him watching her as if he wished she’d conveniently disappear as well. Oddly hurt by his clear preference for her room over her company, she frowned and tapped an impatient foot as if waiting for his answer, when she suspected both women would be at Brandon and Maria’s rectory in Kent, awaiting the return of their master before they deigned to come back. ‘She just said Kit would know where to find her when he wanted his house made civilised again,’ he drawled unrepentantly. ‘How insightful of her,’ she said with a scornful glance round the room. ‘I’ll borrow a few deckhands to clean up next time we unload a ship.’ ‘In the meantime you intend to go on treating my br … brave Kit’s house worse than a stable? At least a well-run stable is mucked out every day, but this place has obviously been going to rack and ruin ever since he left.’ Was Captain Darke actually blushing? Louisa wondered. Her half-guttered candles were flickering annoyingly and refused to illuminate him properly, but she was surprised he’d even heard it could be done, let alone learnt how to do it himself. ‘He said I was to treat the place as my own,’ he excused himself gruffly. ‘And you truly think so little of yourself, Captain?’ ‘Yes, Miss Eloise so-called Rochelle, I do, and this is all I want or need of any place I lay my head nowadays,’ he rasped harshly, as if she’d stepped on to forbidden ground by even asking that question. ‘Why?’ she asked, biting back a ladylike apology for intruding on his private thoughts and opinions. ‘Because … Devil fly away with it all, woman, what right have you to break in here and interrogate me like some long-nosed inquisitor? While we’re on the subject of the devil, where’s Coste hidden the rest of the brandy, so I can get back to my previous occupation when you leave us or at least stop your infernal nagging?’ ‘Inside himself from the look of it,’ she answered impatiently and watched him with an implacable look Kit called her I’ll-find-out-if-it-kills-us-both stare. ‘Selfish bastard,’ he grated in a much-tried voice and tried to look as if he didn’t know he was being inspected by his unwanted night visitor and found wanting. ‘You probably have enough left in your system to inebriate a goat.’ ‘I never saw a drunken goat, but what an interesting life you must have lived to have done so, Miss Le Havre.’ ‘Yes, I have,’ she informed him truthfully, or at least she had until she’d been hauled off to learn respectability at the age of thirteen, much against her will. ‘And it’s not Miss Le Havre, but Miss La Rochelle, if you’re capable of remembering your own name, of course, let alone mine, which I sincerely doubt just at the moment.’ ‘I know that too well, but I dare say you could tell a tale or two about that life, could you not?’ ‘I could, but I won’t.’ ‘Yet you expect me to tell you my entire life story, whilst you reveal nothing of your own? You’re an implacably demanding, as well as an insensitive and intrusive, female footpad, are you not, Miss Rockyshore?’ ‘You really have no idea, Captain Darke.’ ‘So, is that how you keep your lovers under your slender little thumb?’ he drawled in his velvet-rubbed-the-wrong-way voice. ‘By dragging their darkest secrets out of them when they’re drunk, then holding them over the unfortunate idiots?’ ‘Nothing about me is so very little, sir, I’m above average height for a woman,’ she parried coolly, ignoring the urge to counter the rest of his accusations as beneath her notice. Trust him to take her words as an open invitation to let his silver-blue eyes rove over her boldly. He was good at defending his privacy, she mused, as he let his gaze track over her until those eyes had all but stripped her bare. Then the renegade let that blatant stare of his rest explicitly on the secret centre of her and she had to fight not to press her legs together and visibly, physically clamp down on the fiery demand suddenly all too alive and wildly curious for more under his outrageous scrutiny. Kit and Ben hadn’t fought battle after battle to preserve her honour in their youth so she could be secretly tempted to throw it away on a ne’er-do-well like this. Yet that fully-formed temptation stopped her thundering scold and sharp exit in its tracks. If she let him take her virginity, then she’d lose all her value on the marriage mart the instant he did so. Not even a Charlton Hawberry would take another man’s leavings, so deeply ingrained as it was in a gentleman’s psyche that he must marry a virgin, or at the very least a virtuous widow—she would certainly be neither after a night in the ungallant captain’s bed. It might be a desperate idea, almost as reckless as climbing out of a second-floor window at midnight, but she wasn’t in a position to discard any possibility just now. ‘So I see,’ he said with a pantomime leer she almost applauded, but there was something deeper and darker than simple lust in his eyes as well. It suddenly occurred to her that the real Captain Darke, whoever he might be under all this dark and dangerous front he faced the world behind, could break her heart if she had one. Luckily she didn’t and stared boldly back at him. ‘That could change,’ she warned, ‘if you don’t stop staring at me.’ ‘Me, Miss Rockisle?’ he said, and his silvery-blue eyes were beginning to lose the haze of brandy and world-weariness that had clouded them until now. She dare not look lower to find out if his body was as blatantly aroused as his cocky smile and intent gaze argued it must be. ‘Yes, you—we were discussing your total lack of ambition and self-respect rather than my height and frame, if you remember?’ she said coldly. ‘You can talk as much as you like, my lovely, if you have the breath left for it after I’ve finished with you,’ he mocked as he sauntered confidently towards her. ‘I know when a man is determined to shut me up at any price,’ she blustered. Suddenly it was very quiet in the house, echoingly empty but for the unconscious Coste, who she would have to swear to keep her identity from Hugh Darke, and two almost-adversaries, each determined to give no quarter. Louisa was too much a child of the streets to yield an inch in the eternal battle to make every choice her own, however wrongheaded and contrary it might be, and stood her ground while she wondered what that next choice would be. ‘And I know just as surely when a woman wants me as much as I do her, my dear,’ he said and stepped closer, silvery-blue eyes full of sensual challenge. ‘I’m not your dear,’ she argued and tried to tell herself it didn’t matter. ‘And if you’re not, what do you care? In a profession where “affection” is traded for expensive jewellery, fine gowns and a rich man’s protection, you can’t afford emotions, can you?’ Chapter Three (#ulink_231a56c3-9d60-5a63-aea5-7c73aec49fb8) Temper had always been her undoing, Louisa decided as she lost it spectacularly and did her best to punch him in the gut. The wretched, ungentlemanly Captain Darke countered her onslaught by engulfing her in such a tight hold there wasn’t even a tissue of air to shield them from each other and it sparked a heat set burning weeks ago, when they had first laid eyes on each other and wondered ‘what if?’. It was like a force of nature, fuelled by some terrible need she hadn’t known could come so urgent it might tear into her very soul in order to make them indivisible. She moaned at the shock of wanting more so desperately and should have been shaken instead of fascinated by the novel hardness of his rampant male member nudging explicitly, demandingly against her very core. Logic, scruples, reality—they could all wait. She needed to indulge, to learn, to luxuriate. His mouth took hers in an open-mouthed kiss that stole her breath and sent her straight into sensual arousal no real lady would feel for a lover, at least until he’d chipped away at her scruples and guarded heart for weeks, or maybe even months. Louisa’s heart kicked with a shameless thrill at being so easily seduced, so starkly introduced to rampant sexual hunger, to the merciless drive of one achingly aroused body for another. She was all too ready to lose herself in the heat and novelty, and didn’t that prove her uncle and aunt had been right all along and she’d never make a proper lady? Unable to resist the urge to explore him with every sense as he amply demonstrated his skills as a lover of passionate women, she lazily let the tips of her fingers take a census of his features. His chin felt as firm as if he chewed nails for a pastime, when not seducing very unlikely maidens, and it was intriguingly shadowed with fine, dark whiskers. ‘I’d have barbered myself if I’d known you were coming,’ he told her wryly in a brief moment of respite, then ran his index finger over her tingling lips as if they fascinated him as much as his did her, before kissing her again as if he couldn’t help himself test their softness and their welcome. The small part of her brain not occupied with kissing him back went on with her sensual exploration of his intriguing features. He’d broken his nose once upon a time, as she felt a slight twist in his regally aquiline nose, and she decided it made his wickedly handsome face more human. His mouth was all sensuality just now; his firm lips on her softer ones were a balm, the impudent exploration of his tongue an arousing, teasing echo of something deeper and darker at the core of her that throbbed and ground with need in shameless response. Her breath sobbed when he raised his mouth enough to lick along the cushiony softness he’d made of her lush lips, to tease and tantalise their moist arousal with his tongue as if he couldn’t get enough of her. Then it was his turn to groan as she darted her tongue inside his mouth, to chase and tease and put into practice all he’d just taught her. Now wouldn’t he be surprised if he knew I was only as adept in the amorous arts as he’sjust shown me how to be? she mocked herself silently. He was a drunkard, a hardened cynic, and now she could add accomplished seducer of women to the slate against him. And he thought her barely one step away from a doxy touting for custom in the Haymarket. Even under the addictive spell of his kiss, Louisa managed to sigh. To him she was a willing mouth and an eager body and suddenly that was insulting everything there should be between lovers. If she were what he thought, she’d still have a heart and soul, however broken and damaged, and she wanted to be more than a reluctant itch to be scratched then added to a list of women he’d taken, then all but forgotten. He was more than that as well, for all he looked as if he didn’t care to be. There was a depth of sadness under all that to hell-with-you manner, what suddenly seemed almost a wasteland of loss behind his cynical self-mockery. If letting him take her to their mutual satisfaction meant no more than a quick tumble in the hay, then she couldn’t do it even to evade a legion of Charltons. No, a mocking internal voice said, because you want too much from this conundrum of a man for that, don’t you, Louisa? The question taunted her as his large hands cupped her shamefully aroused breasts and threatened to incinerate other wants with the sheer sensual need for more. Her eager nipples pebbled under the wicked stimulation of his suddenly very sensitive fingers and she felt as if she might burst into spontaneous flames. Temptation tore into her at the very thought of learning more, of letting him take her and render her unmarriageable between one moment and the next, but she fought it. Those who loved her might hope she wavered because of proper, belated, maidenly shrinking at the irrevocable step between virgin and woman, but that was nothing to do with it. It was because he was too embittered to wake up next to her in the morning and make the loss of her maidenhead feel right to either of them that she couldn’t take that step and walk him over a precipice. It would solve so much, but then he’d know Eloise La Rochelle was as big a lie as the brilliant and icy Miss Alstone was to the ton. Perhaps she was the biggest fool in London to pass on seduction by such a master of the amorous arts, but she met Captain Darke’s clearing gaze and knew her instincts were right. He could be all her tomorrows and her sensual fate, or just a regretted possibility, but she wanted more than a brief but blazing seduction that would probably haunt her for a lifetime. Did she hope for protracted and lingering seductions to come, perhaps? Not marriage—to her that was as impossible as fairy dust—but she couldn’t kill whatever held her back by melting into his kisses and solving one problem with an even greater one. ‘I see how you hook in your prey now, Miss La Rochelle,’ he said with a shake of need in his deep voice that spoilt the steeliness of his would-be taunt. ‘I don’t hook them, as you so elegantly put it—they catch themselves, Captain, then I take my pick,’ she lied. ‘If you think to net me, then you’ve rarely been more wrong,’ he grated out in a fine, frustrated fury. ‘I’m a woman, Mr Darke, and therefore very rarely wrong at all,’ she taunted him with a sidelong look at his still-heaving chest and the flush of hard colour burning on his high cheekbones. She wriggled her hips and boldly abraded his impressive manhood with her lithe body to prove it. ‘In this instance you’re so glaringly mistaken I’m surprised you can’t find the good sense to admit it,’ he informed her stiffly and snapped the spell their bodies were slower to relinquish than their minds by pushing her roughly away. Turning his back on the wanton sight of her, draped against the hard edge of the kitchen table, he groaned in unmistakable self-disgust. Louisa stayed where she was, mainly because her legs were still shaking so much from want and shock that she doubted they’d hold her up if she tried to move. ‘Yet you’ll remember me, Captain Darke. Even if I was about to let you put me outside like a stray cat, you’d still take the fire we’ve just lit between us back to bed with you and burn mercilessly for me all night long, deny it as you might,’ she taunted dangerously, recklessly prodding at his temper for some reason she couldn’t even put into words for her own satisfaction. Maybe part of her still wanted to goad him into seducing her until she forgot anything else. She wondered uneasily at her own folly and tried to look as if his revulsion at the very idea of ever touching her again couldn’t possibly hurt her. ‘I might well, but why draw back from a promising new keeper when you seem to be without one while my youthful employer is at sea, Eloise?’ ‘To make you more eager, of course,’ she explained, as if it was perfectly obvious to any masculine idiot who hadn’t pickled his intellect in brandy. ‘Just how eager do you expect your lovers to be? Is seeing me so burnt up by the lure of paradise between your finely displayed legs that I’d have promised you everything I have, short of a soul I long ago sold to the devil, not desperate enough for you?’ ‘Obviously not,’ she parried, doing her best not to blush at the thought of what they would probably be doing right now if she hadn’t drawn back. She imagined they’d somehow be striving for a fulfilment her body ached for with a merciless, hard knot of frustration at the centre of her that felt as if it might never relax on being denied what was natural and right between lovers. ‘Lovers’—that was the key. It was what they didn’t have—not one sliver of love flowed between them, so none of it would be right, however hot and needy they were for each other. Although she would never marry, she wouldn’t let herself fully love a man outside it unless she really did love him. That seemed about as unlikely as Captain Darke falling at her feet and swearing undying, unswerving devotion to a woman he despised, for all he claimed to want her so hotly. ‘What else do you expect of a man, then, if that’s not enough?’ he asked. ‘Affection,’ she told him rather forlornly, knowing she’d probably never gain it from this guarded, isolated man. ‘And a little respect.’ ‘Very hard qualities for a female in your profession to find, I would have thought,’ he mocked her almost angrily, as if no woman had a right to demand so much of a man she was thinking of taking to her bed, always supposing they managed to get that far. ‘Hard ones to seek anywhere, Captain Darke, let alone on the streets,’ she said, with what she knew would look like too much knowledge in her dark-blue eyes as she met his hard gaze. ‘Aye, I’ll grant you that much bravery, or should that be impudence rather?’ he said reluctantly and she didn’t know whether to feel smug or guilty. She reminded herself he was so drunk she could probably have pushed him over with one hand when he first staggered across the open door of that bedchamber and made her jump nigh out of her skin. If she’d pushed him away hard enough at any time during this surreal encounter, he would very likely have fallen in a heap and gone back to sleep as sweetly as Kit’s watchman, and nothing they’d done in the last half-hour had caused a stutter in Coste’s impressive snoring. The world ticked on and she and Captain Darke ticked with it and suddenly it felt as if their bittersweet interlude had been little more than a wicked daydream. She put a hand out as if to grasp it, but a picture of him ardent and wholeheartedly wanting her with every sense evaporated under her touch. Such fantasies weren’t for the likes of them; she knew too much and he’d learnt too much for that sweet pipe dream to ever come true. ‘I’d curtsy to acknowledge your extraordinary graciousness,’ she told him in the hard, cynical voice she thought Eloise would use to protect herself from her enemies, ‘but somehow I’ve forgotten to be suitably servile these last few years.’ ‘Aye, it’s easy to grow accustomed to luxury and money. Harder than I hope you’ll ever know to manage without them when they’ve become such a part of your life you can’t imagine losing everything,’ he said and she wasn’t fool enough to think he was worrying about her future. ‘I started out with nothing more than the clothes I stood up in, Captain, but you fell a lot further, I think?’ ‘You may think what you wish, but don’t expect me to confirm or deny your fantasies,’ he told her abruptly, the story of his sorry downfall obviously forbidden ground. ‘I can pick out the nob in a crowd any day of the week, so don’t try to pretend you’re not one, Captain.’ ‘Then be content with being right and leave it at that, my dear.’ ‘Again, I’m not dear to you in any way, Captain Darke. Let’s stick to the truth as often as we may.’ ‘And if that’s as often as usual, it won’t be heard much.’ She shrugged and reminded herself how little she wanted him to know her true self, even if she would dearly love to know his. ‘So be it,’ she said carelessly. ‘Not much point in me asking what you’re really doing here then, I suppose?’ ‘Not much,’ she confirmed with a nonchalance she hoped masked her shudder at the thought of what she’d escaped tonight—and how she’d done it. ‘Well, I suppose we’re done with each other for now then, at least until morning.’ ‘Yes, I really suppose that we must be, Captain.’ ‘For good, if I had my way, Miss La Rochelle,’ he informed her gruffly enough for her to know he still wanted her and bitterly resented her for it. ‘Now your way would be downright boring and I make it a rule never to be so tedious that gentlemen of my acquaintance truly prefer my room to my company,’ she fantasised cheerfully. Perhaps from now on she would be herself, as she’d seldom dared to be while she had tried to move amongst his true kind as if she belonged—and blatantly did not. Whatever it cost her to be the girl who’d belonged nowhere in particular once again, that girl was who she was. And to be that person she had to sleep. At least she’d be safe from the predators who stalked the night-time streets, so until it was too early for Charlton and his ilk to be abroad, she could allow herself the luxury of sleep and hope she’d have resolve enough to take up her new life come morning. She took the candles he carefully didn’t offer her and lit a new one off them, after fetching some from Kit’s dusty and unused drawing room, handing the guttering ones back to him and giving him a significant look she recalled her mother darting at her when she wanted her to go to bed and saw no reason to tell such a grown-up girl to actually go there. By saving herself the fact and almost the feel of his all-too masculine gaze on her nether regions, outrageously outlined as they were by Charlton’s breeches, she had to watch his lithely masculine legs, narrow hips and lean body as he effortlessly scaled the stairs ahead of her instead. She decided she was turning into some sort of female satyr and felt herself flush at the wicked thoughts the sight of his muscular form roused in her rebellious body. Tonight she’d felt powerfully male limbs so intimately against her own and not even wanted to flinch away; she’d known the astonishing novelty of actually yearning for the thrust and rhythm of that very particular man deep inside her, to show her what no words could ever tell her about the wild, sweet potential of it all. Never mind her unwanted success among the polite world, tonight she’d gone from schoolgirl to woman and never mind the physical fact of her virginity, still exactly as it had always been. Tonight Captain Darke had taught her to truly want; even now part of her did so as she undressed in Kit’s second-best spare bedchamber, did her best to perform a brief toilette, then blew out her candle and slid between cool linen sheets. She shifted in protest against that unfulfilled need as she stretched luxuriously on the feather mattress and decided her terrifying climb to freedom had been worth every precarious step. Tonight she’d found out exactly why Charlton Hawberry wouldn’t do as her husband, even if she wanted one. Now all she had to do was find out the Captain’s quirks and qualities if she was to take him to her bed and maybe even her heart. That thought sobered her, as she considered the impossibility of Captain Darke ever returning so huge and compelling an emotion as love, even if she had no more desire to be trapped into marriage than he did. Could any woman reach the last traces of gentleness and vulnerability that must still exist under all that armour of indifference and cynicism, or why would that armour need to be so strong? A colder, less ardent soul than the one he’d sought to bury under layers of pack-ice, or drown in a brandy bottle, would survive without the embittered shell Captain Darke had grown to survive, but could she get inside it if all she found out when she got there was how much he refused to trust his emotions? And how on earth would she ever persuade him she was worthy of his trust if he found out when he took her to his bed that Eloise La Rochelle was as big a lie as hard, embittered and dangerous Captain Darke? Hugh woke reluctantly and groped for his pocket watch even as he bit back a loud moan at the brightness of a new spring day and the lying promise of a London sky washed clean of all its sins, until it besmirched itself again with the smoke and stink of a great city. He might be less cynical about the day, he supposed, if the sharp sunlight wasn’t falling across his eyes unveiled by shutters or curtains, just as he’d so often fooled himself he liked it. Might be, but he doubted it, as full memory of the night before kicked in again and another shot of agony tore across his aching forehead at the very thought of Miss Eloise La Rochelle, who was very likely waiting to torture him over the breakfast table at this very moment. If she could find it under all the detritus he and Coste had deposited there, of course. Rubbing an exploring hand over his villainously rough chin, he winced at the idea of having kissed even that intrusive and annoying gadfly of a woman in such an ungentlemanly state, even though he’d been drunk and driven by some unholy need he still couldn’t fully comprehend by the light of day. She might not be a lady, might not have been accustomed to respect and good manners from her seducers before she encountered his friend Kit and decided to hang on to him with both hands, but Hugh had once been a gentleman so it was a matter of honour not to harm a woman of any stamp. He should have taken a second shave of the day to insure that he didn’t hurt her soft skin, if only he’d known he’d be kissing such a wanton siren last night. ‘Failed again, Hugh,’ he scolded himself cynically. ‘Proved yourself a rogue once more, as per expectations.’ Not bothering to even make the effort to cling to well-bred restraint in the face of so many failures, he hauled himself out of bed and gave vent to a heartfelt groan as his own heartbeat pounded fists of pain into his suffering brain at the sudden movement. Reaching blindly for the water jug, he gulped a lukewarm draught directly from it and groaned as he waited for the thundering in his ears to abate and the pain in his temples to dull to a bearable throb, then splashed water on to his face to try to relieve the ache behind his eyes. ‘Damned petticoat-led idiot,’ he castigated himself as he glared at his bleary-eyed reflection in the fine mirror his friend had furnished this guest bedchamber with, as he dried his face on the fine towel provided for more appreciative visitors than he was proving to be. ‘And just what would you think of me if you could see me right now, my friend?’ he speculated as he contemplated Kit Stone’s outspoken disgust at the spectre he’d made of himself. And that was before Kit could even begin on the subject of kept women and which of them was keeping her. Hugh shook his head, despite the fierce clash of pain it cause, frowned fiercely at his reflection, then realised he didn’t even want to meet his own eyes in the mirror any more, let alone imagine holding his friend’s dark and yet somehow steely gaze when he finally came home and took back his empire and his woman from such faulty hands as Hugh Darke’s had proved to be. ‘Abel Coste! Where the devil are you?’ he went to the door and bellowed, in the hope his drinking companion of last night was in a better state of preservation than he was himself this morning, which would hardly be difficult, given that he felt as if he’d been trampled half to death by a herd of wild horses. ‘Whatever is it?’ his unwelcome visitor demanded impatiently from below. ‘I want Coste,’ he snapped back. ‘Well, you can’t have him, he’s busy.’ ‘Since you certainly don’t need a shave, I can’t imagine how,’ he mumbled disagreeably, but she obviously possessed hearing a cat would have been proud of. ‘And if you were planning to let him shave you, then you must be even more addled than I thought, considering the sorry state he’s in this morning,’ she told him, as if she was some sort of stern maiden aunt rather than a brazen hussy. She was still looking like a barbarian princess in her ill-fitting breeches and that ridiculous black shirt, her silken mass of dark chestnut hair falling down her back like a promise of all kinds of sensual delights. He knew she was no better than she should be, yet she made him ache to feel the luxurious wonder of her against his naked skin while he played idly with that wanton hair as they lay, momentarily sated, in each other’s arms. The last thing he needed was this burning desire to make her scream with desire and passion such as she’d never known before, and now he came to think about it, a mild shout of satisfaction might well blast the top of his head off and do permanent damage to his feeble brain just now. Damnation take it, he shouldn’t even think of her in extremis like that. Not only was he in no state to pleasure even the most undemanding of houris, but he was also an ungrateful bastard who suddenly really wanted to at least try to drive her wild with mutual lust and see if such exquisite gratification could cure his hangover. How could he even think of turning on the man who’d rescued him when everyone else had left him to rot in the gutter by trying to steal his woman? He’d better convince his baser self he didn’t want the confounded woman as a matter of urgency, then at least he’d be ready to conduct Kit’s business for the day instead of standing here fantasising about seducing his mistress. ‘I wasn’t planning on letting Abel or anyone else near my throat with a razor,’ he drawled in a deliberate echo of the insufferably cocky aristocrat he’d once been, ‘but to shave myself properly I need hot water and Coste is much better at lighting the range than I am.’ ‘You must be atrocious at it then, since he made such a sad business out of it with all his moaning and groaning and constant “oh deary, deary me, but I don’t feel at all well,” that I found it a good deal quicker to deal with it myself,’ Miss La Rochelle told him so disapprovingly he was reminded of his sister’s steely-backboned governess in a particularly formidable frame of mind. He made the mistake of grinning over an image of his gadfly in breeches, instructing the daughters of the nobility in good manners and proper behaviour. ‘It wasn’t in the least bit funny to be expected to light your confounded fires for you as well as sober up the only help you seem to have left in the house in order to get some breakfast,’ she snapped. She then subjected him to a hostile glare that should reduce him to abject penitence. Wise enough to know it would be counterproductive to tell her that her ire was a boon rather than a bane to his aching head, he kept a grin from his lips with a mighty effort and did his best to look crushed. In his experience, the only way to deal with a female on the rampage was to agree with whatever she said and go his own way when her back was turned. ‘Of course not,’ he agreed. ‘It’s probably a disgrace as well—did you forget to tell me that or have my aching ears left out some listening?’ ‘Men have a very peculiar sense of the ridiculous,’ she informed him with regal contempt, obviously not inclined to gratify him by rising to his baiting. ‘And most women don’t have one at all,’ he let slip, then corrected himself. ‘Except for the odd honourable exception, of course,’ he told her with a would-be placating smile that must have come out as a mocking grin since she glared at him, before marching back to the domestic regions. He didn’t even have time to muse on feminine unpredictability before she was back with a steaming jug. ‘Here’s your hot water and don’t scald yourself,’ she ordered him as she thrust it into his hands. ‘I suggest you make yourself decent before you come downstairs, if that’s not too much to ask of a man with trembling hands and a brandy-addled constitution like yours,’ she told him before she rounded on her heel and strode towards the kitchen while he gazed owlishly after her. ‘Managing female,’ he muttered darkly to himself. ‘I heard that!’ she shouted back improbably and he amended her hearing up to bat-like sensitivity and resolved to tell the truth about her only when he was safely on the opposite side of London in future. He kept trying not to smile as he shaved more deftly than he could have believed possible when he woke up this morning, and had to force a suitable blandness on to his reflected features in order not to cut himself. Usually the sight of his own face froze any inclination he might have to smile, but this morning even that didn’t seem as bitter a spectacle as expected. Last night he met a ladybird in the dark and now he was grinning to himself about her like a lunatic, despite a painful state he would prefer to deny existed that ought to be beyond a man in his condition. He reminded himself he couldn’t have her, even if she wanted him to, and poured his cooling shaving water with its unattractive bloom of shorn whiskers and used soap back into the can. Hugh set the jug by the door to take downstairs once he was dressed for a morning in the City, spent attending to his employers’ business affairs and grimaced at the thought of the hours of checking tallies and reviewing accounts lying ahead of him. Somehow even the thorny task ahead of him couldn’t blot out the dangerous sense of anticipation he felt at tangling with the woman downstairs one last time. He even caught himself whistling, before realising she would hear him. Eyeing himself—cravat decently tied and stockings and knee-breeches unwrinkled—he shrugged into a very sober waistcoat and gave himself a mocking bow. Today he was almost unrecognisable as the renegade captain of the Jezebel and resolved to avoid the haunts of the ton on his way to the City, lest someone recognise him even got up like a respectable cit. He shrugged off the prospect of being known for someone far less worthy, decided breakfast took precedence over old sins and let the smell of Miss La Rochelle’s cooking lure him downstairs once more. Chapter Four (#ulink_e3d9ce06-b353-5b60-931d-b3e34effd3c3) ‘My guess is that you’re a better cook than Coste or I will ever be,’ Hugh observed as he strolled through the propped-open kitchen door. ‘Which wouldn’t be difficult, given the state of the saucepans and skillets left in the scullery,’ the most unusual cook in England muttered irritably in reply. ‘We never claimed to be domesticated,’ he admitted with a casual shrug. ‘You’d be arrested for fraud if you did.’ ‘Very likely, but where did you get all this?’ he asked with a wave of his hand at the largesse spread over the end of the long deal table nearest to the closed stove. Her self-imposed task had put an attractive flush of colour on her cheeks and he noted the surprisingly seductive scent of warm woman and the faint suggestion of a gloss of perspiration on her fine, creamy skin. Never having been the sort of man who preyed on his servants, he’d not subjected kitchenmaids to lecherous scrutiny in the past, but the sight of his employer’s exotic mistress, dressed in her scandalous dark breeches with that absurd black shirt clinging to her all the more because of the light bloom of perspiration on her delectable body, was enough to make a monk ache with frustration, and he wasn’t a monk. Wrenching his eyes from the spectacle of all he couldn’t have, he made himself listen to her reply to his question through the thunder of his own blood in his ears and sought refuge behind the table until he had his body in a fit state not to betray him. ‘I dragged your fellow debauchee out of his chair and pushed him under the pump until he stopped screaming like a stuck pig, then told him if he didn’t find me the makings of a very hearty breakfast, I’d tell Kit what a useless excuse for a man he still is, then hope he was sent straight back to the gutter where Kit found him,’ she explained, mercifully all without turning round to turn those shrewd dark eyes of hers on yet another faulty male. Yet Hugh doubted she’d carry out her threat against his brother-in-iniquity; her shoulders were hunched against his scrutiny, but her very defensiveness argued against her. ‘Where’s Coste hiding himself now, then?’ he asked, as he dared to come out from behind his barricade and pick up a slice of just-crisp-enough bacon from the stack keeping warm on the side of the hob. ‘He’s probably still trying to find a couple of scrubbing women willing to muck out the pigsty you two have made out of this room and the scullery, and another couple to dust and make good the rooms you haven’t yet got around to spoiling. He insisted that he wasn’t ready to eat yet,’ she said gruffly. ‘He won’t know where to start.’ ‘I told him where to find a reliable domestic agency and sent a note along with him for the manageress setting out my requirements,’ she said, turning about at last to sharply forbid him to take one more bite until it was all ready, otherwise mercifully keeping her eyes on what she was doing rather than on him. His more-obvious state of arousal had mercifully subsided, but it was his body and he knew very well it was only waiting for the flimsiest excuse to lust after hers once more. ‘I expected I’d have to force you into eating anything this morning,’ she said with an ambiguous twist of the lips that might have been a smile and something told him she’d been looking forward to it. ‘Sorry to disappoint you, Miss La Rochelle, but I have a very hard head.’ ‘Evidently,’ she replied coldly, as if he didn’t deserve such a mercy. He strolled into the scullery to leave his used shaving water and was astonished to find that she had washed all the crockery and glassware he and Coste had left scattered about the kitchen. Such an excess of energy made him wonder if she’d slept at all and whether she had embarked on this whirlwind of activity to put whatever came next for her out of her mind for a while. What was bold, bad Eloise La Rochelle afraid of? he wondered, and why did he hate to think of her facing problems so insurmountable that they might leave her cowed and fearful instead of her usual bold and brazen self? Given her daring method of arrival last night, she certainly wasn’t naturally timid and many things that would make even a bolder-than-average female quake seemed to leave her unmoved. So had she got herself tangled up in something dangerous as soon as Kit’s back was turned and should he be making it his business to find out just what she’d been up to? He eyed the racks of dishes draining over the sink with a preoccupied frown and went back into the kitchen for his breakfast and a more sober and detached assessment of his uninvited guest than any he’d managed to make so far. ‘You’ve been very busy indeed,’ he said on returning to the kitchen. ‘I don’t like to be idle,’ she admitted and he thought he saw a shadow darken her deep-blue eyes, then it was gone and she was glaring at him as if he might eat with his knife unless sternly watched once more. ‘There seems very little risk of that,’ he said and tried not to fall on the food she’d cooked like a ravening beast. ‘Can I pour you coffee?’ he asked, reaching for the pot at the same time as she did, flinching as what felt like a shock of lightning jagged up his arm as their fingers met fleetingly, then fell away. He took a deep breath and stared at his hands, unaware until he saw his knuckles whiten that he’d clenched them into fists to stop himself gripping her slender fingers as if they were his lifeline. He loosened his fists and made himself glance at the bright morning outside the window, still gallantly promising something more than the usual London haze. Today he could enjoy the blessing of a fine morning, a useful occupation and a full belly—what more could a man ask of life? Sighing at the thought of all he could ask for, but no longer dared risk wanting, he turned back to watch her with raised eyebrows and a cynical half-smile. ‘I am perfectly capable of lifting a coffee pot for myself, thank you,’ she said sharply and he wondered if she’d been as disturbed by that startling bolt of connection between them as he had. ‘I don’t doubt it, after viewing the evidence of your industry,’ he said mildly and ate his way through a delicious meal as the headache he knew very well he richly deserved began to drum at his temples once more. It was probably caused by the tension of wanting her so urgently, but not being able to have her, he assured himself. An old familiar and purely physical burn that, as a captain used to months without female company, he knew all too well and had learnt to endure. This time, however, he somehow doubted that reading Shakespeare or studying his charts and plotting a series of possible courses to fanciful places would distract him from it, but at least experience had taught him that the sharpness of it would dull if he could find a sufficiently absorbing occupation. Yet could any distraction blot Eloise La Rochelle from a man’s mind for very long? ‘Thank you,’ she said unexpectedly and sat and sipped her fragrant brew with what he guessed was feminine satisfaction in producing something edible when two supposedly strong men had been unable to do so between them. ‘It’s good to be busy once more,’ she added and he wondered if a life of silken idleness had palled on such an unusual Cyprian. ‘I’d be an ingrate if I failed to appreciate the fruits of your labour, even so,’ he said as he laid down his knife and fork to pour coffee and add sugar to it. ‘Should I pass you the cream?’ she asked. ‘No, thank you, I became used to going without it on board ship.’ ‘Don’t most captains take a cow with them on long voyages?’ she asked and he wondered if she’d studied the life of a sea captain because her lover often lived that life without her. The shock of pure venomous jealousy at the very idea of her pining for her lover brought him up short and made him glare at his own hand stirring his coffee as if it had mortally offended him. ‘Sometimes there isn’t enough room for luxuries,’ he managed fairly normally. ‘Oh, yes, merchantmen are carefully designed to make use of every available inch of space for cargo, are they not?’ she replied, setting off that demon of envy in him once more and making him even more silently furious with himself. ‘Men-of-war are just as niggardly with every spare inch they can gain, having a goodly quantity of ammunition and unstable gunpowder to stow, as well as a vastly greater crew to accommodate,’ he explained. ‘It must be strange for you to go to sea as captain of a merchantman after commanding in the Royal Navy,’ she mused, blasting his attempt at replacing the general with the personal out of the water. He sighed as he lay back in his chair to sip his coffee and met her eyes warily. ‘I never said I’d been a navy man,’ he argued, almost groaning aloud at the defensiveness in his voice. It was still a wound he hated to have probed, which seemed foolish in the extreme compared to everything else he’d lost. ‘How else to account for the naval officer’s sword in the larder, I wonder?’ she said with a pretence at scratching her head. ‘Was Coste a dashing captain at Trafalgar, I wonder? Or perhaps he’s really an admiral on half-pay, when not pretending to be Kit’s hall porter and supposed watchman? No, I think the sword must be yours, Captain. I doubt Coste rose above able seaman in his entire career at sea and neither Kit nor Ben have served in the Royal Navy.’ ‘It’s not so very different,’ he admitted because it was easier than arguing. ‘The sea can only be read or even guessed at by good navigation and a weather eye on her contrary moods. It’s still my job to decide if it’s wiser to sail before the wind or ride out a storm in safe anchorage. And at least I have a sound, fast ship that isn’t an easy target for any enterprising French frigate captain, eager to build a fine and romantic reputation as a triumphant sea wolf.’ ‘And did you once roam the seas looking for such prey yourself?’ ‘Of course, that’s what the Admiralty expects of flag officers not on blockade.’ ‘And were you good at it?’ ‘Naval captains must prove worthy of their rank if they expect to stay at sea,’ he said carefully. ‘And some do so more easily than others, I dare say,’ she said blandly, so why didn’t he trust her smile? ‘Perhaps,’ he replied tersely. ‘And you were one of them,’ she said and he cursed himself for giving her a clue if she ever wanted to track him down. At least the Admiralty hadn’t ordered the breaking of the sword now resting in Kit’s larder, or his speedy expulsion from the Service. He almost wished they had, so it couldn’t follow him like a symbol of all he no longer was, but couldn’t quite discard. ‘Don’t bother visiting the Admiralty to find out how and when they lost or mislaid one of their junior officers, will you? Their lordships don’t encourage idle curiosity.’ ‘Who says it would be idle? And you’re very defensive about a career you pretend not to care a fig for, Captain Darke,’ she said shrewdly. ‘Perhaps I hate having my life picked over for the amusement of others?’ ‘And I don’t have time or inclination for idle gossip, Captain Darke.’ ‘Then you must be the most unusual female I have ever met.’ ‘Please don’t think me artless enough to mistake that for a compliment,’ she countered smoothly, yet he felt he’d annoyed her by lumping her with the more curious of her kind and tried to be glad of it. ‘I don’t think you in the least bit artless, I assure you, Miss La Rochelle,’ he said with a cynical almost-smile she didn’t bother to return. ‘Clearly,’ she told him, but he thought he saw a shadow of pain in her blue eyes before she gathered up their dirty crockery and bore it off to the scullery. ‘You hardly need to be with so many charms already in your armoury,’ he explained clumsily—why must he follow her into that utilitarian room when she’d given him an ideal escape route? ‘Look what you’ve made me do now,’ she chided fiercely as she jumped on finding him so close to her, splashed herself, then swatted angrily at the large wet patch plastering her dusky shirt to her torso with a glass cloth. He did just what she asked and the cool scullery was suddenly close and stuffy as his gaze lingered on wet dark linen, clinging emphatically to wet woman and almost as closely plastered to her fine breasts and tightly furled nipples as he’d like to be himself. Hard and fierce and instantly emphatic, his painful erection would have informed him he wanted her any way he could get her, even if his hungry eyes weren’t busy devouring her like a lover. Want flared hot and heady between them again, but on its heels came a dark memory of his younger self, home from the sea and pitifully eager for the woman he thought was his. At least his wife’s betrayal had armoured him against mistaking lust for anything else. He assured himself that his annoying reaction to Eloise La Rochelle, or whatever she cared to call herself, was a physical thing he’d learn to ignore and nothing deeper. ‘I wish you good day and expect you to be gone by the time I get home, madam,’ he informed her stiffly and turned to pick up his coat from the chair he’d flung it on to earlier, shrugging into it as he cravenly bolted for the front door and freedom from wanting what he couldn’t have. At least it should have been freedom, except he had to halt stock-still on Kit’s doorstep to breathe deeply and steadily as he thought hard about desolate arctic waters and relentless storms at sea. At last he was respectable enough to proceed through this confoundedly civilised neighbourhood without his very obvious need for Miss Eloise La Rochelle and her magnificent body instantly causing a scandal. Not just her body either, he couldn’t help but recall as he marched rather blindly along the wide streets to his destination. She had that acute, questing mind and an unexpected sense of humour to render her almost irresistible as well. He let himself consider the unique charms of such a contrary, intriguing woman for a moment and would have been horrified to know an unguarded smile quirked his mouth as he did so. Most of the time she was as knowing as any street urchin, full of self-reliance and used to hardship almost from birth, then she’d astonish him with an eager enthusiasm for life and suddenly seem as coltish as any ingénue. No, he assured himself, he was long past being a fit companion for any sort of innocent, even if it was Eloise the buccaneer. Once again, he fought his over-active imagination as he pictured her in that black shirt aiming a pirate ship at his sturdy merchantman, and discovered how much he’d relish capturing and taming such an unlikely opponent when she failed to overrun him. ‘Idiot,’ he chided himself as he nearly walked into a lamppost. A little restored to his usual stern self, he strolled towards Stone & Shaw’s offices in the City, but was still too preoccupied with his eventful evening, sore head and unwanted visitor to sense that he was being followed. Louisa paused when he did and wondered why she’d impulsively stuffed her cap on her head and shrugged into Coste’s overlarge jacket, then ventured out in broad daylight to see where rude and disobliging Captain Darke was bound. She watched her own reflection in a shuttered window and tucked a giveaway strand of hair under the hatband of the silly hat she’d stolen last night. At least Charlton could live without his very odd suit of clothes, but she promised herself she’d replace Coste’s jacket if she damaged it, then all her senses suddenly sharpened as she considered a wiry young tough who seemed as intent on staying on Captain Darke’s tail as she was herself. He was good, she grudgingly admitted that much to herself as she lurked in a doorway and eyed the innocuous-looking youth pretending to watch a street vendor chase off a starving little would-be pickpocket. Luckily she’d trained herself to be even better once upon a time and felt her old skills return as she fell into step behind both the Captain and his follower and neither of them even had a suspicion she was there. Spying a fancy footman, she was grateful Kit didn’t insist on Coste going about in some fanciful livery, though, for she’d certainly attract attention if she’d been forced to steal a chapeau-bras and gold-laced blue jacket. She slouched towards the unfortunate dressed so ostentatiously and he gave her a pained snarl and shuffled his feet self-consciously, obviously believing her another annoying idler, silently jeering his ridiculous uniform. Grinning at this confirmation that she looked nothing like fashionable Miss Alstone, or even Miss Eloise La Rochelle, Louisa swaggered a little in her disreputable breeches and worn and ill-fitting coat and pretended to be absorbed in the noise and bustle of Cheap-side as follower and followed moved onwards. Hands in her pockets, she sauntered along at a distance from Captain Darke and his shadow, keeping enough space between herself and them to look as if she was aimlessly passing the time until more promising mischief offered. She mused on the quality of the Captain’s enemies and decided the boy was very good, and at the next crossroads she cast a disguised gaze about her to see if she was being followed in her turn. All was clear and as innocent as London streets ever were, so Hugh Darke’s foes weren’t that canny. Suddenly she wished more fervently than usual that her big brother would come home. Kit would soon find out who was so interested in his infamous captain and she suddenly felt inadequate for this suddenly very serious task, as well as uncertain why it seemed so vitally important that Hugh Darke should not be hurt by his enemies. She’d followed him on impulse, unable to think of another way to fill in her time until Kit came back without sitting tamely in his kitchen, waiting for Charlton or her uncle to come and march her up the aisle. Now her impulse had changed from a way of idling away the day into a quest to protect the ungallant Captain’s back. She wove a cautious track over to the other side of the street and blessed Hugh Darke for being tall enough to stand a little above the crowd and show her the way, even if he was several inches shy of her brother’s lofty height and Ben Shaw must tower over him like a giant, as he did over everyone else she had ever come across outside a fairground sideshow. Now Hugh Darke was entering the quieter street where her brother and Ben had their offices and she had to walk past it and head down an ally to avoid being too noticeable to him or his pursuer. Anxious all of a sudden that the young tough would use the sparseness of the area to attack Hugh, she sped to the end of her alley and out into the opposite end of the street, only to skid to a halt and have to duck into a handy doorway to avoid the nondescript lad coming the other way, obviously off to report to someone that the target was safe in his office now and beyond following. Wondering even more at such an odd sequence of events, she leaned back against the heavily made door at her back and decided she must follow the young thug, rather than do as instinct demanded and stay to make sure Hugh Darke was safe if he ventured abroad again. Doubtless someone else would keep watch over Kit’s offices for the next few hours, but for now she might get a clue about who was behind all this if she could track the young bully to his lair or his current employer. At the end of the chase she was very glad Kit and Ben weren’t in London after all, for they would surely have had fits if they knew where she’d been today. First of all to the cheapest of pie shops the City rejoiced in, where she managed to loiter and look hungry as well as penniless until chased off by the infuriated owner with a fearsome ladle. Then the boy sauntered through the noisome rookery she knew from her youth was the haunt of thieves and pimps of the worst sort; even high on the rooftops as she’d had to go to follow him there, she had to tread as if on pins to avoid discovery. The houses might be rotten as a blown pear, but they were full of people forced into degradation and misery and every room and attic seemed to heave with human souls even at this time of day. That was what she’d conveniently forgotten from her childhood spent with one foot in the underworld and the other in an almost respectable street on the edge of Mayfair: the stench and misery and hopelessness of poverty. It seemed criminal to her that anyone should be expected to actually live in such cramped, dank and stinking conditions, so close to one of the richest capital cities the world had ever seen. She ghosted across closely packed rooftops, jumped at leaning chimneys and soot-grimed walkways even the inhabitants appeared to have forgotten about and wondered at herself for ever being discontent with the well-fed and secure-seeming life she’d lived since she left all this behind. Reminding herself she wasn’t here to redeem her blemished soul, she followed the boy as he finally quit his native streets and again they were into quieter, wealthier areas and she wondered whether it might be better to come down from her unlikely perch and risk the broader streets with her now-sooty clothes and grimy hands and face making her remarkable in such a place. The apprentice tough ended the chase he didn’t know he was involved in at a quietly respectable church, of all unlikely places. Louisa paused and watched with bafflement as the rough youth from the slums removed his apology for a hat and bowed his head, as he entered the church by a side door as humbly as if he really had come to seek salvation. Could she be mistaken about him after all, then? Was he really a lost soul in search of redemption, who just happened to have been going in the same direction as herself and the Captain this morning? Her once-honed instincts argued he was nothing so simple and she stayed to see if anyone else would come to such a sacrilegious meeting place. Nobody went in or out until the boy came out and sauntered down the street looking singularly unrepentant. Torn between wanting to follow him and staying to watch for his confederate, Louisa tried to decide which would gain her more, then the door opened again and a soberly dressed gentleman stepped out of the church. Something about that clerical-seeming figure below seemed wrong and she didn’t know why the hairs on the back of her head rose in warning at the sight of him, but this was clearly a more important rogue than the one she now had to let go. Louisa eyed up her possible routes and hoped the man wasn’t about to cross the wide square the church was set in, as she would either have to scramble across a good many rooftops to follow him, or climb down and risk being seen in the open. Luckily he headed towards her rather than away, so they were soon in the maze of service streets and wide roads that made up the most exclusive part of the capital. Louisa’s mind buzzed with possibilities as the sober figure finally entered one of the most prosperous squares through the mews behind it, then she scrambled to follow along the more generous roofs and was only just in time to see him disappear through French windows giving on to a town garden, as if he knew the house very well and could stroll in and out as he pleased. She pondered the man’s position in such a household and wondered what to do next. No scruffy idler would gain access to such a house and how would she find out anything about the owner and his connections from such a humble position even if she did? Marking the house on her internal map for future reference, she waited until a genteel bustle of activity made her realise it was the fashionable hour for visiting and any trail the man had left was about to be wiped out. He could have left in any of those coaches in whatever guise he usually wore, he might be someone she’d met at a ball or some soirée he couldn’t manage to escape, she could even have danced with him in her other life. Horrified by the idea of being so close to a man who clearly wished Hugh Darke no good, she finally left very cautiously indeed and travelled a few streets at her lofty level before descending. She could find out nothing more just now, so she headed for a dealer in second-hand clothing that she knew from experience was the least likely to leave her scratching and cursing at someone else’s parasites when she wore their wares. By mid-afternoon Hugh had ploughed through his mathematical duties and was secretly relieved to get an urgent summons to the enclosed dock his youthful employers were having built to cut down on the organised pilfering of their cargoes. Hugh frowned as he pondered that pilfering and told himself it was normal, all owners suffered from the problem, which was why the East India Company had already built a closed dock and were probably planning more. Like Kit, he thought there was something more than chance behind their own heavy losses. It was all of a piece with the loss of one of his ships and the murder of its crew not already corrupted by whoever organised the infamous scheme a couple of years ago. It had taken a deal of hard work and scrupulously fair accounting to repair the damage to their reputation and persuade Lloyds that Stone & Shaw were not behind the fraud. Rumours that the Mirabelle had not gone down after all, but was sailing under another name with an entirely different crew, had horrified her young owners and sent Kit on a quest to discover the truth and Hugh knew his friend wouldn’t give up until he had every detail of the infamous scheme at his fingertips. Having an implacable yet invisible enemy of his own, Hugh knew how that constant but intangible malice ate away at a man’s soul. At least he knew his foe was probably one of his late wife’s legion of lovers, determined to make him pay for the unresolved crime that ended her life, but Hugh couldn’t solve it and prove he wasn’t a wife killer, so it had seemed better to take a captaincy from Stone & Shaw and stay out of the idiot’s way rather than fight for his good name—a lost cause if ever there was one. Chapter Five (#ulink_8affb68e-219c-5769-a16d-ad3b0c0df234) Hugh frowned blackly out of the window of the hackney he’d summoned to get to Stone & Shaw’s dock as fast as he could and wondered at the elaborate route the jarvey was taking. About to tap on the roof and inform the driver he wasn’t the flat he probably looked today, he jolted in his seat as the hackney veered abruptly and threw him forwards with a jarring thud. Hugh was still rubbing his bruised temple and trying to reassemble his dignity when the door was thrust open and a familiar voice demanded he get down immediately and follow her. ‘Why the devil should I?’ he snapped back crossly. ‘Because it’s all a sham and you’re being kidnapped,’ Eloise informed him shortly, tugging ineffectually at his sleeve. ‘Please, believe me. I’m not sure how much longer my diversion will hold up,’ she added desperately and he believed her, despite all her secrets and lies. ‘I’ll come, but only because this is the most unlikely route to my destination.’ ‘Good of you, now hurry up,’ she urged impatiently. Hugh took a swift glance about him and suppressed a grin as he took in the quality of her helpers. A one-legged sailor was sitting in the road, scrabbling for his wooden leg and loudly bemoaning the losses from his spilled apple cart in terms that must make even the assembled urchins blush, while an old woman berated him for a drunken and careless old fool. The urchins were wriggling about under the cab for the fallen and bruised apples and tangling up the traces as they darted nimbly out of the way of the jarvey’s whiplash whenever he tried to fend off the sea of bodies suddenly surrounding his battered vehicle. ‘Hurry,’ Eloise urged and he gave her a long, distrustful look before deciding she’d gone to such a deal of trouble to get him out of that cab, he might as well humour her, if only to find out exactly what she was up to. This time she was dressed in layer upon layer of disreputable clothes like a rag-picker’s daughter, carrying as many of his wares as she could on her own back. It certainly hid her fine figure a lot better than her last disguise, he thought as he followed her into a maze of courts and alleys and had to concentrate hard to recall the way back should he need a hasty escape from her toils. Sensing his resistance, she tugged on his hand impatiently and drew him on as swiftly as she could. He could sense her apprehension through their locked hands as he felt a prickle of awareness shiver over his own skin and knew they were being watched from dark doorways and darker rooms. Unwillingly caught up in her drama, he made himself as silent and wary as he could and hoped he managed to seem the over-eager client to Eloise’s part-time whore, although he wondered how such a client would know what delights lay under her false bulk. He knew, even under all that ridiculous cover that must be making her sweat like a racehorse under her burden. Just the thought of her long, elegant legs under so many layers of hampering fabric—her dangerous allure threatened to slide under his guard once more and draw him into her net. He sweated himself now as she reached more commercial areas, full of workshops and small factories, and upped their pace as fast as she could without everyone coming out to watch them pass. It wasn’t their speed that made his breath come short, it was the incendiary thought of finding a space where he could be alone with her to finally slake this feral passion for her, once and for all, that had him almost unmanned with longing. Stupid, he railed at himself—undisciplined, ill-starred and just plain stupid. She’d turned him into a lust-led fool in less than a day after haunting him waking and sleeping for three weeks before that. She always seemed to affect him as fiercely as water did baked lime and he wished he’d never laid eyes on the devious jade. Now that they were closer to the river and among the warehouses where he was probably far more familiar with their surroundings than she was, he pulled away from her. Letting her take the lead only so he, too, could be sure they hadn’t been followed, he sharpened his senses, made himself forget her as a woman as far as it was in him to do. Knowing suddenly that she was leading him to the small warehouse Kit and Ben had hired, then bought when they first set up a small business hauling coastal cargoes, he let her dart into the cover of its ancient shadow and fumble for the keys under her many layers of clothing. He opened his mouth to demand them of her, then closed it again when she hushed him and slipped the key furtively into the lock and turned it as silently as she could with both hands on the doughty iron. Shrugging impatiently at her silent pantomime, he followed her inside and turned to help her close and relock the stout side door and inspect the gloom inside. He summoned up his captain’s senses and sent them to explore that semi-darkness and came up with nothing but a cargo of finest coffee beans destined for the breakfast tables of discerning northern households, not very fresh air still haunted by sugar and spices and other exotics, a hint of mouse and worse. Even his sixth sense could find no trace of another human being, although there seemed an unacceptable quantity of non-human ones, which reinforced his opinion that Kit and Ben should demolish the venerable old building and replace it with something a lot more vermin-proof and never mind sentiment. ‘Right, there’s obviously nobody here, so I’ll go no further into this business of yours without an explanation, madam,’ he informed her grimly. ‘Very well then, this morning I followed you to work.’ ‘You followed me?’ he demanded, suddenly distrusting those finely honed senses he’d always prided himself on after all. ‘I’m very good,’ she boasted unrepentantly and how could he argue when he’d sensed not a single hint of her behind him? ‘But so was the other person tailing you through the City this morning,’ she added; this time he wondered if he had any senses left to him to have missed two of them trailing after him like a procession. ‘The other person?’ ‘I used to know a parrot just like you, Captain,’ she mocked him, but must have seen the warning glint in his eyes, because she suddenly looked as serious as anyone could wish, especially a beleaguered and apparently rather simple sea captain. ‘He was a well-trained follower and belongs to a villainous crew.’ ‘And how can I trust you to recognise such a man?’ ‘You just can,’ she assured him and met his eyes unflinchingly, despite the dusty gloom thickening as daylight began to seep away from such dark places early. ‘But can I also be sure of your motives, Miss La Rochelle, since you seem a little over-familiar with the workings of the London underworld?’ ‘You can,’ she insisted steadily. ‘For some extraordinary reason, I believe you.’ ‘Why, thank you, I’m suitably flattered, of course.’ ‘So you should be,’ he told her dourly. ‘Never mind all that now, we’re in the devil of a jam and have to find the best way out of it.’ ‘I only have your word for that, so how do you conclude I’m in a pickle just because a man followed me to Stone & Shaw’s offices in the City?’ ‘I followed him afterwards to a fashionable church where he met a supposedly clerical gentleman.’ ‘Which is odd, I admit, but perhaps the man is struggling for his lost soul.’ ‘And perhaps he’s also raising flying pigs, because when they parted I followed the respectable cleric to a mansion in Mayfair and waited for over an hour before I got down off my perch to try to find out why he went into that house and departed arrayed in the height of fashion among his own kind.’ ‘Not a son of the church after all, then?’ he asked whimsically, but his brain was whirling with ideas as he went over all the possibilities her story presented. ‘Very far from it,’ she said disapprovingly. ‘You knew him, didn’t you?’ he suddenly realised, marvelling at her acquaintance with such fine gentlemen and instantly rigidly jealous of a man who could be a former protector of hers. ‘Only later, when I realised whose house it actually was. I can’t believe how convincing his disguise was, especially when he always seemed such an empty-headed fool when I met him at—’ She stopped, blank-faced and wary, as she bit back whatever it was she was going to say next. What a damned fool he was, he decided dazedly as he forced himself to assess Eloise La Rochelle anew. Her faultlessly unaccented accent, her unconscious elegance and that air she had of being a princess let out of her castle for a holiday and only pretending to be a female buccaneer, or even Eloise La Rochelle herself. An appalling suspicion crept into his obviously rather slow mind and he eyed her annoyingly calm countenance through the thickening darkness with hot fury clawing at his gut. ‘You met him in polite society, did you not?’ he asked coldly. ‘How can you even think such a thing?’ Louisa blustered, but ground to a halt as she met his steady, condemning gaze and decided the game was up. ‘Yes,’ she agreed stoically, trying hard to pretend having her clever disguise penetrated at exactly the wrong moment didn’t matter in the least. ‘Then you really are slumming it?’ he asked stiffly. ‘No, I’m looking for something real,’ she told him in a raw voice that threatened to tug at his heartstrings, so Hugh hardened his heart against her and made himself re-examine the information he had about her and reach another startling conclusion. ‘Say something unreal rather, Miss Alstone,’ he said stiffly, trying to be cool and logical, yet struggling with hot humiliation, and a disappointment he refused to examine at the thought of her laughing up her sleeve at him. She’d deceived him every step of her way last night and again this morning. ‘As far as I cared for anything or anyone in polite society, I gave Christopher Alstone’s little sister the benefit of the doubt when I heard that you’d been named the Ice Diamond by the wags, my dear, but at least now I know how richly you must have deserved that nickname and can learn to pity your victims instead.’ ‘You never gave any fashionable female a second chance in your life,’ she scoffed. How could he have not seen the haughty minx for what she was the instant she eyed him like an offended queen across Kit’s office that first day? ‘Now there you’re more wrong than you’ll ever know,’ he said grimly, thinking of all the times he’d believed Ariadne, when only an idiot would take his wife’s interpretation over the plain facts. ‘I’m cured of it though, Miss Alstone, and if you made up this shameful tarradiddle for your own perverse amusement then I’ll see you publically exposed and pilloried for it as you deserve to be.’ ‘I should have left you to your enemies, but oddly enough my sense of fairness wouldn’t let me leave you to take your chance against such overwhelming odds. I’m rapidly changing my mind, needless to say,’ she said, her face such a mask of polite indifference he couldn’t read what lay behind it, and how he hated the mass of contradictions gnawing away at his supposedly stern composure. ‘Good, I certainly need no help from the likes of you,’ he snapped. ‘You don’t even know me.’ ‘I know enough.’ Hugh watched her lining up glib arguments to defend herself with and held up his hand to stop her. With his foul luck, and worse judgement, she’d be as convincing at it as his late wife had been. Ariadne had believed her own lies so steadfastly by the time she told them that she’d cheerfully swear to them, even when all the facts proved her wrong. Yet now she was dead and he was branded a murderer in all but proof. Dark grief, fury and shame threatened to swallow him up in the horror of that terrible crime once more, but he fought it back to hell where it belonged and hated this lying female all the more for showing him Hugo the Fool, the cuckolded husband, was still alive behind Hugh Darke’s cynical disguise. ‘I know you are the despair of your brother and sister, Miss Alstone,’ he said coolly enough, for all that hot fury raged under his surface calm. ‘Even I have heard that you lead half the otherwise sane men in polite society around by the nose with your beauty and various other perfections that elude me. It’s just as well known that you don’t care a snap of your fingers for a single one of them. You’re a cold-hearted vixen who dismisses her suitors as if she’s waiting for a prince or a king at the very least to decorate her cold brow with a crown, instead of the coronets you are apparently offered by the cartload every Season. And rather than make your long-suffering brother happy by graciously accepting one of those lords or their foolishly besotted heirs, you dance and flirt and charm them for your own idle satisfaction the one day, then give them a very cold shoulder the next.’ ‘My, I am a bad woman,’ she said with deceptive mildness and Hugh realised he’d let some of his fury with Ariadne for being a liar and cheat and a lovely, dead, fool creep into his verbal attack on Kit’s little sister. ‘I don’t care what sort of a woman you are,’ he lied, ‘but I’ll certainly manage without your help from now on. Something tells me you’ll lead me further into the maze just because you can, rather than show me the way out of it.’ ‘Don’t you want to know who your enemy is, then?’ ‘How can I believe you? No doubt you have one or two inconvenient suitors littering your path to glory whom you would be very happy to rid yourself of at no cost to yourself.’ ‘I get worse by the moment,’ she said with flippant amusement that only made him more furious with himself for being taken in by her, for believing her because he desperately wanted to, and for still wanting her so badly her refusal to accept any guilt for her actions threatened to charm rather than revolt him. He’d fantasised about her in her lying disguise—heaven forbid he start doing so in her real one—that one day Kit and Eloise might have parted. It had gone, and he didn’t even want to think about the appalling pictures that set up in his mind now he knew who she really was. One day, Eloise might have turned to him for satisfaction and seduction; only now that that was impossible did he realise how deeply she’d tangled him in her devious web. Never having Eloise in his bed to laugh with, to live with and to come home to, knowing she would expect no more from a hollowed-out creature like him, cut like a knife to the gut and he wanted to be done with her, to be hundreds of miles clear of her before the pain struck and the fury stopped hiding his hurt at yet another betrayal. ‘Who is he, then?’ he made himself ask distantly, thinking how much he’d once wanted to know that very thing and now it didn’t seem to matter all that much. ‘Now, which of my discarded lovers do I despise the most?’ she mused, silently counting off on her fingers as if needing them to compile the best list. Hugh clenched his fists against the urge to pound the old walls in a roaring frenzy because she’d used him for her own ends and he’d almost trusted her, until she proved him an idiot all over again. ‘The first one to come into your head will do,’ he said cynically, wondering exactly how many lovers she’d managed to draw in under the very noses of the ton. ‘Oh, well, that would be you.’ ‘I’m not your lover,’ he said starkly. ‘Only because I chose a disguise that held you back, Captain Darke, you being a pirate of such peculiar honour as to never take his employer’s moll, however much he might long to. If I hadn’t hit on that particular alias, we would have been lovers by now and you know it. Imagine it—us two being lovebirds, liars, then sworn enemies together all in one day.’ ‘This is not a joke, madam.’ ‘No, you’re right, it’s not,’ Louisa said desolately, stiffening her backbone and forcing herself to meet the hostility in his starkly austere gaze. There was no point defending herself against such revulsion, no reason to believe he’d ever change his bigoted, second-hand opinion of her. ‘But it’s more of a comedy than a tragedy.’ ‘And if only you knew how close one can be to the other, you might stop wilfully creating havoc wherever you go,’ he muttered furiously, seeming to retreat into himself, to brood on something apparently even worse than wicked young ladies like herself. ‘Which is rich, coming from you,’ she accused and suddenly had all his attention as he glared at her with acute grey-blue eyes. ‘What else do you know?’ he demanded. As she flinched away from the steely purpose in his gaze and he stopped her retreat with a rough hand about her wrist, she doubted he knew it was tight as a trap on her soft skin. ‘What else could I know, Captain?’ she asked, doing her best to ice over her own eyes as efficiently as he had to stare at her as if he’d somehow scare everything she knew about him out of her by sheer force of will. It was his gaze that fell and not hers, although she felt a sting of something she refused to analyse and blinked it back as she watched his eyes take in the tightness of his grip on her, before he unclenched his hand from her, then stepped back as if she’d stung him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he claimed hoarsely. ‘I never meant to hurt you,’ ‘I expect you say that to all your women,’ she responded bitterly, suddenly transported back to her childhood with a violent drunkard. ‘Never,’ he husked and despair and bitterness and something that might even be grief haunted his silver-shot eyes and that hard, dare-not-be tender mouth of his. ‘Whatever have they done to you?’ she whispered as she watched him fight back something terrible and felt helpless in the face of such horror and pain, despite all he’d just said and accused her of being. ‘Nothing you would understand,’ he scorned, protecting himself against any hint of pity. Perhaps it was his ordinary defence against shallow sympathy and spurious curiosity, rather than the deeply personal slight it felt like for a moment. ‘Oh, of course not,’ she forced herself to say as carelessly as if they were discussing an obscure subject outside the selfish remit of such a vain young lady. ‘Does it still hurt?’ he asked huskily. ‘You should know by now that Miss Alstone, the Ice Diamond, is untouched by feelings of any kind, Captain,’ she lied lightly and silently dared him to take a step nearer and breach that fragile distance between them. Ignoring her, he took that step and cradled her wrist in his large hand, the hardness and occasional roughness of his palm pulling her deeper under his sensual spell, if he did but know it, and she silently despaired of herself. ‘Yet you’re not as unbreakable as you pretend,’ he muttered as if the words were forced from that sensual, cynical mouth, before he sank his head and kissed her slightly reddened wrist and made her knees wobble with a rush of stubborn need. Stiffening them against the too-potent appeal of a man who hated her one moment, then soothed and seduced the next, while probably still hating her, she resisted the silly urge to raise her other hand and smooth the over-long and distinctly shaggy dark locks he wore so well into some kind of order. ‘No, I’m not yet quite unbreakable, I’m sorry,’ she answered with a wry smile meant to defuse the sensual tension suddenly so alive in the growing darkness scented with old cargoes and coffee beans. ‘Don’t be,’ he counselled as if he couldn’t help himself. ‘It’s easier,’ she replied as if she understood, when all she could currently think about was the jags of heat and longing for more that were afflicting her, even as he probably despised her more deeply than ever. ‘I know, but not necessarily better,’ he told her with a look of untold wanting and infinite sadness, before he abandoned her hand and kissed her full on the mouth once again instead, as if he couldn’t resist the temptation of it. It was a fantasy, she told herself; cynical Louisa Alstone who didn’t believe in love or marriage, or any of the comforting illusions that got her fellow young ladies through life, and angry, disillusioned Captain Hugh Darke, who didn’t believe in anything much at all. It was impossible and they would tear each other to pieces. Yet it was such a sensuous, irresistible seduction of her senses that she stopped thinking and blindly took whatever he had left to give. It was so luxurious, so heated and all engrossing that it felt infinitely better than anything else she’d been offered. Moaning her agreement, she opened her mouth as demandingly as he’d already taken hers and let her tongue tangle with his, so they could take up where they left off last night. At least tonight he knew she was nobody’s but his, just for now. Acknowledging the transitory nature of anything they could be to each other, she strove to make her agreement to it even more emphatic, by letting her hands explore his strong neck muscles and up to muss his already unruly hair and run her fingers through the sensual silkiness of it. His groan of whatever it was—agreement, encouragement, or just downright approval—made her breath come short and her mouth even more desperate as he cupped her face in his strong hands and drew her closer. He shifted and the threat of losing even this harsh magic between them made her keen a protest, then ghost her hands down his neck and soothe along his throat as she silently acknowledged he’d made himself vulnerable to her in this much at least. And it was enough for her, would have to be enough. Chapter Six (#ulink_ed1fd1ed-2079-5bd1-8ac3-0c42e2e0235b) Louisa felt the mighty muscles in her ungallant captain’s broad shoulders shift under her touch and it made her feel sensually powerful. To spark such an instantaneous reaction from this guarded soul made her seem very special to herself tonight. She revelled in the sense of being outside time and normal spaces, locked inside this cocoon of darkness as the spring evening closed in all round them. Then she felt the full force of the fire he’d lit in her last night streak through her and settle burning almost as bright as the sun at the centre of her being until she shook with need. Lost for words to communicate what she wanted, even if he allowed her mouth the freedom to do it, she made an incoherent sound—half-moan and half-imperious demand—and sighed her relief into his kiss as his hands sank to knead her neat derrière and draw her closer to his mightily aroused manhood. She did her best not to give away her awe and that furtive heat it sparked inside her at the very feel of what she did to him, but it was hard not to just sink into his arms and beg. Typical, she managed to spare the time to think, as far as she could think with his mouth on hers and her body so fascinated by the proximity of his. Typical that he is as deep in thrall to whatever it is driving us together, apparently against our wills, yet he still manages to hang on to his essential apartness while I must melt all over him like heated sealing wax. How could she want any man so much it blasted through her much-vaunted self-control and breached that cherished separateness of hers, especially this one? She sensed that the craving making her hands shake as she laid them against the warmth and masculinity and sheer nerve-singing fact of him was exerting just as strong a pull on him, if not even stronger, but he still had control enough not to moan with need or tremble with frustration and this bittersweetest longing. A curiosity burned within her to know more; one he certainly wouldn’t believe she had any need of, now she’d let him think she’d managed to accrue a procession of lovers with the critical eyes of the ton on her, the hawk-like watch of her elder brother, even from afar, and her aunt and uncle’s very critical eyes on her as they waited for a reason to denounce her and rid themselves of a charge they never wanted for aught but the money she brought with her in the first place. The man was undoubtedly an idiot if he believed a word of that silly implication of hers. She could only suppose it was her inner demon of curiosity and the sheer sensual excitement within her that made her claim to be something she wasn’t yet again and get away with it. He might hate her eventually if they went on, but he was the only man she’d ever met who made her want him mercilessly just by inhabiting the same space, whatever space, even this dark, comfortless, unlikely meeting place. A siren voice whispered that he wouldn’t have been so easy to fool if he hadn’t wanted to believe her and do this, so she let herself believe it for a space borrowed out of the real world. It was a chance that wouldn’t come again—an interlude apart from the real Louisa and her unlikely lover. A chance she intended to take, then afterwards she’d somehow find a way to forget it and stick to her chosen course through life, even knowing what she’d be missing. In the heat of this particular moment there seemed nothing to hold her back from following his lead and exploring the very different, masculine, grace of his leaner hips and round to learn how his buttocks differed from her own by being sparser and more taut with muscle. Now why had she never dreamt how arousing satin-taut skin over strong male muscle and bone could feel under her fingers as she dared to send them just that bit lower and search for the sensitive join of his leg to the pared-down curve above? Evidently he liked it almost as much as she had when he drew his teasing fingers along the lusher line of her feminine curves, before raising those wickedly knowing hands to soothe and rouse and tease her breasts into begging so shamelessly for his touch she could feel it, even through the layers she’d donned for this misadventure. Torn between memory of how little he actually liked her, however much he might want her, and the promise of a lovemaking she’d never forget in all her long and spinsterly future, she abandoned the memory and embraced the promise and Hugh Darke. He would have delved under all those layers for buttons and access to her tightly furled nipples demanding his touch and his mouth as they remembered last night with a mind of their own. No, let him do that and she’d lose this. Let him think what he was doing for long enough to undo all the layers she was wrapped in and remember who she was, and she’d lose this one moment of enchantment among their usual disenchantment. It felt like an odd, mutual innocence at the moment and she even wondered at herself for thinking so. She put thinking aside for later and whispered a demand for faster, a wanton command that he stopped wasting time and got on with it, as if all the worst rumours were true and she already had a pack of secret lovers and knew exactly what she was doing now. Trying not to dread that particular falsehood on his tongue, she pulled him closer to fit lush lips to his and felt need overtake reason as his kisses became even wilder and more arousing. He lifted her with one hand round her slim waist and the other beneath her buttocks until she was cradled into him like the most precious of beings, as he walked her towards those very convenient sacks of good Brazilian coffee beans. Wondering how he found his way so unerringly in the ever-deepening darkness, she felt him hesitate, begin to think about this, about him and her again and, even as he set her down on the lowest stack of sacks, pulled him down after her, to tangle him up in kisses before he stopped this wondrous banquet of the senses. ‘I want you,’ she murmured in a breathy voice she hardly even recognised as her own. ‘Now,’ she added with an instinctive, feminine demand that he seemed quite unable to resist. ‘It’s almost too late to stop already, but are you sure?’ he managed in a husky voice she loved, because it revealed just how true his desire-rasped words were and added a layer of extra enchantment to their seduction of each other. ‘Never surer,’ she told him, stopping his mouth with quick, frantic kisses so heated and needy that he groaned into her mouth in response as she felt him bunch up her second-hand skirts and petticoats and then there was the cooling April air, first on her bare knees, then her smooth thighs and ever upwards to expose the betraying hot wetness at the apex of those thighs. ‘Hot and sweet and all mine,’ he whispered possessively in her ear as his teasing fingers found that unmistakable welcome and explored it until she let out an emphatic, very articulate moan for more and he rubbed and caressed and melted the until-now secret place he’d found, and to think that she hadn’t even known she needed his touch there so badly until now. ‘Yours,’ she agreed recklessly as she felt pleasure almost beyond bearing pool and fight for release within her, but he removed his teasing fingers just before it became inevitable and took her word for it as he swiftly undid his breeches’ flap with one deft hand whilst holding his weight above her as he stripped his nether garments off in a fluid shove, before smoothing her willing buttocks deeper into the oddly comfortable beans at her prone back and parting her legs a little farther. Louisa felt the nudge of his fiercely aroused member against her aching, heated core and knew this was the last chance to go back to how she’d been until now. Separate, aloof, alone. No, it didn’t sound in the least bit worth clinging on to in the face of being together, frantic and needy for each other. So she let her thighs fall either side of his narrow hips and lay a little farther back to bid him very welcome. ‘Witch,’ he murmured and his voice was a caress, even while it sounded as driven and latently powerful as the feel of him between her legs. ‘Pirate,’ she sparked back, imagining his face intent and intense above her in the late-afternoon darkness and somehow finding it even more seductive that they could see little of each other but shadows. ‘Blissful, wonderful witch,’ he added as he surged into her in one long thrust she knew was far too powerful to let him hesitate as he beat against the shock of her virginity. ‘Devious, lying, idiotic, enchantress of a woman,’ he gasped in protest as he tore through that slender barrier and centred himself at the very heart of her as if that was where he belonged, despite himself and her one-time resolution not to have this ultimate wonder in her life, before he loomed out the night and undermined it. ‘I am now,’ she said complacently, ‘but I want more’, and shocked even herself by riding the flash and burn of pain so determinedly that the novelty and fullness and sheer wonder of him inside her threatened to set her on the road to madness if he didn’t move, do something to assuage this burning need for more that still rode her like the most exquisite goad of half-ultimate pleasure, half-heavy, almost painful need. ‘You’ll get it, but only if you stay still for a while,’ he gritted, holding himself motionless with a mighty effort as he fought the primitive urge to slam into her until he’d climaxed and emptied himself into her as relentlessly as the beat of life itself. Even then she flexed internal muscles around him experimentally, as if she hadn’t even known she had them until now and threatened to enchant as well as unman him. Minx she undoubtedly was, but vixen as well? Somehow he doubted it as he felt her adjust about him with an almost trusting innocence, a giving in her usually steely composure and armour of humour that touched him a bit too deeply for comfort. Letting his awesome arousal overcome a need for something more than even this most sensual of couplings, he dared let himself move at last and let out a long groan of satisfaction as he felt her strive to match her rhythm to his. Now, in the moment, he knew she was his as no other woman ever had been. He was her only lover, the only man who had ever moved inside her like this, striving against the beat and demand of outrageous desire in his head and heart to take her slowly, to ride her to the sweetest of oblivion. For now, all he needed to do was to make this wonderful for her, then it would be wondrous for him as well. He let her feel his desperately rigid manhood stretch and fill her and blocked out the silken marvel of her fitting him as if she was made for him alone. Not since he was a hasty boy with his first eager, just a little bit more experienced girl had he needed to fight his body quite so hard for mastery. Not with his mistresses and certainly not with his wife, but then, Ariadne hadn’t been virgin any more than any of his other lovers had been, until now. Louisa Alstone was the first woman who’d ever allowed him to be first and he must guard himself against the privilege and wonder of that marvel, when he was rational again. For now he luxuriated in it as he felt her move with him, begin to breathe more deeply, to clench even more exquisitely about his manhood and, at last, he knew she was ready for more. Breathing hard to keep that more from releasing him before time into his own selfish pleasure, he occupied himself with meeting her deepest of blue eyes in the darkness, although he could see only the quick shine of them in this almost-blackness as she opened her eyes in wonder and lure at the feel of him moving within her. Next time he’d make sure they had their eyes to add to the other four senses, so they could drive each other even more insane with how they were together. He blotted out the thought that there would be no next time by stroking harder and deeper into her as he felt her begin to spasm, felt the bow of her body even before he heard a deep heavy breath fill her straining lungs as she let it out, on a long wondering moan of delight. At last he could slip his tethers and he plunged headlong into the greatest, most satisfying completion he’d ever experienced. Hugh felt his whole being spasm in ecstasy as she plunged into the unknown, then flew under him and their individual peaks of utter delight were as dangerous as they were giving. As he drifted into absolute release, complete satisfaction for what felt like the first time in his life, a part of him exulted and worshipped her, even as another woke up and groaned in disbelief. At their destination for a lovely, peaceful moment it felt generous, shared, too much to let go. Then let go he did and finally descended from absolute delight into almost complete horror when he realised exactly what he’d done by taking up her invitation to seduce her so eagerly, then failing to draw out of her before he climaxed and damned them both for a pair of over-lusty fools. Coming back to her workaday self at last, Louisa allowed herself a delighted little wriggle and let herself be pleased he was still inside her, even after she knew that he’d experienced the ultimate release with her. He sank against her pleasured torso for a sweet moment and she let her arms come up to grasp him, then fall to her sides as he groaned as if in agony. Horrified that he wasn’t as warmly delighted with life and his lover as she was with her only one, she suddenly felt chilled and all too distant again. He regretted what they’d just done and she wanted to cry so badly she had to clench her fists until she felt her nails bite into her tender palms. She’d grown too soft for this sort of disappointment; she fought not to expect anything of him other than what she’d already had and did her best to reassemble the Ice Diamond, before he could voice his misgivings. Suddenly she hated that brilliant, heartless creature with a passion even he might not be able to match, but it was an old familiar shield from a hurtful world and, at the moment, all she had. ‘Thank you,’ she made herself say, as if the most significant-seeming minutes of her life so far didn’t matter all that much after all. ‘Thank you?’ the contrary monster echoed as if she’d spat poison at him. ‘Yes. I shall never marry, you see, so you relieved me of a burden of curiosity I had no wish to carry for the rest of my life.’ ‘How useful of me,’ he replied as if the words nauseated him. ‘Yes,’ she made herself say blandly, ‘it was, very useful.’ Suddenly she felt so utterly vulnerable lying here, stretched under him like a wanton, and shifted restlessly, telling her body it had to let go of the glittering fantasy of ever doing that again, with anyone. Then he seemed to find a rampant need of her after all, when she’d thought him spent for the rest of the night and for ever done with her. She felt him roll his hips suggestively within the cradle of hers and, to her shame, something ravenous and desperate awoke in her as well. Breath stuttered from her lips before she could calm it and she heard his grunt of satisfaction, just before his mouth descended on hers in a kiss that allowed nothing for the tenderness of her bee-stung lips or the newness of sensations as his arousal hardened inside her once more. Once more she drank in the scent of him, the abrasion of springy masculine hair against her clutching fingertips as she curled her hands into his heaving chest for want of any other purchase on his sweat-slicked body. Whatever he said, she heard the driven sound of his approving, then demanding murmurs as they climbed another summit when she’d thought herself at the top of this particular mountain. Every sense screamed for satisfaction as her eyes searched the darkness for a clue to his feelings when he made her shudder with driven desire, made her cry out for more as he rode her with a tenderness for her once-virgin body that made tears glaze her eyes and allowed her to be glad he couldn’t see her after all. She sank and rose and twisted and thrashed under him with need and this time she knew where they were bound and tensed for sheer delight as the warmth and golden release of body on body, heart on heart, overrode everything once more. Convulsing helplessly as he drove her mercilessly on and on, until she was left breathless and sobbing for breath and for sanity. He buried his dear, ruffled head in the curve of her vulnerable throat and let her feel his mouth open on a long, silent shout of rapturous possession. ‘Was that useful of me as well?’ he gasped when he finally managed to pump enough air into his lungs to speak. ‘I’d hate it if you found your one, and apparently only, lover to be inept or unmemorable.’ ‘Don’t worry, I don’t suppose I stand much risk of forgetting that if I live to be ninety,’ she murmured gruffly. With a great sigh of goodness-knew-what emotion, he rolled away from her at last and rested at the side of her as if he didn’t have energy to get himself any farther. Not because he can’t bear to forsake your arms, Louisa, a hateful voice warned as he drew in long gasps of air and she felt his lungs expand, even as she had to grasp her hands tightly together above her head in order not to reach out to him. She so wanted to smooth his tense features, to linger over his mightily muscled shoulders and caress his labouring chest that only her own exhaustion stopped her springing up and putting the width of this shady warehouse between them. ‘Nice to know something about me is likely to prove memorable.’ ‘There’s nothing about you that isn’t,’ she reassured him before she’d even thought about it. ‘Not that I could ever forget so objectionable a man,’ she added hastily as she sat up at last, hoping he hadn’t read something into her words she couldn’t let herself admit, even in her own head. ‘Of course not,’ he said remotely, as his breath settled and she felt his powerful limbs tense for action. Luckily he couldn’t see the hand she held up in protest for the darkness that loomed between them. Still she knew the moment he stepped away and began to don his clothing, scrabbling in the dark for the odd garment she’d cast into the wider darkness in the heat of frantic desire. She reluctantly began the task of trying to reorder her own appearance, shucking off an outer layer of dull and overlarge garments because they wouldn’t be needed now. It was too dark outside for him to need a disguise now and she doubted he’d consent to hide his undisputed masculinity under even so sketchy a veil as the extra clothes she’d kirtled about her waist. ‘Even as I hope you’re getting dressed and concealing yourself from me before you rouse me to insanity once more, you’re undressing yourself, Louisa Alstone. What a very contrary female you truly are,’ he commented out of the gloom and she had to bite back on a sigh of regret, for all that lovely intimacy, that wonderful forgetfulness of herself in him. She smoothed down her remaining, nondescript skirts and wished that, just once, he could have seen her in her elegant evening finery. She’d be groomed to perfection, she let herself fantasise for a brief moment. Her hair would be brushed into immaculate disorder, every shining lock curled and pinned to show the fiery glow within its apparent darkness. Her gown would fit as only an exclusive Bond Street modiste could shape it and it would be made up of the finest cross-cut silk crepe to cling and lovingly outline her much-vaunted figure. Apparently she was not too tall or too short and would have been the epitome of elegance, if she wasn’t so cold. She allowed herself a wry grimace for the rosy glow her brother’s money cast over her as far as her needy suitors were concerned. ‘The top layer was meant to be for you,’ she managed to tell him when she could make it sound as if it didn’t matter. ‘For me—devil take it, woman, do you take me for a molly?’ ‘How could I?’ she muttered under her breath, but he heard her all the same. ‘You certainly know different now, if you ever did,’ he confirmed smugly. ‘Would you like me to provide you with a testimonial?’ ‘Thank you, but your brother would undoubtedly kill me, so I’ll pass on that.’ ‘As well, perhaps, but the clothes were meant to be a disguise.’ ‘Good heavens, I think you really mean it. You really are the oddest female,’ he told her as if he had more important things on his mind and she seethed in the darkness as she fumbled for the key under her skirts and then searched about for the wretched thing on her erstwhile resting place. ‘Looking for this?’ he asked, suddenly in front of her and she felt as much as saw the outline of the cleverly wrought key held out to her. ‘You stole it?’ she accused rashly. ‘Just as you must have done,’ he confirmed lazily. ‘It’s always as well to be prepared, as you undoubtedly know.’ ‘You took it while you were busy seducing me?’ ‘Not exactly while, more afterwards, and I dispute your definition, since you seduced me as surely as I did you. Don’t try to denounce me as the despoiler of innocence when you begged to be deflowered. No—correction, you convinced me you were as experienced as the lovely Eloise and had nothing left to deflower. Which of us do you think anyone would believe, once they knew you kidnapped me and lured me here in a questionable guise, my dear Miss Alstone?’ ‘I have no intention of broadcasting my seduction, so if that’s what you’re worried about, Captain Darke, stop plaguing me with slanderous suggestions and be reassured that I’ll never tell a living soul.’ ‘Yet Mother Nature has a way of catching out the most secretive of lovers. So what about any child we made tonight?’ he asked all too seriously and her heart stuttered in its tracks at the bare idea. ‘It would take more than that to make one,’ she managed to say scornfully, even as part of her marvelled at the very notion. ‘No, sorry,’ he said with a fine act of light-hearted indifference, ‘unfortunately I can’t close my eyes to the fact that it often takes a good deal less than we just managed between us.’ ‘Well, there’s certainly no need for you to sound so smug about it.’ ‘That’s not smugness, it’s resignation. We must marry, my dear.’ ‘Over my dead body,’ she managed to whisper between gritted teeth. ‘I admit it’s not what either you or your brother would have wanted, but I’ll not have a child of mine running about the place, blithely learning petty theft and fraud at its mother’s knee.’ ‘I can’t be a mother,’ she gasped as if the very idea pained her, which it did, acutely. She let the insult pass her by as she stood horrified by the suddenly very-present possibility that he might be right. ‘I think we may shortly find that you can, like it or no,’ he mocked her. ‘No, no, I mustn’t,’ she said, hugging her arms about her suddenly trembling body and trying not to come apart in front of him. ‘No,’ she whispered again in horror at the very idea as she sat suddenly back down on her much-maligned coffee sacks and rocked backwards and forwards at the desperate possibility of it. ‘I’ve heard of being wise after the event, but this is ridiculous, Miss Alstone,’ he told her. When she didn’t reply, but continued to rock blindly, as if she’d forgotten he was even there, he moved to kneel beside her and hold her still. He was almost tender as he soothed her and whispered meaningless words of comfort as he felt the dry sobs that shook her, for all her faint attempts to put the usual armour of indifference back in place. Chapter Seven (#ulink_405fbfc9-3e20-525a-9b59-c56799755fb5) ‘I can see how a lady like you might be horrified by the bare notion of bearing my child, but I promise it won’t be as bad as you think, Louisa. We will contrive to look after it somehow between us, and even if I’m not the husband you would have chosen, I’ll try to be an easy one on you and a good father to our children, whenever they should come.’ Hugh Darke was promising her all the time she tried to take in what had happened and how stupid she’d been to make him think he had to vow anything to her, let alone marriage. ‘You don’t understand,’ she wailed, ineffectually hitting a would-be fist against his rock-like chest as he tried to take her in his arms in an embrace of pure comfort that was so tempting she had to find a way to make him let her go. ‘I understand that you’re a lady and a very lately ex-virgin and I’m just a common sea captain, but I could say we’ve made our bed and now must lie on it, if only we’d ever got that far.’ ‘It’s not that, and I’m not a lady anyway,’ she said vaguely, for it seemed as if they were moving through a dream and she was looking much further back at a reality he couldn’t even guess at. ‘That you are—the whole world knows Miss Alstone is a Diamond of the ton, and only the highest born and most beautiful in the land gain that accolade.’ ‘The Ice Diamond, the Untouchable Alstone?’ she scorned incredulously. ‘You should be the first to pour scorn on that epithet from now on.’ ‘I’ll call out any man who seeks to argue with your icy reputation in public, even while I’m enjoying the real, warm human woman in my bed,’ he reassured her and if she hadn’t been bound up in her own misery she would have surely relished his partisanship, as well as his apparent desire to revisit her bed, however makeshift it might prove to be. ‘I never wanted to make my début among the ton,’ she told him blankly, as if not quite sure who she was talking to and all of a sudden she felt him take her misery seriously and draw back to try to see her face in all this frustrating darkness. ‘I certainly never intend to marry and did everything I could to make that fact clear to my family. I would not accept any gentleman’s offer of marriage, could not,’ she explained desolately as if she was in the dock instead of his arms. ‘Since I’m in a very good position to know you were a very proper maiden lady, then why not, Miss Alstone?’ ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, call me Louisa,’ she demanded with a sudden return to her usual forthright manner and, for a brief moment, she felt horror recede and the world rock back on to its proper axis for the first time in years. Then it was back again, that old revulsion at herself, the familiar, terrible worthlessness of what she’d done, so long ago. ‘Why will you have no husband or child to love, Louisa?’ he demanded imperiously and suddenly she knew he had easily as much noble blood pumping round his body as she could claim to have inherited from the Earls of Carnwood. ‘I can’t tell you,’ she whispered, back in that nightmare. ‘Whatever will you think of me if I do?’ ‘How can I say, until you actually tell me what troubles you so deeply? We can hardly say or think much worse of each other than we already have, now can we?’ ‘No,’ she admitted hollowly, thinking back to all the names she had called him, all the harsh opinions he’d already voiced about her. ‘Then what does it matter to you what I think of you? If you won’t marry me and insist on bastardising our maybe child, then I’ll certainly think far worse of you than you currently do of yourself, I can safely promise you that much at least.’ ‘How comforting,’ she managed to say almost lightly and decided he might as well know the worst about her, if only so he’d agree to walk away and forget her. ‘Tell me, it can’t be worse than a secret I can’t bring myself to tell you in return,’ he soothed ruefully, but she couldn’t imagine anything worse than her own dark misdeeds. ‘It was back in the years before I became a lady,’ she warned him. ‘Before you were born, you mean? I can’t say I approve of the axiom that the sins of the fathers are to be visited on the sons, or in this case the daughters, so I know that you were always a lady, my dear.’ ‘My father certainly had a full hand of misdeeds to hand on, even if that was all he left us.’ ‘So I have heard, but as I say, I can’t see why that ought to blight you, any more than it has your brother and sister.’ ‘Only me,’ she said so low he had to bow his head to catch it and she felt him so close to her again that her heart seemed to ache over that last inch of space between them. ‘No, you’re an Alstone just as surely as they are. Your parentage is stamped all over the three of you for anyone to see.’ ‘Oh, my mother was ever faithful to him—despite his rages and his false promises and the hundreds of ways in which he didn’t deserve her devotion. But once upon a time there were four of us children, and it’s my fault that there aren’t four of us any more.’ ‘How can it be? You must have been a child yourself when you lost your brother or sister, for I never heard of another little Alstone going to live with your aunt and uncle after your parents’ deaths.’ ‘I was thirteen years old when Maria and I went to our uncle’s house to be turned from little savages into proper ladies, at least according to him. Maria was sixteen and eager to please, as well as good and dutiful, so she found it far easier to be “civilised” than I did and settled to it without complaint.’ ‘Which you most certainly did not, Louisa, if I know anything about you at all,’ he said with a smile in his voice that made her knees weak. Again she longed to breach that small gap and lean into the comfort he was offering, but somehow forced herself not to. ‘You were a child and no wonder if you were rebellious,’ he continued, her unexpected advocate. ‘You’re an Alstone when all’s said and done, are you not? I never came across one yet who wasn’t as proud as the devil and impatient of the rules—apart from your sister, of course. Even I can see that Mrs Heathcote is almost as good as she is lovely and perhaps provides the exception to prove the rule.’ Another man who had evidently fallen very willingly under her lovely blonde sister’s gentle spell, Louisa decided with unaccustomed bitterness and hated herself all over again. ‘Aye, Maria is the best of us wicked Alstones,’ she said, ‘and I am the worst—I carry my father’s loathsome stamp right through me.’ ‘Don’t talk such damnable nonsense, woman, you have the Alstone looks and believe me, they are quite spectacular enough for the rest of us mere mortals to cope with. There’s a glorious portrait of the Lucinda Alstone rumour insists enchanted Charles the Second even more than usual in the Royal Collection and you can believe me, because I’ve seen it, that you’re even lovelier than she was. It’s lucky I found you before Prinny did, really,’ he added and she almost smiled at the absurdity of his cocky reassurance. ‘Oh, really—lucky for whom exactly?’ ‘Me, of course, since you’re going to marry me. For him as well, I suppose, since I won’t have to threaten him with laissez-majesty when I go after him with my horse pistols for leering at my wife, so long as he never has the chance to leer at you in the first place.’ ‘How do you know he hasn’t done so already?’ ‘Has he, then?’ ‘Just a little, but he called me a pretty child and tickled me under the chin before Lady Hertford became restless and dragged him away.’ ‘Sensible female,’ he approved smugly and she felt the comfort of normality he was trying to create for her and also a lurch of feeling she hadn’t armed herself against. Dangerous, she decided with a shiver, and sat a little straighter, almost next to him as she was. ‘They say he was once handsome and quite dashing,’ she mused so that he’d hopefully forget he’d been trying to plumb her deepest, darkest secrets. ‘According to my mother, he was as pretty a prince as you’d find in any fairy tale, until he became so fat and petulant you can’t help but wonder if he’d have been better finding something to do, besides feel sorry for himself.’ ‘You know a lot about him,’ she said suspiciously. ‘Any Londoner in town when he was still Prince Florizel, and not fat as an alderman, could tell you that much.’ ‘But your mama wasn’t just a London bystander, was she, Captain?’ ‘Never mind my mother, we were discussing yours.’ She sighed deeply and felt the shadow of the past loom until even the deep darkness of this windowless cavern seemed to be touched by it. ‘She was far more beautiful than I am in her youth, but stubborn as any mule and somehow saw some quality in my father nobody else ever did. Mama never raged about her reduced circumstances or let us children think we were in any way less because we didn’t have servants and fine clothes, or aught but a few second-hand books she managed to squirrel away from my father somehow or another. I deplore her blindness towards my father, for there was never a more selfish or ruthlessly vain man put on this earth than Bevis Alstone, but I can’t bring myself to blame her for it, because she genuinely loved him. In the end I think she thought of him as a particularly naughty child.’ ‘How humiliating for him,’ he said gently and she suddenly supposed it had been, so perhaps it was an unfortunate marriage on both sides and her mother would have been far better loving a better man and he a worse woman. ‘He didn’t kill her, though, I did that,’ she finally said bleakly. ‘And Peter,’ she added as if purging her soul of all her bitter crimes at once. ‘Of course you didn’t,’ he told her before she could add another word. ‘How do you know?’ she asked indignantly, almost as if she had to defend her right to the worst crime a human could commit against another of her kind. ‘You haven’t got it in you to harm a newborn kitten, let alone a woman you obviously loved and any kind of brother, even if he took after your sire in every vice available to him, which I doubt, since the rest of you certainly do not.’ ‘Well, he didn’t, anyway. Peter was a dear, good boy; if he was a little slower than the rest of us, he loved more to make up for it. You never came across a more endearing soul than him and even the thieves and thugs in our near neighbourhood wouldn’t have hurt him, although we only lived on the edges of a rookery and Kit and I would never have taken him inside for fear of what they would do to him there. He was five years younger than me, so Kit and Ben and I ran riot and played catch-me-if-you-can through St Giles while Maria and Peter stayed home with Mama and minded their lessons.’ ‘And Kit is five years older than you at the very least, so you were not running wild with him at thirteen years old, were you?’ ‘No.’ She shook her head slowly, shuddering at the thought of what she’d done and why. ‘He left for the sea when I was seven or eight, but whenever he was home I’d follow him everywhere. Even he stopped trying to prevent me doing so, once he realised I could climb like a monkey and run as fast as the wind from any pursuit, so there really wasn’t much point in him trying to stop me when he knew I’d get out anyway, and find it all the more sport to track him and Ben down when I did. I hated the times he and Ben were at sea and how I hated my father for reducing us all to such straits that Kit couldn’t go to school as Mama longed for him to do. I couldn’t endure the thought that Kit might be lost at sea, while Papa gamed and drank and demanded good food and warm clothes, even if we had to go without so he could present a smooth face to so-called “good” society. I’ve since discovered anything remotely akin to society turned its back years before, but at the time I hated “society” almost as much as I hated the gaming hells for letting him in.’ ‘Understandable in the circumstances,’ Hugh Darke said. ‘I was worse than he was, easily as selfish as he was,’ she condemned herself. ‘Anything Mama asked me to do, I ignored. Any task I had to perform because we were too poor for any of us to be idle, I did with ill grace and escaped from the boarding house my mother ran as soon as I could. Then I went into the rookeries and the mean streets around them, so I could play at being all the things girls and boys my own age were forced to do in order to put food in their bellies.’ ‘In your shoes, I’d have done the same.’ ‘You’d have been off to sea with Kit and Ben and left me more alone than ever, in my own eyes at least.’ ‘Well, if I’d been born a girl I dare say I’d have followed in your footsteps, then,’ he assured her with a smile in his voice she suddenly wished she could see. ‘You’re a better man than me,’ she said on the whisper of a laugh. ‘Make that a better woman,’ she added; for a moment, none of it felt bad after all. ‘Best make it neither. I’m very glad I’m a man and you’re a woman, but I still know I’d have felt as frustrated and rebellious in your situation as you did, Louisa Alstone. You’re spirited and clever and if you managed to survive alone in such a harsh world, then you’re evidently extremely resourceful as well.’ ‘Don’t make me into someone better than I deserve, Captain,’ she cautioned. ‘And don’t make yourself into your own demon.’ ‘No need for that, I killed Peter and Mama,’ she remembered bleakly and all temptation to take herself at his inflated value disappeared. ‘How?’ he asked and she marvelled that he didn’t draw his arms away or try to set her at arm’s length. ‘Kit and Ben had gone back to sea again and I hated losing their company and the exciting adventures we had, so I ran off one day when I’d finished my daily ration of sewing and chores about the house. It was high summer and the nights were almost as light as the days, so I climbed out of a bedroom window and stayed away all night. I found a roof in Mayfair to sleep on and it was a good deal cooler and more comfortable than our bedroom under the eaves in a rotten old house that should have been pulled down half a century ago. Then I decided to run back through the streets before the world was awake, just for the devilment of it. Except this time I ran through the wrong ones and picked up the typhus fever,’ she said, then stared blankly into the darkness as she finished her tale. ‘It killed Peter first and then I don’t think Mama could fight it for her grief at losing him. Maria was only ill for a couple of days and I recovered in time to know what I’d done and wish I hadn’t. Maria and I bungled along somehow, running the boarding house as best we could with Mrs Calhoun and Coste’s help, and Papa came home every now and again when he had nowhere else to go. Then Kit came home with his share of a cargo in his pocket and arranged for Maria and me to live with our uncle and his wife. So Kit has paid for our keep and education ever since and I stayed there and tried to make up for the terrible thing I did, but nothing could wipe out that particular sin.’ ‘You did nothing wrong, you idiotic woman. I can understand a grieving child taking on a terrible burden of guilt, but surely not even you are stubborn enough to cling to it now, in the face of all logic and mature consideration?’ She shrugged, knowing he couldn’t see her, but they were so close she could feel the frustration come off him. It was both unexpected and kind of him to try to absolve her of guilt. It also confirmed he had all the instincts, as well as the upbringing, of the gentleman she now knew him to be. ‘If I had only stayed at home as I should have done that day, Mama and Peter would probably still be alive today,’ she said sadly. ‘And if any number of things in history had happened in a different order we might not be standing here tonight, futilely discussing ifs and maybes. You know as well as I do that disease is rife in the slums of this city, especially in the summer, and anyone could have given them that illness. Would you expect the butcher or baker or candlestick-maker to carry a burden of guilt for the rest of their lives if they had carried it into your home?’ ‘No, but they would have spread it in innocence, not after disobeying every rule my mother tried to lay down for my safety and well-being and probably worrying her sleepless all night as well.’ ‘So you were headstrong and difficult—what’s new about that, Louisa?’ he asked impatiently and for some reason that made her consider his words more seriously than sympathy might have done. ‘Not much,’ she finally admitted as if it came as a shock. He chuckled and she kicked herself silently for feeling a warm glow threaten to run through her at the deep, masculine sound of it. ‘I doubt very much those who love you would have you any other than as you are, despite your many faults,’ he told her almost gently. ‘But Peter’s dead,’ she told him tragically and if he couldn’t hear the tears in her voice at the very thought of her loving little brother, now six years in his grave, she certainly could and bit her lip to try to hold them back. ‘And just how do you think your brother Kit and Ben Shaw would have felt if they came home to find you or your sister gone as well? Such epidemics are no respecters of what is fair and unfair, Louisa. None of you deserved to die or to bear blame for deaths that happened because the poor live in little better than open sewers at the heart of this fair city. Blame the aldermen and government ministers who allow such abject poverty to thrive in what’s supposed to be the most advanced nation in the world, but don’t be arrogant enough to take the blame yourself. And don’t you think your mother would hate to hear you now? It sounds to me as if she loved her children very much, so she’d certainly not want to hear you talk like a fool and refuse to bear children yourself, just because she’s not here any more and your little brother couldn’t fight a desperate and dangerous illness that can just as easily take strong men in the prime of their lives.’ ‘I still shouldn’t have gone.’ ‘No, but all the other times you climbed out of your window and ran wild through the streets you probably should have been sewing samplers or minding your books. It sounds like the natural reaction of a spirited girl, denied the pleasures and luxuries of the life you should have had, if your father wasn’t selfish and shallow and self-obsessed. Taking the burden of guilt for what happened when it clearly belongs elsewhere is arrogant, Louisa. All you were guilty of was a childish rebellion that you would have grown out of, once your brother was able to provide you and your family with the sort of life you should have lived from the outset.’ ‘He was so sad, Hugh,’ she confided with a sniff to hold back her tears that he somehow found deeply touching. ‘At night when he thought Maria and I were in bed and asleep I would hear him weep for them. Then Papa came home one night, drunk as usual, and they argued and raged at each other until Papa stormed off into the night and swore not to come home again until Kit was back at sea. They found his body floating in the Thames two days later and only my sister was ever soft-hearted enough to think he’d drowned himself out of grief for my mother, when he was so drunk he probably couldn’t tell the difference between high water and dry land. Yet it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t argued with Kit and I hadn’t done what I did.’ ‘And no doubt Kit feels guilty about that as well, being made in the same stubborn, ridiculous mould as you and the rest of the Earl of Carnwood’s rackety family. There’s no need for you to take on his regrets as well as your own, since I never met a man more able to own his sins and omissions than Christopher Alstone.’ ‘I suppose you could be right.’ ‘Of course I am. Now, kindly inform me what you were planning to do to me once you had me guyed up in that ridiculous disguise and let’s have done with your imagined sins.’ ‘That’s it? I am to consider myself absolved? You should have been a priest.’ ‘Maybe not,’ he said with a laugh that would have been self-mocking if he wasn’t so busy mocking her. ‘But nothing you did or didn’t do in the past has made you unfit to be a mother, Louisa. Probably just as well, since we’re going to be wed and will doubtless bed each other at regular intervals, very likely before we get to the altar as well if you keep glaring at me like that,’ he threatened half-seriously. ‘How do you know I’m glaring at you?’ she asked haughtily. ‘Instinct,’ he told her succinctly. ‘I can’t promise you much, but I will promise not to treat you as shabbily as your father did your mother,’ he added gruffly. ‘That would be nice of you, if I had the least intention of marrying you.’ ‘You will have to, my girl, since I refuse to spend the next three months or so not meeting your brother’s eyes or hiding from Ben Shaw’s mighty wrath while we wait for you to decide if I’ve just got you pregnant or not. Consider it the wages of sin and take that guilt on your shoulders if you must, but at least let’s have no more Cheltenham tragedies while you wait it out as my wife instead.’ ‘So far I hear only what you want and nothing about me, but the answer to your question about the disguise is that I don’t really know. I can’t go back to Kit’s house because my enemies will be looking for me by now, and I wanted to get you away from the man who’s trying to trap you until we could defeat him somehow, which was all very stupid of me, I suppose.’ ‘Undoubtedly it was,’ he agreed gruffly. ‘You could probably go back there safely yourself,’ she encouraged him and felt his suspicion on the heavy air as clearly as if she could actually see his frown. ‘While you do what in the meantime?’ ‘I have plenty of plans for my future. It’s you I don’t know what to do with.’ ‘I think we just demonstrated that you know exactly what to do with me,’ he said, sounding as silkily lethal as he must when examining any of his crew brought in front of him to explain their sins. ‘And you dislike being thought fit for only one purpose as much as I do?’ ‘When did I imply any such thing, woman?’ ‘With every word you drawl at me as if you’re right and everything I say proves how bird-witted I am.’ ‘Only when you’re talking rubbish,’ he muttered impatiently, as if driven to the edge of reason by addle-pated arguments, when she ought to accept his words as proven fact, then do as she was bid. ‘It’s hardly rubbish to say we’re both unsuited to marriage and even more so to marrying one another.’ ‘Yes, it is. We’ll do very well in our marriage bed, something we just proved to each other beyond all reasonable doubt.’ ‘So my doubts are unreasonable and that’s all there is to marriage?’ she asked with a theatrical wave at the coffee stacks she was quite glad he couldn’t see. The very thought of them made her blush now they were discussing seduction and his peculiar idea that it automatically led to marriage. ‘Ah, now I can see why you were truly so unsuited to the tonnish ideals of marriage à la mode. You, Miss Alstone, destined as you are not to be a miss for very much longer, are a romantic.’ Stung by the accusation, when she’d always thought herself such a cynic, Louisa was about to loudly dispute such a slur when she made the mistake of wondering if he could be right. Chapter Eight (#ulink_e4b2d175-65ee-518a-8f1e-c1b2b8eb50e1) ‘I have never felt the slightest need to sigh and yearn over a man,’ Louisa lied defensively, ‘and least of all over you, Captain Darke.’ ‘Good, because I’m not worth wasting a moment’s peace on,’ he said curtly and a fierce desire to argue that statement shook her, but she fought it with an effort she must think about later. ‘I’m not going to marry you,’ she said as definitely as she could. ‘You’re such an odd mix of cynicism and vulnerability, my dear. I’ll probably spend a lifetime trying to understand you,’ he said, as if he hadn’t heard. ‘It will be a lifetime separate from mine,’ she insisted for the sake of it more than out of any passionate certainty. She was so busy feeling hollow inside at the idea that the sounds she was waiting for from outside hardly seemed important any more. ‘Why the devil is a ship docking hard by, Louisa?’ he barked at her and she felt his frustration as he gripped her as if he’d like to shake her. ‘It’s come for me, of course—what’s the point of having a brother with his own shipping empire if I can’t call on it when I need to?’ she replied coolly. ‘You don’t trust me to keep you safe, then?’ ‘It’s not a matter of trust,’ she argued uncomfortably. ‘Now there you’re so very wrong, Miss Alstone.’ His voice was so low she did her best not to hear it as he turned to the master of the coastal brig she’d summoned here once the tide was right. ‘What the devil do you want?’ he barked when a shadowy figure unlocked the riverside door and stood outlined against the night. ‘My sister,’ Christopher Alstone replied grimly, opening his dark lantern and making Louisa blink. ‘So what in Hades are you doing here?’ he demanded. ‘Kit!’ Louisa exclaimed on a huge sigh of relief and confusion as she ran into his arms. ‘I missed you so much,’ she told him fervently. ‘It’s mutual, you confounded nuisance of a female,’ he informed her abruptly, even as she felt at least half of his attention slide to Hugh Darke and his muscles stiffen like a fighting dog scenting a challenge. ‘What have you done to my sister?’ he ground out, as if he knew exactly what they’d been doing, but surely even her powerful brother couldn’t see through walls? ‘Nothing,’ she said impatiently. ‘And what are you doing here?’ she asked, standing away from him to examine his deeply shadowed face. ‘I asked first,’ he said silkily, his eyes not moving from Hugh and she wondered if these two warriors were about to try to kill each other over her. ‘And you’re clearly as annoying as ever,’ she sparked back, determined not to be sidelined and silent while they decided her future between them. ‘Clearly,’ he agreed with that flinty lack of temper she knew from experience was his most effective weapon in an argument. ‘An answer, if you please?’ he demanded starkly and Hugh Darke moved Louisa aside to confront her brother. ‘I was trying to persuade her to marry me, until you interrupted us,’ he said, as arrogantly challenging as if he’d just thrown down a knightly gauntlet and fully expected to have it thrown back in his face. ‘Oh, good,’ Kit said mildly and Louisa felt her rage soar almost out of control at the exact moment his seemed to deflate. ‘Good? Do you really want this idiot to marry me?’ she raged. ‘Why not? Lots of other idiots have asked you to do so and they only mildly annoyed you. At least this one seems to have found a way of holding your full attention while he puts the question, even if I don’t like anything else about him being shut in here alone with my little sister.’ Drat him, but why did her brother have to be so uncannily perceptive? Because he was Kit Stone, she supposed: precociously successful, driven and even more stubborn than she was. ‘Speaking as the idiot in question, I don’t care about your ruffled pride and your reputation for icy detachment, Miss Alstone. I just want you to agree to marry me, so your brother doesn’t have to beat me to a bloody pulp and we can all go home, before eating our dinner and getting on with our interrupted lives with no more of your infernal melodramas,’ Hugh told her impatiently. ‘Which is exactly why we should not marry, since your dinner clearly matters to you a lot more than I do,’ she said, rounding on him now that Kit seemed more an amused bystander than her avenging guardian. If she let herself think about the volumes that detachment spoke about her brother’s belief in Captain Darke’s bone-deep sense of honour, she might start respecting the devilish rogue herself and she knew precisely where that would get her—marched up the aisle before she came back to her right senses again. ‘On the contrary, I’m exactly the right husband to deal with your wrongheaded ideas and headstrong ways. Any other man would be driven demented by your starts inside a sennight.’ ‘He could be right,’ Kit observed traitorously. ‘And I’ll be flying to the moon any moment now,’ she scorned, but the idea of arguing with Hugh Darke for the rest of their born days suddenly seemed a little bit too promising. ‘I’ll take you there, Eloise,’ he whispered in her ear and she wondered how he’d managed to creep so close behind her that she was all but in his arms once more, and in front of her brother as well. She shuddered with what she told herself was revulsion, but he’d reminded her how it felt to soar in his arms, to strive for the very moon and stars, and she sighed in besotted anticipation of doing it all again. ‘Not until you’ve put a wedding ring on her finger, you won’t,’ Kit warned as he eyed them very suspiciously once more. ‘And what’s all this Eloise business?’ ‘You really don’t want to know,’ Hugh said with a return to his austerely apart, piratical-captain look as he withdrew his warmth and strength from her. Louisa shivered at no longer feeling him next to her—how could she know if her scent and sound and touch were as deeply imprinted on his senses as his were on hers? He was so detached all of a sudden it was as if she’d dreamt that feverish interlude in his arms when neither of them seemed able to hold anything back from the other. She was almost glad when Kit decided this was neither the time nor the place for such an important discussion and put aside that comment to pick over later and eyed her pale face with brotherly concern. ‘I probably don’t either, but let’s get Louisa out of here. We can deal with Eloise and the details of your wedding in the morning.’ ‘No, I can’t go home with you, I need to get away,’ Louisa argued, an illogical sense that she needed to escape nagging at her even now she had two powerful protectors instead of just the one. ‘Why?’ her brother asked. ‘Because Uncle William has been scheming to marry me off to a worm of a man, who probably offered to share my dowry with him, and both of them will be hot on my trail by now.’ ‘He’ll answer to me for it, then, but why would that mean we can’t go home?’ ‘The insect abducted me and kept me in his bedchamber for a night and a day and made sure my uncle and aunt saw me there, so they could exclaim loudly about my wickedness and their scandalised feelings. They forbade me their roof, unless I instantly married the repulsive toad, which I refused to do needless to say.’ ‘That need not worry you, Miss Alstone. He won’t pollute the world for very much longer,’ Hugh Darke gritted between his strong white teeth and, given the fierce look in his eyes, she believed him. ‘How would your killing him help me? You would have to flee the country and I would still be the centre of a fine scandal, all the more so if I was stupid enough to have married you in the meantime. It would seem as if I ran off with you after growing bored with him.’ ‘She’s right, Hugh,’ Kit intervened as Hugh Darke rounded on her with his best master-of-all-I-survey glare. ‘You need to leave the worm to me,’ Kit added, offering that caveat to soothe the devil of temper so very evident in Hugh’s furious gaze and stirring hers instead. ‘No, he’ll only dirty your hands,’ Hugh gritted furiously, quite lost to reason, even if her brother only had more masculine folly to offer. ‘What’s his name, this insect-worm?’ he asked fiercely. ‘Do you think I’m fool enough to tell you that, when you will only add to the scandal already surrounding me by calling him out?’ His hands closed about her arms, as if he wanted to shake some sense into her and she condemned her senses for leaping to attention, even at his angry touch through her second-hand jacket and gown. For a betraying moment she swayed towards him, as if her body and her senses were begging for a kiss despite her growing fury. ‘He must not get away with it, Louisa, I can’t let him,’ he gritted as if her lost reputation mattered to him more than it ever could to her. As surely as she knew Charlton would walk away if she was teetering on the edge of a cliff, she knew this man would plunge off it himself, if that was what it took to save her. ‘Don’t you think me capable of making him sorry he was even born, then, Hugo?’ Kit said almost gently. ‘I do, but it should be my job. No, make that my pleasure.’ ‘It can’t be and you know why,’ Kit said obscurely and Louisa’s ears pricked up at the veiled curb in that short sentence. Then she felt the reminder bite into the man still holding her arms as if he didn’t know quite what to do with her. Hugh jerked away from her, seeming horrified that he’d ever laid hands on her in the first place and watched those very hands with revulsion, like a very masculine Lady Macbeth, after she’d driven herself mad with murder and ambition and couldn’t wash the imaginary blood off them. ‘I know, so how can I wed your sister? I forgot what I am in the heat of the moment,’ he whispered and it was as if he and Kit were talking about something deeply important she wasn’t going to be told. ‘Whilst I suspect I don’t want to know about the heat of that particular moment, we both know there’s nothing to stop you marrying. The rub will come if you fail to make my sister happy afterwards and I’m forced to kill you,’ Kit told him implacably, and any illusion she’d suffered that he was resigned to what had taken place between herself and Hugh tonight melted away like mist in the July sun. ‘That would go quite badly with me, either way,’ she muttered mutinously. ‘Not as badly as you knowing the truth about me would,’ Hugh said, looking glum about her predicted unhappiness and softening her heart, if he did but know it. ‘I told you my tale,’ she challenged him, and if Kit chose to think it was the one about her abduction and lost reputation, then so be it. ‘And you think mine is that simple—just a few words and a rueful smile at how easy that was to get out of the way and go on?’ ‘As mine was?’ she demanded, furious with him for brushing aside her fears and peculiarities as if they didn’t matter. ‘I didn’t mean …’ he blundered on. ‘Never mind what you meant, never mind your secrets. I haven’t got all night to spare for arguing with you. I’m tired and hungry and downright weary of rescuing ungrateful, lying, mistrustful idiots from their enemies. If neither of you intends to take me somewhere safe and warm and feed me, pray give me a hand up on to that brig of yours, brother mine, and I’ll get the master to drop me off at the nearest port downriver where I can buy myself a bedchamber for the night and a decent meal.’ ‘Not in a hundred years, sister dear, and he’s long gone. I thought half of London must know he was casting off and none too happy to be going in the middle of the night, given the amount of noise he made about it.’ ‘I didn’t hear him,’ she said stiffly and actually caught herself out in a flounce as she spun round to glare at her would-be bridegroom and dare him to comment. ‘Neither did I,’ he admitted meekly. ‘Lovebirds,’ Kit added sarcastically and Louisa wondered if she ought to kick one of them, even if it was just because they were men and couldn’t help being infuriating any more than they could voluntarily stop breathing. ‘What are we going to do, then?’ she demanded. ‘Go home,’ Kit told her implacably and, since there was nowhere she’d rather be, she allowed him to bustle her out of the warehouse and along narrow streets and alleys he knew even better than she did in the dark, then out on to wider and marginally more respectable streets where he hailed a cab, then sat back to watch the night-time streets roll past as if they fascinated him. ‘Where have you been, then?’ Louisa finally asked her brother, remembering she ought to be furious with him for disappearing as he had. ‘Here and there,’ he told her shortly. Simmering with temper because it was better than letting her tiredness and uncertainty take over, she put her mind to Hugh Darke’s many mysteries as the little house in Chelsea and a degree of physical comfort beckoned at last. ‘Just as well you didn’t get back last night,’ she muttered as they arrived and her brother helped her down while Hugh paid the jarvey. ‘I’m not going to ask why not until I’ve had my dinner and a soothing shot of brandy,’ he said as he ushered her up the steps and rapped sharply on the door. ‘Hah! That’s a lot less likely than you think,’ she observed with a sidelong glance at Hugh that made Kit frown as Coste cautiously opened the door. ‘Let us in, you idiot,’ Kit ordered sharply. ‘Didn’t know it was you, now, did I?’ Coste mumbled as he stood back to do so. ‘You would have done if you actually made use of the Judas hole I had put in for once,’ his employer informed him as he used Coste’s candle to light those in the sconces round the cosy dining parlour they had got nowhere near last night. ‘Is there anything edible in the house?’ he demanded and put a taper to the fire laid ready in the hearth for good measure. ‘Aye, sir. Miss Louisa gave me money for food and a couple of cleaning women. We’ve a good pork pie and a ham and all sorts of fancy bits of this and that. There’s treacle tart, apple pie and gingerbread, too, but not so much of the treacle tart as there might be,’ Coste said with a reminiscent grin. ‘And you two somehow managed until now without my housekeeper and a kitchenmaid?’ Kit asked mildly enough. ‘Well, I was going to tell you about that, Captain …’ Coste trailed off, casting a look at Hugh that begged him to take over explaining their misconduct. ‘We two bachelors proved too rowdy to satisfy Mrs Calhoun’s strict standards of behaviour and she took herself and her daughter off before there was any gossip about them being here with two rowdy bachelors like us,’ he obligingly admitted, nodding at Coste to make himself scarce while he still could. ‘I warrant she did,’ Kit replied grimly. ‘Don’t forget to bring that pie and a pint of porter along with tea for Miss Louisa,’ he urged his retreating manservant and watched Hugh with cold eyes. ‘I trust my sister was not caught up in that rowdiness,’ he added with such mild iciness that even Louisa shivered in her seat by the fire. Hugh shifted in his chair as Louisa carefully stared into the flames and Kit sighed rather heavily. ‘Later,’ he said portentously and Louisa felt as if the two men were once more having a silent but fierce conversation she didn’t understand, and that they had no intention of explaining any of it to her. Hugh Darke wasn’t in the least bit overshadowed by her powerful brother. Despite her captain’s apparently subservient role in Kit and Ben’s empire, he acted as Kit’s equal and her suspicions about his true place in the world crept back and left her wondering why he took orders from even so compelling, and successful, a pair as her brother and Ben Shaw. She furtively surveyed her brother and her lover in turn, noting the similarities in their elegantly powerful builds and proud carriage. They were both dark-haired as well, of course, but that was about the end of any similarity between them and Hugh Darke was certainly the more mysterious and contrary of the two, even judged on appearance alone. He had that strong Roman nose that looked as if it had been broken at some point in his varied career; emphatically marked dark brows frowned above his challenging silver-blue eyes and yet his mouth could have belonged on a poet or a troubadour, if not for the stern control he kept it under. She knew how sensitive it could feel against hers now, but the containment of it argued he’d been through a very hot fire to become the steely-eyed captain he was now. A younger Hugh Darke would be almost too handsome and appealing for his own good; she imagined this complex and contrary man carefree and laughing, and was glad to be spared that pristine version of him, since she was far too impressed with the current one to need any more encouragement. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. 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