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20

Are you all right? Anthony asked quietly. Louisa looked out over the moonlit gardens. It was nearly midnight. Here and there decorative lanterns bobbed. Off to the right the fanciful shape of a large iron-and-glass conservatory loomed. Behind them the crowded ballroom sparkled and glittered. Laughter and music poured through the open French doors.

Yes, of course, she said, suppressing another shiver.

But the strain of pretending to enjoy herself for the past two hours was starting to take its toll. Her smile felt frozen. She wanted to go back to Arden Square and drink a very large glass of brandy. Can we go home now?

Soon, Anthony promised. He took her elbow. Lets walk.

Well, at least we now know for certain what sort of service Mr. Thurlow provided for Elwin Hastings, she said after a while. He compromised the victims and then stole their journals and letters to give to Hastings.

He was a chronic gambler. That meant he was always in need of large sums of cash to meet his debts. Hastings was willing to pay well for the blackmail items. Grantley no doubt handled the collection of the extortion payments. I cannot envision Hastings doing that sort of work.

They went down the terrace steps and followed a gravel path that wound through the elaborately landscaped garden. They were not the only couple who had taken a respite from the heat and energy of the ballroom, Louisa noticed. She heard low voices from the shadows. A man laughed softly. The pale skirts of a womans gown gleamed briefly in the moonlight before vanishing around a hedge.

The last thing she had wanted to do tonight was attend the ball, but she understood Anthonys reasoning. They must carry on as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred that afternoon. Anthony seemed to be having very little difficulty, but she had been fighting a disturbing anxiety all afternoon and evening. The truth was that the discovery of Thurlows body that morning had unsettled her nerves far more than she had realized at the time.

The murder scene had brought back the horror and fear of that dreadful night a little over a year ago. She had been unable to get the image of Gavins body out of her head. She knew that no matter how late she stayed up tonight or how much brandy she drank when she got home, she was unlikely to sleep. That was not necessarily a bad thing, she thought. If she did manage to fall asleep, there would no doubt be nightmares.

Anthony brought her to a halt near the entrance to the large conservatory. The glass walls were opaque in the silver moonlight.

We can be private here, Anthony said quietly.

She sank down onto a marble bench. The skirts of her gown spilled around her ankles. She looked into the night and shivered again.

Are you cold? Anthony asked.

A little. She could not tell him how much the murder scene had shaken her. He would conclude that she lacked the nerve required to continue the investigation. What are we going to do now? With Victoria Hastings, Thurlow, and Grantley all conveniently dead we have no more clues to follow. There appears to be no one left who knows Elwin Hastingss secrets.

Anthony braced one foot on the bench beside her and rested his forearm on his thigh. The only thing we can do is to continue asking questions.

She tried to concentrate on the problem. It occurs to me that there is a place where some of Hastingss secrets may be known.

He looked down at her. Where is that?

The brothel where he keeps his weekly appointments.

Phoenix House? He was silent for a few seconds. Then he nodded slowly. That is an interesting notion.

She wrinkled her nose. I hope you are not going to tell me that you intend to book an appointment there yourself in an effort to research your theory.

He smiled faintly. I doubt that would do any good. I am unlikely to convince any of the women who work there to confide in me on such short notice. But you seem to have won the trust of someone who knows a few of those women.

You mean Roberta Woods in Swanton Lane.

Yes.

I will ask her to make a few more discreet inquiries.

Excellent. Meanwhile, I can only hope that I will eventually hear something from Clement Corvus. He obviously knows a great deal about Hastingss business affairs.

I cannot imagine that a crime lord would want to reveal his illegal activities to us, she said.

We shall see.

She raised her brows. You really do think he will contact you?

Its possible.

Why would he do that?

Anthony smiled faintly. In spite of his business activities, or perhaps because of them, he is said to abide by a stern code of honor. Among other things I am told that he always pays his debts.

Who told you so much about Corvus?

Detective Fowler. Corvus and Scotland Yard have a longstanding relationship.

Fowler again. She suppressed another shudder. You think Mr. Corvus will conclude that he owes you for whatever was in those papers you asked Miranda to give to him?

Either that or he will want more information from me. Nothing is certain in this affair.

She wrapped her arms around herself. If we are correct in our assumptions, Elwin Hastings has killed not just once but perhaps four times: Fiona Risby, the first Mrs. Hastings, Grantley, and Thurlow. It is difficult to conceive of such evil.

The business of killing no doubt gets easier after the first time, Anthony said.

She had to fight to keep from leaping to her feet and screaming that he was wrong. No matter how justified, killing was a horrifying experience that haunted one for a lifetime.

Without warning Anthony reached down, gripped her elbow, and hauled her to her feet.

Hush, he ordered against her lips.

She opened her mouth to ask him what he thought he was doing, but before she could utter a word she found herself pinned against his chest. His mouth came down on hers, hard and unyielding.

She froze. She had made her decision, she thought. It would be best if there were no more kisses. But even as she repeated that bit of logic to herself, she knew she was in no condition to resist temptation tonight; her nerves were far too overwrought. She longed to be consumed by the fires of passion so that she could forget the scenes of death that drifted through her mind like so many ghastly specters.

She put her arms around his neck and pressed herself against him. Then she heard the faint murmur of voices drifting through the night. A couple was approaching on the conservatory path. Once again Anthony was kissing her in order to create the impression that they were engaged in an illicit affair. Frustration seized her. She wanted him to kiss her in a way that showed he meant it.

A man chuckled. It would seem we must find another secluded bower, my dear. This one is already occupied.

The woman murmured something indistinguishable in response. Louisa realized that the voices were growing softer as the pair moved away into another section of the gardens, but she was no longer paying attention. All she could think about was the feel of Anthonys arms around her. Heat flooded through her. It did not matter that the kiss had never been intended as an act of seduction. The impact was akin to a lightning bolt searing her already sensitive nerves. Everything inside her was ablaze.

Anthony, she breathed against his mouth.

He gave a soft, husky groan. His arm tightened. His mouth was suddenly rough and demanding. He was kissing her for real now. The same way she was kissing him. There was so much sizzling electricity snapping and crackling between them she was vaguely surprised her hair was not standing on end. His hands moved on her back, closing fiercely around the snug bodice of her gown.

She was inexplicably frantic, shivering with need. Caught up in the maelstrom of a force she could only dimly comprehend, she clutched Anthonys shoulders, hung on for dear life, and kissed him back.

He broke off the kiss and cupped her face between his hands. Say my name again.

In the shadowy glow of a nearby lantern his expression was not that of a gentle lover. What she saw in his face was a raw, compelling hunger that matched her own.

Anthony. She shivered but not from nerves this time. Anticipation pulsed through her. Anthony.

He took his hands away from her face and put them around her waist. Then he bent his head and kissed her throat. His mouth was wet and hungry on her skin. She felt his teeth at one point. An exquisite excitement made her catch her breath. This was what she needed. This desperate, intense passion would sear the twin images of Thurlows and Gavins bloodied heads from her thoughts, at least for a while.

Anthony scooped her up in his arms and carried her to the door of the conservatory.

Open it, he muttered.

She reached down, found the knob, and twisted. The door swung open, and a wave of humid warmth flowed over her. She inhaled the scents of greenery and flowers and freshly turned earth, the fragrance of life not death.

Anthony carried her through the opening and set her on her feet near a workbench. He reached back, closed and locked the door. Then he turned to her and pulled her to him again. His hands went to the fastenings of the bodice of her dress.

She was amazed to realize that his fingers, so skilled and sensitive with locks and keys, were actually trembling. She could hear his breathing now. Hot. Urgent. When she touched him she discovered that the muscles of his shoulders beneath his coat were rigid.

Hope spiraled through her. He had loved his dear Fiona, but perhaps there was room in his heart for another woman.

Her bodice came undone. She was intensely grateful for the deep shadows around them. The thin fabric of her chemise was all that veiled her breasts.

He bent his head and kissed her throat. His thumb grazed a nipple, sending little tremors through her. She clutched at his shoulders, wanting to explore the strength and power she found there, wanting to learn him more intimately, but he gave her no chance.

Louisa, you dont know what you have done to me. I want you now. I need you.

Without warning he lifted her and sat her on the edge of the workbench. Everything was happening so quickly. She could no longer think. On the other hand, thinking was the very last thing she wanted to do.

The next thing she knew his mouth had taken the place of his hand on her breast. He dampened the fabric of the chemise with his tongue.

The sense of need clawed at her. She threaded her fingers through Anthonys hair. When his teeth closed around her nipple she gasped. Immediately he raised his head to silence her with another smoldering kiss.

He caught the skirts of her gown and pushed them up above her knees. His hands closed over her thighs above her stockings, pushing them apart.

Her pulse skittered wildly. She was still adjusting to the stunning intimacy of his touch when he slid his fingers inside the open-crotch seam of her lace-trimmed drawers. The searing heat of his palm on the most private portion of her anatomy was both utterly outrageous and exquisitely thrilling.

You want me, he whispered hoarsely. Say it. You want me as badly as I want you.

Yes. She tightened her hands in his hair. Oh, yes.

Her head was spinning. The world outside the conservatory ceased to matter. This was what it meant to be consumed by passion. She marveled at the exhilarating sensation. The novelists and playwrights were correct. This was why people got involved in illicit love affairs.

You are so soft, he said, stroking her intimately. You are driving me mad.

She realized that he was opening the front of his trousers. When she glanced down she caught a glimpse of his hand wrapped around his erection. He removed a square of white linen from another pocket and dropped it on the bench beside her.

Fascinated, she started to reach down to touch him, but he was already pushing himself into the melting core of her body. The pressure felt very, very good. She wanted more. Desperate, she urged him closer.

He gripped her buttocks and pulled her onto his shaft with a single violent thrust, sinking himself to the hilt inside her.

Pain arced across her overwrought senses. Jolted by the abrupt transition from unbearable desire to unpleasant reality, she gasped and went utterly still.

Damnation. Anthony froze, also. Youre a virgin.

Well, yes, but I really dont see that as the issue here.

Why in blazes didnt you tell me that you were a virgin?

He sounded furious. What right did he have to be angry at her? She was the one who was in pain.

I did not think it was any of your business, she said, her temper crackling to life.

How can you say that it is none of my business?

Anger swept through her, dampening some of the physical discomfort. Really, sir, you would hardly expect me to discuss such intimate details of my life with a gentleman with whom I am barely acquainted.

He looked down at her with a strange expression. May I remind you that you are in the midst of making love to a gentleman with whom you are barely acquainted?

We are not making love, she said gruffly, not wanting to admit to herself, just how much that fact hurt. We are engaging in an act of illicit passion.

I see. You are an authority on such matters?

Illicit trysts are different. One is under no obligation to confide ones personal affairs to ones lover.

I cannot believe that I am receiving a lecture from you on the subject of how one conducts an illicit love affair.

She winced. I think it would be best if you, uh, removed yourself, sir. As you can tell we are not a good match.

How would you know? he said, making no move to retreat.

I would think it is obvious. You are much too big.

I think we are a perfect fit.

He started to ease out of her. She held her breath.

But he stopped just short of her entrance and pushed slowly, steadily back into her.

She gasped. I really dont think this is a good idea.

Allow me to inform you, Mrs. Bryce, that you are no expert.

He kissed her deeply, silencing her before she could argue further.

He repeated the movement, withdrawing almost entirely and then stroking deeply back into her. The sensation was not painful this time, but neither was it pleasurable. She was stretched so tight she could scarcely breathe. Still, it wasnt a bad feeling.

Perhaps predictably, her lamentable curiosity unfurled, suppressing disappointment.

Very well, if you insist, she said, wriggling a little in an effort to get more comfortable. But please be quick about it.

Anthony stilled again, buried inside her.

She opened her eyes and saw that he was looking down at her with an unreadable expression. Chagrined, she put her hands on each side of his face.

Oh, dear, I didnt mean to hurt your feelings, she said anxiously. Feel free to carry on. I wont say another word.

Do I have your promise on that?

Absolutely, sir. As long as we have gone this far, we may as well finish the business.

Have a care, my sweet. Such romantic talk will make me swoon.

She was mortified. She was also furious. The mixture proved highly combustible. She caught his shoulders and pulled him closer.

Damnation, Anthony. Get on with it.

He said something under his breath that she could not make out, but he finally began to move in quick, tight strokes. Her body seemed to have adjusted itself to his now. If the sensations she was experiencing were not the thrilling ones she had anticipated, neither were they altogether unpleasant.

If Anthony found pleasure in this, she could tolerate the exercise.

Damn it to hell. He sounded as though he was having difficulty breathing. This is your fault. You have played havoc with my self-control tonight.

What is my fault? What do you intend to blame on me? How dare you

You promised not to talk, he said, teeth clenched. Damn.

Worried by the low, savage groan that underlay the oath, she opened her eyes. Are you all right?

He did not respond. Instead he suddenly jerked free of her body and grabbed the handkerchief. He wrapped it around the head of his erection.

In the dim light she could see that his eyes were squeezed shut. His lips were parted and drawn back in a silent groan. His teeth flashed dangerously in the darkness. And then it was over. He propped himself against the workbench, breathing heavily. He did not open his eyes.

Damn, he said again, very softly this time.


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