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21

She waited, uncertain of what one did in a situation like this. The authors of sensation novels did not cover this sort of thing in the books that she had read.

Worried, she gently touched his arm.

Anthony?

He opened his eyes partway.

She shivered uneasily when she saw the way he was looking at her.

Are you ill? she asked.

An interesting question.

He straightened and turned away from her, swiftly adjusting his trousers. She hopped down off the workbench. That proved to be a mistake. Her thighs were so wobbly she had to grab hold of the bench to steady herself. She arranged her skirts with awkward hands, aware of a distinctly uncomfortable sensation between her legs.

My apologies, sir, she said brusquely.

He turned around again, alarmingly cool and back in control. For allowing me to believe that you were a woman of the world?

No, for encouraging you a few minutes ago. Although, in my own defense, I must admit that I expected a somewhat different result.

What, exactly, did you expect, Louisa?

She waved a hand, glad that the shadows hid her blush. Im sure you understand. One hears so much about the thrill of illicit passion, doesnt one?

I couldnt say.

You probably dont read a lot of novels.

No.

But you must have seen your sisters marvelous plays.

In her plays illicit love affairs always come to a bad end.

Thats not the point. She groped for the right words. The thing is, based on what I have read and seen on the stage, I anticipated a more, shall we say, transcendent experience.

Transcendent, he repeated neutrally.

That is the way forbidden passion is portrayed, you see. She sighed. I should have realized that there is a reason why every woman in England is not running around indulging in illicit love affairs.

It was your first time, Louisa. First times are always awkward.

A thought struck her. Hmm.

He caught her chin on the edge of his hand and raised her face so that she had to meet his eyes. What is that supposed to mean?

Nothing, she said hastily.

Given what I have just gone through, I think I deserve an answer.

Very well, if you insist. It occurred to me that the problem here may have been you, not me.

Youre blaming your failure to achieve transcendence on me?

No, no, of course not. Not entirely. She cleared her throat. It is certainly not your fault that nature chose to overly endow certain portions of your anatomy. She paused, considering the subject more closely. Perhaps a smaller man

He leaned very close.

Do not, he said, his voice ominously soft, even think about it.

She stepped back quickly and came up hard against the workbench. Calm yourself, sir. You are a trifle agitated at the moment. We both are. It has been a very difficult day.

He closed the space between them and planted his hands on the table behind her, caging her between his arms.

Let me make something very plain, he said in that same dangerously soft tone. This is your fault, not mine. You misled me with your guise as a widow. You played the part far too well. You should have told me the truth.

Rubbish. If Id done that, you never would have kissed me in the first place, let alone ravished me.

You wanted to be ravished?

Yes, I did. Anger and frustration leaped within her again. I was in a mood to be ravished tonight.

His eyes narrowed. Was this some whimsical decision you made on the spur of the moment this evening?

Not at all. She raised her chin. As it happens, I have been thinking about that sort of thing a lot of late.

What a coincidence, he said. So have I.

She ignored that. Until tonight I have been in complete control of my emotions, of course.

Of course.

However, I regret to say that the events at Thurlows lodgings left me feeling rather unsettled.

In what way?

I cant explain it. I was agitated and on edge all afternoon. My heart seemed to beat faster than usual. I could not seem to calm my nerves.

He searched her face in the shadows. I think I understand.

When you kissed me a few minutes ago it was as if a storm had broken. I was suddenly swept up in a vortex of intense sensation.

Carried along by the hot winds of passion? he offered helpfully.

Yes, precisely.

Tossed about by a tempest of raging desire?

He did comprehend. She felt somewhat cheered.

That is exactly the feeling I am attempting to describe. She paused expectantly. Was it the same for you?

It certainly was. He leaned a little closer. Until the damn snow started to fall.

Yes, well, it was obviously all a ghastly mistake. I would like very much to go home, if you dont mind. I feel in the need of a large glass of brandy.

So do I.

You are annoyed. I dont blame you. An appalling thought occurred to her. You wont allow this unfortunate incident to alter our arrangement regarding the investigation, will you?

To her chagrin, he did not answer immediately.

No, he said finally. Our arrangement stands, if that is your wish.

It is, she assured him.

There is one thing you should consider before you insist upon continuing our partnership, however.

What is that? she asked, wary now.

If we continue to work together, there will probably be more fiery storms such as the one that just took place.

In spite of everything that had happened, she felt her pulse leap again. A hot little thrill chased its way down her spine. She suppressed it with an effort, pulled herself together, and straightened her shoulders.

We are both strong-willed people, sir, she said firmly. Im certain we will be able to control ourselves.

Speak for yourself, Louisa.

HE ESCORTED HER OUT of the conservatory and back through the gardens. Louisa looked at the lights of the glittering ballroom. Panic shot through her.

Must we go back inside? she asked anxiously.

Anthony was grimly amused. One of the tricks to handling an illicit affair, my sweet, is the ability to face the world and act as if nothing at all out of the ordinary is going on.

He was right. She raised her chin and straightened her already very straight shoulders.

Excellent, Anthony murmured into her ear.

Mercifully, no one seemed overly interested in them. They passed through the crowded room with only a few casual nods and a handful of speculative glances.

When they reached the front hall Anthony called for his carriage. They went down the steps together. A footman opened the door of the vehicle. Escape was at hand, Louisa thought. She allowed herself a cautious breath of relief.

At that moment another vehicle arrived, halting directly behind Anthonys. The door opened. A man dressed in formal black and white jumped down onto the pavement. He staggered a little and had to grab hold of the edge of the door frame to catch his balance.

He spotted Anthony. Instantly his handsome face contorted with anger.

If it isnt Stalbridge, he said, slurring the s. I presume this is the little widow from Arden Square Ive heard so much about lately. Arent you going to introduce me to the lady?

No, Anthony said. He kept moving, putting himself between her and the stranger.

Louisa was so shocked by the cold rebuff that she tripped on the last step. She would have gone down if Anthony had not steadied her. He handed her up into the cab.

Julian Eastons the name, Mrs. Bryce. Easton whipped off his hat in a mockery of good manners. Im delighted to make your acquaintance. Id heard the rumor that Stalbridge was amusing himself with a rather unusual female, but this is the first chance Ive had an opportunity to see the little country mouse.

Anthony walked toward him. Thats enough, Easton. Youre drunk, and youre embarrassing yourself.

Easton ignored him. He looked at Louisa through the window of the carriage. You do realize that hes using you, Mrs. Bryce. Youre not at all his type, you see. The word in the clubs is that hes fucking some other mans wife and concealing the fact by hiding behind your skirts.

Anthony kept walking toward him. At the last instant Easton seemed to realize that he was in danger, but it was too late. Anthony moved with a speed that took everyone, including Easton by surprise. He caught Easton by the sleeve of his coat. At the same time he put out one foot. It was over in a heartbeat. Easton went down very suddenly, landing hard on his rear. He sat on the pavement, looking dazed.

Arden Square, Anthony said to the driver as he vaulted up into the cab.

The vehicle rolled forward immediately. Louisa looked back toward the steps of the Lorrington mansion. Julian Easton was still sitting on the pavement. Fury had replaced the confusion and surprise in his face.

She turned around to face Anthony. Who is Mr. Easton?

We belong to the same club. Anthonys voice was disturbingly neutral.

Obviously you are not friends.

No, Anthony said. We are not friends.

She could almost hear the door slamming shut on that avenue of inquiry. She decided to try another.

What was it you did back there that took his feet out from under him in such a sudden manner? she asked.

It is a trick I learned in my travels abroad. I find it useful on occasion.

He turned his attention to the night scene outside the window. He did not say another word until he bid her good night at her door.

I regret that you were forced to endure that scene with Easton, he said.

He sounded grim and strangely weary. Sympathy welled up inside her. She touched the side of his face with her gloved fingers.

There is no need to apologize, she said gently. Easton was the one at fault. You have endured a great deal in the months since Fiona died. I hope that we will be able to find the answers you seek, Anthony.

She turned and went into the house.


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