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34

Anthony took her home an hour later. Her silence in the carriage made him uneasy, but his attempts at conversation failed. Louisa seemed lost in her thoughts.

No one opened the door when they went up the steps of the town house. He watched Louisa remove a key from her muff. He took the key from her and opened the door. Where is everyone?

This is the staffs afternoon off. Louisa walked into the front hall, untying her bonnet strings. Emma is at her Garden Society meeting. No one will be back for hours.

He followed her into the hall. I see.

She looked at him as though uncertain what to do with him now that he was inside the house.

Will you come into the study, sir? she asked.

His spirits rose immediately. Thank you.

She hung her bonnet on a peg and led the way down the hall. I think we should compare notes concerning our investigation. I have been thinking about some information that I acquired early on before you and I became partners.

So much for his hopes. She was not inviting him into the study because she wanted his company. She planned to discuss the damned investigation.

Of course, he said. He followed her down the hall and into the study. But first I have a question for you.

What is that? she asked, crossing the small room to her desk.

You and Clarice spent a great deal of time in the garden. What were you talking about?

Your sister is very nice. Louisa sat behind the desk. She removed her spectacles and began to polish them with a handkerchief. I liked her.

Im glad. He went to stand in front of the desk looking down at her. She seemed quite taken with you, too, but that does not answer my question. She pressed you about the nature of our relationship, didnt she?

On the contrary, she seems to think she knows exactly how matters stand between us, sir.

He folded his arms. My parents have come to a similar conclusion.

She popped the spectacles back onto her nose and regarded him with acute suspicion. What did you tell them?

As we agreed, I insisted that ours was merely a business arrangement.

She made a face. They didnt believe you, did they?

No.

Your sister didnt believe me, either, when I tried to tell her the same thing. They all think that we are engaged in an illicit affair.

I did warn you that the members of my family tend to be very forthright. They are also quite intelligent.

Well, I suppose we must look at the positive side of things, Louisa said, straightening her shoulders. The fact that the members of your family think that we are engaged in an intimate liaison does indicate that our little charade may be working after all, dont you think?

He decided not to respond to that because he could feel his temper heating.

She cleared her throat. My point is that if your own relatives are convinced that we are romantically involved, Hastings must certainly believe it also, and that is the important thing, is it not?

He continued to watch her, saying nothing.

She glowered. Stop looking at me like that.

Like what?

I dont know. She waved her hands. As if youre about to pounce or something. What are you thinking, sir?

He unfolded his arms, flattened his hands on the desk, and leaned toward her. I am thinking, he said evenly, that my familys conclusion is no more or less than the truth. We are having an illicit affair.

She blinked and sat back in her chair. Not exactly.

What the devil do you mean by that?

You must admit that our relationship is somewhat complicated.

That did it. A man could only be expected to take so much. He straightened, circled the desk, and reached down to haul her up out of the chair.

Ill grant you that some things about our association are a bit difficult to explain, he said, but not this particular aspect. We are having an affair, Louisa.

Yes, well, I suppose one could say that in the technical sense of the word

In every sense of the word.

She blushed. Perhaps we should return to the subject of our investigation. As I mentioned to you, I have had a few thoughts that I want to share.

Ive got a better idea.

She blinked again, eyes widening. What is that?

Ill show you.

He swung her up into his arms and started toward the door.

Good heavens. She clutched at his shoulder. What do you think you are doing? Where are you taking me?

Upstairs. He angled her through the doorway and went down the hall. Presumably there is a bed up there somewhere.

Certainly, but what has that got to do with? She broke off, comprehension dawning. Surely you dont mean to?

Make love to you in the comfort of a bed? Yes, that is precisely what I intend to do. He started up the stairs.

In broad daylight?

You said Lady Ashton and the staff would be gone for a few more hours, did you not?

Yes, but

Then we must take advantage of their absence.

You cant be serious, sir.

Why not? It is the sort of thing illicit lovers do.

Hardly. Everyone knows they meet in secret by night in moonlit gardens and places of that sort.

We tried that approach, he said. It was not entirely successful, if you will recall.

Her mouth opened to respond to that, but evidently she changed her mind. Her brows snapped together in a worried frown.

You should not be carrying me up the stairs, sir. You might strain yourself.

Very likely, but it will no doubt serve me right. He kept going. The top of the landing was in sight.

She hesitated. Am I not a rather heavy object to carry up a flight of stairs?

Yes, you are, as a matter of fact. He reached the landing and paused to take a couple of deep breaths. But Im certain the exercise will do me good. Which room is yours?

The first door on the right.

Im in luck. I wont have to carry you all the way to the end of the hall.

Really, sir, must you complain so much about the business? The lovers in novels and plays never do that.

I expect the authors leave out those bits. Bad for sales.

The door to her bedroom was ajar. He used his foot to push it open the rest of the way, got his burden inside, and stood her on her feet beside the bed.

Louisa was flushed, her eyes brilliant. Gently he plucked her spectacles from her nose and set them down on the table beside the bed. Everything inside him was clenched with the tension of desire.

Your eyes are the color of amber, he said softly. Spectacular.

She was startled. Thank you, she said very politely. She squinted slightly to study him more closely. Yours are a very riveting combination of green and gold.

He smiled, and then he began to remove her hairpins one by one. The dark silk tresses tumbled down around her shoulders. By the time he was finished he was rigid. And I havent even got her undressed.

I have wanted to see you like this ever since I met you, he said.

She looked confused. Without my spectacles?

He laughed. With your hair down.

He peeled off his coat and slung it across a chair. He watched her watching him while he unknotted his tie. Her expression of fascination amused him.

He glanced at the window. It looked out onto the street and the small park in the square. No one could see into this room, he concluded. There was no need to close the curtains. He was free to enjoy the sight of Louisa nude in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun.

He caught her face between his hands and kissed her, slowly this time, intent on seduction, not his own satisfaction.

Anthony?

This is the part you like, remember? The kissing?

Oh. Yes. Right. She made a tiny little sound of feminine anticipation and opened her lips for him.

He worked her mouth deliberately for a time, tasting her but not rushing her. When he felt her shiver and soften against him, he moved his hands down to the fastenings at the front of her gown. Slowly he opened the bodice and slid it off her shoulders, holding her mouth captive the entire time.

A hungry thrill shot through him when he felt her fingers on the front of his shirt. She fumbled for a moment before she succeeded in getting the garment open. Then he felt her hands on his chest, her fingers sliding through the curling hair. The sweet torment threatened to destroy his self-control.

He kissed her throat and then her breast to distract her. When her head fell back against his shoulder and her eyelashes fluttered closed he returned to the task of undressing her. He finally managed to free her entirely from the gown, leaving her in her thin chemise, drawers, stockings, and shoes.

He covered her mouth with his own once more, invading gently. When her tongue touched his in a curious, experimental way, he could not suppress the low, growling sound that welled up inside him. His response seemed to embolden her. She tightened her grip on his shoulders. He deepened the kiss.

When he eventually released her mouth he saw that her lips were wet and swollen. He traced them with the edge of his finger. She swayed a little in response. Her skin was warm and astonishingly soft beneath his hands.

He leaned down and yanked back the quilt. Then he fitted his hands around Louisas waist, lifted her up out of the circular barricade formed by her fallen gown and settled her on the bed.

The sight of her there, her dark hair fanned out across the white pillow, her lips slightly parted, eyes half-closed with desire was the most stunningly erotic picture he had ever seen. He wondered that he did not climax immediately.

He forced himself to step back long enough to get out of his own clothes. When he was finished he hesitated, seeking some sign of approval.

She levered herself up on her elbow and groped around the nightstand. She found the spectacles, put them on, and looked at him with an amazed expression.

Oh, my goodness, she said, clearly nonplussed. I realized the other night that you were considerably larger than the statues of nude males I have seen, but I hadnt realized the enormity of the situation, as it were.

He was not sure how to take that. I do not believe that I have ever been compared to a statue, he finally said.

She started to giggle. The giggle turned into a laugh. She clapped a hand across her mouth. Her eyes were brilliant.

Another rush of intoxicating need and anticipation swept through him. He removed the freshly washed and ironed linen handkerchief from the pocket of his trousers and walked back to the bed.

He reached down, removed her spectacles for the second time, and set them on the table. Crouching beside the bed, he unfastened first one little high-heeled walking boot and then the other, letting the shoes tumble to the carpet. Slowly he drew a hand down one of her soft, sweetly rounded legs, taking the garter and stocking with it. Then he stripped off the other stocking.

He lowered himself onto the bed beside her. She sucked in a quick, shaky little breath when he tugged her chemise off over her head, but when he bent his head to kiss the taut tips of her breasts she uttered an urgent little moan. Her nails dug into his shoulders, and then she was clawing at his back.

He moved slowly along her body, savoring her, letting her become familiar with his touch. When her legs began to shift restlessly and she twisted, trying to get closer to him, he stripped off the drawers. She flinched as the last barrier to modesty fell away. He looked up and saw that her eyes were very tightly closed, but she did not attempt to retreat.

She moved her hand down between them, encircling him gently. The rush of desire that hit him very nearly did him in then and there.

He threaded his fingers through the triangle of soft curls at the apex of her thighs and found her core with his hand. She was already slick and hot and swollen. He stroked her gently, seeking the sensitive nubbin. When he found it she nearly levitated off the bed.

Anthony. Her nails bit into the skin of his upper arm.

He teased her until she writhed at his touch and tried to press herself more firmly against the heel of his hand. Then he slid two fingers deep inside, hooking upward.

Louisa gasped and tightened around him. He looked down at her. She was beyond any sense of restraint or hesitation now, caught up in the heat of her own passion. No woman had ever looked more beautiful, he thought.

He slid between her legs. Before she could even begin to realize what he intended to do, he put his mouth on her, giving her the most intimate of kisses.

What on earth? she yelped. Oh, no, you mustnt.

Frantic now, she tried to sit up and scoot backward. He caught her hips, dragged her back into position, and with her anchored there, he resumed stroking her with his tongue. The taste and scent of her body was a drug that he would have killed to obtain.

Her fingers tensed in his hair.

Anthony?

He felt the telltale tightening of her body and knew what was about to happen before she did. He inserted his thumbs and stretched her gently.

Dear heaven, she moaned. Dear heaven. Anthony.

There were no more words. Her release took her away. It very nearly took him with it.

He managed to slide back up her body, easing into her tight, intense heat before the tiny ripples of release had ceased. She clenched around him, destroying the last of his self-control.

His climax exploded through him after only a few strokes. He barely managed to drag himself out of Louisas snug little channel in time to spend into the handkerchief.

When it was over he collapsed into the pillows, feeling more at peace than he had since the night Fiona died.


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