London, April 1770
“Are you worried I’ll ravish the woman, Eldridge? I admit to a preference for widows in my bed. They are much more agreeable and decidedly less complicated than virgins or other men’s wives.”
Sharp gray eyes lifted from the mass of papers on the enormous mahogany desk. “Ravish, Westfield?” The deep voice was rife with exasperation. “Be serious, man. This assignment is very important to me.”
Marcus Ashford, seventh Earl of Westfield, lost the wicked smile that hid the soberness of his thoughts and released a deep breath. “And you must be aware that it is equally important to me.”
Nicholas, Lord Eldridge, sat back in his chair, placed his elbows on the armrests, and steepled his long, thin fingers. He was a tall and sinewy man with a weathered face that had seen too many hours on the deck of a ship. Everything about him was practical, nothing superfluous, from his manner of speaking to his physical build. He presented an intimidating presence with a bustling London thoroughfare as a backdrop. The result was deliberate and highly effective.
“As a matter of fact, until this moment, I was not aware. I wanted to exploit your cryptography skills. I never considered you would volunteer to manage the case.”
Marcus met the piercing gray stare with grim determination. Eldridge was head of the elite band of agents whose sole purpose was to investigate and hunt down known pirates and smugglers. Working under the auspices of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, Eldridge wielded an inordinate amount of power. If Eldridge refused him the assignment, Marcus would have little say.
But he would not be refused. Not in this.
He tightened his jaw. “I will not allow you to assign someone else. If Lady Hawthorne is in danger, I will be the one to ensure her safety.”
Eldridge raked him with an all-too-perceptive gaze. “Why such passionate interest? After what transpired between you, I’m surprised you would wish to be in close contact with her. Your motive eludes me.”
“I have no ulterior motive.” At least not one he would share. “Despite our past, I’ve no desire to see her harmed.”
“Her actions dragged you into a scandal that lasted for months and is still discussed today. You put on a good show, my friend, but you bear scars. And some festering wounds, perhaps?”
Remaining still as a statue, Marcus kept his face impassive and struggled against his gnawing resentment. His pain was his own and deeply personal. He disliked being asked about it. “Do you think me incapable of separating my personal life from my professional one?”
Eldridge sighed and shook his head. “Very well. I won’t pry.”
“And you won’t refuse me?”
“You are the best man I have. It was only your history that gave me pause, but if you are comfortable with it, I have no objections. However, I will grant her request for reassignment, if it comes to that.”
Nodding, Marcus hid his relief. Elizabeth would never ask for another agent; her pride wouldn’t permit it.
Eldridge began to tap his fingertips together. “The journal Lady Hawthorne received was addressed to her late husband and is written in code. If the book was involved in his death …” He paused. “Viscount Hawthorne was investigating Christopher St. John when he met his reward.”
Marcus stilled at the name of the popular pirate. There was no criminal he longed to apprehend more than St. John, and his enmity was personal. St. John’s attacks against Ashford Shipping were the impetus to his joining the agency. “If Lord Hawthorne kept a journal of his assignments and St. John were to acquire the information—bloody hell!” His gut tightened at the thought of the pirate anywhere near Elizabeth.
“Exactly,” Eldridge agreed. “In fact, Lady Hawthorne has already been contacted about the book since it was brought to my attention just a sennight ago. For her safety and ours, it should be removed from her care immediately, but that’s impossible at the moment. She was instructed to personally deliver the journal, hence the need for our protection.”
Eldridge slid a folder across the desk. “Here is the information I’ve gathered so far. Lady Hawthorne will apprise you of the rest during the Moreland ball.”
Collecting the particulars of the assignment, Marcus stood and took his leave. Once in the hallway, he allowed a grim smile of satisfaction to curve his lips.
He’d been only days away from seeking Elizabeth out. The end of her mourning meant his interminable waiting was over. Although the matter of the journal was disturbing, it worked to his advantage, making it impossible for her to avoid him. After the scandalous way she’d jilted him four years ago she would not be pleased with his new appearance in her life. But she wouldn’t turn to Eldridge either, of that he was certain.
Soon, very soon, all that she had once promised and then denied him would finally be his.
Marcus found Elizabeth before he even set foot in the Moreland ballroom. In fact, he was trapped on the staircase as impatient peers and dignitaries sought a word with him. He was oblivious to those who vied for his attention, arrested by a brief glimpse of her.
She was even lovelier than before. How that was possible he couldn’t say. She had always been exquisite. Perhaps absence had made his heart grow fonder.
A derisive smile curved his lips. Obviously, Elizabeth did not return the sentiment. When their eyes met, he allowed his pleasure at seeing her again to show on his face. In return, she lifted her chin and looked away.
A deliberate snub.
The cut direct, exactly administered but unable to draw blood. She had already inflicted the most grievous laceration years ago, making him impervious to further injury. He brushed off her disregard with ease. Nothing could alter their fate, however she might wish it otherwise.
For years now he’d served as an agent to the crown, and in that time he had led a life that would rival the stories written in any sensational novel. He’d fought numerous sword fights, been shot twice, and dodged more than any man’s fair share of cannon fire. In the process, he had lost three of his own ships and sunk a half dozen others before he’d been forced to remain in England by the demands of his title. And yet the sudden fiery lick of awareness along his nerve endings only ever happened when he was in the same room as Elizabeth.
Avery James, his partner, stepped around him when it became obvious he was rooted to the spot. “There is Viscountess Hawthorne, my lord,” he pointed out with an almost imperceptible thrust of his chin. “She is standing to the right, on the edge of the dance floor, in the violet silk gown. She is—”
“I know who she is.”
Avery looked at him in surprise. “I was unaware that you were acquainted.”
Marcus’s lips, known widely for their ability to charm women breathless, curved in blatant anticipation. “Lady Hawthorne and I are … old friends.”
“I see,” Avery murmured, with a frown that said he didn’t at all.
Marcus rested his hand on the shorter man’s shoulder. “Go on ahead, Avery, while I deal with this crush, but leave Lady Hawthorne to me.”
Avery hesitated a moment, then nodded reluctantly and continued to the ballroom, his path clear of the crowd that besieged Marcus.
Tempering his irritation with the importunate guests blocking his path, Marcus tersely acknowledged the flurry of greetings and inquiries directed at him. This melee was the reason he disliked these events. Gentlemen who did not have the initiative to seek him out during calling hours felt free to approach him in a more relaxed social setting. He never mixed business with pleasure. At least that had been his rule until tonight.
Elizabeth would be the exception. As she had always been an exception.
Twirling his quizzing glass, Marcus watched as Avery moved through the crowd with ease, his gaze drifting past his partner to the woman he was assigned to protect. He drank in the sight of her like a man dying of thirst.
Elizabeth had never cared for wigs and was not wearing one tonight, as most of the other ladies did. The effect of stark white plumes in her dark hair was breathtaking, drawing every eye inexorably toward her. Nearly black, her hair set off eyes so stunningly colored they brought to mind the luster of amethysts.
Those eyes had locked with his for only a moment, but the sharp shock of her magnetism lingered, the pull of it undeniable. It drew him forward, called to him on the primitive level it always had, like a moth to a flame. Despite the danger of burning, he could not resist.
She had a way of looking at a man with those amazing eyes. Marcus could almost have believed he was the only man in the room, that everyone had disappeared and nothing stood between where he was trapped on the staircase and where she waited on the other side of the dance floor.
He imagined closing the distance between them, pulling her into his arms, and lowering his mouth to hers. He knew already that her lips, so erotic in their shape and plumpness, would melt into his. He wanted to trail his mouth down the slim column of her throat and lick along the ridge of her collarbone. He wanted to sink into her lush body and sate his driving hunger, a hunger that had become so powerful he was very nearly mad with it.
He’d once wanted everything—her smiles, her laughter, the sound of her voice, and the view of the world through her eyes. Now his need was baser. Marcus refused to allow it to be more than that. He wanted his life back, the life free of pain, anger, and sleepless nights. Elizabeth had taken it away and she could damn well give it back.
His jaw clenched. It was time to close the distance between them.
One look had shaken his control. What would it be like when he held her in his arms again?
Elizabeth, Viscountess Hawthorne, stood for a long moment in shock, heat spreading across her cheeks.
Her gaze had locked on the man on the staircase for only a moment and yet during that brief time her heart had increased its rhythm to an alarming pace. She was held motionless, arrested by the masculine beauty of his face, a face which had clearly shown pleasure at seeing her again. Startled and disturbed by her reaction to him after all these years, she had forced herself to cut him, to look away with haughty disregard.
Marcus, now the Earl of Westfield, was still magnificent. He remained the handsomest man she had ever encountered. When his gaze met hers, she felt the spark that passed between them as if it were a tangible force. An intense attraction had always existed between them. She was profoundly disturbed to discover it had not abated in the slightest.
After what he’d done, he should repulse her.
Elizabeth felt a hand at her elbow, jolting her back into the conversation. She turned to find George Stanton at her side, his concerned gaze searching her face. “Are you feeling unwell? You look a bit flushed.”
She fluffed the lace at the end of her sleeve to hide her unease. “It is warm in here.” Snapping her fan open, she waved it rapidly to cool her hot cheeks.
“I think a beverage is in order,” George offered and she rewarded his thoughtfulness with a smile.
Once George had departed, Elizabeth directed her attention toward the group of gentlemen who surrounded her. “What were we discussing?” she asked no one in particular. Truthfully, she hadn’t been paying attention to the conversation for most of the past hour.
Thomas Fowler replied. “We were discussing the Earl of Westfield.” He gestured discreetly to Marcus. “Surprised to see him in attendance. The earl is notorious for his aversion to social events.”
“Indeed.” She feigned indifference while her palms grew damp within her gloves. “I had hoped that predilection of the earl’s would hold true this evening, but it appears I am not so fortunate.”
Thomas shifted, his countenance revealing his discomfort. “My apologies, Lady Hawthorne. I had forgotten your past association with Lord Westfield.”
She laughed softly. “No need for apologies. Truly, you have my heartfelt appreciation. I’m certain you are the only person in London who has the sense to forget. Pay him no mind, Mr. Fowler. The earl was of little consequence to me then, and is of even less consequence now.”
Elizabeth smiled as George returned with her drink and his eyes sparkled with pleasure at her regard.
As the conversation around her continued, Elizabeth slowly altered her position to better secure furtive glimpses of Marcus navigating the clogged staircase. It was obvious his libidinous reputation had not affected his power and influence. Even in a crowd, his presence was compelling. Several highly esteemed gentlemen hurried to greet him rather than wait for him to descend to the ballroom floor. Women, dressed in a dazzling array of colors and frothy with lace, glided surreptitiously toward the staircase. The influx of admirers moving in his direction shifted the balance of the entire room. To his credit, Marcus looked mostly indifferent to all of the fawning directed toward him.
As he made his way down to the ballroom, he moved with the casual arrogance of a man who always obtained precisely what he desired. The crowd around him attempted to pin him in place, but Marcus cut through it with ease. He attended intently to some, offhandedly to others, and to a few he simply raised an imperious hand. He commanded those around him with the sheer force of his personality and they were content to allow him to do so.
Feeling the intensity of her regard, his gaze met hers again. The corners of his generous mouth lifted upward as perception passed between them. The glint in his eyes and the warmth of his smile made promises that he as a man could never keep.
There was an air of isolation about Marcus and a restless energy to his movements that had not been there four years ago. They were warning signs, and Elizabeth had every intention of heeding them.
George looked easily over her head to scrutinize the scene. “I say. It appears Lord Westfield is heading this way.”
“Are you quite certain, Mr. Stanton?”
“Yes, my lady. Westfield is staring directly at me as we speak.”
Tension coiled in the pit of her stomach. Marcus had literally frozen in place when their eyes had first met and the second glance had been even more disturbing. He was coming for her and she had no time to prepare. George looked down at her as she resumed fanning herself furiously.