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„‘«ŚŌ… «Šš”ő… Ŗ«„Š… : The lady and the tiger


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10-16-2019, 06:33 PM
THE LADY
AND THE TIGER

Christina Dodd


CHAPTER 1



Kent, England, 1813


Miss Laura Haver groped her way toward the ocean cliff, guided only by the sound of the waves and scent of salt water on the breeze. Clouds streamed across the stars, blocking the feeble light, and her
foot skidded down the first few inches of cliff before she realized she'd reached her goal.

Sitting down hard, she pulled herself to safety, then scooted back and huddled in the rough sea grass. Pebbles scattered down the steep slope to the beach on the Hamilton estate, and she listened for the shouts that meant she'd been discovered.

There was nothing. Just the endless rocking of the waves on the sandy beach below.

It had been three months. Three months of lonely torment as she pored over her brother's diary and
tried to decipher his cryptic scrawls. Three months of futile visits to the London townhouse where
Keefe Leighton, the Earl of Hamilton, resided and kept an office. Three months of listening while Leighton assured her the government would avenge Ronald's death.

Three months of knowing that he lied.

A boat crunched on the sand below as it drove onto the beach. Shivering with chill and fear, she pulled the dark hood over her brown hair and scooted back to the edge of the cliff. Although it was a moonless night and so dark she could scarcely see her hand in front of her face, she nevertheless observed as covered lanterns flashed like fireflies. They showed bits of light only as the men deemed necessary, and in their movement she counted at least twenty smugglersóeight unloading the boat, eight receiving on the beach, and three men just standing, apparently supervising the operation.

One tall figure moved back and forth, and from the consideration all the men paid him, it was obvious he was the leader. Ronald's diary mentioned him only as Jean, but Laura feared she knew his identity. She strained her eyes wide and prayed for just one moment of lightóand when it came, she stood in indignation.

"He is the smuggler."

As if her words caught on the wind and blew to his ears alone, Leighton turned and looked up toward the top of the cliff. She saw the glint of his eyes, and with the instinct of a hunted creature, she crouched behind a rock and froze. She didn't want Leighton to see her here. She couldn't let him find her here.
All her ugly suspicions had been proved true, and if he had killed her brother to silence him, she doubted he would hesitate to murder her, too.

Her heart pounded and she wanted to flee with unrestrained panic, but she'd come too far and too much was at stake for her to lose her composure now. Straining to listen, she could hear men's voices above the lap of the waves, but no shout of discovery gave her reason to run. She had to keep her head, get back to the inn, and write her report to give to the authorities. It would be difficult to convince them that a member of the House of Lords was nothing but a common criminal, but with Ronald's diary as corroboration, she'd do it.

She had to, for Ronald's sake.

She crept backwards. Her skirt caught on her heels, rocks ground into the palms of her hands. She stood finally, and leaned to dust off her skirt. When she straightened and squinted toward the horizon, she realized a tall figure blocked out the stars. She stared, pinned by fear, then with a yelp and a start, she whirled and ran.

She could hear the sound of thudding boots behind her. The gorse grabbed at her skirts and the ruts of the mostly untraveled road moved and twisted in snakelike guile. The wind gusted at her back and carried a man's warm breath to touch the nape of her neck. Gooseflesh ran over her skin and she moaned softly, clutching the stitch that started in her side. When she could run no longer, she dared a look behind her.

All she could see was black night. The stars had disappeared completely and the upcoming storm splattered the first raindrops in her face. She'd imagined Leighton when he wasn't there.

With a ragged sigh of relief, she slowed to a walk and trudged toward the inn. How stupid and cowardly she'd been in her precipitous flight! But for weeks she had dreamed about Leighton chasing her. She'd seen his face on every dark-haired man who walked the streets. Something about Leighton convinced her she should flee and never stop.

It hadn't always been that way. When Ronald had been killed, she'd gone to meet Leighton for the first time, confident he would help her. After all, Ronald had been Leighton's first secretary, and he spoke
of Leighton in dazzling terms.

Instead, Leighton had actively and personally repelled her inquiries. According to him, she should remain at home like a proper lady, and the smugglers would be brought to justice when the time arrived. But she couldn't bear to be patronized, especially not by Leighton. She just clenched her teeth and faced up to him, ignoring the breadth of his shoulders, the sculptured perfection of his features, and her own untutored desire to hurl herself into his arms and let him care for her. Early in their relationship, she
might have done just that, but from the very beginning some instinct told her that his placid exterior hid something deep, potent and deceptive.

Still apprehensive, she glanced behind her again. Ronald had always said she was too straightforward to sneak around and too blunt for diplomacy, but now that she'd read his diary she'd learned that her brother had led a secret life. He had her convinced he was nothing more than Leighton's secretary, when actually he had worked to uncover this ring of smugglers. A frown puckered her forehead. He hadn't told her because he didn't want her to know and worry. He'd been protecting her, and now she was alone with
no one to avenge his death but her.

She'd do it, too. She'd make sure those responsible suffered as she had suffered with his loss.

The rain began to fling itself to the ground with increasing conviction, and she wrapped her redingote,
that coat which she'd sewn with her own fingers, tighter around her shoulders.

When she saw the lights of the Bull and Eagle, she fixed on them as if they were her salvation. She knew, of course, that Leighton might seek her, but not tonight. He had brandy to unload and reckless men to pay, and he would never imagine that she'd be on her way at first light, even if she had to walk.

Carefully she crept through the now-muddy inn yard and pushed the outside door open. In the two days she'd stayed here, she'd ascertained that it squeaked if not handled properly, and that brought Ernest bustling out of his quarters to smile and bow and greet her as if she were the salvation of Leighton
Village.

And all because of one little lie she'd been driven to tell.

God would forgive her, she was sure, for she'd told it in pursuit of truth and justice, but she didn't know
if hearty, bald-headed Ernest ever would.

The hinges didn't make a sound. The taproom was empty, as it had been when she left, and she didn't understand how her luck had held. She didn't want anyone to know she'd been out, yet at the same time during the other evenings she had been here the townsfolk had congregated in the taproom for ale and conversation. Briefly she wondered what kept them away, why the fire burned low and place looked abandoned. Then a burst of angry shouting from the kitchen sent her fleeing up the stairs. At the top
she paused and listened.

Ernest's voice she could recognize, and he sounded both agitated and afraid. The other voice was a man's, lower, less distinct, but with a tone that raised the hair on the back of her head.

Who was it? Gripping the rail in both hands, she crept down two steps and listened intently. Why did he sound so menacing? Heedlessly, she stepped on the edge of the third step and it creaked beneath her shoe. The conversation in the kitchen stopped and she froze. Footsteps sounded on the floorboards and Ernest stepped into the common room. She tried to melt into the shadows, and he stared up at her. He saw her; she would have sworn he saw her, but he shrugged and walked back into the kitchen without any indication that he'd noted her presence.

The conversation began again, lower this time, and she sneaked to her room. Silently, she took the key from her reticule and unlocked the door. Slipping inside, she shut the dark oak panels behind her and turned the key again, protecting herself from all comers.

It was just as she'd left it. This was, as Ernest had told her the night she arrived, the best bedchamber in the inn and the one which had served Henry the Eighth when he'd been stranded in a storm. Laura didn't know if she believed that, but certainly a gigantic old-fashioned bed dominated the room. It rested on a dais in the corner, and the canopy was hung with velvet curtains which could be drawn to keep in the warmth. Gargoyles decorated every bedpost and each rail between had been sanded and polished until it shone. Ernest had proudly told her that over two thousand geese had been plucked to stuff that feather mattress. She only knew she'd been lost in it when she slept.

The fire in her fireplace burned, piled high with sweet-smelling logs. On one side was a settle, a bench whose high back protected her from drafts when she sat there. On the other stood a desk and a chair.
As she always did, she went to the desk first. The candles had burned down while she was gone, but
they still illuminated the papers that were strewn in artful disarray. Beneath them rested a diary. Ronald's diary. His diary was the one reason she knew to be in Leighton Village now, tonight. It was the reason she'd scouted the area earlier in the day and had deduced that the cove would be the landing place.

She reassured herself the diary remained safe, then thoroughly covered it with the papers again. Ronald had taught her that. Always hide things in plain sight, he said. He'd learned that while in service to Leighton, and she'd found it good advice.

Flushed with guilt, she opened the desk drawer and pushed her hand all the way to the back. Her fingertips touched the cold metal, and she drew out a small silver pistol. On this matter, she ignored Ronald and his advice. She couldn't bear to leave the deadly thing out. She'd stressed her need for
privacy to Ernest and been careful to lock the door whenever she left, but possession of such a firearm made her nervous. It was Ronald's, and until he'd been killed she'd never imagined she would want to carry one. She knew how to use it, of course. Her father had insisted on her learning self-defense while they lived in India. But back in England, she'd believed herself inviolate. Now, with Ronald's death, her veil of security had been ripped and she trusted no fellow being.

Strange, but her sense of being threatened by Leighton had started long before her suspicions that he
was the smuggler congealed into a certainty. Once when she turned suddenly, she caught him contemplating her with a look she'd seen only one other time. When her parents were alive and the
whole family lived in India, she'd seen a tiger concealing itself in high grass, waiting for his prey. Leighton's mien betrayed a tiger-like confidence in himself. He was sure he could have her if he
wanted, but the time wasn't yet right. His expression had given her a shiver, but when she tried to
verify her impression, all expression had smoothed from his face.

But. as the months had worn on, she sometimes thought she could sense the impatient twitch of his
tail and the way he crouched, waiting to pounce.

Shivering, she replaced the pistol. Stripping off her wet redingote, she flung it over the back of the settle, then laid her gloves by the feeble flames. She slipped out of her practical boots, now covered with mud, and placed them neatly by the gloves. Her dark blue walking dress, so suitable for the city and for the occupation of seamstress, was bedraggled from the night's ill-use, and she touched the hem with trembling fingers. She hadn't the money to replace it; every cent she had had gone into this trip to Kent. Stillóshe firmed her chinóit was worth the loss of a mere gown to bring Ronald's murderer to justice, and she was close to that now. Kneeling, she repaired the fire so it burned brightly again, warming her hands all the while. As her hair dried, the short strands sprang away from her head and curled in wild abandon, but
she didn't care tonight, for who would see it?
* * *

"She's at the Bull and Eagle." Keefe Leighton, the Earl of Hamilton, gave the boy a push. "Go back and tell the others, then return and wait in the stable. I'll be out when I've got the information."

In the dark and the rain, he couldn't see Franklin leave, but he knew he would be obeyed. Every one of his men was loyal to him, and only to him, but tonight something had gone wrong. As he kicked the
door of the Bull and Eagle, he cursed the woman he'd seen silhouetted against the stars.

Laura. His instincts told him it was Laura Haver, and his instincts were very active where she was concerned. What was she doing here on this precise night? What did she know, and how did she know
it? What had her brother told her that he hadn't been able to communicate to Leighton? Leighton needed to get the answers, so he'd abandoned his men as they unloaded casks of brandy and hid them in the caves on the cliffs above the beach. Leighton had to follow the woman.

The taproom was empty. Not even Ernest stood before the fire that sputtered on the hearth, and Leighton's gaze probed every corner as he scraped mud off his boots. Then the innkeeper bustled out
of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his apron. "Hey, what are ye doing out tonight?" he demanded roughly. "Ye knowó"

Leighton swept his hat off and Ernest stopped in his tracks. Something that looked like horror flashed briefly across his rotund face, then he wiped his expression clear and allowed a slow grin to build. Hurrying forward, he took Leighton's cloak. "M'lord. How delightful! M'lady assured me ye'd arrive."

"M'lady?"

"M'lady arrived yesterday, but she didn't expect ye for several days."

What was the man babbling about? Leighton kept his face carefully blank. His mother was dead, his grandmother seldom left the manor, and they were the only noblewomen Ernest called "m'lady." In a neutral tone, Leighton asked, "Didn't she?"

Chuckling, Ernest slipped behind the bar and opened the tap on a cask of Leighton's favorite ale. Brown liquid splashed into the mug while Ernest said, "Aye, 'twill be a surprise sure to please her. Almost as pleasant as the surprise ye've given us." He winked and passed Leighton the glass. "Marrying the young lady, and at Gretna Green, too! We'd never have thought it of ye, m'lord, but when love strikes as
sudden as all that, a man's got to leg-shackle the heifer before she's had a chance to think."

"My opinion exactly." Leighton clutched the handle of the mug and wished he could clutch someone by the throat with equal fervor. He'd come in, furious and determined, and been knocked completely awry by Ernest's babblings. Now he found he was supposed to have marriedóand at Gretna Green. "Who knows about this?"

"Ah . .." Ernest swabbed the length of the bar with a rag. "Well, to tell ye the truth, m'lord, word seems
to have got out in the village."

"Now, how did that happen?"

Ernest scrubbed, harder.

Taking a chance, Leighton used her name. "Did... Laura ... mention this to many people?"

"Nay! She was as discreet as ye instructed, and told only me."

So it was Laura who awaited him in the bedchamber above. Of course, she didn't realize her lord would ever truly arrive, but perhaps these events could be turned to his favor.

Leaning on his elbows, Ernest smiled at Leighton feebly. "But of course the women wondered, and I
gave 'em just one hint, and before I knew itó" He flung up his hands in a helpless display. "Ye know women, m'lord. They're terrible gossips."

"Damn!" Leighton paced away from the bar. The whole village knew that their lord had supposedly married? Laura Haver had a lot to answer for, and the list grew with each passing minute. "Gossip can
be the cause of a lot of trouble. Did m'lady happen to tell you why I wasn't with her or why she didn't
go on to Hamilton Court when it is so close?"

"Aye, m'lord, she told me everything."

Ernest beamed with pride at being trusted with so many secrets, yet at the same time lines of worry marred the baby softness of his skin and his dark gaze darted toward the kitchen as if he perceived
danger within. Leighton had never seen him look so beleaguered, and it stopped him in his tracks. In
his business, he recognized the signs of a traitor, and he softly paced back to the bar and leaned on it. "Ernest, have you got a problem you'd like to discuss?"

Leighton well knew the power of his gaze, and Ernest cowered, then dropped his rag to the floor and
bent down behind the bar to pick it up. "I'll take ye up there now, m'lord." He bustled out from behind the bar, his shoulders hunched. "I know ye're anxious for a reunion."

Wanting to see how badly Ernest wanted him gone, Leighton said, "I ought to eat first."

"No!" Ernest turned on him, then tried to smile. "Not here. In yer room. I'll bring up a meal to yer room."

"Ernest.. ." Leighton drew out his name in warning.

"Where's yer valet? Is yer horse in the stable?"

Leighton watched Ernest sweat and contemplated the situation. Ernest would have to be dealt with, but Ernest and his family had been the innkeepers at the Bull and Eagle for two hundred years. Ernest would be waiting when Leighton walked down the stairs once more.

Laura Haver was his first priority. She didn't know it yet, but she was going to tell him every bit of information she knew. He would work on her. Hell, he looked forward to working on her. Decision
made, Leighton answered Ernest. "I walked over."

"From the manor?" Ernest's eyebrows lifted so high they would have touched his hairline, if he'd had
one. "Didn't ye know to look for m'lady here first?"

"We haven't been speaking." It wasn't a lie. He could scarcely talk to m'lady when no m'lady existed.

"A tiff already?" Ernest clucked his tongue and bent down and rummaged under the bar. "But an
evening visit such as this will cure that honeymonth uncertainty. Here."

He handed Leighton a dusty bottle of wine. " Tis one of my best. Share it with her tonight."

Leighton took the bottle, looked up the stairs, and for the first time allowed himself to wonder what
Laura would do when he knocked on the door. She didn't plan on him arriving to claim his "bride," but... his vision blurred in a sudden flush of heat. He'd caught her at last. He'd have to question her about her presence here, and he knew from experience she was stubborn, bad-tempered, and determined.

He might have to question her all night.

He looked at the bottle in his hand. She might need to have her tongue loosened with an application of truth medication, and if that didn't work, he might have to seduce herófor the good of his operation,
of course.

He grinned. The little fool had played right into his hands.


CHAPTER 2


Laura listened as the two men spoke in the taproom below. It was probably nothing, probably the first
of the villagers arriving for an ale, but the events of the night had made her wary, and she slipped over
to the door and laid her head against the boards while straining to hear.

The knock on the door made her jump backward, stumbling on the thin carpet that covered part of the floor.

"M'lady?"

Only Ernest called her by that title. "What?" she called, and her voice quavered.

" 'Tis Ernest, m'lady, with a surprise for ye."

"What kind of surprise?" She feared suspicion colored her tone, but Ernest sounded as cheerful as ever.

" 'Tis something to warm yer bones." Metal rattled against metal. "Shall I just unlock the door and pass
it through to ye?"

She stared in horror at the metal lock. She'd thought herself inviolate in here, and now Ernest announced he had another key. Should she fling her weight against the door and block it? She looked down at herself and at another time, she would have laughed. "Bird-bones," Ronald had called her, and "Shorty."

Should she start pushing furniture against the door? Her gaze swept the room. No, she wouldn't be able
to move big enough things fast enough. And why was she worried, really? As far as she could tell,
Ernest had been totally trustworthy, keeping the secret she'd entrusted to him with perfect consideration. Only the events on the cliff colored her suspicions of him.

"I'll open it," she called. She wanted to retain control of access to her room, and not have Ernest thinking he could enter any time. She produced the key and turned it in the lock, then opened the door a crack
and peeked through.

Leighton.

She tried to ram the door closed but obviously he anticipated her action, for he shoved and the door sprang open under his weight.

She stumbled back and when he boomed, "Darling!" she almost fell. But he rescued her, swept her into his arms, lifting her until her feet dangled, and kissed her.

For the watching innkeeper, it must have looked like romance personified. For Laura, it was the most frightening experience of her life. Leighton clearly intended to impress her with his size and her lack of it, and he succeeded quite impressively. She jerked her head back, wanting to free her mouth to scream,
and found his hand cupping her neck. Where was his other hand? Her mind scrambled to adjust, to discover, and found he held her close with one arm under her posterior. Her posterior! She, who maintained dignity at all costs, had Leighton holding her up by her posterior! Then his mouth invaded hers, and she forgot about dignity and struck at his shoulders. He didn't seem to notice. His smooth lips followed hers with a sure instinct, blocking every little evasive maneuver and countering with some maneuvers of his own. She'd never had a man nibble at her lips and when she opened them, slip his tongue inside. And when she kicked his legs, he chuckled as if he were amused!

So she bit him.

He dropped her to her feet and grabbed at his mouth, and she backed up as fast as she could until the edge of the desk struck her thighs and stopped her. A glance at the door proved it to be shut, and she stammered, "He's gone."

"Quite a while ago."

While Leighton dabbed at his tongue and looked at the blood on his finger, she filled her lungs to scream. He reached her with one giant step, but made no attempt to smother her. He just watched her with a wicked amusement, and her cry for help disintegrated into a whimper.

"Go ahead," he said. "Yell all you want. No one dares interfere between a married couple." He cupped her chin and leaned down to whisper, "And you're my little wife."

Dear God. He knew. She could scarcely speak with dismay. "We're not really married!"

"You told Ernest we were." Leighton straightened and with a swirl of movement swept off his black wool greatcoat. Beneath he wore loose, rough clothes, more fitting to a fishermanóor a smuggleróthan to a lord. "Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the inn to be informed my bride awaited me upstairs."

He swung his fist and she ducked, but he did nothing but thrust the papers off the desk and deposit the bottle of wine he held in one fist. Ronald's diary landed on the floor with a thud, but with an effort of
will she kept her gaze fixed on Leighton's face.

He didn't seem to notice the precious leather-bound volume, but she could see it out of the corner of her eye, lying with its ruby cover glowing on the otherwise scattered sheets. Leighton seemed to consider her wide-eyed terror nothing but just trepidation of his reprisal, and he said, "I'm not a man to let opportunity slide, especially when I'm long overdue for a wedding night."

She didn't know what to do. Her fingers trembled with the desire to pick up the diary and hide it behind her back, but she didn't want to call it to his attention. At the same time, he was making threats. His voice, always deep and mild, had slipped into a husky whisper, and his eyes gleamed like blue coals
from the hottest part of the fire. His black cravat was nothing more than a scarf to warm his neck, tied with true carelessness into a twisted knot. His dark shirt laid open to the middle of his chest and drops of water clung to the curls that poked forth. The cotton stuck to his shoulders in wet patches, and she could almost see steam rising because of his heat. Her personal fright warred with her fear he would discover what she knew, and it irritated her that she could worry about her own safety when she had a chance to avenge herself on Ronald's murderer.

Moving her hands along the desk top behind her, she crept sideways away from the spilled papers. She had to concentrate on removing his attention away from the betraying diary, and she seemed successful, for Leighton watched her, only her. When she'd reached the edge of the desk, he turned and strode to
the settle. Fingering her redingote, he said, "It would seem you've been out tonight."

"Why do you say that?"

"It's damp." He tossed his own heavy wool greatcoat over the top of hers in what Laura thought a most suggestive manner. "And it didn't start raining until a few moments ago."

"I went for a walk."

He nudged at her encrusted boots with his foot. "Through the mud?"

Cocking her head, she replied, "Much like yourself."

"You're a clever minx. Saucy, too." For such a large man, he moved gracefully, and he eased himself down on the settle as if he planned to remain there a long time.

The high back of the seat protected most of him from her sight, but she could see his hands as they
came forward to grasp each one of his work boots, and jerk it off.

She stared. What was he doing?

"I'm removing my boots," he answered, although she wasn't aware of asking the question aloud. "I'm
wet and I'm cold, and I'd like to spend an evening alone with my new brideóand so I informed Ernest."

She couldn't believe that Leighton spoke to her so frankly and with such provocative intent. Then she remembered the image of the Indian tiger. The lying in wait, the stalking of the victim who, unaware, walked into the trap, the brief race, the tiger's final success. Gulping, she tried to wet her suddenly dry throat. She tried to speak, but knew no words that would sway him. He'd waited, he'd stalked her, now her escape depended on her own speed and dexterity. She paused only long enough to scoop up the
diary and thrust it in the pocket of her skirt, then allowed her panic to move her toward the door. Grasping the knob between her sweaty palms, she tried to twist it open, but her grip slipped on the
cool metal.

The door was locked from the outside.

Was that part of Leighton's trap? No, more likely Ernest wished to give his lord and new lady privacy. She plunged her hand into her reticule, wanting the key, wanting desperately to escape, but Leighton's next words brought her to a halt.

"Smugglers were plying their trade on the coast tonight. Would you know anything about that?"

The key slithered away from her shaking fingers and fell to the floor with a clink. She dropped to her knees and groped for it, grasped it, stood and tried to insert it into the lock.

"Miss Haver, I asked you a question." Leighton leaned around the high edge of the settle and fixed her
in his gaze. "Or should I call you 'my lady'?"

She tried to appear innocent, as if sneaking away from this room was no more than should be expected, and indeed, he didn't seem surprised.

"Are you leaving?"

Show no fear, she told herself. Stare the tiger down. "Yes." Her voice squeaked, and she smiled fixedly
at him to counteract any cowardly impression.

"You can do that, of course, but it will be quite embarrassing."

Her smile faded. "Why do you say that?"

"Because I'll be forced to chase you down and bring you back. I can't imagine that you'll look your best draped over my shoulder as we go through the taproom."

"I'll scream. Ernest won't let youó"

"Won't he?" She'd always thought Leighton smug, but now he fairly glowed with it. "Ernest would not ever interfere, no matter what he heard."

She looked at him, at the openly tigerous satisfaction on his face, and she didn't care. She wanted to run, she had to run, she had to try, and she crammed the key into the lock, turned it, and slammed the door back on its hinges.

He muttered, "Damn!" but she didn't look back. She tore out of the room as if... as if a tiger were on
her heels.

He was. He caught her before she reached the top of the stairs and lifted her with his arm around the waist. She screamed, loud and shrill, but the sound echoed down the stairs and through the obviously empty taproom. Leighton held her there long enough to confirm his prediction. Ernest wouldn't rescue her. She was his wife, and Ernest would leave her to the man he thought to be her husband.

"Satisfied?" Leighton growled in her ear.

She kicked at him, but her heels bounced on his thighs, and without flinching, he swung her around in
the narrow hall and headed back for the bedchamber. She twisted, desperately trying to knock him with an elbow, a fist, anything, but she couldn't get to him, and they swept back into the room. Kicking the door shut with his foot, he carried her writhing form to Henry the Eighth's bed and dropped her into the two-thousand-goose-feather mattress. Its softness billowed up around her, stifling her as she tried to leap back at him. He landed on her. Her foot twisted under her and she gave a yelp of pain.

"Stupid girl," he growled, lifting himself and adjusting her leg.

She rammed her knee into his midsection. He doubled over. She scrambled over him toward freedom.
He caught her again and rolled, tucking her under him as he went. "Stupid, stupid girl," he repeated,
and she took comfort in the fact that he sounded slightly winded.

Then he kissed her. Last time, she realized, had been playacting. This time, he was angry. He thrust his tongue into her mouth and when she tried to close her teeth on him again, he lifted his head. Looking
right into her eyes, he said, "If you bite me, I will retaliate." She flinched and he felt it, lying on top of
her as he was, and he smiled using all his white teeth. "And I never make promises I don't keep."

When he put his lips to hers again, she desperately wanted to defy him, but he had made her aware of him and his fury. He was doing it on purpose, she thought, weighing her down with his large body until everywhere she turned, he was there. The scent of fresh air, rain, and heather filled her nostrils, and that was him. The heat of an iron forge covered her, and that was him. The sound of a heartbeat filled her ears, and that was surely him. It couldn't be her own heart that raced so madly, and certainly not because of the way he kissed.

Because she wasn't susceptible to such physical entrapmentóat least she never had been before. When he penetrated her mouth with his tongue, she kept her eyes open and her teeth firmly shut.

He didn't seem to mind. He closed his eyes as if she were no threat to him, and it irked her to know it could possibly be true. He explored the inner wetness of her lip, finding untouched places and touching them. His tongue ran the ridges of her teeth and when she tried to shake her head and shake him out,
he rapped out one word. "Laura!"

As if she were a child!

Doubling up her fist, she swung at him for his impertinence, but she'd taught him some respect, it
seemed, for he caught her wrists in one hand and placed them over her head. She tried to flail away,
but the feathers ensnared her and her struggles carried her deeper into the mattress. Her legs churned
in useless protest, and panic rose in her. She'd never been so helpless, so out of control, and she didn't want this kiss.

Then he touched her breast, and the kiss seemed innocent in comparison. The wool cloth of her bodice might have been cambric, so little did it protect her from his caress. He explored the lower curve. With each contact, her breath caught. She closed her eyes at last, too embarrassed by such blatant intimacy
and the eminent stroke of his fingers against the peak. It must have retained memory of the cold, for it had puckered into that hard little knot. His hand covered it, but not even that warmed it. Then she realized both his hands were busy elsewhere, and she couldn't imagine .. . she ventured a peek and he
had his mouth there. She froze into immobility. She could scarcely speak, but she managed to choke, "What are you doing?"

He didn't raise his head, but sucked on the cloth until it turned dark and damp. Casually, he said,
"I'm making myself happy, and you too, I hope."

"Impertinent!" She took an outraged breath, but that pushed her bosom closer to his face and she hastily tried to make herself as small as possible. Then Leighton, and curiosity, nipped at her, and she asked, "Happy? Why would this make me happy?"

Taking the cloth, and the nipple beneath, between his fingers, he rubbed until the friction made her twist to get away, or perhaps to get closer. The lower halves of their bodies pressed together and changes
were happening in hers. Changes she didn't want to admit or to have him recognize.

"Can you feel that?" he asked.

"Of course I can," she snapped, pressing her legs together to relieve a sudden, unexplained pressure. "How can I help it when you pinch me?"

"Not here." He cupped her breast in one hand. "But here." And he put his other hand right between
her legs! "Doesn't it tingle?"

He pressed his fingers on her mound, then adjusted them to fit closer. If he weren't careful, he'd have
one finger in her slot and she'd have to shake him.

One finger . .. two fingers ... she reached out to shake him, but forgot her intention right before
execution. She dug her heels into the mattress, she arched her back, and Leighton murmured,
"Deep inside, it should be tight, and maybe you're damp."

"Damp?" She sucked in a breath. "Why would I beó"

A mere adjustment of his fingers brought the dampness he spoke of.

"On the curls between your legs. Can you feel it?"

"No."

"Liar."

She was a liar, but she didn't understand what her body was doing or why, and she didn't understand
why he remained unaffected.

Or did he? He kept pushing his hips forward in a slow rocking motion, as if he needed to scratch an itch or massage a sore place. She shuddered as some ancient knowledge fought its way up from the depths. She wanted to move like he did, as though she'd danced to that rhythm before, although she never had. When she murmured his name, the way she crooned embarrassed her. "Leighton."

"Keefe," he said.

"What?"

"It's my first name. I freely give my name to you."

Frowning, she tried to understand why his voice resonated with such intention, but he distracted her
with those motions. His aggression had modified and her outrage had changed to something softer, and when he put his mouth close to her ear, she shivered.

Gently, he intoned, "Why are you here? Why now? What do you know?"

Her eyes fluttered open, then closed, as she struggled to answer coherently. Then she caught sight of his face. His intelligent gaze was at odds with the passion he simulated, and she realized she'd been duped. He'd been playing her along, and she'd let him. She'd almost betrayed Ronald for a moment's pleasure and a false security.

What was it about this man that made her want to kiss him when all evidence pointed to his guilt? It
didn't seem to matter what she knew with her mind, her body still yearned for him. Did she imagine she could find sanctuary in his arms? Did she dream he would protect her from the truth?

Or worse, did she see herself as the tiger's mate? For if she were not careful, she would find herself nothing but a passing meal for that hungry beast.

Venomous as a cobra, she whispered, "I know you killed him. You killed my brother."

He reared back, half off of her, but she didn't make the mistake of trying to run this time. "Are you mad?" he demanded. "Why would I have killed Ronald?"

"You're the leader of the smugglers."

"Is that what you think?" Carefully, he lowered himself back down to her and stroked her hair back off her forehead. "Dearest, I'm not the leader of the smugglers. I'm the man who's commissioned to
capture them."

She mocked herself for half-believing and said sarcastically, "I would have thought so, once. Brilliant, ambitious, cunning, and brave, Ronald called you."

He half-smiled. "Your brother was an intelligent man."

"Oh, you're all those things Ronald said. When I was notified of Ronald's death, I never doubted you'd help me. He just never realized that you're also wealthy, powerful, well-bred, and"ómerciful heavens, she'd almost said handsomeó"patronizing."

"I am not"óhe struggled, then offeredó"patronizing."

"Of course." She mocked him with her tone. "I should have guessed that your campaign to discourage and frighten me was nothing but your way of showing concern for my grief at Ronald's death."

"My campaign toó" He raised himself again and glared. "You've been having delusions."

"Your secretary sneered at me every time I came to you."

His mouth tightened. "Farley sneered at you? I'll reprimand him. What else?"

"When I waited to speak with you, I always saw those young gentlemen going in and out of your office."

"Were they rude to you, too?"

"No, they were most respectful, but sometimes I recognized them skulking about in my neighborhood, and my neighborhood is not a place respectable men visit."

He winced. "You identified them?"

Triumphant, she nodded. "Even in their disguises."

Looking as uncomfortable as she'd ever seen him look, he admitted, "They had instructions to watch
over you and make sure nothing occurred which would threaten your safety." He tapped her nose with
his forefinger. "You don't live in a desirable location, and I intend to change that."

She laughed, her amusement bright and sharp with pain. "Your young men have sold their souls for a
cut of the smuggling profits, more likely. Smuggling that takes place on your land."

He struggled with outrage. "Do you credit me with no sense? I'd not be so stupid as to use my own estate."

She stared at him, pressing her lips together and ignoring the tenderness that plagued them. The tenderness he'd caused with his false kisses.

"You don't believe me, do you?" Now he sounded surprised. "What did you think I was going to do
to you?"

A vision of Ronald's tortured body flashed through her mind, and she physically felt Leighton wince.

"Kill you? You thought I wanted to kill you?" Cradling her head, he demanded, "Look at me. Really
look at me. Do you really think I could ever hurt you?"

She saw that the tiger still lurked in his eyes. He wanted to consume her, yes, but for the first time she confronted the fact his meal would be a sensuous one. She swallowed; he watched her throat move and his hunger invoked a like hunger in her.

He wasn't going to kill her. Worse, she no longer believed he killed Ronald. Oh, in her mind she knew
he was guilty, but his one flimsy reassurance had lodged in her heart, and she believed in him.

Maybe that explained why she had desired him. She had always believed in him.

He groaned. "Laura." His mouth swooped a necklace of kisses across her throat and placed jeweled
kisses on each ear.

He freed her hands and she remained still, horrified by her compliance. Then he kissed her mouth, and
it became more than compliance. She kissed him back, opening her mouth willingly. She dared to push her tongue in his mouth and he let her, urging her with his hands as they caressed her shoulders. Her clothing became too tight, then too thick, and when he pushed the sleeves off her arms she helped him.

The cool air of the room struck her overheated skin above her chemise and sanity struck her at the same time. She'd never even been alone with a fully clothed man before, much less one who'd shed his boots and coat, whose scarf had been discarded over the edge of the bed, and whose shirt had miraculously opened all the way to his waistband. "My lord," she whispered.

"My lady." He mocked her.

"This is not proper."

"Most certainly not!" He reared back as if offended. "If it were proper, I would be doing it incorrectly."

She didn't know what to say to that, but when he stripped off his shirt she said, "I will not be a nobleman's toy."

"I never played with toys. I was always too responsible for that." He touched his finger to her bare
chest. "But I think I could learn to play with you."

She stopped breathing. How could she allow her chest to rise and fall when his palm hovered just
above, waiting to encourage her transgression?

"We are not married. We cannot share this bed."

His mouth curved in a tender smile. "We will be married."

"Do you think I'm bird-witted?" She laughed shortly, bitterly. "I'm far too poor and you're far too noble."

"Darling, didn't you know? I'm rich enough for the both of us." She didn't believe that for an instant,
and he seemed to realize it, for he said, "Look at it from a smuggler's point of view. When we're married you won't be able to testify against me. A wife can't testify against her husband."

She didn't know what shocked her more, his blatant assurance or the speed at which he untied her chemise.

"You are the first woman ever to doubt my integrity," he said.

Hopefully, she inquired, "Does that inhibit you?"

Pausing in his assault on her virtue, he thought, then answered, "Not at all. It liberates me."

She held herself stiff as he stripped her chemise down to her waist and looked on her. His lips opened slightly as he viewed her. Totally without her volition, she imagined his mouth there, and her nipples tightened sharply.

He didn't take his gaze away from her breasts. If anything, she more clearly saw the tiger that lurked behind his facade. But he said, "However, I would not like to think you'll put barriers up against me,
not even in your mind." In a tone that disguised the significance of his pronouncement, he said, "I'm
the Seamaster."


CHAPTER 3


Laura jumped as if Leighton announced Napoleon fought for Englandóand indeed, that seemed more likely. Ronald had mentioned the Seamaster over and over again in his diary. The Seamaster directed
all the operations in which Ronald had participated. The Seamaster had been bold and daring, intelligent and canny. He was the man Ronald had emulated, the man Ronald had worshipped, and Laura could
not imagine that Leighton, with his conservative manner, could possibly be so dashing a figure as the Seamaster.

Then she looked at the man before her. He hadn't been conservative tonight. He'd been as bold as a smuggler, or as the Seamaster himself. The Leighton she'd met in London had been subdued, at least
for tonight, by this Leighton. This man who used any weapon to get his way. Yes, this Leighton could
be the Seamasteróor Jean.

As she finished her contemplations, she realized he now viewed her face with all the interest he had shown her bosom. "You know who the Seamaster is. Your brother wouldn't have told you, so how
do you know?"

"I'm an eavesdropper." She lied without a hitch, and she was proud of her smooth delivery. But he wouldn't stop staring, using his gaze to scour her mind for guilt. He found it, of course, and she
blushed from her waist to the hairs on her head.

Instead of interrogating her, though, he shook his head admiringly. "An eavesdropper. I should have guessed."

"What do you mean by that?" she demanded indignantly. Then she could have groaned. Of course she didn't want him to think her dishonorable, but better he should think that than realize Ronald's diary rested in her pocket close to his hand.

"I mean"óhe pressed a kiss on her mouthó"that you're an incredible woman."

"Please." She pushed at him. "I don't want this."

"Don't you?"

"I've changed my mind."

"As you wish."

He moved off her and she covered herself with her hands, watching him warily. He'd given up too
easily, this man who claimed to be the Seamaster. The Seamaster, according to Ronald's diary, had
much in common with his namesake. Once he sank his teeth into a situation, he never let go.

Ronald's diary. She glanced down and saw the red leather peeking out of her dark blue skirt.

He saw it, too. His eyes widened and he lifted an inquiring eyebrow. "What is that?"

His hand reached for it, and she caught his wrist. "Nothing."

"Nothing? It's a book." He pulled a long face. "Laura, what are you hiding from me?"

"What do you mean?"

"That book will tell me all your secrets, won't it?"

"No!"

"Everything I desire to know is there." His fingers twitched closer. "It's a novel, isn't it?"

She was so stunned, she could only parrot his words.

"A novel?"

"One of those wicked romances." She couldn't restrain him, and he laid his palm on it, preparing to
draw it out. "Let me read it, and perhaps I'll learn enough to seduce you successfully next time."

If he read it, he'd learn enough that he wouldn't have to seduce her ever again. If he read it, he'd have
all his questions answered, and she still didn't dare trust him. Not with Ronald's diary, nor with the information inside.

He brushed off her effort to restrain him like a bear brushing away flies, and pulled it out.

In desperation she gambled, using her virtue as the stakes.

She laid her hand flat on his bare chest.

He paused in the process of opening the diary. His eyes closed, and her hand rose and fell as he took a hard breath. He wasn't as controlled as she had thought; he still wanted her. It was obvious from the
tight set of his mouth and the unmoving stoicism with which he awaited her next move.

Inching her palm down his breastbone, she lingered on a ragged white scar right over his ribs. "How
did this happen?"

"Occasionally, someone thinks he has reason to resent the Seamaster, and he tries to do him in." Placing his hand over hers, he stopped her restless movement. "The one who cut me there was luckier than most." Plucking her hand off his chest, he examined it, then folded it within his own. "You are, I believe, inexperienced in these matters, so I will tell youóif you wish for us to remain upright, you should keep your hands to yourself." He put her hand back into her lap and patted it, then advised, "It would be wise to pull your bodice up, also."

His focus went back to the book. Again he began to open itóand she returned her hand to his tanned forearm.

He froze. Nothing moved in his face, nothing moved on his body. He wasn't opening the diary, just as
she wished, but she couldn't depend on such inactivity, so she slid her palm up over his biceps. The skin there was lighter, with a finer texture, and she rubbed him with her fingertips. The muscles flexed beneath her palm, and, fascinated, she walked her hand up to his shoulder.

With slow deliberation, he put the book down on the mattress. When he looked at her, she clearly saw
the hunger of the tiger. Imitating her, he placed his hand on her shoulder, then slowly, slowly he pushed her down until she rested against the pillows. "I gave you a chance to think," he said. "Now think no
more while I take my pleasure."

His tiger breath brushed her cheek. A slow pounding began in her veins. Her fingertips tingled with it.
Her nose, her ears, her toes, every extremity experienced the force of his influenceóand he still touched only her shoulder. It frightened her, his power, and she reconsidered her plan of action. After all, he'd
put down the diary ... "Leighton?"

"Keefe," he corrected.

"I don't think we shouldó"

"No, no." He pressed his finger to her lips. "You aren't allowed to think. You should only feel."
Gathering her into his arms, he pressed their bodies together. "Feel this."

Her curves melted onto the firm structure of his chest, and she trembled. Already he was forming her
to his desire, taking her sense of individuality and creating a new creature, one composed of man and woman together.

Yet she couldn't allow that. Not yet. She had a mission. She had a duty, and she couldn't allow him to distract her so completely that she failed. She fought to retain her reason and, moving with a care she hoped would fail to alert him, she knocked Ronald's diary off the bed.

It landed with a muffled thump, and Leighton stopped, suddenly alert. Her voice quavered, but she
said bravely, "I think I would like it if you kissed me."

He returned his attention to her as suddenly as he had removed it. "Really?" He almost purred with anticipation, and thrusting his hand into her hair, he held her still and kissed her.

After he kissed her, he no longer had to hold her still. For the luxury of his kisses, she would do anything, be anything he wanted, but her compliance didn't seem to satisfy him. If anything, it drove him to a frenzy of touching. He stroked her jaw to the point of her chin, her neck, and her collarbone. He
caressed her arms, then linked their hands and brought them up. "Look," he urged. "See the way our fingers entwine. That's how our bodies will be soon."

As he commanded, she looked. Her fingers rested between each of his, spread wide by the width of
his knuckles. Clearly she saw his superior strength, his size, the mastery with which he handled her.
The precariousness of her plight broke over her. If she allowed this to happen, would she ever recover herself? If she melded with Leighton, could she return to her former shape, or would she always contain
a little bit of Leighton in her soul?

Besidesóshe looked again at the size of his hand, at the size of hersóthis would likely hurt. Physically and mentally, this would change her and she writhed in belated panic. "We can't do this. It won't work."

"It will. I promise it will."

Then she became aware of something else. His palm cradled hers. His hand was moving, pressing and caressing the places where the nerves lay close under the skin. He knew how to make her like it; he alarmed her and made her want more all at the same time.

The man was an expert at whatever he did. If he were the smuggler, he would be the best. If he were
the Seamaster, he would catch his man. If he were her lover, she would be satiated when they finished.

"Trust in me," he crooned.

"You'll stop if I tell you?"

"I'll do whatever you wish."

After making her wish for him. Slowly, she agreed, "I will trust youófor now."

"That's a start." Loosening his hands, he used them to strip the gown off her hips. Her white pantalettes, tied at her waist, reached below her knees and were so sheer he could see the color between her thighs. She burned when he gazed at her and tried to cover herself with her hands.

"Don't." He took her wrists. "I've fantasized about your body, and it's better than I've dreamed."

Astonished and vaguely offended, she asked, "You thought about this?"

"Of course." He looked right into her eyes. "Didn't you?"

She wanted to refute it. She hadn't thought about it, had she? She'd never imagined what it would feel
like if he kissed her. She hadn't thrilled to the thought of his body against her. Yet she couldn't speak
the words to tell him so.

His eyes grew brilliant and his nostrils flared like a great cat detecting the eminent collapse of its prey.

The scent of the savage filled her nostrils, and she declared, "I don't think I like you."

"I don't want you to like me. I want no part of such a paltry emotion from you." Her pantalettes loosened under his hands. He stripped them and her stockings from her in one efficient motion.

Her own nudity left her gasping.

His nudity silenced her completely.

In all her life she'd never seen a naked man. Now she knew why. If men like Leighton walked the streets wearing nothing but a smile, women like her would have to join him in the most basic manner. The sight of him made her forget her embarrassment. Fascinated, she touched his chest. Broad, covered with coarse hair that crinkled and rolled, it undulated from the broad, smooth muscles above to the frequent ripple of his ribs. His abdomen rippled, too, strength implicit in the structure beneath the skin.

How did a nobleman build such a body?

She snatched her hand away. By moving barrels of brandy on moonless nights.

He sighed in what sounded like disgust. "You think too much." And he kissed her.

The time for games was over. His intent was clear. He wanted her, wanted her wanting him, wanted her clinging, panting, ecstatic and mindless. He kissed her softly at first, barely lapping at her lips. Then his tongue sought hers while his hands wandered to her breasts, her stomach, and finally between her legs.

This wasn't like before when he touched her and her gown and petticoats remained between them. Now his fingers tugged at her curls, then intruded between the folds of flesh.

Horrified, she pulled her mouth from his. "Stop that," she hissed.

He didn't answer and he didn't stop. He touched her delicately, using little dabs of rapture.

The weight of her eyelids grew too great, and they half closed. "Please."

"Please what?"

She couldn't remember what, so she just repeated it. "Please."

"Stop?"

Her hesitation amazed her. "Yes!"

"As you wish."

He obeyed her so easily, she should have been suspicious. Instead she breathed a sigh of reliefóor was
it disappointment?óas he took his hand away.

Then he moved his body over hers and pressed his knee between her legs to separate them. That wasn't what she planned, wasn't what she wanted. It was too intimate, too sexual, too soon.

She couldn't believe this was happening to her. She couldn't believe she was doing this. She dared not struggle, yet everything about it was alien.

She tried to clamp her legs shut. He moved his knee up and spread them wider. The hard muscles of his thigh rocked against her, and she woke to an incredible fact. The subtle probe of his finger had aroused her, but she had feared to move. When he touched her so sensitively, it was as if he were the master and she the painting. But this broad thrust of his thigh encouraged her to find her own pleasure. She left delicacy behind and rode his leg, at first hesitantly, then with increasing assurance, and he encouraged
her with just the right pressure.

"That's it," he whispered. "Take what you want. Give all you've got."

Self-conscious, she bit off the whimpers before they could escape her throat.

He didn't like that, and opened her mouth with the thrust of his tongue. "Let me hear everything. I want to know what you feel."

How could he know what she felt, when she didn't even know? She was bursting, ripe, wanting more
yet not knowing what more she should desire. She moved ever more quickly, and at last the dampness
he spoke of moistened his thigh.

"There it is." He sounded satisfied as he moved his thigh away.

She used a word she'd never admitted to knowing.

"I'll take care of it," he promised, easing himself down onto her. "Hold onto me, and I'll take care
of you."

Now his pelvis met hers and renewed the pressure. "Better," she moaned.

"Better yet." He arranged himself and when she thrust, she thrust herself on him.

Her breath caught in her throat. That wasn't better. That was odd, intrusive.

"Do it again," he said.

"What?"

"Like you did before. Take all of me. You're ready. Can't you feel it?"

She could feel nothing else. Grabbing his shoulders, she dug her nails in. She had to stop this madness, but at the same time she throbbed all around him. He didn't stir, although little shudders of strain ran through him. He wanted her to do it all. Like the devil himself, he wanted her to take responsibility for
her own downfall.

She hovered for one moment between resentment and amazement. Then her body made its demands. She had to finish it. She had to know.

Bracing her heels, she eased her hips off the bed. He pressed down with the same tension. He met something in her; she retreated, but he caught her hips and held her still and her maidenhead tore before his steady advance. She wanted to rail at him, to tell him of the pain, but she was beyond speech now. She could only meet his gaze with a glare of her own, and when he rested fully against her and all of
him was inside her, she bit his collarbone, hard.

He jumped and some of the strain which held him faded. "You are a wild one, and you're all mine."
He grinned, his teeth white against the tan of his face. "I'm going to make you very happy."

He started slowly, moving his hips back and forth, bringing himself in and out with a deliberate pace that allowed her to accustom herself to the movement. Excitement returned, building low in her belly. She wanted to move like she had before, but he restricted her, maintaining the pace he had set.

She needed more. She'd thought the effort to speak beyond her, but frustration made her beg,
"Leighton, please. Move a little ... just faster ... Leighton?"

His pace never changed. "Keefe."

He was killing her. Slowly, with great deliberation, he was killing her. He kept the weapon with him always. He could utilize it at any time. If he didn't win all he wished this time, he'd bring it to bear again, and again, and again.

Still defiant, seeking sensation, she twisted beneath him.

He plunged once, hastily, then stopped and held himself so that they touched in only one place.
"Keefe," he said.

Her frustration burst its bounds. "Keefe," she shouted.

The rhythm changed, grew. She lifted her hips to his thrust.

"Keefe," he repeated.

She moaned. "Not again."

"Until you know me. Until I know you'll never forget."

She lifted her head and scowled. "Keefe. Keefe, Keefe, Keefe."

With each repetition, he increased the pace. It didn't help. She only wanted more, seeking relief from
the pressure.

"Keep watching me," he said. "Don't look away. I want to see you. I want you to see me."

"Now?"

"Almost."

"Now?"

"Can you feel it?"

The explosive sensation knocked her head back. She arched her spine. She brought her hips up tight against him and fought for every smidgen of pleasure. And when she had finished and rested, panting, against the pillows, he said, "I'm Keefe Leighton. You're my woman now. And I think I'll show you again."


CHAPTER 4



Laura woke with a start and knew she was alone in the bed. Her eyes popped open. Where was he,
this nobleman who claimed to be the Seamaster? Who was her lover? She didn't see him, and her heart began to pound in a slow and steady rhythm. Had he seduced her, then abandoned her? Worse, had he got what he wanted from her and even now sought the means to dispose of her? Obviously, her faith in him was a flimsy thing, while her distrust blossomed in the dark.

Then she heard someone prod the fire and saw the tongs and the sturdy brown hand which held them. Leighton was there, sitting on the settle wrapped in his greatcoat. The relief she experienced clearly told her the level of her anxiety, and she put her hand to her chest to still the racing of her heart. Slipping
from the bed, she pulled on the robe that hung on the bedpost. The cold floor made her toes curl, but
she sneaked toward him, ugly misgivings keeping her silent.

Cautiously she peeked around the high back of the settle and saw him leafing through Ronald's diary.

"What are you doing?" she demanded, her voice cracking like a whip.

Leighton turned his head calmly. He'd known she stood there, she realized. The man was aware of everything around him, with senses heightened by the danger he courted. But did the danger exist
because the government sought him, or because he sought the smugglers?

"Why did you keep this from me?" He tapped the diary with his large forefinger. "This contains information Ronald acquired before his last fatal trip, and if I had known..."

"If you had known, what would you have done?"

"Jean would not have escaped me." His mouth was a tight line, his brow furrowed, and he sounded sincerely distressed. "This Jean has caused England more trouble than any French rat has the right
to cause."

"The smuggling, you mean."

"Smuggling, yes, and . . ." He laughed, short and sharp. "Well. The diary says Jean chose this location
to land his contraband not because it is my manor and he knew my identity, but because he has an accomplice in the village." Lifting one brow, he asked, "Do you know who it is?"

"How would I know that?"

"By eavesdropping," he shot back at her.

She widened her eyes at him.

"Don't pretend artlessness," he said. "You're not good at it, to start with, and you revealed too much
of yourself when you came to me in London and demanded justice for Ronald. I would have known
you were his sister if I had never heard your name, for he talked about your intelligence and bravery,
and you have proved to have both."

"So you think it was intelligent for me to have come here to help capture Jean?"

"No! Not that." His hands squeezed the leather binding of the book, then relaxed. "But brave."

"I trembled every moment," she answered honestly.

"But you did it anyway. All my best operatives recognize the dangers, then proceed anyway. If you weren't a lady, I would be hard pressed not to recruit you for our forces."

If you weren't a lady ... Leighton's words made her realize that he did no more than pay lip service to
her. He really didn't consider her anything more than an ornament, a thing to be manipulated. He would discard her when he'd depleted her usefulness, of that she had no doubt.

"You have to understand how important this is to me to capture Jean," he said.

"Will you be commended for your willingness to do anything to bring the enemy to justice?"

It was an insult, but he took the blow without flinching, only returning it in kind. "Jean killed one of the best and bravest assistants I've ever had, and I'm interested in revenge. I would think you would be, too, and willing to cooperate toward that end."

It struck her then, the thing that had niggled at her earlier. If Leighton was the Seamaster, he'd sent Ronald to his death. Of course it was worse if he were Jean, the man who'd actually ordered Ronald's death, but surely the Seamaster had known the danger Ronald had courted. He had to have recognized that Ronald could be brutally murdered and his sister left alone, desolate, broken-hearted.

And all for a smuggler. All to stop the flow of French brandy into the country. Rage rose in her. Her cheeks flushed, her hands clenched into fists. Somehow, she wanted Leighton to pay. Somehow, she needed to get out of this room and away from him before he stole her indignation and her heart and left her with nothing but dust and memories.

Intelligent. Ronald had told Leighton she was intelligent, and she needed to prove it now. Leighton was a clever man with no visible chinks in his armor ... but she guessed he had neglected his duty to tarry with her. True, he suspected she was a source of information and he wanted it, but once he'd seen the diary
he could have taken it from her by force. If he hadn't been a tiger, hungry for her...

Loosening her fists, she smiled at him. Her lips trembled; he'd said she didn't dissemble well, but this
time she hoped to distract him with the promise of another sample of her.

Leighton's eyes narrowed and he considered her as if she were a defendant before the court.

So he was wary. What did loose women do when faced with a dangerous customer? She'd seen enough wenches on her walks from the small shop where she worked to her even smaller living quarters, so she imitated them and shrugged her shoulders in a rotary motion. The movement loosened the front of her robe and Leighton's gaze followed the light material as it slipped back off her chest and opened a narrow gap around her waist.

He said something; it sounded like, "Geminy." A most fervent exclamation for one so dispassionate.

"Come here." Taking Ronald's diary, he put it to the side and held out his hand. "Sit with me and be warm. I don't know what I was thinking, bringing this up when we just now finished with our wedding night."

She wanted to slap him for patronizing her. Instead she bent her head in a parody of obedience and went to him. He brought his kneeóhis bare kneeóout of his greatcoat and she perched there. The worn wool of her robe didn't protect her from his heat, and she feared to melt like a candle exposed to the flame.

But she wouldn't. This was for Ronald.

Tucking his arm around her, Leighton said, "One of my men should be waiting for me in the stable. I'll tell him about the accomplice, and we'll organize a search, but in truth I doubt we have a chance of finding Jean. He's long gone. He'll not remain in the area with so many of my agents here, so I'll have to seek him another way." Reaching his hand inside her robe, he slid his fingers along her ribs until he'd encircled her with his arm and the robe's protection was but a memory. "You'll be safe here. I'll be back for you in the morning, and we'll finish this thing we've started."

Did he plan to kill her, or take her back to bed and teach her how to be an even more satisfactory mistress?

No matter, she was ruined, and she had no intention of remaining when she could escape.

"Oh, Leighton."

"Keefe."

She didn't want to repeat his name, but she did. "Keefe." The word tasted bitter on her tongue. Flinging her arms around him, she pressed her face into his neck to hide her distaste. "You'll be in danger."

His fingers crept along until they rested over the cleft at the base of her spine. Her motion had exposed even more of her, and when she kissed his ear, then outlined it with her tongue, his body shuddered to life.

Sounding both stifled and pleased, he said, "I'll be fine, my dear. I've performed many of these missions and scarcely received a scratch."

"What about this?" Sitting up straight, she pushed his greatcoat off his shoulder and outlined the bare, white scar by his nipple. "You call this nothing?" Her palm grazed him until goosebumps started on his flesh. "You might have been killed."

"Youthful stupidity," he said. "I'm neither so young nor so stupid anymore."

But he was. He had to be. Her plan depended on it, and when she nudged closer into his lap with her hip, she discovered how his truthful body made a falsehood of his words. She tried to hide her triumph and gaze soulfully into his eyes, but he looked suddenly mistrustful and she remembered his claim she didn't lie well. So she mashed her lips on his. He didn't respond at first, but tried to push her away. Not cruelly or emphaticallyóthat he could have done easily. But like a man who feared to hurt her feelings, yet surmised something was wrong. She didn't let go of his neck, and she opened her mouth on his with as much insistence as he'd shown earlier. The hand that she'd used to caress his nipple she slid down his body, opening his greatcoat as he had opened her robe, until she touched the hollow of his thigh just below his stomach. There her fingers hovered, almost in contact with his shaft.

Did she have the nerve to seduce him coldly, for her own purposes? The plan seemed excellent, but the execution was proving difficult. She'd just learned the rudiments of arousal earlier that night, and she had yet to lose the shyness of innocence. Yet she had to concentrate on titillating him rather than on her scheme to escape, for her acting couldn't stand up under his scrutiny. She had to lose sight of the lie and want him again.

After all, that shouldn't be difficult. She did want him again. She'd always wanted him. She recognized
the tiger in him, because it corresponded to the tiger inside her. Even if he were the Seamaster and had sent Ronald to his death, even if he were Jean and ordered Ronald's murder, still she wanted him. She'd let him have his way with her and told herself she had no choice because deep inside herself she acknowledged her mate.

The revelation horrified her.

"What?" Leighton asked.

She found herself sitting back on his lap, staring at him.

"Laura, what is it?" He held her as if he thought she would tumble down without his support. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"I want you." Her voice sounded little and far away, even to her own ears.

Now he looked as stunned as she felt. "I want you, too. I want... all of you. I want to talk to you and ... make love to you and just... be with you." The words seemed to struggle from him, from this composed, restrained, thoughtful man, and one of his hands rose to stroke her face. His fingers were trembling. "It's too early, I've done it all backward, but I want... I have to ask ..."

She grasped his penis with her hand and from his grimace, she thought she'd hurt him. Instead he picked her up and rearranged her so her legs parted over the top of his. He put her back down, and the sensation of her bare bottom against his bare legs shocked her back into good sense. He wanted to do this here, now, and if they did she'd have failed. She had to get him back to the bed, and she pushed against his shoulders. "No!"

"What?"

His eyes were glazed with desire, and her denial didn't break through his daze.

"On the bed. Please." She scooted back and he grappled to keep her close. "Please. Leighton. Keefe.
The bed. I want to try something . .. exciting."

"This'll be exciting," he said.

"I can't. Not here." He let her slide off the end of his knees, and the pressure made her aware of her
own arousal, of how easily she could succumb to his persuasion. "Please." She stood and tugged at his hand. "Come on."

He stood, too, and looked down at her. "I shouldn't," he muttered.

"This won't take long."

He half-laughed. "No, I don't suppose it will."

He stumbled over the edge of the rug as she led him to the bed, and that reassured her. He was still off-balance and at her mercy. As she walked, she untied the belt of her robe and placed it beside the pillows when they reached their goal. His hands encircled her waist to boost her onto the bed, but she twisted quickly away. "No, you get on first," she said.

Tilting his head, he studied her. "You're bold for a fledgling."

"A cub," she corrected. Pushing his greatcoat off, she held it in one fist and promised, "You won't need that." She patted the mattress.

Still bemused, he climbed up and stretched out, a broad, large, handsome piece of male flesh that made her mouth water.

"When you look at me like that. .."

It was obvious what happened when she looked at him like that. It was obvious he expected her to cure him, too. He held out his hand just as she found the end of his coat's belt. She dropped the coat to the floor and let the weight of the wool free the leather strap for her use. Then she placed it beside her robe's belt and took his hand.

"You're trembling," he said. "Come up here and let me warm you."

Of course she was trembling. She was scared. Climbing on the bed, she said, "Let me warm you."

Her voice shook, too, but he smiled at her, all sensuous encouragement. "Have your way with me."

Sprawling on top of him, she threaded her hands through his hair and lowered her lips to his. She pecked at him, then kissed him, then penetrated him with a desperate relish. This would be, after all, the last time he'd want her. If he realized what she plotted, it wouldn't matter whether he were Jean or the Seamaster, he'd extract a terrible revenge. And if she succeeded ... if she succeeded, she'd have made a fool of him, and no man could bear that.

He responded with quite satisfactory enthusiasm, and she wondered if she might not have a talent for
this. Only with Leighton, of course. Leighton was her mate. She ran her hands over his chest, down to
his waist, then stroked him as intimately as she knew how. She loved the feel of his skin, the coarse hair over it, the strength of the muscles below it. His arms encircled her, tightened, and he made to roll over
to place her beneath him.

"No!" She sat up and pressed her palm into his breastbone. "I want to stay on top."

"Dear heart, I shouldn't even be here on the bed with you. A Leighton never neglects his duty."

"You're not neglecting it, you're postponing it, and besides, haven't you a duty to... your wife?" She almost choked on the last two words, and added hastily, "Shut your eyes."

"What?"

"Shut your eyes." Leaning over him, she brushed his eyelids with her lips until they stayed down.
"Raise your arms."

His eyes opened again and he directed blue amazement at her. "What?"

Taking his muscled forearm in both of her hands, she tugged until his hand was in the vicinity of the headboard. Then she wrapped it around one of the rails. "I want to touch you freely. I want to make
you want as fiercely as you made me want." She lifted his other arm and he let her, although he clearly wondered at her. "Is that so strange?"

"I don't understand it," he admitted. "Why would a womanó"

"Give as much as she takes?" Laura lifted a mocking eyebrow at him. "Be generous with her gifts?
Seek a sweet revenge?"

His massive arms wrapped around her, hugging her to him, and he held her head while he kissed her fiercely. Letting her go, he raised his hands and grasped a rail in each hand. "Do your worst."

If only he knew!

She didn't demand that he close his eyes again, but instead concentrated on touching him in ways he had touched her. Usually affectionate, occasionally intimate, each caress seemed to affect him more intensely. He waited, almost breathless, for each new contact, and his anticipation built her own. Her body seemed synchronized with his; her muscles tightened when his did, her breath caught with each of his stifled groans.

This was fun. This was fabulous. This was everything she'd promised him, and she had to finish what she'd started. His eyes had closed once in sensual overload, then fluttered open as he struggled to maintain control. She knew she could make him close his eyes. She could make him lose his mind, if
only for a moment. She was the female tiger, after all.

She'd used her hands so far, but they formed only part of her arsenal. Now she kissed his body, smoothing the skin of his chest with her lips, then daring to taste his nipple when it came within reach.

He groaned now, right out loud. "Laura." His body shuddered, too, and he twisted on the bed, his eyes tightly shut.

She had him. She'd trapped him. All she had to do was close the trap, but first, she wanted.. . Her mouth wandered to the other side of him while her hands wandered below, and she realized she enjoyed watching him squirm. She liked the power, and she badly wanted to finish the moment.

Not now. Blindly, she reached for the cord of her robe and wrapped it around the rail above his wrists. Not ever. With a quick motion, she used an embroidery knot to secure Leighton to the bed. She was
done with love now. She'd never be the Countess of Hamilton again, not in truth or even in her imagination. She wouldn't even dare dream of this.

"Laura?"

His eyes were open now, and he tugged at the knot. She watched the knot tighten, the material stretch, and whipped his leather belt around the other direction to reinforce the restraint. The rail would hold him, even secured as he was to only one. The oak was old and solid, and had no doubt taken greater strains.

"Laura?" He was fully aware now, his gaze shifting from bewilderment to concern. "What are you doing?"

She slid off the bed and looked at him, stretched naked before her. "I'm leaving you."


CHAPTER 5



No woman could tie an effective knot. Leighton knew it, and he jerked on the restraint that held him. Nothing gave, and he twisted to look above his head. The knot, complex and unknown, alarmed him. "Laura, this isn't funny."

"Believe me"óLaura picked her clothing off the floor and began to dress rapidlyó"I'm not laughing."

He watched hungrily as she lifted her arms to pull the shift over her head, then jerked his attention away. That was the kind of nonsense that had got him into this dilemma, and his body still spoke to him louder than his common sense. She glanced at him, running her gaze down his form, then looked away, and he guessed the constant changes in his body spoke to her, too. Pleased that he had at least that much influence and still convinced he could persuade her to free him, he asked, "Why would you even want
to do this?"

From the corner of his eye, he could see as she pulled on petticoats. "Perhaps you are Jean, the leader
of the smugglers, as I first suspected."

Damn the woman! She was a tiny thing, her waist so small he almost spanned it in his hands, with direct blue eyes and curly brown hair, and she was as stubborn and opinionated as his grandmother in one of her matriarchal moods. How could Laura not believe him? Pulling himself up the bed by his wrists, he glared at her. "I am the Seamaster!"

Laura nodded without a smile and pulled her dress over her head. "If you are, as you claim, the Seamaster, you sent my brother after these smugglers when you knew the danger he courted.
Regardless, you are responsible for his death, and I intend to make you pay."

"Pay? How? By humiliating me?"

She had that stubborn thrust to her chin that he'd learned to recognize. "That, if you're the Seamaster.
Or by turning you over to the proper authorities if you're Jean."

The lawlessness of her plan left him speechless with admiration. Admiration, and fury, and an unquenched desire that made him determined to teach her a lessonówhen he got untied. He tugged at
the knots again and frowned when he saw that the strain only tightened them. Perhaps he could have ripped free from the wool band, but she'd been smart enough to use the leather strap from his coat, and that wouldn't fail. "Now, dear." He kept his voice low and soothing. "This isn't a good idea. If you'd just think about it, you'd realize that. You don't really believe I'm Jean, the man who killed your brother.
You wouldn't have turned to flame in my arms if you believed that."

She glanced up from her buttons to cast him a look composed of equal parts of alarm and disgust.

"You did, you know. This night has been a rogue's fantasy." That wasn't what he'd meant to say. He didn't mean to dwell on the pleasure of the dark, but the memory of her sweet passion still enfolded him. She'd trapped him by recalling that gratification and promising more, but he should have guessed no woman as inexperienced as she had proved to be would be bold enough to attempt a seduction. Indeed,
as he looked at her, she folded her generous mouth tightly and her color rose, and he realized he had embarrassed her. He didn't want to embarrass her now; he desperately needed her to stay so he could convince her to free him. Hastily, he steered back toward the logic he hoped would sway her. "If I'm the Seamaster, as you know I am, then Jean is still loose, still capable of murdering more people as he murdered Ronald. Surely there's more satisfaction to catching him than in gaining a petty revenge on me."

"I'm finding there is a great deal of satisfaction in petty revenge." Pulling up her stockings, she tied her garters around her knee, and he strained to see the turn of her ankle. She lowered her skirts with enough haste to tell him she'd noticed, and she said, "You yourself told me you don't think it's possible to catch Jean tonight, that he's escaped from this area."

He'd told her too damned much. He'd been overconfident, treating her like a woman who would be
swept away by the scope of his passion. She was completely dressed now, shoving her extra clothes into the carpetbag she'd hauled from under the desk, and he scowled at her. She should have been swept away by the scope of his passion, damn it. Instead, he'd been swept away by hers. He'd never failed to get his way with a woman before; of course, he'd never neglected his duty for a woman before, either, and that made him uneasy. "Surely you know I'm not a man to falter in anything he sets out to do, don't you? I'm determined to capture Jean, and I will. I'm determined to keep you safe, and I will."

"Probably that's why you remained here with me, wasn't it? To keep me safe while your men hunted
this infamous Jean."

It was a indication of his perturbation that he wanted to snatch onto the shameful excuse and agree with her. Only her sarcastic tone kept him sane enough to say dryly, "Oh, yes, I'm that noble. Laura, surely you don't imagine I'm going to keep quiet? I know Ernest. He's been the innkeeper at the Bull and Eagle for years. I'll shout and he'll come to my rescue before you've walked across the taproom."

She grinned at him smugly. "I don't think so. We're married, remember? Ernest won't interfere regardless of what he hears."

The phrase sounded familiar. Then he recognized it. He'd said just that to her when she'd threatened to scream. If he hadn't been in such desperate straits, he would have laughed, but damn the woman! She couldn't leave him here. "When I call Ernest, he'll come."

She nodded thoughtfully. "You're probably right."

As she walked toward the bed, Leighton's heart leapt with triumph. "That's a good, reasonable girl," he said. "You'll see. You're doing the right thing."

Stopping short of the dais, she leaned down out of his sight, and when she rose, she had his clothes gathered in her arms. "Yes, I think I'm doing the right thing, too." Walking to the window, she opened it and threw his clothes out.

"Hey!" His incredulous shout came a moment too late. "How could you?"

She shrugged. "I had to do something. Lack of clothing should slow you down even if you do yell for Ernest."

"Of course I'm going to yell for Ernest." As loudly as he could, he bellowed, "Ernest! Ernówhere the
hell did you get that?"

She'd taken a pistol out of the desk drawer and was checking it in a manner that proclaimed her competence. "From my father. He taught me how to use it. I thought it best if I brought it, for I feared
I would meet a villain." Her gaze surveyed him coolly. "I did, but I didn't shoot him."

For the first time, Leighton faced an ugly truth. He wasn't going to get his way. She wasn't going to free him. She was going out into the dark and rain to escape him. And Jean was still free and no doubt bent
on mischief. Smuggling was a serious crime, but one the government more often than not turned its back on.

Espionage was something else again. England was at war with France, and secrets leaked from this coast to the French command and into the ears of Napoleon himself.

Leighton knew all about it, because Leighton was the man in charge of maintaining security in the government.

Ronald Haver had worked for Leighton, not as a secretary as his sister originally believed, but to ferret out the source of the leaked information. The son of a career soldier killed serving in India, Ronald had been totally competent, daring, and courageousóa family trait, Leighton had discovered lateróand it
was Ronald who'd discovered where the information exchange was made.

Leighton hadn't believed it at first. The smugglers landed on the very beaches of his own manor? Did Jean know his identity and mock him by using his home? Or was it simply serendipity, the fact that his beaches had always been and would always be the best place to land with smuggled goods, with caves in the cliffs above to stash the contraband? Ronald's diary had given him the answer he sought, as well as posing a questionówho was Jean's accomplice?

"Laura, don't go," Leighton begged. "I'm not the villain you should fear."

"I can take care of myself." She slipped the pistol into her cloth purse and hung it around her wrist.
"I've been doing it for longer than I care to remember."

It was true. Ronald had spoken of his sister in glowing terms. He mentioned her competence, her good sense, and her skills, and before he met her, Leighton had formed a picture in his mind of a brusque, broad, homely woman. Ronald had requested that, in case of his death, Leighton care for his sister, and Leighton had been determined to do just that. He'd give her a pension and keep her in comfort for the
rest of her life.

Then Farley had ushered her into his office for the first time, and Leighton had been knocked back on
his heels. It wasn't that she was gorgeous or sweet. Quite the opposite. She was too short, too thin, too fierce, too ... right for him. The wanting had shaken him to the core. He'd always kept his passion well
in control. He chose mistresses for their experience and he planned to choose his wife for her suitability.

Laura was not particularly suitable. She dressed well, but that was because she was a seamstress. A seamstress! And poverty obviously hovered close. Her father was the younger son of a baron with not even a knighthood to give his name a title. But for Leighton, these matters were trivial compared to his desires. He planned to find and arrest Ronald's killer and present him to Laura as a nuptial gift. She
would have him then. That would vanquish the shadow of suspicion from her gaze.

Instead Jean slipped through the trap set for him, and on entering the inn, Leighton had been hailed as Laura's bridegroom by Ernest.

At that moment, his whole life changed. The calm, rational, duty-bound man he was became an opportunist, and he'd forcefully seduced an innocent.

He grinned. And he still couldn't work up one shred of regret.

After donning her redingote, gloves, and hat, Laura walked to the settle and picked up the diary.

At that reminder of Ronald and his fate, Leighton's smile faded. "Laura, please don't do this. Leave
me tied if it makes you feel safer, but don't go out tonight."

Going to the door, she twisted the knob. "It's locked again." She glanced back at him in scorn.
"Did you instruct Ernest to make sure I couldn't easily escape?"

Bristling, he said, "I can control you without any man's help."

She inserted the key in the lock and turned it, then looked back at him stretched naked and defenseless.
"I can see that."

"I'll find you, Laura," he said, and he meant it.


CHAPTER 6



Leighton's promise echoed in Laura's ears as she walked down the hall. I'll find you. Yes, he probably would, but not tonight, and that would give her a much-needed reprieve. She'd take a horse from the stable and go to another inn to catch the stage back to London. She'd wiggled her way through the government bureaucracy until she found someone to listen to her concerns, and if they told her
Leighton was the Seamaster, well. . .

Oh, he was the Seamaster. What was the use in fooling herself? He was the Seamaster and he no
doubt hunted Jean just as he claimed.

But he couldn't get him tonight, and tonight she needed to get away and try to accept the fact she lusted after the man who'd sent her brother to his death. Oh yes, she lusted after him, but she also wanted him to pay with at least a measure of mortification.

Pausing at the top of the stairs, she listened, but heard nothing. Carefully she crept down, avoiding the squeaking step. The fire had burnt to almost nothing in the taproom and the complete and eerie silence spooked her. She wanted to run back to her chamber, to the safety that Leighton represented, but she stiffened her spine. She was, after all, a Haver, and worthy to carry the banner of her father and her brother.

Then a burst of shouting from the kitchen made her stumble backward and she found herself on the
top landing again.

Two men. Ernest and ... another.

"Those are important papers!" the unknown shouted.

While Ernest answered, "Ye can't have my lord."

Something crashed, glass broke, there was a hoarse cry, then silence. Laura hastily crept down the
stairs, keeping to the wall, listening with all her might.

That unknown voice spoke again, this time lower and with enough menace to make the hair stand up on Laura's head. "I can have anything I choose," he said. "Need I remind you that should your beloved Earl of Hamilton discover what you've been doing with me, he'll tack your ears to the stocks?"

Laura put her hands to her mouth to stifle her gasp. Ernest didn't reply to the man's accusation; he didn't rush to deny it. Then she heard an explosion of sound, like air escaping a clogged passage, and someone gasping in deep breaths. She'd seen enough violence done on the streets of London to recognize this.
The unknown man had been choking Ernest.

"They took my cargo, those damned government men, and there are some very important papers which
I must recover."

Ernest recovered himself enough to croak, "Ye and yer papers! It's all a cover, isn't it, this smuggling? Ye're spying fer the Frenchies, ye are."

Laura made it across the taproom to the doorway by the kitchen in less time than it took the unknown
to laugh.

"What if I am?" he said. "You've been well paid for your assistance."

A spy. A French spy. Jean.

Laura leaned against the casement and listened, her heart pounding, her breath short.

"I'm an honest, God-fearing Englishman, I am, and I never agreed to help a Frenchie."

"Honest?" Jean mocked. "Smuggling's not honest."

"In this part of the world, it is." Ernest sounded firm and sure of himself. "My father did it, my grandfather did it, and my great-grandfather did it, but we neveró"

"Well, you have now."

Laura heard the click of steel and her hand went to her purse where her own pistol rested.

"Hey!" Ernest's voice rose an octave. "There's no need fer that!"

"We're going to go upstairs now, get your lord, and when we're done with him Leighton will get me
my information without a qualm."

"He'll never help ye." Ernest sounded as scornful as possible for a man facing a gun. "A Leighton's
honor is above all things."

"Normally I would agree with you," the unknown said. "But Leighton has a lady in that room with him. Her name is Laura Haver, and while I doubt they're truly marriedó"

"They wouldn't lie to me!"

"óI've seen how Leighton looks at her." The unknown chortled until he snorted. "He'll cooperate with me."

Laura stepped back, shocked. She recognized that laugh. Farley. It was that little worm, Sir Farley Malthus, the one who ushered her into Leighton's London office with such obsequious grace and laughed at her desire to find her brother's assassin. He'd taken her aside one day and told her how ludicrous she made herself, pretending that a mere woman could influence the grand workings of English government. She'd hated him for it at the time, hated him even more for his insinuation she only sought an illicit union with Leighton, but she never imagined such a fussy little gossip could be a traitor and a murderer.

Again she touched the pistol in the purse. But no, that wouldn't do. She only had one shot, and assistance waited in the stable. Quickly and quietly, she made her way to the outer door and eased it open. As she stepped outside, she heard voices in the taproom. Swinging the door almost closed, she fled toward the stable. The mud clung to her skirt and sucked at her boots. Ronald's diary hit her knee and the book
came flying out of her pocket.

She didn't stop to get it. It was a memento of her brother, but her brother would have told her to rescue the living, and so she ran harder, right into the dark stable. Pausing, she listened, but she heard nothing behind her. She had escaped without being spotted.

She groped her way along the stalls. A man waited within, Leighton said, but how would she know if it was the right man? Might not Farley also have stationed someone in here to take care of any unwanted intruders? She sighed, her breath a frightened exhale, when something small and living hit her from the side. She tumbled over, smacking the wall, and small hands reached for her throat. She knocked them aside as a boy's voice demanded, "Where's m'lord? Tell me what happened to m'lord."

When she didn't respond at once, the boy's hands grappled with her again.

"Ye're a woman!" He sounded disgusted, now. "Are ye that woman he saw on the cliffs?"

"Are you the man he left stationed here?" she countered, wondering what to think.

"What's it to ye?"

Of course, a boy to carry messages would be better than using a man, and it would keep him out of harm's way, too. "If you are," she said cautiously, "he might be in need of help."

The boy sprang off her. "What have ye done with m'lord?"

"I haven't done anything with him, but there are two men in the inn who will hurt him if you don't go
get assistance."

"I'll save him myself."

She snagged him as he started to run out the door. "Leighton sent me down here with specific instructions that you're to go for help." It was a lie, but she saw no other way to satisfy him. "He wants me to stay."

"Ye?" The boy sounded scornful. "Why would he want a girl when he could have me?"

"Because I have a gun."

The lad paused, then answered, "That's a choice reason. Do ye know how to shoot it?"

"Indeed I do."

"How do I know ye're telling the truth?"

Laura committed herself to Leighton with her next words. "Because I work for the Seamaster."

The boy's indrawn breath told her of his awe, and he answered, "That's good enough fer me."

He was out the open door like a barn owl swooping toward the open air, and when Laura stepped out
she couldn't even see his form as he raced across the heath.

Looking up at the inn, she could see the light from the bedchamber where Leighton lay, tied and naked. This wasn't what she'd imagined when she tricked him. Now she would do anything to have him free because for all her knowledge of firearms and for all of her practice with the targets, she'd never shot a man and feared to do so now. She feared it all: going upstairs, confronting two men bent on murder, seeing the accusation in Leighton's eyes. Because of her, Ronald's murderer might go unpunished. Because of her, he might murder again, and this time it would be Leightonóand she couldn't stand to
lose both men she loved to such wickedness.

For just a moment, she covered her face with her gloved hand.

What stupidity, to love a lord when she was nothing but a seamstress and a commoner. He'd made it
clear he welcomed her into his bed, but she wasn't stupid enough to swallow his talk of marriage. Now she would go up there, and save his life or die trying, and if he wanted her to remain with him as a mistress, she'd do it. She only had the strength to leave him once, and she'd already tried and made it
only as far as the stable.

If she didn't save him .. . well, she knew herself well enough to recognize all the signs of rampaging infatuation, and she knew she'd die at his side.

Such resolutions made a mockery of her fears, and she tucked her chin into her chest and marched toward the door of the inn.

Crossing the yard, she swerved at the last moment and looked in the windows. The taproom was empty. The door still stood off the latch, just as she'd left it when she fled, and she stuck her head in. Nothing moved. Stepping inside, she left the door open in case the help she'd sent for arrived and wanted to make a quick entrance.

Light spilled down from upstairs and she listened, straining her ears. Voices sounded up there, and
moving like a wraith, she crossed the floor.

Farley's voice rang out. "Untie him!"

Grasping the hand rail, Laura climbed the stairs and moved down the hall.

"I'm trying. I'm trying." Ernest sounded surly. "M'lady's quite a woman. These knots are well done."

"You don't have to tell me that." Leighton sounded cool and almost amused. "I've been struggling to
free myself ever since the first time I saw her. I doubt I'll ever get free."

Laura paused just beyond the square of light that marked the floor outside the chamber door.

"Cut the damned things!" Farley snarled. "We haven't got time for this nonsense."

"Haven't got a knife," Ernest said.

There was a troubled silence as Farley thought. Then he said, "Here. Use this one."

Laura heard the clatter as he threw it. Someone cursed. Ernest, she supposed, as he scrambled on the floor.

Farley warned, "Don't imagine you can take me out with a puny thing like that knife."

Moving a step at a time through the shadows in the hall, Laura adjusted her position, trying to see in
the door.

"I don't see why you're in such a hurry, Farley," Leighton said. "It's not far to the smuggled goods.
I could give you directions ..."

"You'll take me yourself. That's the only way your men will give me what is mine."

Leighton continued as if Farley hadn't spoken. "And I wish you'd stop waving that gun around. What harm do you think I can do to you? My God, man, I'm naked and trussed like a Christmas goose."

Laura winced at the image, then moved far enough around that she had a view of Farley. He stood with his feet planted firmly, the pistol held in both hands in a manner that bespoke great familiarity with it.

He kept the barrel steady and pointed straight at the bed as he said, "I don't trust you, Leighton. You always have a confederate hidden somewhere or another."

It was her cue. Stepping in the door, Laura said, "So he does."

He reacted almost too quickly. The pistol swung at her. The roar of her pistol mixed with Leighton's anguished shout.

One of Farley's legs collapsed. He fell sideways, but even as he landed he was aiming at her again. Leighton came off the bed, severed shreds of her robe tie clinging to his wrists. Laura threw herself on
the floor as Leighton smashed into Farley. The pistol discharged, then flew into the air as Leighton knocked it away.

"Laura!" Leighton's shout left her ears ringing, but his hands turned her over as gently as if she were a fragile china piece.

"I'm fine." She wasn't. She'd hit the floor so hard she'd knocked the breath out of her lungs and bruised her elbows, but the bullet hadn't struck her, and that was all that mattered.

Leighton's sharp eyes observed her, then, satisfied, he rapped, "Ernest, secure that blackguard."

"Got 'em, my lord." Ernest's knee rested on Farley's windpipe until, out of air, Farley stopped clawing at Ernest. Examining the oozing wound Laura's bullet had inflicted in Farley's leg, Ernest added, "Nice shot, m'lady."

Wanting to set matters straight, Laura began, "I'm notó"

Leighton picked her up and cradled her in his arms, muffling her protest with his vigor and the impact
of his large, bare body. Then he lifted one finger. "Listen."

Outside, she heard the jingle of horses' tack and the movement of their hooves in the mud of the stable yard. Boots pounded through the taproom and up the stairs, and she realized with a rush of horror their rescuers had arrived. Unfortunately, they'd arrived too late to rescue anyone and they'd arrived too early for Leighton to dress himself in a scant semblance of respectability.

Leighton and Laura were compromised.

"Leighton." She pushed at him. "Let go of me!"

"Keefe," he reminded her, and brushed her hair away from her face. "You banged your forehead."

She touched it and brought her hand away, expecting by his concern to see blood. There was nothing,
and it ached only a little. "It's fine. I'm fine. You've got toó"

The pounding boots reached the doorway, and a brisk male voice called, "Sir!" A young man Laura recognized from Leighton's London office skidded into the room, pistol raised. He stopped cold at the sight of the naked Earl of Hamilton crouched on the floor with a woman in his arms. "Sir?" The gun wavered.

"Everything's first rate, Robinson," Leighton said. "Put your firearm away."

Someone bumped Robinson in the back, and he stumbled forward.

A boy of perhaps thirteen looked around, spotted Laura, and pointed. "It's her. She's the one who sent me."

"Did you go get help, Franklin?" Leighton asked.

Franklin clenched his skinny fists and placed them on his hips. "Yes, m'lord, the woman told me to."

"You're a good man."

Leighton's praise made the tall lad flush with pleasure.

Propelled by the crowd behind him, Robinson moved farther into the room. At least half a dozen men with firearms clustered around him. Laura had seen them all at one time or another in Leighton's anterooms. She had despised them, thinking these respectable men had turned to crime for the promise
of wealth. Now, she realized, they were part of Leighton's government operation, catching spies to maintain England's integrity during the war. They all stared, first at Leighton and Laura, then at Ernest and Farley, openly betraying their bewilderment.

"What is going on here?" Robinson demanded.

Ernest stood and dragged Farley off the floor. "Here's yer villain. Ye'd best take him before he bleeds
to death."

Obviously the man in charge, Robinson didn't seem to be able to grasp the situation. "That's not Jean,"
he protested, "that's Farley."

"Your scornful tone explains very well how Farley has been successful in his disguise," Leighton said.

The men murmured while Robinson considered. At last, in a tone that pleaded for credence, he asked, "That's Jean?"

The men all looked to Leighton for acknowledgment, and Leighton nodded. "That, my friends, is our spy."

"Oafs." Farley lunged for Robinson and succeeded only in falling to one knee.

Examining him with all the fascination of a boy with a frog, Robinson asked, "What's wrong with him?"

Ernest grabbed Farley by the hair and twisted his head back. "M'lady shot him."

"My ... lady?" Robinson asked.

"The Countess of Hamilton." Ernest pointed. "There."

Laura moaned. When she'd told her little fib, she'd never thought it would spread so far and provide
her with such embarrassment.

"That's not the Countess of Hamilton," Franklin said loudly.

Ernest puffed up like a blowfish. "It is too, ye stupid boy."

Leighton said nothing, but when Laura strove to sit up, Leighton clutched her more tightly and admonished, "You need to be put to bed."

Laura glanced up to see a dozen astonished eyes turned in her direction, and she stopped struggling
and hid her face in Leighton's chest.

No doubt just what he planned, for he said, "As you can see, my lady and I require privacy."

"M'lady?" Franklin's round eyes got rounder. "Tell me it ain't so, m'lord. Tell me ye never got married."

Leighton ignored him. "Robinson, if you and the men would take Farleyó"

"Ah." Robinson stood as if paralyzed. "Yes, sir."

"Robinson?"

Leighton's voice sounded polite, but Laura looked up in time to see the faint smile which curled his lips. She wanted to hit him, but his reminder seemed effective, for Robinson leaped toward Farley. The other men surrounded the now-helpless spy.

"Franklin." Leighton winked at the boy and nodded toward the men as they hustled Farley out of the room. "Aren't you going to help them?"

"Yes, m'lord." Franklin backed out of the room, his gaze still fixed on Leighton and Laura. Pausing at
the door, he shook his head sadly. "I still can't believe ye're married."

Leighton only smiled. "You'll have to imagine the wedding ceremony. I did." Raising his voice, he called, "Robinson?"

Robinson popped back into the doorway. "Sir?"

"You know what to do with Farley?"

"We'll do our best to save his wretched life, sir, so he can be questioned. Then"óRobinson's mouth creased with satisfactionó"he'll dance the hemp jig."

"Good man." Leighton dismissed him, and Robinson took the disgusted-looking Franklin by the shoulder and urged him away.

Now Ernest stood alone in the middle of the room and tried to smile. Leighton frowned back at him,
and Ernest wilted. "M'lord, I just want to say that I never knew he was anything but a smuggler."

"I know, Ernest." Leighton clutched at Laura as she again struggled to scoot away. He whispered,
"You're the only thing keeping me decent."

Bustling over to the fire, Ernest knelt beside it and built it up. "If ye can see yer way clear not to arrest me, I swear I'll not have further dealings with spies."

"Nor smugglers," Leighton said.

Ernest sighed. "Nor smugglers." He brightened. "I've built up my stock of brandy, anyway." Seeing the bottle of wine sitting on the table, he walked to it and, using the corkscrew he kept at his belt, opened it. Taking two cups out of his pockets, he set them beside the bottle, then stepped back with a flourish.
"I'll leave ye, then, m'lord and m'lady, to finish yer honeymonth."

With a start, Laura realized she was about to be left alone with a very naked, possibly vengeful Leighton. He wasn't the wicked smuggler or the ruthless murderer, but when she looked closely she still saw the twitch of a tiger's whisker and the gleam of a tiger's sharp tooth.

She needed to get away. She needed to get out now. Trying to slide away from the clutch of his paws, she said, "I'll just leave with Ernest so you can dress."

His query jerked her to a halt. "In what?"

A vision of his clothing soaking in the mud ripped through her mind, and she said feebly, "Perhaps
Ernest can find something"óshe glanced toward the dooró"that you can wear." It was closed.

The room was empty except for a tiger and his prey.


CHAPTER 7



"He's gone!" Laura didn't know why she was surprised. Ernest showed a talent for disappearing just
when she needed him.

"He probably realized I would want to commend your bravery in private."

Again she tried to ease away from Leighton. This time he let her. Raising a brow, she inquired, "Commend?"

"You did save the life of one of His Majesty's most important agents."

"So I did." Perhaps getting away from Leighton hadn't been such a clever idea. True, it was a relief to escape his embrace, but now she had to look at him. All of him. Especially the part that towered over
her when he rose to his feet and stalked toward her.

"You captured a known spy," he said. "I don't even know why my men and I bothered to come to this event."

She backed toward the desk. "I don't think you're being fair."

"Fair? Why should I be fair?" He smiled at her with every evidence of courtesy, but she couldn't relate
his society civility with his naked body. It was amazing how large he appeared when stripped of his clothing. Much larger than when his shirt, breeches, and coat gave him bulk. Now she could clearly see the breadth of his shoulders, the ladder of his ribs, the muscles of his thighs.

His legs were longer than hers, too, but he didn't move more quickly than she did. If anything, he seemed to be enjoying the chase, taking care not to overcome her.

"Of course, you did need me." His mouth twisted. "I served you admirably as bait, did I not?"

"I did not tie you to the bed as bait."

"That's true." He nodded genially. "It was revenge, I think you said?"

The desk bumped her thighs and she grasped the edge with her hands. A sense of dejŗ vu overcame heróthey'd done this before. "Revenge seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Not now?"

"You're not tied, now."

"You are a very astute woman." He loomed over her and took her chin in one hand. "Did it never
occur to you I would, one day, be untied?"

"I didn't expect to be here when it happened."

"Bad planning, but I'm grateful." He tried to embrace her, but she shrieked and ducked under his arm.

Skittering toward the door, she tried it and wasn't surprised to find it locked. Ernest had proved himself quite handy with the key.

She turned, expecting to find Leighton behind her. Instead he was pouring wine into the cups and smiling genially. "You're nervous," he said.

"Have I reason to be?" Her tone was a challenge, but she retreated toward the fire.

"A woman as courageous as you should never be nervous. Wine?"

"I don't thinkó"

"After all, you threw yourself into danger to save my life." He walked toward her, still unashamedly
nude, and offered the cup.

At first she didn't want to accept it, but the need for some artificial fortitude overcame her. Taking the cup, she took one sip, then drained it in one long, cleansing swallow. Handing it back to the startled Leighton, she squared her shoulders. "I didn't do it for you, I did it for Ronald. You were just in the way."

"For Ronald only?"

"Anyway, I promise I will never rescue you again."

"I agree." He placed the cups on the floor. "You won't." He efficiently began to strip her of her clothes. "Because I'm going to tie you to the bed until you've learned better."

Now he allowed her to see beyond the cordial smile and play of hospitality. He was, she realized, truly aggravated with her. When she tried to struggle, he treated her like a two-year-old, overcoming her physical objections with plain, overbearing competence.

"This is not acceptable!" she exclaimed, trying to hold the hands that roamed over her so effectively.

"Having my wife step in front of a bullet is not acceptable either." He wrestled her out of her gown,
her petticoats, and her shift, and apparently decided he could leave the stockings and garters.

"All right! I'm sorry I told Ernest I was your wife. I didn't know you'd ever find out about it. I certainly didn't know you'd take unfair advantage of a woman traveling alone."

He chuckled. "Why not? You took unfair advantage of me."

"I most certainly did not!"

Swinging her into his arms, he said, "It's quite unlike you not to take responsibility where you should."

She wanted to answer him tartly, but in the place where their flesh met, she experienced a sensation
not unlike the one she'd discovered earlier in the evening. Horrified, she muttered, "You've imprinted
yourself on me."

"What?"

"I said"óshe tried to regain control of herself, at leastó"I admit I'm responsible for coming here and trying to find Ronald's killer, and I admit I'm responsible for telling Ernest I was your bride, but of what crime can you accuse me?"

He dropped her on the bed and the feather mattress poufed up around her. Leaning over, he trapped
her between his arms. "Of stealing my heart."

"Don't joke about these things."

Coming closer, and closer still, he touched her lips with his. It wasn't a kiss, not really. More of a suggestion, or a promise. With his lips still on hers, he said, "I'm not joking."

She wanted to ask for clarification, but as she told him, she was a coward.

When she didn't speak, he straightened and rubbed his hands together. "I've never done this before,
and you took all the ready material the first time. What shall I use to bind you?"

Bouncing up, she said, "Don't be ridiculous."

"Look at this." He lifted his scarf off the floor. "Lucky for me, you must have missed it when you
threw my clothes out the window."

"Lucky."

"Now lie back down again." He crawled onto the mattress to enforce his command. "And put your
hands up by the railing."

In frustration, she asked, "Are you always reduced to tying your mistresses?"

"Not my mistresses, no." He straddled her. "But I've never had a wife before. It would seem they're a little harder to subdue."

"I'm not your wife."

"You will be."

He looked quite serious as he lifted her hands to the rails over her head, and she realized that it wasn't that she thought he would dishonor her. It was that she objected to being a part of his obligations.
"You're doing this for Ronald."

His look of surprise lasted only until he looked her over, naked and waiting. "Believe me, your brother
is the last thing on my mind right now."

"I'll not be married out of duty. I'd rather be your mistress."

Throwing back his head, he laughed until she stung with embarrassment and wrestled away. "Whoa."
He caught her immediately and tried to regain a respectable amount of gravity. "That is an offer I will treasure. However, I won't marry you out of duty."

He fit the scarf over her wrists and tied them to the rail, and she stared at him in frustration.
"Then why?"

"Tug on your hands," he instructed.

She did as she was told. He'd managed to wrap that scarf around securely enough to keep her in place, yet gently enough the circulation still flowed.

He sighed with pleasure. "That's a relief. I'd hate to think you'd shot the spy and tied a better knot than
I. It would be such a blow to my ego."

He wasn't going to answer her. He wasn't going to tell her why he proposed marriage when he could
have her for so much less, and that made her think that it was duty, or his promise to Ronald, or some other stupid, manly honor thing that reduced her to an obligation and made a mockery of her love. She turned her face away.

He sighed, his breath a faint feather on her skin. "You'll never forgive me, will you?"

"For what?"

"For sending Ronald to his death."

"Oh." She shrugged. "That."

He paused, then complained, "You tie me naked to the bed and leave me for anyone to find in revenge for your brother's death, then you say, 'Oh, that'?"

She could almost have laughed at his disgruntled tone. Almost, if only he weren't pressed so close
against her, torturing her with what he offered and withholding so much. "If you'd only told me that
Jean was a spy for France, I would have understood. Once Ronald had a chance to work for England,
no one could have kept him from it."

"Ahh." He kissed her, a light comforting press of the lips on her cheek. "You knew him well."

"It's the curse of being a loyal soldier's child. We'll all fly into danger for Mother England." She mocked herself and her courage. "It was the thought of Ronald dying for something as trivial as French brandy that made me angry."

"If that was angry, I'd hate to see you furious." He tugged at the scarf. "Not even this would keep me safe, I suspect. So if it's not anger, what is it that keeps you from having me?"

Placing his hands on her wrists, he ran them down her arms. She didn't want to feel anything, but his caress made her squirm. "Laura," he called softly. Never lifting his hands, he smoothed them over her breasts, down her stomach, along her thighs to the garters at her knees. "I should take these off," he said. "But I like them. They remind me of you. You're lying here gloriously nude, exposed, trusting me enough to let me tie you, yet not trusting me enough to tell me your secrets. Yet I can tell you mine." Holding her lips, he laid on her, giving her his warmth. "I love you, Laura Haver."

Startled by his words, his fervency, his need, she turned her face to him and stared.

"You're going to marry me because I'm not going to give you a choice. I've compromised you in front
of my men and in front of Ernest."

She wiggled, wanting to grab him by the ears and make him talk. "Never mind the compromising. What about the love?"

"I can't 'never mind' the compromising. My grandmother knows everything that goes on on this estate, and when she hears about this, she'll take a switch to me. You, too, if you won't marry me."

"Love?" she urged.

"You'll learn to love me." He kissed her cheek, then nuzzled the place behind her ear. "You already like to make love with me, I could tell, and that'll just get better and better." His hands stroked a long, slow line from her hips to her throat. "Say you'll marry me, and I'll demonstrate."

Something like a shiver slid up her spine. "If I don't?"

"I'll demonstrate anyway." He kissed one breast, then grinned at her wickedly. "I'll demonstrate to you the same way you demonstrated to me ... earlier."

He'd make her want him, then leave her unsatisfied. Her eyes widened as she heard his purr of amusement. No wonder she had seen sparks of the tiger in him. Beneath that placid facade hid a man determined to have his own way and ruthless enough to do anything to get it.

Well, she wanted her own way, too, "I'll marry you," she said.

Taking her nipple between two fingers, he rolled it. "Why?"

Pressure sprang up between her legs, and she pressed her hips toward him to relieve it. But he moved away, still touching her, and she mumbled, "I love you."

His eyelids drooped, then he fixed her with his inter-rogational gaze. "What?"

Louder, she said, "I love you."

"Truly?"

"I love you truly."

He looked at her carefully, not quite believing her, and she lifted her head and kissed him. Kissed him with her lips and tongue and with the force of her passion.

When she finished, the grave shadow had gone from his eyes and they gleamed with gratification and
a wicked touch of elation. "I love you truly, too," he said.

"I believe you." She shifted impatiently. "Now untie me."

Peeling himself off of her, he looked her over from her stockinged feet to her wriggling hands. "No."

Indignant, she struggled to sit up. "You promisedó"

Licking his thumb, he circled her navel until the damp brought a chill to her skin. Observing the goosebumps that covered her, he grinned into her face.

He hadn't promised to untie her, she realized. He'd only promised to withhold satisfaction if she didn't marry him. Rubbing his cheek on her stomach, he moistened her skin with his tongue.

"Leighton." She used her fiercest voice, but he paid no attention. He only slipped farther down her
body and wrapped one arm around each one of her thighs. "Leighton!"

He corrected her, "Keefe," and dipped his head between her legs.

She shrieked his name. "Keefe!"

Lifting his head, he said, "You can make as much noise as you wish." Then he nuzzled deep in the cleft between her legs. "No one interferes between a man and his wife."

"I can make a lot of noise," she snapped. Looking down she could see only the forehead and eyebrows. His tongue licked at her in the first sharp, glorious step to gratification. Leaning back, her mouth curled
in the anticipation of satisfaction. "But the door is locked, so we won't have to worry."