Authors: Kasey Michaels
"I hesitate to disturb you, as you were probably already half dozing over that book you chose, but I believe I might have found something that would be of more interest. May I come in?"
Eleanor nervously wet her lips, then nodded, stepped back so that he could push open the door and enter her bedchamber. He now had on a white, open-necked shirt beneath his banyan, and she wondered, just for a moment, if she should be flattered that he'd tried to make himself more decent for her, or lament that she could no longer see his bare chest.
Dear Lord. She'd never expected to see a man in any bedchamber she inhabited, not in her entire lifetime.
Stop it, stop it! Stop thinking like that!
She stopped thinking entirely when Jack held out the "something of more interest," and she saw it to be the journal she'd been reading downstairs. Then he held out his other hand, palm up, and there was the silver marker, the damning marker.
Eleanor lifted her gaze to him. May as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, as the ruthlessly practical Jacko always said. "You maintain very orderly records. But I might suggest the benefits of keeping them under lock and key."
She hadn't even blinked. Jack had thought she'd pretend ignorance of what he was showing her, deny what she'd done.
But not little Eleanor Becket. Not the large-eyed fawn with the spine of Toledo steel. He should have known better.
He slipped the marker between the pages and put the journal down on a nearby table. "You're probably right, and your honesty in the face of discovery is commendable," he said carefully. Then he turned to look at her, his eyes narrowed in that way he had, and probably didn't know he had—but that Eleanor found particularly unnerving. "Now, do you want to tell me what in the hell you were looking for?"
Eleanor refused to back down. But she didn't consider herself brave, only practical. After all, she had nowhere to go.
"It is important for us to know who we deal with, especially at the moment. You live very well, Jack."
"Ah, now I understand. You think I've been keeping more of the profits than I report to Ainsley? Is that really why you're here?" Then he shook his head. "No, Ainsley wouldn't do that. If he had any questions about my honesty, he'd have Jacko ask them for him."
"You make Jacko sound like a terrible man. A brute."
One side of Jack's mouth lifted in a rueful smile. "I'm wrong?"
Explaining Jacko wasn't Eleanor's priority. She really wished she knew what was, but she'd examine that later. For now, she knew she couldn't betray any weakness. Papa had told her that years ago:
always deceive with confidence.
"I apologize for looking through your desk."
"And it won't happen again? You won't decide listening at keyholes is a grand idea? You won't sneak a peek at my mail, or send someone to follow me when I'm going about in the city?"
Eleanor didn't know quite where to look, so she continued to look straight at him. "Now you're being facetious. I apologized."
"But with no promise to mend your ways." Jack stepped closer to her. "Why, Elly, I do think I've just been warned."
"No! That is...oh, go away. I did a stupid thing, and I'm sorry."
"Ah, that's better. Except, I think, for the part where you were backing up just now, as if I was going to bite off your head. I've given this some thought. We don't look very married, little one. Not if you're going to flinch every time I'm near you."
"You're in my bedchamber, Jack. What sort of behavior were you expecting of me?"
Well, that stopped him. Her words, and the way she stood there, her spine so straight, looking at him with those huge brown eyes. What
he expect from her? What did he expect from himself?
He knew what he
expected. He hadn't expected to be interested in this quiet female who apparently had depths he'd never considered. He hadn't expected to be so curious as to what went on behind those wide, seemingly frank, ingenuous brown eyes. He hadn't expected to feel quite so protective of her, or so attracted to her.
And now, once more, and knowing it, damn her, he was going to rush to fill the silence. And fill it by saying something he'd probably regret. "You're free to look at anything in my desk. Anything. You're free to ask me any questions, and I'll do my best to answer those questions. You're Ainsley's daughter, and I consider you to be his agent here and, in some twisted way, my partner."
Now he fell silent, waiting for her to fill that silence with a similar promise of her own.
He may as well have been waiting for Hades to freeze over.
At last she said thank you, and then inclined her head toward the door, which was as close as a refined young lady probably could get to "Now take yourself off, you bugger!"
"Eleanor," she corrected. She had enough on her plate. She might as well be truthful on this one small thing. "I'd much prefer you to address me as Eleanor, if you don't mind."
That was as good as a slap to the face. She'd said her family called her Elly. He was back to being an outsider. "Certainly.. .Eleanor. I didn't wish to presume a familiarity you might not like."
"No, that isn't what I—that is, we are supposedly husband and wife."
"And newly married, too," Jack said, happy to have the conversation steered back to territory that seemed to discommode her more than it did him. Not that he could recall a time when he'd been nervous around a female.
"Yes, and newly married, as well. We should discuss that, just so that our stories match. Where we met, for one. I'd prefer you did not mention Becket Hall."
Jack nodded. 'That makes sense. If I'm exposed, you can disappear. And with no one knowing about Becket Hall or those who live there. So, wife, where did we meet?"
Eleanor was becoming more uncomfortable by the moment. "I'm merely being careful, Jack. No one has to know that I am a Becket at all, that Morgan is my sister. Ethan was careful to keep any of that out of his letter to Lady Beresford."
"You read it?"
"Certainly. Didn't you? As I said, we need to keep our stories consistent."
Jack was beginning to think he was in the presence of a master. That his days as courier and spy had been relegated to amateurish at best. Why, he should be surprised to still be alive, and not have been long since put up against some French wall and shot.
"Do you have a plan?" he asked when yet another silence yawned between them, a silence he'd have to fill sooner or later anyway.
"I do, yes. Sussex is too close, too easily checked for the truth. Your story for Mr. Phelps, as I remember it, is that you have an estate somewhere in the West Indies and are only visiting here, correct? I should say that we met there, in Jamaica to be more precise, and that I am the child of a moderately wealthy landowner there."
"Splendid. Then you came to me with a considerable dowry? That should please our gentlemen. Yes," Jack said, beginning to pace the carpet. "That would work well. I've run through my fortune, and now I want to purloin my wife's fat dowry and use it to invest in something that will very quickly make me very rich, put my near-bankrupt Jamaican plantation to rights." He turned to smile at Eleanor. "You should write novels."
Eleanor twined her fingers together at her waist. "Yes, thank you. This also negates any necessity for ours to be seen as a love match."
"In other words, I'm to be cast in the role of unmitigated cad. Charming. You know, woman, when you eventually disappear the world will think I've buried you under a rosebush. Or haven't you thought of that? Ah, by the look on your face, I can see you haven't. Then it's settled. Ours is also a love match. We have Ethan's reputation to consider here, too, remember, as he's the one who has ostensibly introduced me to the
Eleanor, who now knew the full story of Morgan's titled husband and his unconventional parents, smiled at this. "I don't think Ethan is overly concerned about that, Jack."
Why this one point was becoming so important to him, Jack didn't know, didn't want to know. But, damn it, he couldn't spend the next weeks squiring about a woman who cared less for him than she did the dirt beneath her feet. It was just unnatural, that's what it was.
"I think I must nevertheless insist. I want a love match. The appearance of a love match."
Eleanor knew when a battle wasn't worth the fight. Besides, what difference would it make, as they'd both know they were playacting? "For the sake of your male pride, yes, I understand. My brother Spencer would probably feel much the same way. Even if, as you may recall saying, we never set foot in society at all. Very well. If we are in company, any company at all, I hereby promise to make mooncalf eyes at you at every opportunity."
He longed to shake her, shake away some of that quiet reserve that, he felt increasingly sure, hid a whole other Eleanor Becket. The real Eleanor Becket.
"Sarcasm to one side, I accept," Jack told her. He retrieved his journal, then approached Eleanor once more... and she stepped one step backward once more. "And
will have to stop. We have to practice." He reached for her hand, lifted it to within inches of his mouth. "No flinching now, Eleanor, I'm not going to bite."
She stood very still as he bent over her hand, pressing his lips to her skin for one brief moment that nearly turned her knees to water. She'd rarely had her hand bent over, let alone kissed, so she didn't know if her reaction to the act was usual. But she didn't think so.
Still bent over her hand, he lifted his head to smile at her. "See? Completely painless. I will do this from time to time, as a man does."
It was time to put a halt to this exercise before the man suggested he kiss her cheek, just to make sure she wouldn't scream in maidenly fright. "Claiming his woman, yes. Every animal marks its territory in one way or another."
He narrowed those intense green eyes as he looked at her as if she'd just spoken to him in some unknown language. "You are a piece of work, Eleanor Becket."
"Eleanor Eastwood," she corrected, wondering when on earth her common sense would wake up from its nap and stop her from saying anything else ridiculous. Now was
the time to correct the man. Not when he was standing so close to her. Not when he was still holding her hand.
"Eleanor Eastwood. Alliterative, almost rolls off the tongue. And now, wife, good night."
Before she could pull her hand away he lifted it once more, this time turning her hand so that he could press his lips against her palm. For an instant only, he lightly slid the tip of his tongue against her skin before letting her go.
Because he was not a nice man.
He liked the way her eyes grew wide for a moment before she carefully composed her expression—that mix of strength and vulnerability that had begun to tease at him almost unmercifully. He smiled at the way she drew her hand close against her midriff, her fingers curled around the palm he'd kissed.
It wasn't until he was back in his own bedchamber that he began to wonder what in hell was happening. Not just to the mission they'd undertaken, but to him, personally. That little wisp of a woman, seemingly without humor, without much in the way of emotions, had begun to creep beneath his skin, into his consciousness. And he didn't like that. He didn't like that at all.
"Something stuck in your craw, Jack?" Cluny asked from his seat beside the fire.
Jack turned to look at his friend. "Strange, but I seem to remember this pile being large enough for you to have your own bedchamber."
"And that's true enough," Cluny said, leaning his head back against the soft leather. "So? I heard voices through the connecting door. Couldn't hear what you were saying, much as I tried, no shame to me, but I heard the voices. You two settle anything between you?"
Jack stripped off the shirt he'd donned before confronting Eleanor in her bedchamber and slipped his arms back into the silk banyan. Then he said out loud what he'd suddenly realized. "She's frightened out of her mind, Cluny, and probably second-guessing why she's here at all."
"Ah, there's a pity. So you'll be sending her off home, then?"
Jack sat himself down, picked up the snifter of brandy he'd left warming by the fire. "No. I don't think I could blast her out of here with cannon fire."
"Would that be a fact? Scared, but standing her ground. Well, you know what that is, my friend, don't you? That's courage."
Jack looked toward the door that connected his chamber to Eleanor's. "Is that it? Is that why I'm... intrigued by her?"
Cluny laughed into his own snifter, a hollow sound. "Lord love you, no. I seen her from the top of the stairs when Treacle was taking her down the line, introducing the staff just like they do in fine houses, or so I'm told. Face of an angel she's got, and a fine, fine figure for such a small dab. Courage? Who looks to a pretty woman with an eye out to see courage?"
"Or, Cluny, who looks to courage and expects to see a pretty woman," Jack murmured quietly. "We'd better get this right, old friend, or Miss Becket in there will be very disappointed."
Then he sat and looked at the door for a long time, picturing Eleanor untying the bows on her dressing gown, climbing into the turned-down four-poster bed, looking small and vulnerable as she lay half-swallowed by the pillows and coverlet.
She barely came up to the top of his chest. He was a tall man, he knew that, taller than most men, but even taking that into consideration, Eleanor Becket was a small woman. He was certain he could easily span her waist with his hands, yet there was no denying her womanly shape. A small bit of perfection he'd actually not noticed during his visits to Becket Hall.
Now she filled his head, and he couldn't seem to get her out again, even knowing he had to concentrate on his plans for bringing down these three men and, more importantly, through them, finding the leader of the Red Men Gang.
Oh, yes, and then there was Richard.
He had to avenge what he was sure was the murder of his cousin. Why did he have to keep reminding himself of that part?