«Marry you, elf?» Wolfe Lonetree laughed aloud as he twirled her across the dance floor. «Don’t be ridiculous. What would ahalfbreed mustang hunter do with an English aristocrat?»
«I’m Scots, not English,» Jessica Charteris said automatically.
«I know.» Wolfe smiled the way he used to years before, when he had tweaked her long braids to tease her. «You still rise to the bait just like a hungry trout.»
Concealing the urgency and fear that lay beneath her flirtatious exterior, Jessica tilted back her head and smiled up at Wolfe.
«It would be a perfect union,» she said coaxingly. «You have no need of heirs because you have neither lands nor titles to pass on. I have neither need of money nor desire for the marriage bed. We both enjoy silence and conversation together. We like to ride, to hunt, and to read in front of a fire. What more could be asked of a marriage?»
Wolfe’s delighted laughter drew more than one glance from the titled lords and ladies who graced Jessica’s twentieth birthday party. Wolfe ignored both the looks and the aristocratic company. The man they called the viscount’s savage had learned long ago that his place was in America, not in England with its titles and cold disdain of his illegitimate birth.
As Wolfe repeated the words again he shook his head, delighting in the company of the sprite whose hair was an auburn so deep that only direct sunlight revealed its hidden fire.
«Ah, elf, I’ve missed your quickness and mischief. I’ve laughed more in the few minutes I’ve been here than in the years without you. I’ll tell Lord Robert to bring you with him on his next hunting trip. Or perhaps your future husband is a sportsman. Lord Gore, is that his name? I have yet to meet your fiance. Is he here tonight?»
Fear made Jessica miss a step in the smooth waltz. Wolfe caught her and set her right with the same casual grace as he did everything.
«Forgive me,» he murmured. «I’m clumsy tonight.»
«You’re like a great dark cat, and you know it as well as I. It was my clumsiness, not yours.»
Though Jessica’s voice was light, Wolfe sensed something just beneath her glittering surface. He watched her with dark eyes as they waltzed, hardly able to credit what he was seeing. Gone was the thin child with ice-blue eyes, burning red hair, and quick laughter. In her place was a stunning young woman who had an uncomfortable effect on his senses, an effect he had refused to acknowledge for years.
«A clumsy elf?» Wolfe asked. «Not possible, little one. Like a marriage between ahalfbreed bastard and the Lady Jessica Charteris.» He grinned, showing strong white teeth against the darkness of his skin. «What a lively mind you have. I must compliment you on your wit.»
Jessica stumbled again, and again was caught by the easy strength of the man who was holding her within the civilized confines of the waltz. Yet even on the dance floor, Wolfe’s power was apparent. She had always thought of his strength as a refuge, even when she hadn’t been able to see him for years on end. She had lived on her memories, on the knowledge that there was one place on earth of refuge for her. Believing that had kept her from panic when her guardian insisted on the marriage to Lord Gore.
But now Wolfe’s refuge no longer seemed available to Jessica, leaving her fighting for her life. Alone.
Dear God, what will I do? Wolfe must agree to the marriage! How can 1 convince him?
«Your fingers are cold, Jessi.» Wolfe frowned. «You’re trembling. Are you ill?»
The concern in Wolfe’s expression and voice gave Jessica hope once more. He did care for her. She could see it in his unusual eyes, neither black nor yet blue, the color of deep twilight or sapphires in candlelight. She smiled with relief, not knowing how her smile lit her delicate face.
«‘Tisbut excitement at seeing you, Wolfe. When you didn’t answer Lady Victoria’s letter, I was afraid you had forgotten me.»
«How could I forget the redheaded elf who plagued me by sewing my sleeves shut so neatly that the stitches didn’t show? The elf who switched salt for sugar and laughed with such delight at the faces I made? The elf who hid in a haystack during a storm until I found her and promised to hold the thunder at bay?»
«Which you did quite well.» Unwittingly, Jessica moved closer to Wolfe as she had in the past, seeking the reassuring warmth of his body, the shelter of his strength. «Quite well indeed.»
«A matter of timing rather than control over the elements,» Wolfe said dryly, easing Jessica away from his body. «The storm was spent.»
«I called you Talks Back To Thunder for weeks afterward.»
«And I called you Hay Maiden.»
Jessica’s silver laughter drew approving glances from nearby dancers.
«Your laugh would make a stone smile,» Wolfe said.
«I have missed you, my Lord Wolfe. Surely you did not have to absent yourself for so long. The duchess’ heart healed within the half-year. You could have returned.»
«I’m not a lord. I’m the viscount’s savage, the bastard son of a Cheyenne woman and Lord Robert Stewart, Viscount of —»
Jessica’s small hand covered Wolfe’s mouth, cutting off his words. The gesture was as old as her understanding that his lack of legitimate birth laid him open to the same caustic thrusts from the English aristocracy that Jessica’s commoner mother and titled Scots father did.
«I won’t have you belittle my very best friend,» Jessica said firmly. «Elves have magical abilities. Youaremy Lord Wolfe. If you will save me from the ice storm outside, I will save you from the lecherous duchesses inside.»
Smiling, Wolfe looked over Jessica’s carefully coiffed head to the black night beyond Lord Stewart’s windows. Sleet gleamed dully with reflected light.
«You’re right,» he said. «It’s storming. It wasn’t when I stepped off the ship.»
«I always know when it’s storming,» Jessica said. «I used to watch the storms rake across the firth and count the seconds until they reached the house.»
Wolfe sensed rather than felt her repressed shudder. His eyes narrowed as he looked down at the young woman who clung just a bit too tightly to him. Yet she wasn’t putting out any of the signals of a woman looking for a lover.
«Were you always afraid of storms?» he asked.
«I don’t remember.»
The lack of music in Jessica’s voice startled Wolfe. He had forgotten that she spoke rarely, if ever, of the nine years before the Earl ofGlenshire died and she became the ward of a distant cousin whom she had never met.
«Odd that you don’t remember.»
«Do you remember your boyhood among the Cheyenne?»
«The smell of a certain kind of wood smoke, the leap of a campfire against the night, chants and dances meant to call spirits…yes, I remember.»
«I bow to your superior memory.» Jessica smiled and glanced up through her lashes as she had been schooled to do by Lady Victoria. «Could we dance farther from the garden window? The draft is quite cool.»
Wolfe glanced at the graceful curve of Jessica’s neck and shoulders and the more intimate curves of breasts whose upper swell was barely sheathed in ice-blue silk. A smooth gold locket lay in the shadowed cleft between her breasts. He had given her that bit of jewelry just before he went to America to remove the Stewart family from the cuckolded duke’s wrath. Wolfe wondered if she carried her fiance’s picture in the locket.
Then Jessica took a breath and Wolfe’s eyes moved from the gold jewelry to the fine skin beneath it. It reminded him of warm cream. The scent of her was a rose garden beneath a summer sun, and her mouth was a pink bud from that same garden. She rested in his arms as lightly as a sigh.
She was a child eleven years younger than he was, and she was making him burn.
«If you’re chilly, Lady Jessica, next time wear a gown that covers more of your flesh.»
The coolness in Wolfe’s voice startled Jessica. He called her Lady Jessica only when he was angry with her. Perplexed, she looked down at the modest decolletage of her gown. No other woman in the room was so well-covered.
«What are you talking about, Wolfe? Lady Victoria was quite put out by the lines of my gown.»
«A rare show of good sense on her part,» he retorted.
Jessica laughed. «You mistook me. She wanted the neckline lowered, the waist drawn tight, and a much greater girth of crinoline. I preferred the French fashion, which lacks all those bothersome crinolines.»
Wolfe remembered Jessica running toward him when she first spotted him across the room. He had seen quite clearly the feminine curve of hip and thigh beneath the filmy cloth. It had been an unwelcome reminder that his elf was grown…and soon to become a lord’s wife.
«I didn’t want a huge weight of petticoats or pearls or diamonds,» Jessica continued. «Lady Victoria thought the dress and the jewelry too plain. She said I looked like a stick fetched by one of the hounds.»
«A stick,» muttered Wolfe, looking at the velvet shadow that lay between Jessica’s young breasts. «Your guardian is in need of spectacles.»
If another man had looked at Jessica in that way, she would have found an excuse to end the dance. But Wolfe was different. He was a man with no title, no need for heirs; he was not looking for a brood sow for his get.
Wind bellowed and hail scattered like shot across the glass. Shuddering with a fear whose source she remembered only in dreams and forgot before waking, Jessica tried to get closer to Wolfe. Even the reduced skirts of her modern ball gown prevented it. She stumbled for a third time, and again was caught by hands that were both powerful and gentle.
Around her the final strains of the waltz swirled, wrapping the room in music. It was almost midnight.
So little time left.
«Jessi, you’re shaking. What’s wrong? I thought you outgrew your fear of storms when you were ten.»
«Only because I knew you would protect me.»
«You survived quite well while I was gone,» Wolfe said dryly.
«Only because I knew you would come back. And you did.» Jessica looked up at Wolfe with a plea that was all the greater for its lack of artifice. «You must marry me, WolfeLonetree. Without you, I am lost.»
At first he thought she was teasing him again; then he realized that she meant every word. Automatically, he executed a graceful turn and released Jessica as the music ceased. She clung to his hand as she had at the end of their first dance only a few minutes before.
«Elf, you must let go of me,» Wolfe said quietly, looking down into the face that had become so unexpectedly, dangerously beautiful to him. «I’m not a lord and you are no longer a child. You are a lady of the realm whose engagement will soon be announced. One dance with the viscount’s savage will be tolerated. Two will elicit comments. Three will cause a scandal. We have danced twice. We will not do so again.»
«Wolfe,» she whispered.
It was too late. He bowed over her hand and turned away.
With eyes darkened by fear, Jessica watched Wolfe walk away. No matter how great the crush of people, he was easy to find. It was not his height, though he was taller than many men. Nor was it his looks, though he was undoubtedly handsome with his straight black hair, dark skin, and remote indigo eyes. What set Wolfe apart was his way of moving, a combination of strength and unconscious grace. He was a man thoroughly at home within his body in the way a hunting cat is at home within its own body.
Jessica needed that masculine strength, that self-assurance. The prospect of Wolfe’s return was all that had kept her from screaming as the net of circumstance and custom had drawn more tightly around her each day. Somehow she had to make Wolfe understand her need. She had made no joke when she proposed marriage to him. Far from it. She had never been more serious in all her twenty years.
A gust of wind moaned outside Lord Robert Stewart’s London house and rattled windowpanes. Winter was coming to an end but spring had not yet fully arrived, and now the seasons were fighting for supremacy, shaking the puny stone cities of man in their battle. Jessica’s heart squeezed with fear as the wind’s voice became a sustained, soul less howling that threatened her composure. Automatically, her hand went to the locket that held Wolfe’s likeness inside.
I’m safe. Wolfe won’t let me be hurt. I’m safe. Whatever stalks the storms can’t get to me.
The feel of the locket and the silent litany had soothed Jessica during the years when Wolfe had been exiled to America. Now he had come back…yet she felt more alone than she had ever felt since he had plucked her from her fragrant hiding place in the hay and held the storm at bay by calling to the thunder in the words of his Cheyenne mother.
Jessica laced her fingers together, concealing their trembling, but there was nothing she could do to conceal the pallor of her skin or the bleak desperation in her eyes.
«Come, is that a face with which to celebrate your birthday and your engagement to be married?» Lady Victoria asked in a voice that was as gentle as her eyes were shrewd.
«I want never to marry.»
Victoria sighed and caught one of Jessica’s cold hands between her own. «I know, sweet, I know. I kept your wishes in mind when I chose your husband. You will not be burdened by Lord Gore for long. He is old andoverfond of port. In a handful of years he will die. Then you will be a wealthy widow with your whole life in front of you.» She smiled thinly. «If you wish to be as scandalous as a French duchess, you may.»
«I would die before I let a man rut upon me.»
Rueful laughter was Victoria’s only reply. «Ah, Jessica. You should have been born to a staunch Catholic family and sent to a nunnery, but you were not. You are the only offspring of a Scots Protestant highland lass and a lowland earl. The title and lands passed elsewhere, leaving you no wealth of your own. You must marry. Lord Gore, whatever his drawbacks as a gentleman, has enough wealth to keep the Queen herself in luxury.»
«So you have told me. Often.»
«In the hope that someday you will listen,» retorted Victoria.
«In America slaves have been freed. Would that we in England treated our women so tenderly!»
A soft hand closed around Jessica’s chin. «Stubborn little Scots lass,» Victoria said. «But in this I am more stubborn even than you. You have enjoyed the perquisites of aristocracy. A common woman your age would have been tumbled and set to breeding years ago by the first lout who got beneath her skirts.»
Jessica’s mouth flattened.
«You were protected by my second husband and raised as gently as though you were a child of his own loins,» Victoria continued, her voice cool and relentless. «You were educated in managing a great house and a great fortune. Despite that dreadful American maid whom you imitate, you were taught to speak proper English and to be a proper lady. Now you must repay the generosity of your upbringing by producing an heir who will forever bind together the fortunes of the Viscount’s family and the wealth of Baronet Gore’s shipping empire.»