Later, he was pleased to see the Irishman again when the man entered Eddington’s guarded room with a decanter of brandy and two glasses. Truly, as far as prisons went, Lady Winter’s opulent home was the finest of them. His “cell” was decorated in shades of ivory and gold, with brown leather wingbacks before a marble-framed grate and a canopied bed covered in a golden floral embroidered silk counterpane.

“It is almost morning, my lord,” the Irishman said, “but I hoped you would share a nightcap with me.” His mouth curved wryly. “Lady Winter and St. John have already retired.”

“Of course.” Eddington studied the other man as he accepted the proffered glass from him. “You are the kept paramour I have heard whispered about.”

“Simon Quinn, at your service.”

Quinn settled into a wingback before the grate and held his glass in two hands, seeming not at all injured by his earlier activities. He glanced aside with a look that would chill boiling water. “Lest you think this is merely a social visit, my lord, I feel I should tell you bluntly that if Lady Winter’s sibling arrives with any injury at all, I will beat you to a bloody pulp.”

“Christ.” Eddington blinked. “You’ve put the fear of God into me.”

“Excellent.”

Eddington tossed back his drink. “Listen, Quinn. It appears your present occupation will be…eliminated.”

“Yes, it does appear so.”

“I have a proposition for you.”

Quinn’s brow raised.

“Hear me out,” Eddington said. “Once this matter with the sister is resolved, I will assume a position of some power. I could use a man of your talents, and working on this side of the law does have decided benefits.” He studied the Irishman to see how his proposal was being accepted.

“How are the wages?”

“Name your price.”

“Hmm…I’m listening.”

“Excellent. Now here are my thoughts…”


Chapter 23

“Once again, I find myself amazed with you,” Christopher murmured, his lips to Maria’s forehead as they reclined in her bed.

She snuggled closer, her nose pressed to his bare chest so she could breathe in the delicious scent of him. “I am amazing.”

He laughed. “How you managed after the deaths of your parents…All those years under Welton’s thumb…” His arms tightened. “We will go away after the wedding. Anywhere you like. Everywhere you like. We shall leave those memories behind and make new ones. Happy ones. All three of us, my love.”

“After the wedding?” She tilted her head back to look up at him. “A bit presumptuous, I would say.”

“Presumptuous?” Both of his brows rose up to his hairline. “You love me. I love you. We marry. That is not presumptive, it’s expected.”

“Oh? And when did you begin to do the expected?”

“When I unexpectedly fell in love with you.”

“Hmm.”

“What does that signify? That noise you made.” Christopher scowled. “That was not an affirmation.”

“And what is it that I am supposed to be affirming?” Maria hid her smile by looking away. The next she knew, she was flat on her back with an ardently piqued pirate and smuggler of renown looming over her.

“My marriage proposal.”

“I was not aware you made one. It was more of a declaration.”

“Maria.” He heaved an exasperated sigh. “Don’t you wish to wed me?”

Her hands came up to cup his face. To his credit, he was only distracted a moment by her bare breasts. “I adore you, as you well know. But I have been married twice. I think that is plenty enough for any woman.”

“How can you compare a union with me to what you experienced with them? A man who cared for you like a dear friend, and a man who used you merely for his own gratification?”

“Would you be happy in the wedded state, Christopher?” she asked, discarding pretense.

He stilled, his gaze intent. “You doubt it?”

“Did you not say that the only way out of your livelihood is death? Either yours or of those you love?”

“When did I-” His eyes widened. “By God, have you a spy in my midst?”

Maria smiled.

“Vixen,” he muttered, kneeing her legs open and settling his hips between them. “Yes, I said that. Perhaps it is selfish of me to ask you under those very real circumstances, but I have no choice. I cannot live without you.”

He reached between them, cupping her sex in his hand and stroking her. “Neither of us has made any effort to prevent conception,” he said softly, “and I am glad of that. The thought of you increasing with my child fills me with awe. Imagine how clever and industrious our issue will be.”

“Christopher…” Her eyes stung and her vision grew blurry, even as her body awakened to his touch, growing liquid with desire. “How would we ever manage such a mischievous lot?”

“Just the way we managed the lot last night.” Gripping his cock, he teased her creamy opening with the wide tip and then began to slip inside her. “Together.”

Her eyes slid closed as he filled her, her head falling to the side to expose her throat to his mouth. “And if something were to happen to me or our children,” she asked, “would you promise to hold yourself blameless? Or would you damn yourself forever?”

Christopher stilled, his cock a thick, throbbing presence within her. Something dark passed over his features, remembered pain and thoughts of more, perhaps.

“You could have left your life of crime long ago,” she murmured, her arms clasped around his back. “The life you embraced to save your brother, and in the end it was the death of him, yes?”

The shudder that moved through him shook her, too.

“And yet you stay,” she whispered, “caring for those who are loyal to you, seeing to their families when they pass on, providing a home and food on the table for many.”

“I am not a saint, Maria.”

“No. You are a fallen angel.” The comparison seemed even more apropos now, with his handsomeness offset by the blue satin lining of her canopy.

He growled. “There is nothing angelic about me.”

“My darling.” She lifted her head to press a kiss to his shoulder. “If we stay unwed, you will know that I stay with you because I wish to. Because I make that same wish every day, and you are not responsible for binding me to you.”

“Could you not make the wish to wed me and be done with it?”

She laughed and tugged him closer. He held back a moment, an immovable object unless he wished to be moved. Then he sighed and rolled over, taking her with him, keeping them joined. He reclined his golden head into the mass of pillows and gazed up at her.

“I am the bastard son of a nobleman,” he said with the uninflected tone she had come to realize meant that he was discussing something that disturbed him. “My mother was the unfortunate recipient of her employer’s lust until she had the temerity to start increasing. Then she was discharged from her position as scullery maid and sent back to the village in shame.”

“Your brother…?”

“Was legitimate. But I had the better circumstances. I was happy in the village. He was miserable in the manse. Our pater was half mad and viciously tempered. I think he raped my mother for the power of the act, not so much the physical release. Still, she loved me. The only affection Nigel ever knew was mine and his wife’s.”

“I am sorry.” Maria brushed the hair back from his forehead and then kissed him in the space between his brows.

“So you see, my love”-he caught up her hand and set it over his heart-“I wish to have children within wedlock. I wish to share a home and a life with you. I wish to share a façade of normalcy with you.”

“A façade?” She smiled.

“Will we ever be normal?”

“God forbid,” she said with mock graveness.

“You wound me,” he retorted. “Jesting at a time like this. I am laying my heart at your feet and you tease me.”

Maria lifted their joined hands and set them over her own heart. “Your heart is not at my feet, it is here, beating within my breast.”

Christopher kissed her fingertips, his dark blue eyes alight with love. “We can manage, I promise you that. My steward and Philip are capable of seeing to my affairs while we are away. Philip is the most recent addition to my lieutenants. There are several, and together they can effectively rub along without me.”

“Good heavens,” she breathed, blinking down at him. “Whatever will you do with yourself surrounded by an increasing wife and her soon-to-be-marriageable sister?”

“An increasing wife…” His voice was even raspier than usual. His hand cupped her nape and pulled her down, his lips pressing hard to hers. “I want that, damn it. I want it now. With you. I never thought I would. But I do, and I need you to give it to me. No other woman would be able to tame me. After all, how many notorious suspected murderesses are there?”

“I am not certain. I could investigate-”

He rolled again, pinning her beneath him and thrusting deep. She gasped in surprise, and he reared back and thrust harder.

“Have I mentioned lately,” she said with laughter in her voice and heart, “that aggressive behavior only makes me more obstinate?”

“Maddening, contrary wench!” he growled, punctuating each word with a lunge of his hips. Reaching down, he anchored her leg on his hip and fucked her with passionate, fervent abandon.

He moved with the precision of a man who not only knew how to give a woman pleasure, but who wanted to especially. Who made it the goal of the entire sexual encounter to please his partner. To please her. He watched her closely, picking up on all the ways she responded to him, and adjusted his exertions accordingly.

“You like that?” he murmured when she whimpered in pleasure. He repeated the movement exactly. “You know as well as I that you crave me. Crave the feel of me inside you, stretching that tight, delicious cunt. Imagine days and nights spent like this, your ripe little body fucked so well it is nearly too much to bear.”

“Ha! I can wear you into exhaustion.” She meant to scoff, but her voice sounded slurred by lust instead.

“Prove it,” he whispered darkly, pumping deep and true, filling the room with the liquid sounds of their sexual congress. “Marry me.”

Lost to the feel of him inside her, Maria writhed and whispered hot sex words in his ear, her nails digging into his clenching buttocks. He was wild, untamed despite his claims to the contrary, his desperation for her evident in the way he made love to her, as if he would never have enough. Would never get deep enough.

“Are you certain you wish to experience this level of agitation every day of your life?” she whispered before she bit his earlobe.

In retaliation, he plunged balls-deep into her and circled his hips, rubbing her clitoris with his pelvic bone, throwing her headlong into a pulsating climax.

“Christopher!” She shivered violently, her cunt milking his cock until he groaned and came, spurting inside her.

“I love you,” he gasped, clutching her so tightly she found it hard to breathe. “I love you.”

Maria wrapped him with her body, her heart pounding with her returning depth of affection for him. “I suppose I should marry you,” she breathed. “Who else would drive you insane?”

“No one else would dare. You are the only one.”

“And certainly no one could love you as much as I do.”

“Certainly not.” He nuzzled his damp head into her cheek, imprinting her with his scent. “I used to wonder why my pater had to be who he was, why my brother had to inherit destitution, why the only recourse I knew of led me to this life.”

“My love…” She knew well how he felt. Had she not asked herself similar questions every day?

“I knew the moment I held you in the theater, that you were the reason for everything. Every single turn my life has made led me to you. Were I not the man I am, the agency would never have approached me and I would not have found you, my soul mate. In fact, you are so like me, it is nearly frightening, yet you continue to surprise and astound me.”

“As you continue to surprise and astound me.” She walked her fingers up his spine and laughed when he squirmed. “I never thought you would wish to be married. I cannot picture it.”

“Then we will commission a portrait,” he said dryly. “Say yes, my darling Maria. Say yes.”

“Yes.”

He lifted his head and arched a brow. “Why do I feel as if that was too easily won?”

“Oh?” Maria batted her eyelashes at him. “I recant, then, and will proceed to resist you further.”

Christopher rumbled a warning and twitched inside her.

She grinned. “Do you collect that the more I frustrate you, the more sexually focused you become? It is quite delicious.”

“You will be the death of me.”

“I warned you.”

“You will pay.”

“Ooh…When do you intend to collect?”

“As soon as we can procure a wedding license and a priest.”

“I await your pleasure,” she purred.

As he deliberately flexed inside her, his smile was pure wickedness. “Well, then. You shan’t be waiting long.”

“Simon love.” Maria rose to her feet from her perch on the parlor settee and held out her hands.

Simon approached her with his slow, sultry stride, his smile deeply affectionate. Dressed in soft gray, he was understated, as usual, but dramatically attractive all the same. He caught up her hands and bent to kiss her cheek. “How are you faring?”

“Not so well,” she admitted, resuming her seat with him beside her. Christopher had returned to his home to change his garments and make arrangements for the advent of any news of Amelia. Maria waited at her residence, unwilling to leave in case she missed word sent to her here. She’d wanted to gather a team and venture out in search, but Christopher had begged her to allow him to manage that part of the affair and offered several excellent reasons why. In the end, she had relented, albeit reluctantly. “I cannot help but worry.”

“I know,” he soothed, stroking the back of her hand. “I wish I could be of more help.”

“Your presence alone is of great comfort to me.”

“Ah, but I am slightly de trop, yes?”

“Never. You will always have a place of prominence in my life.” Maria took a deep breath. “St. John has asked me to wed him.”

“Wise man.” Simon smiled. “I wish you great happiness. I know of no one who deserves it more than you.”

“You, too, deserve to be happy.”

“I am content, mhuirnín. Truly. At the present moment, my life is perfect.” Simon grinned and settled more comfortably in the brocade-covered seat. “So, tell me, how much time do I have before I must leave you?”

“You are not going anywhere. I want you to keep this house. You have happy memories here, yes?”

“The happiest of my life.”

Maria’s eyes stung, and she swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Once I have Amelia, we plan to go away. Travel. See all the places that were kept from me while I was in service to Welton. I hope the adventure will help rebuild the bond Amelia and I once shared.”

“I think that is a fine idea.”