He captured her inquisitive hand and began toying with her fingers. Too late, she remembered to pull back. He wouldn’t let her. “You always try to hide your hands,” he said. “Why?”
She sighed. “They are not nice.”
He gently pried her fist back open. “What makes you say so?”
“The ink stains,” she muttered.
He kissed them. “Hardly blemishes.”
“And I have calluses,” she said, all at once strangely driven to point out her flaws to him.
“So do I,” he said.
Her gaze flew to his in surprise.
He spread the fingers of his right hand wide and pointed at a small bump near the top of his middle finger. “From holding the pen.” He placed her finger between his middle and ring finger. “From holding the reins.”
Watching their fingers stroke and entwine triggered a longing pull low in her belly again. She was greedy all right, especially where he was concerned.
“What about this?” She touched a hard spot in his palm.
“That is from the mallet.”
“Yes. A big hammer for driving fence posts into the ground.”
“And do you do that often, Your Grace, drive fence posts into the ground?”
The corners of his mouth twitched. “Often enough. Working on the land takes my mind off things.”
“That explains these,” she murmured, and traced her fingers over the curve of his biceps. It hardened reflexively under her perusal. She smiled, also because she was now entitled to touch him like this.
“Did you really give a man a nosebleed?” he asked. He had turned her hand over and studied the pink knuckles.
The smile faded from her lips. “Yes.”
She could feel the languor leaving his body.
“Why?” he asked.
“I suppose because the village lads I ran with as a girl didn’t teach me how to slap like a lady.”
He leaned over her, not a trace of humor in his eyes. “What did he do?”
She evaded his gaze. “He was . . . hurting a friend.”
Montgomery’s face set in harsh, unforgiving lines. “I see.”
“I won’t object if you dismantle the entire London Metropolitan Police,” she said softly, “but could it perhaps wait until tomorrow?”
Only when she dragged a wanton foot up his calf did his frown ease.
“Minx,” he muttered. He raised her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to her palm, then carefully returned it to her. “This is a very capable hand,” he said. “Don’t ever hide it.”
She made a fist, to keep his kiss. How could she ever have thought of him as cold and severe—he could be that, but she also couldn’t feel more charmed and cherished if she tried.
And yet. There were a few heartless things he had done that were facts, and not just opinions.
“Montgomery. May I ask you something?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Call me Sebastian.”
She hesitated. “Why?”
“It is my name.”
She knew. Sebastian Alexander Charles Avery, to be precise, followed by a lengthy array of grander and lesser titles. She had memorized it when she had first spied on him in the Annals of the Aristocracy. She was also fairly certain that only his oldest friends, and perhaps his wife, would ever call a man of his station by his Christian name.
“I’m afraid I don’t know you well enough for that,” she said.
An ironic smile curved his lips. “I have just been inside you. And I intend to do it again in about fifteen minutes’ time.”
She could feel her face turn rosy. “That’s different.”
“Hardly,” he said. “Indulge me. Then ask.”
She sighed. “Sebastian.”
His lashes lowered and he made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a purr.
“Sebastian,” she said huskily, just to see what he would do.
His eyes slitted open. “Am I amusing you?”
She giggled, she who never giggled. He slowly smiled back, crinkling the corners of his eyes and showing straight white teeth. Ah, but a smiling Sebastian was a devastating sight.
She almost regretted having to ask.
“Sebastian. Why did you divorce your wife?”
There was a clock in his bedchamber. She could hear it now, loudly and clearly tick-tocking away another minute of uncomfortable silence as Sebastian lay still as stone. Sharing his bed evidently did not entitle her to ask nosy questions.
“I hadn’t much choice in the matter,” he finally said. He was staring up at the bed canopy, looking thoughtful rather than annoyed. “Six months into our marriage, she ran away with another man. A baronet’s youngest son, of the estate that bordered her father’s. It turned out she had fancied herself in love with him since childhood. I found them in an inn on the way to France.”
“That’s dreadful,” she finally said.
He gave a shrug. “It is what it is.”
But the images came with startling clarity, of Sebastian taking a pair of creaky stairs, a distressed innkeeper hard on his heels . . . of him bursting into a dimly lit room to the shrieks of the terrified lovers . . .
“Why did you not . . .” Her throat became strangely tight.
Strong hands locked around her waist, and he pulled her on top of him. Her thoughts scattered at the feel of his hard, warm body beneath her. But his expression was pensive and wry; clearly lovemaking wasn’t on his mind.
“Why did I not shoot them when I found them?” he suggested.
She gave a tiny nod.
“Because it would not have been worth it, neither in this life nor the next.”
Oh, Sebastian. What did it take, to make him lose his head?
Her face warmed. Well, she now knew one thing that made him lose his head.
“Most men would not have thought that far,” she said. “Most wouldn’t have thought at all.”
He stroked her flanks, his palms pressing deliberately as if to draw comfort from the soft feel of her.
“I stood there at the foot of the bed, and they stared back at me with a look in their eyes that said they fully expected me to shoot them,” he said. “But in that moment, I felt nothing. Nothing at all. So I could weigh my options. I had them apprehended. I made it a condition that she move to Italy not to return. But I didn’t lay a finger on either of them. She always felt I had a heart of ice, and lucky for her, she was right.”
“No,” she said, “I cannot believe that about your heart. She sounds like a—a rather disloyal person.”
His roaming hands began to brazenly fondle her bottom.
“How fiercely you come to my rescue,” he murmured. “She was disloyal, yes, but most of all, she was an overemotional girl, and I should never have married her.”
“You must have loved her very much to propose,” she said, resenting how hollow she felt at the thought.
He shook his head. “I married her because my father had sold her father one of our estates, and the man knew how to play his hand. He wanted a duchess for a daughter, and I needed a wife, so acquiring one with my rather expensive estate thrown in as a dowry seemed efficient.”
“A strategic move, but it backfired.”
How calculating he made it sound. But that was how his class used marriage, didn’t they? To secure alliances that brought more of the same: money, power, land. For pleasure or love, a man might keep a mistress.
“I thought taking lovers was commonplace?”
His gaze darkened. “Not until there is an heir. Any boy child she would have conceived while married to me would have officially been mine, but short of incarcerating her in her chambers, there was no way I could have guaranteed that my heir would be my son. She had already proven that she was willing to risk everything. Besides . . .”
He fell into a brooding silence, but his body had gone tense beneath hers. She brushed her lips against his throat. When that didn’t help, she used her tongue.
He gave a soft grunt, and his member stirred against her belly. There was a responding flutter between her legs, and she sat up, straddling him, shifting aimlessly until he stayed her with a firm grip on her hips.
His cheeks were flushed as he stared up at her. “I didn’t see it. She either loathed me enough to risk everything to get away, or loved the boy more than anything. Either way, I had not expected it to happen.”
She was tempted to tell him that most husbands did not have to expect that their wives would run away to France, but there was more to it, wasn’t there.
She slid her palms over his hands on her hips and entwined her fingers with his.
“How do you ever trust anyone?” she whispered.
He moved unexpectedly, and she was on her back and he on top of her. She gave a startled wiggle. And found she could not move. The hard ridge of his arousal was pressing demandingly between her thighs, and her knees came up to cradle him on their own volition. She groaned. Yes, no morals or modesty when it came to him, none.
His eyes lit with a knowing gleam. “I pick my confidants carefully,” he said, “and when they look me in the eye, and are hopelessly incapable of keeping an opinion to themselves, I find myself inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.”