Then you should call me Markis, Linus told her evenly, and it was a struggle for me not to smile. If Im understanding correctly.
I hadn't noticed any decline in the frequency of your attempts. John shot her a look which said he did not entirely appreciate her humor. All I'm saying is that I'm damned sick and tired of sharing you. Oh. Belle thought that was just about the sweetest thing she had ever heard. I just climbed up a tree, shimmied along an unsteady branch, and then vaulted through a window at an extremely unsafe height. All, might I add, with a bum leg, John said, pulling off his gloves and brushing himself off. Just to be alone with you. Belle swallowed as she stared at him, dimly registering the fact that he had actually referred to his injury without bitterness or despair. You wanted a romantic proposal, he continued. Believe me, I'm never going to get more romantic than this. Out of his pocket he pulled a crumpled, red rose. Will you marry me? Overcome with emotion, Belle blinked away the tears pooling in her eyes. She opened her mouth but no words came out. John stepped forward and took both of her hands in his. Please, he said, and that single word held such promise that Belle started nodding furiously. Yes, oh yes! She threw herself in his arms and buried her face in his chest. John held her tightly for several minutes, savoring the feel of her warm body next to his. I should have asked you so long ago, he murmured into her hair. Back at Westonbirt. I tried so hard to push you away. But why? His throat tightened. John, are you ill? You look as if you've eaten something that's gone off. No, Belle, I- He fought for words. He wouldn't deceive her. He wouldn't enter into a marriage based upon lies. When I told you that I wasn't the man you thought I was- I remember, she interrupted. And I still don't understand what you mean. I- Hush. He placed his finger on her lips. There is something in my past I must tell you about. It was during the war. Wordlessly, she took his hand and led him to her bed. She sat and motioned him to do likewise, but he was far too restless. He turned abruptly and strode over to the window, bracing himself against the sill. A girl was raped, he blurted out, thankful that he couldn't see her expression. It was my fault. Belle paled. Wh-what do you mean? John recounted the details, finishing with, That's how it happened. At least that's how I remember it. I was drunk. He let out a short, hollow laugh. John, it wasn't your fault. Her words were soft, but they were filled with love and faith. He didn't turn around. You weren't there. I know you. You wouldn't have let something like this happen if you could have prevented it. He whirled to face her. Weren't you listening to me? I was drunk. If I'd had my wits about me I would have been able to fulfil my promise to Ana's mother. He would have found a way to get to her. You couldn't have guarded the girl every minute of the day. I could have- I- He broke off. I don't want to talk about it. Belle stood and crossed the room, placing a gentle hand on his arm. Perhaps you should. No, he said quickly. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to think about it. I- He choked on his words. Will you still have me? How can you even ask? she whispered. I lo- She stopped, too scared of upsetting the precious balance they'd achieved to voice her true feelings. I care for you so much. I know what a good and honorable man you are, even if you don't. He reached for her, pulling her roughly into his arms. He clung to her, covering her face with kisses. Oh, Belle, I need you so much. I don't know how I survived without you. And I you. You are such a treasure, Belle. Such a gift to me. He suddenly whirled her around, spinning her in a dazzling waltz. They twirled about, turning circle after circle until they both collapsed on the bed, laughing and out of breath. Look at me, John gasped. I cannot remember the last time I allowed myself to be so happy. I smile all day long without knowing why. I climbed a bloody tree, vaulted through your window, and here I am-laughing. He jumped to his feet, pulling her along with him. It's the middle of the night, and yet here I am with you. Dancing at midnight, holding perfection in my arms. Oh, John, she sighed, unable to think of any words to express her feelings. He touched her chin with his fingers and drew her closer, ever closer. Belle's breath caught in her throat as his lips swooped down to claim her own. The kiss was different than any other they had shared. There was a fierceness to it that hadn't been there before, a sense of ownership. And Belle had to admit that this possessiveness was not one-sided. The way she kissed him with all her passion, clutched at the sinewy muscles of his back-all this was meant to show him that he belonged to no one but her. John's hands roamed down her back, spreading warmth through the thin material of her nightgown. He strayed down to her bottom and cupped it, pulling her tightly to him so that she could feel the hard, physical evidence of his desire. Do you realize how much I want you? he rasped. Do you? Belle couldn't speak, for his lips had covered her own. She couldn't nod because one of his hands had stolen back up to her thick hair and was holding her head immobile. She responded in the only way she could, which was to reach around to his buttocks and pull him even closer to her. A harsh moan was his answer, and Belle felt a feminine thrill at her power over him.He sank to his knees, his lips burning a hot path through her nightgown, descending through the valley between her breasts and settling over her navel. John? she asked breathily. What…? Shhh, just let me take care of everything. He sank down even lower, until his hands could wrap around her ankles. So soft, he murmured. Your skin is like moonlight. Moonlight? she said in a strangled voice. The powerful sensations streaking through her body had rendered her voice barely usable. Soft and gentle, yet with a touch of mystery. His hands made the slow trip up her calves, pushing her nightgown up along with them. When he was halfway up, he twisted around her to deposit twin kisses on the backs of her knees. Belle cried out and nearly fell over, and she had to clutch on to his head for support. You like that, do you? I'll have to remember that. He continued moving upward, marveling at the delicate skin of her thighs. With a devilish laugh, he darted his head under the now rather high hem of her nightgown and planted a kiss in the crook between her leg and her hip. Belle thought she might faint. The nightgown moved even higher, past her hips, and Belle felt a vague relief that he had moved from her thighs straight to her stomach, bypassing her most private area. As John pushed the material further, he rose to his feet, pausing briefly before he bared her breasts. Did I remember to tell you the other day that they're perfect? he murmured huskily into her ear. Belle shook her head mutely. Round and ripe with two precious pink buds. I could suckle at them all day. Oh God. Belle's knees went completely and totally weak again. I'm not done yet, love. He held the hem of her gown just below her breasts and then pressed it to her skin. As he lifted it up, Belle could feel the pressure traveling up the underside of her breasts. Spasms of pleasure shot through her as the hem caught her nipples and then freed them with a bounce. And then before she knew it, she was completely naked, her skin glowing soft and white in the dim light of the candles. John sucked in his breath. Never in my life have I seen a sight so glorious, he whispered reverently. Belle flushed with delight at his words, and then all of a sudden she seemed to realize that she had on not a stitch. Oh my God, she croaked. Shyness swept over her like a cool wind, and her hands snaked forward to cover herself. As best she could. Which wasn't, after all, very well. John chuckled and lifted her into his arms. You, love, are perfect. You shouldn't feel ashamed. I'm not, she replied softly. Not with you. It's just very strange. I'm not… used to this. I should hope not. He pushed the books off of her bed and laid her down on the soft white sheets. Belle stopped breathing momentarily as she watched him begin to undress. His shirt came first, baring a firmly muscled chest that spoke of years of hard exercise. The sight of him caused warm, tingly feelings to pool in her belly. Without thinking she reached a hand out, even though he was much too far away to touch. John both smiled and groaned at her curiosity. It was getting harder and harder for him to maintain his control, especially when she was lying there looking up at him with huge blue eyes. He sat down on the edge of the bed and yanked off his boots, then stood up again to peel off his breeches. Belle gasped when she saw his manhood, huge and… no this wasn't going to work. He must be bigger than normal, or maybe she was smaller than normal, but-she gasped again. His knee. Dear God, she whispered. It was covered with scars, and it looked as if a large chunk of flesh had been removed from just above the joint. The taut skin was discolored and without hair, its mere presence an angry reminder of the horrors of war. John's mouth twisted. You don't have to look at it. Belle's gaze shot quickly up to his face. It's not that, she assured him. It's not ugly at all. And to prove her point, she slid out of bed and knelt before him to kiss the scars. It makes me sick to think of how this must have hurt you, she whispered. And how close you came to losing your leg. You're so vital, so strong. I can't imagine what that would have done to you. She began to kiss him again, raining a soft stream of love onto his skin. Emotions John had never expected to feel, never dreamed he could feel, surged powerfully within him, and he pulled her roughly to her feet. Oh God, Belle, he rasped. I want you so much. They tumbled onto the bed, landing so that John's hard frame covered hers. The breath was squeezed from Belle's body, yet the weight of him was glorious, unlike anything she'd ever experienced. He kissed her and kissed her until she was certain she would melt, and then suddenly he lifted his head and looked deeply into her eyes. I'm going to pleasure you first, he said. So you know that there is nothing to fear, that there is only beauty and wonder. I'm not afraid, she whispered. Then she remembered how large he had looked. Well, maybe a little nervous. John smiled reassuringly. I haven't any experience with innocents, but I want this to be perfect for you. I think it might be easier if I give you release first. Belle had no idea what he was talking about, but she nodded anyway. You sound as if you've given this considerable thought. Believe me, he said hoarsely. I've thought of little else. His hand gently slid down the length of her body. She reached up, touched his cheek, and softly said, I trust you.
John brushed his lips against hers to distract her when his fingers sought out her very essence. She'd be nervous, and he didn't want it to be too much of a shock. It was. She nearly flew off the bed. Are you sure this is what you're supposed to be doing? she asked breathlessly. I'm sure. And then his mouth joined his fingers. Belle was certain that she'd died. Nothing could possibly feel that wicked… or that good. Oh John! she gasped, unable to stop her soul from spiraling out of control. I don't think… I can't… And then she did. It felt as if every nerve ending in her body suddenly converged in her abdomen. She tensed, then exploded. It took her several minutes to float back down to earth, and all she could say was, Merciful heavens. She heard John laugh, and when she opened her eyes saw that he was looking down at her with an amused expression. He leaned down and kissed her nose. Was that normal? she asked in a small voice. He nodded. Better. Really? He nodded again. Did you…? She let her words trail off. She was new to this and hadn't much idea how to go about it. He shook his head gently. When I find my release you'll know it. Will it be as good as what I…? She couldn't finish the sentence. John's eyes darkened with desire, and he nodded. Good. Belle sighed. I wouldn't like it if you didn't feel as good as I do. But if you don't mind, I'd like to cuddle up against you for a minute or two. His straining manhood disagreed with his words, but John said, There is nothing I'd rather do. He'd only held her in his arms for a few seconds when they heard an awful noise. Persephone's voice. There was a knock at the door. Oh Belle? she said in a stage whisper. Belle? Belle shot up straight. Persephone? May I come in for a moment? Panic gripped her. Uh, just one moment! Thank God her door was locked. Hide! she hissed at John. I'm trying, he hissed back. He hopped out of the bed, cursing the cold night air. He gathered up his clothes, praying he'd got them all, and stumbled into her dressing room. Belle grabbed her dressing gown, covered herself, and went to the door. She turned the key and opened it, marveling that her quivering legs were actually holding her upright. Good evening, Persephone. I'm sorry to bother you, but I couldn't sleep, and I knew that you had gone to the bookshop today. I was wondering if I could borrow something to read. Of course. Belle rushed back into the room and gathered up some of the books. It's all poetry, but I'm done with it for the evening. Persephone noticed Belle's bare calves peeking out from under her dressing gown and said, Don't you wear a nightgown? Belle blushed and silently thanked the dark cloak of night for hiding her embarrassment. I was hot. I can't imagine why. The window is wide open. You'll catch a chill. I don't think so. Belle thrust the books into Persephone's arms. Thank you. Persephone wrinkled her nose and sniffed. What is that smell? It's most peculiar. Belle prayed that Persephone's maiden aunt status was entirely accurate because the room reeked of lovemaking. One could only hope that she wouldn't recognize the smell. Umm, I think it's coming in from outside. Well, I can't imagine what it is, but you ought to remember to shut the window before you go to sleep. And if you'd like I could give you some of my violet-scented perfume. I'm sure that smell will go away if you spray a bit of it around. Perhaps in the morning. Belle led the way back to the door. Good night, then. I'll see you in the morning. Good night. Belle shut the door and locked it quickly, leaning back against it with a sigh. The door to the dressing room swung open. John emerged, his upper body tangling in Belle's dresses. Good God, woman, you have a lot of frocks. Belle ignored him. I was so scared. And I felt damned foolish. I'm warning you, I'm not going to put up with this for long. He viciously thrust his bad leg into his breeches. You're not? Belle asked weakly. Not a chance. I'm a grown man. I've fought a bloody war, nearly got my leg shot off, played the market for five years and amassed enough money to purchase a damned house. Do you think I like creeping around in closets? Belle didn't really think that a reply was necessary. Well, I don't, I tell you. I don't like it at all. He sat down in a nearby chair so that he could put his good leg into his breeches. Belle surmised that his injured leg wasn't quite strong enough to hold him up for long. And I'll tell you something else, he added, working himself up into a fine bout of annoyance. As far as I'm concerned, you're mine. Do you understand that? And I don't like being made to feel like a thief for enjoying what is mine. What are you going to do? He grabbed his shirt. I'm going to marry you right away. And then I'm going to take you back to Bletchford Manor and toss you into bed and keep you there for a week. All without having to worry about Miss Lemon Tree barging in to spoil the mood. You really need to find a new name for your home. Our home, he corrected, scowling at her attempt to change the subject. And I've been too busy chasing after you to give the matter much thought.I'll help you. Belle smiled. He loved her. He might not have said as much, but it was right there in his eyes. Good. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to jump back out your window, slide down that tree, return to Damien's, and get some sleep. Then I've got to see about getting a special license. A special license? I'm not putting up with this nonsense any longer than I have to. With any luck we'll be married by the end of the week. By the end of the week? Belle echoed. Are you mad? I can't get married this week. I can't even get officially engaged until my parents return. John groaned as he picked up his boots and uttered a curse which was completely unfamiliar to Belle. When are they getting back? he asked in a very low voice. I'm not certain. Would it be possible for you to offer an estimate? No more than a couple of weeks, I would imagine. Belle forbore to point out that they would have to wait at least another month or two after her parents returned before they could actually marry. Her mother would insist upon a large wedding. Of that she was certain. John swore again. If they're not home within a fortnight Alex can give you away. Or call your brother down from Oxford. I don't care which. But- No buts. If your parents ask questions, you can simply tell them that we had to get married. Belle swallowed and nodded. What else could she do? I lo… She lost her courage, and the rest of the sentence remained on her tongue. He turned around. Yes? I-nothing. Be careful getting down that tree. It's rather tall. Three stories, to be precise. His wry grin was infectious, and Belle felt the corners of her mouth tugging up as she followed him to the window. He leaned down and murmured, A kiss goodbye. His lips touched hers in one last, passionate caress. Belle barely had time to kiss him back before he moved away, pulled on his gloves, and disappeared outside. She rushed to the window and looked out, watching him with a smile as he made his way down the tree. He could have just gone out the door, she muttered to herself. Persephone's room is in the opposite direction. Oh well, it was more fun this way, and certainly more romantic. As long as he didn't break his fool neck on the way down. Belle leaned out the window a little further and sighed with relief when she saw his feet touch the ground. He leaned down to rub his bad knee, and she winced in sympathy. She watched him until he disappeared from sight, leaning against the windowsill with a dreamy expression on her face. London could be beautiful on ocassion, she mused. Like now, with its deserted streets, and- A movement caught her eye. Was that a man? It was hard to tell. Briefly she wondered what someone would be doing up and about and on foot this time of night. She giggled. Maybe all of London's gentlemen had decided to do some unconventional courting that evening. Taking a deep breath, she shut the window and made her way back to bed. It was only when she was snuggled up under her mountain of covers that she remembered that he had never found his fulfillment. She smiled wryly. No wonder he was so cranky. ***
John made his way back to his brother's house, his hand on his pistol the entire time. London was getting more and more dangerous these days, and one really couldn't be too careful. Still, he hadn't wanted to bring a carriage by Belle's house. Someone might have seen it, and he didn't want her subject to any vicious rumors. Besides, it was only a few short blocks to Damien's home. It seemed that all of the ton was squeezed into one tiny section of London. He doubted that most of them knew that the city continued past the borders of Grosvenor Square. He was about halfway home when he heard footsteps. He turned around. Was someone behind him? Nothing but shadows. He continued on his way. Surely he'd imagined it. He was still paranoid from the war, when every sound could mean death. He turned the last corner when he heard the footsteps again. And then a bullet whined past his ear. What the hell? Another bullet whizzed by, this one grazing his arm and drawing blood. He whipped out his pistol and spun around. He saw a shadowy figure across the street, furiously reloading a gun. John lost no time in firing, and the villain went down as he took a bullet in the shoulder. Damn! His aim was off. Gun still in hand, he started after his would-be assassin. The man saw him coming, grabbed his shoulder, and got to his feet. He shot John an apprehensive look, but his face was covered by a half-mask, so John had no way of recognizing him. With one last fleeting glance, the villain rushed off. As John made his way across the street, he cursed his leg for slowing him down. Never had he been so furious at the fates for maiming him this way. There was no way he'd be able to catch up with his attacker. Accepting defeat, John sighed and turned around. This was trouble. And he had no right dragging Belle into it. His hand strayed to his arm as he finally realized that he was bleeding. He could barely feel the pain, however. His fury blocked out all other feeling. Someone was after him, and he didn't know why. Some lunatic was sending him cryptic notes and wanted him dead. And whoever it was, he probably wouldn't hesitate to involve Belle if he realized how much she meant to John. And if he had been following him at all during the past week, he would know that John had spent every free minute in her company. John swore as he mounted the front steps to Damien's house. He would not put Belle in danger, even if that meant he had to postpone his marriage plans.Bloody hell. Chapter 14 Pardon me, my lady, a message has arrived for you. Belle looked up as a servant entered the room. She'd been sitting in a dreamlike haze, replaying the previous night with John-for about the fiftieth time. She took the letter, carefully opened it, and read the contents. Belle, I apologize for giving you such short notice, but I will be unable to accompany you and Persephone to the theater this evening. Sincerely, John Blackwood Belle looked down at the note for a minute or so, puzzling over the formal tone. With a shrug, she just decided that some people always wrote formally, so she shouldn't be upset that he had signed the note sincerely rather than love. And it didn't really matter that he had felt the need to include his surname in addition to his given name. She tucked the note away, telling herself not to be so fanciful. She shrugged. Maybe Dunford would be interested in escorting her and Persephone. ***
Dunford did want to go to the theater, and he had a fine time escorting Belle and Persephone. However, Belle's thoughts frequently drifted off toward the man who had sneaked into her bedroom the night before. She wondered what had kept him from joining her that evening, but supposed that he'd explain everything to her the next day. Except he didn't come by the next day. Or the one after that. Belle was more than puzzled. She was damned irritated. She'd been warned about men who used women for their own pleasure and then discarded them, but she just couldn't bring herself to place John in that category. First of all, she refused to believe that she could have fallen in love with a man who was so fundamentally dishonest, and second of all, it had been she who moaned with pleasure the other night, not him. After two days of waiting and hoping for a glimpse of him, Belle finally decided to take matters into her own hands and sent him a note of her own, asking him to stop by. There was no reply. Belle grumbled in irritation. He knew very well that she could not call on him. He was staying with his brother, and both were bachelors. It was entirely unsuitable for an unmarried lady to call on such a household. Especially here in London. Her mother would have her head if she found out about it, which she very well might, considering that she was due back any day now. She sent him another message, this one more carefully worded, asking him if she had done anything to displease him, and would he please be kind enough to reply. Belle smiled wryly to herself as she wrote the words. She wasn't very good at keeping the twinge of sarcasm from her tone. ***
A few streets away, John groaned as he read her note. She was getting annoyed, that was clear. And how could he blame her? After a fortnight of flowers, chocolate, poetry, and then finally passion, she had a right to expect to see him. But what else was he to do? He had received another anonymous note the day after his attack which had simply read, Next time I won't miss. John had no doubt that Belle would take it upon herself to see to his protection if she knew that someone was trying to kill him. And as he didn't see how Belle possibly could protect him, such an endeavor could only lead to her getting hurt. He sighed with despair and let his head fall into his hands. Now that happiness was finally within his grasp, how could he spend the rest of his life worrying that a bullet was going to catch him unawares? He grimaced. The words rest of his life suddenly took on new meaning. If that assassin kept trying, sooner or later he was going to get lucky. John was going to have to come up with a plan. But in the meantime, he had to keep Belle at a distance-and away from the bullets that were aimed at his back. With an unbearably heavy heart, he picked up a quill and dipped it into an inkpot. Dear Belle, I will not be able to see you for some time. I cannot explain why. Please be patient with me. I remain Yours, John Blackwood He knew that he ought to have simply broken things off, but he just couldn't do it. She was the one thing in his life that had brought him true joy, and he wasn't about to lose her. Carrying the offending piece of paper as if it might give him a disease, he made his way downstairs and gave it to a servant. Belle would receive it within the hour. He didn't even want to think about it. ***
Belle's response upon reading his brief letter was to blink. This couldn't be real. She blinked again. The words did not disappear. Something was terribly wrong. He was trying to push her away again. She didn't know why, and she didn't know why he thought he might be able to succeed, but she couldn't allow herself to believe that he really didn't want her. How could he not, when she wanted him so badly? God couldn't be so cruel. Belle quickly pushed those depressing thoughts aside. She had to trust her instincts, and they told her that John did care for her. Very much. As much as she cared for him. He had said to please be patient with him. That seemed to indicate that he was working through whatever problem ailed him. He must be in some kind of trouble, and he didn't want to involve her. How like him. She grumbled. When was he going to learn that love meant sharing one's burdens? She crumpled the paper into a hard little ball and flexed her fist around it. He was going to get his first lesson that afternoon, because she was going to see him, propriety be damned. And that was another thing. Her mental cursing had grown by epic proportions during the past few days. She was beginning to shock even herself. Belle tossed the note aside and brushed her hands against each other. She took a small pleasure in blaming her foul language on him. Not bothering to change into a fancier dress, Belle grabbed a warm cloak and stalked off in search of her maid. She found her in her dressing room, examining her gowns for small rips and tears.
Oh, hello, my lady, Mary said quickly. Do you know which gown you wish to wear this evening? It needs to be pressed. Doesn't matter, Belle said briskly. I don't think I'm going to go out this evening after all. But I do want to take a short walk this afternoon, and I'd like you to accompany me. Right away, my lady. Mary fetched her coat and followed Belle down the stairs. Where are we going? Oh, not very far, Belle said cryptically. Her mouth shut in firm determination, she opened the front door and strode down the steps. Mary scurried to catch up with her. I've never seen you walk so fast, my lady. I always walk quickly when I'm irritated. Mary had no reply for that, so she simply sighed and quickened her pace. After they had walked a few blocks, Belle stopped short. Mary nearly crashed into her. Hmmm, Belle said. Hmmm? This is the place. What place? The Earl of Westborough's home. Earl who? John's brother. Oh. Mary had seen John several times during the past few weeks. Why are we here? Belle took a deep breath and lifted her chin stubbornly. We've come to pay a visit. Without waiting for Mary's reply, she marched up the steps and slammed the knocker down three times. What? Mary nearly screeched. You can't come calling here. I can and I am. Impatient, Belle slammed the knocker down again. But-but-only men live here. Belle rolled her eyes. Really, Mary, You needn't speak of them as if they're a separate species. They're just like you and me. She blushed. Well, almost. She had just lifted her hand up again to grab the knocker when the butler answered the door. She gave him her calling card and told him that she was there to see Lord Blackwood. Mary was so embarrassed she couldn't lift her gaze above the level of Belle's knees. The butler ushered the two ladies into a small salon just off the main hallway. Persephone's going to throw me into the street, Mary whispered, shaking her head. She will not, and you work for me, anyway, so she can't fire you. She won't be happy about it, though. I don't see any reason she needs to know about it, Belle said resolutely. But inside she was quaking. This was highly irregular, and if there was one thing her mother hadn't raised her to be, it was irregular. Oh, she had called on John alone in the country, but etiquette was looser there. Just when she thought her nerves had quite reached their limit, the butler returned. Lord Blackwood is not receiving, my lady. Belle gasped at the insult. John had refused to see her. She swept to her feet and strode out of the room, her carriage held erect by the dignity that had been instilled in her since birth. She didn't stop until she was halfway down the street, and then, unable to help herself, she looked back. John was standing in a third-story window, staring down at her. As soon as he saw her turn, he stepped away and let the curtains fall back into place. Hmmm, Belle said, still looking at the window. What? Mary followed her gaze but didn't find anything of interest. That's a nice tree in front of the building. Mary raised her brows, convinced that her employer had gone daft. Belle stroked her chin. It's uncommonly close to the outer wall. She smiled. Come along, Mary, we've got work to do. We do? But Mary's words went unheard, for Belle was already several steps ahead of her. When she got home, Belle marched straight up to her room, pulled out some stationery from her desk and penned a note to Emma, who had been much more of a tomboy while growing up than Belle. Dearest Emma, How do you climb trees? Fondly, Belle After Belle sent the note off to her cousin, she dealt with her grief and her anger the best way she knew how. She went shopping. For this outing she took Persephone with her. The older lady never tired of browsing through the elegant London shops. Much more of a selection than anywhere in Yorkshire, she explained. And besides, it was great fun spending Alex's money. Neither woman really needed new clothing after their last outing, but the holiday season was approaching, so they browsed through trinket shops, looking for gifts. Belle found an odd little telescope for her brother and a lovely music box for her mother, but she couldn't stop her heart from wishing that it were John for whom she was shopping. She sighed. She would just have to believe that all would work out in the end. She couldn't let herself believe anything else. It would simply be too painful. It was probably because she was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't notice the two rather unsavory looking characters lurking in an alleyway as she passed by. Before she realized what was happening, one of them had grabbed her arm and started pulling her deeper into the alley. Belle yelled out and fought with all her might. The thug had pulled her far enough into the alley so that the passersby on the main street did not see her. And London had grown so loud, it was understandable that no one paid her cries any mind. Let go of me, you cur, she cried out. Her arm felt as if it were being torn from the socket, but she blocked out the pain, intent only on escape. She's the one, I tell ya, she heard one of the villains say. She's the one the fancy cove wanted. Shut up and get 'er over here. The other man stepped forward and Belle's terror increased tenfold. There was no way she'd be able to hold out against the strength of both of these men.But just when it seemed that all was lost, salvation came in the unlikely form of Persephone. She had been distracted by a particularly attractive window display when Belle had disappeared into the alleyway and was quite baffled when she looked back up and her charge was gone. When she called out Belle's name and got no response, she grew worried and began to look about frantically. Belle? she called out again, this time loudly. She scurried forward, her head turning in all directions. Then, as she was passing the alleyway, she saw a blur of movement and Belle's familiar blond hair. Good God! she screamed, loud enough to make most of the people on the sidewalk stop and stare. Let go of her, you beasts! She rushed forward, raising her parasol above her head. Let go, I tell you! With a furious whack, she slammed her weapon down on the head of one of the assailants. Shut up, you old bitch! he yelled, howling in pain. Persephone's response was a horizontal swing which clipped him neatly in the middle. The breath knocked out of him, he fell to the ground. The other thug was caught between utter panic and sheer greed, lusting after the money he'd been promised if he captured the yellow-haired lady. He gave it one last desperate try, barely aware that a number of people had rushed into the alleyway upon hearing Persephone's cries of distress. I said let go of her! Persephone boomed. She changed her attack tactics and started viciously poking him with the end of her parasol. When she stabbed him neatly in the groin, he finally let go of Belle and ran away, painfully hunched over the entire way. Persephone, thank you so much, Belle said, tears of terror belatedly forming in her eyes. But Persephone wasn't listening. All of her attention was focused on the man still lying on the ground. He made a motion as if to get up, but she jabbed him in the belly. Not so fast, mister, she said. Belle's eyes widened. Who would have dreamed that dear old Persephone would have such a tough streak? The villain saw the growing crowd of people forming around him and closed his eyes, surmising that escape was impossible. Much to Belle's relief, a constable quickly arrived on the scene, and she relayed her story to him. He started to question her attacker, but the man remained closemouthed. That is, until the constable reminded him of the possible punishments for attacking a lady of Belle's position. The man sang like a canary. He'd been hired to grab her. Yes, just her. No, not any pretty blond lady, this one in particular. The gentleman who had hired him spoke with uppity accents-definitely highborn. No, he didn't know his name, and he hadn't seen him before, but he had straight blond hair and blue eyes, if that helped any, and his arm was in a sling. After finishing the interrogation, the constable hauled him away and told Belle to be extra careful. Maybe she ought to hire one of those Bow Street Runners for added protection. Belle shivered with fear. She had an enemy. One who probably wanted her dead. As the crowd began to disperse, Persephone turned to her and asked solicitously, Are you all right, dear? Yes, yes, Belle replied. I'm fine. Her eyes strayed down to her arm where that awful man had grabbed her. There had been a dress and a coat between her skin and his, but still she felt dirty. I think, however, I'd like a bath. Persephone nodded. I couldn't agree with you more. Late the next morning a footman brought Belle a reply from Emma. Dearest Belle, I cannot imagine why you suddenly want to learn how to climb trees since you never professed any love for it when we were small. The first step is to find a tree with some reasonably low branches. If you cannot reach the first branch, you'll never get anywhere… The letter continued for two pages. Emma was nothing if not detailed. She was also a little suspicious, as the end of the letter showed. I hope you find this helpful, although I must say I wonder where you are going to climb trees in London. I profess that I think this has something to do with John Blackwood. Love does strange things to women, as I well know. Be careful, whatever you do, and I can only breathe a sigh of relief that I am no longer your chaperone. God save Persephone. Fondly, Emma Belle scoffed. If Emma were still her chaperone, she'd probably insist upon going along with her. Emma had never been known for prudent behavior. Belle reread the letter, carefully going over the part about how to climb trees. Was she really going to do this? When she'd stopped outside of Damien's house and assessed that tree, she hadn't really thought that she would do anything about it. She wasn't the sort of daring female who would climb a tree and break into an earl's house through a third-story window. For one thing, she had no head for heights. But, as Emma so wisely pointed out, love did strange things to a woman. That, and danger. Her nasty experience with those two thugs in the alleyway had convinced her that it was time to act decisively. Or perhaps rashly was a better word for it. Belle shook her head. No matter. She'd made up her mind. She was scared, and she needed John. But those thugs did complicate her plans a bit. She couldn't very well go over to Damien's house in the middle of the night by herself when someone was out to kidnap her. And Mary, of course, would not be sufficient protection. Persephone and her perilous parasol were another story, but Belle doubted that Persephone would agree to go with her. She might be rather lenient as far as chaper-ones went, but she would certainly put her foot down at Belle breaking into a man's room. What to do, what to do? Belle smiled mischievously. She picked up a quill and wrote a note to Dunford.
Absolutely not! Don't be stodgy, Dunford, Belle said. I need your help. You don't need help, you need a harness. And I'm not being stodgy, I'm being a sensible. A word of which you appear to have forgotten the mean-ing. Belle stubbornly crossed her arms and sank back into her chair. Dunford was up and pacing, his arms flying as he spoke. She'd never seen him so out of sorts. This is a damn fool thing you're thinking of, Belle. If you don't break your neck-and that's a pretty big If, considering that all of your tree-climbing experience can be located in a letter from your cousin-you'll probably be arrested for trespassing. I won't be arrested. Oh, really? And how do you know that you'll just happen to tumble into the correct room? With your luck you'll end up in the earl's bedroom. And I've been watching him watching you. I think he'd appreciate his good fortune. He would not. He knows I'm interested in his brother. And I'm not going to 'tumble into his bedroom' as you so delicately put it. I know which room is John's. I'm not even going to ask how you know that. It was on the tip of Belle's tongue to defend her reputation, but she kept silent instead. If Dunford thought that she'd already been in John's bedroom he might be less reluctant to help her get there again. Look, Belle, my answer is still no. Absolutely not! With three exclamation points, he added. If you were my friend… Belle muttered. Exactly. I am your friend for not letting you do this. An amazingly good friend. There is nothing you could say that will make me help you. Belle rose. Well, thank you, then, Dunford. I had hoped for your assistance, but I see that I'm just going to have to go about this alone. Dunford groaned. Except that. Belle, you really wouldn't go over there by yourself. I don't have any choice. My need to see him is most urgent, and he won't receive me. I suppose I'll hire a hack to take me the short distance from here to there so I won't have to walk alone so late at night, but- All right, all right, Dunford conceded with an exasperated expression. I'll help you, but I want you to know that I completely disapprove. Don't worry, you've made that quite clear. Dunford sank into a chair and his eyes closed in mental agony. God help us, he groaned. God help us all. Belle smiled. Oh, I think He will. Chapter 15 Where on earth did you come up with a ww crazy idea like this, anyway? No matter. Belle glanced over at her reluctant partner in crime. Dunford was not at all pleased to be standing next to her in front of John's brother's house at three in the morning, and he certainly had no qualms about showing his ire. He scowled as he gave her a leg up into the tree. I'm not leaving until I see you depart from this house. Preferably through the front door. Belle didn't look down at him as she grabbed the first branch. I wish you would. There's no telling how long I might be inside. That's what I'm worried about. Dunford, even if he detested me, John would insist upon seeing me home. That's just the sort of man he is. You needn't worry about my welfare when I'm with him. Perhaps, but what about your reputation? Well, that's my problem, isn't it? Belle hoisted herself up onto the next branch. This is much easier than it looks. Have you ever climbed a tree, Dunford? Of course I have, he replied in an irritated voice. She was now even with the second-story windows. Not for the first time, he cursed himself for letting her talk him into this insane scheme. But then again, if he didn't help her, she'd probably have come alone, which was even more insane. He'd never seen Belle like this before. For her sake, he hoped this Blackwood fellow felt the same way about her. I'm almost there, Dunford, she called out softly, testing the sturdiness of the branch which would have to bear her weight as she moved horizontally toward the window. Will you promise me that you'll leave once I'm inside? I'll promise no such thing. Please, she pleaded. You'll freeze out here. I'll leave only if Blackwood comes to the window and gives me his word as a gentleman that he'll see you safely home. Dunford sighed to himself. He'd not be able to protect Belle's virtue-if there was anything left to protect, which he sincerely hoped there was-but at least he could make sure she got home safely. All right, she agreed, and started inching her way along the thick branch toward the window. After about three seconds on her hands and knees, a better idea offered itself to her, and she straddled the branch, thankful for the breeches she had swiped out of her brother's closet. Using her arms for support, she slowly pushed her way along. When she reached the window, the branch sagged perilously, and Belle quickly climbed onto the wide ledge. Below her she could hear Dunford's footsteps as he scurried toward the building, obviously certain that he was going to have to catch her as she plunged toward the ground. I'm fine, she called out softly. She started to push the window up. John was awakened by the sound of the window scraping against its frame. Years of soldiering had left him a very light sleeper, and the recent attack against his life had honed his senses even further. With one fluid motion he grabbed his pistol from his nightstand, rolled onto the floor, and crouched next to the bed, his leg screaming against the sudden movement. When he realized that the intruder was having a bit of trouble getting the window open, he took advantage of the delay and grabbed his dressing gown. His back to the wall, he made his way around the perimeter of the room until he was standing right next to the window. He would not be surprised this time.
With considerable exertion Belle managed to hoist the window up. Once there was enough space for her to squeeze through, she waved down at Dunford and wormed her way in. The minute her feet touched the floor, a steely arm grabbed her from behind, and she felt the cold butt of a pistol pressed up against her neck. Fear froze her body and her mind, and she went stiff as a board. All right, she heard a furious voice behind her hiss. Start talking. I want to know who you are and what you want with me. John? Belle croaked. She was instantly spun around. Belle? She nodded. What the hell are you doing here? She swallowed nervously. Could you put the gun down? John realized that he was still holding his weapon and dropped it on a nearby table. For the love of God, Belle, I could've killed you. She managed a tremulous smile. I'm glad you didn't. He raked a hand through his thick hair and then finally took a good look at her. She was dressed in black from head to toe. Her bright hair, which would have undoubtedly glowed in the moonlight, was stuffed under a cap, and the rest of her appeared to be stuffed into a pair of men's breeches. Or rather, a pair of boy's breeches. Her shapely form was shown off quite nicely by her unconventional attire, and he doubted that there were men's breeches small enough to compliment her backside so delightfully. What are you wearing? He sighed. Do you like it? Belle smiled at him, determined to brazen this out. She pulled the cap from her head, allowing the mass of her hair to tumble down her back. I got the idea from Emma. From something she did once. She, umm, dressed as a boy, and- Spare me the story. I'm sure Ashbourne was as furious as I am now. I think he was. I wasn't there. But the next day- Enough! He held up a hand. How in hell did you get up here? I climbed the tree. Where'd you get a damn fool idea like that? Do you have to ask? John shot her a look which told her that he was not amused at having his own behavior thrown back at him. You could have broken your neck, woman. You didn't leave me much choice. She reached forward to place her hand on his arm. John jerked back. Don't touch me. I can't think when you touch me. That was encouraging, Belle thought, and reached forward again. I said stop it! Can't you see I'm furious with you? For what? For taking a risk in coming up here to see you? This wouldn't have been necessary if you hadn't been such an addlebrained idiot and refused to see me. I had a very good reason for refusing to see you, John snapped. Oh, really? And what was that? None of your damned business. I can see you're just as childish as ever, Belle sneered. Ouch! She jumped back as a rock hit her in her arm. What was that? John hissed, grabbing his gun again and pulling her back from the window. When did you grow so paranoid? It's only Dunford, growing irritated at me, no doubt, for waiting so long to tell him that I made it in safely. Belle wriggled from his grasp and moved to the open window. Dunford was looking up at her. She couldn't see his face clearly, but she knew that concern was etched into his expression. I'm fine, Dunford, she called down. Is he going to see you home? Yes, fine. Don't worry. I want to hear it from him. Stubborn man, Belle muttered. Umm, John? Dunford won't leave until you give him your word that you'll see me home safely. John scowled and crossed over to the window. What the hell were you thinking? I'd have liked to have seen you stop her, Dunford growled back. Are you going to escort her home or do I have to remain here and- You know damned well I will, and the two of us are having a talk tomorrow. You're either stupid or drunk or both to let her- Let her? Let her? Oh, Blackwood, you're going to have a fine time of it as her husband. I didn't let her do anything. Napoleon himself couldn't have stopped her. I wish you the best of luck. You're going to need it. Dunford spun on his heel and walked back to the carriage he'd left a block away. John turned back to Belle. You'd better have a very good reason for pulling a stunt like this. Belle gaped at him. I told you, I needed to see you. What better reason is there? And could you possibly shut the window? It's cold in here. John grumbled, but he shut the window. All right. Start talking. You want me to start talking? Why don't you start talking? I've been wondering why a man would creep into my bedroom one day and make love to me and then refuse to see me the next. It's for your own good, Belle, he said through clenched teeth. Now where have I heard that before? she asked, sarcasm dripping from every word. Don't throw that back at me now, Belle. It's an entirely different situation. So I might understand-if you told me what was going on. And while you've been off and immersed in your affairs, I've been having quite a little adventure. What the hell does that mean? It means that someone tried to kidnap me two days ago. Belle had turned away, so she didn't see the blood drain from John's face. Taking a deep breath, she risked everything and said, And if you really cared about me, I would think you'd want to see about protecting me. I'd rather not go about this alone, you know.It wont be long now, I say, glancing back at Amy and then down to my drawing, for a few final strokes of my pencil.
Amy smiles. Are you level?I turn my wrist to check. Yes. 5.2 and steady.
The door opens but I dont look up.Are you girls ready for breakfast? Mum says.