‘I am not such an innocent, My Lord,’ she assured him dully, fully aware that yesterday evening she had all but given that innocence to Hawk St Claire, Duke of Stourbridge.
The Earl pulled his greys to a halt before turning to study Jane, and her cheeks coloured under the intensity of that experienced gaze.
‘Stourbridge made love to you last night?’ he finally rasped harshly.
Jane gasped. ‘That is none of your concern, sir—’
‘I am making it so, Jane!’
She was tired, so very tired, of the Duke of Stourbridge and now the Earl of Whitney taking such an interest in the innocence that was surely hers to give where she pleased.
‘I will find some other way in which to travel to London,’ she dismissed impatiently, and she turned to climb from the carriage.
The Earl moved swiftly, already on the ground at her side as she stepped down from the curricle. Steely fingers grasped her arm. ‘You are not going anywhere until I have got to the bottom of this situation.’
‘Can you not see that I do not require your help, My Lord?’ Jane demanded impatiently, glaring up at him as he refused to release her.
His mouth twisted derisively. ‘I do not believe that I asked for your permission to help you.’
Jane’s brows rose disgustedly. ‘Heaven preserve me from interfering, over-protective men such as you!’
He gave a humourless smile. ‘And Stourbridge?’
‘I neither wish to speak of nor see the Duke of Stourbridge ever again!’
The Earl shrugged. ‘That is rather unfortunate.’
Jane eyed him suspiciously. ‘Why?’
The Earl’s gaze moved over and past her flushed face to a distance over her left shoulder. ‘Because, unless I am very much mistaken, we are about to be joined by the man himself,’ he drawled pointedly.
Jane turned sharply on her heel to look at a horse and rider some distance away, the colour draining from her cheeks as she recognised—as, obviously, had the Earl of Whitney!—that rider to be none other than Hawk, Duke of Stourbridge.
She found herself too surprised to move as horse and rider drew steadily nearer. In fact, as they drew near enough for her to see the grim savagery of Hawk’s expression, Jane actually found herself moving a step closer to the Earl of Whitney.
‘Now the fun begins,’ the Earl murmured dryly, as Hawk drew the prancing black horse to a halt only feet away, before jumping lithely to the ground and striding purposefully towards them.
Fun? Jane was sure that she had never felt less like having ‘fun’ in her life!
Hawk had never experienced such rage. It filled him. Consumed him. Until he could see nothing but Jane, as she stood looking at him so defiantly next to the Earl of Whitney. A man Hawk was rapidly coming to view as his enemy.
When Hawk had realised Jane had once again fled—after being assured by Arabella that Jane was nowhere to be found, either in the house or about the estate, that in fact she feared Jane had left without a word to either of them—he had hurried to Jane’s room to confirm her disappearance for himself.
As Arabella had claimed, the bedroom was empty except for the new cream lace gown and gloves she had worn the previous evening, which he had taken such delight in removing.
And, tauntingly, on the dressing table, lay his mother’s pearl necklace and earbobs…
To then seek her, and find her in the company—prearranged?—of a man such as Whitney was intolerable.
‘So,’ he bit out between gritted teeth as he came to a halt only inches from the pair. His hands clenched at his sides as the fierceness of his gaze moved from the paleness of Jane’s face to the mockingly challenging face of the Earl of Whitney.
‘Indeed,’ Whitney drawled derisively. ‘As you can see, Stourbridge, despite protests to the contrary by the lady concerned, I have safely returned your little bird to the nest.’
A nerve pulsed in Hawk’s rigidly clenched jaw. ‘Before or after you have seduced her?’
‘Oh, the former, of course,’ the older man taunted. ‘The latter, it seems, I may leave to you,’he added hardly.
Hawk’s narrowed gaze met the censoriousness of that hard blue look. ‘You will explain that remark!’
Whitney shrugged broad shoulders. ‘Do I really need to do so?’
No, he did not. Hawk was only curious as to what could have prompted Jane to confide the events of yesterday evening to a man like Whitney.
Which in no way excused his own behaviour, Hawk acknowledged in self-disgust. He had taken advantage of a young woman he had promised to protect. A young woman who had subsequently needed to seek protection from him.
But could Jane not see that Whitney was the last man—the very last man—she should have run to for that protection?
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