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"Well, it took you long enough, my lady."
The sound of that softly drawled sentence made Jessica stumble, almost plowing into the tall figure that had ominously materialized in front of her. Two strong hands shot out to steady her, and she recoiled, panic flaring through every nerve ending in her body.
Dear God, no!
For a long moment, terror held her immobile before she began to struggle. "Let me go."
"That's not likely. Calm down, you reckless little fool. It's me."
A second before her foot connected solidly with her assailant's shin, she registered the familiar deep timbre of the man's voice, her eyes widening in surprise. His grunt of pain was real enough and his hands tightened on her shoulders through her cloak. Jessica gasped, "My lord, what on earth are you doing here? You frightened me half to death."
"And you've crippled me for it. By the devil, woman, that hurts."
"What do you expect, looming out of the dark like that and grabbing me!" she exclaimed tartly, her heart still pounding at a rate that made her feel dizzy.
His hold slackened, and in the dim light, Jessica made out the glint of his gaze and the clean, straight line of an unsmiling mouth. "I think the more appropriate question would be, what on earth are you doing here, Jess?"
It was damning, of course, to be caught out like this, for no respectable young lady had a good reason to wander the cliffs in the middle of a stormy night. Since she couldn't think of a single believable response, she simply said stonily, "It's none of your business."
"I think it is." Letting her go, Trenton Wyatt, the Earl of Declan, stepped back a pace, his chiseled features washed tobone and angle by a sudden flash of lightning. "My horse is tethered a few paces away. Come on."
Jessica shook her head, feeling the rising wind tug on her cloak and blow teasing wisps of hair across her face. Above, the branches sighed mournfully. "I'll get home on my own. It's just a short way."
"You aren't going home, my dear." His faint smile was a glimmer of white teeth in the shadows.
That kind of statement was high-handed, even for someone as infernally arrogant as Trenton, but there was a certain unsettling conviction in his voice. A stab of unease rippled through her. Jessica didn't move but stood rooted in the thatch of woods, staring up at him. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that I think you've finally outdone yourself, Jess. You aren't a child any longer, climbing trees and swimming in the cove against your mother's wishes. This particular escapade is a little more serious. In case you haven't been informed, smuggling is a crime."
When she responded after a long heartbeat, her voice shook like the withering leaves overhead. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I think you do. What's worse, I'm not the only one who has deduced the beautiful female smuggler being whispered about on this coast just might be the lovely and aloof Lady Jessica Fairman."
This truly could not be happening. He was wrong. Her reputation was pristine. "What nonsense."
"Is it?" Harshly, Trenton rasped, "Devil take it, you rash, headstrong wench. Did it ever occur to you that the state of your family finances is not a secret? Servants talk, merchants gossip. It's the way of the world. When you can suddenly pay your bills and the money has no legitimate source, people begin to wonder. Tell me, my dear. Have you heard the latest rumor? The revenue men have started calling the ringleader of the local smugglers the Golden Angel. They believe she is a French spy, selling secrets to Bonaparte for boatloads of contraband brandy and wine."
The blood drained from Jessica's face, and she felt herself go cold.
Relentlessly, he went on, the lash of the wind no worse than the stinging content of his words. "We can count on the possibility they are watching the house as we speak, waiting for you to slink back from your damnable rendezvous."
"I am not a French spy," she said hotly, fear making her lose all sense of discretion. "Just the opposite."
His laugh cracked through the wild night. "Oh, wonderful. Now, I suppose you're telling me you've been spying for us, carrying messages for communication to Wellington? That's not any better, Jess. If the French realized you've been using the smuggling ring to further our cause against their emperor, you'll be marked a target."
That had been a possibility all along. She had been just desperate enough to risk it.
One long-fingered hand reached out and snared her wrist, jerking hard. "Look." Trenton Wyatt, the man she'd known all her life, her brother's oldest friend, pulled her nearly off her feet, his face thrusting close. "We're leaving now. You are getting with me on my horse, and we're riding to Declan Manor. Understand?"
Wildly, she shook her head. "No."
Hands grasped her waist, and suddenly, she found herself swung into a pair of uncompromisingly strong arms. "Yes."
Desperate and frightened, she shoved ineffectually at his broad shoulders. "Trenton, put me down. I have to return home. If I'm not there in the morning, what will people think? Don't be daft. I can't go home with you. If you want to play the rescuing angel, take me home and help me get safely inside."
His expression was dark as he strode out of the woods, his mouth tight and implacable, his hair wind-tossed and unruly. Sure enough, his horse grazed quietly on tufts of grass that grew in haphazard straggles by the cliff. "Sorry, love. If I'm an angel, it is only of the darkest sort."
It was warm in his embrace, and his chest felt strong and secure. Jessica resisted the irrational urge to cling to him. "If I am under suspicion, not going home won't help that situation. Don't you see? You'll simply be labeled my accomplice."
"No, I won't." He promptly swung her onto the back of his horse and then vaulted into the saddle behind her, picking up the reins with competent hands. "I'll be labeled your lover."