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"Is that a challenge?"
"It's whatever you wish to make of it."
Royce eyed her profile with its defiantly upturned nose and stubbornly jutting chin. Widow or not, he doubted she understood the stakes in the kind of game her cousin played.
"Be very careful what you invite," he cautioned. "You may not like what you get."
She glared at him through her storm-tossed, sea-blue eyes. "Don't be crude with me, Mr. Devlin."
Royce snorted. "How very safe you must feel, hidden now as you are behind your widow's rags, having fulfilled the obligation, knowing you need never again oblige."
"Need never again oblige?"
There was a brittle edge to her voice that made him look deep into the fathomless pupils and see the raw loss in her soul. Just what was it that she'd lost?
The image of Peyton Lyttle in Hillhouse's library kissing her brow loomed behind Royce's eyes. Was the loss that plagued Megan McCall that of the man Royce most despised?
"Dare I venture Peyton Lyttle is the one man by whom you wish to be rutted?"
Color flushed her cheeks. She tore the reins from Royce's hands. "Peyton has never been anything less than a gentleman with me."
Okay, so she didn't know all the carnal details of what she longed for. He could take her flawless face in his hands and kiss her ripe, little mouth until she understood what she tempted, until he convinced her she was more than a pair of useless legs. But he suspected it wasn't his mouth she would welcome against hers.
"Strip away your Peyton's stylishgentlemanly garments," Royce growled, "and you have a man like any other."
She slapped the reins against the filly's haunches. The horse lunged onto the Bluff Road.
Royce tipped his face close to his mistress' ear, his voice low. "And a man's thoughts I do understand, no matter in what attire he cloaks himself."
She glared at him. "Is that a warning, Mr. Devlin? Need I protect myself against you?"
He sat back and folded his arms across his own chest. "Your ego exceeds you, madam. I merely offer my congratulations that you are yet safe from Peyton Lyttle's rutting desires, being that he is wed now that you are again available."
The budding lips he'd have taken great pleasure in corrupting flattened. Megan McCall cracked the long carriage whip in the air. The black tips of the horse's ears swiveled and the filly picked up her pace, making the phaeton buck along the ruts worn into the rocky road.
"Pull her back," Royce ordered flatly, realizing they'd crested the rise.
But Megan McCall's deft fingers eased on the reins.
Royce braced his feet against the floorboards and snarled, "Is it your habit to settle arguments with mad dashes across a treacherous bluff?"
She glanced sideways at him, the whites of her eyes like whitecaps on a stormy sea.
"Or do you save this strategy only for the men in your life?"
She cracked the whip again. The phaeton lurched out of the worn wheel ruts and careened over the summit of the bluff. Royce grabbed the armrest with one hand and the edge of the seat with the other as the buggy hurtled toward the bend where the bluff dropped forty feet ... where one man had already died.
"What sin did Peter Tallmadge commit against you that he deserved to die for it? Was it the Robertson scandal? An abusive use of slave women? Another woman?"
Once more, she rent the air with her whip.
"How many more men," Royce howled, "do you intend to drive off this bluff out of spite?"
She swung the whip handle at his head. Royce tore the lash from her and flung it aside. She reached for the pistol beneath the seat cushion. He yanked her against his chest, pinning her arms and grappling the reins from her hands.
"Let go of me," she shrieked.
He gripped her tighter and hauled back on the reins. The filly fought the pressure of the bit as fiercely as Megan McCall struggled against the grip of his arm. Damned but didn't her squirming betray the fact that a pair of firm breasts heaved beneath her mourning gown.
Gritting his teeth, Royce held his wriggling mistress out of reach of her pistol and braced the filly round the bend in the road. Being a near straight path to the plantation house, he let the horse have her head. But he didn't loosen his hold on Megan McCall, not until the filly halted out of habit at Hillhouse's back door.
Royce dragged his mistress from the phaeton seat and slung her over his shoulder. She cursed him and plummeted his back with her fists. He carried her through the hall into the library and dumped her unceremoniously onto the settee.
"I'll kill you!" she roared.
He stepped back out of her reach. "You very nearly did."
She snatched up a vase from the teat able and hurled it at him. He ducked toward the doorway and the vase shattered against the wall behind him.
"Don't you walk away from me!" she screeched. "Don't you dare walk away from me!"
He paused in the doorway and looked at her, her loose gown askew, exposing an edge of white petticoat. One lock of her dark hair dripped down the side of her neck. "There isn't a thing you can do at the moment to stop me. You think about that."
And then he left.