London 1867

«Marry you, elf?» Wolfe Lonetree laughed aloud as he twirled her across the dance floor. «Don’t be ridiculous. What would ahalfbreed mustang hunter do with an English aristocrat?»

«I’m Scots, not English,» Jessica Charteris said automatically.

«I know.» Wolfe smiled the way he used to years before, when he had tweaked her long braids to tease her. «You still rise to the bait just like a hungry trout.»

Concealing the urgency and fear that lay beneath her flirtatious exterior, Jessica tilted back her head and smiled up at Wolfe.

«It would be a perfect union,» she said coaxingly. «You have no need of heirs because you have neither lands nor titles to pass on. I have neither need of money nor desire for the marriage bed. We both enjoy silence and conversation together. We like to ride, to hunt, and to read in front of a fire. What more could be asked of a marriage?»

Wolfe’s delighted laughter drew more than one glance from the titled lords and ladies who graced Jessica’s twentieth birthday party. Wolfe ignored both the looks and the aristocratic company. The man they called the viscount’s savage had learned long ago that his place was in America, not in England with its titles and cold disdain of his illegitimate birth.

«Marry you.»

As Wolfe repeated the words again he shook his head, delighting in the company of the sprite whose hair was an auburn so deep that only direct sunlight revealed its hidden fire.

«Ah, elf, I’ve missed your quickness and mischief. I’ve laughed more in the few minutes I’ve been here than in the years without you. I’ll tell Lord Robert to bring you with him on his next hunting trip. Or perhaps your future husband is a sportsman. Lord Gore, is that his name? I have yet to meet your fiance. Is he here tonight?»

Fear made Jessica miss a step in the smooth waltz. Wolfe caught her and set her right with the same casual grace as he did everything.

«Forgive me,» he murmured. «I’m clumsy tonight.»

«You’re like a great dark cat, and you know it as well as I. It was my clumsiness, not yours.»

Though Jessica’s voice was light, Wolfe sensed something just beneath her glittering surface. He watched her with dark eyes as they waltzed, hardly able to credit what he was seeing. Gone was the thin child with ice-blue eyes, burning red hair, and quick laughter. In her place was a stunning young woman who had an uncomfortable effect on his senses, an effect he had refused to acknowledge for years.

«A clumsy elf?» Wolfe asked. «Not possible, little one. Like a marriage between ahalfbreed bastard and the Lady Jessica Charteris.» He grinned, showing strong white teeth against the darkness of his skin. «What a lively mind you have. I must compliment you on your wit.»

Jessica stumbled again, and again was caught by the easy strength of the man who was holding her within the civilized confines of the waltz. Yet even on the dance floor, Wolfe’s power was apparent. She had always thought of his strength as a refuge, even when she hadn’t been able to see him for years on end. She had lived on her memories, on the knowledge that there was one place on earth of refuge for her. Believing that had kept her from panic when her guardian insisted on the marriage to Lord Gore.

But now Wolfe’s refuge no longer seemed available to Jessica, leaving her fighting for her life. Alone.

Dear God, what will I do? Wolfe must agree to the marriage! How can 1 convince him?

«Your fingers are cold, Jessi.» Wolfe frowned. «You’re trembling. Are you ill?»

The concern in Wolfe’s expression and voice gave Jessica hope once more. He did care for her. She could see it in his unusual eyes, neither black nor yet blue, the color of deep twilight or sapphires in candlelight. She smiled with relief, not knowing how her smile lit her delicate face.

«‘Tisbut excitement at seeing you, Wolfe. When you didn’t answer Lady Victoria’s letter, I was afraid you had forgotten me.»

«How could I forget the redheaded elf who plagued me by sewing my sleeves shut so neatly that the stitches didn’t show? The elf who switched salt for sugar and laughed with such delight at the faces I made? The elf who hid in a haystack during a storm until I found her and promised to hold the thunder at bay?»

«Which you did quite well.» Unwittingly, Jessica moved closer to Wolfe as she had in the past, seeking the reassuring warmth of his body, the shelter of his strength. «Quite well indeed.»

«A matter of timing rather than control over the elements,» Wolfe said dryly, easing Jessica away from his body. «The storm was spent.»

«I called you Talks Back To Thunder for weeks afterward.»

«And I called you Hay Maiden.»

Jessica’s silver laughter drew approving glances from nearby dancers.

«Your laugh would make a stone smile,» Wolfe said.

«I have missed you, my Lord Wolfe. Surely you did not have to absent yourself for so long. The duchess’ heart healed within the half-year. You could have returned.»

«I’m not a lord. I’m the viscount’s savage, the bastard son of a Cheyenne woman and Lord Robert Stewart, Viscount of —»

Jessica’s small hand covered Wolfe’s mouth, cutting off his words. The gesture was as old as her understanding that his lack of legitimate birth laid him open to the same caustic thrusts from the English aristocracy that Jessica’s commoner mother and titled Scots father did.

«I won’t have you belittle my very best friend,» Jessica said firmly. «Elves have magical abilities. Youaremy Lord Wolfe. If you will save me from the ice storm outside, I will save you from the lecherous duchesses inside.»

Smiling, Wolfe looked over Jessica’s carefully coiffed head to the black night beyond Lord Stewart’s windows. Sleet gleamed dully with reflected light.

«You’re right,» he said. «It’s storming. It wasn’t when I stepped off the ship.»

«I always know when it’s storming,» Jessica said. «I used to watch the storms rake across the firth and count the seconds until they reached the house.»

Wolfe sensed rather than felt her repressed shudder. His eyes narrowed as he looked down at the young woman who clung just a bit too tightly to him. Yet she wasn’t putting out any of the signals of a woman looking for a lover.

«Were you always afraid of storms?» he asked.

«I don’t remember.»

The lack of music in Jessica’s voice startled Wolfe. He had forgotten that she spoke rarely, if ever, of the nine years before the Earl ofGlenshire died and she became the ward of a distant cousin whom she had never met.

«Odd that you don’t remember.»

«Do you remember your boyhood among the Cheyenne?»

«The smell of a certain kind of wood smoke, the leap of a campfire against the night, chants and dances meant to call spirits…yes, I remember.»

«I bow to your superior memory.» Jessica smiled and glanced up through her lashes as she had been schooled to do by Lady Victoria. «Could we dance farther from the garden window? The draft is quite cool.»

Wolfe glanced at the graceful curve of Jessica’s neck and shoulders and the more intimate curves of breasts whose upper swell was barely sheathed in ice-blue silk. A smooth gold locket lay in the shadowed cleft between her breasts. He had given her that bit of jewelry just before he went to America to remove the Stewart family from the cuckolded duke’s wrath. Wolfe wondered if she carried her fiance’s picture in the locket.

Then Jessica took a breath and Wolfe’s eyes moved from the gold jewelry to the fine skin beneath it. It reminded him of warm cream. The scent of her was a rose garden beneath a summer sun, and her mouth was a pink bud from that same garden. She rested in his arms as lightly as a sigh.

She was a child eleven years younger than he was, and she was making him burn.

«If you’re chilly, Lady Jessica, next time wear a gown that covers more of your flesh.»

The coolness in Wolfe’s voice startled Jessica. He called her Lady Jessica only when he was angry with her. Perplexed, she looked down at the modest decolletage of her gown. No other woman in the room was so well-covered.

«What are you talking about, Wolfe? Lady Victoria was quite put out by the lines of my gown.»

«A rare show of good sense on her part,» he retorted.

Jessica laughed. «You mistook me. She wanted the neckline lowered, the waist drawn tight, and a much greater girth of crinoline. I preferred the French fashion, which lacks all those bothersome crinolines.»

Wolfe remembered Jessica running toward him when she first spotted him across the room. He had seen quite clearly the feminine curve of hip and thigh beneath the filmy cloth. It had been an unwelcome reminder that his elf was grown…and soon to become a lord’s wife.

«I didn’t want a huge weight of petticoats or pearls or diamonds,» Jessica continued. «Lady Victoria thought the dress and the jewelry too plain. She said I looked like a stick fetched by one of the hounds.»

«A stick,» muttered Wolfe, looking at the velvet shadow that lay between Jessica’s young breasts. «Your guardian is in need of spectacles.»

If another man had looked at Jessica in that way, she would have found an excuse to end the dance. But Wolfe was different. He was a man with no title, no need for heirs; he was not looking for a brood sow for his get.

Wind bellowed and hail scattered like shot across the glass. Shuddering with a fear whose source she remembered only in dreams and forgot before waking, Jessica tried to get closer to Wolfe. Even the reduced skirts of her modern ball gown prevented it. She stumbled for a third time, and again was caught by hands that were both powerful and gentle.