Ask for ItBy: Sylvia Day
London, April 1770
“A re you worried I’ll ravish the woman, Eldridge? I admit to a preference for widows in my bed. They are much more agreeable and decidedly less complicated than virgins or other men’s wives.”
Sharp gray eyes lifted from the mass of papers on the enormous mahogany desk. “Ravish, Westfield?” The deep voice was rife with exasperation. “Be serious, man. This assignment is very important to me.”
Marcus Ashford, seventh Earl of Westfield, lost the wicked smile that hid the soberness of his thoughts and released a deep breath. “And you must be aware that it is equally important to me.”
Nicholas, Lord Eldridge, sat back in his chair, placed his elbows on the armrests, and steepled his long, thin fingers. He was a tall and sinewy man with a weathered face that had seen too many hours on the deck of a ship. Everything about him was practical, nothing superfluous, from his manner of speaking to his physical build. He presented an intimidating presence with a bustling London thoroughfare as a backdrop. The result was deliberate and highly effective.
“As a matter of fact, until this moment, I was not aware. I wanted to exploit your cryptography skills. I never considered you would volunteer to manage the case.”
Marcus met the piercing gray stare with grim determination. Eldridge was head of the elite band of agents whose sole purpose was to investigate and hunt down known pirates and smugglers. Working under the auspices of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, Eldridge wielded an inordinate amount of power. If Eldridge refused him the assignment, Marcus would have little say.
But he would not be refused. Not in this.
He tightened his jaw. “I will not allow you to assign someone else. If Lady Hawthorne is in danger, I will be the one to ensure her safety.”
Eldridge raked him with an all-too-perceptive gaze. “Why such passionate interest? After what transpired between you, I’m surprised you would wish to be in close contact with her. Your motive eludes me.”
“I have no ulterior motive.” At least not one he would share. “Despite our past, I’ve no desire to see her harmed.”
“Her actions dragged you into a scandal that lasted for months and is still discussed today. You put on a good show, my friend, but you bear scars. And some festering wounds, perhaps?”
Remaining still as a statue, Marcus kept his face impassive and struggled against his gnawing resentment. His pain was his own and deeply personal. He disliked being asked about it. “Do you think me incapable of separating my personal life from my professional one?”
Eldridge sighed and shook his head. “Very well. I won’t pry.”
“And you won’t refuse me?”
“You are the best man I have. It was only your history that gave me pause, but if you are comfortable with it, I have no objections. However, I will grant her request for reassignment, if it comes to that.”
Nodding, Marcus hid his relief. Elizabeth would never ask for another agent; her pride wouldn’t permit it.
Eldridge began to tap his fingertips together. “The journal Lady Hawthorne received was addressed to her late husband and is written in code. If the book was involved in his death…” He paused. “Viscount Hawthorne was investigating Christopher St. John when he met his reward.”
Marcus stilled at the name of the popular pirate. There was no criminal he longed to apprehend more than St. John, and his enmity was personal. St. John’s attacks against Ashford Shipping were the impetus to his joining the agency. “If Lord Hawthorne kept a journal of his assignments and St. John were to acquire the information—bloody hell!” His gut tightened at the thought of the pirate anywhere near Elizabeth.
“Exactly,” Eldridge agreed. “In fact, Lady Hawthorne has already been contacted about the book since it was brought to my attention just a sennight ago. For her safety and ours, it should be removed from her care immediately, but that’s impossible at the moment. She was instructed to personally deliver the journal, hence the need for our protection.”
Eldridge slid a folder across the desk. “Here is the information I’ve gathered so far. Lady Hawthorne will apprise you of the rest during the Moreland ball.”
Collecting the particulars of the assignment, Marcus stood and took his leave. Once in the hallway, he allowed a grim smile of satisfaction to curve his lips.
He’d been only days away from seeking Elizabeth out. The end of her mourning meant his interminable waiting was over. Although the matter of the journal was disturbing, it worked to his advantage, making it impossible for her to avoid him. After the scandalous way she’d jilted him four years ago she would not be pleased with his new appearance in her life. But she wouldn’t turn to Eldridge either, of that he was certain.
Soon, very soon, all that she had once promised and then denied him would finally be his.
M arcus found Elizabeth before he even set foot in the Moreland ballroom. In fact, he was trapped on the staircase as impatient peers and dignitaries sought a word with him. He was oblivious to those who vied for his attention, arrested by a brief glimpse of her.
She was even lovelier than before. How that was possible he couldn’t say. She had always been exquisite. Perhaps absence had made his heart grow fonder.