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Slowly, she cupped his cheek. The air grew heavy, her chest tightening with each draw of breath. Archer closed his eyes, seeming to steel himself, and she knew he meant to pull away again. The idea of it slashed at her breast. Suddenly everything became quite simple.

Her hand slid to his neck as she closed the gap that she could no longer tolerate. Archer’s eyes snapped open, and a tremble ripped through him. “Don’t…” The protest died as her mouth fitted to his.

A shock of feeling coursed through her limbs at the touch. His breath caught sharply as though he too felt the shock. His body grew taut as a bow, quivering with barely held restraint. And she knew then that as much as he desired it, he feared touching her. Lifting to her toes, she angled her head and kissed him again, a slow searching kiss that parted his lips. Her teeth caught the delectable curve of his upper lip, delighting in the feel and taste of it, desire coursing through her veins like molten honey. A noise tore from Archer’s throat—part whimper, part plea—and he pulled back slightly.

“It was never about denial,” he said, even as his arms tightened around her waist to crush her hard against him—where she’d wanted to be all along.

“What was it, then?” she said on a breath.

“Preservation,” he rasped before he kissed her deep and sure.

Like a brand to dry tinder, her insides ignited. She swayed as his lips moved over hers to learn the shape and feel of them by touch. The warm wet slide of his tongue over hers caught her like a fish on a hook, tugging sharp and sweet and deep within her belly. Her world became him. Archer. The fresh scent of his linen shirt, the tickle of his lashes against her temple. Silence thundered in her ears, tempered by soft murmurs and the rustle of clothes. His tongue sliding, searching, taking. The silk of his lapels crumpled under her fingers, her br**sts shifting against the hard wall of his chest as she pulled him closer. One kiss built upon another until her mind went dark and quiet. Heat pooled in her belly, swirling and volcanic, rising up to play over her skin. She sighed and a question drifted over his kiss, causing her breath to quicken painfully.

Yes. Oh, yes. And now.

Archer replied, and the intensity of it knocked the strength from her knees. She sagged in his arms with a whimper. He swallowed it down, his kiss delving deeper. Licks of pure pleasure ran over her skin, beneath the tight confines of her heavy clothes. He muttered something coarse and possessive and fisted the loose knot of her hair. Pots rattled as he fell against the counter, taking her with him.

He’d lost his mind. He didn’t care. He was somewhere hot and delicious. And he was surrounded by Miranda, her supple warmth, her luscious, plump mouth. He sank into the kiss, learned her flavor.

God, he was hot. His skin burned. Burned where she touched him, where her small hands caressed the expanse of his chest. His blood roared through his ears as he came at her mouth again and again. Soft, hard, he suckled the thick pillow of her bottom lip. Light kisses, then deep. Searing need took his thoughts down dark roads.

Groaning, he turned, pushed her onto the work counter and stepped between her endless legs. He wanted to taste her skin, lick his way down her long neck, over the sweet swell of her br**sts. But not yet; he couldn’t leave her mouth. Didn’t want to. Kissing her was better than any of his imaginings. And he had imagined a lot. Her mouth was maddening, firm, soft, slick, smooth—an agony. Skirts rustled as he gathered them, bunches of silk filling his hand. He caught a flash of smooth creamy flesh. Take her, tunnel into her tight, wet, heat. Miranda’s tongue snaked over his, and his knees almost buckled, for she was kissing him with the same desperation.

Trying to gain control, he grabbed the marble edge of the counter. His free hand would not let her go. It slid down her slim back to that tight little bottom. He wrenched her closer, and she arched into him, her hands falling back for support. Soft br**sts crushed against his chest. He thrust his h*ps between her legs, grinding against the place where he wanted, needed to be. Heat washed over him. His clothes weighed him down, smothered him. Sweat bloomed over his skin, yet he shivered.

The stone beneath his hand burned. He gripped it tighter. She suckled his upper lip, and he groaned, consumed by heat and the elusive taste of her. Good God, he was going to die. An apoplexy due to lust. Tension and pleasure coiled so tight in his gut he feared he would spill right there and then. His arm shook, his grip on the worktop painful.

A sharp crack rent the air, and Archer pitched to the side as the worktop gave out from under his arm. He stumbled back as Miranda gave a shocked cry. Even as he fell, his arm stayed locked around her, trying to protect her. Archer righted, and standing on unsteady feet, he studied Miranda.

Golden red hair tilted drunkenly from her topknot, strands falling about her shoulders, but she appeared unharmed. Her mouth was swollen and red and so bloody gorgeous he found himself leaning toward her before the fog completely lifted from his brain. Archer blinked, and he shook his head a bit to clear it. He stepped back, suddenly aware of the chunk of marble he still grasped in his right hand. Cold shock slapped his skin as he looked behind Miranda to the ruin that was his work counter. Black scorch marks flared over the white marble top, now broken into two jagged pieces.

He had bloody well torn the thing apart, had set it aflame somehow. Nausea swelled up from his gut. “Jesus Christ!”

Miranda turned and went the color of curdled cream.

“Christ,” Archer said again, backing away from her. He might have killed her, crushed the life out of her in his zeal. Terror knifed through him at the thought.

Miranda gaped up at him, her expression echoing his. She swallowed hard, no doubt coming to the same horrific conclusion. His brain froze, unable to come up with a word of explanation. He needed to get out. Get away from her. Tears welled in Miri’s eyes before she wrenched around, turning her back on him. His heart stuttered.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I have to…” She didn’t finish but ran from the greenhouse as though the fires from hell were upon her.

He wanted her to go. Be safe from him. But the sight of her fleeing tore through his heart.

Chapter Twenty

Ian Mckinnon entertained his whore for half the night.

Three floors below, in the quiet dark of Mckinnon’s library, Archer pulled his watch from his pocket. Nearly two in the morning. He rolled his eyes and snapped the watch shut. It galled him to wait. In his current mood, he wanted to kill anyone lucky enough to get sexual satisfaction. Most especially McKinnon.

But surprise was key when invading Mckinnon’s lair. As it was, Rossberry had slid away upon learning of Archer’s interest. Now the bulk of Mckinnon’s staff had disappeared overnight, either having been let go or sent on elsewhere, disbanding with the same ghostly efficiency as Rossberry’s staff. Archer could ill afford to let Mckinnon slip through his fingers. Not after what he’d seen tonight—his golden ring upon the man’s finger, glinting in the light. So real it was a shock to see it. It had taken all of his control not to rip it from Mckinnon’s hand then and there. But Miranda would have seen and asked questions.

A loud thump and a disjointed groan came from above, drawing Archer’s gaze to the carved flower medallion upon the ceiling. If the cur didn’t finish soon, he’d drag him from his bed. Archer finished his single malt with an impatient swallow. At least the man stocked a proper bar.

Laughter rang out, the whore’s nasal titters tempered by Mckinnon’s deep rumble. Archer suppressed an oath. Even when he’d been whole, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to pay for pleasure. The pair scampered drunkenly down the last set of stairs, coming into view as they paused in the hall. Light from the flickering wall sconces fell upon the woman, and the lingering taste of peaty scotch turned sour in Archer’s mouth. Ginger-haired, green-eyed, and uncommonly tall, she possessed nauseatingly obvious qualifications for Mckinnon’s selection. Her fine clothes and good skin marked her as quality goods. Archer repressed a snort. One might as well try to pass off chalk-water for cream.

Archer waited in silence while Mckinnon paid his doxy and sent her on her way with a loud slap to her rump. Humming a satisfied tune, he sauntered into the library moments later, headed for the drinks table.

“A rather pathetic imitation for the real thing,” Archer said, shattering the peaceful silence.

Mckinnon started, his fine slippers scuffing on the parquet. A low growl sounded in his throat as he whipped around, puzzlement over how he had missed an intruder knitting his brows.

Yellow flashed in Mckinnon’s blue eyes as Archer lit the lamp.

“Even for you, Mckinnon.”

Realization came quickly to Mckinnon. “Of course,” he said lightly. “You smell like nothing.” He straightened his dressing gown and helped himself to a tumbler of scotch. His throat bobbed against his open collar as he swallowed it down in one gulp. The glass landed hard upon the wood. The smoky lamplight cast shadows over Mckinnon’s lean features as he glanced at Archer. “Well, perhaps like frozen death.”

Archer smiled blandly. “And you smell like wet fur.”

Mckinnon laughed. “Aye, well.” His eyes gleamed in the dull lamplight. “You haven’t come for my irresistible charms, I see. Then what? Eavesdropping give you a cheap thrill? I’d have to guess you’re still repressed by that juvenile fear of bedding whores.”

“Is that what you call it?” Archer flashed his teeth. “Here I thought it was an aversion to paying someone to want me. I’ll get my pleasure for free, thanks.”

Mckinnon grinned. “But are you? I suspect your presence here rather screams your fear of where your wife’s affections lie.”

Archer smoothed a wrinkle in his trousers, his hand shaking but a little. He was fairly certain where her affections lay. The thought of it coursed hot through his blood.

The man’s keen eyes took in what was certainly smugness dwelling on Archer’s lips, and he snorted in disgust. “I may be sick.”

“I’d mind your shoes, then.”

Mckinnon displayed a set of sharp canines in a parody of a smile. “Are you going to tell her you’re responsible for this? For all of them?”

Archer’s hands settled comfortably in his lap. “For Rossberry too, I suppose.”

A low growl, little more than a rumble, came from Mckinnon’s throat.

Archer forced a laugh he did not feel. “My, but you are an impressionable pup. More so than my wife.”

Mckinnon’s silky voice drifted across the dark. “But she’s thinking about things now?” His eyes crinkled in mirth. “Isn’t she?”

Archer simply stared, his heart thundering in his ears, the urge to crack Mckinnon’s spine making his fists clench.

Mckinnon’s smile faltered, but he straightened with bravado. Glass clinked as he fiddled with the crystal stopper on a decanter. “Why are you here then?”

Feeding on Mckinnon’s disquiet, Archer regarded him for a minute more and then spoke. “The ring.”

A dark brow quirked as Mckinnon glanced down at his hand and the slash of gold upon it. “Foolish to take my gloves off, wasn’t it?” He flashed his teeth. “I’d become too comfortable, I suppose.”

Confident or not, base jealousy pushed through Archer’s insides. Mckinnon’s smile grew. He poured himself another drink. The faint movement brought the musky tang of sex into the air. Archer breathed through his mouth and waited.

“You know,” said Mckinnon finally, “I don’t believe I shall part with the ring. It was a gift from my father, you see. And it holds such fond memories of seeing you suffer, and all that.”

It wouldn’t take much to snap the mutt’s neck.

Unaware of the danger, Mckinnon turned and leaned a hip upon the console. “I am, however, willing to consider a trade. A dip in your wife’s luscious—”

Mckinnon flew across the room, the blow from Archer’s fist slamming him into the wall, in a spray of plaster and flopping limbs. A painting of the Thames teetered on the wall above him as he fell in a heap on the floor. Mckinnon sucked in a ragged breath and then launched upward.

The impact caught Archer around the middle as Mckinnon tackled him. They fell back with a thud, sliding across the floor to crash into a writing desk. Wood splintered, paper fell like leaves about them. Archer felt the sharp prick of a broken table leg against his back and then he spun, throwing Mckinnon off him in one move. The man tumbled several feet then leapt up, just as Archer did.

“You’re stronger now,” Mckinnon observed with a breathless laugh. Archer rather had the same thought about Mckinnon but kept it to himself. Blood colored Mckinnon’s teeth red as he snarled and came at Archer again.

Archer slid past, catching Mckinnon’s outstretched arm. He swung the man around and tossed him like a rag into the far wall. Mckinnon collided with a curio cabinet in an explosion of glass.

“Faster too,” retorted Archer as shards of glass pinged upon the floor. He straightened his lapels, and when Mckinnon rushed him, he swung low, catching the man in the gut. Mckinnon roared and whirled round, his fist connecting with surprising force to Archer’s temple. Archer saw stars. He blinked them back and lashed out, hearing the satisfying crunch of bone as his fist sunk into Mckinnon’s face.

Mckinnon fell like a broken mainmast. Archer pressed his foot into his neck to keep him from rising. “I think you’ve had enough, young pup.”

Mckinnon’s eyes narrowed to blue slits. “Bastard.” He spat, blood gushing from his skewed nose and split lip. “If the moon was brighter…”

Archer pressed down. “Unfortunately for you, it isn’t.”

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