He whispered her name, and the raw emotion in his voice undid her. His hands cinched the fabric at the small of her back. As though he needed her. Not only to remain standing, but to go on existing at all. "Izzy."
Light footsteps sounded from the far end of the corridor.
"Miss Goodnight?" Miss Pelham's voice.
Izzy pulled away from the kiss. His brow rested against hers. This was madness.
"I have to go," she whispered.
They couldn't be discovered like this. It would require too many explanations that would embarrass them both. "Miss Goodnight, are you there?" Miss Pelham was closer now.
"Your Grace. I must go."
He held her tight, forbidding her to move. His breathing was still labored.
And then, suddenly, he lifted his head. His eyes, unseeing as they were, seemed to narrow.
He'd jolted back to himself, she could tell. A sudden lightning bolt had filled him with realizations: who he was, and who she was, and every reason he shouldn't be holding her.
With familiar brusqueness, he released her. "Go."
That night, Ransom dreamed of dark hair and a lush, red mouth. And heat. Tight, wet heat moving over him, under him.
No, no, no. He was waking.
Don't wake, he told his mind. Not all the way. Not yet.
He rolled onto his side. Keeping his eyes shut tight, he unbuttoned his breeches and curled a grip around the rigid column of his cock. He rarely felt like a frig anymore, despite how long he'd gone without a woman.
Maybe release wouldn't elude him this time.
He stroked his hand up, then down. Slowly, at first. Then faster.
In his half-dream trance, he felt it as her grip. And then as her mouth. And then as her sweet, wet, tight . . .
Ransom jolted fully awake. Damn him to hell. He knew that husky voice.
"Good morning." Her tone was distracted.
What was she doing down here at this hour? Hopefully not watching with schoolgirl curiosity as he tugged away at his cock. He wasn't ashamed, precisely, but he wasn't eager to explain himself, either.
"I didn't mean to wake you," she said. "It's just that your family's history is so fascinating."
He heard the flip of a page.
She'd been reading a book. Not watching him.
He stretched back on his pallet and released a string of profanity. "Good grief, Goodnight. It's too damn early."
"It's morning. Almost. And I'm reading this book Miss Pelham gave me about the history of the area. The Rothbury story is just marvelous."
"I'm glad my family's centuries of bloodshed, tyranny, and conniving amuse you."
He blinked, trying to make some sense of her. Visually, if not rationally.
She sat in profile, silhouetted by firelight, tucked into an armchair not five feet away. Her whole body made one pale, sensuous, spiraling curve. He glimpsed a bare foot dangling just over the seat's edge, twisting idly to and fro.
Her foot stopped. Stretched forward, with tantalizing slowness.
She turned another page. "I've only read through the fifth duke's imprisonment for treason. What happens next?"
"He was held in the Tower of London for years. Queen Mary held the throne just long enough to remove the charges."
"Ah," she said. "A stroke of luck there. I suppose they had to recover the castle by purchasing it back. That must be why the property was no longer entailed?"
Ransom struggled to a sitting position, his loins still pulsing with unspent lust. He reached for his boots and began tugging them on. Judging by the faint gray cast of his vision, it had to be damned early. Barely daybreak. And if she'd been sitting there reading for some time, as her cozy posture indicated, that must mean she'd come down while it was still night.
"Are you feeling well this morning?" Her question was cautious.
"Yes." His answer was curt. Ransom left no room for further discussion. He couldn't abide thinking about last night-couldn't begin to even make sense of it.
She set aside her book. "Just so you know, I'll only work until noon today. Miss Pelham is hiring housemaids in the village this morning, and we have plans to clear a dressing room in the afternoon. You're welcome to help."
"Goodnight," he said in a low, warning tone. "You're not going to waste more time cleaning house."
She set the book aside. "You're not the only one with a goal here, Your Grace. You want to find out what's happened to your business affairs? Well, I want a home. Mornings will be correspondence, afternoons will be castle. If we do this my way, we both get what we want."
Ransom pushed a hand through his hair. He wanted about a thousand things he wasn't getting, and approximately nine hundred of them involved her lips.
If she was so interested in a cozy home, why wasn't she up in her room?
"Is something wrong with your turret?"
"No. Not at all. I woke and . . . I suppose I was just a little cold. I came down to sit by the fire."
Then she made a strange, small sound.
"What was that?" he asked.
"What was what?"
"That noise you made. It sounded like a flea in the throes of passion."
"Oh, that. It was nothing. Just a sneeze."
He stopped. "That wasn't a sneeze. No one sneezes like that."
"I do, apparently." She sniffed. "Oh, dear. I'm going to do it again."
Another muffled, high-pitched paroxysm, like a mouse shushing a vole. Then another.
Ransom winced at each one. "Good God, that's disturbing."
She sniffed. "It's not meant to be
"That can't be healthy. If you need to sneeze, sneeze properly."
She did it again. Three of them this time. Little twitchy sounds.
"Tsh! Tsh! Tsh! This is just how I sneeze," she moaned. "I can't help it. This castle is dusty. And the turret has a draft."
Now this was a problem. She couldn't do any secretarial work if she fell ill. And Ransom couldn't survive this cohabitation much longer unless she stayed in her room the whole night.
Very well. He would permit her a few afternoons of housecleaning. And tonight, he vowed, she would be warm and comfortable in her bed, and, most importantly, far away.
He made a mental note.
Procure some blankets. Thick ones.
He did procure blankets. Thick ones.
But the next morning, there she was again. "Good morning."
And once again, Ransom jolted awake, with an aching cockstand and furious temper. He swore for a minute straight.
"Reading more history books?" he muttered.
"Writing a letter." Her pen scratched across the page. "I do have correspondence of my own, you know. Would you rather fight one hundred rat-sized elephants or one elephant-sized rat?"
He shook his head, trying to clear it. "What?"
"It's a question. If you had the choice, which would you rather do battle against? A hundred elephants the size of rats, or one rat the size of an elephant?"
"You seem to be under the impression that you're making sense. You're not."
"It's not a practical question, of course," she said. "It's just for discussion. Lord Peregrine and I have been corresponding for years. In his letters, he always poses these silly conundrums, and we debate them back and forth."
"Wait, wait. There's some lecherous old stick who writes you these letters directly? Why don't you tell the presumptuous rogue to go to the devil?"
"It's not like that. He's bedridden, poor thing. And he doesn't think of me as a woman, I assure you."
So this Lord Peregrine fellow had the imagination to picture battles with elephant-sized rats and rat-sized elephants, but he couldn't possibly think of Izzy Goodnight as a woman? On that point, Ransom was skeptical. Even if a man was bedridden, he was still a man.
With his injuries, there were many who'd consider Ransom an invalid. He was still a man. Every morning that he woke to the husky softness of her voice, his cock went granite-hard in response.
"So which would it be?" she went on. "The plague of tiny elephants or one giant rat? And as a corollary, what weapons would you choose?" She tapped her pen nib against the table. "I'm torn, myself. The giant rat would seem easier to kill if I could thrust a sword straight in its heart. But then, what if I missed? Then I'd be facing an enraged, wounded, giant rat."
Ransom had to give this Lord Peregrine one thing. His letters were excellent at withering lust.
"Tiny elephants would seem less lethal," she went on. "How much damage could two hundred miniature tusks wreak on a person, anyhow? Perhaps they'd tire themselves out if I had good shin-plates. What do you think?"
"I think you're debating what sort of armor to wear to a miniature-elephant attack. I think that's madness."
"What you call madness, I call . . . creative thinking. You could benefit from some of that, Your Grace."
He speared both hands through his hair. "Why are you down here at all? Write your letters upstairs."
"I don't have a writing desk upstairs."
Today's task: Procure a writing desk.
"Are you awake?" she whispered.
Ransom rubbed his face. "I am now."
Jesus Christ. This had to stop.
It had been almost a week now. Every day since she'd arrived, he woke to the sounds of Izzy Goodnight all too near.
He didn't know what time of night she was sneaking down here. He didn't want to know. He'd taken up drinking himself into a nightly stupor to avoid knowing.
In the past few days, he'd arranged for her to have a companion, blankets, a brazier, a writing desk. What more would it take to get her to stay in her damned room until a decent hour of morning?
A lock and chain, perhaps.
"I thought of something," she said excitedly. "It came to me last night, in bed. R-A-N-S-O-M."
He stretched a knot from his neck. "What?"
"That first night, you said, 'Do I have to spell out the danger?' But then halfway through, you forgot how to spell danger."
"I didn't forget how to spell the word," he objected. "I just got bored with the spelling of it."
The truth was, he wasn't as quick with words as he'd once been. Especially when he grew fatigued.
These predawn conversations with Izzy Goodnight were extremely fatiguing.
"Well, anyway. That's what you should have said." She lowered her voice to mimic his. " 'Do I have to spell out the danger for you? R-A-N-S-O-M.' "
He scrubbed the sleep from his face with both hands. "That's ridiculous. I'd never say that."
"Why not? It's perfect. Your name is the one word you can't forget how to spell."
He shook his head, frowning. "This argument was days ago now. It's over. And you've been thinking about this spelling nonsense ever since?"
"I know, I know. It's absurd. But that's always the way for me. I never think of the right thing to say until days later." She drifted closer to where he sat on his pallet. "I know it's hard to get back in the spirit of the moment now. But believe me, 'R-A-N-S-O-M' would have been the perfect retort."
He couldn't begin to decide how to answer that. So he didn't.