"I made tea," she said.
She drew very near him. Too near. His whole body went on alert, and his blood pounded in his ears.
Then she bent down and set the mug of tea on the table. "Just to the right of your elbow."
He could feel heat. Probably the tea, but maybe her. He was vibrating between the desire to clutch her close and the instinct to push her away. A muscle quivered in his arm.
"You have a bit of fluff just here." Her fingers teased through his hair, sending ripples of sensation down his spine. When he flinched, she said softly, "Hold still. I'll get it."
No, you won't.
He caught her wrist. And then he caught her in his arms, tugging her down to his lap.
"What are you doing?" she asked, breathless.
"What am I doing? What the devil are you doing?"
Her hips wriggled, taunting him.
He held her tighter still, immobile. "You come down here and torment me at the crack of every dawn. Now you're making me tea. And flicking fluff. Is this some kind of coddling? I don't want any coddling."
"It's not coddling. It's not meant to be tormenting, either. I just . . . enjoy greeting you in the morning."
Ransom would have believed just about any other excuse. But she couldn't expect him to credit that she stole down here in the misty, early dawn for the pleasure of his company.
"It's true. Every time you wake up, you let fly the most marvelous string of curses. It's never the same twice, do you know that? It's so intriguing. You're like a rooster that crows blasphemy."
"Oh, there's a cock crowing, all right," he muttered.
She smiled, and he heard it. Or felt it, somehow. The warmth was inside him before he could shut it out.
She said, "But that's what I like most, you see. No one ever talks that way to me. You're so crude and profane. I . . . I know it's absurd, but I can't help it. I find it perversely delightful."
She liked crude? She wanted profane?
Very well, then. Crude and profane he could give her.
"Listen to me. When a man wakes, he wakes wanting. He wakes hard and rude and aching with need." He shifted, pressing his massive erection against her hip. "Do you feel that?"
She gasped. "Yes."
"It wants in you," he said.
"In . . . in me."
"Yes. In you. Hard, deep, fast, and completely. Now don't wake me at this hour again unless you've found the perfect retort to that."
She didn't answer.
He hoped this time she was well and truly alarmed. Because he was alarmed. The pent-up need in his body felt near some kind of breaking point, and he had enough broken parts already.
The most frightening part of all?
He couldn't seem to let her go.
In all his years of bedding women by night, Ransom made certain he never woke up with them in the morning. Now he was waking up to this woman-this strange, eccentric, tempting woman-every morning, and he wasn't even getting the pleasure of bedding her first.
It was intolerable. Unjust. And very worrisome. Because he was starting to grow accustomed to her.
Damn, he was starting to like her. It felt so easy, sitting here, wreathed in the aromas of tea and morning mist. One arm about her slender waist, whilst with the other hand he teased her-
Somehow, he'd wound a lock of her hair about his finger. There it was. Right This Moment. And he had no recollection of doing it, either.
What was he coming to, when a woman sat in his lap, he gave her a stern what-for . . . and then ten seconds later, oopsy-daisy and la-di-dah, he went and twirled a finger in her hair?
That was not ducal behavior. It certainly wasn't normal behavior for him.
He tried to nonchalantly withdraw his finger from its embarrassing predicament, but he recoiled too quickly. The curling strand of hair tightened around his knuckle like a slipknot.
He tried again, pulling harder. Panic began to build in his chest.
Dear God, it wouldn't let him go.
"Stop," she whispered, shushing him. "Do you feel that?"
He felt a lot of things. Far too many things.
"It almost seems as if the ground is trembling."
Oh. That. Yes, now that she mentioned it, he did feel the shiver in the soles of his feet. The ground was trembling. Someone was approaching in the drive.
Not just someone, but many someones.
He discerned not only hoofbeats but the smoother clack of carriage wheels.
Ransom shut his eyes and quickly reviewed England's recent military history. The Danes, Napoleon, the Americans . . . all those conflicts had been settled, last he knew. But then, he had been living in isolation.
He asked, "In the past seven months, has England entered any new wars?"
"Not that I'm aware of," she answered. "Why?"
Because by now the vibration had become so intense, he could have believed the castle was under siege.
She clutched his arm. "Goodness. What is that?"
"Am I going mad, or . . . ?" He trained his ear. "Was that a trumpet?"
"It was," she breathed. "Oh, no."
He didn't miss the ominous note in her voice. "What is it? What's wrong?"
She leapt from his embrace and began pacing the floor. "I knew it. I knew it would happen eventually, but I didn't think it would be so soon."
He stood and took her by the shoulders, holding her in one place. He might be blinded, weakened, and on the verge of madness-but while there was still life in him, no harm would come to a woman living under his roof.
"Be calm," he said. "Just tell me what you're on about. At once."
"It's them. They've found me."
Who's found you?" he asked.
Izzy winced at the prospect of spilling the truth
. Within minutes, there wouldn't be any hiding it. But the duke wasn't going to like this. Not at all.
She was preparing to explain when Ransom took her by the shoulders.
His brow was stern. "Now listen to me. I don't know who they are or what they want from you. But while there's breath in my lungs and strength in my body, I swear this much: I won't let you come to harm."
There he went again, making her knees go weak. Never in her life had Izzy been on the receiving end of such a pledge. At least, not one made spontaneously, and most certainly not delivered by such a man as this.
Words were momentarily beyond her. His protective promises had left her feeling rather dizzy. And a little bit guilty for worrying him so.
But only a little bit.
"It is an invasion," she said, "but a friendly one. We're getting a visit from the Moranglian Army. Come see, if you can."
She brought him to the gallery of windows that looked out onto the courtyard.
There, visible through the archway, were approximately a score of mounted riders, followed by three coaches drawn by teams. The armored riders dismounted in unison, and the carriage doors opened, spilling forth about a dozen young ladies in medieval dress. Banners waved briskly in the morning breeze. Izzy couldn't make out the words emblazoned on them, but she didn't need to. She knew what they said.
"Who are these people?" Ransom asked, as the riders and ladies walked through the archway and into the courtyard. "What the hell do they want?"
"I told you, my father's more enthusiastic readers call themselves Moranglians. They have clubs and circular letters to share their news. And the particularly dedicated Moranglians . . . well, some of them take it a bit further. They enjoy dressing as the characters, acting out battles and scenes. They're very well organized. There's an oath they take, and badges."
"What's that god-awful clanking I hear?"
"It's . . ." She sighed. "It's armor."
She risked a glance at the duke's face.
As expected, he looked revolted. "Armor?"
"I know it makes no sense to you." She reached for her embroidered shawl. "You don't have to approve of it. Just don't disparage them."
Wrapping her shawl about her shoulders, Izzy leaned out the window and waved. "Good people of Moranglia!"
All the young men and women assembled in the courtyard turned and looked up at her. The knights, with their makeshift armor, fell into a formation.
One stepped forward and performed a deep genuflection. "My lady. I am Sir Wendell Butterfield, first knight of the West Yorkshire Riding Knights of Moranglia, also representing our sisters, the local chapter of Cressida's Handmaidens."
"You and your party have traveled far, Sir Wendell."
"We have. Do I have the honor of addressing Miss Izzy Goodnight?"
"Yes, it's I," she called down, smiling. "Miss Izzy Goodnight. Your knights and ladies are most welcome here."
While the crowd below cheered, Ransom made a gagging noise. "There you are with that treacly voice again."
"Stop," she chided, speaking out of the corner of her mouth. "I can't spoil it for them. They mean well."
"How do they mean well, showing up unannounced this early in the morning? What on earth can they want of you?"
"Just a visit, most likely. Perhaps a quick tour of the castle. But I won't know for certain until I go ask, will I?"
She called down to Sir Wendell. "Good Sir Wendell, please be at ease. I'll come thither anon."
He reached for her. "Wait. You can't let all those fancy-dress fools tromp through my castle. Thithering and anon-ing. I'm not having it, Goodnight."
"It's my castle. And I'm not inviting them for a house party, but I will show a modicum of hospitality toward my guests."
"These are not guests. They're uninvited intruders. Don't ask them anything. Tell them to go." He gestured in the direction of the dwindling, yet still-massive, heap of correspondence. "If you mean to claim this as your castle, there's a great deal of work to be done."
"Work will have to wait." She shrugged away from him, moving toward the front entrance. "They've come all this distance. I can't turn them away."
"Certainly you can. It's bad enough that they pester you with letters and questions. Draw a line, Goodnight. Go out there and tell them you're a grown woman who can sling about the word 'cock' with the ease of a courtesan, and you don't appreciate unannounced visits. Then invite them to sod off, the bunch of clanking idiots. If you won't, I'll do it."
"No." Panicked, Izzy put a hand to his chest, stopping him in his paces. "Your Grace, please. I won't invite them inside the castle if you don't like. I'll send them away as quickly as I can. Just promise me you'll stay upstairs, out of sight. Let me deal with this. Trust me when I tell you, you don't want these people to see your face."
Ransom clenched his jaw.
So. His wrecked face wasn't as disgusting as he'd been thinking all these months.
It was worse.
Apparently, he was such a horrifying monster, he needed to be locked away in the tower, lest he frighten the tenderhearted fools currently filling his courtyard.
Well. At least now he knew.
And today, his terrifying looks would be put to some use. He was going to clear out these intruders himself.
He pushed past her and exited the great hall, heading for the exterior stairs.
"Wait. Ransom, please."
He ignored her, striding forward to stand on the topmost step. The crowd hushed at once. He heard a few gasps, and not all of them feminine, either.