Stymied, he sorted out the tangle of garments. This wasn't "just another morning" for him, either.
He yanked the shirt over his head and punched his arms through the sleeves. Then he rose from the bed, pulling his breeches to his waist and fastening the closures.
He crossed to the dressing table, where she was hastily pinning up her hair. He dropped a kiss on her exposed neck. "Izzy, last night was . . ."
"Really?" He caught a stray curl. "I don't think you do."
She nodded and turned to face him. "It's all right. You needn't be worried, Ransom. I understand. Last night was lovely, but . . ."
Ransom couldn't believe he was hearing that word. Last night was so lovely, but?
No "but" belonged in that sentence. Only "and." Last night was so lovely and passionate and tender and erotic and . . .
"But it was like a dream," she went on briskly. "This morning, I'm clear-eyed and levelheaded. You needn't worry. I haven't formed any silly expectations of you."
Good God. He was shocked speechless.
These were words that any jaded rake would be thrilled to hear. Words that Ransom would have been thrilled to hear, from any other woman, on any prior occasion.
Coming from her, this morning? The words were gutting him.
"We'll get back to our work this morning," she said. "I can be very professional. I promise, it will be like nothing happened at all."
She slipped away from him, hastening down the stairs.
He let her go.
She had no expectations of him.
Did she really think he would make love to her last night, and then want to go on today as if nothing had happened at all?
Well, of course she believed that. Why wouldn't she? She'd spent the past few weeks reading through abundant evidence of just such behavior. By now, she was intimately acquainted with his history, his temperament, all his vices and faults. He'd done nothing but underscore the impression with boorish behavior and the occasional groping. Add to everything the fact that he was a scarred, blinded wretch.
And then, last night, he'd taken her virtue-without so much as the mention of marriage, or even any promises beyond the one night's pleasure.
Naturally, she had no expectations.
He supposed that meant one thing.
If he wanted any chance of keeping her, Ransom would have to come up with some surprises.
Izzy needed the comfort of familiar tasks this morning. Too many aspects of her world had altered since yesterday. She was no longer a virgin. She was a bit sore between her legs. Her heart was raw and tender.
In sum, she ached all over.
What did last night mean to him? What did it mean to her?
She was afraid to ask those questions. She would rather linger in this giddy ignorance a while longer.
All these stretched and vulnerable parts of her needed some time to recover, that was all. And then Izzy could take a deep breath and a good, hard look at herself.
"You started without me?"
Then she looked up and saw him. The air vacated her lungs. Her grip tightened on her pen.
Snap, went the quill.
Thud, went her heart.
No man should be this handsome. It just wasn't fair. He entered the great hall, wearing a clean, open-necked shirt tucked into gray trousers. His hair was still damp at the temples, but the sunlight found the streaks of gold in his brown hair and teased her with them.
With effort, Izzy tore her gaze away and attempted to concentrate on the task at hand. It was rather like trying to work with a small, glowing sun in the room. Struggle as she might to avoid looking directly at him, she couldn't escape his intensity and heat. Much less her memories of last night. Perspiration beaded between her breasts.
"This morning," she said, clearing her throat, "we must settle down to business. No more going through every paper and sorting them into piles. I've read enough by now that I can tell Significant from Insignificant at a glance. We need to start making meaningful progress through this heap."
"Why the rush?" He didn't settle in his usual place on the sofa. Instead, he came to stand at her shoulder. "You've been purposely delaying thus far. More days of work means more money for you."
Yes, but that was before. Before she'd realized something was amiss in these papers and before she cared enough about him to want it sorted out.
Something was wrong here.
"We need to find all the envelopes from your solicitors." She handed him an envelope, moving his thumb over the lumpy wax holding it closed. "They always use the same seal. You can find them by touch."
He cast the envelope aside. "I'd rather be touching you."
He moved behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders and kneading her tensed muscles.
"Relax," he murmured. "We don't have to do this right now."
"Yes. We truly do. I've been growing quite concerned."
"Don't be concerned." He kissed her just beneath the ear. "Izzy, I don't want you to worry about anything."
Her knees went to jelly again. She braced one palm flat on the table, leaning her weight on it for strength.
"Here's a letter from the solicitors. I should sit down and read it." She reached for her usual seat.
He slid his arm around her waist and kicked the chair away. "Not yet."
"It is possible to read standing, you know."
"It's possible to do a lot of things standing." He left a trail of kisses down the nape of her neck. His hands caressed her hips.
She laughed nervously. "I don't know what to make of you this morning. Where's the surly man who greets the dawn with a curse? What about 'Good grief, Goodnight'? Where are those charming maritime endearments?"
He pulled on a lock of her hair
"Well, that's all wrong. You said it so fondly."
She made her voice chastening, but secretly, she was elated. Apparently, whatever it was between them, he wanted it to last longer than the one night.
She broke the envelope's seal and began to read. "It's dated three months ago. It begins, 'May it please Your Grace-' "
"What was that?" he murmured. "Repeat it for me. Just those last three words."
The last three words? Izzy consulted the paper. "Please Your Gra-" Oh, the shameless rogue. She gave in. "Please, Your Grace."
"With pleasure." He slipped one hand to cup her breast. The other delved under her skirts.
"Ransom," she chided. "Someone could come in at any moment."
"Yes. They could. That's what makes it so exciting."
Izzy couldn't deny it. It was exciting. Her nipples drew to tight points, and between her legs, she was already aching for him. "But you can't mean for us to . . ." She swallowed. "Really? Here?"
"Oh, I mean to do this everywhere. I plan to have you in every room of this castle. And why stop there? On the ramparts, beneath the stars. In the park, on a blanket spread amid waving grasses." He pushed her skirts to her waist. "But we start right here, right now. I've been dreaming of taking you on this table for weeks."
The lines started to blur together on the page. Her hand slipped forward, and papers spilled to the floor. There was nothing Significant anymore. Nothing except the wicked caress of his fingers, sweeping up her thigh.
"Hullo? Anyone about?"
The unfamiliar voice called up from the courtyard.
Izzy startled, sending a sheaf of papers to the ground. "Oh, heavens," she whispered. "Who's that?"
"Hullo!" The voice again. "Ho, there!"
"I don't care who he is. He needs to disappear." Ransom turned and called out the window. "For the love of God, man. I have England's sweetheart bent over the desk and panting for me. Go away and come back tomorrow."
Horrified, Izzy shoved him away. "Ransom."
She hastened outside. Thankfully, the visitor wasn't anyone she knew. Just a messenger with an express post. Izzy gave him the postage and an extra coin for his troubles, apologizing for the duke's inappropriate sense of humor.
When she came back inside, she put off his attempts at returning to their interlude, putting a hand to his chest.
"Ransom, don't ever joke like that. I mean it. What if Duncan or Abigail had been about? Worse, what if that had been a Moranglian?"
"So what if it had been?" he asked. "Why do you care what those people think? Why are you so afraid of their knowing that you're not an innocent little girl anymore?"
"Because being that innocent little girl is how I've survived."
He couldn't possibly understand this. He was a wealthy, privileged duke, and he always had been. He didn't know what it was to be hungry and shivering alone in the dark.
"You recall how little I had to my name when I came here," she said. "If you succeed in taking this castle from me, I'll be left with nothing again. But my father's admirers support me, in their own . . . unique but well-meaning ways. I may not have money, but at least I have the goodwill of thousands."
He pulled a face. "You have a weasel. And sweetmeats."
"It's better than nothing." She broke the seal on the letter. "Yes, I might have to subsist on sweetmeats some days. Yes, the roof over my head might be that of my third host in as many weeks. But I will always have food. I will always have a bed. Just so long as I'm the girl they want me to be."
"So long as you're little Izzy Goodnight. Not Izzy Goodnight, scandalous mistress. Or Mrs. Izzy Something-Else-Entirely."
"Exactly. So please, Ransom. Don't ruin it. Don't ruin me with your thoughtless joking. Not unless you mean to promise me that I'll never spend another night of my life feeling cold, hungry, alone, or unloved."
He was quiet for a moment. "Love isn't something I know how to offer. I don't have the goodwill of thousands. You've read my letters. I don't have the goodwill of anyone. And not all of us spent our childhoods in starry bedchambers, tucked beneath coverlets with kisses and stories each night."
Her heart twisted in her chest. "How did you go to bed at night?"
The silence was distressing, so she turned her gaze to the letter as a diversion.
"I've never made pretensions of being a romantic hero. And now I'm scarred, blinded, scorned by the world. But it's not as though I couldn't provide for you. I am still a duke."
"Wait." She stared numbly at the paper in her hands, scanning its contents. "According to this letter, you might not be much longer."
"This express that just arrived from your solicitors. It says they've arranged a mental-competency hearing. They're challenging your sanity and your ability to continue acting as the Duke of Rothbury." She lowered the paper. "They're coming here. Next week."
For the rest of the morning, any visitor who interrupted them would have discovered nothing more scandalous than a harried secretary and her irate employer, both buried chest deep in paperwork.
They'd opened, read, and sorted through everything.
Izzy's eyes were going crossed.
"Here it is, at last." She read the paper aloud. " 'May it please Your Grace, the business has been completed. Gostley Castle has been sold, at your request.' " She lowered the letter. "This was dated three months ago. So they did sell the castle to Lynforth."