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«Only Mine», Elizabeth Lowell

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London 1867

«Marry you, elf?» Wolfe Lonetree laughed aloud as he twirled her across the dance floor. «Don’t be ridiculous. What would ahalfbreed mustang hunter do with an English aristocrat?»

«I’m Scots, not English,» Jessica Charteris said automatically.

В«I know.В» Wolfe smiled the way he used to years before, when he had tweaked her long braids to tease her. В«You still rise to the bait just like a hungry trout.В»

Concealing the urgency and fear that lay beneath her flirtatious exterior, Jessica tilted back her head and smiled up at Wolfe.

В«It would be a perfect union,В» she said coaxingly. В«You have no need of heirs because you have neither lands nor titles to pass on. I have neither need of money nor desire for the marriage bed. We both enjoy silence and conversation together. We like to ride, to hunt, and to read in front of a fire. What more could be asked of a marriage?В»

Wolfe’s delighted laughter drew more than one glance from the titled lords and ladies who graced Jessica’s twentieth birthday party. Wolfe ignored both the looks and the aristocratic company. The man they called the viscount’s savage had learned long ago that his place was in America, not in England with its titles and cold disdain of his illegitimate birth.

В«Marry you.В»

As Wolfe repeated the words again he shook his head, delighting in the company of the sprite whose hair was an auburn so deep that only direct sunlight revealed its hidden fire.

«Ah, elf, I’ve missed your quickness and mischief. I’ve laughed more in the few minutes I’ve been here than in the years without you. I’ll tell Lord Robert to bring you with him on his next hunting trip. Or perhaps your future husband is a sportsman. Lord Gore, is that his name? I have yet to meet your fiance. Is he here tonight?»

Fear made Jessica miss a step in the smooth waltz. Wolfe caught her and set her right with the same casual grace as he did everything.

«Forgive me,» he murmured. «I’m clumsy tonight.»

«You’re like a great dark cat, and you know it as well as I. It was my clumsiness, not yours.»

Though Jessica’s voice was light, Wolfe sensed something just beneath her glittering surface. He watched her with dark eyes as they waltzed, hardly able to credit what he was seeing. Gone was the thin child with ice-blue eyes, burning red hair, and quick laughter. In her place was a stunning young woman who had an uncomfortable effect on his senses, an effect he had refused to acknowledge for years.

В«A clumsy elf?В» Wolfe asked. В«Not possible, little one. Like a marriage between ahalfbreed bastard and the Lady Jessica Charteris.В» He grinned, showing strong white teeth against the darkness of his skin. В«What a lively mind you have. I must compliment you on your wit.В»

Jessica stumbled again, and again was caught by the easy strength of the man who was holding her within the civilized confines of the waltz. Yet even on the dance floor, Wolfe’s power was apparent. She had always thought of his strength as a refuge, even when she hadn’t been able to see him for years on end. She had lived on her memories, on the knowledge that there was one place on earth of refuge for her. Believing that had kept her from panic when her guardian insisted on the marriage to Lord Gore.

But now Wolfe’s refuge no longer seemed available to Jessica, leaving her fighting for her life. Alone.

Dear God, what will I do? Wolfe must agree to the marriage! How can 1 convince him?

«Your fingers are cold, Jessi.» Wolfe frowned. «You’re trembling. Are you ill?»

The concern in Wolfe’s expression and voice gave Jessica hope once more. He did care for her. She could see it in his unusual eyes, neither black nor yet blue, the color of deep twilight or sapphires in candlelight. She smiled with relief, not knowing how her smile lit her delicate face.

«�Tisbut excitement at seeing you, Wolfe. When you didn’t answer Lady Victoria’s letter, I was afraid you had forgotten me.»

«How could I forget the redheaded elf who plagued me by sewing my sleeves shut so neatly that the stitches didn’t show? The elf who switched salt for sugar and laughed with such delight at the faces I made? The elf who hid in a haystack during a storm until I found her and promised to hold the thunder at bay?»

В«Which you did quite well.В» Unwittingly, Jessica moved closer to Wolfe as she had in the past, seeking the reassuring warmth of his body, the shelter of his strength. В«Quite well indeed.В»

В«A matter of timing rather than control over the elements,В» Wolfe said dryly, easing Jessica away from his body. В«The storm was spent.В»

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