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Real Vampires Hate Skinny Jeans (Glory St. Clair #8) Easy Charm (Boudreaux #2)

Yes, unless he doesnt want to make it go away, he replied.

Do not let her deceive you any longer! I shouted at the ever-gathering crowd. More and more were coming closer to hear what I had to say. You have no allegiance to her, because she is a liar, a traitor, and a murderer! Rip off your uniforms and fight with us today! Fight against the oppression! Fight against the Queen! Fight for your freedom!In the crowd, I saw Ember standing with Linus Berling, both of them smiling at me.

Fever (The Chemical Garden #2)

Then a dozen Högdragen made their way to the front of the crowd, took a knee, and pointed their bows and arrows at me. The wall beneath my feet felt very unstable, and I knew I had overstayed my welcome.Just as they began to fire, I threw my sword to the ground on the village side and jumped down off the wall after it. The big drifts of snow helped cushion my fall, and I immediately rolled, attempting to limit the force on my legs and ankles. I grabbed my sword and scrambled out of the way to avoid getting hit by the stones that were tumbling down.The hobgoblins had broken through, so the Högdragen turned their attention on them as the army began spilling in over the rubble. I ran back behind the buildings alongside the crumbling wall, toward the palace. Toward Ridley.

Rapture (Fallen #4)

The sound of a little girl crying stopped me in my tracks.From where I stood, with snow coming up to my knees, I could see a back door to the palace half a mile away. It wouldnt be easy to break in, but that was all the more reason that I should get moving.

Just to my left was the wall, and to my right was the small dormitory where unmarried Högdragen lived. That meant this wasnt the safest place for me to stop.

All around me I could hear men and women screaming, the clash of swords, and stones crashing against each other as the wall continued to crumble. The sounds echoed off the remaining walls and outlying buildings, and became the continuous growl of battle. But over all that, I could hear the little girl crying, which meant she had to be close. Which meant that I might be able to help her.But she was tugging on his arm, not to be denied, and pleading, Wont you please teach me? Please? Oh, all right, he sighed, knowing that this was a most inadvisable idea. Oh, splendid. Where shall we start? Its a lovely day today, he said, not quite able to put any feeling into the words. Yes, it is, but I thought we were going to concentrate on flirting. He looked at her and then wished he hadnt. His eyes always managed to somehow slide down to her lips. Most flirtations, he said, taking a ragged breath, begin with the inanities of polite conversation. Oh, I see. All right. Begin again, then, if you will. He took a deep breath and said flatly, Its a lovely day today. It certainly is. It makes one long to spend time out of doors, dont you think? We are out of doors, Henry. Im pretending were at a ball, she explained. And may we turn into the park? Perhaps we can find a bench upon which to sit. Dunford steered them silently into Green Park. May we begin again? she asked. We havent progressed much thus far. Nonsense. Im certain well succeed once we get started. Now, I just said that the day makes one long to spend time out of doors. Certainly, he replied laconically. Dunford, you are not making this easy. She spotted a bench and sat down, making space for him next to her. Her maid stood quietly under a tree ten or so yards away. I dont want to make it easy. I dont want to do this at all. Surely you see the necessity of my knowing how to converse with gentlemen. Now please help me and try to get into the spirit of the endeavor. Dunfords jaw clenched. She was going to have to learn she couldnt push him too far. He curved his lips into a wicked half-smile. If it was flirting she wanted, it was flirting she was going to get. All right. Let me begin anew. Henry smiled happily. Youre beautiful when you smile. Her heart dropped down to her feet. She couldnt say a word. Flirting takes two, you know, he drawled. Youll be thought a lackwit if you dont have anything to say. I-I thank you, my lord, she said, working up her boldness. That is indeed a compliment, coming from you. And just what does that mean, pray tell? It is certainly no secret that you are a connoisseur of women, my lord. You have been gossiping about me. Not at all. I cannot help it if your behavior makes you a frequent topic of conversation. Excuse me? he said icily. The women throw themselves at you, I hear. Why have you not married one of them, I wonder? That is not for you to wonder, sweetheart. Ah, but I cannot help where my mind wanders. Never let a man call you sweetheart, he ordered. It took her a second to realize that he had broken character. But it was only you, Dunford, she said in an excruciatingly placating tone. Somehow that managed to make him feel as if he were a feeble, gout-ridden old man. I am just as dangerous as the rest of them, he said in a hard voice. To me? But youre my guardian. If they hadnt been in the middle of a public park, he would have grabbed her and shown her just how dangerous he could be. It was amazing how she could provoke him. One moment he was trying to be the wise but stern guardian, and the next he was desperately trying to restrain himself from taking her for a tumble. All right, Henry said, warily assessing his thunderous expression. How about this. La, sir, but you should not call me sweetheart. Its a start, but if you happen to be holding a fan, I strongly urge you to poke it into the bounders eye as well. Henry was a bit heartened by the note of possessiveness she sensed in his voice. But as it happens, I am not currently in possession of a fan, and what would I do if a gentleman does not heed my verbal warning? Then you should run in the opposite direction. Quickly. But just for the sake of argument, lets say I am cornered. Or perhaps I am in the middle of a crowded ballroom and do not want to make a scene. If you were flirting with a young lady who had just told you not to call her sweetheart, what would you do? I would accede to her wishes and bid her good night, he said starchily. You would not! Henry accused with a playful smile. Youre a terrible rake, Dunford. Belle told me. Belle talks too much, he muttered. She was merely warning me of the gentlemen with whom I must be on my guard. And, she said, shrugging delicately, when she named the rakes, you were near the top of the list. How kind of her. Of course, you are my guardian, she said thoughtfully. And so merely being seen with you will not ruin my reputation. That is certainly fortunate, as I do so enjoy your company. I would say, Henry, Dunford said with deliberate slowness and evenness, that you do not need very much more practice on how to flirt. She smiled brightly. I will take that as a compliment, coming from you. I understand you are a master of the art of seduction. Her words made him extremely irritated, indeed. However, I think youre being overly optimistic. I probably do need just a bit more practice. To give me the self-confidence to face the ton at my first ball, she explained, her face looking marvelously earnest. Perhaps I might be able to enlist Belles brother. He is finishing up at Oxford soon, I understand, and will be returning to London for the season.

It was Dunfords opinion that Belles brother Ned was still a trifle green, but he was nonetheless well on his way to becoming a rake. And then there was the annoying point that he was extremely good-looking, having been blessed with the same stunning blue eyes and marvelous bone structure as Belle. Not to mention the even more vexing fact that he would be residing under the same roof as Henry. No, Henry, Dunford said in a very low, very dangerous voice. I do not think you should practice your feminine wiles on Ned. Do you think not? she asked blithely. He seems a perfect choice. It would be extremely dangerous to your health. Whatever does that mean? I cannot imagine that Belles brother would ever hurt me. But I would. You would? she breathed. What would you do? If you think, he bit out, that Im going to answer that question, you are feeble-minded, if not insane. Henrys eyes widened. Oh, my. Oh, my, indeed. I want you to listen to me, he said, his eyes boring dangerously into hers. You are to stay away from Ned Blydon, you are to stay away from married men, and you are to stay away from all of the rakes on Belles list. Including you? Of course not including me, he snapped. Im your goddamned guardian. He clamped his mouth shut, barely able to believe hed lost his temper to the extent that hed sworn at her. Henry, however, seemed not to notice his foul language. All of the rakes? All of them. Then whom may I set my cap for? Dunford opened his mouth, fully intending to rattle off a list of names. To his surprise, he couldnt come up with even one. There must be someone, she prodded. He glared at her, thinking that hed like to take his hand and wipe that impossibly cheerful expression off her face. Or better yet, hed do it with his mouth. Dont tell me Im going to have to spend the entire season with just you for a companion. It was difficult, but Henry just managed to keep the hopefulness out of her voice. Dunford abruptly stood, practically hauling her up along with him. Well find someone. In the meantime lets go home. They hadnt taken three steps when they heard someone call out Dunfords name. Henry looked up and saw an extremely elegant, extremely well-dressed, and extremely beautiful woman heading their way. A friend of yours? she asked. Lady Sarah-Jane Wolcott. Another of your conquests? No, he said testily. Henry quickly assessed the predatory gleam in the womans eye. Shed like to be. He turned on her. What did you just say? She was saved from having to reply by the arrival of Lady Wolcott. Dunford greeted her and then introduced the two ladies. A ward? Lady Wolcott trilled. How charming. Charming? Henry wanted to echo. But she kept her mouth shut. How utterly domestic of you, Lady Wolcott continued, touching Dunfords arm—rather suggestively, in Henrys opinion. I dont know if I would call it domestic, Dunford replied politely, but it certainly has been a new experience. Oh, Im sure. Lady Wolcott wet her lips. Its not at all in your usual style. You are usually given to more athletic—and masculine—pursuits. Henry was so livid she thought it a wonder she didnt start hissing. Her hand quite involuntarily clenched, forming claws she really wanted to rake across the elder ladys face. Rest assured, Lady Wolcott, Dunford replied, I am finding my role as guardian to be most informative and character-building. Character-building? Pish. How dull. Youll soon grow bored. Come and call when you do. Im sure we can find ways to entertain ourselves. Dunford sighed. Normally hed have been tempted to take Sarah-Jane up on her rather blatant offer, but with Henry in tow he suddenly felt the need to take the moral high road. Tell me, he said sharply. How is Lord Wolcott faring these days? Doddering away in Dorset. As usual. Hes really of no concern here in London. She gave Dunford one last seductive smile, nodded sleekly at Henry, and was on her way. Is that how I am meant to behave? Henry asked disbelievingly. Absolutely not. Then— Just be yourself, he said curtly. Just be yourself, and stay away from— I know. I know. Stay away from married men, Ned Blydon, and rakes of every variety. Just be so good as to let me know if you think of someone else I must add to the list. Dunford scowled. Henry smiled all the way home. Chapter 13 One week later Henry was ready to be presented to society. Caroline had decided that her charge would make her bow at the annual Lindworthy bash. It was always a huge affair, Caroline had explained, so if Henry was a smashing success, everyone would know about it. But what if I am a miserable failure? Henry had asked. Caroline had given her a smile that said she did not think that was much of a worry and said, Then you shall be able to lose yourself in the crowd. Fairly reasonable logic, Henry had thought. Belle came over on the night of the ball to help her dress. They had chosen a gown of white silk shot through with silver thread. You are very lucky, you know, she said as she and a maid helped Henry into it. Young ladies just out are supposed to wear white, but many look hideous in the color.Do I? Henry asked quickly, panic rising in her eyes. She wanted to look perfect. As perfect as she could, at least, with what graces God had bestowed upon her. She desperately wanted to show Dunford she could be the kind of woman hed want by his side here in London. She had to prove to him—and to herself—that she could be more than a farm girl. Of course not, Belle said reassuringly. Mama and I never would have let you buy this gown had it not looked perfectly enchanting on you. My cousin Emma wore violet at her debut. It shocked some, but, as Mama said, white makes Emma look yellow. Better to defy tradition than to look like a pot of custard. Henry nodded as Belle did up the buttons at the back of her gown. She tried to turn around to look in the mirror, but Belle put a gently restraining hand on her shoulder, saying, Not yet. Wait until you can see the full effect. Belles maid Mary spent the next hour carefully arranging her hair, curling it here and teasing it there. Henry waited in agonized suspense. Finally Belle popped a pair of diamond earbobs on her ears and draped a matching necklace around her throat. But whose are these? Henry asked in a surprised voice. Mine. Henry immediately reached up to her ears to remove the jewelry. Oh, but I couldnt. Belle pulled her hand back down. Of course you can. But what if I lose them? You wont. But what if I do? Henry persisted. Then it will by my fault for having lent them to you. Now be quiet and take a look at our handiwork. Belle smiled and turned her around to face the mirror. Henry was stunned into silence. Finally she whispered, Is that me? Her eyes seemed to sparkle in tune with the diamonds, and her face glowed with innocent promise. Mary had swept her thick hair into an elegant French twist and then pulled feathery tendrils out to curl mischievously around her face. These wisps glowed gold in the candlelight, lending her an almost ethereal air. You look magical, Belle said with a smile. Henry stood slowly, still unable to believe the reflection in the glass was really hers. The silver threads in her dress caught the light when she moved, and as she walked across the room, she shimmered and sparkled, looking not quite of this world, almost too precious to touch. She took a deep breath, trying to control some of the heady feelings rushing through her. She had never known, never dreamed she could feel beautiful. And she did. She felt like a princess— like a fairy princess with the world at her feet. She could conquer London. She could glide across the floor even more gracefully than the women with rollers for feet. She could laugh and sing and dance until dawn. She smiled and hugged herself. She could do anything. She even thought she could make Dunford fall in love with her. And that was the headiest feeling of all. The man who occupied her thoughts was presently waiting downstairs with Belles husband John and their good friend Alexander Ridgely, the Duke of Ashbourne. So tell me, Alex was saying as he swirled some whiskey around in a glass. Who exactly is this young woman Im supposed to champion this evening? And how did you manage to get yourself a ward, Dunford? Came with the title. It was even more of a shock than the barony, to tell the truth. Thank you, by the way, for coming by to lend your support. Henry hasnt been out of Cornwall since she was ten or so, and shes terrified at the prospect of a London season. Alex immediately pictured a meek, retiring miss and sighed. Ill do my best. John caught his expression, grinned, and said, Youll like this girl, Alex. I guarantee it. Alex arched a brow. Im serious. John decided to pay Henry the highest of compliments by saying she reminded him of Belle, but then he remembered he was speaking to a man who was as besotted with his wife as John was with his own. Shes rather like Emma, John said instead. Im certain the two of them will get along quite famously. Oh, please, Dunford scoffed. Shes nothing like Emma. Pity for her, then, Alex said. Dunford shot him an annoyed look. Why dont you think shes like Emma? John asked mildly. If you had seen her in Cornwall, youd know. She wore breeches all the time and managed a farm, for Gods sake. I find your tone hard to discern, Alex said. Was that supposed to make me admire the girl or scorn her? Another scowl from Dunford. Just beam approvingly in her general direction and dance with her once or twice. As much as I loathe the way society panders to you, Im not above using your position to ensure her success. Anything you wish, Alex said affably, ignoring his friends caustic comments. Although dont think Im doing this for you. Emma said shed have my head if I didnt help Belle out with her new protégé, As well you should, Belle said pertly, entering the room in a cloud of blue silk. Where is Henry? Dunford asked. Right here. Belle stepped aside to let Henry enter. All three men looked at the woman in the doorway, but they all saw different things. Alex saw a rather attractive young lady with a remarkable air of vitality in her silver eyes. John saw the woman hed come to like and admire tremendously this past week, looking rather fetching and grown-up in her new gown and coiffure. Dunford saw an angel. My God, Henry, he breathed, taking an involuntary step toward her. What happened to you? Henrys face crumpled. Dont you like it? Belle said—

The Arrangement 13 (The Arrangement #13)

No! he burst out, his voice oddly raw. He rushed forward and clasped her hands. I mean yes. I mean you look marvelous. Are you certain? Because I could change— Dont change a thing, he said sternly. She stared up at him, knowing her heart was in her eyes but quite unable to do a thing about it. Finally Belle broke in, saying in an amused voice, Henry, I really must introduce you to my cousin. Henry blinked and turned to the black-haired, green-eyed man standing next to John. He was magnetically handsome, she thought rather objectively, but she hadnt even noticed him when shed walked into the room. She hadnt been able to see anyone except Dunford. Miss Henrietta Barrett, Belle said, may I present the Duke of Ashbourne? Alex took her hand and dropped a light kiss on her knuckles. Im delighted to meet you, Miss Barrett, he said smoothly, casting a wicked glance at Dunford, who had clearly just realized hed made a cake of himself over his ward. Not as delighted as our friend Dunford, perhaps, but delighted nonetheless. Henrys eyes danced, and a wide smile broke out over her face. Please call me Henry, your grace— Everybody does, Dunford finished for her. She shrugged helplessly. Its true. Except for Lady Worth. Henry, Alex said, testing the sound of it out. It suits you, I think. Certainly more than does Henrietta. I dont think Henrietta suits anyone, she replied. Then she offered him her cheeky smile, and Alex saw in an instant why Dunford was falling like a rock for this girl. She had spirit, and although she didnt realize it yet, she had beauty, and Dunford didnt have a chance. I expect not, Alex said. My wife is expecting our first child in two months. I shall have to make certain we dont name her Henrietta. Oh, yes, Henry said suddenly, as if shed just remembered something important. Youre married to Belles cousin. She must be lovely. Alexs eyes softened. Yes, she is. I hope you get a chance to meet her. She would like you very much. Not half as much as I will like her, Im sure, as she had the good sense to marry you. Henry shot a daring glance over at Dunford. Oh, but please forget I said that, your grace. Dunford has insisted I not speak to married men. As if to illustrate her point, she took a step back. Alex burst out laughing. Ashbourne is permissible, Dunford said with a half-suppressed groan. I hope Im not off limits too, John added. Henry looked askance at her beleaguered guardian. John is fine as well, he said, his voice growing slightly irritable. My congratulations, Dunford, Alex said, wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. I predict youll have a resounding success on your hands. The suitors will be breaking down your door. If Dunford was pleased by his friends pronouncement, it didnt show on his face. Henry beamed. Do you really think so? I must confess I know very little about going about in society. Caroline has told me I am oftentimes a touch too candid. That, Alex said in a self-assured voice, is why you are going to be a success. We should be on our way, Belle cut in. Mama and Papa have already left for the ball, and I told them we would be along shortly. Shall we all go in one carriage? I think well be able to squeeze in. Henry and I will go alone, Dunford said smoothly, taking her arm. There are a few things I would like to discuss with her before she is presented. He steered her toward the doorway, and together they swept from the room. It was probably just as well that he couldnt see the three identical smiles of amusement directed at their backs. What was it you wanted to talk to me about? Henry asked once their carriage had started out. Nothing, he admitted. I thought you might like a few moments of peace before we arrive at the party. That is very thoughtful of you, my lord. Oh, for Gods sake, he scowled. Whatever you do, do not call me my lord. I was just practicing, she murmured. There was a moment of silence, then he asked, Are you nervous? A bit, she admitted. Your friends are lovely, though, and they put me quite at ease. Good. He patted her hand in a paternal manner. Henry could feel the heat of his hand through both of their gloves, and she ached to prolong the touch. But she didnt know how to do this, so she did what she always did when her emotions bubbled too close to the surface: she grinned impishly. Then she patted his hand. Dunford leaned back, thinking that Henry must be marvelously self-contained to tease him in such a manner on the eve of her debut. She turned abruptly away from him to stare out the window as London rolled by. He studied her profile, noting curiously that the jaunty look that had been in her eye had disappeared. He was about to ask her about this when she wet her lips. Dunfords heart slammed in his chest. He had never dreamed Henry would be so transformed by a fortnight in London, never thought the cheeky country girl could grow into this alluring—although equally cheeky—woman. He longed to touch the line of her throat, to run his hand along the embroidered edge of her neckline, to delve his fingers into the magnificent warmth that lay below it... He shuddered, well aware that his thoughts were leading his body in a rather uncomfortable direction. And he was becoming painfully cognizant of the fact that he was beginning to care for her too damned much, and certainly not in the way a guardian was meant to care for his ward.It would be so easy to seduce her. He knew he had the power to do so, and even though Henry had grown frightened at their last encounter, he didnt think she would try to stop him again. He could wash her over with pleasure. Shed never even know what had hit her. He shuddered, as if the physical motion could restrain him from leaning across the seat and taking the first step toward his goal. He hadnt brought Henry to London to seduce her. Good Lord, he thought wryly, how many times had he had to repeat that refrain during the past few weeks? But it was true, and she had a right to meet all of Londons eligible bachelors. He was going to have to back off and let her see for herself who else was out there. It was that damned chivalrous instinct. Life would be a lot simpler if his honor didnt always intrude when it came to this girl. Henry turned back to face him, and her lips parted slightly, startled by the harsh expression etched in his face. Is something wrong? she quietly asked. No, he replied, a little more gruffly than hed intended. Youre upset with me. Why on earth would I be upset with you? he all but snapped. You certainly sound as if youre upset with me. He sighed. Im upset with myself. But why is that? Henry asked, her face showing her concern. Dunford cursed himself under his breath. Now what was he to say? Im upset because I want to seduce you? Im upset because you smell like lemons and Im dying to know why? Im upset because— You dont have to say anything, Henry said, clearly sensing he did not want to share his feelings with her. Just let me cheer you up. His groin tightened at the thought. Shall I tell you what happened to Belle and me yesterday? It was most amusing. It was...No, I can see that you do not want to hear. Thats not true, he forced himself to say. Well, we went to Hardimans Tea Shoppe, and...Youre not listening. I am, he assured her, working his face back into a more pleasant expression. All right, she said slowly, giving him an assessing glance. This lady came in, and her hair was quite green... Dunford made no remark. Youre not listening, she accused. I was, he started to protest. Then he saw her dubious expression and admitted with a boyish grin, I wasnt. She smiled at him then, not the familiar cheeky smile to which hed grown so accustomed, but one born of sheer mirth, artless in its beauty. Dunford was entranced. He leaned forward, not realizing what he was doing. You want to kiss me, she whispered with wonder. He shook his head. You do, she persisted. I can see it in your eyes. Youre looking at me the way I always want to look at you, but I dont know how, and— Shhh. He pressed his finger to her lips. I wouldnt mind, she whispered against him. Dunfords blood pounded. She was an inch away from him, a vision in white silk, and she was giving him permission to kiss her. Permission to do what hed been aching to do... His finger slid from her mouth, catching on her full lower lip in its descent. Please, she whispered. This doesnt mean anything, he murmured. She shook her head. Nothing. He leaned forward and cupped her face in his hands. Youre going to go to the ball, meet some nice gentleman... She nodded. Anything you say. Hell court you...Maybe youll fall in love. She said nothing. He was just a hairs breadth away. And youll live happily ever after. She said, I hope so, but the words were lost against his mouth as he kissed her with such longing and tenderness that she thought she would surely burst with love. He kissed her again, and then again, his lips soft and gentle, his hands warm on her cheeks. Henry moaned his name, and he dipped his tongue between her lips, unable to resist the soft temptation of her mouth. The new intimacy shattered whatever control hed been exerting over himself, and his last rational thought was that he mustnt muss her hair...His hands slid down to her back, and he pressed her against him, reveling in the heat of her body. Oh, God, Henry, he groaned. Oh, Hen. Dunford could feel her acquiescing and knew he was a blackguard. If he had been anywhere other than in a moving carriage on the way to Henrys first ball, he probably would not have had the fortitude to stop, but as it was...Oh, Christ, he couldnt ruin her. He wanted her to have a perfect time. It didnt occur to him that this might be her idea of a perfect time. He took a ragged breath and tried to tear his lips from hers, but he made it only to her jawline. Her skin was so soft, so warm, he couldnt resist trailing a kiss all the way up to her ear. Finally he managed to pull away, loathing himself for taking such advantage of her. He placed his hands on her shoulders, needing to keep her at arms length, then realized that any touch between them was potentially explosive, so he pulled back his hands and moved across the seat cushion. Then he moved to the opposite seat. Henry touched her tingling lips, too innocent to understand his desire was being held in check by a very thin thread. Why had he moved so far away? She knew he was right to stop the kiss. She knew she ought to thank him for it, but couldnt he have remained by her side and at least held her hand? That certainly didnt mean anything, she tried to joke, her voice breaking on the words. For your sake, it had better not. What did that mean? Henry cursed herself for not having the courage to ask. I-I must look a mess, she said instead, her voice sounding very hollow to her ears.

Your hair is fine, he said flatly. I was careful not to muss it. That he could have approached their kiss with such cold, clinical detachment was like a bucket of icy water washing over her. No, of course not. You wouldnt want to ruin me on my first night out. On the contrary, he thought wryly, he wanted very much to ruin her. To ruin her over and over and over. He wanted to laugh at the poetic justice of it all. After a couple of years of chasing after women and then a decade of having them chase after him, hed finally been brought down by a slip of a girl, fresh out of Cornwall, whom he was honor-bound to protect. Good Lord, as her guardian it was practically his sacred duty to keep her pure and chaste for her future husband, whom, incidentally, he was supposed to help her find and choose. He shook his head, as if trying to give himself a stern reminder that this incident was not to be repeated. Henry saw him shake his head and thought he was replying to her desperate remark about not wanting to ruin her, and cold humiliation prompted her to say, No, I mustnt do anything to damage my reputation. I might not catch a husband then, and that is the objective here, isnt it? She glanced over at Dunford. He was pointedly not looking at her, and his jaw was clenched so tightly, she thought his teeth would surely shatter. So he was upset—good! Upset didnt even come close to what she was feeling. She gave a frantic laugh and then added, I know you say I may return to Cornwall if I wish, but we both know that is a sham now, dont we? Dunford turned, but she didnt give him the chance to speak. A season, she was saying, her voice rising in pitch, has only one purpose, and that is to get the lady in question married off and thus off of ones hands. In this case, I suppose, the hands in question would appear to be yours, although you dont seem to be doing such a very good job of getting me off of them. Henry, be quiet, he ordered. Oh, certainly, my lord. Ill be quiet. A perfectly prim and proper young miss. I wouldnt want to be anything other than the ideal debutante. Heaven forbid I ruin my chances for a good match. Why, I might even catch a viscount. If you are lucky, he bit out. Henry felt as if shed been slapped. Oh, she knew his primary goal was to marry her off, but it still hurt so much to hear him say it. Per-perhaps I wont marry, she said, trying for a defiant tone but not quite succeeding. I dont have to, you know. I would hope that you do not purposefully sabotage your chances for finding a husband just to spite me. She stiffened. Dont hold yourself in such high esteem, Dunford. I have more important things to think about than spiting you. How fortunate for me, he drawled. You are hateful, she spat out. Hateful and...and...and hateful! Such a vocabulary. Henrys cheeks flushed red with shame and fury. Youre a cruel man, Dunford. A monster! I dont even know why you kissed me. Did I do something to make you hate me? Did you want to punish me? No, his tortured mind responded, he wanted to punish himself. He let out a ragged sigh and said, I dont hate you, Henry. But you dont love me either, she wanted to cry out. You dont love me, and it hurts so much. Was she so awful? Was there something wrong with her? Something that compelled him to degrade her by kissing her so thoroughly yet for no reason other than—God, she couldnt think of any reason. It certainly wasnt the same kind of passion shed been feeling. Hed been so cold and detached when he was talking about her hair. She gasped, suddenly realizing to her complete mortification that tears were welling up in her eyes. She hastily turned her face and wiped them away, not caring that the salty drops were probably staining the fine kid of her gloves. Oh, God, Hen, Dunford said, compassion in his voice. Dont— Dont what? she burst out. Dont cry? Youre a fine one to ask that of me! She crossed her arms mutinously and used every ounce of her iron will to dry up every tear in her body. After a minute or so she actually felt she was returning to at least some semblance of normality. And just in time, too, because the carriage rolled to a halt, and Dunford said flatly, Were here. Henry wanted nothing more than to just go home. All the way back to Cornwall. Chapter 14 Henry held her head high as Dunford helped her down from the carriage. It nearly broke her heart when his hand touched hers, but she was learning how to keep her emotions off her face. If Dunford happened to glance her way, all he would see was a perfectly composed visage, with no sign of grief or anger—but with no sign of happiness either. They had just alighted when the Blackwoods carriage arrived behind them. Henry watched as John helped Belle down. Belle immediately rushed to her side, not bothering to wait while Alex disembarked. Whats wrong? she exclaimed, noting Henrys uncharacteristically tense face. Nothing, Henry lied. But Belle heard the hollowness in her voice. Obviously something is wrong. Its nothing, really. Im just nervous, thats all. Belle rather doubted Henry could have grown quite that nervous during the short carriage ride. She shot a withering glare in Dunfords direction. He immediately turned away and struck up a conversation with John and Alex. What did he do to you? Belle whispered angrily. Nothing! If that is true, Belle said as she gave her a look indicating she didnt for a second believe it was, then you still had best compose yourself immediately before we go in.I am composed, Henry protested. I dont think I have ever been quite this composed in my life. Then un-compose yourself. Belle took Henrys hands in an urgent embrace. Henry, Ive never seen your eyes look so dead. Im sorry to have to say it that way, but its the truth. There is nothing to fear. Everyone will love you. Just go in there and be yourself. She paused. Except for the cursing. A reluctant smile quivered on Henrys lips. And leave off talk of farming, Belle added quickly. Especially that bit about the pig. Henry could feel the sparkle returning to her eyes. Oh, Belle, I do love you. You have been such a good friend. You make it very easy, Belle returned, giving her hands an affectionate squeeze. Are you ready? Good. Dunford and Alex are going to escort you in together. That should ensure you make a big splash. Before Alex married, they were the two most eligible gentlemen in the country. But Dunford didnt even have a title. It didnt matter. The ladies wanted him anyway. Henry understood all too well why. But he didnt want her. At least not in any permanent way. A fresh wave of humiliation washed over her as she glanced at him. She suddenly felt an overwhelming need to prove to herself that she was worthy of love, even if Dunford did not agree. Her chin moved up a notch, and a dazzling smile crossed her face. Im ready, Belle. I am going to have a lovely time. Belle looked slightly taken aback by Henrys sudden vehemence. Lets be on our way then. Dunford! Alex! John! Were ready to go in. The three gentlemen reluctantly broke off their conversation, and Henry found herself flanked by Dunford and Alex. She felt terribly small; both men were a good inch over six feet and rather broad through the shoulders. She knew she was going to be the envy of every lady in the ballroom; she hadnt met too many men of the ton, but surely most of them lacked the sheer virility of the three men in her party. They made their way inside and waited in line for the butler to announce them. Without even realizing it, Henry began to move closer and closer to Alexs side, pulling away from Dunford. Finally Alex leaned down and whispered, Are you all right, Henry? Its almost our turn. Henry turned and flashed him the same stunning smile shed just used on Belle. I am perfect, your grace. Perfect. I am going to slay London. I shall have the ton at my feet. Dunford heard her words and stiffened, pulling her back toward him. Watch what you do, Henry, he whispered cuttingly. It wouldnt do for you to make your entrance draped over Ashbourne. Its common knowledge hes devoted to his wife. Dont worry, she returned with an insincere grin. I wont embarrass you. And I promise to be off your hands as soon as possible. I shall endeavor to have dozens of marriage proposals. By next week if I can. Alex had an idea what was going on, and his lips twitched. He was not so honorable that he was not enjoying Dunfords distress. Lord and Lady Blackwood! the butler boomed. Henrys breath caught in her throat. They were next. Alex nudged her playfully and whispered, Smile. His grace, the Duke of Ashbourne! Lord Stannage! Miss Henrietta Barrett! A hush fell over the crowd. Henry was not so vain and deluded as to think the ton had lost their voices over her incomparable beauty, but she did know that they were all dying to get a look at the lady whod somehow managed to make her debut on the arms of two of the most desirable men in Britain. The five friends then made their way over to Caroline, further ensuring Henrys success by proclaiming to the world that the influential Countess of Worth was sponsoring her. Within minutes Henry was surrounded by young men and women, all eager to make her acquaintance. The men were curious—who was this unknown female and how had she managed to snare the attention of both Dunford and Ashbourne? (The on-dit that she was Dunfords legal ward had yet to circulate.) The women were even more curious—for exactly the same reason. Henry laughed and flirted, teased and sparkled. By sheer force of will she managed to push Dunford from her mind. She pretended each man she met was Alex or John, and each woman was Belle or Caroline. This mental ruse allowed her to relax and be herself—and once she did that, people warmed to her instantly. She is a breath of fresh air, Lady Jersey declared, not caring in the least that she was being terribly trite. Dunford overheard this comment and tried to be proud of his ward, but he couldnt manage it over the irritating possessiveness he felt every time some young fop kissed her hand. And that was nothing compared to the searing spurts of jealousy that rocked through him every time she smiled at one of the many older, more experienced men who also flocked to her side. Caroline was just now introducing her to the Earl of Billington, a man he usually liked and respected. Damn it, that was the same cheeky smile she usually gave him. Dunford made a mental note not to sell Billington the prized Arabian hed been nosing after all spring. I see your ward has made quite a killing. Dunford turned his head to see Lady Sarah-Jane Wolcott. Lady Wolcott, he said, lazily inclining his head. Shes quite a success. Yes, she is. You must be proud. He managed a curt nod. I must say, I wouldnt have predicted it. Not that she isnt attractive, Lady Wolcott hastened to add. But she is not in the usual style. Dunford fixed a deadly stare upon her. In looks or in personality?

Sarah-Jane was either exceedingly foolish or she just didnt notice the furious gleam in his eyes. Both, I suppose. She is rather forward, dont you think? No, he bit off, I dont. Oh. The corners of her lips turned up ever-so-slightly. Well, Im sure everyone will realize that soon. She offered him a pouty smile and then moved on. Dunford swiveled his head to regard Henry once more. Was she being too forward? She did have a rather vibrant laugh. Hed always taken it as a sign of a happy and delightful person, but a different sort of man might see it as an invitation. He moved over to Alexs side, where he could keep a better eye on her. Henry, meanwhile, had managed to convince herself that she was having a splendid time. Everyone seemed to think she was terribly attractive and witty, and to a woman who had spent most of her life without friends, this was a heady combination, indeed. The Earl of Billington was paying her particular attention, and she could tell from the stares she was receiving that he was not usually given to paying court to young debutantes. Henry found him rather attractive and personable and began to think that if there were more men like him, she just might be able to find someone with whom she could be happy. Perhaps even the earl. He seemed intelligent, and although his hair was reddish brown, his warm brown eyes reminded her of Dunfords. No, Henry thought, that should not be a point in the earls favor. Then again, she decided in the spirit of fairness, it shouldnt necessarily be a point against him either. And do you ride, Miss Barrett? the earl was saying. Of course, Henry replied. I grew up on a farm, after all. Belle coughed. Really? I had no idea. In Cornwall. Henry decided to spare Belle the agony. But you do not want to hear about my farm. There must be thousands just like it. Do you ride? She asked that last question with a teasing look in her eye; it was a given that all gentlemen rode. Billington chuckled. May I have the pleasure of escorting you for a ride in Hyde Park sometime soon? Oh, but I couldnt do that. Im crushed, Miss Barrett. I dont even know your name, Henry continued, her smile lighting up her face. I couldnt possibly make an appointment to ride with a man I know only as the earl. Its terribly daunting, you know, being merely a miss myself. Ill be quaking the entire time for fear Ill offend you. This time Billington laughed loudly. He gave her a smart bow. Charles Wycombe, madam, at your service. I should love to go for a ride with you, Lord Billington. Do you mean to tell me I went to the trouble of introducing myself to you, and you still mean to call me Lord Billington? Henry cocked her head to the side. I really dont know you very well, Lord Billington. It would be dreadfully improper of me to call you Charles, dont you think? No, he said with a lazy smile, I dont. A warm feeling flushed through her, almost, but not quite, identical to what she felt when Dunford smiled at her. Henry decided she liked this feeling even better. There was still that lovely sensation of being wanted, cared for, possibly loved, but with Billington she managed to retain some measure of control. When Dunford chose to bestow one of his grins on her, it was like going over a waterfall. She could sense him near her, and she glanced to her left. He was there, just as she had known he would be, and he gave her a mocking nod. For one moment Henrys entire body reacted, and she forgot how to breathe. Then her mind retook control, and she turned resolutely back to Lord Billington. It is good to know your given name, even if I do not intend to use it, she said with a secret smile. For it is difficult to think of you as the earl. Does that mean you will think of me as Charles? She shrugged delicately. It was at that point that Dunford decided he had better intercede. Billington looked as if he wanted nothing more than to take Henrys hand, lead her out to the garden, and kiss her senseless. Dunford found that feeling unpleasantly easy to understand. He took three swift steps and was at her side, putting his arm through hers in a most proprietary manner. Billington, he said with as much warmth as he could muster, which, admittedly, wasnt much. Dunford. I understand you are responsible for bringing this delightful creature to the attention of the ton. Dunford nodded. I am her guardian, yes. The orchestra struck up the first chords of a waltz. Dunfords hand stole down Henrys arm and settled around her wrist. Billington executed another bow in Henrys direction. May I have the pleasure of this dance, Miss Barrett? Henry opened her mouth to reply, but Dunford was faster. Miss Barrett has already promised this dance to me. Ah, yes, as her guardian, of course. The earls words made Dunford want to rip his lungs out. And Billington was a friend. Dunford clenched his jaw and resisted the urge to growl. What the hell was he going to do when men with whom he wasnt friends began to court her? Henry frowned in irritation. But— Dunfords hand tightened considerably around her wrist. Her protest died a quick death. It was very nice to meet you, Lord Billington, she said with unfeigned enthusiasm. He nodded urbanely. Very nice, indeed. Dunford scowled. If youll excuse us. He started to lead Henry out toward the dance floor. Perhaps I dont want to dance with you, Henry ground out.He arched a brow. You dont have any choice. For a man who is intensely eager to have me married off, youre doing quite a good job of scaring away my suitors. I didnt scare Billington away. Trust me, hell show up on your doorstep tomorrow morning, flowers in one hand, chocolates in the other. Henry smiled dreamily, mostly just to irritate him. When they reached the dance floor, however, she noticed that the orchestra had begun a waltz. It was still a relatively new dance, and debutantes were not allowed to waltz without the approval of societys leading matrons. She ground to a stubborn halt. I cant, she said. I dont have permission. Caroline took care of it, he said brusquely. Are you certain? If you do not start dancing with me in one second, I will yank you forcibly into my arms, creating such a scene that— Henry put her hand on his shoulder with alacrity. I dont understand you, Dunford, she said as he began to twirl her across the floor. Dont you? he said darkly. Her eyes flew to his. What did that mean? No, she said with quiet dignity. I dont. He tightened his hold on her waist, unable to resist the temptation of her soft body under his hand. Hell, he didnt even understand himself these days. Why is everyone staring at us? Henry whispered. Because, my dear, you are the latest craze. This seasons Incomparable. Surely you realize that. His tone and expression made her flush angrily. You might try to be a little happy for me. I thought the purpose of this trip was to give me some social polish. Now that Ive got it, you cant stand the sight of me. That, he said, is about as far from the truth as anything Ive heard. Then why... Her words trailed off. She didnt know how to ask what was in her heart. Dunford could feel the conversation veering toward dangerous waters and sought to bail out quickly. Billington, he said curtly, is reputed to be quite a catch. Almost as good as you? she sneered. Better, I imagine. But I would advise you to watch your step around him. Hes not some young dandy you can wrap around your finger. That is precisely why I like him so much. His hand tightened yet again around her waist. If you tease him, you may find yourself getting what you ask for. Her silvery eyes turned hard. I was not teasing him, and you know it. He shrugged disdainfully. People are already talking. They are not! I know they arent. Belle would have said something to me. When would she have had the chance? Before or after you teased him into trying to get you on a first-name basis? Youre horrid, Dunford. I dont know what has happened to you, but I dont like you very much anymore. Funny, he didnt like himself much, either. And he liked himself even less when he said, I saw the way you looked at him, Henry. Having been the recipient of that expression myself, I know exactly what it meant. He thinks you want him, and not just as a matrimonial prize. You bastard, she hissed, trying to pull away from him. His grip turned to steel. Dont even think about leaving me in the middle of the dance floor. Id leave you in hell if I could. Im sure you would, he said coolly, and I have no doubt Ill meet the devil in time. But as long as Im here on this earth, you will dance with me, and you will do so with a smile on your face. Smiling, she said hotly, is not part of the deal. And what deal would that be, dear Hen? She narrowed her eyes. One of these days, Dunford, youre going to have to decide whether you like me or you dont, because quite honestly, I cannot be expected to anticipate your moods. One moment youre quite the nicest man I know, and the next youre the devil himself.. Nice is such a bland word. I wouldnt trouble myself over it if I were you, because that is not the adjective I would use to describe you right now. I assure you, I was not having palpitations over it. Tell me, Dunford, what is it that makes you so horrid every now and then? Earlier this evening you were so lovely. Her eyes grew wistful. So kind to assure me I looked all right. He thought wryly that she looked far better than all right. And that was at the root of the problem. You made me feel like a princess, an angel. And now... And now what? he asked in a low voice. She looked him straight in the eye. Now youre trying to make me feel like a whore. Dunford felt as if hed been punched, but he welcomed the pain. He deserved no less. That, Hen, he finally said, is the agony of unfulfilled desire. She missed a step. Whaaaat? You heard me. You cannot have failed to realize I want you. She blushed and swallowed nervously, wondering if it were at all possible that the other five hundred partygoers did not notice her distress. There is a difference between wanting and loving, my lord, and I will not accept one without the other. As you wish. The music ended, and Dunford executed a smart bow. Before Henry had a chance to react, he disappeared into the crowd. Guided by instinct, she made her way to the perimeter of the ballroom, intending to find a washroom where she might have a few moments of privacy to regain her composure. She was waylaid, however, by Belle, who said that there were a few people she wanted Henry to meet.

Could it wait for a few minutes? I really need to go to the retiring room. I think—I think I have a small tear in my dress. Belle knew precisely with whom Henry had been dancing and guessed something was amiss. Ill go with you, she declared, much to the consternation of her husband, who was prompted to ask Alex why it was that ladies always seemed to need to go to the retiring room in pairs. Alex shrugged. Its destined to be one of the great mysteries of life, I think. I for one am deathly afraid of finding out what exactly goes on in these retiring rooms. Its where they keep all the good liquor, Belle said pertly. That explains it, then. Oh, by the by, have any of you seen Dunford? I wanted to ask him something. He turned to Henry. Werent you just dancing with him? Im sure I havent the slightest idea where he is. Belle smiled stiffly. Well see you later, Alex. John. She turned to Henry. Follow me. I know the way. She navigated her way around the edge of the ballroom with remarkable speed, stopping only to pluck two glasses of champagne off a tray. Here, she said, handing one to Henry. We might need these. In the washroom? With no men about? Its the perfect place for a toast. I dont much feel like celebrating right now, I must say. I thought not, but a drink might be just the thing. They turned into a hallway, and Henry followed Belle into a small chamber which was lit with half a dozen candles. A large mirror covered one wall. Belle shut the door and turned the key. Now, she said briskly, what is wrong? Noth— And dont say nothing, for I wont believe it. Belle... You might as well tell me, for Im dreadfully nosy and always find out everything sooner or later. If you dont believe me, just ask my family. Theyll be first to confirm it. It is only the excitement of the evening, I tell you. Its Dunford. Henry looked away. Its quite obvious to me youre more than halfway in love with him, Belle said bluntly, so you might as well be honest. Henrys head whipped back to face her. Does everyone else know? she asked in a whisper that hovered somewhere between terror and humiliation. No, I dont think so, Belle lied. And if they do, Im sure they are all cheering you on. Its no use. He doesnt want me. Belle raised her brows. She had seen the way Dunford looked at Henry when he thought no one was looking. Oh, I think he wants you. What I meant was, he doesnt—he doesnt love me, Henry stammered. That question is also open to debate, Belle said with a thoughtful expression. Has he kissed you? Henrys blush was answer enough. So he has! I thought as much. That is a very good sign. I dont think so. Henrys eyes slid to the floor. She and Belle had become very good friends this past fortnight, but they had never spoken quite so frankly. He, um, he, um... He what? Belle prodded. He seemed so utterly in control afterward, and he moved all the way across the carriage as if he wanted nothing to do with me. He didnt even hold my hand. Belle was more experienced than Henry, and she immediately recognized that Dunford was terrified he would lose control. She wasnt entirely certain why he was trying to behave so honorably. Any fool could see they were a perfect couple. A small indiscretion before marriage could easily be overlooked. Men, Belle finally declared, taking a swig of champagne, can be idiots. Excuse me? I dont know why people persist in believing women are inferior, when it is quite clear that men are the more feeble-minded of the two. Henry stared at her blankly. Consider this: Alex tried to convince himself he wasnt in love with my cousin only because he thought he didnt want to get married. And John—now this one is even more asinine—he tried to push me away because he had it in his head that something that happened in his past made him unworthy of me. Dunford obviously has some equally featherbrained reason for trying to keep you at arms length. But why? Belle shrugged. If I knew that, Id probably be prime minister. The woman who finally understands men will rule the world, mark my words. Unless... Unless what? It cannot be that wager. What wager? A few months ago I wagered Dunford he would be married within a year. She looked over at Henry apologetically. You did? Belle swallowed uncomfortably. I believe I said he would be tied up, leg-shackled, and loving it. He is making me miserable because of a bet? Henrys voice rose considerably on the last word. It might not be the wager, Belle said quickly, realizing she had not improved the situation. I would like to wring... his... neck. Henry punctuated the sentence by tossing back the contents of her champagne glass. Try not to do it here at the ball. Henry stood up and planted her hands on her hips. Dont worry. I wouldnt want to give him the satisfaction of knowing I care. Belle chewed nervously on her lip as she watched Henry stalk from the room. Henry did care. Very much. Chapter 15 Dunford had slipped away to the card room, where he proceeded to win a staggering amount of money through no ability of his own. Lord knew he was finding it difficult to keep his mind on the game.After a few rounds Alex wandered over. Mind if I join you? Dunford shrugged. Not at all. The other men at the vingt-et-un table shifted their chairs to make room for the duke. Who is winning? Alex inquired. Dunford, Lord Tarryton replied. Quite handily. Dunford shrugged again, a disinterested expression affixed to his face. Alex took a sip of whiskey as his hand was dealt and then took a look at the face-down card. Glancing sideways at Dunford, he said, Your Henry turned out to be quite a success. She isnt my Henry, Dunford all but snapped. Isnt Miss Barrett your ward? Lord Tarryton asked. Dunford looked at him, nodded curtly, and said, Deal me another card. Tarryton did so, but not before saying, I wouldnt be surprised if Billington came up to scratch on this gel. Billington, Farnsworth, and a few others, Alex said with his most affable smile. Ashbourne? Dunfords voice was colder than ice. Dunford? Shut up. Alex suppressed a smile and asked for another card. What I dont understand, Lord Symington, a graying man in his mid-fifties, was saying, is why no one ever heard of her before. Who are her people? I believe Dunford is her people now, Alex said. She comes from Cornwall, Dunford replied tersely, regarding his pair of fives with a bored expression. Before that, Manchester. Has she a dowry? Symington persisted. Dunford paused. He hadnt even thought of that. He could see Alex looking at him with a quizzical expression, one eyebrow arrogantly raised. It would be so easy to say that no, Henry didnt have a dowry. It was the truth, after all. Carlyle had left the chit penniless. Her chances at an advantageous marriage would be greatly reduced. She could end up dependent on him forever. It was damned appealing... Dunford sighed, cursing himself once again for this revolting impulse of his to play the hero. Yes, he sighed. Yes, she does. Well, thats good news for the chit, Symington replied. Course she probably wouldnt have had too much trouble without it. Lucky for you, Dunford. Wards can be deuced annoying business. I have one Ive been trying to unload for three years. Why God invented Poor Relations Ill never know. Dunford studiously ignored him, then flipped over his card, an ace. Twenty-one, he said, not sounding the least bit excited at the fact that he had just won nearly a thousand pounds. Alex leaned back and smiled broadly. This must be your lucky night. Dunford shoved his chair back and stood up, pushing the other cardplayers vouchers carelessly into his pocket. Indeed, he drawled as he made his way back to the door leading to the ballroom. The luckiest bloody night of my life. Henry decided that she would capture at least three more hearts before she had to leave, and she succeeded handily. It seemed so easy—she wondered why she had never before realized that men could be managed so effortlessly. Most men, that is. The men she didnt want. She was letting Viscount Haverly twirl her around the dance floor when she spied Dunford. Her heart missed a beat and her feet missed a step before she could remind herself that she was furious with him. But every time Haverly turned her around, there was Dunford, leaning lazily against a pillar with his arms folded. The expression on his face did not invite the other partygoers to come over and try to engage him in conversation. He looked terribly sophisticated in his black evening clothes, unbearably arrogant, and very, very male. And his eyes were following her, a lazy, hooded gaze—one that sent shivers up and down her spine. The dance came to an end, and Henry sank into a respectful curtsy. Haverly bowed and said, Shall I return you to your guardian? I see him just over there. Henry thought of a thousand things to say—she had another partner for the next dance and he was on the other side of the room; she was thirsty and wanted a glass of lemonade; she needed to talk to Belle—but in the end she only nodded, seemingly having lost the power to speak. Here you are, Dunford, Haverly said with a good-natured grin as he deposited Henry by his side. Or perhaps I should say Stannage now. I understand youve come into a title. Dunford is still fine, he replied with such urbane blandness that Haverly quickly stammered his goodbyes and was off. Henry frowned. You didnt have to scare him like that. Didnt I? You seem to be acquiring an unseemly number of beaux. I have not behaved in an untoward manner and you know it, she retorted, hot anger staining her cheeks. Hush, minx, you are attracting attention. Henry thought she might cry upon hearing him use her friendly nickname in such derisive tones. I dont care! I dont. I just want... What do you want? he asked, his voice low and intense. She shook her head. I dont know. I should think you dont want to attract attention. That might endanger your quest to become the reigning belle of the season. You are the one who is endangering it, scaring off my suitors like that. Hmmm. I shall have to rectify my damage then, wont I? Henry regarded him suspiciously, unable to discern his motives. What do you want, Dunford? Why, just to dance with you. He took her arm and prepared to lead her back onto the dance floor. If only to put to rest any nasty gossip that we do not deal well with one another.

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