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She loved it.

With a little moan, she stopped thinking and gave herself over to the moment.

Liam knew he had to stop kissing her. Hell, he hadn’t meant to kiss her. He hadn’t meant to say half the things he’d just confessed to her. Yes, she did bring out the worse in him at times, but it had to be acknowledged that she brought out the best in him at times, too.

Reluctantly, he pulled away and pressed his forehead against hers, breathing hard. He felt her hands at the back of his neck, felt them traveling up a little to play at the hair on his nape. It soothed and ramped him up all at the same time.

“Will this do for a last-minute wedding, Bella?”

“I think we should get married at this exact time,” she said.

He stepped back a little, his brows furrowing. “Why is that?”

She smiled, lovely and sweet. His heart flipped in his chest. “Because it’s when we started over. From now on, you and I have a clean slate.”

Liam smiled and shook his head in disbelief. “You are a treasure, Bella Edwards, and not just for the riches I’ll gain by marrying you.” He took her hand in his, noticing how small it was, and how right it felt to be in his.

“I know,” she said, with a twinkle in her eyes. “You are so lucky to be marrying me, because I’m a two-for-one deal. Or is that one for two? Either way, you hit the jackpot.

He laughed, unable to help himself. “Let’s get you settled inside. I’ve a lot of planning to do.” If this was a sneak peek into the future of their marriage, then thank the powers that be.

She fiddled with a button on his shirt. “I could eat again, and use the, um… loo?”

“Right this way, Your Grace.”

This time, when they returned to Wintersea, they couldn’t stop talking. They couldn’t stop laughing or sharing stories of their childhood with one another. Bella was unaffected and real. She was intelligent, honest to a fault, and beautiful. That weekend with her, had been all her, and she’d held nothing back from him.

In short, perhaps she was the perfect woman for him. Perhaps their political and religious differences were low enough hurdles for them to cross together. Not since his grandfather had fetched his mother, sister, and him, and he’d realized that he would have food and warmth every day, had he been so damn relieved.

Just as he stepped inside, it hit him. He had thought all those things about Verity. She had been all those things to him. He’d been just as honest and loving to her. But in the end, she’d betrayed him. She’d cheated on him, and then left him for another man.

He knew it wasn’t fair to paint all women with the same brush. He knew Bella and Verity had nothing to do with each other. That one was not a continuation of the other, but still… there was a part of him that demanded he be on guard. That he trust but verify. That he expect at any moment to find out Bella was hiding something from him that could screw everything to hell and back.

Now that he was wiser, he knew the best-laid plans were eventually derailed. Jesus. He didn’t want that with Bella. He didn’t want to be disappointed by her, and he didn’t want her to be disappointed by him.

“Liam?”

He blinked. Bella stared at him, concern on her face. “Sorry. I was deep in thought.”

She frowned. “Oh.”

“Oh?” She didn’t believe him?

“Well, it looked like you were arguing with yourself and who ever won wasn’t exactly happy with the outcome.”

His eyes widened. He hadn’t realized how perceptive she was, or how much she watched him. “I’ve a lot on my mind. While being on six weeks of holiday is exactly what I needed, what waits for me when I return to Romanov Industries… It’s why I’m still working and available if Sebastian needs me.” No, he wasn’t being entirely truthful, but he wasn’t lying either.

“A duke with a job,” she mused. “Is that allowed in the will?”

“Only if I work for a proper British company,” he joked. “Half Russian mobsters seem very proper.”

“Completely,” she agreed. “Do you have secret codes to get inside the building and code names for each other?” She snapped her fingers. “Like you could be the Dangerous Duke!”

Fantastic. Now he knew exactly how Sebastian felt. Though, Liam stayed on the law-abiding side of Romanov Industries, his best mate frequently made his home in the gray area.

“I’m afraid that one is already taken.”

She nodded. “I’ll keep thinking on it.”

“Bella,” he sighed.

“Lighten up, Liam. I know you’re too good to be that shady,” she said. “Now about the bathroom, er… loo.”

“I’ll have Mrs. Cooper show you the closest one.”

And as if by magic, Mrs. Cooper appeared, taking his bride-to-be by the arm and ushering her down the hallway.

He might be too good in her eyes to be shady, but wasn’t a man to be judged by the company he kept?

Chapter Nine

Later that night, after dinner in a room that still bore the soot marks of centuries-old fires on the exposed beams and they’d gone their separate ways for the evening, Bella appeared in his study.

She wore a pair of purple-and-white striped pajama pants and a matching purple tank top, with a thick, white cardigan over it.

“Is it too cold for you?” he asked, immediately jumping up from his desk and striding to her. He led Bella to the massive fireplace. “Stand here while I bring a chair to you.”

“Don’t go to all that trouble. I just came by to say good night,” she said, catching his arm.

He glanced down at where her hand touched him, right below the rolled up sleeves. The heat of her skin scalded him. He looked up at her. “Sleep in as long as you like. There’s nothing to do tomorrow except relax.”

“I’m not used to relaxing.”

“Neither I am,” he admitted.

She raised her brows and wriggled them. “Oh my gosh, did we find something else that we have in common? You might have to start believing in miracles.”

He couldn’t suppress his grin. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Maybe one day,” she said and kissed his cheek. “Night, Liam.”

“Night, Bella.”

He watched her go, watched her close the door behind her. It reminded him of the last time she left him. Of when they’d argued and he’d been cruel. This time… this time…

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