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"So, Chalfront wants you for his wife," the baron remarked. "Your refusal was rather...unequivocal."

"One of the last things my brother said to me before he went away was that I shouldn't trust Chalfront," Gabriella said as she arranged the bottles on the table. "What happened after my father died proved that he was right. If Chalfront had been a completely honest, trustworthy bailiff, I would not be indebted to someone like you."

"But before that," he said, "did you have any reason to suspect Chalfront?" He came toward her. "It is my understanding that your brother disliked Chalfront because the bailiff often cautioned you father against giving his son extravagant amounts of money."

"During his final illness, my father spoke of something that was not right," she said quietly. "He often mentioned Chalfront's name in the same breath. Then, when the state of my father's finances became known, it was clear to me that both my brother and my father were right to suspect him."

"Yet Chalfront maintains he tried to warn your father." The baron's voice sounded low and soft in her ear and she knew he was standing directly behind her.

Gabriella turned abruptly and glared at the baron's handsome face. He regarded her steadily, and she took several deep breaths to calm herself.

"Do you think he cheated your father?"

Gabriella wanted to tell him, yes, Chalfront had cheated him. That her family's troubles were someone else's fault. That her father had been deceived, lied to, tricked.

Yet her father was an extremely generous man who enjoyed luxury, and it was not hard to believe that he had not been wise. Would Chalfront have stayed to face the wrath of a man like Baron DeGuerre if he had been dishonest?

Her love and loyalty to her family might have made her blind to the truth, and honor demanded honesty. "I don't know, my lord."

"Your father was much too lenient with his tenants. The rents, the pannage, the heriot should have been higher. Poaching is completely out of hand. The mill rate was appallingly low."

"My father was beloved!" she protested.

"I'm sure he was." Baron DeGuerre eyed her coldly. Another man, one who valued seduction over honesty, might have told her that her father was too kind. Etienne DeGuerre, however, was not such a man. "Anyone who lets his underlings take advantage of him is a fool."

Gabriella's lower lip started to tremble.

"Anyone," he repeated firmly, commanding himself to pay attention to his own words, " and I have no intention of being made a fool."

She nodded slowly, her vulnerability nearly overwhelming him. She had always been so strong before. Now he wanted to take her in his arms and simply hold her, to offer her the comfort of his embrace.

This was a feeling so new to him that he felt hopelessly ignorant and alone, as he had all those years ago when he had entered his first tournament.

He had displayed nothing of his emotions then, and he wouldn't do so now.

"I have my work to do, Baron DeGuerre."

"It is never easy to lose one's innocence, but the world is a harsh place, and we all must learn that lesson."

"I was not aware I was being taught a lesson."

His piercing blue eyes seemed to lock onto hers. "We are all alone in this world and can count on no one's help."

She shook her head. "No, I won't believe it!"

"Then you will be disappointed many times." His voice dropped to a deep whisper, like the low moan of the sea. "I would spare you that, Gabriella. I would help you."

Suddenly Gabriella had a clear vision of herself in the baron's arms. Kissing him. Caressing him and being caressed in turn. Lying in his bed and making love.

"I don't want your help!" she wanted to say, but the words would not come as he put his arms around her and drew her toward him.

As he bent his head to kiss her, it didn't matter what he had done, or why he was here with her. All that mattered was the overwhelming sensation of his lips upon hers and the burning desire that coursed through her body like flames in dry tinder.

This is the sixth book in Margaret's Warrior Series.

However, Margaret always writes each book to "stand alone" so if you haven't read any of the previous books in the series, you shouldn't feel lost.

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Cover Copyright © 1996 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Text Copyright © 1996 by Margaret Wilkins
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and TM are trademarks of Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or its affiliated companies, used under license.