The following excerpt is unedited and may differ from the final format and/or published work.
2009 EPPIE Finalist
“This was a mistake.”
Constance Athelson, Viscountess Westbury, swallowed the knot lodged in her throat as she surveyed the crowded ballroom uneasily.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Davinia Armstrong scoffed. “You look stunning, and no one is going to recognize you with the mask you’re wearing. No queen of the Nile could look as mysterious and alluring as you do right now.”
With a skeptical look at her friend from behind the gold-feathered mask she wore, Constance shivered. The filmy silk layers of her costume were designed for hotter climates than the Black Widows Ball. Hosted by a secret and select group of the Marlborough Set, the event’s sole purpose was to celebrate one’s freedom from mourning and the restrictive social customs that accompanied that state.
It was the first time she’d ever attended the annual ball, even though she’d been officially out of mourning for more than three years. With one more glance around the ballroom, she winced. She must have been out of her mind when she’d agreed to Davinia’s suggestion. Even if she met the Earl of Lyndham tonight, she was hardly dressed for a professional interview.
No matter how well versed she was in ancient Egyptian antiquities, her costume did nothing to recommend her as a serious academician. In fact, it did just the opposite, given the way she was being ogled by several gentlemen. She must look like an odalisque ready to submit herself to Pharaoh’s whim. Why on earth had she listened to Davinia when it came to her costume? Because her friend could be quite indomitable when she set her mind to it. She tightened her grip on the handle of her fan. A footman walked by with a tray of champagne glasses, and she took one of the flutes off the silver platter.
The moment her friend heard the earl was going to make an appearance at the ball, Davinia had pressed her to attend. Her friend knew how much she coveted the cataloger of antiquities position the earl had available. Although she’d tried to resist, in the end it had simply been easier to give in to her friend’s tenacious wheedling.
No, that wasn’t true. Davinia was the real reason she had agreed to come here tonight. Drinking deeply from the champagne glass she held, she swallowed the bubbly liquid in a quick gulp as Graham’s face flitted into her head. She frowned and stirred the air in front of her with the large peacock feather she held. Her late husband would have heartily disapproved of her presence here. Not because of the venue’s decadence, although she had no doubt he’d have been less than happy with her attending the ball under any condition. What he would have condemned was her using her gift to protect a friend. She frowned.
“There he is, Constance. Do you see him?” Davinia’s fingers bit into the skin of her bare arm.
With a glance in the direction of Davinia’s discreet nod, Constance spied the man with whom her friend had become enamored. From what she could see of the man’s face beneath the slim black mask he wore, it was understandable why Davinia was so enthralled. Oliver Rawlings, Baronet, was a handsome man, but she was certain the man’s heart was as black as they came. Just looking at him made her stomach roil.
“Davinia, I know this isn’t the time or place, but there’s something you need to know about Sir Oliver.”
Curiosity darkened her friend’s lovely green eyes as she tilted her head in a display of puzzlement. “Something I need to know?”
Uncertain exactly how to proceed, Constance frowned. If Graham were here, he’d be dragging her from the room. But he wasn’t here, and she had to help her friend. Inhaling a deep breath, she took the plunge.
“Sir Oliver isn’t what he seems.”
“What on earth are you babbling about, Constance?” A derisive puff of air parted Davinia’s lips.
“The man’s drowning in debt, and he’s looking for a wife with a substantial dowry.” There, she’d managed to explain the problem without revealing every horrible detail. Surely, Davinia wouldn’t waste her time on a ne’er do well.
“Really, Constance. I’m far from an ingénue. I know all that, but I also know he’s in love with me.”
Her heart sinking, Constance’s fingers tightened on the handle of the peacock feather. Now what? Should she reveal the rest of what she’d seen? Her visions were far from exact depictions of the future. In fact, they were more often like a large puzzle with several pieces missing. Could it be she was wrong this time?
Davinia was one of only a handful of people outside her family who knew about her special talent. More importantly, she’d never actually seen something involving any of her closest friends. Seeing the excitement and hope on Davinia’s sweet features made her hesitate. If she interfered now and was wrong…no, she couldn’t say anything until she had something more noteworthy to offer up as evidence.
If she tried to explain how she’d seen her friend battered and bruised, Davinia would think her mad. And wasn’t she? How could she be so sure it was Sir Oliver who had inflicted the damage? The man she’d seen in her vision had been faceless.
She forced a smile to her lips as she squeezed her friend’s hand. “I only want you to be happy, Davinia.”
“I am. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and it’s because of Oliver.”
“Then go to him,” Constance said quietly as she suppressed her misgivings. Her friend had already made up her mind. There was nothing else she could say to convince Davinia that Sir Oliver was in all likelihood a bad seed.
“Come with me. I want him to meet you.” Davinia tugged at her arm with determination.
“Later perhaps. Since I’m here, I should at least make the attempt to discreetly learn if the earl is present and what he looks like.”
Her stomach flipped as the words flew from her mouth. She had absolutely no intention of looking for the earl. It had been a grave mistake coming here, and she refused to compound the error by introducing herself to the earl tonight.
“Dear heaven, I can’t believe I forgot about the earl.” Davinia shook her head with regret.
The apologetic note in her voice made Constance smile. It was impossible to find fault with her friend given the happiness sparkling in Davinia’s eyes. Perhaps she was wrong about Sir Oliver. She’d been wrong before—rarely. Quieting the small voice in the back of her head, she prayed this would be one of those rare instances.
“Obviously you’re preoccupied,” she said with a smile. “Go on. Off with you.”
Not hesitating, Davinia squeezed her hand and crossed the room toward Sir Oliver. Left alone on the edge of the throng, Constance grimaced at the thought of Lord Lyndham. Ever since Percy had first mentioned the earl’s need for a cataloger, she’d been obsessed with the idea of securing the position. Her brother had mentioned the opportunity simply to tease her, never realizing she’d summon up the courage to apply for the position. She’d even surprised herself with her daring. Although why she should be surprised was a mystery to her. The Rockwoods, by their very nature, were impetuous creatures.
At least she’d had the forethought to apply for the position under the pseudonym she used at the British Museum. Using her first initial and her mother’s maiden name, C. Stewart sounded every bit the skilled academician she really was. Her skills he couldn’t question, but her sex in all probability would preclude her from receiving the position. She knew in all likelihood the earl would find it difficult to accept a female as possessing the ability to catalog his antiquities. And meeting the man here—tonight—would most assuredly destroy any credibility she might have on her resume.
She heaved a sigh. Her desire to protect her friend had placed her in a precarious situation. She’d allowed Davinia to coerce her into attending the Black Widows Ball based on her premonitions about Sir Oliver. If not for that reason, she wouldn’t be standing on the fringes of the Clarendon’s ballroom floor dressed in a costume that was more revealing than most of her nightgowns. Her gaze flitted about the room, and heat suffused her body as she saw she was the subject of an increasing number of male stares.
Good Lord, if she didn’t find a dark niche to hide in, she was apt to be accosted on several fronts. She’d been a fool to think coming here would keep Davinia safe. With a soft noise of disgust, she moved toward the doors that opened onto a large glass gallery. The long corridor was cooler than the ballroom, and another sound of irritation parted her lips. She might have been compelled to attend the Black Widows Ball, but giving in to Davinia’s demands that she play the role of an ancient Egyptian queen for the night was her own lack of foresight.
The irony of the thought wasn’t lost on her. Shivering with cold, she saw what appeared to be a salon at one end of the hallway. Shadows flickering on the partially opened doorway convinced her the room contained a fire burning in an open hearth. Warmth and sanctuary in one place. Not hesitating, she hurried forward, her gold sandals clicking against the marble floor.
Just outside the entrance to the room, a masked couple stood in the shadows, indulging in a passionate embrace. She tugged in a sharp breath as she saw the man suckling the woman’s breast. The wickedness of the scene reinforced the decadence of the ball, and it sent a shiver through her. What would it be like to give herself over to a man for just this one night?
Appalled by her thoughts, she swallowed hard. Dear Lord, she should have gone straight home. She slipped quietly past the couple and entered the salon. Closing the door behind her, she locked herself in the room with a quick flip of the key. She’d heard more accounts of debauchery outside the well-lit ballroom during the Black Widows Ball than she cared to admit. The last thing she wanted was to find herself witness to a hedonistic act or worse yet, suffering the unwelcome attentions of a drunken boor. She’d wait here for an hour or two before attempting to leave the ball. By then most of the attendees would either have found suitable accommodations for their trysts or would be too drunk to notice her departure.
The quiet ticking of the mantle clock was soothing to her nerves, and she willed herself to relax as she moved to stand in front of the cheery fire. Hands outstretched to the flames, she closed her eyes for a brief moment as she enjoyed the warmth coating her skin.
Except for the fire, there was little light in the room, and the boisterous sound of the ball was a soft buzz beyond the salon’s locked door. The fire crackled as the burning wood popped in response to the heat. From where he sat in the far corner of the room, Lucien Blakemore, Earl of Lyndham, watched the woman as she warmed herself in front of the hearth.
The fire threw her curvaceous figure into stark relief. The soft light passed through the thin silk of her costume to reveal lusty thighs and long legs. Legs that would easily wrap around a man in the midst of lovemaking. His body reacted to the vivid image in seconds. She would never be called a professional beauty, but there was an exotic quality about her that intrigued him. Exotic and original. Just the type of woman he enjoyed.
His musings made him grimace. Damnation, the old woman was up to her tricks again. Somehow, his grandmother had arranged the interception of Lady Billingsly this evening and sent this woman instead. No doubt another attempt to entice him into that damnable state of marriage. She harped on the subject in every single letter she sent him from the country. His grandmother’s determination to succeed in marrying him off had placed him in some rather awkward situations in the months since he’d returned home from Egypt. In the past three weeks alone, the dowager countess had managed to thrust at least four potential candidates for the post of Lady Lyndham in front of him. All from her self-imposed exile at Lyndham Keep.
Unable to help himself, he grinned. She was amazing. Not even a military general could have managed a better-orchestrated campaign than his grandmother. But no matter how much her actions amused him, it didn’t change anything. He wasn’t about to satisfy his grandmother by playing her games. Marriage was far too deadly a proposition for him.
Clearing his throat, he watched the woman stiffen and whirl around to face him. When she turned, his groin tightened further. Good God, the woman was Isis in her most potent form. The gold silk of her enticing costume caressed every luscious curve of her body, revealing nothing, yet filling his head with all manner of arousing images.
Other than the silk knots holding her dress in place, her shoulders were bare. The soft silk of her bodice plunged downward in a vee accentuating the tops of her soft breasts, and he liked the way the gown flared out over her hips and fluttered around her long legs. Hers was a body for the most erotic of pleasures.
Voluptuous and tempting, her full breasts looked as though they’d fit into his palm quite nicely. What color were her nipples? The notion of parting her bodice to discover the answer sent blood surging through his veins until he was rock hard. Harder than he’d been in months. He wanted to see his hand caressing her breasts—watch her face as she responded to his touch. If he were to dip his fingers into her sweet core, would it be warm and sticky like the honey that flowed so sweetly for the pharaohs centuries ago? It was a tempting thought that tugged at him with relentless persistence. He wanted to plunge into her, feel her spasms as she climaxed over his cock.
Across from him, she stood immobile, assessing him with a wary look. Tension drifted through the air between them, the clock the only sound in the room.
What held her motionless, she wasn’t certain. Any other time she would have quietly excused herself from a situation that could easily get out of hand. Especially with this man. Everything about him whispered danger, and her nerve endings sent a wicked frisson dancing across her skin.
Cool, cerulean eyes studied her quietly through a simple black strip of material. It was the mask of a highwayman. The thin, white scar curving its way across his cheek down to his jaw only enhanced the rakish air the mask gave him. The regal line of his nose emphasized the sharp, angular plane of his strong jaw, and there was just the hint of a smile tilting his sensual mouth.
She wasn’t certain what historic highwayman he was supposed to be, but he played the role well as he sat there—watching her with a devil-may-care attitude. One boot-clad foot rested on the edge of his chair, his forearm balanced on top of his knee. His other leg was stretched out in front of him in a lazy display of masculine strength. There was a pure, raw sensuality about him that sent every one of her senses into flux. The aura of nonchalance he wore might have fooled others less observant, but she knew it was a deceptive picture. He was a tiger waiting for that exact moment when his unsuspecting prey came within striking distance.
“Isis herself could not have been more exquisite.” The low cadence of his voice sent a disturbing shiver of excitement gliding across her skin.
Heat suffused her cheeks as she watched his gaze roam leisurely over her entire body. A flash of arousal flared in his startling blue eyes, and she struggled to swallow the knot swelling her throat. Not even Graham had ever eyed her with such unmitigated desire. In a fluid movement, he rose to his feet and she drew in a breath of surprise. He was as tall, if not taller, than all three of her brothers.
“So, my Egyptian beauty, how shall we pleasure each other this evening?” Again, the silky smoothness of his voice teased her senses.
She tensed. Beneath that seductive tone of his, there was a sardonic note. Dear Lord, did the man think she’d deliberately sought him out? She didn’t even know who he was. The thought didn’t stop her from imagining her mouth melding with his firm lips, which were now curled in a beguiling smile. With a slight shake of her head, she dismissed the notion.
The last thing she needed was to indulge in an affair. Besides, the man wouldn’t last ten minutes when faced with the male members of the Rockwood clan. No, that wasn’t true. There was something about him that said he’d be more than a match for her brothers. Butterflies stirred in her stomach as he slowly crossed the room toward her. He had almost reached her when she took a quick step back and raised her hand to keep him at arm’s length. Her silent protest didn’t stop his forward progression until her palm pressed into his chest.
The moment she touched him, she went rigid. Abrupt and swift, the surreal existence of her visions enveloped her. This time the world she entered was more arousing than anything she could have ever imagined. Erotic and vividly real, the image of her writhing eagerly beneath the stranger stole her breath away.
The moment exploded around her with intoxicating pleasure. Warm and spicy, his male scent flooded her senses as their bodies melded, and he thrust deep into her with a dark roar. Flexible steel shoulders shifted beneath her hands as she clung to him, her body moving with his as he filled her completely, withdrew, then buried himself inside her again. The intensity of the moment sent her mind reeling from the pleasure buffeting every part of her. His heat permeated her body as her pores rushed to absorb the very essence of him. Tantalized and devoured by his possession, her blood ran hot with need.
The suddenness with which she was thrown out of the surreal experience sent a jolt through her body. Muscles weak with reaction to the wicked imagery, she struggled to remain standing. She stared up at him, all too aware the vision she’d just seen would happen, and nothing she did could prevent it. The simplicity of the knowledge didn’t startle her, but the anticipation skimming through her veins did. She wanted his heat burning through her, singeing her until the pleasure she’d just witnessed consumed her.
He studied her with an indescribable emotion glinting in the cerulean depths of his eyes. Slowly, he pulled her toward him, his gaze never leaving her face. A strong hand captured her chin and tilted her head back. Heart pounding with excitement, she waited for his mouth to warm hers.
The moment their lips touched, she melted into him, her eyes fluttering shut. Senses reeling from the pleasure of his touch, she gasped as his tongue laced seductively over her lips. In an instant, his tongue danced with hers in a tantalizing example of the intimacy her gift had shown her. The sharp bite of Cognac tickled the inside of her mouth as she molded herself to his hard, muscular body.
The chill that had encased her earlier was gone. In its place was a fire that stole her ability to think. Everything disappeared in a mist of passion and desire as his mouth teased and tempted her into a wild and abandoned response. Pressed into him so intimately, her body cried out with the need to be possessed by him. She’d never wanted anything so much in her entire life.
In the next moment, strong hands gripped her waist as he put space between them. All too aware of her accelerated pulse and the frantic breaths escaping her lips, she was startled to hear the harsh sound of his heavy breathing as well. His reaction made her believe he was just as affected as she was by their embrace. She watched in silence as he swallowed hard.
“My grandmother didn’t send you. Who did? Standish?” The terse note in his voice made her frown.
“I don’t understand.” She shook her head in puzzlement. “No one sent me.”
“Do you really expect me to believe you found me here simply by accident?” he scoffed.
“I do.” Setting her chin at a defiant tilt, she sent him a haughty look.
“What woman in her right mind would venture away from the main ballroom dressed the way you are, unless she had every intention of being alone with a man?”
She stiffened at the chastising note in his voice, and heat warmed her cheeks. He was right. Her behavior announced her blatant disregard for propriety. Still, he didn’t need to scold her like a child. She lifted her chin to a defiant angle.
“Do not flatter yourself, sir. I wanted to find a safe haven for just a short time. I am not in the habit of locking myself in a room with a total stranger.”
“And yet you did just that,” he responded softly.
Good heavens, but the man’s voice had the ability to reduce her to the state of a tongue-tied debutante. And was that regret she saw in his dark eyes? Regret mixed with desire. Her throat tightened as she saw his gaze slide over her again. Heat returned to her cheeks, and she quickly looked away to prevent him from seeing how much his open admiration excited her. It was difficult to think straight when he looked at her like that.
“It was…it was not intentional, sir.”
“Lucien,” he murmured as he bent his head toward her. “You may call me Lucien.”
“Lucien.” She tested the name on her tongue.
She liked the way it sounded. Her eyes locked with his, and her heart skipped a beat at the open desire darkening his features. As his forefinger trailed its way down the side of her cheek, she tried to breathe normally. Impossible. Something about this man sent what little cautionary judgment she possessed dancing off into the wind.
Desire slid through her to coil in every part of her body. It warmed her and sent her blood pounding through her veins. The fierceness of the emotion took her by surprise. In an attempt to collect her wits, she drew in a deep breath. She realized her mistake the moment his spicy male scent flooded her senses.
She didn’t move as he bent his head and brushed his mouth over hers. Was it the brandy on his lips or his kiss that warmed her blood? God, if she didn’t leave the room right this minute, she might actually lose her head and do something rash and impulsive. She sighed as his mouth grazed her cheek then moved downward to nibble at her neck.
“I think I should go,” she breathed.
“Would Isis deny a mere mortal the pleasure of her touch?” he whispered as he trailed his fingertips down her throat and across her bare shoulder.
He leaned into her again to capture her mouth in a hard kiss. Coherent thought deserted her as she melted into him. She knew doing so was a mistake, but she loved the way his hard body pressed into hers. He nipped at her lower lip, playfully tugging at it until she parted her lips to welcome his sensuous exploration of her mouth.
The bite of the brandy she’d tasted on his lips moments ago swept across her tongue and heightened the dangerous male essence of him. She needed to stop this madness. She was playing with fire. Deep inside a small voice encouraged her to linger. Just a few more minutes. Playing with fire didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the warmth of it for a few more moments.
His hand glided over her hip, and a tremor lashed through her. Oh God, she was enjoying this far too much. With a gentle tug, he pulled her tight against him. Through the thin silk of her gown she could feel his thick erection. The tip of it pressed against the apex of her thighs, and her heart thudded against her chest as she acknowledged how much she wanted him. Desire rushed through her as she burrowed deeper into his body. She wanted to feel more of him. It was wrong to want this, but something beyond reason held her in its grip. When his hands slid the knotted material off her shoulders, she didn’t even think to protest, she simply gave herself up to the pleasure of his touch.
“Beautiful,” he whispered as his tongue flicked out to circle her nipple. “Ra himself wouldn’t be able to resist such a tempting sight.”
The only response she could muster was a soft moan. Her blood grew thick in her veins as a lethargic heat spiraled through her. Once more, he circled her nipple with his tongue then blew across the dampness of her skin. The sensation made her cry out with pleasure.
Need in its rawest form slid through her, blinding her to anything but the pleasure of his touch. She arched her body backward as he closed his lips around a nipple and suckled her. Immediately, her legs grew wobbly.
Dear Lord, this was the most gloriously wicked thing she’d ever done. Wicked, sinful and decadent. She didn’t want it to end. Her muscles were taut and achy, and she whimpered with the need to satisfy the primal longing holding her hostage. His mouth left her breast and slid up to her shoulder. As the remaining silk strap of her bodice fell down into the crook of her elbow, his thumbs rubbed over the pointed tips of her breasts.
Her mouth went dry as she realized she had reached the point of no return. She knew her behavior was appalling, but her vision made her wonder if this moment wasn’t meant to be. Moreover, did she have the strength to deny herself something so exquisitely pleasurable? As his mouth covered hers once more, she reveled in the unadulterated pleasure his touch gave her. She’d never known how decadent and delicious Cognac could taste on a man’s tongue. She wanted more.
She stroke his cheek, and beneath her fingertips, she felt the ridge of the long scar across his cheek. His hand caught hers, and he turned his head to press his lips into her palm. Passion blazed in his eyes as his gaze met hers.
“Give yourself to me, Isis.” Desire made his voice raspy. “Let me show you what heaven can feel like.”
The words sent her heart slamming into her chest as he proceeded to pull her finger into his mouth. Dear God, the man’s touch was a heady summons to indulge in sin. And it was a wickedly tempting offer that promised a delirious passion. She knew leaving the room was the sane thing to do, and yet every part of her protested the idea of sanity.
“This is madness,” she whispered as she looked away from him, struggling with her decision.
“If that’s so, then I welcome it. That, and the pleasure I know we’ll find in each other’s arms.”
His words reminded her of the image she’d seen—their bodies entwined together as they indulged in a sinful passion. The vision made her willing to cast all caution aside. In a supplicant gesture she pulled his head down and offered him her mouth.
Instantly, his lips seared hers with a demand she couldn’t refuse even if she’d wanted to. Weak-kneed, she braced herself against his chest with her palms, the soft material against her hands a direct contrast to the hard muscles beneath his clothing. A sudden rush of liquid heat made her slick with desire, and she released a soft gasp. The speed with which her body was ready for him astonished her. Graham had never made her feel this way. Hot, needy and aching for release.
The hardness of his arousal pressed into her, and with another catlike stroke, she rubbed her hips against him. Her action ripped a deep groan from his throat, and the sound sent her pulse skidding along at a phenomenal rate. Dear Lord, she’d lost her mind to be acting in such a wanton manner.
Whether it was her vision driving her down this wild and wicked path or something else, she didn’t know. Perhaps she was going mad, but she could not imagine a more delicious man to descend into madness with. She wanted to touch him—needed to feel the hot essence of him. Fingertips tingling, she unbuttoned his shirt while her tongue mated with his in a passionate kiss.
Seconds later, her palms pressed into his hard flesh. She breathed in the raw masculinity of him. It had been more than three years since she’d been this intimate with a man. Beneath her hands, his heat penetrated the pores of her skin until she wanted more. It wasn’t enough just to have her hands skimming over the hard, sculptured muscles of his chest. She wanted nothing between them. She wanted to experience her vision. She wanted him inside her.
As if he could read her mind, he slowly dragged his mouth away from hers and lifted his head.
With the palm of his hand against her throat, he gently ran his hand downward until his fingers skimmed over a voluptuous breast. He swallowed hard at the desire glowing in her eyes. Their hazel color had changed to a sultry green, and the expression of hunger on her face was enough to drive him to drink.
He hadn’t come here to bed a widow fresh out of mourning, but this one had made him forget any intentions he had, good or bad. Her soft flesh filled his hand as he cupped one luscious mound, with his thumb circling a hard peak. Damn, but she was a tempting morsel.
Desire pushed any thought of sanity out of his head, and he lifted her into his arms and carried her to the long divan that faced the fireplace. As he laid her on the backless furniture, the seductive pout of her soft mouth pulled the air from his lungs. Christ Jesus, he’d never seen a more alluring creature. But he wanted to see her without her mask.
He reached out to remove the gold-feathered disguise, but she caught his hand and raised it to her lips. The warmth of her delicate mouth sent need crashing through him the moment she started sucking on his finger. He growled from the pleasure of it. If she could suck his cock as skillfully as she did his finger, he’d find himself well sated. The image pulled another dark growl from him. Her gaze immediately dropped to his taut erection, and she sent him a provocative look as she released her grasp on his hand.
“Undress for me,” she demanded in a throaty whisper.
He smiled slowly at the faint flush cresting over her cheeks. It appeared Isis wasn’t used to making demands when it came to her pleasure. But she had with him, and her boldness pleased him. As he removed his clothing, he watched her do the same until the only thing she wore was her gold-feathered mask. Following her example, he didn’t remove the black silk from his face.
As he studied her in the firelight, his gaze swept over voluptuous breasts down to a softly rounded stomach and then to the dark triangle at the apex of her thighs. Exquisite. He liked how she was curved in all the right places. Exploring every inch of her would be a pleasurable task.
One hand stretched out to him, she silently invited him to come to her. He accepted without hesitation and lowered himself onto the divan. Unable to keep from devouring her with his gaze, he ran his hand across the roundness of her belly. The tactile sensation was one of downy softness. The aroma of jasmine and lemongrass tantalized his senses. The exotic combination tugged at his groin as he pressed his mouth against her stomach, delighting in the fragrant softness of her. His hand caressed a long, shapely leg before his fingers brushed across the top of her lusty thigh. The quick breath she drew in was filled with a taut need.
“Please,” she murmured.
“I have every intention of pleasing you, yâ sabāha.”
The desire shimmering in her sultry gaze made his mouth go dry. His gaze not leaving her face, his fingers slipped through her nest of curls. He sucked in a quick breath of surprise as he encountered the slick heat of her passion. She was drenched in cream. Hot and wet, she arched her body upward against his hand with a soft mewl of pleasure. He rubbed the fleshy nub between her slick folds, and she writhed beneath the touch.
“Oh God, please.”
Her soft plea tore at him. Damn, she was about to come apart in his arms, and he’d not had a chance to fully explore the delights of her body. But she wasn’t the only one wanting immediate satisfaction. His cock jumped as he watched her pink tongue dart out to lick her lips.
Quickly he shifted his body to hover over her. With his erection pressing at the edge of her honeyed core, he reached for her mask. Once again she prevented him from removing the gold-feathered covering.
“No,” she murmured. “Tonight belongs to Isis and her mortal lover, Lucien. No one else.”
With a nod, he pressed his hips downward and buried himself in her slick heat. The pleasure of it forced a deep groan out of him. God, when was the last time he’d had such a delicious cunny wrapped this tightly around his cock? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember any woman except her. In the back of his head he heard the warning, but he ignored it. Sheathed inside her tight passage, he lowered his head to suckle on the stiff peak of her breast.
A soft moan broke over his head as his teeth lightly abraded her nipple. The small cry of delight escaping her pleased him. It pleased him more than he cared to admit. Slowly he shifted his hips and eased himself out of her snug sheath. At her murmur of protest, he slid back inside her. Expanding her until he filled her completely with his hard length.
Christ, but she felt good wrapped around him like a snug vise. As she shifted beneath him, he released a dark growl of pleasure. She responded by flexing her muscles around him again. If possible, his cock expanded and hardened against her tightness. God, he’d not enjoyed this kind of pleasure in a long time. Pulling out of her slightly, he kissed away her protest before plunging back into her. His mouth swallowed her cry of delight, and triumph raced through him as he increased the speed with which he plundered her heated core.
As she met his thrusts with equal fervor, he forgot everything but her. Isis was his for the taking, and their mating filled him with a primal need unlike anything he’d experienced before. He rocked his hips hard and fast against her as he stared down at the lushly curved body beneath him. Everything else receded from him except for his awareness of her. The soft cries of her desire as she bucked against him. The exotic floral scent mingling with the musk of her passion. The sweet taste of champagne on her tongue. There wasn’t anything about her that he didn’t want more of.
Her slick, creamy core tightened around his cock, and he groaned as his ballocks drew up taut at the base of his erection. The faster he drove into her, the more passionate her response. Fingertips digging into his hard shoulder muscles, she clung to him, answering his demand for complete surrender. Seconds later her body shattered around him, her muscles clenching him in hard, rhythmic spasms of intense pleasure. He wanted to prolong the moment, enjoy the sensation, but he couldn’t. With a deep, primeval growl, he exploded inside her before slowly sinking down into her soft, full curves.
The after effects of their joining shivered through her, and her muscles trembled around him. He released a low sound of pleasure against the side of her neck as his firm lips nibbled at her. Satiated and exhausted, Constance murmured a soft protest as he rose from the divan. With a swift kiss to her lips, he smiled.
“The night is still young, Isis. I’m simply going to fetch an afghan I saw earlier.”
She watched him cross the darkened room. The masculine grace and power of his movements renewed the desire he’d so deliciously satisfied moments ago. The way he moved emphasized his commanding presence and explained the intense attraction she felt. He reminded her of the statues of Ramesses she had seen when Graham had taken her to Egypt several months after their wedding. She closed her eyes as shame suddenly rolled over her.
In some small way, she felt as if she’d betrayed Graham. Biting her lip, she swallowed hard. What had she been thinking? She’d just given herself to a stranger. She’d been intimate with a man she knew nothing about. Even his face was a mystery to her. She’d always accepted that being a Rockwood meant she possessed an impulsive and audacious nature. But this was by far and away the most outrageous thing she’d ever done. In fact, she was certain she’d outdone all the Rockwood clan with this particular incident. Overwhelmed by the wickedness of her actions, she shot upright and frantically looked around for her costume.
Escape. The sooner she left this man’s company, the better. Her fingers absently touched her cheek as she tried to come to grips with the situation she found herself in. The golden feathers of her mask brushing across her knuckles brought a sigh of relief to her lips. The one saving grace in this entire debacle had been her foresight to keep her mask on. He would never recognize her if they met at some dinner party or other social event.
Leaning over, she reached for the gold and green silk of her dress. The warmth of a strong hand covered her fingers, and she jerked with surprise as he gently pulled the garment from her grasp. In an odd gesture of tenderness, he stroked the side of her face with his finger as he sat down beside her.
“You’re troubled by something.”
“No, I’m just a bit chilly.” Even to her own ears, the words sounded false as she turned her head away from him.
“You’ve not betrayed him, yâ sabāha. One cannot betray the dead.”
Stunned, she stared into the blue eyes studying her with quiet assessment. Swallowing the knot in her throat, it amazed her how he’d instinctively known she was feeling guilty about Graham. Few other men would have been so perceptive. Even more astonishing was the way he’d addressed her in the Arabic language as his beauty.
The only men she knew who spoke the language were on staff at the British Museum, and this man wasn’t one of them. She was certain of that. The scholars at the Museum were much older than this man. With another shake of her head, she reached for the gold and green silks he still held in his hand.
“I really must go. I…what happened here tonight…”
“Was a brief interlude, nothing more.”
He finished the sentence for her. The matter-of-fact note in his voice filled her with relief. He did not expect their relationship to continue. To her surprise, a twinge of disappointment nipped at her. Not willing to explore the reason for her reaction, she accepted her costume from his outstretched hand. She dressed quickly, aware he was doing the same. As she adjusted the knotted material on her shoulder, she looked up to see him watching her with an intense look. It was a look that sent a blaze of excitement spiraling through her body.
In the span of a breath, she was in his arms again as he took her mouth in a hard kiss. The uncontrolled restraint of the embrace rocked its way through her. She would never forget tonight or him as long as she lived. For a brief time, she’d experienced a passion that few would ever know. It was worth any guilt or remorse she might feel in the days to come.
As he raised his head and stared down into her eyes, she placed her open palm against his heart. Beneath her fingertips she could feel his heartbeat. It was strong and steady. The sound of it connected her to him until his pulse thundered through her head, assaulting her senses. With the roar came the blood. It was everywhere. Looking down at her hands she gagged as she saw the bright red stains on her skin.
The horror attacking her made her whimper as she stared helplessly about the room she was in. It was a massive library with books strewn all around the floor. Lying close to her feet was the body of a woman. Her eyes were open and vacant. Lifeless. There was a deep gash across her throat that still oozed a trickle of blood. Never in her life had her gift ever thrust her into such a horrible place. Not even her nightmares could compare with this unspeakable carnage.
Then in the blink of an eye, the room shifted around her, and she watched as a handsome man knelt at the woman’s side. The look of grief and rage on his face swelled her throat as she suppressed her tears at his pain. In that brief moment, evil wrapped its arms around her. It pulled her into a stranger’s body and a knife appeared in her hand. In a fleeting moment of recognition, she knew she’d seen the knife before, but she couldn’t remember where. The moment was gone as a flash of light showed the blade descending to slice deep into the man’s neck, spraying his lifeblood outward.
With a sharp cry, she raised her hands in an attempt to cover her face. Strong hands gripped her arms, and Lucien’s low voice called to her. Her eyes flew open and she stared up at him with trepidation. There was a strange glint in his gaze that unnerved her. Had he been a part of what she’d seen? Was he a murderer? Was that why she’d seen that devastating picture? She shivered.
“Are you all right?”
Bemused and frightened, she nodded. “Yes, I…forgive me—I must go.”
“No,” she said sharply, and beneath the black silk of his mask, she saw his piercing blue eyes narrow.
Oh God, did he know what she’d seen? No, how could he? She had to get away. Even if he wasn’t involved in the horrendous crime she’d witnessed, he was the catalyst that had brought the images forth. Terrible images she wanted to forget. Trembling, she pushed her way out of his arms, and without another word sped toward the door.
Behind her, he uttered a soft oath. Not daring to look over her shoulder, she fumbled with the key before the lock clicked open. The sound of his footsteps propelled her out the door and down the corridor to the brightly lit ballroom. Tonight had ended with a memory she wanted to forget, but knew she never would.
Lyndham Keep, Two Months Later
It was gloomy. No, bleak and desolate was a more accurate description. Against the dreary looking rain clouds, the gray stone walls of Lyndham Keep looked almost menacing. Staring out the carriage window at the massive stone building, Constance shook her head at the fanciful thought. The place hardly looked all that ominous considering the reason for her flight from London.
“It looks like a haunted castle, Mother.” Jamie’s comment made her turn her head back to her son. The excitement on his face tugged a smile to her lips.
“It does a little bit, doesn’t it. Now remember what I told you earlier. You’re to be on your best behavior.”
“Yes, Mother.” His attention span short, he stared back out the window. “Do you think the earl is going to be angry when he finds out you’re a woman?”
The question sent apprehension skating down her spine. After a lengthy correspondence, the earl had offered her the position of cataloging his Egyptian artifacts without ever questioning her as to her sex. After all, it hadn’t been relevant. Had it?
Jamie was right, what would the earl think when he finally met C. Stewart? Would he send her packing for not belaboring the point that she was a woman? The curiosity in her son’s eyes made her flinch as she shook her head in a gesture of uncertainty. She couldn’t let the earl even consider the possibility. She had to convince him that he’d based his decision to hire C. Stewart on her credentials and not her sex. C. Stewart had been selected to catalog the earl’s Egyptian artifacts because of her skill and knowledge, nothing more.
She had no intention of losing this position. Lyndham Keep was sanctuary. A place to hide untilhe stopped looking for her. She shivered. It had been two months since the Black Widows Ball. What had begun as a glorious night of pleasure had ended on a note of horror. A true Rockwood, she’d succumbed to impulse and only afterward had she realized the folly of her actions. Although the doctors had said she would never conceive again, the possibility had still haunted her. It had been a relief when she learned she wasn’t with child, but her connection to the stranger had still remained. Closing her eyes briefly, she remembered the dreams that began shortly after her interlude with the highwayman.
In her dreams, the man who called himself Lucien searched for her. From one drawing room to the next, he hunted for her. The first night she’d brushed the dream off as a remnant of fear from what she’d experienced in Lucien’s presence. But as the dreams continued pushing their way into her sleep, something changed.
At first she couldn’t understand what was different about each successive dream. Then she realized what it was. With each dream, he came closer to her. At first he’d been a shadowy figure in the distance, but as each night passed, he was more distinct—real. His mask still hid his face, but she knew it was him. The dreams convinced her he was looking for her, and the only way to escape was to leave London.
The thought of telling her family about her predicament had occurred to her, but she’d quickly discarded the notion. The last thing she wanted to do was admit to any of her siblings that she’d gone to the Black Widows Ball. Louisa and Patience would simply be amused by her daring. Unfortunately the rest of the Rockwood clan would be less than amused.
While her sister-in-law would have tried to shield her, not even Helen’s sway over her husband would have staved off any inquisition. As the family patriarch, Sebastian would have demanded a full account of her actions, with Percy and Caleb in complete agreement. No, she’d been wisenot to confide in her family. Her brothers would have suffocated her with a well-intentioned cloak of protection.
She’d even considered taking a house in the country for a few months. It would have strained her household budget considerably, but she’d been willing to do whatever it took to escape the man searching for her. Then the earl had made his decision, and it had been manna from heaven. The joy of being responsible for such a notable collection of artifacts was second only to the knowledge that she could escape London for several months until she completed the archiving of the earl’s antiquities collection. By the time she returned, Lucien would no longer be looking for her.
Now, trepidation wound its way through her like a vine of ivy, threatening to choke her as she stared out the carriage window at the large keep they were approaching. Jamie had asked an excellent question. What would the earl do when he found out he’d secured the services of a woman to catalog his prized Egyptian artifacts?
The carriage rocked to a halt, and she tried to ignore the apprehension nibbling at her. It was quite likely she’d be sent straight back to the rail station the moment her deception was discovered. As the coach door opened, she accepted the footman’s assistance and descended from the carriage. The massive wood doors of Lyndham Keep rose up like giant oaks, reinforcing the image of an ancient battlement. Standing just outside the door was a slenderly built man who bowed as she climbed the steps.
“Good afternoon, madam. We were expecting a Mr. Stewart.”
“I’m C. Stewart. Would you please inform his lordship that I’ve arrived.” Her response made the man’s eyes widen, but other than that he showed no other sign of surprise.
“His lordship isn’t expected home for at least three weeks, madam, but Lady Lyndham asked to see you when you arrived.”
She inhaled a deep breath as she nodded in silent response. With her hand on Jamie’s shoulder, they followed the butler into a massive hall. The stone walls rose up at least two levels to wide beams that served to hold up the ceiling. A huge tapestry hung against one wall, while two complete sets of armor framed the entry to a large library. Her heart skipped a beat as she walked past the open doorway of the large book-filled room. The Lyndham Library—from what she could see, the room was every bit as massive as she’d heard. Rumor held the Lyndham Library rivaled Queen Victoria’s private collection.
The sound of her shoes clicking on the stone floor mingled with the swish of her bustled gown, the usually soft noise echoing loudly in the great hall. It underlined the sonorous depth of the room. The hair on the back of her neck tingled as she sensed someone or something watching her. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the figure of a man standing in the shadows near the library door.
An instant later he vanished in a thin stream of mist. Frowning, she inhaled a deep breath. It didn’t surprise her to find one or more spirits lingering in a structure as old as Lyndham Keep. The family descended from the time of William the Conqueror. Once more she was reminded of the menacing appearance the keep had presented only a short time ago. With great effort, she controlled the sudden urge to run back to the carriage, dragging Jamie with her. She cast the thought aside. Going back to London was out of the question.
Following the butler, they walked into a room with a ceiling that wasn’t quite as high as the main hall. Despite its large size, the room was warm and cozy with its lemon chintz cushions and a roaring fire in the immense hearth. Seated in a wing-backed chair of floral print, an elderly woman eyed Jamie with a look of astonishment before turning her intimidating gaze on Constance.
Powdery white hair piled atop her head in an outdated style, the dowager countess’s piercing blue eyes pinned their fierce brightness on her. Blue-veined hands rested on the head of a cane she held. The woman presented the air of a fierce and regal matriarch.
For a brief instant, she saw something vaguely familiar in the woman’s expression. Had she met the woman before? She dismissed the notion as Lady Lyndham’s sharp gaze settled on her, and her heart sank. There was the distinct possibility the dowager would send her back to London without an opportunity to even plead her case with the earl. Remembering her manners, she curtseyed as she halted in front of the dowager.
“Good afternoon, my lady.”
“Harrumph. Jacobs tells me you’re Mr. Stewart.”
Steadily meeting the older woman’s stern gaze, Constance nodded. “I am C. Stewart, my lady. I applied for the earl’s cataloger position using the initial of my given name and my mother’s maiden name.”
For a long moment, the woman glared down her sharp, regal nose at her. Determined not to flinch in the face of such a penetrating look, Constance lifted her chin and did not allow her gaze to waver beneath the other woman’s crystal-blue gaze. The sudden sound of laughter tumbling from the woman’s lips made Constance jump. It wasn’t quite the reaction she had expected.
“You have backbone, girl. I like that.”
“You secure this position without disclosing the full truth of who you are, and then you waltz into this ancient hall with a brazen confidence I’ve not seen in years. And with a child no less.”
Constance touched Jamie’s shoulder. “If I may, my lady, this is my son, Lord Westbury. Jamie, Lady Lyndham.”
At the introduction, Jamie immediately stepped forward and bowed over the dowager’s hand to brush the air above her fingers with his mouth. The deep chuckle rippling from the woman’s wrinkled throat made Jamie a bit more audacious, and Constance sucked in a quick breath of horror as she saw him wink at the woman.
Another roar of laughter parted the woman’s mouth. “By God, boy, you have as much cheek as your mother. Come, sit down. Both of you.”
Motioning for them to take a seat in the chairs opposite her regal figure, Lady Lyndham picked up a bell on the table beside her. When the woman shook it, the shrill ring had an edge to it that heightened Constance’s already finely tuned senses. With a fierce look of disapproval at her son, she sank down into the chair next to Jamie, uncertain of what to expect next. An inspection by the dowager was the last thing she’d anticipated in coming to Lyndham Keep.
The prickling sensation at her neck made her look over her shoulder as the butler entered the room. A light mist hovered in the salon doorway as Lady Lyndham tossed her hand up in an imperial gesture.
“Tea for three, Jacobs. And bring some of the blackberry scones Cook promised to make today.” Without waiting for the man’s acknowledgement, Lady Lyndham turned back to Constance. “Now then, C. Stewart. Tell me why you applied for the position my grandson advertised.”
Jerking her head around to meet the other woman’s piercing gaze, Constance lifted her chin. “It’s reputed the artifacts in the earl’s Egyptian collection are some of the finest in the world. I’ve been a student of ancient Egypt since childhood, and I’ve studied Egyptology with several scholars at the British Museum. As I outlined in my letter to his lordship, I am eminently qualified for the position.”
“I see.” The woman’s eyebrow arched with imperial flair. “And what made you think my grandson would agree to your employment once he discovered the truth about you?”
Constance glanced down at her gloved hands, surprised to see them clutching her beaded purse with desperation. What in heaven’s name was wrong with her? She was acting as if she’d just been caught in a lie by one of the nuns at St. Bridget’s Academy. Squaring her shoulders, she lifted her head and met the woman’s gaze with a steady look.
“To be quite frank, my lady, I didn’t even consider that possibility. I had thought to impress him with my work so he would overlook the minor detail of my sex.”
“Hmm,” the old woman murmured as she nodded her head. “Is this madcap behavior a common one for you?”
The question made Constance wince. The Rockwood disposition for impulsive behavior had always ensured she acted without thinking. But applying for the position of cataloger to the Earl of Lyndham had been driven by more than impulse. She’d needed salvation.
“It is true that my family is known for their impetuous natures, but I am confident my knowledge will serve the earl well.”
Jacobs entered the room with a tray of china. The cups rattled lightly as he set the tea on the table next to Lady Lyndham. Ignoring the man, the old woman arched an eyebrow at Constance.
“How do you take your tea, girl?”
“Two lumps, my lady.”
With a bob of her powdery white head, Lady Lyndham poured the hot liquid, added the sugar then handed a cup to Constance. The piercing blue of her gaze swung to Jamie. “It appears that Jacobs has brought you a glass of milk to accompany your scones, young man. I take it that will be satisfactory.”
“It will indeed, my lady.” Jamie’s blasé tone of voice made Constance grimace. He had never been his father’s son. Jamie’s personality had displayed his Rockwood lineage from the first moment he could sit up. The dowager didn’t seem the least bit put off by Jamie’s cavalier response. Constance breathed a sigh of relief, determined to chastise her son when the moment presented itself.
“So, you want to catalog that rubble my grandson brought back from Egypt. Did you really think he would overlook the fact that you’re a woman?” The dowager’s voice held a distinct thread of amusement.
“Not exactly, my lady.” She studied the tea in her cup for a second before looking into Lady Lyndham’s discerning gaze. “I believe my work will show me qualified for the task. I’ve heard the earl was not happy with his last appointment to this post. I am confident my skills as a cataloger will more than satisfy his lordship—enough to overlook any other unsuitable qualities I may possess.”
Lady Lyndham set her cup down and eyed her with a look that reminded Constance of a watchful bird of prey. It was a look she’d received from her brothers on more than one occasion in an attempt to intimidate her. She did not drop her gaze. Harsh frowns from her brothers had never frightened her, and Lady Lyndham’s scowl was no different. The woman’s dour expression changed suddenly as she looked at Jamie then back at Constance.
“Westbury,” the woman said sharply. “Is that the same Westbury who upped and died of some fever in Cairo a few years back?”
The stark question caught Constance off guard, and her heart lurched painfully in her breast. Graham’s death had been sudden and unexpected, leaving her to raise Jamie on her own. If she had been able to make any sense out of her dreams in the days before they left for their second visit to Cairo, she would have insisted that they not go. But she hadn’t, and Graham had succumbed to dysentery despite all her efforts to save him. Aware of the dowager’s arched look of impatience, she nodded.
“Lord Westbury was my husband.”
“If I recall, that would make you a Rockwood. One of Matilda Stewart’s clan,” the dowager said as she took a sip of her tea. “I’ve heard your aunt is as formidable as your grandmother was.”
“You knew my grandmother, my lady?”
“I did. Catherine and I debuted the same year. A fiery woman—that Scots background I suppose. Broke a few hearts before she upped and married Magnus MacDonald. You look like her, and from what I’ve seen, you’re just as impulsive as she was.”
“It is a propensity for which the Rockwoods are known, my lady. But we stand by our impulsive natures,” she said with a touch of pride.
“Uncle Sebastian says she’s almost as bad as Aunt Louisa when it comes to stumbling into trouble.” Jamie’s precocious comment shot a bolt of horror through Constance. Had her son taken leave of his senses? Leaning over toward him, she caught his hand up in hers, her tight grip making him send her an uneasy look.
“First you will apologize to her ladyship for being so rude, and then you will wait for me in the hall.”
Thoroughly chastened, her son stood up and bowed toward the dowager countess. “My sincerest apologies, my lady. If you will excuse me, I’ll leave you and my mother to finish your tea.”
Amusement twinkled in the old woman’s eyes, but the dowager countess did not smile as she gave Jamie a sharp nod. “Make certain you stay out of trouble in the hall, my lord. This keep is haunted, and I’d hate to see you anger any of our resident ghosts.”
Constance suppressed a groan at the woman’s words. In most children, such a warning would be more than sufficient to keep them on their best behavior. But Jamie was an unusual child. Anything sounding remotely of the supernatural had him racing down paths even seraphim refused to walk. The excitement on his face made her lean toward him again.
“Remember, my lord, you are to wait for me in the main hall.”
She saw the way his eyes clouded with disappointment, and with a gesture of dismissal, nodded toward the door. When he had left the room, she turned back to the dowager countess, aware of the other woman’s curious gaze.
“I must ask your forgiveness for my son’s capricious nature, my lady. He’s young and rarely stops to think.”
“Harrumph, I imagine he comes by it naturally.” Amusement sparkled in the sharp blue eyes watching her. “How often must you account for your own hasty decisions?”
Why, the woman was actually chiding her for disciplining Jamie. She bit back a smile. Like his father, Jamie had the ability to charm people simply by looking at them. It was a trait that would serve him well in the House of Lords when the time came for him to take his father’s seat. Aware the old woman wanted an answer, she smiled.
“I must account for my impetuosity more often than I care to admit, my lady.”
The dowager arched an eyebrow at her, and Constance found herself liking the old woman in spite of her abrupt mannerisms. And despite the age difference, Lady Lyndham reminded her a great deal of her Aunt Matilda.
“I should send you home, Lady Westbury.” Indecision threaded Lady Lyndham’s voice. “I’m certain my grandson will be less than pleased at your deception.”
“My deception will be moot once he recognizes my skills are more than equal to the task he needs performed.”
“Harrumph.” Lady Lyndham’s thin mouth tightened into a firm line, but there was a distinct twinkle in her gaze. “How did you find out about this librarian post?”
“My brother Percy mentioned it in passing, and the earl’s decision to secure my services was an answer to my prayers.”
“Prayers, eh? Well, girl, if I were you, I’d reserve judgment on that point. You’ve yet to meet my grandson, who is quite likely to toss you out on your ear for deceiving him.”
“I did not deceive anyone, my lady. I simply allowed his lordship to form his own opinion.”
The woman barked with laughter as she shook her head. “We’ll see how the boy reacts to that when he arrives. In the meantime, I suppose it will do no harm to let you at least attempt to do the task you were charged with.”
A rush of elation surged through her at having overcome what she was certain had to be a major hurdle. The dowager countess was clearly not someone to be trifled with, and to have passed the woman’s rigorous inspection increased the odds of convincing the earl that she was capable of the position.
“Thank you, my lady.”
“Oh, don’t be too hasty in thanking me. You’ve yet to meet my grandson. Although I admit it’s an occasion I do not wish to miss.” Her blue-veined hand picked up the bell again and gave it a sharp ring. Almost immediately, the butler appeared in the room. “Jacobs, place Lady Westbury in the Blue Room. As for the young Lord Westbury, he can stay in the nursery with Lady Imogene under Nanny’s care.”
Jacobs nodded his answer and waited patiently as Lady Lyndham turned her attention back to Constance. “Once you’ve settled in, you may begin your task in the library. We dine at eight, and I do not tolerate tardiness.”
Aware she’d been dismissed, Constance stood up and offered the woman a brief curtsey, then followed Jacobs out of the room. Emerging from the salon and into the main hall gave her the sensation of clouds passing over the sun. There was a chill here that made her hair stand on end. Lyndham Keep had seen more than its share of anguish, and its effect on her senses made her uneasy. She quickly suppressed the emotion as she saw Jamie staring up at the second-floor landing. Following his gaze, she saw the face of a young girl peering down at them.
The moment the butler started up the stairs, the girl leaped back and disappeared from view. With Jamie in front of her, they climbed the massive staircase. Carved from mahogany, the spindles in the banister were fine examples of detailed and exquisite workmanship. It was a beautiful staircase, but something in the air made it feel dark and dense.
When they reached the second floor, Jacobs led them down a long corridor of stone archways and portrait-laden walls. The dismal atmosphere resembled something out of a Dickens or Brontë novel. The only light illuminating the hall came from a tall window at the end of the corridor. Pressing against her, the darkened hallway made her long for the bright, airiness of her own home.
The thought vanished as she remembered why she’d fled London. No, Lyndham Keep would suit her just fine, dark corridors and all. Jacobs stopped in front of a door and opened it for her.
She entered a serene-looking room that was much brighter than the hall it bordered. The butler moved to the fireplace and, using a flint, lit the fire in the grate. When he finished, he bowed in her direction.
“I’ll have your trunks brought up immediately, my lady. Do you require anything else at the moment?”
“No, thank you, Jacobs.”
“Very well, then I’ll take his lordship up to the nursery, my lady. It’s on the next floor and easy enough to find.”
With a nod, Constance eyed her son’s remorseful expression. Smiling, she lifted his chin so he could see her face. “We’ll talk later. In the meantime, no ghost hunting. Is that understood?”
As if realizing his penance was over, he grinned. “Yes, Mother. But may I explore just a little?”
“Perhaps later, hmm.”
His wry grimace made her laugh as he turned and followed the butler out of the room. As the door closed behind them, Constance reached up, pulled out her hatpin and removed her hat. Sticking the pin into the large ribbon bow in the back of the headgear, she set it on a nearby dressing table and surveyed her surroundings. The room was large with furniture reminiscent of medieval times. The clawed feet on the dresser and wardrobe were repeated on the bed and chairs with intricate carvings on the legs and posts.
She crossed the room to the window and pushed aside the curtains to look out over the keep’s grounds. Despite the gloomy sky brooding above the earth, there were brilliant signs of spring’s arrival. Green buds were unfurling on the trees, and the grass lining the lawn was the color green that always accompanied the season.
Something told her the grounds would be lovely when spring was in full bloom. Just as lovely as the banks of the river Nile were after the annual floodwaters had receded. Excitement skittered through her. She was going to have access to one of the world’s most valuable collections of Egyptian antiquities. Or at least she would until the earl returned home.
The dowager countess had been far from reassuring about the earl’s reaction to her presence at Lyndham Keep. Shoulders lifted in a slight shrug, she sighed. She’d eluded her masked lover, and that’s all that mattered. A shiver pricked her skin as she remembered the horror of the vision she’d had that night. Refusing to dwell on it, she turned away from the window, her gown rustling quietly against the wooden floor until she reached the large carpet in the middle of the room.
A sudden noise stopped her in her tracks. It was a soft sound, and she strained to hear it. She was uncertain what it was at first until she recognized it for faint sobbing. There was great sorrow in the sound, and in seconds an icy chill engulfed her body. Her breath small clouds in the cold air, she waited for the spirit to show itself. Instead, the sobbing stopped as quickly as it had begun, and the temperature in the room grew warm again.
The memory of the spirit she’d seen earlier made her frown. Although she and the earl had never met, she’d heard numerous stories about his family. Never one to put much stock in gossip, she now wished she’d been a little more attentive to the stories she’d heard. She thought there had been something about a murder, but she couldn’t remember for sure. Hushed whispers of all sorts of mayhem accompanied old families of the nobility. Even the Rockwoods had their share of murderers and thieves.
The fire popped loudly in the hearth, and she jumped at the sharp sound. Grimacing at her nervous behavior, she shook her head. It was time to get to work. The sooner she started cataloging the collection, the more she’d have done by the time the earl came home. And the further along she was with her task, the less likely the man was to throw her out of the keep.
Slapping her hands to shake off the dust coating her skin, Constance stared at the crates stacked in the makeshift storage room adjacent to the keep’s library. There were still so many of them. She’d taken on a monumental task, and the notion of it made her heart sink. It had been almost three weeks since her arrival, and in that time, she’d worked hard to be as thorough and efficient as possible in her cataloging efforts. The question was whether her work would suitably impress the earl when he returned home. For the first time, she realized the light from the room’s windows had been fading for some time. She needed to return to her room to freshen up or she’d be late for dinner.
With one more brush of her dirty hands, she returned to the library. The moment she entered the room, the usual prickling sensation crawled across her skin. From the first time she’d entered the library she’d sensed something terrible had happened here. She wasn’t certain what, but pain and sorrow permeated the room to the point that it often made it difficult for her to concentrate. It was one reason why she worked in the adjacent room rather than here in the library.
Despite her efforts to convince herself that working in the storage area gave her more convenient access to the crates of antiquities, she knew better. Eager to leave the library, she hurried across the large carpet that covered most of the beautifully polished oak floor. She had only taken a few steps when her skin grew icy cold. Coming to an abrupt halt, she exhaled a breath to see it become a small cloud.
“Whoever you are, I don’t frighten easily,” she said in a firm, dispassionate voice.
The moment her words rang out into the room, the air around her warmed to normal room temperature. Exasperated, she shook her head.
“Not so brave when someone snaps back, are you?” she muttered.
“I am far from being frightened, my dear.”
Unable to help herself, she yelped in surprise and whirled around to see a handsome man watching her with a look of curiosity.
“Damnation.” His eyes widened with astonishment. “You really can see me.”
Gathering her wits, Constance brushed a stray lock of hair away from her brow as she glared at the spirit. Under normal circumstances, ghosts didn’t speak to her. Here apparently was one of the rare exceptions.
“Yes, I can see you.”
“Excellent. I’m Nigel, by the way, and you are?”
“Constance,” she said with a quick shake of her head.
“You’re a pretty little thing. I suppose he’s already told you that.” There was a familiar note in the man’s voice, and she frowned.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“My brother. I suppose he’s told you—” The ghost’s smile collapsed into a grimace as he faded swiftly into thin air.
Quickly stepping forward, Constance stood in the area where the ghost had been, but there was no cold spot of any kind. Over the years, she’d come to recognize many things about the spirits she had contact with. The stronger personalities were the ones best able to manifest their energy into making themselves visible or even moving objects in the physical world. But it was a short-lived ability because of the vast amount of energy it took. This ghost had one of the strongest vibrations of any spirit she’d ever encountered.
Strong enough to speak—and that had only happened to her one other time. The bittersweet memory of her mother made a knot of tears swell in her throat. She clenched her fists to push back the sadness and buried the memories deep below the surface.
Whatever the ghost wanted from her, it would be some time before he made another appearance. Turning back toward the door of the library, she gave a violent start at the sight of Lady Lyndham in the doorway. A second later, light illuminated the dowager countess’s features as she moved into the room, her cane softly thudding against the carpet.
“Is talking to thin air another of your eccentric behaviors, Lady Westbury?”
Heat burned her cheeks at the skeptical tone in the dowager’s voice. It was bad enough she’d arrived at the keep by dubious means, and now she’d been caught in a conversation with someone no one else could see. Not an easy thing to explain. Straightening her shoulders, she nodded her head as she relied on the explanation she’d used since she was a young girl.
“I’m afraid so, my lady. I must confess that I often talk out loud. People find that far more comforting than if I were to tell them I was conversing with the spirits.” Deliberately smiling at the woman, she watched amusement cross the dowager’s face.
“I like you, Lady Westbury. You’ve a freshness that this decrepit tomb hasn’t experienced in years.”
“Thank you, my lady. You’re most kind.”
“Nothing of the sort.” Lady Lyndham snorted. “If I’d taken a dislike to you, you would have been out the door the first day.”
“I thought as much,” Constance murmured with a smile.
“Harrumph.” The dowager countess uttered the disgruntled sound with great emphasis. “Did you now?”
“If you’ll excuse me, my lady, I should go and change or I’ll be late for dinner.” She waited for the woman to respond, but Lady Lyndham seemed lost in thought as she stared around the room.
“I can’t remember the last time I was in here.” The dowager’s whisper was faint as her gaze focused on the spot where the ghost had been only moments before. “Not since…”
Constance watched as the woman barely shook her head. There was a forlorn air about the woman that resembled the grief she was all too familiar with. Stepping forward, she gently rested her hand on the elderly woman’s shoulder.
“Are you all right, my lady?”
“What?” Lady Lyndham looked startled as she glanced over her shoulder at Constance. “I must have been daydreaming again. A codicil to growing old. Come, I want to leave this dreary place.”
Puzzled, Constance offered her arm as the woman waved a hand toward her. Together they walked slowly toward the library door, the dowager relying on the sturdy cane that seemed almost a part of her. As they stepped into the hall, Lady Lyndham came to a halt, her shoulders hunched over as she rested both hands on her cane.
“Tell me, how is it going with my grandson’s artifacts?” There was a distinct twinkle in those fierce blue eyes, and Constance laughed.
“They are exquisite and overwhelming. I had no idea of the magnitude of the task itself. I know I’ve accomplished a great deal, but it looks quite insignificant when compared to what is still left to do.”
Nodding, Lady Lyndham pinned her with a cool look of assessment. “Does that mean you’re going to give up?”
“I am a Rockwood, my lady. We do not give up.”
“I had hoped that was the case.” The woman chortled with a raspy laugh. “It will do my grandson good to meet an intelligent woman who’s strong enough to stand up to him.”
“But surely he has you to do that, my lady.” Constance smiled as the woman stared at her in amazement before bending over her cane and coughing out her laughter. As the dowager’s laughing fit subsided, she lifted her head and sent Constance a chiding look.
“Don’t make this old woman laugh like that again. It does the body ill.”
“I am sorry, my lady.” The notion of having caused the woman discomfort made her grimace with concern.
“Oh stop looking like that. I might be old, but I’m not in my grave yet. Run along now. If you’ll recall, I do not tolerate late arrivals for supper.”
With a nod, Constance turned away and hurried toward the stairs. As she reached the midpoint of the staircase, she looked back at the dowager countess. The woman was still watching her, and there was a look of satisfaction on her face. Confused by the woman’s odd behavior, Constance continued up the staircase to her room. The entire house was a conundrum haunted with troubled spirits and dark mysteries.
With a powerful gait, Anubis trotted up the long drive to Lyndham Keep. Keeping his touch light on the reins, Lucien smiled at the way the large horse shook his head. His gloved hand patted the animal’s thick, muscled neck.
“You smell those oats, don’t you, boy?”
Almost as if he understood the question, the animal tossed his head again. Laughing, Lucien nudged the horse into a slow gallop as he rode toward his ancestral home. In the late afternoon light, the ancient fortress looked far from welcoming. He eyed the massive structure with resignation. Lyndham Keep had never really been home. Too much death resided behind the gray walls.
There were times when he simply wanted to raze it to the ground. But doing so would never wash the blood away. It would always be with him. Scowling at his thoughts, he urged Anubis to go faster. He’d come back to the keep simply to ensure that Stewart was archiving the collection correctly. If the man’s work was satisfactory, it would enable him to begin planning another expedition back to Egypt. The sooner the better. He rarely slept well when he was home.
As Anubis pranced to a halt in front of the keep, the massive doors swung open. Jacobs stood outside the wide doorway, while a footman ran out to take the horse’s bridle. With one last pat to the animal’s neck, Lucien dismounted.
“See to it that he has a good quantity of oats after you cool him down, Tony.” Pulling off his gloves, he strode through the open doorway and handed his riding crop and accessories to the man following him into the keep. “Where’s my grandmother, Jacobs?”
“I believe she’s in the main salon, my lord. She had tea a short time ago,” the servant said with quiet regard.
There was no need to look at the butler’s face to know that his grandmother was taking a short nap in her favorite chair. Jacobs had been with the family almost since the time his grandmother had come to Lyndham Keep as a young bride. The man knew exactly when and how to appease the dowager countess. Smiling, he nodded his understanding.
“I’ll look in on her a little later. For the moment, I want a bath and some fresh clothes.”
“Very good, my lord.”
Eager to refresh himself after a long train ride and the subsequent ride from the Nottingham station, Lucien crossed the stone floor toward the staircase and glanced into the library. From the main hall he could see through the library into the small reading room he’d converted into a storage area for his antiquities. The sight that greeted him made him come to an abrupt halt. In the room just off the library, a woman stood at one of his crates, examining the markings of a piece of pottery.
Stewart hadn’t mentioned anything about a wife, and even if the man had, he had no business letting unskilled hands handle delicate artifacts. Wheeling sharply toward the door, he strode through the library and into the storage area.
“Who the devil are you?” Instantly he regretted his sharp tone as the woman cried out in surprise and almost dropped the jar she was holding. Recovering from her fright, she sent him a brief glance of annoyance before gingerly setting the pottery back into the straw-filled crate. He noted the tender care she took in nestling the item back in the packing material.
“I told you before, I don’t frighten easily, and I’d appreciate it if—” With a sharp jerk she turned to look at him as if suddenly realizing he wasn’t the person she was expecting.
To his surprise, she paled considerably as she met his gaze. Fear glimmered in her eyes before it vanished, making him think he’d been mistaken. Narrowing his gaze at her, he watched her expression become wary as her eyes met his. No, he’d not made a mistake. She’d simply buried her fear beneath a serene expression. The woman was most definitely afraid. But why?
“It wasn’t my intent to startle you, but the only person who should be handling these artifacts is Mr. Stewart.”
A small silence drifted between them as he saw her swallow nervously and avert her gaze. “You’re Lord Lyndham?”
“I am.” He nodded abruptly. “And you are?”
The soft words took several seconds to register with him as he stared at her. But the C. Stewart he’d corresponded with was a man. Did the woman think to convince him otherwise? He’d conversed and questioned Mr. Stewart vigorously in three different letter exchanges. How could this woman be C. Stewart?
“C. Stewart is a man,” he muttered fiercely.
“No, my lord. You simply found it convenient to think that I was a man.”
He glared at her as he struggled with the fact the woman had hoodwinked him. And she was most definitely a woman. She had a pretty face, full breasts and a lush figure that echoed the promise of a Titian nude. Even the husky sound of her voice had a soothing effect on his irritation. It brought back memories of Isis and their fateful meeting at the Black Widows Ball. This woman’s voice possessed the same sultry sound as his Egyptian goddess.
Damn it, when was he going to get Isis out of his head? For more than two months he’d been employing every method possible in his search for the woman, only to come up empty-handed. Was he so desperate to find his mysterious lover that he was beginning to imagine another woman sounded just like her? He found this irrational need to find Isis exasperating. Worse, the Stewart woman’s deception only heightened his irritation.
Clasping his hands behind his back to conceal his clenched fists, he strode back into the library in an effort to think clearly. In the close confines of the storage area, her soft honey-sweetscent had filled his nostrils and made it difficult to focus. He turned his attention away from her tantalizing smell to address the matter at hand.
With her qualifications, her sex wouldn’t have prevented him from hiring her. But he couldn’t abide being lied to, and he hated being made to look like a fool. She’d done just that by not disclosing everything about herself. Furious with her deception, he paced a small area of the carpet like a caged lion. Aware that she’d followed him into the library, he came to a halt and turned sharply to face her.
“You lied to me,” he snapped.
“I did not lie. I can hardly be blamed for your assumption that I was a man. I truthfully outlined my qualifications for you, and you commissioned me to do a job.” Her head assumed a regal tilt as she glared at him.
The movement shifted the room’s light on her head, revealing golden highlights in the mass of chestnut hair gathered on top of her head in the popular American fashion. On her it should be loose and tumbling down her shoulders. The fact he’d even thought such a thing increased his ire as she faced him defiantly.
“You should have made it known you were a woman.”
“Why? There was no request to do so in the advertisement.”
The logic in her argument angered him all the more as he took a step toward her. He noted she didn’t back away from him. It gave him a grudging respect for her fortitude in the face of his anger. It wasn’t often someone could withstand his intimidating manner. In fact, the only woman ever to do so before was his grandmother.
“Damn it, woman, I thought you were a man.”
“Well as you can see, I am not.” Exasperation laced her sensual voice and his body instinctively responded to the sound.
God, what the hell was wrong with him? Just the mere sound of another woman’s sultry voice was stirring his lust into a frenzy for the phantom lover who’d escaped him. The only thought he seemed capable of anymore was Isis’s seductive body beneath his, her long silky legs wrapped around him as he plunged into her creamy hot core.
The image tightened every muscle in his body. Angered by his hunger for a woman he couldn’t find, he whirled away from the Stewart woman. He expressed his fury by slamming his fist into a stack of books on top of a nearby table. The explosive sound reverberated through the room with the force of a tree cracked in two by a lightning bolt. Silence hung between them as he froze.
“I shall pack my things and leave in the morning.” The quiet sound of her voice was like the gentle rain that washed away the fury of a wild storm.
With a sharp nod, he didn’t look at her as she left the room. The moment she was gone, he pressed his palms into the edge of the table and stood hunched over the book-laden surface.
Had it started?
Was this what Nigel and his father had battled when the curse first afflicted them? When was the last time he’d lost his temper like that? Two days ago. When Nate Bilkens had told him the trail was cold and finding Isis was next to impossible. Losing control wasn’t something he did often, and to lose his temper twice in less than a week was almost unheard of for him. But it wasn’t unheard of for a Blakemore to become crazed over a woman.
Frustrated, he straightened and crossed the large room to one of the arched windows that rose from the floor to the ceiling. Staring out through the glass, he studied the gardens that had been his mother’s pet project. The gardeners who had worked with her on the design and plantings still worked on the estate, and they were faithful to her vision. Nothing had changed in the garden since he was a boy.
With a grunt of disgust, he closed his eyes. He’d probably frightened the Stewart woman out of her mind with his anger. Well, she shouldn’t have applied for or accepted the position under false pretenses. He stared out the window once more. Perhaps that was a bit harsh, but the woman had known damn well her sex could be an issue, otherwise why had she hid it?
As he turned away from the window his gaze fell on a table filled with a neat display of artifacts. Reviewed and cataloged, they were carefully laid out on a layer of fabric. Curious, he walked over to the table and examined the note cards accompanying each individual piece. The information and detail on the cards was worthy of a senior staff member in the museum’s Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities. Even Director Budge would be impressed with this woman’s work. Where had she gained such detailed knowledge?
He picked up one card after another, reviewing the depth of information provided for each artifact. It was impressive work. Generally, women didn’t have access to the same education that men did, but the Stewart woman clearly had enjoyed the benefit of expert teachers willing to impart their extensive knowledge to her.
Although times were changing, educational opportunities for women had always been limited. Women stepping outside the boundaries of normal society wasn’t something he objected to, but for a woman to extricate herself from the confines of current trends was unusual. Still, meeting a well-educated woman was a pleasant experience.
One of the things his studies about ancient Egypt had taught him was that women had played an integral part in the now-extinct civilization. Their role in society had not been one of second-class citizens, rather they’d had rights comparable to men. It was an idea he supported, but rarely encountered in England, although the number of women demanding the opportunities long reserved for the male population was growing.
Returning the last card back to the table, he stared down at the display with thoughtful consideration. In his anger, he’d insulted the Stewart woman. It was obvious she had not been lying about her credentials. An enigma, the woman puzzled him. Even more puzzling was her reaction to his arrival.
When he’d first stormed into the library’s side chamber, her initial reaction had been more of annoyance. It was as if she’d already made his acquaintance, and his interruption had irritated her. Then the moment she’d turned to look at him fully, fear swept through her. She’d hid it immediately and well, but he’d recognized it just the same. Why was she afraid?
With a growl of irritation, he shook his head. It didn’t matter. Nor did it matter whether she had acquired her education in the usual manner or if she was self taught. The woman’s knowledge was exactly what he needed for cataloging his artifacts. The only problem now was whether he could convince her to stay and finish what she’d started.
Constance clung to the bedpost as if gale-force winds were buffeting her body. Fear wrapped a layer of ice over her skin as she struggled to control her roiling stomach by breathing in long, deep breaths. How in heaven’s name had she managed to come to the one place she would never have visited if she’d known what she did now?
Lucien—the highwayman—the earl. They were the same man.
The Earl of Lyndham was her lover from the Black Widows Ball. There was nothing she’d ever been more certain of in her entire life. She could only be grateful he’d not recognized her. And he hadn’t. She was certain of it.
But she had known who he was the moment she faced him. It wasn’t just his brilliant blue eyes, the scar on his cheek or the sound of his voice. It was everything about him. The male scent of him, his movements and the way every nerve ending in her body responded to his presence. Even though they’d spent only an hour or so together that night at the Clarendon, her body had recognized him almost as quickly as her eyes had.
One cheek pressed to the wooden spindle of the bed, she closed her eyes. She’d thought she was safe here, so far away from London. Over the past three weeks, she’d managed to put every thought of Lucien out of her head. Her days had been pleasurable ones, cataloging the earl’s artifacts and exploring the estate with Imogene as her and Jamie’s guide. More importantly, her nights had been devoid of dreams—dreams about him.
Think. She needed to think rationally and calmly. If she allowed her fear to control her, he might suspect something. He didn’t know who she was. She had to remember that. There was nothing to be afraid of as long as she kept her head. Still, the sooner she and Jamie were gone from this forbidding place, the better. A shiver skimmed down her back as she moved away from the bed and dragged her trunk out from beside the large wardrobe that held her clothes.
“He is not a murderer.”
Barely suppressing her scream, Constance spun around too quickly, and lost her footing to fall backward over the trunk. The misty image of the ghost shimmered in the dim light of her room. It was the first time she’d seen him since that day in the library more than a week ago. Scrambling to her feet, she turned back to her trunk, deliberately ignoring her ethereal visitor. She didn’t care what the ghost said. The earl had blood on his hands. Her vision had shown her that much. Pulling a dress out of the wardrobe, she didn’t even have the opportunity to fold it when an invisible force ripped it from her hands.
“Lucien is not the one with blood on his hands.” There was a fierce anger in the ghost’s voice as the dress went flying back into her wardrobe and the door slammed shut. “He is not a murderer.”
Whirling around to face the spirit, she sent him an angry look. “I don’t care what he is. I’m not staying.”
“Help him.” The anguish in the ghost’s voice weakened her resolve, but she shook her head.
“You don’t understand—” The sudden speed with which the ghost moved toward her tugged a small cry from her throat.
In that instant, she knew he intended to show her his past. She had no time to prepare herself as Nigel melded his thoughts with hers and everything went dark. The darkness frightened her. It was filled with despair and deep sorrow. Someone sobbed softly, and the sound rippled through the dense pain that pressed against her flesh. Her heart ached at the wounded cry, and she tried to reach out in the darkness, but it abruptly evaporated. She immediately longed for the darkness again. Anything to escape the library and its terrible images.
Her stomach lurched at the carnage in front of her, and she swallowed hard, trying not to retch. Just like the last time, there was blood everywhere. Inhaling a deep breath, she suppressed her fear at the images in front of her. It was only a vision. She couldn’t be harmed here. There was a reason Nigel’s spirit wanted her to witness this horrible sight.
Throat slit in one long deep cut, the woman she’d seen in her previous vision lay dead on the keep’s library floor. She knew it was the library because she recognized the bank of windows that lined the far wall. On the blood-soaked carpet beside the dead woman was the body of a man. As she stepped closer, she flinched at the glazed look in his startling blue eyes. She recognized him as the grief-stricken man from her earlier vision who’d discovered the dead woman. There was almost a look of surprise on his lifeless features.
Blood sprayed the furniture and floor as if the murderer had taken special pleasure in creating such a grisly display. Then she saw it. The knife. The dead man clutched it in his hand as if refusing to give it up even in death. This man had killed the woman. For a fraction of a second, she vehemently denied the idea. He’d loved this woman. There was something terribly wrong with the entire picture before her. The denial was fleeting as she realized there could be no other answer. The man had killed the woman. He’d killed her with a vicious, sickening brutality. Pain wound its way through her body, assaulting her with a physical blow she recognized as overwhelming grief. The ghost’s emotions engulfed her until she felt every moment of anguish he did. Startled by the thought, she stretched her hands out in front of her. The coat sleeves and hands she saw were that of a man. Nigel as he had been when he was alive. She had become him in the vision. He was showing her the past in the only way he knew how—through his eyes.
Despair lashed through her with the sharpness of the blade her father held.
A shrill scream of sorrow echoed out behind her, pulling her back into the scene as she whirled around. The dowager countess and a young boy stood staring at the scene of butchery in front of them. The shocked horror on their faces made her race forward and shove them back out into the hall. She pulled the library door closed then turned to catch her grandmother as the woman fainted. Gently easing the woman to the floor, she screamed for Jacobs. Her brother stood a few feet away, shock etched across his pale features.
“Lucien, come here.” She stretched out her hand toward the boy who didn’t move. “It’s all right, lad, come here.”
With a muffled cry the boy ran forward and wrapped his arms around her neck, his sobs breaking her heart. The sting of her own tears burned her cheeks as she rocked the boy in her arms and gave way to her own grief.
Eyes closed, she sobbed wildly from the horror of it all. The pain ripped through her, tearing at her like a wild animal gnawing at her flesh. From far away, she heard a thunderous banging noise and Jamie calling out her name. Weak with exhaustion, she opened her eyes just as her bedroom door flew open.
In a daze, she saw Lucien dash into the room followed by Jamie and the dowager countess. Staggering to her feet, she fought to remain standing, but failed. She felt no fear when the earl’s strong arms lifted her up and her hand settled over his heart. No visions of murder lashed out at her this time. Beneath her fingertips, only a solid heartbeat thrummed against her nerve endings. She had misjudged him. Exhausted, her eyes fluttered shut as she sank into a peaceful darkness.
Lucien stood at the salon’s fireplace, one hand braced against the mantle as he stared into the fire crackling softly in the hearth. She was here. Isis was under his roof. She’d been here for almost three weeks. All the while he was frantically searching the whole of London for her, she’d been here.
The moment he’d broken into her bedroom and seen the stricken look in her hazel eyes, he’d recognized her. Her gaze had been just as dark with horror the night she left him so abruptly. He’d been a fool not to realize who she was sooner. No. His body had recognized her from the start, but his head had ignored all the clues.
The soft beat of a cane thudding against the salon carpet interrupted his thoughts. He turned and moved forward to escort his formidable grandmother to her favorite chair.
Satisfied as to her comfort, he returned to his spot at the fireplace. Picking up the snifter resting on the mantle, he took a deep draught of the amber liquid it contained. The fiery drink burned his throat, reassuring him he was still with the living. Too often the keep had a way of making him think he was dead. Tossing the last of the brandy over his tongue, he set the glass down and turned to meet the concerned look on the dowager’s face.
“Should we arrange for Doctor Martens to pay a call?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“No,” she replied with a shake of her head. “She’s sleeping now. I’m sure she’ll be fine in the morning.”
“What the hell happened to her?” Hands clasped behind his back, he frowned in puzzlement.
“I’m not sure. The boy said he heard her talking to someone and when he tried to open the door, he couldn’t do so.”
“The door was simply locked,” he said tersely.
“Are you so certain of that?” His grandmother shook her head in silent disagreement. “I should have known better than to put her in Nigel’s old room.”
The bemused note in her voice made him stiffen. Any time his grandmother mentioned his brother, she usually experienced a period of forgetfulness. For all her formidable personality, Aurora Blakemore was far frailer than she would ever admit. Hoping to keep her in the present, he changed the subject.
“I take it the boy is hers?” he asked, waiting patiently as the dowager countess slowly focused her gaze on him.
“The boy?” She shook her head for a moment until her eyes brightened. “Ah, yes. Jamie. A lovely boy, and very much like his mother. Quick witted and charming.”
“Is there some reason you didn’t bother to send word to me about the fact that Mr. Stewart was really Widow Stewart with a child in tow?”
“Actually, Stewart is her mother’s maiden name. She’s Constance Athelson, Viscountess Westbury.”
“Westbury,” he growled.
“Did you know him?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I simply remember he died in Cairo before his expedition even set out for Abydos. Dysentery, I believe.
It had been Standish who’d financed the Viscount Westbury’s final expedition, although the doomed man had never gotten out of Cairo. The poor bastard had died shortly after reaching Egypt. If she was Westbury’s widow, the odds were Standish had sent her here to find the papyrus. Was that really why she was here? Had she come to the ball that night in hopes of seducing him to give up the papyrus?
It didn’t matter. He had no intention of giving it up to her or anyone else. The ancient document was far too valuable. It contained one half of the map leading to the tomb of Sefu, high priest of Abydos. Legend had it that when a particular statue of Isis was joined with its mate, a statue of Seth, it would reveal the second half of the map. Finding those statues would possibly lead to the tomb. Not an impossible feat, but it had been an improbable one until his last trip to the desert.
As for Westbury’s widow, he’d be wise not to trust her. Letting her leave would be the sensible thing to do, but for the first time in recent memory, he didn’t want to do anything sensible. He scowled at his grandmother as he realized she’d diverted him from his original question.
“You’ve still not answered me. Why didn’t you send word to me that C. Stewart was in fact, a woman?”
“I did consider it, but in truth, I like her. I wanted her to have the chance to prove herself.” There was just the hint of a sly curve to Aurora’s mouth, and he pinned her with a stern look.
“I see, which tells me that you saw this as an opportunity to meddle again. Just like you have for the past six months.”
“I hardly call it meddling. I simply want to see you happy, boy. It’s high time you married.”
Aurora’s cane swung outward as she pointed the walking aid in his direction, the blue veins on the back of her hand made more prominent from the strength of her grip on the falcon cane head. He grimaced and shook his head.
“Yes, and there’s been a Blakemore at Lyndham Keep since ten seventy-six, and it’s my responsibility to see to it the family name doesn’t die out.” The chilly sarcasm had the effect he expected.
Aurora slammed her cane down on the coffee table, the tea service rattling loudly. Powdery white hair slightly askew, she sent him a scathing look down her regal nose.
“It is your responsibility,” she said fiercely.
“We both know why I’ll never marry, Grandmother.” He rolled his shoulders in a nonchalant shrug.
“Your brother knew he had a responsibility to the family.”
The sharp, critical note in her voice cut through him. He knew his grandmother loved him, but Nigel had been her lifeline. He’d held them together as a family that horrible day. It was something Aurora had never forgotten, and when Nigel had fallen victim to the curse, Lucien had never thought to see his grandmother recover from the shock. She had, but at a cost. Her once-sharp faculties were now dimmed as her mind would wander periodically during times of stress or when she grew tired.
Perhaps the hardest part to deal with was her refusal to believe the curse existed. Everything he said fell on deaf ears. Nothing he said convinced her otherwise. The decision never to marry had been made the terrible day his parents had died. His choice had only been reinforced with Nigel’s death.
Vivid memories flashed before his eyes. Once again he stood frozen in the library doorway witnessing the results of his father’s bloody handiwork. His decision had been an easy one. It was at that moment he’d known he would never marry. Never risk the possibility of loving someone only to destroy them in the end. A muscle twitched in his cheek as he met his grandmother’s piercing gaze, refusing to yield to her wishes.
“Blast it, Lucien, you’re as stubborn as your mother was.”
“But I am still my father’s son.”
He delivered the icy words as brutally as possible, and guilt lashed out at him at the way she flinched. It wasn’t pleasant to be so cruel to her, but it was time she realized he would not change his mind. Over the past thirty years, every Blakemore male had succumbed to an unknown madness, prompting them to murder anyone in their midst at the time they were overcome by the curse. That their victims had been loved ones simply emphasized the dangers of falling in love.
The memory of his recent fits of anger was even more reason not to give in to his grandmother’s wishes. As it was, he needed to guard against being alone with anyone, particularly his grandmother and Imogene. Eventually, he would need to hire someone to serve as a deterrent against his harming anyone.
Aurora’s shoulders slumped with defeat, and with a sigh, he crossed the room and bent over her. His touch gentle, he took her hand and squeezed it tenderly.
“I’ll not be a willing participant in the bloodbath the men in this family have inflicted on their loved ones, Grandmother. Even a marriage of convenience would require some form of affection to be tolerable, and the risk of harming any woman I married is too great.”
“How can I convince you there is no curse, my boy?” Aurora shook her head. “I don’t understand what drove your father and Nigel to do what they did, but it wasn’t a curse.”
“For a woman who believes in the supernatural, I find it ironic you refuse to acknowledge the likelihood of my doing exactly what my father and brother did.” He heaved a sigh. “I cannot allow myself to fall in love. It would be irresponsible of me to do so.”
She didn’t answer for a long moment. Then with a slight nod, she lifted her gaze to meet his.
“Your happiness is paramount to me, Lucien. Even more so than a Blakemore heir. However a child would make my victory sweeter.”
“Victory?” He arched an eyebrow at her.
“You must understand I’ll not admit defeat. I simply intend to regroup.” Despite the determination in her voice he heard the disillusion there as well.
“I know,” he said with a slight smile. “If it helps, I think you managed to execute a brilliant strategy of attack over the past few months. I doubt there’s a military man anywhere to match your ability to outflank an opponent.”
The weak smile his words brought to her lips sent a chill through him. For the first time, he recognized the true fragility of her appearance. If she were standing and a harsh wind blew across the room, it was doubtful she’d be able to withstand its force. Even the deep blue material of her gown created the image of fragile vulnerability with its stark contrast to her pale skin.
She’d aged in recent months, and she seemed more delicate now than he had ever seen her. Aurora had always been a tower of strength, vivacity and fire, and the lack of spirit reflected in a pair of blue eyes that matched his own worried him. For the first time, he saw her for what she was—a tired, old woman.
“Come, I think you’ve experienced enough excitement for today. I’ll have Jacobs arrange for you to eat in your rooms this evening.”
Nodding wearily, the dowager accepted the support of his arm as she stood up. “I think that’s an excellent idea.”
“In the meantime, I’ll dine with Imogene and young Lord Westbury in the nursery. I think my niece will enjoy playing hostess at supper, and I’ll enjoy spending some time with her. It’s been too long since I’ve done that.”
“She’s missed you a great deal.” Some of her energy returning, his grandmother smiled. “Be prepared for her to inundate you with questions about Egypt. The child is convinced you’ll take her there one day. She takes after you, not her father.”
“Then I’m certain to enjoy the meal in the company of someone who will be enthralled with my stories.”
As they left the salon and headed toward the stairs, a streak of satisfaction sped through him. Dining with Imogene and the young Lord Westbury would give him the opportunity to learn more about his mysterious goddess. And when the opportunity presented itself, he intended to indulge himself with the woman who had haunted his dreams for almost three months. Marriage might not be in his future, but there was no harm in enjoying the pleasure of Isis’s company or her delectable body.