The first doorway Evangeline stepped through in her search for the loose-tongued Ginny was the one Mr. Lioncroft had pointed out earlier. The men's after-dinner room turned out to be a large, well-stocked library, with a half dozen wingback chairs, a smoldering fire, and row after row of leather-bound volumes.
The maid wasn't there. Nor was Edmund Rutherford, who'd mentioned returning for his gla.s.s of port. The only person present besides herself was a tall, sallow footman silently refilling a decanter on the sideboard.
"Pardon me," Evangeline said, careful to keep her voice soft so as not to startle him.
The hand pouring burgundy liquid into the crystal vessel never faltered, as if the servants of Blackberry Manor were quite used to being dropped in on unexpectedly. The footman capped the decanter before turning to Evangeline, his dull eyes devoid of curiosity.
"How may I a.s.sist you?"
Evangeline offered him a small smile. His expression did not change. "I'm looking for a maid by the name of Ginny. She's perhaps a few inches shorter than me, with a slender frame, quick blue eyes, hair the color of-"
"I know no maid by that name."
Evangeline blinked at him. Back home, the servants in any given house were not only familiar with the names of all those who worked under their roofs, but also knew the faces and histories of every other servant in the village. But, she reminded herself again, Blackberry Manor was not home.
"Perhaps you could tell me where to find the footmen who worked in the music room earlier," she suggested hesitantly. "One of them might be more familiar with the staff, and better able to help me find-"
"The footmen," came the pointed reply, "returned the dishes to the scullery as the gentlemen left to rejoin the ladies. They are no doubt settling themselves in for the night. I a.s.sure you, no maid by that name works in this house."
A frustrated sigh hissed softly between Evangeline's teeth. Granted, she was hardly one of the aristocracy, but this footman's tone and demeanor were a far cry from the solicitousness his fellows had shown in the music room. But perhaps...for the same reason?
"Sir," she began, and paused when the salutation made him blink. "Are you displeased with me for some reason?"
The footman hesitated, but when at last he spoke, his words were honest. "I do not trust witchery."
Her jaw dropped. "Then you do know Ginny!"
"I know only rumors." His expression went cold. "And my master has had enough trouble in his life without adding more from you." When Evangeline proved momentarily speechless, he murmured, "If you'll excuse me," and strode out the door, leaving her in the library alone.
"Well," she huffed to the empty room, following up with a muttered, "d.a.m.n."
The only thing her stepfather had given her-besides the back of his hand-was a colorful vocabulary for use when dissatisfied. And what could be more dissatisfying than being unable to locate the maid responsible for turning half the Blackberry Manor staff into conspicuously attentive fools, and the other half completely against her?
Evangeline was sorely tempted to select a novel from the many shelves lining the library. She longed to curl up in one of the dark crimson chairs and ignore all thoughts of Ginny's hinged tongue and Neal Pemberton's ready whip and Lady Stanton's threats of tossing Evangeline back into the streets.
Unfortunately, the dying fire offered little light and even less warmth. With a defeated sigh, Evangeline plucked a book at random from the shadowy shelves and crossed quickly to the hallway in order to head back to her bedchamber in the guest quarters. She hoped the fire there would burn bright enough for her to read.
Not two steps down the sconce-dotted pa.s.sageway, an odd noise froze Evangeline where she stood. A slow but steady drag...thump! drag...thump! drag...thump! drag...thump! came from one of the myriad connecting corridors, a sound too eerie to be human footfalls. came from one of the myriad connecting corridors, a sound too eerie to be human footfalls.
Was Blackberry Manor haunted?
With dread slithering in her stomach, she clutched the dusty book to her chest and did her very best not to move so much as an eyelash.
The dragging and thumping grew closer.
Evangeline dashed back to the relative safety of the darkened library, just as the cause of the noise crossed the intersection not six feet from her.
Mr. Teasdale, his wrinkled face twisting into a grimace, limped across the hall, his palsied hand bearing down heavily on a gold-tipped cane as he dragged his lame leg behind him a few inches at a time.
He didn't look like a doddering, sleepy old man. He looked...furious. Ducking out of sight into the library was no doubt a far better choice of action than to interrupt him on his journey.
After the eerie sounds receded at last, Evangeline stepped from the shadows, once again intending to make her way to her chamber in the guest wing. She had no sooner turned toward the same corridor into which Mr. Teasdale had vanished when a horrid series of wracking coughs barked from down a different hallway.
Only one guest present had lungs like that. Since Evangeline had even less desire to explain her unchaperoned presence to Benedict Rutherford than she did to Mr. Teasdale, she sprinted down a random sequence of pa.s.sageways-and almost found herself face-to-face with a distracted-looking Francine Rutherford.
Fumbling for the handle of the closest door in order to hide herself from the quickly approaching woman, Evangeline twisted the k.n.o.b and fell backward into blackness just as the plumed and rouged blonde glided past with a frightening feline smile. After a moment, Francine Rutherford disappeared around a corner with a swish of her lime green skirts.
Good heavens. Was everyone everyone skulking about Blackberry Manor tonight? skulking about Blackberry Manor tonight?
Evangeline slumped against the blessedly solid doorframe. She rested her head against the wooden frame until her breath and her pulse returned to normal. Once a.s.sured of both her calmed nerves and her renewed solitude, she pushed off to step back into the hallway.
"Leaving so soon?" came a deep voice from the shadows behind her.
She shrieked and spun about, one hand clapped to her chest. Mr. Lioncroft's eyes glittered somewhere in the gloomy murk. So much for the calm state of her lungs and heart.
"What are you doing here?" she managed, the words tumbling out frantic and breathless.
"I live here."
Evangeline closed her eyes as she realized this was the second time tonight he'd been forced to remind her of that fact. She was a ninny. Her breath faltered as her eyes flew open. A ninny once again alone in the darkness...with the wolf.
"Lost again, my little lamb?" came his low, droll voice.
She shivered. Definitely a wolf.
From somewhere in the black, a chair sc.r.a.ped across the floor, followed by slow, relentless footfalls. Evangeline edged backward into the relative comfort of the vacant hallway.
He caught her before she had a chance to run.
Once again, she was up against a wall, her spine to the wainscoting. This time, however, she was not pinned by the wrists but rather by the heat in his gaze. Glowing and darkening with each flicker of candlelight, his eyes focused on hers, without moving, without blinking.
By the time Evangeline realized Mr. Lioncroft was very, very angry, it was too late. His palms were flattened to the wall above each of her shoulders, his feet planted on either side of hers, trapping her in place.
"I didn't mean to startle you," she stammered, helplessly staring back at him as she gulped for sc.r.a.ps of air.
He smiled. Darkly. Wolfishly. Alarmingly. But he said nothing.
"I-I'll just head back to my chambers now, then." She meant the words to be decisive and firm, but they sounded fearful and tentative even to her own ears.
"Will you?" he asked, his face dipping closer to hers, his intent clear. "When the night is just getting interesting?"
Evangeline pressed her lips together and the back of her head against the unyielding wall.
"Don't kiss me in anger," she whispered. Her visions had explicitly ill.u.s.trated the level of damage l.u.s.t from a violent brute like her stepfather could do. She had no wish to be ravished-or ravaged-by any man under the influence of drink or rage. Ever.
"In anger?" Mr. Lioncroft repeated softly, lowering his head until his breath coasted across her cheek. Her nerves p.r.i.c.kled, as if she could feel that moist heat tickling against every inch of her flesh. He smiled again. "But I'm quite pleased by your presence, little lamb. I'm hoping your sweet kisses will make me forget my anger."
Evangeline's mouth gaped. She clapped her jaw closed before he had a chance to sweep his tongue inside her mouth. His smile widened, as if he'd correctly interpreted her action and found it amusing...but not the least bit daunting.
Although the threat of visions had kept Evangeline from kissing or being kissed for over twenty years, she had the distinct impression that deficiency would be corrected within the next few moments.
Even worse, a restless, burning ache spreading from her belly to her heated limbs made a small part of her wish he would quit teasing and start kissing.
As if reading her mind, he leaned even closer, until his hips tilted at hers and the tips of her b.r.e.a.s.t.s rubbed against the bleached linen of his shirt. The borrowed book fell from her fingers to the floor. If Mr. Lioncroft noticed, he gave no sign.
Instead, he coasted his open mouth just above her flushed cheek, his breath steaming against the curve of her cheekbone, the dip below her earlobe, the length of her exposed neck.
Her traitorous body writhed between the hard wall and the even harder man before her. A sudden urge to force his lips upon her thrummed in her veins, but her dimming sense of self-preservation cautioned her to flee while she was still able.
As the warm air from his lips traced the same heated path across the other side of her upturned face, she let out a slow, shuddering breath. She would not flee. She could not. She wanted his skin touching hers perhaps even more than he did.
Finally, his mouth returned to its original position, a mere finger's breadth from hers.
Evangeline's lips parted involuntarily, but she kept them parted on purpose.
Victory flashed in his eyes. A rakish grin transformed him from darkly mysterious recluse to triumphant seducer. She blushed at the sudden, frustrated moan she hadn't meant to make. He had won. He knew he had won. But still he didn't kiss her.
Her pulse pounded in her ears. "Please." "Please."
"Please what?" he asked, his breath spiced with wicked promise. "Please go away?"
"Please kiss me," she whispered, hating herself for pleading. But he made no further comment.
He lowered his head until his lips grazed across her skin, slowly, teasingly, devastatingly, from the hollow beneath her ear along the line of her jaw until he reached the trembling pulse on the other side.
Still no visions. But Evangeline couldn't make herself care. She couldn't make herself do anything but wiggle against him, until his hips swung forward to trap her more firmly against his frame. Her aching, swelling b.r.e.a.s.t.s flattened against his chest. She gasped to realize she could feel feel the pounding of his heart, leaping and skittering with the same fevered excitement as hers. the pounding of his heart, leaping and skittering with the same fevered excitement as hers.
His lips brushed across hers, once, twice, thrice. He was toying with her. Tempting her. Teasing her with desire for his withheld kisses until she could stand it no more. The next time he slid his open mouth over hers, she allowed her tongue to edge just far enough between her parted lips to taste him.
With a growl, his mouth was upon hers. Hot. Wet. Insistent. His fingers still splayed against the wall on either side of her head, but the muscles of his shoulders trembled as though it required all his willpower to keep his hands on the walls and off her body.
His mouth moved against hers, recklessly, desperately. He devoured her in hungry kisses, suckling her tongue, her lower lip, seizing her every breath and replacing it with his.
More than his hips jutted against her. Something long, hard, and unmistakable pulsed between them, sending a frisson of danger up her spine.
She found his sides with her fingers, intending to thrust him from her trembling body, but instead found herself gripping his hips to pull him even closer.
He was everywhere, his mouth bruising hers, his chest chafing her nipples, his molten thighs rubbing against hers, and that throbbing hard length of him stroking a place no other man had touched.
Evangeline shook with the forbidden pleasure of such delicious contact. She gripped him closer, delighting in the heightened sensitivity and half-wishing she could widen her legs to better allow the exquisite, tantalizing friction. He set her flesh afire with every kiss, with every caress, with every breath.
Without warning, he ripped his mouth from hers with a tortured gasp.
"Go," he rasped. His ragged panting sent shivers across her skin.
She caused him to struggle for breath, to fight for control, to throb between her thighs. The realization that desire could be mutual made her long for his touch even more. She rubbed her body against him slowly, seductively, and reveled in her first taste of feminine power. He groaned. Shuddered. She smiled and licked at his lips. caused him to struggle for breath, to fight for control, to throb between her thighs. The realization that desire could be mutual made her long for his touch even more. She rubbed her body against him slowly, seductively, and reveled in her first taste of feminine power. He groaned. Shuddered. She smiled and licked at his lips.
"Go now," he repeated, his expression pained but his tone desperate. "Unless you want to experience more than mere kisses, right here in the hallway."
Evangeline's smile froze as she realized the peril of stoking such an unpredictable, dangerous fire. He viciously jerked an arm back to his side, as if the last thing on earth he wanted was for her to escape the intoxicating heat of his embrace.
With his burning gaze still locked on her lips, she removed her shaking hands from the hard warmth of his sides. His eyes closed. She hesitated. His heat throbbed against her belly.
Before Evangeline could complete the mere half dozen steps between the dressing room door and her looming bed, the narrow door opposite the smoldering fireplace flew open and Susan Stanton burst into the room.
"There you are," she announced, flashing a delighted smile before crossing directly to the rack of bra.s.s stokers next to the fireplace. "Were you lost? You took so long returning, I thought Lionkiller had perhaps struck again."
Susan laughed at her own jest. She might not have done so had she been aware Mr. Lioncroft had in fact been up to wickedness-although not in the sense Susan intended.
Belated guilt frosted over the warmth of remembered pa.s.sion as Evangeline stared at her companion in horror.
Heaven help her. She was supposed to be entrapping him with Susan, not rubbing her belly against-well. Evangeline's cheeks burned, and she hoped when Susan turned from the flames, she'd attribute any flush of her face to heat from the now-crackling fire, rather than shame.
Only a wanton trollop kissed another woman's intended in shadowed pa.s.sageways. When had Evangeline turned into a wanton trollop?
After a final jab with the poker, Susan returned the bra.s.s instrument to the rack and flopped into the sole wingback chair. "Well?" she demanded, arms crossed and feet outstretched. "Where did you go? I've been ever so bored without you. Pacing up and down one's room is no fun by oneself."
"I..." Evangeline began, and then faltered. She glanced around her room for inspiration. Her gaze lit on the row of hip-high bookcases along the rear wall. "I went to the library," she finished truthfully, "and picked out a novel."
At least, she thought it was a novel. As dark as the library had been, she might have grabbed a treatise on the history of mercantilism in India. And...oh, no. She'd left the book lying on the floor in the middle of the hallway, forgotten because of an exquisite forbidden kiss.
Susan's eyes widened with interest. "What book did you select?"
Evangeline started, broke eye contact, and turned to the bookcases. She lifted a hand to the closest set, intending to tug a volume free at random, and almost groaned when every book on the top shelf proved immobile. Only the twisted mind who'd designed her bedchamber's nightmare-inspired decor would display something so diabolical as a row of false books. Splendid.
She rested an elbow atop the bookcase as she fished for an alternate avenue of conversation. "Do you read?" she settled on, when a better topic failed to present itself.
"Of course. But real life is ever so much more interesting. Some people might think nothing could be stranger than attending the house party of a reclusive blackguard like Lioncroft, wouldn't you agree? Yet, every guest here is equally odd in his or her own way. Except, perhaps, for Mr. Teasdale. He's just old. I wasn't at all surprised when he left the music room in favor of his bedchamber."
"Except, he didn't," Evangeline mused, forcing thoughts of Mr. Lioncroft's delicious heat aside as she recalled the fury distorting Mr. Teasdale's wrinkled face. "I saw him hobbling down a corridor with his cane. His leg seemed to trouble him something awful, no doubt due to all that dancing."
"Or worse," Susan intoned darkly.
"Worse than what? Dancing?"
Susan rolled her eyes. "Of course, worse than dancing. He lied about going to sleep, didn't he? He might be up to evil after all."
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