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Authors: A Little Night Mischief

Emily Greenwood (6 page)

BOOK: Emily Greenwood
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“It’s just some old family paintings,” she grumbled.

“If they are half as fascinating as their contemporary offspring, I shall feel richly rewarded,” he said as he gestured toward the narrow mahogany stairway.

“Just what do you mean by that?” she asked, then realized she didn’t want to have such a personal conversation with him. She turned and stepped up the stairs.

The curving, rounded railing was smooth under her hands and as familiar to her as her father’s glasses or the gnarled trunk of their oldest apple tree. The balcony had always been one of her favorite places; woman and girl, she’d never felt so content and comforted as when she sat on its worn carpet, her back to the wall and her feet against the high sides that hid her from view.

Mr. Collington’s deep voice drifted up from much too close behind her. “Your father is a published poet and you are unique,” he said. “Your style, for instance, is…” he paused, “unusual.”

“Hmph. I suppose you must know all about style. You dress like a peacock.”

His response was a deep chuckle that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.


James watched Felicity step briskly ahead of him, as if she couldn’t put distance between them fast enough. Where on earth
she get her strange supply of gowns? And when had the smell of jasmine become so intoxicating? She had a sprig in her hair whose fragrance was teasing him maddeningly. As he walked behind her, he imagined fitting his hands around her waist, so well-delineated in her last-century gown, and stopping her one step above him, at a perfect height to press his lips to that spot just where her neck met her partly bare shoulder.

He’d found his thoughts straying to her all too often in the last twenty-four hours, conjuring up the image of her lying in his arms after he’d pulled her from the stream. It had been such an uncomplicated encounter, sweetly erotic for him, and her too, he was certain, though she’d never admit it now.

As he stepped onto the balcony behind her she moved forward to stand in front of a painting hanging at eye level. He supposed she preferred it to looking at him.

“Have you ever gone to London, Miss Wilcox?” he asked her, suddenly curious how she would like it. She was so unlike the women he met there.

She turned to look at him. “No.” She cocked her head, considering. “Not that I have minded. I don’t think I’d like it. I’ve heard it’s smelly and crowded.”

He laughed. “It sometimes is. But don’t you ever crave excitement?”

“You know,” she said with a sigh, “I don’t need your pity, Mr. Collington. I like my life perfectly well.”

They walked along looking at the paintings of her ancestors and the knickknacks that stood on recessed shelves. As she answered his various questions, he noticed how she trailed her hands along the walls and railings—lightly, almost affectionately, like one might stroke a favored pet.

They came to a picture of her Uncle Jonathan.

“I suppose your uncle gambled away most of the estate profits?”

“Jonathan was one of the most unlucky people you could imagine,” she replied. “He was weak. As, I believe, all who gamble for large stakes must be.”

He was weak, was he? He leaned back against the side of the balcony and rested his elbows on it, looking at her. Her eyes drew his attention, though he did not want to be caught staring at her. But they were a beautiful dark green-brown, the colors of forest moss and rich earth. Something about her spoke of the quintessential beauty of nature. She was different, singular, astonishingly lovely in her black gown, with a simple pearl necklace and a jasmine flower her only adornments. And she was regarding him with undisguised contempt. He shouldn’t want to laugh, but he
want to. Though, he thought, mirth tickling the edges of his mouth, that he did not dare.

“You know, Miss Wilcox, if you were a man, I would have had to call you out several insults ago. But of course,” he paused lazily, his gaze sweeping slowly over her body, “you are not a man. And maybe you dislike gambling simply because your family never won. Winning, I can assure you, is deeply satisfying.”

“I don’t respect gamblers,” she said, crossing her arms, her eyes looking at him from under disdainful eyebrows. Very pretty, elegant eyebrows.

“Someone always has to lose. It’s a waste.”

“Some gambles are necessary, Miss Wilcox. Much of business is a form of gambling. A good businessman informs himself, then trusts his instincts.”

“And you are a man of business?”

“Of sorts. I have the bodega and a few other interests.”

“Do you gamble with your affairs?”

“I take risks, yes. That’s the only way to increase profit.”

She shrugged, unimpressed. “Well, I hope those risks will beggar no one but yourself if you are wrong.”

“And the people who work for me,” he pointed out. “But I don’t risk more than I can afford to lose.”

“As my uncle did.”

He shrugged. “Ultimately, one must be in control of one’s passions.”

Felicity’s face burned at the word “passion.” The balcony was narrow, not much more than a yard wide. The two of them were close enough together that she could smell faint whiffs of his scent, familiar to her from sitting on his coat. It was creating little thrills in her as she inhaled it. Was that hint of citrus something from Spain? Oh, why did he have to be her handsome stranger? No one half so exciting had ever crossed her path, even if he was a man afraid of ghosts. The illusion of manliness he presented was incredibly beguiling, and she could have dreamed harmlessly of him and their time by the stream for the rest of her life. But now he was here, and far too real and troublesome. She couldn’t dream about him now.

She turned away from him and looked back at the portrait on the wall behind her, the last one.

“And here is Great-Great-Aunt Isabella,” she said blandly. The portrait showed a stout woman, firmly upholstered in brown with not a speck of jewelry. Felicity and Simon had spent happy times as children addressing inappropriate comments to the portrait, delighting in imagining how shocked the real woman would have been to hear such naughtiness.

“Of course,” Mr. Collington said, looking amused.

“What do you mean ‘of course’? Do you have a Great-Great-Aunt Isabella?”

“No, but I did have a Great-Great-Aunt Isophine.” He laughed, then tilted his head reflectively. “But aunts can be nice as well. My Aunt Miranda is a singular woman. She took care of me and my brother from the time I was orphaned at twelve.”

He sounded like just the sort of good son any woman would be pleased to have adopted. But then, hadn’t he humored bossy Nanny Rollins when he could have put her in her place? She couldn’t afford, though, to think of him as being kind and good.

“You have achieved a drastic change in the manor in one day,” she accused. “At least in the drawing room.”

Mr. Collington drew closer to where she had stopped, by a small, round window that had been opened to let in the fresh air. “I have great hopes for Tethering Hall,” he said. “With care and work, it could be as magnificent as a tiny jewel.”

“What do you mean?” she demanded. “Tethering already is a jewel. I doubt there’s another house like it in England.” She waved her fingers in a dismissive gesture. “Maybe you have had it cleaned and replaced some worn furnishings, but that’s all it needs.”

“You are obviously fond of this house, Miss Wilcox,” he said. “But perhaps, being as close to it as you have been, you haven’t seen all of its needs. Like… here,” he said, glancing at the window behind her. She turned and looked at the place he indicated, a large area of damp rot in the wood of the frame.

She reached out and tenderly touched the soft, crumbly area, then looked up at him defensively. “It’s just a little water damage. A carpenter can fix that easily.”

He shrugged. “Maybe it will be easy to fix, and maybe when the frame is removed for repair, other problems will be revealed. The point is, this is just one frame in a house that is very much in need of repairs.”

“Which you can provide,” she said.

“Tethering will benefit from what I can offer it,” he said.

“Money,” she said contemptuously, turning so that her back was to the window and crossing her arms. The breeze coming in gently ruffled a curling strand of her hair, tossing it against her neck and cheek.

“Yes, money,” he said. “It takes money to accomplish things.”

She realized, after a moment, that neither one of them was speaking. His dark brown eyes were resting on her intently. He reached out and tucked the breeze-blown strand of hair behind her ear. She stilled, startled by his touch.

“I can’t forget the beautiful young woman I met by the stream.”

Her cheeks warmed at his words. She stood unmoving, listening to him, her eyes looking up at him under half-lowered lashes. What was he doing? What would he say?

He brushed his thumb against the warm skin of her cheek, then let his hand fall. She had not moved. She could not. This was what it meant to be fascinated.

He bent his head and took one of her hands. Holding it up, he turned it over and traced the palm with a fingertip. He rubbed his thumb lightly along the row of calluses that gardening and other labors had made on her palm, a part of her that she had not known until now was yearning for a gentle touch to unlock its hidden sensation.

“A useful little hand.”

He lifted her hand and dragged his lips along her palm toward her wrist. She caught her breath at the feel of him against her.

Not just her cheeks but her lips were warm now. “You,” she said at last, almost just a breath. As if she were surprised to see him standing there.

“I’ve wanted to do this from the first moment I met you,” he said huskily.

James Collington bent his dark head toward her, his deep brown eyes holding hers. And then he was kissing her, his warm, moist lips against hers. His tongue stroked against her mouth, making prickles shoot along the back of her neck, and she opened to him. And loved it, the feel of his mouth on hers, and the sense she had through his sure movements of his leashed strength and firm body. A gathering rush of desire spread through her.

He deepened the kiss, bringing his hands up to press along her exposed nape and hold her close for his lips even as she at first tentatively, then with more sureness, pressed her hands against his taut waist. How firm and alive the contours felt under her palms. She was amazed.

His tongue gently explored inside her mouth, and she explored back. His lips traveled down along her neck, and the rasp of his late-afternoon bristles against the tender skin of her neck gave her thrills. She thought she would sink to the floor with the pleasure of it.

He crushed her to him, her breasts pushing upward as they came against the hardness of his chest. With a shock she felt the evidence of his desire pressing into her inner thigh.

The sensation of his hardness penetrated her haze of pleasure. She gasped and pushed against his waist. He dropped his hands and stepped away, looking at her, his breathing labored.

“What,” she demanded raggedly through passion-tender lips, her senses still racing, “do you think you are doing?”

He crossed his arms and looked at her with darkened eyes. He seemed dangerous now, haughty and dark with his foreign tan and hard male beauty. “Nothing we haven’t both wanted to do. And you were hardly a reluctant participant.”

“Oh!” she burst out, turning her back on everything she had just experienced. She had to. She might have lost her mind for a few minutes, but she knew what was what. “You are the most arrogant man I have ever met! You think you can just waltz in anywhere and do whatever you want.”

He raised a sardonic eyebrow. “Unrelated issues aside,” he drawled, “you can hardly deny that there is an attraction between us.”

A gust of warm wind blew in through the open window at her back and bounced her hair against her cheeks, and she pushed it roughly away from her face. “There is no such thing as an unrelated issue in regard to you and your presence here,
. Collington. And—and I don’t call what just happened attraction. It can’t have been anything but temporary insanity!”

He leaned his hips back against the railing and gave her a lazy look that made her blood boil in more than one way. “Take it from someone who has seen quite a bit more of the world than you, Felicity Wilcox. That was attraction. Deny it all you want. It won’t just disappear.”

From below them came the sound of the library door opening.

“Felicity? Collington?” Mr. Wilcox’s voice drifted up to them.

Giving Mr. Collington a furious glare, she turned away from him and called out, “Here, Father,” in an uneven voice. She cleared her throat and, without a backward glance, rushed along the walkway calling, “Just finishing our tour of the balcony.”


Felicity silently berated herself as the three of them walked toward the dining room. That had been a disaster. She needed to keep James Collington at arm’s length, not melt for him. She’d surrendered the minute he’d touched her—and loved every second of it, before she’d come to her senses. Insanity, she’d called it, and she knew it had been some kind of madness. She’d tasted desire once, three years ago, and had dismissed it as a pale substance easily avoided. But then, it hadn’t felt like that intense, impossible-to-resist urge that had overwhelmed her in the balcony.

Obviously she’d lied when she’d said she wasn’t attracted to him. He drew her. Some deep part of her had consented to be captivated by him on the walkway. And why should she be surprised? He’d ridden into her life on a white horse and been her gallant, playful rescuer, the sort of thing of which every young woman dreams while knowing it won’t ever happen. But he
come along, handsome as the devil, and done something to her—it was as if he had lit a candle inside her that she could not blow out.

But she’d find a way to extinguish this flame. She’d managed these last three years to simply forget about men, about attraction and companionship. And marriage. And babies.

A sob started low in her chest and she pushed it down, hard. What on earth was wrong with her lately? She’d been fine all these years, not thinking about any of what she’d given up. The choice for a family of her own was not for her anymore. Tethering had been her choice—and her reward. And she wasn’t going to let this man take it away from her.

Thank heaven she had a plan. While it was perhaps a little daft, it just might be the way to make Tethering a place James Collington wouldn’t be able to stand.

They took their seats at the table. She and her father sat next to each other, across from Collington. Felicity hated like anything to admit it, but the dining room looked handsome. Their old table had been thoroughly polished and was now gleaming richly in the glow of a generous number of beeswax candles, and a handsome centerpiece of fruits and flowers gave the table an air of plenty it hadn’t had for years.

But Mr. Collington obviously hadn’t gotten to everything yet, she thought as she sat down and experienced the familiar wobble in her chair. She felt his eyes on her and looked up, steeling herself against any look that might claim intimacy. But his face was unreadable. She looked away.

His servants began bringing around the food, some kind of steaming meat pie that practically made her eyes roll back in her head with its wonderful, rich scent.

“A simple repast bought in town, I’m afraid. The household is in the process of acquiring a cook. But I trust that the Longwillow shops will not have let us down.”

They had not, and every bite was heaven.

She waited until about halfway through dinner, when there was a lull in the conversation, before setting her plan in motion.

“Mr. Collington,” she began after taking a fortifying sip of wine, “surely you will want to know some of the fascinating history that goes along with Tethering Hall.” She smiled in what she hoped was a believably sincere manner.

Her father looked at her quizzically. “What’s this, my dear? Have you come upon some story of a past king or queen who stopped for a visit?” His eyes twinkled merrily at the idea.

“No, Father, something much more exciting.” She paused for effect and looked directly at Mr. Collington, who was regarding her across the candlelit table with interest. “I’m speaking of Lovely Annabelle.”

Her father grimaced. “Felicity, I’m sure Mr. Collington doesn’t want to hear about that.”

“Lovely Annabelle?” Mr. Collington said, his eyebrow lifting with interest. “I am intrigued already. She sounds like a heroine in a tragic ballad.” His eyes with their intelligent lights focused on her, although she thought she caught a glint of humor in them. Well, the story she was about to tell should sober him right up.

“Your guess is close,” she said. “Lovely Annabelle was one of our ancestors who lived here at Tethering Hall about seventy years ago.” She paused again for dramatic effect. “She was a woman who, family legend tells us, had always been certain she would not marry unless it was to a man she truly loved. Unfortunately, having arrived at the age of thirty-eight, she still had not found anyone.”

“And was she lovely?” he interrupted.

“Yes, she was by all accounts lovely but also very determined. And then she finally met a man she could love. She was preparing for the wedding—”

“But Miss Wilcox,” he broke in again, and grinned. “You’re telling this all wrong, jumping to the wedding when you haven’t even said who the man was. Surely the groom is important.”

She ground her teeth. He was making this needlessly difficult. But they’d see who would have the last laugh. “Well, who he was is not important for the purpose of the story, but if you must know, the man was some nobleman new to the area. I forget his name.”

“Lord Butterfield, my dear,” her father supplied with a sigh.

“Yes, that’s right. Thank you, Father.”

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Wilcox,” said Mr. Collington. “For my part I know that, should my fiancée become the heroine of family lore, I should certainly like to be remembered for my role in being her beloved.”

“As I was saying, sir,” she said, just managing to keep the exasperation out of her voice, “on the day of her wedding, just before the ceremony, Annabelle passed too near to the fireplace in her beautiful, gauzy wedding gown. Her skirts caught on fire, and when she bent over to put them out, her hair fell in the flames and ignited. She was burned to death right in front of all the guests.”

“Well, that is certainly a sad story,” he said, his lips curving into a grimace of dismay that she was sure he meant to look ironic. She, of course, knew how he must really be feeling upon hearing of someone actually dying in this home. Ah, how such a story must affect a person who had been brought to hysterics by the ghostly keening of the wind!

“Poor Lovely Annabelle,” he said. “Perhaps a flowering bush should be planted in her honor.”

“A fine idea!” Mr. Wilcox interjected, clearly wishing to move on.

Mr. Collington was certainly putting up a brave front, but then, he must be used to it. After the spectacle he’d made of himself among his servants, he’d doubtless become an amazing actor, so that his virile appearance might give the lie to any rumors. She hurried to finish her story, fixing Mr. Collington with a penetrating look.

“But that’s not the end of my story. Legend has it that Lovely Annabelle haunts Tethering Hall at night, unable to rest because she was never able to be with her love after all those years as a lonely spinster.”

“Well, a ghost at Tethering!” Mr. Collington finally exclaimed, glancing from Felicity to her father. He was holding up marvelously, she had to admit. “And have either of you ever encountered the ghost of Lovely Annabelle?”

“No,” said Mr. Wilcox firmly.

“Yes,” said Felicity just as firmly. Her father gave her a quizzical look. She smiled weakly.

“What is she like, then, Miss Wilcox?” Mr. Collington asked with what sounded like a note of indulgence in his voice. In the candlelight, she could have sworn she saw sparks of amusement dancing in his eyes. Really, he was a very good actor.

“W-e-l-l,” she began, thinking quickly. She had not planned out Lovely Annabelle’s look yet. Best to describe something unpleasant—she did not want to create a romantic figure. “We saw her as children. Unfortunately, she was not a pretty sight. She was burned, of course, so her head and hair are charred, and she still wears her white wedding gown.”

That should do it, she thought. She spared a glance to see if he was weakening and was disappointed that he looked in no way aghast, but she understood that was to be expected. Now was not the time she was concerned about. No, all that mattered would be the dark of night when, with no one to see him and the darkness to raise his fears, he realized that a ghost was roaming the house.

“Felicity,” her father said, a warning note creeping into his voice, “perhaps you’ve entertained our host enough with such fanciful children’s stories.”

“Of course, Father. I just thought that our host might like to know a little of this history of his… newest acquisition.”

“Thank you, Miss Wilcox,” he said pleasantly, giving no sign that he noticed her little dig. “I shall be sure to keep an eye out for Lovely Annabelle.”

Mr. Collington stood soon after, signaling the end of dinner. He invited his guests to return to the drawing room for coffee, but Mr. Wilcox declined for them, pleading fatigue. And so Mr. Collington, after arranging with Felicity to tour the orchard together in the morning, saw the Wilcoxes on their way.


It was well after midnight that same night, a cloudy evening, which was perfect. Felicity had already put on a stained and tattered old white gown. She stood before her mirror now, a candle lit on the table beside her and a mug full of soot in her hand. In for a penny in for a pound. She lifted the mug and dumped a generous dash in her loose hair and began rubbing it in. Very quickly she looked like something bad had happened to her. Perfect for Lovely Annabelle.

She kept working until all her hair was covered. The mass of chalky blackness now surrounding her face made her look as pale as a corpse. She made some random smears on her face and neck and stepped away from the candle-lit reflection. She looked appalling, and certainly unrecognizable, at least from a distance.

Blowing out the candle, she grinned, thinking of Mr. Collington’s likely horror. It was time. She ignored the last-minute rush of panic, the voice that reminded her that the consequences if she were discovered wandering the home of a gentleman at night would be dire. The choice between doing this and that wasteland future of emptiness without Tethering was no choice at all.

Gently she eased her door open and crept downstairs. Fortunately, her father was a heavy sleeper. Once outside she kept to the line of weeping willows and maples that bordered the lawn leading up to Tethering Hall. Even her careful footsteps and her excited breathing seemed very loud in the stillness. She had never been out alone in the middle of the night before. It was daring and irresponsible—and exciting.

Drawing near the house, she made for the back. Getting into the manor would be easy because she knew something that the efficient, house-fixing James Collington couldn’t possibly have discovered yet. She crept over to a large flagstone set in a line with others that formed a path through the small decorative garden directly behind the mansion.

Grass and weeds had grown across the stone over the last years, and she pushed them away. Once the surface was clear, she slid her fingertips underneath the stone and lifted it up on its hidden hinge. And then she was descending the few steps into the underground tunnel that led into the house.

The tunnel’s original purpose was a mystery, and its existence was a family secret. She and Simon and Crispin had used it frequently as children, though she had not been in it for years. It was part of the quirky charm of Tethering that she loved so much.

Inside the tunnel was utter darkness, and she made her way by feel, crouching over because the ceiling was low. The tunnel’s air was stale, but the smell carried familiar notes that triggered memories, most very happy. The tunnel led her downward, and in a few minutes she was pushing gratefully against the small door at the end that led into the cellar of the manor.

Stepping down to the cellar floor, she gathered her thoughts. She needed to get upstairs, close to where Mr. Collington would be sleeping on the second floor. But she didn’t want to wake up any servants who might surprise her before she could get his attention and haunt him, briefly and from a distance.

She slipped off her shoes and stepped noiselessly onto the stone basement stairs leading up to the first-floor kitchen. All was quiet as she passed through the kitchen and continued down the hall toward the stairs to the second floor, though the sound of her wildly beating heart filled her ears. She hugged the wall as she went so as not to make the heavily worn wood in the center of the hallway creak. Once on the stairs, she kept to the sides again and reached the second floor hallway without making a sound. A candle burning in a sconce cast a low light over the corridor.

Her target must be in the master bedroom, since it was the largest and had the nicest views. She crept forward to stand just outside the door, took a deep breath, and moaned.

The sound startled her in the quiet, killing her courage for a moment, and she stopped abruptly. But then she gathered her wits to her task and moaned again, a mournful, feminine sound. Putting out a tentative hand, she gently rattled the doorknob. She moaned again for good measure, then decided as panic rose in her chest, that would have to be enough to get his attention.

Quickly, and keeping to the walls again, she crept toward the end of the corridor, where a panel was set in the wall at hip-level, cleverly hidden as part of a large section of carved wooden trim work. Just as she released the tiny catch on the panel, a door opened down the hall. Someone—it had to be Mr. Collington, since the servants wouldn’t be sleeping up there—stuck his head out.

She executed what she hoped was a ghostly movement by raising her arms and waving them. Then she gave one last mournful “woo” for good measure, quickly hopped up into the secret opening, and swung her legs to stand on the small shelf inside. As she quietly guided the door back into place, she heard footsteps racing down the hall. She turned and grabbed hold of the pole that she knew ran from the attics to the cellar and was away downward.


She landed in the cellar with a shocking thud and stinging hands that reminded her she hadn’t slid down a pole in years. As she grabbed her shoes, she paused a moment to listen to the footsteps above her. Surprisingly, he seemed to have found the courage to run after the ghost, but doubtless it was a reflex and he was even now being overcome with horror. Huzzah, but that had gone well!

Giddy with her night’s work, Felicity slipped out through the passageway to the garden. She replaced the stone, quickly pressing the disturbed grass back into place, and was off again, down along the tree line.

BOOK: Emily Greenwood
11.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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