Lysette struck him full on his cheek.
“If you ever lay a hand on me again,” she bit out, “I will sever it.”
The blow turned his head not at all, though a reddened imprint betrayed the force of the hit and his spectacles were askew. She set off at a near run, crossing the ballroom in a diagonal direction toward the door, pushing through those who stood in her way.
This time, no footsteps followed her and she burst out to the gallery with a gasp of relief. She turned on her heel and moved toward the front foyer, determined to send a footman in search of a hackney. The hallway was dimly lit on purpose, another affectation to lend to the sensual atmosphere. She relished the near-darkness, finding comfort in the anonymity it afforded.
She paused at the sound of her name. It was said in a murmur, but it was audible even over her labored breathing. Spinning, she faced Desjardins as he exited the ballroom, his thin frame backlit with the light of the ballroom’s chandeliers.
“Where are you going?”
“Home. You had better find someone else to woo Mr. James. Someone who prefers boorish manners and lack of finesse.”
To her chagrin, the comte threw his head back and laughed.
he said, approaching her with a wide smile, “you are a delight.”
When he reached her, he linked his arm with hers. “You are far too agitated. You should take a moment to collect yourself while I will order the carriage brought around.”
Lysette stood unmoving. She could not believe Desjardins was not insisting she return to the ballroom.
“Come now,” he said, linking arms with her and leading her back down the darkened hallway toward the retiring rooms. “You know my carriage is far more comfortable—and cleaner—than a hackney.”
There was no protest she could make to that. As it was, she had failed to satisfy his request for her help. Inhaling sharply, she nodded her agreement and disengaged to continue on without him. Her nerves were stretched taut, and when her rapid stride threatened to overtake a couple ahead of her, she slipped into an alcove, reluctant to witness another amorous pairing.
As they disappeared into a private room, Lysette briefly admired the beauty of the woman’s pure white gown, which glimmered in the low lighting. The modest cut along with the feminine bows was just the sort of design she favored. The male half of the couple was dressed in dark colors, his body blending into the surrounding shadows. Lysette admired the woman’s daring in retreating alone with a large man. Lord knew she could not have done it. A mere kiss had sent her fleeing.
When she was once again alone, she withdrew from concealment and slipped into a retiring room, eager to restore her bearings and return to the safety of her house.
Desjardins watched Lysette walk away and laughed silently. He did not believe he had ever seen her so flustered. And Mr. James . . . Who knew the staid exterior restrained such passion? Of course, that was why the comte enjoyed spying. There were so many things people would do in private that they would never do in public.
Sadly, Depardue had ensured that Lysette would never appreciate the amorous attentions of a man. Certainly not attentions with the fervency James had displayed in the ballroom.
But there was a solution. Lysette felt a deep sense of obligation when someone did her a kindness. Every unsavory act she had committed for him over the last two years had been because he’d taken her away from Depardue and his men. If he could orchestrate a way for James to rescue Lysette from some hazard or another, she would be grateful to the man and forgive him many of his foibles. However, it would have to be a grave matter in order to make the attachment deep enough to facilitate sex.
Since the stakes involved with corrupting James included Desjardins’s own viability, the comte considered it suitably worthy of his next drastic action.
He moved down the hallway to the retiring rooms. On the wall behind him, a turned-down oil lamp cast barely enough glow to act as a beacon. He glanced both ways to ensure he was alone, then he spilled the oil down the wall to pool between the stained wood trim and the edge of the burgundy and gold runner. He set the corner of his kerchief ablaze and dropped it in the direct path of the spreading puddle.
Desjardins was whistling as he walked away, inwardly applauding his own genius. He jumped when the oil caught fire, the sudden whoosh of combustion loud in the stillness of the hallway. He hurried toward the ballroom to find James, his pathway lit by the orange glow of flames behind him.
Simon did not understand how one moment Lysette was standing across the room and the other she was sprawled between his legs, her mouth moving with checked hunger beneath his. He did not comprehend why she was so very different tonight or why that alteration had such a potent impact on him.
He only knew that he was hard and aching, his heartbeat thundering, his skin damp with sweat. He wanted her, with the innate need one felt for food and water.
“Why now?” he asked, nibbling his way to her ear.
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and bared her throat. He pressed his open mouth to the tender skin and sucked gently.
In response, she writhed against his throbbing cock, inciting his lust to greater heights. “Mr. Quinn . . .”
He chuckled, enjoying the game. “Who knew you burned so hotly beneath all that ice?”
“Kiss me again,” she begged, her throaty voice inspiring thoughts of her twisting and arching beneath him in his bed, the kiss she pleaded for being bestowed to more intimate lips.
“We must leave, before I lift your skirts and take you here.”
If his desire had been even a modicum less, he would fuck her right here, right now, and clear his mind enough to take her home. As it was, he was familiar with the need that rode him so hard. Rare as it was, it was still recognizable.
Once he started, he would be at her all night.
He suckled her lower lip to stem any protest and her lush body rested more fully against his. “Then let us retire to a more private venue, Lysette. Before lust rules my better sense.”
She stiffened against him, apparently becoming aware of how impatient he was. She pulled back with a frown, her eyes wide and glittering in the near darkness. Her mouth opened to speak, then her head swiveled to the side, her gaze locking on the door.
“Do you smell that?” she asked, pushing against his chest to put distance between them.
Simon inhaled deeply, searching for the scent of exotic lilies. Instead, he smelled acrid smoke. It took a heartbeat’s length of time for the danger that odor implied to penetrate the haze of carnal hunger. At the exact moment he realized it, a scream from the ballroom confirmed his fear.
“Hell’s teeth!” He leaped to his feet, steadying Lysette before he ran to the door.
The flickering orange glow visible through the gaps around the portal was ominous. Simon reached for the glass knob, then yanked his hand away with a curse.
“If I was not gloved,” he said, turning to face Lysette, who was securing her mask to her face, “I would be burned. The fire is directly outside the door.”
What will we do?”
He found the question an odd one, coming from a woman so well versed in subterfuge, but he had no time to contemplate it. “The window.”
“What of the others?” She followed him without hesitation.
“They have the doors to the garden.” The multitude of screams from the ballroom bore witness to the guests’ cognizance of the blaze.
Simon thumbed the window lock and pushed up the sash, poking his head outside to ensure the way was clear. Overgrown spearmint lined the flowerbed that bordered the house, an innocuous landing. The air was clear and cool, which contrasted sharply with the smoke rapidly filling the library they occupied. “Give me your hand.”
He glanced over his shoulder, his brows rising when he saw her searching under her gown with both hands. When her panniers and underskirts fell to rest at her feet, he smiled. Pragmatic Lysette. He suddenly found the trait admirable, rather than coldhearted.
She set her hand in his and managed a tense smile. “Would you find it strange for me to say that I am glad I was with you when this happened?”
With a tug, he pulled her into him, pressing his lips to hers in a quick, hard kiss. “You can show me how much later.”
He helped her out, holding her hands in his until he was certain she was settled firmly on the ground. Then, he tossed one leg over the sill and prepared to follow.
A woman’s panicked scream arrested him midegress, knotting his gut with commiserating fear.
This one sounded closer to his location than the ballroom. Much closer. Simon glanced again at the door, scrambling to think of a way to reach whomever he heard.
There was no way. His eyes were watering, his lungs were burning. There were only two exits from the room—the door, now bowing from the heat, and the windows, one of which he was hanging outside of. He would have to search from the exterior of the manse.
With this thought in mind, Simon dropped out of the window, landing in a crouch amid the profusion of mint. After the polluted air in the library, the crisp scent was a welcome relief.
He looked around for Lysette, but she was gone, most likely to join the others. He was glad, relieved that she was safe.
Freed from his concern for her, Simon ran along the wall in search of others who might need rescue.
exing woman,” Edward muttered as he descended the front steps of the Orlinda manse. He had hoped to leave Corinne Marchant behind, but she remained with him—the feel of her in his arms, the sweetly floral scent of her, the sting of her palm against his cheek.
And the way she spoke to him . . .
“Contrary female.” His fists clenched along with his jaw.
He almost reconsidered his decision to walk home in lieu of splurging on a hackney. Although a long walk would clear his mind and take the edge off his lust, a carriage would put greater distance between him and Corinne in a shorter amount of time. Distance that might temper the urge to go back inside and apologize. The itch to charm her properly and win her regard was nearly overwhelming.
Despite knowing her motives were impure, he wanted to scratch that itch.
There was no possibility that her interest was genuine. She was too beautiful, too wealthy, too well connected to find anything noteworthy about him—other than his work for Mr. Franklin.
It was not the first time he had been approached as a gateway to Franklin. It was, however, the first time he considered allowing it to happen for personal gain.
As his feet hit the front drive, his pace increased. His conscience told him to put any thoughts of a possible liaison between himself and Corinne far from his mind. If he did not seek her out, he doubted she would approach him again. The thought caused a sharp pang of regret.
He had never seen a woman more lovely. She had the face of an angel and a body built for sin. If anyone asked him to describe his epitome of perfection, he would point to Corinne Marchant. But that was not the problem. He could resist the lure of the flesh; his cock did not rule his head.
No, it was not the drive to rut with beauty that drove him mad. It was her eyes. So hard at moments, as if she had lost all feeling. Then, suddenly warm and lit with wry amusement. Some part of him believed he was responsible for those glimpses of the private woman. Those ephemeral sightings made him want to see more of her, all of her.
Edward growled. He was used to having what he wanted. A modest man, he rarely wanted much and never anything beyond his means. The attraction he felt toward Corinne defied reason. They had nothing in common. What was the lure?
She was damaged. The bruised and haunted look that wracked her features after he’d kissed her bespoke deep scarring.
Someone had abused her terribly.
Fury coiled tight within him. Her past was no deterrent. Instead, it made him want her more. The desire to protect her was as powerful as the desire to mate with her. He wanted rights to her. More precisely, he wanted the right to find those responsible and mete out the justice they deserved for damaging such perfection.
Dangerous thoughts, dangerous feelings. They had no place in his regimented and orderly life, just as Corinne had no place there.
A scream rent the night, one so filled with terror it stopped him midstride.
He turned to face the manse again, seeing nothing amiss from the front, but certain the sound had emanated from there. He was frowning at the elegant, columned façade when more screams disturbed the peaceful eventide. He set off at a run.
The liveried footmen and groomsmen standing at the front drive left their stations and sprinted up the stairs before him. The moment the door opened, thick, black smoke roiled out. The four servants paused on the threshold, gaping.
“Fetch buckets from the stables!” Edward ordered.
“Yes, sir.” The two groomsmen ran back down the stairs and around the side.
He shouldered his way in front of the remaining horrified footmen. “You two, come with me. We must make certain everyone vacates the house.”
Together, they plunged into the wall of smoke. Intolerable heat assailed them, the flames fed by the newly opened door. Struggling to see through watering eyes, Edward drew in a choked breath and stumbled as scorching, soot-filled air burned his throat and singed his lungs.
He was suffocating by the time they reached the ballroom, a journey hampered by the need to feel along the wall to find their way. They split up when they reached their destination, groping their way through the many planters and columns in search of anyone yet to flee. Black smoke rolled in through the doorway behind them in ever-expanding plumes. It tumbled across the soaring ceiling and began to lower in a malevolent cloud. Edward’s heart raced madly, his hands swiping impatiently at the tears that stung his heat-sensitized cheeks.
Surely Corinne would be safe. She’d left when he did. She was most likely home now, cursing him to Hades.
Thank God. He would be insane if she was here.
“Mr. James! Mr. James!”
Edward altered course, moving in the direction of the hoarse, unrecognizable voice calling out to him. A moment later, Comte Desjardins lurched into view from the depths of the cloying, burning smoke. His thin frame was wracked by violent coughing and he lunged at Edward, catching him by the shoulders.
“Corinne,” the comte gasped, his reddened eyes glistening with near-hysteria. “Is she with you?”
A chill swept down Edward’s spine, in spite of the intense heat. “No, she left.”
“Are you certain? S-she was . . . to ride with me—” Desjardins coughed so forcibly that black spittle coated his lips. “. . . retiring room . . .” he wheezed. “. . . have not seen her . . .”
Edward grabbed the comte’s arm and dragged him out to the terrace, where the rest of the guests gathered. Then, he ran around the side of the manse, searching for windows with light, fighting a rising panic that threatened to paralyze him.
A woman in white stood outside an open window from which tendrils of smoke wafted.
“Go to the others,” he ordered. “On the rear lawn.”
She hesitated, her masked face gazing up at the window.
“Now!” he barked, in a tone no sane person refused.
Nodding reluctantly, the masked woman lifted her skirts and moved toward the rear of the house. Edward heard a distant scream at the same moment a masculine leg appeared over the sill. Assured of the safety of the woman’s paramour, he darted for the side gate.
No Corinne. Where in hell was she?
Edward sprinted around the front of the manse and burst through the gate on the other side, narrowly skirting the stairs that led down to the delivery entrance. He was halfway along the length of the manse when he spotted Desjardins gesturing frantically before a window.
“Is she in there?” Edward rasped through his burned throat, skidding to a halt.
He studied the window through gritty eyes. Shadows danced sinuously against the glass.
Smoke. Too much of it. He could not see into the room.
“I saw movement,” the comte croaked. “Perhaps—”
The window exploded outward in a shower of broken glass, forcing them to duck beneath crossed forearms. A chair crashed to the ground with a splintering thud and smoke poured out the newly created orifice. A second later, flames that had been hugging the ceiling of the room lunged for the night air, licking outward along the manse walls.
“Corinne!” Edward roared.
The only reply was the crackle of fire eating everything in its path. After the initial burst of oxygen-starved flames, the blaze retreated back into the room, spurring him into action.
Edward spun around and caught up the damaged chair. With a mighty heave, he thrust the cracked rear legs into the flower bed and supported the padded damask back against the manse wall. He shrugged out of his coat and wrapped it around his forearm, then climbed atop the wobbly seat.
“Corinne!” he yelled, his damaged lungs seizing in protest.
Turning his head away to protect his face, Edward used his shielded arm to knock away the jagged glass that rimmed the broken sash frame. One thick piece was too firmly anchored and it sliced through his coat, shirtsleeves, and into the flesh beneath. He hissed, but refused to turn away.
Her precious face appeared, streaked with soot and trailed with tears. Corinne’s pale hair clung to her reddened skin in sweat-soaked tendrils and her nose ran copiously.
He had never seen anything so lovely.
“Christ,” he gasped, near dizzy with relief. “Come out of there.”
“James,” she whispered, her shoulders coming into view as she pushed weakly to her feet.
Admiration for her strength filled him. He knew how much it must have taxed her to break the glass.
“Yes, love. Come to me.” He held his arms out to her.
She swayed haphazardly and toppled out the window in a dead faint, her voluminous skirts catching in the protruding shards of the broken pane and tearing with a hideous rending noise.
Edward caught her and tumbled off the collapsing chair, twisting his body to absorb the entirety of the impact on his back. The breath was knocked from his beleaguered lungs. His spectacles were knocked from his head and, if he was not mistaken, presently crushed beneath him, but Corinne was in his arms, alive.
For now. She required the care of a physician immediately. Every breath she took rattled in her lungs and bubbled back out in black ooze upon her bloodless lips.
Coughing through his charred throat, Edward accepted the comte’s minimal assistance to regain his footing with Corinne held securely in his arms.
He gathered the tattered remnants of her gown and strode quickly toward the front of the house.
Simon raced toward the rear of the manse. He had checked every window as he passed it, searching for the source of the scream he’d heard just moments ago. He could not reach her through the door, but perhaps he could find her still. He had to try.
The clanging of bells carried news of the fire through the city. The night air smelled of char and heat, and sobbing told the tale of woe that ended an event meant for revelry.
He reached the rear lawn and saw a handful of servants running to and fro with sloshing buckets of water from the stables. The stunned and terrified guests huddled in various-sized groups, paralyzed and useless.
“Halt!” Simon roared, his voice carrying through the night.
The servants paused, gasping, their buckets more than half-empty from the jostling required to cover the distance from the mew to the manse.
Simon gained the terrace, then leaped atop the wide marble edge of the fountain.
“They cannot battle this blaze alone,” he yelled, gesturing to the servants. “Every able-bodied man must assist if we are to end this! There are others trapped inside in need of rescue.”
No one moved at first. Simon searched the huddled mass and spotted a young man of seemingly fine physical condition. “You,” he ordered, pointing with his finger, “come here.”
There was a brief hesitation before the man came forward. He was disheveled, his shirtsleeves hastily tucked into his doeskin breeches, his waistcoat and coat unbuttoned. From the cut and quality of his garments, Simon was certain he was a member of the peerage. But Simon did not care. Rank had no bearing in his mind when lives were at stake.
Grabbing his elbow, Simon lined him up by the terrace doors. He looked about and more men approached under the weight of his condemning stare. Some were sluggish and reluctant, but as the line formed from the door to the fountain, the level of enthusiasm displayed increased.
Simon grabbed a bucket from a servant, plunged it into the fountain, and passed it to the first man in line. It moved down, man-to-man, the participants gradually moving forward until the procession stretched from the interior gallery door where the fire raged to the terrace.
Of their own accord, the men changed positions—the lead man retreating to the cool air of the outdoors with an empty bucket, while the second man stepped up and discharged his ration of water before retreating to collect more and pass it along the line.
Once the water was flowing steadily into the house, Simon risked a glance toward the lawn and saw Lysette standing with two other women, watching him from behind the crimson mask. Relief filled him at the sight of her safe and unharmed, her white gown glimmering like a pearl in the moonlight. Then his relief was replaced by fear.
Her presence goaded him like a painful spur in his flank. There was danger here and he could not fight it while concerned for her safety.
He abandoned his post without thought, striding toward her with a clenched jaw.
“I need you to go home,” he said when he reached her, sparing a brief nod of acknowledgment to her two companions—one wigged, the other a brunette.
The wigged woman grabbed Lysette’s elbow. “I was just saying the same to her.”
Lysette opened her mouth to reply, but the set of her shoulders forewarned him of her intention to argue.
“Now,” he ordered brusquely. “I cannot think while you are here.”
Simon led the way along the side of the manse, his gait so long and rapid that the three women had to scamper to keep up with him.
They reached the drive and Simon whistled sharply, drawing the eye of every coachman. The brunette took the lead then, hurrying to a well-appointed equipage and herding the other two inside.
Lysette reached out to him. “Come with us,” she begged.
Simon caught her gloved hand and kissed the back. “I am needed here.” He retreated and closed the door, glancing at the coachman with a silent order to set off. “Godspeed.”
With a crack of the whip, the carriage rolled forward. The other coaches moved to open a pathway and within a few moments it was out of sight.
The knots of tension in Simon’s shoulders loosened appreciably. Now he could focus on the grim task ahead.
He pivoted on his heel and headed back.
Marguerite gasped, staring out the window at the smoke rising from the Orlinda manse. “Who was that?”