Authors: Katharine Ashe
friends, artists, angels.
The exercises of chivalry produced two effects, physical and mental. Physically, they produced graceful and vigorous bodies; mentally, they tended to courage, generosity, and truth.
The Spirit of the Times
To find missing persons and bring them home.
Colin, Viscount GrayâPeregrine, Secretary of the Club
Lady Constance ReadâSparrow
Leam, Earl of Blackwood, heir to the Duke of ReadâEagle (retired)
Captain Jinan SetonâSea Hawk (retired)
Wyn YaleâRaven (retired)
Lady Justice, pamphleteer
Fellsbourne, estate of the Marquess of DoreÃ©
f the dozen men in the room, he was the only man she should not be staring at. He was not a lord. Not an heir to a fortune. Not a scion of impressive lineage or a favorite of the prince. He wasn't even really a gentleman.
Yet she could not look away.
It shouldn't have mattered; a hidden niche was an excellent place from which a young lady could spy on a risquÃ© party. Until someone else discovered it.
Unless that someone else were the right someone else.
For four nights now no one had noticed her peeking from a door that could barely be called a door in the corner of the ballroom. These passages had been fashioned in an earlier era of rebellion, and everybody had long since forgotten them.
And now him.
A quality of familiarity braided with danger commanded the breadth of his shoulders and the candlelight in his eyes as he watched her. Yet she did not duck back into the dark passage and escape. She had no fear that he would know her. Like the women who had actually been invited to the party, her mask hid the upper half of her face. Anyway, she knew no one in society. Her father had not yet taken her to London, only deposited her here at Fellsbourne, where he imagined her safe in the company of his dear friend's family. Where she had always in fact been safe. Teased, taunted, treated like an annoying younger sister, and very carelessly acknowledged. But safe.
Not removing his eyes from her, the stranger unfolded himself from the chair with predatorial grace. He moved like a hunter, lean and powerful and aware.
Not entirely human.
Even at rest he had watched the others, disinterested in the amorous flirtations of the other men and the women here to entertain them, yet keen-eyed. Like an elven prince studying mortal beings, he observed.
For four nights she had wondered, if she were one of those women would he be interested in her? Would he seek her attention? Would he touch her as the other men touched those womenâas she longed to be touchedâheldâtold she was specialâgoodâbeautiful?
She was wicked to her marrow.
Wicked to want a stranger's notice. Wicked to relish the thrill in her belly as he walked
Under normal circumstances her tongue was lithe enough. But normal circumstances had never in her wildest misbehaviors included a man with eyes like hisâgreen, clear and shining, moonlight cast upon the waters of a forest spring. Perhaps he was
entirely human. This wasn't Scotland. But England had its fair share of mystical beings too.
When he stood within no more than two wicked feet of her, her tongue failed.
“You were staring at me,” he said in a voice like fire-heated brandyârich, deep.
“You were staring at me.” The low timbre of her own words startled her.
“One of us must have begun it.”
“Perhaps it was spontaneously mutual. Or it was coincidence, and both of us imagined the other began it.”
“How mortifying for us both then.” The slightest smile appeared at the corner of his mouth that was beautiful.
She had never thought about men's mouths before. She had never even noticed them. Now she noticed, and it did hot things to her insides.
“Or fortunate,” she ventured. She was grinning, showing her big teeth. But she couldn't care. A young man was smiling at her, a young man with sun-darkened skin and whiskers cut square and scant about his mouth, like a pirate too busy marauding to shave for a day or two.
very mystical, true. His hair was the color of ancient gilt, curving about his collar and swept dashingly back from his brow. A military saber hung along his thigh, long and encased in dark leather. Its hilt glittered.
He was staring at her lips, and so she stared at his. Giddy trills climbed up her middle.
His lips made her think of kisses.
kisses. Kisses on her mouth. Kisses on her neck like those that the loose women got from the other men. Kisses wherever he would give them to her.
Wicked wicked wicked.
“Dance with me,” he said.
She darted a glance into the ballroom. All of the women wore costumes, scanty, sheer, slipping from shoulders beneath gentlemen's bold fingertips. Jack was throwing a masquerade for his friends and these women. Women she should not envy.
She should not be here. She should be at the dower house a quarter mile distant, where Eliza had drunk whiskey with dinner and now snored comfortably by the parlor fireplace.
“I cannot dance tonight,” she said with more regret than she remembered ever saying anything.
“Cannot? Or will not with me?” His tongue shaped words decadently, as though the syllables were born to kiss his lips and taunt her with what she could not have.
“If I could, I would only with you.”
He seemed to study her face: her too-big eyes, her too-small nose, the mouth that was too wide, brow that was too spotted, and cheeks that were too round. She knew her flaws, and yet he seemed to like studying them.
“What is your name?”
“I haven't one.” Not that she could tell a stranger with elven eyes and pirate whiskers.
He smiled, and it was such a simple unveiling of pleasure that her heart thumped against a couple of her ribs.
“I will call you Beauty,” he said, then his brow creased. “But you have heard that before.”
“Then I suppose I must call you Beast,” she replied. She liked the tingling tension in her belly that he had deposited there with only his smile.
“For what I'm thinking now, you should,” he said quite seriously.
“What are you thinking now?”
“That your lips are perfection.”
She could not control those lips; they wobbled, smiled, disbelieved.
“Men have told you this before,” he said.
No one had ever looked at her mouth except to strike it when she misspoke.
“Why do you care what other men have said to me?”
“Because I wish to be the first, the most eloquent and original. Yet I cannot be that. And so I fail before the battle has begun.”
“For your attention.”
“You have my attention. Entirely. This seems obvious to me.” She
not to smile. “But perhaps you are slow-witted.”
“Undoubtedly,” he murmured and abruptly seemed closer, taller, larger. She could
him, a scent of sun-warmed leather and bergamot that she could reach out and swallow.
“I would like to kiss you,” he said.
The explosion of excitement in her belly took her breath.
“I must go,” she whispered. But she did not go. This was wrong, wicked,
in so many ways. But her feet would not obey her. She wanted to stay. She wanted to breathe him in and in and in.
His eyes gleamed with candlelight. “You haven't been invited to this party. Have you?”
“Are you a servant in this household?”
It was on the verge of her tongue to declare, “Yes!” and let him continue staring at her mouth and saying outrageous things. But something in his eyes said that he would know if she lied.
go.” This time she did, darting back into the darkness. She made her way swiftly along the narrow corridor, her slippers silent upon the floorboards, counting the steps in the complete dark to the exit. Many times she had hidden from Jack, Arthur, and Ben in these walls, spying on them, longing to be on the other side of the wall, longing to be welcomed into their games. Often she had climbed into shadowed corners in order to be near them without revealing herself. Whenever they discovered her, they ran. Boys will be boys, her nurse had said, to which she had replied that if that was so then boys were hurtful.
The stranger's boot steps sounded behind her in the passageway.
“Don't go. I beg of you,” he said into the blackness.
She obeyed and he came upon her in an instant.
“What did you hope to accomplish by entering that room?” he said and seemed close, the sound of his shoulders brushing the walls to either side, as if his frame filled all of the empty spaces in the corridor and inside her. Her head spun.
“I wanted to see it. Iâ”
She could not lie, but she knew that she would be every kind of fool to reveal anything about herself. “I needn't tell you.”
“You have been barred from the company,” he said with certainty. “No wonder.”
“Wolves prowl this place tonight. You are a lamb.”
She did not feel like a lamb. She felt like a Jezebel.
“Hardly. I have just turned eighteen,” she replied.
“Ah. A veritable crone.”
She liked his teasing. She liked it that he wished to tease her, that
, and that he now stood too close.
“Your tongue is delightfully noble, sir. I am all gratitude.”
The air seemed to shift, to loosen.
“I cannot see you.” His hot-brandy voice was smoother now. “Have you just curtsied?”
“Of course. That compliment deserved it.”
She laughed. “You called me a crone.”
“Indeed you did.”
“No. I couldn't have. That must have been the other fellow in this blackened crevice with us. The lout. But fret not. I will dispatch him when we are finished here.”
Not so soon.
“Why did you stop when I asked you to just now?”
“You did not ask. You begged. I pitied you.”
Abruptly the tension returned, the air humming upon a delirious edge.
“Do you know you might be in danger from me?” he said at least several notes lower.
“If I were in danger from you, wouldn't you now be endangering me rather than warning me of it?”
He seemed even closerâhis heat and scent, his eyes that could not see her, and his mouth from which she wanted to drink kisses.
“Perhaps I will endanger you yet.” He spoke with a roughness that shimmied up her insides.
“You won't,” she said, her fingers bunching in her skirts.
“How do you know that?”
“Because I want you to. And I could not be so fortunate for once to have such a wish fulfilled.”
“Girls like you . . .” He seemed to hesitate. “Girls who play at danger get hurt.”
“What if I'm not playing?” She could barely breathe.
He said nothing, and the silence wrapped around her.
“What can you be about, I wonder,” he finally said. “Were you spying in the ballroom?”
“Who was the lucky man?”
“What if I only intended to peek through that crack in the door?” The first night. The first night she had been merely curious. “What if I had been watching it all in disappointment and increasing boredom, on the cusp of relinquishing my vigil in favor of the book on my bedside table?”
“Just because I have never before seen debauchery doesn't mean I know nothing about it.” He needn't know that the first night she had been a bit sickened watching Jack's party, eager to return to the dower house and Eliza's familiar company.
He chuckled. “Then what, oh easily jaded one, held you back from the superior enticement of your book?”
“I saw you.” And she had felt things inside of her that she had never before known she could feel.
“Now I will kiss you,” he said a bit urgently, “and be damned for it.”
“Why? Is it a sin to kiss a woman?”
“A woman, not typically. A girl like you, yes.”
“Then pretend I am only a woman tonight.” She spoke upon a tightrope.
“Tomorrow . . .” She went onto her tiptoes, tilted her chin upward, and leaned into his heat. She would seize this delirium for only a moment, a forbidden moment that felt like the most honest thing she had ever done. “Pray for us both.”
She thought he would kiss her. Some of the other men had walked straight up to the loose women and kissed them on the lips without even asking. Instead she felt the briefest brush of his arm against hers, the heat of his hand momentarily near her face.
Then a tweak of pain.
She jerked her head forward.
“Ouch!” The half-mask fell away from her face and she was naked, her face entirely revealed. But in the blackness he certainly could not see her.
“Forgive me,” he said, not particularly contritely.
“You caught my hair.” Happiness bubbled in her. “You might have asked, you know.”
“Do you need it again?”
“The mask or my hair?”
“If you were mine, I would buy you combs inlaid with diamonds to adorn your hair.” The words caressed.
“Can you afford diamonds?”
“Mm . . . No.”
“Adorn my hair with wildflowers and I will dance for you upon the meadow. Like a faery maiden.” With her prince. “Would you like that?”
“Quite a lot, I suspect.” She heard him breathe deeply. She had never listened to another person breathing before,
not like this, in the darkness, hearing so acutely because she could not see. It was deliciously intimate.
“I think I should like to linger for a moment now in this imaginary scene on the meadow,” he said.
“But I need more details. For instance, what will you wear for this performance?”
“It will not be a performance. Rather, a celebration of freedom.”